Saturday, March 23, 2013

Far under the living earth, where time is not counted: Moria

The image on this older edition's cover is from Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings movie of 1978.
     ‘There is a way that we may attempt,’ said Gandalf. ‘I thought from the beginning, when I first considered this journey, that we should try it. But it is not a pleasant way, and I have not spoken of it to the Company before. Aragorn was against it, until the pass over the mountains had at least been tried.’
    ‘If it is a worse road than the Redhorn Gate, then it must be evil indeed,’ said Merry. ‘But you had better tell us about it, and let us know the worst at once.’
     ‘The road I speak of leads to the Mines of Moria,’ said Gandalf. Only Gimli lifted up his head; a smouldering fire was in his eyes. On all the others a dread fell at the mention of that name. Even to the hobbits it was a legend of vague fear.[…]

     ‘I too once passed the Dimrill Gate,’ said Aragorn quietly; ‘but though I also came out again, the memory is very evil. I do not wish to enter Moria a second time.’

-- The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter IV: A Journey in the Dark

     ‘Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart.’
     ‘Deep is the abyss that is spanned by Durin’s Bridge, and none has measured it,’ said Gimli.
     ‘Yet it has a bottom, beyond light and knowledge,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.
     ‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Gloin. Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.’ 

The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter V: The White Rider

There is something alluring yet horrifying about the depths of the earth. Below us are hidden places, caverns and passages sitting silent in the dark, mysteries stretching down through the ages never to be delved. Some are delved into, though, as we dig and mine, looking for treasures, while others reach up and open onto the surface, tempting spelunkers and offering shelter for man and beast. Even the most innocuous cave opening evokes a hint of the unknown, haunting the imagination. Thus, it is no surprise that caves and dark passages and gaping underground chasms figure into so many myths and legends, from the bleak, hushed land of listless dead of Hades, to the underworld of Jules Verne.

Tolkien's Middle-earth has more than its share of underground passages. From King Thingol's Menegroth to Morgoth's Angband, from the Goblin-king's city to Thranduil's palace in Northern Mirkwood, Middle-earth's surface has been riddled with delvings. Even Middle-earth's most humble folk, the Hobbits, dig holes in the ground to live in. However, the mightiest delvings are dug by the people for whom the underworld is home, a people created beneath the mountains and not the sky. Seemingly part of the living rock itself, the Dwarves have spent much of their history carving great and vast halls and cities stretching beneath hills and mountains all over Middle-earth. Much of that history has also seen those deep dwellings invaded and wrested from the hands of the Dwarves, to fall to the forces of evil. The greatest of all such cities was Moria.

Called Khazad-dum by the Dwarves, Moria was, by the time of Bilbo and Frodo, a name that evoked dread even amongst the unworldly Hobbits. A vast, multilayered city under the Misty Mountains, Moria was once the pride of Dwarves everywhere. It fell to darkness, the Dwarves driven from their greatest stronghold. Centuries after the fall, Moria was a shadowy realm, its state unknown. Attempts to retake the city met with failure, with even Balin's initially successful colony falling silent after years of gradual rebuilding.
There is no doubt that Moria was one of the models for dungeons in roleplaying games. The lost underground city became a template for many adventures for games like Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually, Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Roleplaying game would complete the circle, detailing Moria itself for game use. The initial book would be greatly expanded years later, but both detail a massive adventure area, filled with detail.
Angus McBride's cover for the revised and expanded Moria book for MERP depicts the Fellowship's desperate battle near Balin's tomb..
Even later, Decipher, another game company, would create the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, for which a massive boxed set would be published that detailed another take on the Dwarven city.
Box lid of Decipher's Moria. The image quality is poor due to the box being too large for my scanner.
I will deal with Decipher's boxed set later.

