Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Retrospective: Dunland

Dunland is a package of surprises. Half the module covers the region as advertised, while the other half features sites more interesting: a community of libertarian elves, a mutant dragon's lair, and Isildur's unmarked grave. It's a case of the extras overshadowing the main feature, which turns out to be not a bad thing at all when the latter has only so much to offer. I remember coughing up $12 with less than my usual enthusiasm for an ICE module, and when I read it that night was gobsmacked by Amon Lind.

I don't mean to hold the poor Dunnish clans in contempt, and they're actually given provocative treatment. Their history starts in the Second Age when they lived in Gondor's White Mountains, well in tune with nature and the Valar until they failed in their oath to Elendil. All fifteen clans are described as they stand around the Great Plague period, each with unique character and cross-referenced as to how friendly they are with the others. Six call themselves the Daen Iontis (the "dispossessed" or "betrayed") to show their displeasure with the way their ancestors trusted the Dunedain; their goal is to retake the ancient homeland and drive the Gondorians back into the sea. Two take the name of their ancestors, the Daen Coentis (the "skilled people"), and look to that heritage as a goal to re-attain. The other seven remain more neutral, some on better terms with the former, others with the latter, but it's clearly the Daen Iontis who have the strength in numbers. There is the grim Temple of Justice run by a messianic priest from Dol Guldur, though only the six Daen Iontis clans follow him.

But the elves of Amon Lind steal the show. They are a complete invention on ICE's part, a small group of Noldor who left Eregion in the Second Age to continue their controversial projects without interference or censure. Their hanging fortress in the Misty Mountains is a wonder, with transparent floors overlooking air, and walls containing pipes that play songs inducing a variety of spell effects -- sleep, fear, holding, calm, or stun. Their creations are staggering, and remind of alien technology, especially Sulkano's air boats made with the rare metal Mithrarian which negates the effect of gravity. There are also Elenril's breeding experiments, resulting in what he calls the "weapons" of Amon Lind, human and elvish subjects merged with mammals like snow leopards and lynxes. While these elves aren't really evil, they are certainly laws unto themselves, and their obsessions off-kilter, and there is rarely any disciplinary action taken on grounds of individual freedom.

The mapwork scores well. The town of Larach Duhnnan is as cosmopolitan as things get in Dunland, the center of trade and one of the few places where the clans intermingle. Miles away the Temple of Justice looms as the focal point of propaganda, holding the Daen Iontis clans in its power, and given four levels. The two-page center map displays the Dunnish region and pinpoints the locations of all fifteen clans. The five-level fortress of Amon Lind, suspended on a western ridge of the Misty Mountains, rules the module, and is perhaps the closest thing in Middle-Earth to TSR's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: one is hit by a true sense of the alien when walking into this fortress. Finally, the mutant dragon Turukulon's lair offers a nasty labyrinth of illusions, quicksand traps, and rich treasure in the spirit of classic D&D. And I like the special bonus of Isildur's grave, known only to the eagles and Gandalf, marked by a White Tree sapling. Dunland contains wonders I simply could never have expected out of a module devoted to a small region of primitives.

History & Culture Rating: 5
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: Ents of Fangorn.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Retrospective: Riders of Rohan

I adore this module inside and out. On the outward side, it was Angus McBride's first and best cover piece, spotlighting a bleak culture in an amazing freeze-frame. The Rohirrim are the closest to the Anglo-Saxons or even Norse in Tolkien's world, courageous yet hopeless, "riding to ruin" to embrace that Ragnarok-like annihilation of all that is good. The long defeat runs in their blood, and in this sense they share more in common with the seers and rangers of Arthedain than most would think possible. But where the northern Dunedain are resigned to it, the horse-lords seem to thrive on it. It's as if their history of repeated migrations and awful-odds warfare forged a culture of exultant fatalism, and Peter Jackson nailed this perfectly at Dunharrow, when Theoden calmly tells his men they can't possibly prevail against Mordor's armies: "But we will meet them in battle nonetheless." That's three millennia of the long defeat talking, and I could practically hear Vidugavia and Fram being channelled from the great beyond.

Meaning, indeed, that Riders of Rohan covers more than indicated by its title. It chronicles the complete history of the horse-lords in their three stages: the Eothraim years of 1-1856 (Southern Rhovanion), the Eotheod era of 1856-2510 (the Anduin valley), and the Rohirric time of 2510+ (Rohan). This makes the module exceptionally easily to use anytime in the Third Age. Players can throw themselves into the Wainrider Wars, go against the Balchoth Confederacy, or bare their teeth against the Long Winter after the slaying of Wulf. It's comprehensive in the way more ICE modules should have been; I'll never understand the heavy reliance on a 1640 default setting.

The personalities of famous huithyns like Vidugavia and Marhwini, althegns like Fram and Eorl, and kings like Helm Hammerhand and Theoden are provided, and it's easy to see how the original six tribes became increasingly centralized to embrace a monarchy. Their foes -- whether the Sagath and Logath chariot-riders, the barbarically matriarchal Asdriags, or the Dunlendings -- are the stuff of Bronze-Age barbarity; Rohan's unity was forged in its fires. I particularly like the breakdown of the six Eothraim tribes (totaling 38 clans), and how their ambiguous social order seems benign by Easterling standards but grim compared to other Northman cultures. This work-out complements the Eothraim material in Southern Mirkwood perfectly, without wasteful redundancies.

The mapwork gets a pass but certainly doesn't shine, another reminder of Rangers of the North. That being said, there's some good stuff here, notably Helm's Deep, which is more fine-tuned than Aglarond in the Isengard module. There is also the Juggler's Hall, a shadowy bardic school of "noble" smuggling and other roguish activities. The capital-towns of Framsburg and Edoras are presented for the Eotheod and Rohirric years (Buhr Widu for the Eothraim period was covered in Southern Mirkwood), and Druadan Forest is also showcased with a Wose village and circle of standing stones. The Wain-town of Ilanin is covered, inhabited by mostly Sagath, the closest Easterling outpost to the Eothraim. Finally, the two-page centerfold details the Deeping Coomb, a close-up geographical of the Helm's Deep area and Juggler's Close a few miles south. For my money though, you could almost scrap all of this and still be left with an awesome product. Riders exudes so much resonant culture that it leaves me burning to ride to ruin myself.

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

Next up: Dunland.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Retrospective: Dol Guldur

At the halfway point of these retrospectives we come to ICE's crowning achievement. This is the 220-page monster that completely revamped Sauron's abode from Southern Mirkwood, doubling the size, quadrupling the detail -- all of which was fine to begin with, but who complained? Most of these remakes in the '90s were uninspired, but with Dol Guldur ICE not only surpassed an excellent original, it landed the mixed equivalent of TSR's Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Queen of the Demonweb Pits, pitting intruders against fears unfathomable (and unfaceable), and the maia demigod who sat in its bowels. It's one of those once-in-a-blue-moon modules you read and feel utterly sorry for the players in advance, while also laughing your ass off at their foreordained misery. I cringe to think how my characters would have fared in this version; they barely escaped with their lives as it is in Southern Mirkwood's.

This time a complete history of the hill is provided, starting in the Second Age when the sixth house of the dwarves called it home. We also learn the origins of Celedhring: Sauron's student in Eregion, sent to corrupt and curse and wipe the dwarves out. The politics of Dol Guldur are now intricately convoluted, with Khamul the Nazgul commanding the war host and the smiths, the Mouth of Sauron overseeing the Conclave and slave masters. The backbiting between these two, and the lickspittling lengths they go to in order to impress Sauron, are bloody fantastic. Khamul manages to stay on top for the most part, until Gandalf penetrates the hill's defenses in 2850 and learns Sauron's identity -- at which point the Easterling is railroaded by the Dark Lord and put under the Mouth's authority. Only in 2951 when Sauron moves to Mordor, would Khamul be left again in charge of Dol Guldur (with two other Nazgul), a period which provides for "safer" adventuring opportunities. Other "safer" periods are described in the timeline, when Sauron is on sabbatical during the Watchful Peace, or when Khamul is off raising hell in the east or assisting his fellow Nazgul at Minas Morgul. As for Gandalf, his two visits to Dol Guldur (in 2063 and 2850) are described in vivid narrative detail, his exact path to every room and every encounter.

