Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: M5, Talons of Night


M5: Talons of Night
D&D Master Game, Levels 20-25
By Jennell Jaquays

Talons of Night is probably one of the best overlooked gems of the D&D game. It has some of the most imaginative settings and situations I've ever seen in a high-level D&D module, usually depicted in a small number of pages. It's written by Jennell Jaquays, who also did all of the interior illustrations (and also authored the famed Judges' Guild adventure Dark Tower, co-developed Twilight Calling, Egg of the Phoenix, Forests of Alfheim, Top Ballista, and the humorous version of Castle Greyhawk, among others).

This M5 adventure is driven by the event of a great peace conference between the competing empires of Thyatis and Alphatia. The PCs are sent from their domains in Norworld to hunt for ancient documents settling the ownership of that region, along with an artifact known as the Peaceful Periapt of Pax. Later, the leaders of the empires are kidnapped by the forces of Chaos into another plane of reality, and the PCs must rescue them. The adventure has 3 distinct sections.

Part 1 is called "The Quest for Peace". Here, the PCs are sent on the initial mission into Thothia on the Isle of Dawn (a territory between Thyatis & Alphatia composed of many minor kingdoms). Thothia is based on ancient Egypt. It's ruled by a decadent pharaoh who is married to an immortal spider-woman, herself the daughter of an evil spider demi-goddess. The PCs likely search the old library in the capital Edairo, then are chased inland up a dangerous river to the ancient Temple of the Dawn. There they meet the pharaoh's vampire ancestor and play him in a novel "Spider's Web" boardgame (based on Mill or Nine Men's Morris); each victory reveals a clue to the future of the adventure.

In Part 2, "Against Aran", the PCs have learned that the Periapt of Pax is guarded by the Night Spider somewhere in the uplands north of the temple. This region of forest, hills, and plains are populated by contentious clans of phanaton and aranea. In order to search all the aranea villages, the PCs are encouraged to muster the phanaton into mass fighting units using the War Machine rules. When the PCs finally find the capital Aran and attack the Night Spider in a miles-long webbed pit underground, they find themselves forced to play the Spider's Web game again, this time for their lives and the artifact prize.

Part 3, "Journey into Night", is one of the most dizzying adventure sequences I've seen in a D&D game. The PCs go to the peace conference to find the emperors kidnapped and themselves framed for the deed. They return to the Night Spider's pit to find a gate to the world of Thorn. This world is a giant splintery thorn-bush in distant space; it is the original homeworld of the phanaton and phase spiders who dwell in peace there. (Two side-effects occur in Part 3: every new world has its time passing at 10 times the previous one, and the life-force is sucked out of the PCs, leaving them as zombie-like creatures.) On Thorn the PCs battle the extraplanar home fortress of the vampire pharaoh, his queen, and the Night Spider. Then they find another gate to "Chasm ", a frightening world of evil clinging to the side of a colossal cliff. Here there is a giant volcano shaft filled with evil slime, and a cube-world suspended on a black ray of life-sucking energy. In this setting the PCs must ascend into the cube world and play a tessaract-like variant of "Spider's Web". Victorious, the PCs find another gate to the "Isle of Night", an extradimensional shrunken toy-version of the Isle of Dawn, where the zombified-emperors fell in love and founded a kingdom some 400 years in the past. Finding their crypt, the PCs can recover sealed packets of flesh, return home by the power of the artifact, and make use of a clone spell to recover them.

Phew, got that? This is all in the course of 6 pages of text for Part 3 alone. (!) But we're not done yet…

At the end, there is an "Epilogue" which is a unique game unto itself. Here the PCs role-play all the various factions in the peace conference, with points awarded to each depending on their individual priorities and goals. If everyone ends happy (sufficient points), then peace prevails. If not, the D&D world is plunged into war for decades thereafter.

As you can tell, Talons of Night represents a true D&D auteur at the height of her powers of imagination, game-mechanics mastery, and even artistic flair. The games-within-games (such as the Spider's Web boardgame, the phanaton-versus-aranea War Machine campaign, and the Epilogue peace conference rules) seem to be extremely solid and well thought out. Jaquays' interior illustrations do more to capture the flavor of her wild settings than most other adventures I can think of.

