Saturday, March 21, 2009

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In B1

The first adventure I ever played in (and ran) was the classic Mike Carr instructional module, B1 In Search of the Unknown, which was included with the Holmes set I bought in the spring of 1979. To this day, it's my favorite published adventure, and considering the amount of use I have gotten out of this adventure (I've run it probably two dozen times at minimum), it was also the most bang for the buck I've gotten for any gaming item except maybe the Core Rules CD Rom (more on that in a later post).

James Maliszewski has a great post about B1 here , and I agree with many of the points he makes. As a beginning adventure, it does so much for both the player and the DM. It is an exciting, mysterious, and unusual environment for a first time player; it's format makes it easy to run for a 1st time DM. To top it off, it literally contains everything you might need if you are the DM, from good "how to" tips to tables random rumors, treasures, monsters, and NPCS. Even the backstory is perfect, with just enough detail to intrigue the players but not enough to tie the hands of a fledgling DM who wants to set the adventure in his own (or any) campaign world.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading is familiar with the set up of B1, which is full room descriptions minus any monsters and treasures which are placed by the DM (ooops, there's the set up, wasn't that easy). The descriptions are simply perfect; enough information and detail to tweak the imagination of beginning DMs and Players, yet enough left unsaid to leave room for lots of innovation. In a few cases (#8 Wizard's Workroom, #10 Storeroom, #11 Supply Room, and #13 Implement Room) long lists of items as room contents are given, none immediately useful (not like, say, a glowing broadsword), but intriguing enough to get any fledgling player thinking and using his noggin (and getting the more paranoid players wondering "Should we carry around that small barrel of lard, just in case???). For example, the list from the Implement room reads thusly:

A box of wooden pegs
A coil of light rope, 50'
A coil of heavy chain, 70'
A coil of fine copper wire, 20'
Mining picks (32), all unusable and in poor repair
Chisels (15)
Shovels (13)
Empty barrels (11)
Mallets (8)
Iron bars (29, each measuring 1" in diameter, 8' in length)
An iron vise (12" jaws)
Mining jacks (2), broken
Crosscut saws (2, 2-man)
Hacksaw (4)
A mason's toolbox (containing trowel, stone chisel, plumbline, etc.)
A cobbler's toolbox (containing small hammer, knife,heavy needles, etc.)
A small barrel of unfletched arrows (60, all normal)
An empty wooden bench, 10' long

If half a dozen uses for, say, the hacksaw, mallets, and heavy chain doesn't jump inside your head while toiling around Quasqueton, perhaps you should give up gaming and take up sewing. What these lists do is give the beginning DM a sort of insight into how to make a dungeon somewhat "realistic" (obviously, if Quasqueton was under construction, the supplies would have to be stored somewhere, correct?), and show him how fun it can be to stimulate the mind of the players in directions "off the map", so to speak. There is no given use in B1 for the iron bars, a sack of barley, a jar of vinegar, or a box of wooden nails...but the players don't know this, and it forces the beginning DM to learn an important lesson of dungeon crawling: "Players will always do something you don't expect". If later on in the lower levels, the players use the copper wire to their advantage, they have exceeded the parameters of the game and should be rewarded.

I've always been surprised TSR didn't publish more of this type of adventure to help out the hordes of new players that would be flocking to the game in the early 80s (B2, while also a classic, is nowhere near the cakewalk B1 is to run and tinker with). Considering that the initial Top Secret adventure (Sprechenhaltestelle, including in the Top Secret boxed set) contained virtually the same set up (area descriptions without "treasure" or "monsters") it seems the powers that be realized the potential, but never really followed up on it. A B1 type adventure, published every five years or so and included with whatever boxed set was being sold, would have been a perfect companion to the rules set. I really wish TSR had continued down the path Mike Carr started, we would perhaps have a handful of classic beginning type adventures instead of just this one perfect example.

