23 THINGS ABOUT THIS MIDDLE EARTH
(your Middle Earth may vary)
We've just started a new Middle Earth campaign using Action Cards. I've put together some design/project notes I'll post Friday. I've talked about how to convey setting before, especially with established worlds. This is my attempt to boil down what the players need to know, outside of their movie-based experience. Note that I use "Man" and "Men" just to stick with the Tolkienism (see note #23). I went back and forth on that several times.
1. Tenor of the Times
This game takes place in Third Age 1643. This era still has greatness remaining within it, but the Shadow’s corruption and decay has begun to rise. While some kingdoms have fallen, their adversaries appear to simply be potent evil-doers, like The Witch King and The Necromancer. Tolkien’s world mixes sweeping events and great periods of decline. This is one of those volatile times. A few years ago a great plague swept across Northwestern Middle Earth. Many places died out or fell from contact. Now simmering wars and internal divisions reduce the strength of Man. But the White Council, arrived a handful of centuries ago, works to bolster the skills and spirit of Middle Earth’s peoples.
2. When We Are
For reference, The Hobbit takes place in 2941 and the War of the Ring in 3019. Development and change happen very slooooowly in Middle Earth. Our time period is the default era for ICE’s MERP. I’m using their notes and history by default (note that these differ from those of The One Ring RPG and The Lord of the Rings RPG). Everything here applies to this world and isn’t necessarily accurate to Tolkien. We’re aiming for the spirit over precision. Sometimes I’ll ask you for historical details in play, and we’ll add that to the world. Also, my spelling is off in many places and I don’t bother with accent marks.
Arnor was once the great kingdom of the North, a sister state to Gondor in the South. They shared royal lines and nobility, descended from the High Men (Dunedain) who fled from Numenor when it sank into the sea. Those peoples installed themselves as lords over Men in this large region. That lasted for many generations until there arose a division over leadership and succession. This split Arnor into three new and often rival kingdoms: Cardolan, Rhuadur, and Arthedain.
Some say dying and some say dead. This kingdom is splintered and divided. Siege, civil strife, and warfare destroyed Cardolan. While Angmar dealt the death blow, Cardolan had already torn itself apart. The last Prince of the ruling line died at Amon Sul in 1634. The plague soon after destroyed any hope of recovery. Now Cardolan consists of a half a dozen petty principalities and baronies. While they may claim nobility, they rule by might. These Barons scheme with politics and soldiers, shifting allegiances constantly. Most have limited reach, leaving great areas land untended and unprotected. In these wilds Orcs and bandits prowl. The Free City of Tharbad, overseen by guilds, remains the largest settlement. It is a teeming crossroads city, though it too shows signs of decay and lawlessness. Cardolan is dominated by the rivers flowing through it. It retains some wilderness despite Man's devastation over the centuries. Also notable is The Warlord’s Realm a small mountain area controlled by a Half-Troll who raids, pillages, and claims to be a lord in his own right.
The Dunedain never won the hearts and loyalty of the peoples of Rhuadur. Being a poor land, fewer colonists arrived here to take leadership. The native folk remained restless and resentful of outsider control. In particular the Hillman continued their raiding and clan warfare. Few wept for the splitting of Arnor and persons of avarice took advantage. When the Witch King arose in Angmar he played on old resentments from local Dundedain, Dunman, and Hillman alike. He focuses energies to infiltrate and control of the land, as scattered and poor as it is. Now King Ermegil Storarm rules loosely and only at the Witch King’s whim. The countryside is lawless and the constables corrupt. Today Rhuadur is a model for what the Witch King plans for the North and all of Middle Earth. It is a puppet state, full of darkness and crime. Those Men who rule Rhuadar do so in his name and bend the region towards his dark purposes.
This is the last remaining free kingdom of Arnor. It is sheltered by rivers, mountains, and frozen wastes. It has weaknesses, specifically a small population of Dunedain with a distinctly unmartial tradition. Were it not for outside aid, the kingdom would have fallen to Angmar in 1409. The people are not without defenses and spirit. In particular they possess Palantiri. The Seers of Fornost use these to communicate with Gondor and keep track of Angmar’s movements. The Arthedan have good relations with the Elves and have permitted the settlement of Hobbits in the region. Arthedain is a beacon of hope for the old ways and civilization of Man. In time, it will fall.
7. King Argeleb II
The ruler of Arthedain. He recognizes Arthedain’s precarious position, but aims for balance over aggressive action. Argeleb rules with the support of a King’s Council, made up of the heads of the seven great families of the North. The King and Council have clashed recently, and tensions among the Houses has risen. The coming of the Hobbits exacerbated this. Argeleb’s gifting of the Shire served a political purpose, weakening one of the more potent families, the Tarmas. The King remains in communication with Tarondor, the new and untested King of Gondor. But Argeleb, like many of the Dunedain of Arthedain have a more contemplative and mystical approach to threats and problems. This vexes the practical folk of Gondor.
