Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Retrospective: Ents of Fangorn

Ents of Fangorn was inevitably a module that couldn't possibly live up to my expectations, and I still try to like it more than it deserves. I'll start with the best part, the cover, which from a glance spells Angus McBride, and of course represents a cherished scene from The Two Towers. John Howe's Treebeard is better, but this one is still very good, and what he's serving up actually points to the next best thing about the module to be found inside, a full description of the ent draughts which I'll get to in due course. The third feature I like is the biographical information sketched out for the elders (Treebeard, Skinbark, and Leaflock) as well as demographical; we learn that there are about 150 ents in Fangorn (around the time of 1640), allowing some 160 square miles of forest area per ent, though there are many more of the wildly hostile Huorns. And that pretty much exhausts my accolades for Ents of Fangorn.

The problem is that less than half the module actually deals with the ents. This wouldn't be such a liability if the product had been called Fangorn and the Borderlands or Fangorn and the Caverns of Pain, and if those other parts were at least good. After all, that's how the Dunland module succeeded so well... though the analogy isn't the best. "Dunland" doesn't set the highest expectations to begin with. "Fangorn" certainly does. After hobbits, ents are the best thing about Middle-Earth, and if you're going to sideline them at all, you'd best have damn good supplements. Dunland's were libertarian elves piloting air-ships. Fangorn's are a Gondorian town and orc cavern, each about as memorable as the shit I took this morning.

And I'm still irked after all these years by the way ICE copped out on the question of the entwives, leaving their fate a mystery. But let me get to the positives. The egalitarian nature of the ents is well portrayed: their structure founded on a premise of mutual respect without a hierarchy of leaders, though elders like Treebeard are looked to as chief advisers; any ent can call a moot to discuss any topic. The draughts are fantastic, and their side-effects on non-ents completely worked out. There is the thirst-quenching fruit draught, causing rapid hair and nail growth and bulgy eyes, and over a long term weight loss and even starvation due to accelerated metabolism; the chunky nut draught, resulting in growth (Merry and Pippin drank this), and after repeated helpings slumber and even coma from the toxic levels; and the vicious herb draught, resembling lumpy molasses, which functions as a healing potion despite its nasty taste, and also a healing salve if mixed with dirt and moss and rubbed over wounds. Like the hobbit fireworks in the Shire module, ent draughts are practically tailor-made for RPGs.

As for the mapwork, there's very little about Fangorn. Treebeard's home of Wellinghall is featured, the only ent dwelling which offers the artificial environment of beds and tables to receive non-entish guests, and not far away the Derndingle where many an entmoot has convened. At the northern border lie the Falls of Mist, used by the ents as a site of celebration and worship, as well as the home of Tolwen, an elf who was seduced by Melkor in the First Age and now resides in Fangorn so the ents can keep an eye on her. Most attention, by far, is given to the lackluster. Such as the Caverns of Pain, a three-level network of orc caverns located just north of the forest in the Misty Mountains, and bedecked with mockeries of Valinor at the entrance. But aside from the nice touch of the withered Two Trees statues, these caves are dull, and something a first-year DM could design using few brain cells. Likewise, to the east, the Gondorian town of Tir Limight is given way too much treatment in a module that cries out for further elaboration of the majestic shepherds of the trees.

History & Culture Rating: 3
Maps & Layouts Rating: 2

Next up: Isengard and Northern Gondor.


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