For myself, the adventure is IMO the best introduction to my favorite game that I have ever used. It's the one I reach for when I run into someone that wants to experience D&D for the first time (it's the only adventure my wife has ever played, when she was in her "What's this D&D thing all about anyway?" stage). It's versatility is a strength. I've run it as a necromancer's lair (full of undead); as a base for a group of orc bandits; a base for hobgoblin bandits; a base for kobold bandits; as the hideout of a evil priest and his minions; as the base for a low level thieves' guild; as a decades-sealed dungeon filled only with mindless creatures and constructs; and sometimes just as written: a bunch of random encounters in a long abandoned stronghold. I've used it in the World of Greyhawk (set right outside the Village of Hommlet so characters could get some experience before tackling the moathouse, or in the mountains outside Geoff, or in the hills of Keoland); Forgotten Realms (in the hills outside Shadowdale); my own campaign world (many, many times, usually in the hills right outside of the town the player's characters meet in for the first time). The setting and intro are so classic and generic the adventure could be set anywhere, from the jungles of Delos to the mountaintops of the Thunderspires (locations in my own campaign world where I have used B1).

While reading over this minor masterpiece yet again, It's really hard to come up with the definitive "IT" factor that makes B1 such a great adventure. There are some great set pieces (entry hall magic mouth with the dead bodies; room of pools; mushroom chamber) but nothing that really jumps out and blows you away. When looking at it, this is actually a strength of the adventure, in a lot of spots it's all very mundane and rote, and just what a newbie expects an abandoned dungeon area to up to expectations can be a good thing. Sure there are a couple of surprises (the portcullis in the NW area of the fortress that can trap characters; the one-way secret doors that monsters can use to surprise characters that exit and return time and again; and of course the pit trap that empties into the pool of water on the lower level) and in truth the lower level is actually quite a let down compared to the upper level; but on the whole it's competent and workmanlike instead of all Ravenlofty. Then again you don't want to hit the beginners with too much, and the simplicity of mapping Quasqueton (and the obviousness of secret rooms...they are all where the empty spots on the map are!) is actually a plus here (The party is MEANT to discover that secret lab anyway!)

The lower level comes as a bit of a let down, in my estimation, since it's really nothing more than caverns, tunnels and caves. It does, however, show the newer players that mapping isn't always a "10x50" hallway leading south (especially if they forget a light source, don't have a mapper, or are running for their lives like scared ninnies from a pair of ghouls!). There are two good areas, however: #53 the giant bat cavern (perfect spot for a nasty melee) and the #55/#56 connected area that just begs to be used as the boss bad guy's last stand (or final encounter if there isn't a "organized" opposition in the ruins).

To top it off, the very structure and set-up of B1 lends itself to all sorts of one-shots and pickup games, even for those who have braved it's dark hallways many times. The funnest, and funniest, pickup game I ever ran involved my two younger brothers and myself one Christmas Day several years ago. Sitting around with nothing to do after dinner (with the kids all tired out from Christmas presents), I had them roll up 3d6 in order characters (two each) and gave them an NPC cleric as they did what I billed as a "completely random" run through B1. One of my brothers had a fighter with a great strength but a very low intellect (I'm thinking it was 4 or 5). He was ruled to be a moronic brute, and I rolled his possessions randomly on the AD&D equipment table. His weapon turned out to be a club, and his possessions included no armor and his pet cat. We had a lot of fun in the ensuing crawl, which included a classic combat vs orcs where my brother's moronic brute threw his cat into the face of an orc...and the cat promptly killed the 1 hp orc with several hits from his panicked claws. Sweet! The fact that half the party died in the ensuing pitfall into the 2nd level pool of water (who knew the kobolds in that room would be so accurate with their arrows???) was icing on the cake ("Ha, ha, your characters got killed by kobolds"...and yes my brothers are the only players I'll mock like that during a dungeon crawl).

To top it off, who doesn't feel a surge of nostalgia at the names of Kracky the Hooded One, Presto, Eggo of the Brotherhood and Estra Zo? Ah, the days when you could get away with naming your character one of these or "Fred the Fighter" instead of something all flowerly like Renarius Daelon of the High Forest? As a matter of history, "Krago of the Mountains" was used by my brother in this adventure, and survived to one day 7 years later finish up the GDQ series with the rest of the original party members I ran through B1.

