Umbar Noir (part II) — Campaign Seeds

The second and final part of my description of Umbar in the early Fourth Age.

Current Sources of Unrest
Umbar is a unruly place and the city’s rulers do not have effective control of the alleys and quays. Here is a list of a few internal troubles that the game master may use to build a noir campaign.

The conflicts between the Darazai and the Westron inhabitants have not declined in bitterness. The Westrons know that that if Gondor’s rule falters, they may become victims of new pogroms. Therefore they have become loyal supporters of King Elessar. The Traditionalists, too, have been forced to accept Elessar. The few remaining Black Númenoreans play along and once again pretend to be Traditionalists to avert undesirable attention.

Most Darazai think that the previous regime was a despicable fraud that pushed the city into Sauron’s sphere of influence and thereby caused a disaster. After all, more than half of the Corsairs that died at Pelargir in the War of the Ring belonged to this ethnicity. So all rumors – and they are far too common – about Black Númenorean activities may cause violent riots. But many Darazai also hate Elessar, because they see him as a foreigner who subjugated Umbar after a humiliating defeat. They wish to regain independence, when they will be able to reestablish the slave trading and piracy that earlier provided them with gold and cheap labor.

The Knife Dancers are a conspiracy of militant Darazai who strive to make the situation in Umbar so untenable that Gondor gives in and abandons the city. They work clandestinely to kill or maim those that they consider to be snitches and traitors. Westron people suffer particularly badly, but also newly arrived Gondorean administrators and merchants have been targets to ever more sophisticated attacks: stabbings, arson, collapsing buildings and other violent crimes, frequently with innocent victims, too. The City Watch’s harsh countermeasures fuel resentment among the Darzai who see their homes ransacked and their sons being dragged away to the citadel for interrogation.

Tiwwir, a Darazai prince who rules a country just to the east of Umbar, is an opportunist. When Sauron had fallen, his army intervened in Umbar. He wanted to establish order and find ways of profiting from the new order. When Elessar made clear that Gondor was about to annex Umbar, Tiwwir backed down and made a pact with the new King. But he keeps on looking for ways of earning money and gaining political influence. His agents move in all strata in Umbar and that is not appreciated by Umbar’s merchants, who disapprove of a man they see as an uncouth rustic.

A rumor has been spreading through Umbar during the last few months. A nameless prophetess moves in the alleys, somebody who neither the City Watch nor the Knife Dancers are able to find, but who is generously received by poor people. She preaches that a moon child is about to be born, a renewer who will establish more fair Umbar, who will make peace between the Darazai and the Westrons and who will put an end to violent strife in the city. Then the commoners will fear neither the servants of the fallen Eye nor the swords of Gondor. Instead, Umbar will once more be the master of her own fate.

Who is the prophetess and what is her true goal? These questions trouble the governor, the secret master of the Knife Dancers, and many crime lords. Is her message a threat or an opportunity? Is some other power behind her? Is she the emissary of a new Shadow? Only the game master knows the truth and while arrange developments to ensure an exciting campaign.

Campaign 1: The Watchmen
Umbar has a new City Watch. The old one was dissolved by Gondor’s governor, who instead gave Pelargirean officers orders to establish a new and more honest force. Finding recruits was easy, but they were only slightly less corrupt than the old constables. This campaign seed is based on the player characters getting assigned to the same unit the City Watch, charged with investigating serious crimes. See it as TV series The Wire in Middle-earth: low-tech law enforcement in shabby port districts or in sumptuous palaces. The unit’s members have a varied background, because it must contains all types of skills.

Umbar is a cynical place. Few people like the new regime and its ambitions concerning law and order, though many are relieved that the black clergy of the Storm Lord have vanished. The watchmen will have a hard time at work: acquiring contacts and snitches in the alleys is difficult but necessary for solving crimes.

And one day, a scary question come from the Watch Commander: “And how should we handle the rumors that a new Shadow have arrived in Umbar?”

Campaign 2: The Umbrai
The player characters form an Umbrai gang that earn their living through petty crime while trying to set the big heist that will get them plenty of gold. The City Watch is the enemy and the Darazai compatriots are deceitful. The only ones you trust are your own – or maybe not even them?

The player characters have to stake out a territory in the port district, and to get money through theft, smuggling or protection. At the same time, they have to pay tribute to a boss, one of the city’s wealthy merchants. He gives lucrative jobs to loyal henchmen and punishes disloyal ones. Umbrai life is like dancing of a knife edge – get the wrong enemy and you’ll end up floating among the anchored ships.

And one day, the boss asks: “And how should we handle the rumors that a new Shadow have arrived in Umbar? How can we benefit from that?”

