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Sunday 5 March 2023

‘B2’ Series: BEX-1 Descent Into The Caves of the Unknown

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.

Arguably, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands would prove to be the ultimate version of the classic module, but authors have continued to revisit the original even since such as with the fanzine version from Swordfish Islands LLC, which so far consists of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2. Yet there remain oft forgotten visits to the famous ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ and the equally infamous, ‘Caves of Chaos’, which are worth examining and shining light upon. For example, Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is a prequel to Return to the Keep of the Borderlands by Jeff Grub, but there have also been expansions to B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It is often forgotten that the infamous Caves of Chaos are not the only cavern system to be found in the region. Located in the unforested area between the Caves of Chaos and the eponymous keep are the Caves of the Unknown, mislabelled on the wilderness map as the ‘Cave of the Unknown’. This is mentioned twice in the module. Once on page 12 where it says, “The Caves of the Unknown area is left for you to use as a place to devise your own cavern complex or dungeon maze.” and then again, in location #51, in the ‘Shrine of Evil Chaos’, where a “Boulder Filled Passage” can lead to the Cave of the Unknown. Left up to the Dungeon Master to design and detail, one option has been to simply insert the Caverns of Quasqueton from B1 In Search of the Unknown and this was the option chosen for Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. However, other designers have embraced Gygax’s advice in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and created their own dungeons to fill this spot. Perhaps the earliest was Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion, published by Usherwood Publishing in 2013, but RC Pinnell, who has a history of writing sequels to classic Dungeons & Dragons modules, would release his own version at about the same time as Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands was published.

BEX-1 Descent Into The Caves of the Unknown is designed for a party of between four and nine Third to Sixth Level Player Characters, and consequently intended to be played after the Player Characters have explored the Caves of Chaos. Published in 2018, it is written for use with editions of prior to Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and details a cave network of some twenty caves and connecting tunnels which is home to a tribe of Troglodytes. The tribe are refugees from a civil war taking place deeper into the earth and having found a new home in the caves led several raids on the Caves of Chaos above, feeding on the Humanoids they killed and captured until the leaders in the Caves of Chaos determined the source of attacks, invaded the Troglodyte caves, killed many of the tribes’ members, and then sealed the tunnel leading from the ‘Shrine of Evil Chaos’. In other words, the evil clergy practicing their vile faith in the ‘Shrine of Evil Chaos’ and pulling the Humanoids of the Caves of the Chaos into a rough alliance are also responsible for filling in the “Boulder Filled Passage”.

The Cave of the Unknown is much like the other Caves of Chaos home to the various Humanoid tribes. Although a natural cave system with no worked areas, there are guard posts, caves and chambers for the chief of the Troglodytes, his queen, his elite warriors, both teenage males and females, and so on. A supply cavern contains boxes and crates of items gained through and trade which are perfect for adding objects and items that could be stolen or missing and perhaps serve as a possible hook to explore the caverns. Some of the cave descriptions are far from interesting, but there are exceptions. 
The queen’s chamber is connected to a bubbling mud pool which is difficult to traverse and fight in and she also has a pack of Cave-Dogs, specially bred by the queen so that they have immunity to the infamous stench that Troglodytes excrete. However, this does mean that these Cave-Dogs lack the sense of smell they are typically known for.

Overall, locations and encounters such as with the queen are far and few between and in this, the description of the Caves of the Unknown feels very much in keeping with the Caves of Chaos of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. They are static, all but waiting for an incursion by the Player Characters. There are potential roleplaying hooks present, although they are not explicitly stated. The Player Characters could ally with Gothmog, the Troglodyte chief, in taking his revenge on the clergy in the Shrine of Evil Chaos and their allies and the queen could be turned against Gothmog. There is also the fact that the Troglodytes are trading with someone deeper into the earth. It is not stated who, but that could easily be linked to another scenario—perhaps in the mode of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and its sequels. In any of these cases
, the Player Characters will need to be more circumspect in their approach to investigating the Cave of the Unknown rather than simply slaughtering everything before them. If they do take that approach, they do face some tough opponents and a good number of them, but if they are successful, then there is plenty of treasure to be found. 

Physically, BEX-1 Descent Into The Caves of the Unknown is plain. The map nicely apes the style of B2 Keep on the Borderlands right down to the blue background.

BEX-1 Descent Into The Caves of the Unknown feels as if it could be something more and as if it could be more interesting. The Dungeon Master will need to work hard to bring the back story to the Troglodyte presence in the Caves of the Unknown into play and involve the Player Characters, thus turning the adventure into more of a sidequest than the side note  it reads as written.

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