Monday, November 23, 2015

Mystara Monday: AC2 - Combat Shield and Mini-adventure

This week will likely be a short one, like the item we're taking a look at. AC2 is a DM's screen for the Basic and Expert rules and includes a short (8 page) booklet containing a short adventure that can be dropped in pretty much wherever the DM likes.

None of these monsters appear in the adventure.
Not even cut-rate Man-Thing

The combat shield is a pretty standard example, though a little boring for the players. Where later screens typically have art across the entire screen, this one only has the cover art. The middle part is the back of the item and has the typical back-cover blurb, and the final third has experience tables for all the character classes.

Okay, there is this little picture of a halfling running like mad.
The interior has all the typical tables; saving throws, to-hit rolls, rolls to turn undead, and so forth. Nothing special, but always useful to have at a glance. I'm not certain if this was released before or after the Companion rules set (which covers levels 15-25). Saving throw, hit roll, and thieves' skill tables go to level 25, so they must have had at least some of it ready. Other tables however, such as character levels, stop at 14. That may just have been for space reasons though.

The included adventure is titled The Treasure of the Hideous One and is a short wilderness adventure, written once again by David Cook, which leads the party into a swamp near the town of Luln in search of a treasure rumored to have been found there a century before. Luln is located in the westernmost part of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and mention is made of a 'Duke Stefan the Hermit' who was ruler 100 years ago. This gets retconned in later works, where it's established that the current Duke Stefan is the founder of the Duchy.

The way to the treasure takes the party through a few encounters including a vengeful ghost from a previous expedition and a group of bandits with a rather clever plan to ambush and rob the PCs. The treasure itself is found on an island inhabited by a vampire and a tribe of cay-men. Cay-men are a new monster in this adventure, one foot tall lizard men who live in a small village of dirt mounds. Much like the rakasta and aranea from The Isle of Dread, the cay-men show up again in later modules and are a uniquely Mystaran race. Eventually they even were given stats for use as PCs, although they were sized up to 2 foot tall by that point. I prefer the 1 foot tall version, as the idea of tiny lizard tribesmen with spears amuses me greatly. An adventuring party of nothing but cay-men would probably be very interesting to build a campaign around.

It's not a long adventure, but it is a well-written one with encounters that are more interesting than the typical "here's some monsters kill them" that we were used to at this point. There are a number of opportunities for player intelligence to factor in, and even if the DM doesn't want to run the overall treasure hunt the encounters would be pretty easy to drop in elsewhere with little modification.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X5 - Temple of Death

This week we have part two of the Desert Nomads module series, adventure module X5: The Temple of Death. This adventure is a direct continuation of the previous one, picking up at the entrance to the Great Pass which leads from the Sind Desert into the land of Hule, where the Master reigns.

Bright red crab-pincered elephant monsters absolutely
appear in this module.

Where the previous module's Sind was inspired by Hindu mythology, this module is a bit reminiscent of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle. Hule would not seem out of place in the Dreamlands, and a couple of the new monsters have a distinctly Lovecraftian feel to them. The hideous elephant-thing on the cover is a malfera, which is described as being native to 'The Dimension of Nightmares'. This module also introduces the Spectral Hound which is basically a Hound of Tindalos and hails from the 'Dimensional Vortex.' For now that just means they're extra creepy and unnatural, but the Immortals Set will eventually work the Dimension of Nightmares and the Vortex into a cosmology unique to Mystara.

The bite of a spectral hound can cause a character to fade from reality entirely.

The first portion of the adventure covers the trip through the Great Pass. As with Master of the Desert Nomads there are encounters to be used no matter which way the adventurers travel, but there are also a number of placed encounters including a fake dragon head being used to guard the entrance to the pass, a tribe of geonids (small creature which look like boulders), and a mammoth that falls from the sky and has a chance to crush a character (a roc dropped it). Also there's the Well of the Moon. The Well has a number of powers, but the most fascinating is that on nights with a full moon a ladder of moonbeams appears and the characters can climb it to reach the Kingdom of the Moon. Said Kingdom is left to the DM to create and the module states "If you do not want the players to go to the moon, you may ignore this power." It seems to me that travelling to the moon might get the party a bit sidetracked, but what do I know?

Once through the Great Pass, the part reaches Hule which is rather dark and unpleasant. Hule is described as a hagiarchy, ruled by "holy men." The Master is the ultimate ruler, watching over things from the Temple of Death. A group of secret police called the Diviners search for criminals, both of the traditional sort and those guilty of having "wrong thoughts." It's portrayed as a fairly functional country on the whole, although one unwelcome to free thought.

As their mission is to seek out the Temple of Death, it's assumed the adventurers will do that and attempt to find and destroy the Master. If they investigate enough, they can piece together bits of information telling of a holy man named Hosadus who is connected to the Master and may even be able to determine that they are the same person. The Master is actually an avatar used by Hosadus to rule over Hule while his real, ancient and scarred, body lies in a casket in the Temple's mausoleum. To truly destroy the Master the party will have to find and destroy the body of Hosadus. It's possible, though unlikely, that the party could avoid having to face the Master entirely if they figure this out early enough.

Temple of Death is a solid module that presents a challenging foe as well as a new country that can be connected to the existing maps of the Known World (it hooks on west of the map from module X4), and adds a lot of fascinating elements to the cosmology of the world. Hule is also described in sufficient detail to give a good DM a base to work on to use it as a setting for more adventures. It's not surprising at all that Hule and the Master get revisited in a later module, as this one and its predecessor were very well received.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Mystara Monday: Module X4 - Master of the Desert Nomads

This week we're returning to adventure modules with a well-loved classic, David Cook's Module X4: Master of the Desert Nomads. This is actually the first half of a two-part adventure which is continued in module X5. There's also a sequel adventure, Red Arrow, Black Shield, which was written a couple of years later, albeit by a different author.