Campaign 3: The Shadow
Mordor has fallen. Sauron and his Nazgul have perished. But many servants of the Eye survived because they were not in Mordor on that particular day. Umbar, a festering lesion in King Elessar’s realm, now attracts some of these sorcerers, undead, and wraiths. Here are still fragments of the Shadow’s powers imbued in the soil, remnants from the long centuries during which Sauron’s servants used arcane arts to influence winds and weather and carried out gruesome sacrifices in temples that nowadays have been razed. The Dúnedain remain the enemy. Their Eldar allies have departed from Middle-earth, so now there will be a new opportunity to sow the seeds of the Shadow among weak men. The goal is to harm the Dúnedain in the long run – but do undead ever feel hurried?

This arrangement suits a small player group, perhaps to or three gamers. The player characters are powerful deathless, for instance sorcerers or undead that resemble men well enough to be able to walk the streets of Umbar without getting identified. The dark magic has grown weaker and now it mainly deals with ways of influencing minds, to deceive and create distrust. The goal is to let the Shadow be recreated in a new guise, one that is not associated with Sauron. A campaign may cover many decades of Gondor’s history, with years between the scenarios.

Umbar Noir – an early Fourth Age campaign outline (part I)

This is my version of Umbar. JRR Tolkien never described the city in great detail and therefore I here portray her as she ought to be in my opinion. You may call this noir approach “Ardapunk”, i.e. a touch of William Gibson added to Middle-earth. The outline is system-free; I recommend System D6 Fantasy or True20 as they are flexible rules engines.
Anders Blixt

Umbar at the beginning of the Fourth Age


When someone from Gondor envisions Umbar, she will think of a den of vice, winding dirty alleys, haggling bazaar merchants, languid aristocrats reclining on divans being waited upon by half-naked female slaves. All of it basking in tropical heat illuminated by a bright sun in a clear sky. However, these notions are just parts of the Umbar — there is so much one can learn by going there.

In Umbar an adventurer may uncover ruins, documents and objects dating back to before Númenor’s fall. The city changed hands five or six times during the Third Age, mostly following major battles or sieges. The past is extensive and it influence the present in many ways. (Grim Indiana Jones-style developments in Middle-earth – why not?)

Umbar’s most distinctive feature is the lively port where products from the Harad hinterlands are loaded on ships destined for realms to the far south. Her sailors are skillful, her pirates brave and her merchants sharp. All port cities are fertile ground for shady business among alleys and magazines. Goods, services and gold change hands, frequently in ways that contravene both the law and Gondorean sensibilities.

Recent Events
When Sauron openly proclaimed himself Lord of Mordor in TA 2951 (in a campaign context, about 75 years ago), his Umbarean supporters rebelled against the rulers of the city. An alliance of Black Númenorean clerics in the Temple of the Storm Lord and Southron magnates seized power. During one blood-soaked week, their henchmen killed everyone deemed to pose a threat against the new order. After the revolt, a duumvirate, consisting of the High Priest of the Storm Lord and the principal corsair chieftain, ruled Umbar. Barad-dûr quickly dispatched an ambassador who was charged with ensuring Umbar’s compliance with Mordor’s strategic plans.

When the news of Sauron’s demise reached Umbar, it ignited a popular revolt. Several thousand people that had – or were suspected of having – served Mordor were killed in the streets and their properties were looted and torched. The Storm priests were slain in their temple. In a few days, about half of the Umbareans with Gondorean or Númenorean ancestry perished. Many survived only because kind-hearted Southrons hid them from the rampaging mobs.

When the violence threatened to spill over into adjacent lands, the Harad prince Tiwwir dispatched troops to the city to restore a semblance of order. A chaotic time followed until Gondor’s navy, consisting of captured Corsair ships, arrived. The White Tree banner was raised above Umbar’s citadel and governor Targon, son of Tuor, proclaimed King Elessar’s decision to annex the city, together with the depopulated Harondor, to Gondor.

That happened seven years ago. Targon’s power is still fragile. Most inhabitants accept his rule, because there is no credible alternative, but too few like it and too many hate it.

Tolkienian Mood
If the players are to feel that this is a Middle-earth campaign and not a case of vanilla fantasy, one of Tolkien’s fundamental concepts must permeate the milieu: the struggle between Dúnedain’s ideals and the Shadow.

The wise know that Melkor infused the Shadow in Arda’s essence during the First Age and it can never be fully expunged. The Shadow, regardless of what creature serves as its foremost agent, is always selfish, false and cruel. It deceives and corrupts, and any Man who serves it will get his soul marred.