In some ways, I consider the two editions of Moria to be the masterworks of Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Roleplaying game. Not only do they evoke the atmosphere of Moria as depicted by Tolkien, they also embody the quintessence of the roleplaying game dungeon adventure. Integrating the two isn't necessarily as easy as it might seem; published roleplaying game adventures are not often as massive or evocative as what Tolkien described. The design team at ICE came up with clever ways to bring to life a massive underground city in a limited amount of space. 
Stock areas and passages help flesh out a city the size of Moria without having to detail every meter of the place.
As with most of ICE's MERP sourcebook offerings, there is an overview of the climate, ecology, and history of Moria. This is pretty interesting, as it makes the books something of a primer on dungeon adventure design in general. Subterranean flora and fauna are discussed, with how they all interact given some attention. While giving thought to the logic of a given adventure environment is not a recent innovation, and wasn't even when these books were first published, the Moria books are some of the most prominent examples. Using them to depict a non-Middle-earth underground setting would be logical.

The history of Moria is also, largely, the history of the Dwarven people, too. So, as sourcebooks like those for Mirkwood and Thranduil's Halls detail a history of Elven folk and their culture, Moria can be used as a reference guide for Dwarves apart from Moria. The history of the Dwarves is fascinating and filled with setbacks. They persevered in the face of incredible adversity spread over several millennia, maintaining their pride and culture in the face of odds that caused the Elves to slip away into the Uttermost West. Yet the Dwarves never gave up, and continually sought to reclaim their cities and treasures.

The cleverness of the MERP books resides in how practical and modular they are. Examples of typical rooms and passages are given, which lends an efficient air to the material. Tools, machinery, and architecture are depicted and discussed. 

Blended together, all of this combines to give the impression of a bustling, thriving city, whether it is still living or if it is now a shadowed memory.

Both editions are handsome, useful books. The maps in both are, as might be expected from MERP products, outstanding. The illustrations are good in general; I'm especially taken with the art by Kent Burles in the newer edition. It reminds me a bit of the art of Stephen Fabian and George Barr, mostly due to the mood and feel it evokes.
This and the Under-deeps picture above are examples of Kent Burles' expressive art.

Liz Danforth also provides several outstanding illustrations. Both books show MERP at its best; the older from when it had just hit its stride, the newer later in the line's run, when it was about to run its course.
And not to mention the Balrog, here depicted outstandingly by Liz Danforth.
These two books are among my favorite game books.  They both cram a wealth of gaming material between their covers, creating a vivid portrait of a place and a people that would appeal even to a non-gamer.

Moria by Decipher

I won't spend a lot of time on this product, not because it doesn't deserve it, but because I'm not as familiar with it. This is a boxed set - the cover of which can be seen above, which has a still from Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. The box contains two books and several maps.One book details Dwarven culture, in a somewhat different, but similar, way to the MERP books. The other covers Moria itself, choosing to do something similar to what was done by ICE by breaking the city down into reusable modular parts. As a whole, this boxed set is much more sparsely illustrated than the MERP books. The maps are nice, and also usable in multiple ways, fitting together almost any way the user of the boxed set would like. It's a good, solid product, but I do prefer the MERP version.

Moria is a vast underworld in any incarnation. Its influence on gaming, as noted, is profound, to the point that there are numerous Morias going by other names; many adventures for roleplaying games use it as a template, whether unconsciously or not. Every deeply-delved dungeon with winding passages and echoing chambers contains a bit of Moria in its shadowed recesses.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Black Gate Opens: Mordor's Front Door

As I approach the end of my overview of Middle-earth Roleplaying sourcebooks, I now move to where some of Middle-earth's greatest confrontations took place. Where the Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow, and the Ered Lithui, the Mountains of Ash, meet, is the entrance to Sauron's dark realm. This is a land of fetid marshes, blasted hills, dark towers, and the dreaded Black Gate itself. By the time of Bilbo and Frodo, this was the land of nightmare, a literal Hell on Earth. Only those on desperate missions or lost causes dared to brave this place, the most watched and guarded in Middle-earth.

