Monday, April 29, 2013

"...the Guarded City, with its seven walls of stone so strong and old that it seemed to have been not builded but carven by giants out of the bones of the earth": Cities of Middle-earth - Minas Tirith

The spiritual heart of Minas Tirith.

This is the last bastion for good in Middle-earth; should it fall, all hope falls with it. A great white stone city, anchored on a mighty mountain, Minas Tirith is the capital and bulwark of Gondor. It is the focal point of Sauron's wrath, the last major obstacle between the Dark Lord and total domination of Middle-earth.
The fate of Middle-earth rested upon the strength of the Great Gate holding just long enough...

As far as I know, this was the only hardback volume in the Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game line by Iron Crown Enterprise (ICE). The Angus McBride cover depicts the climactic scene when the great gate of the city has been breached and Gandalf confronts the Witch-king, the greatest of the Ringwraiths. In many ways, this painting is symbolic of the entire story of the Lord of the Rings, distilling it down to its essence. It's a fitting image for the book and for the MERP line in general.

Minas Tirith was, long before the time of Bilbo and Frodo, one of two tower-crowned fortresses that flanked the greatest city of Gondor, its capital, Osgiliath. At that time, it was known as Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun. Across the mighty Anduin river, nestled near the Ephel Duath, or Mountains of Shadow, was its sister-fortress Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon. For centuries the three cities flourished. Then civil war and plague struck Gondor, and Osgiliath began a long decline into ruin. Then Sauron's lieutenant, the Witch-king, struck Minas Ithil and seized it for the Dark Lord, and it became known as Minas Morgul, the Tower of Black Magic. Afterward, Minas Anor was renamed Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard, and became the capital and main fortress of Gondor.
The lands immediately surrounding Minas Tirith, including the Pelennor Fields where much blood was shed.

As the centuries wore on, Gondor remained strong, though decline was obvious. King Earnur disappeared into Minas Morgul after foolishly challenging the Witch-king to single combat, leaving no heir. From then on, for nearly a millennium, Gondor was ruled by Stewards who ruled from Minas Tirith. A slow malaise began to take hold of Gondor, a pessimism that poisoned the will of the people there, until by the time Aragorn came to claim his birthright, Minas Tirith was half empty and awaiting the inevitable. Worse by far was the secret that Denethor II, the ruling Steward, had been using the Palantir, the great seeing-stone, to spy on Sauron. The Dark Lord knew this, and manipulated what Denethor saw, poisoning the noble steward's mind with dark images of defeat, until the Steward was driven to near-insanity...and beyond. The corruption of Sauron had finally taken hold directly within Minas Tirith, at the very pinnacle of its power. The great city was teetering on the brink of oblivion.
The Tower of Anarion. This book's interpretation of the city includes a spire on the pinnacle of rock right above the Great Gate.

Cities of Middle-earth: Minas Tirith details the city at a time before Minas Ithil had fallen and a king still sat in the great Tower of Ecthelion. The longevity of the city, and its relative stability, makes the book still usable in any era. Some attention is given to what the city is like in other time periods, and it's easy enough to adjust how the city is described. The culture, architecture, guilds, military, and government remain essentially the same, though, of course, the Stewards take the place of the Kings when Earnur disappears. I've criticized some MERP books for not being very true to the setting Tolkien created, but this book cleaves closely to a Tolkienesque feel. This may not be exactly what Tolkien had in mind, but it evokes the city in a way that seems authentic. As far as I can tell, none of it conflicts with what Tolkien wrote. This is a well-detailed book, and will appeal to those who enjoy reading about Middle-earth, including non-gamers.