On the other hand, Dúnedain’s ideals emphasize courage, mercy, generosity and fairness. That difference must be an essential part of the campaign’s moral structure.

During the Third Age, Middle-earth was home to several powerful magicians, such as Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf and the nine Nazgul, but now they are all gone. Those spell-casters that remain are much weaker (except perhaps Radagast). They are mainly servants of the Shadows that escaped Sauron’s downfall by not being in Mordor on the fateful day.

Also, many enchanted objects, wrought in the past by light and dark powers, remain: blades from Westernesse, Elven artifacts, talismans from the Lands of Shadows, and so on.

City Comparisons
Minas Tirith is 3,000 years old
Umbar is 4,500 years old

Minas Tirith has a Mediterranean climate
Umbar has a tropical climate

Minas Tirith is built according to a strict plan
Umbar is an urban maze

Minas Tirith has grey and white buildings
Umbar has terracotta and khaki building

Minas Tirith has an honest administration
Umbar has a corrupt administration

Minas Tirith is an administrative and military center
Umbar is a mercantile center

Minas Tirith is characterized by social stability
Umbar is characterized by social instability

Climate
Umbar’s climate is quite different from Anórien’s: two seasons instead of four.

The rainy season occurs during the two months after the summer solstice. Heavy rains pour down every afternoon and evening, while the morning usually are sunny. The dry season occupies the rest of the year.

The hot and arid six weeks before the rainy season are the harshest. The heat is oppressive and water is getting short. People stay indoors during daytime and work in lantern light during evenings and nights. When the rains arrive, they are celebrated by popular festivals.

The four weeks after the winter solstice are cool. Then the inhabitants have to cover themselves with cloaks and use blankets when sleeping.

Population
For thousands of years people from near and distant lands have migrated to the teeming Umbar: many kinds of Southrons from the Harad hinterland, Westrons (i.e. common Gondoreans), and black-skinned people from the lands further south. All have brought their languages, but the two vernaculars used in the bazaars and the city chancelleries are a distinctive dialect of Westron and the Haradaic language Daraz.

At the beginning of the Fourth Age, Umbar has about 40,000 inhabitants, of which one half belongs to the Southron people Darazai. They have lived in the rural region around Umbar since before the arrival of the Númenoreans. There they cultivate rice and sweet potato and breed pigs and buffaloes. Many also earn their living as fishermen in the vast Bay of Umbar.

Dúnedain migrated to Umbar at many occasions in the past. The first group arrived during the Second Age and they became loyal member of the King’s Men, the faction that supported the defiance of the Valar. These so called Black Númenoreans fell under Sauron’s domination and became worshipers of Melkor. When their regime was subjugated by Gondor around TA 800, they went into hiding. When Sauron clandestinely reemerged in Middle-earth around TA 1000, his emissaries came to Umbar to ensure that the faction would survive.

For two thousand years, the Black Númenoreans have lived here in the guise of a small number of closely knit Dúnedain families, always pretending to be loyal to current rulers of the city. After the Kin-strife, they professed fidelity to the supporters of Castamir. Whenever appropriate, they restored their dark cult, always in a new disguise so that it will not be directly associated with Sauron. During the third millennium of the Third Age, they therefore erected the Temple of the Storm Lord, the sanctuary of a harsh wind god.

After the Kin-strife, Umbar became the power base for the Traditionalists, Castamir’s defeated faction. They formed a new distinct Dúnedain group who considered themselves to be Gondor’s true masters and who promoted a strict doctrine of ethnic superiority. Therefore they only intermarried among their own. But they never adopted the Melkorian ideals of the Black Númenoreans.

The Traditionalists lost power when Gondor conquered Umbar in TA 1810. When the city regained independence two centuries later, they could not return to power. Instead they had to accept the rule of Southron magnates. The Traditionalist families, however, kept their position in the ship-building business thanks to old and scrupulously guarded trade secrets. The Traditionalists speak archaic Adunaic among themselves, while using the vernacular with outsiders.

Most of the Umbareans of Gondorean origins are not Dúnedain. They instead belong to the people that lived in the lower Anduin valley long before the arrival of Elendil. During Gondor’s golden age TA 800-1400, they settled in all corners of the empire. For two thousand years, one third of Umbar’s population belonged to this ethnic group, usually called the Westrons, but after the massacres at the end of the Third Age their ratio fell to one fifth.

During the last centuries of the Third Age, much of Gondor’s scum fled to Umbar to escape the law: fraudsters, thieves and opportunists. These individuals intermingled with the Southron, thereby creating the Umbrai ethnicity: a detested gondo-umbarean urban proletariat, that currently comprises one tenth of the population. These individuals mostly look like the Westrons, dress like the Darazai, and speak a distinct Westron jargon with a heavy influence from Daraz. They mainly work in the shipyards, on the quays and in inns and guesthouses. Their subculture is rough and unscrupulous.

