Posts Tagged ‘Middle-earth’

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog. If you enjoy this post, check out Part I: Introduction and the Region of EriadorPart II: WilderlandPart III: Gondor, Rohan, and MordorPart IV: Other Places, Other Times, and Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth.

Part VI: The Lords of Middle-earth – The Mannish Races248px-Aragorn2

Give me some men who are stout-hearted men,

Who will fight, for the right they adore.

Throughout this blog I have talked about Men more than any other race, and so you may be wondering what there is left to say. Why an entire article? Despite J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous novels being from the point of view of hobbits and despite The Silmarillion being mostly about the Elves, it is Men who dominate Middle-earth. From the Second Age onward, it is Men who drive history forward and define the political landscape.

Tolkien preferred to use the terms “Man,” “Men” and “Mannish” (yes, a real word in the dictionary and everything) when talking about the human race. He probably preferred to use these words because of their German roots; he disliked anything having to do with Latin. These words apply to the entire race (i.e., “mankind), not just males. When talking about female humans, it is most appropriate to simply say “Women.” Always capitalize to make it clear you are talking about the race of Mortal Men and Women, not males and females of another race.

Was Tolkien a bit sexist? Probably. He was a conservative Catholic man who lived in the early 20th Century. Most of his friends and professional colleagues were probably men, and as critics will point out, female characters are few and far between in his works. All this is to say, if you find it inappropriate to say “Men” all the time in your roleplaying group, you can say “Mortals” or “Humans” or whatever you like. You don’t have to do it the way Tolkien did.

The Secondborn Children

When Eru Ilúvatar (a.k.a., “God”) created the world, he told the Valar about two races that would appear at some point in the world’s history – Elves and Men. The Valar were fascinated about these races, primarily because Eru had told them almost nothing about them. Just like fans waiting for their favorite author’s next book to come out, they went down into the world and eagerly waited untold numbers of years to see what they believed would be their Master’s finest creations.

Elves were interesting because they talked, and nothing had ever done that before. Elves wrote poetry and songs and built amazing things. To the Valar, they were like little siblings, sometimes rebellious, but still very close to themselves in nature.

Men were interesting because they did something the Elves did not do; they died. Despite the fact that plants and animals also died – and Elves, too, if you hit them hard enough – Men did it better than anything else the Valar had seen. Over and over again. In spectacular fashion. Death was called the “Gift of Men,” a gift from Ilúvatar to his Secondborn Children. When Elves died, their souls traveled to the Halls of Mandos, from which they could be revived. However, when Men died, they left the world entirely, and even the Valar did not know what happened to them.

Death, and the fear or acceptance of it, was a major theme in all of Tolkien’s writings; and I would argue it was a major theme in his life. By the age of 12, Tolkien had lost both of his parents. He fought in the Somme during the Great War, and by the end of that conflict, all but one of his friends was dead. His writing, his art, and his poetry was, among other things, an attempt to cope with the horrors of death.

It’s also important to remember Tolkien’s Catholic faith and that Tolkien’s stories are taking place in a world that predates Abraham. The ideas presented in the Bible about Heaven, sin, redemption, etc., haven’t been revealed to anyone yet, probably not even the Valar. This gives Morgoth (and later Sauron) ample opportunity to control Men through lies about death and what it means for their souls.

To play up this angle, Men in Middle-earth should be weak against necromancy and undead. They should have penalties to saves against fear effects, death effects, and anything that reminds them of their own mortality.

Men in the First Age – The Edain and the Easterlings

The stories of the First Age in The Silmarillion pretty much exclusively take place in Beleriand. Tolkien describes Men migrating west from Hildórien, a place to the far east that does not appear on any map. Presumably the Middle-earth we know from the Third Age lies to the east of Beleriand, but none of the nations we know of exist yet. Outside of Beleriand there are simply primitive tribes of Men wandering about, running away from monsters and Elves alike.

Within Beleriand, we have two primary groups. The Edain are the first to arrive, and they eventually split into three houses – The House of Bëor, the House of Haleth, and the House of Marach. Most of the Mannish heroes of The Silmarillion come from the House of Bëor; they are your typical strong, wise hero-types. The House of Haleth are reclusive forest-folk. The House of Marach are tall, blonde and warlike. As a whole, the Edain are generally good people, loyal to Elves, and enemies of Morgoth.

“Edain” is the plural; “Adan” is the singular.

The Easterlings seem to have arrived in Beleriand later, and they were mostly (though not entirely) servants of Morgoth. Confusingly, the Easterlings of the First Age have nothing to do with the Easterlings of the Third Age, described in previous blog articles. These Easterlings are also called Swarthy Men because they had dark skin, eyes and hair. They come across as more brutish and less cultured than the Edain, typical of Tolkien’s “bad guy” races.

Because everything about the First Age is bigger, badder, more epic, Men of the First Age should start out with extra hit dice, levels, ability score bonuses, or all three. They should be less powerful than the godlike Elves, but they should still be able to stand up to giant monsters. Men of the First Age generally serve an Elf-lord, and they would go on missions for him. They may be outlaws, like Túrin Turambar; or, like the House of Haleth, they may be trying to fend for themselves in a small community in the wilderness.

Men of the West – The Númenóreans and the Dúnedain

As a reward of their service to the Elves, the Edain were blessed with longer lives, greater physical attributes, and they were given the island of Númenor to rule. Eventually, the Númenóreans built ships and explored the entire world, creating a vast empire. The fear of death was their downfall. Even with their long lives, the Númenóreans grew jealous of the immortal Elves. Sauron lied and manipulated the last King of Númenor into sailing west in an attempt to conquer the Valar. As expected, this failed; Númenor was destroyed. The survivors were either Dúnedain (good) or Black Númenóreans (evil).

Dúnedain culture was essentially a continuation of Númenórean culture. In the Third Age, they built two great kingdoms – Arnor and Gondor. As has already been covered elsewhere, the story of the Third Age is largely about how Sauron gradually ground these two kingdoms to dust, until they were almost too weak to oppose him… almost!

“Dúnedain” is the plural; “Dúnadan” is the singular.

The Black Númenóreans ruled the Havens of Umbar for a little over a thousand years into the Third Age. Although they’re not really mentioned after that time, it’s entirely possible that Black Númenórean villains were running around doing evil things right up until the War of the Ring, acting as a dark mirror to the Dúnedain. There were probably not very many of them, not enough to be whole nations unto themselves. Instead, imagine a few, small families clinging to their old, evil traditions, ruling the lesser Men of the South. The Mouth of Sauron is sometimes interpreted as being a Black Númenórean.

All three of these groups – the Númenóreans, the Dúnedain and the Black Númenoreans – should be considered their own race, separate from other Men. I will simply use “Dúnedain” to refer to all three of them. They should be given higher ability scores, extra feats and skills, bonuses to saving throws and the like. Their strengths and their lifespans seem to be partially tied to their own purity of spirit. In other words, a Dúnadan’s inner strength will manifest outwardly as physical strength, good looks, and long life. Dúnedain also seem to have a talent for magic, at least in the Second and early Third Age. Most of the colossal statues and cities in The Lord of the Rings were built by Dúnedain. Isildur was able to curse an entire civilization into 3000 years of undeath for betraying him.

Their fear of death is even more pronounced. Tolkien describes how the latter Númenórean kings and the Gondorian kings and stewards would sit and brood upon their own deaths, spending more time building elaborate tombs and monuments to themselves than ruling. Tolkien seemed to find “dotage” more appalling than death – the idea that a Man would continue to live long after losing his mental and physical abilities. To this end, Aragorn had the ability to choose the time of his own death, to simply will himself into the afterlife, to avoid this fate. It is possible that other Dúnedain had this ability, or even all of them.

Lesser Men of the Third Age

The Dúnedain used the term “Middle Men” or “Men of Twilight” to refer to other types of Men that weren’t actively trying to kill them – the Rohirrim, the Bree-folk, and the Men of Dale, to name a few. The enemies of the Dúnedain were called “Men of Darkness” or “Men of Shadow.”

Mechanically, there is no reason to differentiate between all these different peoples. Simply use the “Human” rules for your game. Add backgrounds, traits, skill bonuses, or whatever your system uses to suggest the culture they come from. The same thinking applies to the Edain and Easterlings of the First Age, although as previously mentioned they should be given extra hit dice or levels to reflect the dangerous world they live in.

The Woses, also called the Drûgs or the Drúedain, are a special category. They are ugly and brutish, which is unusual among Tolkien’s “good” races. They are present in all ages and live pretty much wherever there is a forest. Woses should be physically weak and not very adept with arcane magic, but they excel at stealth, forestry and druidic magic.

Hobbits are also possibly related to Men. They first appear in the Upper Anduin Vale in the middle of the Third Age, living very close to the fierce Northmen and the savage ancestors of Beorn. While traveling through Rohan, Merry Brandybuck notices that the language of the Rohirrim bears a striking similarity to the old language of the Hobbits – of course Tolkien would choose to make one of his heroes a language enthusiast like himself!

