Well, winter is approaching and with it the next installment in the Hobbit saga. The marketing skills of Hollywood have been unleashed at full force. So there is yet another trailer. It looks as good as one would expect — with the unsurprising Jacksonian embellishments of the good professor’s original book: a lethal lady Elf, Legolas, a quarrel between Bard the Bowman and Thorin Oakenshield, and a lot of Bond-ish action scenes with fire and explosions. I do look forward to watching the movie together with the kids, but I expect no masterpiece, merely Mr Jackson’s regular craftsmanship.
But if this movie deals with Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies, what tales will the third (and hopefully final) movie tell?
I’ve seen things you hobbits wouldn’t believe. Corsair ships on fire off the port of Pelargir. I’ve watched will-o-the-wisps glitter in the dark near the Black Gate. All those … moments will be lost in time, like tears … in rain. … Time to die.
Sorry, irresistible cross-over.
Now it’s time for the heavy marketing efforts for the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series. Never underestimate the ferocity of Hollywood commercial trickery.
Here are my immediate reactions to this teaser/trailer:
1. A female protagonist: an apocryphal Elf archer in the Mirkwood. Great — my kids will love that. (The original novel contains, IIRC, one female character: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, whose appearance is tiny.)
2. Smaug is huge and menacing.
3. Laketown looks great.
1. It appears that Mr Jackson once again has Indiana-Jones-ified Tolkien’s creations, like he did in the goblin cavern scenes in part 1. For instance, the Dwarves’ dramatic escape in the wine barrels was handled very differently in the novel. I don’t feel happy about Mr Jackson’s attitude, but I guess that his ability to “smell” what the audience expects has outdone me.
2. Bard the Bowman is suffering from a 1980s haircut.
And I wonder what story The Hobbit part 3 will tell, if Smaug gets dealt with in this installment.
Recently, I wrote three blog posts on how to set a Middle-earth campaign in the First Age. I will here proceed on that matter by describing a First Age campaign which was run in my gaming group during the spring of 1993.
The adventures of a Beleriand campaign must necessarily be fairly unsophisticated, since the region lacks both cities and a complex or developed society. The political situation is also fairly simple, with a clear set of enemies and only a limited bickering among the Free Peoples. Altogether, we played eight adventures in this campaign (1).
The campaign took place in or near a small Edain village in Ladros on the edge of Ard-galen in the winter of YS 454.(2) The main sources used in its design were The Silmarillion and Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-earth (the latter provided much useful climatic and geological data). The player characters were mostly hunters and artisans from that settlement, though one of them had served as a tracker at the Noldorin lord Angrod’s castle for many years. These characters were modeled on our Viking ancestors, albeit endowed with a heroic set of skills.
In the course of the first scenarios, there also appeared three Elven player-characters: a Noldo warrior of Maedhros’ host (a courier carrying a message form Maedhros to Aegnor) (3), a Sinda warrior searching for his lost brother(4), and a Laiquendi hunter from Ossiriand who, in a dream, had received a strange message (purportedly from Oromë) summoning him to go north to slay “the Black Tiger” — whatever that might be.
The campaign was divided into two parts. The first one consisted of a series of adventures relating to the village. Wolves (with a Mannish or Elven leader) and Orcs were spotted in the neighborhood, and we spent much time trying to investigate their movements and possible intentions. One night, the village was attacked by a superior number of Orcs and wolves and there was a grand battle in the moonlight—to our surprise, only the wealthiest man of the village was abducted in the raid, and with great losses for the attackers.(5)
We decided to track his captors in order to find out what was going on. This pursuit led us out across Ard-galen in a way reminiscent of the Three Hunters’ quest in The Two Towers. We discovered a fortress built some hundred miles southeast of Angband and commanded by someone judged to be Sauron. Before we could investigate closer, we were discovered by Orcs and had to flee homewards, pursued by a wolf pack with a human-looking master. Eventually, we were overtaken by the pursuers and there was a grand melee, in which our Noldo warrior slew the Wolfmaster, who turned out to be the Sinda’s lost brother.(6)
The second part of the campaign began on the way back to the village, during which time we discovered three mounted Noldor of Aegnor’s household that had been slain by some big and hideous fell beast. We immediately assumed that this must be the Black Tiger. One of the corpses had a beautiful and very magical battleaxe that eminently suited the Laiquendi character.
We decided to travel to Aegnor’s castle to inform him of the event. That journey turned out to be unexpectedly strenuous, since we were harassed by a swarm of Orcs led by a sorcerer. Obviously, he did not want us to reach our destination and was ready to spend the lives of his minions quite liberally to that end. Since the sorcerer could pinpoint our location through his fell arts, we finally dug in on a hilltop and staved off an attack by fifty Orcs, suffering only wounds while slaying around thirty foes and driving off the rest.
We sneaked away at the first opportunity and made for a nearby Elvish fort, manned by fifty warriors, where we waited for an expected night attack. Some three hundred Orcs and one fell lynxbeast (the “Black Tiger”), led by the sorcerer, struck some hours before dawn. Again there was a grandiose battle during which much Orkish blood was shed. When dawn came, there were only a handful of defenders alive (including the player-characters), but everyone was very badly wounded. The sorcerer and his lynx-beast (killed by the magical axe) and about half his Orcs were dead, and the rest retreated in reasonable order when they heard the horns of Aegnor and his household knights coming to our rescue.
