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.


  1. That is too bad about no sourcebook for Bard-dur. I think of all the places in Mordor, that and Minas Ithil when it was Minas Morgul are the two I'd most like to see. But I'll take whatever I can get.

    I can see how the set-up would get repetitive, but like you say, that's not a particularly unique offense for fantasy games of the era.

    I like the idea of a standard village. I'm surprised, actually, that no one's done this.