Guest Review: B1 In Search of the Unknown

Guest Writer: Patrick Bird

Back to the Beginning: Care and Use of In Search of the Unknown

In the original Holmes Box Set of D&D there were two products. The first was the Holmes Blue Book rules book, which gave 48 pages of information on how new players to the worlds of fantasy role-playing could create characters, outfit them, and then begin exploring the dungeon and/or world created by the dungeon master. The last eight or so pages of the rules discussed the fine art of dungeon mastering and gave an introductory dungeon dealing with the tunnels under the ridge near Porttown. But the key point in the early books under the fine art of dungeon mastering section was a sentence that said “The Basic Set of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS includes the introductory module “In Search of the Unknown”, which will be useable for initial adventuring as well as provide ideas for dungeon construction.” From this point the new DM had the road map to the next place to look for information and ideas. And what ideas this first of the Basic “B” series modules would give!

Original monochrome cover of module B1

Original monochrome cover of module B1 © Wizards of the Coast

“In Search of the Unknown” was written by Mike Carr, a game designer who had created his first published game, a WWI air combat simulator called both Dawn Patrol and Fight in the Skies, as a teenager. This game garnered enough interest that its creator was invited to the very first GenCon to demonstrate the game and referee games of it. Through this he met Gary Gygax and the two developed an acquaintanceship that was expanded when Gary and Dave Arneson aided him in his publication of a second game that focused on naval combat in the 18th and 19th century entitled Don’t Give Up The Ship! After this he was invited to join TSR, and when he did so he was asked to write the “Special Instructional Dungeon Module” that would be published as “In Search of the Unknown”.

Since this module was not intended to be a finished product with everything laid out but instead was meant to give the neophyte DM a chance to learn about how to design, build, and populate their home-built dungeons, it meant that instead of basing the module around the opponents to be defeated, as would happen in the later modules in the ‘B’ series and other early modules in what became the start of various other lettered series, Mike Carr was left to make the module interesting, memorable, and important through what might be called environmental elements. Plus, as an instructional module, the module would also need to have plentiful and more detailed notes for the learning DM on how to create their own adventures to add to the basic overview given in the blue book rules. This was a lot to include in a 32 page module, but Mr. Carr did an excellent job meeting these goals.

The first half dozen pages of the module are not about this adventure but instead focus on more detailed information about how to start and run a game, how to improve party balance through hirelings, the art of dungeon construction, including monster population and treasure distribution, managing time spent, and awarding experience. It also included information about what would become TSR’s flagship product, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and adapting the module for play with those rules. Only then did the module begin discussing this particular adventure.
The adventure specific information began with the background which told much of what was known or believed about the men who built the hidden fortress of Quasqueton in this wilderness area before disappearing forever into the mists of legend. After this came the list of legends that the adventurers could overhear or learn through direct questioning. Some of these were true and some were false, but no matter their actual truth they were all generally believed to be true by the tellers of the tales.

These two points were included for their importance in story building. There is often the desire among experienced players to know what the dungeon is, where it came from, who built it, and who might live in there now so that the players and their characters can have the proper gear and tools to best explore this environment. The known background can provide hints for the adventuring party, even if they only know some very basic facts. For instance, if all new adventurers know of the fortress of Quasqueton was that it was built by successful human adventurers to be their home, there are assumptions that can be made. First, most of the complex will be built with the comfort of its inhabitants in mind. Thus there likely won’t be cramped passageways and death traps every ten feet. There may also be non-perishable supplies within that could be used, and the chance for treasures of course! The table of legends may also provide some valuable information too, if one can sift the truths from the lies, but often then only way to do that is to explore and see what can be found.

After these two sections of information comes a third important section about the dungeon itself that provides the Dungeon Master with both party balance and adaptation rules for the adventure, followed by environmental information about the dungeon itself. In this adventure the DM is told that the air within is heavy, wet, and musty meaning the torches and lanterns will not light easily and will burn with lots of smoke, potentially limiting the visibility given by the light source. And limited sight lines in an underground dungeon are a primary concern for adventurers! It also gives information about how often a door might be locked when found, and provides a reminder that noisy activities such as trying to force locks or break down doors are likely to draw wandering monsters! A chart of wandering monsters along with information about when to roll and what chances there are for a monster to appear follow that section keeping all the information close together. And after all the information for the DM and information about this adventure the listing of the adventure areas begins.

As a special instructional module, the adventure areas are very much different from any other module. Each room is fully described, with descriptions of furnishings, wall hangings, utensils, tools, and other miscellany, but this is to be expected. Since almost none of the rooms have set monstrous encounters (a green slime is the only monster written in the text of the adventure, but even it almost counts more as an environmental hazard than anything else) but instead focus on environment, tricks and unexplained surprises, and some traps.