This brief summary does not entirely capture the mood of the campaign. We aimed to recreate the spirit of The Silmarillion, in which the Free Peoples fight a desperate and never-ending battle against the hordes of Evil, knowing that all their struggle may be futile, but yet not yielding.(7) The gamemasters and the players used a laconic style of speech and displayed much spectacular heroism to achieve this ambition (and for me it was a success — our last stand in the Elven fort actually reminded me of Leonidas and his Spartans fighting the Persians at Thermopylae).
To summarize my experiences of the campaign: Beleriand is a milieu eminently suitable for those that enjoy heroic fighting and wilderness adventures, but providing little opportunity for a more intellectual approach to gaming. The social environment is too primitive for complex political and criminal plots.
On the other hand, considering the extraordinary abilities of the Beleriand characters described by J.R.R. Tolkien (e.g., Túrin and Huor), players can design awesome characters, far beyond what is suitable in a Third-Age campaign. There is ample room for excitement: the player-characters are usually fewer and better than their opponents, but must avoid being swamped by the superior numbers of a foe who does not care much about losing Orcs on the battlefield. There are other servants of Melkor who are far more awesome than any playercharacter (Remember that Balrogs appear in company formations at the Fall of Gondolin, and that Sauron himself walks the meadows of northern Beleriand in search of Morgoth’s mightiest adversaries.).
Beleriand is famous for its quests. Even though players cannot repeat Beren and Lúthien’s capture of a Silmaril, the gamemaster can easily invent similar but less awesome tasks for them, sending them to distant corners of Beleriand or even to the unknown lands east of the Blue Mountains. Considering the extreme level of violence in Beleriand at the end of the First Age, it is likely that a player-character group will suffer numerous casualties before completing their quest (Remember that even Beren fell before Carcharoth.). But, dying heroically, with a stoic and laconic last word to one’s friends, should in itself be a notable accomplishment in the campaign context.
It is questionable whether Beleriand provides enough varied scenario opportunities for a very long campaign. My impression is that it ought to be better for the gamemaster to concentrate efforts on five to ten adventures, leading the players to a spectacular climax. Thereafter, the characters should retire, satisfied with their accomplishments in the fight against Morgoth.
1. The group consisted of eight players, three of which were gamemasters who jointly developed and executed the campaigns, alternately refereeing the adventures. Hence the gamemasters, too, are allowed to play in their own creation. We use a modified RuneQuest system, since we believe it to be the most adaptable one designed so far.
2. The village was designed like a Swedish Iron Age village, with houses of wood and a log palisade.
3. He wore a very good set of weapons and armor, which actually had been made long ago in Aman under Melkor’s tutelage. However, the warrior did not part with that information, it being privy to the gamemasters.
4. Actually one of Eöl’s apprentices, though that was not generally known.
5. That is to say, he owned the most pigs and the biggest house (coins and similar tokens of wealth not being used by Edain of the First Age).
6. We guessed that he had been captured by the Enemy and had gotten his will broken. However, we never found out why the rich villager had been abducted.
7. A similar mentality was found among our pagan Norse ancestors, described in their sagas and myths which we Swedes read in grammar school. Hence we know it fairly well.
This timeline covers the six centuries between the arrival of the Noldor and the War of Wrath, compiled with help from Robert Foster’s The Complete Guide to Middle-earth (New York: Ballentine Books, 1978) and Paul Kocher’s A Reader’s Guide to Silmarillion (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980). Regrettably, there are few dates referred to in the tales so it is often impossible to date events exactly.
Before the first sunrise
Just prior to the first Year of the Sun and the coming of the Noldor, Morgoth’s armies engage the Sindar in the First Battle of Beleriand; the victory of Angband leads Melian to set the girdle of her protection upon Doriath. The Second Battle, Dagor-nuin-Giliath (the Battle under the Stars), is fought upon the arrival of Fëanor’s people. He perishes, but Morgoth’s hosts are driven back to Angband.
1 YS (Year of the Sun)
The Sun and Moon rise for the first time. Fingolfin reaches Middle-earth and is named High-king of the Noldor.
Thingol gives the Noldor permission to settle and defend the unpopulated regions of northern Beleriand, but he exercises little control over the Noldo princes.
Finrod Felagund begins the building of Nargothrond.
Turgon discovers Tumladen and begins the building of Gondolin.
Dagor Aglareb, the Third Battle. An Orc attack on Dorthonion is repulsed by the hosts of Fingolfin and Maedhros.
An Orc attack on Hithlum is repulsed by Fingon’s host.
Glaurung emerges for the first time, but is routed in a battle on Ard-galen. The Dragons do not reappear for a long time.
Maeglin is born.
The three Houses of Edain reach Beleriand from the southeast. Bëor’s House arrives first and is guided by Finrod to Estolad, where it settles. The next folk, the Haladin, remain in Thargelion. During the following year, the House of Hador arrives and migrates to Estolad. After some wandering, Bëor’s folk settle in Dorthonion and allies itself with Finrod of Nargothrond. Hador’s people settle in Hithlum and Ered Wethrin. After some years the Haladin are driven out of Thargelion by Orcs and move to Estolad. (Many Men from the three Houses remain in Estolad until the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.)
Maeglin arrives in Gondolin. Eol and Aredhel die.
Haleth leads her people, the Haladin, westwards from Estolad through Nan Dungortheb to Brethil and Talath Dimen.
The Haladin settle in Brethil.
