Thursday, January 27, 2011

RPG Supplements I Like: Umbar, Haven of the Corsairs

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Unexisting Cities
I think I've probably hit the topic of fantasy cities several times by now. I hope most of the fantasy stories I've spun in the last twenty years have a pretty strong sense of place. I love the idea of cities as characters-- where they're drawn well that pull along fiction that otherwise I wouldn't make it through. I got through much of the weakest part of the old Thieves World anthologies because I wanted to know what would happen to the city. Part of DC-ism may come from the use of made up cities for those comics. Star City, Central City, Gotham had a feel, rather than being simply versions of real-world places. That gave me room to imagine stories about them. Hub City in The Question comics of the 1980's and Opal City from Starman in the 1990's both stand out as superhero cities at least as interesting as the characters.

On to Bree or Wherever
Oddly I've never associated Tolkien in my mind as a great creator of urban locations. I had a pretty definitive idea in my head of what Rivendell and the Shire looked like (the movie got the latter right for me, but not the former). But Tolkien spends little time in those cities dealing with the character of them, save perhaps Minas Tirith. Even that's more of a cool set-piece. This creates a challenge for rpg writers in bringing those places to life; everything in adapting LotR runs the risk of feeling anachronistic, but here more than elsewhere. Cities suggest things about areas of life Tolkien avoids: local power hierarchies (except maybe in Lake Town), sanitation, trade, food supplies, etc. Not that these aren't things normally dropped in fantasy rpgs- usually since players often zip through towns. But if you're spending time in a place you have to think about it.

Thence the South
Which brings me around to the topic of my review, Iron Crown Enterprises' Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. I have a fondness this module for a couple of reasons, not least of which is that it was among the first city-centered rpg books I ever bought and really read through to use. I'd picked up some other things, like City State of the Invincible Overlord, but Judges Guild had made that sufficiently disorganized as to render it pretty well useless. This book focused on a small areas, provided some interesting ideas and made me think about the atmosphere more. I found it tucked away on a comic book rack at a Hall of Cards of Books at North Village Mall-- a mall they bulldozed this last summer.

So yes, this book came out some time ago-- part of a strange semi-old school era when some serious competition to D&D/AD&D began, but in a scattered way. Umbar dates to 1982, when Rolemaster still came in individual books aimed at adaptation to other games rather than standing on their own. Booklets printed on heavy card (Arms Law) or colored parchment (Spell Law). So ICE put out a number of Middle Earth regional RPG supplements before they actually had a dedicated Middle Earth rpg in the form of MERP in 1984. Of course, MERP would end up being Rolemaster heavily simplified. But in that gap ICE published seven regional books: Angmar, Ardor, Isengard, Mirkwood (North and South), Moria and Umbar (plus some adventure modules). Of those seven, Isengard and the two Mirkwood volumes deal with areas significantly referenced in Tolkien's works. Moria does as well, but ends up more a collection of random floor and section plans than a coherent location basis. Angmar, Ardor and Umbar go further off the map-- areas more hinted at than dealt with in the books. This gives the authors more leeway; something which shows up pretty heavily in The Court of Ardor, one of the wildest of these volumes. Umbar tries for some faithfulness to Middle Earth but also tries to serve the master...of Rolemaster.

Art and Design
If you've looked at early ICE products, you'll recognize the design in this one. The book comes in at 52 pages of text. This is done in dense, small-print two columns throughout. For pullout maps you get decent if thinly marked regional map, which fits in the the other Middle Earth maps. I believe the intent at one time was to create enough maps that owners could assemble them together. The color illustration on the back cover shows where the regional map fits into the larger one. On the reverse you get a hand-drawn and hand-colored map of the city which is quite lovely. Buildings are unnumbered, but color-coded. Once DTP grew in sophistication ICE would abandon this method with the Shadow World line, creating truly hideous and sterile city maps-- when color coded these looked like Photoshop threw up on the page. The key for the Umbar city map is hand-lettered as well with what's supposed to look like an archaic font. Its neither bad nor good, just amusingly hand-made.

The front cover has a standard generic illustration of two ships fighting. Later on ICE would get Angus McBride to do nearly all of the Middle Earth covers, creating a consistent visual approach (along with Liz Danforth interior illustrations). However some of the early books have covers like this one by Gail McIntosh, and I like them quite a bit. The book provides little in the way of interior art. There's two triptych illustrations of the faces of the leaders of the city. These are done by Charles Peale who I really like. The one thing that bothers me is some seeming inconsistency in the "ethnicity" of the characters. The cover and the general tone suggest a darker complexion, but the interior illustrations definitely track as European. That's however a generally problematic question when dealing with these fringe areas in Tolkien. Beyond those face pictures, there's one picture of an empty street and two not great drawings of castles at a distance. The rest of the illustrations inside are taken up with floor plans and maps.

