Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Keep on the Borderlands: Things Gary Gygax Never Told You

The old basic module B2 is largely a bottom-up affair: you get keyed locations, and fairly clear situations… but not much in the way of a top-down explanation of how it all fits together. One strength of this approach is that it becomes much easier to adapt the adventure to a wide range of settings and campaigns. Even so, this fails to impress a significant portion of game masters that take great pleasure in making fun of the apparently incoherent nature of this much-praised “classic.”

Tom Moldvay gives a clue as to how to develop an overarching premise for the adventure: in the Dungeon Master section of his Basic Rulebook, he states that module B2 is an example of Investigating a Chaotic Outpost. “This scenario has to do with a Chaotic invasion (either in progress or about to begin). The characters must enter the enemy outpost, find out the strength and plans of the invaders, and destroy the outpost if possible.”

With this in mind we can formulate answers to the questions that have befuddled so many gamers.

  1. Why are there so many monsters of differing types in the Caves of Chaos? Because something is summoning chaotic creatures to this area in preparation for an attack, just as Gollum was summoned to Morder well before there any clear signs that Sauron was preparing for War.
  2. Why doesn’t the Castellan just send a detachment down to the Caves and clean them out? Maybe he has tried only to see new monsters take their place and he’s realized he can’t win a war of attrition. Maybe the Caves are protected by a magic that makes it more difficult to find in direct proportion to the level of the person that’s seeking them. Or maybe, to borrow a page from Infocom’s Enchanter, the Castellan knows that higher level characters such as himself will quickly draw the attention of the entity that is preparing an attack on the Realm.
  3. How can low level characters hope to make a difference if the high level NPC’s are unable to do anything? The monsters are clearly disorganized and at odds with each other. If they were led by something like a Nazgul, there’d be patrols and so forth that would make the players’ raids infinitely harder. An epic monster like that just isn’t around, yet.
  4. Why does the module include precise details of the defenses and strength of the Keep itself? Perhaps the Temple of Evil Chaos is working on spells/prayers that might summon a powerful leader that would turn the menagerie of monsters into the nucleus of a new army– an army that might launch an attack on the Keep itself. (If the players can foil this scheme, or disable whatever magic that keeps the Castellan’s troops away from the Caves area, then perhaps the players will secure a significant advantage in the opening stages of the coming Chaotic invasion.)

In light of this, the most interesting question is the one that few have asked. Why has The Evil Priest used his zombies to block off the passage to The Cave of the Unknown? If you can tie your answer to that into how you answer all of the above questions, you just might get on the track of something that could make sense of the entire module. I’m not sure what all is going on here, but I bet a visit to the Mad Hermit would clear some of this up…. (You better bring some he wants, though, otherwise he might just kill you.)

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3 responses to “Keep on the Borderlands: Things Gary Gygax Never Told You

  1. earlburt December 5, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    I don’t really know if you’re giving more credit to Moldvay/Gygax than is warranted, but maybe they had that much thought to a bigger world behind B2. I find it plausible that they had the kind oif mindset to use B2 that way in their own games. But I also think they knew players didn’t use it that way.

    I don’t know how the average GM approaches it, but I do very much like modules and other supplements that can be dropped into any game setting. I think that’s why I prefer early modules to later ones. Though the early ones may be less elegant/more silly in some ways, they are largely generic as to setting. I never had eny interest in the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance type of material.

    • jeffro December 5, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      As far as what Moldvay and Gygax intended… I think they were trying to strip down the essence of D&D to the barest minimum. The Basic Set excises wilderness adventures, leaving them for the later Cooke expansion. What a modern gamer thinks of as being the “campaign setting” is just a big blank canvas here. The material is intended to equip a new DM in the launching of his own campaign– it is assumed that he will fill in the details one way or another over time, but that doing so is *not* a prerequisite for beginning the game sessions. That’s a pretty good assumption, really.

      So you start off with a home base and a “Chaotic Outpost” to explore [and probably die in] and practically nothing else. Once players figure things out, they start working towards trying to get two levels 2 and 3. If the DM restocks a section of the caves after the players clean some of them out, he gets some pretty good practice developing his own dungeony type things without having to do a big batch all at once. At any rate, inexperienced DM’s that wonder what the lairs mentioned in the monster sections should look like have ample contrasting examples to go by with B2.

      I don’t think they had much of a Tolkien/Infocom story envisioned like mine– but again, the lack of an explicit story means that the DM is free to make up his own answers based on what his players are into. The DM was to make floor plans for the Keep’s buildings and develop his own epic dungeon with the Cave of the Unknown. Playing B2 is really about preparing the DM to do that, ultimately. As to story… that would be generated by whatever actions and choices the players make as they explore that home brewed location.

  2. Michael January 22, 2013 at 4:04 am

    Another possible explanation came to mind when I compared the NPCs in the module with complement the 1st Gazeteer said it should have. The levels of the command staff in the module were lower than those in the Gazeteer, suggesting the possibility that they’d already been through a battle or campaign that decimated their unit. Until reinforcements arrived, the (interim) Castellan may have thought it prudent to hold tight and let the crazy guys do the legwork.

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