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.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Loren, I noticed an article about what went wrong with the RPG industry that you might find interesting.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks Stephen. An RPG blogger I follow was also discussing these issues recently.


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