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Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Sun Aug 07, 2016 8:17 pm

Last night my friends and I convened for our first gaming session in six months. I served something I've been cooking up for a while: an adventure set in Middle-earth, based on material in one of the old MERP modules from Iron Crown Enterprises, remixed and tweaked for use with Swords & Wizardry Core Rules with classes taken from Mike Davison's wonderful Drums in the Deep supplement.

The Cleansing of Cameth Brin

It is the fifteenth year of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth.

Elessar, the returned King of Gondor, hopes to commence the rebuilding of Arnor, the ruined Northern Kingdom of the Dúnedain. To make the wild lands safe, Elessar is offering gold or land to those bold folk who will root out the remaining orcs and trolls.

Lately, there have been reports of orcs skulking and scouting in the hills near Talugdaeri, a small fortified town in the Trollshaws that has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than anyone can remember. Local folk suspect the orcs have taken up residence in the old Dúnedain fortress built into Cameth Brin (“Twisted Hill”), a league to the north.

On a chilly April day, three adventurers arrive in Talugdaeri. They are:

Yreorraent, a laconic Dúnedain ranger (effectively a 4th-level cleric)
Pingle Rack, an eccentrically-dressed fighting man of uncertain origin (4th-level fighter)
Finglas, a Grey Elf from the woodland realm of Mirkwood (3rd-level fighter/magic-user)

At the Red Hooves Inn, the only hostelry in town, they hire three local Dunnish men-at-arms, somewhat surly and interchangeable, called Cormac, Fergus and Donald. Yreorraent and Pingle buy several rounds of drinks to loosen tongues, and learn a few things: (1) The valleys around here are reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of long-dead Hillmen. (2) According to legend, a Hillman bandit long ago hid his plundered wealth in a cave somewhere east of Cameth Brin. Some say the cave connects with the lowest levels of the fortress. (3) There is also supposed to be a secret way into Cameth Brin from Tir-barad Tereg, the watchtower atop the Twisted Hill. And finally (4), they hear that a fierce and capable-looking Dunnish warrior (no one caught his name, or if they did they don't remember it) left town a week ago, heading for Cameth Brin. He has not been seen since.

The next day, the party sets out. Yreorraent uses his tracking skill to find a few footprints almost certainly belonging to the mysterious Dunlending. (He also finds lots of deer tracks, and a few boot-marks that might have been left by men or orcs.) The trail leads to a narrow gap between two hills east of Cameth Brin. Suddenly Donald spots smoke seemingly rising from the hillside. Careful investigation reveals a hidden cave entrance, blocked by a huge boulder 13 feet across. The smoke, which smells of cooked meat, emanates from a narrow cleft a few feet farther up the rugged hillside. Probably a troll hole, our heroes reckon. And possibly the cave mentioned in the legend of the Hillman bandit and his hidden loot.

More anon.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Aug 08, 2016 11:00 am

Yreorraent creeps to the chimney-hole and looks down it, trying to keep the smoke from getting in his eyes and lungs. It's filled with smoke, of course, and it seems to twist and turn - after all, trolls wouldn't risk sunlight shining into their nice dark hole - so he can't see anything down there. It's too tight to climb down, too. Maybe a hobbit would fit, but the party doesn't have a hobbit. Yreorraent listens. From down below comes the intermittent sound of voices like rumbling rocks. Definitely trolls.

The ranger reports his findings to the others. Finglas reckons there will be three trolls in the lair, because "that's standard". (Sad to say, Finglas is not the wisest of elves.) They hatch a plan to block the chimney hole with stones and earth, heather and grass, hoping to smoke the trolls out into the sunshine. It doesn't work. Trolls are stupid but not suicidally so. Great coughs are heard from within the cave, and shouts of consternation. The huge boulder suddenly moves scrapingly aside - but only six inches or so, enough to let out a plume of smoke. Then all is quiet again.

