Wednesday, September 22, 2010

B2 for Newbie DMs: Easy Intro or Mind Shredding Trial By Fire?

Scott at HUGE RUINED PILE has written an excellent series of posts (start here) pondering how a beginning DM can best get into old school-style roleplaying. Scott makes the excellent point that a newbie DM can easily be overwhelmed by all the homebrew campaigns, blog musings, house rulings, and wildly creative material being posted by grognard DMs with decades of experience. Exciting stuff, yes, but also overwhelming.

Scott proposes a thought experiment where a new DM should only be allowed to start with the 1980 D&D Basic Set (a.k.a. Moldvay Basic), which includes the module B2: Keep on the Borderlands. This is pretty much how I started except I never actually ran B2 – I jumped right into making my own dungeons immediately after I cracked open the rulebook. There were two reasons for this: (1) I like making adventures, it’s kind of a major attraction of playing D&D for me, and (2) as a kid I found B2 extremely complex and intimidating.

B2 complex and intimidating? Yes. B2 is like an D&D neutron star – it is massive and dense, yet small in physical size. It has all the elements of a complex and sophisticated adventure scenario: a roster of NPCs with secret motivations, overland travel and exploration, a complex social ecology in a dungeon, poor judgments result in quick death, and portions of the adventure left blank for the DM to create. I agree with most D&D aficionados that B2 is a masterpiece, however I also think you need some serious chops as a DM make it fly. It blew my mind when I was a kid – I couldn’t handle it.

In contrast to the 1980 Basic Set, the 1978 Basic Set (a.k.a. Holmes Basic) included the module B1: In Search of the Unknown. This is a vastly simpler type of adventure – a pretty standard monster hotel, if you will. No hex crawling, few mysterious NPCs, no factions of monster clans with complex interacting histories. You start at the entrance and start opening doors, killing monsters, looking for loot, and enjoying the interesting scenery. Way easier to DM than B2.

So was it genius or folly for TSR to include B2 with the Basic Set? It’s hard to say. From one perspective you can think of B2 as a kind of trial by fire for would-be DMs. Back in the day it quickly separated those with DM potential from those without. Heck, it did a great good job of intimidating me when I was 10 years old. This sink-or-swim model could be a good thing – there’s nothing like a lousy DM to turn people off to roleplaying. On the other hand, maybe if TSR stuck with B1 more would-be DMs would have stayed with the game and D&D wouldn’t have suffered its popularity crash in the early/mid-80s. There are a lot of unplayed copies of B2 on eBay.