Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Retrospective: The Court of Ardor

As a younger man, I read Tolkien, of course; everyone I knew did. Being a fantasy roleplayer meant that you dutifully read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at least and many also read The Silmarillion (Christopher Tolkien not yet having published any volumes of The History of Middle-earth when I entered the hobby). I read them all, but I can't say I was much enamored of them. In fact, as stories, I found them all, The Hobbit included, rather boring. Now, I loved Middle-earth as a setting -- all the little details, languages, etc. But I didn't think much of the stories Professor Tolkien decided to tell about his world, which only goes to show, I think, how shallow my love for Middle-earth was back then.

Consequently, when Iron Crown Enterprises started producing RPG supplements describing the various lands and peoples of Middle-earth, I had very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I looked forward to reading even more details about the setting, but, on the other, I wondered, "What's the point?" I was never going to set a campaign in Middle-earth. The setting seemed much too focused on a particular set of stories that, at the time, didn't really excite my imagination all that much. I also wondered how many new details could possibly be included in these supplements. After all, Tolkien was dead and I already owned all the books he wrote about Middle-earth. What more could there be?

So, I ignored ICE's Middle-earth products initially. It wasn't until I saw advertisements in the pages of Dragon in 1983 for a supplement called The Court of Ardor that my interest was piqued enough that I considered buying a copy. Based on the ads, The Court of Ardor was filled with "ancient swamp ruins & island citadels held by dark elven lords and their fierce minions." That didn't sound like anything I remembered from Tolkien, yet here it was and released under ICE's Middle-earth banner, no less. So, I went off to the bookstore and picked up a copy, both excited and confused at the prospect of some place in Middle-earth that I'd somehow never heard of.

The Court of Ardor was written by Terry K. Amthor and filled with 62 pages of dense text and some gorgeous maps by Peter C. Fenlon. The supplement described a land far to the south of Middle-earth called alternately Ardor or Mûmakan, which was home to number of elven lords who had cooperated with Morgoth during the First Age. I remembered nothing of this from The Silmarillion and, though I'll admit my appreciation of the finer details of Tolkien's world were shaky at best, it struck me as strange, if not impossible, to imagine evil elves in Middle-earth. Stranger still was that these evil elves used magic associated with a Tarot-like deck of cards supposedly created by Morgoth himself. There were also peoples and places that had no connection to Middle-earth in the supplement as well, not to mention an epic plot line involving Morgoth's half-elven children and the continuation of their father's plan to destroy the Sun and the Moon.

As a kid, I was baffled by all this. The Court of Ardor was undeniably cool, but it was also undeniably inappropriate to Middle-earth. I couldn't figure out then (nor now) just how this product was ever released under the Middle-earth label, since, except for names here and there, it was seemed like it took place in its own fantasy world rather than in Tolkien's sub-creation. But it was also strangely compelling and while, in retrospect, I find it a little too over the top for my liking, it is quite well done and I can easily imagine how someone who took it up and ran with it would have a great campaign using it. I myself did not, mostly because, while I liked many of its ideas, I somehow found myself in the odd position of simultaneously thinking it didn't belong in Middle-earth and finding it too strongly associated with it to be able to use it.

I am led to understand that many elements from The Court of Ardor were later incorporated into a different ICE product, a non-Tolkien setting for RoleMaster called Shadow World. I've never seen that product, so I can't speak to how close the connection is, but it's interesting to consider that, once upon a time, a game company could even imagine inserting a wholly original setting into an existing one without any qualms. IPs tend to be much more tightly controlled nowadays; I doubt we'd ever see something like this again. Of course, I still have very mixed feelings about the fact that this was ever done. My appreciation of Middle-earth has increased greatly since 1983 and the inappropriateness of The Court of Ardor is even more apparent to me now than it was then. Yet, as I say, there's a strange power to this supplement and, like the various alternate takes on "Star Wars without the saga" making the rounds, there's a part of me that remains intrigued by a Middle-earth where Mûmakan, its evil elves, and epic plot lines fit right in.


  1. I collected a lot of the early MERP items, mostly for their gorgeous maps. Anyone not inspired by their full page spreads of towers, castles, and dungeons is without imagination. I'd steal a map here and there and populate it myself, they were definitely really nice pieces of gaming goodness. The contents, well I wasn't much of a Middle Earth historian anyway, but some of the plot lines were fairly interesting.

  2. I actually have a copy of The Iron Wind of the ~1981 vintage. This was the precursor to Shadow World, and it was created by the good folks in Virginia specifically because they were looking for more of an epic-fantasy world more akin to Middle-Earth than what was commercially available. The Tolkien influence is very clear in reading this supplement.