I hope this article has been enlightening and entertaining, and not too redundant. While I have talked about a lot of these subjects when covering the various realms inhabited by Men, I felt an article about Men as a race was still needed. My next article will be about Hobbits, Dwarves and whatever other races I can fit in!

Part I: Introduction and the Region of Eriador

Part II: Wilderland

Part III: Gondor, Rohan, & Mordor

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network!

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This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog. If you enjoy this post, check out Part I: Introduction and the Region of EriadorPart II: WilderlandPart III: Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor, and Part IV: Other Places, Other Times.

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth – The Valar, the Maiar, and the Elves

Now that I’ve described the geography of Middle-earth, I want to talk about the races – usually your first choice when making a character in Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder!

The structure of the next three articles is based loosely on the Lords of Middle-earth series for MERP. If you happen to come across these in a rummage sale or at a used bookstore, I highly recommend picking them up. They are, quite simply, game stats for every single named character in Tolkien’s legendarium. My favorite parts are the full biographies of all the Nazgûl – completely made up by the MERP writers of course, and highly controversial, but still fun to read.

The Valar

The Valar are the gods of Middle-earth. They are intangible spirits that wear bodies like clothes. Their name means “the Powers” in Elvish, which interestingly is also a term used for deities in the Planescape campaign setting for AD&D.

The Valar, their names, their origins, and their roles in the world, are described in the first two parts of The Silmarillion: the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta. I’m going to avoid repeating all that information here. There are only 15 Valar (8 male, 7 female), and only one is evil. The eight greatest Valar are called the “Exalted,” and these should be presented first to new players who are unfamiliar with Middle-earth beyond the basics.

If you simply want to use the Valar the way you would use deities in any other D&D campaign, that is perfectly acceptable. You don’t have to look far to find listings of the Valar along with information that would be useful for a campaign, such as their portfolios, alignments, suggested domains, etc. There could be a Temple of Manwë in the middle of Minas Tirith with clerics who sell potions and scrolls at standard rulebook price. It’s your game, go for it!

However, if you are striving for a more “authentic” Middle-earth feel, it’s important to understand two things. One, Tolkien was a devout Catholic; and two, Middle-earth is supposed to be Earth in the distant past. The Valar are not simply stand-ins for pagan deities. There is only one true deity in Middle-earth, and that is the Biblical God, called “Eru Illúvatar” by the Elves. The Valar are really powerful angels who were so enamored of God’s Creation that they chose to dwell in the world, govern in God’s name, and protect the world from evil.

The Valar are not worshipped by people in Middle-earth, at least not people that Tolkien considered wise and educated. Most races and cultures probably do not know the Valar exist, or have sketchy knowledge at best. Of all the races, the Elves have dealt most closely with the Valar. Men only know what the Elves have chosen to tell them. Those races that serve Sauron (or Morgoth in the First Age) have probably been duped to believe that Sauron (or Morgoth) is the only true deity.

Among the races that “know better,” from Tolkien’s perspective, there does not appear to be much in the way of organized religion. What few religious ceremonies we know about are held outdoors, usually in a high place open to the sky, and conducted by someone the Valar have appointed to lead the ritual, usually a king. Wise Men of Gondor (and Númenor in the Second Age) probably viewed the Valar more like exalted teachers, to be revered for their knowledge and guiding examples, but not to be worshipped as deities.

The Maiar

With the Maiar, we begin to discuss beings that could actually appear with statblocks in your game. The Valar and the Maiar are really the same “race” of angelic spirits, but whereas there are only a few Valar and their roles are well-defined, there can be infinite numbers of Maiar. Where the Valar serve the role of “gods” in a D&D campaign, the Maiar can be any creature that would be classified as an outsider, elemental, fey, or incorporeal undead.

In The Lord of the Rings, we encounter several characters who are Maiar – Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron, the Balrog, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. Aragorn has at least one ancestor who is a Maia: Melian, Queen of Doriath. She was cool. Look her up. From this list, we see that Maiar exist in many different forms and power levels. In general, however, the Maiar seem to be elemental or nature spirits. Since there are so many of them, and they can be tied to almost any object or idea, they actually seem to have a lot in common with the kami of Japanese mythology.

Like the Valar, the Maiar are intangible spirits who only wear bodies when they wish to be seen. Their physical forms are called fána. A powerful Maia might be able to shift between multiple fána, while a weaker Maia might only have one. Sauron had several forms in the First and Second Age, but by the time of The Lord of the Rings, he had used up his power and wasn’t able to take shape anymore (a theme in Tolkien’s writings: evil is wasteful).

The Five Wizards, the Istari, are a special case. These Maiar were hand-selected by the Valar and sent to Middle-earth with a specific mission – educate and advise the peoples of Middle-earth, prevent Sauron’s return to power, and do so without seeking rulership or power. The Wizards could only appear as old men; they could not go incorporeal. Their memories were altered in such a way that many of their powers were unavailable to them. They knew they were Maiar, but they only remembered their former lives in their dreams.

If you wish to include some of the more fantastic D&D races in your Middle-earth game, you could simply say they are very weak Maiar or half-Maiar. This works for planetouched races or any race with an elemental theme, such as the genasi, goliaths or aasimar. Tieflings could also work if you “re-skin” them as fire-themed Maiar, rather than fiends.

As NPCs, Maiar can serve as patrons to any spellcaster that requires one, such as D&D’s warlocks or Pathfinder’s witches and oracles. They make good quest-givers, since they have unusual needs and may have limited power away from their homes. They can also be interesting villains. One storyline in The Lord of the Rings Online featured a water-themed Maia, the Red Woman, who became corrupted and turned into a monster when her environment was polluted.

The Elves

J. R. R. Tolkien basically invented Elves as we know them today. Before Tolkien, Elves were diminutive creatures with butterfly wings that would mend your shoes or curdle your milk. Thanks to Tolkien, Elves are now badass immortal ninja warrior-poets.

It’s also safe to say that Elves would not be a core racial option in Dungeons & Dragons if it hadn’t been for Tolkien. Even so, D&D Elves are still a watered-down version of the originals. That may be okay for your campaign, especially if game balance is important to you. If you do decide to make your Elves more like Middle-earth Elves, you may want to consider a campaign where the entire party is Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves are immortal. They do not age beyond adulthood, and they cannot be killed by disease or poison, only violence or extreme grief. Elves’ souls are “bound to the world,” meaning even after they die, they do not go to Heaven. Their souls go to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor (still a part of the physical world, not another plane of existence), and they can return to Middle-earth any time they want. In Tolkien’s writings, most Elves find this to be simply too much trouble and elect to wait out eternity in the Halls of Mandos, but PCs will almost certainly take advantage of unlimited free resurrections if given to them.

Elves seem to be physically and mentally superior to other races in every way. Harsh weather does not bother them. They need little food and water to survive. They can recall any memory from their long lives almost perfectly. Elves can seemingly talk to any creature, even stones and trees, due to their curiosity about everything in the world.

It’s worth noting that we spend very little time with “common” Elves in Tolkien’s writings. Most Elf characters are lords, princes, and other very important people. This may be why Elves seem so amazing. Lineage and rank definitely play a part in an individual Elf’s prowess.

It’s also worth noting that almost everything we read about Elves was supposedly written from the Elves’ point of view. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are supposed to be English translations of Bilbo’s writings, and Bilbo’s writings were translations of Elvish books that he found in Rivendell. Naturally, Elves would play up their own abilities in their history books and downplay everyone else.

Elves in the First Age

The First Age seems like the ideal time to run an Elf campaign. The Elves are at the height of their power. Later Ages are all about the fallout from First Age events. If The Silmarillion is too dry and boring for you, try listening to Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-earth to get a sense of what I’m talking about. These Elves rage and scream across the world. They betray and murder. They love deeply and disastrously. They swear oaths and reap bitter fruits.

An Elf campaign in the First Age should start at a high level. All the PCs should be Elves, with Men serving as henchmen or followers. The campaign might even start before the First Age, in Valinor, and end with the fall of Beleriand, with years or centuries occurring between play sessions. Elves are immortal, and their stories are told across long spans of time.

Although there are many, many subgroups of Elves defined by Tolkien, for game purposes you should divide Elves into Calaquendi (Light Elves) and Moriquendi (Dark Elves). I’m going to use the terms Light Elves and Dark Elves throughout this article to avoid confusing people who haven’t read The Silmarillion. For my purposes, Light Elves are those Elves who travelled to Valinor, the home of the Valar, and saw the light of the Two Trees before they were destroyed. The Dark Elves never made this journey, either because they refused or because they got sidetracked by the beauty of Middle-earth itself. The Light Elves have more personal power and more knowledge gained from living in close proximity to the Valar for all that time, and even descendents of the Light Elves born after the destruction of the trees retain some of this. The Dark Elves have less power but seem more in touch with the physical world. Unlike drow in Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Elves in Middle-earth are not inherently evil and have no distinctive appearance that separates them from Light Elves.

