Under Angmar's Shadow

Under Angmar's Shadow

Under Angmar's Shadow


Under Angmar's Shadow started life as "The Cardolani Succession", under which name it had its first run at Intercon B (March 2002) in Boston, USA. It was due to run at Continuum (again as "The Cardolani Succession") in June 2004 before it was pulled due to a combination of circumstances. It then sat on the back burner, waiting for an opportunity to emerge from the shadows, a rather apt metaphor, given its new title.

After House on the Hill, Under Angmar's Shadow is my most ambitious game, one which totally outgrew its original premise (and has yet to stop growing...). I conceived of, wrote and ran the game at a time in my life when much was changing. I flew out to America to run it the day after I resigned from my job and flew back to start my own company. Oh yes, and to write House on the Hill, which was due to be run in July that year and which was an even bigger and more challenging game than Under Angmar's Shadow! What excellent timing...

This page explains all about how that mad sequence of events came to be and provides some of the background to the game's Middle-earth setting. It also provides details of the previous runs, explains how "The Cardolani Succession" became Under Angmar's Shadow and describes how the game just keeps growing...

How it came to be

Under Angmar's Shadow was, like all good ideas, entirely unplanned. In the middle of 2001, I was casting around for thoughts of another large (30+ player) four-hour game to write after the success of The Man in Black. Having come up with the idea for the House on the Hill (which is obviously not a good idea since it was several years in the planning), the idea for Under Angmar's Shadow hit me like a run-away train.

I had already started work on House on the Hill and was in two minds as to what to do. My original plan was to run House on the Hill at Intercon B in the USA in March 2002, and then run it or another game at Convulsion in the UK in July 2002. Naturally, I thought of Under Angmar's Shadow for Convulsion. I could get House on the Hill out of the way before Intercon and when I came back, I could get Under Angmar's Shadow written in fairly short order for Convulsion. After all, Under Angmar's Shadow was supposed to be a small(ish) game, certainly no bigger than The Man in Black, which was a very big 4-hour game. Add to that the knowledge that I had written The Man in Black almost from scratch after coming back from Intercon 15 to run at Convulsion 2000 and it was a dead cert. And at that point, I was still working in my old job, doing a 4-day week and leaving 3-day weekends for game writing.

So, I had a plan, which I put to my partner in crime, AJ Smith. It was at this point that I found I had a different plan. House on the Hill, he correctly pointed out, was a very ambitious game. Under Angmar's Shadow, in comparison, was much more traditional. Given the choice, AJ preferred to have the first run of House on the Hill in the UK, which meant that Under Angmar's Shadow would have to be brought forward for Intercon B. This didn't bother me too much, since House on the Hill was about the same size as The Man in Black and I had already done some work on it. Plus, I could do some more before starting on Under Angmar's Shadow, which, after all, was a small game. So, I agreed to what seemed to be an extremely sensible suggestion...

The game's roots

Under Angmar's Shadow was partly inspired by my previous Middle-earth game, The Council of Fennas Drúnin. I was wondering what made a good setting and thought of the Council in The Council of Fennas Drúnin and that set me going. The politics of Cardolan struck me as a good base and thus Under Angmar's Shadow was born.

The game was originally going to be like The Council of Fennas Drúnin, a four-hour game set at the meeting of the Council of the Sceptre. However, that soon went out of the window as I got more ambitious. I didn't want Under Angmar's Shadow to just be a game of political debate. Besides, with at least 10 major parties, each having a stake in Cardolan's future, and each with conflicting aims, it wouldn't work in that format.

The Council of Fennas Drúnin had a single, central theme, that of determining the guilt or innnocence of Yasmin. Although they had conflicting aims, all the characters were primarily interested in this one central theme. In Under Angmar's Shadow, things are slightly different. Although there is still a central theme, in this case the Princess Nirnadel's succession to the throne, the characters are pulling in very different directions.

