companion

Continuing in our review of the “classic” D&D sets developed in the ’80’s, submitted for your approval is the D&D Companion Set. I stumbled on this set some years after its release. Recall that I’d abandoned D&D for the, I believed, more complete and versatile AD&D system. What was the difference? Several more expensive books was the answer at the time. The most notable with the D&D system were fewer initial classes and races than AD&D.

Also more interestingly, the Companion Set (written as well by the ever impressive Frank Mentzer), introduced sub-classes for higher level characters. Before I get ahead of myself, The Companion Set was written with level 15-25 players in mind. It consisted of two books, similar to the Basic Set, a player’s companion and DM’s companion.

The idea was that those adventurers who had tired of good old fashioned dungeon crawls and wilderness campaigns would graduate to a more sophisticated level of play.

So they built strongholds and castles? They were still bound to serve the local lord. What happened when they wanted to become their own lords and build and manage their own dominions. The Companion set offered that outlet and its initial module (CM1 Test of the Warlords) was designed to compliment it completely.

The Dominion Rules were very impressive, but not as impressive as the early Battle Rules for mass combat. This was the precursor/alternative material to the eventual slew of AD&D Battlesystem product. It’s much easier and simpler for mass combat, though and was mimic’ed in other game systems to some degree.

Also included were things like unarmed combat (never a strong area in any of the D&D or AD&D rules in my humble opinion), a whole passel of new weapons, the afore-mentioned subclass specializations for the variouos “classic” character types and of course a selection of new monsters and bigger dragons to keep the players interested and heavily involved in killing. Curiously, one can almost look at the high-rank subclasses as precursors for the epic level special classes in later D&D editions. The intent appears to be identical.

As a player, this set really expanded, in a codified fashion, the world in which your player could develop. Now he could strike out on his own. He or she could still adventure or they could settle down and try to govern a realm. There were lots of new weapons, magic and equipment including a great selection of spells (Dungeons & Dragons always possessed some of the best spell lists). The specializations made up for the shortage of starting from Level 1 secondary classes like Rangers, Paladins, Druids and the like. Now they could be in the game, but they all had to be quite high level to start. I’m still wrapping my head around all of it years and years later. 🙂

For the DM, the Companion Set was just more ammo to build up a growing arsenal of material for a DM who wanted to take his campaign to the next and much more epic (not in the 3rd or 4th Edition sense) level. The dragons continue to improve and I think are far superior to the AD&D dragons. These guys just got bigger and bigger and thus actually provided a challenge. A continual point of agitation for players and DM’s alike in our area was how easy dragons were to kill. The Companion Set made that a little bit less of a concern.

The “Dominion” rules were something I’d lived for. Being an old wargamer at heart, the ability to conduct battles with my players in the mix and at the same time do some turn-based area development was more than enough to get me by until Civilization first graced the screens of Windows 3.1. I always considered the “War Machine” system in this set one of the simplest and yet most adaptable of the mass combat systems I’ve run across. Maybe that’s why it was as successful as it was.

The increased magic items didn’t hurt and there was, with CM1 an introduction to a new Mystara area, Norwold. It was an untamed land ripe for conquest. If you didn’t have a wilderness in your campaign, TSR provided. This is another element I loved about old D&D and its supporting module sets. It really helped the overworked, overtaxed or just plain lazy DM with fresh material with very little need to port it to your home campaign setting (and again we all had those).

Finding the Companion Set restored my faith in that line and eventually led me to get the Compendium Rules, but more on that later. Because of the wealth of material that was thrown in these books and their supporting modules, I felt more prepared and more intrigued as a collector and a DM than with most any other TSR game. They never supported their other products like they did the whole Dungeons & Dragons line. Not surprising, but the differences in support weren’t even close to being minor. They were huge.

I sometimes read the background material in this set for amusement and nostalgia. It’s a masterful work and honestly I think they could’ve stopped here and I’d have been happy. But players never stop, so game companies never stop writing for them. That will bring us, shortly, to our next candidate for review.

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