Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Star Wars Rethought: The Order of Darkness

On Facebook, Stephen Carlson links to a brilliant analysis of the Star Wars films by Rod Hilton. This critic suggests the proper viewing order for the films -- which he calls the "Machete Order" -- is IV, V, II, III, VI. Meaning that Phantom Menace doesn't exist, and that Clones and Sith get wedged in between Empire and Jedi. Hilton's reasoning:
"This creates a lot of tension after the cliffhanger ending of Episode V. It also uses the original trilogy as a framing device for the prequel trilogy. Vader drops this huge bomb that he's Luke's father, then we spend two movies proving he's telling the truth, then we see how it gets resolved. The Star Wars watching experience gets to start with the film that does the best job of establishing the Star Wars universe, Episode IV, and it ends with the most satisfying ending, Episode VI. It also starts the series off with the two strongest films, and allows you to never have to either start or end your viewing experience with a shitty movie. Two films of Luke's story, two films of Anakin's story, then a single film that intertwines and ends both stories."
This "Machete order" not only keeps the grand reveal in Empire that Vader is Luke's father a surprise, but also that Luke and Leia are siblings -- by moving the surprise to Episode III instead of VI, when Padme announces her daughter's name. Hilton also sees a dramatic payoff to Jedi when preceded by Sith:
"When watching Jedi immediately after watching Sith, the message is clear: Luke Skywalker is on the path to the Dark Side. Why does this matter? Because at the end of Jedi, Luke confronts the Emperor. The Emperor explains that the assault on the new Death Star is a trap and that his friends are going to die, and he keeps taunting Luke, telling him to grab his lightsaber and fight him. The film is trying to create a tension that Luke might embrace the Dark Side, but it was never really believable. However, within the context of him following in his father's footsteps and his father using the power of the dark side to save people, with Luke's friends being killed just outside the Death Star window, this is much more believable... Watching Revenge of the Sith makes Return of the Jedi a better, more effective film. Considering it's the weakest of the original trilogy films, this improvement is welcome."
Unfortunately, Return of the Jedi is so weak, that Hilton's repositioning episodes around it amounts to little more than polishing a mound of feces. His "Machete Order", brilliant as it is, remains far too generous. It must be said that episode VI is almost as bad as I, and II is only a slightly above those two. If I had to use the amazon 5-star rating system:
(IV) A New Hope -- 4 stars
(V) The Empire Stikes Back -- 4 stars
(VI) Return of the Jedi -- 1 star

(I) Phantom Menace -- 1 star
(II) Attack of the Clones -- 1 ½ stars
(III) Revenge of the Sith -- 2 ½ stars
Revenge of the Sith is no prize, but it's light-years ahead of I, II, and VI. Jedi is a lot worse than just the "weakest of the original trilogy"; its tone, direction, dialogue -- everything -- contrasts so embarrassingly with IV and V it's as if George Lucas became James Bobin. I'd even watch Attack of the Clones before Jedi.

So if there is any decent trilogy to be salvaged out of this mess, it is what I call the Order of Darkness: III, IV, and V:
(III) The Rise of Vader. Evil triumphs.

(IV) A New Hope. Good defeats evil temporarily, teasing us with false hope.

(V) The Empire Kicks Ass. Evil comes out ahead again, end of story.
Now this is quite beautiful, indeed almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. There is no ridiculous muppet show we need to suffer through after the fine development of IV and V; no hollow victories which trivialize the Empire's malignancy. The real and suffocating power of evil frames and defines the trilogy.

Alternatively, one could take Hilton's five-episode Machete Order, add it to my three-stage Order of Darkness, divide in half, and use the following quartet as a compromise: IV, V, II, III. This is basically the Machete Order which scraps the ludicrous Jedi ending, and still goes out (as I insist) on a note of doom. Whether it's Han Solo imprisoned, or Padme dying in childbirth and Vader wailing like the damned -- and in some ways that latter makes for the best ending of all -- the space epic concludes with a wonderfully inspiring uncertainty, and anguish unblemished.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Best of RPG Artistry

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski asks after inspiring illustrations from published RPG adventures. Having just finished my series of retrospectives on ICE's Middle-Earth modules, artwork has been my mind quite a lot. The adage "never judge a book by its cover" doesn't hold up well in the RPG world. For novels it's absolute: while I love good covers (and abhor bad ones) on works of fiction, they never factor in my assessment of the novel's literary value. But there's something about role-playing, maybe the shared group experience behind it all, that leans heavily on the inspiration fired by cover artists. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that cover art can weigh in anywhere between 10%-20% in rating a module's success or failure. That's a huge amount of weight to attach to a single page, but there you have it.

The only two RPGs I invested serious amounts of time in were MERP and D&D, and so I'm doing two lists: my ten favorite covers of ICE's Tolkien modules and my ten favorite illustrations (most covers, but not all) from TSR's D&D products. This will amount to a heavy bit of enshrining Angus McBride and Erol Otus, but that's as it should be. They were the art-gods of their respective turf, McBride the solid historicist, Otus the psychedelic surrealist, and in Maliszewski's terms they "fired my imagination" more than any other RPG artists. Be sure to click on each of these illustrations for the larger image.

The Middle-Earth Role Playing System

1. Riders of Rohan, Angus McBride. This is my favorite piece of cover art of any RPG product. In its Tolkien context, it spotlights a bleak culture in an amazing freeze-frame. The Rohirrim are closest to the Anglo-Saxons or even Norse in Middle-Earth, courageous yet hopeless, "riding to ruin" to embrace that Ragnarok-like annihilation of all that's good. The long defeat runs in their blood like all of the free peoples, but the horse-lords seem to thrive on it, as if their history of repeated migrations and awful-odds warfare forged a culture of exultant fatalism. 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 captures the essence of the Rohirrim almost as good as this illustration.

2. Mount Gundabad, Angus McBride. This one actually gave me a nightmare, though I can barely recall details beyond being yanked down that hellish maw in chains. I must have repressed what happened to me inside the mountain, and given the module's contents that's not surprising. Mount Gundabad is more than just a beehive of 13,000 orcs; it's a taloned organ of malignancy. There's sadism, sacrifice, and bloodthirsty rage; the orc warlords hate each other more than elves. All of this owes to the First-Age artifact as deadly as the One Ring, bathing the place in spiritual blackness. This is, simply, the best orc dungeon ever designed -- in or outside of Middle-Earth -- and I'm glad the cover could do it justice.

3. The Lost Realm of Cardolan, Angus McBride. In some ways I consider this piece the most emblematic of McBride's talents. It grabs your attention right away with the action, and holds it with the hulking, meaty figure of the Barrow-wight. McBride was always able to nail down the solid reality demanded by Tolkien's world, which for all its myth served as a pre-history to our own, and an illustration like this could make me believe Middle-Earth actually existed. Every part of it shouts verisimilitude, from gritty melee to skull-adorned chain mail to rock pillars marking hallowed ground.

4. Gorgoroth, Angus McBride. And here's another flawless rendering of Tolkien's undead. It portrays the Nazgul beyond Halloween cloaks and hoods, in kingly gear, but also without any mystical shrouding as if we were Frodo observing them through the filter of the One Ring. Seeing them this way in Mordor is somehow just right, as if there's no room for vague phantoms in the heart of Sauron's territory. And the yellow background, and Mount Doom, evoke a mood as thunderous as those galloping steeds. I wish the cover of the Angmar module had been this powerful.

5. Havens of Gondor, Julek Keller. The best cover of these Tolkien modules not done by Angus McBride is saturated in enough loss that it may as well be the Grey Havens. The module itself was scorned in the '80s as an empty product, but one I fell instantly in love with, though I admit the cover carries more that the usual 10%-20% weight value -- close to 30% in this case. There's something surpassing about it in a way that's hard to put my finger on, but easy enough to convey my feelings for. To this day I have fantasies of growing old by the Belfalas coastline, mixing with men and elves, and staring out to sea where that immortal elven king drowned searching his lost love.