The Middle-earth Roleplaying game covered the Dark Lord's domain well. I have already discussed Gorgoroth, the poisonous and deadly plains where Sauron draws his strength. So, too, have I examined both Cirith Ungol and the lost city of Minas Ithil. Now, at the last, we come to Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes, and the Morannon Gate itself. And that is where the examination of Mordor will end, because Iron Crown Enterprises never delved into the very epicenter of evil in Middle-earth, Sauron's enormous tower-fortress, Barad-dur. That's too bad for the truly adventurous and fearless, or insane, heroes who might have wanted to take the fight to Sauron's house. Still, what has been detailed is likely enough for a lifetime of exploration and derring-do.

First, we will pore through the adventure, Gates of Mordor.
This is a fantastically dramatic cover by the late, great Angus McBride.
It's a promising title, though it's not exactly what we might have expected. The book is a collection of three linked adventures. Set in northern Ithilien, the Garden of Gondor, and the northern Ephel Duath, these adventures bring the adventurers right up and on to Mordor's mountainous fence.
The wine estate the adventurers are sent to check out, and its environs.

The first adventure has the player characters trying to discover why wine shipments have been delayed or have simply disappeared. An isolated Gondorian villa in the wilds of Ithilien is the source of the wine, and though it's a fortified estate, the mysterious lapse in wine shipments does not bode well. Though near the border of Mordor, Ithilien is a fair land and evil does not often come there. Still, the shadow of the Ephel Duath hides many secrets.

The second adventure sees the characters following up the mystery of the winery from the previous adventure. Their investigation leads to the foot of the Ephel Duath itself, where an old Gondorian tower helped anchor the defenses of the Men of the West.

The third adventure takes the characters up into the Mountains of Shadow themselves. A Gondorian citadel has been known to harbor minions of the Dark Lord, but surely this rabble poses no real threat. At the most, it may be the staging area for some petty Orc chieftain sending raiding parties into Ithilien to bedevil the good folk there. The adventurers go to scout out the place and run off these vermin. Recovering ill-gotten gains and captives will result in good rewards for comparatively little work.
Is it that simple?
This is a decent, though fairly straightforward set of adventures. It does provide a tour of an interesting part of Middle-earth, taking the player's characters from a beautiful parkland into some of the most desolate, evil terrain short of Gorgoroth itself. It includes a description of Durthang, an important and powerful fortress guarding the entry into Mordor. The cover is definitely misleading, but what the hell, it's a cool piece by Angus McBride. I'll take that anyday, misleading or not.

Next, let's look at a much different piece of terrain: Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes.
One of the earlier MERP books, for a long time this was one that I rarely looked at. It's more of a regional sourcebook than a pure adventure. That's not bad; in fact, I usually enjoy these kinds of books. As with a number of books I've looked at in this series, it covers the climate, flora, and fauna of the region, painting a portrait of it that seems three-dimensional and realistic (relatively speaking). It could simply be that, almost thirty years ago when I first got it, this region didn't appeal to me much as the site of adventures. I was much more eager to see more familiar, "cool" places in Middle-earth. Here was a book that covered an area that presented more spiritual and psychological challenges to those who passed through it than opportunities for sword-swinging. Frodo and Sam slogged through the Marshes and the Plain, demoralized by the increasingly decaying, dead lands. It is a haunted place, scarred forever by titanic battles that raged there, and the memories of heroes who fell.
It does have another awesome Peter Fenlon map, hand-annotated by me in the mists of the past.
While once the site where the Free People battled and defeated Sauron, this region is also trade route for hearty merchants passing between Gondor and the lands to the East. Although desolate, the region is home to marshmen and a couple of horsemen tribes from the East, as well as the ubiquitous Orcs. Unsurprisingly, there is a variety of Undead haunting the Marshes and the Battle Plain.
An elaborate tomb for a fallen servant of Sauron, deep within the Dead Marshes.
The book includes a few adventures and ideas for adventures. Most involve bandits and Orcs, though a few more powerful inhabitants and interesting sites are included, from disciples of Sauron to a hidden refuge of a healer. However, the real adventure here is challenging the terrain itself. The Dead Marshes are harbors for insects and disease, with treacherous footing the rule rather than the exception. The slow, insidious encroachment of swampy ground onto Dagorlad, the Battle Plain, has disturbed the final resting places of many of the warriors of the Last Alliance who helped defeat Sauron so long ago. Evil spirits that are at Sauron's beck and call have invaded tombs and graves, both in the Marshes and on the Plain. Simply finding one's way through this region can be life-threatening.

