Sunday, September 1, 2013

On Running B1 In Search of the Unknown

Last night I ran a session of B1 In Search of the Unknown using the Moldvay Basic Set. I've always liked the idea of B1 because of its dynamic dungeon key, where monsters are placed and treasures hidden by the individual referee before the game; as classic modules go, that makes it easier to run B1 for players who have played or even run it before.

I did a fairly "light" stocking on the first level, leaving some unguarded treasures - which turned out not to matter because the players didn't find a well-secreted gem. But the empty rooms turned out not to be too big of a factor.

An early encounter was with goblins who I had in the dining room (room 3). This killed one of the NPCs rounding out the party but had the interesting effect of the PCs capturing several goblins and using them as guides, and out of the three captured goblins one even survived. The rumor table really worked, because the PCs knew about the room of pools and had the goblins lead them straight there. I always find such treks in a dungeon to be really interesting, because they reveal a bit about the layout but just a very specific subset. Goblin fear of orcs also helped the PCs out because they knew where I had placed them. (I ruled that the goblins weren't that adventurous and hadn't explored much beyond that part of the dungeon, but the pool room was so close they knew how to get to it.)

The room of pools is probably my favorite element in the module. The PCs were pretty methodical about it, and I allowed a saving throw against the pool of muting which meant it had no effect. They used the fish to "test" each pool that was suspect, which helped them avoid the pool of sleep, though they also avoided the aura pool because the fish looked stunned for a few moments. It was an effective way to get to the healing pool, which provided welcome HP after the scrap with the goblins.

A few later encounters just "felt right," including a monstrous black widow spider hiding above the bed in the mistress's room. (It lost initiative three times and missed the one attack roll it got, which was enough to do it in.) The valuable mirror was under the pillow and promptly found in the thorough search of the room. Another was a shrieker in the garden room, which of course had the intended effect of drawing wandering monsters - in this case some kobolds. Monsters kept failing morale checks and surrendering, so they now had a kobold and a goblin along who didn't like each other.

In the end, combat managed to kill the dwarf, as the party ran into a programmed kobold encounter - the kobold with them betraying the party. The PCs got out with some good loot from it, if nothing else. The dwarf's demise managed to derail their plans for a permanent goblin servant because no remaining PCs spoke goblin.

The biggest impact of the Moldvay rules was the damage factor. The party's fighter had a two-handed sword and a 17 Strength, and 1d10+2 is more than most of the monsters in B1 can handle by a high factor. Monsters would've been harder in Holmes with all d6 damage. Without a magic-user there was no other major shift away from Holmes. Moldvay's morale rules proved once more why they are my favorites - this group of players was the most creative with their captives of the ones I've seen. As I noted above, initiative rolls really mattered because I kept making crappy rolls for initiative, but I roll initiative even in OD&D.

Because of multiple store rooms, there were two good observations. The first was - "I think we're in an IKEA, not a dungeon." (The difference is the furniture here was already assembled.) The second was how much B1's first level feels like you're raiding somebody's house. This is one of the real oddities of the module. The module also was a pain for the mapper but since so much hangs off of the central area with the kitchens dining room and the landing from the first corridor, it all fits back together.

B1 was only nominally moved to Moldvay by adding morale scores. I was using a brown cover copy of the module instead of B1 for that reason, but there's a dwarf who has exceptional Strength and another whose Constitution score isn't high enough to qualify for the class. There's also a place or two using 3d6 under stat as an ability check instead of the B/X Expert method of using 1d20 roll-under; I find each to work pretty well despite the different probabilities.

All in all it's a fun module to run, and Moldvay worked as well as I expected it to. PCs are a bit tougher than in Holmes because of how ability scores work, but it's still the same fundamental game. I really think B1 could use some re-skinning though in the future. If nothing else, to avoid the "fantasy IKEA" effect.


