Monday, February 10, 2020

Subterrane Surveys: Caverns of Quasqueton

Today we'll be looking at the overall design, encounters, and treasure in Mike Carr's D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown (1979). At one point this was packaged with the Holmes D&D Basic boxed set, so many people have adventured through its dungeon, the Caverns of Quasqueton, and it is much beloved. This beginning module has a special format, in that it comes with about 5 pages of general "how to run an adventure information" (something like Mike Carr's personal addendum to the D&D rules system), and 7 pages as the back of premade PC/hireling lists. While giving extravagantly-detailed room dressing throughout (in fact: I would argue too much), the monsters and primary treasure are given in a roster at the back, with space left in the text for the DM to place those objects as they see fit (and so, automatically customizing the dungeon for each DM and play group). Possibly this is an echo of the structure of the D&D Monster & Treasure Assortments, with its separate 1-100 lists of monsters and treasures for each level, which this module replaced as the insert to the D&D Basic boxed set? This methodology is shared only with the first introductory module for the Top Secret espionage game, Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle by Merle Rasmussen.

Design: Quasqueton has two levels, a basic-dungeon-like upper level and a caverns-like lower level. These designs are mostly very similar to those seen in Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, or the Dungeon Geomorphs product (Basic Dungeon, Caves & Caverns). As is customary, the upper level is mostly fully-packed (use every space), while the caverns level has a good deal of unused negative space. There are many by-the-book navigational tricks and traps, such as: pits that hurl a party to the lower level, mazey sections, death-by-a-thousand-doors sections, invisibly sloping passages to confuse what level you're on, dropping gates, etc.

As noted above, the rooms are copiously detailed with dressing for a mostly-intact former fortress (some room descriptions go on for many paragraphs or even multiple pages), without noting any monsters at all -- those are for the DM to fill in from lists at the back, much like the prior Monster & Treasure Assortments (more on that at a later date; perhaps I should have written a post on that first).

There are 56 keyed areas; unusually, the numbering runs sequentially across both levels (it doesn't restart from 1 on the lower level), and the monster & treasure list is likewise not distinguished by level. Note in the 1979 monochrome version room codes were in Roman numerals, while in the 1981 color-cover version room numbers were switched to Arabic numerals, greatly simplifying reading and writing an index for the site. The stocking pages at the back suggest using 16-20 out of a list of 25 monsters; and 15-25 out of a list of 34 treasures. If we use the median suggestion of 18 monsters in 56 areas, that is a 32% occupancy rate, in line with the OD&D rulebook, Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, the M&TA supplement, etc. However, unlike those prior works, given Carr's elaborate room dressing in almost every area, now almost none of the rooms on the upper level are truly "empty"; only about a half-dozen of the caverns on the lower level are left without any description at all.

This latter quality (practically no empty rooms), and moreover the very extensive room descriptions, marks a really radical break with Gygax's earliest one-line-per-room dungeons. Note that this, with Lawrence Schick's AD&D Module S2: White Plume Mountain, constitute the first two modules published by TSR by people other than Gygax himself (both in 1979), so it's not surprising that the design aesthetics start to evolve more rapidly at this time.

Characters: The module publications at this point in history do finally include explicit party strength recommendations (albeit not on the cover yet). In "The Dungeon" section on p. 7, this module says, "This area for exploration is designed to challenge a party of 3-8 adventurers (player characters and henchmen or hirelings) of up to the third level of experience". We might assume the implies around 8 total character levels; e.g., maybe 8 1st level characters or 3 3rd level characters on opposite ends of the continuum. Note that the Sutherland illustration on the Players' Background Sheet handout shows a mixed group of 8 adventurers departing a castle for the wilderness. In the lists of characters at the back of the module, rules are given for determining NPC levels; for every class of character, this resolves to rolling a d6 with equal chances for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd levels.

