Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: M1 Into the Maelstrom (BECMI)

In some ways, I do wish I had read M1 before I had picked up M3.  I had picked both modules up around 10-13 years ago while looking for a good epic level adventure for my kids then D&D 3.x game.  They were into the epic levels of D&D 3, with the lowest level at 24 and the highest at 29.  They were on this huge campaign against what they thought was the machinations of Tiamat.  M1 was very good choice since I love the idea of flying ships (D&D should be FANTASTIC after all) but the base plot didn't work for the adventure in mind.  M3, along with some other material, worked rather perfectly.  Plus I can't deny that the Carnifex played a huge role.  So M3 went on the table and M1 went back on the shelves.

Until that is Bruce Heard began producing material for Calidar.

M1 Into the Maelstrom is really a fantastic adventure for the D&D Master's Set that realizes that set's potential.  It is also a great lead-in to not just the Immortals Set coming up, but also the future of the Mystara-line and even pre-sages Spelljammer and the adventures of the 90s.   Additionally, and somewhat forgotten, this book introduces us to our first named Immortals and introduces demons to BECMI.  

There is a lot going on here.  Let's get into it.


For this review, I am going to consider my original print module and the PDF from DriveThruRPG.  There is a Print on Demand version as well, but I do not have it.

By Bruce and Beatrice Heard.  32 pages, color covers, black & white interior. Cover art by Jeff Easley, interior art by Valerie Valusek and maps by Dave "Diesel" LaForce.
Into the Maelstrom deals with the machinations of three Immortals, Koryis (Law), Vanya (Neutral) and Alphaks (Chaos), and are featured on the cover.  Alphaks is our focus here.  He is the focus of the next few adventures and is one of the "Big Bads" of the later BECMI and Mystara lines.  He was the ancient Emperor of Alphatia AND he is the first demon we see by the name demon in any BECMI book to my knowledge.  He is a "Roaring Demon" or what 1st Edition calls a Type VI or Balor demon.  We won't learn more about them till the Immortal set, but here they are. Demons in Basic D&D.

Our adventure starts in the Known World. We bring back King Ericall of Norwold and he needs the characters to investigate the source of some poisonous winds coming from the north between Norwold and the Island Empire of Alphatia (to the east).  The poisonous fog/winds are the result of Alphaks trying to reenter the world via a two-way portal from the Sphere of Death (call back to Death's Ride!)

The three immortals are essentially playing a game. Alphaks wants into the world, Koryis doesn't want him in and Vanya is going to side with the winner.  As the adventure progresses each immortal will earn points for the actions, successes and/or failures of the PCs.  The DM keeps track.  The PCs can also gain curses or boons as the adventure continues.

So another new addition is the "Sea Machine" or water-based battles as an addition to the War Machine.  Pretty nice bonus add if you ask me.

The first part of the adventure goes pretty normal. That is until the seagoing vessels encounter the titular maelstrom.  The PCs are sucked into the swirling vortex of death and spit out into a starry void with air they can breathe!  How's that for adventure?

Here this becomes a proto-Spelljamming adventure, there are several locations (Islands) that the PCs can stop at, but each has their own unique set of hazards.  

The PCs must navigate, in all senses of the word, the machinations of these three immortals.  There is even a giant battle with a navy of the dead controlled by Alphaks.

In addition to the new monster stats (the Roaring Demon), there are PC/NPC stats in back for characters to use in the adventure.

So for the first time, we get a BECMI adventure into the other planes.  Here the characters get a chance to travel the outer planes via a flying ship and even dip a toe into the Astral plane.  
Depending on the outcome the characters can also be set on the path to Immortality.

This adventure is "bigger on the inside" as has been described.  There is a lot here that can be expanded on to a near-infinite degree.  With a ship that can transverse the planes a good argument could be made about even returning to the Known World and Norwold.  

Let's also take a moment and talk about Diesel LaForce's maps.




These things are works of art really. I am not sure how as a DM you can look at them and NOT want to run this adventure.  "Dimensional Guide to the Star Kingdoms?" Hell yeah!

Into the Maelstrom, along with the other modules in the M series work not just as a Master's level set of adventures, but also our introduction to plane hopping and dealing with immortals in the D&D game.  Compared to the same treatments in AD&D, such as the H Series, the M series is more subtle in it's approach.  The H series is largely about kicking in doors, killing monsters and taking their stuff.  Only in the H series, the doors are planes, the monsters are gods and demons and their stuff are artifacts.


Going back to the beginning, if I had known more about the arc (let's call it the "Norwold Saga") then all of these adventures do tie into all the others in a nice, dare I say it, Adventure Path.  Maybe that is something that WotC could do to reintroduce Mystara is give us this for 5e rules.

Keep in mind that this "Adventure Path" or even meta plot was alive and well in the mid-80s. Long before the 90s that this sort of gaming is most associated with.  I might have to explore this idea further.

In the meantime, M1 Into the Maelstorm stands out as not only a great adventure, but a groundbreaking one in many ways.

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