6. Ents of Fangorn, Angus McBride. Even if this module doesn't deliver as it should on the inside, it redeems by the outside, depicting the two best things about Middle-Earth: hobbits and ents. This cherished scene from The Two Towers is rather exceptional for McBride, whose comfort zone was the dramatic portraits of evil or battle action, and it's all the more potent for it. In fact, I'd put this depiction of Treebeard almost on the same level as John Howe's. By rights there should be more treeish traits (branches and leaves eeking through the physique, as in the films), but I like this interpretation all the same.

7. Southern Mirkwood, Chris White. I'm not the biggest fan of Chris White. He did the covers for Goblin-Gate and Shelob's Lair, and I thought her majesty the spider in particular deserved better. But tell me this picture doesn't rattle you after staring at it for a while. It may be leagues away from Angus McBride's Nazgul (see 4, above), but it's compelling in its own way. It actually puts me in mind of Erol Otus' well-known sketch of the spectre in the D&D Expert Rules manual. And the forest has a weird psychedelic vibe to it, as if it's noxiously alive and would close in on you if you blink.

8. Greater Harad, Angus McBride. The ruins of Charnesra inspired me to design the most complex campaign of my gaming career, and the result was a complete overhaul of this module that makes ICE's "Greater Harad" now almost unrecognizable to me. All because of this cover: I looked at it and saw -- like the way visionaries have epiphanies -- an underground cult launching suicidal sting operations across a sun-baked land; disaffected remnants of a cruel dynasty wanting to resurrect the "glory" of an old age; grim sophisticated cultures where you can find peace or freedom, but never both; and an evil plot on such a monstrous scale that would require the best out of the most experienced PCs to expose and bring down.

9. The Court of Ardor, Gail McIntosh. McIntosh did a lot of cover art reminiscent of old-school D&D, sketchy and rough around the edges, which is much preferable, in my view, to the excessively polished look of today's D&D products. Still, I wouldn't call McIntosh a favorite; she was hit-or-miss; for every Ardor there was an Umbar. But Ardor is her very best, capturing a land of exotic peril in a frame that shouts action. We're used to seeing demons on other planes, in evil temples, or subterranean tombs, but this one (Lesh-Y) is an actual court noble, and those lethal cobras fit perfectly. This module on whole fired my imagination more than any other ICE product, and McIntosh's illustration had a part in that.

10. Thieves of Tharbad, Angus McBride. When I first saw this cover I instantly thought Lankhmar. It hints at a sordid cesspit so unlike the grand cities of Annuminas, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil we associate with Middle-Earth. You can practically see extortion rings, prostitution networks, and cutthroat thieves at work behind the shadows. I always thought of Tharbad as rather anti-Tolkien in terms of the kind of things the professor would actually depict in works of fiction, and it gives lie to Gary Gygax's strident claim that "it is well nigh impossible to recreate any Tolkien-based fantasy while remaining within the boundaries of the D&D gaming system". The pulp influences of Robert Howard, Fletcher Pratt, and Fritz Leiber aren't so necessarily at odds with Tolkien's highbrow mythic backdrop as often thought. And that offers a perfect segue into the gritty, amoral world of D&D...

Old-School Dungeons & Dragons

1. The Dungeon Master's Guide, David Sutherland. There is no illustration I associate more with the world of classic D&D than the cover of the DM's Guide. It even felt unholy when I first bought it, which in hindsight surprises me. My upbringing was mainstream religious -- raised Episcopalian, educated in Catholic schools -- and I always had the full support of family and teachers to pursue D&D as a hobby. But there were those few family acquaintances of a more fundamentalist bent, and I recall one in particular who was convinced that the game could only be Satanic based on this cover. In any case, the cover sums up D&D nicely, pitting a fighter, mage, and thief up against an avatar of hell (or so I first thought of efreeti, before I realized they were fire-genies), and I was always amused by the absence of a cleric, as if the efreet had the wisdom to kill the party's healer right off the bat.

2. Castle Amber, Erol Otus. This one was continually on my mind when I was put through the module as a player. I expected that colossus to appear at any moment and crush our entire party, and this is what I mean when I talk about gaming artwork being a shared experience; it really set the tone for our adventure. It's Erol Otus' best piece, and like the cover of the DM's Guide shook my imagination in the way that these evil giantish-figures, for whatever reason, did so well. I could see myself on the top story of a building being crushed like cardboard, under the glare of those hugely insane eyes which regarded me about as significant as a gnat.

3. The Lost City, Jim Holloway. This cover is so bloody inspired it makes me lament, more than any other art piece, the passing of D&D's Golden Age. Everything about it shouts the pulp fantasies of Howard and Leiber, from the masked Cynidicean, to the noxious-looking green mist circling his feet, to the general feel of a decadent society. Somehow both Holloway and Otus (above) hit artistic home runs for the two best D&D modules (aside from Tomb of Horrors) ever designed. And Holloway's fired me up in a way that led me to flesh out the underground city in much more staggering detail for subsequent campaigns. It was truly a sandbox of endless opportunity.

4. The Tomb of Horrors (Back), Erol Otus. Even today this image scares the be-Jesus out of me. I want to shout at the poor fool poking his torch around the death mouth, "GET AWAY FROM THAT THING!" And I can't help thinking about sex-change looking at the misty archway, even if that brutal enchantment is many rooms away. The green devil mouth remains for me the most iconic symbol of evil in D&D, and summons a world of outrageous unfairness, irrevocable death, and sadistic DM'ing that made the hobby so fun.

5. Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Jim Roslof. As a teen my favorite Roslof piece was the cover of Ghost Tower of Inverness, which I used to stare at for long periods of time. However, Maliszewski got me rethinking with his enthusiasm for D1-D2. The shrine of the Kuo-Toa is of course a very good dungeon, but one I tend to forget about alongside its mightier sequels, especially Vault of the Drow which even broadcasts a memorable Erol Otus cover. But I have to agree that this clash at the foot of the kuo-toan altar deserves high mention. I love the way the blues and greens and yellows mix, and bathe the lobster-goddess statue in a weird spiritual candor.

6. In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, Erol Otus. I was never a fan of the slaver's quartet, but this final chapter is admittedly good, and the cover is an absolute gem. There's something dreadfully intimate about these poor naked PCs (loincloths included for form's sake, no doubt) stripped of all their possessions, spellbooks, weapons, relying on whatever they can find on the floor to escape these horrible caves. At the very least, the module is a serious test of players' resources when they're literally stripped to the bone. Otus' illustration conveys the unfairness brilliantly, and his myconids (fungus-men) are as creepy as any medusa.

7. The Player's Handbook, Dave Trampier. James Maliszewski makes a fascinating case for this being the "best cover ever" of any D&D accessory, and while I wouldn't go that far, his feelings for the piece do square with some of my own. It depicts a dungeon in the broadest sense, with PCs "fighting evil in its very lair". It snapshots a planned expedition, moreover, as evidenced by the body count of the lizard men. Most importantly (from my point of view), these PCs aren't necessarily heroes, indeed they rather have the look of venal mercenaries ("the two thieves prying the gems from the demonic idols eyes are looking down on their companions as if they hope no one notices their theft"). D&D is as much about anti-heroes as it is heroes, and Trampier's cover breathes this world of amoral pulp fantasy in a very primal way. While I insist the DM's Guide cover holds pride of place, I suspect more gamers would agree with Maliszewski's prioritizing that of the Player's Handbook.