A futher plan is concocted. Yreorraent, Pingle and Fergus will take positions up the slope from the chimney hole. There are rock outcrops aplenty to provide cover. Meanwhile, Finglas and the remaining Dunlendings will hide within sight of the cave entrance. The idea is to wait until the sun goes down, hoping that the trolls will come out to investigate the chimney blockage. Those upslope will fire missiles at them, trying to stay out of reach and draw the trolls away while Finglas and the others gain access to the cave. This time, the plan is partially successful. Sure enough, as the sun slips behind the western horizon, there is a great scraping sound and Finglas sees the boulder roll aside. Three hill-trolls emerge in the gloaming. Unfortunately a fourth troll, only partly glimpsed in the shadow of the cave mouth, rolls the boulder back into place behind them. Warily, the trio outside sniff the air and look around. The biggest, a great brute nearly twelve feet tall, grunts, "Freg. Go an' 'ave a butchers at the smoke 'ole." Freg stomps up the slope to have a look, whereupon ranger and fighter fire arrows at him and Fergus hurls his throwing club. None scores a hit, but one of the arrows whistles past the troll's ear and he shouts, "Dad! There's someone 'ere!" All the trolls charge up the slope.

A running battle commences. Our heroes fall back up the slope with the trolls after them. Freg takes a couple of arrows in leg and shoulder. Unfortunately, in the gathering darkness, the retreating men stumble over the uneven ground and slip on loose stones. The trolls, though relatively slow and lumbering, know this hillside intimately (and can see perfectly well in the dark) and manage to close the gap. The bold Fergus yells and aims a spear thrust at Freg's belly. He misses, and Freg crushes him with his huge club. Pingle Rack, having dropped his bow and unsheathed his two-handed sword, is likewise slain in short order. Yreorraent is badly wounded, but manages to scramble away again and stay a step ahead of the advancing trolls, firing at Freg whenever he can. Freg, smarter than the average hill-troll, realises he can't catch the irritating man, and throws a rock at him instead, landing a glancing, stinging blow on Yreorraent's elbow.

Meanwhile down below, the elf Finglas has divested himself of his encumbering plate armour. Now he hurries up the slope and starts firing at the backs of the trolls. The unfortunate Freg is pincushioned with arrows from above and below and eventually falls dead among the rocks. Bellowing with rage, the huge troll patriarch turns and charges back down the slope towards the new assailant. At this point, our heroes admit defeat. Finglas yells, "Retreat!" and the remnants of the party take to their heels, scampering down the hillside and away, with trollish shouts and imprecations ringing in their ears and the occasional rock flying past their heads.

To be continued.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Aug 08, 2016 12:26 pm

These are great, keep them coming!

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Aug 08, 2016 1:19 pm

Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying them! It was great to play again after such a long hiatus. I made a couple of mistakes because I'm much more used to B/X D&D than S&W Core. Probably my most egregious error was forgetting, in the excitement and complexity of the running battle, that bows in S&W can be fired twice per round. A few more arrows in those trolls and things might have turned out differently. (Maybe not, though; trolls are pretty tough.) Oh well, you live and learn. I'll get it right next time.

There's a bit more to tell from the first session. Stay tuned.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Aug 08, 2016 5:13 pm

Oh, yeah bows are great for players in S&W (and OD&D). I don't worry too much that the RoF of two is overpowered, as we know old-school games are deadly enough.

I assume a 'hill troll' is more of an ogre type, turned to stone by the sun since you're in Middle Earth?

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Tue Aug 09, 2016 12:05 am

I'm converting stats for creatures from the MERP modules, with guidance from various online Tolkien resources and the appendices in The Lord of the Rings. I don't have any kind of scientific formula for my conversions; I just do what feels right. My conception of hill-trolls (which may or may not be the same as stone-trolls, depending which sources you read) is that they're massive brutes between 9 and 12 feet tall, and have the following S&W stats: HD 6 (on average); AC 4 [15]; Attack 1 club or thrown rock (2d6 damage in either case); Move 9. Direct sunlight turns them to stone. They speak Westron (Common) with Cockney accents.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Tue Aug 09, 2016 3:28 pm

I'm going to repost these reports on my blog, but I'll always post them here first - partly because it's easier than wrestling with Wordpress, and partly because I expect more interest round these parts in the nuts and bolts of running a MERP-based adventure with S&W.

