Encounter in Jotunheim

In the Norse pagan legends, cosmos is layered in many adjacent worlds. Men live in Midgard (Middangeard/Middle-earth), whereas the gods live in Asgard above mankind.

The giants live in Jotunheim (Giant-home), a dangerous untamed world beyond the wild river Ifing. Most are settled in farmsteads under the leadership of a chieftain. Some giants are great warlocks that excel in illusions. Many stories tell about interactions between gods and giants, and occasionally a shrewd giant outsmarts a god. Therefore mannish adventurers must tread carefully in Jotunheim.

In the 1990s I was commissioned to write several Swedish Norse-themed role-playing products: Ansgar (an educational RPG about the first German missionaries to pagan Sweden around AD 830) and two sourcebooks and one adventure for the Viking RPG. Both publishers initially wanted only material based on real-world Scandinavian history.

After a while Viking’s publisher also asked me, Magnus Seter, and Mats Blomqvist to write a fantasy sourcebook based on Norse legends: Saga. Among others things it included spell-chanting, rune-carving, undead, elves, dwarves, divine favor, and visits to legendary worlds. However, when we had completed our texts, the publisher went bankrupt and aborted the project. (You can read more about the Viking RPG in Swedish here — link >>>)

The picture above by Eytan Zana at DeviantArt perfectly captures the mood of the Jotunheim section of Saga: crows at the carcass of a fallen giant. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

For those of you who know Swedish, here is Magnus Seter’s Jotunheim text on page 18 in a PDF file of issue 24 of the Sverox gaming magazine — link >>>


Post-human Earth

When man vanishes, what will Earth look like? I worked with two post-apocalyptic role-playing games in the 1980s and 1990s: Mutant and Wastelands. They each introduce settings in which the current civilization has been destroyed, resulting in two dissimilar game worlds, the grim and serious Wastelands Europe and the less serious Pyri Scandinavia.

However, after watching this video, I realize that my background research was insufficient, particularly in the Wastelands setting. For instance, there would have been extensive problems with the plentiful hydroelectric power stations in northern Sweden: cracked dams, flooded river valleys, and swamped riverside towns.

Jag får årets Rollspelsdrake

Summary in English: I have just received the annual Dragon award for excellent accomplishments in the Swedish role-playing hobby.

Dagens riktigt goda nyhet kommer från föreningen WRNU.

“Rollspelsdraken är ett pris som utdelas av föreningen WRNU till personer som gjort utomordentliga gärningar för den svenska rollspelshobbyn. Juryn består av medlemmar på rollspel.nu. Syftet är att visa uppskattning för personer som bidragit positivt till vår hobby och att ge dem ett erkännande för deras insatser.

Tidigare pristagare:

2012 Gunilla Jonsson och Michael Petersén
2013 Fredrik Malmberg
2014 Tove Gillbring och Anders Gillbring
2015 Åsa Roos

Rollspelsdraken 2016 delas ut till Anders Blixt.

Juryn har beslutat att tilldela Anders Blixt Rollspelsdraken år 2016 för hans insatser inom rollspelshobbyn. Sedan Äventyrsspels guldålder under 1980-talet har hans flitiga penna producerat åtskilliga betydande verk, däribland Drakar och Demoner Expert, Mutant 2, oräkneliga Sinkadusartiklar, rollspelet Gondica och mycket annat. Anders Blixt har varit en ständig källa till förundran och inspiration, vägledning och kreativitet och därför har vi funnit att han är en värdig mottagare av årets pris.”

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.

Winter In Ladros

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.

Semper Fidelis — Campaigning in Second Age Middle-earth (II)

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.