8. Return to the Tomb of Horrors (Inside), Arnie Swekel. The boxed sets of the '90s tended to have artwork as disappointing as their contents, but the demi-lich sequel was exceptional in every way. This drawing kicks ass in portraying an ultimate showdown between PCs and Acerak -- a showdown, frankly, that's so unlikely it serves as a kind of Platonic ideal or goal, ever approached, never reached. For this is a module where the entire party can die on any page. But it's fun to fantasize about actually making it to the last room of the Fortress of Conclusion, and going down desperately trying to liberate the 2,692 souls trapped in Acerak's phylactery, souls he needs for his outrageous ambition to become the god of (and one with) the Negative Material Plane.

9. Ravenloft (Inside), Clyde Caldwell. I never cared for the cover of Ravenloft, but the inside illustrations score big time, and this one in particular is as iconic as the video frame of the taxi cab pulling up in front of the MacNeil house in The Exorcist. That shot was inspired by a Magritte painting ("Empire of Light"), and this one has the same kind of look to it, as if Caldwell had been mining a museum of gothic classics and wanted to capture something unelaborately elemental. Caldwell was never a favorite of mine, mind you, for all the Dragonlance stuff, but with Ravenloft he tapped into something powerful. It remains the best undead module of all time, and his artistry did it justice.

10. Oriental Adventures, Jeff Easley. I was an avid fan of early-'80s ninja films (they're so embarrassing by today's standards), and here, finally, was an entire alternate D&D world for the Asian cultures. The cover is airy and exotic as the western player's handbook is earthy and subterranean, and pits two essential character classes against each other, samurai and ninja. Many westerns would say that symbolizes "honor" vs. "shame", but of course every class operates out of its own code of honor and shame, so the duality isn't quite that simple. Whatever that white beast is, it meshes brilliantly with the background of the clouds and "Japanese" castle.

Dragon Magazine

By way of epilogue, I'm going to include three cover pieces of Dragon which I loved to no end: Denis Beauvais' "chess series".

1. Dragon #83, Denis Beauvais. I wasn't yet a subscriber of Dragon when this issue was published. I back-ordered it around a year later, after my friend put me through the deathly awesome Dancing Hut module, which is arguably the most outstanding contribution ever made to the magazine (or at least, from the stretch of issues I'm familiar with). I had no idea that its cover was a chess piece, and so that was a double-orgasm when it arrived in the mail. And while Jeff Easley's cover for the official Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga published later in the '90s is unforgettable, to this day I think of this chess-cover whenever thinking of the old crone who terrorized countrysides and kidnapped and ate people.

2. Dragon #86, Denis Beauvais. This was my first issue of Dragon by paid subscription, and I thought I'd gone to heaven. Role-playing and chess -- my two favorite hobbies -- fused in one. And it was a good issue too. It jump-started the Suel pantheon series, from which Norebo (god of luck and gambling) instantly became the new deity for my thief character. There were even dragon clerics detailed, a concept I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around, though I suppose Tiamat and Bahamut exist to be glorified by at least some of their scaled kin. And an article on familiars redressed a balance by playing fair ball with wizards of all alignments. But for me, the chess cover was the best part of the whole package.

3. Dragon #89, Denis Beauvais. I don't know that this issue is especially memorable aside from its cover. There was an article on six special magical shields that I got use out of, a fantastic article for Gamma World on how to develop PC characters who are mutant animals, some other stuff. But some days this is my favorite chess cover for the encased brain; on others I prefer the barely visible cadavers of issues #83 and #86 staring out at the reader. But there's a twisted omnipotence at work here, where every piece on the board is a virtual pawn, from the actual pawns to the kings and queens -- a sly commentary, perhaps, on the nature of killer dungeon masters.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Retrospective: Shadow in the South

And so, after all these retrospectives I come to Shadow in the South. It turns out to be a fitting exit point, because here I don't feel like I'm in Middle-Earth anymore. From me that's significant: it should be clear by now that I'm anything but a Tolkien purist. But there has to be a Tolkien "feel" to everything. For all the dramatic creativity displayed in frontiers like The Northern Waste and The Court of Ardor, and even the Harad modules, that strong Tolkien feel has been there. In Shadow in the South, the resonance collapses. I won't deny I had a blast going through it as a player, and even now I can see why: there are evil temples, vile tombs, and enchanted mazes to keep the boldest PCs occupied for many gaming sessions. But the land is fleshed out so artificially that it feels like Greyhawk -- as if someone thew a bunch of hastily concocted cultures at the map and let them fall where they may.

There's also a certain laziness in vision by this point. The peninsula is called The Dominions of the Seven, ruled by lords of Numenorean descent who do their best to keep the shadow of the Storm King at bay. The number "seven" has been obsessed in these southern modules to the point of irritation: Far Harad ruled by a Council of Seven Regents; Greater Harad the Land of the Seven Cities; and now this. It only underscores how ICE is operating outside the geographical canon in a rather cheap way. The territories aren't even clearly defined, the three major cities unremarkable, and the cultural milieus a hodgepodge. Something about these Pel and Drel mannish groups, the Fuina elves, the Mablad dwarves, the Chaialla barbarians... they're all terribly uninspired and I forget the details as soon as I stop reading.

The "shadow" over this peninsula, to be sure, serves up plenty of nasty fun. Evil minions operate everywhere, some openly, others from under rocks, most at cross-purposes with each other. The Army of the Southern Dragon maintains a heavy presence, promising an invasion by the Nazgul Storm King; the Cult of the Dark Overlord, led by four liches, holds the lowest profile and plots (with Ardana from The Court of Ardor) to bring about Endor's destruction; the Priesthood of the Black Hand preaches openly for Sauron, based in a northeastern city which protects dangerous religions on grounds of diversity; the Eyes of Malezar are an army of wights commanded by a vampiric sorcerer; the Slayers a coalition of crude assassins flying fell beasts; and finally (my favorite), the Cult of the Real Fire holds Aluva (Eru) and Malkora (Melkor) in equal reverance, evangelizing every corner of the Dominions with obnoxious dualistic fervor. As a player I was subjected to a lot of this business, and will never forget my ordeal in the House of the Black Hand, where I had to rescue of a woman going under the knife, on an altar below steaming dragon sculptures, and in front of hundreds of brainwashed converts. The tomb of Malezar left scars on my characers too. I did have fun tormenting the Real-Fire prophets and ridiculing the impossible Balance they strive for. All of these minions are given strongholds of impressive design, and if you can forget you're supposed to be in Middle-Earth, you can have a great time with this stuff.

So that's it. From Rangers of the North to Shadow in the South. Thirty-seven modules, about half of ICE's output over a 17-year period ('82-'99). It's been a fun ride, and I honestly wasn't sure where I was going. But my nostalgia is vindicated. On whole, these modules hold up supremely well. They gave me endless enjoyment in my formative years, and still do as I reread them and relive wild memories. I can only hope they are still being used by today's generation of gamers. Even if Tolkien would cringe at a lot of ICE's liberties, I'd like to think he'd be pleased by the ambition -- at very least, by the underlying reverence for his work.

History & Culture Rating: 1
Maps & Layouts Rating: 4

Monday, February 13, 2012

Retrospective: The Court of Ardor

More than any other ICE module, The Court of Ardor had a profound impact on my imagination. From page one I was living southern Middle-Earth in daily fantasies -- riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, having passionate love affairs with elves as evil as drow. One thing was clear to me at the time: this sort of thing would never be repeated. The gazeteer displays regions as rich as anything Tolkien ever developed: savage Mumakan, democratic Korononde, imperial Tanturak, reckless Hathor, aloof Taaliraan. All of which would be more than enough, but this entire sandbox is used as a platform for a quest, where the stakes are as high as in The Lord of the Rings: a group of evil Noldor have been trying to destroy the sun and moon since the First Age, and now, in TA 1703, are ready to enact a ritual that will do exactly that; a group of PCs must band together and prevent the ritual, and also ensure that the ringleader of this evil court, Lady Ardana, is killed by the son Morgoth fathered on her.

