Alphatia, the most ancient empire, land of arcane and obscure secrets. It has grown for centuries and its might now overshadows the cauldron of civilization. Some say the Alphatians come from elsewhere, but no one knows for sure.
Beyond the scope of mortals broods an evil mastermind, still in darkness. Once a betrayed emperor of ancient Alphatia, now an entity of the Sphere of Entropy, he seeks revenge on the greatest empire and on the race of man. His plots brought a deathly fog on all of Norwold. Perhaps it will extend to the southern nations.
The matter is grave, so much that lords of the spheres have now to show their might. For them, it is time for mortals to intervene. Man defends his cause for him to earn divine favor.
A great armada has been raised and able commanders must be found. Prove your worth, and the eternal portals of the spheres may open for you.
For four to eight characters of levels 25-30.
M1: "Into the Maelstrom" (1985), by Bruce and Beatrice Heard, is the first Master-level adventure for Basic D&D. It was published in October 1985.
About the Module Code. TSR's use of the module code "M1" to mark the new "Into the Maelstrom" adventure was somewhat surprising, because that code had already been used for M1: "Blizzard Pass" (1983). This was the first time that TSR had repeated one of their module codes; presumably they thought it was important for this new series of adventures to match the "Master Rules" box, and if that messed up the code for the "Magic Marker adventures", it was no great loss.
About the Cover. A trio of immortals spies upon ships, offering a pretty good thumbnail of the adventure. That's obviously the chaotic Alphaks to the left. The lawful Kryis similarly wears his allegiance on his white-robed sleeve, while the neutral Vanya stands apart from them, and is dressed for battle.
Origins (I): A New Series. Exactly a year after the release of the D&D Companion Rules (1984), TSR published the D&D Master Rules (1985), which took Basic D&D players up to level 36, the "ultimate" level of Basic D&D play.
This of course required a new series of adventures.
Origins (II): An Odyssey. During the adventure, the characters are stranded far from home and must find their way back. This reveals another source for "Into the Maelstrom": Homer's The Odyssey (8th century BC). The connections are quite explicit: the "isle of the eye" repeats Homer's famous Cyclops encounter with a giant beholder; while the "isle of the turkeys" features "Kersy" (Circe), a madly-polymorphing magic-user. Other islands are stocked with other denizen's from the Greek epic.
Adventure Tropes: A Master Adventure. So what does a Master-level adventure look like? The D&D Master Rules are remarkably unhelpful on the topic. They talk about an "ultimate level of might and glory" and say that player characters can "soar across and into the pages of legend". But what does that mean for an actual adventure?
There were a few hints. The Master Rules include a page about the Spheres of the Known World and another couple of pages on immortals in D&D games. It turns out those elements form the core tropes of "Into the Maelstrom" — and not mystics, undead lieges, or siege machinery, some of the other topics found in the high-level rulebook. These new ideas are paired with some of the favorite tropes of the Companion Rules, including country-level dangers and large-scale warfare using the War Machine and Sea Machine rules.
"Into the Maelstrom" is also very story-focused, following an adventure style that would become much more common at TSR in the '90s. Most of the adventure is laid out as set encounters. Sometimes the players move sequentially through them, but at other times their actions determine what encounters they advance to, like in a choose-your-own-adventure book. There's a very minor open dungeon crawl at the end, when the players explore Alphaks' volcano, but that's the exception for this adventure.
<bGenre Tropes: Spelljamming. The most interesting element of "Into the Maelstrom" may be that it foreshadows Spelljammer (1989). After being sucked down a maelstrom, the players' ship emerges "floating in the sky" in a space between the stars that has a breathable atmosphere. Though there isn't a science-fantasy foundation for these Star Kingdoms, they nonetheless feel a lot like the crystal spheres that would follow.
Expanding D&D. "Into the Maelstrom" also innovates D&D through the use of a point-based goal system that records relative levels of success for the three competing immortals. These points determine the ending of the adventure, but also influence some events along the way.
Exploring the Known World. "Into the Maelstrom" sticks with the setting of the Companion-level adventures: Norwold. However, it very quickly expands that setting by detailing a land previously only hinted at: Alphatia. Not only does "Into the Malestrom" offer some of the first up-close maps of the empire, but it also details some of the land's history — revealing that the Alphatians are invaders from space!
The map of Alphatia deserves some additional note, because it doubles-down on the connections between the Known World and our Earth that were revealed in the Companion Rules; that rulebook included a world map that looked a lot like the Earth of 152 millions ago. The close-up map of Alphatia in "Into the Maelstrom" reveals an area that would be Scandinavia in the modern world, and three cities even match modern-day cities: Aasla, Sundsvall, and Trollhatan would be Oslo, Sundsvall, and Trollhättan.
"Into the Maelstrom" also contains a lot of detail on the Star Kingdoms, an extraplanar realm connected to the Known World. Sadly, this evocative setting would not be important to later Mystaran releases.
NPCs of Note. The immortal Alphaks also gets a lot of detail: he was once a leader of the fire faction of Alphatians and is now the arch-enemy of the Alphatian survivors, who instead sided with air. He would become one of Basic D&D's greatest villains.
Future History. Alphaks returns in M2: "Vengeance of Alphaks" (1986) and later Master adventures.
About the Creators. Bruce Heard is the man. He was the visionary behind the Known World starting in the mid '80s and would soon be the architect of its groundbreaking Gazetteers (1987-1991). Beatrice Heard is his wife.
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 email@example.com.