In The Silmarillion, the main group of Light Elves driving the action are the Noldor (High Elves). They return to Middle-earth at the dawn of the First Age in pursuit of Morgoth the Enemy, against whom they have sworn an oath of vengeance. The Noldor are proud to the point of arrogance, and some of the Noldor are downright villainous. Almost immediately, the Noldor are opposed by a group of Dark Elves called the Sindar (Grey Elves). The Sindar simply want to live peacefully, and they blame the Noldor for bringing evil to Middle-earth. The Sindar are not always the good guys either, however. Their secretive nature and refusal to lend aid at critical times often allows evil to get the upper hand.

In game terms, Light Elves and Dark Elves should be treated as different races. Smaller subgroups, such as the Noldor, Sindar, Teleri, Avari, Nandor, etc., should be handled through backgrounds, feats, traits, or variant rules.

Elves in the Second and Third Age

The distinction between Light Elves, Dark Elves and various subgroups seems to largely disappear after the First Age. The Ring-smiths of Eregion continue the tradition of the proud, arrogant Noldor, and they meet the same fate as their predecessors. By the Third Age, Galadriel is the only powerful Noldor leader left. Thranduil and Cirdan are both Sindar. Elrond is a special case, but we will get to him later. The “common” Elves merge into nations based on geography rather than ethnicity.

Elves in the Third Age are still physically and mentally superior to other races. Legolas could see farther than any of his companions, shoot more accurately, and keep his balance without even trying. He was not troubled by cold weather, and supernatural terror held no sway over him. Only the Balrog of Moria made him lose his cool. The Fellowship of the Ring is perhaps not the best example of a balanced party, as each of its members had wildly different power levels. If you’re trying to run a balanced campaign, Elves in the Third Age should be NPCs and quest-givers, not party members.

Elves in the Third Age understand that their role in history is almost at an end, and some are afraid that it already has ended. Although they are immortal, they begin to experience great sorrow that causes them to slowly fade away. Their souls are bound to the world, and so they cannot truly leave; they simply become invisible, intangible ghosts. The only cure for this fading is to travel West, over the sea to Valinor, which still lies within the physical world and is protected by the grace of the Valar. For this reason, Elves in the Third Age are weak against anything that causes them emotional pain. Seeing or hearing the ocean causes them to long for the West and gradually forget all worldly concerns. If you are playing an Elf PC in the Third Age, this should be a big part of your character’s story.

Half-Elves

Half-Elves in Middle-earth are rare and special. There were only two marriages between Elf and Man in the First Age. The first union was between Beren and Lúthien; the second was between Tuor and Idril. The descendents of these two couples eventually met and married each other, which leads us to Elrond and his brother, Elros.

Elrond and Elros were given a choice after the Fall of Beleriand. Elrond chose to be an Elf and stay with his Elven kindred. Elros chose to be a Man, and he became the first king of Númenor, from which all the kings of Númenor, Gondor, Arnor and Arthedain were descended. Aragorn is Elros’ descendent, which, yes, technically makes him a very distant cousin to Arwen.

Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, was an immortal Elf until she met and fell in love with Aragorn. Presumably she continued to be an Elf, even after they were married, but she ceased to be immortal. We do not know if she aged as mortals do. After Aragorn’s death, we are told that she simply travelled to Lothlórien and laid herself down on the hill where they had met. Whether she died of old age, exposure, or simply grief, we do not know, nor do we know who dug her grave.

From this, we can infer that all Half-Elves start out as immortal until they are given a choice to be otherwise. Usually, Half-Elves choose mortality because they are in love with a mortal and wish to be with that mortal, even after death. We do not know precisely why Elros chose mortality, but presumably it was out of responsibility to his people. We also do not know what Eldarion, the son of Aragorn and Arwen chose, or if he was given a choice.

As mentioned in my discussion of Gondor, the Men of Dol Amroth are supposedly Half-Elven, or at least the ruling family is. Tolkien did write a story, never published, naming Galador and Mithrellas as the progenitors of this line. Please consider all that I have said about Half-Elves before deciding whether or not this is true in your campaign or just a fairy-tale.

Part I: Introduction and the Region of Eriador

Part II: Wilderland

Part III: Gondor, Rohan, & Mordor

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Part VI: The Mannish Races

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network!

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog. If you enjoy this post, check out Part I: Introduction and the Region of EriadorPart II: Wilderland, and Part III: Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor.

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Now that I have talked about the three main geographical regions of Middle-earth, I want to talk about those areas on the edge of the map. They are ripe for exploration, precisely because there is not a lot known about these places. I also want to talk about campaigns in the First and Second Ages, when the world looks very different.

Playing outside the main areas of Middle-earth has its share of problems. The game may lose the “feel” of Middle-earth in these areas. It may start to feel simply like alternate history or Hyborean Age, or really any “generic” fantasy world with fantasy versions of real-world places. The GM will have to create every town and NPC without so much as a model to work with.

If you’re okay with putting in the hard work and having a story that is only tangentially connected to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, feel free to explore these settings. If not, these may simply be places for the PCs to hear about. Maybe an NPC journeyed through one of these far-off places and brought a curse or an artifact back!

The Far North

To the north of Eriador lies the Icebay of Forochel. The region is inhabited by the Lossoth. Tolkien probably envisioned them as being Finnish, Icelandic or possibly even Laplanders. They were primitive; they could not understand metal weapons or sailing boats. However, they knew how to survive in a harsh, cold environment.

The Lossoth seem to be mostly good-hearted. Unlike the Dunlendings, Southrons and Easterlings, they simply hadn’t come to the attention of the Dark Powers, and so they haven’t been manipulated to mistrust and fear the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. When King Arvedui, the last king of Arnor, was fleeing the armies of the Witch-King, the Lossoth were helpful, even though in the end they could not save him. They recovered the heirlooms of his house after he died and returned them to his descendents, which is how Aragorn was able to still have them in his day.

North of Angmar and the Grey Mountains lies Forodwaith, also called simply the Northern Waste. Forochel could be considered a part of Forodwaith. I touched upon this area when I described the Grey Mountains in my Wilderland article. There are Men living here, also called the Forodwaith. We know even less about them than we do about the Lossoth. As far as we know, it is simply a cold, empty area. However, in your campaign, it could be full of frost giants, white dragons, enchanted ice palaces, or whatever else you like.

And of course, at the utmost north of the world lies Utumno, the stronghold of Morgoth that was supposedly destroyed and buried before the First Age began.

The East and the South

East and south of the Iron Hills lies the Sea of Rhûn. The Sea lies within a larger region that is also called Rhûn, which simply means “east” in Elvish. The eastern side of Mordor is the only side that isn’t completely blocked by impassible mountains.

People from the East are called Easterlings. They might hail from around the Sea of Rhûn, the open area between the Sea and Mirkwood, or further east off the map entirely. Their cultures probably resembled various ancient nomadic cultures from the Eurasian steppe. Two specific sub-groupings of Easterlings were the Wainriders and the Balchoch, both of whom were noted for using chariots in combat.

There were probably lots of other groups of Easterlings that Tolkien simply didn’t describe. The Men of Dorwinion, a place briefly mentioned in The Hobbit, may have been Easterlings who peacefully sold wine to the Lake-men. Most of the groups living near the Lonely Mountain were probably similarly peaceful groups who simply wanted to do business.

The region south of Gondor and Mordor is called Harad, which simply means, you guessed it, “south” in Elvish. Harad is sometimes separated into Near Harad, which is visible on the map, and Far Harad, which isn’t. Somewhere further down the coast, also not on the map, lies the Haven of Umbar, home of the Corsairs.

The Corsairs of Umbar were Gondor’s most organized, long-term enemies. Umbar was originally built by Númenóreans just like most of Gondor’s cities. The rulers are Black Númenóreans, sort of the evil twins to the modern Dúnedain of Gondor. Black Númenóreans make great campaign villains when you get tired of orc chieftains and Nazgûl.

Near Harad can probably be understood to resemble Byzantium and the Middle East. Far Harad is definitely supposed to be Africa, as the people from Far Harad are black and ride elephants. There is also the region of Khand, and the people from there are called Variags. I have no idea what their deal is. They like battle-axes. That’s all I got.

Taken altogether, the Easterlings and the Southrons are simply soldiers for Sauron’s war machine. They have been manipulated by Sauron for centuries into thinking that Elves, Dúnedain and Rohirrim are their enemies, and that Middle-earth should properly belong to them, if they are strong enough to take it. Adventurers from Middle-earth will find little welcome or safe haven if they venture into Easterling or Southron lands. Even if they find a town that hasn’t drunk the Sauron juice, spies will almost certainly report their location to servants of the Dark Lord.

