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Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review 999: Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands

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 since then, Wizards of the Coast has all but ignored B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the module that preceded it, B1 In Search of the Unknown, barring the publisher’s 2012 Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos: An Adventure for Character Levels 1-3. This was the playtest scenario 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.

Instead, it would be other publishers who would revisit both scenarios in the twenty-first century. So Kenzer & Company first published B1 Quest for the Unknown, a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown for use with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, and would follow it up with not one, but two versions of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. 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. In addition, Faster Monkey Games published its own homage to B1 In Search for the Unknown with The Hidden Serpent, whilst Pacesetter Games & Simulations has published a number of extra encounters and sequels for both scenarios, most notably B1 Legacy of the Unknown and B2.5 Blizzard on the Borderland.

Yet Wizards of the Coast did not ignore its extensive back catalogue. It would release numerous titles in PDF, and even allow Print on Demand reprints, including both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Further, in 2017, it published Tales from the Yawning Portal, a collection of scenarios that had originally been published for previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and even D&D Next. These scenarios though, did not include either B1 In Search of the Unknown or B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Which upon first glance seemed a strange omission, but then came the announcement from Goodman Games about Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands.

Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands presents a huge package dedicated to B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The large volume includes interviews, reprints, advice, redesigns, expansions, and more. It is a chance for gamers—old and new, but given the nostalgia value of this book, mostly old—to look at these modules anew and actually compare with what versions written for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition might look like. For newer players, it provides an opportunity to examine the modules in their original form, but really then play them using a set of rules with which they are familiar. All together, there are three versions of each module in Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands with the means to include both in the region.

Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands opens with a series of interviews and reminiscences. Luke Gygax, son E. Gary Gygax, provides a foreword and shares his memories of playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands, whilst Mike Mearls, co-lead designer on Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition explores the key elements in the module that best shows of the elements of Dungeons & Dragons, before looking a little at B1 In Search of the Unknown. What he highlights is how many of the elements found in B2 Keep on the Borderlands serve as the model for a good Dungeons & Dragons adventure, and show how they can be applied to various settings. Elsewhere Alex Kramer talks about how B2 Keep on the Borderlands started his collection of Dungeons & Dragons titles, but the highlight of the introduction is naturally enough, an interview with Mike Carr, the designer of B1 In Search for the Unknown. This is a lengthier piece than the Q&A which appeared in In Search of the Unknown Campaign Sourcebook, which serves as a companion to this informative interview. Similarly, the discussion of the cover and art of B1 In Search of the Unknown in the fan-based In Search of the Unknown Campaign Sourcebook serves as a companion to ‘The Mystery of the Alternate B1 Cover Art’. This is the last entry in the introductory chapter and brings it to an interesting close.

Over a third of Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands is devoted to reprints of the original modules. These include scans of the second and sixth  printings of B1 In Search for the Unknown and the second and fourth printings of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. For the most part, the differences between the two sets of printings are minor, and it is unlikely that a Dungeon Master would use both. They are more than just historical curiosities though, as they showcase how the modules  originally appeared and they also serve as springboards for contemporary designers to approach them using the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition rules.

The Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition versioning begins by giving options that fulfill the aim of B1 In Search of the Unknown. Famously, that module left it up to the Dungeon Master to stock each of its rooms and locations with monsters, NPCs, and treasure from the lists included. Three such lists are included, each accompanied by a little introduction explaining the reasoning behind each list. This is followed by advice echoing that given both the Dungeon Master and her players in B1 In Search of the Unknown. Although written with the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition version of the module that follows in mind, it really harks back to that originally included in B1 In Search of the Unknown, preparing player and Dungeon Master alike for a different roleplaying experience—an ‘Old School’ experience if you will. The actual version of B1 In Search of the Unknown for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition retains the same emphasis on exploration and combat as the original, but the modern update means that it places more of an emphasis on social interaction and story than in the original. This is achieved by what is a complete stocking of the dungeon of its monsters, NPCs, and treasures—essentially what is the fourth stocked example in Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands—with NPCs and monsters being active in the dungeon. These include a set of highly competitive Gnome triplets leading a band of evil Gnomes on a raid of the dungeon, whilst a band of the barbarians from the tribes that the builders of Quasqueton, Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, are famous for defeating. Certainly, the Dungeon Master will have fun roleplaying the nasty little Gnomes. There is also an entertaining Mimic in the caves too. The result is a fun dungeon, tough and challenging, but to an extent what is lost is the emphasis on the background and story of Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown.

