Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A memory of moonlight, long forgotten: Minas Ithil

From the spider-haunted pass of Cirith Ungol we go now to Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon. A city as great as Minas Tirith, it guarded the way into Mordor through the Ephel Duath. Perhaps the nightmarish presence of the Land of Shadow so close tinged the dreamy Gondorian city with a touch of darkness, as well as infusing it with a need for beauty to contrast the horror.
The Tower of the Moon that dominates the city, once a gleaming symbol of peace and beauty. Centuries later, it would be a menacing presence for Frodo and Sam as they attempted to slip into Mordor.
The Tower of the Moon was the ethereally beautiful counterpart to the stalwart Tower of the Sun. Both were bulwarks of Gondor, anchoring the realm and guarding the Gondorian capital of Osgiliath throughout the long centuries. Plague and civil war weakened Osgiliath, and it declined into empty ruin, leaving its guarding cities on their own. Then, fatefully, Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, fell to Mordor's shadow and became Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Magic. Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, then became Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, the last and greatest hope for the Free People of Middle-earth. Before Minas Ithil fell, though, it was a vibrant, creative place, a moonlit contrast to the bright warrior-city that took the name of Minas Tirith.
Queen Mirien has decided to make Minas Ithil her personal domain after continued friction with her husband, King Tarondor.
This book details Minas Ithil before it fell to Sauron's forces. It's an interesting place for those who enjoy urban adventures, and is detailed well. The culture of the city is laid out, with attention given to guilds, social strata, spirituality, education, and intrigue. This is a city of learning and art, and space is even devoted in the book to an overview of poetry in Minas Ithil. It also contains one of the few remaining Seeing-stones, or Palantir, that remains to Gondor. Minas Ithil is a living place, though the Great Plague has recently swept through Middle-earth, and while the city has weathered it better than many other places in Gondor, the weakening has begun that will allow the Witch-king to conquer the city centuries to come. The corruption is there, if subtle.
The marble buildings of Minas Ithil stand bravely, but a shadow already creeps within the city.
The book offers a variety of sites within the city for characters to visit, from dive taverns to universities. In this respect, it's one of the better city supplements I've seen for a roleplaying game. The only criticism I can offer happens to be a major one: Iron Crown Enterprises had already published a major city supplement a few years before. Minas Tirith had been given the hardback treatment, detailing the most famous of Middle-earth cities. While Minas Ithil is a much different place, there is a feeling of sameness here. The opportunity was there for a much more dangerous adventure site to be detailed. Minas Morgul would have made an even greater contrast to Minas Tirith.
A portion of Minas Ithil, the city, with Tower of the Moon itself labeled #4.
Perhaps ICE felt that Minas Morgul was the kind of site that would see little use in a game, and if so, then I can understand that reasoning. It would be an incredibly dangerous place for the player characters to attempt to slip into before the War of the Ring. Teeming with evil, the domain of the greatest of the Ringwraiths, instant death would be at hand for most of the Free People. Still...such danger is part and parcel of roleplaying game adventures. The prospect of such a huge, open adventure site would hold an allure for many adventurers. Spy missions involving infiltrating the city are an obvious opportunity for derring-do for those with ice-water blood. After Sauron's fall, Minas Morgul would have been an immediate target of King Elessar, opening up a whole campaign's-worth of adventures as the remnants of the Dark Lord's forces rush to any bastion that remains to them. Sieges, pitched battles, and building-to-building fighting in a city dominated by complete evil for a thousand years, still possessed of macabre secrets, and so infused with corruption that the King of Gondor would have it razed completely, sounds like a lot of fun.
All that said, this is still an outstanding game book, taken on its own. With some adjustment, it could be placed in other settings, or even converted into Minas Morgul. The details provided, from climate and ecology to court intrigue and hidden spider cults, are all interesting and worthwhile. In any other game or setting, it would be considered a classic. It still is a classic, but is overshadowed by its sibling city, Minas Tirith, both as a publication and as a place, and by the city of black magic that it would become. But, that may be my own lingering disappointment than anything else. Setting that aside, Minas Ithil is one of the better MERP books published.

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