The ritual that will bring about eternal darkness is the stuff of gonzo pulp fantasy, but it also mines some of Tolkien's best myths.
"On that dark day when Ungoliant and Morgoth destroyed the Two Trees, and Ungoliant had consumed all of the gems of Feanor she later belched forth many -- but they were changed. Instead of the radiant crystals of light they had been, they were dark, in fact they consumed light; they were of unlight. The eight largest of these (each about the size of a clenched fist) Morgoth gave for his cause, and Morthaur conceived a plan: a design which would focus the light-consuming powers of the eight gems in one great burst to drain both sun and moon of light. But the sacrifice of one of the blood of the Valar would be necessary to trigger the gems. Ardana would bear a daughter fathered by Morgoth."
It turns out, however, that Ardana had not only one child from Morgoth, but twins, and the boy was stolen and raised in secret by a guild determined to bring down the Court; he is "fated" to kill Ardana (much like Eowyn was the Witch-King), and the PCs must protect him at all costs.

The mission to save Middle-Earth -- to keep the sun and moon alive, to destroy the gems of unlight, to procure the death of an elven lady who will keep resurrecting the same diabolical plot as long as she goes on living -- is the module's focus, making The Court of Ardor unique. There are always suggested adventures at the end of ICE's campaign products, but here it's a single epic quest, and it interprets the sandbox rather than the other way around. The Court members are some of the most colorful NPCs I've seen in any gaming product, two of them actual demons, and I like the recurring theme of repentant male twins versus their evil sisters. Ardana's children have already been mentioned, and there are also the two Featurs -- the female member of the Court, and her brother whom most believe dead, but is working against the Court from behind shadows, perhaps even with the PCs.

It's worth mentioning the Ardan Decks of Cards. Each Court member owns a pack, which consists of 21 special cards on top of the usual 52. The decks have quite a few magical side-benefits, but are primarily used by the High Lords to communicate with each other far away. The special cards bear the images of the Court members (plus some "dummy" celestial images), and when wishing to speak to a colleague, one focuses on the card with the appropriate image. The male Featur, however, has managed to sabotage the decks by implanting his own image on one of the "dummy" cards which sometimes resembles a mirror, other times showing the same image of his sister's card (the female Featur) -- which allows him to spy on the Court members both ways. The decks can be put to extraordinarily good use, but are also quite perilous in careless hands.

I can't stress enough how effected I was by this module when I first read it. The Mumakan region is so inspired, and while its cultures lie outside the Tolkien canon, they feel not in the least bit forced or contrived. And what's brilliant about the quest is how pliable it is. The very year Ardor was published (1983), Dungeons & Dragons was taking its first steps out of the Golden Age and into the dreaded Silver, where modules began railroading PCs into pre-packaged narratives and foreordained outcomes. Ardor doesn't do that. It lays down the framework, but nothing beyond bare-bones essentials. For instance, the eight strongholds of the High Lords could be necessary stopping points for the PCs, or some of them could, or they could all be irrelevant and just bypassed. If they are used, it's a splendid excuse for touring 340 x 440 square-miles of Southern Middle-Earth and tasting exotic cultures. PCs can visit Middle-Earth's only republic (Korononde), get involved in the lethal politics of Tanturak (whose emperor is an unwitting puppet of the Court of Ardor), mix with the insular elves of Taaliraan, or land in major trouble with the barbaric hordes of Mumakan. The fact is, this module can be used like any of ICE's campaigns, with or without regard for the suggested adventure; DMs can set up camp and get loads and loads of mileage.

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

Last up: Shadow in the South.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Retrospective: Greater Harad

Greater Harad has become impossible for me to distinguish from the overhaul I gave it. I poured more ambition into this module than any other, and was immensely pleased by the result, but the resulting animal is something a bit different from ICE's "Greater Harad". To put this in context, the year of publication was 1990, toward the tail end of my gaming years -- the last year you could say I was really invested in RPGs in a serious way. As a DM I remember wanting to design a complex campaign, and to push myself into places I hadn't gone. Greater Harad turned out to be just the sandbox I needed for an epic plot involving prostitution cartels, demon-trees taking over a sunbaked land, and a sorceress with ambitions to resurrect the "glory" of an old age. Not only did the exotic cultures feel just right for what I needed, this southern region was outside the canon; so I didn't have to worry too much about slaughtering Tolkien with my wild ideas.

Greater Harad, or the Seven Cities of the Sirayn, is set up as
"... the intellectual and economic hub of Southern Middle-Earth. Although Near Harad boasts the magnificent naval port of Umbar, and Far Harad shelters the dazzling trade center of Bozisha-Dar, Greater Harad eclipses them both with the size of its population, the extent of its lands, and the rigors of its history. Many dynasties have risen and fallen as kings attempted to control this verdant strip of earth... The breadbasket of the south, the lands of Sirayn are a prize worth holding. Even the Dark Lord and his minions scheme to control the area."
The culture of the seven cities is surpassed only by the elves and Numenoreans, and resembles somewhat of a cross between the Umayyad dynasty of Spain and imperial China (the geography, meanwhile, evoking northern Africa and the Middle-East). For all its sophistication, however, it's a grim land where the proverb "one may have peace or freedom but not both" is proven time and again. The eastern port city of Tul Harar is the only place where citizens are truly free, a melting pot governed by a Gathering of Speakers; the other six cities are each ruled by a dictatorial Tarb, and at intervals throughout Harad's history, the Tarb of Tul Isra actually rules all the cities (except Tul Harar). By far the most compelling city (to me) is the one in ruins after TA 1457, and displayed on the module's cover: Charnesra, built from marble and sandstone, brought down by treacherous ambition, and now a base for underground cults launching suicidal sting operations across the land.

So inspiring was Angus McBride's cover piece (I love the serpent-head on the Tayb's visor's helmet), in fact, that I knew instantly it would be the focal point of my campaign. I came up with a sprawl situated in TA 2856, that started PCs in Tul Harar and ended them in Charnesra and the surrounding forest of the Sara Bask. I won't get too self-indulgent with the details, but to outline: A prostitution network is being run in Tul Harar by a priestess of the Tayb (the "Silent One") in the Charnesra ruins. Women have been disappearing in Tul Harar, most of them sold into prostitution, but one out of four going to the underground temple to be transformed into demon-trees that are taking over the Sara Bask. The PCs start in the free city at the behest of the Gathering of Speakers, until evidence leads them to race to the Mogholy Dask (a tomb on the coastal cliffs) to obtain an artifact being used to accelerate the perverse transformation. If they survive the tomb, they could be apprehended as they leave, or the artifact could at least be taken from them; or they could escape wholly intact if they're really shrewd, but in any case, they are afterwards diverted to Tul Isra, the lethal capital of the Seven Cities, and where the demon "child" of a sorcerer that died back in the 1600s serves as advisor to the Tarb. After convoluted to-and-fro involving an assassination plot and confused identities, the PCs (if they're still alive; if they've put 2 and 7 and 19 together correctly) backpedal to the ruins of Charnesra, and to an obscene showdown deep in the Sara Bask forest.

