Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Retrospective: Moria: The Dwarven City

I owned – and enjoyed – the first edition of Iron Crown's Middle-earth Role Playing. I also owned several of the Middle-earth setting books published by ICE, such as Bree and the Barrow-Downs. Those supplements were a mixed bag for me, both in terms of how well they were produced and in how much they inspired me when I first read them. Among those of which I thought particularly well was 1984's Moria: The Dwarven City by Peter C. Fenlon, who was also responsible for most of its many maps.

While I remain firm in supporting Gary Gygax's contentious assertion that The Lord of the Rings had little direct influence on his conception of Dungeons & Dragons, it's hard not to waver on the matter when someone brings up Khazad-dûm. Better known as Moria ("black chasm" in Sindarin), it was once the greatest city of the dwarves in all of Middle-earth. This was before its inhabitants famously "delved too greedily and too deep," awakening a Balrog that had hidden itself beneath the Misty Mountains after the War of Wrath. Now a ruin of subterranean chambers, passages, and labyrinths, Moria is filled with orcs and trolls under the command of the Balrog – not to mention untold riches. If ever there were a prototypical D&D dungeon, Khazad-dûm is it.

That's why I readily grabbed a copy of Moria as soon as I came across it. At 72 pages in length, it contains a great deal of information on the dwarven city, starting with descriptions of the land surrounding its location. Everything from topography to climate to flora and fauna are exhaustively detailed, followed by an equally exhaustive history. Looking back on it now, I'd say that both these sections are probably too long for gaming purposes, but, at the time, I didn't care. I had a great deal more patience for voluminous background information. The dwarves of Khazad-dûm, their society, culture, and language get a similar (though shorter) treatment, which ought to give the referee a good sense of what Moria was and is like and why it is constructed in the way that it is.

It's the city itself that is the main attraction in this book and, much as I enjoyed the other sections, it's why I bought it in the first place. About two-thirds of Moria consists of descriptions of the city and its sights, complete with digressions into dwarven architecture and engineering (as well as the philosophy behind them). The reader is treated to details of every conceivable aspect of the city – doors, chambers, chasms, bridges, stairways, and even traps. In almost every case, we're also given drawings and sample maps to illustrate what these features look like and how they are used. It's frankly amazing stuff and precisely what I'd hoped it would be.

As described in Moria, the city is divided into seven levels proper and seven "deeps" – the portions of the city shrouded into darkness used for mining, forging, and related endeavors. It's in these latter areas that the Balrog and his evil minions dwell. Because of how vast Moria is, each of these fourteen layers is given a high-level schematic map, on which certain notable locales are definitively placed. The rest of the layers are detailed by the referee making use of random tables, with the structures and other results correlated to just where one is on a given layer. It's a complex and slightly cumbersome set-up, but, truthfully, I'm not sure how else one could describe a locale as large as Moria without inducing tedium. To its credit, Moria is filled with useful inspiration throughout, which ought to relieve the referee of some of the burden of describing this place.

As a whole, Moria impressed me greatly as a younger man, so much so that I suspect it played a sub-conscious role in my eventual design of my mountain megadungeon Dwimmermount. It's certainly one of the most ambitious "dungeon" products I'd ever seen up to that point and the wonderful maps for which MERP products were known cemented it in my mind as worthy of praise and emulation. Even now, re-reading it in preparation for this retrospective, I felt some of the same awe – and a little sadness, too. I never got the chance to use Moria back in the day. My MERP campaign didn't last long and the player characters never dared venture in the direction of the dwarven city. It's a great pity and one I doubt I'll remedy, but, at my age, I likely only have so many campaigns left in me. Such is life!

24 comments:

  1. Orcs, dwarves, elves, hobbits, wraiths, trolls, balrogs, ents, wizards, mixed-race adventuring parties, dungeons… D&D and LOTR have them all in common. Seems open and shut to me. LOTR had a strong influence on D&D. Other writers did too of course, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, but so did Tolkien.

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    1. Exactly. Half-orcs, half-elves, rangers, goblins, wargs and dragons aren't exactly things you'd feature in a RPG game supposedly inspired by Howard, Vance and Leiber.

      But you'd certainly publicly claim it was if you were trying not to be sued by the estate of the creator of hobbits, balrogs, ents, et.al.

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    2. Others may disagree, but it seems to my amateur eyes that if you take the Fellowship (of the Ring) and drop it into The Hobbit - a multi-racial party of a half dozen or so adventurers traversing vast areas of wilderness in a 'Earthy' rooted fantasy world, delving through underground (dungeon - though Moria does nicely here), outdoor and even town encounters, meeting NPCs, battling a variety of classical Monsters, and all with the goal of getting loot and treasure by dispensing with the monster at the end of the quest, and even capping it off with a nice battle (war-game roots) - you have D&D in a nutshell. I think it seems less so if we only look at the LOTR. But add The Hobbit to the mix, and that's at least old time D&D as I remember seeing it.

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    3. Yup. If Gygax didn't like Tolkien, why did he populate his game with so many of Tolkien's creations?

      He could have simply made a game like the World of Xoth, where you'd never find a hobbit, an elf or an ent.

      I don't like sparkly vampires. So I don't include them in my games. Disliking something and including it anyway doesn't make a lick of sense.