What It Provides
Umbar presents a city in the far south of Southern Gondor, but north of Ardor, the Seven Lands, and Harad (this last being one of the best sets of modules for the MERP line). Umbar houses the Corsairs, pirates who prey on Gondor to the north. We get some discussion of the city, primarily focusing on the six Captains of the Haven, each of whom control one-sixth of the area. The book uses the standard MERP setting of the Third Age (around 1600) as its baseline. I know that choice ended up being controversial among gamers. I liked it as it presented the flavor of Tolkien, but outside of the better-known continuity of the Lord of the Rings period. It means most of the big forces of the land (Arnor, Gondor, etc) stand at their height. That serves my purposes since generally I buy these kinds of supplements to adapt them to other settings and places. The book does provide a couple of pages of notes for TA 935 and TA 3020 (War of the Ring era).

It's worth breaking down the book by pages.
* Table of Contents, general Middle Earth background, mechanics for converting Rolemaster, map keys: All of which takes up the first 10+ pages. Most of that material repeats across all of the Middle Earth books.
* Umbar in LotR and general regional discussion: Six pages, with most attention given to describing the Captains of the Havens.
* The City Itself: Four pages, of which three pages are plans and floorplans.
* Towers of the Captains: Six pages, floorplans with keyed location descriptions.
* Groups and Forces in Umbar: Nine pages with some interesting ideas. More floor plans, some NPC stat blocks and a few plot ideas.
* Castles of Umbar: Seven pages. Fortresses of the Captains and others with floorplans and keyed location entries.
* Umbar Miscellany: Two pages. Map of a village, list of healing drugs, animals, prices, summary of the captains.
* NPC Stat Summary: Two pages of charts.
* Ideas for Play: Two pages. Suggested PC backgrounds, points of entry for plots, glossary of people, suggested adventures.
* Umbar in Other Times: Three pages-- with yet more floorplans.

As a Middle Earth Product
As a evocation of the feeling of Middle Earth, Umbar fails. I think that has two causes. First, while interesting, the book feels particularly generic. Besides a few references which tie characters to this blood or that nation, it ties concretely to the setting as we know it. Some of that comes from it being off the beaten path, but I'd argue that other modules set outside the North did a pretty good job (Greater Harad for example). The other source really only emerges if you know Rolemaster and look at the NPC stats and descriptions. These characters are insanely, insanely powerful-- armed to the teeth with magic item and bonuses out the wazoo. (Rolemaster Reference: the weakest of the Captains is Level 20 with a DB of 90 and an OB of 225).

These feel like characters come from an entirely different conceptual universe. In fact I ended up using this location as a sourcebook not for Middle Earth, but for Stormbringer. The characters and powers shown here fit a Young Kingdoms setting much better. It reads more like Moorcock or Howard than Tolkien.

As a City Book
As a city sourcebook, I really want more. I want some discussion of the life of the city- some idea of the people and the dynamics. I don't want a keyed list of businesses, but I do want some ideas for what makes the city different. How do I convey that difference, that uniqueness to players? As city built on raiding and plunder rather than a solid economy- I would think you could easily find some details to build from.

That being said-- boy that's a great map. And if you're looking for floorplans for castles or the like, then ICE has that for you in spades. But that's not all...

I really like the characters of the Captains of Umbar. I think even in the brief space given to them, they come off as characters I'd love to put into play in a game. This is a well that ICE comes back to several times in the MERP product line. They provide some region description and frame. But then the body of the work rests on describing a group or organization of powerful NPCs with interesting personalities and conflicting interests. You see it again in Far Harad, Shadow in the South, and The Court of Ardor for example. They come back to that because it works. Umbar has characters worth exploring, but leaves the job the tough job of fleshing them out.

A weak MERP product, long out of print. Of interest to collectors and completests-- and those who love nice game maps. Neat to see another era for this kind of design however. The intent clearly seems to be that players will be storming the various castles and citadels of the Captains-- pseudo-dungeons.

I like some of the ideas here and the city is generic enough to be useful as a port in most fantasy campaigns. The thinness of the description works to its advantage as nothing here relies on a unique property of the Middle Earth setting.


  1. I only have a few MERP supplements, but I treasure each one.

  2. I probably have more than Christian but I never owned Umbar. As I'm in the middle of a mini-Tolkien kick, I wish I could track it down.

  3. Great review! Could the non-Tolkien feel of the book be a result of their licensing requirements?

    I fondly remember Hall of Cards and Books. They always had odd and unusual items there.

  4. There's a lot of good stuff among the MERP books- I regret losing most of them in the fire. Kaiju- I don't think the non-Tolkien feel comes from any licensing requirements as they did some pretty legitimately Tolkien stuff at the same time (Isengard, etc). I'd more put it down to it being early stuff before they got their feet under them-- certainly the middle period material is really, really excellent).