Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fourth Age

While reading "Children of Hurin" I found myself frequently daydreaming over my several decades of Tolkien fandom.  "The Hobbit" was the first book I really fell in love with, after seeing a production based on it at the Children's Theater in the Twin Cities.  We had a beautiful illustrated version at home, and I took incredible pride at reading it "on my own."  After that, I found out about the Lord of the Rings.  On my first pass through, I struggled through the book, loving it while frequently feeling exhausted.  I'd set it aside and daydream, visualizing the deep Fangorn forests, the bleak surfaces of Mordor, the bustling metropolis of Minas Tirith, the foggy barrow downs... few things since have affected me as strongly.  I committed a cardinal sin on that first read-through: I finished "The Two Towers," with its incredibly dramatic cliffhanger ending, and couldn't stand to wait to find out what happened next, so - gulp - I SKIPPED the first half of "Return of the King" to pick up their story and find out what happened next.

I eventually re-read the trilogy, this time going all the way through and not even skipping the poems and songs.  Then I re-read it again.  I eventually tracked down The Silmarillion and read that as well.  I found "The Atlas of Middle-earth" at the Burnsville library and spent hours poring over the maps it showed.  I started drawing my own maps of the areas beyond the borders of Tolkien's maps.

In middle school, one day I was at Barnes and Noble and found something intriguing: a box labeled "Middle Earth Role Playing."  The cover showed a wizard, some hobbits, and others standing under a tree; they were clearly Middle-earth characters.  According to the text on the back, this box included a book providing instructions on how to play a fantasy game with friends set in Middle-earth, and came with two ten-sided dice, character sheets, and a sample adventure set in the Trollshaws.  I had to have this.  I saved up some money and bought it.

Even though I didn't yet have anyone to play it with, I spent days reading and re-reading the contents.  I was vaguely aware of role-playing games, but had never actually played any of them - "Dungeons and Dragons," by far the leader, was faintly associated with the occult in my household.  Still, this was something different.  It wasn't just D&D with Tolkien characters bolted on; it had been thoughtfully designed from the ground up to reflect Tolkien's world and philosophy.  Unlike the high-magic worlds of D&D, in Tolkien magic is more subtle and rare.  For example, MERP contained two magic systems.  "Channeling" is a form of magic that derives influence from that Valar.  An animist establishes a relationship with a particular Vala, who will occasionally intervene in small ways on their behalf.  An evil animist will appeal to Melkor while a good one might petition Manwe or Ulmo.  By contrast, "Essence" is a form of magic that derives its influence directly from the Song, from Arda itself... it taps into the energies of creation that shaped Middle-earth.

Beyond magic, there were many other nods to Tolkienism which made this feel extremely faithful.  Death in Middle-earth is permanent; there's no resurrection spell.  (Perhaps to partly compensate for this, the rules describe how characters get "knocked out" and put into a coma when hit points reach 0; they permanently die at a certain negative level, or when explicitly dispatched by the opponents.  They honor Tolkien's descriptions of the races, meaning that unlike many systems, Elves are superior to Humans in every way - more intelligent, stronger, more attractive.  To compensate for this disparity, MERP invented the idea of "background points" - when creating characters, human players can select special abilities, family heirlooms, etc. that help offset their lower stats.

The nerd in me was delighted with the pages and pages of tables, showing combat results and spell lists.  The most intriguing aspect was the critical hit tables, which described exactly what could happen if you landed a particularly effective blow.  These were surprisingly descriptive, including outcomes like stabbing yourself with a sword, cleaving off a specific limb, being trampled by a horse, etc.  I don't think I've laughed as much at a rulebook before or since.

It took over a year, but I eventually collected together a small group of people to adventure together.  I took my job as the GM very seriously, and while I started them off with that early Trollshaws adventure, I also created an elaborate world-spanning backstory.  Here's what I recall of it - it's possible that I've misremembered certain details, and I'm sure that I've forgotten some over the years.

