Classic D&D Module Reviews – Companion Levels

As I expected, Expert level caused a serious slowing of XP gain, so even though the party entered the expert levels well over levelled, they are entering into the Campaign levels well under levelled for the content. Most of the modules are for level 15+ characters but the party varies from level 9 to 13. Still, they are a good group that works well together so we are pressing on as is.

CM5 Mystery of the Snow Pearls will be skipped as it’s a solo adventure. It’s actually really strange that it’s coded CM5 instead of CMSOLO or CMS1 which should be the typical designation for a solo adventure.

CM7 The Tree of Life

Author: Bruce A. Heard
My Rating: 4/5

We hit a snag right out of the gate on this one. The module was created for a party of elves, with maybe one druid. As the party we had were almost entirely nature loving characters (The halfling was practically a ranger etc), we decided to press on with the party as it was. This did mean that one of the key encounters at the end was made a little more difficult, but all it all things ran just fine with the predominately human party.

The rating reflects how much fun the party managed to find in the overall adventure. There are many memorable moments, such as the same evil mage being killed twice by the same backstabbing thief. I fail to understand why the bad guy is so often a magic user, when they are lucky to get one spell off before being bulldozed by a party (or eliminated by a single backstab).

The staging was good, with genuine freedom to tackle things as desired instead of a linear path. The final keep will test the party’s ability to work as a team. Good roleplay is encouraged and in fact mandatory in the closing act. If the party runs around like murder hobos then things will not end well for them.

There were a couple of highly questionable puzzles, the type where it seems easy if you know the solution, but from the player end it’s very annoyingly hard. One such puzzle can end in a total party wipe if the simplest of errors is made. For this reason I have to take a full point off the score, because I just hate party deaths with no save. Puzzle elements should allow testing and the chance for discussion.

All in all though, a very solid adventure which doesn’t need to be Elves only. However, you do need a party which respects nature and who want to work towards a greater good. Encounters ranged from medium to hard, and the end XP was proportionate to the risk.

CM1 Test of the Warlords

Author: Douglas Niles
My Rating: 5/5

It seems the writing of Douglas Niles really resonates with me. Once again he has provided an innovative module which is around medium difficulty to run but exceedingly easy to play. It does require the party to take a domain, just one will do but more are possible. At this stage in their careers the party was happy to create a domain and with the charismatic fighter of the party being the true figurehead for the domain, the rest of the party just settled around her.

The structure of this module is what makes it so good. It spans two years, and the party might even do other adventures during those two years, but when they get home they find important realm business waiting for them. So rather than being a linear story, the module is constructed to allow easy plugging in of elements as time allows in those two years.

The little side adventures are hard, but they give great XP in the form of kill XP, rather than loading the party up on treasure XP. I much prefer this because the players felt challenged by the encounters and had to work as a group to defeat a number of tough foes. They still got decent loot, but not over the top loot like many other adventures gave out.

I really don’t have anything negative to say about this module. It didn’t have THACO in the stat lines but it had monster XP awards which is even better in my opinion. All in all, a really fun ride.

Having to run through a couple of years of Domain advancement has forced the creation of spread sheets to keep track of it all, but that’s an element of the core rules, not the module. Personally I have no issue with the complexity of the Domain rules, because with that complexity comes depth.

CM2 Death’s Ride

Author: Garry Spiegle
My Rating: 4/5

Going into this I was very concerned, because the adventure was designed for characters of at least 15th level. The highest level in the party was 13th, and the theme was undead, so it’s a risk. Still, the party had become very potent so with everyone’s permission we proceeded. It’s so good having players more interested in working for their levels than getting a free ride, though I’m sure that will have to change as we near Master levels.

So many things are done so well in this adventure, such as including the Wrestling Rating for each monster which was a nice touch. The only thing it really suffered from was some bad editing and a few little sections of odd logic.

The purpose of the adventure is to introduce many of the new powerful undead released in the Companion Rules. Thankfully it didn’t devolve into a lesson on how fast Energy Drain can make a party crumble, the undead used were all outstandingly vicious but slightly less soul destroying than having the party reduced to Basic level.

Many encounters were really well done, including one of the best designed Dragon encounters so far. Lots of XP was gained from killing monsters as the author didn’t waste time with small fry minions, and kept the focus on the challenging encounters. I prefer this because although it makes sense that puny lesser minions would surround more powerful ones, it makes for boring play having to hack through 100 zombies just to get to the interesting and rewarding foes.

It’s only real failing is the clarity on how to maintain the story line. If you’ve done your due diligence and read the entire module before playing then you should see the issues and make the required connections. The problem is solved easy enough, especially if you plan for the contingency of the Party killing key information sources. One map was incorrectly labelled and I didn’t catch it in the initial read through, so time was wasted in working out what was intended.

