Now for the big guns. Here I rank all campaign sized Middle-Earth modules, and I include a citadel (Dol Guldur) and two cities (Minas Tirith and Minas Ithil) that have the same level of detail. That makes 26 modules total.
(1) Lorien and the Halls of the Elven Smiths. 5+ stars. Terry Amthor, 1986. This module 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 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 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. The centerfold color map of Ost-in-Edhil rules the module, and many of its buildings are laid out. In the hands of a good DM, Annatar can be exploited to maximal effect in the elven city — 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.
(2) Dol Guldur. 5+ stars. David Woolpy, 1995. This is the 220-page monster that completely revamped Sauron’s abode from Southern Mirkwood (see #5 below), 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. The reworked design is on a staggering scale: 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. It 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.
(3) The Court of Ardor. 5 stars. Terry Amthor, 1983. More than any other ICE module, The Court of Ardor had a profound impact on my imagination. I lived southern Middle-Earth in my daily fantasies, riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, and having passionate love affairs with elves as evil as drow. One thing was clear to me at the time: this sort of thing would never be repeated. The gazeteer displays regions as rich as anything Tolkien developed — savage Mumakan, democratic Korononde, imperial Tanturak, reckless Hathor, aloof Taaliraan. All of which would be more than enough, but this entire sandbox is used as a platform for a quest, where the stakes are as high as in The Lord of the Rings. A group of evil Noldor have been trying to destroy the sun and moon since the First Age, and now, in TA 1703, are ready to enact a ritual that will do just that; a group of PCs must band together and prevent the ritual, and also ensure that the ringleader of this evil court, Lady Ardana, is killed by the son Morgoth fathered on her. The mission to save Middle-Earth — to keep the sun and moon alive, to destroy the gems of unlight, to procure the death of an elven lady who will keep resurrecting the same diabolical plot as long as she goes on living — is the module’s focus. The Court members are colorful NPCs, two of them actual demons, and I like the recurring theme of repentant male twins versus their evil sisters: Ardana’s children, and also the two Featurs, the female member of the Court, and her brother whom most believe dead, but is working against the Court from behind shadows, perhaps even with the PCs. An an absolute first-rate module.
(4) Mount Gundabad. 5 stars. Carl Willner, 1989. It’s the best orc dungeon ever designed, in or outside of Middle-Earth, and what a piece of cover art: I had a nightmare as a teen walking into Mount Gundabad’s hellish maw. The orc capital screams aggression, with its triple-peaked structure punching the sky up to 13,000 feet, and its interior sheltering almost 13,000 goblins — a bigger population than Fornost’s. The seething factionalism within Gundabad provides players with striking opportunities to mess with orcish politics. I’m a long time fan of modules that do this, like TSR’s Lost City, where it’s practically inevitable that characters will sympathize with (or even join) one of the Cynidicean cults who are at each others’ throats. The Free Peoples might have legitimate reason to help the Warlord of the Cloven Spire, for example, who seeks greater independence from Angmar and would thus undercut the power of the Witch-King. Alternatively, evil characters allied with Sauron could have fun throwing in their lot with the Warlord of the Twisted Spire, who not only favors stronger ties to Angmar and open war on the Dunedain, but gives new meaning to sadism. (I sure as hell wouldn’t trust him regardless of my allegiances. Some of the rooms in the Twisted Spire make my stomach hurt.) Self-serving neutral types might opt for the safest course and just back the current Goblin-King reigning from the Great Spire, since the odds are with him and he can offer richest rewards. None of this political intrigue is essential to a Gundabad campaign, by any means, but it does offer excitement beyond hack-and-slash dungeon crawls which in this case invite almost certain death to all but most experienced characters. The folks at ICE went over and above the call of duty with Mount Gundabad, and I count it a gem.