Hador’s House settles in Dor-lómin.
Húrin is born.
Huor is born.
Dagor Bragollach, the Fourth Battle. Ard-galen is devastated by rivers of fire from Angband. During the winter, the March of Maedhros and Dorthonion are conquered by Morgoth’s hosts. Fingolfin is killed by Morgoth at the gates of Angband. Fingon becomes King of the Noldor.
Sauron captures Tol Sirion and changes it to Tol-in-Gaurhoth (Isle of the Werewolves). Bëor’s tribe flee from Dorthonion to Hithlum; only Barahir’s outlaws remain. The Easterlings arrive in Beleriand and settle in its eastern parts.
Barahir and his men die. Only Beren survives.
An Orc attack on Hithlum is repulsed. Húrin becomes chieftain of the House of Hador in Dor-lómin.
Túrin is born.
The adventures of Beren and Lúthien, during which Finrod, Huan and Carcharoth die. Sauron is expelled from Tol-in-Gaurhoth by Lúthien and his tower is destroyed. A Silmaril is wrested from Morgoth’s iron crown and given to Thingol. Beren and Lúthien settle in Tol Galen.
Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Fifth Battle, the Battle of Un-numbered Tears. The hosts of the Eldar and the Edain are crushed by Morgoth’s forces. Hithlum is settled by the Easterlings. Tuor is born.
The Falas is ravaged by Orcs. Círdan’s people flee to Balar at the mouth of the Sirion.
Turin’s tragic adventures, described in detail in Narn î Hín Húrin/The Children of Húrin. They are too extensive to be summarized here.
The Haladin are defeated and withdraw into the forests. Nargothrond is conquered by Glaurung and Orcs.
Tuor and Idril marry.
Dwarves from Nogrod kill Thingol in Menegroth and steal the Silmaril, but are themselves slain during their escape. The jewel is brought back to Menegroth. Melian departs Middle-earth. A Dwarven army sacks Menegroth and captures the Silmaril. During their march home, Beren kills them and recovers the jewel, which afterwards is worn by Lúthien for some years.
Beren and Lúthien die. Dior becomes King of Doriath and wears the Silmaril.
Fëanor’s sons attack Menegroth to capture the Silmaril. Caranthir, Celegorm, Curufin, Dior, and Nimloth are slain, while Elwing escapes to Sirion with the Silmaril.
The Sack of Gondolin. Turgon and Maeglin die. Tuor and Idril flee to the Mouths of Sirion. Ereinion Gil-galad becomes King of the Noldor.
Fëanor’s surviving sons attack the Elven settlement at the mouth of Sirion in search of the Silmaril, but fail to capture it. Amrod and Amras fall in the fight.
A few decades later
Eärendil reaches Aman and appeals to the Valar. The Hosts of Valinor go to Middle-earth to fight the War of Wrath. Its fierce battles devastates both Angband and Beleriand and the ocean floods those regions. The First Age has thereby come to an end.
The heroes of the First Age are of a far greater stature than those found in later ages. But while player-characters may possess truly heroic qualities, these should not approach the level of one like Beren or Finrod, such that they might alter the basic fabric of Beleriand’s history (though they may well be far better than anything found in a Third-Age campaign). They should also be well-equipped from the start of the campaign in order to be properly prepared for the struggle against Angband.
The world of Quenta Silmarillion is replete with grandiose deeds, heart-rending tragedy and dramatic atmosphere (in addition to ignoble betrayal and a good dose of horror). A campaign set in Beleriand should therefore offer more than the conventional “monster hunt”. This is a time and place where the long-term fates of mankind and elvenkind are at stake, an era of slow but inexorable defeat for the Children of the Stars.
Happy endings are rare under Angband’s shadow, and when someone succeeds in an heroic action, a bitter price must often be paid. Moral flaws (most often pride) and ill-judgment typically result in disaster.
The Watchful Peace
A suitable campaign setting might be the period between the arrival of the Edain and the Dagor Bragollach (that is, in the years 310—45), when there is a semblance of peace in Beleriand as the main protagonists make preparations for a war which they know will come soon enough. Morgoth attempts to divide the Eldarin princes by sowing discord and suspicion. Fëanor’s sons conspire to achieve their private goals; Caranthir, Celegorm, and Curufin are even ready to confront Beren and Lúthien. In such a setting it is often difficult to determine who is your friend and who is only feigning.
Player-characters might belong to the household of a Noldorin prince (e.g. Orodreth at Minas Tirith). Both Sauron and Fëanor’s sons conspire against their lord and try to infiltrate his fortress with their agents in order to gain intelligence and strengthen their positions. So there is plenty of scheming, deceit and espionage going on.
The Wanderings of the Haladin
During the 360s, Haleth leads her people on a long and strenuous west-ward migration from Thargelion by a route north of Doriath and Neldoreth through the frightful Nan Dungortheb to the beech forest of Brethil, searching for an area where the Haladin can lead their traditionally independent lives. The distance is perhaps 500 km as the crows fly, but considerably longer as men walk.
It is possible to run this “long march” as a campaign in which player-characters are Haladin leaders — perhaps advisers or commanders — under Haleth, with the responsibility to plan and execute various missions (such as reconnaissance, transportation, or military strikes that will facilitate the progress of the migration). There are paths to map, camp sites to prepare, streams to bridge, monsters to defeat, enemy positions to scout, and so one.