Talking of which, I'd just like to mention the conversion notes included in every MERP module. On page 3 of Hillmen of the Trollshaws (which is the basis for The Cleansing of Cameth Brin) there's a passage stating that these modules "are intended to be used with a minimum of additional work. Each has statistical information based on the Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) and Rolemaster (RM) fantasy systems. The modules are, however, adaptable for use with most major role playing games. Creative guidelines, not absolutes, are emphasized." On the following page, there's a whole section on converting stats, hits and bonuses for "any major FRP system". Dungeons & Dragons is mentioned specifically in the text. Of course, I'm aware that I.C.E. were doubtless hoping to expand their market to include D&D players (who would have constituted the vast majority of the mid-1980s RPG-buying public), but I still find it refreshing how honest and (literally) upfront they were about the notion that their own game systems might not be everyone's cup of tea.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Fri Oct 21, 2016 10:01 am

Regrouping in Talugdaeri after the debacle with the trolls, our chastened heroes spend some days resting and recuperating. The loss of Pingle Rack is made good when a feisty hobbit adventurer joins the party at the Red Hooves Inn. His name is Chuffles. The slain retainer Fergus is also replaced by another surly Dunlending called Calum.

Chuffles, tough hobbit (4th-level fighter)
Yreorraent, laconic Dúnedain ranger (effectively a 4th-level cleric)
Finglas, Grey Elf from the woodland realm of Mirkwood (3rd-level fighter/magic-user)
Calum, Cormac and Donald, Dunnish men-at-arms (1st-level fighters)

The party decides on a new plan: they will explore Tir-barad Tereg, the watchtower atop Cameth Brin, and attempt to find the reputed secret stair down into the fortress proper. Under a heavy overcast they cross the foaming Sruth Boghain and trek the few miles to the hill, all the while keeping an eye out for any orcs or other creatures abroad on this dull grey day. The countryside seems deserted. They slog up the east slope of the hill to where the impressive tower, over 200 feet in height, perches right at the edge of Cameth Brin's seemingly impossible granite overhang.


A main door at first-floor level is inaccessible now, the original wooden stairs having been gone for centuries, but the party finds a small sally port. The steel-reinforced oak door is still strong, but the party breaks into the base of the tower with little difficulty. Donald's torch illuminates the interior, which is chilly and thick with dust. Finding a spiral staircase, the party ascends to the floors above. They pass through a kitchen and refectory, stores and guardrooms aplenty, all long deserted. On an upper level, they enter a relatively grand chamber with a door leading to a balcony with a spectacular view. Finglas surveys the countryside around, looking for any sign of threat. Some black specks that must be crows flap around a distant patch of woodland, but otherwise the Trollshaws lie still and silent under the leaden sky.

On a dusty table in the next room lies an ancient tome. When wiped clean, words are revealed on the cover: Book of Plans of Cameth Brin. The maps within have suffered the ravages of time and vermin and are barely legible in parts. Nevertheless, this is a notable find. Poring over the pages, the adventurers find plans of the tower itself - with what appears to be a hidden staircase marked on the base level. They resolve to go back down and search for secret doors, but first they ascend the last few steps to the tower's roof.