All of these sites -- the Mogholy Dask, the palace of Tul Isra, the ruins of Charnesra -- are to me completely unrecognizable as they stand in the module. Especially the Mogholy Dask, which I turned into a five-times fatal cousin of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, where every bloody room counts. For instance, the six statues in the Hall of Might actually animate into high-level spellcasters, whose replicas are in the next room being healed by a daemon as their counterparts take damage from the PCs; there's also the Chamber of the Mindless Orgy (best left to the imagination); a triple-agent NPC imprisoned in suspended animation; a chapel almost impossible to leave without the benefit of a talisman in another room; etc. As for my version of Tul Isra, it's like being on another planet; the NPCs are outrageous; allies more dangerous than enemies; the city's palace a floral death zone to any member of the animal kingdom.

In retrospect, does the actual Greater Harad measure up to everything I gave it? I'm not sure. I glance through it today and I see my own product; on closer examination, I think to myself, "That's all ICE could do with this place?" Then on other pages I see the same loaded potential I evidently saw back in 1990. The seven cities compel even as they cry for more flare. The layouts have a wonderfully inspiring aesthetic, but a lot of their contents (before I got to them) are woefully stale. It's a module I have a hard time being objective about; in the end I follow my gut feeling for high marks.

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

Next up: The Court of Ardor.

Retrospective: Far Harad

I have a complicated relationship with the quartet of modules set in Southern Middle-Earth. The Court of Ardor is truly outstanding, and Greater Harad is something I made outstanding (or so I like to think), while the other two dance around the lackluster: Far Harad is just there, and Shadow in the South, for all its muscle, a jumble of artificiality. Yet if you had asked me back in the day, I would have rhapsodized about all of them almost as much as Ardor, and quite sincerely. In retrospect, I was more inspired by the ideas behind them than their actual content. My friend and I got good use out of them, but it's painfully clear now that the best parts came from us.

Far Harad, in particular, is surprisingly barren for an exotic region. It could have easily been the MERP equivalent of TSR's Oriental Adventures, standing on the vision of a distant alien culture with harsh codes of honor and shame. But none of this is fleshed out significantly beyond the impact of religious myths. There is the sun god Vatra, not warmly received by Harad's people, who scorched the lands into desert. This was in fury over his wife, the moon goddess Ladnoca, who had turned against him for slaying her father. She is the common object of worship, and the coastal capital of Bozisha-Dar is named after her ("Gift of the Goddess"), despite its cosmopolitan outlook which pits it against the tent-city of Tresti leagues away. Aside from this dynamic, there isn't much meat on the backbone of Far Harad; almost nothing about the desert nomads outside urban areas.

I do appreciate the module's base value. It's almost an archetypal sandbox (and literally), with little plot to it; the Council of Regents has been ruling stably in Bozisha-Dar for the first half of the Third Age (the time period is 1640), and will continue doing so until the savage Sun-Lord dynasty takes control (2194-3019). There's no conflict outside vague tensions between the capital and Tresti, but it's a perfect set-up. I can think of many TSR classics I'd use in Far Harad -- The Lost City, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and certainly Tomb of Horrors, to name a few. There's something about deserts that lend to pulpy D&D scenarious; I also approve the catalog of native wilderness creatures: sand devils, ghoul-like lesinas, sand drakes, and best of all, the Razarac ("Destroyer") which is basically a desert Balrog.

The mapwork delivers with about as much enthusiasm as the rest. Detail focuses on the city of Bozisha-Dar, particularly the mansions held by the seven regents which have some admittedly eye-catching design: the House of the River's Breeze (built of white marble pillars and no solid walls) run by the Lord of the Port; the Mansion of the Moon (with windows barely translucent by day, but funnel moon- and starlight perfectly), held by the Ambassador to Tresti; the Palace of Water (a popular site of entertainment) for the Water Minister; the House of Warcraft (resembling a desert fortress) where the Commander of the City Guard resides; the cleverly constructed Nomad's home (stone overhangs being fashioned in the shape of desert tents) supervised by the Watcher of the Caravan Grounds; the Palace of the Wood (mirroring the exotic flora of the Forest of Tears) run by the prestigious Ambassador to the Foreign Powers; and the Soul of the Desert (a microcosm of the Harad territory) for the Ambassador to the Nomads. For campaigns involving political intrigue these areas can be put to aesthetic use. But beyond this, and an overview of the sacred tent-city of Tresti, few areas are sketched out. All in all, Far Harad sits like an unfinished product; either the author lost interest, or he just didn't know what to do with it.

History & Culture Rating: 2
Maps & Layouts Rating: 3

Next up: Greater Harad.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Retrospective: Corsairs of Umbar

If I were grading these modules purely on the basis of aesthetic, Umbar would go down worst. The cover art is primitive, the inner work crudely presented, and the writing lazy; there are even entire paragraphs copied verbatim in different sections. I realize this was ICE's first stab at Middle-Earth, but you'd think results would have been better for it. Ironically it was a late purchase for me; I had trouble tracking it down, and finally located a used copy around the time Dunland and Fangorn were hitting the stores. Its age couldn't have been more plain, though there's something profoundly nostalgic about these old modules from '82-'83. Maybe it's the miniscule type requiring bi-focals or a magnifying glass. Anyway...

In my retrospective of Havens of Gondor, I said that Dol Amroth was the closest thing the Dunedain had on the Grey Havens, and in Sea-Lords of Gondor I floated the benefits of a Pelargir-centered empire. Umbar requires some backpedaling on both fronts. As offensive as it sounds, it is the Corsair state, more than Belfalas, that parallels the Grey Havens. The key to understanding this is the fall from grace, a subject about which Tolkien wasn't fooling around, and made plain that elves were just as guilty as men. The elves shunned the paradise they should have returned to (Valinor) and made their own with the elven rings; men craved that paradise they couldn't have and thus made war on it. Men, in other words, wanted immortality just as elves wanted to be gods of their own creations, and Umbar tows the line of fallen Numenor in the same way that the Grey Havens (and Rivendell and Lothlorien) extend the Silmarillion tragedy. Umbar is nothing less than a microcosm of Ar-Pharazon's "victory" over Sauron, which was in fact the opposite, and molded Elros' people into Black Numenoreans.

By the time of the module's setting (TA 1607), the fallen Numenoreans have absorbed the Corsairs -- some would say that Castamir's legions represent a Third-Age fall, but that's inaccurate -- and this returns me to Sea-Lords. Though I sincerely maintain that a southern Kin-Strife victory might have been best for Gondor, the question is at what cost. More Pelargir means more Umbar, and thus the latter's invidious influences. ICE does a good job avoiding political caricatures, particularly in the oligarchy of six, the Captains of the Havens who rule. I was half-expecting the module to portray the Corsair state as a tyranny of Castamir-monarchs, but it goes a wiser and more complex route. Bitter memory of the Kin-Strife is precisely what keeps an even balance of power in Umbar. The Captains are largely decent, if driven by various passions -- one obsessing a lost wife, another a bon vivant, a female captain with royal ambitions, an effective crusader against dark worship -- and certainly not evil in any Angmarian sense. Yet for all this, there's something subterranean about Umbar. There's bad religion; slavery; a dangerous wizard's guild; amoral merchant families; nobles who would sell their own mother for a greater good; all as if Numenor's legacy has become genetic to the city itself.

Aside from the four-page color detachable of the city (one side) and the region around it (the other), the cartography of Umbar is crude as hell. The six tower holds of the Captains are laid out, as well as their castles outside the city -- all very hard on the eye. The Lair of the Dark Worship is also scrawled up, and offers some classic adventure beneath sea caves. A catalog of ship designs leaves the city's naval superiority unquestioned: Corsair raiders, coast patrols, slavers, and merchants; Black Numenorean progs, catamarans, and palanrists; Haradrim galleys, merchants, and "lively winds". (Though it would have been nice to see these drawn.) Umbar is a rather unappetizing product, but one I'm oddly attached to for its seniority, and the way it kaleidoscopes the fall of man.