Haleth herself might actually be run as a player-character — a charismatic leader comparable to Napoleon, Mao Zedong or Alexander the Great. When her people has settled in Brethil, they become known as the Folk of Haleth.
The Evil Years
After Dagor Bragollach in 455 YS, the Elves and Edain are gradually pushed southwards from Dorthonion. Their defenses collapse completely at Nirnaeth Arnoediad in 473 YS and Angband’s armies pour into Beleriand. In 496 YS, Nargothrond is sacked by Glaurung. At about the same time, the Haladin are crushed and a few survivors scattered. Menegroth is sacked in the years 505 and 510, and in 511 Gondolin itself is destroyed. Only the Elven settlements on the island of Balar survive unscathed, being under the protection of Ulmo.
During these chaotic and evil years, many hardy guerilla bands (such as those led by Barahir, Beren, or Túrin) carry on a desperate struggle against the servants of Angband. Morgoth’s commanders expend great efforts to capture these freedom fighters, and in the most difficult cases Sauron himself participates (as when Barahir’s band is destroyed).
A campaign with this theme would place heavy emphasis on guerilla warfare and wilderness survival (the antagonists being not only Orcs and Easterlings, but also the merciless climate). Characters must find food, water, and lodgings in order to survive the harsh winters of northern Beleriand. Occasionally, they may get assistance from the Edain villages that have been enslaved by the Easterlings, but such actions may be perilous; the servants of Angband ruthlessly use any deceptions to capture or kill guerilla warriors.
The most suitable setting for roleplaying in the First Age of Middle-earth is Beleriand as narrated in Quenta Silmarillion, during which time the Noldor return to Middle-earth to reclaim the Silmarils from Morgoth. This period begins with Morgoth’s attack on the realm of Thingol, just prior to the coming of the Sun and Moon, and ends with the War of Wrath some six hundred years later.
Beleriand suffers from a merciless struggle between Morgoth the Black Enemy and a fragile alliance of Men and Elves. The moral dispositions of the latter range from purest white (e.g. Tuor, Melian, Beren, and Lúthien) to grey-black (Fëanor’s seven sons). There is no room for negotiation or compromise with Morgoth; the conflict must continue until one side has perished. Those who collaborate with the forces of Angband will be betrayed (like Gorlim), or fail and perish from other causes (like Maeglin). The world is painted in strong colors and is peopled with heroic individuals who fight for no petty cause — the struggle is about power, glory and incredible treasures; hence it is suggested that money not exist in the campaign (there are no indications of the presence of coins in Beleriand).
Morgoth et Consortes
Between the time of the first sunrise and the War of Wrath, Morgoth dwells in his subterranean fortress of Angband far to the north, and passes its gates only when challenged by Fingolfin. His servants who openly or clandestinely fight for his cause in Beleriand and in other parts of Middle earth are many and diverse; some are described only as “fell beasts” (leaving the gamemaster free to invent his or her own terrible creatures). Tolkien mentions such minions as Balrogs (who wield magical power over fire), werewolves (who apparently do not shapeshift), vampires, wingless dragons, and phantoms with Mannish or Elven guises. Such creatures are usually evil spirits given shape by Morgoth’s fell arts, and have powers and senses that far excel those of Men and occasionally even of Elves.
Orcs and Trolls form the common soldiery of Angband [Note that, while these seemingly do not differ from their later antecedents, Uruk-hai and Olog-hai do not yet exist, being bred by Sauron only in the late Third Age.]
Following the Dagor Bragollach in 455 YS (Years of the Sun, that is, after the first sunrise), Morgoth acquires many Elven and Mannish prisoners, some of whom have their wills crushed by his power and are transformed into obedient servants. Occasionally he sends such individuals back to their homelands to spy or spread lies. Only a hero like Húrin Thalion is able to resist such power, but even he gets spiritually injured by his many years in captivity.
Sauron participates personally in the wars of Beleriand, possessing the fana (bodily appearance) of a fair Elf. He is often surrounded by werewolves, especially during his rule of Tol-in-Gaurhoth (457-467 YS). Lúthien is the only one among the Free Peoples able to sucessfully confront him; even a hero like Finrod fail to overcome Sauron’s mighty magic.
The Noldor of Beleriand have all come from Aman against the explicit will of the Valar and are therefore subject to the Doom of Mandos for the fell deeds committed during their journey. They have been banned from ever going back into the west by Manwë, Lord of the Valar. This curse also manifests itself through deep distrust among the Noldorin lords, and frequently causes armed conflict between the sons of Fëanor and other Noldorin leaders, climaxing with the sack of Menegroth and the killing of Dior and Nimloth.
The Seven Sons of Fëanor — Caranthir, Curufin, Celegorm, Maedhros, Maglor, Amrod, and Amras — differ considerably in their dispositions; the first three are the most ruthless and brutal; Maedhros and Maglor are more sensible and try to mediate between their brothers and other leaders; while Amrod and Amras are not particularly active in these internal struggles. Together with their father, all seven have sworn a terrible and irretractable oath: to slay any who seek to deprive them of a Silmaril. This oath is their eventual undoing, since it brings them into conflict not only with Morgoth, but also Thingol, Beren, Lúthien, Dior, and others who struggle against the shadow of Angband. The brothers participate in the Kin-slaying at Alqualondë, conspire against both Finrod and Orodreth, and kidnap Lúthien (no wonder that the other Elven princes do not dare to trust them!). In the end, six of them perish in combat, and only Maglor survives into the Second Age.