(5) Southern Mirkwood. 5 stars. Susan Hitchcock, 1983. Even if the staggering version of Dol Guldur (see #2 above) makes the earlier version in this module look like a turd, it’s actually still an excellent dungeon; Sauron’s abode is compelling in either case. And while many lament that ICE never got around to designing the the Barad-dur, if I had to choose, I’d pick the Hill of Sorcery over the Dark Tower 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. Southern Mirkwood is worth having even if you have the Dol Guldur revision in any case, because this is a standard regional gazetteer; there’s more to the southern Mirkwood area 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.
(6) The Northern Waste. 5 stars. Randy Maxwell, 1997. It sounds deceptively barren, but don’t be fooled, this region could be described as an “aftermath of Morgoth”. It’s given fascinating history involving demons haunting mountain peaks, sled-horde invasions led by Hoarmaruth the Ringwraith, dragons ready to pounce where you least expect, and Morgoth’s Well itself into which only fools or the most experienced players descend. There are pockets of hope here and there: in the Vale of Evermist, Noldor mystics work the will of Yavanna to heal a wounded land, and at the north pole stands a snow-elf (Nandor) paradise, of all things, kept warm by a shard of one of the lamps from the First Age. Amidst all this, the Lossoth do their best to eke out a living and hold off the terrors of the Urdic invasions. I’d always loved the Lossoth and found their treatment in Rangers of the North (see #10 below) disappointingly brief, so was glad to get their full story here. There’s some tasty cultural background on display, for instance in the war customs of Hoarmaruth’s minions; they don’t even believe in taking slaves and just throw all their captives (men, women, elders, and children) into bear pits for awful entertainment. Then there’s more insidious evil, like the Witch-King’s blight, extended on sorcerous winds from Angmar and turning Lossoth shamans into undead thralls. The cultures of these snowmen, icemen, and sea-hunters (the three Lossoth peoples) are worked over in great detail, and I’m particularly fond of the song-duels they use in place of violence to keep blood feuds under control: scurrilous insults prized as a high form of art. Noteworthy is that this was the last Middle-Earth campaign module published by ICE. Shortly after, on September 19, 1997, the company declared a moratorium on Middle-Earth products, and in 1999 lost their license completely. They went out kicking ass with The Northern Waste.
(7) Gorgoroth. 4 ½ stars. Anders Blixt, Coleman Charlton, John Crowdis, Peter Fenlon, Jessica Ney, & Keith Robley, 1990. No, it doesn’t have the Barad-dur, but it presents enough of Mordor’s interior to provide months of campaigning. The highlight is the city of Ostigurth, that radiates a deathly ambience that surpasses even Minas Morgul’s; a place 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 loads of creative opportunities. Complete bios and histories of the Nine Nazgul are supplied, and this is a major selling point, as it showcases 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. Another prize feature is Mount Doom, Sauron’s forging complex, which is more than I expected, and unreachable to all but the most resourceful players. Many more sites are mapped out: the Barad-wath tower overlooking Nurn, occupied (from 1640-2000) by Ren, the Eighth (and craziest) of the Nine; the Isenmouthe gate complementing the Black, held (from 1652-2000) by Indur, the Fourth (and most megalomaniacal) Nazgul; 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. The module was written by everyone under the sun (six authors), and so the results feel a bit patchwork, but it’s all top quality.
(8) Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains. 4 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This one 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 in this case. And if Dunland is overshadowed, it’s still done justice: the 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. But never mind that, it’s the elves of Amon Lind who steal the show: a small group of Noldor who left Eregion in the Second Age to continue their controversial projects without interference. 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. They have (yes) air boats made with the rare metal Mithrarian which negates the effect of gravity. There are also questionable breeding experiments — 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. Dunland contains wonders I simply could never have expected out of a module devoted to a small region of primitives. I love it to pieces.