The reworked design is on such a staggering scale I can hardly do it justice. We are now to understand that the original layout in Southern Mirkwood applies only to the period of 1100-1258 (though it was clear at the time that it was meant for the entire post-1100 period), for between 1258-1382 Dol Guldur is hugely expanded. Instead of eight levels, Dol Guldur now boasts a whopping sixteen: three precipices (the upper halls), seven levels (the middle halls), five strata (the lower halls), and the hidden Necromancer's Hall. Radiating out from the seventh level, furthermore, is the Web, a vast network of orc warrens and warg dens extending for miles. The three precipices serve as a constellation of watchposts guarding the upper lip of the volcano, with the Fell Beasts' Eyrie and Clouded Bridge guarding against airborne intrusions. The seven levels quarter all of Dol Guldur's warriors save the common orcs (found in the Web): Uruk-hai on the first level, men on the second, trolls on the third. The fourth-sixth levels remain similar to those of Southern Mirkwood: the fourth is Celedhring's residence with forges and labs, and also Sauron's viewing chamber; the fifth is the residence of the Grimburgoth (the Warlord-Ranger who commands the war host when Khamul is absent), his elite guard, and the foul Black Lake; the sixth is the domain of the Snagagoth (Slave-Master), the thralls' dungeons, torture chambers, and prison cells. Finally, the "central keep" of the seventh level houses over 4000 Uruk-hai and guards three avenues: the tunnels to the Web, the descent to the five strata, and access to the Necromancer's Hall. This last is hidden between the seventh level and the first stratum, and was Southern Mirkwood's original seventh -- the deadliest, unholiest throne room in all of Endor.

Moving way below, the first stratum was the original eighth level, the breeding pits. The second stratum begins the expanded territory, with massive treasure vaults moved from the original second level, as well as dungeons for special prisoners not destined to become thralls up on the sixth level. The third stratum holds the Great Temple; the chamber of the Conclave (an elite group under the Mouth's command) who enforce worship of the Necromancer, and who are charged with recovering the One Ring; and naturally, the residence of the Mouth himself. The fourth stratum is grim beyond words: Khamul's abode (moved all the way from the original third level) where he cultivates a Black Forest of perverted Huorns and other vicious horrors. Finally, the fifth stratum, both the heart and bowels of Dol Guldur, is a single colossal domed cavern of bubbling acids and noxious steams, which Sauron calls home, with side caverns leading to treasures beyond sane imagining.

By my count, this all adds up to over 520 rooms keyed with incredible detail, about 1200 rooms total, and none of that includes anything in the Web. It's the most insane place in all of Middle-Earth to venture into, but then role-players are a pretty insane lot. My only quibble is that the Hall of Many Deaths from the original first level isn't carried over anywhere into the expanded version. That sadistic homage to The Tomb of Horrors was one of the best parts, and I'd sure retain it somewhere if I ever ran this thing.

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

Next up: Riders of Rohan.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Retrospective: Southern Mirkwood

Southern Mirkwood is pure classic. Every RPG has its mother of killer dungeons, and in the case of Dol Guldur, the designers went the full nine and enjoyed the hell out of themselves. Take the sadistic commentary on the pit-and-tilt trap from the Hall of Many Deaths:
"Assuming the wily and clever PCs have discovered and disarmed the trap, and are marching across it, thinking themselves truly wily and clever, they may discover to their dismay (unless they are truly wily and clever) that there was a secondary trap, which is the next fifteen feet of corridor floor beyond. The second section of the trap is made of carefully painted paper, resembling very closely the stone of the floor. The paper conceals a pit trap which is actually a chute, routing the luckless victim out a hole in the side of the central shaft of the cone and sending him plummeting to (almost) certain demise nearly 3000 feet below. This section is Extremely Hard (-30) to detect. However, there are artfully carved hand and footholds on the left wall. Only the most wily and clever will discover the Absurd (-70) to detect trap eight feet out on the hand and footholds; three in succession are trapped, which not only flip the wall to horizontal, summarily dumping all creeping across through the paper floor and down the chute, but also triggers the original pit and tilt trap just 30 feet back, no doubt catching a few more cautious adventurers."
I ended up on the receiving end of these iniquities, since my friend bought this product before I, and this was perfectly just since I usually DM'd ridiculously unfair projects like Tomb of Horrors. Still, I regret not ever having the malicious pleasure of inflicting Sauron's terrors upon others.

Many lament that ICE never got around to designing a module of the Barad-dur, but if I had to choose, I'd pick Dol Guldur any day. Mirkwood forest is far more insidious than Mordor's wastelands, noxiously alive as I think of it, and it's also under Sauron's power throughout the entire Third Age. Adventures involving the Hill of Sorcery can thus be set in any time (after 1100), while Barad-dur isn't even rebuilt until 2951. Not only that, the atmosphere of Dol Guldur is one of mystery: the Dark Lord hasn't declared himself yet.

Of course, there's more to Southern Mirkwood than the Necromancer. The Eothraim of Rhovanion are found here (the module is geared, like many, for the 1640 period), long before they acquired the territory of Rohan, in the towns of Burh Widu and Burh Ailgra. Their Easterling foes are also given treatment, tribal Asdriags and Sagaths with fierce customs. Then there is Radagast the Brown, who is far from the senile fool most believe, indeed a force of salvation keeping the Necromancer's influence at bay with druidical powers. Point counterpoint is the presence of the One Ring which has blighted the Gladden Fields over the centuries, banishing the river spirits that once existed, turning mud to quicksand, and killing enough morale to cause emigrations out of the area. The Necromancer rightfully steals the show, but the module is faithful to its overall region. Like Hillmen of the Trollshaws it stands as a model which ICE should have followed more often, offering a major dungeon that pays off big-time with all the sandbox auxiliaries.

Being Sauron's home, the mountain is worth touring: It starts at the top with a dungeon crawl of impossible traps (the Hall of Many Deaths, the Chamber of Subtle Demise, etc.), blatant shades of The Tomb of Horrors, and keyed with the sadism cited above. The second level finds the orc garrison, along with staging areas, armories, treasure vaults, a nasty demon tomb, and a maze trap. The third is for Khamul, Second of the Nine Nazgul -- his throne room and audience hall, his private and ceremonial chambers, and his unspeakable sacrificial altar; The Mouth of Sauron also resides on this level. The fourth is for the renegade elf-smith Celedhring, with forges and labs, and also Sauron's special viewing room where he gazes out across Mirkwood, brooding, planning. The fifth has a poison lake which eventually feeds into the Anduin River, the effects of which reduce memory and self-discipline; also troll quarters and herb storages. The sixth level is a horror show of torture chambers and prison cells which suffocate spell-casting ability. The dreaded seventh level is the throne of the Eye (where no one in Endor wants to find himself), surrounded by eight guest rooms for the other Nazgul, and Sauron's personal quarters which are rich beyond royal imaginings. And the bottom level ends in breeding pits where Sauron commits the foulest crimes against all manner of living beings. Thankfully I didn't have to descend below the fourth level (the target of my mission was Celedhring's lab), but I didn't escape without facing off Khamul, and it was bloody harrowing.

Southern Mirkwood is one of the true high points of my gaming years. I can only imagine the ecstasy my friend and I would have derived from the incredible remake of the mid-'90s...

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

Next up: Dol Guldur.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Retrospective: Halls of the Elven-King

This fortress module atones for the astounding display of incompetence in Northern Mirkwood, and basically pretends that it's the first stab at Thranduil's halls. In a sense it is. The scribbled-up campaign version isn't remotely close to what could be thought of as the seat of Silvan royalty, and I'm not surprised ICE ditched it (along with the author's putrid prose) in a later '90s revision of Mirkwood. By comparison this product belongs in the Louvre. The only thing that grates on my nerves is the first-person narrative style used in the map key, told from the point of view of a Dale merchant who visited the elves. It's a nice try at something different, but memoirs are distractive to a DM who just needs the facts.

