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Saturday 14 September 2019

'B1' Series: B1 Quest for the Unknown

The ‘B’ series, the series of modules published 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 an 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. Yet where in the decades since its original publication B2 Keep on the Borderlands has been visited and revisited, from Return to the Keep on the Borderlands to the Keep on the Borderlands series for the Encounters Program for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the fact is that B1 In Search of the Unknown has been all but ignored by both TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast. Instead it has been third party publishers who have revisited the first entry in the ‘B’ series. Most notably and recently, of course, by Goodman Games with  Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands, which covered both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Before that though, in 2002, Kenzer & Company published B1 Quest for the Unknown.

B1 Quest for the Unknown: An Introductory Adventure for Characters Level 1-3 is written for with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, Kenzer & Company’s retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but ultimately derived from the parody of Dungeons & Dragons played by the characters of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. (A review of HackMaster Basic, the introductory rules to HackMaster, Fifth Edition can be found here.) B1 Quest for the Unknown is not a parody of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but is a mostly faithful adaptation from Basic Dungeons & Dragons to HackMaster, Fourth Edition. Except in one important detail that was a significant feature of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but which is wholly absent from B1 Quest for the Unknown

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 is where the scenario’s innovation comes in because it does have both monsters and treasure, but 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 of the module 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 and it can lead—at least in the hands of a neophyte Dungeon Master, for whom the dungeon is actually written—to it being populated with a random assortment of monsters and creatures.

B1 Quest for the Unknown entirely eschews that option and populates the dungeon with a range of creatures from the roleplaying game’s series of Hacklopedia of Beasts bestiaries. All the stats for both levels of the dungeon are collected in four pages of pullout ‘battle sheets’ at the end of the module. Even so, the issue with this is that the Game Master will need access to all eight volumes volumes to use all of the creatures B1 Quest for the Unknown. That said, a HackMaster Game Master is likely to have those anyway, but a Dungeon Master could easily take each of the monsters in the module and find their analogue in Dungeons & Dragons or the retroclone of her choice and run B1 Quest for the Unknown using rules other than HackMaster. Now there are easily recognisable monsters like Orcs, rats, bats, Troglodytes, and so, but there are lots of odd vermin, such as Giant Dire Cockroaches, Giant Kangaroo Fleas, and so on. Unfortunately, some of the creatures and encounters used are rather puerile in nature. So there is the inclusion of a Feces-Flinging Lemur as a random encounter, but early on in the dungeon the player encounters will encounter a pair of Magic Mouths. In B1 In Search of the Unknown they shout out simple warnings and they do so here, but here they have gone wild. One is described as a Rogue magic Mouth and the other as a Sassy Magic Mouth. Whilst the Sassy Magic Mouth will simply be obnoxious to the player characters, the Rogue Magic Mouth is described as focusing its attention on any female characters and going through a series of ‘pick-up’ lines that it will use on them. Arguably the latter is more obnoxious than the former and if you think back to the time of B1 Quest for the Unknown’s publication in 2002 and just how few female roleplayers there were in comparison to today, this implied attitude towards women—even through an NPC—would have been highly off putting. Just as it would today, but perhaps back then it was simply carry over from the comic that HackMaster drew so strongly from? It is almost as bad for the Game Master who is expected to come up with these pick-up lines. Certainly this is one detail about the module which is worthwhile changing.

In ignoring the salient design feature of the original module, what B1 Quest for the Unknown actually allows to come to the fore, at least to some extent, is story. Now there was some story to B1 In Search of the Unknown in that Rogahn the Fearless, a Fighter, and Zelligar the Unknown, a Wizard,  the Wizard, the legendary owners and designers of Quasqueton—as the dungeon in both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B1 Quest for the Unknown is called—have disappeared, as has Rogahn’s girlfriend, Melanee. It is also hinted at that Melanee was being unfaithful. B1 Quest for the Unknown has this and more, actively making the discovery of this story and the reasons behind the current state of Quasqueton an important part of the playthrough of B1 Quest for the Unknown important by including Experience Point rewards for each fact gleaned and surmised.

As well as the lists of monsters with which to populate the dungeon as per B1 In Search of the Unknown, what B1 Quest for the Unknown is also missing is a list of pre-generated player characters and NPC hirelings. Again, much like the absent lists of monsters, the lack of pre-generated player characters is not really an issue, but the lack of hirelings is slightly disappointing, in part because there is advice for the Game Master on how to handle NPCs and hirelings during the play of the module. There is nothing of course to stop the Game Master creating her own, but their inclusion would have been useful alongside the monsters the designers populate the dungeon with. The advice though, in keeping with the intention that B1 Quest for the Unknown is an introductory module for both Game Master and players, also covers how to be an effective Game Master, discussing the type of features that the player characters might typically find in a dungeon—and in this one, how to handle the passage of time—fairly tightly in this instance, how to be an effective Game Master, and so on. As with B1 In Search of the Unknown, this advice is accompanied by a double-sided detachable for the players. On the one side is the background that their player characters would know, whilst on the other is a list of tips on how to be a good player. Of course, in B1 In Search of the Unknown this was as a good player of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but in B1 Quest for the Unknown this is as a good player of HackMaster. Which means that as reasonable as some of the advice is, there is a certain tone to it, highlighting the adversarial nature of play between the Game Master and her players in HackMaster. So be an organised player and keep an accurate record of your character lest you be unprepared for an audit; pace yourself lest you be too slow in play and bore the Game Master who might send more wandering monsters to kill your character; avoid arguments in the dungeon as that will also attract more wandering monsters; and so on.