History & Culture Rating: 3
Maps & Layouts Rating: 2

Next up: Far Harad.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Retrospective: Sea-Lords of Gondor

At the risk of sounding like a Castamir sympathizer, Sea-Lords defines the character of a nation better than any other Gondor module. There's even a part of me that thinks the Dunedain would have been better off if the south had won, though that's a matter of very ugly debate, and I personally wouldn't support someone like Castamir anyway -- anymore than my characters did. Bigotry in all forms is benighted. Yet there's no denying the Golden Age under Gondor's four ship-kings, and the benefits to a southern capital with a naval focus remains an open question. Sea-Lords of Gondor has the wisdom not to answer it.

In keeping with the spirit of all these modules, it simply presents the facts for DMs and players to mold however they wish. The era of the ship-kings (840-1149) saw Pelargir functioning as the nation's capital in all but name, the home of the royal fleet, and a colonial ambition that ushered in success and peace never again enjoyed by men in the Third Age. What killed Gondor's prosperity was the shift from a seaward focus to a landward one, especially by the 1300s, coupled with a morally enlightened thinking favoring allies over colonial subjects. Minalcar was a good man, but a highly questionable king in sending his son to wed a Northman princess; from that point, racist fears of a polluted line were all it took to cement the more substantive charge that the royal court at Osgiliath was failing its mandate. Which in some ways it was.

The characters I regularly played in Middle-Earth were a product of the Kin-Strife (1432-1447), and one in particular was a fighter from Calenhardon: a rabid Eldacar-zealot who became conflicted after seeing Pelargir for the first time. I wasn't too philosophical about the matter back in those days; I just thought it fun to run a PC with volatile allegiances. But his Castamir complex turned out very believable; we're often attracted to that which repels us. In hindsight I see his sudden affinities with the southern cause similar to the apostle Paul's conversion to the Christian sect he persecuted so violently, or the abrupt 180-degree turns of murderous fanatics like Sadhu Sundar Singh. Pelargir had that weird sentimental effect on him.

As for that City of the Faithful, its four-page display is beautiful, and if the contest between it and Minas Anor were determined by ICE's mapwork in these modules, I'd pronounce Pelargir the capital at once. It's built on a triangular plan at the junction of the Sirith and Anduin, the Sea-Lords' Tower claiming the center on an isle where the Lord of Lebennin (often the Prince of Gondor) resides. In the southern quarter is the Hall of the Faithful, which I had fun designing in more detail, the sacrosanct building containing statues of Numenor's greatest men, Second-Age relics, and the Glass Hall of with an inlay of the White Tree. Then there is Minas Daldor which guards the mouth of the Anduin, ruled by an insane bard believing himself to be a god ("The Dark Fire of Numenor"). This fortress is cleverly designed, with hallways and furniture that get bigger the further one proceeds. To the northwest of Pelargir is a haunted tor infested with semi-aquatic rodents, and the lost treasure of rebels who fought against Castamir during the civil war. It all conveys a feeling that the sea-lord province somehow wears on you after a while, that pride and ambition yield rebellion and madness... and perhaps, in the end, that's the answer to our question.

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

Next up: Corsairs of Umbar.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Retrospective: Havens of Gondor

This module takes the trophy for Gondor. Not the mightier Sea-Lords boasting the glory of Pelargir, nor the capital Minas Tirith which rightfully holds pride of place; not even the esoterically haunting Minas Ithil. Havens tops them all -- and even its cover is a slam dunk. I can hardly think of an image more saturated in haunting loss. The inside jacket puts Amroth's tragedy into narrative:
"King Amroth turned, his tearful eyes glistening in the diffused moonlight. No one else dared brave the storm, yet he stood there, arms outstretched, at the stern. He looked like he could fly. Cirdur hung on to the ripping sail as the swan ship pitched again. Suddenly, as he desperately screamed to the king, the great bell in the Seaward Tower tolled. Even across the miles of roaring water, the notes drowned out his last pleas. Then a wave blasted him against the rail. The salt water filled his nose and bit at his cheeks, stunning him with punishing force. Cirdur did not know how long he lay there -- it didn't seem long -- but as he rose to his knees, he saw that Amroth had gone. He cried."
Thus the cliff-city of Lond Ernil became Dol Amroth.

But my admiration for Havens of Gondor isn't shared by many -- or at least it wasn't back in the '80s. The sales clerk at my local comic store dismissed it as an empty product, and a college friend opined it was the most disappointing thing ICE had published to date. But I think this sentiment owed, at least in part, to the impatience for Gondor's famous cities (Pelargir was just around the corner, and the two Minases more distant), and I admit I sort of felt this way myself. But I quickly fell in love with the Belfalas region. It was a segment of Tolkien's world I knew so little about at the time, and was awed by ICE's delineation of its elvish heritage, relative independence, and strange aloofness from the dirtier politics of Gondor's other provinces. I read this module and wanted to walk the cliff-heights of Dol Amroth, sail the white ships, and visit the elves of Edhellond. I was intrigued by the half-elven blood of Dol Amroth's princes (from TA 2004 onwards), and by Galadriel's influences resonating from the Second Age. These weren't the Grey Havens, but they did feel surpassing in a way I couldn't put my finger on.

The module is light on layouts and really has no "dungeons" to throw players against, though I was accustomed to designing my own dungeons (or using TSR's) for Middle-Earth sandboxes anyway. Havens of Gondor is a cultural gazeteer, above all, and a compelling one. And the mapwork isn't quite as dire as I heard it decried. Dol Amroth, at least, impressed me enough to make it the one place in Middle-Earth I'd choose to spend my retirement. The Seaward Tower on the city's western cliff is singled out for special treatment, and I like how Galadriel built it to commemorate the Last Alliance, infusing it with the power of Nenya "so that none but the Valar can bring it down". The elf-haven of Edhellond is fairly presented, split in two parts, one above on a hill exposed to tasty sea breezes, the other below in a hidden harbor where its magic swan ships are kept. To this day I still have fantasies of growing old by the Belfalas coastline, frequenting the Lost Elf tavern, mixing with men and elves, and staring out to sea where that immortal king drowned searching his lost love.

History & Culture Rating: 5
Maps & Layouts Rating: 2

Next up: Sea-Lords of Gondor.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Retrospective: Gorgoroth

It may not reveal the Barad-dur, but oddly enough, I didn't want another Dol Guldur; I wanted something fresh, and that's what Gorgoroth delivers. Ostigurth is probably the closest ICE ever came to Erelhei-Cinlu, where if you behave yourself and look right (in this case mannish), you can wander about the city without being hunted down like a dog. And just like Vault of the Drow's aching resplendence -- those purple glows and phosphorescent "moon" are burned in the minds of all old-school D&D players -- Ostigurth's Tower of Blood is "a fortress of both spectacular horror and terrible beauty", its crimson skull-shape overlooking the city with burning eyes. No other place in Middle-Earth, not even Minas Morgul, has the deathly ambience of Ostigurth, yet in a disturbingly civilized way. This is a place for DMs to populate with torture parlors and bordellos, and where mannish captains hold forth at expansive banquets, while just down the road hundreds of corpses roast on public pyres. The city teems with life by thriving on death, and offers, I believe, more creative opportunities than a killer-repeat of Dol Guldur. For more standard fare, there are orc and troll complexes outside the city walls.