(9) The Lost Realm of Cardolan. 4 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1987. Cardolan is wild territory. On the one hand it exudes a sombre dignity, with sites steeped in more nobility than even Arthedain: the river/port cities of Tharbad and Lond Daer founded in the early Second Age, the burial grounds of the Barrow Downs going back to the First. On the other, its politics and landscape are so chaotic, and the princes such laws unto themselves that the king had effectively little control. It was more a smorgasbord of seven hirdoms (principalities) than an actual kingdom throughout 861-1409, that when it fell the princes hardly noticed and just carried on as usual, until forced to pack it in around 1700 and migrate to Arthedain or Gondor. The module is geared for the time of 1642 (soon after the Great Plague and the invasion of the Witch-King’s wights into the Barrow Downs), long after the fall of the monarchy, but with a little tweaking could, interestingly, be applied to the Times of Trouble (1235-1258), during the kingdom when civil war reigned and the royal compound at Thalion changed hands no less than eighteen times. Colorful personalities are detailed, with stats and bios provided for seven princes, best of all the usurping warlord Ardagor, a half-elf/half-troll abomination who hates orcs even more pathologically than men. The historical timeline is well fleshed out and does justice to a very complex nation. In my opinion, Cardolan is twice as tragic (though far less sympathetic) than Arthedain, being a victim of her own obduracies as much as outside influences like Angmar, and this is seen particularly in the fall from its peak of prosperity in the 1100’s from which it never recovered. It’s really one autonomy within another, with barons often barely heeding their hirs anymore than the hirs ever did their kings. Cardolan is a wild frontier with every castle for itself. A perfect sandbox.
(10) Rangers of the North. 4 ½ stars. John Ruemmler, 1985. The first Middle-Earth module I acquired will always hold a special place in my heart, though the cover is admittedly appalling, looking more like a magazine ad, perhaps because that’s exactly what it was, used on the back of Dragon in the ’80s to push ICE’s products. It gets highest marks for its treatment of the most tragic yet uplifting nation of men in Middle-Earth: Arthedain, chief among the three sister kingdoms of Arnor. And yet the module actually covers the entire history of the Dunedain starting in Numenor, to the founding of the two realms in exile, to the 2000-year lifespan of the northern one. The contrast with the south is captured perfectly: “As Gondor habitually reached for the sword and shield, Arnor looked to the stars and relied heavily on wizardry, lamenting each bloody encounter in song and verse.” As one built an empire, the other fragmented and died, but the latter was truly noble, in my view, and of course ultimately produced Aragorn who would reestablish both realms. There’s something incredibly haunting about Arthedain which taps into Tolkien’s “long defeat” theme — that evil can’t be defeated; any time it appears to be, it’s just a temporary holding action — and the module stirs tragic emotions in this regard. The specter of Angmar is always in the background, the crushing blow of 1975 waiting in the wings. Gandalf’s stats are provided here, along with the details of Narya, the elven ring of fire he acquired from Cirdan, a real selling point of the module. The unique features of the three northern palantiri are also described, and there’s even a Fourth-Age scenario premised on the recovery of the two lost seeing stones near the ice-bay of Arvedui’s shipwreck.
(11) Riders of Rohan. 4 ½ stars. Christian Gehman & Peter Fenlon, 1985. There’s resonant culture here. 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. This module captures the mindset perfectly, as it chronicles the 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 mapwork is pretty good, notably Helm’s Deep, which is more fine-tuned than Aglarond in the Isengard module (see #21 below). 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.
(12) Empire of the Witch-King. 4 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst & Heike Kubasch, 1989. By rights this one should be up with Gorgoroth in the top ten, but it’s a bit crude and underdeveloped, especially considering that it’s a remake of the first Angmar module published in ’82. In fact, for me it should rank higher than the Mordor module; I was always more infatuated with Arnor than Gondor in my gaming days, my campaigns more Angmar-centric than Mordor-focused. And there’s something about Carn Dum that still grips me relentlessly. Angmar is a natural vacuum of life and all things joyful, whereas Mordor had to be fashioned that way. In such a landscape I can easily see a tribe like the Uruk-lugat taking root and thriving: gruesome even by orc standards, in thrall to the rejuvenated and beating heart of a vampire slain back in the First Age, and walking a thin line by holding their shaman in higher reverence than the Witch-King. As for the mannish priesthood, its practices are less about blood sacrifice and more about subtle brainwashing, but are just as chilling. And the assassin cult under command of the Angulion is a nice touch, rather reminiscent of the Amida Tong from ninja folklore in our world. Special orc communities are also given attention, including the bloodthirsty Uruk-lugat mentioned already, and the brutally efficient Uruk-kosh. It all adds up to a hellish landscape that only a Nazgul could hope to keep under control, and even that imperfectly. Again, the mapwork has a rather crude aesthetic, and the rooms of Carn Dum could have been juiced up more in this remake… but it’s an excellent product nonetheless, and I still shiver when I think of orcs who worship that pulsating heart, and man-priests who suck the life out of their students with litanies of hate.
