The Fourth Age
In one of his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings that he began but quickly abandoned.
I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.
The Professor and I have different ideas of what’s worth doing. I think it’s understandable that Tolkien, a veteran of the First World War who also lived through the Second, would feel incredible depression dwelling on the idea that a conflict as great as the War of the Ring would not destroy the Shadow, after all. But we have never known any other world — so just as Tolkien needed to tell a story about a war between good and evil, it seems only natural for the story of what happens long after that war should be told by us.
In his notes on The Silmarillion, Tolkien said that Sauron was “the first of the many concentrations of Evil into definite power-points that they would have to combat, as it was also the last of those in ‘mythological’ personalized (but non-human) form.” His title for the proposed sequel, The New Shadow, hints at another such power-point.
125 years into the Fourth Age, most of the figures from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and even The Silmarillion) have either gone into the West or died. The world belongs to their heirs, like Eldarion, the son of King Elessar II (Aragorn) and Arwen, or two of our player’s characters, the twins Éowyn and Marroc, the great-grandchildren of Samwise Gamgee. The old powers seem to have left the world with them. There are rumors of orcs in the Misty Mountains or Mordor’s Plateau of Gorgorth, but few confirmed sightings. Trolls, dragons, and other fell creatures seem to have disappeared from Middle Earth. There are still wargs and similar beasts, but the Reunited Kingdom hunts them down to make the wilds safe.
As Tolkien wrote, though, there is a new shadow growing. Melkorist cults grow in secret. Gangs of bandits aping the habits of orcs gain power. And in the darker corners of the world, older evils stir. Sauron has been defeated, but the will to dominate remains, even in the music of the Ainur itself.
The nature of this story means that I can reveal little about the campaign’s arc without spoiling much of it, because the first part of the story is discovering the nature of the Shadow in the Fourth Age. Suffice to say, the campaign begins with our heroes involved with the Undertowers Adventuring Company, and through their adventures coming to learn of the new Shadow, then figuring out how they will be able to stop it.
We begin in Minas Tirith, where the Undertowers Adventuring Company has their offices on Lampwrights’ Street. From there, we might journey to anywhere in Middle Earth, even to places that Tolkien had little to write about, like Harad or Rhûn. The Reunited Kingdom covers most of the world that Tolkien wrote about, making it easier to travel across Middle Earth than it was in the latter days of the Third Age. Where we go will by driven by the players’ decisions. Wherever they go, though, we’ll see a new Shadow stirring.
The One Ring provides some interesting rules for emphasizing the themes in Tolkien’s writing about the heroism of holding onto hope in the face of despair, and the nature of evil. In the Age of Men, there are fewer and fewer elves, orcs are becoming more monsters in old stories than real threats, and most of the threats of former ages have disappeared. One recurring theme will be similar to European fairy stories, that these old powers have not yet passed entirely from the world, and can still be found in some corners. Another important theme will be one touched upon in the few pages of The New Shadow that Tolkien did write: that the roots of the “Dark Tree” remain, and so heroes must remain vigilant, for you can never know where or how it will emerge again — only that it will.
Marroc and Éowyn, the great-grandchildren of Samwise Gamgee, have gone to Minas Tirith to make their fortune, founding the Undertowers Adventuring Company, which solicits investment to fund expeditions to uncover now-unguarded old ruins, offering investors a share of the treasure in return. This, and the excitement of the Red Book of Westmarch making its way to the libraries of Minas Tirith, put them in touch with Dwalin, son of Dori, who proposed an expedition to Moria. With the balrog defeated (as described in the Red Book itself), and the goblins no doubt gone (or at least greatly reduced in number), the ancient halls of Khazad-dûm offered enormous promise. The three spent the recruiting others, including Garivald the Healer and Thorondir, son of Thorongil, and set out in the spring of 125.