The end encounter was certainly tough, but not really satisfying. The module demands the main bad guy escape if things are going bad, but he’s been placed in a position where he lacked the means to escape, especially when the party hit his hiding place with a Silence 15′ Radius. Final rewards are barely covered at all, inviting the DM to just do something campaign appropriate, which I guess is fine but less than ideal.

Make sure you read ahead and plan contingencies and this is a really good adventure. There is ample opportunity for roleplay and the XP and coin rewards were satisfying. The party thief was turned to stone then later killed by a bad saving throw, but that sort of comes with the job. She got better of course, this is Companion level afterall.

CM9 Legacy of Blood

Author: Ed Greenwood
My Rating: 3/5

Though the adventure is for characters who don’t have their own domain yet, but it was easy to run independent of whether or not the PC was a landowner.

There are a wealth of role-play opportunities in this adventure, because it’s basically just one big social module with a couple of mini dungeons. The wealth of NPCs were detailed enough to be used with little additional planning. As with all modules, you really do need to read the entire thing before running it so you can properly nuance key encounters.

However, the editing was absolutely terrible, to the point where a lot of time was wasted just trying to play connect the dots with the story progression. One map looks like it was incomplete so someone added in the rest without matching up the grid. I’m not running from a PDF here, it’s an original booklet like all the other modules. That same map was entirely missing a key map reference number while another map description talked about something just not on the map at all.

The flood of magic items was incredible. As the magic items were audited at the end of the adventure, there was almost an entire page of items laid out in three columns on a standard writing pad. This is a key problem with the main villains being higher level humanoids; it makes sense they would have a number of magic items but it bloats the PCs loot when they loot the bad guys.

In all, this module just wasn’t fun to run. Sure, I welcome the shift into doing lot’s of roleplay, but it’s really difficult to do that if you have to keep second guessing the content. The story isn’t even that great really. There’s this big reference about a gateway to the Plane of Water, but then the module does basically nothing with that except to use it as a McGuffin to motivate the bad guys.

The best and most talked about part of the entire adventure was when the thief tried to solo kill a dragon only to miss and get charmed. If the high point of a module is two bad dice rolls, then things just are not going well.

CM8 The Endless Stair

Author: Steve Perrin & Katherine Kerr
My Rating: 2/5

As I began reading this module I got really excited, because it looked really well written and designed. As I discover it’s little more than two mini dungeons and a pair of nebulous bad guys my excitement waned.

My first complaint was the bad guys themselves. Both were magic users, and both with Hit Point pools well above what they can realistically have. After some thought I decided to keep the erroneous HP because maybe it was key to the plot or module balance.

There are a few really annoying encounters. Annoying because the encounters look and feel like they are really important elements, yet in truth they are near useless time wasters. It’s frustrating as a DM to arbitrate players wasting a session pulling their hair out over something that’s just wasted space and serves no purpose.

As for the adventure that was there, it too was disappointing. It’s really just a loot grab of high level spells for magic users. The rest of the party get nothing. Given the bad guys are also magic users their equipment (if it is even attained) will amount to nothing too almost anyone other than a magic user. So, if your party magic user is desperately in need of new high level spells then this adventure will be awesome for them.

There are new spells, magical items and monsters, but none are things I’d add into my own game. I do however appreciate that the Book of Marvellous Magic was used for some treasures.

The final battle did seriously challenge the PCs; three died and two were down and bleeding out. In fact the last bad guy wasn’t taken down by the party in so much as he took himself down when he directly targeted a few PCs in one round and their multiple Rings of Spell Turning threw his spells back in his face.

Fun was had, but as I said, the content offered rewards only for magic users, and the XP is also incredibly light. In fact, I changed the way I normally give out XP to just award a base value to everyone, otherwise there might have been a riot.

CM6 Where Chaos Reigns

Author: Graeme Morris
My Rating: 5/5

Aliens with lasers and grenades, does that sound very D&D to you? It certainly sounds like it to me! If you examine the long history of D&D then you understand that delving into alternate realities is a bit of a staple. In fact, one of the Immortal modules takes the players into the modern day.

The thing I really appreciate the author doing here is to make it so the high tech items cannot be picked up and used by the players. The reason why is so fiendishly simple that players are unlikely to work out the trick behind it. However, the author has foreseen that the pretty circuit boards and shiny plastic items are rather unique to the D&D world, so they’ll have value as treasure just for novelty reasons. If the players recognise that themselves then the rewards for the module are fairly high.

The actual story is really solidly written, and each section of the five part story should have the players feel like their characters did something truly heroic. Everything about the plot makes perfect sense when viewed through the eyes of the Immortals, and as a result each step has a perfect place overall.

The challenge varied in intensity which I really appreciated. Many characters came close to death and no-one got out entirely unscathed, which I think is the mark of a well balanced module. Players devised and perfected new tactics to cope with some challenges. Some encounters had epic and memorable events which will be retold. I won’t retell any tales here as I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

The very last stage is the only one I really have much to complain about, but if I had changed it in any way it would have lost impact. All I’ll say is that things get a bit rushed, and stuff becomes very hectic as the entire last part has to be tracked turn by turn just to calculate how much trouble the PCs are in. When tended your wounded might only create more wounded then things really begin to feel hectic.