8. Places of Arthedain
The capitol of Arthedain is at Fornost Erain. This fortress city contains a great palace in which the King’s business is carried out. The Barrowlands or Tyrn Gorthad are a dangerous and haunted region, close by Arthedain but situated in Cardolan. Subsidies from King Argeleb to the local rulers are intended to support their care of the place. However Dark Priests of Angmar have been seen there, disturbing and corrupting spirits. Bree is the main settlement of Bree-land. It lies adjacent to the Shire. The Hobbits who once dwelt here moved into Siragale, which became the Shire. The loss of life in the plague tightened bonds between the two communities. The King’s Rest Inn is a notable tavern in Bree. Emyn Uial or the Hills of Twilight is a calm and peaceful region. It is the jewel of the farmland, with abundant water and wood. Nenuial is a spectacular lake in the region, close by the chalk hills of Emeth Gelin. The North Downs or Tyrn Forman is a rugged land, well suited to hunters and trappers. Weathertop or Amon Sul is a destroyed fortress. It once house a Palantir. The Witch King destroyed the fortress in 1409, before being pushed back by the last alliance. It remains barren.
To the East lies Angmar, a rocky and dangerous land overseen by the Witch King. Corrupted Men, warrens of Orcs, and other fell beasts live there. The mountains are dangerous, the weather cold and uncertain. The old glacial rifts and melt waters have created dangerous tunnels and caverns Orcs use to their advantage. Angmar has never had great settlements, though it is said that more than one Dwarven mine once existed there. The Witch King is the lord of Angmar. He plots against the west and awaits new generations among his Orcs to swell his numbers.
This force of evil arose perhaps 300 years ago. Rumors came from desolate Angmar that a new threat had arisen, but none took it seriously. Then his force of Orcs, corrupted Men, and others began to strike at the Dunedain. The Witch King has won and lost repeatedly over the centuries. In 1409 he destroyed Amon Sul aka Weathertop and destroyed Cardolan as a nation. Only an alliance of the Dunedain with the Elves of the Grey Havens, Rivendell, and Lorien managed to turn him back. Though we know that The Witch King is a Nazgul, it is not known in this time. It is also not known that The Witch King of Angmar and the Necromancer of Mirkwood are one and the same.
11. The Plague
The sickness that ripped across Middle Earth struck Mankind alone. It devastated many areas. All lines of Man suffered, from the Dunedain to the few Woses who had contact with the outside world. It hit particularly hard in Gondor and what was Arnor. Some suspect it was a plot by the Witch King. If so, he has not yet fully capitalized on the gambit. Perhaps his own losses make that difficult. In any case, the Plague travelled everywhere equally: city, village, and wilds. Many steads, villages, and even castles now remain empty. This makes travel difficult and banditry more a problem. Just as quickly as the Plague appeared, it vanished and has not been seen in three years.
12. Dunedain or High Men
There’s a complex lineage to the Numenoreans. For our purposes, the most important point is that this line of Man is old, distinct, and learned much from the Elves. They live several hundred years. I’ll be using the term Dunedain and High-Man interchangeably. The Dunedain are taller than most men, with dark hair. Some have distinctive grey eyes. A full blooded Dunedain will stand out in most places outside their cities. While they intermarry with the other lines of Man, there’s a strong sense of tradition and bloodlines. Particularly in Arthedain, the Dunedian carry on traditions derived from the Elves: clothing, art, and crafts. They focus on scholarship, learning, and creative pursuits. While they are strong in war, that’s not their cultural inclination.
13. Other Men
The vast population of Man is not Dunedain. These lines and divisions can be ethnic, cultural, and/or of blood (see note 23 below). Eriedain (Northrons or Northmen) are the fair-haired common majority of the populace in Arthedain and Cardolan. They’re tall by Mannish standards and have an individualistic society centered around family freeholds. Northmen who ply the rivers are called Rivermen and have a distinct culture. Commoners (Common Men) are shorter with ruddier complexions. They’re made up of several different ethnic groupings and so vary in appearance and culture. Hillmen are primarily found in Rhudaur, where they dwell on the slopes of the northern Misty Mountains. They’re a clannish folk, fighting against authority and each other. They’re outsiders in their own lands and dwindling in numbers. They’re short, strong, and stocky with a Dark complexion, hair and eyes. Rhudaurim descend mostly from what Dunmen or Dunnish tribesmen. They’re closest to Common Men, with brown hair. They’re the dominant human people in Rhudaur. Breefolk are also Dunnish, having fled the Witch King’s incursions. Befraen and Woses are a strange, squat tribal folk found in scattered places. They’re primitive hunter-gatherers and usually bear a top-knot and copious body painting. The Lossoth are the rarely seen hunters of the northern wastes. The Angmarim are a wild and diverse people, drawn from many different stocks. Because it is Tolkien, they’re usually darker skinned. The Estaravi are another smaller Angmaran group conquered when the Witch King arose; they’re closest to Northmen. Easterlings are dark-skinned folk from the distant and unknown East. Many have come into the service of Angmar. They’re generally nomadic horsemen (think Mongols).