Thranduil's abode is now grounded imperatively in the memory of Thingol: "Both housed great halls built under large hills on the banks of a river. Both halls had limited access over the river by a single stone bridge. The borders east and west were protected by rivers, and both were situated in a deep forest." While certainly no rival in size to Menegroth's thousand caves, these halls can still accommodate several thousand elves with a endless water supply from its underground springs, and the appropriate sense of a subterranean paradise is conveyed on every page. The front gate opens by command of song; Thranduil's throne room is subtly lit by torch and lamp, dominated by a throne of oak, the floor etched with floral images native to Mirkwood, its walls with tapestries of "birds and beasts frozen in flight and halted leap"; the feast halls are luxurious; the treasuries staggering. This is all prefaced by a brief history of the wood-elf realm prior to the construction of these halls in 1050-1100, particularly relating to Oropher's dispute with the Noldor, his abandonment of Lorien in the late Second Age, and the way his coming to Mirkwood blended Sindar and Silvan cultures.

Because it's a fortress module (like Weathertop and The Teeth of Mordor), it benefits immensely from the mega-zoom shots of key rooms with detailed drawings. Every anvil, work bench, forge and barrel can be seen in the foundry, every tree pillar in the throne hall, every table and fire pit in the feast hall, and more. The two-page center displays an impressive 3D look at the halls through the outside hills, doing everything possible to bring to life ancient Sindarin architecture now fused with the primitive Silvan. The halls are given four levels (against Northern Mirkwood's pitiful single one), a ground, an upper, and two below. There's an apothecary hall filled with potions that heal more powerfully than anything mannish or dwarven, derived from herbal lore and songs of healing dating back to the mists of time. The weaving hall contains garments of amazing design and function. And of course, there is the wine cellar with flavors unique to Mirkwood -- right above a hill stream that would provide escape for a certain hobbit and group of captive dwarves.

Put simply, these are the Elven-King's Halls as they should have been done in the first place.

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

Next up: Southern Mirkwood.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Retrospective: Northern Mirkwood

And so we move from the best Tolkien module to the very worst. I don't know anything about John Ruemmler other than as the author of this travesty, written in a sophomoric and exclamatory style, nothing at all like the other ICE writers. "The lowly flea, mass murderer of Mirkwood? Impossible! No, it's true." Or: "Perhaps no creatures in Middle-Earth have tingled so many spines and inspired so many 'Yechs!' of disgust as the Giant Spiders of Mirkwod." Still worse: "Enough of gruesome, loathsome, evil creatures! Consider the mighty monarchs of the woods, the Great Bears." There is also plain incompetence, even silliness, as found, for instance, in this unbelievable description of orcs: "If they accidentally hack off a fellow orc's limb, the injured orc is likely to say, 'Hey, that's okay! I have another!'" Does anyone remember those April Fool parodies in the '80s issues of Dragon? That's what I thought Northern Mirkwood was on first reading.

Unfortunately, the entire module is as bad as the prose, for it doesn't offer much beyond a bare-bones geographical sketch of the region and superficial overviews of the cultures of the wood-elves, dwarves, and the men of Long Lake. There is some useful background here, but not much; it's very possibly the worst Tolkien accessory ICE ever published. That's a double shame considering that it's Mirkwood, one of the grandest icons of Endor. Some might accuse me of a jaded perspective, reviewing this product in between top-notch modules like Lorien and Southern Mirkwood. But frankly Northern Mirkwood is so bad that positioning it between any other modules, no matter how dire, would amount to little more than trying to polish a pile of feces.

The mapwork continues in offenses, though in its favor there is a four-page color detachable that's very well done. Beyond this lies pure failure. First and worst are the Halls of the Elven-King, which are more like TSR's Caves of Chaos, and what's amusing is that the author seems acutely aware of how poorly he represented Thranduil's home: "After reading this one might think that these halls are cold and damp, having perhaps visited natural caves; but this is not true." But declarations of this sort mean nothing, for indeed these caverns do no justice to what the elven structure should look like; on top of this, the rooms are given almost no detail whatsoever in the key. It's no surprise that ICE would later completely redo The Elven-King's Halls in a fortress module (to be covered next). The Lonely Mountain isn't much better. Like Moria it's portrayed with unsatisfying route maps (only the Chamber of Thror is given a proper layout), but Moria at least detailed the room contents. Erebor leaves almost everything to the DM like the Elven-King's Halls. Really the only thing given a proper, detailed layout is the minor tower of Sarn Goriwing. The towns of Esgaraoth and Dale are displayed but not described. If not for the four-page color insert, the mapwork would have gotten a rock-bottom rating of 1. What a waste.

So who is John Ruemmler, and what are his excuses? Oddly enough, he authored Rangers of the North two years later, which for all its faults is a good module. By this time evidently something happened to discipline his prose, if not inspire better architectures. But really, the editor of Northern Mirkwood is as accountable as the author of this fiasco. I'm glad nothing this bad was repeated in future modules.

History & Culture Rating: 1
Maps & Layouts Rating: 2

Next up: The Halls of the Elven-King.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Retrospective: Lorien and the Halls of the Elven Smiths

My cards are face-up on the table: this is the best Tolkien module ever made, better than even Dol Guldur, and I can hardly begin to enumerate the reasons why. But let me get its single imperfection out of the way, which pertains to the cover. It's an Angus McBride piece, and for the most part fabulous -- save for Galadriel. I don't know what the artist was thinking, but her hair is the long-straight ghastliness of the '70s, and her face looks like a sow. I'll never understand the objections to casting Cate Blanchet in the later films; she was a perfect Galadriel. But this sketch is dire. With that out of the way...

Lorien is a bible for all things elven, and has a joint focus on both sides of Khazad-dum: the Golden Wood and the Jewel Halls. The latter makes this module completely unique in devoting heavy space to a Second Age setting, and I remember breathing the antiquity as a DM; Eregion felt like the equivalent of New Testament times. Honestly, who could pass up the opportunity to visit Ost-in-Edhil during the forging of the Rings of Power? These were the days of the Noldor's last realm, when magic was still unbridled, dwarves were good company, and when Sauron himself, in the benevolent guise of Annatar, "the Lord of Gifts", walked among the firstborn and guided their labors. In these pages, Noldor culture is wonderfully detailed, the personalities of legendary figures like Celebrimbor brought so convincingly to life, and the magic items to be found in the Jewel Halls make TSR artifacts like Daoud's Wondrous Lanthorn look like baby toys.

As if these riches weren't embarrassing enough, on the eastern side of the mountains lies the most precious domain out of any fantasy, and where Galadriel wields the power of her elven ring to enshroud it. I gave Nenya's powers a Gygaxian overhaul so its wielder could cause tempus fugit (one week outside = one day inside) or dreamwalk in a 50-mile radius, in line with its protective function; mirror of vision for scrying purposes; and water-breathe & water-walk, create water, wave of water, and part water or cause tsunami once/day, per its relationship to the element of water; plus generic bonuses common to the other elven rings. Nenya is easily my favorite of the three rings; there's something, I don't know, ethereally unnerving about its effects on the Golden Wood (and something Peter Jackson nailed perfectly, despite protests that his cinematic treatment of Lothlorien was too creepy). Vilya heals, and Narya emboldens, but Nenya mystifies with its time distortions and uneasy visions.

The centerfold color map of Ost-in-Edhil rules the module, and many of its buildings are laid out: Galadriel and Celeborn's house (before Galadriel moved to Lorien, distrusting Annatar), Celebrimbor's island house, Annatar's house (where intruding fools can find themselves teleported to the Barad-dur if they're not careful), other houses and outside estates, the council hall & library, fountain baths, inns, and finally, the prized Mirdaithrond, or Halls of the Jewelsmiths, which is to the Noldor what the lower deeps of Moria are to Durin's folk: "Designed by Celebrimbor, it is a strange marvel of architecture, combining a love for nature with a lust to conquer the mysteries of science as the elves know it." This of course is where the Rings of Power (aside from the One) were forged, and the continual production of mighty artifacts is staggering. There is a table outlining all minerals, elements, metals, alloys, and glasses, their value, and their use in enchanted creations. On Lorien's side of things, Caras Galadhon and Cerin Amroth are displayed, keying the high points of the tree-cities: Galadriel and Celeborn's tree palace, Galadriel's mirror, orchards, and fountains.

Worth discussing is the figure of Annatar (Sauron), who in the hands of a good DM can be exploited to maximal effect. In my poor friend's case, the effect was shocking, as he had no idea who "Annatar" was -- any more than I did before buying the module. I kept the secret from him so that he was stunned by the reveal in game play; I think he accused me of inventing a charismatic version of Sauron just to be malicious. It reminds me how much we learned about Tolkien's world through gaming products. (We'd each read The Silmarillion, but the Lord of Gifts evidently didn't make an impression.) Annatar is used so well here, fomenting discord and factionalism among the smiths, like an incarnation of Baal mingling among the twelve apostles.

