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.