Middle-Earth Modules Ranked (Adventure Sized)

The teaser for amazon’s Middle-Earth series got me revisiting my collection of ICE modules, and a huge collection that is. Most of them are the campaign sized, but I have some of the smaller adventure and fortress modules too. Of the sixteen adventures published by ICE, I acquired the first eight, and of the four fortresses, I acquired three. After around ’87-’88, I gave up buying these smaller modules and focused on the campaign-sized and city/citadel series only. Here’s the entire catalog of adventure and fortress modules; I don’t own the ones in italics.

All of ICE’s Adventure Sized Modules:

Bree and the Barrow Downs, 1984
Daglorlad and the Dead Marshes, 1984
Hillmen of the Trollshaws, 1984
The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair, 1984
Erech and the Paths of the Dead, 1985
Goblin Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie, 1985
Thieves of Tharbad, 1985
Rivendell, 1987

Brigands of Mirkwood, 1987
Mouths of the Entwash, 1988
Dark Mage of Rhudaur, 1989
Forest of Tears, 1989
Warlords of the Desert, 1989
Rogues of the Borderlands, 1990
Ghost Warriors, 1990
River Running, 1992

All of ICE’s Fortress Modules:

Weathertop, 1987
The Tower of the Teeth, 1988
The Halls of the Elven-King, 1988

Calendhad: A Beacon of Gondor, 1990

My ranking will exclude the titles in italics, making a total of 11 modules for consideration. (In the next post, I’ll rank all 26 campaign sized modules, since I own every one.) Interesting that with the single exception of Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes, my ranking follows the publication dates almost to a tee. The earlier the better: the 1984 publications (except Dagorlad) make my top 3, the 1985 publications come next, and then Rivendell almost last. Ditto with the fortress modules. Weathertop is best, and so on. Here they are. I did retrospectives for these modules years ago, and gave them two ratings, for history/culture and for maps/layouts, but not an overall rating in an actual ranking.

(1) Bree and the Barrow Downs. 5 stars. Heike Kubasch, 1984. There’s something primal about Bree and the Barrow-Downs, and not just because it was ICE’s first adventure-sized module. It sets a haunting stage: a crossroads village where men and hobbits co-exist, surrounded by ongoing tensions — bandits on the roads and evil tombs off them. This breathes classic D&D in a way few modules get at so simply and it’s aged tremendously well. In my view it holds the near equivalent status of TSR’s Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands, though it’s not necessarily tailored for low-level characters. The Barrow Downs would slay beginners in an instant. But the power of the wights goes beyond killing people who just happen to be stupid (or ignorant) enough to not stay away: “The wights are symbols that point to the waning of the Dunedain of the North since the coming of Angmar; men now lack the strength to keep their ancient graves free of unclean spirits.” This is a recent phenomenon: only in 1638 were the wights sent from Angmar to animate Arnor’s dead kings and princes and make the tombs their home for the rest of the Third Age. The module is set in the year 1700, making the undead presence a fresh wound, and thus primarily a killer of morale. Graphic brutality is fun — and rituals by which the wights carry victims into the barrows and deck them with jewels in preparation for ugly sacrifice are described here — but tone is just as important in RPGs, and Bree gets the tone perfect. The mapwork includes arial views for the villages of Bree, Staddle, Archet, and Combe; and there are interior layouts for 24 barrows — First-Age barrows, the royal barrows of Arnor’s kings (from 1-861), and the barrows of Cardolan’s kings and princes (861-1409). There are plenty of artifacts, magic items unheard of, jewels, and antiquated coin in these tombs, but stealing them without being killed or vilely cursed is the real trick.

(2) Hillmen of the Trollshaws. 5 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1984. One of this module’s major strengths is its flexibility. It’s suitable for almost anytime before the fall of Arthedain and dissolution of Angmar, whether during Rhudaur’s inclusion in Arnor (1-861), its independence as a sister kingdom to Arthedain and Cardolan (861-1349), its subservience as a puppet state of Angmar (1349-1410), or its complete dominance under Angmar (1410-1975). Rhudaur changed a great deal throughout these periods, and the module is designed to show its growth and decline, particularly at the capital of Cameth Brin, which is a horror show unto itself. The other strength is the cultural resonance. The primitive culture of the Hillmen contrasts sharply with their Dunedain overlords, notable for its rejection of both the Valar and Black Religion of Sauron in favor of ancestor worship, with a particular reverence for ghosts. Of which there are plenty to be found: the Ta-Fa-Lisch (dwarven ghosts) haunt Cameth Brin in the early days before the Dunedain take control. The layout of Cameth Brin (“The Twisted Hill”) dominates the product, and even its early structure is provided for those who wish to get involved with ghosts working in cahoots with Hillmen. After the Dunedain expansion of 166-339, it becomes Rhudaur’s capital, though no less ominous, with halls of enchanted darkness, surprising traps, and a generally schizophrenic feel that betrays haunted roots underneath an advanced Dunedain architecture, which in turn becomes usurped by Hillmen much later after the Great Plague. The barracks settlement of Tanoth Brin below the hill is also detailed, as well as the nearby town of Talugdaeri. Then there’s an exemplary troll lair for those desiring adventure outside of Cameth Brin. Add to all of this the color map of central Rhudaur, and the end result is pretty much what’s needed for a solid Rhudaur campaign any time pre-1975.

