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Monday, 30 September 2019

'B1' Series: The Hidden Serpent

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. In 2002, Kenzer & Company had published B1 Quest for the Unknown as an adaptation for its own retroclone, HackMaster, Fourth Edition, but another publisher has revisited B1 In Search of the Unknown since then—Faster Monkey Games.

No longer in operation, Faster Monkey Games is best known for titles such as Skull Mountain and the excellent In The Shadow of Mount Rotten, both still available from Catthulhu.com. In 2010, Faster Monkey Games published The Hidden Serpent. This is a dungeon crawl adventure, designed for four to six characters of Second to Fourth Level, written for use with Labyrinth Lord. Most notably—and despite the title—The Hidden Serpent is actually a homage to the classic B1 In Search of the Unknown. Unlike that scenario, The Hidden Serpent is complete and ready to play, and does not need the intervention of the Labyrinth Lord in order to populate it with either monsters nor treasures. It comes as a 7.53 MB twenty-six-page, full PDF with really nice colour cover, its maps and handouts being including separately for ease of use by the Labyrinth Lord.

From the start, The Hidden Serpent comes with a solid background story and hooks to get the player characters involved. The backstory casts Zeglin the wizard and Rogar the warrior as former adventurers who have established a band of mercenaries willing to fight for any employer, whatever their alignment, whether that involves destablising local governments or actively suppressing dissent. In the process, the former adventurers have grown rich and this has paid for the expansion and development of their hidden cavern base, which they have called ‘QUAZKYTON’. For years they operated in secret, but recently, the arrival of a young woman at the caverns has disrupted the situation in QUAZKYTON. Brought to the complex by Rogar, Meli the courtesan found life there unpalatable and fled, taking both Rogar’s previously loyal lieutenant, Captain Karov, and much of his wealth, with her. As Rogar goes after the traitorous Meli and Captain Karov, and Zeglin leaves to fulfil another commission, QUAZKYTON will be left in the hands of their other subordinates, which will have profound effects upon the underground complex when the player characters come to explore it.

The Hidden Serpent offers two hooks to get the player characters involved, both being predicated on their being in a frontier town. The first is to confirm that someone is making use of slaves in the nearby foothills and the second is to locate a relic said to be hidden there. The Labyrinth Lord is free to use either or both of these and is given a wilderness map for the player characters to traverse, along with a few encounters they can have along the way. Neither the town nor the location are named, but ostensibly, The Hidden Serpent is part of the Eastern Valnwall setting, based on the Known Lands in Labyrinth Lord. That said, both town and dungeon are easy to slot into whatever campaign setting the Labyrinth Lord is using.

The encounters do allow the Labyrinth Lord to give her player characters a bit of a runaround, but eventually they will find QUAZKYTON. Another benefit of the encounters is that they give the opportunity for the player characters to enter and explore the complex by guile rather than force. The complex itself resembles the Quasqueton of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but on a much reduced scale. This does not mean that the notable features of Quasqueton have been lost. So the Fungus Garden and the infamous Room of Pools—here as the Chamber of Cauldrons—are present. Physically, the design of QUAZKYTON is not as compact and more clearly organised, with discrete sections dividing the complex into quarters and facilities for the mercenaries and then suites of rooms for Zeglin and Rogar. These are almost mini-dungeons in themselves, especially Zeglin’s quarters where both the Fungus Garden and the Chamber of Cauldrons are, located as they are behind a series of magically trapped doors.

The second level or caves of QUAZKYTON is also smaller. The cave are also radically different. Instead of being under development as in Quasqueton, here they have been sealed off to present their current denizens from getting loose. Primarily this is a band of undead that were former Dwarven miners that Zeglin left here to die. Not only does this confirm that the wizard is evil, it adds an element of horror to the scenario.

Another difference between B1 In Search of the Unknown and The Hidden Serpent is their time frames. In the former, Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown disappeared years ago, unlikely to return, and Quasqueton is all but abandoned. (Indeed, this is explored further in Pacesetter Games & Simulations’ B1 Legacy of the Unknown.) In The Hidden Serpent, QUAZKYTON is a working environment and this can be of benefit to the player characters. If they are roleplayed as mercenaries, they may be able to look around the facilities with some ease. Yet it can also work against the player characters, for if the remaining garrison realises that they are intruders, they will defend the complex. The other possible issue is whether or not Zeglin and Rogar are coming back—and if so, when? In reality, this is more of a threat than an actuality, since the player characters are unlikely to be able to defeat either Zeglin or Rogar. It is thus a story element, though one that the Labyrinth Lord may need to make more explicit, serving to push the player characters to act rather than taking too much time in exploring the complex. What this means though, is that The Hidden Serpent is not really the exploration dungeon that its inspiration was.

The real difference between The Hidden Serpent and B1 In Search of the Unknown is not one of size, even though The Hidden Serpent is smaller and more compact, but one of story. In B1 In Search of the Unknown, the story is implied, waiting to be found amongst the artefacts left behind by Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, telling who they and Melissa are, and perhaps what has happened to her at least. In The Hidden Serpent, the story is more overt—the escaped slaves who have made it as far as the town in the first plot hook, the evacuated QUAZKYTON as Zeglin goes off to undertake a commission and Rogar goes after his ex-girlfriend, the tensions between the human and Demi-Human mercenaries left behind, and the mystery of the undead in the caverns… This gives the Labyrinth Lord a lot of story and plot elements to play with and the players to dig into, perhaps making it easier for the Labyrinth Lord to run and for her players to get involved. That said, perhaps the tensions between the human and Demi-Human mercenaries left behind could have been made more of.

Physically, The Hidden Serpent is well presented. It needs a slight edit here and there, but it is well written and whilst the artwork consists mostly of filler pieces designed to break up the text, they are decent filler pieces. The maps though, are nicely done and the cover is attractive.

When The Hidden Serpent was published in 2010, B1 In Search of the Unknown was not available. Indeed, Wizards of the Coast would not make it available until 2013. So when it was released, The Hidden Serpent represented a proper alternative and choice for the Labyrinth Lord and her players to experience something similar. Yet, The Hidden Serpent is not as ‘Old School’ as B1 In Search of the Unknown. This is obvious in its emphasis on story over simple exploration, but it is still a challenging, sometimes deadly scenario. And as much as it is a homage to B1 In Search of the Unknown, the story elements means that it is going to play differently too. Overall, The Hidden Serpent is an enjoyable tribute to B1 In Search of the Unknown, but with its emphasis on story, more ‘new school’ than ‘old school’.

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