After each room’s description is a pair of blank spaces; one for whatever monster the DM may wish to place in the room, if any, and another for whatever treasure might be there, and where the treasure is if it is here. This served the instructional purpose of the module. After the listings of rooms on both levels is complete comes a section of how the novice DM should handle stocking the dungeon with opponents and treasure for the adventurers to find. Also included in this section are two lists; one of appropriate monsters or monster groups for the levels of adventurers the module is meant for, and another of appropriate treasures for adventurers of those same levels. While the treasure list does contain the expected small piles of coins, it also contains a variety of gems, jewelry, and art objects to give the DM a variety of treasure and to encourage them to come up with similar ideas. Also some of the items are magical and some of those are cursed or have no real purpose. But they still count as possible treasure and provide a variety of rewards for those adventurers exploring the rooms of Quasqueton.

And speaking of exploring the rooms of Quasqueton, this map is designed for many hours and days of adventuring. While the map itself lists only fifty six rooms, there are effective miles of passages, halls, caves and caverns, and more waiting to be explored. The two story map is divided into the finished and crowded upper halls of the fortress and the lower caverns which are more spaced out and natural. There are plenty of rooms that require no monsters or treasure to be added as they are worth exploring just for the detail that Mike Carr put into their descriptions and the wonders that can be found within. Supply rooms with strange sealed containers, a fungus forest, a room of pools, and more! These are the unusual areas that seem to be easily recalled to memory years later, and that alone is a sign for aspiring DMs that there is more to memorable adventure creation that just a profusion of things to kill and loot the corpses of one they are killed.

Another word on the lists of monsters and treasures included with the adventure. The paragraphs around these also indicate another important fact of dungeon design and creation: not every room should have a monster, not every monster should have a treasure, and though it is not unreasonable for a room or two to have a well-hidden treasure (beyond the potentially valuable or usable items mentioned in the room’s description) and no monster, most rooms should be barren of either monsters or additional treasure. And of the items on the treasure list it is recommended that only around half (15 to 25 of the 34 offered) be used at all. So for a map that has a total of 56 rooms that means that at best less than half the rooms should have any additional treasure off of the list. Which does make good sense as giving an adventuring party large quantities of loot early on means that the characters, who are now wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, might as well retire and live off of their riches rather than keep risking life and limb for more.

In addition the section before the list of monsters also includes something that is often forgotten or overlooked: what happens if the adventurers do not explore the entire dungeon in one session, which is very likely in an adventure of this scope. The notes discuss monsters moving around, some leaving while others move in, and how this is to be expected. An adventure location is a dynamic and changing environment. Monsters are killed and their treasure taken, sometimes by other monsters! Scavengers scavenge, but some remains of previous battles will linger, much like the scene just inside the dungeon entrance. Make sure to take notes and to update the situation in case the adventurers return at a later date to finish exploring. That is also an important aspect of dungeon mastering, and it was made note of here.

After the monster and treasure lists comes the section on hirelings and how many can be potentially be found for a party of varying sizes. Even a large party may not have a class they consider essential (even a dozen dwarven fighters might decide they need a burglar!), so the potential need for hirelings remains. There are charts for discovering how many potential hirelings are available, what class they may be, and simple charts to determine their personalities. Then we reach the lists of characters themselves. Each of the four basic classes (cleric, fighting man, magic-user, and thief) has twelve characters available, each with a name, a race (the one time that AD&D rules intermix with the blue book basic rules for races. Where the blue book gave absolutes for each race; all elves are fighting men AND magic-users, all dwarves and halflings are fighters, these lists use more AD&D rules;elves that are either fighting men or magic-users but not both, and thieves of all races), ability scores and hit points already determined. This also made it easy for the lists of characters to be used for making a player character on the spot for a new player or for a player whose character has been killed. The character names themselves are priceless as they inspired me to be creative when it came to naming characters. Examples from the lists are Kracky the Hooded one and Farned of the Great Church from the cleric lists, Krago of the Mountains and Mohag the Wanderer from the fighting men lists, Trebbelos, Boy Magician and Lappoy the Unexpected from the magic-user lists, and Harg of the City Afar and (my absolute favorite) Luven Lightfinger from the list of thieves. After each class character list came charts to roll on for arms and armor for the character so they could be prepared for their adventures quickly.

Cover of the later edition of module B1

Cover of the later edition of module B1 © Wizards of the Coast

All in all In Search of the Unknown was a masterful effort at creating an instructional module to help teach neophyte dungeon masters how to prepare the dungeon for adventurers, and it also gave them ideas for back stories, legends and rumors, creating environments instead of just encounter areas, and the fun and memories that going this extra mile could create. While this module was excellent for its intended goals, there were apparently some complaints that running the adventure required too much lead time and extra work, and so it was eventually replaced in the boxed set by the typical ‘golden hole’ adventure The Keep On the Borderlands, whose focus was more on monster-bashing and looting than exploring an interesting dungeon. Still, with some later revisions to eliminate the AD&D elements, the original instructional module remained in print and could be used to guide novice DMs in their first efforts at creating their own adventures.

In my opinion In Search of the Unknown represents a wonderful instruction manual about the heights that the art of dungeon mastering could ascend to, and it provides clear steps and useful concepts on how to create something more than a standard “kill the baddie and take his stuff” so common during this era and through today.

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