Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Trail of the Blue Wizards: An Amateur Campaign Idea

(By now, my readers will know that I have a faint grasp of tabletop mechanics at best. But I've had this idea knocking around in my head for at least two or three years now, and I figure I can communicate most of it without worrying about the gameplay part- that will be left for the viewer to fill in with what works best for their hypothetical tabletop group that takes long-term campaign advice from itchy goblins living behind a Burger King.

So, let's lay out everything I can think of to help a DM run a Lord of the Rings point-crawl drowned in gritty fanfiction cruft!)

The attention-grabber before the long plod

The world has been bent.

Numenor drowns, and the spirit of the Dark Lord has flown screaming back to the heights of Barad-dûr. A war is coming that will shake the foundations of an already fractured world.

But it is not coming yet. Armies are still building in Mordor and the West. Desperate alliances and clandestine deals are being struck. The world is taking a deep breath before the plunge.

And rumors are coming in on the desert wind that a man in blue has a job for someone like you.

You. A wretch. A scoundrel. Someone who's been all but chewed up and spat out upon the salt-sprayed stones of Umbar. Someone that no one should care about. Yet you've been called upon by name. Whatever the work, it will probably be better than waiting around to be found out, or knifed in the street, or dragged before one of the black altars of Melkor.

There may be hope for you yet.

In-Depth Premise

The premise of this campaign is to delve into a less touched-upon time and area of JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. As much lore can be drawn upon as you want, but you aren't beholden to following a thorough or even existing history.

Specifically, my idea takes place in the Second Age shortly after the Changing of the World, but before the War of the Last Alliance. Events focus on Harad and Rhûn, and the shenanigans that two of Tolkien's least talked-about wizards might have gotten up to therein.

Beyond that, little about this story has to be solid. I just offer a guiding list of suggestions. Want to dump a whole slew of MERP splatbooks into this instead? Go for it. Want to cleave close to the impressions of Christopher and other Tolkienists in realizing something that almost could have been canon? Try your best. Want to give a new home to those OCs of yours from that one Grelvish AIM chat room you hid from your friends since 1998? I won't tell.

Custom map of Middle-Earth by Peter C. Fenlon for Iron Crown Enterprises,
publishers of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) from 1984-1999.

The wizards in question--the Blue Wizards--are difficult to pin down as any one thing, because they virtually never enter the narrative of the books, and what little was written about them was rewritten several times. In some versions they failed in their task and died, or were corrupted, or formed secretive cults of exotic and blue-robed magic users that no one did anything with until the makers of Lord of the Rings Online seized upon for Update 6. But for the purposes of this campaign premise, the last revision made before Tolkien's death is considered to be canon. That is to say:

"Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion ... and after his first fall to search out his hiding (in which they failed) and to cause [?dissension and disarray] among the dark East ... They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East ... who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have ... outnumbered the West."
 - JRR Tolkien, "Last Writings" written sometime in 1973, pp 384-85 of The Peoples of Middle-Earth, 1996.
What this actually means is nicely summarized by Tolkien Gateway.
  • The two Blue Wizards were sent to Middle-earth at roughly the same time as Glorfindel in c. S.A. 1600 (and similarly at the behest of the Valar), the Year of Dread, when Sauron forged the One Ring and completed the building of Barad-dûr.
  • The Blue Wizards journeyed into the East of Middle-earth, where they remained; they were not heard or seen of west of Mordor.
  • There they became known as Morinehtar and Rómestámo, Darkness-slayer and East-helper.
  • The Blue Wizards were able to hinder Sauron's operations in the East, aiding the defeat of Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance.
  • During the early Third Age and until the end of the Watchful Peace, they were tasked with finding where Sauron dwelt. They failed.
  • Morinehtar and Rómestámo ensured that the forces of the East did not outnumber the West, thus helping secure victory for the Free peoples in War of the Ring.
Of course it's impossible to think that the wizards did this all on their own and didn't get help along the way- even Gandalf needed aid and took a backseat role in his mission, which might have been the most important quest any of the Istari were even tasked with.

The Heroes

Given how secretive a mission this must have been, traveling beyond enemy lines into the depths of a Dark Lord's realms, the Blue Wizards might have had to be very clandestine. Moving from place to place looking like little more than wanderers, they must have worked through agents and elevated many an unsung hero to fight against the darkness far from the Westlands. Maybe most of them never knew the scope of what they were fighting for.

The story of the Blue Wizards thus becomes a story of ordinary, perhaps even deeply flawed people. Subjects of the Shadow showing their humanity and fighting tyranny even in the most hopeless of places. The thousand little rebellions that make up a single Resistance. In a world whose main protagonists have been criticized as being almost uniformly male, aristocratic, and white, this also gives the opportunity for so many more rich stories to be told.

Naturally, the PCs don't know anything about the wizards when they start to work for them.

All they know, as a motley assortment of exiles, escaped slaves, cutthroats, mercenaries, or any other unfortunates kicking around in the Corsair Haven of Umbar, is that they need a job that will pay, and protection. And this mysterious employer in azure from beyond the desert seems to be offering both.