The most exciting thing to me about these regions is the chance to delve into one of the great unsolved mysteries of Middle-earth, the whereabouts and fate of the Blue Wizards. Two Wizards wearing blue arrived in Middle-earth with Saruman, Radagast and Gandalf, but they disappeared early on and were never heard from again. Tolkien himself never really decided what to do with these guys. He went back and forth on it in his own private notes and letters. They could be good guys, leading small pockets of resistance that are ultimately doomed. They could be bad guys, founders of black magic cults, attempting to carve out small realms for themselves as Saruman did. You get to decide!

The Deep Places of the Earth

I want to talk briefly about the world below Middle-earth. If you like the Underdark as it exists in Dungeons & Dragons, you can certainly use all those concepts in a Middle-earth game.

The Misty Mountains are riddled with networks of tunnels and caverns, and these may certainly connect to the Grey Mountains in the north and the White Mountains in the south. Orcs who know the way could travel anywhere in Middle-earth without ever seeing the sun.

The Dwarves delved too deeply in Moria and awoke the Balrog, who had apparently been trapped there since the First Age. Does this mean that Moria connects to the ancient strongholds of Angband or Utumno, or both? After Gandalf plummets from the bridge in Moria, he describes monsters too horrible to name. They seem to be reminiscent of the Ragnarok serpent as they gnaw upon the roots of the world. Creepy!

The Blue Mountains also have connections to the First Age. The dwarven cities of Belegost and Nogrod supposedly existed in these mountains and were destroyed at the end of the First Age. Thorin’s family lived in the Blue Mountains after Smaug drove them out of the Lonely Mountain. Perhaps they thought they could find these lost ruins, but they never did. Perhaps adventurers could find them!

The First Age

Having covered every possible region of Middle-earth where adventures could happen, let us now travel back in time.

The First Age began with the first rising of the sun and moon in the sky, and it ended with the destruction of Beleriand. The story of the First Age is told in The Silmarillion. A GM who has not read and thoroughly understood The Silmarillion should not run a First Age campaign. If you need a quick review, you can read my friend Jeff Wikstrom’s summary of The Silmarillion.

The First Age can be exciting for players because you have a whole new continent to explore. It is an epic time. The monsters are larger than life. We’re talking dragons, werewolves and vampires here. We’re talking not just one balrog but entire armies of balrogs. Sauron himself is little more than a lieutenant of Morgoth, the Great Enemy at this time. Perhaps there are other unique beings, equal in power to Sauron, doing terrible deeds across the land.

Who can stand up to these monsters? Epic-level godlike super-Elves, of course. The Elves of the First Age are at the peak of their abilities. They craft magic items, argue with gods, and fight with each other as often as they fight against evil. When they can’t be bothered to stir from their hidden fortress kingdoms, they train loyal Men to be their eyes and ears and hands. A family of Men may take great pride in serving a particular Elf-lord for generations.

The trouble with the First Age is the difficulty in telling original stories. This age is when the legends are made that will shape future ages. The latter ages are pretty much defined by the actions of Fëanor, Beren, Lúthien, Túrin Turambar, Eärendil and the rest. The PCs may feel like they are treading between the legs of giants here, even if they are epic-level super-Elves themselves. Finally, Beleriand ceases to exist beyond this age, meaning anything the PCs create – kingdoms, alliances, friendships – will disappear.

It may be better to use the First Age in flashback. Perhaps a PC in the Third Age finds a magic sword in a dungeon. In the next session, the PCs could play First Age heroes who wield the sword, explaining its story. In Middle-earth, the origins of something like a sword are often a big part of its significance.

The Second Age

The Second Age begins with the destruction of Beleriand and the creation of Númenor. It ends with the destruction of Númenor, the first defeat of Sauron, and the establishment of Gondor and Arnor in Middle-earth. To me, the Second Age is more interesting for adventures than the First Age.

This is the time of Númenor, the great island empire. Númenor was Middle-earth’s version of Atlantis. The Númenóreans were responsible for a lot of the huge, wondrous structures we see in The Lord of the Rings, such as Isengard, the Pillars of the Argonath, and the seven-tiered city of Minas Tirith. We are told that the Númenóreans had mastered ocean travel, and they could sail all around the world, which was flat at this time.

What is happening in Middle-earth at this time? Aside from the Elves involved in creating the Rings of Power, we really don’t know a whole lot. The places we know from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were wilderness. However, we know that Númenóreans did come to Middle-earth in their ships. Some of them started small kingdoms of their own. The ruins of Vinyalondë, described in my discussion of Eriador, are the results of one such attempt. The Haven of Umbar is another.

In the Second Age, PCs are explorers from Númenor conquering the wilderness. You could play an entire campaign revolving around building a town, gathering resources, dealing with natives, and so on. Will the town survive into the Third Age, or will it be lost to history? The PCs might have to deal with other Númenóreans who have unjustly exploited the peoples of Middle-earth. Meanwhile, back home, petty nobles squabble with each other over money and politics. A PC may have to swiftly return to Númenor to help her family, abandoning all her hard work in Middle-earth.

The Fourth Age

At first glance, a campaign set in the Fourth Age seems like a great idea. Characters can use The Lord of the Rings as a background and forge ahead with new stories. You can have new plots, new bad guys, and not worry about messing up canon.

Unfortunately, Middle-earth just doesn’t feel like Middle-earth anymore. The Elves are largely gone. The Wizards are gone. Sauron is gone for good, and there are no rings to deal with. Everything magical and fantastic slowly fades away as the world transforms into the world we know, our Earth.

Tolkien tried to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings set in the Fourth Age called The New Shadow. He didn’t get very far. Ultimately, he decided there just wasn’t any interesting story to tell.

If none of that bothers you, go ahead and have adventures in the Fourth Age. Adventures could involve going into Mordor, the East and the South, undoing the evil of Sauron. PCs could free slaves and try to convince the peoples of those lands that Sauron had lied to them. One or both of the Blue Wizards could be the villain of this campaign, having decided to take Sauron’s place. One final mystery remains – where is Radagast?

Playing with History

What if Sauron won? Suddenly, you have post-apocalyptic Middle-earth. The entire world is covered in shadow, and there is a burning red eye in the sky at all times. PCs need to avoid orc patrols everywhere they go. Is Gandalf organizing a secret hobbit resistance? Could the PCs steal a ship and sail into the West, as Eärendil did, and appeal to the gods for help? What would that help look like? (I think it looks like awesome weapons and armor for the PCs!)

Fantasy Flight Games published an amazing series of books for D&D 3rd Edition called Midnight that basically dealt with this topic. Go pester them for a 5th Edition update!

What if Galadriel took the One Ring and became a Dark Queen? What if the Witch-King was unable to conquer Arnor, but instead Gondor became abandoned after the Great Plague? What if the Lonely Mountain never fell to Smaug, so there was no need for Bilbo to travel over the Misty Mountains, and he never found the One Ring…? In your game, you don’t have to follow the books. Do your own thing. Drop your PCs into any time period, and just see what happens when you mess with it.

What possibilities can you think of?

Part I: Introduction & the Region of Eriador

Part II: Wilderland

Part III: Gondor, Rohan, & Mordor

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth

Part VI: The Mannish Races

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N Podcast on The Tome Show network!

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog. If you enjoy this post, check out Part I: Introduction and the Region of Eriador and Part II: Wilderland.

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Part III: Gondor, Rohan & Mordor

In this article I will discuss the three largest and most powerful nations of Middle-earth, all of which sit conveniently right next to each other and make up the southernmost portion of the map.

Campaigns that take place in Rohan or Gondor will have a different tone from Eriador or Wilderland campaigns. These are societies made up mostly of Men (humans) that have little interaction with other races (aside from orcs, whom they kill on sight). They encompass a far larger area than the “city-states” of Bree or Lake-town. They also have far more history than any of the other locations we have looked at.

The histories of these nations can be found in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. I’m going to try to avoid simply repeating all that history here. If you’re thinking of running a Rohan or Gondor campaign, I encourage you to read all of Appendix A and look up any unfamiliar terms at tolkiengateway.net.

Mordor is probably not a place for an entire campaign. It is a place for PCs to visit, briefly, and only when they are high level… unless the intent is for the PCs to suffer a horrible demise! Nevertheless, I will describe Mordor and present ideas for adventures and campaigns therein.

Describing Rohan

Rohan used to be a province of Gondor called Calenardhon. The land was depopulated during the Great Plague, and so it was mostly empty (but not entirely) when Gondor granted the land to Eorl the Young and his followers, the Eorlingas.
Rohan, called the Riddermark or simply “the Mark” by its own people, is huge. It includes most of the land north of the White Mountains, from the Gap of Rohan to the Anduin. The northern borders are Fangorn and the Limlight, a tributary of the Anduin. (Note that most of Tolkien’s rivers are “the Something” and not “the Something River.” He was very fussy about this.) The only land in this area that is not part of Rohan is Gondor’s northernmost province, Anórien.

