Old-School Modules: Actually Rather Boring.

For our Black Peaks game, I decided to try running various old-school D&D modules, in order to get a sense of how the game is really supposed to play (as opposed to just making things up myself and hoping the game comes along for the ride). The first module I ran was B1: In Search of the Unknown.

This is, probably, the second-most canonical starting module (Keep on the Borderlands holding the top position). It’s also an incoherent mess of nonsense with no hint of internal logic.

The first thing I had to do was modify the map, and not just because some of my players had done this adventure before. The text states that the walls of the dungeon (called “Quasqueton”) are carved right out of the black slate that the hill is made out of. But there’s secret doors in this black slate? My ass. I went over the map with markers to denote which walls were black slate and this had no secret doors in them, and which were lined with brick, stonework, and wood paneling. The wood paneling was the easiest to check for traps, because they could just tear it off with their crowbars to observe the bare wall behind it. I made sure there were no secret doors in the brickwork, though some of the stone carvings in the brickwork were secret doors. Most descriptions of the construction that came with the module were of the variety that might impress 14-year-old boys, like the seventy foot stone mural in the wizard’s bedroom. Compare this with, say, Hammers of the Gods by James Raggi IV. That module has both enthusiastic descriptions of the architecture, as well as the motivations behind the dungeon’s construction and what it was used for.

I kept most of the more bizarre architectural elements, eliminated those I thought were just too ridiculous, and made some of them even stranger. The main result of these strange features was a constant stream of “architects on acid” jokes. For the four sessions it took to run this adventure, I did not make any maps for the players. I described the dungeon and one player drew it out, based on my words. While this had some charm to it, and lead to a few chuckles, for the most part it was a pain in the ass. Additionally, while I understand the reasoning, I find it patently ridiculous that adventurers who take ten minutes to travel sixty feet can’t remember their spatial surroundings better than players sitting around a kitchen table listening to a DM describing ten foot stone walls. Perhaps if every room had been memorable, this would be a more fruitful practice, but in the first session, the players somehow managed to explore the emptiest part of the dungeon. Too much time wasted mapping empty rooms makes me think about how I’m going to die soon. And I’m the youngest person in the room!

I also cut down the wandering monster chart, so it didn’t feel like a monster zoo. Aside from the strange habit of taking unique monsters and turning them into species, the other monster problem D&D seems to have is that every member of the species is the same, so the only way to get variety is to have a bazillion different types of monsters inhabiting one tiny dungeon. I also added a new back entrance for the orcs to enter, and came up with a reason for them to be there—they were the remnants of a marauding army who had slaughtered the nearby village, and now lived in holes in the ground near the mass grave. They entered the dungeon to hunt the goblins and eat them. Strangely enough, the players kept trying to find a way to seal off the back entrance, even though it was just on the other side of the hill from the front entrance where they were camped. They never did try to track the orcs down.

Out of all the weirdness in the module, two things worked best, and even then, the module doesn’t really follow up on them. The cat preserved in a jar who comes back to life when the cork is removed is certainly bizarre, but didn’t really pay off until I had them find a much larger jar, with a woman in it. The magical stone that grants you “wishes” when you eat it proved to be an even bigger success… when I started rolling on the mutations charts in Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness.

But really, the most ridiculous part of the module is the premise. What are these two great heroes doing living in this crazy dungeon? Nothing in their background suggests that they have ever even adventured in dungeons, they are known for defeating barbarian hordes. And yet, they live in a series of windowless tunnels carved out of slate, they keep goblins as slaves, they grow mutated mushrooms, they ply their contractors with LSD, and they have the physical essence of Chaos itself in their basement! Clearly, these two have been traumatized by the horrors of the endless dungeoncrawls they undertook in their youth. Before they were famous, they watched in horror as their colleagues and fellow tomb-robbers were eviscerated, disintegrated, crushed, and mauled. One turned to the obsessive physical perfection of bodybuilding and skill at arms, the other poured over arcane tomes recovered from underground, and dared to uncover mysteries man was not meant to—yeah, you get the idea. When the player characters found their secret notes, it gave me the opportunity to plant some hooks and let them know about dungeons the pair never finished looting, which led to the Tomb of the Red Mummy, one of the best sessions of D&D I’ve run.

But that stuff’s not in the module. The module feels pretty dated, actually. Sorry.

I’ll trash Bone Hill in a future post.

-Johnstone.

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5 Comments to “Old-School Modules: Actually Rather Boring.”

  1. This was one of the first dungeons I ever ran. I have certainly been guilty of characterizing it as “awesome,” when, in fact it’s clearly not. Yet I have some pretty amazing memories of it. The reason why is that the entire module is a gigantic “WTF?” just waiting for the DM to provide an answer. It just begs for an annoyed re-working.

    For example, I’ve heard more than one person refer to the “bigger picture” of this module, you know, about how the dungeon builders were implicated in something bigger and darker than their reputation would seem to indicate. I’m pretty sure that’s not written in the module, but DMs everywhere have inferred it.

    Also, there’s that thing of monsters being plunked into rooms without any logic – which compels the DM to try and make up some logic, or to find something interesting to do with the conjunction of monster and room.

    By the way, the lady in the jar is just perfect awesomeness.

  2. If B1 is the number two dungeon after Keep on the Borderlands, it must be a distant second place. B2 can be an entire campaign! B1 was always just this weird place where people got killed. Is there even any treasure? I don’t remember getting much out of it.

  3. Tony, that’s a good point about the GM having to puzzle it out themselves. Having half-finished material is a really good way to spur one’s creativity. I’ll probably write up a module of my own at some point with all the stuff I added to the adventure, maybe after I’ve collected a few more ideas.

  4. Be sure to include the campaign-breaking bullshit hilariously outrageous 100,000gp gem.

  5. > Tony, that’s a good point about the GM having to puzzle it out themselves.

    Agreed. Constraints are a great spur to creativity. On a related note, I found that I had a lot of trouble designing my megadungeon until I’d reached a certain critical mass of maps drawn and rooms filled, at which point I’d established enough context that new material had to be integrated into the old. That gave me the constraints I needed to puzzle out what came next in a meaningful sense based on what had come before.

    > By the way, the lady in the jar is just perfect awesomeness.

    Agreed!

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