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.


  1. Yeah, I didn't appreciate B2 until fairly recently. When I was younger, I just didn't know what to do with it. I much preferred B1 with it's straight forward goals. Now days, B2 is my favorite.

  2. I like a lot of the elements of B1, but the layout of the dungeon has been a thorn in my side every time I try to run it.

    Those wacky spiraling hallways and mazes and switchbacks look cool on graph paper, but they're a trial to describe in actual play.

  3. I agree with that. The map in B1 is annoying.

  4. @BigFella - Yeah, I never understood the appeal of mazes and weird dungeon topographies. It usually just turns out to be tedious and not fun.

  5. "I never understood the appeal of mazes and weird dungeon topographies. It usually just turns out to be tedious and not fun." Bam, nailed it! That deserves a post all its own.

    I've had mixed feelings about B2 but overall I think it's a good introduction. It might be a little more than a first-time DM (esp. a young kid) can handle, but at least it makes them aware of a great many possibilities.

  6. My Holmes edit of basic I first had came with B2.
    Luckily the rulebook had a fair one level dungeon inside it that was just fine for cutting a DM's teeth and demonstrating how dungeons could be set up.

  7. I never ran B2 as a kid, but I played in it once, very, very early on. We made one expedition to the caves, got savagely beaten, went back to the keep and hid. This more or less put us off modules forever.

  8. This idea is ripe for exploration. I blogged a little bit about the idea of DM levels once. I think modules should indicate what level of DM they're made for, not party level.

    The problem is, as a learning DM myself, I don't know what I don't know. And most experienced DMs seem to assume everyone knows what they do.

    B1 was better than B2 for the beginner DM audience, but even the idea that conveying the dungeon as drawn verbally to players is a skill a DM needs to learn seems to have escaped them back then.

  9. B2 was the only module I had for a long time, and it taxed my 12 year old brain. I ran it for my brother just as soon as I finished walking him through character generation. I myself hadn't even finished the rulebook when we first tackled it, so it was quite a test for me, and quite a challenge to his lone halfling.

    I think that interpreting B2, and how I interpreted it, is what made me into a DM.

  10. It may have been a trial by fire for DMs, but it was the perfect module for beginning players; the dungeon was sectioned off, and each section could be cleaned out independently; the characters were never far from an exit, and could easily go back to where they left off.

  11. @Telecanter
    I think you're on to something really important with the whole idea of "DM Levels", since in truth they are one of the main moving parts of the Tabletop RPG engine.

    Moving from the ability to conceive ideas to the ability to communicate them effectively is a good line of demarcation between interested newbie to a more experienced game master. I think you can tell by how many wiggly, looks cool on paper mazes a GM draws vs. how many of those work in actual play.

    Dragging this back on topic, I've found B2 as my go to source for quick, discreet dungeonettes. It's a nice shelf full of parts. Of course, I guess that's a more advanced GM's view of it.

    I barely got a bunch of players out of the keep and into the woods to meet the mad hermit when I tried running it in 6th. grade.

    P.S.: My final thought on B1. It's kind of like a steamed crab, the meat is pretty tasty but there's a lot of gristle and shell you have to work thru to get at it...

  12. Re: DM level, the publisher of a successful series of d20 modules told me that he frequently heard in talking with his fans that many of them had not read the adventures before sitting down to DM it for their group. I don't know whether that implies higher-level or lower-level DM chops, but it's sure the opposite of B2 which I feel you need to take apart & rewrite in your own organizational style in order for it not to be an unsuccessful monster hotel.

    I think a big advantage of making your own dungeon is that you have the idea in your mind & then put a chip of it onto paper, whereas the chip of B2 on paper is as others have said super-dense and requires you to have ninth-level spell slots in order to be able to stuff its unpacked ideas into your brain.

    In the [afterschool D&D program] where teaching kids to DM is one of the goals, I'm going right to dungeon creation and skipping past interpreting a published adventure, because I think the latter is a lot harder.
    - Tavis

  13. I have said that B1 is the perfect beginning adventure for both players and DMs, but B2 is the perfect beginning SETTING for both. It's definitely a step up from B1 in difficulty due to the wilderness aspect, but I have met so many players and DMs who started out with it despite this difficulty. One thing EGG deserves praise for is never pandering or talking down to his audience. The beginning or introductory adventures I read nowadays are mind numbing in their simplicity and hand holding; it goes without saying most are uninteresting, boring and quickly forgettable. B2 is none of that, and many players and DMs (consciously or unconsciously) have been influenced by it for decades in a way later intro scenarios were unable to duplicate.

