Basements & Balrogs IV – 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 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!