Basements & Balrogs VI – 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, Part II: Wilderland, Part III: Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor, Part IV: Other Places, Other Times, and Part V: The Lords of Middle-earth.
Part VI: The Lords of Middle-earth – The Mannish Races
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 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!
May 14, 2016 @ 9:33 pm
Thanks for your Middle-earth articles.
Here’s my list of “Canonical” Peoples and their corollary “real world” culture. Did I miss any?
• Shire-hobbit [=1897-era Warwickshire geographically, but culturally all counties of England; for example, Yorkshire in the Hills of Scary, the West Midlands and Welsh Marches in the East Farthing and the Marish, and Warwickshire (specifically) around Hobbiton. Buckland is 1897-era Monmouthshire, a county which, until recently, was part of England and Wales at the same time. By the late Third Age, the three hobbit breeds of Harfoot, Stoor, and Fallohide are no more distinct than Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were in 1897-era England.]
• Bree-hobbit [=1897-era Buckinghamshire, the location of the real world “Brill/Bree-hill” and “Coombe”]. However, it would be fitting to represent the Bree-hobbits and Bree-men as a single Culture: “Bree-folk” which share a set of Bree-specific cultural traits, but which have two separate builds depending on whether the character is one of the Big Folk or Little Folk.
• Outsider-hobbit from the West of the World [=Remnants of other counties of 1897-era England]
• Wild-hobbit of the River Gladden [=900-era West Saxons]
Elves: (Note on the spelling of “High Elf” vs. “High-elf” and “Grey Elf” vs. “Grey-elf”: “High Elves” and “Grey-elves” are the usual form in the LotR, but “High-elves” does appear once. “Wood-elves”, “Deep-elves”, “Sea-elves”, and “Light-elves” are found in The Hobbit. The hyphenated form is used here for aesthetic consistency.)
• High-elf (Noldo, or Deep Elf) from Lindon, from Rivendell, from Lorien, or from Aman.
• Grey-elf (Sinda) from Lindon, from Rivendell, from Lorien, from the Woodland Realm, or from Aman (and after the War of the Ring: from Ithilien)
• Wood-elf (Nando Silvan Elf) from Lorien, from the Woodland Realm, from the Wandering Companies of Eriador, or from Aman (and after the War of the Ring: from Ithilien). These are the native elves of Eriador and of Rhovanion (along with the Penni Avari). The Wood Elves of Dol Amroth sailed to Aman. The language (to the extent it survives) is, or was, Leikvian (East-Danian), an Old Norse-flavored Elvish. In one place JRRT says the language is no longer spoken, but in another place he says that it is the main language of Thranduil’s Realm. So for diversity’s sake, it might as well still exist in the Woodland Realm.
• Raft-elf of the Forest River – The easternmost community of the Woodland Realm. Could be represented as a distinct Culture, in a similar way that the Lake-men are distinct from the Dale-men, even though Esgaroth is part of the Kingdom of Dale.
• Sea-elf (Teleri/Falmari) from Alqualonde, or from Tol Eressëa
• Light-elf (Fair Elf, Vanya) of Aman
• Green-elf of Lindon. (Cwenda Nando). Possibly merged with the Grey-elves of Lindon by the late Third Age. Or possibly not. Either way, there are families of that ancestry. (The Cwenda/West-Danian/Ossiriandic/Ossiriandeb) language is Old English-style Quendian.)
• Red-elf of the North Pole. Though depicted in the Father Christmas Letters, they are perhaps are already there in the late Third Age. They will not have “diminished” in size yet.
• Penni (Avari Silvan Elf) from Lorien, or from the Woodland Realm. The Penni and Nando are both called “Silvan/Wood Elves”, and they are possibly, though not necessarily, merged by the late Third Age. They are the native elves of Rhovanion/Wilderland, along with the Nandor. (The Penni language is Gaulish-style Quendian.)
• Hill-elf (Cuind) of the West of East? (The language is Old Irish-style Quendian. I equate them with the “Hill-elves” mentioned in The Hobbit* because the Hill-men of Dunland are likewise the Old Irish-flavored Men. Though these Hill Elves would presumably live in some hills in Rhun–perhaps in the hills depicted by JRRT to the north of the Sea of Rhun. *Chapter 8: “The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”)
• Twilight-elf (Hwenti/Hisildi) of the Midmost Regions (Palisor) (Hwenti = Gothic-style Quendian; the Hisildi of Palisor are the ones who first spoke to Ermon and Elmir, thereby imparting the quasi-Germanic phonaesthetic flavor to the first Mannish language.)
