Sunday, October 27, 2019

On the Trail of the Blue Wizards: Flickers in the Darkness.

Click here to see Part 1 of this whole mess.

A Cultural Primer for could-be Heroes

The options for PCs in this campaign are at once limited and diverse.

They are limited in that for the most-part, only Men (humans) are available, or at least they are the most plausible for a variety of geopolitical reasons. For example, hobbits as we know them don't even exist in the Second Age- their ancestors would be mysterious, almost completely unattested holbytlan of Northman legends at this time, lurking around the Vales of Anduin far from the land of Shire.

There is also the matter of who is in the "in-club" of peoples exposed to or subjugated by the Dark Lord. Humans are perhaps the most easily corrupted, but more importantly they live most densely in the regions where Sauron holds sway. That isn't to say that other peoples aren't present, hedged in by evil or forced to accommodate.

For example, there may be an unknown number of elves living far in the East by the remains of the Wild Wood where Cuiviénen once laid. It is also possible that at least four dwarvish clans--Blacklocks, Ironfists, Stiffbeards, and Stonefoots--live in or beyond Rhûn, perhaps in the Orocarni (Red Mountains). These far-flung groups have every right to be present in a story that passes through the area, and might make for a spectacular game all by themselves. But it isn't quite this game.

To get back to my initial statement, PC options are also quite diverse.

There are a good half-dozen human cultural groups available. And of those, all but the Black Númenóreans are hardly written about, or are actually a huge variety of cultures lumped together under convenient narrative exonyms, affording great creative freedom. Two Men of Harad from neighboring tribes could have completely different languages, beliefs, and customs, for example. And let's not even get started on how much of an oversimplifying gloss the term "Easterling" is.

I should probably just get on with it while I still have an inkling of my train of thought.

Black Númenóreans

The King's Counselor by Mohan Turner

Name: The appellation of "black" does not refer to any physical characteristics, though many Black Númenóreans do happen to have very dark hair or eyes. Rather, it refers to their association with Darkness after Sauron corrupted them and their kings into Melkor-worship earlier in the Second Age. Because it is an inherently disparaging term applied by their rivals, it is unlikely that any of them would refer to themselves as Black Númenóreans. Instead, they would probably refer to themselves as the Adûnâim. They also might call themselves the King's Men, High Men, Men of the Sea, or any one of several other terms which they share with their hated Faithful cousins.

History: The Black Númenóreans shared their history with the other inhabitants of Númenor up until very recently. The star-shaped island was gifted by the Valar to the Dúnedain (as well as a small refugee population of Drúedain) in the first decades of the Second Age. From that seat in the Great Sea, the Men of the West developed a flourishing culture blessed with what are regularly considered the highest achievements of humanity to date.

Of course the gifts of man were not always interpreted as gifts, and over time the Númenóreans grew resentful of the long life of the elves, as well as suspicious of the ban on sailing west to the Undying Lands that the Valar had given humans. They grew angry and haughty, and believed that immortality belonged to them if they could only claim it. These flames of resentment were fanned into an inferno by Sauron when he became the adviser of the last Númenórean king, Ar-Pharazôn. Those loyal to his regime essentially declared war on the gods, and initiated a wave of conquests and spiteful actions in the name of Morgoth, who was being propped up as a sort of deity.

The "Faithful" minority on the island which was not swayed by the promise of power was allowed to escape the island before Eru Ilúvatar sank it, while the rest of the population drowned. The Faithful went on to found the kingdoms of the north, perpetually opposed to their corrupt cousins in the south. The Black Númenóreans generally regard them as weak traitors, and the feeling is mostly mutual, though there have been and will be a few instances throughout history of the two peoples making overtures at communication and diplomacy.

But for the time being, the wounds of a lost homeland are too fresh, feelings too raw, and the looming specter of Sauron too strong for the Black Númenóreans to resist. In some ways they (or at least their leaders and ancestors) may be the most villainous of the Men of Darkness, because they count among their numbers the largest number of true believers in Sauron's lies, as well as sorcerers and priests of Morgoth's bloody religion. They knowingly indulge his tyranny, and reap benefits for it at the expense of their people and so many others.

