Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Retrospective: In Search of the Unknown

The Holmes Basic Set I owned came with module B1 In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr, better known as the creator of Fight in the Skies (aka Dawn Patrol). If I had to choose the one module that had the greatest effect on me as a referee, it's this module, hands down. The reason is quite simple: B1 was written specifically as an "instructional aid for beginning Dungeon Masters" and so it was. I learned a number of really important lessons from using this module -- and use it I did -- chief among them being this: rooms containing pools of unknown liquids are cool.

More seriously, B1 really was an excellent "instructional aid." What it gave you was a two-level dungeon already mapped out for you, along with descriptions of most of the rooms, such as the aforementioned "room of pools." The module also provides a thin backstory about a pair of possibly evil adventurers named Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown who used their orc slaves to construct a fortress they called Quasqueton (presumably because Mike Carr is a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright). They then disappeared while fighting barbarians in the frozen north, leaving behind their fortress and its dungeons for other presumably non-evil adventurers to plunder.

The real genius of the module, though, is that, although each room has a description, none of them contains any monsters or treasures. It's entirely up to the referee, using the D&D rules and assisted by some tables at the back of the module to place monsters and treasures throughout the place. This might seem like a small thing -- and it is -- but the salutary effect it had on me was remarkable. Mike Carr had done all the hard work by designing the maps and describing the rooms, but he left it to each referee to populate the dungeon as they saw fit. From the start, I felt like a "co-creator" of B1 and it filled me with a strange confidence that I might otherwise not have possessed. And of course it also made it possible for me to re-use the module, which I did many times. I played the heck out of it.

The dungeon itself is pretty straightforward, with a handful of memorable locations, such as the room of pools and a garden of giant fungi, that made strong impressions on me as a young man. Some of the descriptions are absolutely priceless, such as this from the chamber of Rogahn's girlfriend: "A small tapestry measuring 3' x 4' hangs on the east wall. It depicts a handsome and robust warrior carrying off a beautiful maiden in a rescue scene set in a burning village, with a horde of ominous-looking enemies viewing from afar. Embroidered in gold cloth at the top of the scene are the words, 'Melissa, the most dearly won and greatest of all my treasures.'" That Rogahn sure was smooth, wasn't he? The descriptions gave me good models for how to describe rooms of my own invention, as I eventually did when I had an additional level to Quasqueton later on. That's what B1 was all about: good modeling.

The module is also noteworthy for having an extensive list of pregenerated characters in the book, all of them with names. And what names! Tassit, Servant of St. Cuthbert. Kracky the Hooded One. Mohag the Wanderer. Sho-Rembo. Ralt Gaither. Glom the Mighty. Luven Lightfinger. Feggener the Quick. They were all terrific and many of them became PCs, if only briefly, in my earliest adventures. When a character died -- and die they did -- I could just ask a player to pick one of the remaining pregens and we were ready to go again in five or ten minutes, after they'd bought equipment. The back of the module also contained expanded rules for finding and employing hirelings, which could be used in conjunction with the pregenerated characters.

All things considered, In Search of the Unknown succeeded in its goals: it taught me how to make my own dungeons. Interestingly, the original version of module B3, Palace of the Silver Princess, followed the same model as B1, since it had lots rooms whose occupants and treasure were intended to be added by the individual referee. The published version of the module follows a more "conventional" format and, I think, suffers for it. I can't recall any other published modules that take the approach of B1 and I think that's a shame. While I'm sure some refinements could be made to its approach, the overall formula is a sound one and could go a long way toward teaching the fundamentals of dungeon design to a new generation of gamers.

Perhaps I have another project to add to my ever-growing list.

12 comments:

  1. I played the original version of Silver Princess a few months ago using Labyrinth Lord rules. I clearly wasn't prepared for the design principles. I didn’t like the empty rooms I was supposed to fill with stuff because I had hoped to get a module ready to run "out of the box". Perhaps if none of the rooms had monsters & treasure I would have appreciated the point. I'll have to try again one of these days.

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  2. There was another published module that followed the same format, but it was for TSR's Top Secret.

    Assuming my memory isn't askew, Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle, the introductory module that came with the Top Secret boxed set was laid out the in the same way. Foes and "treasure" listed in the back with alphabetic codes to place within the adventure. Even had a list of pre-generated agents as well.

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  3. Kuntz's WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure didn't have a ready-made listing of monsters and treasures like B1/B3, but it did feature many unkeyed rooms across its three levels, which encouraged a similar behavior (for me, at least :D ).

    Allan.

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  4. B1 was the very first module I bought; while I remember little else about my early buying habits in gaming, I remember that after getting the Moldvay Basic Set for Christmas I first acquired the Expert Set, then module B1, then the DMG (all at Hallmark Cards & Books at Marquette Mall in Michigan City in quick succession), then my first issue of Dragon Magazine #57 at B&A Hobbies (mostly trains, but also had a small shelf of games).

    I recall running B2 first, so was rather put out by B1 not being fully stocked; still I persevered, and to this day I can tell you what monsters and treasures I placed on the first level the first time I ran it... as I wrote my note in ink, of course!

    Since then I've used it countless times, most recently about two years ago during the wonderfully wacky "Minions of Evil" campaign, a HackMaster game where the 1st level PCs were "redshirts" in the employ of the Black Eagle Baron in Karameikos. Good times...

    Indeed, the first module for Top Secret was designed the same way (just checked my copy on the shelf), and looks like the map could even be readily adapted to D&D.

    AFAIK, that was the only other module ever published in that "open ended stocking" fashion.

    Hmmm... Maybe I should publish something similar for C&C Basic... Now there's an idea...

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  5. The B line was made to help new players and new DMs alike. In Search of the Unknown was a really good do-it-yourself adventure that teaches players how to layout a dungeon. Keep on the Borderlands was a microcosm that teaches players about world building - what people now call "Point of Light." Unfortunately Palace of the Silver Princess did not follow the same instructional process as the first two lines. If felt more like a dolled-up mainstream adventure to bring in the girl-gamers - and even that display of gender diversity was thrown out the window with executive melding. To me, B3 was a turning point to decline of TSR, when they put political correctness over creative freedom. Otherwise, for a dolled-up girl's adventure, Jean Wells' version was not too bad, as she displayed a great deal of creativity (even if many people did not really like many of the unique monsters - I never really gave a rat's ass about public opinion ;) ).

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  6. Allan,

    I'd forgotten about WG5's set-up, which is odd, because it's one of my favorite adventures. I am also given to understand that Pharaoh had a similar set-up, but I no longer own a copy, so I can't check it out for myself.

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  7. Hmmm... Maybe I should publish something similar for C&C Basic... Now there's an idea...

    I think this would be an awesome idea.

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  8. To me, B3 was a turning point to decline of TSR, when they put political correctness over creative freedom.

    It's hard to say. There are many conflicting stories about the exact reasons for why B3 was changed from its original version to the one that was published. I do agree that B3 marks a turning point in TSR's history and the history of the hobby.

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  9. Yeah, if you want to illustrate to someone the differences between "old school" design and "new school" design of adventures, there's not much better way of doing it than showing them the two different versions of B3.

    For what it's worth, I think that B1's first level might be the single greatest dungeon map of all time.

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  10. For what it's worth, I think that B1's first level might be the single greatest dungeon map of all time.

    I am inclined to agree with you. It really is an awesome map -- and one that I imitated over the years, sometimes subconcsiously.

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  11. B1 Was the first D&D module I ever played.I remember the DM had created his own dungeon, utilizing the room descriptions from the module.It definately got the creative juices flowing. And the in depth room descriptions really brought the locales alive.No more excuses for empty 20x20 rooms. I found this module extremely inspiring.

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  12. I've just posted the same question on a french blog, but may be you also have the answer : "In search of the Unknown" is also the title of a book by Robert W. Chambers (the same that wrote "The King in Yellow", which is rather well-known by Call of Cthulhu players).

    Is that merely a coincidence ?

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