Lord of the Iron Fortress

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 75: Lord of the Iron Fortress




It hasn’t even been very long, but I already miss Planescape. A lot. In theory, I’m interested in any sort of planar adventure or writing, as the possibility space and cosmology of this world remains fascinating to me, but in reality I require those elements to center around the good parts of roleplaying game writing, i.e. character, story, and theme. Which isn’t to say that everything else out there is bad, or that my opinions are anything besides extremely subjective, just that a lot of it has very little in common with what I enjoy about roleplaying games. Case in point: Lord of the Iron Fortress seems like a totally fine adventure, quite smart when it comes to dealing with incredibly high character levels. But at the same time, reading through it, I found myself struggling to really care about any of what was going on.

Andy Collins’ adventure module, released January of 2002, is dedicated to “the fans of the Planescape setting,” with an additional special thanks to Monte Cook and playtesting by Bruce Cordell (amongst many others). It also references four Planescape resources on its title page, and has more than passing familiarity with the planes… but it’s also extremely far from what Planescape’s supplements actually were. Instead, what we have here is a more typical high-level dungeon crawl that happens to have a few fun Planescape references and be set largely in one of the outer planes. To put it blutntly, this is an adventure that can only be completed by murderizing a crap load of monsters, and if any roleplaying comes about along the way that’s largely incidental.


The actual setup to Fortress is about as rote as you can get. An evildoer, in this case a duergar half-dragon because why not, is in the midst of reconstructing a broken artifact. If he completes it, he will have untold power to do evil, because that’s what he’s into. You need to stop this because… uhh… well, the module offers a few possible reasons, and this can even be peripherally linked to the rest of this pseudo-adventure path Wizards made at the beginning of third edition (most famous for Sunless Citadel), but for the most part the motivation is to stomp the baddy because it’s a thing to do. That’s it. There’s no cool NPC’s, and no other hook, just get in there and deal with this evil dwarf and his artifact-reconstructing ways. 

Todd Lockwood’s steel predator drawing inspired their creation for the adventure. The book always describes them as cat-like, but to me they seem like pretty blatant Alien knock-offs.

In an interview with Collins from back in 2002, he said, “I try to keep my actual plot-writing to a minimum in an adventure. I prefer to see myself as a ‘frame-builder’ rather than a storyteller—the DM and players are going to create the story; I’m just setting the scene.” And this is certainly the case here, in that he put a frame out into the world without filling in any of the details. At the same time, though, the frame is so bland and bereft of what a person would create interesting details out of, such that making any of this remotely interesting to players is going to demand as much or more from a DM than coming up with their own adventure from scratch. 

Oddly, Lord begins in the gatetown Rigus, with no real reason given for being there. This version of Rigus is essentially identical to what we saw of the gatetown in second edition (it’s even called a gate-town [hyphen used in the book], not a portal town like in the Manual of the Planes), to the point that even the population and hoi polloi of the city are the same as they were in A Player’s Primer to the Outlands and The Great Modron March1. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for fanservice just like anyone else, and though we still weirdly don’t get a map of the town (while most every other gatetown has been mapped by now), even quirkier parts of the city’s identity like its plaques for visitors are retained in the adventure. While there, or possibly beforehand—again, a lot of the story part of this adventure is completely missing in action—players find out that a bunch of forgemasters have been kidnapped from all over the planes. The PCs trace this down to business in Acheron, and make their way through a portal over to the plane (and the oddity about the portal leading to different locations a la Modron March is now gone, for better or worse). In all, this takes up three pages of the adventure, including a couple images. Why it’s here at all is difficult to speculate on, but I guess Collins just really wanted to feature Rigus again, and you know what, that’s fine.

The Lion’s Eye gate from Rigus to Acheron.

Once in Acheron, the PCs immediately meet a person who knows where the forgemaster problem is afoot, because lazy coincidences are what this type of adventure are all about. This person happens to be a drow, and the PCs can either beat her up or try to talk her into spilling the beans. Either way, that’s the only real hint they’ll receive regarding where to go next, but fortunately they’re all at least 15th level by now, so that’s barely a problem, and neither is getting to a cube 700 miles away through the bleak chasm of Acheron. They’ll fly there or magic there somehow, Collins figures, so don’t even worry about it.