Before governor Targon’s arrival, household slaves comprised one tenth of the population. Their homelands were mainly coastal regions further south, where they had been captured by local slave takers and sold to Umbarean traders who brought them to the city’s slave auctions. Some were bought by rich men from the Harad hinterlands, but most ended up in Umbarean homes. There they were assigned simple or unpleasant chores. Males often handled latrines and the removal of animal cadavers, whereas most females became household drudges.

One of the first decrees issued by King Elessar’s governor abolished slavery. However, the liberated individuals have rarely been able to leave Umbar for their old homelands. Instead they remain a distinct group in the city, frequently in their old occupations where they now earn small wages for their toils. People know who they are and usually discriminate against them – the common prejudice claims that the ex-slaves are stupid and must be managed with a firm hand.

Khunti is a tribe from the lands east of Umbar. They mainly live as nomads herding cattle on the steppes. Around the autumn equinox, they take their herds to Umbar and make good business with the abattoirs located outside the city walls, where the meat is cured, dried or turned into sausage. Some Khunti have settled in Umbar and work as butchers. They speak Khûn, a distant relative to Daraz. The Khunti have little respect for the Darazai, whom the consider to be weaklings. On the other hand, most Darazai see the Khunti as arrogant barbarians and gladly joke about touchy nomads who embarrass themselves among sophisticated townsmen.

From the coasts to the far south come the tall Arboraku people. They are skilled fishermen and sailors and therefore many of them earn their living on Umbar’s merchantmen or in the fish markets. Their language is Twuru.

Part II of Umbar Noir will contain campaign seeds outlining ways of running gritty scenarios in the city.

Axes against the Storm! (part IV)

“When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valour of Durin’s Folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor.”
–Gandalf

Running the Dwarf Campaign
King Dain of Erebor expects war and wants to know what coming his way. Therefore, the goal of the Dwarven player characters (i.e. the king’s emissaries) is to uncover what threats are brewing in Rhûn. The Dwarves distrust Men and Elves and they are prideful and stubborn. However, the dire times will force them to cooperate with people that they detest.

One recurring development in the campaign is that the player characters end up in uncomfortable places. Dwarves are at home in the mountains, but here they must travel on river boats, walk through dark forests and visit “decadent” Easterling towns. Role-playing these hardships is supposed to be a challenge to the players.

What Will the King’s Emissaries Do?
The campaign should start after the first visit of Sauron’s messenger to king Dain. The king is worried and wants to know what is going on in the east. Rewriting the general passage of events in the War of the Ring is not really possible, so the Dwarven player characters’ prime task is to ascertain what forces the Shadow is about to muster in Rhûn and find then ways of weakening those foes, e.g. by sowing dissension and doubt. (They can for instance try to make one or two Easterling warlords abstain from joining the invading army.) But the task is not easy: Dwarves are disliked in many places and Rhûnian nobles are often as insolent and brave as Durin’s folk, though more cynical and prone to break their words.

Radagast the Brown
Radagast the wizard makes only one appearance in The Lord of the Rings, i.e. when he delivers Saruman’s message to Gandalf on June 29, 3018. When Elrond’s scouts visit Radagast’s abode Rhosgobel near the Mirkwood in the late autumn that year, it is empty. The wizard’s whereabouts during the War of the Ring are never revealed and that void is used in this campaign outline.

It appears unlikely that one of the powerful mages among the Free Peoples would stand aside when the future of the world is at stake. Gandalf is active on the southern front of the war, so it seems plausible that Radagast would head for the northern front in order to assist Men, Elves and Dwarves. He is an earth mage, unlike Gandalf (fire), Elrond (water), and Galadriel (air), with a particular affinity for animals and birds. (And he should not resemble the hippie character in Peter Jackson’s movies. The Istari are majestic fellows.)

Radagast serves as a powerful NPC ally whose task is to advise, suggest and warn. However, he will not assume leadership. The rulers among Free Peoples are free to determine their own courses of action and do the hard work. Aspiring for political power is dangerous for a wizard – see what Saruman’s ambitions did to him.

Politics around the Inland Sea in 3018
Sauron wants to mobilize the Easterlings around the Inland Sea for a large-scale campaign against the Free Peoples in early 3019. But methods suitable for ruling Orcs will not work here. Instead Sauron has to use bait and stick to get the many chieftains and princes of Rhûn to join his cause and he needs to override the mistrust or dislike these men have for one another. The Easterlings have little sympathy for the ideals of the Dúnedain. Instead they are mainly motivated by self-interest, cynicism and opportunism.

