Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review: M4, Five Coins for a Kingdom

M4: Five Coins for a Kingdom
D&D Master Game, Levels 28-32
By Allen Varney

Five Coins for a Kingdom is something of a recovery from the feeble module M3. It definitely has some interesting ideas and a creative spark by author Allen Varney. The cover and interior artwork is excellent and unique, by the team of John and Laura Lakey. I'm not sure that all of the ideas work in the context of a D&D game; I'll discuss those in detail below.

The guiding plot of the adventure is that on another plane, a group of five good wizard-kings are at war with an evil archmage named Durhan. This evil wizard has managed to imprison the good wizards and cast a spell to make their entire capital vanish and fly into space. The PCs will have to travel to this foreign realm and save the day.

The adventure has five chapters. Chapter 1 is "A City Vanishes", in which the PCs' beloved city (presumed to be their capital in the Norworld campaign setting) initially vanishes, as a ripple-effect of the evil wizard's spell in the other dimension. However, at this time they see five magic coins shoot down from space (sent as a last act of warning from the good wizards, and keys to enter their dimension).

Chapter 2 is called "Hard Work for Small Pay", wherein the PCs recover the five coins from several wilderness sites around the location of their vanished city. Here they'll meet a sphinx family, a watery ghost, an underwater devilfish tribe, and a mercenary mountain giant on a mission to kill a blue dragon.

In Chapter 3, "Arrival in Eloysia", the PCs use the coins to travel to the other planar realm. The capital has vanished except for the protected residences of the five wizards, where they can find assistance and clues to their hidden prison, and finally free the good wizards and escape from immediate danger.

Chapter 4, "Against Durhan" has the PCs move against the evil ultra-wizard himself; here, they need to marshal and lead the good wizards' army against his invasion forces. This includes an entire War Machine mass-combat scenario (which you may or may not like, depending on your taste for those rules).

Chapter 5 is called "Into the Sun". After victory in the realm of the good wizards, they return home to find that their own city is still in danger, specifically, having been flung into their own Sun. They must travel to the heart of the sun and negotiate with the ruler there in order to return their home city.

Now, I've avoided the overall structure of the planar realms until this point, but you may have just gotten a clue from the title of the last chapter. My main dispute with this adventure is that the otherworldly locations don't feel like high fantasy -- they feel more like sci-fi, and are detailed and explained in that way. For example, the good wizards' plane of Eloysia is an inverted solar system -- space outside the solar system is not a vacuum, but solid matter. Within the open sphere of the solar system is a sun, surrounded by thousands of small flat asteroid-nations facing that sun. The closest region is for mining; a middle region used for agriculture; the outer realms for cities and high culture. Rainstorms and giant fishlike creatures cycle through the space. If you fall off the edge of a realm, the solar wind propels you to fall thousands of miles to the solid boundary of the system.

So, overall, this is fairly imaginative, but the whole setup feels a bit too mechanical and scientific for my tastes. The evil wizard's spell has both vanished the good wizards' city and sent its chunk of rock flying towards the sun, so the events in Chapter 3 occur as a hot sun grows larger in the sky minute-by-minute. The mass combat in Chapter 4 is set around the evil wizard having snared his dark realm to the good wizard's realm via miles-long cables and grappling hooks (so the armies are actually fighting on top of the cables, with hosts falling off into the abyss, which is a pretty cool idea). In Chapter 5, numerous physical details of moving through outer space and the physics of the Sun are presented (such as density, pressure, sunspots, and darkening wavelengths of light as PC's travel to the center). Is it reasonable to have the Sun be a more dangerous setting than the Elemental Plane of Fire, for example, in a D&D campaign? I'm not so sure that's the right move.

There are some good things in this adventure. The theme of the five coins (the five monetary types in D&D; the five wizards using what tokens they have, being imprisoned in their own treasury) is very effective. The different wizard characters are pretty well developed in the text (although I'm not sure how effective that will be in the course of play). There's a great scene where the PCs have to wrest leadership of the good wizard's army from a group of painfully, aggravatingly too-Lawful Archons.

There are also some things here that don't work well, starting with the sci-fi environments mentioned above. One thing is that there's several action scenes where the DM is encouraged to "let the PCs act if they wish", but in the end is told that absolutely nothing they do will have any effect on the proceedings (for example, the fairly long initial city-vanishing scene). Personally, as a gamer-centric DM, I think that's bad form. There are numerous places which exhort everyone to do some character-oriented roleplaying, but it never really has an affect on the adventure itself. There are suggestions for "random encounters", without any specified encounter chances, intended to slow up the PCs if they're doing too well (and likewise help that shows up at certain points just in case they're failing).

There's also an evil artifact being used by Durhan which is a belt that shoots hundreds of golden caps, connected by a network of wires, to control lesser wizards and suck their power into the evil wizard. The whole concept seems incredibly clunky and, again, more like a science fiction idea than magical fantasy.

So, in summary: M4 has some interesting ideas and a clear creative spark. Overall, however, I don't think it would work in the kind of D&D campaigns that I have personally run in the past.

3 comments:

  1. I have to admit I have little conception of what it is like to run level 28-32 player characters (my mind boggles at the prospect), but it does sound like an interesting sort of adventure, if quite a bit of a railroad. I am not sure that the "science fantasy" elements are really inappropriate, but I guess it depends exactly how they are presented, and I also rather like Spelljammer, so I might be biased. Interesting review, at any rate.

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  2. Hi! I wrote "Five Coins for a Kingdom"; sorry I'm late in finding your review. Thanks for your comments. That was one of my first full-length works, and I'm afraid my inexperience shows. I understand your point about the tone of science fantasy; I was trying to come up with settings new even to longtime players with the highest-level characters. I hope the unusual nature of the story at least held your interest.

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  3. Allen, I'm flattered that you dropped by! Your design in the M4 most certainly held my interest, and it required some serious thought to decide how I finally felt about it. When I think of the D&D modules from that era, it definitely stands out as one of the most unique and memorable. I'm glad it's out there for consideration.

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