(13) The Shire. 4 ½ stars. Wesley Frank, 1995. This insanely huge tome clocks in at 276 pages, but then I suppose Tolkien’s brainchildren deserve no less. And here they are, the hobbits, modern English peasants in a medieval feudal world. The Shire fleshes out the anachronisms: the use of surnames, reflecting common property rights instead of noble; the dislike of politics, and love of meals and festivals around hard labor; and the disdain of artistic imagination and scholarly endeavors, for which Bilbo Baggins, of course, was derided as a crank. This is all superbly integrated into the Shire’s geography, sandwiched in between Arthedain and Cardolan: “Hobbits have an open, cheerful nature that attracts them to Cardolani traditions — and most Shire-folk have ancestors born in that country — but their need for a safer life draws them to the stricter laws and stability of Arthedain.” And while not taken seriously by other races, something about their inherent innocence taps into dreams shared by the Siragale elves, Arthedain philosophers, and a wizard like Gandalf, since all of these know distant pasts when people lived in relative peace and without fear. Famous hobbits from different eras are detailed in the module, and there is a fabulous section on fireworks, a dozen different kinds. Most enjoyable are the layouts of famous hobbit holes: Bag End, Tookbank, and Brandy Hall. Bag End is even larger than I would have guessed, though Bilbo sealed off a number of rooms after inheriting the place from Bungo and Belladonna in 2934. The elvish glade of Woodhall (where Frodo enjoyed a respite with Gildor) is a special treat, with its magical wards and specially woven thickets keeping it safely concealed. Also detailed are typical elvish tree villages.
(14) The Grey Mountains. 4 stars. Craig Paget, Karen McCullough, & Joseph McCullough, 1992. These mountains are the playground of Morgoth’s drakes, and as such they’re an endless source of adventure for fools, the mega-experienced, or vengeful dwarves wanting to take back what’s theirs and retire fifty times over. I suppose you could say that dungeons and dragons are what the module is literally about, though if we’re magnanimous, “dungeons and dwarves” is more respectful of rightful claims. The dragons of Middle-Earth are twice as lethal as those of classic D&D, and fall into six breeds which I prefer over the rainbow kinds (yes, Dragonlance, I’m looking at you): cold-drakes, fire-drakes, ice-drakes, cave-drakes, marsh-drakes, and rain-drakes; and there are winged variations of the cold- and fire-, able to create local hurricanes just by stirring the air as they fly. The module provides stats and bios for 28 of them, including really nasty brutes like Scatha, Smaug, Ando-anca, Itangast, Throkmaw, and Uruial. And if this menagerie isn’t enough, there are also ice orcs, of all things, terrorizing the northern range with a priest-cult more terrifying than its military. Then there are the dwarves. The module can’t seem to decide whether it’s situated in the year 1640 or 2589, but of course it’s only during later times (2210-2589) that dwarves lived here until crushed by the cold-drake Ando-anca and forced to return to Erebor. There’s a real feeling of suspense conveyed by the Norr-dum setting and the splintered society under Dain I, as its about to replicate the tragedy of Durin VI in its final hours. And while the Balrog horror is far more epic than that of Ando-anca, The Grey Mountains is a surprisingly better module than Moria.