The Council of Fennas Drúnin is a game of debate. In Under Angmar's Shadow, there has to be more than just debate. Under Angmar's Shadow is a game of power and alliances. It is a game of negotiations. Characters, in order to negotiate, have to have things to negotiate with and about. They have to have power, military or monetary. In a single, four-hour Council meeting, these things cannot come into play. Hence the game's structure of four distinct sessions, allowing time for "behind the scenes" events to take place. Now, when your neighbour says that he'll invade you if you don't do what he says, you can find out if he's bluffing or not!

The other major source of inspiration was Dennis Douglas' "Superbia" game. It ran at the end of June 2001 and I played King William, King of the Superbia (a mythical Kingdom, but heavily based on the England of Shakespeare's historical plays). I loved it and I wanted to create a game something like that, a game of politics and power. Other than the inspiration, there aren't that many similarities between the two games. Under Angmar's Shadow is very much its own game and is very deliberately not an attempt to write "Superbia: the Middle-earth version".

Writing the game

When I came to write Under Angmar's Shadow, I thought it would be fairly straightforward. I had promised AJ that it would be quite small compared to The Man in Black, with character sheets about half the size. I had the basic game concept in my head and started with the background pages and the rules which I put up on the website. Once these were finished, I was able to begin writing the game itself.

Being fairly relaxed about the whole thing, I put off Under Angmar's Shadow for a couple of months while other things took precedence. Eventually I started just before Christmas by writing a synopsis of the characters and then a synopsis for the plots. As I wrote, things became a bit more complicated: factions needed more than one or two characters in them, other factions presented themselves as logical compliments to the existing ones. In short, the game got bigger. In the end, I had 39 characters, but even then I didn't quite realise how much trouble I was in.

It was only when I actually started writing the characters that I realised how I had woefully underestimated the size of the game. The first character sheets to roll off the word processor were of the Princess and her Chancellor. Having promised AJ a small game to proof-read, each of these character sheets was twice the size of a character sheet in The Man in Black. In fact, the smallest character sheet in Under Angmar's Shadow is larger than the largest character sheet for The Man in Black and I had 37 more of them to write in about as many days!

In the end, it was a tight squeeze, but the game got written in time, and the character sheets were sent out in good time, but it's not something that I ever want to have to do again in such a hurry!


Like The Council of Fennas Drúnin, Under Angmar's Shadow draws its background from the 10 years of table-top gaming I did in Tolkien's Middle-earth, spanning four major on-going campaigns and one abortive one. This game draws elements from all of them, but in particular an abortive campaign set in and around Cardolan called "The Wise". However, a lot of the background work for that game drew on my first two Middle-earth campaigns in which the city of Tharbad and, to a lesser extent, the politics of Cardolan, played a major role.

The other major source for this game, which was the source for much of the material for the Middle-earth campaigns, was Iron Crown Enterprise's (ICE) Middle-earth series, in particular the Lost Realm of Cardolan Campaign Module and the excellent Thieves of Tharbad Adventure Module (note that they are now all out of print). If you are planning on playing Under Angmar's Shadow, please don't read these two modules as I fear they will only confuse. While a source of inspiration and some background, I have re-written a lot of material and time-lines to suit my own ends and any resemblence between the modules and Under Angmar's Shadow is only passing.

Evolution Of The Game

Under Angmar's Shadow has evolved since its first run and it continues to evolve; from a four-hour game, it's now planned as a 12-hour, four session game. In that sense it has now surpassed The House on the Hill as my most ambitious, complex game.

The first run (2002)

The first run was at Intercon B in March 2002. It went very well, probably better than it had any right to. AJ and I spent all Friday sticking labels on cards and stuffing envelopes (lesson learnt: all cards are now printed on card stock, not onto labels - no way were we going through that again!). Both AJ and I had a very late night, followed by a fairly early morning, since we were running at 9 o'clock on Saturday morning!