I'd like to note something here. This isn't a criticism of this particular book. In fact, Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes is a solid little addition to the Middle-earth Roleplaying line. The trouble is, there is a feeling of sameness to many of the MERP adventure books. Bandits seem to be a common go-to threat. That's not bad, in and of itself, and is logical enough. Many of the books detail villages or small settlements, and they begin to blur together after a while. It becomes a matter of all of it starting to seem very familiar - bandit and Orc activity instigates investigations, which ultimately lead to a hidden servant of Sauron in a fortified manor or keep. It's unfair to single out the MERP line for this, really; a lot of similar books for a variety of fantasy games from this era - the late '80s - use the same tropes. I've been getting a concentrated dose of this as I've immersed myself in MERP books, so it has become glaring to me. A good bit of this book, as with so many others, is actually interesting and varied. The common elements, though, begin to draw attention at this point. I don't know what the solution is. Perhaps adventure writers could come up with a "standard village" as a standalone product, inexpensive as a print product, maybe even free as a download, and in subsequent adventures provide a few notes as to how to modify it to suit a given locale. It could save some space that could then be devoted to unique content. Just an idea.

Now, we move even closer to Sauron's base of power.

Fortresses of Middle-earth: Teeth of Mordor goes into detail in describing the entrance into Mordor itself.
After Sauron's defeat that ended the Second Age of Middle-earth, the victorious forces of good decided to occupy strategic places in Mordor to ensure that the fallen Dark Lord's lieutenants and followers would never have the chance to take up their master's cause, or to prevent Sauron himself from returning to his home should he somehow cheat death again. Chief among these locales was the main entrance into Mordor, the plain of Udun, that lay at the corner where the mountain ranges Ephel Duath and Ered Lithui met. On hills flanking the pass into Mordor were built two watch-towers, Narchost - "Fire-fort" - and Carchost - "Fang-fort." Between them was the Morannon, a great wall that closed off Mordor from the rest of the world. Few places in Middle-earth are as fortified or as disputed.

Sauron had the Morannon and towers rebuilt and fortified more than once. Depending on the era, the Teeth and the Morannon are heavily guarded by the Men of Gondor or Sauron's forces, or abandoned and empty. Either way, they're prime candidates for adventure. Frodo and Sam's stealth mission to Orodruin shows that even the Dark Lord can't guard against every incursion. The Teeth and the Morannon are going to present a much trickier problem, though, because anyone moving in or beyond it during times of occupation are going to be immediately confronted by guards of some sort.
Sauron is not known for the subtlety of his architecture.

The bulk of this slender book details the nine levels of the two towers. Most fantasy roleplaying game towers are far more complex and varied than their real-world counterparts, and the Teeth of Mordor are no exception.
Throne rooms, lounges, and even greenhouses can be found in these towers. They come off as a combination of apartment and business high-rises, mixed with a few vague nods toward medieval construction here and there. That's not a knock or a dismissal. The book presents a place that would likely be a lot of fun for players to have their adventurous characters knockabout in, even if it's pretty much a suicide mission during the most interesting time periods.

Taken as a whole, these three books, Gates of Mordor, Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes, and Fortresses of Middle-earth: Teeth of Mordor, combine to form a good overview of one of the most dangerous, intriguing areas of Middle-earth.