At last, the cycle is complete. Players and Dungeon Masters alike may experience the wonder of reaching for the ultimate levels of mortal might with the D&D Master Set.
In the Basic Set you learned to crawl through dungeons and defeat the minions of evil. In the Expert Set you set out on wanderings through the wilderness. In the Companion Set you climbed to the pinnacle of success and founded kingdoms, conquered wild lands, and battled barbarian hordes. Now, in the Master Set, you can soar across the sky and into the pages of legend.
These books are written for the experienced D&D player. The Master Player's Book expands on the known abilities of characters with new skills and spells. The Dungeon Masters Book features three sections that have become a standard for each rules set: New Procedures, Monsters, and Magical Treasures, all designed with the Master Level characters in mind.
Now, you are only limited by your imagination. Answer the clarion call to adventure; the lands of legend await!
The D&D Master Rules Set (1985), by Frank Mentzer, is the fourth volume in Mentzer's BECMI rules series. It was published in June 1985.
About the Cover. In all the previous BECMI covers, a fighter had been battling a chromatic dragon, but this time the fighter has ascended and he's instead flying atop a gold dragon. The mountain castle from the Companion Rules (1984) is visible far below him.
About the Box. This was the "black box" in the BECMI series, not to be confused with The New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game (1991), which is the "black box" D&D game.
Origins (I): Moving Toward BECMI. The BECMI line was a strongly themed and carefully constructed series of boxes for the third edition of Basic D&D (1983-1991). The Basic Rules (1983) focused on dungeon exploration for levels 1-3, the Expert Rules (1983) introduced wilderness exploration for levels 4-14, and the Companion Rules debuted kingdom building for levels 15-25. Now the Master Rules finished the collection with a march to immortality for levels 26-36.
Origins (II): Developers & Designers. Back in the '70s and '80s, developers and revisers didn't get a lot of credit at TSR. Prior to the release of the Master Rules, the Basic D&D books all said "by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson", despite the fact that they'd only created the original OD&D (1974) system and none of the text in the continuing line of Basic D&D games. Thus the "B/X" series said that it was "edited" by Tom Moldvay, David "Zeb" Cook, and Steve Marsh, while the new BECMI series similarly gave Frank Mentzer a mere "revised" credit for the Basic Rules and Expert Rules. He got a full byline in the Companion Rules, but it was under a "Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson" byline.
The Master Rules were even more an original work by Frank Mentzer than the books that came before it, but this time he was dropped back to a "compiled by" credit. Surprisingly, the main credit goes only to Gary Gygax, with no reference to Dave Arneson. It was a curious omission of one of the two creators of D&D when a more accurate byline would have highlighted Mentzer's name alone. Mentzer explains: "TSR had enough problems between Gygax & Arneson, no sense giving me grounds to add my name to the list. However, the further it went, the greater the amount I 'compiled' from my own ideas; there's very very little in Masters and nearly nothing in Immortals that had ever appeared before."
There were probably other political reasons for how the credits appeared, including: the attempt to move aware from credit (and royalties) to Arneson, who hadn't worked on the game in years; and a push to put Gygax's name forward in a year when TSR badly needed the attention and sales that might result.
What a Difference an Edition Makes. The Companion Rules had been an innovative and ground-breaking expansion of the D&D game, the first of its sort in several years. Meanwhile, the Master Rules came out the same month as Unearthed Arcana and unfortunately loses out in comparison. Where Unearthed Arcana was a groundbreaking expansion for AD&D, the Master Rules was a more simplistic continuation of the Basic D&D books that came before it; it expands classes, spell, and weapons to the ultimate levels of mortal D&D, but it's evolutionary, not revolutionary.
What a Difference an Edition Makes: The Controversy. Mentzer says that the Master Rules may be his "favorite". However, the wider view of the set is more uneven. This may in part be because it doesn't introduce any notable new play styles, unlike the previous BECMI boxes. Certainly, there's a new focus on questing for immortality, but it's given a fairly small amount of attention in the rules; it would later appear as a major focus in just one of the Master-level adventures, M3: "Twilight Calling" (1986), and none of the paths to immortality introduced in the Master Rules would be used.
