Tuesday, January 14, 2014

D&D Module X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield

D&D Module X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield, is, in my opinion, a true masterpiece. It was published in 1985, a seminal year for the game -- possibly the end of the "golden age" at TSR (among other things, the year when Gygax left the company). Written by Michael S. Dobson, module X10 combines high-level RPG heroics with a world-spanning military campaign, miniature wargaming, and copious connections to the prior history of published adventures.

The module package comes with a 48-page booklet detailing the adventure, a poster-sized hexmap of the entire D&D "Known World" area, 200 cardboard counters for various divisions and legions contesting for that geography, a plastic baggy for carrying the counters, and a 3-panel cover (the inside of which has statistics for all the military forces).

Basically, the situation is this: The "Master", archvillain of the X4-X5 module series, is back -- and he's leading an almost endless horde of nomads and monsters out of the desert to conquer as much of the Known World as he can. The PCs (likely having faced him before) are drafted as Ambassador Plenipotentiaries to travel to the various countries and try to hammer out an alliance that can fend off the Master's armies. Generally in each capital the PCs will be face some quest, challenge, honorable combat, or roleplaying negotiation to sway the nation's leaders -- frequently with desert emissaries present, fighting for the opposite outcome. National alliances are run on a points-based system, and as the PCs travel about, other countries may ally or declare war against them (in accordance with their prior interests and rivalries). While war boils over on a strategic scale, with luck the PCs can put together an elite fighting force to take as a vanguard against the Master -- possibly culminating in an epic man-to-man showdown against the Master and his various allies at the edge of the Known World. The whole thing pretty much rocks.

When I ran module X10, my friends and I were in high school. We'd played D&D pretty heavily on lunch breaks in late grammar school and junior high, but our interests were veering in different directions, and it had gotten pretty rare for us to get together and play D&D anymore. I scheduled a weekend together to play "one more time", planning to use X10 as a grand finale for the D&D characters they'd developed over the prior 7+ years or so. The setup was kind of perfect -- their PCs had adventured against the Master in X4, but not seen his actual defeat in X5 (my roguish players had obtained & read that module in advance, so I aborted running it). Unfortunately, it was simply too big of an adventure to play overnight or on a weekend -- we got about halfway through it, with some good successes on their parts, before our time ran out. It was indeed the last time we ever got together for D&D, and the ultimate outcome for our world was left unresolved. An itch and a curiosity that I've unfortunately never been able to scratch.

Funny aside: When I go Googling for answers to D&D-related questions it's gotten a bit silly on how often this blog by your truly pops up in the results. For example, when I went looking for an image of the X10 map, some odd inclusions were: (a) the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks boxed set contents, (b) various scans of old Thor comics, (c) a photo of an ancient scroll, and (d) Joel Rosenberg's novel The Sleeping Dragon. As it turns out, these were all images from blog-posts here where I incidentally mentioned Module X10 in the past. (In particular, this reminded me that in my first SFKH post from one year ago, Random Wizard mentioned how much that game reminded him of X10 from the same time period. How apt!)

Anyway, Module X10 spans at least 3 scales of action (feeding into my interest in such games): man-to-man roleplaying (regular D&D), tactical wargaming with miniatures (using Battlesystem by Knight Hawks' Doug Niles), and strategic campaign conquest (using War Machine by Frank Mentzer). At the time, I ran the tactical combats (where PCs were present) using Gygax's Swords & Spells system -- now, obviously, I would use my Book of War rules which fix a lot of problems in those older rules. While I'm generally very critical of Mentzer's War Machine rules (for not giving results the same as the D&D game itself), I would agree that in a worldwide campaign of this scale something more abstract must be done to handle the many (many, many) battles where the PCs are someplace else, and so I was using that at the time.

X10 serves as a "bridge" product, intending to be an appropriate denouement to PCs who played through the Expert set (level 4-14) adventures, and introducing them to action at the level of the Companion (level 15+) set and Battlesystem rules; that is, at the scale of kingdoms and empires. X10 contains several high-level monsters from the Companion rules (at least one mega-dragon), a 6-page summary of the War Machine rules from that set, and a list of Companion-level spells usable by the 30th-level Master in personal combat. It also predates the Gazetteer series of 1987-1991, so at the time X10 sketched out the most detailed information on the various D&D Known World nations in publication. 