While the party can fight a juggernaut in this adventure,
it's a really terrible idea.

Master of the Desert Nomads was published in 1983 and adheres pretty well to the formula of previous Expert level modules; wilderness adventure punctuated by a few dungeon crawls. In this case the wilderness is the Sind Desert, a massive wasteland west of the nations shown in the world map included in The Isle of Dread. A great army has been making its way through Sind intent on attacking Darokin (here simply referred to as the Republic) and the PCs are assumed to have answered the call for mercenaries to help fight. After reaching a village near the front lines, the party are charged to find the Temple of Death far to the west and destroy it.

To reach the Temple of Death, the party first has to find the Great Pass; that's the focus of this module. The party must sail a raft up a river and through a swamp to reach the desert. There they have the option of joining a caravan to head west, or trying to go it alone. Eventually they should reach the monastery which guards the pass and will have to deal with the creatures which have taken over the monastery and masquerade as helpful monks to lure in travellers.

Also they will encounter a nagpa, which is totally
not a skeksis why would you even think that?

Unlike in The Isle of Dread, where each wilderness encounter was keyed to a specific hex, the encounters in this module are to be used when the party is in the appropriate terrain without concern for their specific location. Given the size of the wilderness map provided, this is pretty much necessary. The party isn't expected to exhaustively explore the area, instead they have a destination to reach and are expected to be focused on that.

Sind is a barren waste, but the adventure does imply that it was populated at some point in the past. Many monsters in the adventure are drawn from Hindu mythology such as the juggernaut, and the bhut (here a sort of were-undead that seems human during the day but sprouts fangs and claws at night and attempts to eat human flesh). The overall impression is that the culture that once existed here was based on that of India, but not a lot of detail is given. Eventually, nearly a decade later, Sind would be expanded on in the Champions of Mystara boxed set and established as being a current nation on the border of Darokin. For now though, we're not given any reason to believe that there's any civilization here.

This adventure was the one that taught me more than anything about the dangers of railroading your party. As written, the adventure states that an NPC near the beginning will cast the quest spell on a PC to have them seek and destroy the Temple of Death. The player of the PC in question was a bit annoyed by that and was adamant that, while they would go on the quest, they would then come back, find the NPC, and beat him senseless. Seriously, unless your players are just being contrary they'll probably go on the adventure. If they won't, trying to force them will not make things any better. It'll just make them ornery.

Next week we'll take a look a the second part of this adventure, Module X5: Temple of Death. We'll find out what's actually going on with the Master, explore the land of Hule and learn why it's not a nice place at all, and meet a few new monsters including what are bascially the Hounds of Tindalos by another name.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mystara Monday: AC1 - The Shady Dragon Inn

This week we've got a little change of pace from adventure modules. Starting in 1983 TSR published a series of 'Game Accessories' that ran the gamut from character sheets and Dungeon Master screens to collections of spells and magic items. Today we've got the first of these, AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn, written by Carl Smith.

Adventurers in their natural habitat

As the cover advertises, this is primarily a collection of pregenerated characters for use in your campaign. 73 of the characters are humans, divided between the four human character classes and another 32 are split up between the demihuman classes (remember, this is the D&D ruleset, so dwarf, halfling, and elf are classes as well as races). Each character is presented with a name, stat block including attribute scores, alignment, level, saving throws, and hit points, height and weight, armor and weapons, spells known (if applicable), and a short biography. There's also a lineup for each character class drawn by Jim Holloway. Of note, the dwarf lineup includes two dwarf women, both of whom have short beards. So as of this product, dwarven women in Basic D&D are bearded.

Handwritten notes courtesy of the previous owner

Characters range in level from 1 to 14, which was the limit of what the rules supported at this point. Each one only gets a paragraph of description, but that generally includes a couple of interesting personality traits or bits of history to make them stand out. For instance the dwarf Leo Leopard-Bait "hates wealthy men" and "kicks cats when he gets the chance." Zarkon the Blue "brags too much, and sometimes makes promises he cannot keep." It's enough to make each character distinct and to give a good DM something to build on when using them as NPCs.

The Shady Dragon Inn itself is also presented as a foldout map sized for use with miniatures. Handy if you plan to use the inn as a base of operations for the PCs, especially if the odd tavern brawl breaks out on occasion. A short description gives a rundown of the owner and employees (all drawn from the pregens), prices, and the general state of the inn. Again, it's fairly terse but enough to serve as a base to build on.

Finally, there are a few more characters presented here that I haven't mentioned yet, under the heading 'Special Characters.' In 1983 a licensed line of action figures hit the shelves; although the figures were marketed as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, D&D stats for them (including a few characters whose figures were never produced) are presented here. Most importantly this means we have D&D stats for the evil WARDUKE.

WARDUKE's contract requires that WARDUKE's
name always be printed in all caps.

As far as the development of Mystara, nothing here really contributes to the setting. Some of the characters do show up as pregens in future adventure modules; I know that X6: Quagmire! is one of those. Apart from that none of them enter into the ongoing setting that I know of. The Shady Dragon Inn does make an appearance in the Tower of Doom arcade game in a town in Darokin. That's as close as it comes to being made canon in the setting.

This is an accessory I really wish I had had when I was running D&D regularly. Coming up with NPCs on the fly, especially good names for NPCs, has always given trouble so a list of ready made characters to fall back on would have been useful. There are quite a few in here that I'd love to use in a game some time in the future.