Basements & Balrogs III – 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 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!