Monsters: Granted the unusual format of module B1, it doesn't help to look at a room-by-room listing, but instead consider the entire monster roster at the back:


Note that monster numbers are given in a range (e.g., 1-4 orcs), much like Gygax's Castle Greyhawk key, the Wandering Monster lists in Holmes Basic D&D, the Monster & Treasure Assortment, etc. The average (mean and median) encounter strength is 4 EHD, exactly like the Holmes sample dungeon (Dungeon of Zenopus); less than Gygax's Castle Greyhawk (with average EHD 6). If we use the suggested 18 or so monsters from this list, then total EHD for the complex would be around 72 EHD.

Separately, this seems to be the first introductory-level module with its own customized wandering-monster tables (that is: not assuming that the rulebook's stock wandering tables represent the ecology of this specific dungeon). Unlike the general monster roster, these are distinguished by level:



We see the wandering monsters on the upper level are indeed a bit weaker (average EHD 3) than those on the lower level (mean EHD 4, median 5). Note these are somewhat weaker than the wandering encounters specified (by Gygax) in the Holmes Basic D&D rulebook. Possibly the new DM should take a clue from this and put stronger, and related, monster lairs on the lower level.

Compared to the standard party strength (seen above), this module makes for a fairly safe training ground for new players. The expected 8 PC levels is twice that of the average EHD 4 monster encounter. And they outweigh the average 1st-level wandering monster by about 3-to-1. That seems in line with the OD&D book suggestion, but different from Gygax's Basic D&D rule (where wandering encounters should be equal to, or more than, the PC strength). Indeed, I've had players be very successful in module B1 and then get annihilated in their first encounter in Gygax's module B2. (Watch out for that next step!)

Treasures: See below for the roster of treasures to be placed by the DM.


The treasures listed here have a median value of 24 gp, mean 85 gp. As usual, the distribution is right-skewed, with a small number of more valuable treasures. (This includes magic item treasures valued here at 0.) If we place the suggested 20 or so treasures, then we would expect a total value of 20 × 85 = 1,700 gp. These treasures tend to be in the 10's or 100's of gp, so clearly not from the rulebook's monster Treasure Types table (which has units in the 1000's). Moreover, the treasures are now detailed down to the units -- not just 20 or 50 coins, but here we see 15, 28, 35, etc.

But wait, there's more, because Mike Carr's detailed room descriptions already include a fair number of valuable objects that the PCs can loot as treasure. When I add these up, coincidentally, they sum to almost exactly the same 1,700 gp. (Leaving out certain objects like a 5,000 gp statue which is described as effectively immovable, a pair of gems which may randomly appear but most likely don't; see rooms 4, 32, and 45.) So the total retrievable treasure is around 3,400 gp value. This gives a ratio of about 50 gp per monster EHD in the place (the exact same figure as in Gygax's Castle Greyhawk; we saw twice as much in Gygax's edited version of the Dungeon of Zenopus, but that was coming down from Holmes' hyper-inflated draft treasures).

Note also that the text suggests placing more treasures than monster encounters. So likely all or almost all of the monsters have a treasure, and others are hidden in the complex as well.

Magic: Carr's treasure list has 8 useful magic items; there are two weapons, two armors, two scrolls, one potion, and one ring. (There are also several trick useless items: a false map, wand, and a cursed bag.) That constitutes about one-quarter (24%) of the whole treasure list; a bit lower than what we see in Gygax or Holmes' earliest works, but nowhere near as low as that suggested in OD&D Vol-3 (5%).

Experience: Let's assume we use the revised Greyhawk XP charts, as officially included in the Basic D&D rules. Ignoring XP from wandering monsters for simplicity, the total XP available is expected to be around 18 × 48 = 864, with treasure XP about 3,400 (as seen above). The grand total available is then 4,264. The monster: treasure ratio would be about 1:4 (20% to 80%). Note this total is only enough to advance 2 fighters to 2nd level, not close to enough for all of an 8-person starting party (similar to what we saw for the Gygax and Holmes dungeons).

