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.

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.

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.

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.

Retrospective: The Teeth of Mordor

Planting a Nazgul at the Black Gate was a shrewd move on ICE’s part, and 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 parents 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.

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.