What can I say? Lorien the module is as unassailable as the Golden Wood itself.

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

Next up: Northern Mirkwood.

Thomas and the Gospels

Don't miss Mark Goodacre's Thomas and the Gospels, due out in May. It's a wave of sanity in Thomas scholarship, demonstrating with relative ease the gospel's derivative nature, and loaded with spoilsport wisdom that makes Goodacre so refreshing and necessary in this field. It's also the perfect sequel to The Case Against Q, and just as convincing. I had the privilege of reading a draft, so I know... But here's the Eeerdmans blurb:
"The Gospel of Thomas -- found in 1945 -- has been described as 'without question the most significant Christian book discovered in modern times.' Often Thomas is seen as a special independent witness to the earliest phase of Christianity and as evidence for the now-popular view that this earliest phase was a dynamic time of great variety and diversity.

"In contrast, Mark Goodacre makes the case that, instead of being an early, independent source, Thomas actually draws on the Synoptic Gospels as source material -- not to provide a clear narrative, but to assemble an enigmatic collection of mysterious, pithy sayings to unnerve and affect the reader. Goodacre supports his argument with illuminating analyses and careful comparisons of Thomas with Matthew and Luke."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Of Bibles and Balrogs: Earliest Isn't Best

Over a year ago, at the SBL convention in Atlanta, I attended a session on reception-history in the Old Testament. One of the speakers made some preliminary comments that struck me. First, when asked why he didn't study history ("what was originally meant") instead of reception-history ("what was later made of the bible"), he replied that he simply didn't have the imagination it took to be a historical critic. But second, and in support of his cheeky comment, is that historical critics -- whether of the historical Israel, or the historical Jesus, etc. -- tend to operate under an implicit assumption: that what is earliest is, somehow, best. And this is silly. The apocalyptic worldview of Jesus and his disciples wasn't necessarily better than, say, the gnostic one of the second century. Not least since Jesus was wrong about the world's imminent destruction... but aside from even the question of mistaken beliefs, visions cry out for reinterpreation lest they stagnate.

So too in the field of Tolkien scholarship. Interpretations of The Lord of the Rings found in film, art, and role-playing games are often blasted for no other reason because they contradict what the author intended. I've been strongly reminded of this lately in the debate as to whether or not Balrogs have wings and/or can fly.

Let me be clear. It is about 99.98% certain that Tolkien's Balrogs were wingless and could not fly, despite continued protests to the contrary. I won't go through every piece of evidence, just the highlights:
(1) When Gandalf confronts the Balrog of Moria, the text speaks of demon's "shadow reaching out like two vast wings". That's obviously a simile, not a description of literal wings. The text goes on to say that this shadowy form of the Balrog "stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall". The wings here must be metaphorical, poining back to the simile just made. This conclusion can be rather easily drawn from other passages in Tolkien. To wit:

(2) If Balrogs could fly, Melkor would not have needed to try obtaining the secret of flight from the Eagles (see HoME II: The Book of Lost Tales II, The Fall of Gondolin). He would have already had it.

(3) Tolkien wrote of "the Eagles dwelling out of reach of Orc and Balrog" (see HoME IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth, Silmarillion). If the Eagles are inaccessible to Balrogs as much as to orcs, that pretty much puts to bed the idea that Balrogs can fly.

(4) Melkor eventually created breeds of dragons that could fly, and their description bears on the question at hand: "Out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; for until that day no creatures of his cruel thought had yet assailed the air." This obviously means that Balrogs, who existed prior to this time, could not fly. And certainly Tolkien never mentioned later breeds of Balrogs that could.

(5) The following text is often brandished by the opposing side: "The dwarves roused from sleep a thing of terror that, flying from Thangorodrim, had lain hidden at the foundations of the earth since the coming of the Host of the West: a Balrog of Morgoth." But "flying" in this context is an archaic term for "running from" or "escaping". We know that Tolkien often preferred the archaic, for instance when Gandalf cries out to the fellowship, "Fly, you fools!" -- not, obviously, telling them to grow wings and fly, but to haul ass before the Balrog kills them all.

(6) The following passage has wreaked havoc: "Far beneath the halls of Angband, in vaults to which the Valar in the haste of their assault had not descended, the Balrogs lurked still, awaiting ever the return of their lord. Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as tempest of fire." (HoME X: Morgoth's Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, (II) The Second Phase, Of the Thieves' Quarrel). "Swiftly they arose" refers not to flying, but to the Balrogs' ascending or climbing out of caverns far below; and "winged speed" is yet another metaphor.
All of this evidence taken together proves, to me, beyond sane doubt that Tolkien's Balrogs were wingless and could not fly. Now, it may very well be that Balrogs could fly in their non-incarnate forms like any other ealar in Middle-Earth, as argued, for instance, by Thomas Gießl (see Other Minds Magazine, #10, Aug 2010, pp 4-12). But that point is so esoteric as to be trivial. Interestingly, Gießl thinks the Balrogs described in point (6) were indeed flying in their incorporeal state: "They flew to Lammoth because there is no reason to assume that they had taken on a corporeal form...since Manwe himself had slain them before" (Ibid, p 11). I somehow doubt even this, but at least Gießl gets the basics right. Substantively speaking, Balrogs didn't fly, and certainly the Balrog of Moria showed no capabilties on this point.

Having settled this matter (though I'm under no delusion the question has been settled in the minds of the opposing camp), let's take it to the next level. Is there anything wrong with giving Balrogs wings, as so many filmmakers, artists, and role-playing gamers have done? Absolutely not. Readers of this blog know that I believe the worst adaptations are those which slavishly follow their source material and hang on the text's every word. This level of faithfulness, ironically, avoids interpretation itself, and usually kills artistic spirit in advance. Going back to the analogy of biblical studies -- "earliest isn't necessarily best"; what Jesus did, the gospel writers saw fit to change; and what the gospel writers decreed, later chruch thinkers upended in turn. This is a natural healthy process. But we need to acknowledge what we're doing. If we like interpretations of Balrogs with wings -- as I certainly do -- we should be comfortable acknowledging our departure from the canon, rather than twisting Tolkien's original meaning to suit our tastes.

I leave you with some artistic interpretations of the Balrog. Click on the images to enlarge, and pay your money and take your choice.

This is my favorite Balrog portrayal of all time, by Flavio Hoffe. But it's obviously not true to Tolkien.

I really like this one too, by John Howe. It's a mighty aggressive wingspan.

This is another one by John Howe, his second swing at the Balrog when working on the films for Peter Jackson. And of course, this is the image burned in the minds of millions of people for over a decade now. That's not a bad thing, even if it has little to do how Tolkien envisioned his creature.

Here's Ted Nasmith, another renowned Tolkien illustrator, and one of the very few to eschew wings. Now, obviously this portrait is faithful to Tolkien unlike the above three. But that doesn't make it the better interpretation. I don't know about you, but I think this one not terribly impressive. (Ted Nasmith is superb with Middle-Earth's landscapes, but not always so with its peoples and creatures.) Put it another way: Ted Nasmith is a great "historical critic" but perhaps not the most outstanding "receptionist".

Here's Stephen Hickman's vision, which leaves the matter ambiguous, doing justice to all the shadows Tolkien harped on, but not boasting the best aesthetic.

This one's curious. It's the cover of a role-playing supplement put out by Iron Crown Enterprises, which clearly avoids wings. Yet ICE assigned the Balrog dreadful flying abilities (as I mentioned in yesterday's retrospective on Moria). Even in the text of the module there is no mention of wings. So here's an interpretation that allows Balrogs, apparently, a magical power of flight (even in their corporeal forms) but not wings.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Retrospective: Moria

I'll be upfront: I'm not wild about Moria. It's a thorough enough treatment of Durin's folk from their blasphemous creation under Aule down to the Fourth Age, and many things you'd think to ask about their customs, religion, military structure, and women. But it somehow never feels like ICE's heart is in the project. On the other hand, it was a module I remember having very high expectations for, and maybe I just haven't gotten over the letdown. In retrospect it's certainly not bad; it just could have been a lot more. That the dwarven rings of power aren't detailed is an astounding criminal omission -- Durin's, at the very least, demands the same meticulous attention given to the elven and Nazgul rings in other modules.