Over all though I have nothing but praise for the module and the author. It does what every good module should do in that it created memorable stories that cast the characters in the role of world sculpting heroes.

CM4 Earthshaker

Author: David “Zeb” Cook
My Rating: 3/5

I cannot really say anything about this module without a slight spoiler; it’s about a giant mechanical robot. It’s on the front cover, so it’s not really a spoiler. I also just have to say that the physics of Earthshaker wouldn’t be possible without magic, but the author is adamant that no magic is involved and if you want to question the physics then you can shut up, because the physics in his world make it okay. Why not just say some magic was used?

So, is the module any good? Well that depends on what you want out of a module. The contents are really well detailed and Earthshaker makes a very interesting addition to the world. I really like the way the author has foreseen that the PCs might get a little too nosy about it, and has a pretty cool way to deflect and nullify that interest in a very game appropriate way. That’s about where I’ll stop the praise.

There is no real adventure here. What takes place does have a cool sense of urgency, especially if you stage things in a PC domain (as I did). Also, the heavy armoured PCs are not likely to be wearing armour when the events take place, which adds an additional level of threat. But the adventure essentially boils down to just one encounter. Yep, one. That encounter with the surrounding elements will fill an evening’s play but that’s all the mileage you’ll get out of it.

The encounter is challenging, it is fun, and it has a real sense of urgency. If players mess up, the consequences will be dire, and you might face war without a castle. What I really enjoyed was how the weapon mastery system played out. The module was created before weapon mastery was a thing, but I retroactively apply it to all modules. It was really cool seeing the unarmoured dwarf stop and back up, letting the halfling take his usual spot on the front line. He did this because the battle axe is a poor match to face a swordsman with.

There is very little XP for killing the bad guys, and absolutely zero XP from coinage looted. This means that you will have to depart from standard rules to offer the party any XP for the session. Magical loot however is way over the top. I think in Rings of Protection there were 8 rings of protection +3 and two of +4, and even with that the bad guys had terrible AC. The PCs ended the adventure with so much high end loot they were giving +3 weapons and armour to minions.

So it was a lot of fun, and I think the module was really well written, but there just isn’t a lot of content.

CM3 Sabre River

Author: Douglas Niles & Bruce Nesmith
My Rating: 4.5/5

I remember running this module long long ago. My memory of the module was correct, in that it has huge risks and even bigger rewards. The party is going into this a bit under levelled, despite the efforts I made to reward extra XP outside the module rewards. I thought this was going to be a complete party wipe, but the dice sided with the players over and over again on this run.

The story is pretty solid, which is what I have come to expect from Douglas Niles. Everything makes sense and there is a real feeling that the characters are doing something important. On multiple occasions the party have to do more than just kill things, they need to preserve the lives of the innocent while sifting through for the guilty. It lacks a nice write up ending, but any decent GM should be able to ad-lib something nice to close with. Write a close beforehand if you are unsure about your ad-lib skills.

The monsters are truly breathtaking, and this module has really set out to challenge the PCs like never before. There are many dragons, including a mother dragon who is easily the most deadly of all the dragons to date. I thought she would be the first point where the party would have to flee with dead in tow. Damn that dwarf monster hunter and his Quarrel of Stunning that managed to actually stun my magnificent dragon. It’s not just big things though, for example one encounter features three hundred carrion crawlers. Remember each carrion crawler gets 8 attacks and a 20 always hits. I won’t provide spoilers, but I loved how my party managed this quandary by working together as a team.

The module also introduces the Sabreclaw monster, which had a number of interesting mechanics that made them a solid foe for higher level PCs.

Onto the treasure though. This module has substantially more treasure then all other modules before it combined. Enough treasure for ten character levels, and because I needed the party to gain some levels before Master, I let them have the XP (free of the normal one level per adventure limit). To be fair, half the treasure is very unlikely to be found, but still well within the abilities of a party that uses the resources at their disposal (and takes utility spells, not just combat). Imagine, an entire bag of holding being filled to the brim with gems, and that’s just a fraction of the whole. It’s not just coin either, it’s a lot of magical items, some quite valuable, and a plethora of useful potions.

I’m taking half a point off the score because I just cannot feel comfortable with that level of treasure. I did however love seeing the party have to really use their brains to solve some tough situations. The challenging encounters combined with a solid story and the need for players to think makes this one of my favourite modules. I don’t even hate the treasure, because the party would never be ready for Master level without it, other me just saying “Have ten levels”, which always makes players feel like they never eared that XP. My players felt they earned the treasure hordes because they really had to go above and beyond to get through it. Now they just need to work out what they’re going to do with six million-ish gold.