Monday, September 24, 2012

Was Module B1 a Good Design?

Today I'd like to compare classic D&D modules B1 (In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr) and B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands, by Gary Gygax). Both of these were included for a while in the original D&D Basic set by Eric Holmes (the former replaced by the latter at some point), and both are allegedly intended as example designs for new Dungeon Masters. (From B1 p. 2: "As a beginning Dungeon Master, you will find this module helpful in many ways. First of all it serves as a graphic example of a beginning dungeon. For this reason, it should prove illustrative...")

It's this latter point I'd like to focus on. Now, I love module B1 and I've used it many times for new players; it has lots of fantastical elements that really grab your imagination. But the design is radically different from the later B2, and I wonder if Gygax's desire to replace it isn't partly due to a difference in design philosophy. Just for starters: B1 is much easier than B2 in terms of monster numbers and tactical toughness (a small group that gets through B1 easily will be chewed up and spit out in the first encounter of B2). Secondly, the dungeon layout: B1 uses the older every-square-used design (i.e., pen-line walls), while B2 uses the later no-adjacent-squares design (i.e., 10' walls). Thirdly: B2 has themed monster lairs, with several areas populated by the same type, while B1 will have unrelated monsters scattered in small numbers throughout.

But perhaps the more important thing is the level of detail given to the area dressings. The B1 area descriptions are very long, with lots and lots of minute setting detail. That's great and gives a wonderful sense of place, but it seems exactly the opposite of what those of us in the OSR have taken to using, with our minimalist dungeon descriptions (and some acclaim for one-page only dungeon designs). Even the monsters and treasures in B1 are really afterthoughts, one-line notes to be filled in by the administering DM, with the area dressings, tricks, and traps really the centerpieces. This is also counter to the sensibility of module B2, whose area descriptor are very short, and focus primarily on the monsters and treasures therein, with relatively little in the way of dressings or tricks.

As a specific numerical comparison, surveying the first twenty encounter areas in each module: B1 encounter areas run an average of 36 lines long (stdev 27), while B2 encounter areas average 12 lines long (stdev 8). So on average, it appears that B1 encounters are 3 times longer in the description than B2 -- and that's not even including any monsters or treasures yet for B1, to placed by the individual DM!

So, what do you think? Was B1 fundamentally a misstep, showing neophyte DM's a setting design that was enormously more labor-intensive than is either required or used by experienced DM's? Or was it useful to show the maximum level of detail and trap/trickery that anyone might ever encounter? Was Gygax correct that it needed replacing with a more basic dungeon design as a starting example?



25 comments:

  1. As a publisher I wonder if there was perhaps there was also a monetary aspect of the change as well as a design aspect?

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  2. ^ Excellent point. I think I may have actually read that sometime in the past, even.

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  3. Welcome back.

    Good point about the room descriptions. B1 was the first dungeon I ever really DM'd, and I know I tried to copy its room key style in my own work back when my age was in single digits. I remember being very frustrated trying to turn out something like that.

    I'm not sure B1 is a bad design because of that, really, as the place oozes atmosphere. It has its flaws (4000 sq ft bedrooms, not enough challenge as written, the fill-in-the-paper nature of the meap...you've mentioned those), but I like it better than B2, to be honest. It emphasizes the exploration and gee-whiz fascination that you should experience on your first dungeon jaunt over pure XP gathering, and to me that's a good thing.

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  4. Here's the quote from Gygax about B2:

    "In addition, Design is working on a number of modules for D&D - and I recently finished a new one for the Basic Set, as sales demand that we change the module every six or so months." (The Dragon #35, pg 13, From the Sorcerer’s Scroll column titled “What’s ahead for TSR?") - March 1980

    I pulled this from a compilation of quotes I made called Gygax on B2. Most of the quotes are from his tenure on the various forums. The above quote is the sole reference to B2 I could find in Dragon. I didn't even find an advertisement for it! I guess they thought Dragon readers wouldn't want a beginner's module. Though there is at least one ad for B1 in an earlier issue.

