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.
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 more 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.
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.
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 his 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.
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
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.
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.