The Master Rules are overall a bit of hodge-podge, not even focusing exclusively on Master-level play. The siege rules are an expansion of War Machine that could be used by anyone, while the weapon mastery rules can be used by 1st level characters! Even the new material introduced on Immortals and the planes got partially retconned in the Immortal Rules (1986), which included half a page of corrections!
Expanding D&D. The Master Rules include a variety of expansions, including artifacts, siege machines, and high-level spells.
One of the biggest changes is a new system of weapon mastery, which lines up with similar ideas of extended weapon proficiency then being introduced in Unearthed Arcana. The concept is generally a nice way to give fighters more advantages, where otherwise they might be overwhelmed by spell casters at higher levels, but the Basic D&D weapon mastery system is generally thought to instead overbalance fighters at low(!) levels.
One of Mentzer's favorite additions in the book is the information on pole arms, which appears in the weapon mastery section. He says that the appearance of so many pole arms in D&D was due to Gygax's "Swiss heritage and background in wargaming" but that they were "a historical triviality that was a constant source of irritation for most of us [at TSR]". By given specific benefits to each pole arm, Mentzer finally gave them a reason to exist.
All of this weaponry info was intended to go in the Companion Rules, where it would have fit nicely with the rules on armies and warfare, but it wasn't finished at the time and so ended up in the Master Rules instead — which in part explains the hodge-podge feel of the rule set.
One other major rules expansion is the introduction of a mystic. It's a character class that Gygax himself had long touted for use in AD&D 2e, alongside the jester, mountebank, and savant. Except that Gygax's character class would have been "an augur-clairvoyant with minor monk and cleric abilities" also "meant to deal with critters from other planes". Mentzer's mystic is instead almost identical to the monk as seen in Supplement II: Blackmoor (1975), but with a new name. The mystic is also not actually offered as a full class, though it would be expanded in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991).
Exploring the Known World. The Master Rules offer one notable expansion of the Known World: the inside cover of the DM's Book contains a map of the entire world. And sure enough, it's Pangaea of 152 million years ago, with the continents slowly moving toward their final positions. Curiously, there's no explanation of this map (and you'd have to remove the staples from the DM's Book to see it in full).
There are 31 labels on the map, and they show mighty empires and kingdoms all across the planet, with the existing Known World a very small part of that. Future Known World line editor Bruce Heard didn't like this, saying that they "were completely out of proportion with the Known World". He also didn't like the lack of textual description, so he'd largely ignore this map when he began writing the "Voyages of the Princess Ark" (1990-1992) that eventually led to Champions of Mystara (1993).
Exploring the Spheres. The Companion Rules detailed the Inner Planes of the Basic D&D multiverse and stopped there. The Master Rules … surprisingly opted not to expand beyond that. However there is a lot of material on immortals, overviewing their rules and their powers. There's also discussion of the five Spheres of Power that immortals serve (matter, energy, time, thought, and entropy). The sphere of entropy is even explicitly linked to the sphere of death, to sort of connect the cosmology of CM2: "Death's Ride" (1984).
Monsters of Note. As usual, the Master Rules contains new monsters, and as usual they're somewhat distinct from their AD&D brethren. The highlights may be the brand-new gemstone dragons and Basic D&D's own dragon rulers: Pearl the Ruler of all Chaotic Dragons, Opal the Ruler of all Neutral Dragons, and Diamond the Ruler of all Lawful Dragons. The Master Rules also continues to reveal strange creatures from Other Planes, including the Blackball, the planar spiders, and the Elemental Rulers.
About the Creators. Frank Mentzer was one of the star creators at TSR in the early to mid '80s, working closely with Francois Marcela-Froideval and Gary Gygax on the most important rulebooks for D&D. Mentzer took total control of Basic D&D around 1982 when Gygax approved the BECMI project, and would remain in that position through his work on the Immortals Set (1986).
About the Product Historian
The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.