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Sunday 6 January 2019

1979: B1 In Search of the Unknown

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

The ‘B’ series, the series of modules written by TSR, Inc. for Basic Dungeons & Dragons did not begin with B2 Keep on the Borderlands that much is obvious, but there is no denying that it feels that way. This is not surprising given that it was packaged with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set between 1979 and 1983, it is estimated that more than a million copies of B2 Keep on the Borderlands were printed, and for a great many gamers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was their introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Yet before this, there was another scenario, also part of the ‘B’ series, and also packaged with Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set until it was replaced with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. That module was B1 In Search of the Unknown.

First published in 1979 as an introductory adventure for the first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that had appeared the year before, B1 In Search of the Unknown set out to provide a adventure that could be run by the novice Dungeon Master and played by novice roleplayers, both just setting out on their first foray into the world of dungeoneering. Thus it is designed to challenge Dungeon Master and players alike and to be instructive for both, but it is not designed to be particularly deadly as a dungeon for experienced players might be. So within the first five pages there are sections that give notes for the Dungeon Master on how to prepare the module, how to handle time and compute experience, and how to be an effective Dungeon Master. It details the type of features that the player characters might typically find in a dungeon—one way secret doors, illusions and magic mouths, a torch and flame extinguishing wind corridor, a room of mysterious pools, and so on. It suggests how to handle the hiring and employment of hirelings, what the players’ expectations should be and how they should organise their characters, and this is backed up by a set of NPCs that the player characters can hire and also a sheet for the players that includes the scenario’s background, some sample player characters, and more importantly a set of ten tips on being a good player and a good player of Dungeons & Dragons. The sheet is a really nice touch, really helpful, and to be fair, the tips still stand up as good advice four decades on…

On the other side of sheet of hireling NPCs and player tips is the Players’ Background Sheet. This gives the whys and wherefores to the adventure explaining why the players are there—treasure and magic! Many years ago, heroes of legend known as Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, respectively a great warrior and a great wizard, helped fight off an invading barbarian horde and so cemented their reputations. This despite the fact that they were rumoured to have a reputation for being evil. Anyway, for their efforts, they were greatly rewarded and together they took the reward and disappeared to the north where the barbarians had come from. Rumour trickled back that they built themselves a great lair somewhere in the wilderness before they too were said to have been lost in battle on another great expedition. Now a map has fallen into the hands of the player characters, roughly drawn, but showing the location of a place identified as ‘Q’. Could ‘Q’ be the lost Caverns of Quasqueton, the fabled lair of Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown?

The dungeon itself consists of two levels. The upper level is a fully worked area with rooms that switch between the ordinary and the outré. So there is a kitchen and a dining room, a lounge, storerooms, barracks, a smithy, guestrooms, and so on. Zelligar the Unknown has his own suite of rooms—essentially a complete wizard’s mini-lair, whilst Roghan the Fearless has his own set of chambers as does his mistress. Yet there is also a fungal garden, a pair of teleportation rooms, false steps, a pit trap, a mini-maze, and a dead end, as well as the famed Room of Pools. The latter contains fourteen stone pools, whose contents include the benign, such as drinking water and fish; the dangerous, such as acid, green slime, and wine; and the helpful, such as healing. As to these outré rooms, the teleportation rooms, false steps, a pit trap, a mini-maze, and a dead end that do little more than confuse any exploration of the underground complex. Now this is a traditional part of dungeon design, but here in a very compact dungeon level it feels a little like a gilding of the lily.

What really stands out about each of these rooms is the detail given to their descriptions. For example in the Mistress’ Chamber there is tapestry that depicts a warrior carrying away a woman from a burning village with the message, “Melissa, the most dearly won and greatest of all my treasures.” embroidered across the top. Yet as rich as the descriptions are, they cannot compensate for the design of the first dungeon level, which is tight, even cramped, with some thirty-seven locations on just the one-page map and many of them seemingly placed without semblance of order or sanity. Now one could argue that that this is indicative of the hinted at Chaotic alignment of its builders, but the layout is not even weird, it is just crazy.

