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.

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 easy 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.

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 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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.