Classic D&D Module Reviews – Master Levels

Thanks to the boost from Sabre River we can continue into the Master level modules. Basic tends to be about doing dungeons, expert takes players into wilderness exploration, while Companion mostly surrounds player kingdoms. Master goes beyond all of that and starts getting serious about going to other planes of existence.

M1 Into the Maelstrom

Authors: Beatrice and Bruce Heard
My Rating: 0/5

Just a couple of pages in and I’m thinking to myself; “So this is where Spelljammer started.” That said, I would not under normal circumstances ever run this module as part of a campaign. You can run this for a party who are a part of a larger fleet, or if the party meets a certain bar then they can bring their own fleet and troops. Of course my party wanted to go all in so I outlined the requirements. In short, you need an army of fighting men at least 4000 strong and a big enough fleet to carry them, which means a fleet about as large as Minothad and Irendi combined. It’s a ridiculous requirement, but after two entire gaming sessions and 3.5 million gold spent, the party was ready.

Was that expenditure worth it all? Absolutely not. The fleet will be destroyed unless your party has access to entire flights of dragons and other over the top oddities. Some ships will be sunk out of hand with no chance to save it, just because an immortal wanted to. If you do get a saving throw, expect to be rolling at -10, or to have to roll so many times that failure in near certain. If your party doesn’t mind losing agency, then things are not too bad, but otherwise it’s a nightmare.

It must have a great story for all this trouble right? Well if you are familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts then you know the story, it’s just a re-skinned version of that. Instead of a Cyclops you have a beholder, that sort of thing. Gods play with the fates of the party in the same manner and things work on the idea that if things can go wrong, then they will go wrong exponentially worst than you thought they could.

You would think that something on this scale would have some good rewards. XP was pitiful, and there’s almost zero loot. With Immortals in play you would at least expect a nice magical item or two, but that isn’t the case either. The only reward of any consequence is that the immortal with whom you have gained the most favour, will offer to sponsor you for the journey to immortality. Too bad if his or her path doesn’t suit your character, you get nothing. Oh, there is a minor award from the king, for which my party said could go to the families of the lost troops who had to serves months of labour only to die in a pointless battle.

By far the worst adventure to date, and though it might have an interesting encounter here and there, the journey just isn’t worth it. I understand that when immortals are involved you can expect to be stuffed around a bit, but this adventure takes things too far for my liking.

M2 The Vengeance of the Alphaks

Authors: Skip Williams
My Rating: 3.5/5

Well this adventure was a lot more fun than the previous one, but that’s a pretty low bar. Here we have a solid story with a logical series of encounters. Some of those encounters are blisteringly difficult, and for one of the first times since the Basic levels, the party actively planned to avoid one encounter they deemed too risky. That’s all good, players shouldn’t have the expectation that everything is there to be defeated.

My only real issue is that this adventure relies heavily on the mass combat system with the PCs being the glue to hold it all together. I was very happy when my party used powerful divination to predict enemy troop movements, because otherwise their military units would be constantly on the march following the conflicts, rather than being able to be there for the big event. Remember, this is a fantasy world, you cannot see where the invaders are on the nightly news broadcast, you have to wait for news to arrive (usually by horse) which can take days.

So while it was a solid adventure, pacing becomes seriously challenged when you bring mass combat into things. So much time is wasted on drawing up forces to build to a climax that is generally one or two dice rolls and that’s it. I do love that this version of D&D has the mass combat rules, but as a DM I find the time inputted into them is rarely worth the rewards in play.

In short, the PCs did get an adventure out of this, but it was weighed down by bad pacing. I think if you didn’t have a party who worked out how to predict troop movement, then the middle of the module would make them furious; maybe it’s meant to. I also commend the author for taking magic into account when creating the end encounter, as it made things a lot more interesting. Definitely worth playing, but not anywhere near my top picks.

M5 Talons of the Night

Authors: Paul Jaquays
My Rating: 3/5

While the adventure was okay, it was filled with rookie DMing errors. It kind of proves that the people doing the proof reading are either not D&D players, or they feared to offer negative feedback.

The story is actually quite fine; go recover an artifact to help bring peace to Norwold. Shame the artifact doesn’t seem to actually do anything, the peace is really decided by a big Summit. Rescuing two key personnel for the summit seems to have more impact. The location the PCs will be journeying in is described fairly well so it can be easily used later by the DM to set new adventures. I also liked some of the NPCs who were the only shining light in some encounters

There are two major issues I had with the story, the first being that the writer wasn’t able to correctly perceive what powers a Master level party has. For example, language difficulties are a common theme, but there are many forms of magic that can overcome that limitation, including the Mystic ability to Speak with Anyone. The author had mystics in the module, so he should have foreseen this potential. Then there is the quests themselves, that hinge on the party being able to find something. I had to repeatedly pull the lame “Some Immortal must be blocking it,” excuse for why PC powers like Find the Path couldn’t be used.

The other massive issue which I have to define as a rookie error, is that there are a couple of times there are huge information dumps for the players to sift through. I like making players research things, but from personal experience you have to be careful how much trash information you include. In this case the party wasted a lot of time on useless information and missed the application for the actual key information. I cannot blame them, the key information is very vague (as are all the provided clues) and how to use that information really isn’t revealed in a meaningful way. In the end, the PCs used two wish spells to gain the information they needed.

