Product Review: Northwestern Middle-earth Gazetteer
Middle-earth Campaign Atlas #4002
by Mark Rabuck Iron Crown Enterprises, 1993
Reviewer: Chris Seeman
The Northwestern Middle-earth Gazetteer is a work of both synthesis and transition for Iron Crown’s MERP line. It inaugurates a new scries of products “intended to serve as the glue for all the background and adventure material presented in the more focused campaign, fortress, city, and adventure modules (3).” In many ways, the Gazetteer is a superior replacement to the old Middle-earth Adventure Guidebook (#ME2200), but it also quite obviously marks a significant shift in ICE’s publication strategy (as articulated by Pete Fenlon in OH I: 3 — 6), particularly in its new emphasis on the description of political “realms.” The hundred and fifty-nine pages of this atlas bring together and organize information concerning geography, societal groupings, settlement patterns, and trade routes which have been developed through or expanded from previous MERP publications.
An important departure from previous endeavors is a greater flexibility towards the descriptive material. By casting the atlas in the fictive guise of a “found manuscript” — just as Tolkien presented his own works as translations from The Red Book of Westmarch — the author and editors of this Gazetteer have created an opportunity for future revision and expansion of its contents. The principal dramatis persona whose fictive presence and voice frames the Gazetteer is Camagal of Minas Ithil, a lore-master who compiled the Pelrandir Permellon (S. The Vagabond’s Guide) in the aftermath of the Great Plague. Because of its fictive author’s historical limitations and ethnographic bias, “some material is undoubtedly inaccurate (5).” Notwithstanding ICE’s healthy concern to keep the avenues of change and improvement open for the future, the present edition of the Gazetteer is a tour de force of what ICE does best — area description — and it is a fitting culmination to a ten-year effort to create the necessary “infrastructure” for a richly detailed campaign setting.
The greatest strength of the Gazetteer lies in the fact that its real author, Mark Rabuck, has succeeded in delivering a concise and synchronic “big picture” of northwestern Middle-earth as it might have been in TA 1640. This is especially true of his realm descriptions, which are both brief enough to read at a glance and essential enough to avoid superficiality. A judicious selection of standardized demographic statistics for each of the realms or individual settlements described permits the reader a clear and immediate sense of the scale of things in Middle-earth. Such quantitative comparison makes it possible to judge just how big — say — a “big” city population or military force might be in relation to its immediate surroundings. The resulting overall coherence, combined with an attention to particulars, should make the Gazetteer of interest to an audience broader than that of the gaming community.
The greatest weakness of Rabuck’s presentation is the lack of an adequate interpretive framework for making sense of much the information he has gathered for us. While the Gazetteer contains a section intended to “provide the reader with a cultural backdrop against which to view the specifics presented earlier on realms and sites (125),” the panoramic treatment of history, geology, politics, religion, technology, and trade that follows attempts to cover too much territory in too little space, leaving the reader with more (and often quite valuable) description, but no greater penetrating analysis of the phenomena so described.
This problem shows itself most clearly in the categorization of forms of political rule and in the typology of settlement sites. In the realm descriptions we are confronted with a blinding (at least for this reviewer) array of administrative terminology, without any explanation of what (if any) underlying principles of organization are driving and generating these different forms of rule. Similarly, quantitative distinctions between villages, towns, and cities are not accompanied by qualitative distinctions clarifying whether such settlement categories imply a particular political form. Moreover, many differences which do appear to be significant are never explained or further developed. For example, while the northern realms of the Dúnedain are said to be “feudal” in origin, the South-kingdom is supposed to contain certain “constitutional” elements (31) — why this difference, and what these elements are, is never elaborated upon.