The Princes of the Noldor — Fingolfin, Fingon, and Finrod Felagund — lead many of the Noldor in Beleriand in the struggle against Morgoth, but are not bound by Fëanor’s oath. Most have high ideals and are little corrupted by the war. Finrod Felagund is even prepared to abandon his realm in order to assist Beren in his quest. The Noldor are foremost warriors and reside in fortresses at strategic locations along Beleriand’s northern border. Their principal occupations are hunting (there are no hints that the Noldor practiced agriculture), weapon-making, and preparation for war (in which they appear as the only warriors who fight from horseback).
The Sindar (Grey-elves) are those who remained in Beleriand and chose not to cross Belegaer to the Undying Lands. They are not as powerful as the Noldor, but know their land and deeply love it. They prefer to dwell in forests (principally in Doriath within the Girdle of Melian). Their King, Elu Thingol, resides there with his queen Melian in the Caves of Menegroth. He is nominally the overlord of all of Beleriand.
The Sindar fight mainly with spears and bows and, at first, encountered great difficulty when confronted with Morgoth’s Orcs. Later they seem to have obtained superior weapons from their Noldorin relatives.
The Laiquendi (Green-elves), who are closely related to the Sindar, dwell in the forests of Ossiriand as hunters and gatherers.
Those Elves who remained in Cuivienen and refused to join the migration westwards are known as the Avari. They have never been subject the influence of the Valar and, so, differ considerably from the Elves of Beleriand. During the years between the kindling of the stars and the first sunrise, they spread over most of Middle-earth. The Sindar of Beleriand suspect that there are Avari east of the Ered Luin.
Avari, however, are never described in Tolkien’s works apart from the reference that the Sindar believed that they might have become like the wild animals of the forests. If you wish to introduce Avari in your campaign, there is great freedom to define them as you wish. They have likely diversified into tribes sundered from one other since the time of the Awakening.
The three Houses of the Edain reach Beleriand around 310 YS, befriending its Elven princes and joining the war against Melkor. The closely related Houses of Bëor and Hador are tall and skilful warriors — the ancestors of the Númenóreans.
The Haladin are shorter and prefer to dwell in isolated forest settlements. This tribe does not survive the First Age: it is completely defeated by Morgoth’s forces in 496 YS and the few survivors are absorbed by the two other houses.
The Edain appear to possess a level of technology comparable to that of the Vikings or the Iron Ages Germanic tribes, subsisting on agriculture and hunting, and living in small villages or farms. Many of the Edain are renowned warriors, some of whom are almost as skilful as their Elven contemporaries. They eventually paid a terrible price for their alliance with the Noldor with the destruction or enslavement of their villages at the hands of Morgoth’s servants.
Various Easterling tribes arrive in Beleriand during the 5th century, some of which ally themselves with the Noldor, while others join the ranks of Angband. [Most
likely these are not related to the Easterlings that harass the realm of Gondor during the Third Age.] A few Drughu inhabit the wilds of Beleriand, preferring a withdrawn life (though they are sworn enemies of Angband and will gladly slay Orcs).
Dwarves seem to be of little importance to the affairs of Beleriand. Their two major settlements, the mining cities of Nogrod and Belegost, are located in Ered Luin on the border of Eriador. Occasionally, Dwarven artisans and warriors enter Beleriand. These are Morgoth’s implacable foes, but not necessarily friends of the Elves. Possession of a Silmaril leads to Thingol’s death and the first sack of Doriath at their hands.
The Dwarves are the best makers of weapons and armor in Middle-earth, and their own works can endure even the heat of dragon fire.
Some Ents and Entwives live in Ossiriand but, as always, prefer to stay out of the affairs of Men and Elves (with one or two exceptions). The majority of their numbers appear to have remained east of Beleriand among the vast forests between Ered Luin and the Misty Mountains.
Eagles who serve Manwë live in the mountain peaks which surround the hidden vale of Gondolin, and keep watch on Beleriand for the Valar. Occasionally,they intervene to assist the Elves (e.g. the rescue of Maedhros).
Skinchangers (like the Beomings of the Third Age) may also have existed among the Free Peoples of Beleriand. [The gamemaster is free to introduce beings suitable to the mood of The Silmarillion, keeping in mind that some animals are associated with the forces of good, such as eagles and bears, while others, like wolves and bats, typically serve Angband.]
The use of magic affects the senses and alters perceptions, affording powerful disguises or illusions (cf. “Of Beren and Lúthien” in Quenta Silmarillion). While common to Beleriand, it is only exercised by a few, very powerful individuals. Apart from the Valar and the Maiar, only some of Morgoth’s
evil spirits (e.g. Thuringwethil and the Balrogs) and some Noldor (e.g. Finrod Felagund) seem to be spell-casters. Neither Men nor Dwarves have access to such power.
Magical artifacts (such as swords) are quite common, but there are no references to magical gadgets that are common in fantasy roleplaying games (e.g. rings of flying or cloaks of invisibility). The gamemaster mst be careful so as not to destroy the mood by introducing unsuitable artifacts.
The main language in Beleriand is Sindarin, the native tongue of the Sindar and the Laiquendi. The Noldor originally spoke Quenya, but its use has been prohibited by Thingol. Some Noldor surely know Telerin and Valinorean.
