Originally posted here: http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/2020/06/becmi-master-set-review.html
Moving every up we are now at the apex of BECMI D&d Play for normal characters. The journey that began at level 1 in the Basic set is now seeing its end at levels 26 to 36 in the Master Set.
This particular set was never on my radar and I only picked one up a couple years ago. The box was beaten up and the contents were water damaged, but still readable. The box also had an extra copy of the Immortal rules inside, so that was a nice bonus. But this has always been something an "other" for me and my D&D game.
Today I look into these rules for the first time in detail.
The Master set covers levels 26-36, following right from the Companion rules. I am going to say that in my reading of both sets I am convinced really that they likely should have been combined into a single set of rules. Big set to be sure, but the overlap is often very significant.
D&D Master Set (1985)
As with the previous BECMI Sets, I am reviewing both my boxed set and the PDFs available from DriveThruRPG.
The Master Players' Book
This book is the smaller of the two at 32 pages. Color covers, black & white interiors.
There are some interesting things to note on page 1. First, we are told this is the Dungeons & Dragons game by Gary Gygax. Dave Arneson is no longer listed. Also, this book is "compiled by" Frank Mentzer as opposed to "written by." I am not going to try to read too much into this. Writing on the book was complete in Spring 1985. It would be published that summer in July but it would soon be eclipsed in sales by the Unearthed Arcana for AD&D which had sold well. Though in 3-4 months it would all change and Gygax would be ousted from TSR. But that is a topic for another day.
Like the previous books, this one covers all the details needed for characters up to the vaulted 36th level. Clerics and Magic-users see the most text devoted to them. Clerics gain additional turning abilities which include more monsters and the ability to affect more monsters. They also get more spells but still top out at 7th level. More druid spells are also presented here. Magic-users also get more spells including the most abused spell in D&D history, Wish. Again they top out at 9th level spells. Even clerics get access to Wish if they are 36th level and have a wisdom of 18 or greater. Magic-users also get Heal. Which I admit seems a little odd to me.
Fighters get half of a column or 1/6 of a page for their updates. Thieves get a page. Dwarves, Elves, and Halfling get a page to share.
There are some new armor options, but the biggest inclusion is that of Weapon Mastery. This mimics the Weapon Proficiency we will see in the Unearthed Arcana and future editions of D&D. Essentially fighters are better with a chosen weapon. while I have heard and read that this can lead to fighters becoming too powerful at early levels, I don't think this is really a big deal. I like the idea that a fighter should be able to train with a weapon exclusively and become better at it.
We get expanded weapon and damage charts to include all the weapons that have been added since the Basic set. Plus some Pole-arms (maybe Frank was looking over Gary's shoulder a few times!)
There is even a section on siege weapons that can be used with the War Machine rules.
So a lot yes, but nothing that really screams Masters to me. A lot of what is here could have been added to the Companion rules for a 48 page Player's book.
The Master DM's Book
This is the larger at 64 pages. Color covers, black & white interiors.
One of the neatest bit of this book is finally getting a map of the Known World. It is so great that I am going to devote an entire post just to that later this week.
Like the books before it, this section is given over to Procedures first. First up is a ruling on Ant-Magic Effects. Good to have really for any version of the game. some detail on characters are also given including Character Background. It is 1985 after all. A couple of other things stand out. We get our first taste of the Immortal rules here with the introduction of the idea of Immortals as the "next level up."
Monsters get an upgrade here with expanded to hit tables; Creatures to 33+ HD and Armor Classes from 19 (yes +19) to -20. But that is not all. Monsters also get an average Intelligence rating. All creatures from all four sets are covered. Along with this intelligence rating, there is an optional change to charm based on intelligence. It's neat, but I would rule that intelligence has no effect at all on charm magic. No that is the realm of Wisdom. In my copy I would cross out "Intelligence" and replace it with "Wisdom."
Included here for some reason is also the Mystic class. Expect it is not really presented as a full class. It is not the Mystic that Gygax was talking about in Dragon magazine, but rather a different version of the AD&D monk. It appears again in the Monster section.
Another update to monsters, in particular, non-human monsters are spell casting monsters. Dragons are discussed, but we also get the Shaman NPC class (Clerics) and the Wicca NPC class (Magic-Users). There are some interesting ideas here and some level limits for a large variety of monsters. I am curious as to why Frank choose "Wicca." I am sure that the meaning here is "witch" and that is not just my biases. If you look back over the various BECMI books Wicca, Witch, and Wokani get used failry interchangeably. I discussed this in a recent Class Struggles post.
On the other end of the spectrum from Immortals, we also get Undead Liege Lords and how they can control lesser undead. Also useful for any version of the game.
The next big section of the book belongs to the Monsters. Like the Companion Set this one is broken up into Prime Plane creatures and outer plane creatures.
Here we get some very new looking monsters that would only later move on to the main AD&D/D&D lines. We also get what I like to call BECMI versions of some others. The Devilfish is essentially an Ixitxachitl. Blackballs remind me of Xeg-yi. We do get new Dragons in name, Crystal, Onyx, Jade, Ruby, Sapphire and Brown. But they share stats with dragons we already know. We also get the four rulers of the Dragon kind, Pearl, Opal, Diamond and the Great Dragon. There are Drakes which are not exactly like the Drakes of later D&D and closer to shapeshifters. These could even pass for the elusive Mystaran Dragonborn.
We also get Faeries, Hags and Liches to round out what I consider some of the classical monsters.
Part 3 of the monsters listing includes stats from all sorts of B/X and BECMI monsters published elsewhere (other rules, modules) and then brought into the fold of the full BECMI rules. So even the oddities like Brain Collectors and Lupins from X2 Castle Amber are here.
The last 20 pages of the rules cover magical artifacts; something we have not seen in BECMI to any degree yet. There are detailed rules for artifact creation and a number of new artifacts. Many I have never seen before and none copied over from the AD&D DMG.
In fact, there is so much here that I am going to cover it all in a future post.
There are only a few "normal" magic items listed at the end.
Ok. So the Masters Rules feel very uneven to me after the Companion Rules. I could see where it might have been better to instead take both sets and merge them into one and maybe top out at 25th or 30th level really. We will see that re-organization in the future.
Fighters went from getting all the new fun details to nearly nothing in going from Companion to Masters. Clerics and Magic-users get more spells, but that is about it. Thieves suffer the most for now having to have their abilities amortized over 36 levels.
There are some great new monsters in the Master's rules, very few save for the various "rulers" even have Master's level HD (26+).
The artifacts though are great and really gives a feel for what a Master's Level game could be about.
The art feels lighter in this set than the previous ones. The only Elmore art is the cover.