The Barad Sereg ("Tower of Blood") makes a lasting impression starting right away at the entrance. The double doors preserve the remains of the previous Mouth of Sauron, who apparently trespassed where he was forbidden:
"When the doors are opened, the man screams in agony, for he feels the pain of being torn in half and dying. Upon closing the doors, he magically comes back to life, only to wait for the next time the doors are opened. His screams will alert anyone nearby to the presence of guests. While whole, he retains the ability to speak, along with his personality and memory."
Then there are the Nine Thrones of Gorgoroth, on the third-level audience hall, which at the command of their respective Nazgul cause victims to -- turn into a wraith (the Witch-King's), quiver on the floor in terror of a dragon illusion (Khamul's), be cursed with lycanthropy (Dwar's), turn to stone in sunlight (Indur's), be struck with a lightning bolt (Akhorahil's), be struck with an ice-cone (Hoarmurath's), suffer excruciating pain when talking (Adunaphel's), be struck with a fireball (Ren's), and take on the facial features of a mule (Uvatha's). The City of Blood in many ways prefigures Minas Morgul, and even after the move in 2002, one or two Nazgul always remain based here.

Speaking of which, complete histories of the Nine are supplied, showcasing some of ICE's finest scholarship. I always wanted the stories behind these mannish kings, and the 15-page treatment serves as a virtual seminar on the subject. It made me want to see modules set in far-flung places like Waw, Dir, and Chey, where the Ringwraiths carved out kingdoms of brutal terror. I did, however, have reservations about the way some of the Nazgul go back to resume their tyrannies in the late Third Age; they seem to have accomplished their eastern and southern missions by the time the Watch on Mordor is abandoned. But the timelines are easy to modify, and for the most part I kept them clustered around Mordor after 1640. Best of all are the Ringwraiths' personas emerging from the bios; they are all extremely compelling, though my personal favorites are Dwar the Dog-lord (for his impoverished origins, unlike the other eight elites) and Adunaphel the Silent (as I love a woman who knows to keep her mouth shut). And while we're still on the Nazgul, Angus McBride's cover art remains supreme after all these years, especially the volcanic background...

Which brings me to Mount Doom. Sauron's forging complex is more than I expected, and unreachable to all but the most resourceful players. Concealed behind the Crack is, first, a chasm with the illusion of a Balrog extending its tongue all the way over from the other side. Beyond this lies Hojatskatur, "the Hall of Hell", a shrine dedicated to Sauron's achievements, and containing astounding artifacts like the actual Sceptre of Numenor. From this room a stair descends for over 600 feet, interrupted by five platforms every 100 feet or so where a riddle must be answered to continue down. These riddles are the hardest part of the dungeon, difficult for even Tolkien scholars; my friend guessed only the fourth (Carcharoth the werewolf), though came close to the second in a weird way (Glaurung, which was his guess for the first riddle, instead of the correct Thuringwethil). Failure to supply correct answers results in obscenely lethal traps that don't bear repeating... though I'd be remiss in not reliving my sadistic glee at a PC's internal organs exploding into fire for botching riddle #3.

Gorgoroth was a product worth waiting for, and I've only scratched the highlights. Many more sites are mapped out: the Barad-wath tower overlooking Nurn, occupied (from 1640-2000) by the Eighth of the Nine; the Isenmouthe gate complementing the Black, held (from 1652-2000) by the Fourth; Minas Durlith, the only fortress of Mordor to withstand the assault of the Last Alliance. And there are dozens more NPCs besides the Nazgul: the Mouth, old players from Angmar and Dol Guldur, and new ones just as bad.

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

Next up: Havens of Gondor.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Retrospective: The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair

Perhaps the most striking thing about this module is its advocacy of restraint in deploying the great spider:
"Shelob does not attack everyone venturing into her lair, for if she did, no sane and fresh beings would come. She exacts her ghastly toll on perhaps a quarter of those merely passing through; of course, the longer one roams Torech Ungol scooping up treasures, the more likely is a disastrous encounter with Her Ladyship."
This is a lesson killer dungeon masters like myself needed to heed more often: sometimes the best approach is messing with PCs' minds and allowing them to loot unscathed. For one, they won't believe their luck and be constantly on guard against the worst; two, it pays off in future encounters when they do let their guard down. Shelob's lair pays dividends even when her majesty stays off-stage: there are hatcheries swarming with young spiderlings, refuse pits more nauseating than a Siberian toilet, and larders where live prey are suspended upside down from the ceiling. Half of these victims are just as well destined for spider feed (the orcs and trolls), and all are 80% likely to be awake, accentuating the horror of the place. It's one of those rare dungeons where a tense monstrous presence is felt at all times, however real or imagined.

Anyone sauntering into Shelob's Pit itself, however, is in for the reality of pure hell. It's a 500-foot diameter cavity ringed by a narrow ledge, which her majesty will do her utmost to knock intruders off, and send them bouncing down a quarter-of-a-mile slope to the center of the floor. Where lies "a mass of bones, possessions, rotting flesh and filth so vile as to stagger the imagination and send anyone with a constitution less than 90 [15 in D&D] into a fit of violent retching", treasure exceeding 50,000 gp, and a number of powerful magic weapons. All of this (naturally) has a 50% chance of contracting looters with a fatal disease, assuming they can even escape, which is terribly unlikely given the 85% likelihood of Shelob being found here.

The rest of the architecture delivers as it should: the Tower of Cirith Ungol with its eleven levels, and two orc dens in the Morgai Vale. The tower is held by Gondor in the module's time frame (1640), and unlike Minas Ithil, on which such a period was criminally wasted, here it's ideal. It's classic Keep on the Borderlands, in fact, with the lone bastion of Cirith Ungol raising a precarious fist against enemy incursions from Mordor. A Gondorian tower between two orc holds offers more potential than an orc tower between two orc holds, and of course Shelob doesn't distinguish between either side. But for those running campaigns post-2000, the tower is easy enough to convert by substituting Gondor soldiers with orc.

Shelob's Lair was one of ICE's earliest modules and shows the influence of early TSR adventures. I had loads of fun running it against members of a college gaming club... and her majesty, it turns out, never had to make an appearance.

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

Next up: Gorgoroth.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Retrospective: The Teeth of Mordor

Planting a Nazgul at the Black Gate was a shrewd move on ICE's part, and until the capture of Minas Ithil makes The Teeth of Mordor as forbidding as Carn Dum and Dol Guldur. Dwar, "the Lord of Dogs", was always my favorite of the Nine for his Conan baggage. The son of a fisherman who watched his father die at the hands of brutal invaders, and who made vengeance his life's mission, is ripe for Ringwraith conversion, and there's more than a little irony in the fact that one of the PCs I flung against this fortress was a barbarian with similar issues. The Morannon has plenty of baggage itself, or at least by my revisions; I got creative by investing it with a "split-personality", as if Carchost and Narchost were a fossilized Demogorgon whose two heads strive to dominate and kill each other. Alas, I don't remember this idea coming across too well in game play, and in the end had to enjoy my abstract perversities as a private joke.

There is some question as to when Dwar occupied the Teeth, and this module puts it relatively late: "It is not until 1980 that light returns to the windows of the Morannon: dim red lights like demon eyes to stare unsleeping across the Dagorlad." This admittedly fits cleanly into Tolkien's timeline, where the Witch-King comes to Mordor the same year and vaguely "gathers" the other Nazgul. But in later modules like Gorgoroth, Dwar moves in as early as 1656 -- only sixteen years after Gondor's abadonment -- perhaps to provide a bigger window of opportunity before the Nazgul launch their war on Minas Ithil and take up residence in the city. It's the more liberal interpretation, and not surprisingly, the one I prefer.

The layouts magnify the miniscule, like those in Weathertop and Halls of the Elven-King, and again it's a shame this fortress series never went far. On the western end, Carchost the "Fang-Fortress" has the obscene interrogation chambers and perverted chapel run by an ancient priest. But the astrologer captain Krusnak steals the show (in my fantasy), as he schemes to bring down Dwar whom he worships but envies. He wants nothing less than to become the Third of the Nine, and one out of four evenings actually believes he is the Dog-lord. He plots to obtain the ring of power he believes Dwar has in his possession (clueless that Sauron keeps the Nazgul rings during the Third Age while the One is lost). I made him recklessly unstable, though one of Sauron's most efficient inquisitors, and his derangement contagious; at night the tower's soldiers go on mindless rampages, terrorizing the wastelands at the back of Dwar's hounds -- joined, every fourth evening, by the "Dog-lord" himself.