Dwarves usually keep to themselves. They’re fine folk once they know someone, but it takes time. Various Dwarvish mines and settlements are scattered all across the map. Some have been lost, but notably Moria and Erebor (Lonely Mountain) still exist and are active at this point, though the former has had to fight off a rising tide of Orcs. The Dwarves are keepers of the oldest making techniques, some of which have fallen out of fashion with the Elves. Tensions over old slights and ancient rivalries remain between Elves and Dwarves. Like the other races, the Dwarves received Rings of Power. However, they proved resistant to their influence. Instead it instilled in the people a kind of gold-fever often driving them to reckless actions. That remains a problem to this day. Dwarves who feel the touch of the Shadow often have that greed and avarice deepen. They’re also called Khazad or Longbeards.
There are several kinds of Elves and, to be frank, their lineage is complicated. Some of the Elves went to the far West and saw the light. Others, called the Dark Elves, either opted not to go or went partway and turned back. The “Dark” here refers to their contact with the divine light of the west. Silvan Elves are those who turned back to stay in the Vales of Anduin (Wood Elves). The Sindar are the rest of the Elves who stayed (Grey Elves, Legolas). The Elves who went and then returned are called the Noldor (High Elves, Gladriel). Silvan Elves are slightly smaller, while Noldor are taller. Most Elves dwell in Rivendell, Lindon, and Lorien. There are other, wandering companies of Elves and a few solitary ones within Arnor. Still an elf is a rare sight among the common folk.
For generations the Elves and humans have been allies and friends, but that relationship has a strange dynamic. The Elves worked alongside, fought shoulder to shoulder with, and taught the Numenorians and their descendants. In some ways they see the line of Isildur and the Dundedain as the men worth speaking with. They deal with the other humans as affairs arise, but actually interact with the High Men. That relationship is one of respect, rather than the suspicion and fear which will characterize things centuries later. So while the Elves often keep to themselves, they lack the haughtiness that appears in other settings and eras. The loss of Elves in the wars of Men has made them hesitant about further significant aid, a rift which will only widen in the future.
17. Hobbits and the Shire
Hobbit lands have not existed for long as things go. The original Hobbit settlers came from the East. They provided service and entertainment to the current King of Arthedain. In return he granted them lands adjoining what was Cardolan. At this point, there’s one major Hobbit settlement which we’ll call the Shire for ease of reference. These folk have only just begun to expand and gain influence. Thus the Hobbits are still something of an oddity to many folk. As well, some in Arthedain resent the rich lands granted these newcomers.
These are descendants of the twisted workings of The Great Enemy. He changed Elves into the first of the Orcs. They have strongholds in Angmar, at the base of the Misty Mountains, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most feared fortress of the Orcs is Mount Gundabad in Angmar. Orc raiders have appeared more and more often in the north with the fall of Cardolan. Their incursions reach as far as Tharbad. Independent warbands of Orcs make their homes in many places. Some Orcs are smaller and more wiry, and are often called Goblins. They’re effectively the same thing.
19. The Rangers
Ranger is an honorific title among the Arthedain. They’re an order of scouts, trackers, and warriors who help patrol the borders and deal with small threats. The current state of the region has overwhelmed them. The King has begun to accept other peoples among the Rangers, offering them the symbolic cloak of the order. In the future, the name of the Rangers will be taken up by the surviving line of Isildur and become Dunedain only and quite a different institution.
Gondor is the sister kingdom of Arthedain in the south. Among the Dunedain there’s a sense of kinship, but little else these days. Gondor is weary from the plague and the predations of the Cosairs of Umbar and the Easterlings. They’ve aided Arnor in the past, but have not the strength or will to do that these days. Gondorians are more martial and rough & tumble than the Arthedan. Gondor’s Dunedain dedication to the arts and scholarship has fallen away.
Magic and power, though diminished, still exists in this era. There are many who have trained with these arts, encouraged by the Council of the Wise. The Istari (Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, and the Two Who Went East) arrived several centuries ago to try to bolster man with magical teachings. They’ve had some success, but magic remains rare. The most well-known mages are Seers, whose skills have often protected lands from invasion and disaster. Other mages know more forceful arts, calling upon the elements and fate itself to aid them. All of this comes at a cost. The Shadow actively seeks to undermine, corrupt, and destroy those who possess these talents. Over time that will lead to the passing of magic.
All of the Tolkien novels involve travel, lots of it. It’s a key element of the setting and game play. Usually we handwave these element. They will be important in this campaign. We’ll plot routes on maps and make tests for travel across the land, taking into account weather and terrain. I’ve adapted mechanics from The One Ring rpg. It’s more mechanical, but will add depth to this part of the game. The three most important skills for this are Travel, Outdoors, and Awareness.
Some of Tolkien’s stuff has problems. There’s an Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism running through it. As well, race seems often equals destiny, i.e. all people of a particular ethnicity are X or Y. In particular, darker skin = more evil. I’m going to try to avoid some of that. On the other hand, Orcs and Uruk-Hai are bad news. They’re created and corrupted from birth. Other creatures likewise may have the Shadow compelling them. Some, like Trolls or Ogres, may just be assholes. Just keep in mind that there’s problematic stuff in the books. You are welcome to X-Card things as they come up. I will do so as well.