One of the delightful and loving things about the adventure is the multitude of connections it makes to other adventures before and after -- it might hold a record for adventure with the most references or links to other adventures. When the PCs visit the Grand Duchy of Karameikos (likely their earliest stomping ground), it is pointed out that the Duke likely knows them from their activities in any of the B-level modules: especially B1, B2, B3, B6, and BSOLO. Elsewhere connections are made to almost all of the X-modules: X3 (saving the King of Vestland), X4 and X5 (prior fights against the Master of the Desert Nomads), X6 and X9 (destinations available from the starting city of this adventure), X7 and X8 (actually sub-adventures recommended here as quests for when PCs travel as ambassadors to the Minrothad Guilds!). Even XL1 Quest for the Heartstone gets a nod (the tie-in module to action figures like Strongheart, Warduke, etc., remember them? Now the good members are the comically senile retired lords of the Kingdom of Ierendi). Finally, when the PCs attend the court of the Emperor of Thyatis, his offer is direct, simple, and rather brutal: pledge to move to Norworld -- the region of the first Companion-set module CM1 Test of the Warlords -- establish kingdoms under his sovereignty, and give him everlasting fealty. Then mighty legions of Thyatis are the PCs' to use in war against the Master; what better way to segue into the adventures of the CM-series thereafter?

Now, a few things are a bit wonky with X10. One thing is that it tries to abstract out city action into a singular flowchart with 25 circles and various connecting arrows (i.e., no city maps), and I don't think that it works as well as desired. The other strange thing is how it portrays the Master in the inside illustrations -- they make him look just like Ayatollah Khomeini, the USA's main international bogeyman of the 1980's. In fact, the image behind his henchman Alrethus is pretty much a knockoff of when he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year for 1980. I think when I was a teenager I considered this representation clever, but now the topical political connection seems dated and kind of embarrassing.

So, Module X10: I give it an "A" for ambition, setting, writing, packaging, game-balance, design of the epic war game, design of the unique political alliance negotiation system, respect and connections for prior work, and more. Even though I never played it to completion myself. You could consider structuring X10 as an entire high-level campaign unto itself, including many of the other X-modules as side quests along the way (esp.: X2, X3, X7, and X8). You'd have to make decisions about how to deal with tactical battles (I recommend Book of War), strategic battles (the included War Machine Redux is as good as anything, I suppose), and generally keeping the campaign map set up with all the divisional counters for weeks or months on end (perhaps taped to a wall with sticky material placed under the army counters).

While the dndclassics.com reprint site includes modules X1-7 (along with XL1, CM1, and all the B-numbered adventures), module X10 is not among them. It may be infeasible for it to appear as a digital reprint, given the large poster-sized map and cardboard counters which were intrinsic to the product. For now, your best bet for a copy is to find one in fairly good shape on EBay or the like.

Question: If you ever played module X10 through to the conclusion, what was the result in your game?


  1. I did, in the late eighties. In a one-to-one campaign with a friend, we played a lot of classic modules, inclduing X4 and X5 - and we were fond of war machine system. So when W10 was published, we played it as sson as possible. We had a real blast, combination of adventures, diplomacy and batles was just perfect.

    It was a failure for the charcater anyway, as he wasn't able to stop the Master armies and the evil diplomacy was more successful. So,the Republic of Darokin was reases from our map as such. But, as a Con-like high level fighter, he went to the master lair and killed him. There's no problem which cannot be solved by a good sword.

    After that, we played X11, anoher gem, and the same fighter came back with the powerful magic gem, hegacve to the king of elves in Alfheim, to hlp him drive our the last remains of Master armies.

    Currently, I'm writing my campaign world, including everything I masterized from the last 30 years - so, the Masterwar is still inside.

    1. That sounds great! I really like the prospect of the PCs not winning initially, and having other adventures and coming back later for them. (Feels a bit like the arc in 2nd Chronicles of Covenant.) Pretty ballsy of that one PC to manage taking him out, great!

