The lost Mordor campaign book

During the 1990s, I was involved in the production of three thick Gondor-related campaign books for Iron Crown’s Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game, something I have blogged about earlier (link >>> ). There were other such projects on my mind, but they never materialized because the RPG industry in the US and Sweden was faltering in those days. Iron Crown perished in 2000 and with it the MERP game.

Today I received an inquiry from an Swedish gamer about one of those unrealized projects — my Mordor campaign book. However, it is not easy to put together what the project was supposed to result in, because twenty years have passed and no notes have survived. I have to rely on my memories of a handful letters (snail mail in those days) and faxes exchanged with the Iron Crown staff.

The basic idea was to portray Mordor during the centuries between the Witch-king’s conquest of Minas Ithil in 2002 (the end of Gondor’s Watch on Mordor) and Sauron’s return to the Dark Land in 2942. That was an era, at least as I saw it, during which Mordor lacked a centralized despotic power. Instead, several servants of the Shadow competed (and occasionally cooperated) to create an industrial and agricultural infrastructure that Sauron would be able utilize for a war against Gondor whenever he chose to regain his throne.

The player characters were supposed to be undead/deathless people working as foremen, spies, and engineers for one or several of the top-level Sauronic servants. The campaign would start with these servants moving into a depopulated and unguarded Mordor around 2020 and it would run for decades or centuries as orcs were enticed/forced to immigrate, fortresses rebuilt, mines excavated, smithies erected and slave plantations around Lake Nurn established. See the campaign as a set of hard-boiled colonization ventures, intermixed with power-play as different servants vied for their Mirkwood-based Overlord’s graces. There would also be diplomatic missions to southern and eastern lands to re-establish the old Sauronic influences and secure the supply of human slaves.

I had written a Shadow adventure in the 1980s (for the Swedish Sinkadus magazine), in which the two player characters were deathless sorcerers in service of Dol Guldur. Khamûl sent them on an espionage mission in Rhovanion after the Great Plague. That had given me a taste for writing more “creepy stuff” for MERP. However, my Mordor project petered out already at the outline stage because of Iron Crown’s economic woes.

Review: “The Battle of Five Armies”

The Peter Jackson marketing deluge is upon us again: the third part of his series of CGI extravaganzas based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Do I sound snarky? Yes, I am not happy with watching this movie’s far too many CGI scenes. In fact, I consider Hobbit III to be two movies.

The first movie is a psychological fairy tale about people that face the lure of gold, about dragonish evil seeping into their minds when they sense that untold riches are within reach. I like that movie and will say more about it in a moment. However, beware, there will be plenty of spoilers.

The second movie is a bloated CGI version of the tabletop game Warhammer Fantasy Battle, in which hideous creatures crush each other with ridiculous blunt and edged weapons. This is not a film, this is a computer game on steroids. I do not like that movie and will not say much about it.

Hobbit III starts of with the big badguy, Smaug the dragon, laying waste to Laktetown, because it wrongly believes the townspeople to be behind the intrusion of Bilbo and the Dwarves in its lair in the Dwarven stronghold Erebor inside the nearby Lonely Mountain (that is where Hobbit II ended). In the midst of the destruction, human hero Bard the Bowman kills Smaug in an unexpected “reverse Wilhelm Tell” scene, where he and his son Bain demonstrate that black iron is lethal to dragons under the right circumstances. I like their archery stunt.

The surviving Laketown humans, having lost everything and facing the chill of late autumn, trek to an old town ruin at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where they can find shelter. Bard becomes their leader because their old leaders had been killed by dragon fire.

Thorin and his Dwarves, having meanwhile seized Smaug’s great hoard, are unhappy about these refugees at their doorstep. Thorin, now King under the Mountain, is gradually affected by the evil miasma that Smaug has exuded for so long in the underground lair. His mind becomes more and more dragonish and he starts to show signs of paranoia and megalomania. This is an interesting part of the story: the interactions between the Dwarves, Bilbo and the outsiders. Genuine drama with a Norse feel. Dragons are baleful creatures; when one dies, its evil will not fade away.

Elves and Orcs have also heard of Smaug’s death and soon their armies appear to get a share of the treasure. Prepare for CGI battle.

Meanwhile far away, Gandalf, Radagast, Elrond. Galadriel and Saruman take on the Necromancer in the ruins of Dol Guldur, an ancient abode of evil. They face the nine Nazgul in combat and eventually Galadriel shows that she is the mightiest by standing up to Sauron himself. He suffers a tactical defeat, but not a strategic one, and retreats into the East. Here we also see a subtle indication that it is now Saruman turns to the Dark. “Leave Sauron to me.” Saruman’s statement has two meanings. After all, he has been deceived to believe that he is as powerful as Sauron. So Jackson uses this event to connect this movie trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies.

The battle of the Five Armies at the Lonely Mountain — well, I won’t say anything about its ridiculous fighting scenes — ends the way it should. Three protagonists die more or less heroically. The cringe-worthy Elf-Dwarf romance comes to a sentimental end. Legolas, filled with bitterness, decides to depart from his home and he therefore is advised by his father the Elf-king to look for a human chap named Strider, i.e. a second connection to the LotR movies. (Note that Aragorn is a small boy in Rivendell in that particular year, well before he earned the nickname Strider, so Peter Jackson seems to have messed up the chronology of late Third Age.)

My verdict: The psychological fairytale gets four Lonely Mountains out of five, whereas the CGI battle spectacle gets one decapitated Orc head out of five.

Peter Jackson’s six-movie vision of Middle-earth has reached its end. His license only included what what was written in the Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit books. The Tolkien Estate appears to be unwilling to let Hollywood lay its hands on the good professor’s other stories.

To me it seems the existing license ought to cover the contents of the LotR Appendices, so it might be possible to do something with the many exciting events mentioned in the chronology of the Third Age, such as the Kin-strife when Gondor is engulfed in civil war about 1,500 years before the War of the Ring. I would definitely love to see a hard-boiled movie about the heroic king Helm Hammerhand of Rohan and the Long Winter War (about 250 years before the War of the Ring), but then I would prefer another director who could turn that story into a “dark western” in Middle-earth.

Anyhow, there won’t be any more Middle-earth movies during this decade. We nerds will have to look forward to Star Wars Episode VII instead.