I hadn’t mentioned the suggested PC level until now, but I should note that aside from a couple half-assed suggestions in the Planes of ______ books, this is a far higher level adventure than anything in the entirety of Planescape. Here, players are virtual demigods, and more than a page of Fortress is devoted to how to deal with high level divination spells, as they immediately ruin any sort of traditionally run mystery adventure. This advice should probably have been in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as it’s quite useful for running this sort of thing (and I should note that I have never run an adventure for characters above 15th level because it is extremely difficult to do so well), but also ties in to how Collins treats his plot. Basically, he assumes that characters will use divination to figure out where to go, and then probably fly there or use other ridiculous spells to achieve whatever they need to get done. For instance, this evil dwarf’s cube doesn’t need a portal because demigods like these can make their own way around the planes without such trifling help. And if you don’t have a high level spellcaster in your group because you wanted to do things differently… well then, you probably shouldn’t play third edition D&D beyond level three, because that’s kind of what the game is about.

Todd Gamble’s cartography is quite wonderful, and I particularly appreciate him constructing a cube DMs can cut out for the map of this part of Acheron.

The dwarf’s home cube is Kolyoral, and it has a handful of unique features including wraith-infested ancient battlefields, a rift inhabited by three blue dragons, and a small colony of formians, but all of this is pretty optional to even notice. Depending upon how investigatory players are they might befriend the formians (who are not evil, though they’re big enslavers? Umm… wtf, Wizards), deal with the dragons, or get hunted by some of the dwarf vaillain’s minions. Probably none of these, though, and it doesn’t really matter as one way or another they find the dwarf’s surprisingly small and sparsely inhabited fortress, which is what most of the adventure is devoted to. 


From here, it’s basically a gauntlet of quite difficult fights. Though your PCs are demigods, they may eventually get worn down by wave after wave of steel predators (a new and rather cool beast inhabiting Acheron, best known for munching on metal, including PC equipment), plus a half-fiend cloud giant, a lernean cryohydra, a few blade golems (iron golems but, like, sharper), a roided up kyton, a dust mephit assassin, plus a bunch of other nasties and wave after wave of traps. This culminates in a fight against the duergar villain himself, plus his fallen archon bodyguard and lady pit fiend best friend. This final fight is so complex that the book devotes roughly as many words to it as it does all of the Rigus section, detailing what strategies these enemies prefer using as well as the pile of buffs they cast on each other assuming they’re not surprised. 

And when I call this fortress a gauntlet, it’s not just because there are a lot of fights, either, it’s that they’re laid out in a strangely linear building. There’s only really one way of getting around here, unless players do something completely unexpected like blast through the walls, and there’s only a few NPCs to chat with either, none of whom are much help or have personalities. Really, this is about fighting through a series of strictly scripted, high level, and at times hilariously stated enemies. 

Pretty sure this is the lady pit fiend wearing sexy leather clothing? I don’t know, man, fantasy can be pretty dumb sometimes.

And that’s it. There’s not much of a conclusion here, as there was never much of a story to begin with. Players die, or they destroy the blade and its remakers, or possibly they claim it for themselves even though for reasons spelled out in the adventure this is a particularly dumb idea. The end.


All of this adventure is written in flat, practically monotone prose that sucks the majesty out of the Outer Planes like a vacuum. Awe, wonder, mystery? Yeah, Lord of the Iron Fortress doesn’t have time for that sort of thing, or space. It needs to get into another series of slightly differentiated fights instead. Part of the issue here is that high level adventures of this sort require a lot of statistics, so while this was the longest adventure yet in this series, most of that content goes into explaining particular spell traps and offering lengthy stat blocks for every enemy. Now, I’m not saying that this material is bad, in fact it’s necessary for making this into a remotely runnable scenario, it’s just that it fills up space that might have been used in creating a compelling story or characters. Eight pages at the back of the book are devoted purely to enemy statistics (some of which probably aren’t useful, as they’re for debuffed versions of these people, thus requiring buffed stat blocks as well in the main text), which is probably as much space as the entirety of enemy characters in all of the Planescape adventures combined. 

I do appreciate Collins’ decision to use the planes as a setting for this adventure, it’s just that the sole contribution to our understanding of them here comes from the addition of steel predators. Otherwise, his Acheron and Rigus are rote copies of what we’ve seen before, only with any sort of excitement about being there discarded along the way. Even the art, largely by David Day except for a few reprints by Wayne Reynolds, is for the most part forgettable and generic. Ultimately, if what you wanted from the planes was always just a place for bigger and badder monsters to murder with your bigger and badder characters, then Lord of the Iron Fortress is for you. But if you enjoyed Planescape’s focus on character, story, and theme, you’ll find all three of these elements sorely lacking, and I recommend giving this adventure a complete pass.

1. Though Collins credits Hellbound on his title page, this adventure has nothing at all to do with that set, whereas it draws a lot from the final part of The Great Modron March. As such, I assume he simply made an error here. 

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