Moria does score points for its versatile setting: it can be used in any age with few adjustments. Khazad-dum was founded in the misty days of the first, absorbed the tribes of Belegost and Nogrod in the second (the Golden Age of trade with the elves of Eregion), and hit by demonic calamity in the late third. The Balrog period naturally offers the most in terms of dramatic conflict, and the module commendably extends beyond the usual 1640 focus to describe orc tribes (the "fire-ruler" and "slaver" groups), trolls, cave worms, and water-drakes that fill Moria's halls in its time of darkness. It also does well in depicting dwarven technology, such as the elevators, fire wagons, and water wheels that make the mountain kingdom go round. The expected enchantments are also detailed: light stones, watchers (the infamous stone sentinels with piercing gazes), and rune keys like the one on the West-Gate ("speak, friend, and enter"). Those who can overcome these will find a variety of traps around every corner -- chute, dart, plate, spike, steam, pit, wheel -- and the wheel traps are particularly nasty.

Where the module lets down is with its mapwork. On the one hand, the treatment is comprehensive, showing all seven levels and seven deeps, and detailing important areas in the key. The problem is that this is done almost exclusively on route maps, with very few rooms zoomed in with standard dungeon layouts. In fact, those rooms can be counted on two hands: The Second Hall and Durin's Bridge, the West-Gate and Western Entry Hall, the East Entry Hall, the Chamber of Records on the seventh level, the Balrog's Lair in the sixth deep, the Chamber of Teeth in the seventh deep, and the King's Chambers & Armory in the seventh deep. Rooms and areas covered on the route maps are described adequately enough but can barely be envisualized. This contrasts sharply with Mount Gundabad, The Grey Mountains, and Goblin-Gate, which present their mountain cities in the close-up way gamers expect. The Balrog's Lair (formerly the dwarven king's smithy) is a highlight, boasting a hall of enchanted mirrors, the grim hall of questions, and animated dragon columns. And this Balrog can fly, unlike Tolkien's, a departure from the canon I always approved for gaming purposes.

There's certainly enough in Moria to please fans of huge subterranean kingdoms, and the post-1980 material provides rounds of ammunition for DMs to murder PCs under cover of fire and darkness. By rights this should be a module to brandish with enthusiasm. For all its diligence, regretfully, it comes up a bit short. Then there's the cover from the dreadful '70s film, of which it's best I not speak at all.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 3

Next up: Lorien and the Halls of the Elven Smiths.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Retrospective: Goblin-Gate and Eagles' Eyrie

The best old-school D&D modules managed to pack a lot in short space, and Goblin-Gate reminds me of that effortless economy. First, there's the mountain city of the orcs, spanning close to forty miles; second the Northmen town of Maethelburg east of the mountain range; third the sky citadel of the eagles; and last a giant's isle in a massive lake to the north of the High Pass. All of this in a 40-page module declares its business with little fanfare, and confirms my general confidence in the adventure-sized approach. The eagles' lair doesn't have much to it, and is described in a single paragraph (which I'll remedy below), but aside from this point, the module delivers pretty much as it should.

Goblin-Gate is essentially Mount Gundabad in miniature, with a quarter of the population (around 3000 orcs) but the same infra-structure. The Great Goblin is as nasty as the northern Ashdurbuk, has a pair of warlords on hand just as treacherous and a priest whose sacrificial knife is just as busy. The warlords command gates instead of spires: the Wolf Gate, the Back Door, and (after the dwarf war of 2793-99) the concealed Front Porch that would ensnare Bilbo and the dwarves. Goblin-town itself is classic D&D nastiness, a network of caverns and twisting passages ending in wild feasting halls, torture chambers, and (again like Gundabad) a gladitorial arena where slaves and captives battle hideous creatures for their lives. The layout of the mountain is excellent, with route maps of Goblin-town's three levels, the ice caves above, the fungi caves below. Goblin-town is then fleshed out with standard dungeon layouts for all levels, as well as the entrance areas of the three gates.

The wild card of Goblin-Gate is of course Gollum (during the 2470-2944 period), an invisible predator who hates orcs as much as the Free Peoples, and he can be put to extraordinarily good use. His wretched rock-island evokes pity in a way that always catches me off guard. Here's the bearer of the mightiest artifact of the Third Age, living in the foulest habitat, hate-filled yet craving the company of his kind: "Lone intruders are 90% likely to be ambushed by surprise, but there is only a 20% that Gollum will attack a hobbit outright." The wheels are spinning to any Tolkien fan. To run Goblin-Gate without at least one hobbit PC is a wasted opportunity; DMs can get plenty of mileage replicating the bickering and backbiting dynamics out of The Two Towers, let alone The Hobbit.

After terrors below the mountains comes a ray of hope from above, at Eagles' Eyrie, the impregnable sky-citadel of Manwe's servants. The eagles are fascinating but an ongoing bone of contention. Some complain that Tolkien used them inconsistently to get out of jail free, while apologists rationalize their every move. And of course there's the classic "plot-hole" of them flying Frodo and Sam away from Mount Doom, underscoring how easy it would have been to fly them to the cracks to begin with. It's not a plot-hole at all actually, though the issue isn't as tidy as the apologists think. My view of the matter is this: The free peoples have to fight their own battles as responsible beings, and the eagles, as servants of the gods, can't (or won't) do their heavy-lifting for them anymore than the Valar can (or will). Yet they are permitted (or willing) to intervene in rare cases, mostly for rescue operations -- like Maedhros from Thangorodrim; Hurin and Huor from Dimbar; Bilbo and the dwarves from Goblin-Gate; Gandalf (twice) from Orthanc and the peak of Zirakzigil; Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom. They can also lend help in battle when the stakes are highest -- as they did in the War of the Wrath (which even the Valar joined), and when the Black Gate opened (which by rights spelled the end of the world). So far so good. But that doesn't account for the Battle of Five Armies, which was a pinprick on the map of Endor's conflicts, and which I don't think the eagles had any business getting involved in. I think it safe to say that at the time of writing The Hobbit Tolkien's intuitions on the nature of the eagles were crude at best. Take my philosophical detour for what it's worth. I advise simply treating the eagles as "of the gods" in game play, and remember too that they're not always kind; they feast on the livestock of poor decent people.

Goblin-Gate is a solid installment, and shows that without Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves wouldn't have stood a chance in escaping Goblin-town. Word to the wise.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: Moria.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Retrospective: Rivendell

Only in Middle-Earth can you get an entire module out of an inn without it feeling like a cheat, but even here I'm pushing it. Rivendell may be where great decisions are made and Elrond wields the mightiest elven ring, but it isn't the masterpiece it deserves to be. Yet I can't think of a way it could have possibly been done as outstanding as the Lorien module. Unlike the ethereal Golden Wood or the transcendent Grey Havens, Rivendell is rooted in a simplicity so pure it's almost banal. It makes me regret even more that ICE never got around to the Grey Havens module it promised in the '90s. I would have much preferred Mithlond over Imladris, and to see Angus McBride wrestle with more ineffable visions in his cover art. But I digress.

The vale surrounding Rivendell is a pocket paradise, as it functions according to Elrond's command of the ring. Its powers are completely detailed, and I was so obsessed with the elven rings as a teen that I reworked the properties in more Gygaxian terms (and I always translated MERP statistics into D&D terms anyway). So as I had it, a competent wielder of Vilya could control weather or cause hallucinatory terrain in a 10-mile radius, in line with its primary ability to conceal and protect; heal, exorcise, and restore, fitting its secondary focus on healing; and also fly, create air, gust of wind, and either control winds or cause tornado once/day, per its tertiary relationship with the element of air; plus some generic bonuses common to all the elven rings. Vilya was a definite highlight for me, so much that I entertained scenarios of self-serving characters infiltrating Rivendell to wrest the artifact from Elrond as if that were remotely plausible. Imladris, by rights, is a place of respite, healing, and counsel.