In comparison, the seventeen rooms of the lower are the exact opposite, an exercise in restrained naturalism. They consist of a series of caverns that Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown never got round to fully finishing. In fact they feel so natural that their contents amount to little more than bats and a magical statue, but in comparison with the rooms above they are either going to feel like a relief from the chaos above or a disappointment…

The notable feature about B1 In Search of the Unknown is that none of the rooms—barring the bats in the caves below—have any monsters or any treasure. This where the scenario’s innovation comes in because it does have both monsters and treasure, both given in a pair of lists at the back of the module. From these lists the Dungeon Master’s primary task in preparing B1 In Search of the Unknown is to populate the two levels of the dungeon and seed it with treasure. Twenty-five monster options are given along with thirty-four items of treasure, but since the module advises that only sixteen to twenty of them be used between the two levels, there will be certain sections of the dungeon that will be empty. There are slots with each room or location description to record the Dungeon Master’s choice of monsters and treasure taken from the two lists. This innovation is designed to help the Dungeon Master learn the craft of dungeon creation and to an extent, it works since the Dungeon Master is working with the author to fully detail the dungeon. 

Yet it is also a handicap to the full design of the dungeon because it effectively ignores story or plot. Unless a dungeon is being generated randomly, its designer will put its elements—its physical layout, features, monsters, and treasures—together for a reason, and when it comes to the monsters, unless they are rolled on the random encounter table, there has to be an answer to the question, “What are they doing there?”. This is ignored in B1 In Search of the Unknown so what can happen is that the dungeon ends up as a series of spaces filled with a random assortment of monsters. Now this can be offset by two factors. One is a good Dungeon Master who will determine what the monsters are doing and why, the other is a good set of players who will be asking the same questions. Their answers may not match, but the Dungeon  Master is free to use the best of them.

On the other hand, B1 In Search of the Unknown is not a living, breathing ecology. Its abandoned nature means that it is a static environment, almost tomb-like, awaiting the arrival of outside agency—that is, a party of adventurers, also known as the player characters—to act upon it. As a design it is also a dungeon for dungeon’s sake, a dungeon designed to be explored because it is there rather because of any threat it represents. So this dates it in terms of design. Yet in 1978, the year that B1 In Search of the Unknown was published, this type of design was already being superseded with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which at just eight pages did have a plot, even if just a simple one. The following year, E. Gary Gygax would pen not one module with a plot, but two, each setting the ‘base of operations in peril’ style of adventure that has since been visited and revisited in the decades since. The first was T1 The Village of Hommlet and the second was B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which of course would eclipse B1 In Search of the Unknown.

Physically B1 In Search of the Unknown is well presented, well written, and for its time is a good looking product. If the artwork is no more than reasonable, it at least evocative of a style of play that is no longer common. What does let the module down are the maps, or at least, the annotation on the maps. This is not given a standard numbers as in absolutely every other module before or since this one, but instead in Roman numerals. Which makes no sense whatsoever and actually hampers a Dungeon Master’s efforts to run B1 In Search of the Unknown.

Ultimately the question of whether or not B1 In Search of the Unknown is a good module is dependent upon whether you have played it before and where you stand in relationship to the Old School Renaissance. If you played it and enjoyed it, then it is probably a good adventure. If your preference for the Old School Renaissance lies in retroclones that ape Basic Dungeons & Dragons or the earlier version of Dungeons & Dragons, then again it is probably a good adventure, uncomplicated as it is with plot or narrative beyond the need to simply explore and plunder. Yet as written, B1 In Search of the Unknown is not a good adventure because it needs too much input from the players and the Dungeon Master alike. A dungeon like this always needs the input of the players to work, for they have to ‘play’ it, but the Dungeon Master needs to doubly prepare the dungeon, not just in readying it to run, but populating it and populating it with an eye towards some semblance of sense and plot.

It is this weakness in terms of preparation that best explains why the ‘innovation’ at the heart of B1 In Search of the Unknown has rarely been repeated, either by TSR, Inc. or the Old School Renaissance. This is not surprising since the preparation effort required is doubled and the Old School Renaissance’s older fanbase lacks that time… Now this is not to say that it could not be done for the Old School Renaissance, but the result would have to be either very generic or designed around building plot elements rather than the simple placement of monsters and treasure. That said, the one publisher to have done something similar is Games Workshop with both Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh.

Ultimately B1 In Search of the Unknown managed to be too basic an adventure and too complex an adventure, the former in terms of design and the latter in terms of preparation. Its innovation remains a novel idea, but in execution requires more effort than the learning tool it was meant to be, really should. Thus it is no wonder that it would be replaced by B2 Keep on the Borderlands in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and our hearts (well that and the fact that B2 Keep on the Borderlands was written by the designer of Dungeons & Dragons and the head of the company…).

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