The people of Rohan are best described as “land Vikings” – brash, bold warriors who ride across the plains on their mounts, which they value above any other possessions. Their culture is actually a blend of Scandinavian, Goth and Anglo-Saxon, but if you’re not a scholar of ancient history, “land Vikings” is good enough for most people. They are ruled by a King, and their chief military officers are Marshalls. The First Marshall of the Riddermark is the highest military officer, stationed at Edoras, the capital. The Second Marshall is stationed at Helm’s Deep, and the Third Marshall is stationed at Aldburg, which doesn’t appear on any map but is somewhere east of Edoras.

Rohan has always been a fierce ally of Gondor. The two nations share a bro-mance going all the way back to Rohan’s pre-history, when the Rohirrim were simply called “the Northmen.” However, although Rohan fights on the side of the “good guys” in The Lord of the Rings, they are not entirely good people. This will become evident as we talk about Rohan’s enemies.

Enemies and Adventure in Rohan

Rohan’s chief enemies are three other groups of Men: the Dunlendings, the Easterlings, and the Woses.

From Gondor’s point of view, the Dunlendings were squatters. They moved into Calenardhon after the region was depopulated by the Great Plague. After Calenardhon was granted to Eorl and became Rohan, the Rohirrim began driving the Dunlendings out. Today, the Dunlendings live in Dunland, west of the Misty Mountains and south of Moria and Eregion. The Dunlending culture is probably similar to that of the ancient Celts.
The biggest conflict with the Dunlendings came in T.A. 2758, when Wulf son of Freca sought vengeance upon King Helm Hammerhand of Rohan for the death of his father. The conflict between these two powerful historical figures would make a great backdrop for a Rohan campaign, as it also coincided with the beginning of The Long Winter and an invasion of Easterlings.

Are the Dunlendings evil? Depends on who you ask. The Dunlendings themselves probably don’t think so. They simply want their land back. Unfortunately, they are less advanced than the Rohirrim, and so they seem like little more than superstitious back country folk. They are easily manipulated into doing evil by the Dark Powers. What would an adventure campaign from the Dunlendings’ point of view look like? A campaign that starts in Dunland is conveniently close to places like Moria, Isengard, and Tharbad.

The Easterlings are actually several groups of Men that come from somewhere East of Mordor. Sometimes they are from around the Sea of Rhûn and sometimes they are from parts further off the map. Their cultures are probably inspired by Eastern Europeans, Russians, Mongolians and even ancient Chinese. Like the Dunlendings, they are easily manipulated by Sauron into doing his dirty work. Rohan exists in the first place because Eorl rode out the north to save Gondor from an Easterling invasion.

The Woses are an especially interesting and often overlooked group in Middle-earth. They are related, somehow, to the Drúedain (NOT the same as the Dúnedain – note the difference in spelling!) that appeared during the First Age. They are a race of quiet, forest-dwelling Men with strange nature magic, most notably the ability to turn into stone. They seem to be peaceful, and yet we hear that the Rohirrim hunted them for sport. The Woses have no great agenda in Middle-earth, and they only live in a few small, isolated places around the fringes of civilization. Perhaps PCs need to seek out the Woses to get a specific bit of lost knowledge or healing magic against a particular type of poison. They would first need to find the Woses and then convince them their intentions are peaceful.

In the north, Rohan faces more supernatural and monstrous threats. Fangorn and Lothlórien are both “haunted, spooky forests” from the typical Rohirrim’s point of view, and Mirkwood is not far away either. The Elves of Lothlórien, while not evil, are very protective of their privacy, and they are no allies to the Rohirrim.

Finally, there is Isengard, a prime example of an adventure site. If a GM does not want to use Isengard itself, it could be the model for similar sites anywhere in Rohan or Gondor. Isengard is a mysterious, black tower that looks like someone stuck four gigantic black pillars in the ground and fused them together. No one knows how it was built or why it was built. As for who built it, the mostly likely candidate is the Númenóreans, who were doing all sorts of strange things in Middle-earth in the Second Age. What’s inside the tower? Who lived there before Saruman? Does the tower itself enhance certain types of magic somehow? Could there be underground tunnels connecting to a dungeon full of monsters and treasure? Endless possibilities, folks.

Describing Gondor

Gondor is simultaneously the largest, most powerful nation in Middle-earth and a nation in decline. The borders of Gondor change throughout the Third Age, but for the most part, Gondor contains all the land between the White Mountains and the Sea.
The people of Gondor are Dúnedain, Men of the West. The Dúnedain are the heirs to the legacy of Númenor, a mighty island empire that existed in the Second Age. The Rangers of the North are also Dúnedain, but the two cultures have grown apart over time. The Dúnedain are very proud. They have knowledge, technology and magic that other Men do not have. They live long lives, although ironically one of their biggest flaws is their fear of death. The pride of the Dúnedain and the conflict it creates is one of the chief themes of Gondor.

Early in the Third Age, the capital of Gondor was Osgiliath, a beautiful city straddling the Anduin. East of Osgiliath, Minas Ithil (Tower of the Moon) guarded an entrance to Mordor. West of Osgiliath, Minas Anor (Tower of the Sun) sat at the base of Mindolluin, the easternmost peak of the White Mountains. All three cities were connected by a road that passed through the beautiful country of Ithilien. That was when things were good in Gondor.

By the end of the Third Age, Osgiliath was in ruins. Minas Ithil had been captured by Nazgûl and renamed Minas Morgul (Tower of Dark Sorcery). Ithilien was overrun by orcs. The capital had been moved to Minas Anor, renamed Minas Tirith (Tower of the Guard). Once ruled by a line of kings descended from Elendil the Tall, father of Isildur, at the end of the Third Age, that line has died out, and Gondor is ruled by Stewards.

Other than Minas Tirith, Gondor’s most important cities are Pelargir and Dol Amroth. Linhir is a distant third on that list, because it contains a strategically important port and bridge. Pelargir is home to the bulk of Gondor’s mighty navy (which becomes less mighty over time). Dol Amroth has a bit of a fantastic history, having once been the home of Celeborn and Galadriel. Rule of the city was granted to a line of Princes when Galadriel departed for Lothlórien, and supposedly the people of the city all have Elven blood. This is probably just a folk tale, made up and passed around by the ignorant, but it can be true in your campaign if you want it to be.

The countryside of Gondor is divided into several provinces that get progressively more rural the more one travels west. Folk from the western provinces are often the butt of jokes from city-folk. Western Gondor seems to be, for the most part, safe and quiet; a place that produces bored farm-boys and farm-girls who head east in search of adventure. However, the quiet western provinces could just as easily be the perfect hiding place for a villain who wants to go unnoticed.

One notable site is the Stone of Erech in the Morthond Vale, near the southern exit of the Paths of the Dead. As with Isengard, the Stone is a mysterious artifact out of the past that could serve as a model for similar sites in Gondor. It is a giant, black sphere, six feet in diameter, that lies half-buried in the earth. Supposedly, Isildur brought it with him from Númenor and placed it in its current location. Why would Isildur go through the trouble of bringing a huge, heavy rock across the ocean, carry it miles inland, and bury it in the earth? What magic or technology was used to accomplish such a feat? Could it, in fact, be an alien spaceship? Like Stonehenge, the Stone of Erech is a place of mystery. It is heavily connected to the Oathbreakers that haunt the Paths of the Dead.

The Long Defeat of Gondor

The major theme that any GM needs to consider when running adventures in Gondor is that of greatness slowly whittled away by an unrelenting, unseen Enemy.

At the birth of the Third Age, Gondor was a mighty nation. Its armies had (with the help of Elves, though they soon forgot) defeated Sauron, conquered Mordor, and brought peace to the world. Even after the North was destroyed by the Witch-King of Angmar, Gondor was strong. They sent a navy all the way to the Grey Havens, and in a single year, they defeated the enemy that had plagued the North for centuries.

However, by the end of the Third Age, all is doom and gloom. Sauron controls Mordor again. Osgiliath is in ruins. No king sits upon the throne. The southern provinces are in the hands of evil Men. The provinces are not able to muster mighty armies like they used to.

I will not attempt to describe all the ways in which Sauron whittled down Gondor’s defenses. Sauron had three thousand years to accomplish his goal and many, many weapons at his disposal. He sent plagues (The Great Plague), controlled the weather (The Long Winter), and sent wave after wave of Easterlings, Southrons and Corsairs against Gondor’s borders.

However, the Men of Gondor were sometimes their own worst enemies. They were arrogant and often forgot the contributions of other races. One of the most devastating early episodes was the Kin-Strife, a civil war that occurred because Gondor’s King had married an outsider (in fact, the daughter of Vidugavia of the Northmen, mentioned in my previous article). While Sauron was certainly manipulating events behind the scenes, the chief culprit for this atrocity was simply racism.

Adventuring in Gondor

For the most part, things are peaceful and safe inside Gondor’s borders. There are not a lot of rampaging orcs or evil wizards. Adventures within Gondor would most likely involve elements typical to urban campaigns: politics, crime, and the odd haunting or malfunctioning magic here and there.