Over at the eastern leg, the real Dog-lord, for his part, tolerates this insanity, while storing up wrath to rend his astrologer limb from limb. Narchost the "Fire-Tower" mirrors the structure of Carchost, but "has its own personality" given by ICE, and which I revved up to the nth degree. The volcanic fissure makes Dwar's audience hall a harrowing encounter area: a throne set in front of the crack, on a stepped platform of black glass, with access to the platform via a narrow bridge arching over liquid rock, and everything in the room obscured by smoking black-red shadows. I got a good chortle landing PCs in that scalding inferno and reduced to near impotence. As for Dwar himself, he's as hate-driven as Krusnak is insane, but intelligently controlled, and this manifests in the Fire-Tower's highly disciplined soldiers so unlike their wild cousins a few hundred yards across. Only their brutal efficacy, and Sauron's high esteem of Krusnak, keeps Dwar from razing Carchost to the ground.

The Teeth of Mordor is a fond memory for all the weird energy I put into it. If it didn't come together quite right, it was still roaring fun to get so much mileage out of my favorite Nazgul -- "both" of them, for that matter.

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

Next up: The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair.

Retrospective: Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes

This module isn't half as good as its cousins, Bree and the Barrow Downs and Erech and the Paths of the Dead; in fact it's the least impressive of the eight adventure modules I'm covering in these retrospectives. By rights it should have been a smash. The marshes outside Mordor are plagued by the uniquely damned: corpse candles, casualty-remains of the Last Alliance, covered with illusions to appear whole, lurking in the water, beckoning awfully; corpse lanterns, larger and more lethal versions of the corpse candles; and swamp stars, the hypnotic lights which lure victims to quicksand pits and other bog-snares. These fascinations, regretfully, are given fleeting coverage in favor of hugely dull sites. Where the towns of Bree and Sarn Erech integrated perfectly with their looming horrors, Caras Gwindor feels contrived, and the Dead Marshes just don't scare us enough to care. I wanted suffocating underwater networks, and got Tol Malbor instead.

Not even the stronghold of Thuringwathost is enough to mitigate Dagorlad's shortcomings, much as it tries. Founded in 1592, and commanded by a sorceress who doesn't look a fraction as old as she really is, it lies on the southeast border of the marshes guarding the approach to the Black Gate. No one wants to be taken captive here, to be sure, as the lady is exceedingly cruel, reports directly to Dol Guldur, and has a nasty cleric on hand who takes great pleasure in vivisections. Yet for all this color, the place feels wholly uninspired. As for the bandit hideout in the middle of the marshes, Tol Malbor (the "Isle of the Golden Fist"), its design is as fine as it goes, but again there's the issue of extraneity. And the bandits aren't as juicy as they let on, having authority issues and baggage common to most outlaws, nothing more. Their hideout boasts little beyond an abundance of snare traps, and while their activity of preying on farms and caravans can be worked into a decent enough plot, it's all ultimately a top-heavy exercise in a module that should be focused below the marshes rather than above them.

Yet even from above Dagorlad fails. At the very least I was expecting to see the safeways taken by Gollum guiding Frodo and Sam, but they aren't to be found. There is the Gondorian fortress of Tir Nindor, built in the 1200s to protect the nearby town of Caras Gwindor. A marsh settlement is also presented, with background of the primitive Marshmen culture. As mentioned, Tol Malbor is the bullseye, reachable only by boat, and Thuringwathost the focal point of evil on the outskirts. Amongst all this ancillary rubbish, is there anything striking to say about Dagorlad? Not really, no. There is, at the end, a burial mound infested with ghouls -- tacked on as an epilogue, of all things, when this sort of thing should have been commanding center stage.

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

Next up: The Teeth of Mordor.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Retrospective: Minas Ithil

First things first. This product is a blatant case of false advertisement, so much that I almost wrote a scathing letter to ICE when I bought it. Its cover broadcasts a winged Nazgul, promising the horrors of the 2002-3018 period, and just because it's not called Minas Morgul doesn't mean the unwary can't be fooled. City modules are large (not to mention expensive), and there's no reason why both the Ithil and Morgul periods wouldn't both be covered -- in the same way that Isengard accommodated both Gondor's and Saruman's occupation of Orthanc, and that Moria included the Balrog horror. Packaged in plastic back in the day, there was no way to skim through and see you were getting shafted. Everyone wanted Minas Morgul. To reiterate my frustrations about Minas Anor, there's only so much detail required out of a "friendly" city for gaming purposes, and to pass up the opportunity of mining every nook and cranny at the Tower of Black Sorcery borders on incompetence. We thus end up with the curious embarrassment of one city module that falsely advertises with its title ("Minas Tirith") and this one which criminally misleads with its cover, an implicit acknowledgment on ICE's part that its choice of the 1640 period was less than wise.

That being sincerely said, I came to appreciate Minas Ithil once I got over my fury. The city is more interesting than Minas Anor, for me because of the similarities to the more soft and scholarly culture of Arthedain:
"The Tower of the Moon, introspective and peaceful, stood opposed yet complementary to her warlike and robust sibling across the Anduin, Minas Anor. The royal businesses of commerce and government took place at the Tower of the Sun, while Minas Ithil housed the mind and soul of Gondor... Minas Ithil was a center for artists, scholars, and philosophers from all Mannish lands. The Queen of Gondor ruled the city and the lands around it, using the wisdom gained through the Moon-tower's palantir to maintain order within the Morgul Vale."
I adore the Rynd Paramhyrrath in particular, run by a fascist head librarian who throws people out on a whim, and where priceless works from Numenor, dangerous theories about the Kin-Strife, and untranslated scrolls in Black Speech are stored, and of course inaccessible to most. There's more excitement to be mined here than even in Minas Anor's libraries, and it's not just the contents that make it more compelling. Minas Anor tends to approach the arts and scholarly endeavors as investments and ornamentations more than anything: "While Anorian artists are busy painting portraits and building busts to commemorate their patrons, those of the Morgul Vale are experimenting with light and perspective to find new ways to view the world."

In the aftermath of the plague, Minas Ithil is ruled directly by the queen just as the new capital at Minas Anor seats the king, and while Mirien didn't live as long as her record-holding husband Tarondor (1636-1798), she had a solid reign nonetheless (until 1727), and so the module has about a century's leeway of applicable time period. For that matter, with few alterations, it could be used until 1856, when the city becomes mostly a garrison town. Fascinating is that legal authority counts for rather little in Minas Ithil, with political power coming from oratory skills and honorific status. High charisma and master-manipulating skills get you far here. As in Minas Tirith, the building layouts are vast and anorexically precise, though again it feels like so much effort being expended on so little. The Tower of the Moon is obviously essential, as is the Queen's Palace, and the University, and the arena for popular entertainment, and few other noteworthies, but most of this is just stuff DMs don't need drawn out. I'm probably in the minority in preferring the architecture of this city over Minas Anor's famous hill which grows out of the back rock; Minas Ithil's main road winds up and around in complete circles, yielding seven "levels" in effect, but blurring together more seamlessly.

I'm not going to pretend that Minas Ithil's appeal can mitigate the crime of standing for what should have been Minas Morgul. But for its purpose it does well, and in the long run warms my heart more than Minas Tirith, which is very ironic considering how much I cursed and gnashed my teeth over it.

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

Next up: Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes.