GURPS Lake Town Middle Earth

by Michael Cole

In previous articles, I wrote of using Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a campaign location, the changes that would be required. Here, I will detail the process taken in setting up the campaign.

Campaign Style
The first question is one of style – what sort of campaign are you looking for? For myself, I wanted an open world campaign, a sandbox, if you like, in which players could go anywhere and I would be able to find things for them to do. This, naturally, impacted my decision of where and when to set the campaign.

When and Where
Whilst recent versions of Middle Earth gaming material have set their materials close to the time of the War of the Ring, at least partially due to interference from Tolkien Enterprises and licencing, I rejected this era due to the fact that it did not lend itself to open world gaming, for several reasons.
The world at this time, particularly in the books, seems sparser and harder. Whilst yes, you can get a nice gritty campaign happening with this, these sorts of campaign are tougher on players as they have minimal safe havens, and as such, tend to not have as much long-term potential. It’s either succeed or perish.
Given that the events of the books are happening at this time, and that the players will be aware of this, this leaves you with three options: -
Let them play the fellowship, which would then degenerate into a TSR Daragonlance-style set of adventures, where players would be expected to follow the set plotline and would be punished if they deviated
Let them play the off-siders, those who go and do the boring stuff while the major players are elsewhere. Even less satisfying, as whom wants to do adventures that they know will not have any effect on the major storyline.
Completely ignore the events of the books – most players would simply not allow this to occur.

As such, I decided to go with the Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) default time setting of TA1640. The reasons are as follows.
1. It provides a reason for the PCs to go adventuring. Generally, most folks like comfort and ease, and it will normally take an event to cause adventures. Something externally must happen. TA1640 is set four years after the great plague, and such a globally catastrophic event will upset the natural order, and cause massive changes in the status quo. This provides many opportunities for adventures and reasons as to why people would have to make their own way in the world.
2. It provides a wide variety of opportunities. The world at this time is very unsettled. The major realms of Arnor and Gondor, whilst still at least partially in existence, are in decline to various extents, and have nowhere near as much influence. The Shadow, in the forms of Angmar and Dol Guldur, is certainly prevalent but is definitely not all-encompassing. In short, it is a time of relatively even conflict, and that encourages aspirations.
3. Most importantly, it is new, and allows the players to create their own story of greatness, rather than either repeating the story of the books, or even worse, acting as mere bit-players in the story of the War of the Ring. Everyone wants to take centre stage, and to either restrict players to taking part in an already-written story, or merely to support such a story to its natural already-dictated solution would be annoying. TA1640 is far enough before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that the players can have a major effect on the world without stopping the events of the close of the age from occurring.

I might also add the ICE materials are extremely good, and whilst now rare and expensive, are well worth obtaining and using. There are also still quite a number of people who are dedicated to keeping Middle Earth, and in particular, the ICE vision of Middle Earth alive as a gaming resource. It would make sense to make use of this.

As for the where, I decided on the Laketown region to the north-east of Mirkwood, for the following reasons: -
1. The region will be familiar to those who have read The Hobbit.
2. It has various ICE modules detailing the environment, Northern Mirkwood Campaign Guide and Esgaroth City Guide being essential, but with others detailing surrounding areas.
3. It provides a frontier-style environment, which is conducive to adventures. Safe zones surrounded by unsettled, unknown or uncharted areas ripe for exploration and possible plunder.
4. Given that it is populated by (human) peoples similar to Germanic peoples, the cultural shifts should be simpler for players to initially understand. Place names will be in Old English, which will be at least semi-familiar to English speakers, and most players will have at least a passing familiarity with Dark Ages England or Vikings or the like, which will assist them in understanding what the cultural norms are.
5. The settlements are not too large, no cities with only two sizable towns (Esgaroth and Dale) which reduces the amount of preparation at the point where you are unfamiliar with what the players will be looking for in civilisation.
6. On the flip-side of this, it is not a backwater, but is a major trading hub between various different realms – the Elves of Mirkwood, the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, the Easterlings, the Dorwinrin, the Eothriam and the Gondorians. This allows lots of plotlines to be drawn, and characters of various backgrounds to be playable without being unusual for the region.
7. It is less civilised and the people are more insular, thus allowing players to get away with more mayhem than most normal civilised people would allow. And what would players be if they didn’t believe that laws didn’t apply to them?

First Step - Adventures
The first step is the longest. It is establishing which adventures can be used. This took quite a few months, and was mainly occupied by reading or rereading every adventure that I could get my hands on, and determining whether (a) it could be used in the setting., (b) what modifications would be needed., (c) where abouts it could be used., and (d) how it could be dovetailed into other adventures.