(3) The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1984. 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.” 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”. 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 the city module 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.

(4) Goblin-Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1985. 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. True, the eagles’ lair doesn’t have much to it, and is described in a single paragraph, but aside from this point, the module delivers mightily. Goblin-Gate is essentially Mount Gundabad in miniature (see #4 in my ranking of the campaign modules), 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 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. “Lone intruders are 90% likely to be ambushed by surprise, but there is only a 20% that Gollum will attack a hobbit outright.” 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.

(5) Weathertop. 4 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1987. This was the first in the short-lived fortress series, whose stated intent was “to provide DMs with extremely detailed overviews of individual towers, castles, citadels, and other fortifications of particular note”. It’s also the best, though that’s probably my love for all things Arnor talking. What can be said about Weathertop? It was everything: the realm’s greatest stronghold, home of the High Seer and chief palantir, and strategically situated on holy ground — all, of course, tragically gone after the Witch-King’s army demolished it in 1409. There’s potent history here, and the rocks are full of it. The module even traces back to the sacred times of the First Age when the hill was an astrological holy site for the Edain, though the treatment is understandably brief; the focus of the fortress series is on architecture rather than history. For the Third Age, the tower garrisons and civilian populations are detailed for all relevant periods, in particular the military forces supplied by each of the sister kingdoms (Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur) when Arnor split in 861, and possession of the hill was hotly contested. The layout of Weathertop is breathtaking, I believe the most thorough treatment of any stronghold put out by ICE with the exception of Dol Guldur. The critical part is of course the tower, and all rooms on all fourteen levels are fully detailed and even given artistic representations so you can tell just at a glance the function and contents of each room. In addition to guard halls and guest chambers are the armories, libraries, alchemical hall, sage’s hall, warden’s chambers, king’s chambers (for when he visits), and the seer’s chambers which contain the holiest of holies, the Hall of the Stone. The outer defenses are covered just as diligently: the lower and upper gates, the prison tower, bastions and watches, stables and smithies. It’s rare to see this level of detail in any gaming product.

(6) Erech and the Paths of the Dead. 4 ½ stars. Ruth Sochard, 1985. The Paths are among the most terrifying places in Middle-Earth, and with this module a DM could mine that terror effectively. In some ways I like MERP’s classification of the undead more than TSR’s; this product outlines the hierarchy: ghouls at the bottom, dumb corpses able to inflict disease but not drain energy; skeletons next, much more fearsome than the TSR breed, able to energy-drain, and cause fear and stun; then ghosts, devoid of physical bodies but intelligent and able to drain energy, sometimes even unconsciously; and finally, wraiths or wights, the worst energy-drainers, often spell-users, and able to mesmerize or dominate their prey by force of will. All of these can be found in the paths, especially ghosts, but that’s not all. There are also the weird pukel-creatures that lie dormant and animate in the presence of the living: stone men, rock lizards, granite spiders, stalactite birds, and even “living lightning”. This horror show is the product of oath-breaking, an act which carries devastating consequences in Tolkien’s world, as bad as a high-level D&D curse. The treachery dates to the end of the Second Age, when Gondor’s primitives (the Daen Coentis) refused to honor the Dunedain and march against Sauron, and the effects were instant: ore veins dried up, livestock died, harvests shrunk, artisans forgot their skills, and women became barren. People who died suddenly walked the tombs of the primitive nobles, tormented by local confinement. The paths thus sweat a despair that feels intrinsic to the place, something self-inflicted, unlike the invaded Barrow-Downs. It doesn’t come to together in the same flawless way of Bree and the Barrow Downs, but it’s one hell of an undead module just the same.