Here are three of the issues that both Sauron’s and Dain’s emissaries must deal with:
The merchant aristocrats in Tvorchoz are mainly interested in keeping trade going and maintain favorable treaties they have forced on weaker chieftains around the Inland Sea.
Shuram, the Rodid prince who currently rules Dorwinion, earns a lot of silver by selling wine to the Forest Elves, Dale and Erebor. Therefore he and the vineyard owners in his realm are quite unhappy with the prospects of war.
Orish is a charismatic warlord who dominates several coastal towns. He looks forward to war, glory and plunder in faraway lands. (For instance, use the Viking chieftain Harald Hardrada as a template.) Sauron sees Orish as the right man to command the campaign against Erebor, but Dorwinion stands in the way in the lower Celduin valley. However, breaking Shuram by military means would be so costly that it could seriously weaken the host heading for Rhovanion.

Morlug: Sauron’s Hand in Northern Rhûn
During the Second Age, Celebrimbor wrought more rings than the Three, the Nine and the Seven. They are known as lesser Rings but they are still powerful. Many were seized by Sauron during the conquest of Eregion almost five millennia ago [sources: Gandalf’s history lecture to Frodo in the Shire; the description of the sack of Eregion in Unfinished Tales part two, ch. IV: Concerning Galadriel and Celeborn].

Sauron has dispatched the ring-wight Morlug to northern Rhûn to handle the political complications. He will use the Cult of the Red Star, Orish the warlord, gold, sorcery and drugs to ensure that the military campaign starts on schedule in early 3019.

Morlug was a Black Númenorean nobleman who joined Sauron during the Second Age and therefore received a lesser ring as a reward. He has retained his corporeal shape, even though he is undead. His heart does not beat and he breathes only when he needs to speak in a thin and sharp voice or when he wants to smell something. Thanks to his ring, his senses are far more acute than any man’s: his sight is not hindered by darkness or fog, and he has a dog’s sense of smell, a cat’s hearing and a bear’s strength. Daylight causes no problem to him. He is also able to radiate despair and fear at will, though not as strongly as a Nazgûl. However, he will shirk away from Elves and items imbued with Elvish virtue. And he will not be able to stand up against Radagast in a confrontation, if the Wizard chooses to manifest his full power.

The Easterlings’ Invasion in 3019
The Easterlings will attack Dale and Erebor by boat. Five thousand men in 500 boats sail and row up the Celduin to Long Lake, where they pillage Laketown and land near Dale. King Brand and king Dain mobilize 2000 men and 200 Dwarves in response. That army is defeated on March 15-17 while trying to hold Dale. Half of the army is lost, together with the two kings. Meanwhile, the local civilians have sought refuge inside the Lonely Mountain, where they are defended by the remnants of the allied host.

Ten days of siege ensue before the news of Sauron’s demise reach Rhovanion. On March 27, the Easterlings lose their will to fight and retreat down the Celduin. Morlug disappears quietly at the same time and nobody seems to know what happened to him. His ring has lost its power, but he may still be able to “survive” on his own, though considerably weaker in might and magic.

The War’s Aftermath
“Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”
–Bilbo Baggins

By the end of March, the war in the north is over. However, Rhûn will suffer from political turmoil for years as the balance of power shifts between the local strongmen. Gondor is not strong enough to impose its will in that area, so Rhovanion’s Dwarves and Free Men face plenty of new problems. Hence, the campaign may go on and deal with economic reconstruction and political realignment. Dale and Laketown need to be rebuilt once more and river trade must resume before the onset of winter to avoid famine in the pillaged areas.

And who knows what a vengeful Morlug might be up, hidden in a stronghold somewhere along the coast of the Inland Sea?

Axes against the Storm! (part III)

Rhûn – the Lands of the Easterlings
Tolkien has written little about Rhûn, because that region is of minor importance for the plot in The Lord of the Rings. The following three items summarize his texts and therefore the arrangements presented later in this article are my inventions.

Rhûn’s extent: Rhûn (“east” in Sindarin) is a poorly delineated region east of Rhovanion. It stretches from the Inland Sea of Rhûn in the north to Mordor in the south. Several barbarian invasions of Gondor originate from here during the Third Age (e.g. in 490, 541, 1320, 1851, 1944, and 2510). The Shadow seems to have had great influence in Rhûn since the Second Age. South Rhûn is a prairie, whereas the north has a rougher topography with rivers and lakes as links between towns and settlements.

