[Review] B1 In Search of the Unknown (DnD Basic); Firmament

[Adventure]
In Search of the Unknown (1979)
Mike Carr (TSR)
Levels 1 – 3

Having doled out my first 10 for OSR excellence I figured it might be a good idea to go back to the wellspring and define or discover what shaped my criterion for what makes a good adventure. Unlike much of the stuff I review, I have run TSR’s In Search of the Unknown over three times. It was the first module I ever ran (I always looked down on modules when I just started because I was foolish in my hubris) and I still remember it fondly. Going back through it, it still holds considerable merit, though I look at it now with older, harder eyes.

In Search of the Unknown is a very interesting module because it is meant to be an introductory module for both players and GMs. Its goal is to not only provide you with an interesting adventure in its own right but to teach both players AND GMs the foundations of the dungeoncrawl. I would argue that in this it succeeds very well, though its focus is too narrow to render it the ONLY tool one needs to learn DnD.

The central conceit of In Search of the Unknown is that the Dungeon is keyed with the exception of two things. Monsters and Treasure. You! the aspiring GM, must work together with Mike Carr and place the monsters and treasure from two tables in the back of the module, selecting between 15 – 25 treasures and a similar amount of monsters, and place them in the dungeon at your discretion. Its a very effective way to acquaint novice GMs with the process of keying a dungeon. The importance of blank space, i.e, rooms that do not contain monsters or treasure, is emphasized once again, and praise Gygax for it. Unpredictability is a big part of DnD, and Danger behind every corner is boring. Intermittent reward is the best reward says PrinceofNeurology.

Deep in the wilderness, the ambiguously motivated adventurers Rogan and Zelligar have constructed their stronghold Quasqueton. Hewn from the rock by their servants and orc slaves, it served as their holdfast for many years. It is said they perished in a great battle with barbarians over the mountains. Now their stronghold lies open, ripe for the picking. Dare ye enter?

Session One or Zero adventures are so much more delicate then your standard adventuring hardtack because they establish the conventions that will shape players expectations and frame of reference. Everything will be viewed through the lens of the first few sessions. For this reason I would argue this set-up is in fact BRILLIANT because it introduces and foreshadows what Adventurers are and what Adventurers do. As you learn of the deeds of Rogan and Zelligar through various tapestries (that can be stolen) and murals you are subconsciously primed to expect these daring feats in subsequent adventures. It is a module that tells you what DnD is about.

The module begins by laying out, with emphasis, its intended goal of teaching new GM’s how to design modules and what it is and is not about. It is very much intended as a novice dungeon. Its traps are kind [1], its monsters can generally be beaten [2] and its treasures are minor compared to subsequent modules. Procedures for hiring and using retainers, timekeeping, mapping, experience and effective Dungeon Mastering are all discussed, with reasonable detail, before the adventure proper may begin. While subsequent schools of thought would put more emphasis on the GM as worldbuilder and storycrafter, there is little one can disagree with the solid, practical advice the module sets out. Impartiality, player agency and pacing are the commandments of ISOTU, to be followed wherever they may roam.

There is a rumor table, deliciously stocked with rumors both True and False. The false ones are suitably ominous and hyperbolic. Rogahn owned a fantastic gem as big as a man’s fist that was worth over 100,000 gold pieces. All who set foot in Quasqeton die. Etc. etc. Awesome.

Where do I begin with the Dungeon Proper? The map of the first Level is Glorious, utilizing all the tricks of the trade. A nonlinear maze, with corridors that double back on themselves, dead ends, secret rooms whose existence may be discerned by carefull mapping, false walls, a plethora of secret doors. Exploring Quasqeton FEELS like a significant undertaking. The first time the corridor opens up you are IMMEDIATELY confronted with a cross-section, two doors and corridors branching off within 20 feet.  Cross sections and blind spots may be used by both monsters and the PCs.

In fact, the entrance to the dungeon proper is worth mentioning in its own right, as its one of the strongest I have seen in any adventure. It’s a classic. As you walk through a LONG corridor, A Voice sounds from the corridor ahead. “WHO DARES ENTER THIS PLACE AND INTRUDE UPON THE SANCTUARY OF ITS INHABITANTS?” Then before you can reply another voice “ONLY A GROUP OF FOOLHARDY EXPLORERS DOOMED TO CERTAIN DEATH!” Magic Mouths at the entrance. Awesome. You immediately stumble upon the scene of a skirmish afterward, with dead adventurers and guards alike serving to drive home that this place is perhaps not so abandoned after all, and its inhabitants do not suffer intruders lightly.

My first major gripe with In Search of the Unknown, though I love it to bits, begins with the room descriptions. I understand this module is meant for new GMs who cannot easily infer the contents of a room from a few brief sentences but as a result EVERYTHING IS SPELLED OUT IN EXHAUSTIVE DETAIL. It’s ridiculous, some relatively mundane rooms take up more then half a page. Furthermore, important information is not HIGHLIGHTED, meaning you will have to hunt for it as your players decide to fuck around with one of the six things you described for the third time. This is the module’s one genuine flaw and it is a hefty one. Expect lengthy descriptions of the mundane contents of a storeroom also. Brrr.

The second level is not as lengthy as the first one but as a result it feels almost desolate. The lavish rooms of Quasquetons former inhabitants are replaced with caverns with only a single noticeable feature (phosphorescent fungus, spiderwebs, a depression [3], bats), no traps and shitty swerving corridors. I like the IDEA of a second level because it cements the possibility of A THIRD level in the minds of the players, expanding the concept of the Dungeon into the third dimension. The actual level is pretty unremarkable though, and the adventure pulls some absolute BULLSHIT with a secret entrance that is one way “magically.” Garbage!

