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 dark 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 kin of later eras, Uruk-hai and Olog-hai do not yet exist, being bred by Saruman and 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 cruel 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, the seven brothers have sworn a terrible and irretractable oath: to slay anyone who seeks to deprive them of a Silmaril. This oath becomes their undoing, since it brings them into conflict not only with Morgoth, but also with Thingol, Beren, Lúthien, Dior, and others who struggle against the shadow of Angband. The brothers participate in the Kin-slaying at Alqualondë, conspire against Finrod and Orodreth, and kidnap Lúthien (no wonder that the other Elven princes do not dare to trust them!). In the end, six brothers perish in combat with only Maglor surviving 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 only they appear as mounted warriors).
The Sindar (Grey-elves) are those who remained in Beleriand and chose not to cross Belegaer (the Great Ocean) 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 that 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, they 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 (that is, in the vast forests of Eriador).
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 its 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 four-five millennia later 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 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 appear to have access to such powers.
Enchanted weapons, 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 must be careful so as not to destroy the mood by introducing inappropriate objects.
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.