Monday, January 16, 2012

Retrospective: The Northern Waste

The last campaign module published by ICE is the one most overtly steeped in antiquity. I was dubious when it came out, wondering how you could possibly get 180 pages out of an arctic wilderness, and the general quality of these modules in the '90s didn't inspire confidence. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite the title, nothing is wasted here, and the fact that Tolkien provided so little information about the icy north gave the folks at ICE free reins to their imaginations. In this sense the module reminds of those set in the far south, where thinking outside the box yielded wonders.

The Northern Waste could be justly described as an "aftermath of Morgoth", and is given fascinating history involving demons haunting mountain peaks, sled-horde invasions led by Hoarmaruth the Ringwraith, dragons ready to pounce where you least expect, and Morgoth's Well itself into which only fools or the most experienced players descend. There are pockets of hope, to be sure: in the Vale of Evermist, Noldor mystics work the will of Yavanna to heal a wounded land, and at the north pole stands a snow-elf (Nandor) paradise, of all things, kept warm by a shard of one of the lamps from the First Age. Amidst all this, the Lossoth do their best to eke out a living and hold off the terrors of the Urdic invasions. I'd always loved the Lossoth and found their treatment in Rangers of the North disappointingly brief, so was glad to get their full story here. For those who like to play barbarian characters, this module is rather essential.

There's some tasty cultural background on display, for instance in the war customs of Hoarmaruth's minions; they don't even believe in taking slaves and just throw all their captives (men, women, elders, and children) into bear pits for awful entertainment. Then there's more insidious evil, like the Witch-King's blight, extended on sorcerous winds from Angmar and turning Lossoth shamans into undead thralls. The cultures of these snowmen, icemen, and sea-hunters (the three Lossoth peoples) are worked over in great detail, and I'm particularly fond of the song-duels they use in place of violence to keep blood feuds under control: scurrilous insults prized as a high form of art. Readers of this blog know my obsession for various arts of flaming, and the Lossoth song duels are reminsicent of Anglo-Saxon flyting, Black American sounding, and Mediterranean forms of challenge-and-riposte.

The maps and layouts are something of a mixed bag. There is an excellent 17" x 22" detachable color map which is covered by the gazeteer summarizing highlights of notable areas, and again, far more of which than one would expect out of a region called "the northern waste". The layouts of particular sites, on the other hand, could have used much more fleshing out. The snow-elf city of Helloth is hardly detailed at all, though the Noldor Vale of Evermist is adequate. Morgoth's Well is the best of the bunch, a volcanic crater with a schizophrenic feel, its upper circles burgeoning with floral healing engineered by Yavanna's servants, its lower circles still the hellish domain of Durlach the Balrog. Beyond these, there are layouts covering a typical iceberg delving for the sea-hunter clans, a tomb, a haunted iceberg, some general stuff. This is clearly a module that excels for its rich cultural matrix more than its architectures, but so strong on the former that it's a success, and a triumphant last gasp from ICE before it went under.

History & Culture Rating: 5
Maps & Layouts Rating: 3

Next up: Mount Gundabad.


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