A windy parapet surrounds the conical tin-plated roof, affording panoramic views - and a dizzying 700-foot drop on the western side. A small door leads into the dark space under the roof, and the party enters. Chuffles finds a rusty mechanism that creaks and complains but serves to open up a section of the roof. Grey daylight seeps in, illuminating the circular floor of smooth black granite inlaid with irregular patterns of seven-pointed copper stars. Perhaps the room was an observatory. Chuffles sets about poking and pressing the stars to see if any are loose. When he reaches the constellation of Menelvagor (identified by Finglas), there is a soft click and a star springs up on the end of a six-inch copper rod. Chuffles grabs hold and pulls, whereupon tiny whirling blades spring from the handle and the hobbit releases the rod with a yelp of surprise and pain. His fingers are cut and bleeding, but the wound is not grave. After bandages are applied, and with a mite more caution, he tries turning the handle instead of pulling. Another soft click, and a hitherto unseen compartment opens in the floor nearby. Inside the shallow space is a long copper box, which proves to contain a wand. Finglas takes it, studies its slim shape and tries to discern its function. It seems to direct his attention to the handle that hurt Chuffles. "I think this detects traps," he announces. Taking wand and box, the party leaves the roof and descends to the base of the tower.

In the room where their map shows a staircase behind - or rather within - a wall, they search for a secret door and Finglas finds it easily. He performs the procedure to open it but suddenly a trapdoor gapes beneath his feet. He totters on the brink but somehow manages to scramble back to safety. Yreorraent looks down the hole and sees daylight. The smooth-sided shaft passes straight through the rock of the overhang, leading to empty air and - five hundred feet below - the gabled roofs and hard, stony streets of the abandoned barracks-settlement of Tanoth Brin. A couple of tiny distant raven-shapes coast lazily across the space framed by the shaft.

Yreorraent peers. Chuffles goggles. Finglas exhales and wipes sweat from his brow. One of the Dunnish retainers - hard to tell which one - mutters, "Might be a good idea to use that magic twig, then."

After a few moments to recover their composure, and carefully avoiding the hole in the floor, the party successfully opens the secret door and finds the narrow stairway beyond. Lighting a fresh torch, they descend into the bowels of Cameth Brin.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Dec 05, 2016 11:49 am

Cautiously the party negotiates the narrow staircase, which makes a bewildering multiplicity of twists and turns as it descends for over three hundred feet into the heart of the hill. Eventually the party emerges into a chamber soundly constructed of granite blocks with a level floor. The ranger Yreorraent recognises the handiwork of his Dúnedain forefathers. To the north, a ten-foot-wide corridor disappears into darkness. The party proceeds with Chuffles and Cormac leading the way, Yreorraent and Calum in the second rank, and Finglas and Donald bringing up the rear. Weirdly, the darkness fails to recede before their torchlight, and after thirty feet or so they find themselves faced with a wall of utter blackness. Experimentation proves that they can enter and leave the lightless space. They can even thrust the burning torch within, but beyond the black veil its light is extinguished. Yreorraent remembers that among his possessions is a scroll bearing two spells, one of which might prove useful now. He readies a spare torch and intones the charm. A magical luminescence springs forth from the torch, seems almost to hesitate when it encounters the uncanny darkness, then rallies and expands, shedding a wan light into the chamber beyond.

Even though they can't see farther than thirty feet, the party can tell from the echoes of their hushed voices and cautious footsteps that the room is very large and high-ceilinged. They hug the left-hand wall and advance slowly, the darkness pressing against their little bubble of light. After about thirty feet, they reach a corner and continue along the wall in the new direction. A few steps farther and they become aware of a looming stone shape to their right: seemingly a huge hexagonal column, about twenty feet across, ten feet from the wall they are following. They move over to investigate, whereupon a many-legged shape drops suddenly from the darkness and lunges at Chuffles, huge fangs adrip with venom.

[In the aftermath of the War of the Ring, the remaining Wood-elves of Mirkwood embarked upon a cleansing of that great forest. Three evil spiders escaped the deadly arrows, crept across the Misty Mountains and arrived in the Trollshaws, where they took up residence in Cameth Brin a year ago.]

Chuffles gasps, hurls himself backwards and evades the beast's slavering maw. Two more spiders pounce into the circle of light and attack the party.

Re: Swords & Wizardry in Middle-earth

Mon Dec 05, 2016 3:51 pm

Great imagery there with the light holding off the darkness. I love using magical darkness against players. It makes low-level spellcasters really dangerous, and encourages the clever use of utility spells like light, which are otherwise ignored.
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