(15) Greater Harad. 4 stars. William Wilson, 1990. Greater Harad; the Seven Cities of the Sirayn; the intellectual hub and breadbasket of southern Middle-Earth. It’s a fantastic sandbox for setting adventures outside the familiar regions developed by Tolkien, with even more potential than the other regions of Harad. Near Harad may boast the naval port of Umbar, and Far Harad has the dazzling trade center of Bozisha-Dar, but Greater Harad eclipses them both with the size of its population, the extent of its lands, and the rigors of its history. Dynasties have risen and fallen as kings attempted to control this strip of earth. The culture is surpassed only by the elves and Numenoreans, to our world resembling somewhat of a cross between the Umayyad dynasty of Spain and imperial China (while the geography evokes northern Africa and the Middle-East). It’s a sophisticated but grim land where the proverb “one may have peace or freedom but not both” is proven time and again. The eastern port city of Tul Harar is the only place where citizens are truly free, a melting pot governed by a Gathering of Speakers; the other six cities are each ruled by a dictatorial Tarb, and at intervals throughout Harad’s history, the Tarb of Tul Isra actually rules all the cities (except Tul Harar). By far the most compelling city (to me) is the one in ruins after TA 1457, and displayed on the module’s cover: Charnesra, built from marble and sandstone, brought down by treacherous ambition, and now a base for underground cults launching suicidal sting operations across the land. Greater Harad is a great area for DMs and players to set up shop for many sessions of campaigning.
(16) Havens of Gondor. 4 stars. Carl Willner, 1987. This one 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 (Amroth’s tragedy) more saturated in haunting loss: how the cliff-city of Lond Ernil became Dol Amroth. The module made me fall in love with the Belfalas region, as it was a segment of Tolkien’s world I knew so little about. ICE does a good job delineating its elvish heritage, relative independence, and strange aloofness from the dirtier politics of Gondor’s other provinces. After immersing myself in Havens, I 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, granted, but they did feel surpassing in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. 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.
(17) Sea-Lords of Gondor. 4 stars. John Morin, 1987. 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. 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. As for the mapwork, the City of the Faithful is the main feature, and if the contest between it and Minas Anor were determined by ICE’s mapwork, 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. Then there is Minas Daldor which guards the mouth of the Anduin, ruled by an insane bard believing himself to be a god. 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 original question.
(18) Moria. 3 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1984. Moria scores points for its versatile setting: it can be used in any age with few adjustments. It provides a thorough 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. Yet 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 I probably just never got over the letdown. 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. But kudos to the flexible setting. 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 mapwork is a mixed bag, on the one hand, being comprehensive and 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. This should be a module to brandish with enthusiasm; for all its diligence, regretfully, it comes up a bit short.
(19) Minas Ithil. 3 ½ stars. Mark Rabuck, 1991. 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. As with my frustrations about Minas Anor (see “Minas Tirith” below at #20), 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 said, I came to appreciate Minas Ithil once I got over my fury. It is an interesting city, and the building layouts are vast and precise, though as with Minas Anor, 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.
(20) Minas Tirith. 3 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst, 1988. Once again, I need to discuss the cover, which is a splendid Angus McBride piece, but falsely pitched. The module isn’t set during the War of the Ring, nor at any time when the city was called Minas Tirith. Like most ICE modules, it follows the aftermath of the Great Plague, and thus when it was Minas Anor, and which is in fact what it’s referred to throughout the text. Admittedly this ends up not mattering much, since the city doesn’t change drastically throughout the Third Age. The stewards take over in 2050, the White Tower of Ecthelion is aggrandized in 2698, the White Tree dies in 2852… But it’s still a cheap trick, and foreshadows the outrageous stunt pulled in Minas Ithil which I ranted about above. But for what it does, it does well: the four-page color insert displays the city’s seven tiers, while the other side features a color map of the surrounding provinces of Anorien, Ithilien, and Lebennin. Within the module’s pages are all sorts of buildings laid out in unprecedented detail, though I remain underwhelmed by it all. The only places that really grab me are the libraries on the fifth level, the houses of healing and halls of the dead on the sixth, and of course the royal bastions on the seventh. You have to give Minas Tirith high marks for all the layout work, but despite its colossal ambitions — it’s 160 pages and the only hardcover module I ever acquired for any RPG — it’s something I could live without if I had to.