Beyond the confines of Quasqueton, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands adds three further encounters. These include the tower which Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown never quite completed, and what are both of their tombs. These are primarily trap and puzzle-based areas as you would expect from a tomb, and again, these are quite tough, almost evoking the infamous S1 Tomb of Horrors in their nastiness. Written of course, for lower Level characters. These three encounters are all optional, but quite detailed. They do include yet another take on what happened to Melissa, Rogahn the Fearless’ mistress, which provides the first of Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands’ links between B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

In comparison, the adaptation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is not as interesting. This is because it is more straightforward and lacks the scope for design input which is integral to B1 In Search of the Unknown. This does not mean that it is not well done, but it is more of a straight adaptation than a rewrite. Where the designers have scope to do more with B2 Keep on the Borderlands is in the wilderness area between the Keep and the Caves of Chaos. Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands doubles the number of encounters and locations, turning the area into a mini-sandbox. Old standbys are still there, like the evil Lizardmen and the old apiarist hermit, but there are also Bullywugs living in a Reed Maze, an abandoned Adventurer Camp, and more to be encountered. The inclusion of the Bullywugs, one of a number of monsters to appear here which originally appeared in the Fiend Folio for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, is a nice touch since Luke Gygax, together with his father, originally designed them. One of the main additions—and very much an optional one at that—is that of the Caves of the Unknown. In other words, the designers give the option for the player characters to discover Quasqueton and play through B1 In Search of the Unknown before they even get to the Caves of Chaos!

As well as the encounters in the wilderness between the Keep and the Caves of Chaos, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands provides extra encounters in and around the ravine containing the Caves of Chaos. These increase the number of caves from eleven to fourteen. They include a hidden lair of Xvarts—another ‘Old School’ monster that originally appeared in the Fiend Folio and more recently in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, but is rarely used, a cave of giant vermin, and a cave system designed to link the Caves of Chaos to the lower level of the Caves of the Unknown. Again, these are well designed and do not necessarily feel out of place alongside the original caves. 

Rounding out Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands are lists of the various new monsters and magical items, as well as potential hirelings, but the volume closes with one last reprint. These are the full colour covers of both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands along with their maps. These are lovely reprints vibrant with colour that everyone’s battered and used copies of the originals lost long ago.

Physically, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands is decently presented. The facsimiles of both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands are clearly presented and easy enough to read, although the updated versions with their serif text and much bigger fonts are easier. That said, the use of different fonts and so on does make the overall look of the book disjointed, but it is obvious why it was done. (In fact, it would have been fascinating to have seen this product done as a boxed set containing the different versions of the modules, old and new, as well as separate maps and supporting material.) The book does need an edit though. The new maps are all sharp and clean, whilst the new artwork, much of which has a cartoonish quality to it, is decent enough. The contents page could definitely done with expanding, especially as there is no index in the book. Surprisingly, for a book of its size, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands is quite light in the hand, although it still feels sturdy enough.

Now as good and as fun as it is to see the old versions of B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands reprinted, and then updated to, and expanded for, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, there is something missing in Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. The problem is that in setting the context with the interview and the memories, it feels as if B1 In Search of the Unknown receives all of the attention, leaving the reader wanting when it comes to reading about B2 Keep on the Borderlands. And further, the memories and the interview do feel wanting in comparison to the publisher’s earlier treatment of another TSR. Inc. classic, Metamorphosis Alpha with the delightfully informative Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition. Understandably, the creator of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, E, Gary Gygax, is longer with us, but surely something more could have been included?

There is a great deal to like about Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. The interviews and reminiscences are interesting to read and to be able to place two classic modules alongside what more contemporary designers would do with them makes for fascinating comparisons. The expansions are all well designed and do not feel out of place with the older material, and even though the placing of the Caves of the Unknown close to the Caves of Chaos feels a little too much for the wilderness region, it does mean that B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands can be played together as a campaign. And despite the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition updates, expansions, and updates—which it must be made clear makes both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands playable by those whose first game is Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, these are still ‘Old School’-style adventures. So there is more of an emphasis on combat and exploration, though the updated versions do include more story and more social interaction, and the adventures feel tougher and more unforgiving. If there is one thing that is missing, it is perhaps a discussion of the differences between the two styles of play, between Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and the Old School Renaissance. There are hints, but if ever there was an opportunity to do so, surely it was with Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands?

Ultimately, it does feel as if there are a few things missing from Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and it missed an opportunity or two. Yet it still manages to both satisfy our sense of nostalgia and explore a more modern approach to a pair of classic modules. This is because again and again, different publishers, whether TSR, Inc. or Kenzer & Company, Wizards of the Coast or Chris Gonnerman, have revisited these modules, exploring them, reshaping them, expanding them, all in an effort to recapture some of that joy of playing them the first time around, but still with the benefit of hindsight of decades’ worth of play and change in gaming sensibilities. Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands is a fine example of that, but takes the time to look back as well as update. Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands is not quite the definitive treatment of B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but Goodman Games’ homage is far from unwelcome and the updated versions provide plenty of play forty years on...

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