Rhûn’s rivers: River Running (the Celduin) flows from Long Lake 30 leagues as the bird flies (i.e 90 miles/150 km) south-south-east to the Sea of Rhûn. Its tributary the Carnen starts in the Iron Hills and flows 60 leagues south, before joining the Celduin. Both are used by riverboats all the way up to their sources.

Rhûn’s salty inland sea: This lake is about 40 by 60 leagues (21,600 sq mi or 60,000 sq km, thereby having a surface area comparable to Lake Victoria in Central Africa). Celduin’s serpentine lower stretch and the coasts of the Inland Sea are home to the most powerful political entities of northern Rhûn. However, only one of those is mentioned by Tolkien: Dorwinion, a land that exports wine to the wood Elves by river boats.

The Peoples of Northern Rhûn at the End of the Third Age
The “Easterlings” are in fact several unrelated peoples that are viewed as “alien” by the free peoples of Rhovanion and Gondor. But when it comes to technological and social development, they are at about the same level: iron-working, good ships, chain-mail and forts. However, the Easterlings possess an cultural stratum imprinted with “ideals” of the Shadow: ruthlessness, greed, despotism, intolerance – its source is of course Sauron’s long-lasting influence.

Since TA 2850, the Rodid people have become a major player in northern Rhûn, thanks to their good skills in warfare, sailing and trade. They have founded some new towns and subjugated several older belonging to other tribes and nations. Thus they have become an aristocracy ruling of a multi-ethnic confederacy. (Think of the Norse variags/rus of Gardarike in western Russia during the early Middle Ages, but add some orientalist features like pointed helmets, scimitars, turbans, and harems.) Their wooden towns are ruled by charismatic warlords and they consider their non-Rodid subjects as little better than thralls. The heart of a Rodid nation is a fortified coastal town. A powerful Rodid prince may be able to force other towns into subsidiary alliances, but such arrangements are frail and prone to break apart when that overlord dies.

The fortified stone city of Tvorchoz is located on the eastern shore of the Inland Sea. That is the terminus for the land-bound caravans from the far east. In this city, may trade routes intersect so a visitor will find plenty of exotic goods in its markets: spices, jewels, tools and weapons, slaves, etc. Tvorchoz is a merchant republic and it has resisted all Rodid subjugation attempts, sometimes by the force of arms and sometimes by the power of gold. Since the destruction of the Balchoth about five centuries ago, its ruling oligarchy belongs of the Sîris people and they see the Rodid as crude upstarts. The Rodid and the Sîris speak unrelated languages.

The coasts of the Inland Sea and the the valleys of the Celduin and the Carnen are home to numerous Mannish tribes, too many to be described here. Some are related to the Rodid, other to the Sîris and yet other to neither. But none is able to compete with these two peoples for power and influence and therefore hey usually end up as being vassals. And having the Rodid as overlords is commonly a heavy burden.

Shipping on the Inland Sea
The Celduin and the Carnen are slow and wide rivers that can be used by boats all the way up their sources and therefore they have become important trade routes. The salty Inland Sea is also a fairly calm body of water that provides plenty of fish. Many more rivers feed into it, but none have the dimensions of the Celduin.

The Rodid know how to build excellent river boats (similar to the knarr used by the variags when travelling on Russian river to Miklagård). They are propelled by sails or oars, depending on the local conditions.

There are no roads to speak of in northern Rhûn, so settlements are usually connected by waterways. The climate is favorable, too, so most winters the Inland Sea and the rivers stay free of ice. (The Easterlings execute a major military campaign in February and March 3019. That requires temperatures above freezing, since the available technology is insufficient for operations in harsh winter weather.)

The Cult of the Red Star
One Sauronic modus operandi is to create false cults that worship Darkness in different ways and use them as tools to ensnare men. He frequently tempts people with phony promises of immortality. Currently in northern Rhûn, the Cult of the Red Star serves that purpose. It is focused on the planet Carnil (i.e. Mars), which is proclaimed to be the “Eye of Darkness”, a manifestation of cosmic might.

The cult’s priesthood practice astrology to guide and mislead the princes and magnates who listen to their message. They are also skilled alchemists that brew medicines and drugs. They hint that those that pay close heed to the cult’s wishes may be rewarded by flasks with an immortality elixir. The medicines are frequently efficacious, but the promises of immortality are only lies.

On the other hand, the rich and powerful individuals around the Inland Sea are often cynical. It is so that some among them find it beneficial to acquire medicines by bowing to a temple altar and listen to some “friendly advice”, but afterwards they will often do as they please.

Part IV will be published on February 22.