To assist in this, I have both a document and a map of the area. All adventures were given a code, normally consisting of an acronym for the publisher, followed by a dot, followed by an acronym or number for the adventure themselves. This produced acronyms such as: -
* TSR.L1 – The TSR AD&D adventure, “The Secret of Bone Hill”
* ICE.LT22.1 – MERP Laketown Module adventure, “Highway Ambush”
* JG.P7/2 – Judges Guild Pegasus Issue 7, Adventure 2, “The Ruined Tower of Mabeleck”

From this, I would make brief notes in the document about the adventure, as in changes that would need to be made to fit it in. These could run from a single sentence to a couple of pages. I would also label the map with the acronym at the appropriate location. This ended up being like a big jigsaw puzzle. The large adventures would be placed first, and these in turn would lead to smaller adventures. It was more a matter of sorting them out in my mind first, before becoming too committed.

As an example, the first placed adventure was the TSR AD&D module N1 – Against the Cult of the Reptile God (I detailed how to rewrite this for Middle Earth in a previous issue of this magazine). Given that it was a large village (Orlane, renamed Hwaetstow to fit in with the Old-English naming scheme) in a settled wheat-growing region, the obvious location for this was north-west of Esgaroth, and just south of the marshes. This is a wide protected area, with the ability, by turning the map 180o, to have the required water flow.

But once this was placed, it naturally lead to further adventures. In the basement of the inn was kept a ghoul as a prisoner – where did he come from? He was obviously kidnapped but from where? From this, came a World of Farland ( adventure titled, “The Quick and the Dead” This can then be set to the south of Hwaetstow on the roadback to Esgaroth, renamed Níehsta (OE - Neighbours), with the map rotated 90o anti-clockwise. This then leads to further adventures – we need to remove the church, but where the Sherriff’s post is, there is a large building that could be used as a manor – manorial estates make more sense in these times than free villages, particularly given that it needs a large graveyard. But what happened to the manor? And why did the ghouls originally come here?

From this, we come across a rather famous Call of Cthulhu adventure, “Paper Chase”, found in the Cthulhu Companion Adventure from Chaosium Inc (Chapter 5). We can then make the estate a former Gramuz holding for an offshoot of the Frithas clan, named the Perci clan. Thomas Kimball (renamed Tomas Kimsen) is the last of the Perci clan, and invited the ghouls, as being friends he had met and got on with. We then end up with reasonably friendly cthulhu-type ghouls, rather than the D&D-style ghouls, which works a lot better. The next question is where did Tomas meet the ghouls? From this, we need some sort of fissure into the earth, and so on we go. Note that next issue, I hope to provide further details on using ghouls in Middle Earth.

Likewise, we can build on the story of the Naga. It is obviously new in the marshes, but where did it come from, and why did it move? Given its obvious power, being a Maia, it would have required a lot of opposition to get it to shift an established position. The obvious cause would be the awakening of the Dragons in the Withered Heath. From here, we can track a path across the plains over time that the players can follow back if they so want. Given that it is a snake-creature, there are quite a number of adventures that use the Egyptian god of Set as their foe. Whilst Set will not work in this setting, they can all be modified to instead fit the Naga. Likewise, characters from the adventure can be reused – I quite liked the personality of Misha Devi, and think that it would be a waste to lose – she could make a perfect recurring characters, and could gradually change from villain to unlikely ally to even friend over the course of several adventures, so I looked for other adventures as I placed them as to where she could be reused.

Even the location could be reused. Two adventures from the TSR magazine, Dungeon, can easily be modified, and would allow the setting to be a living changing environment. “Cry Wolf”, from Dungeon Issue 102, is set in a small town near some woods at the time of a spring festival called the Festival of Flowers. If “Against the Cult of the Reptile God” was conducted in spring, then this festival would become the aniversary of the freeing of the town from the Naga, which means that the adventures would definitely be invited back. All you would need to do is through in through the previous year, some unexplained issues with wolvish attacks and it will all come together nicely. Likewise, “Forest of Blood”, from Dungeon Issue 103, could be used the following year, or even in the same year at the summer or autumn festival, and fits in well as a plot against the elves who are located nearby.

This process all takes some time, and a lot of patience, but eventually; a picture emerges of possibilities. From here, we move on to the next step.

Second Step – Regions and Populations
The next phase is to go through what you have, and ensure that there exists some consistency. This should mostly have been done in step one, but this is where you filter what you have already done.

One issue I find with the ICE publications is that they tend to spread things out too much, such that we have an adventure in the Lake Town module where the adventurers would have to travel for several days to get some kids back from a troll that kidnapped them. No troll is going to travel for several days on the off-chance that she might find some kids to capture – the locations need to be within several hours of each other. The vast distances of travel may be fine for the books, but remember that during the books, they are travelling through relatively deserted areas. In populated areas, such as The Shire, Bree and Gondor, communities were much closer.

The rule of thumb I use here is indeed a rule of thumb. The scale on the large ICE maps is 1 inch, which is about the length of the top joint of my thumb, to 20 miles, which is about a general days travel. By using my thumb, I can work out rough travel times between locations, and thus try to have connections between each days travel. Not exactly high-tech, but it works.

