A review of Other Hands Issues 29/30: Southern Middle-Earth

Editors: Martin Burke, James P. Garriss Jr., Chris Seeman, and Charles Watteyne

Copyright ©2000 Joe Mandala
Edited for The Guild Companion by Joe Mandala

Contents

  • Editorial: "Khârumagînad", introduction to southern Middle-earth theme
  • Magic Feature: Words of Command, mechanics for using Words of Command in MERP
  • An Alternative Continental Map for MERP, two variations, including the lands of Hârnworld
  • The Mûmakanril, an exhaustive cultural cross-section of a barbarian people of the Utter South, including a map of their homelands.
  • Mithril Feature: The Mirror of Fire, a description of three figures from Mithril Miniatures fitting the southern theme of the issue.
  • The Realm of Bellakar, a large supplement in a separate booklet detailing the area between the Far South and Umbar.

The Authors

Andy Mack: Words of Command

    Andy lives in Wiltshire, Southern England. His hobbies include play-by-mail games and FRP games (both of which he has played for more years than he cares to remember). He runs a regular MERP campaign set in and around Arnor in 1400 for (in his words) "a total bunch of blood-thirsty, psychotic nutters that even Rastarin would have trouble controlling!" When not being driven to drink (not that there is much difficulty in that) by the antics of said group, Andy works for a National Financial Company.
Thomas Morwinsky: An Alternative Continental Map for MERP
    Thomas is a relatively new contributor to OH, first through the Inland Sea and Nûmenôr maps and later as revision author of Taurinafanto (OH 27) and an article on the history of Mount Gundabad (OH 28). In real life he works on a PhD in Zoology at the University of Kiel (Germany).
Christian Haas: The Mûmakanril Chris Seeman: The Mirror of Fire, The Realm of Bellakar
    Chris Seeman (chris1224@aol.com) is the publisher of Other Hands and has worked extensively on MERP™ (Kin-strife, Southern Gondor, Arnor, Northern Waste, Hands of the Healer). In real life he spends his days trying to finish a doctoral degree in Near Eastern Religions at UC Berkeley. He is a noted Tolkien scholar in gaming circles.
Cory Rushton: The Sisters of Ishtra (with Sam Daish)
    Cory Rushton, when not working in the "serious field" of Middle English literature, runs an ancient campaign now creaking into its thirteenth year. He has an article forthcoming in the medieval studies journal "Disputatio." His wife Susan play-tested the Sisters, and his campaign has never been the same.
Eric Dubourg: The Realm of Bellakar
    Eric has been role-playing for more than ten years, especially with Middle-earth, Five Rings and Star Trek (with a very long MERP campaign that began in Gondor, and which will finish in Mûmakan and Ormal Bay). He is the first developer to tackle Bellakar in Middle Earth (and in the near future will venture into Ormal Bay). In real life Eric is an informatician in an SSII (Service Society in Informatique Ingeniery) in France. His interests include Middle Earth, Star Trek, Rome and Egypt.
Wesley J. Frank: The Realm of Bellakar
    Wes lives near and works in Chicago, Illinois. His experience ranges from farm work to warehouse and office to physics labs to an MA in American History at Northwestern U. The best use he has made of it all is the writing of the MERP books Arnor and The Shire. He has also contributed to several other ICE modules and, of course, "Other Hands." As a role-player, he favors polite but pushy characters who usually outlast tougher and smarter enemies and allies. He does disclaim all responsibility for the phrase "subtler panache" being used in the opening line of The Shire, and offers it as one of the reasons Iron Crown lost its Middle-earth license.

Editorial: Khârumagînad

The issue begins with a tribute to all those who have worked on material in southern Middle-earth for MERP in the past (the "Khârumagîn"), from Terry Amthor to William Wilson. Though there is scant material in the primary sources on the South, this is the perfect area for Other Hands to work on Middle-earth. Little detailed, but surely as complex and interesting as northwestern climes. The Editor explains how the issue mushroomed into the monster it became, and celebrates the last seven years of the magazine with this double-release issue. There is (typically) a tantalizing promise that one day, perhaps, there will be a full realm module published detailing even more than the Bellakar supplement does. Hear, hear!

Words of Command

This is a relatively short article, but one full of possibility. The author sets forth a simple set of rules dealing with Words of Command. References are mainly to the one-word spells uttered by Gandalf on occasion ("speak friend, and enter," for instance). The article details several categories of Words of Command (shortened to WCs throughout - interesting coming from an Englishman…). WCs are described in reference to their usage, and to the language they are spoken in. I am quite impressed with the reliance on language here. It is obvious in the source material that certain languages are more magical in nature than others, and it shows in this piece. The only questionable inclusion is that of Orkish (and possibly Adûnaic). Power in terms of subjective level and very harsh consequences to the caster round out a fairly well balanced system that nicely incorporates a long-neglected way of using magic in Middle-earth. Perhaps one day we'll see an expanded and more detailed work-up. This is definitely a useful article mechanically, and not an offensive one from a scholarly viewpoint.

An alternative continental map for MERP

This is quite an impressive piece of work. There are two maps included, and both feature an inclusion of the Hârnworld map as an extremely far-south complement to the continent of Endor (fascinating!). Several incisive notes on cartography are included in a short article explaining the methods by which the author came by his map. On one map we have what I consider to be the finest change to Pete Fenlon's old Endor map - the inclusion of a large bay in the north of the continent to fit the toppling of the Northern Lamp (Illuin) in prehistory. All in all, there is an excellent cohesiveness with the primary material, including geological changes detailed in the Silmarillion. Another quite surprising section in the explanatory article is one dealing with meshing the Hârn milieu with playing in Middle-earth. Quite impressive (I know I already said that, but it is! Quite!). If you enjoy Hârn and Middle-earth both, this is a must-have issue.