Axes against the Storm! (part II)

Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

– JRR Tolkien

The Dwarves – the People of Stone and Steel
The main source of information about the Dwarves is the Appendices in The Lord of the Rings, which describe their history, culture, and language. Unfinished Tales provides a few facts on their everyday life in the late Third Age. In addition, Silmarillion explains the First Age origins of the hostility between the Dwarves and the Elves.

In the third millennium of the Third Age, there are three major Dwarven realms in northwestern Middle-earth: the Blue Mountains, Erebor and the Iron Hills. Tolkien writes little about the Blue Mountains, but it appears to be the most significant one. For instance, Thorin Oakenshield settles there after the destruction of Erebor.

The Dwarves are also a travelling people. Tolkien mentions several times how they go along the roads of Eriador and through the passes of the Misty Mountains. That is, for instance, how Gandalf and Thorin meet for the first time in Bree, an encounter that sows the seed for the fateful expedition to Erebor; that particular event is described by Gandalf in Unfinished Tales.

Role-playing a Dwarf
Dwarves ought to be played as artisans and warriors. They are smiths, miners, masons, canal builders, etc. Their skills in such crafts surpass by far those of Men. All also appear to been competent fighters, i.e. the Children of Durin are a people in arms.

But their number is tiny compared to all other Free Peoples and that affects how they look on the world. They know that a determined enemy – like Sauron – might be able to exterminate them. The fall of Moria in the 1980s, Smaug’s devastation of Erebor and the war against the Orcs in the 2790s depleted their numbers badly and because of low birth rates, they have not yet recovered at the end of Third Age.

The Dwarves have both external enemies (e.g. Easterlings, Orcs, and the servants of the Shadow) and internal (e.g. excessive pride, greed and ambition). To speak in character creation terminology, all that ought to give them some psychological disadvantages, e.g. Won’t Back Down, Speaks the Truth, Speciecism (“racism”), Quick to Anger, and Greedy. Their compensating advantages may, among others, be Endurance, Robust Physique, Master Craftsman, and Combat Prowess. The Lord of the Rings shows that Dwarves are elite warriors, whereas the common Orcs (snaga, goblins) are cannon fodder. At Helm’s Deep, Gimli slays 42 Orcs while receiving only a light wound. Men and uruk-hai are harder to defeat, while cave trolls and olog-hai are serious adversaries.

In this campaign the Dwarven player characters will therefore be well equipped and battle-hardy, but they are few and their enemies numerous. And Dwarves in boats will always be at a disadvantage.

Part III will be published on February 20.

Axes against the Storm! (part I)

But Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power; and he dealt them out to the other peoples of Middle-earth, hoping thus to bring under his sway all those that desired secret power beyond the measure of their kind. [...] The Dwarves indeed proved tough and hard to tame; they ill endure the domination of others, and the thoughts of their hearts are hard to fathom, nor can they be turned to shadows. They used their rings only for the getting of wealth; but wrath and an over-mastering greed of gold were kindled in their hearts, of which evil enough after came to the profit of Sauron.

–JRR Tolkien

An outline of a Dwarf Campaign in the War of the Ring
This campaign description comprises four blog post. No I outlines the proposal, no II presents suggestions on how to role-play one of Durin’s kin, no III briefly describes the lands of the Easterlings, and no IV discusses how to run a sequence of adventures.

Northern Rhovanion is a geographical region that comprises, among other places, the Dwarf Kingdom of the Lonely Mountain (Erebor in Sindarin), the Elven Kingdom in the northern Mirkwood and the the mannish settlements at the Long Lake. During the War of the Ring, Sauron dispatches an army to conquer those lands. His strategic goal is to secure a route for a later invasion of northern Eriador and Lindon. However, Tolkien’s texts describe the theater of war only in general terms.

The basic idea of this campaign is that the player characters are Dwarves in the service of Dain Ironfoot, King under the Mountain. They serve as scouts and emissaries during the dramatic years at the end of the Third Age. They will travel to mannish towns at the Long Lake, to Easterling realms at the Sea of Rhûn, and into the depths of the Mirkwood. Action and conspiracies, axes and sorcery. The climax of the campaign will be the Battle of Dale, the Siege of Erebor and the Fall of Sauron. Norse laconic heroism in the face of vicious assaults: “You shall not pass!!”

This outline is not written for any particular game system, because most of those available are easily applied to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Just keep in mind that flashy magic is rare here. Sorcerers are rare and most of them serve Sauron. On the other hand, heroes with extraordinary talents and skills are common.

One Gondorean league equals 3 miles or 5 kilometers.

The Easterlings of Rhûn

Based on what Tolkien’s texts say, it is obvious that “Easterling” is a label that the Dúnedain apply to many unrelated tribes that have only one thing in common, that they live to the north and north-east of Mordor. For example, the Wain-riders that invade Gondor in 1851 and 1944 are not related to the Balchoth that attack the realm in 2510.