  14. This is a really creative way of comparing those two modules - I had never thought of it that way before.

  15. I ran the dickens out of B2 pretty much right out the Holmes box it came with, starting with the chits and everything. As a 12 year old, I just relied on the old saw "fake it 'til you make it". I probably didn't run it that well, but none of my friends had any idea what was going on either. I was a naturally merciful DM, everybody seemed to live and everybody had a hell of a good time. The Shrine of Evil Chaos scared the crap out of everybody, even me a little. When the dungeon was completely cleared off, the players converted into a secret headquarters (after filling in the Shrine and the minotaur's maze), installed a bunch of fiendish traps to keep returning monsters at bay, and went so far as to plant crops (!!!) outside the cave entrances. My point? I really didn't know what I was doing, but we just went with the flow and ended up having a really great experience that I've sought to repeat for the last 30+ years. B1, by contrast, owned by one of the players, I thought was a total rip off. Fill in your own monsters? I'll just make my own dungeon!

  16. I'll stand at the other end of the common perception: I found B1 lacking and too simple to be interesting. I found B2 a larger concept to get my head around, but it was a base to adventure from with lots of foes nearby and off we went. I played it once later as a player - knowing the priest (the one who wants to join your party) was a bad guy, but I told the GM and I didn't blow the secret, so it totally caught the party by surprise when my halfling was down and in head of healing and the priest cast cause light wounds, just about killing me.

    The whole notion of a bunch of NPCs with varying agendas and differing goals and the interplay that allowed in many different ways over time have influenced my DMing ever since. To avoid railroads now, I generally start with a list of key actors, goals, and resources. Then I see what the players will do with some starting hooks and how those actors will react, in turn triggering PC actions, rinse repeat. No real railroad - the players aren't trying to complete a 3 act play or a fixed storyline. They have agency.

    The players I've played most with like that agency and use it. Some others I've played with less often don't know what to do with it - they seem to get deer-in-headlights syndrome when offered free choices with nobody jamming them along a pre-ordained adventure path.

    Now, to make sense of B2:

    The fields to the west on the map (and areas further off the map) had to have farming. Farming in areas with humanoids and monsters means villages have pallisades and use Border Hounds (Rottweiler-Bloodhound cross) to patrol their fields around the villages at night (the dogs make up for the lack of seeing in the dark).

    The keep had to be bigger to have a few more services, more NPCs, and a more robust garrison (in my case, the garrison exists to anchor a cross-mountain-range trade route being opened despite the humanoids).

    The Old Religion in the area was nature worshiping/druidic, but there were some Elder Gods (Cthulhonian-ish) and their cults. Players love to take on cultists and they get freaked out in dungeons that mess them up with conditions and strange noises, sensations, perceptions, fatigue, etc. so it doesn't just feel like a goblin smash.

    The caves had to move further (I just blew out the scale of the hexes on the original map) and thus be further from the keep (about a day's travel) and further from the road. Where it is on the original map, the keep would have had to see them and go to engage them in force fairly soon.

    The trade route aspect also meant that I could grow the keep and its surrounds as the campaign went on (new construction) and as the party goes beyond the caves to nastier threats deeper in the mountain (giants, ogres, trolls, dark elves, dragons, etc), the garrison could be a stronger base with more options for help. It also let early PC missions be trade caravan escort, recovery of people and goods from raided caravans, etc.

    B2 requires you to make some sense of why it exists (why is the REALM spending money to expand here?) and my answer was a big trade route being built, but I've seen a 'military outpost' argument (no civilian merchants/other civs, just military) that made sense too.

    Wrestling with B2 may not be the best first adventure, but it might be the best first setting (although Saltmarsh and Hommlet always appeal to me too). Nothing the newer game has done as far as their adventure paths is any good for sandbox adventuring with player agency.

    This sandbox, the agency it brings: These were Gygax's gift to all of us.


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