(21) Isengard and Northern Gondor. 3 stars. Christian Gehman, 1983. Isengard is an odd duck, certainly the most disjointed of the ICE modules. It divides its focus between the Kin-Strife and the period of Saruman’s residence at Orthanc, and whilst the latter is obviously essential, the choice of the year 1442 is bizarre. I personally find the political intrigue during Eldacar’s rebellion fascinating, but it’s a wasted esoteric exercise to delve into it here, and in fact, there is no reason why the entire module couldn’t have been set in the time of the Rohirrim — Isengard and the Riders of Rohan would have made a perfect unified product instead of being spread over two. I do have fond memories tied up in Isengard as a player, but it’s really lightweight and doesn’t take its mandate seriously. The rich cultural matrices of most campaign treatments are absent; in their place stand fragmented adventure scenarios. The only true selling point is Orthanc tower, which is impressively designed. The tower’s exterior is displayed on a four page color insert, along with all ten levels of the tower, and some rooms can be easily modified to accommodate either a pre- or post-Saruman setting. I.e. The guard rooms on the bottom levels can be for Gondorian soldiers or Uruk-hai. The rest of the module provides layouts for cities and fortresses in Calenardhon, long before it became Rohan: the fortress of Aglarond (later the Hornburg, or Helm’s deep), the cities of Calmirie (later Aldburg) and Ondirith (later Stowburg), and the Glittering Caves. None of which has any relation to Orthanc when it matters most, which makes Isengard, ultimately, a garbled edifice. Then too, the layout of Aglarond remains essentially the same as Helm’s Deep in Riders of Rohan, but less fine-tuned, confirming that the two modules should have been done as one.
(22) Far Harad: The Scorched Land. 2 ½ stars. Charles Crutchfield, 1988. A disappointing effort for a region with so much potential. It could have easily been the MERP campaign equivalent of TSR’s Oriental Adventures, standing on the vision of a distant alien culture with harsh codes of honor and shame. But none of this is fleshed out significantly beyond the impact of religious myths. There is the sun god Vatra, not warmly received by Harad’s people, who scorched the lands into desert. This was in fury over his wife, the moon goddess Ladnoca, who had turned against him for slaying her father. She is the common object of worship, and the coastal capital of Bozisha-Dar is named after her (“Gift of the Goddess”), despite its cosmopolitan outlook which pits it against the tent-city of Tresti leagues away. Aside from this dynamic, there isn’t much meat on the backbone of Far Harad; almost nothing about the desert nomads outside urban areas. The city of Bozisha-Dar contains some intrigue; the Council of Regents has been ruling stably there for the first half of the Third Age (the time period is 1640), and will continue doing so until the savage Sun-Lord dynasty takes control (2194-3019). I can think of many TSR classics I’d use in Far Harad — The Lost City, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and certainly Tomb of Horrors, to name a few. There’s something about deserts that lend to pulpy D&D scenarious; I also approve the catalog of native wilderness creatures: sand devils, ghoul-like lesinas, sand drakes, and best of all, the Razarac (“Destroyer”) which is basically a desert Balrog. But all in all, Far Harad sits like an unfinished product; either the author lost interest, or he just didn’t know what to do with it.
(23) Ents of Fangorn. 2 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This was a module that couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. The best part is the cover which represents a cherished scene from The Two Towers. John Howe’s Treebeard is better, but Angus McBride’s is still very good, and what he’s serving up actually points to the next best thing about the module, a full description of the ent draughts. The third feature I like is the biographical information sketched out for the elders (Treebeard, Skinbark, and Leaflock) as well as demographical; we learn that there are about 150 ents in Fangorn (around the time of 1640), allowing some 160 square miles of forest area per ent, though there are many more of the wildly hostile Huorns. And that pretty much exhausts my accolades for Ents of Fangorn. The problem is that less than half the module actually deals with the ents. This wouldn’t be such a liability if the product had been called Fangorn and the Borderlands or Fangorn and the Caverns of Pain, and if those other parts were at least good. After hobbits, ents are the best thing about Middle-Earth, and if you’re going to sideline them, you’d best have damn good supplements. The supplements here are a Gondorian town and orc cavern, each about as memorable as the shit I took yesterday. For the positives, the egalitarian nature of the ents is well portrayed: their structure founded on a premise of mutual respect without a hierarchy of leaders, though elders like Treebeard are looked to as chief advisers; any ent can call a moot to discuss any topic. The draughts are fantastic, and their side-effects on non-ents completely worked out. For more negatives, the mapwork contains little about Fangorn Forest, which is a crying shame.
