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.


Blogger Genghis Don said...

Nice job, I just recently looked this version over, and it did add a fair bit to the origonal.

I had Angmar back when I was a teen/it came out; it's always been a favourite of mine among the MERP stuff.


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