(7) The Teeth of Mordor. 4 ½ stars. Terry Amthor, 1988. 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. I got creative by investing the Teeth with a “split-personality”, as if Carchost and Narchost were a fossilized Demogorgon whose two heads strive to dominate and kill each other. 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. Meanwhile, 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. The Teeth of Mordor is a fond memory for all the weird energy I put into it; it was roaring fun to get so much mileage out of my favorite Nazgul — “both” of them, for that matter.

(8) The Halls of the Elven-King. 4 stars. Tom Loback, 1988. This fortress module atones for the astounding display of incompetence in Northern Mirkwood (see #26 in my ranking of the campaign modules), and basically pretends that it’s the first stab at Thranduil’s halls. In a sense it is. The previous scribbled-up version isn’t remotely close to what could be thought of as the seat of Silvan royalty. 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. In any case, 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.” 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. Put simply, these are the Elven-King’s Halls as they should have been done in the first place.

(9) Thieves of Tharbad. 4 stars. Lisa Evans, Walter Hunt, Evan Jamieson, Richard Meyer, & Robert Traynor, 1985. The city of Tharbad is the “eighth principality of Cardolan”, steeped in nobility, but saturated in corruption; nominally ruled by the Cardolani king (861-1409) or Gondorian Canotar (1414-2052), but effectively a free city; a riverport that survived almost to the end of the Third Age (2912), long after the rest of Cardolan ceased to exist (c. 1700). It’s the closest thing to Lankhmar that exists in Tolkien’s world: a decadent overcrowded melting pot so unlike the grand cities like Annuminas, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil. It’s fittingly set in the year 1410, during the chaotic aftermath of the Second Northern War, offering scenarios of extortion rings, food smugglers, and all levels of sordid thievery. The two-page color coded map of Tharbad is essentially the entire module, with certain buildings and sites laid out in more detail. The Gwathlo River divides the city into three parts: the north and south banks, and the island bridging them. The north side is dominated by guilds like the glassblowers, lampmakers, gravediggers, and singers, while the south boasts more educated talents such as scholars, healers, alchemists, and shipwrights. The center island, meanwhile, is the heart of the city, with King’s Row closest to the center, including the mayor’s office and townhouses of the seven hirs (princes) of Cardolan, as well as luxury shops and homes of the richest merchants; this area segues into the commoner’s quarter where the city is actually run by servants and artisans; finally, at the far eastern end is Middle-Earth’s version of Lankhmar, the poorest quarter of the entire city, a decaying labyrinth of streets swarming with thieves, whores, and drug-dealers.

(10) Rivendell. 3 stars. Terry Amthor, 1987. Only in Middle-Earth can you get an entire module out of an inn without it feeling like a cheat, but even here I’m pushing it. Rivendell may be where great decisions are made and Elrond wields the mightiest elven ring, but this module isn’t the masterpiece it deserves to be. Yet I can’t think of a way it could have possibly been done as outstanding as the Lorien module. Unlike the ethereal Golden Wood or the transcendent Grey Havens, Rivendell is rooted in a simplicity so pure it’s almost banal. It makes me regret even more that ICE never got around to the Grey Havens module it promised in the ’90s. I would have much preferred Mithlond over Imladris, and to see Angus McBride wrestle with more ineffable visions in his cover art. In any case, the vale surrounding Rivendell is a pocket paradise, as it functions according to Elrond’s command of the ring. Vilya can control weather and cause hallucinatory terrain, as well as heal, exorcise, and restore, and then also create air gusts and cause tornadoes; plus some generic bonuses common to all the elven rings. The surrounding culture of Rhudaur is briefly covered, and the module works perfectly in tandem with Hillmen of the Trollshaws; there are suggested adventures involving spying for Elrond in the region. It’s also perched on the doorstep of Goblin-Gate for any who want to depart hobbit-wise into the Misty Mountains. As neither an open colony like the Grey Havens, nor a secluded realm like Lorien, Rivendell is hidden yet accessible, but on a small scale to make just finding it a major task, and this is probably the kind of scenario I’d run, with enemies hot on the PCs’ heels a la “Flight to the Ford”.

(11) Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes. 2 stars. Ruth Sochard, 1984. This module isn’t half as good as its undead cousins, Bree and the Barrow Downs and Erech and the Paths of the Dead. By rights it should have been a smash. The marshes outside Mordor are plagued by a variety of scares: 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: the bandit hideout in the middle of the marshes — the “Isle of the Golden Fist” — its design is as fine as it goes, but it feels extraneous. And the bandits aren’t as juicy as they let on, having authority issues and baggage common to most outlaws, nothing more. 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 a Gondorian fortress protecting a nearby town, a marsh settlement, and 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.


Also see my rankings of the campaign sized modules.

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