During times when Gondor is openly at war, more opportunities for adventure open up. A band of orcs or brigands might threaten a town because the soldiers are away on the front lines. The PCs might have to defend an important bridge against saboteurs or keep a mountain pass free of monsters so that food and supplies can get to the soldiers. Perhaps spies and traitors have taken over a beacon, and the PCs need to take it back so important messages can be sent.

Describing Mordor

Mordor is surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges that meet at almost perfect right angles, as if they emerged from the earth at the command of some evil god. At the gap between the northern and western mountain ranges is a giant gate, the Black Gate or the Morannon. The other well-known entrance to Mordor is Minas Morgul. There may be other, secret ways over the mountains, and they are probably all very dangerous.
In another D&D campaign setting, Mordor would be on another plane of existence altogether. Being in Mordor is like being in the Abyss or Hell. The sky is black, nothing grows anywhere, and everything is out to get you. In the northwest, there is a network of roads connecting the Black Gate, Minas Morgul, and the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr, Sauron’s chief stronghold. This whole area is called Gorgoroth. The southern portion of Mordor is called Nurn and contains an inland sea with the same name. Sauron allows the sun to shine here so that his slaves can grow food to feed his armies.

All of the major named towers and fortresses, aside from Barad-dûr itself, were built by the Men of Gondor to keep a watch on the land and keep Sauron out. One by one, Sauron took those sites from Gondor and populated them with his orcs. Most of this was done while Sauron was living in Dol Guldur, pretending to be the Necromancer.

Adventuring in Mordor, or Time to Roll Up New Characters!

One does not simply walk into Mordor. If you are a PC in Mordor, your first goal should be to get out as fast as possible. Mordor is not a good place to be. What are you even doing there in the first place? Silly adventurers.

That said, it’s possible to have adventures in Mordor that don’t result in instant death. After all, Shadows of Mordor, a recent popular video game, took place entirely in and around the Land of Shadow. High level campaigns could end here. Low level campaigns could start here, with the PCs as slaves attempting to escape from Nurn.

Adventures in Mordor should be quick, sneaky and require lots of planning. First, the PCs need to figure out how to get in. Do they go in through the Black Gate, or do they find a secret way? Next, they must avoid orc patrols, find whatever it is they came for, and get out fast. Mistakes should have severe consequences for the PCs.

You could run a grim and dark campaign where the PCs come from nations to the South and East. They are allies of Mordor, or at least the orcs won’t kill them on sight, which means they can travel to towns and adventure sites that would be beyond the reach of most adventurers. Perhaps the PCs are slaves to one of the lesser Nazgûl, who relies on them to accomplish missions in places where he can’t go. The PCs need not be evil for this to work, and maybe at a turning point in the campaign, they free themselves and strike back at their master.

Conclusion

I couldn’t wait to write this article. There is just so much to say about these three regions, I wasn’t sure I could do them justice in just one post. What do you think? My next post will cover other regions and other time periods that were not covered in the previous three posts. More posts to come will deal with the races, monsters and larger themes of Middle-earth. I hope my words give you insight into running great campaigns!

Part I: Introduction & the Region of Eriador

Part II: Wilderland

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth

Part VI: The Mannish Races

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network!

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog. If you enjoy this post, check out Part I: Introduction and the Region of Eriador.

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Part II: Wilderland

Last week I talked about Eriador, the land to the west of the Misty Mountains, and how campaigns might play out in that region at various time periods. Continuing with our guided tour of Middle-earth, this week I will talk about Wilderland, the area to the east of the Misty Mountains and north of Rohan, Gondor and Mordor. I hope that you’ll gain a better understanding of how to use Wilderland in your games, either as the focus of an entire campaign or simply a place to visit for a single story arc.

Describing Wilderland

Wilderland is an enormous area that is mostly wild and uninhabited, with a few pockets of civilization. Unlike Eriador, no great kingdom has ever controlled the whole of the region. In describing the region, I will start in the northeast with the most famous location, the Lonely Mountain, and work my way around the map.

Erebor, the Lonely Mountain

The Lonely Mountain, also called Erebor or the Kingdom Under the Mountain, is probably the center of civilization in Wilderland during most time periods. This is most evident when it is sacked by the dragon Smaug in T. A. 2770 and the entire region falls into chaos. Along with the nearby kingdom of Dale (and later Lake-town), the Lonely Mountain serves as a trading hub for every other group in the region, and so it makes a great starting point for a campaign.

The Lonely Mountain is a dwarven kingdom first established in T. A. 1999. The dwarven presence in the region is strong. We know that there are other dwarven settlements in the Iron Hills to the east and the Grey Mountains to the north. The dwarves exist in an almost symbiotic relationship with the Men of Dale. The wealth of Erebor and Dale implies that there must be many more civilizations in the region with whom they trade, although in The Hobbit we don’t really hear about these other civilizations, aside from the Elves of Mirkwood. We briefly hear about “Dorwinion,” where the Elves get their potent wine. A GM setting a campaign in the region should feel free to create towns along the River Running to the south and in the vast, empty map spaces between the Iron Hills and the Sea of Rhûn.

Early in the Third Age, when the dwarves are just establishing a presence in the region, adventures could involve searching the Grey Mountains and the Iron Hills for new places to build strongholds, driving off the monstrous inhabitants of these mountains. Later in the Third Age, adventures could involve exploring many of these same dwarven strongholds after they have been sacked by dragons, possibility with the dragons still inside!

The Grey Mountains

This mountain range stretches across the top of the Middle-earth map, from the northern end of the Misty Mountains all the way to Erebor. The Grey Mountains can serve as a convenient underground highway for villains trying to move from one side of the map to the other. The Grey Mountains should be the home of the most powerful monsters in your campaign. Most notably, the Grey Mountains are inhabited by dragons, particularly at the eastern end, probably having been drawn there by the dwarves and their wealth.

At the western end of the range lies Mount Gundabad, which serves as the capital for all orc tribes in Wilderland. Since Mount Gundabad lies close to Angmar and can probably be reached by mountain pass, it’s possible for these two villainous powers to work together on any plot the GM fancies.
Finally, the Grey Mountains serve as a barrier between Wilderland and the Northern Waste. Somewhere in the Northern Wastes, deep underground, lies the ruins of Utumno, a dungeon so ancient and so evil it could conceivably contain anything the GM might dream up to inflict upon PCs. Some horrible thing that creeps out of the deepest dungeons of Utumno to take root in a cave under the Grey Mountains could be the focus of an entire campaign.

Northern Mirkwood

Mirkwood forest dominates the map of Wilderland. It is so huge, it is best described in sections. Mirkwood is the quintessential creepy, dark forest, and although the north portion is less dangerous than the south, it is by no means safe.

The east end of Northern Mirkwood is controlled and protected by the forces of Thranduil, the Elvenking. Thranduil himself is one of the oldest and most powerful Elves in Middle-earth. If you have read The Silmarillion, you may understand that Thranduil has modeled his home and defenses after the secret Elven kingdoms of Beleriand, particularly Menegroth of the Thousand Caves. Although paranoid, private and isolationist, we know from The Hobbit that Thranduil’s Elves traded regularly with Lake-town and even sent emissaries to the Master of Lake-town from time to time. Presumably, the Elves had a similar relationship to the civilizations that existed before the coming of Smaug and after his death.

Mirkwood is very old. It was once known as Greenwood the Great before the “darkening” caused by the arrival of the Necromancer (more on that as we talk about Southern Mirkwood). There are a couple roads leading through Northern Mirkwood, most notably the Old Forest Road and the unnamed Elf-path taken by Thorin & Company in The Hobbit. Who built these roads and where did they originally lead? Might there be whole towns, abandoned or still inhabited, hiding among the trees?

Although Mirkwood is inhabited by monsters, most notably giant spiders, the forest itself is an adversary to PCs. Similar to the Old Forest and Caradhras, Mirkwood seems to be alive, filled with a malevolent will that very much wants the PCs to leave or perish. It is difficult to find food and water. It is easy to get lost under the dark branches and lose all hope of ever seeing the sun again. Although the most likely source of this malevolence is the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, it’s worth noting that there’s quite a distance between Dol Guldur and the parts of Mirkwood we see in The Hobbit. A GM may decide that there is another culprit, closer to hand, that the PCs can deal with.

The Upper Anduin Vale

The Anduin, also called the Great River, plays a major role in the history of Middle-earth. The One Ring was lost in its waters and lay there for over 2000 years before it was found by Sméagol. One of the longest rivers in Middle-earth, it begins near the meeting point of the Grey and Misty Mountains and travels south through many lands, including Rohan and Gondor, until it reaches the sea. The Anduin defines the entire portion of Wilderland west of Mirkwood and east of the Misty Mountains
There are several groups of Men in the region at various times, but since the history of Men in Wilderland is a bit complicated, I will talk about them later.