Once you get distances to be acceptable, you can then start clustering. If you define regions in the map, and have roughly similar locations in those regions, it becomes easier to give an overall picture to the players, thus giving them more of a sense of familiarity. Thus we have clustered around Esgaroth, a couple of small farming communities. To the west near to the forest, we have distinct farming communities. From north to south, we have Hwaetstow, as mentioned previously, being a grain-growing region. Then small community farms to the south.

Further south, directly west of Londaroth, exists a large cooperative farming community which is embroiled in a struggle with a large logging enterprise. Further south towards the swamps is a largish farming community of humans integrated with the only collection of hobbits in the area.

Nestled in the eaves of the forest are various smaller more isolated communities, including one community that features a Veleda, the germanic equivilent of the sybils (see image at right)

Around the lake travelling north from Esgaroth are: -
* A small town featuring the riff-raff and ne’er-do-wells left from the plague. Allows thieves guild-type adventures.
* A small town actively keeping the memory of an early travelling missionary, based on the stories of Cuthbert of Lindesfarne.
* An independent community with its own proud military (mainly long-bow) traditions – see Robin Hood-type adventures.

Coming down the other side of the lake, we have: -
* The sole-remaining Dunedain estate in the north, a castle built around an old Elvish tower from the first age.
* The dairy cattle farming region.
* The sheep farming region.

This then gets expanded into larger areas. I had a number of adventures that had a fairy-type feel, so the section of forest immediately to the west of Esgaroth was designated the Fae Woods, and all such adventures clustered there. That way, when the NPCs talk about it, the players should have a rough idea of what they will find even without going there.

South of that is a section of woods inhabited by a goblin clan called the Skrikkikai Scarai (Screaming Wolves) – I needed some goblin opponents for some adventures, and managed to translate a few of them to all use the same clan. Again, all NPCs will be aware of them, so the players should be aware of their existence before entering the woods.

It takes a while, and involves some rearranging and manipulation, but it certainly makes for a more believable land. And it keeps interactions with NPCs more consistent, thus leading the players to get more a feel of being part of the region rather than strangers.

Third Step – Linking of Adventures
The next step is to go through the adventures and develop some common threads linking them, so that the players can choose to follow some of the threads through multiple adventures. The dark mysterious conspiracy tends to get overdone somewhat, particularly in Middle Earth, where so much can be blamed on Machinations of the Big Bad, so it helps to make the links more urbane. One link that I have used is of drug trafficking. In the play of one adventure, I introduced the notion that illegal drugs were being shipped into Esgaroth. You then get another adventure, which was originally written as a murder involving a love triangle, and modify it slightly to be that it was actually related to the drugs trade. You can then link in further adventures as the need arises.

If you throw enough threads out there, eventually the players may pick one up and run with it, which makes your job as a GM easier in getting them from one adventure to another.

Fourth Step – Friends & Foes
The last step involves the common people who may interact with the players on a regular basis, across adventures. For this, you don’t need a comprehensive listing, as it is difficult to know beforehand what the players will do, but being able to provide some details when requested about the important regional players will make the region seem to be more than disconnected adventures. Given that I was using the ICE regional modules, much of this was already done in terms of the community leaders and important people, but I developed some additional lists that I felt were required. These were: -
* The Law. Obviously there if the adventures break the law, but also if they are needed to assist the adventurers. For this, I had four towns sufficiently large within the region to have their own Town Guard, and then a number of smaller communities with a Steallere (Constable) and possibly one or two deputies.
* Merchants & Traders – normally only those who either would hire the adventurers, or whom the adventures would contract to move goods. Given that Esgaroth is a major trading hub, trade could certainly become part of the player’s interests. For this, I assumed that most routes would be dominated by at most one to two traders for the route – competition doesn’t really work here. A brief list of the major traders and there setups and routes was made.
* Mercenary Companies – if the players need help, then they need to know who they can call. Six companies of varying strengths and dispositions are located in the region, and they were briefly detailed.
* Goblin Tribes. In order to provide some enemies, I decided to use goblins as the main mass enemies – orcs are too regimented and tough for simple adventurers. As such, I usedthe three tribes from the ICE modules, and came up with another three of my own, and treated the tribe like a person, giving them their own personality, locations and details so that the tribes would be distinct opponents.
In Conclusion
The important thing to note in all of this, is that your plans will generally not survive the first onslaught of the players, so I wouldn’t stress over the finer details too much. You will constantly have to rewrite and adjust as a swathe is cut through your carefully planned scenarios. Players will generally never do what you expect them to do, so as long as you have a good idea in your head as to how it all hangs together, and can show that you are in control, the players won’t mind if occasionally you have to tell them that you will need to provide them with the details they seek the next session.