Set mostly among the pillared halls of long-abandoned Moria, the Khazad-Dûm deluxe and its accompanying cycle Dwarrowdelf explore the long lost home of the Dwarves. Dark, maze-like, and filled to the brim with Goblins, the overall mood and set dressing of this cycle stand in stark contrast against last cycle’s forests and wide open spaces.
With a new cycle comes a new set of challenges. Not only do the quests of Khazad-dûm bring along interesting mechanical obstacles to overcome; the setting also brings with it a set of thematic problems. As much as the designers managed to nail the feel of exploring Moria, the story of the second cycle ends up having a lot of weird inconsistencies and plot holes.
Allow me to explain
If we assume that each quest of the cycle is meant to take place in order of release, the story goes something like this: Elrond wants some heroes to go check up on Balin’s colony (for some reason). They go, fight a bunch of Orcs, discover the Book of Mazarbul, move it to Balin’s tomb (where the Fellowship will find it later) meet the Balrog, and then high-tail it out of there.
Then, an unspecified amount of time later, after an unrelated trip during which Arwen encounters some Orcs along the path between Lórien and Imladris, Elrond says, “Hey, there are a lot of Orcs around the Misty Mountains. Why don’t I send some more heroes to Moria to find out why?” So the heroes go back into Moria, fight the Watcher in the Water, get lost, meet the Balrog (again) and push it into a hole before leaving.
The problem, of course, is that if there were two Balrog sightings before the time of the events of the Fellowship of the Ring, then why didn’t Elrond mention something about that when the Fellowship set out from Rivendell?
One possible solution I have heard is that the heroes who go on these quests actually die before making it back to Elrond. That way the information that there’s a Balrog in Moria can go unknown until the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell. The problem with that theory is that it still paints Elrond in a somewhat questionable light: you’d think that if he sent two parties into Moria and then never heard from them again that he might say something about that to the Fellowship (or at least to Gandalf) before they set out.
I’m just not satisfied with the “didn’t make it out alive” solution.
I understand why it happened this way
Imagine for a moment that it’s 2011, when lead developer Lukas Litzsinger and friends were first designing this cycle. The previous cycle was a success, and now they are looking to change things up by setting the next one in Moria. Ideally, it will let players relive some of the glories from the handful of chapters in the Fellowship of the Ring that take place in the region.
They begin brainstorming the sorts of things they’d like to see in a Moria cycle: The Watcher in the Water, lots of Goblins, blizzards up on Caradharas, Elrond sending you on a quest, and the Balrog all end up on a whiteboard. Everyone nods in agreement that these are the best parts of those chapters.
But when theoretical Lukas Litzsinger goes back to his office and starts putting it all together, it unsurprisingly begins to feel kind of like a rehash of the Fellowship of the Ring. “Is that okay?” theoretical Lukas thinks to himself. After debating it a bit, he decides that it is. After all, a big reason why people play this game is to relive the classic moments from the books. If he has to contrive a slightly awkward storyline in order to tie his own version of these events together, then that’s a small price to pay for nostalgia. And in a pre-Saga-expansion world, I probably would have agreed with theoretical Lukas Litzsinger.
But now we have the Saga expansions to fulfill any desire to relive the books through the card game, and Khazad-dûm and Dwarrowdelf have become redundant. The awkward plot has lost its primary purpose, and all that remains is an inconsistent and somewhat confusing narrative.
So now, in 2017, I’m left scratching my head about how to fit this particular set of events into the greater context of the Lord of the Rings. It seems that I just have to shrug my shoulders, suspend my disbelief, and play the darn quests at face value, just like everybody else.
Well that makes me grumpy
So I’m not going to do it. Instead, I’m going to fix the cycle myself.
Here’s the trick: I have already stated elsewhere that I’m playing each quest as an individual entity rather than a cohesive narrative, and that I’m ignoring the text from the inserts. This gives me the freedom to unlink many of the quests from one another and rearrange the plot however I see fit.
In this way, I can recast Khazad-dûm and the Dwarrowdelf cycle as a series of non-contiguous stories throughout time, with the connecting thread being Moria itself. Together each quest paints a picture of the region’s danger-wrought history. I’ll address each quest individually as I come to it, giving it my own revised context and explaining where it might fit in the greater narrative of Tolkien’s works.
A light in dark places
This post seems to have drawn itself to a greater size than I had initially anticipated, so Nightmare Into the Pit will have to wait until next week. Join me then to hear the first of nine stories this cycle has to tell.