Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: M1, Into the Maelstrom

About 2 years ago, I got it in my head to do a comprehensive review of the Mentzer-era M-series "Master" level modules. I'm not sure why I focused on this -- I never played any C/M games, but: (a) there's only 5 M-modules, (b) I already owned most of them for some reason, (c) I'd never seen them reviewed by anyone else, and (d) they actually do bring up some interesting issues for D&D adventure design, not solely from the perspective of high-level/dimension-hopping heroes. Now that I've got a platform for this, I'll plan on posting a review each of the next few Saturdays: here's the first one.

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M1: Into the Maelstrom
D&D Master Game, Levels 25-30
By Bruce and Beatrice Heard

Into the Maelstrom has five chapters. The action is set in motion by three competing immortals, as pictured on the module cover: Koryis (lawful god of peace), Vanya (neutral goddess of battle), and Alphaks (chaotic god of death). The unique mechanic in the adventure is that the immortals score points after each encounter based on PC actions, thereby determining who has power to intervene in other scenes. The War Machine (and Sea Machine extension) is heavily used.

Chapter 1, "Into the Maelstrom", is provoked by a toxic plague on Norworld; the PCs are mustered with a war fleet to attack the island barony of Qeodhar, thinking they are responsible. (In actuality this is a trick by Alphaks.) On the trip back, a huge whirlpool sucks the fleet into a far part of the galaxy (!).

Chapter 2, "Flight to the Star Kingdoms", is the longest chapter. The fleet now flies through a peculiar region of starry space that is magically filled with air. They are blown through the southern region of the space, in a series of high-level encounters directly inspired by Homer's Odyssey. (For example, instead of a cyclops island, there is an asteroid with a gargantuan beholder keeping his sheep in a cave.)

In Chapter 3, "For the Glory of the Warlords", the PCs deal with 3 star-kingdoms in the northern part of the space (plus a merchant city and pirate port). Each is detailed briefly with one planet, capital, leader, and military force. The PCs will almost certainly have to conquer one or two of the Star Kingdoms to cross the space to the magical exit on the far side.

Chapter 4, "Back Into the Maelstrom", sees the PCs arrive with their fleet back at the island fortress of Alphaks off the coast of Norworld. They engage a fleet of undead-crewed magical ironclads (basically designed to automatically destroy their fleet). They must then personally penetrate the island, the underground port, pass the huge and deadly vortex to the Sphere of Death, and defeat Alphaks himself in the final chamber. If they do so, a time warp is created such that the original invasion never actually occurred, and their fleet is safe back in its original port.

As usual with the M-series, there are some very interesting ideas and mechanics, but often a very slipshod and rushed, non-playtested execution. In the Star Kingdoms, it's very unclear how sky-ships are required or manage to land on the seas of the various mini-worlds (or how thick the seas are, etc.) The PC fleet keeps running out of food automatically just when a world requires it as a plot point. There's a new "roaring demon" monster at the back, described there as Alphaks himself, but re-used at another point in the adventure. There's an impassable space barrier of "wandering rocks", unclear how thick it is; and a map of the central Great Sea Spiral, clearly shown with arms that could be used to bypass the central danger, and yet the text assumes that the center must be navigated. One of the sky kingdoms has a fleet of flying "phaseships", decked out exactly like German submarines. So, this adventure has interesting ideas, but requires a huge amount of patience and flexibility on the part of the DM.

4 comments:

  1. I'm not really contemplating running an adventure for levels 25 to 30, but I certainly like the general tenor of M1 as described.

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  2. I'm surprised that more people don't seem to have run M1. Maybe people were turned off the by high levels. I got it when I got the Masters and Immortals sets. I should have ignored the Immortals rules and run Alphaks as designed in M1. To allow my players' characters a chance to survive, I let them control their regular characters with the pre-rolled ones. That was interesting for us since I had been stingy with magic items and using the pre-rolled PC equipment and access to their spells really let them have fun in a whole different way.

    I really liked the area with floating continents. It could be a campaign setting in itself.

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  3. I certainly agree that there are some great, imagination-grabbing ideas in the M-series. Execution is pretty frail for my taste, and personally I have real trouble wrapping my head around how they think the "space" geography is supposed to function.

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  4. My understanding is that only one hemisphere was inhabitable and there was a top-down view and another side view to help you with the 3-D aspect of moving around in the airspace.

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