  2. Wow! This is an intensive write-up. Nicely done. I actually do not remember EVER seeing this module. I bought my first D&D box set (red) in 1984 so I came into it at the tail end of the Golden Age, as you put it. This sounds like something I'll try to pick up at some point...

    1. Yeah, it's really kind of the whole package. Warning: When I like for copies on EBay it's very expensive. (Thanks for the compliment!)

  3. The last game I DM'd was X4/X5, and I would *love* to play this adventure. I bought this back in '85, and was very excited by the sheer amount of stuff when upwrapping the shrink-wrap. Luckily, despite a couple of moves, I still have all the counters for this game.

    However, since I play at the house of the token couple with children in our group, it would be difficult to use the map in-situ. In any case, the board-gamey elements would only appeal to 4 out of 6 of the players. I suppose the movement of forces on the Known World map would be better done on a daily basis between weekly role-play sessions. I could setup the map at home, photograph the map & counters, and do it play-by-email. Interesting possibilities.

    I remember that I was slightly annoyed when first reading this adventure that there was no real explanation of how the Master and Alrethus have come back to life. Of course, if you read through X5, there are two uses of Magic Jar (one in an altar in the Dark Woods, and one in the Temple of Death), and the Master has an equivalent setup in the Hall of the Holy Men. Maybe this kind of magic is very common in Hule? So, I suppose that with all those special powers, the Master could cheat death again.

    Of course, I had made the assumption that the players defeat the Master. However, this was not the case in my game. For some reason, my players decided to take a ride on the Skeletony Boat of Death, and ended up in the Master's personal quarters. I had previously decided that in this extremely unlikely occasion, the Master wouldn't be stupid enough to allow the players to outnumber him, so I gave him a fake body to interact with the players. The real Master was elsewhere, waiting to see what the players would do.

    Sadly, despite some brilliant ideas (a box of horses polymorphed into white mice hurled whilst simultaneous use of Dispel Magic), the players faced a losing battle exiting the Master's lair, setting off all the traps and ambushes on their way out. Only one character (an invisible Thief) lived to tell the tale.

    So in fact, we are now at the perfect position to play X10, and I don't have to even explain how the Master came back from the dead. Though presumably, he won't look like Khomeini. Actually, that's the thing I most disliked. The Master portrayed in X4/X5 is an intelligent and presumably younger man. I had assumed that if he took off his black armour, he would resemble the Master from Doctor Who. In fact, there is no description of his appearance anywhere in X4 or X5!

    In any case, the Master is definitely a special case. In B/X D&D terms, he is at maximum level, but seems to have powers that no 14th level cleric could ever have (the special curse in the Great Pass, control of extra-planar servants, etc.). The module just describes that he has made pacts with creatures from other worlds.

    BTW - didn't you notice that Alrethus is a dead ringer for the late Muammar Gaddafi?

    1. Mark, thanks for telling us about that! I've grappled with a lot of those same issues. It's serendipitous how the Master's return is nicely solved by our players all *not* defeating him in X4/X5. (Maybe Dobson's players also failed and so inspired this sequel?)

      I've also been considering shaving off the strategic element to maybe be run in parallel by other players, in exactly the same way: have players running the armies play-by-email with me sending of photos of the map. Problems there include: keeping the big map set up, or sticking counters on the wall, visibility in a photo, stacking counters and not knowing what's underneath.

      One thing I would say is that while the War Machine works okay for two armies in the field with a couple engagements, even that system is too complicated for the hundreds of engagements happening worldwide in this scenario. I find that I have to radically cut down the decision-steps and also use a computer program to resolve it. Maybe a post on that later.

      And wow, I guess Alrethus really does look quite a bit like Gaddafi, I'm embarrassed that I never noticed that. The illustration even gives him epaulettes that he used to wear on his military uniform. Thanks for cluing me into that!