Fortunately the game itself went very smoothly, despite having two last minute drop-outs and only two referees (AJ and myself). The roleplaying was, as always, superb, and there were some wonderful confrontations, especially towards the end. Much to our surprise, the Kingdom of Cardolan emerged much more united at the end of the game than at the start and Nirnadel started her life as Queen with a popular choice of husband and wide public support (I think that the person who least supported the choice was her husband himself!).

That's not to say that there weren't problems. Two major ones spring to mind: the lack of time and the perceived complexity/fierceness of the rules. We've addressed the latter by a complete re-write of the web-site which has led, over several iterations, to the majority of the information being dropped. Presenting it on the web-site was just too complicated and confusing. All the rules and background material are now available as a printable booklet (in .pdf format). This is a much more comprehensive and comprehensible format and the booklets will be supplied to the players in plenty of time before the game. No more having to print out every page on the website!

The time issue was one that we had known about before the game. As soon as I'd written the first two characters, I knew that there would be too much for them to do in a four-hour game. We had a clear choice: did we stretch the game to an eight-hour slot and run the risk that the rest of the characters only had four-hours of game in them, or did we leave it at a four-hour game and run the risk that most of the characters had too much to do? Unfortunately we had to make the decision there and then. If we had extended the game, it would have gone into the afternoon timeslot which already had a couple of games, so this would have meant a major hassle for our players, some of whom were already in one of those afternoon games. If we were going to do it, they needed as much notice as possible.

In the end we decided to stay at four-hours. Our reasoning was better to have rushed players, having to prioritise goals, than bored players wondering why they'd given up an afternoon's slot to sit around doing very little. In hindsight, Under Angmar's Shadow was never a four-hour game and I apologise to all my players who felt rushed and hassled. Again, the lesson has been learnt (sort of): Under Angmar's Shadow became a six-hour game and has now morphed into a 12-hour game!

The Continuum non-run (2004)

Since that first run in 2002, Under Angmar's Shadow failed to see the light of day for another eight years. The plan was to run it in 2004, at Continuum, the successor convention to Convulsion. However, as time went on, it became clear that this was not going to work. The game was scheduled for an eight-hour afternoon slot on the Saturday, de facto making it the flagship game of the Convention, although that had not been the intention. This drew some criticism and bad feeling from some members of the convention, who felt that as a Gloranthan convention, pride of place should not go to a Middle-earth game. It was also struggling to attract players, partly because it straddled so many other games. As time went on, it became clear that the game was not going to fill and so it was decided to withdraw it in plenty of time for the players to get into other games.

The Cardolani Succession becomes Under Angmar's Shadow (2009)

It had always been my intention to run Under Angmar's Shadow again, but finding the time and a suitable venue proved tricky. I took a long break (over three years) from writing and running games and when I returned, Under Angmar's Shadow was not high on my list of priorities. Although it was my least-run game and certainly needed a UK run, it has some unique problems, not least the eight-hour (now 12-hour) time requirement which makes it difficult to fit into standard conventions, which are more suited to four-hour games. Although it can span two consecutive slots, it certainly cuts down on the options and so I concentrated on running my four-hour games instead.

Ideally I think that Under Angmar's Shadow should be run as a one-off, stand-alone game, rather than as part of a convention. The successor to Brit Invasion, Brit Invasion II (see, I'm not the only one who isn't that inventive with names!) in Chicago in October 2009 seemed the ideal opportunity to put this theory to the test. After all, there was the appetite there, with players travelling from far and wide to attend the original Brit Invastion in 2008 and play two four-hour games. However, due to a variety of reasons, we had to pull Under Angmar's Shadow at the last minute, replacing it with two very successful runs of The Council of Fennas Drúnin.

The change of name had always been planned. Much as I liked the game, "The Cardolani Succession" was hardly a snappy title. True, the game was about the succession to the Cardolani throne, so it was a very accurate title, but it didn't really sell the game, nor did it tell you much about it. You have to be a pretty hard-core Tolkien fan to have heard of Cardolan and the "succession" element didn't give you much of an idea of what the game was about either. Various ideas were bandied about over the years, but on the long drive back from Chad Brinkley's wedding in January 2009, Marc Blumberg, Steve Bassett and I thrashed it out until we agreed on Under Angmar's Shadow. Whether that turns out to be a better name, only time will tell, but I like it. To be honest, if it turns out to be a success, I shall claim all the praise. If it is a failure; Steve, Marc: it's all your fault and I never should have listened to you!

