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Friday 4 October 2019

'B2' Series: Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos

The reputation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Yet until the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and then most recently 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, it would be other publishers who would revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Kenzer & Company visited it not once, but twice. First with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4 in 2002, and then again in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure. Another publisher to revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands was Chris Gonnerman, with JN1 The Chaotic Caves, a scenario written for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Yet Wizards of the Coast would give B2 Keep on the Borderlands one last hurrah in 2012.

Barely four years old, by 2012, Wizards of the Coast was already developing and playtesting a replacement for Dungeon & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Although Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition would not be released until 2014—and before we continue, consider that was five years ago and Wizards of the Coast is still not considering developing Dungeons & Dragons, Sixth Edition—a number of playtest documents were released instead. These were for D&D Next, first seen in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which was essentially previewing what would go on to become Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and they included the scenario, Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos: An Adventure for Character Levels 1-3.

Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos begins with some general notes. These highlight how “…[T]his module, originally titled B2: Keep on the Borderlands, has been the introductory module from the earliest boxed editions of D&D rules. The adventure consisted of a detailed keep, to be as a base, and a cave complex known as the Caves of Chaos. The latter has been included here.” Immediately, this establishes Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos as being focused on play. There is no keep for the player characters in which to wander around, do some shopping, and discover some rumours from the nameless inhabitants. Instead, it simply presents the dungeon, the infamous Caves of Chaos, and no more. In doing so, it is intended as a fairly faithful rendition of the original, designed actually to test out the freedoms of how Dungeons & Dragons might be played—not should be played or must be played, but might be played. The point is that as an adventure, Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is designed to be open any style of play, whether that is hack-and-slash, dungeon crawls, guerrilla warfare and political manipulation, and so on.

It also highlights how the module does not present a single story or plot, the player characters being free to proceed how they want through the scenario. Nevertheless, in a sop to thirty odd years in roleplaying development, Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos does include numerous motivations which can be used to draw the players and their characters into exploring the Caves of Chaos. The five given are all strong hooks. Another point is that Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is designed for ‘Free-Form Adventuring’. It states that, “Most adventures published for the latest editions of the D&D game have encounters tuned for balance and a structure meant to take the characters from one set-piece battle to the next. Sometimes, safe resting places were built in at just the right points. Although each cave has a recommended level for a party of four characters, The Caves of Chaos doesn’t work like such previous adventures.” So what it is saying is that the adventure is not like those of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition—and to some extent with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition with adventures like Scourge of the Howling Horde with their ‘Combat Encounter’ structure. Thus it would be more like the classic adventures of old—which of course, is what Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is a version of—and indeed, would be more like the adventures, or rather, the campaigns to come for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

For the Dungeon Master, there is solid advice on handling the monsters and making the dungeon dynamic in how its denizens react to the activities of the player characters and on how to handle to avoid killer encounters, the latter a problem because the player characters could simply wander into a section of the Caves of Chaos for which they are not experienced enough to handle. The advice continues with each of the eleven caves which make up the Caves of Chaos. Each one is preceded by a section explaining the level of challenge it represents to a party and providing an overview. For example, the first cave, the Kobold Lair, is presented as a challenge for a First or Second Level party and that a higher Level party would trounce the Kobolds. The key location in the Kobold Lair is area 6 and that any fleeing Kobold will go there to warn the others, who will react as needed, though eight will always remain. It also highlights how the Kobolds are notorious for their traps. It does this in turn for each of the caves.

All of the individual location descriptions are clearly laid out. So there are notes on any sources of light or noise, what monsters are present, what features, treasure to be found, and if a possibility, any development. Thus for the Orc Leader’s Room in the first Orc Lair, there is source of light, but mutterings might be heard between him and his four formal mates. There is treasure to be found on the Orcs and around the room as well as a couple of secret areas, but in terms of development, the Orc Leader might slip behind a tapestry and flee through a secret door to get help from the other Orc tribe in the Caves of Chaos. This formating makes every location and every cave easy to read and the various skill and attribute Difficulty Class targets are easy to spot. 

Now anyone who has read, run, or played B2 Keep on the Borderlands will find much that is familiar. So the Goblins shout “Bree-Yark!”; the Ogre is open to bribery and hiring, though he cannot be trusted; the Bugbears offer hot meals and beds for the night; and so on. Yet, there would have been players and Dungeon Masters enough who had not seen B2 Keep on the Borderlands, so it would not have been as familiar to everyone. Especially that it would not be until January, 2013 that Wizards of the Coast made it available as a PDF for general sale.

Physically, Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is a twenty-three page, 2.61 MB PDF. Barring the full colour painting on the front cover, there are no illustrations in the document and it is very clearly marked as a with ‘Playtest’ throughout. It does include a map of the Caves of Chaos, which looks to have been copied from B2 Keep on the Borderlands and is a little murky and difficult to read clearly.

Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is not B2 Keep on the Borderlands and it is not intended to be. It is instead a version of the major parts of that module designed to test the limits—or the freedoms—of play in an open environment unshackled from an earlier set of rules. To do that it presents a facsimile of the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands in a very accessible format with some solid supporting advice and then just leaves the Dungeon Master and her players to just play however they want. In fact it is so accessible, that any Dungeon Master with any experience would be able to pick this up and start running it with relatively little preparation. Overall, Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos is a snapshot of a game in development, one looking forward to what would become Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but still ready to look to—and acknowledge—the past.

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