• Windan of the the North of East? (Old Slavonic-style Quendian…the Slavic identification would be a pun on the word German word “Windisch” and Polish “Wendowie” “Wend, Slav”. Could be equated to the “mountain-elves” mentioned in The Hobbit*, since the North is cold and mountainous. *Chapter 8: “The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. […] They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”)
• Kindi of the South of East? (Hindi/Sanskrit-style Quendian)
• Kinn-lai of the East of East? (Chinese-style Quendian)
• Elven-knights of Aerie, or of Faerie (=Vanyar from Aman???, or some strange Elven-folk from Rhun??? or from the South-land???)
• Longbeard Dwarf of the Blue Mountains, of the Grey Mountains, of the Iron Hills, or of the Lonely Mountain (after the War of the Ring: of Dwarrrowdelf, or of the Glittering Caverns)
• Firebeard Dwarf of the Blue Mountains (or other Dwarf-holds of the West)
• Broadbeam Dwarf of the Blue Mountains (or other Dwarf-holds of the West)
• Ironfist Dwarf of the East
• Stiffbeard Dwarf of the East
• Blacklock Dwarf of the East
• Stonefoot Dwarf of the East
(The Hobbit mentions “Wicked Dwarves of the East”; so at least one of these houses is under the shadow.)
(The Petty-dwarves of Beleriand are presumed extinct.)
Mannish cultures are reminiscent of 900-AD, except for those of Eriador (minus the Dunedain), which are 1897-era.
• Dunadan of the North [=remnants of an amalgam of the Arthurian, Carolingian, and Holy Roman realms]
• Bree-man [=1897-era Buckinghamshire]. However, it would be fitting to represent the Bree-hobbits and Bree-men as a single Culture: “Bree-folk” which share a set of Bree-specific cultural traits, but which have two separate builds depending on whether the character is one of the Big Folk or Little Folk.
• Man of the Hunter-folk of Eryn Vorn [=1897-era Cornishmen, speak Westron by late Third Age]
• Man of the Forsaken Inn [=remnant of 1897-era Hertfordshire, the county east of Buckinghamshire]
• Beorning of the Upper Vales [=Bernicians of Northumbria]
• Horse-lord of Rohan [=Mercians, but relationship with Gondor similar to the Goths vis-a-vis Byzantium]
• Lake-man of Esgaroth [=Geats of Lake Vättern]
• Dale-man [=Svear of Dalecarlia]
• Northman from West of Dale, or from South of Dale [=Norwegians (West) and Danes (South)]
• Woodman of Western Mirkwood, of the Middle Vales, or of the Lower Vales [Western Mirkwood=Germans: Old Saxons in the northern town, Old Franconians in the southern town; Middle Vales =Mercian remnants + newly arrived Saxons and Franks; Lower Vales = Westron-speaking Franks of West Francia. The Woodmen of the Lower Vales are the “few men” mentioned in the RotK Appendix who live near Lorien. The Appendix indicates they speak Westron, since that area is included in the description of Westron-speaking lands.]
• Man of Dorwinion [=Georgians, the land of wine and youth]
• Man of Gondor [=Byzantines]. The difference between High Men and other Gondorians is, by the late Third Age, of only slight distinction.
• Snow-man of Forochel [=Skridfinns/Saami]
• Man of the Fisher-folk of Western Enedwaith [=Picts of Ireland (Cruithne)]
• Wose of Druadan Forest [=Picts of Thrace (Agathyrsi), from the Cashel Psaltry]
• Pukel-man of Druwaith Iaur [=Picts of Gaul (Aquitani/Basques), from the Cashel Psaltry]
• Hillman of Dunland (Dunlending) [=Old Irish]
• Man of Nurn [=Armenian]
• Corsair of Umbar, or from other Havens [=Arab/Saracen of Tripoli and the other Barbary Coast kingdoms]
• Variag from Khand, or from the Wide East [=Varangian Northman from Khazaria, or from Rus]
• Man of Khand [=Khazar]
• Black Numenorean from Umbar, from Near Harad, or from Far Harad [=Copt]
• Vinith of Eastern Mirkwood, of Southern Mirkwood, of the Bight, or from Northern Rhovanion [=Western Slav: Wend/Polabian/Lusatian, Slovene, Czech/Moravian, and Polish]
• Near Southron [=Arab/Saracen]
• Easterling from the Horse Plain, or from the Kine Plain [=Hungarian/Magyar and Pecheneg at the eastern bounds of the West-lands; ME-Cumans would live just east of the Pechenegs in hither Rhun.]