    2. I started writing up notes on X4 and X5 as a result of my last play, and plan to put them as an addendum to my long non-updated D&D reviews site. The one thing that surprised me is actually how free-form the adventures are. When I did a read-through of the modules as a prelude to DMing, I was surprised to find that despite their reputation, they are not really that rail-roady.
      I could have sworn that at the beginning of the adventure, you were given the task of killing the Master. But in fact, there are no defined initial goals other than investigating what happened to the Republican Army; and if one of the PCs were quested, to find the Temple of Death. What you are supposed to do there is not actually specified. The only connection back to the ongoing war is a few places where the text talks about documents which if they could be returned to the Republic, would really help the war effort.

      Ok, I suppose X4 is rail-roady in that the PCs are assumed to go up the Asanda river to the Salt Swamp, and then across the desert, being given massive hints to where the Great Pass is located. The trick is making the PCs think that they made the decisions :-) But anyway, half of the module is essentially a dungeon adventure!

      Actually, the only question that I have now about X10 is how does the Master suddenly gain 16 levels? Maybe in BECMI terms, he is actually already an immortal creating avatars at will?

      Of course, the real reason for the massive power hike is that we have moved from B/X where you max out at level 14 to BECMI, where you can be level 36 if you wanted. And by this time, the PCs would likely be approaching level 14 themselves!

    3. That's a good observation about X4/X5. I know that when I ran X4 in junior high, as DM I just assumed that PCs headed on a northwest track on exactly the right hex line to hit the Great Pass (and you could say the same for module X1 ocean travel). Lately I've been wondering what would happen if I played a more honest sandbox game with it, with them making more decisions and possibly rolls for being lost and such? But it's an enormous amount of territory covered in that map.

      You're right that X5 is a bit more open-ended. Your comment reminds me a lot of GDQ: at no point are PCs actually tasked with finding Lolth and destroying her in her lair. In fact, she was opposed to the faction that actually started the troubles in the first place.

    4. Regading X4 railroading - to be quite honest, the PCs could wander in pretty much any direction in the desert, but regardless, they still get the same encounters. The important clue that leads them to the Great Pass is that the enormous army that leaves a trail of footprints, rubbish and bodies behind them that nobody could miss. That, and a map that is conveniently found in a Desert Hydra lair (which you would have to pretty much have to draw just before they have the encounter).

      I suppose that since the players don't have a map of the local area, and there is a vague notion of an enemy country over the desert and across the mountains, the players would have to be pretty bolshy if they decided not to take the "approved" route :-)

    5. All true, admittedly the locked-in encounters did always irk me a bit. Perhaps I'd consider fixing the actual army track in advance, and maybe moving the map to the Nagpa lair and explaining the fact that they always run into it by "magic" (or is that the one in the ruin off the trail? I don't have it in front of me).

    6. The thing is, the desert is so large, the chances of the players finding anything by chance is small. As for moving the map to the Nagpa lair (which is the ruin you talk about) - that is probably not a bad idea. It certainly beats "accidentally" finding it in the hydra lair (although that is likely that since it was mentioned in a vision, the Unseen Benefactor plot device was behind putting it there). They would still need to talk to the Dervish leader to make sense of it, probably.

      Personally, I wouldn't sweat it. Who needs to know that these are not random encounters, anyway? The only problem comes when your players want to do something, and you stop them just to fulfill your "story". When I played X4, I have to admit that I would have been disappointed not to play some of the encounters, because they are on the whole, pretty cool. On the other hand, I would have never forced players to do them. For instance, I suppose that the players might have wanted to follow the reserve force into the desert, rather than go up the river. I guess that I would have skipped straight to meeting the caravan. What if they had decided to keep with the caravan route and go to Slagovitch? I suppose a lot of winging would be involved. I would rip off Casablanca to describe that place, and have Hulean agents, etc. But certainly, the war would almost certainly have reached the continent due to the delay in taking the 300 mile trip around the Black Mountains.

    7. Yeah, I think among the most obvious side-trips would be following the trip to Slagovitch. That map location always seemed highly intriguing to me, I wish more (any) detail had been given to it. Also, among the more railroady elements is coming across the front of the army just as it passes in that huge desert; that's probably the hardest element to justify for me.