Category: Legacy D&D


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.

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.

expert5th

Right on the heels of the Basic Edition D&D set, Frank Mentzer worked hard to also revamp the Expert set, which covered all levels from 4-14. While the Expert book had been released in an earlier edition, it suffered with the older Basic book of having a lack of certain worthwhile information.

I myself was an unfortunate purchaser of the older edition Expert book. I had received my revised Basic set not long after it had been released, and the new Expert set was not yet ready. Therefore, I ended up with the older style book. Quite frankly, it was a great disappointment. Most of the best rules, including detailed rules for strongholds and hirelings (soldiers, especially) were not present, at least not that I remember.

I can confirm this is likely the main thing that caused me to ditch D&D for Advanced D&D 1st Edition. The 1st Ed. DMG had the elements the Expert book was supposed to have, but didn’t. There was some minor conversion for me, but ultimately I found what I was looking for in the AD&D books that at the time was sorely lacking in the more spartan Expert book.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was coming back to TSR after a long hiatus, that I discovered the new Expert (and Companion) series that Mentzer had labored over. I lamented that I hadn’t the patience to wait awhile to pick these up, but given I was still relying on a toy store and a comic book store for all my game supplies, I did not always see the latest releases from the companies I would’ve liked to seen. I saw what these companies felt would sell well; an entirely different proposition.

The now-iconic Larry Elmore cover art and interior pieces were included and again I think this is one of the things I always use to identify “classic fantasy” role-playing. It was also very eye-catching and helped in reading through the book. Visual aids are always a bonus, but bad art can actually detract from even the most well-written game. I would hazard a guess that books like this are what spoiled the rest of us into believing that. Who said a book had to have artwork? Apparently, TSR did and gaming artistry boomed in earnest.

The set finally allows one of those newly-minted players or DM’s to make the leap from beginner (levels 1-3 in Basic) to something so much more. Experts? Not yet, they’re not, but gamers that moved to this level were committed, in more ways than one, and wanted the greater level of detail and investment in the system.

From a player’s point of view, there was a wealth of new spells, abilities and stronghold rules. Your character could become a true fantasy power house with the spell listings and your ability to hire as many underlings as that latest treasure hoard you looted allowed. Clerics could now actually flat-out destroy some undead instead of turn them. My favorite character was a cleric. Guess what he did a lot of after these levels.

The increase in detail was quite satisfying and allowed a player to develop a truly mature adventuring character. These were the people that great adventure stories wove around and often are the kind of characters you envision when you’re actually coming up with the idea of what sort of character you’re going to play.

From a DM’s point of view, this book was IT. Not only were the aforementioned more detailed character abilities listed, but you ended up with castles and strongholds (a must for any veteran character), a whole new array of monsters (including better dragons), and an introduction to D&D’s new Mystara setting.

Mystara by far and away is my favorite setting for Dungeons & Dragons. Greyhawk has its classic charm and the Forgotten Realms are truly epic with detailed history and nations, but Mystara, it was just so homey-feeling in its inception and execution. This was the stuff of classic fantasy novels. There were hints of intrigue, ways to really tie your characters into the Mystara campaign setting if you wished.

Of course, as most of you DM’s probably had, if you had your own campaign setting already, it was best only for a few plot ideas and maybe some ideas to tweak your own setting. And I might have done that, but for those who got hooked into Mystara (and I did), it was a great tie-in with the later X-series modules and future Gazetteers. This book allowed you to run a truly mature fantasy campaign (combined with the Basic book).

Possibly D&D’s only downside in these editions was every book built on the last one, so you really needed them all. That and the obvious old level-based mechanics with the old XP system I think is what caused people to look elsewhere oftentimes, even with TSR’s other systems (including AD&D and 2nd ed.), but there’s a certain nostalgia that can’t be denied with the Expert set and it’s why I have more than one copy of it as well…one to keep and one to play.

basic12th

So here’s review #1. I picked, for my initial foray, the first RPG product I ever acquired. This is the grandaddy…the wellspring for me. The version I received was not obviously too early of an edition as you can tell. It was by far one of the best, though, rich with Larry Elmore’s art and written by likely the greatest writer TSR ever had, Frank Mentzer.

Frank took what was an average set of rules with little flash and turned it into a mainstream product just at the time TSR was pushing to expand heavily into the mainstream market. He also expanded out the set of rules to include other sets beyond Basic & Expert, but that’s a topic for a later post.

Elmore’s art was an inspired choice by TSR. The guy was definitely in his prime and his prime lasted a couple of decades. Those images are forever synonomous with D&D in my opinion. Larry set the tone for the “look” that many of us old-timers associate with that venerable line.

In short, Basic Dungeons & Dragons for Levels 1-3 was a hook. It was a primer, an introduction to tens of thousands of young gamers, myself included. Most of us would have had little to no idea where to start looking for RPG’s if this set hadn’t been created. It was marketed in toy stores all over the country (locally a chain called Children’s Palace carried it and is where I got my first modules). Frank’s packaging of the first set as solely for the introductory gamer with minor low-level adventures built right into the book answered all our initial questions, but left us greedy to learn more. Once you got to 3rd Level, where did you go from there?

The answer TSR hoped for was that you’d run out and buy the next set, Expert, but again that’s a topic for next time. Back to the set, it was a complete game. You had super cheap plastic lightweight dice, which seemingly all developed rounded corners at the edges in no time flat. A crayon was included so you could actually read the numbers on the dice. The famous “there is no board” warning was prominently displayed as soon as you got into the set.

One of the most interesting elements of the set and something that differentiated it from earlier editions was the separation of the rules into a 64-page Player’s Manual and a 48-page Dungeon Master’s manual. How odd, and how unlike the previous rulebooks which had everything lumped together. It almost harkened back to the earliest D&D sets with their multiple books, but this was different.

It set the psychological stage for the DMZ between DM’s and players that exists to this day. There is some information players are not meant to know! One wonders at the anger and mistrust this has formented over the years when we could’ve had harmony and peace… OR likely not. 🙂

The importance of this was that players could now greedily commandeer their particular book to make characters while the new DM read through his guide to figure out exactly how he was going to run this fricking thing.

From a player’s point of view, the Basic D&D set as produced by Frank Mentzer really was the gateway drug. Two adventures inside to whet your appetite, great artwork and easy layout made this an almost effortless entry into gaming, even if you didn’t have a group at first. If you knew nothing about gaming, you’d learn all the basics you needed to know from this set. You learned all the primary D&D (and for that matter most fantasy games) races and the iconic classes that many of us to this day use to define what our characters are in any fantasy rpg.

From a DM’s point of view, this is equally useful in getting started. It was no more difficult to learn the art of how to run a game, ham-handed though our first attempts may have been, than it was to learn how to be a player. The initial lessons learned here applied with any game you’d purchase next. Absolutely this edition starting at 12th was how you’d relate to almost any game that came after.

It’s one, intentional, shortcoming was that it was limited in scope. Once you finished third the set was useless. It was meant to be. This was a fire and forget game system. It left you wanting, no, needing to know how your character could progress from there. Now, there were those among us who, when unable to find an Expert set resorted to making our own “Expert” rules, at least as we thought they should be, but it was really a bandaid on a gaping wound.

This set was only intended to get your beak wet, in raw crack cocaine it would seem, but nonetheless. It was and remains the best, if only because it was the first. Never mind the rule system TSR used had its flaws. The technical end of things isn’t important to this discussion. What is important is that this product was the key that unlocked many of our imaginations.

I may have set it aside for more complex, fun and involved games back in the day, but I currently have three sets of this for my personal collection. Call it a fondness for the memory of that original cherry high.