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A review of Other Hands Issue 26: Dark Undead

Editors: Chris Seeman and Charles Watteyne

ISSN: 1081-8359

by Joe Mandala 1999


Editorial: On the Move, magazine news
Dark Undead, a treatise on the undead in Middle-earth
Denizens of the Dead Marshes, a description of three Mithril Miniatures depicting Tolkien's undead
Rastarin's Log Chapter Eight: The Gwaedhel-Sword, fiction

The Authors

  • Chris Seeman: Dark Undead, Denizens of the Dead Marshes Chris Seeman is the publisher of Other Hands and has worked extensively on MERPTM (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.
  • Sam Daish: Dark Undead Sam Daish lives in the home of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie - Wellington, New Zealand, where he has put his classical studies degree to good use as a Human Resources Advisor for a leading Bank. He confirms that security is tight around the various filming sites. If he's very lucky you may see him in one of the movies as the 39th orc from the left.
  • Bridget Buxton: Rastarin's Log Bridget Buxton, a New Zealander, is currently working on a Ph.D. in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at UC Berkeley. Her interests are Roman and Hellenistic history and archaeology, and anything to do with the outdoors. She played and wrote Rastarin, and hasn't been the same since the latter exploded.

Editorial: On the Move

Here the editor discusses magazine business, the beginnings of the troubles with ICE's Tolkien License, and Middle-earth miniatures (Mithril and Harlequin). There is also an update on The Oathbreakers, a Middle-earth module being written to cover the denizens of the Paths of the Dead. We can't wait for the finished product!

Dark Undead

At the beginning of this article, the authors set forth their two-fold purpose: to present a picture of the undead in Tolkien's world taken from primary source material, and to suggest suitable game mechanics for the implementation of this picture in a role-playing game. The authors also make the strong caveat that interpretation of the source material is in many cases subjective and in all cases complex. With that they endeavor to explain Tolkien's undead.
In their first purpose, the authors succeed very well. There is discussion of the purpose of the undead in Middle-earth, and the literary function they fill. Examples of possible undead from the legendarium (the body of work written by J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien dealing with Middle-earth) are examined. A long section dealing with the nature and definitions of undeath as a concept dealt with by Tolkien sheds much light on the subject. The practical results of undeath are discussed in detail, especially pertaining to the Rings of Power. Here, there is a departure from the legendarium into other, more philosophical, writings of Tolkien (namely, "The Notion Club Papers"). This is an excellent use of secondary material, and its presentation is both timely and useful. It leads into an exhaustive discussion on the relationship of the soul and body in Middle-earth that is highly educational.
Next follows a short discussion on the creation of undead as it occurred in Middle-earth. Here, again, the Rings are brought into focus and explained. There follows a more practical discussion on the appearance of the world of the undead and the methods by which the undead interact with the living world. The apparently special ability of the undead to foresee future events is discussed, and then the authors explain several seeming vulnerabilities which all undead share. Limitations on movement and location are then explained, and the article then moves on to its conclusion, summarizing the main points of the discussion.
Again, the authors succeeded brilliantly in their first purpose. The picture of Tolkien's undead is clear, consistent, and true to the primary material. An exhaustive cross-checking of source material revealed no significant flaws. Extensive use of endnotes provides an excellent point from which to continue the exploration without disrupting the flow of the essay. Over all, this is an excellent scholarly treatise on the undead in Middle-earth. It grants no assumptions, and states things from the point of view of the original authors (many times in contrast to most of the gaming material that has been published on the subject). With that said, the following criticism is much easier to make.
The article fails in its second purpose: to provide suitable game mechanics for the undead in a gaming world. This is not to say that such mechanics could not be derived from the article. Indeed there is a large amount of useful information to take advantage of in all gaming systems. This is, in large part, a good thing. Rather than tying themselves down to a specific system, the authors basically chose to present the material in a general manner. Mostly in the second half of the article (the sections on the creation, interaction, and limitations of the undead), the authors present methods by which the undead operate. Any GM who knows his system tolerably well should be able to take this information and fit it into his campaign with a little work. (Editor's Note: A supplement was sent to subscribers with more information on game mechanics in RoleMaster. It includes information on undead stat interpretation and information on undead presence and detection. Please contact Chris Seeman for more information.)
The article is an excellent one. It delves into a difficult subject and comes out intact - coherent and consistent with the legendarium. It would have been useful to some, perhaps, to have stat tables and creation mechanics with resistance rolls etc., and those people expecting them to have been included may end up disappointed. Such tables would have limited the usefulness of the article to the general community, however, and the authors should be commended for staying with a more scholarly approach. I would highly recommend this article to anyone wanting to understand Tolkien's idea of the undead, and to anyone who wishes to bring their game more in line with Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth.

Denizens of The Dead Marshes

This is a short piece designed to fit with the main article of the issue (Dark Undead). It lists three figures of the MithrilTM Miniature range: M253 Swamp Star, M250 Corpse Candle, and M168 Ghoul. The figures and their inspirations are then given short descriptions, and tied to the MERPTM modules Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes and Ghost Warriors. Contact information for a retailer from whom the figures can be obtained is included.

Rastarin's Log Chapter Eight: The Gwaedhel-Sword

What can I say? I laughed and laughed; it was better than Tarzan. The amoral hedonistic Captain Rastarin is at it again:

"Rastarin and Clennan team up with Konar the barbarian to recover the legendary Gwaedhel-sword from Fuinur's Well, and get more than they bargained for when Clennan decides to rekindle an old flame - rather explosively. Undaunted by ethical complexities, Rastarin attempts to combine their mission for World Peace with a bit of piratical plundering. As usual, however, her cunning plan turns out to be not quite cunning enough...."

This serial publication is possibly one of the most ribald, sacrilegious, and incorrect representations of Middle-earth I have ever seen, except perhaps Bored of the Rings. That said, it is funny. Sometime it is hilariously so. If you ever saw Kevin Costner as Robin Hood, you can understand what I'm trying to say here: that movie is to the Robin Hood legend as this story is to Middle-earth, with one exception. This story does not take itself seriously, and endeavors to draw chuckles from the reader.
Rastarin's Log bears the mark of all successful (as I deem it) tongue-in-cheek literature; as I was reading it I chuckled, and every time I chuckled my wife would lean over and demand, "What?! What's so funny?" I enjoyed sharing it with her. It shares one other thing with most successful farces - it keeps your interest (at least it did mine). It's a little like Jack Tripper - disgusting, silly, and completely unbelievable; but you watched it anyway, if you know who he is. If you don't know who he is, ignore the previous sentence and consider yourself lucky. It's also a little similar to the old Groo comics. The hero isn't really a hero, the villain is generally likeable, and everything is a bit over the top. The dialogue is an artful balance between dry and ribald, and it works very well. So if you get the chance to read this story, watch out for dead parrots-that-aren't-parrots, exploding corpulent ladies, and sarcastic Cat-lords. And don't forget the scrumpy ...

Editor's Note:

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