• Far Southron (Troll-man, Silharrow, Elephant-lord, or Sun-dweller) [=Fur, Ethiopian, Ghanaian, and Kongolese]
• Man of Angmar (There are several different kinds of Angmarian Men; these names are not from JRRT, but designate the different Angmarian cultures: Kern (Highland Gael), Gallowglass (Norse-Gael), Redshank (Pict of Scotland), Hillman (Cumbrian of Strathclyde), or Reiver (Lowland Scot). The Hillmen of Rhudaur (=Cumbrians of Rheged) wered totally destroyed, but there would still be akin Hillmen in southwestern Angmar proper, equivalent to the Cumbrians of Strathclyde.]
• Man of the Balchoth of Southern Rhovanion [=Bulgars]. There are presumably also Balchoth in the Wide East, similar to the Volga Bulgars.
• Axe-Easterling from the Wide East [=Rus]
• Man of the East of East [=Chinese] In a draft of The Hobbit, JRRT referred to Were-worms who lived among the Chinese! These Men who live among the Were-worms would be “Drake-men” or “Drake-Easterlings.”
• Man (or Easterling) of the Last Desert [=900 AD-era Mongols, pre-Genghis Khan]. The Last Desert is the Third Age corollary of the Gobi Desert.
• Man of “Greenland” [=Inuit] (yes, “Greenland” itself is visited by Earendil in a draft in the Book of Lost Tales. The country wouldn’t actually be called “Greenland” though. Perhaps named “Scrawlings” or “Scrawny Men”, the Englished equivalent of Old Norse Skraelings, their name for Inuit. The land might be named Scrawlingland.)
• Man of the South of East (the “Hindu Kush”) [=Asian Indian] (In a draft of the Hobbit, the Hindu Kush mountains are mentioned!]
• Man of the New Lands (Wild Islands, Lands of the Sun, the Burnt Lands, Easternesse) [=Indigenous Americans]
• Pygmy of the Great Forest of the South [=Twa]
• Man of the Dark Land (Southland) [=Australian Aborigines, Melanesians, and other peoples of Theosophical/Anthroposophical Lemuria.]
• The other cultures of 900AD would have correlations too, except for the Romance-speaking peoples and Greek people, who are replaced by the Gondorians. I describe some of these “extended-canon” peoples here: https://sites.google.com/site/endorenya/new-peoples
Every kind of Man should be a playable PC option, even in an “all-good” company. “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” attests to there being good men throughout Rhun and Harad, for Aragorn “went alone far into the East and deep into the South, exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good…”
Other kindreds with role-playing potential, such as awakened Kelvar and Olvar and fays:
• Ent of Fangorn
• Ent-wife of the East
• Tree-man of Far Harad
• Animals which are portrayed as speaking or understanding speech: Giant Eagle, Raven, Crow, Thrush, Horse/Pony, Cattle, Dog, Cat, Wolf, Badger, Fox, Cow, Polar Bear, Butterfly
• Fays/Spirits/Sprites: Fire-fay, Sylph (Mánir “spirits of the air” and Súruli “spirits of the winds), Oarni “spirits of the sea”/”mermaid”), Falmaríni “spirits of the sea-foam”, River Spirit (River-woman, River-daughter), Flower Fay, Brownie, Pixie, Leprawn, Nermir “fays of the meadows”; Tavari/Dryad “sprites of trees and woods”, Nandini “fays of the valleys”, Orossi “fays of the mountains”
•The beings (Men? or otherwise) native to the countries mentioned in Bilbo’s poem “Errantry”, such as Thellamie and Fantasie. The “butterfly” he woos could be a sort of “Butterfly-Woman”…namely, a woman from the Middle-earth corollary of the Miao people of Southeast Asia, who view the Butterfly as their ancestral mother.
January 17, 2017 @ 10:22 am
Where is “Basements & Balrogs VII”?
September 25, 2018 @ 7:10 pm
Looking forward to part seven.