The most well-known settlement in the region is the Carrock, home of Beorn. Like Tom Bombadil, Beorn seems to be a unique figure in Middle-earth; we simply don’t meet anyone like him. Although he is a Mortal Man, we don’t know how old he is. He originally came from “the mountains” with “his people,” who may or may not have been like him. He is taller even than Gandalf, so perhaps he is half-giant. He is a “skin-changer,” able to change into the form of a giant bear, and the most we know about his magical abilities is this quote from Gandalf: “he is under no enchantment but his own.” After the events of The Hobbit, he had children who were also skin-changers, and the civilization that grew around him came to be known as “the Beornings.”

The very existence of Beorn is a great boon to GMs and PCs playing games in Middle-earth. He is proof that not everything has to have a complicated or well-explained back-story. Just because something doesn’t exist anywhere else doesn’t mean it can’t exist in your game. He justifies the existence of druids in your game, or really anyone who uses nature magic or changes into an animal. We don’t know much about his people, but perhaps there were many tribes of “Mountain Men” who could change into different sorts of animals. Perhaps there are older tribes of Men still living in the Misty or Grey Mountains with even stranger powers. We know he had children, so where did his wife come from?

Further to the south, we come to the Gladden Fields, the site of Isildur’s ambush by orcs and the loss of The One Ring. In a campaign that takes place before T.A. 2463 it is possible for PCs to find the One Ring here, probably drastically altering the history of Middle-earth. Most notably, we know that there were hobbits living near the Gladden Fields. This is the civilization of Smeágol and Déagol. Hobbits as a race don’t have nearly as epic a history as Elves, Dwarves or Men, but this is where the story of hobbits begins, as far as we know. From here, the hobbits began a long migration through Rohan and into Eriador, presumably because the region had been growing darker due to the presence of the Necromancer (although by T.A. 2463, the Necromancer had been darkening the region for almost 1500 years). There might possibly still be hobbits living here, incredibly isolated, even in later years.

Finally, somewhere in this region is Rhosgobel, home to Radagast the Brown. I’ve never been exactly clear on where Rhosgobel is, and different maps put it in different locations. It is somewhere on the western border of Mirkwood between the Carrock and Dol Guldur. Like most of the other major players in Wilderland, Radagast keeps to himself and doesn’t like to go out of his way to help people. (And really, what group of PCs wants a powerful wizard coming to their rescue all the time?) PCs should stumble upon Radagast’s home at a low point, when they are lost in the forest, wounded, low on supplies, perhaps even cursed or in possession of an evil artifact that they don’t know how to handle. Radagast can turn the PCs around, point them in the right direction, and give them access to much-needed knowledge, spells or magic items. If the PCs try to go back to Radagast later, he is not at home, or perhaps his whole house has moved.

Southern Mirkwood

Finally, we reach Southern Mirkwood, home of the Necromancer and his fearsome fortress, Dol Guldur. For the most part, Southern Mirkwood should be handled much like Northern Mirkwood, except the monsters are tougher and there are no Elves to rescue lost PCs.
Dol Guldur is the “Angmar” or “Mordor” of the region. It is the center for everything evil that is happening in Wilderland. For most of the Third Age, it is home to a mysterious being called the Necromancer, and at various other times, it is controlled by one or more Nazgûl.

Yes, folks, the Necromancer is actually Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord, and the Great Enemy. Before T.A. 2850, this is a big secret. Most of the Wise (the collective name for the big thinkers among the “good guys,” mostly Wizards and Elves) would like to believe that the Necromancer is simply a Nazgûl or a Mortal Man who has stumbled onto great power. They simply do not want to believe it could be Sauron, because that would mean they would have to do something about it, and no one wants to face Sauron again. On the other hand, Sauron also does not want the secret to get out. He does not want adventurers or do-gooders in his backyard, messing up his plans, and he doesn’t want to attract powerful Wizards or Elves who could actually harm him.

A hack-and-slash campaign where the PCs fight through many levels of Dol Guldur and defeat Sauron, thus altering the history of Middle-earth, is certainly possible. However, there are many adventures that could involve Dol Guldur and its terrible master without necessarily going in that direction. The Necromancer certainly could have any number of powerful servants who are named NPCs with plots and agendas all their own. These NPCs could be anywhere in Wilderland, carrying out their master’s will. Perhaps they are trying to negotiate an alliance with tribes of orcs in Moria or Mount Gundabad. Perhaps Sauron wants something in a dragon’s horde. What about the regular people who live in Southern Mirkwood? There could be whole villages of Mortal Men, good people who live in the shadow of the Dark Tower. PCs could help free these villagers and escort them to a safer place. A PC’s background could involve escaping from one of these villages.

Men of Wilderland

There are several groups of Men living in Wilderland, and it’s unclear to me how they are related to each other, if at all. In the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, you have the Dale-men, who later become the Lake-men. Men from the east of this region, around the Sea of Rhûn, are called Easterlings, and among the Easterlings there are probably many different subgroups, both good and evil. We know that there are groups of Men called “Woodmen” living in and around the edges of Mirkwood. Finally, there are Beorn’s people, the “Mountain Men.” What all this means for GMs is that if you want to have a small village of Men anywhere in Wilderland, you can, and you don’t really need to worry too much about it. There are people all over.

The Northmen

The group I have avoided mentioning until now, because I want to give them special attention, is the Northmen. They are the ancestors of the Riders of Rohan, and their history weaves its way through Wilderland much like the Anduin does. Like the Men of Rohan, the Northmen are heavily inspired by the Vikings, and though they frequently side with the “good guys,” they are not always good themselves.

The first we hear of the Northmen, they are living in the open region between Mirkwood and Mordor under the command of a chieftain named Vidugavia. Since he is an important figure in the history of Gondor, I won’t talk about him for now.

Much later, around the time of the Witch-King’s defeat in Eriador, the Northmen relocated to the Upper Anduin Vale. They started calling themselves the Éothéod, and they placed their capital, Framsburg, pretty much at the doorstep of Mount Gundabad. They were brave guys. Presumably, they spent many long years in that region, fighting orcs and dragons, drinking and boasting, and basically having a grand time of it. We know that King Fram, after whom Framsburg was named, slew a particularly nasty dragon named Scatha the Worm and then insulted a group of dwarves by refusing to share the dragon’s treasure.
After living in the region for about 500 years, the Éothéod moved and changed their name again. This time, their chief was a guy named Eorl the Young, and he was something of a badass. At the age of 16, Eorl made a name for himself by taming the wild horse that killed his father.

In T.A. 2510, Gondor sent a messenger all the way up the Anduin to find the Éothéod, because Gondor was facing big trouble from yet another invasion of Easterlings. Just think for a moment how great the reputation of the Éothéod must have been for Gondor to send a messenger so far, to contact the descendents of allies they hadn’t seen in 500 years. In the end, Gondor got the help they desperately needed, with the followers of Eorl, the Eorlingas, sweeping in at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant to turn the tide in Gondor’s favor. As a reward, the Steward of Gondor granted Eorl and his descendents the land that would become Rohan.

The Riders of Rohan are, of course, one of the most fun things about Middle-earth. It’s fun to be a blonde, spear-wielding “land Viking” and shout “Forth Eorlingas” as you ride down your enemies. If your campaign involves these charismatic warriors in any way, it’s important to know that their history begins in Wilderland. And in Dungeons & Dragons, uncovering lost history can lead to adventure!

Conclusion: This discussion of Wilderland has gone on much longer than expected. The region is definitely not as “tidy” as Eriador, but hopefully that means you can have lots of fun stories involving the different races and adventure sites within Wilderland. I really hope my article has inspired you to go out and tell your own stories. If there’s anything here you find particularly inspiring or would like me to expand upon, please let me know. Check out tolkiengateway.net and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien himself to learn more about unfamiliar places and people in this article. And thanks again to James for letting me post my words!

Part I: Introduction & the Region of Eriador

Part III: Gondor, Rohan, & Mordor

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth

Part VI: The Mannish Races

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network!

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Winn, host of the amazing Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network. Geoff was on a recent episode of my podcast, The Round Table, where we chatted about what it would take to create a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. That conversation inspired this series of posts here on World Builder Blog.

Eriador

Part I: Introduction & The Region of Eriador

Hey folks. After my talk with James on the D&D Round Table about the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons/ Middle-earth gaming products from Cubicle 7, I realized there was a lot more I wanted to talk about. I’m a huge fan of both Dungeons & Dragons and Middle-earth, and the question of how to run a D&D game in my favorite fictional setting has long been on my mind.

In this blog, I will focus on general ideas for adapting your favorite role-playing game, whatever that happens to be, for Middle-earth, and vice versa. I’m going to largely stay away from talking about game mechanics. Trying to create a role-playing game that is faithful to the source material while also being fun to play is a huge challenge, and not one I particularly want to tackle at the moment. Instead I want to talk about how you can take games that you already know how to play, already know how to design adventures for, and set them in Middle-earth.