The Mûmakanril

Written along the same lines as the now-familiar template for cultural description from MERP to RMSS, this article details a barbaric tribal culture living in the jungles and savannahs of the Utter South. A standard "traveling scholar" viewpoint is used for all descriptive narrative throughout. A map of the region the Mûmakanril inhabit is included - very useful. The article is written with an eye for use in MERP, RM, and RMSS/RMFRP.
Beyond the standard ICE cultural template items (Physical Character, Culture, etc), there are several very detailed and impressive sections. The first deals with the tribes of the area. A long list of the tribes and their descriptions is provided. I was instantly reminded of the lists of tribes in the Dunland™ module. This, of course, is not as detailed, but it provides many useful facts. A section on history is likewise terse, but is nonetheless comprehensive.
A list of major settlements follows, with tantalizing hints at political structure and foreign relations. Apart from the separate area map, there is a map included inside the article showing the locations of these settlements. It would be nice if someday this region were to be detailed more heavily…. A section on religion is next, with decent descriptions of the "gods" of the Mûmakanril (as always paralleling the Valar and Maiar). A more in-depth treatise on the priestly caste shows the reliance of this culture on ritual and religion. The language used in this section, especially, is impressively internally consistent. There is some excellent material here for creating animistic/shamanistic characters.
The final section deals with neighboring tribes and peoples - a great addition. This gives the prospective GM many story hooks into and out of the region, and ties this material in with several already published MERPTM books. The article is a great one, and I find myself wishing that more of the cultural descriptions in the MERPTM books had been as sweeping. The level of detail, though not deep, is very wide. With some extrapolation from existing books, and some imagination (which is what this is all about, after all), very detailed and interesting characters can be created with the material provided in The Mûmakanril.

Mithril feature: the mirror of fire

Three figures from Mithril Miniatures are detailed in this issue's feature. The Razarac (M78), The Master of the Tama (M82), and the Lesinavi (M80). As always, a short vignette describes the figures. The only thing missing is a reference to which MERPTM book(s) the characters are drawn from.

The sisters of Ishtra

MERP, RM, and RMSS guidelines are given for playing a Sister of Ishtra in this article. The Sisters are a group of devotees to the goddess Ishtra - the goddess of love. There is some interesting history given for the order, and also a short section on their 'mystic path.' There are also some unconventional tie-ins with the source material (Queen Berúthiel is mentioned, as is an incident where Aragorn resists the wiles of a seducing temptress). The only fault I could find with the mechanics was the use of profession rules for RMSS instead of the creation of a 'training package.' It would have been more consistent to go with the latter. More tie-ins are detailed in the Timeline section, with Akhôrahil playing a strong role. The timeline runs from S.A. 2250 through F.A. 21. But, as the author warns, this 'profession' is geared more toward NPCs than PCs, and the article is therefore much more useful to GMs than players.

The realm of Bellakar

This is definitely the jewel of this issue. I have to say that I was amazed at the amount of work that obviously went into this "supplement." As a whole, the piece is a combination of socio-political description, historical essay, and military history. It details the land between Umbar and Boshiza-Miraz - a region hitherto ignored by MERP authors. I think it is at least as good, and probably better, than most of the material that has been published under the MERP name. There is one problem, though, as is pointed out in the editorial. It is entirely too short. The sweeping scope across time and geography gave me a sense that there was much more detail to be gleaned from The Realm of Bellakar. Curiously like another author we all know and love. I can't remember his name, but his initials were JRRT.
You may think me a panderer or one easily immersed in fantasy (the latter may strike true, actually), but this work actually impressed me quite a bit. It begins in the Elder days, with a short description of the peoples that lived here before the Númenôrians arrived. The focus is on the Second and Third Ages, from the colonization of the Númenôrians through the depredations of the Storm King (Akhôrahil the Ringwraith) in the middle of the Third Age (15th Century). Immensely detailed in both history and language, we are taken into a land of quasi-Faithful Dúnedain where military strife, social upheaval, religious civil war, and economic depression threaten to wipe out any threads of continuity with their forefathers. It is a fascinating story not unlike august tomes of history such as the Oxford History of the Roman Empire. Not quite as dry, though - there are some bits of pretty good narrative thrown in now and then to keep you entertained.
The material is excellent, internally consistent, and true to Tolkien (where it applies, since there isn't much written in the primary material about this area), but this is not really a "role-playing" supplement as published. While there are plenty of characterizations of important figures and events, there are no adventures, stats, or city maps. There are several good maps that help the reader to visualize the historical narrative, though, including a poster-map of Bellakar reaching from Umbar to the Bay of Tulwang. This is, however, an excellent point from which to create such adventures and descriptions (which you could then submit to your favorite free online e-zine…).
The only criticism I could come up with is that the names can be confusing, but I've heard that one from friends who have trouble with the Silmarillion. The names are truly alien to northwestern Middle-earth (as they should be), and I had grown accustomed to the Sindar/Quenya agglomeration so widely misused in earlier MERP works. While after the first reading I was confused about several things due to linguistic unfamiliarity, the second reading brought a better understanding of the language. This book probably contains the highest concentration of decently formulated Adûnaic I have seen. There is also quite a bit of interesting "native" linguistic tomfoolery that I will, no doubt, take the time to dissect in the near future.
If you plan on using southern Middle-earth in your campaigns, The Realm of Bellakar offers a great way to turn what until now had been a boring traverse across featureless lands into a campaign in and of itself. No longer will you "jump" from Umbar to Boshiza-dar and back. Just getting there can become a riveting story with a richly detailed history behind it. Look for more to come in this area, for the editor has all but promised us a full realm module in the future! (Really! It's in the opening editorial!)

Editor's Note

For more information about this and other issues, visit the Other Hands website.

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