Monday, November 30, 2015

B1E Dun Merkadale: aka B1 In Search of the Unknown

In Search of the Unknown back-cover art by David Sutherland
In Search of the Unknown: David Sutherland's back-cover art
My regular Thursday-night gaming group—Brendan Barr, Eileen Gormly, Kathy Ice, and Beverly Marshall Saling—has been playing in Brendan's 13th Age campaign once a month when Eileen can join us, usually the first Thursday of the month. The remaining Thursdays I've been running them through the classic 1979 Dungeons & Dragons module B1, In Search of the Unknown.

B1's stated purpose is to introduce new dungeon masters to the art of designing and running their own dungeons. Author Mike Carr did the hard work of creating a dungeon—came up with the premise, built the maps, described the rooms, wrote guidance about how to DM, and built tables to help stock the dungeon with monsters and treasure—but deliberately left out the most creative parts for novice DMs to fill in: deciding which monsters and treasures to place where, working out their story, if any, and deciding whether or where to place a boss monster. One of B1's virtues, therefore, is that it's never the same module twice, because the DM's design choices can change everything. Its replay value is excellent.

When I found out my gaming group had never played any classic D&D modules, I knew that I wanted to be the one to introduce them and that this was the one I wanted to start them with. I never run a module the way it was published. I started gaming before there were modules, so building or at least tinkering is second nature to me, and this module is tinker-friendly.

In Englandia, Sutherland's tower becomes a mysterious Scottish broch.
Besides, I have to tinker with any module I run today for three reasons:

1) I've read far too many excellent articles from the Old-School Renaissance about the finest qualities in dungeon design not to want to apply them in my own dungeons. Who wants to play in an underground fortress when you can play in the mythic underworld!

2) Our game group isn't playing original or Holmes D&D, which B1 was written for, but Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age, which adds intriguing dimensions to the game, some of which I need to prep beforehand.

3) Since April 1997 I have DMed neither generic fantasy settings nor any commercial ones such as Greyhawk, Blackmoor, or Mystara but rather my own homebrew world of Englandia, based on Earth in the year 1000—if the supernatural were real, rare, and worked the way each real-world culture thought it did at the time. For example, instead of generic clerics, thieves, and fighters, Englandia has:

  • a Moon-touched Greek priestess of Artemis with a waxing-waning love-hate relationship with her goddess;
  • an inconspicuous basket-wielding Scottish urchin who only takes things because they call out to her and insist on going with her; and
  • a Persian Sufi demon-hunter traveling the world to free people from demons in the name of Allah the most merciful.

When the setting is this specific, the rules this different, and the mythic-underworld potential this rich, the module is definitely going to go through a transformation.

In this next series of posts at Oaths and Fates, I'll share our party's play sessions, with diversions about the module, the setting, the rules, the Old-School Renaissance, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Since my players are having a blast, they agreed we should share the fun with all y'all.

One caveat: since my players have never been through this module before, I'm not going to explain things they have not encountered or figured out yet, and I ask that you do the same. In Search of the Unknown is known for its mysteries and surprises, so let's ensure these players get to enjoy them.

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