For gamers, though, this is quite a package. The city is meticulously detailed, from the surrounding Pelennor Fields to the White Tower at the city's heart. Numerous characters and organizations are given for the player's characters to interact with as they explore one of the iconic locations of Middle-earth. For a long time, I didn't see how there could be much for players to do here, but as time has gone on and I've gotten (somewhat) more mature, I see a wealth of adventure opportunities within the city's environs. Those looking for a "hive of scum and villainy" to carouse in will, perhaps, be disappointed; this is a city in which the adventures are more about maneuvering within various social strata and finding subtle and deeply-rooted corruption, not barroom brawls and "kick in the door" looting. Libraries full of forgotten lore, nobles with mysterious agendas, rivalries between guilds, and even a thieves guild all provide adventure hooks, and any reasonably curious adventurers will find plentiful ways to get into trouble. Even if players simply want their characters to take a tour of one of the great sites of Middle-earth, the information is here for the gamemaster to provide a textured description of the city. This includes sites made famous in the narrative of the book, such as the resting place for Minas Tirith's venerated dead, the Hallows.

This texture is reinforced with the usual MERP game material. Descriptions of the flora and fauna and weather of the area is given. There are tables of major characters to be found in the city, including a table of random encounters for each level, including the Pelennor Fields and the Harlond, Minas Tirith's ship dockyard. Random encounters range from cutpurses to tax collectors...though it may be tough to tell the difference. Even if renamed and used in another setting, there is plenty of material here to run a large, important city.

The only weak point of the book is its illustrations. Let me be clear: Peter Fenlon's maps are as gorgeous as they always are, and some of the high points of the book. The floorplans of many buildings are also well-done. The other art itself is good, though none of it is very dynamic. There are many portraits of city inhabitants, but most are static headshots. Many of those are by the redoubtable Liz Danforth, so it's impossible to really complain about them.
A mysterious inhabitant of Minas Tirith, with designs known only to her.

The problem is the paucity of pictures showing the city as a lived-in place. Street scenes and buildings views are few and far between, and, as with the character portraits, are not very evocative. The building plans are outstanding, but some perspective shots of them inhabited and in use would have helped bring some life to the city. Published about a decade before the Lord of the Rings movies, there wouldn't have been a lot of visual reference material to bolster the book's relative lack of them. Now, though, I'd recommend supplementing the book with still shots from the movies when using it in a game. Still, though, that Angus McBride cover may be the best image he did for the MERP line, and it makes up quite a bit of the ground not covered by the interior illustrations.
And let's not forget this nifty overhead streetplan of the city.

This is a fine book, one of the best of the MERP line. As true to Tolkien's writing as it can be while filling in a lot of detail, Cities of Middle-earth: Minas Tirith is an impressive work for gamers and non-gamers like. Readers and viewers of the Lord of the Rings see it at some of its worst, most desperate moments, yet it still manages to be remembered as a great, beautiful city. Although shadowed by the threat of Mordor to the east, it still manages to shine brightly to the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Its greatest potential for adventure is during its darkest times; the city would welcome aid as Sauron's forces pour forth to conquer the city. Even after the Dark Lord falls, there is still much to do within the city; help is needed to rebuild, and the spies and agents of Sauron may still reside within, preparing final spiteful strikes to avenge their fallen master. Even ICE saw potential for Minas Tirith as an adventure site in the Fourth Age.
A splendid yet empty hall in Minas Tirith.

This is the final Middle-earth location sourcebook I'll be dealing with here on Dark Dimension. There is one last book in the line I'll cover here, but that will come later. There are other books in the series, but they are more geared to gamers, and will eventually be discussed in another blog. After that last book, I'll swing Dark Dimension's direction away from game books, at least for a while, and delve into more generally interesting topics. I hope everyone who's been reading has enjoyed these posts and gotten something out of them. I've enjoyed writing them and looking back on 25+ years of gaming. The last few posts have taken quite a bit of time to finish and publish, and I still have yet to convince myself to write smaller posts in the interim to break up the long gaps. I hope to fix that, with a few smaller posts here and there, but we'll see...


  1. An epic series comes to an end... well done all around!

    I love that map of the Houses of Healing. That looks potentially creepy (and potentially lucrative) to explore.

  2. Great series of posts Jeff. I wish I knew how to actually play these things. They look like fun.