Dwarves speak the secretive Khuzdul among themselves, but use Sindarin with outsiders. The Ents have their fantastic tongue which no other race can be taught.
The Houses of Bëor and Hador speak similar dialects which form the roots of Adûnaic, the tongue of the later Dúnedain. The Haladin and Easterlings speak their own languages.
What language the servants of Angband use is not clear; but it is certainly not Black Speech, since that was invented by Sauron during the Second Age. Morgoth may have devised a tongue for his servants.
Part II in my Second Age campaign outline.
Struggles of the Faithful — the Campaign Begins
Suddenly, Lord Itrahil (heriditary lord of Lebennin and head of the Faithful in the lower Anduin vale) receives seemingly unconnected leads that imply that the region is about to face a major political crisis that could lead to an Umbarian intervention and the end to the autonomy of the Faithful. There are strange rumors of the Shadow gaining a foot-hold in his land, too. He asks a team of trusted underlings (i.e. the player-characters) to investigate what evil is afoot. They must act with discretion and without any legal powers, since Itrahil does not wish to attract the attention of Lord Golmakhôr (governor of Umbar).
Meanwhile, the evil conspiracies get entangled in one another. Neither Sauron nor the scheming Umbarian nobles know that the other party is pursuing similar goals. Also, for security reasons each set of agents does not always know what their compatriot teams are up to. There is ample opportunity for chaos and combat in the dark alleys of Pelargir. The inquisitive players will get involved in many dangerous matters and they will acquire some very powerful foes who are able to seriously harass them in the future even if they uncover and interrupt any nefarious schemes.
Some Ideas for Campaign Developments
Tolkien’s texts on Second Age history do not speak much of what happens in Lebennin during the last two centuries of Númenor’s existence. The gamemaster is actually able to justify a temporary Umbarian intervention and occupation of Lebennin without contradicting what Tolkien has written. Hence a failure by the players to uncover what plots are going on could well have disastrous consequences for their province: years of oppression by the King’s Men. The campaign could then shift its focus and deal how to resist the tyranny and alleviate the plight of the Faithful commoners (cf. the legends of Robin Hood).
One way of dealing with the campaign would be to let the players participate in the planning and preparations for a popular uprising in Lebennin. When the opportune moment offers itself in the chaos following Númenor’s demise, the characters could lead the insurrection in some places and therefore be the first to welcome the survivors from Elenna when Elendil’s storm-driven ships reach Middle-earth’s shore.
Sauron in the Second Age
Sauron is thoroughly evil since more than two thousand years, but he still retains his fair physical Maia body. He is therefore less bitter and vengeful, instead more snake-ish and shrewd. That condition should be reflected on his physical realm, too. Therefore, put less dirt and fumes in Mordor; instead use more of depravity and illusory beauty. Deception is the current name of the game, not the overt brutality that Frodo will face three millennia later. Many centuries ago, Sauron managed to deceive the Elf-lord Celebrimbor of Hollin that he was Annatar, an emissary of the Valar; that would be an impossible feat for his grim Third-Age incarnation. He possesses the One Ring, which gives him a supernatural charisma, and has his band of Nazgûl at hand, but his Elven arch-opponent Gil-galad is powerful enough to stand firm against all those dark powers.
Mordor’s sole attempt so far to conquer north-western Middle-earth — some years after the forging of the One Ring — was crushed by an Elven-Númenorean alliance, so Sauron is well aware of the full strength of his enemies. His long-term strategy has switched to infect the culture of Númenor with foul ideas to make Dúnedain rot and and perish from within. The Faithful of Lebennin pose a significant obstacle to these ambitions, because they refuse to taste his spiritual poison.
Depicting a Second-Age Middle-earth
“Everybody” knows what Gondor in the late Third Age is like — Tolkien’s books make comments here and there on daily life. So it is important that the game master shows the players that this is the same place in a very different era.
Never use words like Gondor and Arnor, Anorien or Ithilien. Make sure to show that the sites of the future cities of Minas Tirith/Anor and Osgiliath currently only house small strongholds (with other names) at Lebennin’s north-east frontier. North of that border adventurers will find only savage tribes, probably various “bronze-age” ancestors of the Dunlendings and the Northmen. The same condition applies to Belfalas; the city of Lond Ernil/Dol Amroth does not yet exist and the region is not yet under Dúnedain rule.
The Faithful of Lebennin is a disliked and suspect minority among the Númenoreans. They are dissidents (perhaps even “heretics”) that have built a refuge at the mouth of the Anduin, but they know that if they incur the King’s displeasure, they will suffer. So they always tread carefully when dealing with royal emissaries or the royal navy.
If late-Third-Age Gondor is an equivalent of a declining Bysantine empire, late-Second-Age Lebennin is rather comparable to Gaul in the time of the 4th-century Roman empire: a fertile border province with patrician villas, togas, and which faces stern barbarians beyond the frontier. The faraway ruler of the vast Númenorean empire is narcissistic and decadent, his supporters despotic, corrupt and greedy. Ethnic supremacy has become an acceptable norm, replacing the decency of the Way of the Valar as the underpinning ideology of the state. Ergo, the main enemy is within the Dúnedain society itself, not an outside force beyond a black mountain range.
