The Master of Lake-Town is an interesting character in the larger tale of Middle-Earth, though his role and ultimate fate are often downplayed. That is, up until Peter Jackson’s second trilogy set in Middle-Earth, where he appears as a major thorn in the side of the Dwarves and Bard during the second and third films, and is portrayed by actor Stephen Fry.
Since the nature of The One Ring RPG is to explore the events and people between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Master of Lake-Town and the fate of Esgaroth’s portion of the treasure doled out by soon-to-be-king Bard make for a great campaign setup. Here, I explore the references needed to get the “lore” of Tolkien’s work right (and point out where it can be changed without any untoward damage), and the plots, people, and places that might make for an exciting campaign, as the player characters reveal The Fate of the Master.
Pictured throughout this article are my favored resources for running a campaign set in Lake-Town (Esgaroth), useful for detailing characters, events, primary, and ancillary stories that the players might be able to interact with.
- The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth: Particularly useful from this lovely encyclopedia of Middle-Earth lore are the entries on the Master of Esgaroth (p. 318), Esgaroth (p. 166), Ered Mithrin A.K.A. the Grey Mountains (p. 163), and the Desolation of Smaug A.K.A. The Waste (p. 110).
- Loremaster’s Screen and Lake-Town Sourcebook: Also available in PDF through DrivethruRPG. This book gives you all you need on Lake-Town itself, which would be the primary setting of the earlier parts of this campaign.
- Tales from Wilderland: Also available in PDF through DrivethruRPG. This book includes several adventures that touch on Lake-Town and its environs, but most immediately useful (as you’ll see below) is the final adventure, The Watch on the Heath.
From here on out, in case that’s necessary.
The thugs Jonar, Kelmund, and Finnar appear on Tales from Wilderland p. 9, and are described as former servants of the Master who’ve become bandits and thugs since the Master left. In a campaign detailing the Master’s dragon-sickness (greed) and eventual fate, it may be useful to have these guys appear as low-level muscle for the Master early on.
The merchant named Lockmand (Tales from Wilderland p. 102 and 112) is secretly in league with the Gibbet King throughout the adventures in Tales from Wilderland, and is said to be a close associate of the former Master of Lake-Town. Considering the heated relationship between the Master and the Merchant’s Guild in Esgaroth, it would make sense for Lockmand to appear at some point, hopefully to paint a better picture of the Master, so that he is not seen as a greedy enemy too early (or, at the very least, appears as a potentially redeemable character).
Additionally, Lockmand makes a useful ally to the Master and to the Player Characters, as he can move around some of Smaug’s hoard without being caught, and he can bribe the characters in the form of giving them good deals on needed supplies, or perhaps caravan transport during various journeys in the direction of other civilized lands. This has the dual role of making the Master’s relationship with Lockmand appear like a boon for the player characters. Ultimately, Lockmand will betray the Master for the Gibbet King, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Finally, The Watch on the Heath presents the true fate of the Master of Esgaroth, though only in the form of a foreboding encounter in the wastes of the North. The Master is an apparition (see Tales from Wilderland p. 136 and 147) who can provide some useful intel on the fortress of Zirakinbar, where the players must go to put a stop to the Gibbet King and his forces. The Master absconds with his share of Smaug’s hoard roughly a year after the Battle of Five Armies, and it’s in this region that he is betrayed, the treasure stolen by the Gibbet King’s orc forces, and he is left to die in The Wastes. Figuring out a way to play this betrayal out is the capstone of The Fate of the Master campaign.
The Roll of Years
The following plots several events that make up the foundation of a campaign concerning the fate of the Master. While the sources suggest that the Master absconds with Lake-Town’s share of Smaug’s hoard within a year or so of the Battle of Five Armies, this account gives 2-3 years of time in-between the Battle and the death of the Master in The Wastes.
This multi-year list of events provides ample time for the players to embark on side quests and get to know Lake-Town and the surrounding region, perhaps making use of several adventures from Tales from Wilderland or other adventures designed for The One Ring RPG. That said, it would not be hard to contract the events somewhat, removing much of the politicking with the Merchant’s Guild and turning it into more of a dire chase after the stolen treasure. Notably, the last several adventures of Tales directly reveal the later fate of the Master: as an apparition doomed to haunt the lonely wasteland near the citadel of Zirakinbar, where his stolen treasure was in turn taken from him and hidden by the orc forces of the Gibbet King.
2941 Aftermath of the Battle of Five Armies. Bard gifts Esgaroth with coin and jewels for rebuiliding. This treasure is transported from Erebor to Dale and then on to Esgaroth. The Master of Lake-Town meets with the Merchant’s Guild of Esgaroth to create a budget for rebuilding Lake-Town north of its original spot. It is at this time that suspicions of the Master’s greed come to light, but the prosperity of a rebuilt Lake-Town is a positive motivating factor for the morale of the people, and the Master is an expert at manipulating that to his advantage.