I wanted to have the freedom to let the PCs eventually go on world-changing quests with permanent repercussions.  If I was to remain faithful to Tolkien's mythology, this would require one of two things: either they would need to be set outside Eriador (the northwestern part of the continent where all the stories after the Fall of Numenor take place), or else I would need to set the story in the period after Lord of the Rings.  I decided on the latter approach, since all the existing source material dealt with the familiar lands from the Gray Havens to Mordor. 

So that was set - I could re-use the geography from the books while forging my own history.  I decided that, in order to make a truly enjoyable experience, I would treat everything up until the end of "Lord of the Rings" as canon, and the brief passages on the Fourth Age in The Silmarillion as non-canon.  The reason was simple: I wanted to have a campaign with elves and magic, and both supposedly disappeared from Middle-earth after the end of the Third Age.  I had in mind a more gradual fading away, with increasing levels of technological sophistication gradually taking the place of magic.

And so, here follows the history of Middle-earth after the fall of Sauron.

All of the Noldor Elves have boarded the ships and returned to Valinor.  The remaining elves are divided on how to proceed - having never experienced the Light themselves, they still feel the pull westward, but have an abiding connection with Middle-earth.  Most of the Silvan elves decide to remain, even though this means giving up any hope of ever reaching Valinor.  The Sindar elves split, with some joining the Noldor, and others remaining behind to help take the lead in repairing the damage done by Morgoth and Sauron.

The remaining Sindar elves, now diminished in number, mostly gather in Rivendell.  (Elrond has returned to Valinor, but his sons stay behind.)  They embark on a number of ambitious projects; no living human will ever see their fruition, but the elves hope to accomplish them before they fade away forever.

The first of these is repairing the blight of Mordor.  Working together with Aragorn (more on him later), they seek to coax life back into that wasteland.  Using subtle magic and transplanting loam from Lorien, they encourage the first tentative shoots of life to grow around the edges.  It will take generations to complete, but without the active will of Sauron suppressing life, they hope that one day such growth will spread throughout that land.

A second project is far more ambitious and controversial.  The Orcs were created long ago as a twisted parody of the Elves.  They have always been considered pure evil, and as long as they were held in thrall to the Dark Lord, that was arguably true.  Now, the orcs are left with a legacy of pure suffering and strife, but the elves hope that they can eventually be reformed.  The elves reach out to younger orcs, not corrupted by their barbaric initiations, and patiently try to teach them independence.

The vast majority of orcs are still violently opposed to the free peoples, but out of this small core is born the Free Orc Movement, or FOM.  The FOM isn't exactly good - in D&D terms they would probably be termed Chaotic Neutral.  The FOM declare their independence from the existing Orc hierarchy and from the elves, and seek to establish an independent racial identity of their own.  The elves support them when they can.  To the elves, this is a great work; to the other free peoples, it is a source of extreme nervousness.

Throughout Middle-earth, the forces of darkness are in decline, but certainly not gone.  Most of the remnants of Sauron's armies have retreated to Mordor.  The vast majority of Mordor remains a wasteland, and despite regular patrols from Gondor into its territory, it remains the safest place for the enemies of Arda to gather.  For many years they appear to be leaderless, until one day the Mouth of Sauron announces himself.  He has escaped the defeat of Barad-dur, and stepped into the vacuum left by Sauron's death.  The Mouth is certainly not as powerful as Sauron himself, but he speaks with authority, and the hierarchy-oriented orcs, trolls, and other opponents heed his instructions.  He proves to be crafty, recognizing that it is pointless to waste Mordor's remaining strength against the West, and instead harries the countryside where it is weak, and avoids any direct conflict with Gondor.

Speaking of which: Aragorn II is and remains the King of the united kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.  Arnor is still little more than a wildland filled with independent hamlets.  Aragorn is gradually building up a federal infrastructure in the north.  The Elves of Rivendell assist him with this, providing information and support to his officials, although both the elves and the Shire are technically independent of his rule.  Bree is acting as a rough provincial capital; there are eventual plans to rebuild Annuminas, although this will not happen for many years.