The Númenoreans will soon cause their own downfall — with some nudging from Sauron. Keep in mind that in SA 3150 their decay is not recent; Númenor has been going down-hill for centuries and the arrogant ideals of the King’s Men are therefore well-established social norms. Most are (to use modern terms ) racist and chauvinist, believing that their realm — nowadays always referred to Yôzâyan in their own Adûnaic language — has the right to rule over, even to enslave, “lesser” human peoples thanks to the “superior qualities” of the Adûnâim (the Adunaic word for Dúnedain).
Third-Age Gondor is a subtropical culture, located in a climate zone resembling southern France judging from Ithilien’s vegetation. Second-Age Númenor is more of a tropical culture with almost all of its colonial empire located in the hot region of Umbar and Far Harad. Let this be reflected in the customs, dress code and diet of the King’s Men (perhaps touches of pre-colonial Sri Lanka, Indonesia and East Africa), who have lived for generations in these southern lands. Some suggestions: cultivation of rice and yam instead of wheat and potato; vast slave plantations; buffaloes as beasts of burden; few horses south of Umbar; sarongs instead of trousers; sandals instead of boots.
The first version of this article was written in the early 1990s for the now-defunct Tolkien gaming journal Other Hands. Initially I had written another article on how to set adventures in the First, Second, and Fourth Ages of Arda, which led to a discussion with fellow game-designer Mats Blomqvist. He thought that it would be impossible to run a campaign in the Second Age due to the scarcity of source material.
Seemingly, Mats was right because Tolkien’s texts dealing with that era are few and brief: Appendices A and B in The Return of the King, “Akallabêth” in The Silmarillion, and Part Two of Unfinished Tales (e.g. “The Tale of Aldarion and Erendis”). Mats, a scholar of literature, said that what we read in those texts is not how Númenor actually was, but rather how the Dúnedain three thousand years later viewed Númenor through the scanty documents preserved from before the Downfall (much like how we modern Europeans think of ancient Rome and Greece). It is not possible, for instance, to glean an adequate knowledge of the great engineering skills evidently possessed by the Númenóreans.
Eventually I disagreed, believing it to be possible to successfully run a Númenor-related campaign, though such an endeavor would require a lot of effort by the gamemaster. This text, revised and expanded in 2013, presents some ideas on the subject. I am fairly specific about a lot of details, not because I possess any special knowledge of them, but rather to show the enterprising gamemaster how the patchy primary sources have to be augmented by her inventions.
Selecting a Campaign Century
Much of Númenor’s history is boring, it being a well-run nation blessed by the Valar and with few disputes with other peoples. Hence it hardly provides enough punch for the average role-player, who wants tensions and conflicts which may bring exciting adventures. The interesting times¹ begin when the Númenóreans openly turn away from the ideals of the Valar, i.e. from the coronation of Ar-Gimilzôr in SA 3102 to the Downfall in SA 3319. During these two centuries, Númenor’s elite break completely with the traditions of past and cut all ties with the Eldar. The realm is plagued by political intrigues in which egotistical noblemen vie for the King’s ear. The “anti-Valar” faction, commonly called the King’s Men, suffers from overbearing pride in their perceived superior qualities.
Meanwhile, the Faithful (the traditionalist “pro-Valar” faction) struggle to survive in places such as Rómenna and Lebennin. They founded Pelargir in SA 2350 as their urban center in Middle-earth, where they have contacts with the Eldar of Edhellond. The Faithful community of Lebennin somewhat resembles what the future Gondor will be; hence there is useful information in primary sources² when designing it. It provides a good campaign environment in which the players have Faithful characters that actively oppose Sauron’s conspiracies and the oppressive ambitions of the King’s Men.
The King’s Men have established extensive colonies in Middle-earth, while shunning its northwestern parts due to the proximity of the Elves in Lindon and Lothlórien. The closest one is Umbar, while others are located further south. The royal authorities in Umbar are suspicious of what “those Elf-lovers” in the Anduin vale are up to. Sauron, now openly the King of Mordor, dislikes his next-door Dúnadan and Quendi neighbors, and would gladly see them crushed or expelled from the region. However, he is not yet willing to challenge Númenor by a military move, because he remembers the defeat he suffered when fighting the united armies of Elves and Númenoreans in Eriador around SA 1700.
Lebennin — Home of the Faithful
Lebennin is a fertile land of plains. Its original population consisted of indigenous tribes, cousins of the inhabitants of Enedwaith. However, the plains tribes have been subjected to a strong Faithful influence since the early parts of the third millennium of the Second Age; hence “by now” they have become “Dúnadanized” to a great extent. The Faithful have migrated from Elenna* to Lebennin since the reign of Tar-Atanamir the Great in the 21st century of the Second Age, at which time they realized that Númenor’s ruling elite had begun to stray from the traditions of Elros Tar-Minyatur, the first king. In the 32nd century, Lebennin’s Faithful population numbers about one million, of which less than 10% is of pure Númenórean descent. There is only one city, Pelargir, but the countryside is dotted with villages and towns³.
Before the arrival of the men of Westernesse, the Lebennin region was under Sauron’s influence. Those indigenous clans that preferred the Shadow moved away into the highland valleys of the Ered Nimrais and the Belfalas peninsula when the Faithful settlers gained influence. They still remain there, hating the Faithful and ready to serve the Lord of Mordor. The Dúnedain therefore call them the Wild Men of the Mountains.