2942 Lake-Town Rebuilds. Men, Dwarves, and even Elves are supplied with payment to begin logging, smithing, and constructing the new town. It is likely at this time that the Master is truly overcome with “dragon-sickness” (greed). A “theft” of some of the treasure is manufactured by the Master to allay their suspicions. Lockmand and other merchants allied with the Master may be involved in hiding and transporting the stolen treasure. (These events could occur late in 2941 if you wish to run The Fate of the Master in a shorter time-frame.)
2943 The Master’s Machinations. Trade begins to stretch once again across the Misty Mountains to Bree and the Shire, likely by way of The Easterly Inn (Tales from Wilderland p. 24) and either Stonyford Village (Tales from Wilderland p. 50) and/or the Village of Mountain Hall (Tales from Wilderland p. 90). The Master will manufacture other distractions to hide the treasure and create more loyal merchants and soldiers for him (perhaps including thugs like Jonar, Kelmund, and Finnar), perhaps even going so far as to goad orcs to attack the newly rebuilt Lake-Town.
(These events, and the ones described below, could reasonably occur mostly or all in 2942, but this would likely cut into any other adventures occurring due to the seasonal nature of a typical The One Ring RPG campaign.)
2944-5 The Fate of the Master. Sometime in late 2944 or early 2945 is when Lockmand, now under the spell of The Gibbet King, visits Erebor for more information on Zirakinbar. He points the Master to the Withered Heath around this time, and tips off The Gibbet King’s orc forces. Smaug may have had an additional hoard in the Grey Mountains, which is the primary cause for the Master heading northward with his share of Smaug’s hoard from Lonely Mountain…or at least, that’s what Lockmand leads him to believe.
The Master arranges transport of the treasure in multiple caravans that meet on the edge of the Desolation of Smaug, and then head northward. The Gibbet King’s forces assault the meeting place, showing up as one of the caravan wagons, and with Lockmand’s help, transport the treasure to Zirakinbar. Jonar, Kelmund, Finnar, and any other survivors are left to rot, limping back to Esgaroth or other civilized lands to become bandits and outcasts.
2944 King Bard. Bard crowned, Dale and Lake-Town repairs completed.
Running the Campaign
The fears of running The Fate of the Master is that all of this can lead to fears of “harming” Tolkien’s canon, and that any adventure or campaign is necessarily going to be railroaded by the plot threads connecting to the larger story of Middle-Earth.
First, consider the facts that are established as canon in Tolkien’s literary works to be simply the “best known version” of the tales of the characters involved. In this campaign, the Master of Esgaroth can take on the non-canon name of Maxwell, and might take a little longer to abscond with the treasure, as shown above. Further, his death in the The Wastes may very well be simply what people assume, or only piece of a larger story that concerns Lockmand and the Gibbet King’s betrayal.
Next, consider how the Master’s purposes and machinations necessarily require stealth, subterfuge, and distractions designed to shake off any suspicions as to what he might be doing with the wealth of Lake-Town. On the one hand, he truly is spending some of the money to finance the rebuilding of Esgaroth, which earns him some goodwill, but on the other, he must steal what is likely a huge hoard of jewels, coins, priceless works of art, statuettes, and other baubles over a period of time so as not to draw suspicion. By adding orc raids, caravans going missing, bandit attacks, and even the occasional reward to heroes or militia, it’s not hard to move portions of the treasure undetected and allay fears that it is being stolen, but instead being spent meaningfully and guards, building projects, and defense.
Finally, consider the players’ role in such a campaign, and place them in a position removed from the Master enough that they cannot simply murder him once their suspicions are aroused, and may not be able to convince others — or enough others — of wrongdoing. If they primarily interact with lackeys like Jonar and the Master’s thugs, or hang around Lockmand the merchant, they are going to have a vastly different view of the Master than simply as a greedy thief. They may see him involved in works of good, and they will certainly have trouble gathering evidence of a crime that hasn’t yet happened.
Concluding the Campaign
The conclusion of The Fate of the Master involves betrayal by Lockmand, the orc forces of the Gibbet King likely murdering the Master’s men who are transporting a caravan of stolen treasure, and the Master dying, cold and alone in the northern reaches of the Desolation of Smaug. Those are likely to be necessary elements (we’ll assume they are), which may seem like a railroad, but in a future article, we’ll examine how to set things up so that a satisfying conclusion can be reached without necessarily limiting the actions of the Player Characters.
Check out The Fate of the Master Campaign Preparation for more ideas and details!
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