Home: Having lost their true home and their supremacy on the sea to hubris-induced armageddon, the Black Númenóreans now live limited to the colonies they founded along the coast of the south. Umbar is the most prominent of these havens, but it is not the only one. Many were founded throughout the Second Age, and could offer a host of different flavors of King's Men. Some may be closely connected with the City of Corsairs, while others may have fallen out of contact with the rest of their kin. A few might even have lapsed in their devotion to Morgoth, or become more culturally mixed with other peoples of the coast.


Wanderers by merlkir.

Name: Easterling is a simple Westron (Common) term that refers to the people who come from the land of Rhûn, aka all lands to the East of the West-centric part of the world that comprises Middle-Earth. There are no recorded endonyms for the people who came from Rhûn. Not even specific tribal bodies or confederations from recorded history, such as the Wainriders and Balchoth, bear their own names for themselves- Wainrider being another western term to describe the semi-nomadic wagon and chariot people, and Balchoth being an old Westron blanket slur meaning "horrible horde" which was also used for orcs and other enemy peoples.

History: Originally, all Men were Easterlings. They were the second group of the Children of Ilúvatar to awaken in the world, in the far eastern land of Hildórien. Morgoth corrupted some of this original population and sparked war between their peoples, and the humans who fled from these wars would become the Men of the West (and every other cardinal direction).

Some Easterlings of the First Age were friends of the elves, particularly the less psychotic sons of Fëanor. At this point in time the Easterlings received their only physical descriptions in canon, being stocky and swarthy in contrast to the tall and pale elves. The last decidedly heroic Easterlings of this age were all betrayed and slaughtered alongside the elves by their Morgoth-allied kin at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.

From this point on the only Easterlings in written history were slaves of Morgoth and later Sauron, who fearfully beheld the Dark Lords as kings or gods. Tribal confederations like the Balchoth and Wainriders made war on the kingdoms of the West on-and-off for centuries.

Home: Rhûn is an absolutely massive land that stretches from Rhovanion to the Orocarni, from the Northern Waste all the way down to the Inner Sea, formerly known as the inland Sea of Ringil. There are likely many diverse cultures living in the plains, deserts, forests, and mountains of that land, beyond the chariot-mounted raiders known to western histories.

Depending on how one defines the exact border between Rhovanion and Rhûn, the land of Dorwinion, located right on the western short of the Sea of Rhûn, might fall within the latter. This leads to an interesting situation in which a seemingly civilized Easterling land with an elvish name did trade with Mirkwood and some of the Men of the North.

The Dorwinrim (non-canon term) were the ones who supplied King Thranduil's court with wine strong enough to get an elf blitzed out of their gourd in the Third Age, meaning that they were indirectly vital to the survival and success of Bilbo Baggins Thorin's Company. While that land is very distant from the scope of this story, it has exciting implications and opportunities for exploration.

Or they were just elves or whatever.


Sands of Harad, Fantasy Flight Games

Name: Again, a simple geographic term applied by outsiders. Harad means "South" in Sindarin Elvish. The suffix -rim is taken to mean "people", but it literally means "host", indicating the wartime context in which their northern neighbors generally knew them. Other names for the people of the South include Southerns, Southrons, or Swertings, referring to their "swarthy" skin. Especially disparaging of the darker people from Far Harad is the term "half-troll". What these people--or more likely, peoples--called themselves is unknown.

History: The people of Harad did not have an immediately hostile relationship with the men of Númenor. The Second Age king Tar-Aldarion the Mariner had an almost unhealthy obsession with the sea, and explored vast stretches of the coast of Harad during his travels. This led to the formation of many colonies and ship havens like Umbar, and here cultural exchange began between the seafarers and the locals. The Haradrim reportedly learned some forms of agriculture and metalworking from the Númenóreans.