Following the example set by Cirion, Aragorn does not seek to rule all that he can; instead, where possible, he seeks to find loyal allies who can maintain peace and then support them.  He honors the Oath of Eorl, maintaining an independent Rohan.  He sets up a similar agreement to cover the land north of Gondor.  Here, the Dorwinians around the Sea of Rhun have long lived as nomads and villagers, for the most part untouched by the major wars due to their non-involvement.  With the fall of Sauron, they embark on a massive and ambitious project of their own: they will build seven great cities in the land around Rhun.  From these cities, they will be able to cut down on the endemic banditry in the region, and establish a channel of safety between Gondor and the eastern lands.  For millennia these regions have been cut off from one another due to constant war and lawlessness, but the Dorwinians see opportunity for a flowering of trade and exchange of culture.  They will build these cities, collect modest tolls from merchants, and use that money to fund patrols to keep the roads free of bandits.

The main theme in these early years of the Fourth Age, in case you haven't detected it yet, is rapprochement.  There is tremendous optimism that Middle-earth can put war behind it, redeem former enemies, and build a better future after millennia of decay.  In keeping with the tone of the times, the Dorwinians reach out to the Easterlings.  These humans were part of Sauron's armies, and were vicious opponents during the War of the Ring, but they are still human, and were among the first to flee once Sauron fell.  The Dorwinians make an offer to the Easterling chieftains: If they will use their armies to defend the Dorwinians as they build the cities, they will be rewarded with permanent titles and authority in a united Rhunland federation.  The two factions will be mutually dependent and supportive: the Dorwinians will handle the building, administration, and various city jobs, while the Easterlings will oversee all the land beyond the city walls.

The Easterling chieftains agree, and keep the lands safe during the construction of the great cities.  Eventually, around the 70th year of the fourth age, the project is complete, and the Great Road is in place and protected.  Then comes the Great Easterling Treachery.  Acting in concert, they slaughter all the leaders of the Dorwinians, and establish themselves as rulers, with each chieftain claiming a city for himself.  The surviving Dorwinians are stripped of their weapons and forced into servitude.  The overall division of labor remains roughly the same as before, with the Dorwinians acting as scribes and clerks, but the Easterlings hold all power and authority, and swiftly grow ever richer.  They collect enormous tolls on merchants passing through, and plunder all who seek to avoid payment.

Aragorn is furious at this development, but his hands are tied.  He cannot bring his army against the northern threat, because the Mouth of Sauron is growing stronger and increasingly bold; only the presence of the Gondoran forces keeps him in check behind the mountains of Mordor.  And while the Easterlings are violent and untrustworthy, they have shown no designs on actually attacking Gondor itself; they have learned from the Dorwinians how trade can be even more profitable than raids, and are content to keep the peace in exchange for their cut.  Aragorn reluctantly accepts the status quo for the time being.

And what of the dwarves?  They are delighted by the possibility of reclaiming the Mines of Moria.  Along with Mordor, Moria is another place where the remnants of Sauron's forces have fled, so it remains extremely dangerous.  The dwarves come up with an ingenious idea: they will recruit adventurers to Moria by offering a bounty as they help clear the mines.  Adventurers can keep a share of any treasure they find (excepting certain dwarven artifacts of special significance), and will be paid a certain number of bronze or silver coins for each orc, troll, etc., that they kill.  This program has been running for decades now and proven very effective.  The upper levels of Moria have been completely cleared, and dwarves have moved back in, re-establishing a domestic way of life including families, taverns, and smithing. 

Other dwarven mines in the Last Mountain, the Iron Hills, and Ered Luthien remain active, but increasingly the younger dwarves are drawn to Moria.  Elder dwarves are uneasy.  No further sign of the Balrog has been seen, and some hope that his power was destroyed along with Sauron, but the Elves have warned that the Balrog predates the Ring, and is is likely biding its time in the very lowest depths of the mines.

Aaaaand... I think that's about it!  At least the major geo-political currents.  From this point forward, the world was wide open and flexible.  We only got through a couple of campaigns together, but I have to admit I continued to daydream about how the future might continue to evolve.  I'm still impressed at Tolkien's incredibly rich imagination and depth of meaning that he gave to Middle-earth so that it could support my rambling thoughts. 

A possible future post: the back-stories of the player characters, which were tied to this history in ways that the characters themselves had not yet realized.

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