Then there’s the boring fights, an odd and kind of silly board game that gets forced on the party a few times, and so much more. The module says certain NPCs will retreat after taking x% damage, but they were so weak that one attack or series of attacks would place them well beyond dead. The fighter Smash attack really didn’t seem to be understood by the writer. The module also fizzles at the end, when the party takes roles in a peace summit, which was amazingly anti-climatic given all that came before.

It was such a hard module to run because I was constantly trying to counter spells and abilities which would totally destroy the difficulty level of the adventure. The writer had a story suitable for Master level, and they are clearly proficient content creators, but there are just way too many errors which are common to rookie DMs and it spoilt the experience for both DM and players.

M4 Five Coins for a Kingdom

Authors: Allen Varney
My Rating: 4/5

The author is clearly a regular DM and player. The writing shows a self awareness and is filled with additional notes and safety mechanisms for aiding the party when they get stuck. Believe me, the party will get stuck so it was really great to have the fixes already in place.

The adventure is basically a purely problem solving adventure and what few fights there are can easily be handled by a party of this level. In truth, you could probably just adjust a few encounters and it would run for a lower level party. There is basically zero rewards in coin or magic items so you won’t be getting XP from that either. Thankfully the author did as I often do in modules, and offers XP rewards based on the activities of the characters.

Where things really fall apart for me is in the last chapter, where things become seriously insane and totally breaks normal role play conventions. The first hint came when the text you read out to players references Earth, as in our Earth, not the game world planet. It then sends the characters into space, and somehow fantasy characters are meant to understand what it takes to live in space. The ‘advisor’ supplied comes from a world that doesn’t even have the vacuum of space, so how is he/she going to offer advice? Anything they offer would instantly kill the characters.

I really liked the concept, but that whole last chapter becomes an exercise in mathematics and hard science, it has no place in a fantasy adventure.

M3 Twilight Calling

Authors: Tom Moldvay
My Rating: 3/5

Finally we come to the very last module I intend to review, and it’s by … *sigh* … Tom Moldvay. If you’ve been reading my previous reviews you’ll know that I’m really not a fan of Moldvay’s work. This isn’t to say he’s a bad author, his style is simply incompatible with my preferred style. Neither is right or wrong, just different. That said, I do tend to see a laziness in Moldvay’s writing which I still see here, with poor or incomplete stat blocks and just badly proofed work. I think my favourite typo from this one was something like “Holding his chin in his head”. Sure, it’s kind of obvious that ‘head’ should be ‘hand’, but when dealing with encounters on other planes it pays to double check!

Good news is that this module is considerably better than Moldvay’s previous work. Sure it amounts to a basic fetch quest, but that’s a pretty common trope in adventures so no foul there. You’ll have to do some work as a DM to breathe some life into the encounters, because there are many fine NPCs but they need some finessing to make them interesting. What’s really refreshing is that many encounters are pure roleplay encounters which is a nice change.

The overall balance of encounters in mostly right, though it gets a bit silly at times. For example, if you want an encounter that teaches PCs to back down and run away, don’t make the encounter instantly fatal to half the party. When players see something new they tend to want to have a go at it, and in this case it can lead to a total party wipe in one to two attacks. X3 Curse of Xanathon did this well by having the hubris of the bad guy mean he plays with the PCs and revels in his own power, thus meaning the PCs have time to process that they are not yet ready for that encounter.

One of the things I have consistently criticised Moldvay for was his incredibly generous rewards in the form of both coin and magic items. As I neared the end of the module I was surprised that so far the money rewards were a little over 1.5 million, which is very high, but forgivable at this level of play. Magic items gained was only a single potion of Cureall which the party earned through good play. *Spoiler ahead* Then we reached the end and everything got a royal Moldvay-ing. Each character gets their own personal plane of existence and elevation into the ranks of the Immortals. If they refuse that they get a random potentially game breaking power. As this was the end of the module and thus the end of the campaign I let the results stand and everyone had a chat about how their characters would retire. I’ll post a summary of those results in another post.

The End

Thus ends the campaign to play through the entire BECM range of modules. We might return one day to do the Immortal modules, but the step into immortality should be a massive achievement on it’s own.

I have personally learnt a great deal about writing modules by finding what I liked and disliked from each adventure. It was also a reminder that things were definitely different in those early days, both in play style, and the style of the maps and other graphics. Now people expect full colour pages on every page, but in the old days only the cover got the full treatment. It truly was early times and people were just winging it.

It was also a reminder that Classic D&D still holds up exceptionally well, though like all systems there are places which could stand a little going over. In particular, the power creep in D&D has to be seriously monitored, or else characters can become way overpowered. All classes felt valuable and balanced with two exceptions; the druid and the mystic. The Druid felt under powered, as they give up so much in exchange for a handful of spells which tend to be highly situational. This was fixed for the most part by just giving back the ability to Turn Undead. Mystics on the other hand are exceptionally over powered, with no real fix which I can see just yet, and I’m tempted to make them NPC only which would fit their ethos better.

So that’s it. My reviews are just my opinion, but hopefully there’s enough information there that you can tell if a module might suit your tastes even if I hated it.

Happy gaming folks!