Sunday, November 15, 2009

Companion Modules (part 2)

Just keeping the ball rolling from where we left off (Seahawks game still hasn't started, though I might have to run across the street to get another coffee before it does).

CM6: Where Chaos Reigns is the second of two Companion-level (as in, BECMI Companion set) adventure modules I picked-up Friday. As with CM2: Death's Ride I have never owned, played, or read this module before this weekend...hell, I don't think I've even seen it before!

There's a little British flag on the cover (the kind of thing that probably would have prevented me from purchasing it in my youth as I wanted only un-filtered American TSR produced product on my shelf) and inside it says that it is "from the UK." I'm not sure of the history/meaning behind this, I know (from reading Grognardia) that TSR had its own European/British branch for awhile from whence the Fiend Folio and UK series modules came. But I would have thought it defunct by 1985 (the year CM6 was published), and I certainly didn't think it was involved with BECMI or its attendant modules.

Of course, I've never professed to be a knowledgeable of any gaming history save my own, personal timeline (and even that's a mite foggy at times) so best I don't speculate on such matters.

So as with Death's Ride, CM6:Where Chaos Reigns gets a firm "eh" review from me. But this "eh" is more the balance of the good with the ugly.

First off, much of this module I absolutely love. The idea behind it is pretty cool, and while it, too, neglects the dominion and intrigue aspects one would expect to find in a high-level D&D campaign, it DOES provide an adventurous romp worthy of otherwise jaded and experienced PCs.

The gist is this: in a parallel dimension, a technologically advanced race has used its knowledge of time travel to return to various points in its world's history and stunt/stymie the growth of magic and the power of the various D&D races (humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings) with the end result being their own mundane domination of a potentially nice, D&D-esque world. The Immortals decide to act indirectly by taking the PCs and inserting them into the various points of the parallel word's timestream in order to correct the interference.

So unlike CM2, there is no disconnect between the cover art and the adventure. Yes, at one point primitive elves are going to be fighting cavemen astride mastadons. That's cool.

There IS a disconnect with the title...I don't know who thought it up, but there's nothing chaotic going on at all. Even the Oards (the techno-race) are all LAWFUL and they have carefully tailored (ordered) the world to their liking. If anything, the PCs are attempting to bring a little Chaos/magic back.

The Oards, by the way, are very very cool. Some people may not like their D&D crossed with science fiction, but I am not one of those the right doses it can be great, and this is one of those. The Oards technology is cool without being over-powering (just enough that it puts them on or near par with high level characters). It's challenging without being a big F-You to the players, and while their tech is worthless as "power" in the hands of PCs, it is still valuable as treasure (thanks to it workmanship, precious metals, and gemstones).

I'm a little less pleased with the new monster the Garl. Described as "very primitive humans, more primitive even than neanderthals" they are 10' tall and have 6HD, hitting harder than an ogre (weapon damage +4). In what crazy land are humans descended from THAT? Call 'em proto- or primitive Hill Giants, not humans. Ugh. This appears to simply be a case of "upping the power level to challenge high level characters" (they ride around on mastadons or rocs).

I hate that...I think it's silly that characters get to a certain high level and all of a sudden a new species of crazy-power creatures come out of the woodwork. Where were they before? Why weren't they already conquering the world? This ain't World of Warcraft where one has to reach a certain level to open up a new region! Challenging high level characters needs to be more than new monsters with bigger stats.

Anyway, the garl are a very minor gripe...if I wanted to, I could easily make them neanderthals, or ogres or proto-giants. The adventure itself is very cool and very clever and would make an interestingly little novel, or a fun ride. But ride it is...a ride down the railroad.

I don't own any 2nd edition adventure modules (with the exception of Return to White Plume Mountain) and almost no Dragon Lance modules (I think I picked up one a few months back, just for "historical reasons," but I don't remember even reading it). I have seen some railroady adventures in other RPGs (and WotC adventures), but despite the many stories of ingrained force in later TSR adventures I don't recall reading anything too railroady. But I think CM6 qualifies. Here's why:

- once adventurers start the module, they are committed to the end
- adventurers have no choice BUT to start the module...they are inexplicably drawn towards a nexus that whisks them off into the pre-history of a parallel world
- they have five such stops (mini-adventures) before the module is over. Each must be done in turn, each must be completed before they may move onto the next, none may be accomplished out of order.
- there is no way to return to their old world/time until all five min-adventures are completed.
- even should the PCs wish to stay in a particular time-period, they are inexhorably drawn to the nexus (and the next assignment) once their current mission is complete.
- they are limited in what resources they can take with them (basically limited to whatever equipment & treasure they can carry, though high level characters probably have more in terms of armies, steeds, pets, dominions, etc.).
- even the mini-adventures themselves are very linear (one encounter after another, in order)

The whole as it is, creative as it one long railroad. As long as the players rise to the challenge (and/or the DM fudges a dice roll every now and then) the way in which the adventure is accomplished and the end result are totally ensured by the adventure's track.

Plus, when they DO finally return to their own place and time, "only a few moments have passed" in the classic C.S. Lewis fashion, healed of all wounds, etc.. In other words, there are no real consequences to the adventure, only reward (what XP and treasure they bring back with them)...apparently a reward for allowing their characters to ride the railroad.

So, yeah, in reading and reviewing these two Companion level modules I have to say I am pretty disappointed by what I found. On the other hand, I feel strangely elated...I feel like there are still things to do with both my B/X Companion and B/X adventure modules that have yet to be done. TSR went down a bad track somewhere along the line...I'd say 'round about 1983 or '84 is when it started. And they lost their way. And they paid the price for it (going out of business).

I am not trying to re-claim "magic" or get "lightning to strike twice." But I sure would like to fill in some of the missed potential of this classic RPG. I gotta' grab a coffee before the Seahawks game. Go 'Hawks!

BTW: One more good thing about CM6 -- I mentioned that I really liked how the module handles the Oards. That goes DOUBLE for their various robots and contraptions that simply function like various golems, drolems, and living statues. Now THIS is something I can get behind: there's no reason to come up with a slew of NEW monsters when they can use the exact same stats (perhaps with slight changes) as existing monsters. That is economy of design folks, as well as using one's imagination. I like this a lot.
: )


  1. TSR's UK branch was still in existence until the mid-90's at least, and may have only disappeared when the parent company did. That said, I think they were only a distributor by that point, and I don't recall there being much in the way of original material after the mid-80's.

  2. To bad the Seahawks cannot play the Lions every week.

  3. Late on this one, but too bad you didn't pick up many TSR UK modules back in the day - they were consistently the best ones out there, after the first wave of TSR stuff (keep on borderlands, castle Amber, etc.)

    1. @ Big U:

      I've managed to pick up several over the years...the Salt Marsh trilogy, the Gauntlet pair. They're certainly better than later TSR fare.