Now, here are the few critical notes I can think of. One, I'd wish the adventure were longer to more fully expand on the worlds of Thorn, Chasm, and the Isle of Night (which only get 1 or 2 pages each as written). Two, the author perhaps over-uses the Spider's Web game (using the basic theme and layout in at least 5 different encounters that I can count). Three, the module also has one of the most spectacular covers in D&D publishing history, with an atomic-powered Cthulhu-like monster blasting an entire kingdom to ruins. However, that image has nothing to do with the adventure inside. (Similarly, there are references to Alphaks and Night – chief hierarch of the immortal Sphere of Death – but neither makes any appearance in the actual adventure.)

Those quibbles aside, Talons of Night stands as a truly impressive adventure that stands head-and-shoulders above others in the same publishing line. I'd like it to serve as a model for what high-level and extra-planar D&D adventures should look like. It's highly motivated me to seek out other adventures by Jaquays.

If you're interested, you can use the affiliate link at the bottom of the page to get D&D Module M5 (and help support the Wandering DMs channel at the same time).

Update 2021a: We got a chance to talk with Jennell Jaquays on the Wandering DMs talk show, and I made a point to ask her about her experience and process in writing this adventure in particular. Fascinating answers!

Update 2021b: And as an added bonus, here's Jennell's cover art from Dragon Magazine #175 (November 1991), depicting her campaign world setting of Thorn -- which arguably would have made a more fitting cover for the M5, Talons of Night, adventure module.

 Talons of Night at DriveThruRPG

6 comments:

  1. Hey, just stumbled upon your excellent reviews.
    A question about this one - on the cover it says it's for 20-25, but inside it says it's for 25-30.
    It also says it is intended as a sequel to M3, which is the highest-level module for levels 30-35. So on paper, without adapting, it should be easy for characters, or those same characters would have done M3 at away lower level than intended.
    Any insight here?

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    1. That's a good catch and a good question. I don't have any experience running D&D at those levels, so your guess is as good as mine. I think even the publishers at that time were mostly just guessing what would look good on the cover.

      From the same era you can find the AD&D H4 module (by Niles & Dobson), with a cover level of 18-100, and a manifesto inside that there's little practical difference between any two levels in that range. So if that was the prevailing thought at TSR at that time, maybe they just didn't care at all. (?)

      So you'll probably have to gauge this yourself if you run it. Just judging from the amount of care put into the modules, if I had to pick one to trust a bit more, I'd pick Jaquays' module here. I love Moldvay's work in general, but M3 looks like either he was given zero days to work on it, or someone else hacked his worked into itty-bitty giblets.

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  2. This question may be colored by the fact that I've never played 0D&D or 1e, and it's a long time I played 2e. What I do not get is the sea journey at the beginning of the adventure, that seems to present encounters with other ships or loss of normal sailing crew as a challenge to the party -- why would characters of 20th plus level even bother with all that? Should they not all be able to teleport, air walk or whatever at that level to get anywhere? Am I biased by what 5e characters of 20th level would be able to do?

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    1. You might have a point? Although the specific spells you mention aren't great options. Teleport in early editions has a 25% for instant death when the destination is not well-known in advance (see my blog article on teleport: that's from the Alfred Bester novel "The Stars My Destination" with its "blue jaunts"). Air walk doesn't exist in that edition; it has a "Travel" spell that's analogous but only lasts a few turns.

      But there might be something else I'm overlooking. My PCs tended to have pegasi, flying carpets, etc. by around name level. Wish is on the standard spell roster, but that edition tries to restrict it in some ways.

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    2. The way the Master rules handle Wish is interesting, in that they basically make it the one (and only) 10th level spell without explicitly calling it 10th level. Which is to say, it still occupies a 9th level "slot" and is on the 9th level spell list, but you're not allowed to learn or cast it until you're 36th level. Since none of the adventures are targeted for maximum-level characters, Wish is off the table unless someone has saved up a Ring of Wishes from a previous adventure - and they probably don't want to use it up just to make mundane travel more convenient.

      On the other hand, airships explicitly exist in the World of Mystara, and it's definitely in the realm of possibility that a Master-level character might own one. Heck, a wizard might have even created one him- or herself, considering BECMI has more well thought-out enchantment rules than any other classic edition.

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    3. Oh, good memory! I'm sure I saw that at one point, but I never played BECMI that high level, so I wouldn't have recalled that.

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