As a last note, I leave here the list in the back of B1 entitled "Tips for Players", which IMO should just be stamped inside whatever is currently passing for a Players Handbook nowadays. Especially #10 seems to have been lost sight of in the edition wars and old school grognards trying to reduce the game to playing a set of numbers. It shouldn't be taken to mean playing a character like you are trying out for the local production of Seven Wives for Seven Brothers, but instead encourages getting into the game and experiencing it instead of rolling dice and observing. Well, that's my take at least.

Beginning players would do well to profit from some basic
advice before beginning their D&D careers, and with that in
mind, the following points are offered for consideration:
1) Be an organized player. Keep accurate records on your
character (experience, abilities, items possessed, etc.) for
your own purposes and to aid the Dungeon Master.
2) Always keep in mind that the Dungeon Master is the
moderator of the game, and as such, deserves the continued
cooperation, consideration and respect of all the
players. If you disagree with him or her, present your viewpoint
with deference to the DM's position as game judge, but
be prepared to accept his or her decision as final—after all,
keep in mind that you may not know all aspects of the overall
game situation, and in that case, not everything will always
go your way!
3) Cooperate with your fellow players and work together
when adventuring. Remember that on any foray into the dungeon
or wilderness, a mix of character classes will be beneficial,
since the special abilities of the various characters will
complement each other and add to the overall effectiveness
of the party.
4) Be neither too hasty nor too sluggish when adventuring. If
you are too fast in your exploration, you may recklessly endanger
yourself and your fellow adventurers and fall prone
to every trick and trap you encounter. If you are too slow, you
will waste valuable time and may be waylaid by more than
your share of wandering monsters without accomplishing
anything. As you gain playing experience you will learn the
proper pace, but rely on your DM for guidance.
5) Avoid arguing. While disagreements about a course of
action will certainly arise from time to time, players should
quickly discuss their options and reach a consensus in order
to proceed. Bickering in the dungeon will only create noise
which may well attract wandering monsters. Above all, remember
that this is just a game and a little consideration will
go far toward avoiding any hard feelings . . .
6) Be on your guard. Don't be overly cautious, but be advised
that some non-player characters may try to hoodwink
you, players may doublecross you, and while adventuring,
tricks and traps await the unwary. Of course, you won't avoid
every such pitfall (dealing with the uncertainties is part of the
fun and challenge of the game), but don't be surprised if
everything is not always as It seems.
7) Treat any retainers or NPCs fairly. If you reward them generously
and do not expose them to great risks of life and limb
that your own character would not face, then you can expect
a continuing loyalty (although there may be exceptions,
of course).
8) Know your limits. Your party may not be a match for every
monster you encounter, and occasionally it pays to know
when and how to run away form danger. Likewise, a dungeon
adventure may have to be cut short if your party suffers
great adversity and/or depleted strength. Many times it will
take more than one adventure to accomplish certain goals,
and it will thus be necessary to come back out of a dungeon
to heal wounds, restore magical abilities and spells, and reinforce
a party's strength.
9) Use your head. Many of the characters' goals in the game
can be accomplished through the strength of arms or magic.
Others, however, demand common sense and shrewd
judgment as well as logical deduction. The most successful
players are those who can effectively use both aspects of the
game to advantage.
10) The fun of a D&D game comes in playing your character's
role. Take on your character's persona and immerse
yourself in the game setting, enjoying the fantasy element
and the interaction with your fellow players and the Dungeon
Enjoy yourself, and good luck!

1 comment:

  1. I really wish TSR had continued down the path Mike Carr started, we would perhaps have a handful of classic beginning type adventures instead of just this one perfect example.It's not quite the same thing, but the black box/red dragon D&D boxed set form the early nineties (which lead into the Rules Cyclopedia) included not just a complete adventure but a map of a second one called Stonefast. Stonefact had a sort-of plot (it was a White Dragon lair) and a few key rooms were listed but the rest was blank and specifically for GMs to populate.

    Now, that isn't what you're after (since B1 is both a lot more flexible and lot more focused at the same time) but it shows that even later into D&Ds life there was an acknowledgement that beginner DMs needed a framework by which to learn to create their own adventures.