Sunday, November 15, 2009

Companion Modules (part 1)

From what I've read around the blog-o-verse, my personal D&D history mimics that of several other geezers...I started with the introductory Basic and Expert sets circa 1981, then gradually incorporated AD&D hardbacks into the game (starting with Monster Manuals) while never actually playing OD&D and THEN with the advent of Mentzer's BECMI set, incorporated some of the "high level monsters" into my AD&D game. 'Cause let's face it, those giant dragons in the Companion set were a sweet challenge to characters wearing displacer cloaks and +5 plate mail of ethereality.

So all things "D&D" fed into AD&D. However, one thing we did NOT do was pick up the later BECMI modules. 'Cause really, how do you convert level 10 elves with Attack Rank E into A&D? For that matter, how do you convert a B/X Halfling to an AD&D thief (the only class for halflings, right?).

Later on, when I "came to my senses" and realized BECMI was so much better and more streamlined, especially for high level play, I faced a couple problems: I no longer had a gaming group (at least, I no longer had one interested in playing D&D of any stripe), and TSR was dead & buried and all the BECMI stuff was out-o-print (yes it took me a long time to "come to my senses").

[side note: I no longer think BECMI is the holy grail, and have reverted back to B/X...a second "coming to my senses" I suppose]

Anyway, I was still able to find copies of the Companion, Master, and Immortal rules (as well as Mentzer's Basic and Expert sets), a few Gazetteers, a Rules Cyclopedia and Wrath of the Immortals. What I've never been able to find were copies of the adventure modules designed for use with CMI part of the BECMI equation (with one Immortal exception, but rendered un-workable by the changes in Wrath of the Immortals).

Well, until this last Friday that is.

That's when I was able to pick up copies of CM2: Death's Ride and CM6: Where Chaos Reigns. There was also a copy of CM3: Sabre River, but it just didn't look that good. Plus it was written by Douglas Niles, who's still on my shit-list for the Dungeoneers Survival Guide. So I skipped it.

Anyhoo, since I don't plan on playing BECMI ever again, one might ask why I bothered picking up ANY of these modules. Several reasons, in fact:

- Curiosity (I've never had my hands on ANY of them)
- Historic Value (we'll see)
- Possible Conversion Potential (to an edition of my choice)

But more than those things, I wanted to see A) what does an adventure module for a level 20+ BECMI character look like and, B) was there anything in there that could help/inform/influence my own on-going B/X Companion project.

So now I've read both and I could provide my capsule opinion/review (having playtested neither):

Eh. Not all that great.

Let me break it down by module:

CM2: Death's Ride might have been a good "introduction" module to include with Companion boxed set, if they had bothered to include a module (as both the Basic and Expert set did). Of course, it makes a few references to CM1: Test of the Warlords in it, so maybe THAT fabled adventure would be the better intro. But why make two "introductory" modules? I don't know.

But "introductory" is what CM2 feels like; it does a lot of "showcasing" of the new rules and systems in the Companion set. There's a mass combat battle. There's a chance to use the wrestling rules (everything has its Wrestling Rating in the stat line, too). There's one of those giant dragons. There's a host of the new undead monsters from the Companion set (to challenge high level clerics). There's an evil Magic-User (to blast players with new spells). There's an evil Cleric (to do the same!). There's a hydrax and a beholder and a ton of manscorpions, and a worm hole to another plane.

There's also some new monsters not present in the Companion set including something called a death leech which I can't see as anything other than a big F-You to the players. It's an 8HD undead that only turns as a Special. It mimics normal folks until it attack when it transforms into a blob that hits as if characters had an AC 9. Any hit immobilizes its opponent (no save) and then continually drains 1d10 hit points per round till its victim is dead (save every round for half damage).

These things are present throughout the one room there's ten of 'em! I'm not sure how a normal party of adventurers would not simply be immobilized and killed in one such encounter...especially as the monster is not one present in the regular rules and so would be completely unexpected/unprepared for.

Other than THAT little jewel, the adventure is set-up kind of like a large site-based adventure. Your party goes to a barony to find out "what's wrong." There are several different "mini-dungeons" around the Barony to explore or interact with. They do not have to be dealt with in a particular order, but the adventure will not be completed/solved unless each "lair" is ransacked and its "big bad boss" killed. Of course that encounter with the ten death leeches? That happens at the FIRST encounter site, prior to going to any of the several mini-lairs (in other words, when 1st trying to investigate what's going down). Hmmm.

I guess the main thing that bugged me about the module (besides the death leeches) is that it didn't feel much like a high-level, Companion adventure. It felt more like an Expert level could reduce the power levels of the encounters (a regular blue dragon instead of a huge one; lesser undead instead of drujes and odics; etc.) and the game would be no more challenging. It's basically a very mild "whodunnit" of the D&D which I mean, once you figure out the who, justice is rendered swiftly (after the fashion of the Charlie Manson Special).

Where's the battling armies? The legendary opponents? The courtly intrigue?

Eh, it's interesting as long as the BECMI players all have "wandering type characters." There's not much call for those who've settled down to rule dominions.

Three last notes about the module (I find these exceedingly interesting):

- the module includes stats for all the noteable NPCs of the barony, both living and deceased (right down to the four squires (levels 1 through 4!) of the baron). The assumption appears to be that high level characters are going to be fairly liberal with the raise dead spells.

- specific treasure troves are not given. Monsters have things like "120,000 gps worth of treasure, 1d4 potions and 4 other magic items." Some folks might think, 'oh, it's customizable for the particular party,' or 'oh, it changes every time you play.' To me it seems a trifle of the things I wanted to see is how a Companion-level module justified huge amounts of treasure. Still waiting on that.

- without exception, every pre-generated character is Lawful in alignment. The brief blurb for each describes them in heroic terms. I find this very interesting considering my recent thoughts on alignment. Is the author attempting to say something here? Like: only "heroic" characters can achieve heroic levels of experience?

O...and one more gripe. Despite the cover, nothing ever rides the blue dragon. Nor does it wear some sort of chain. Total disconnect between the cover art and the adventure.


  1. There are several CM modules at my FLGS, along with N1 and I1. I'm tempted to pick up the N1 and I1, as I love low level adventures. I'm not a fan of high-level play. Once players get to about 12th level, it becomes increasingly difficult to throw an encounter at them that doesn't feel completely fabricated.

  2. Good luck finding N1 and I1. I just picked up N1 and it is the first time I've held a copy in my hands since I was 10 years old...more than a quarter-century ago!

    I'm not sure what you mean by "fabricated;" aren't all encounters fabricated? Or do you mean the encounters fabricated for lower level characters don't FEEL fabricated while encounters for higher level characters do? Because unless the encounter is determined by random dice roll (e.g. wandering monsters), they have to be fabricated to exist.

  3. Not to put words in his mouth but I think that by "fabricated" he means exactly what you say in your next post:

    This is appears to simply be a case of "upping the power level to challenge high level characters"

  4. Test of the Warlords is a great high level module in that it is primarily about carving out a domain for yourself with a few high level mini-adventures mixed in with the usual carnage and politics of said feat.

  5. @Dyson: Test of the Warlords is one I've long wanted to purchase but have been to date unable to find, It sounds like the kind of thing I was hoping for with CM2 and CM6 (but which I didn't get!).