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.