Wrapping up my brief look into Frank Mentzer and Gary Gygax’s revamping of the Dungeons & Dragons line in the early to mid 80’s, I’ll briefly discuss the last two sets in the line. I’m discussing them together because of my basic interpretation of their existence. It was to give “god” level characters something to do.

When you’re big enough to run a nation, why would you adventure? The nation needs you after all and if you walk away from it, bad things can happen. When you’re bigger than a nation or group of nations, then what? Do you still do dungeon crawls or trek through the wilderness? Only if you want to lay waste to whole areas at once with massive level powers. Save for the occasional monty haul gamer (do people still use that term besides me?), I imagine that would get boring fast for the majority of you.

So….Frank and Gary decided to do us all a favor and give our intrepid characters something bigger than dungeons and forests full of orcs to be worried about. A very simplistic set of books with a tiny run of modules was created, more for Master than Immortal, with the express purpose of exploring a different kind of power level for characters. The existence of these sets, sadly, came at the tail end of TSR’s interest in the D&D line and the emergence of the 2nd Edition AD&D line. Although a compendium of all the rules, with minor additions like the original skill system, was produced, these would be the last of their kind. It wouldn’t be until the “epic level” books of later editions that such power levels were given their due attention again .

The Masters set itself was geared towards levels 26-36 and the Immortals set covered Level 37 and up. The Master’s Set, which I’ll discuss first came with both a Player’s and DM’s book. The art was minimalist to an extreme and somewhat unusually so for a D&D product. Elmore’s art only graces the cover in this case. Interior illustrations were, again for TSR, not that impressive.

The player’s book always struck me as almost a “have to” manual. We “have to” give you XP tables and some of the most powerful spells already in AD&D, so they’re in this book. That’s how I felt reading it. With the Basic Set, I felt like I was being made privy to this vast array of new information. Classes and races were brought alive and made almost real. In the Master’s Set, some classes and races don’t even merit a full page. Because fighters get nothing new for example, they get less than half a page.

Clerics got turning tables and some badass spells. Same with magic-users. Oh and there was a nice little chart for thieves that covered their ability percentages from 1st through 36th level. Again, this feels like a more clinical book. It’s a wonder I wasn’t as eager when I finally got my grubby hands on a copy. The new rules, such as Weapon Mastery and Siege Equipment and the new polearm weapon lists made the books mildly interesting to me, but really this seemed to be only to bring it line with where AD&D already was. Sadly, the Master’s set didn’t blow up my skirt because of this.

I suppose it could be because as a DM and a player, but one who must deal with the trials and tribulations of a full life, I didn’t always have time to create new rules, new equipment and new ways of doing things. I actually liked the game companies to come up with this sort of stuff for me and then allow me to mine what I wanted out of it. I’m sure there will be those purists out there who will rail against the laziness of such a philosophy, but if I wanted to work in the gaming industry I would’ve written for it…wait, I did. Man, am I a masochist or what?

The DM’s book was slightly meatier with extensive rules on rolling up high-level characters. I always thought D&D needed that. It was sort of a poor man’s GURPS in that regard, applying rules to what many DM’s were doing already. This book prepped the DM to understanding “spheres” of power; essentially insights into the Immortals set that was soon to follow. Characters would start walking the path towards becoming Immortals, if they so chose. Artifact creation, again something already in AD&D was present and I think much better explained.

You want to know what intrigued me most about the set, more than anything? The map in the DM’s book. A map of the “known world” of Mystara. Here were thirty or fourty ready-made supplements beyond the Gazetteers and everything to date set in the Expert and Companion campaigns are seen to be very small players on a very big stage. I’m a sucker for maps that show new territory and I really wished TSR was able to develop more of this. They did manage some, but not as much as my unrealistic expectations might have hoped for.

The Immortals set was fairly simplistic in its own right. It almost wasn’t D&D. I mean, it laid out quite well how to play immortal characters, create artifacts and of course introduced a new level of monsters (planar creatures) that could interact with the players, but you weren’t in those dungeons anymore. You weren’t even bothering with the planet, per se. You were concerned with something well beyond that, essentially Immortal politics.

Oh and to top it off almost anything you did screwed with mortals. How’s that for responsibility? If I’d wanted responsibility I certainly wouldn’t have been gaming.

I don’t have as much to say on this set because the set itself never really interested me. One thing I was thankful for was its simple existence, though. For one, it satisfied the collector in me and completed the promised set (along with the “Wrath of the Immortals” set later on, but we won’t discuss that here). For another, I got rules and set asides in case, for whatever reason, I wanted to create a new immortal and bring him into the campaign.

For the player, these sets really added little. Some new and interesting things like weapon mastery made were included to try and make it worthwhile, technically, to have a character at such a high level. Really, early on I loved the idea of being able to get a high level character that cruised at these kinds of altitudes. Then I got a little older and it wasn’t as big a concern. Still, you can see in this set, as I mentioned before, the germination of interest in “epic characters” that D&D would return to eventually and showcase so well in computer games like Neverwinter Nights (did he DARE mention a COMPUTER game on an RPG blog???!!!).

For a DM, the sets provided the bare bones framework, and little else, to run characters at this level. Modules were scarce to assist you and you really got the feeling you were about to be abandoned. That feeling was true enough. That stupid map was probably the thing I stared at the most and longest…wondering what they’d do and how they’d shift the campaign. It was humbling seeing that original Mystara setting I so adored be reduced to a footnote on the map, with only two of those powers (Thyatis and Alphatia) regulary represented.

Overall, these games did as advertised and completed the D&D chapter. I don’t know that any company has tried this before or since and with good reason. Creating something so tiered is exhausting; almost as exhausting as writing about it over a decade later. It was ambitious and ultimately I think it paid off in its own way. Mystara became a full-fledged setting that survived the original D&D game to some extent, although you don’t see it anymore outside of fan sites. That’s a shame.

Still, the games are there and if you’re any kind of collector of TSR products, this is a series that should readily be in your collection.

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