  1. Sounds like it was a blast, Wayne! Wish I could've joined in! One of these days!

  2. Nice. I will def get in the next one.

  3. I was hoping to join last night, but I had to finish my dad's taxes for 4 years ago. And I did!

  4. A couple of my thoughts from last night:

    1-Long, maze-like corridors don't really serve any purpose. For the mapper (me, in this case) it is frustrating whereas the non-mappers are just waiting around. I noticed that as the game progressed, the walking down corridors part of the game was just a description of it's twists and turns. There weren't any decisions to be made. The only thing worse than a wandering corridor is a corridor that ends in a door, and when you open the door, the corridor just continues.

    2-The DM (or module writer) really has to work to add things for low level thieves to do. The parts of the module we made it through didn't really have many thiefly opportunities (some of it was my fault as I don't generally play thieves). I ended up as a poor substitute fighter especially as our number dwindled.

    3-I noticed that we seemed to open all stuck doors regardless of what we rolled. I'm not sure why but I've seen talk of treating the roll as time it takes to open the door rather than a pass/fail. However, in a dungeon like this where there are many ways around and, often, multiple ways to get into a room, having the players fail to open a door isn't actually bad. For one thing, it creates a sort of danger zone behind the party which can explain wandering monsters. Secondly, a low level party will typically run out of hit points before they run out of rooms. Having doors the players can't open will result in the players going deeper into the dungeon rather than concentrating on cleaning out the area immediately around the entrance, which is exactly what we did.

    4-Lighting is always a problem. Keeping track of torches is just too fiddly. It was an issue in our first fight but got ignored from then on. I'm starting to think that it would be a better game if dungeons had faint illumination throughout except is special designated areas. I don't know the answer.

    5-This is the second time I've played an online/hangout game with people I don't know and in both cases I ended up as the party leader/caller. I'm not sure why that is but since I spend 99% of my game time as a DM, I can't stand dawdling.

    1. 1 - You didn't run into any of the features that would've made the long mazy corridors problematic. A lot of this was Gygax's style of dungeon design, which - if you look at the photos floating online of his Castle Greyhawk maps - was implemented with maps more complicated than those in B1. In my own dungeons I've tried to be a bit closer to Jaquays-style design that focuses on multiple paths rather than simply being maze-like.

      2 - I'm curious what you'd like to have added. More opportunities for recon? You didn't run across any traps, so that wasn't there. You could've backstabbed when you had surprise but your side tended to use that on demanding surrender.

      3 - Yes, that's a house rule I was using and should've noted - rolling a 1-2 opens the door with a chance for surprise, rolling a 3-5 opens it without. I could make the opening on 3-5 the player's option.

      4 - I was tracking time but not being fiddly on torches. I am tempted to go really hard on it and make it a logistical time pressure - but I suspect players generally would run out of torches instead.

      5 - I think a lot of that comes from playing the thief, since thieves are usually clearing doors before moving ahead. It's an interesting dilemma for hangout games. In games with no thief it tends to be a bit more open as to who is the "leader".

    2. I've been thinking of more thiefly things I could have done and have a few idea. As for the dungeon, just having a few of the cabinets locked would have at least allowed me to break out my thief tools. As far as backstab, I didn't think surprise was sufficient, I thought you actually had to be behind. When we were fighting the goblins, I wanted to run around behind them but didn't know if there actually was a back way around. As for recon, I couldn't see in the dark so I'd have to do it with a torch which would be pretty pointless.

      I run torches as you do. If you have a chance of them going out when dropped or randomly, you can really kill off a low-level party pretty easily.

  5. Sounds like a fun game. I'd love to play sometime but it's hard for me to find extra time these days.

    Thanks for pointing out the roll-under 3d6 stat check. I think that's the earliest D&D version I've heard. At least for TSR, there may be one in A&E.

  6. I remember in my early games as a thief (for the first year or two I played nothing else), what made me happy were sheer surfaces. Most of the other skills were pretty hopeless at low levels, but it was great being able to get the party past pits of boiling lava or up impassable cliffs.


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