The D&D Companion set, released in 1984, was the first set of D&D rules that dealt with a matter mentioned in both the AD&D and original rules and never developed that much: the player characters as leaders of realms. Test of the Warlords was the first adventure released to supplement those rules, and it moves the setting northwards to the newly claimed realm of Norwold, where the empire of Alphatia has claimed a great wilderness realm and appointed a king. The adventurers become servants and barons of that king, developing their own domains.
The adventure is 32 pages. Not much to cover all that material! Of course, the rules in the Companion set would supplement the adventure’s text, but the Dungeon Master will have to work hard when running the adventure. A strong grasp of improvisation would not go astray.
Six pages of the adventure describe the setting, and a further three pages describe the major NPCs of the realm: the Royal Family and a number of competing NPCs who wish to rule the same realms as the adventurers. Some will become allies, while others are secretly agents of other powers.
The rest of the book describes the events and adventure locations.
Test of the Warlords is meant to take place over one to two years of game time, as the adventurers first claim their realms and then seek to develop them as various events take place. The adventure provides details for some of those events: a royal wedding, a raid by giants, and five small dungeons that relate to the larger plot of the conflict between Thyatis and Alphatia.
Thyatis, introduced in this adventure, is a young empire, no more than a century old, that is pushing against the Alphatian boundaries. They’re the bad guys, known for their greed and trickery.
Alphatia is equated with Atlantis, and is a tremendously old empire with a ruling council of at least 1,000 36th level magic-users! King Ericall, who the adventurers swear fealty to at the beginning of the adventure, is the second son of the current Empress of Alphatia. Alphatia, an island kingdom, doesn’t take much of a role in this adventure beyond providing the homeland of the King.
Both empires were created out of whole cloth for this adventure; I can’t remember either being mentioned in any of the previous Basic and Expert adventures, although they’d make appearances later. It was quite a shock to discover that the land of crowded kingdoms of the Expert set was just next to these vast empires! How didn’t we know about them?
The dungeons are primarily concerned with threats that arise from the savage land that the adventurers are building a home in. There isn’t that much of an opportunity to role-play in them, but the King’s wedding allows for a lot of interaction. It also allows the DM to introduce the conflict with Thyatis, with several assassination attempts and other intrigues taking place, in addition to all the interaction with the other barons and royalty present.
The adventure concludes with a major invasion, which is likely to be resolved using a lot of DM ingenuity and the abstract War Machine rules in the Companion set. There are up to seventeen armies on the map, though the individual forces are relatively small: from 500 to 6,000 soldiers, with 1,000 being most common. This isn’t quite the size of the Battle of Cannae, but it seems appropriate for battles on the frontier.
How do I feel about the adventure? I think it’s stunning. It’s going to rely a lot on the DM and players, because the rules and situations will only get you so far. I think the DM will need to do a lot of work fleshing out the NPCs and deciding how they interact with the adventurers. The lands that the adventurers are colonising will need their population created, monster settlements and the like placed. There are some guidelines, but they won’t remove the requirement for the DM to do a lot of design work.
Isn’t that a problem with the adventure? I don’t think it is. When you get to this level of adventure, you’re talking about an experience that is extremely personal to the individual players’ desires. Any thought of a cookie-cutter approach probably won’t work. I prefer this significantly to most of Kingmaker’s approach, for instance. The campaign management is more abstract, and there’s the definite hint of the wargaming background of the adventure’s author, Douglas Niles, in its conclusion. So, would I heartily recommend it to all groups? No. However, I do think it’s worth taking a look at.
The adventure shows, very strongly, the mythic elements that underlie its conception. Three crones warn the adventurers when the invasion start. Alphatia has an incredibly high-level and powerful ruling council. Giants live in the mountains. This is a world that relates to the most astonishing elements of our mythological imagination. It’s a long way from a “low-magic” world that we see in other products. The D&D Basic line had made a significant change to how its world would be used.
I got quite frustrated with Vault of the Drow because it had great ideas, but no real guidance on how to run it. Test of the Warlords doesn’t feel like that. It’s possible to run it in a very basic form just out of the box: the events are there, the dungeons are there, and there is a storyline. The NPCs have personalities, and that’s the area where the DM and group can really expand the adventure: creating ongoing relationships (good and bad) with the other Barons and the royal family will enhance the adventure significantly.
All in all, I think this is a great adventure, and a strong start to the Companion line.