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    4. "Yup. If Gygax didn't like Tolkien, why did he populate his game with so many of Tolkien's creations?"

      Because he had a game to sell, and Tolkien was popular. Also, by player request. As far as I remember that's the reason why hobbits ended up in the game - someone wanted to play one, Gygax gave in, but limited it to level 4.

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    5. And then Gary did the same thing with dwarves and elves and wood-elves and half-elves and half-orcs and rangers and orcs and wraiths and balrogs and ents and wargs and goblins and all the other things you don't see in Howard, Leiber and Vance, that were owned by the Tolkien estate?

      Poor Gary, having to compromise so much for his players and his customers. He must have really hated D&D by the time they got done with it! :)

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  2. I can see the booklet peeking out of a pole in my office. Moria is very much as James states, a fascinating product that I've lost myself in for hours - but little used. Personally, I think the traps section is the most creative and logical, as they give environment requirements for some of the more advanced ones. I prize that section above all of Grimtooth's Traps.

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  3. This module is definitely one of the stars of the MERP lineup. It is wonderful for use in a solo Rolemaster-lite exploration of fallen Khazad-dum.

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  4. The trappings may look like Tolkien, but the free-wheeling, proto-capitalist libertarian mercenary spirit of natural D&D gameplay flies in the face of everything that stands for heroic melancholy on Middle Earth. With the sole exception of Bilbo and company perhaps, who embark on the journey for the sake of gold and adventure, in that order. But then again, they come very early in the corpus with their uninhibited adventure story sensibility, and were considered not quite canonical at later stages. Tolkien even considered a "retcon" of the Hobbit to fit it better in the mythos, but couldn't get around to do it eventually. (Fortunately, I dare to say.)

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    1. I respectfully disagree.

      Gygax describes the world of Keep of the Borderlands thus:
      "The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them."

      In Howard's Hyboria, the forces of chaos that threaten decadent, corrupt civilization are the Cimmerians, who are not evil.

      In B2, the forces of chaos are orcs, goblins and other humanoids. Sounds like Tolkien's Third Age.

      Likewise, Gygax's The Village of Hommlet carries Tolkien's theme of "history as a long defeat." A supernatural evil was not entirely vanquished and threatens to return, just like in Middle Earth's Second and Third Ages.

      Epic, melancholy, ominous stuff, from Gygax himself.

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  5. I've often been struck by how much more "The Hobbit" resembles D&D as played than Lord of the Rings. It's not a quest to save the world, but for gold and glory. And of course, Thorin and co. are greedy, quarrelsome, selfish and often shortsighted. They're frequently escaping from trouble of their own making only by the skin of their teeth (and GM fiat?). A prototypical player party, in other words

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    1. Not surprisingly, Gygax said he preferred The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.

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  6. I have no doubt Gary was being honest about not finding LOTR to his taste. But that certainly didn't apply to most everyone else involved in the early days and I'm guessing there is a certain amount of obstinate contrarianism in Gary's stance. It's easy enough to grab creatures and other trappings from a work without necessarily enjoying it a piece of literature.

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  7. I ran a MERP campaign back in the 80s (we actually moved quickly to Rolemaster's more expanded options, but still played the Middle Earth campaign). Moria works well as a dungeon, although I think we got more out of the Mirkwood products.

    As high school kids, we enjoyed messing with the canonical timeline, and managed somehow to contrive a battle between Gandalf (who has stats in another book) and the Balrog, who won and took Gandalf's ring of power as his own. This is what happens when D&D murder hobo ethics intersect with the vision of Professor Tolkien (who I'm sure would be appalled).

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    1. This just goes to prove the saying that if you stat up Cthulhu, enterprising players will try to kill Cthulhu

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    2. The ur-text of the Mythos (the Cthulhu Mythos this time) has the titular alien god splattered by a ship. You don't need to be a munchkin for that.

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    3. Touche. Substitute "Jesus" or some other figure of your choice then

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    4. They DID kill Jesus, which I'd say proves your point. XD

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  8. More on topic I've always loved the maps produced by Pete Fenlon and Terry Amthor for MERP. The keys aren't always totally Tolkienian but they are pretty imaginative and a lot of great ideas are quickly summarized in short lines of text (in miniscule font - a pair of reading glasses sure helps if you have these in print form).

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    1. They're things of beauty. I bought many MERP products solely for the maps.

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    2. The plans and cartography of the MERP line was and remains oustanding.

      I still own Moria but like many commenters I've never been able to use it. My biggest disappointment with it is that there was no Angus McBride cover.

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  9. It's possible to build most of the elements of a "dungeon" adventure from the 19th century adventure fiction of Verne, Stevenson, Haggard, Poe, the Gothics, etc. Therein you get treasure maps, ruins, tombs, caverns, ominous skeletons, secret doors, lurking horrors, idols, treasures, lost races, riddles, puzzles, deathtraps, and all the rest.

    Moria undoubtedly draws on that literature, but adds its own innovations--the abhuman armies roving the depth, the demon boss--that also have deeply influenced gaming. It's hard to read the hold portal spell as anything else but a representation of Gandalf's not-quite-balrog-proof door ward, for instance.

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