As I said on the podcast, Dungeons & Dragons is a game where you go into dungeons, kill monsters, and take their stuff. It’s even been advertised by the game designers as such. Middle-earth lacks a lot of the variety of monsters, magic and magical items that are typical to Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, when you take a lot of the magic and monsters out of Dungeons & Dragons, you just lose a lot of the game.

There’s basically two approaches to this problem: you can change the world of Middle-earth so that it’s more like Dungeons & Dragons; or you can change the game of Dungeons & Dragons so that it’s more like Middle-earth. The latter is more difficult and requires fiddling with game mechanics, so I’m going to save that topic for a later post. For the first few posts in this blog, I am going to assume you simply want to play Dungeons & Dragons (or Pathfinder or 13th Age or Savage Worlds) the way you’ve always played it, but set your game in Middle-earth.

When planning your campaign, you’ll want to think about where and when your campaign will take place. Middle-earth can be broken up into three distinct geographical areas, each of which can yield up different flavors of game. These areas are Eriador, Wilderland (also called Rhovanion), and Gondor. For my first post, I am going to talk all about Eriador, where all our adventures begin.

Eriador: This is the area west of the Misty Mountains. It literally means “empty land,” and by the time of The Lord of the Rings, this is a pretty accurate name. Most of the people were killed or driven out of Eriador after the Witch-King destroyed Arnor, the North Kingdom.

Eriador includes the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, the Grey Havens, and the Blue Mountains. What’s more, all of these are connected by a major road that runs straight across the region. This gives you an opportunity to include Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits in your campaign.

Early Third Age: Early in the Third Age, most of the region is controlled by the Men of Arnor, the North Kingdom of the Dúnedain. The society of Arnor should resemble that of Gondor. The capital was a city called Annúminas, and it probably looked a lot like Minas Tirith, except it was built on a lake. The Dúnedain are brave, powerful Men who bring light to the darkness and civilization to the wilderness. They are staunch opponents of Sauron and Sauron’s minions. However, evil forces did not begin to taint the region until after Arnor had broken up into three separate kingdoms, which I’ll talk about below. The time of Arnor was therefore relatively peaceful, and any conflicts would largely be the invention of the GM. The most notable thing about Arnor was that its kings were descendents Isildur, the man who defeated Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Isildur never returned to Arnor to rule, but was instead slain by orcs on the road home.

Middle Third Age: After the death of its tenth king, Arnor was split between the king’s three sons. Three new kingdoms emerged – Arthedain, Cardolan and Rhudaur. Arthedain can basically be seen as “the good guys,” the people most closely aligned with the vision of the original Dúnedain kingdom. The capital of Arthedain is Fornost, a fortress that sits north of Bree. Rhudaur quickly degenerated into a society of dark sorcery and barbarism. Cardolan, which contained the village of Bree within its borders, was somewhere in the middle. It was populated by decent, hardy folk just trying to survive. The Witch-King of Angmar looms as a threat over everything. Over a period of roughly 1000 years, the Witch-King conquered and destroyed all three of these kingdoms.

In a campaign during this time, PCs can be brave knights and allies of Arthedain and Cardolan, defending the land from evil plots out of Rhudaur and Angmar. Although the land is doomed, people can still be saved and knowledge and magic can be preserved for future generations. Perhaps in your campaign, you allow the PCs to actually defeat the Witch-King, significantly altering the history of the North.

Late Third Age: After the fall of Arthedain, the region becomes much different. The Witch-King’s victory was short-lived. The year after the Witch-King took Fornost and drove off the last of Arthedain’s kings, a combined force of Elves and Men of Gondor arrived. They utterly destroyed Angmar and drove the Witch-King out of the North. All that was left was a wilderness full of ruins, populated by scattered civilizations with tenuous connections to one another. The descendents of Isildur survived to become the Chieftains of the Rangers. This time period most closely resembles a typical campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons.

As stated at the beginning, we have a string of small civilizations connected by a road that mostly travels through wilderness. Dwarves travel along this road from the Blue Mountains to the Misty Mountains, bringing trade goods and news. There is also the Greenway, a road that runs north to south and crosses the Great East Road just outside of Bree. This makes Bree the ideal starting point for any campaign, a place where Dwarves, Hobbits and Rangers can meet.

The Rangers make an ideal support organization for your campaign. They are unquestionably the “good guys,” patrolling the wilderness, saving people from monsters, and taking no credit for their actions. Their main goal is to preserve the ruins of the old kingdoms, knowing that one day a king will return and restore prosperity to the region. In a campaign that takes place in this time period, the PCs are either Rangers themselves or work for the Rangers. Alternatively, the PCs could simply be treasure hunters who care nothing for history, which would make the Rangers an enemy.

The area is rife with dungeons that can be explored for treasure. The Barrow-downs and the Old Forest are iconic locations from The Lord of the Rings that players will instantly recognize. There are also the abandoned cities of Annúminas and Fornost. Perhaps descendents of the evil hill-men of Rhudaur still survive, hatching devilish plots in remote locations. During the long war with Angmar, the Witch-King probably sent many minions into the region who could have built dungeons in hidden locations. Those dungeons are still there, and either they are still inhabited or they are long abandoned, but they are definitely full of danger and treasure. Angmar, of course, is likely full of abandoned fortresses containing dark magic items and weapons of war that bad guys might want to claim for themselves. Finally, the PCs could be sent into the Mines of Moria or the goblin caves of the Misty Mountains for any number of reasons, likely to find death at the hands of orcs, Gollum, or the Balrog.

Far to the south of this region are a few areas that deserve special mention. They are rather obscure locations, far removed from the major events of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This makes them exciting locations to use in a campaign, because the GM and players are free to make up whatever they want.

The first of these is the town of Tharbad. This town lies far to the south of Bree, along a road that once connected Arnor and Gondor when both were prosperous kingdoms. When Arnor was destroyed and Gondor became less and less influential in the world at large, Tharbad was largely abandoned. In The Lord of the Rings, we hear a report from Boromir, who passed through the town on the way to the Council of Elrond, that nothing remains of the town except a crumbling bridge over a river.

In your campaign, Tharbad does not have to be abandoned. It could be home to brave, hardy Men, similar to the Men of Bree or Lake-town, trying to eke out a living in a harsh wilderness. It could be a den of thieves and brigands. It could be a stronghold or orcs or an evil wizard, someone as powerful as Saruman, who could be a threat to the peaceful people of the North if not stopped. Tharbad makes a great alternative starting point for your campaign if you want a darker game, or if you simply want to be closer to other areas like Rohan, Isengard, Moria and Gondor.

The other location I want to talk about is Vinyalondë, also called Lond Daer or Lond Daer Enedh. Vinyalondë was a port haven established by Tar-Aldarion, the sixth king of Númenor, in his younger days as a prince. The tale of Aldarion and his wife Erendis is told in Unfinished Tales, and I recommend you read it if you’re at all curious about Númenor and life in the Second Age of Middle-earth. For our purposes, however, Vinyalondë is simply a great adventure location. Númenor was a powerful empire of Men in the Second Age, and at one time they had explored the whole world. The ruins of Vinyalondë could contain just about anything, from lost magical treasures to horrible monsters that have been locked away. These ruins can be reached from Tharbad by sailing down the river. If the PCs are interested in a sea adventure, they can establish Vinyalondë as their home base, from which they could sail to the Grey Havens, Gondor, Umbar, or even more exotic locations.

So there you have it, my overview of the region of Eriador. Hopefully you’re already buzzing with campaign ideas. If you’re interested in any of the locations that I talked about and want to learn more, I highly recommend making your way over to http://tolkiengateway.net. It’s the most comprehensive Tolkien Wiki I have found, and it’s always my first stop when I’m doing research for a project.

In future posts, I will talk about Wilderland, the Gondor region, and locations that don’t fit neatly into any of these regions. But what else would you like me to talk about? What questions can I answer? I’m interested to see what problems others have had trying to set a campaign in Middle-earth. Thank you for reading my words, and thank you to James for giving me a place to post them.

Part II: Wilderland

Part III: Gondor, Rohan, & Mordor

Part IV: Other Places, Other Times

Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth

Part VI: The Mannish Races

Listen to Geoffrey Winn discuss the literature that influenced the creation of D&D every month on the Appendix N podcast on The Tome Show network!

A new episode of my podcast, The Round Table, is up on The Tome Show’s website.


It’s a Tome Show crossover! I sit down with Rudy Basso of the DnD VnG podcast and Jeff Wikstrom and Geoff Winn of the Appendix N podcast to discuss Cubicle 7’s announcement of a Middle-earth campaign setting for fifth edition D&D. Then it’s an interview with game designer Paris Crenshaw and Jason Nelson of Legendary Games to discuss their Kickstarter for Trail of the Apprentice an adventure path for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder meant for beginners and kids. This podcast was recorded on March 13 and 22, 2016.






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