    Another reason for the change may have been to "improve" the design by adding a home base (the Keep) and a setting (Wilderness map). Adding this material would also necessitate shorter room descriptions.

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  5. The room design for B1 was great! As was the plug n' play monsters and treasures.

    The reason I got fed up with Quasqueton was the interminably painful rambling hallway designs. Insane to describe and twice as painful to map.

    We have a case here where the meat was fine but there was too much damn gristle in the parts that didn't get that lavish descriptive treatment. The freakin' mazes of hallways.

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  6. I got B1 when I was very young, too young in fact to really go about adding monsters and treasures well. Perhaps I was too young to be in the target audience, but I could've really used a fully fleshed out module. When I got B2, I was somewhat underwhelmed, just ascending warrens.

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  7. The map from B1 shares more in common with the sample map from the OD&D set than with B2; pointless mazes, diagonal corridors, doors leading nowhere etc. Could B2 represent a shift in focus away from dungeons designed to challenge players to more story based adventures?

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    1. Clearly there was an aesthetic change from early stuff like Geomorphs/B1 (or Gygax's over-the-shoulder original Greyhawk maps) to later stuff like B2/DMG, etc. Maybe a switch of emphasis from tunnel-navigation to encounter-area tactics.

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  8. My first D&D box had the geomorphs and monster/treasure assortments. One of my friends bough his box just a week or two later and got B1. We had a lot of fun when he ran it -- mostly because the rooms were so evocative and 'real' rather than just "6 orcs + 6,000 sps". We had great fun, as I recall, in the wizards lab and the room with the pools.

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  9. My dungeon mastering training module (for better or worse) was B4 The Lost City. I encountered B1 and B2 sometime after and felt both were a bit lacking at the time. Now that I look at them again and try to compare them (thanks to this post), I feel that they both lack something that the other possesses.
    B2 has a coherent setting with a keep and monsters in a cave over the horizon. The caves are passible for a lair of humanoids. The keep feels like something a fantastical kingdom would build on the borderlands.
    But B1 has much better room descriptions. And some of the encounters are fantastic; the room of pools, the living quarters of Rohan and Zelgar, the dead adventurers at the entrance.
    B2 is much more bland in a sense in regards to non combat encounters.
    B1 is bland in its map layout and "out of the dungeon" background.
    So now that I have basically outline everything you said in your post, heh, I would personally lean more to B1. It sounds like Dwimmermount might be B1 but with a more sensible map.

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    1. For what it's worth, from what I've seen of existing Dwimmermount text, it extremely short and terse. When I played in a game it was run by Tavis Allison who I later figured out was ad-libbing jaw-dropping amounts of arcane detail on the fly. Truly amazing on his part.

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    2. You might have been looking at James' original notes, but I was running from his expansion of these for the Dwimmermount Kickstarter project. For example, here's one of the rooms your party visited:

      Original: "7 orcs."
      Expanded for publication: "This large room contains the remains of smashed wooden tables and chairs. Before the sealing of Dwimmermount, this place had been a hall for the reception of Thulian dignitaries and other guests of high rank, as evidenced by the faded frescoes and tattered tapestries on the walls. Currently, the hall serves as the temporary home for a scouting party of 7 recently spawned orcs that made their way to this level from level 2A (the laboratory)."

      I ad-libbed the details of the spawner and the doors to the rooms because these weren't in the drafts I had at the time, but in general I used details James had provided.

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    3. Okay, thanks for that clarification. Nonetheless, I'll stick to saying that you were doing a completely dizzying job of making the whole run for everyone. :-)

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  10. There are some nicely simplified blue maps for B1 to be found in this Dragonsfoot thread:

    B1 map redo

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    1. Interesting, thanks for posting. Me personally I don't have a problem with the map layout (nor did my last player have enormous trouble), so much as the dressing detail as an example for DMs. But if it helps BJ (now below), that's terrific.

