Retrospective: Isengard and Northern Gondor
Isengard is an odd duck, certainly the most disjointed of the ICE modules. It divides its focus between the Kin-Strife and the period of Saruman's residence at Orthanc, and whilst the latter is obviously essential, the choice of the year 1442 is bizarre. I personally find the political intrigue during Eldacar's rebellion fascinating, but it's a wasted esoteric exercise to delve into it here, and in fact, there is no reason why the entire module couldn't have been set in the time of the Rohirrim -- Isengard and the Riders of Rohan would have made a perfect unified product instead of being spread over two. Especially given the layout shortcomings of the Rohan issue.
The irony is that my DM was able to get terrific use out of it, since my characters were products of the Kin-Strife. And he ran me through it a second time by sending my higher-level characters from outside Middle-Earth (Greyhawk) on a mission against Saruman. So I have many fond memories tied up in Isengard as a player. But speaking justly, it's lightweight and doesn't take its mandate seriously. The rich cultural matrices of most campaign treatments are absent; in their place stand fragmented adventure scenarios. The only true selling point is Orthanc tower, which is impressively designed.
The tower's exterior is displayed on a four page color insert, along with all ten levels of the tower, and some rooms can be easily modified to accommodate either a pre- or post-Saruman setting. I.e. The guard rooms on the bottom levels can be for Gondorian soldiers or Uruk-hai. Libraries fill level three (alchemy, language, magical), Saruman's extensive research area on level four, trapped treasuries on level five, while elite guard & guest rooms are on six and seven. And Saruman's quarters -- for fools who would dare them -- take up all of level eight, with the Chamber of the Palantir above on nine. Finally, the roof holds true to Tolkien, engraved with a Rune of Holding that prevents appearing on, or escaping from, by magical means (and which certainly vexed my characters when they tried infiltrating the tower). As for the breeding pits and forges on the dungeon levels, they are rather reminiscent of Dol Guldur, and date from the latest part of the Third Age when Saruman's corruption was complete.
The rest of the module provides layouts for cities and fortresses in Calenardhon, long before it became Rohan: the fortress of Aglarond (later the Hornburg, or Helm's deep), the cities of Calmirie (later Aldburg) and Ondirith (later Stowburg), and the Glittering Caves. None of which has any relation to Orthanc when it matters most, which makes Isengard, ultimately, a garbled edifice. Then too, the layout of Aglarond remains essentially the same as Helm's Deep in Riders of Rohan, but less fine-tuned, confirming that the two modules should have been done as one.
History & Culture Rating: 2
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4
Next up: Erech and the Paths of the Dead.