On the other hand, if we use original D&D XP awards at 1 EHD = 100 XP, then the expected 72 monster EHD would generate 7,200 XP; combined with the 3,400 treasure, the grand total would be 10,600. This still wouldn't advance an entire 8-person party, but would be enough to advance 5 starting fighters. In this case the monster: treasure ratio would be about 2:1 (68% to 32%). Given that this is a two-level dungeon, it highlights that Carr was taking things easy on the starting adventurers; there's a relatively small number of monsters, and small-value treasures, within the Caverns of Quasqueton.

9 comments:

  1. From what I have seen there were a few moments when the module as written actually thought it was using OD&D instead of the rules it was packaged with. Not too much of a problem, but it might make it easier if one realizes that.

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  2. The same "choose your own key" format was used in B3 Palace of the Silver Princess, too.

    Allan.

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    1. Interesting... I see that some of areas (25 of 75) in Jean Wells' recalled/destroyed orange cover version have that; but that was all expunged from Moldvay's officially-released green cover version.

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  3. Considering the effort needed to "pick clean" both levels of B1, this treasure take seems far too little...even considering the possibility of half the party being hirelings receiving only "half-shares."

    While the original XP awards for monsters were easy enough, I generally don't like the idea of handing out more XP for combat than for treasure acquisition...it ends up emphasizing combat over exploration and pushing players's decision making process in that direction. While I can see how this importance might skew the other way at higher levels (when treasure troves far exceed the XP earned for defeating monsters), I'd guess it's pretty tough for players to unlearn tendencies they acquire through the early, "formative" years of leveling.

    But maybe I'm wrong. I certainly want to go back and read the Strategic Review article you cited in the prior post of this series.

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    1. I'll just say that I'm currently wrestling with that issue myself at the moment. I appreciate the intent (and see that Gygax was fairly consistent about it), but I really don't want to have to look up at a bunch of nonlinear tables for monsters & magic items at the end of a late-night session (or delay it and expect out-of-game work on both sides).

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  4. (It seemms like the Internet ate my comment, so apologies if I'm just being dense and doubleposting)

    I don't have the module handy, but it always caught my eye that B1 has a couple of room descriptions interactions by a stat*5% d100 roll. I wonder if there was a reason to do that instead of d20 roll equal/under, other than the latter not being a common approach at the time.

    I like B1 overall. It's too wordy by about an order of magnitude, and it takes effort to include some sense in the randomness, true. However, it makes good use of interesting "empty" rooms, the low difficulty of monster encounters tempts players to keep exploring instead of retreating when they lose some hit points, and the self-aggrandizing art can foreshadow/inspire what the PCs could do as they advance. The famous pool room is a great "special" room, since it has some positive effects so players don't learn to avoid interacting with anything, but it also has some negative effects to punish reckless meddling. The descriptions for the bedrooms of the owners and the mistress tell a story without a pile of DM exposition. The treasures with chances of being recognized are a touch that I love. It's not the greatest TSR module ever, but it's a good one.

    Side question: were there any modules that asked the DM to stock them other than B1 and Wells's B3 (in case Moldvay's was different)?

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    1. I think you're right that the ability -> d% rolls were just having the idiom of a d20-roll-under mechanic yet. At that point you officially had table-based roll-high-on-d20, and d%-based roll-under-the-percent (e.g., for thief skills), so that might have seemed cognitively more obvious at the time.

      To my knowledge, there weren't any other D&D modules with the self-stocking system seen here. (I noted the Top Secret sample module above.) I just made a comment further up that indeed, it was expunged from the officially-released Moldvay version of B3.

      My theory for the day is that it was largely a legacy of the immediately preceding Monster & Treasure Assortment insert to the Basic set, and the idea pretty quickly got buried after that.

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  5. Ah, sorry, I'd misread that statement as applying to bridge for using M&TA rather than DM stocking.

    That's kind of a shame. It's easy enough to just put what I want in a module, of course, but I like the approach of "hey, YOU think about what belongs here and why because you know what'd work for you better than some other person".

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    1. I can see that. And (like the AD&D version of artifacts), there is a point that having variation in well-known modules would help with some issues around some players knowing the text too well.

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