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.


  1. Good stuff, Jeff, as always. I've always been enamored with Moria as depicted in RPGs, and I think you summarize it's allure very well.

    In addition to the MERP books, White Dwarf published an intro to D&D scenario set in Moria in WD#38; written by Lew Pulsipher, it was an excellent scenario to introduce folks who were already familiar with Tolkien to D&D. Are you familiar with that one?


    1. Thanks, Allan. I appreciate the comments.

      No, I'm not familiar with that WD! I had a few issues from around that time period, but I never managed to land that one. I should track it down. Thanks for the heads-up.