But this amicable relationship ended after Sauron wormed his way into the court of King Ar-Pharazôn. Númenor waged war on the people of Middle-Earth, and countless innocents of Harad were dragged back to that island fortress to be bloodily sacrificed in the name of Morgoth. The beleaguered peoples of the Southlands were embittered by their unending wars with the men of the sea. That bitterness extends now to the Black Númenóreans who continue to claim dominance over their coasts. It also applies to the Faithful upstarts in Gondor and Arnor, the persecuted history of whom the Haradrim would have no way of knowing.

This anger born of grinding generations of oppression, no matter how justified, has allowed Sauron's darkness to begin to slip into some of their hearts- a second colonization.

Home: Harad is another immense land whose details we can't even begin to describe with certainty. Much of it was jungle, but there was also an immense desert, possibly in the northern area known as Near Harad. (The fuzzy border between Near and Far, as imagined by the men of the northwest, may have been a transitional savanna land similar to the real-world Sahel.) The one unifying quality is that all of it was very warm or hot. The Harad Road penetrated an unknown distance into eastern Near Harad, perhaps fostering trade between north and south during more peaceful times.

The people of Harad are described as living in tribes, but also kingdoms. We can only guess at the size, strength, innovations, or cultures of these states- but we can make educated guesses.

The Haradrim warriors we encounter in the books wear a wealth of material culture on their persons. They dress in brightly dyed clothing, with scarlet being a favorite. They also decorate their bodies in gold, even braiding their long dark hair with it. By the end of the Second Age the Haradrim will have weapons of iron, but by the War of the Ring their scimitars will "glitter like stars", possibly implying that they have begun using steel. (For a similar use of this language by Tolkien to describe metal, see how Ghân-buri-Ghân of the Drúedain refers to the weapons of the Rohirrim as "bright iron".) And, most famously, many Haradrim archers and spearmen went to war in the howdah-like "towers" they mounted on the backs of their tamed Mûmakil.

This all suggests that the cultures of Harad had great skill in textiles, metalwork, carpentry or woodwork, and animal husbandry, and had access to the tools needed to use them effectively. While guidance from Númenóreans and contact with Sauron can account for some of this, they nonetheless maintained a high degree of sophistication in their handicrafts, which suggests the richness and complexity of the cultures who produced them.


Variags of Khand by merlkir again.

Name: For once, we have an indigenous word. "Khand" is a non-Elvish, non-Westron word which is assumed to originate from the land referred to as such. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word and the language it comes from are completely unknown. There is a group within Khand known as the Variags, who appeared in the Third Age as bearded and axe-wielding mercenaries serving in Sauron's army. It is unknown how the Variags related to the rest of the Men of Khand, and if they were distinguished from one another in any way by ethnicity or culture. (Perhaps it merely referred to their military status, as the case was with the real-world Slavic word variag, which referred to the Varangian mercenaries of the Byzantine Empire.)

History: Not much is known about the history of the Khandish, other than that they allied with Mordor in the Third Age, and that their numbers included but appeared not to be synonymous with the Variags. The Khandish may have had occasionally hostile relationships with eastern Haradrim or southern Easterlings, since the region labeled as Khand southeast of Mordor is located in between Haradwaith and Rhûn. If they were foes at any point however, they were still willing to ally with the Wainriders to invade Gondor early in the Third Age.

Home: Again, not much is known about Khand. It is identified on the map as being southeast of Mordor, below the Ephel Dúath. There are no geographic features in Khand in the early Tolkien-era maps, which can suggest either a lack of focus on or knowledge of the region by the fictional cartographers of the universe, or that the area was simply flat and featureless- perhaps a plain or desert.

Perhaps it has settled populations and cities, perhaps a large pastoral population. Perhaps the political landscape is very fractious or tribal in such a way that endemic warfare fosters the development of elite mercenary groups like the Variags may have been.


Spying an Orc Family by SkekLa

Name: Orcs. Goblins. Yrch. Glamhoth. Rakhās. Whatever form the name takes in any language, it expresses the same thing, and in the least flattering way possible: monsters. Even their name in Black Speech, Uruk-hai (not to be confused with the larger "Great Orc" Uruk-hai of the Third Age), is little different, for nothing can be said in that constructed language without it sounding at least a little hateful.