The second run (2010)

Undaunted by having to pull the game for Brit Invasion II, we rescheduled Under Angmar's Shadow for June 2010 at Brit Invasion III. This time we got the publicity right and the game filled. I also had more time to tweak some bits, plus I wrote an application to help the off-line mechanics. Sadly I hadn't learnt all my lessons from previous mistakes and didn't get the application finished in time to give it a thorough run through prior to the game. Despite that, things went remarkably well...

The game ended up being run over an eight hour period, split into four 90 minute sessions, with ample breaks between the sessions. From a referee perspective, the game went very well and the players seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. As always, it is a pleasure as a writer to see how players interpret my characters and take them in the most unexpected directions. We had some immensely pleasing scenes and a totally unexpected ending. Even I, who had written the characters, didn't see it coming. Suffice to say that the Princess Nirnadel did not have a very happy time of things.

While the game went well and I was very happy with it, there were still problems. The first was that with six hours of playing time, there still wasn't enough time. It was nowhere near as bad as the first run, but despite changes that we had made to enable the game to run more smoothly, we still found that players were really rushed. While it is better to be busy than bored, the generally feeling is that the game can still expand to fill more time if it were available.

A second problem was with the mechanics. Having simplified and smoothed things considerably from the first run, including introducing an application to handle all the off-line things, there were still issues, partly because my application had some bugs. However, we've learnt a lot from that run and already know how we're going to address these issues for the third run. Hopefully the third time around things will run like clockwork (famous last words).

The third run (2017)

The third run took place in October 2017, when Under Angmar's Shadow finally made its UK debut. One of the problems arising from the decision to run the game over 12 hours of playing time (in four, two-hour sessions) is that it needed a very long single day (we had hoped to run it over four, three-hour sessions, but this brought too many logistical problems).

The venue was provided by Alison Rider-Hill, who generously hosted the game as a birthday celebration, hiring a community hall in south London and paying for catering to keep us going during the breaks. We had the hall for 12 hours and, after allowing an hour for set-up and another hour for clear-down, this left 10 hours playing time, split into four two-hour sessions.

The logistics of the game worked well, with the players largely self-organising, which was a joy to behold, particularly as they took it upon themselves to sort out the car-park. The space also worked very well and generally that side of things went off without a hitch. Sadly the same cannot be said for the rest of the behind-the-scenes stuff...

AJ and I had said, after the second run, that we really needed five referees, ideally six. However, with a lack of available UK-based players who had played the game, we talked ourselves into running the game with four, and then lost a referee the day before the game, leaving just me, AJ and Suey to run the game... I then compounded the situation by crashing the application I'd written to run the off-line aspects of the game between the second and third sessions, resulting in the long-suffering AJ having to spend the entire third session recovering the game and catching up on data entry.

The good news is that, like in the second run, I have learnt from my mistakes and both know what went wrong and how to fix it. I've also got ideas to speed up the operation of the application. One day I'll get it right... As a result of the problems with the application, much of the game mechanics were delayed, with the economic and military side of the game suffering, for which I apologise.

You might think, after all this, that the run was a disaster, but it actually went off extremely well. The players were wonderful, and very accomodating of my incompetence. I felt that eight-hours playing time gave enough time for things to develop nicely. Most characters were busy and, with one or two exceptions, no-one ran out of things to do, while the busiest characters, although still wall-to-wall busy, weren't overwhelmed. We had an interesting ending to the game which played out very differently to the other two.

All-in-all, given what a mess things were behind the scenes, the game went far better than I had any right to expect. Roll on the fourth run, whenever that may be, unless AJ has finally come to his senses and decided to have nothing more to do with me...

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