(24) Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. 2 ½ stars. Brenda Spielman, 1982. If I were grading these modules purely on the basis of aesthetic, Umbar would go down worst. The cover art is primitive, the inner work crudely presented, and the writing lazy; there are even entire paragraphs copied verbatim in different sections. I realize this was ICE’s first stab at Middle-Earth — it was the very first module — but you’d think results would have been better for it. By the time of the module’s setting (TA 1607), the fallen Numenoreans have absorbed the Corsairs, and ICE does a good job avoiding political caricatures, particularly in the oligarchy of six, the Captains of the Havens who rule. I was half-expecting the module to portray the Corsair state as a tyranny of Castamir-monarchs, but it goes a wiser and more complex route. Bitter memory of the Kin-Strife is precisely what keeps an even balance of power in Umbar. The Captains are largely decent, if driven by various passions — one obsessing a lost wife, another a bon vivant, a female captain with royal ambitions, an effective crusader against dark worship — and certainly not evil in any Angmarian sense. Yet for all this, there’s something subterranean about Umbar. There’s bad religion; slavery; a dangerous wizard’s guild; amoral merchant families; nobles who would sell their own mother for a greater good; all as if Numenor’s legacy has become genetic to the city itself. Aside from the four-page color detachable of the city (one side) and the region around it (the other), the cartography of Umbar is crude as hell. The six tower holds of the Captains are laid out, as well as their castles outside the city — all very hard on the eye. The Lair of the Dark Worship is also scrawled up, and offers some classic adventure beneath sea caves.
(25) Shadow in the South. 2 stars. Chris Stone & Peter Fenlon, 1988. The problem with this one is that it doesn’t feel like Middle-Earth, and from me that’s significant; I’m anything but a Tolkien purist. But I want to at least feel the spirirt of Tolkien. For all the dramatic creativity displayed in frontiers like The Northern Waste and The Court of Ardor, and even the Harad modules, that strong Tolkien feel is always present. In Shadow in the South, the resonance collapses. I won’t deny I had fun going through it as a player, and even now I can see why: there are evil temples, vile tombs, and enchanted mazes to keep the boldest PCs occupied for many gaming sessions. But the land is fleshed out so artificially that it feels like Greyhawk — as if someone thew a bunch of hastily concocted cultures at the map and let them fall where they may. There’s also a certain laziness in vision by this point. The peninsula is called The Dominions of the Seven, ruled by lords of Numenorean descent who do their best to keep the shadow of the Storm King at bay. The number “seven” has been obsessed in these southern modules to the point of irritation: Far Harad ruled by a Council of Seven Regents; Greater Harad the Land of the Seven Cities; and now this. It only underscores how ICE is operating outside the geographical canon in a rather cheap way. The “shadow” over this peninsula comes in the form of evil minions operating everywhere, some openly, others from under rocks, most at cross-purposes with each other: the Army of the Southern Dragon, under command of the Nazgul Storm King; the Cult of the Dark Overlord, led by four liches; the Priesthood of the Black Hand, preaching openly for Sauron; the Slayers, a coalition of assassins; and the Cult of the Real Fire, holding Aluva (Eru) and Malkora (Melkor) in equal reverance, evangelizing every corner of the Dominions with obnoxious dualistic fervor.
(26) Northern Mirkwood. 1 star. John Ruemmler, 1983. This travesty of a module is written in a sophomoric and exclamatory style, nothing at all like the other ICE modules. “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. The mapwork continues in offenses. 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 (see here, where I rank it at #8 with a 4-star rating). 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.
Also see my rankings of the adventure sized modules.