This is an outlook that fit into a western European world view: between AD 200 and AD 1300, our continent was invaded time and time again by unrelated Asiatic tribes, such as the Huns, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and the Mongols.

So keep in mind that this campaign outline deals with the final century of the Third Age, long after the destruction of the Balchoth in the 26th century. Earlier, other peoples lived in Rhûn.

Northern Rhovanion at the End of the Third Age
The Battle of Five Armies is fought at the Lonely Mountain in TA 2941 (i.e. 78 years before the War of the Ring). Smaug the Dragon is slain, the Orcs of Mount Gundabad are defeated, and two ancient realms are reestablished: the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor and the Mannish principality of Dale at the foot of the Mountain. The Dwarven pretender Thorin Oakenshield falls in the battle and therefore Erebor is inherited by his cousin Dain Ironfoot of the Iron Hills. This event rewrites the political and economic map of northern Rhovanion.

At the Council of Elrond (October 24-25, 3018) Gimli speaks of the many positive developments in northern Rhovanion after Smaug’s death:

Erebor flourishes thanks to its mines and smithies. Surrounding Mannish settlements benefit from this growth, because the Dwarves buy food, cloth and other items that they do not make themselves in exchange for metal, tools and construction work (e.g. canals).

The Iron Hills 60 leagues east of Erebor contain another Dwarven realm, ruled by Dain’s relatives.

Dale possesses a good harbour at the northern tip of the Long Lake, so it has become a nexus for trade and agriculture. It is ruled by king Brand, grandson of Bard the Bowman. The Dwarves has assisted his people in digging canals and building irrigation networks.

Laketown, a merchant republic farther south on the Long Lake, is a competitor to Dale. It has been rebuilt after the destruction wrought by Smaug, but it is lagging behind Dale because of a less favorable geographic location. However, it dominates the trade with the Wood Elves because it is located at the mouth of the river coming from Thranduil’s domain.

The Orcs’ marauding decreased considerably after the Battle of Five Armies, but their numbers are growing once more and their raids have started anew. Their main settlements are in the Grey Mountains 20-40 leagues north and north-north-west of the Lonely Mountain.

The Beornings have used the peaceful decades after the Battle of Five Armies to establish a realm in the northern part of the Anduin valley. Their ruler is Grimbeorn the Old, son of Beorn, and they have expelled all Orcs and Wargs from their land. They earn a tidy profit from tolls at the fords across the Anduin and the passes through the Misty Mountains.

In the Elven kingdom of northern Mirkwood little has changed. Its people care little for the events in the lands of mortal people.

Timeline for the War of the Ring in Northern Rhovanion
This section explains step by step how Sauron prepares his wars and how Easterlings and Orcs invade northern Rhovanion 3018-19 in strategic coordination with Mordor’s major attack on Gondor.

1. Sauron has four assembly areas for his campaigns in the north: the Sea of Rhûn, the fortress of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, the Orc dens in the Misty Mountains and the Orc dens in the Grey Mountains. His plans require extensive preparations, which must have been initiated a few years before the war began.

2. In the autumn of 3017, Sauron dispatches an emissary to king Dain with a threatening message. Dain gives a non-committing response. The emissary returns twice in the spring of 3018 and receives the same answer; he says he will be back for the last time before the end of the year. The same emissary also visits king Brand of Dale. [Source: Gimli at the Council of Elrond 25 October 3018.]

3. In June 3018 Orcs start to raid Thranduil’s kingdom. [Source: Unfinished Tales part three, ch. III:1 and IV:1.]

4. In January 3019, Orcs from the Misty Mountains attack the Beornings’ land and cause extensive destruction. At the same time, Orcs from the Grey Mountains and beasts from Dol Guldur invade Thanduil’s kingdom. Fire and swords among the trees. [Source: Frodo’s vision at Amon Hen 26 februari 3019.]

5. In mid March 3019 Easterlings invade the Long Lake area. The Battle of Dale is fought on March 15-17. King Bard and king Dain die fighting. The retreating Men and Dwarves take refuge inside the Mountain and endure a ten-day siege. [Sources: Lord of the Rings Appendix 1:III and 2; Unfinished Tales part three, ch. III:1 and IV:1.]

6. Sauron perishes on March 25. Two days later, the news reaches northern Rhovanion. The Easterlings’ will to fight falter and the new kings Bard II and Thorin III lead their hosts to victory. [Sources: Lord of the Rings Appendix 1:III and 2; Unfinished Tales part three, ch. III:1 and IV:1.]