For the most part, the background to B1 Quest for the Unknown is the same as B1 In Search of the Unknown. Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown are friends renowned for throwing back a great Gnome-Titan invasion—the Gnome-Titans of HackMaster’s ‘Garweeze Wurld’ setting being the equivalent of the barbarians in B1 In Search of the Unknown—which threatened the land and taking their well-earned reward into the wilderness where it is said that they had a hideaway. More recently it is said that they lost their lives in a great battle in the Gnome-Titan lands and then a map marked with a ‘Q’ falls into the hands of the player characters. Could this be the hideaway, Quasqueton, of the famous victors over the Gnome-Titans?

Open up the B1 Quest for the Unknown and inside both the front and back covers are the same maps as in B1 In Search of the Unknown. So notably that includes the maze-like twisting corridors, rooms full of lumber and building materials, the overgrown garden room, and of course, the infamous Room of Pools with its shallow stone pools containing all manner of liquids—bane, bland, and bountiful. The descriptions given of individual locations are rich in detail, not just the aforementioned rooms, but also the living quarters of Rogahn, Zelligar, Melanee, and their staff. It is here that the majority of the clues will be found that will help the player characters discover the story and the reasons behind the current state of Quasqueton and so earn Experience Points other than for hacking through the dungeon.

Now of course, much of the details and rich descriptions are a holdover from B1 In Search of the Unknown and they worked in the original just as they do in B1 Quest for the Unknown. Yet B1 Quest for the Unknown adds further detail. For example, it takes the books found in Zelligar’s library and develops them for use with HackMaster, making them valuable not just in terms of what could be sold for, but in terms of what a player character might learn from them and improve his skills. The books receive a page all of their own and there is a lot of detail here that the Game Master can draw from them and develop in her campaign. There are also actual explanations of why certain dungeon features exist, such as the spiral corridor which goes nowhere. In B1 In Search of the Unknown it goes unexplained, but in B1 Quest for the Unknown a believable, if somewhat mundane explanation is given.

Another consequence of B1 Quest for the Unknown being fully stocked is the addition of the Homunculus, Mister Pleasington. Essentially, he is an annoying rather than helpful Wizard’s Familiar, which explains why he did not accompany Zelligar on his excursion into the Gnome-Titan lands. The fact that he is alive when Zelligar is supposedly dead… Well that presents one further plot hook at least, especially should the Wizard return and discover that someone has been plundering his home, let alone wandering around its halls uninvited. Mister Pleasington is designed as an irritant, but he is one of the few actual NPCs rather than monsters in the adventure that the Game Master will have to portray if found.

Physically, B1 Quest for the Unknown is neatly and cleanly presented with array of decent illustrations. There are two issues with the artwork, one the front cover, the other the back cover. The fully painted front cover illustration is not only grisly, but gives away a notable secret of the Room of Pools. It is in effect a spoiler, but arguably, this was a spoiler for a module which was an adaptation of a scenario which in 2002, was some twenty-four years old. The cartoon-like back cover illustration is a colourised version of an illustration inside the book which depicts an early encounter in the dungeon. It shows a bloody and again a grisly scene, but here presented in a rather cartoonish fashion. That aside, the writing inside is decent, though the room descriptions—marked in grey boxes for easy reading—feels more like bullet points in places.

Of course, B1 Quest for the Unknown fills in all of the spaces and populates the two levels of its dungeon so that the Game Master does not have to. In some ways, this takes away the very purpose of the module it is aping. After all, B1 In Search of the Unknown is designed as an introductory module through and through. B1 Quest for the Unknown still is designed as an introductory module, and has good advice for players and Game Master alike, but it is designed for the somewhat more arcane retroclone that is HackMaster. Yet as much as it apes an earlier module with an emphasis on exploration rather than plot, B1 Quest for the Unknown nevertheless emphasises plot—not as strongly as it does exploration, but the emphasis is there. This shows in the Experience Rewards for uncovering the story behind the current situation in Quasqueton.

Now of course, in terms of the Old School Renaissance, B1 Quest for the Unknown has been surpassed by Goodman Games’ more recent Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and were a Game Master to want to run a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown, that would probably be the obvious choice. Were a Game Master be interested in examining an example, filled in version of B1 In Search of the Unknown, then perhaps B1 Quest for the Unknown might be of interest to her. Ultimately though, B1 Quest for the Unknown is a HackMaster scenario first and foremost—and a suitable first exploration adventure, plus a little plot, for that roleplaying game.

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