The inn is home to the northern rangers as much as the elves, and of course the seat of the Wise. Stats and bios are provided for many elves besides Elrond: Arwen, Glorfindel, Elladan and Ellrohir, Gildor, more. The surrounding culture of Rhudaur is briefly revisited, and the module works perfectly in tandem with Hillmen of the Trollshaws, and there are suggested adventures involving spying for Elrond in the region. It's also perched on the doorstep of Goblin-Gate for any who want to depart hobbit-wise into the Misty Mountains. As neither an open colony like the Grey Havens, nor a secluded realm like Lorien, Rivendell is hidden yet accessible, but on a small scale to make just finding it a major task, and this is probably the kind of scenario I'd run, with enemies hot on the PCs' heels a la "Flight to the Ford".

The layouts treat fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to architectural details so often imagined: Bilbo's suite on the second floor, Frodo's room of recovery on the third, Saruman's guest state suite, the dining hall supported by majestic wood vaults and filled with tapestries and chandeliers, the hall of fire, Elrond's library (one of the most extensive of Middle-Earth, second only to that of Annuminas), and of course the council chambers where the fate of the One Ring was decided. While some gamers would call all of this a wasted indulgence, it's a treat to Tolkien fans, though I have to admit there's something about this kind of approach that overdoes things a bit. I'm sincerely fond of Rivendell, but you'll never hear me rhapsodizing about it.

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

Next up: Goblin-Gate and Eagles' Eyrie.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Retrospective: The Grey Mountains

The Grey Mountains are a playground for Morgoth's drakes, and as such they're an endless source of adventure for fools, the mega-experienced, or vengeful dwarves wanting to take back what's theirs and retire fifty times over. I suppose you could say that dungeons and dragons are what the module is literally about, though if we're magnanimous, "dungeons and dwarves" is more respectful of rightful claims. Regretfully, I never got to use this beast, as it was published in the '90s when I was hardly gaming anymore. But I remember wanting to play it very badly.

The dragons of Middle-Earth are twice as lethal as those of classic D&D, and fall into six breeds which I prefer over the rainbow kinds (yes, Dragonlance, I'm looking at you): cold-drakes, fire-drakes, ice-drakes, cave-drakes, marsh-drakes, and rain-drakes; and there are winged variations of the cold- and fire-, able to create local hurricanes just by stirring the air as they fly. The module provides stats and bios for 28 of them, including really nasty brutes like Scatha, Smaug, Ando-anca, Itangast, Throkmaw, and Uruial. And if this menagerie isn't enough, there are also ice orcs, of all things, terrorizing the northern range with a priest-cult more terrifying than its military.

Then there are the dwarves. The module can't seem to decide whether it's situated in the year 1640 or 2589, but of course it's only during later times (2210-2589) that dwarves lived here until crushed by the cold-drake Ando-anca and forced to return to Erebor. There's a real feeling of suspense conveyed by the Norr-dum setting and the splintered society under Dain I, as its about to replicate the tragedy of Durin VI in its final hours. And while the Balrog horror is far more epic than that of Ando-anca, The Grey Mountains is a surprisingly better module than Moria.

The mapwork is generally in top form. In addition to the detachable color map, detailed layouts are provided of Norr-dum (the dwarven capital from 2210-2589), Kala Dulakurth (the ice-orc palace present throughout all of the Third Age), and Celeb-ost (the dwarven smithy founded by the renegade Narvi V in 2086, who went insane and massacred his own colony, and whose ghost haunts the ruins after 2110). The nice thing about dwarves is they're such treasure-mongers that their halls serve as opportunistic dungeons in the classic sense, which of course they become anyway when the drakes drive them out. Two particular dragon lairs are laid out, with treasure and magic items out of a Monty-Haul campaign. Way too much attention is given to the Northmen town of Buhr Thurasig, which ceases to exist by the end of the 1600s, but which for some reason is used as the basis for three adventure scenarios. On whole The Grey Mountains stands as one of the better campaign products of the '90s, and I wish I'd gotten to use it.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: Rivendell.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Retrospective: Mount Gundabad

It might be an exaggeration to call Mount Gundabad the greatest Tolkien module ever produced, but it's certainly one of them, along with Lorien and the Halls of the Elven-Smiths, Dol Guldur, Bree and the Barrow-Downs, Erech and the Paths of the Dead, and The Court of Ardor. At the very least it's the best orc dungeon ever designed, in or outside of Middle-Earth, and true to the spirit of both Tolkien and classic D&D. The Angus McBride cover is my second-favorite in the ICE series; I even had a nightmare as a teen walking into Mount Gundabad's hellish maw.

The orc capital of Endor screams aggression: its triple-peaked structure punches the sky up to 13,000 feet, its interior shelters almost 13,000 goblins. That's a bigger population than Fornost's -- a lot of hate to come pouring out the front maw. But that hate turns inward too, and the seething factionalism within Gundabad provides players with striking opportunities to mess with orcish politics. I'm a long time fan of modules that do this, like TSR's Lost City, where it's practically inevitable that characters will sympathize with (or even join) one of the Cynidicean cults who are at each others' throats. Of course, these are orcs we're talking about, which makes things, well, interesting, though the scenarios are sound. The Free Peoples would have perfectly legitimate reason to help the Warlord of the Cloven Spire, who seeks greater independence from Angmar and would thus undercut the power of the Witch-King. Alternatively, evil characters allied with Sauron could have fun throwing in their lot with the Warlord of the Twisted Spire, who not only favors stronger ties to Angmar and open war on the Dunedain, but gives new meaning to sadism. (I sure as hell wouldn't trust him regardless of my allegiances. Some of the rooms in the Twisted Spire make my stomach hurt.) Self-serving neutral types might opt for the safest course and just back the current Goblin-King reigning from the Great Spire, since the odds are with him and he can offer richest rewards. None of this political intrigue is essential to a Gundabad campaign, by any means, but it does offer excitement beyond hack-and-slash dungeon crawls which in this case invite almost certain death to all but most experienced characters.

The cast of Mount Gundabad is out of a film-noir horror: the Goblin-King Zalg; his sons, mentioned above, warlords Hurog and Bralg, who despise each other worse than elves; the High Priest Karagat, who becomes a giant bat by drinking living men's blood; the Warlock Akargun, a half-orc mage sired by Zalg on a tortured woman; the Spymaster Ghardak, whose true face is unknown; and (my favorite) the masochistic consort Saviga, who thrives on being abused by Zalg but has bardic skills in reserve to keep him at least somewhat charmed. These personalities are set in the usual 1640 period but could be used really anytime between c. 1300 and the fall of Angmar and the migration of the Eotheod to Framsburg (1975-77), which saw a containment Gundabad's power.

When I DM'd this module I remember being taken aback by some of the artifacts to be found here, not least the Ulukai of Morgoth, which is as deadly as the One Ring:
"A huge gem, multicolored and ever shifting in hue, the Ulukai seems to pulse with a horrid life of its own. It is the very essence of evil, embodying a portion of Morgoth's own foul being... From wherever it is concealed, darkness emanates like ever-widening ripples in a pond, engulfing surrounding lands... The possessor acquires the focused will necessary to rule over masses of evil beings, driving them to cooperate in ventures and to reproduce. Focused will differs from domination in that the subject beings retain the power of independent action and individually are capable of betraying their master; they are merely motivated in accord with the ruler's general desires and will be thrown into confusion at his death... In a very real sense, Mount Gundabad exists to perpetuate the evil that the Black Enemy first spawned in Middle-Earth."
The Crypt of Skorg is where the Ulukai resides, and not so subtly evokes the demi-lich's room in Tomb of Horrors; the Wraith of Skorg (the first Goblin-King of Gundabad) is nearly as hard to destroy as Acerak. Gundabad is more than just a beehive of orcs; it's a taloned organ of malignancy.

The layout of the peak couldn't be more rewarding. Right away its unique structure distinguishes itself from most underground caverns which somehow manage to look the same after a while (or at least to players and DMs). The ground-level Drake Gate consists mostly of barracks and stores, plus a huge cavern inhabited by a cold drake to greet intruding fools. There are four rises (levels) to the Great Spire, including the royal maze packed with nasty tricks and traps, the great temple of darkness where blood sacrifice goes on daily, the incredible royal treasury, the throne hall, grim trophy halls, and finally the crypt of Skorg just mentioned. The Cloven Spire has two rises, each of which is divided by a chasm thousands of feet deep, while the Twisted Spire has two rises blending into one, with passages continually ascending and descending. Under the Drake Gate come the pits (or sinks), four levels of them, dominated by forges, craft halls, and particularly foul places like the arena in which captives are forced cruelly to play in "the Games of Gundabad", hideous variations of gladiatorship. The folks at ICE went over and above the call of duty with Mount Gundabad, and I count it a gem.