At times, the terminology that is employed to describe the realms seems to be contradictory in character. The jurisdictional spheres of province and fief are freely interchangeable (31, 33, 35, 38, etc.), even though historically in the real world they signify diametrically opposed forms of political organization. Similarly, agricultural laborers in the purportedly “feudal” realm of Arthedain are referred to as “tenants” (20, 21), even though feudalism (conventionally understood) creates very different relationships of subordination. The point of these criticisms is not to be nit-picky, but rather to ask whether the author himself has a coherent perspective to offer in the description of these realms. In other words, I am suggesting that if Rabuck (or ICE) do, in fact, possess a truly integrated perspective on the “why” as well as the “what” of the realms of northwestern Middle-earth (and they may very well), then it has remained either unspoken or inadequately communicated to the reader.
A second weakness (or, rather, drawback) to the Gazetteer lies in the peculiarities of the temporal setting in which it is placed. Although the choice of the 1640s as a setting is common to nearly all of ICE’s publications to date, its inability to provide a balanced perspective on the whole of the Third Age is particularly highlighted by the scope which the Atlases of Middle-earth series intends to provide. To begin with, the fact that the Gazetteer purports to describe Middle earth in the aftermath of the greatest disaster of the Third Age (the Great Plague) means that many of the population figures (as well as some of the political organization) will be highly “abnormal” and therefore uncharacteristic of other eras during this Age (often necessitating significant revisions for a gamemaster wishing to set his or her campaign elsewhere in time). Moreover, its temporal setting rules out descriptions of realms which are no longer (or not yet) in existence by the 1640s. An alternative to this strategy would have been to offer a description of each realm at its height (or at least its average), and then to include a concise account of the changes it underwent during the course of its history. Of course, such an alternative would have detracted from some of the particulars of 1640 which give the realm descriptions much of their texture.
A third and final weakness of the Gazetteer is its inclusion of a marginal section entitled “Other Groups,” which gives brief descriptions of races or individual creatures whose mode of existence does not constitute a “realm.” Many of these groups (e.g., Balrogs, dragons, wizards, undead, etc.) simply do not belong here, since they are more than adequately described in the Creatures of Middle-earth (#8005) and Lords of Middle-earth (#8002 – 8004) supplements. The brief descriptions of them which do appear are too brief or superficial to add any value to the Gazetteer, and in any case take away space which could have been used on a much-needed realm description of Dorwinion (Rabuck lumps the Dorwinrim with the Easterlings, pace Joe Martin’s claim in River Running (#8114) that they are ruled by a “Realm-master” (5)).
As for unintended omissions, the Gazetteer lacks a site reference for the haven of Pelargir (although there is a section on it in the Lebennin entry). As for minor errata, the beacon towers of Gondor are said to have been constructed early in the Third Age, rather than by the later Stewards as Tolkien says (33). The Daen Coentis are said to have sworn their oath to Elendil rather than Isildur (39). Lond Ernil is (as usual) often referred to as Dol Amroth before 1981 (138). The Barrow-Wights of the Tyrn Gorthad are said to have been Edain spirits, whereas Tolkien states that they were evil spirits (i.e., Maïar of some sort) out of Angmar and Rhudaur (22). Finally, the political leaders of Calenardhon in 1640 are given identical names to those established by Castamir during the Kin-strife (34).
As for the presentation of the module itself, the only seeming flaw is an annoying tendency to capitalize all political terminology, even when referring to generic categories (e.g., “a King” instead of “a king”). Also, the capitalization format ICE appears to have adopted is that found in “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” (The Silmarillion: 285 — 304), rather than that appearing in The Lord of the Rings (e.g., Gondor as the “South Kingdom,” rather than as the “South-kingdom”). The rationale for this procedure is unclear, since on the one hand the LotR version is supposed to be the official, “published” version, and on the other hand because ICE claim to be basing their publications on The Lord of the Rings, rather than on The Silmarillion.
The Northwestern Middle-earth Gazetteer is an ambitious undertaking and, despite its weaknesses and necessary incompleteness, it is a valuable reference tool for game referees and players alike. Its systematic treatment of realms and geography may prove to be of interest to non-gamers as well, combining some of the better elements of Karen Wynn Fonstad and George Foster, the former of whom appears to have been a consultant in the production of the supplement (1).
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