History: It is said that orcs are creations (more accurately, corruptions) of Morgoth, and that "their breeding was the most wicked and lamentable of his works in Arda". The precise origins of orcs are muddy, mostly because our dear sub-creator was endlessly anxious over the theological implications of evil seeming to create life independently. For our purposes, multiple origins can be true without being mutually exclusive.

Some of the oldest "orcs" were Maiar, the powerful spirits of creation that one might compare to angels- and in the case of those who allied with Melkor/Morgoth, fallen angels. Like the Balrogs, some fallen Maiar took physical form to better serve their new Dark Lord. But instead of being made of flame and smoke, their bodies were tangible, made of flesh and bone, albeit unnatural sorts. They were Boldogs, orc-like lieutenants and intermediaries for their lord who commanded his armies in the earliest battles against the Valar and the elves.

But this raises the question of who made up those armies, since they can't all have been vengeful spirits, or at least they couldn't have carried on that way this entire time- otherwise orcs would have been a very finite tool, forever dwindling as corrupted Maiar "died" and lost their bodies and then went to face judgement. There had to be a more organic, self-sustaining, "natural" component to Morgoth's hosts. Yet they sprang up in such huge numbers before or during the awakening of Mankind in the world, suggesting that there was a time when elves were captured and corrupted into a reproductive form of orc.

Next came humans, whose corruption Sauron would perfect in later ages. Human stock is assumed to make up the overwhelming majority of orkish ancestry in the time of this campaign, with a rare elvish strain here and there making their champions live unusually long lives, or Boldog spirits ruling over scattered and forgotten holdings like demonic overlords.

For two ages now, orcs have been a tool of violence and tyranny used by dark lords. These lords have always been contemptuous of their servants, and they hate them in return. Orcs hate their creators as much as they hate each other, and perhaps themselves. There is a human(oid) soul buried deep within each one, after all. A ruined one capable of deep depravity and mockery of beautiful things, but one that still possesses the rational thought to recognize a ghost of what it has been denied.

When their masters have been defeated, as the case is at the moment, orcs are initially stunned and aimless, seeming to possess hardly any independent will or sense. But this passes as they reassert themselves, after existing so long under the direct mental dominance of another power. Armies inevitably scatter into the far corners of the world and take to their own devices.

Home: And orcs are indeed scattered. They have no home but what their tribes and petty-kingdoms have been able to carve out of a world which is hostile to their very existence. Their kind might have been "born" in the pits of Utumno that spawned so many other monsters, but that fortress homeland is long gone. Pockets of orcs exist in other strongholds of Darkness such as Angband and much of Mordor, but they've also wormed their way into many of the the mountain chains of Middle-Earth.

Anywhere Sauron established himself before his recent fall is sure to have orcs in some number. Or, at the very least, orkish streaks might run through any of the groups of people whom he has subjugated- goblin-men with ill-favored looks and all that sort of thing. Wherever populations of humans and orcs have had working relationships, forced or otherwise, half-orcs can exist as uncomfortable reminders that the two peoples aren't so very distant from one another.

Free of the command of a dark lord, orcs lose the drive to conquer to the same degree. They will raid and pillage for their own convenience, and hunt surprisingly far and wide to avenge kin slain by outsiders. But they seem content to squat in their desolate homes rather than building them up into the terrible fortresses their masters have such an obsession with. It seems that while they possess skill in making crude, ugly, and yet very serviceable and practical things, they lack the drive to do so on their own.

They don't seem to lose much of their cruelty, however. They are still perpetually miserable, angry beings who feel temporary respite from enacting their pain upon others.

But given time and exceptional circumstances--such as the clandestine efforts of a blue-robed figure or two--this could change.


This is ultimately going to be your rendition of the world. Throw in any in-between or original creation you think might be appropriate.

Maybe give Nurn its own fleshed-out indigenous human population? Invent a Beorning-esque people designed around a different animal? Do whatever. Just remember our mantra!

No elves.

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