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.


Blogger Wild Child said...

It'sn indeed one of my favourites as well. Saviga is probably one of the best NPCs ever created. The dragon on the Oglorb glacier was an unexpected and welcome idea too. The author made a location which I deemed virtually unplayable (much like Barad-dur) into a great setting for adventure.


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