  3. FWIW: I was in several large RPG groups back in the late 70's and early 80's. I came into the hobby through the literature, but very few of my friends read any of it. I think there was maybe one other guy who read some of it.
    There was a lot of Donaldson being read a few years later though in high school.

  4. When I was attending college I ran a RM game using the Court of Ardor. It was pretty cool: one of my favorite I.C.E. products. I also suspect that Monte Cook (who once did some writing for I.C.E.) liked it a lot. The design he used for the Crater Ridge Mines in The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil bears a striking resemblance to the Mines of Mirisgroth in the Court of Ardor.

    Mirisgroth pic 1
    Mirisgroth pic 2

  5. Absolutely-- what a crazy thing this was. I ended up using this (heavily hacked) in a Rolemaster campaign years later (integrated with the Elemental Companion's concepts). That still appears as a major faction in my ongoing fantasy campaign. This and Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs were early ones before (it seemed) they got their act together about trying to be really truthful to the books.

  6. As much as I hated and still hate RM and merp, it's undeniable that the modules put out by ICE where exceptional. I've always found Ardor way cool. I can't remember all of the details, but am I wrong in remembering a faint Amber smell to it?

  7. Always been a big fan of both Court of Ardor & The Iron Wind - either of which would definitely make for a great campaign setting. I do have to agree with you though that Ardor works much better as a stand alone than as a Middle Earth product, but that's just me.

    FWIW I also think it was their attempt to blend some elements of Chronicles of Amber into a game when no one had done that yet - ref the use of the Tarot.

  8. I adored The Hobbit as a kid. The Lord of the Rings, I enjoyed, but didn't particularly love until later. Even today, I faintly resent the nineties branding of The Hobbit as "the enchanting prelude to The Lord of the Rings."

    Your discomfort with Ardor sounds a bit like tension between wanting to invest authority in an original author versus the gaming instinct that the players own the setting, being, in effect, sub-creators of the sub-creator.* That's what it would be for me, at least.

    Star Wars raises the frustrating possibility that an author can retain the authority so many of us wish had remained with Howard or Lovecraft (or Gygax, I guess), but do something we really wish he hadn't.

    * This isn't a perfectly accurate way to say it, but I have some trouble formulating my meaning.

  9. I really liked (and like) a lot of the merp materials. I never played them with the merp system, but rather used them all for background. In reading the Silmarillion, I found a lot of very darkly motivated elves, particularly exemplified by the sons of Feanor, and Eol the hermit. Several of them certainly weren't above betrayal and murder to achieve their ends.

    I liked how some of the merp books, much like I went on to do later, explored uncharted parts of Middle Earth, filling in blank areas with interesting twists. Whenever I give a gaming group a literary world to adventure in, my preferred method has ever been to put them in a spot not specifically detailed by the literature. In going to places only mentioned, it has always seemed to enhance the "oh cool, we're in that book" feeling, while at the same time sidestepping the cheese factor.

  10. Ardor and Angmar remain my of two favorite MERP products. Whereas Angmar was relatively well grounded in the appendicies of LOTR, Ardor's whole-cloth creation struck me as the perfect companion to a First Age Silmarillion game, in which Morgoth seduced elves to work against the Valar and their creations (Sun and Moon). I've adapted it for play under AD&D, Amber, and Ars Magica over the years (I never played MERP itself or RM).


  11. Loved me some of those MERP source books. The items alone were epic in their power, though what made the items somewhat digestible was their back story.


  12. I was never much of a fan of the RM or MERP rules, but I loved many of the products put out for Middle Earth. The Fenlon maps are gorgeous - talk about spurring the imagination! Middle Earth is one of those worlds I desperately want to run a game in.

    Oddly, I'm not one of those who see ME as a strictly High or Epic fantasy setting. To me it's a "living setting" of ordinary people who can be caught in extraordinary, albeit small-scale events, not just epic heroes, if ya know what I mean.

    Hmmm... I may be thumbing through my ME products tonight. :)

  13. The MERP version of Tolkien's world was always totally off the canon, but I never saw that as a negative point. In the last years I've changed a lot of classical setting like Star Wars, Middle Earth, Forgotten Realms in my campaigns.

    Thanks for the suggestion, James!

  14. Philotomy,

    Unless my memory is faulty, Monte didn't just write some tsuff for ICE. I think he was line developer for Rolemaster a while.

    Ardor is one odd fish. I have been collecting MERP books, and still haven't found that one for anything resembling a sensible price.

    Terry used to sell the copies he had in his closet for the cover price, until somebody told him what they were selling for elsewhere.

