Product review - The Kin-strife

The Kin-strife
Middle-earth Sourcebook #2015
Authors: Anders Blixt et​.al.
Charlottesville, Virginia Iron Crown Enterprises, 1995.

Reviewer: James Owen

My, what tangled webs we weave! This review of The Kin-strife is intended to address those parts of the work that deal with history and information as opposed to the adventures themselves. The adventurers, while interesting of themselves are, to my mind, incidental to the primary information presented within the module itself. (It is, after all, entitled a Source-book.”) It is from this information that an astute reader may evolve and develop their own nasty, back-stabbing and deadly Machiavellian adventures that may or may not be based on the adventures contained in the Sourcebook. Besides, how many of you out there really do run the adventures from these modules complete and wholesale? This is not to say that the adventures do not contain valuable information concerning possibilities and situations during the Kin-strife, but to point out that the tapestry upon which they are woven is detailed and presented in such a way that additional or modified adventures may be developed.

The single greatest strength of this work is the fact that it is rooted, as so many other MERP modules are not, to a particular era in time and space in Middle-earth (in this case, to the realm of Gondor in 1432 to 1437 of the Third Age). Given this basis for the information presented within, it is possible, which the authors have done in great detail, to flesh out this era, breathe life into it and provide us with a wealth of information, speculation, and possibilities for our own extrapolations. It allows for greater detail to be developed by placing an era restraint on the material in the module, and in fleshing out the background under which the concurrent adventures and overall campaign may be developed. People may be detailed, lands and cities may be specified, and an overall campaign may be developed through which a hapless group of PCs may wander. The entire package lends itself, of course, to the development of an overall campaign set in Gondor during that time, from the rebellion to whatever may occur as a result (or not) of the players.

Each section of the module revolves, beyond supporting material and an introduction to the Kin-strife, around each of the major Gondorian cities and locales during this period: Pelargir, Umbar, Lond Ernil, Osgiliath, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil. These sections contain relevant information concerning the cities themselves and the surrounding countryside. In addition to this, local information of important areas in the city, types of people found, NPCs and the like are included.

The city descriptions are well-organized and laid out to make it easy to read the introduction, then to read a specific city area, and then to launch the players into action within that city. Just enough information is found in each city section to allow the players enough information about their location and the area, with just enough information for the GM to run the adventures and from there to develop their own, further adventures.

The introduction on the Kin-strife and the backgrounds of the major players in it is fascinating reading, well-conceived and developed. I particularly liked the development of the Usurper’s secret police, the Côr Aran. There is nothing like the intimations of death squads, clandestine surveillance, corruption and absolute power placed in the hands of ruthless people to make the hairs climb up the nape of my neck just thinking about the possibilities for creeping out and messing up a group of PCs!

The feeling that I got while reading through The Kin-strife was one of a great potential to thrust a group of PCs into a confusing, paranoiac morass of political intrigue and ambition. All of the worst possibilities for back-stabbing, backbiting, game-playing, politicking and betrayal exist in this module. Machiavelli comes to Middle-earth, and all the pieces are presented there in the Sourcebook to allow the referee and the players access to the information needed to bring just such an atmosphere to the gaming table.

Pretty good, huh? A lot of great information, well-organized and conceived. I particularly liked the guidelines for running mass land battles and naval battles in section 10, and especially liked section 11.3 on warships, which shows stats and data for common Gondorian warships. Ahoy mateys! Let’s run a few naval battles and fight some pirates! Not even to mention the entire section on the origins of the civil war and the struggle for the crown.

But what didn’t I like about it? Well, here we go on that one…

Though a good idea up front — and it provides a good unifying sub-plot to the overall campaign — I found myself vaguely disturbed by the influence and development of the cult of Benish Armon. I am, in many ways, a Tolkien purist — not a rabid one mind you, but just enough of one to want the same philosophies and sense of magic and wonder to exist in the Middle-earth Role playing aids that I see.

I often find myself having problems with certain kinds of magic set in the Middle-earth milieu. Magic resides in things that are derived from Aman and the Valar, as well as the workings of those beings and those who have been close to them, namely, the Elves. The authors of The Kin-strife do an admirable job of avoiding the usage and development of those things magical, except in those cases where there exists a link of similar nature, like the cult of Benish Armon and the Kuilëondo.

Consequently, I feel that the primary nature of the remaining servants of Morgoth in Middle-earth, of which Sauron is the chief, is one of corruption based on the seduction of principal weaknesses. In this case, it is the seduction of the men of Númenor (and, by extension, the Dúnedain) through their pride and desire to be deathless.

To me, the Kin-strife revolves around the first of these issues. The pride of the Dúnadan, and the effect that the policy of the purity of bloodlines has on their society. Is it not, therefore, fitting that the Usurper, in his reign, should declare that Ancient Númenor is re-born — Númenor, which, through its pride and ambition, fell, corrupted by Sauron’s influence? Sauron has designs on bringing about the downfall of Gondor. He’s already been actively working on the downfall of Arnor, so why the cult of Benish Armon? It just doesn’t seem his style. Anyway, a cult” influence seemed out of place to me, though it may not to you.