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

Next up: The Grey Mountains.

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.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Retrospective: Empire of the Witch-King

It's fair to say that I was more infatuated with Arnor than Gondor in my gaming days, my campaigns more Angmar-centric than Mordor-focused. And there's something about Carn Dum in its cold, barren isolation that haunts me still. Angmar is a natural vacuum of life and all things joyful, where Mordor had to be fashioned that way. In such a landscape I can easily see a tribe like the Uruk-lugat taking root and thriving: gruesome even by orc standards, in thrall to the rejuvenated and beating heart of a vampire slain back in the First Age, and walking a thin line by holding their shaman in higher reverence than the Witch-King. The orcish and mannish factions on display in this module reek of an obstinate ugliness that goes beyond even those found in Gorgoroth and Dol Guldur, and this contributes to its success as much as any donjon ruled by Sauron's right hand.

The Witch-King is a piece of work, and his bio fills eight pages. I always loved how ICE made him the brother of Tar-Atanamir, and the product of an insidious envy occurring around the inception of Numenor's downslide. His inner circle is a horror show: the Angulion (the sadistic sorcerer who commands in his absence), the five top generals, and the three high priests (one of whom is a renegade elf). The militarized culture of the Angarim (mannish inhabitants of mostly Rhudaurian and Dunlending heritage) is described at length, as well as the various tribes of orcs directly in service to the Witch-King. The priesthood's practices are less about blood sacrifice and more about subtle brainwashing (unlike orc priests who revel in sacrifice), but are to me just as chilling. And the assassin cult under command of the Angulion is a nice touch, rather reminiscent of the Amida Tong from ninja folklore in our world. Special orc communities are also given attention, including the bloodthirsty Uruk-lugat mentioned already, and the brutally efficient Uruk-kosh. It all adds up to a hellish landscape that only a Nazgul could hope to keep under control, and even that imperfectly.

The four-page color map of Angmar (and northern Rhudaur) is well done, but the layouts tend to be rough around the edges. Carn Dum itself is both rewarding and disappointing, its architecture impressive, the details of the rooms' contents surprisingly sparse and leaving much for the DM to flesh out. Sometimes the key provides nothing more than a subject heading for a room ("Ceiling Trap", "Rune of Absolution", etc.) with literally no elaboration whatsoever. Other places of interest include the Tower of Lughilsarik (the Witch-King's secret retreat where he disappears every year to work sorceries manipulating weather and climate), the Lugata settlements of northern Rhudaur (where the hideous Uruk-lugat conduct unspeakable rituals), the town of Litash and its college of evil priests, and plenty of mannish and orcish strongholds.

Empire of the Witch-King is an arousing product, but I wouldn't accuse it of having the strongest aesthetic. This is all the more surprising given that it's a revamping of the first Tolkien module ever published, Angmar: Land of the Witch-King; areas in need of fine-tuning were neglected. (Usually I cover the earliest version module in these retrospectives, but make an exception for Empire since on whole it's a worthy remake.) It doesn't bother me much though; the crude aesthetic even complements the rudimentary feel of Angmar as a nation. Ultimately, I think my assessment of this product is influenced as much by what I brought to it as how it stands on its own, and by the truly awful feelings it engenders when I think of orcs who worship that pulsating heart, and man-priests who suck the life out of their students with litanies of hate.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: The Northern Waste.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Retrospective: Hillmen of the Trollshaws

For whatever reason, ICE decided to cover Rhudaur in an adventure module instead of a full-blown campaign -- probably because it never asserted itself with any glimmer of promise. Its "height of power" came right after Arnor's split and was over in an instant, declining from the tenth century on. Still, I always thought it deserved better, though can't complain. Hillmen of the Trollshaws does complete justice to the north-central region of Rhudaur and its reputation as the "evil wood", swarming with primitives who despise Dunedain and Angarim equally, not to mention trolls. There's a feeling of spiritual malaise about the area that still creeps me out, and sets a perfect tone for a campaign.

The beauty to Trollshaws is its flexibility. It's suitable for almost anytime before the fall of Arthedain and dissolution of Angmar, whether during Rhudaur's inclusion in Arnor (1-861), its independence as a sister kingdom to Arthedain and Cardolan (861-1349), its subservience as a puppet state of Angmar (1349-1410), or its complete dominance under Angmar (1410-1975). Rhudaur changed a great deal throughout these periods, and the module is designed to show its growth and decline, particularly at the capital of Cameth Brin. The primitive culture of the Hillmen contrasts sharply with their Dunedain overlords, notable for its inflexible rejection of both the Valar and Black Religion of Sauron in favor of ancestor worship, with a particular reverence for ghosts. Of which there are plenty to be found; the Ta-Fa-Lisch (dwarven ghosts) haunt Cameth Brin in the early days before the Dunedain take control. Between the tumultuous politics, an inhospitable land, and the overabundance of Hillmen and mercenaries, it's no wonder the Dunedain of Rhudaur fell so swiftly under the shadow, and the adventure-sized module conveys this with terrific economy.

The layout of Cameth Brin ("The Twisted Hill") dominates the product, and even its early structure is provided for those who wish to get involved with ghosts working in cahoots with Hillmen. After the Dunedain expansion of 166-339, it becomes Rhudaur's capital, though no less ominous, and the look is naturally sinister: "Its base is a steep hill, but from this foundation erupts a tortured outcropping of naked black granite that leans impossibly far over the southern face, as if a sparrow's sneeze would send the craggy top tumbling down". The inside of it lives up to its appearance, with halls of enchanted darkness, surprising traps, and a generally schizophrenic feel that betrays haunted roots underneath an advanced Dunedain architecture, which in turn becomes usurped by Hillmen much later after the Great Plague. The barracks settlement of Tanoth Brin below the hill is also detailed, as well as the nearby town of Talugdaeri. Then there's an exemplary troll lair for those desiring adventure outside of Cameth Brin. Add to all of this the color map of central Rhudaur, and the end result is pretty much what's needed for a solid Rhudaur campaign any time pre-1975.

This wraps up my first stage of retrospectives (Eriador), and I've come to an interesting conclusion so far. The adventure modules tend to rate higher than the campaign, and I wasn't expecting this. Bree and Trollshaws are near flawless, while Rangers and Cardolan, for all their greatness, are marred by certain shortcomings. Whether that reflects a difficulty in living up to campaign-sized ambitions, or a relative ease in excelling when there's less ground to cover, I'm not sure, but what's surprising is that I have mightier memories of the campaign modules; maybe it's just what I made of them. And whether this pattern continues in upcoming retrospectives I can't predict. I'm writing these reviews as I reread the modules, and finding their enduring value not necessarily squaring with my nostalgia for them. Next we'll move into the evil territory of the far north, where nostalgia promises a goldmine...

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

Next up: Empire of the Witch-King.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Retrospective: Thieves of Tharbad

The "eighth principality of Cardolan" is an ironic curiosity, steeped in nobility, but saturated in corruption; nominally ruled by the Cardolani king (861-1409) or Gondorian Canotar (1414-2052), but effectively a free city; a riverport that survived almost to the end of the Third Age (2912), long after the rest of Cardolan ceased to exist (c. 1700). It's the closest thing to Lankhmar that exists in Tolkien's world: a decadent overcrowded melting pot so unlike the grand cities like Annuminas, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil we associate with Middle-Earth -- a point to which we will return shortly. I almost think Tharbad should have been done as a city module, and it probably would have been if the city series had existed at the time. It's fittingly set in the year 1410, during the chaotic aftermath of the Second Northern War, offering scenarios of extortion rings, food smugglers, and all levels of sordid thievery.