  15. MERP products are extremely high quality and most of them also very carefully researched to fit the original setting. I imagine that they did this deliberately as a way to offer a more fantasy, jazzed-up setting for MERP players without interfering with the core of the game world. A good compromise, I think.

    Two years ago I ran a brief campaign in the 4th Age of Middle Earth, using D&D3.5, centred around a plan by a remnant group of elves to restore Eregion to its former elven glory. The elves were basically fascists, and were in a struggle to contain the Dunlendings, with the PCs being used by both sides as they worked out what was going on.

    I think it's easily possible to play around with the Middle Earth setting to make it more temporally relevant, or high fantasy if you prefer it, without fundamentally changing its meaning to everyone involved. Particularly if you set adventures in the 2nd or 4th Ages.

  16. I was a huge fan of MERP back in the 1980s, and remain very fond of it to this day. It was the game that my group 'advanced' to from AD&D in high-school (along with some Call of Cthulhu and Hawkmoon). Some of my best RPG experiences were with MERP and various ICE modules. I most recently ran a MERP game a decade ago (!) and still enjoyed it.

    I agree that Ardor really should be considered its own setting. It's a great one, in my opinion, but it does not really fit into Middle-earth, for the reasons James mentions. To a lesser extent, this is true of the other MERP campaign modules set in 'southern Middle-earth': Far Harad, Greater Harad, and Shadow in the South (along with their associated adventure modules). Together with Ardor they make for a very interesting 'Tolkien-ish' setting, but I think that they work better as their own 'Southlands' setting. I'm tempted to run a campaign using them someday. The beautiful maps by Pete Fenlon alone would make it worthwhile.

    Most of ICE's modules set in *northern* Middle-earth cleaved far more closely to Tolkien's writings (with a few exceptions). The MERP/RM system, however, was not very 'Tolkien-esque' in nature (especially its magic system). Nonetheless, I loved it, and still do. And in general, the Middle-earth campaign modules were brilliant 'sandboxes' for GMs.

    Did I mention how awesome Pete Fenlon's maps are? :)

  17. One of the best campaigns I've ever played in used Court of Ardor as the base. We used GURPS though. I managed to inherit the supplement when a friend gave it to me and I've treasured it ever since.

    Funny enough it always reminded me of Zelazny's Amber series more than anything else.

  18. Akrasia, I think actually the magic system is quite Tolkien-esque for a fantasy game in that it tones the power down quite a bit. Having your wizard wandering around at first level with one spell - "boil water" - (actually, it may not even have boiled, just warmed) is quite a change from even D&D.

    Realistically, very few people would be interested in playing in Middle Earth if they couldn't have magic and monsters, because whatever setting we use, when we play fantasy we want these things. I think MERP did an excellent job of managing those demands while toning down the high magical expectations of players. Certainly my MERP campaigns had a low-magic feel, with no-one every playing a pure wizard or animist, few magic items and those that were obtained being just 1/day or bonus items.

    It was noticeably different to RM, where magic was more prevalent. I think this is a laudable achievement by the MERP crew and further proof that, despite inventing a very cumbersome system, ICE were great game developers.

  19. The Shadow World stuff was an odd duck - it was a kind of generic fantasy world with some sci-fi elements hiding in the background (See Islands of the Oracle) and much of it was dual-statted for both Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero. There were 2 big atlas type books (2 different editions I believe) and then there were regional sourcebooks and some adventure modules of wildly varying tone. Cyclops Vale was a fairly standard fantasy sandbox area while The Orgillion Horror was a weird Lovecratian situation set in a mansion. You could read the back of the thing but if they were shrink-wrapped you were never sure what you were going to get in the pre-internet days. It was roughly comparable to the Judges's Guild stuff for D&D in the early 80's but for a different and less popular system.

  20. Akrasia pretty much nailed ICE's intent with Ardor and S ME. It was the region that they were allowed artistic license with. I also echo everyone's sentiment about the high quality of all of the MERP material.

    Shadow World is also a very excellent setting - as long as the material was by Amthor. The issue was that ICE had several different authors writing the regional modules. Often, they started out as non-Shadow World and were retrofitted into the setting. I think this was the reason that the older material seemed "genreic". The true SW material is FAR from generic and has more than a slight Sci-fi element to it. In fact, SW was also placed in the Space Master universe (also mostly written by Amthor)with frequent visits from aliens and tons of high tech artifacts.

    Amthor continues to produce Shadow World material. It is available through Guild Companion Publications. I would highly reccomend all of the books he has available.

    Monte Cook contributed to several Rolemaster Companions and was involved in the development of Rolemsater Standard System (RM 3rd edtion).

  21. That really looks more like Hyboria to me (which is by no means a complaint - roleplaying in the real Middle Earth would be deadly dull IMO).