Secondly, and finally (There really isn’t anything here that I disliked too much!!), I loved the Sourcebook as an illumination of the time, with its explanations, thought and extrapolations of the society and internal makeup of Gondor during the Kin-strife. There is a wealth of information, places, people, settings, locales and adventures. But it seemed to lack the nature of the fantastic, perhaps an echo of the feeling that many of us had when we first read The Lord of the Rings.

It read a bit dry. But, what it has in dryness it makes up for in interestingness. Interesting in terms of running a campaign that is involved in the resistance, or running a campaign to save the heirs of the Prince of Morthond, or playing cat and mouse with the Côr Aran. Lots of possibility, but a possibility that, though grounded in a fantastic environment, with inklings of the fantastic has too much of the workings of what is earthly.

Take a group of PCs into the clutches of the Usurper’s secret police, save the life of the exiled King, run a resistance cell in Pelargir, fight naval battles against the Usurper’s navies. Read about what life must have been like in Gondor before Minas Ithil became Minas Morgul, when Osgiliath was still inhabited, when Gondor was still ruled by Kings. Well, almost!!

The Kin-strife
Middle-earth Sourcebook #2015
Authors: Anders Blixt et​.al.
Charlottesville, Virginia Iron Crown Enterprises, 1995.

Reviewer: Mark A. Merrell

The Kin-strife is one of the new sourcebooks for Middle-earth Role Playing, a slightly unusual one in being fixed not only spatially, but also temporally, set in Gondor during the rule of Castamir the Usurper (T.A. 1437 – 1447). Several subscribers to this magazine, and even the editor, are authors to this weighty tome, so I ought to be polite about it!

Being polite is very easy, because the quality of the material is something that other new ICE publications are going to have to live up to. The artwork and cartography is ICE’s usual high standard, although some of the maps look as if they are black-and-white versions of color originals, with a loss of some labels; for instance, the Dor-en-Ernil map is very hard to read. The general layout is good, and the scene at the beginning of Orodreth’s death sets the tone for the rest of the book very well.

The book is laid out in sections; a preliminary one telling the general history of the conflict, the politics which lead up to the rebellion, and the loyalist discontent underlying the superimposed peace which will ultimately bring down the Usurper. Following this are section on each of the major cities of Gondor: Dor-en-Ernil, Minas Anor, Minas Ithil, Osgiliath, Pelargir, and Umbar. Each of these chapters describes the area around the city, the city itself, the bigwigs and the hoi polloi, major NPCs, and gives three Pret-a-jouer adventures. At the end is a section of Gamesmaster Advice, pointing out the problems of running city-based campaigns. There is also a section on running mass battles on land and at sea, although I would have thought that characters would avoid large combats, especially as most of the adventures are set inside cities, where fighting would be discouraged. Lastly, there are tables of RM and MERP stats for all the NPCs. This is where I feel the system-specific detail should be, tucked away at the back in an appendix so that GM’s from other systems do not feel left out, and so that tedious rules do not interfere with the flow of the text.

The adventures are of a different style from the ones that ICE has often produced. I thought that it might be appropriate for me to review them as I have played some of the Dor-en-Ernil and Osgiliath adventures in their draft stage. I have to say that it makes a huge difference to read the Death in the Family” adventure as the GM is supposed to see it, rather than the maze of confusing events which we were presented with by Chris Seeman. Now I can see what was going on behind the scenes, and it’s still confusing — a very Tolkienian sense of interlacement. Chris’ campaign two years ago involved nonstop thinking and talking in character with hardly a die-roll, and from reading most of the adventures in The Kin-strife, the others appear to be similar.

They have much more of the correct Tolkien” feel, rather than being adapted D&D treasure hunts. There are long detailed descriptions of people (more complex than the way I managed to play Castaher!), their aims, their worries, their interactions, and a plan of events for the adventure (assuming all goes well) but not a single heap of treasure (except Haradan books) to be found, even in the tomb-robbing adventure. It would seem that in this world, information, contacts and favours are worth far more than gold. (This is not a criticism — how much gold got spent in The Lord of the Rings?)

If I have even a small niggle, it is that the adventures assume that the characters will have loyalist feelings and will want to do their small bit to bring down Castamir. Can’t we have an adventure for some trainee Côr Aran agents rooting out The Horrid Scum? Or even be sent to hunt down and try to assassinate Eldacar? (I know this would risk altering the primary work, but still.) The nearest we come is the Council of Gondor,” which would be fascinating to roleplay. The Oxford Roleplaying Society has a similar ongoing campaign called Thieves Guild” where the characters sit round a table and discuss the Guild’s business. The purpose being to intrigue and gain power and influence.

This book is a success on several levels. Clearly a labour of love on the part of real enthusiasts who have gone so far as to include their extensive reading list, this is far superior to previous ICE products. As an episode in a political history of Gondor, The Kin-strife would appeal to non-roleplayers with an interest in Tolkien. This is helped by the lack of MERP stats in the text. As a roleplaying source-book, it has all the necessary detail for a GM and the players to really live in this time, while not filling the pages with descriptions of hoards of +5 swords and gold pieces. I look forward to the rest of their new titles.

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