In SA 3150, Pelargir is a well-fortified haven, with about ten thousand inhabitants, and it has been the administrative center of Lebennin for about 800 years. Itrahil, its current heriditary lord, belongs to the line of Imrazôr and is recognized as the local leader by all Faithful. He is de jure responsible to king Ar-Gimilzôr of Númenor, but Lebennin has de facto gradually acquired a semi-autonomous status, handling its own taxation and militia.
In this period, the region should probably be portrayed as a somewhat more rural version of late Third Age Gondor. There are many similarities in how the “state” and civil society works, with the Lord of Lebennin in a position resembling that of the ruling Stewards of Gondor. However, the notable Elven presence is a major difference from later ages. It is also clear for the Faithful settlers of late Second Age that Lebennin is but a small part of the mighty Númenórean empire and that they are an openly disliked minority.
The Lebennians know of Sauron of Mordor. At this time, his dominion does not stretch west of the Ephel Dúath, but people that live in Lossarnach see that forbidding black mountain range at the eastern horizon. They know that Sauron hates the descendants of the Edain† for their participation in the war against Morgoth in the First Age more than 3,000 years ago and that he aspires for dominion over all of Middle-earth.
Friends of the Faithful
However, the Faithful have powerful friends in the Elves, since the two kindreds are not yet sundered. There are frequent visits by Elves to Pelargir, much to the chagrin of the King’s Men in Umbar. The Elf-haven of Edhellond on the west side Belfalas peninsula is a notable urban settlement in Lebennin’s vicinity. It is smaller than Pelargir and purely Elvish. Its main task is to facilitate the emigration of Elves to Aman, just like the comparable havens in Lindon. It is mostly Elves from Greenwood the Great, Lothlórien and the East that go to Edhellond.
Another ally are the Drúedain tribes of the forests in Anórien and Ithilien. This people hate the Orcs of Mordor and desire to keep their ancestral lands free of outsiders, a wish respected by the Lord of Lebennin (though this policy is ridiculed by the King’s Men).
Foes of the Faithful
During the two centuries preceding the Akallabêth, Lebennin does not suffer from major foreign invasions. Instead, the Faithful have to deal with the schemes of three hostile neighbors which for various reasons wish to assume control over the region or destabilize it.
1. The Wild Men in Ered Nimrais and Belfalas jealously have for centuries watched how the Faithful have turned Lebennin into a bountiful land, and they wish to conquer and plunder it since they consider it to be theirs. However, the mountain tribes are disorganized barbarians and do not pose a military threat to the well-organized Lebennin society. On the other hand, should an opportunity appear, hotspurs among the Wild Men will certainly use it to attack their hated neighbors. The appearance of a charismatic warlord (someone comparable to e.g. Shaka Zulu) that unites the tribes would also pose a significant danger to the Faithful.
2. Certain haughty nobles among the King’s Men of Umbar want to crush the Faithful, their ideological opponents, and subjugate them to the King’s rule. However, as long as Lebennin’s settlers are not openly hostile to the King, they cannot be chastised by armed might. Also, Lebennin serves as a useful military buffer against Mordor. It would be strategically unwise for Sauron to make a move against Umbar without neutralizing Pelargir first, otherwise the fortified city would threaten his southbound lines of communication across the Poros river. To be able to justify an Umbarian occupation of Lebennin, these noblemen must create a credible impression that the settlers of Lebennin are enemies of king Ar-Gimilzôr, for instance by provoking them to actions that could be interpreted as treasonous.
3. Sauron desires to eradicate the ideals of the Faithful from Middle-earth as that would make it far easier to further corrupt the remaining Númenóreans. However, he can not make a military move against a Númenórean possession without engaging in a full-scale war with that realm, a conflict he doubts he would win. Instead, he has to destroy Lebennin from within, either by spreading spiritual corruption or by causing the authorities in Umbar to strike at the Faithful community. The latter could for instance be achieved by covertly deceiving the Governor of Umbar Lord Golmakhôr (an ardent King’s Man) to believe that the Lebennians intend to secede.
Sauron and the schemers in Umbar have, unbeknownst to each other, inserted several covert agent teams into Lebennin with the intention to destabilize the region. Sauron uses only corrupt Lebennians for his operation, because outsiders would attract too much attention. Some Sauronic teams will incite the mountain tribes to raid outlying settlements. Others will try to establish Evil cults in Pelargir with the long-term goal of corrupting Lebennin from within. One gang will engage in seemingly random terror attacks on known King’s Men that visit the area or on property belonging to the King, e.g. the small naval installations in Pelargir’s port.
The Umbarian agents have other goals. One team will spread false information that implies that an Umbarian military move against Lebennin is soon to take place. For instance they could possess forged documents detailing how an Umbarian garrison will take over the defense of Pelargir and try to get these into Lord Itrahil’s hands. Another will try to convince him that people he have trusted are plotting together with Umbarian nobles to seize power in Lebennin.
¹ At least as seen from the perspective of a famous Chinese proverb.
² After all, Lebennin is where Elendil and his sons established their South-kingdom. They must have adopted a lot of existing political and social practices when founding the new state of Gondor.
³ Keep in mind that Minas Anor, Minas Ithil, and Osgiliath are founded by Elendil after the demise of Númenor.
† The three Houses of the Edain were the First-Age ancestors of the Númenoreans.
* Elenna (star-wards) is the Elven name of the huge island which is the home of the Kingdom of Númenor/Westernesse. At the beginning of the Second Age, Valar granted it as a gift to the surviving Edain for their steadfast support to the Elves during the long struggles against Morgoth.