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  11. @ Zenopus Archives

    That's awesome!
    You may have just dragged Quasqueton back from the brink for me with that!

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  12. I forgot to mention that I made a 3d map of the caves of chaos, and there are some odd errors in the map layout.
    3D Caves of Chaos

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    1. That's great! And nice catches on the missing stairs, great observations. Thanks for adding the link.

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    2. Very nice 3d maps. Good stuff.

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  13. My two cents...

    Cent #1: While not perfect, I think B1, B2, and the original version of B3 represent a really solid conceptual introduction to dungeoncrawling.

    B1 teaches the DM how to key a dungeon. It's the training wheels version of doing it, but that's the whole point.

    B2 teaches the players how to play: When you step into the valley, you're immediately confronted with the site of a dozen cave entrances. You have to choose one. It's a visceral and immediate presentation of the fundamental idea that playing an RPG is about making choices.

    A lot of introductory adventures try to prepackage everything for the DM: B1 says, "Screw that. You're going to have to get your hands dirty."

    A lot of introductory adventures try to handhold the players to make sure they don't get lost or confused or whatever: B2 says, "Screw that. You're going to have make a choice right up front."

    Then there's the original version of B3. It's a flawed product, but it provided the first level of a megadungeon and said, "The game is yours now. Add more levels to this dungeon." It's the logical conceptual conclusion to B1 and B2. Unfortunately, the culture at TSR was changing and the product was reimagined into a heavily plotted-and-closed dungeon.

    Cent #2: Minimal keys are great. Minimal keys that primarily focus on creatures and treasure? IMO, you're doing it wrong. As I wrote in (Re-)Running the Megadungeon, the monsters in a dungeon are ephemeral. It's the geography that's going to stick around.

    In many ways, I see a lot in common between OSR minimalist keys that say things like “ORC SERGEANT. (8 h.p.) armed with sword and flail. He has 12 e.p.” and 4E's Delve format adventures that primarily focus themselves on monster rosters. The amount of detail is different, obviously, but the lopsided focus is the same.

    I don't think DMs should prep the multi-paragraph litanies of B1, but I'd much rather have a key that said:

    27. A floor of smooth slate and two thrones of white marble. Purple and yellow draperies on the wall.

    than:

    127. ORC SERGEANT. The leader of the outpost (8 h.p.) with longsword and heavy crossbow.

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    1. Ok, first: Thanks for the link to your blog article because that's some excellent stuff; I got sucked into reading about ten of your essays.

      Second, interesting observation about the original B3 which I guess I've never seen (and the official B3 not being something I'm super-fond of). Perhaps B4 is a good example of starting with completely detailed areas and getting sketchier as you go down, requiring more DM fill-ins.

      But on your culminating point, I think I disagree. If absolutely forced to choose, I would have to choose the key with monster & treasure info. My argument: (a) fundamentally that's the root of the game, (b) the interesting geography of a site is really contained in the map layout itself, (c) your own linked example is played mostly in terms of keyed & wandering monsters (not dressing). Brief, flavorful area dressing is definitely a value-add, but ultimately of second priority, I think.

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    2. Personally, I'm not sure if I disagree or not, but it's these small surprises that keep me coming back to the osr blogs. It had never really occurred to me to invert room descriptions from "monster" focused to "geography" focused. Something new to consider. Oh, and Delta, your blog continues to be awesome.

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  14. I found two quotes by Frank Mentzer with two different reasons why B2 replaced B1:

    "The introductory adventure "In Search of the Unknown" was contained within each and every D&D set, but this august work was slated for replacement by an a broader one containing a base of operations, with adventure potential oozing from every nearby cave" (from EnWorld in 2005).

    "Gary wrote B2 as a replacement for B1; he decided that the starter module shouldn't be stocked by novice DMs" (from 2008 in his Dragonsfoot Q&A thread).

    The original posts are linked on the same page I linked above for the Gygax quote.

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