The two-page color coded map of Tharbad is essentially the entire module, with certain buildings and sites laid out in more detail. The Gwathlo River divides the city into three parts: the north and south banks, and the island bridging them. The north side is dominated by guilds like the glassblowers, lampmakers, masons, gravediggers, and singers, while the south boasts more educated talents such as guides, scholars, healers, alchemists, and shipwrights. The center island, meanwhile, is the heart of the city, with dockyards on the far west (the oldest part of the city founded by Tar-Aldarion in the Second Age), and the merchant's quarter and its moneylenders adjacent to it. The east side is the high point, and assaults with contrasts: King's Row closest to the center, including the mayor's office and townhouses of the seven hirs (princes) of Cardolan, as well as luxury shops and homes of the richest merchants; this area segues into the commoner's quarter where the city is actually run by servants and artisans; finally, at the far eastern end is Middle-Earth's version of Lankhmar, the poorest quarter of the entire city, a decaying labyrinth of streets swarming with thieves, whores, and drug-dealers. This last in particular, and the corruption of Tharbad in general, forces interesting questions about the supposed incompatibility of Tolkien's "pure" high-brow fantasy with the gritty pulp universe of classic D&D.

This was often claimed back in the day, and the point must be taken to an extent. And of course Gary Gygax despised The Lord of the Rings, and only used creatures like orcs and halflings in D&D to capitalize on pop culture. Aside from a few Middle-Earth trappings, classic D&D is significantly anti-Tolkien and steeped in the morally ambiguous worlds of Conan the Barbarian, Elric of Melnibone, and Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser. But with enough imagination you can make anything work, and in my strong opinion, pockets of pulp within an overarching highbrow myth isn't necessarily contradictory (even if Tolkien would have been displeased by it). Just the opposite, it breathes sordid reality into a world that's -- let's face it -- too pure for gaming purposes. The MERP rulebook struggles with the problem, for instance, in accommodating spell casters:
"There are two principal dangers that help to restrain the use of magic in the Third Age. The first of these is the Shadow of Sauron -- drawing the attention of the Lidless Eye has led to the downfall of many a spell caster. For gamemasters who want to encourage a restraint in spell casting, Section 15.3 presents a mechanism for reflecting this danger [i.e. every spell has a 'risk factor' for drawing evil attention]. The other danger is the corrupting influence of the use of significant magic for 'non-pure' goals. Unless a spell is cast for the purposes of combatting Darkness or maintaining the Balance, there is a chance that the caster will be corrupted, drawn towards darkness. This is what happened to Saruman -- he used too many powerful spells, too often. Section 15.4 presents a mechanism for reflecting such corruption [i.e. every spell used loosely applies a certain number of 'corruption points' to the user]." (Merp Rulebook, p 70)
Now, as a DM I certainly never imposed these mechanisms on players in Middle-Earth, nor were they imposed on me, but the message is loud and clear: wizards like Gandalf don't go around fireballing and shapechanging as they please; magic in Endor is precious and subtle, and even a threat to one's soul.

What does this have to do with Thieves of Tharbad? Simple. More than any other ICE module, it reminds me of classic D&D adventuring where spell casters do snap away with abandon, and where characters in general are hardly subjected to an omnipresent moral ontology (unless for some bizarre reason they worship a deity who micro-manages their every move). The most compelling alignment in D&D is the chaotic neutral one, which our heroes in the Fellowship of the Ring would find anathema. The amoral leaning, in other words, of barbarians like Fafhrd and thieves like Mouser. They would have been right at home in Tharbad.

History & Culture Rating: 4
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Next up: Hillmen of the Trollshaws.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Retrospective: Weathertop

Weathertop was first in the short-lived fortress series, whose stated intent was "to provide DMs with extremely detailed overviews of individual towers, castles, citadels, and other fortifications of particular note". It's also the best, though that's probably my love for all things Arnor talking. I was so excited when it hit the stores back in '87 that I ignored most of my college assignments that week, and spent time in my dorm room penning an adventure that would require decent characters to steal the Master Stone of the North against their will. The fortress modules cover an amazing abundance of detail in short space that I remain surprised only four were published; three will be covered in these retrospectives.

What can be said about Arnor's bastion? It was everything: the realm's greatest stronghold, home of the High Seer and chief palantir, and strategically situated on holy ground -- all, of course, tragically gone after the Witch-King's army demolished it in 1409. When I first saw Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring and the hobbits were camping at the circle of stones, I thought of what those stones used to be, and got immediate chills. There's potent history here, and the rocks are full of it. The module even traces back to the sacred times of the First Age when the hill was an astrological holy site for the Edain, though the treatment is understandably brief; the focus of the fortress series is on architecture rather than history. For the Third Age, the tower garrisons and civilian populations are detailed for all relevant periods, in particular the military forces supplied by each of the sister kingdoms (Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur) when Arnor split in 861, and possession of the hill was hotly contested.

The layout of Weathertop is breathtaking, I believe the most thorough treatment of any stronghold put out by ICE with the exception of Dol Guldur. The critical part is of course the tower, and all rooms on all fourteen levels are fully detailed and even given artistic representations so you can tell just at a glance the function and contents of each room. In addition to guard halls and guest chambers are the armories, libraries, alchemical hall, sage's hall, warden's chambers, king's chambers (for when he visits), and the seer's chambers which contain the holiest of holies, the Hall of the Stone. The outer defenses are covered just as diligently: the lower and upper gates, the prison tower, bastions and watches, stables and smithies. It's rare to see this level of detail in any gaming product.

The only weakness to Weathertop is no one's fault, just historic fate. It doesn't exist after 1409, which constrains the time period. The earliest setting for any characters I DM'd for was the Kin-Strife... but that didn't stop me. I just ended up geasing my best friend's Greyhawk characters to pay a visit to Middle-Earth on the eve of the Second Northern War and steal Weathertop's palantir. It was a hell of a ride, and I don't think he thanked me for it.

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

Next up: Thieves of Tharbad.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Retrospective: Bree and the Barrow-Downs

This is the first in a trilogy of undead modules, as I like to think of them, the others being Erech and the Paths of the Dead and Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes. The Barrow Downs straddle Arthedain and Cardolan (though belong more to the latter), while the Paths of the Dead bridge Rohan and Gondor; and the Dead Marshes sit between Rhovanion and Mordor. The neither-here-nor-there geography suits an undead theme rather nicely, and of the three modules this one is probably the most fearsome: the Barrow-Downs would slay beginners in an instant. Wights in MERP are more formidable than their D&D counterparts, their mere presence inflicting paralysis, their touch causing an eternal nightmarish sleep that can only be broken magically. The four hobbits wouldn't have stood a chance without Tom.

There's something primal about Bree and the Barrow-Downs, and not just because it was ICE's first adventure-sized module. It sets a haunting stage: a crossroads village where men and hobbits co-exist, surrounded by ongoing tensions -- bandits on the roads and evil tombs off them. This breathes classic D&D in a way few modules get at so simply, and I'll bet that for many MERP gamers, Bree is among the first places they got started. I never got any use out of it, and I'm baffled as to why. It's aged tremendously well, and in my view holds the near equivalent status of TSR's Keep on the Borderlands, though again, not exactly tailored for low-level characters if the downs themselves are to be attempted.

What really grabs me is the overshadowing power of the wights that goes beyond killing people who just happen to be stupid (or ignorant) enough to not stay away: "The wights are symbols that point to the waning of the Dunedain of the North since the coming of Angmar; men now lack the strength to keep their ancient graves free of unclean spirits." This is a recent phenomenon: only in 1638 were the wights sent from Angmar to animate Arnor's dead kings and princes and make the tombs their home for the rest of the Third Age. The module is set in the year 1700, making the undead presence a fresh wound, and thus primarily a killer of morale. Graphic brutality is fun -- and rituals by which the wights carry victims into the barrows and deck them with jewels in preparation for ugly sacrifice are described here -- but tone is just as important in RPGs, and Bree gets the tone perfect. There's a real feeling of foreboding evil that saturates Bree's atmosphere without going over the top.

The mapwork is completely satisfactory. There are arial views for the villages of Bree, Staddle, Archet, and Combe. The Prancing Pony is notably absent, as it didn't exist yet in 1700. A layout of a typical hobbit-hole is provided, giving the feel of the mixed hobbit-mannish population. Drawings of the barrows display different kinds: First Age barrows, the royal barrows of Arnor's kings (from 1-861), and the barrows of Cardolan's kings and princes (861-1409). These tomb layouts are where the module delivers, no less than 24 of them by my count, each detailing the treasure contents of artifacts, magic items unheard of, powerful weapons, jewels, and antiquated coin. It's a Monty Haul feast for the eyes, but removing any of this stuff without being vilely cursed is the real trick.

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

Next up: Weathertop.