Basements & Balrogs II – How to run a D&D campaign in J. R. R. Tolkien’s 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 Eriador.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.27.12 AM

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 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!

Share this post: