Sunday, August 3, 2014

In Search of the Unknown - B1 Review

How does one review an adventure that is designed to be different each time it’s played?   B1 – In Search of the Unknown, written in 1979 by Mike Carr for inclusion in the D&D basic set, is exactly such a module, with partially keyed areas on a large dungeon map meant to be completed by the GM from existing tables.  In not sure if this represents an authentic alternative to the method of adventure writing that has become standard, a template for a GM’s own design and imagination (perhaps a later version of this tradition might be the recently released Seclusium of the Orphone an LOTFP ‘module’ by Vincent Baker) rather than a complete  pregenerated ready to play location or scenario.  It might also be a messy gimmick that failed to catch on.  Without a consideration of its place in the history of table top games, In Search of the Unknown has some fun set pieces, and a far more evocative setting than one might expect from such an early effort. The module is an unabashed dungeon crawl and one that, in the manner of early D&D, is fairly empty of inhabitants and treasure, but not a bad one, thanks to some classic but well done setting elements and a real dungeon history that is both easy to grasp and helpful at defining areas.

The cover I remember promised Fungal Caverns

Like many of the TSR introductory products, In Search of the Unknown leads off with a few pages of advice about running a game.  The advice in B1 is similar to that in B2 but a bit more wordy and focused on the areas or retainers, time keeping and party organization.  This advice is all pretty solid, as is the general sense that the dungeon should be “fair” and “challenging” which will undoubtedly lead to character deaths.  Yet there is nothing novel in this advice, though maxims like “First, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is a game based on player interaction and player choice” still seem worthy of repetition.

The inevitability of character death is something that the older game embrace, thinking of characters less as individual avatars to express the players’ concept of their fantastical selves, and more as game pieces.  I like this view, but recognize the difficulty in it, players grow attached to their characters, especially as they do cool things and grow in stature from in game experiences.  Personally, the disposable hero is hard for me to play, but definitely the idea of the party as the central narrative character in a tabletop game can help, as might the use of a ‘company’ style game with a pool of characters to draw from shared amongst the players.  
One other element worth noting is that B1 has a nice long list of hireling names by class and some of these are great.  I would love to spring an NPC cleric on a party named “Famed of the Great Church” or “Seeful the Unforgiving”.  Included with these names are stat lines that look very normal for 3D6 in order characters and a nice little trait generator for hirelings.

A pair of adventuring types, a fighter and a wizard, poured their plundered treasure into building a strange underground fortress they named “Quasqueton”.  It’s not clear if the adventures were good or evil, they were cruel and greedy, but did save the region around their fortress more than once.  Eventually the adventurers disappeared in an ill-considered attack on distant barbarians. Quasqueton remains, and is a popular destination for treasure hunters as its labyrinthine passages represent 20 years of obsessive building, and it is rumored to hold the treasures of its former masters.

That’s it, a flimsy seeming premise, but quite a solid one allowing the dungeon to have some flavor as an abandoned home to powerful adventures, the central mystery of its former residents’ alignment, goals and pasts to investigate and the added flavor of the remains of past expeditions. Quasqueton itself is two levels, the first of long looping corridors and scattered rooms, many hidden by secret doors, and the second a set of caves.  One of the key elements of B1 is that the adventure is set up to be stocked by the individual referee.  This makes it hard to describe the exact encounters or rooms to a degree as every use of B1 is going to be different.  There are a few special chambers: the room of pools, a magical stone and cavern of agitated bats that are interesting and well place, but the majority of the adventure will depend on how the referee prepares.  Some rooms, like a cave full of webs call out for certain types of encounters, but the majority of them could be filled by random treasure and monster placement.  Yet this would be a mistake, as the monster list is a funhouse of classic low level beasts in small numbers, and treasure list mostly mundane items of low value.

There is no real goal or purpose to exploring the fortress of Quasqueton besides adventure and plunder, and unraveling the lives of its residents offers little reward.  This isn’t a bad thing, there’s a purity to a plain dungeon crawl, and it’s done properly with Quasqueton in that the past of the place is clearly visible in its current state.  Unfortunately, the random monster and treasure placement provides for neither evocative monsters nor treasure (though some of the treasure is decently described and I like the inclusion of the poorly drawn map) and far too much magic treasure compared to the paucity of mundane items.

As mentioned above I like the premise of B1, Quasqueton has about the right level of mystery associated with it for a well know, sinister spot that has been previously explored.  The NPC generator (Especially the names) is also nice, useful enough and most importantly gives the idea that the game isn’t supposed to be some sort of dead serious Tolkien style epic meditation on mythic themes.  It’s a tabletop game where characters have silly names and are grubbing for treasure in a dank pit.  This alone is a winning inclusion for an introductory module, something that B11 King’s Festival lacks terribly (it being the last of the B-series true introductory modules), and which really sets the whole tone of how D&D is played – a black comedy about luckless and sometimes crafty dungeon delvers or a fantasy epic about serious heroes on a serious battle against ‘evil’.   I prefer the first, and the rules don’t seem to support the second.  The rumor table itself is large, as it should be, and contains some useful rumors, but also holds a few too many dumb false rumors for a location that seems well known and previously explored.

The original cover also promised a mushroom forest

The maps of In Search of the Unknown also look pretty good, the top level doesn’t feel rational exactly for an underground fortress (too many pointless secret doors and winding endless passages) but it makes for a good adventure map and has lots of ways to get from one place to another. There are a few interesting rooms, and many that seem like they might contain interesting secrets (though ultimately few do). The cave map for the second level is rather strong, having two large loops and a few interesting chambers.  The maps suffer a bit from their age, the upper level especially resembling something drawn on a single sheet of paper with the mapper giving more effort to filling all the squares than creating a comprehensible space.  Still even the upper level map does a nice job of creating both mapping challenges for a classic game (where player’s must map or get lost) and avoiding the mapping pitfall of too much symmetry.

Many of the rooms themselves are quite well done in a weird swords and sorcery sort of way.  The Pool Room is especially wonderful and must be the centerpiece of a lot of memories about playing D&D.  It has enough description and strangeness to feel like exploration and create wonder, while mostly remaining comprehensible.  There are some dangerous effects and some beneficial effects, but nothing that will overwhelm the game.   Other locations are quite interesting as well, the dangerous, but not deadly, trap of the bat chamber, the near impossible to move but valuable statute chamber and the use of various treasure illusions.

B1’s experiment with random stocking seems to be a didactic effort but is more frustrating than useful.  While the room descriptions are strong overall, the random or is based stocking mechanic provides a strange set of creatures and treasures with little direction or sense of what is where and why.  Rumors hint of a few monsters – troglodytes and guards (presumably berserkers).  Yet neither of these monsters features much (berserkers are a mere random encounter). With encounters limited to a few goblins or crab spiders tossed mostly at random into rooms, B1 potentially suffers from two problems that are often associated with older dungeon crawls and come from the lack of any sort of ecological narrative for the dungeon.  First there’s the issue of the ‘bad neighbor’s’ problem, where the unrelated and inexplicably placed encounters have no interaction with each other.  Goblins in one room wait to be massacred after they have their door busted down, and are unlikely to interact with the bandits or spiders next door.  This works fine with unintelligent monsters, dungeon vermin, but even these creatures need sensible placement for best effect.  The second issue is a lack of factions, not all monsters should be evil, and if using the reaction roll as it’s suggested in older editions of Basic (such as the one B1 was boxed with) many may even be friendly.  In a dungeon where there aren’t real factions or relationships between the denizens it’s hard to come up with non-combat encounters. What do the goblins want that makes them friendly?   This problem could be fixed by a decent GM, and maybe the authors of B1 felt it was sufficiently obvious that anyone stocking the fortress would fix it, but at least a few words to that effect, laying out factions and potential relationships, along with more attention to the stocking tables creating a potential theme would have been a great improvement.  As it is, the carefully constructed room descriptions and haphazard treasure/encounter design conspire to make Quasquedon feel empty.

Some of the special rooms don't help with this empty feeling.  I specifically want to mention the "mushroom forest" because this is one of the coolest ideas in D&D exploration, but B1 just squanders it.  There's a cave of fungal oddities, but nothing really to it.  The cave contains random plants and is hard to walk through.  Eating any of the fungus has a 30% of being poisonous and that's it.  I want something more, I want this room to be the equivalent of a Serengeti watering hole, at least.  The party enter a huge cave of strange lights, fungal spires and various dungeon denizens and factions calmly collecting mushrooms.  The horrible monsters ignore the party and each other, as this source of food is too good for any one group to claim and a sort of silent peace rules it. If the party attacks anyone or even acts too odd they get jumped, because the mushroom forest is also too valuable to allow strangers to endanger and no matter their enmity all the dungeon factions will unite to preserve it.  All we get in B1 though for this flagship locale is a description and a poison percentage. This alone ruined this module for me as a kid, and it still grates.

The second major problem with B1 is hinted at above in the way it’s placed in the game world. Quasquedon is simply their ready to be looted.  It doesn’t interact with anything outside of itself in any way.  It doesn’t raise the threat of a united humanoid army behind an evil cult (like the Caves of Chaos in B2) and it isn’t the locus of strange phenomena and a mystery (Like B3’s Palace of the Silver Princess), Quasquedon simply sits, filled with a few thousand GP worth of treasure waiting to be explored.  This isn’t bad, but I would like a few hooks leading out of it, even if it’s just plunder that pulls the party in.  
At least there is the vague possibility of Troglodytes
B1 In Search of the Unknown is a perfect hex map filler, it has no background story, provides some clever tricks and is its existence should only need minimal modification to fit most campaign worlds.  No ancient mysteries to unveil, just a former lair of a pair of eclectic and powerful adventurers who are now presumed dead.  Most of the changes needed to use B1 result from trying to fix the bland encounters and poor treasure placement created by its novel gestures towards modular adventure design.  
I delayed reading this module for reviews as there was talk of a Wampus County skinned ongoing Quasqadon exploration.  We had one session which was excellently Wampus County including conversations with a family of halfling sized hedgehogs and a pack of weird hermit crab things hiding in a nest of junk with domestic detritus as their shells (goblins and giant rats perhaps).  A set of marble thrones and some dead monster trophies were looted.  It’s noteworthy that these fixtures (both heavy treasure with somewhat low value) were not listed treasure, as B1 is rather sparse on treasure.  
This points to the basic change I’d make to B1, a better understanding of what’s valuable and listed values for a lot of the less choice loot in Quasqadon.  There are several rooms of preserved supplies and a tool room packed with useful items.  While these objects might be heavy, they also must have value, and by including them while seriously considering their value a GM can emphasize the other aspect of Quasqadon – it’s already been largely looted and explored.  Beside encouraging the party to tear the dungeon apart like copper thieves in an abandoned house (it’s a worthwhile addition to any dungeon delve), limiting treasure to the bulky, the hard to remove, the overlooked and the personal possessions of enemies adds to the feeling that B1 is the remains of a living fortress from recent times and that expeditions to it are more salvaging then tomb plundering.
A lack of easily portable valuables also opens the dungeon up to having lots of evidence of other expeditions.  B1 suggests this in its first encounter, the remains of an adventuring party and their enemies (berserker guards), but doesn’t really follow it up.  I would sprinkle the interior with abandoned camp sites, dead adventurers and equipment.  Living adventurers would form either a dangerous random encounter or perhaps even the inhabitants of one of the more defensible chambers, a gang of destructive louts intent on plunder and experience.

Quasqadon needs factions (I know I say this about every dungeon, but it’s still true), and I’d make them locally applicable.  The berserker guards hinted at are a good start.  Yet to have factions we need setting, and B1 manages not to suggest one, being open to almost any setting, consequently I’d be able to run this in one of my favorite settings – The Land of 1,000 Towers, where the Anomalous Subsurface Environment is located.

With ASE’s world mythology B1 makes a lot of sense, the adventurers who built it were another of the 1,000 wizards who rule the Land of 1,000 Towers, power mad brutes, but better than most, who ruled a domain near the barbarian infested lands of the Worthless North.  Denethix’s growing legions would have driven them out eventually, but the two Wizards who ruled Quasqadon decided to head into the waste instead, fighting and seeking to conquer the barbarian hordes and vault dwellers that roam its salt plains and fens.  Now abandoned, Quasqadon presents a haven for explorers.  The first level contains both a band of mercenary dwarfs, led by a young headstrong debtor noble.  They are 20 strong and fighting a cruel war of attrition a,gainst the drug crazed remnants of the garrison.  One might think the dwarves are a better ally but this is not the case.  Given that the dwarven leader is a debtor noble, personally holding the indentures of the rest, and he’s a neatly mustached greed fueled bastard, while the other dwarves are the worst of their race – unspeakably bloodthirsty and arrogant to non-dwarves and so greedy that they will rob even their allies.  The berserkers of course are mad, and confused, but at least they just want to be left alone.   In the midst of this there’s a general lack of upkeep and a lot of dungeon vermin, including a band of waste goblins.  ASE’s goblins are garden pests of a flesh eating and murderous variety and these are no different, skulking on the fringes os the dungeon.  Quasqadon’s first level is a constant warfare with berserker and dwarf fighting, only to have the survivors of these skirmishes picked off by goblins. 

The second level is worse, there are more berserkers, but grown weird and ghoulish in the dark, plus the remnants of the wizard’s efforts to find new allies - a variety of newly awakened primitive serpent men.  This way the entire B1 is filled with incompetent factions, and is some of them win (dwarfs or serpent men)  the place might require a return visit when it either becomes a raiding serpent man hole (with the associated Denethix bounties for serpent man heads) or the base for a clan of dwarves who think nothing of robbing and murdering anyone they come across to increase their credit rating.

B1 is a good module, with strong maps, nice, albeit generic descriptions and a high level of adaptability to any setting.  It also encourages exploration and discovery, though it will need work by the GM to make it interesting and might be best served as the introduction to a strange and wonderful setting for players used to more mundane D&D.  It also allows itself to be placed as a random hex content, and can easily be adapted to any level of PC (its guards had a nasty lycanthropy outbreak, not just berserking).  Still, alone it is bland and a good amount of prep work, without anything to lead to prolonged player interest (no real mysteries or hooks).


  1. Thanks for this. Excellent, thought-provoking stuff. I played a thief in B1 back in the day and I remember very little of the adventure compared to, say, B2 or B3. That may well be due to the inherent blandness you identify - and which our novice DM perhaps failed to rectify. I've never looked at it since, but your post makes me want to see if it can be tweaked and re-jigged for a setting like Carcosa or even the "Three Lands" of Spears of the Dawn.

    1. I think you could run B1 in any setting, Carcosa might have its typical all we fight are skittles humans issue, but that's the setting. There is a good bit of boring in B1 though - the mushroom forest is the most obvious example - but I think taking the time to properly stock it might allow a solid game with B1's generally good description doing a lot of work.

  2. Excellent, thanks. B1 is the second "module" I ever ran, the first being the dungeon in the back of the Holmes basic rules. I recently picked up B1 in PDF form but without any particular idea of using it. Since I'm doing an ASE game, you just gave me a new wizard's tower. Thanks!

  3. Your explanation of using this in ASE is a great example of how to retask B1 to any setting. Thanks.

  4. Are you aware of the B1 campaign sourcebook? Your post fits well with that content.