Instead of coming from the ranks of (almost) always virtuous elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the free Men of the West, player characters come from cultures typically found in villainous roles. They are Near or Far Haradrim, Easterlings from distant lands, Khandish mercenaries, and Black Númenóreans fresh off the sinking shores of their drowned island home. Even people with orkish blood lurking somewhere in their ancestry can find a place in Umbar.

"Redemption" is a strong word with a lot of connotations, but it is appropriate for a story set in Tolkien's universe. It might be a motivation for some characters, or it might just be something for them to stumble into after spending long enough in the company of a being that you'd be forgiven for mistaking for a literal angel.

Or, the characters might never stop being a bit rotten, in which case the campaign takes on the dual nature of the Blue Wizards trying their best to babysit some very dangerous individuals out of turning into full-fledged villains who would add to their headaches.

Some enlightened foreigner from the north could be allowed as a PC, such as a Ranger acting as a suicidally deep spy on the Enemy, but too many characters like this would deviate from the flavor of the campaign.

And no elves!

Starting Location

Umbar isn't actively malevolent toward the rest of the world- at least not yet. Umbar simply wants what it wants and doesn't care care about the rest. Umbar knows only money, power, and lip-service to Sauron, whom the city might still remember as Tar-Mairon, erstwhile adviser and high priest to King Ar-Pharazôn. So long as one can satisfy the appetites of the wretched hive, one can survive.

Survival in those dusty streets is the first order of business before the PCs can even think about tackling the challenges that lie beyond the desolate horizon.

Umbar is located in the south of the Bay of Belfalas. It is the name of the city, as well as the natural harbor of enclosed rock in which it is situated. Near Harad lies to the south, and the Westlands can be accessed by sea to the north, though the fleets of Umbar have little reason to travel north except to raid hated Arnor and Gondor. The eastern land of Khand is also accessible by sailing upstream along the river Harnen and then turning east at the dreaded Ephel Dúath.

The city is rarely at peace, whether with its neighbors or itself.

Since the fall of Numenor and the "death" of Sauron's physical body, the Haradrim tribes have tried to throw off the yoke of Umbar with some success. Tribute is extracted from them mostly by force, and many a Black Númenórean adventurer is drawn to the Sunlands by the prospect of wealth and power in that unstable region. Most meet death at the hands of fiercely independent natives, but enough contenders like Herumor and Fuinur find success for the allure to persist. Open war between Umbar and the northern realms of their "Faithful" kin is unlikely at this moment, as all parties are still recovering from the shattering of their kingdom. But the Dark Lord survives, and conflict is almost inevitable. Already, small raiding expeditions push and prod at borders and defenses.

Within the high old walls of the city itself rages a quiet war between visceral lawlessness and slow, grinding oppression. The city is typically ruled by a pair of lords forming a duumvirate. There is perpetual competition between all members of their decadent court, and a lord doesn't last long in this city without being cunning and ruthless. Still, they and the powerful families of the city keep the peace and protect trade by any means necessary. Silver, salt, and slaves flood into the hazy, aromatic bazaars of Umbar every day, and the altars atop the city's highest ziggurats remain perpetually slick with the blood of sacrifices fruitlessly slain in the name of Morgoth.

But cruelty breeds resentment, and it could boil over into open revolt before long.

When it happens, hopefully it can be steered.

"Umbar" by Turner Mohan

Going Beyond

The bulk of this plot will unfold as I actually figure it out in later posts, but right now I am at least certain of its scope and direction.

If the party succeeds in coming together and surviving the dangers of Umbar, they are to set off across the vast desert of northern Harad, heading southward. After finally meeting with their mysterious employer in person, they trek deep into the south where savanna turns to jungle. The first major chapter of the story is completed when they do something that foils the Enemy's plans. Perhaps they rally several tribes together, or wrest some precious artifact of Elder Days from a hostile group.

After that, as the veil is peeled back from the true story and motivations, the party makes its way northeast. They must brave Khand, which now lies deep beneath the long shadow of Mordor. Finally, they might reach Rhûn for a very unexpected meeting. There, the last two-thirds of the plot will unfold.

The game is intended to be a point-crawl, with defined sites to eventually reach. But the vagueness of the map south and east of known Middle-Earth is to be used to one's advantage. Make up whatever you like to fill the huge, trackless gaps between each.


  1. Love it! What a evocative starting point.

  2. This is really compelling stuff: probably the most interesting conceit I've seen regarding Middle-Earth roleplaying, which tends to fall a bit flat for me, since playing in a world with such strong fiction backing it up means that deviating from the fiction feels kinda bad. But this setting seems ripe for exploration, and you've presented it in a really evocative and grabbing way.

  3. "Blue Wizards helping out anti-Sauron separatist movements" is 110% something I have dreamt of writing or running in the past and I fully support all usage of it.

  4. Hey, thank you for all of the supportive comments! I'll definitely go further with this idea now. I was really uncertain of it because it felt like it would only alienate people, either being too much like a tired old thing or changing too much of a beloved thing.

    Maybe next I'll go deeper into the various cultures available for play. Not sure how to handle "class" while writing without mechanics, but I'll try that too.