If there is a watchword to the contents of the dungeon proper its exploration. There is such visceral joy to some of the rooms. If you fuck around with a preserved cat it leaps out and runs away. There is a (by now classic) room filled with up to 20 magical pools. What do they do? A magic phosphorescent rock of soft mica stands in the centre of a room. So many rooms are interesting visually like a fungus garden, museum or wizards laboratory, making the place feel alive. There’s a little red herring too, like a brass key on the bottom of a pit of acid with no solution.

The traps are solid too. Expect old favorites like the portcullis trap, the trapdoor that leads to a pool on the second level, gusts of wind that extinguish torches, a shaft with a ring that you can tie a rope too…but it breaks! Its all classic and its pulled off without the crutch of arbitrary magic bullshit. My only gripe would be the unforgivable sin of placing a trapdoor in a main corridor, thereby incentivizing Pcs to check EVERY CORRIDOR FOR PIT TRAPS from thereon out.

Treasure is, again, platonic. Mundane treasure is interesting and richly described, silver combs, pewter pitchers, memorabilia of mighty Zelligar and Rogan, Tapestries that are precious but very heavy or difficult to remove without damaging them, a priceless statue that would be almost impossible to remove etc. Some mundane treasure is precious but has a percentage chance of causing trouble for the PCs later on (since it will be recognized as hailing from the keep). This is AWESOME stuff. A Crystal Goblet with the words QUASQUETON on it. Shit is going on my shelf.

In comparison the magic items are almost bland, but that makes sense because many of the items from the DMG would not be so well known as to lose all sense of wonder back in the day. Spear +2, Bag of Devouring, Scroll of 2 cure light wounds spells, wand that radiates magic but is useless etc. That’s the one section where the adventure could have taught GMs a little about interesting descriptions. The use of GMs discretion in figuring out exactly what treasure to place where so it makes sense [4] and he may learn by experience what is sufficient treasure as well as the addage to conceal or protect treasure is damn good, and would be abandoned halfway through 2e, which is a damn shame.

The monster section is another section that is a little weak when compared to later modules. There is a good balance (obviously the GM can decide to add more or less variety) of mundane monsters like orcs, kobolds, poisonous centipedes and troglodytes (a formidable challenge for 1st level parties actually) with a sprinkling or low level favourites like the ooze, shrieker, carrion crawler and Stirge. It’s like a low level greatest hits bonanza. What renders the whole relatively weak is that there is no intelligence, no discussion of tactics and the random encounters are just monster entries. The adventure could have used one or two sample entries so the GM learns that he can do a lot more then just “they attack.” The one opportunity to do so is with a bunch of animated statues [5] guarding a secret treasure on the second level, but again, they just attack and feel remarkably out of place, almost like they were shoved in.

As a result Quasqeton’s inhabitants will be isolated and unorganized. There is no discussion of faction play, [6] organized resistance or precautions against invaders, which is a shame. As it stands, its still going to be a blast (I mean, presumably you are going to use it on new players yes?) or a classic either way but it will need to be beefed up by the GM to get maximum potential out of it. The lack of a big bad or central antagonist is also a bit of a shame, meaning your dungeon will likely lack a cathartic smackdown at the end. One might argue that not every dungeon needs one but I suspect that is false. Us human beings like ourselves a climax.

In the back of the box are long lists of pregens that can be used by both the PCs or as retainers/henchmen in case the PCs require additional forces. I love the table for henchman availability based on party size actually. It really drives home the frequent use of NPC henchman in the old games that would vanish almost entirely in the newer style. The names are great too. Nupo Servant of the Bringer, Sho-Rembo, Nickar, Feggener the Quick and Harg of the City Afar. Silly DnD is great.

Revisiting In Search of the Unknown is a blast. Its dated but so many of its design (which in turn came from the little brown books) can be found back in the genetic code of dozens if not hundreds of subsequent modules its like watching a piece of history. In general I would argue it still holds up today as a beginner’s module and STILL remains one of the best ways to introduce novice players into the hobby. It’s fair but not condescendingly simple, a fully playable tutorial that delivers an awesome dungeon experience and teaches both novice GMs and players alike about our hobby.

In Search of the Unknown has aged…a little. Experienced GMs and veterans will probably be so familiar with its many tropes the dungeon itself will be all but invisible, a condensation of subconscious assumptions so deeply ingrained the physical manifestation thereof is perceived with quasi-religious veneration, but the actual dungeon will seem a bit mild and dull. The long-ass text blocks are probably its biggest hurdle. Nevertheless, I still can’t think of anything to teach novice players and GMs that is AS GOOD or better. Its been what, 40 years? Highly recommended if you are new to oldskool gaming. 8 out of 10.

[1] Indeed, one of the best traps is a needle trap in a cabinet that inflicts one point of damage and makes the hand useless for a couple of turns. Next time! it seems to say. But it is a fair way of warning the novice player so they will be on guard next time. It does this WITHOUT outwardly breaking verisimilitude (after all, the poison may well have lost its potency in the years since the two departed).
Compare this with the ludicrously unfair save or die trap on the first door in Tower of the Stargazer which only teaches Lotfp players that arbitrary death will be par for the course. If “curiosity and intelligence” is the motto of In Search of the Unknown, “You Will Suffer Arbitrarily” is that of Stargazer. Didn’t I like Stargazer?
[2] I am afraid intrepid Oldskool me could not resist the temptation of putting Two Ghouls in the pool of water on level two, providing an unwelcome surprise to the hapless dolts that stumbled into it via the trapdoor, extinguishing their torches.
[3] Perhaps prophetically, a Depression would be a common feature of many subsequent Lotfp products.
[4] In Search of the Unknown is quick to point out that in general, placement must make sense, with a very small fudge factor for the unexpected. Solid advice!
[5] Take a drink!
[6] I added a little tribal war between the kobolds, the Orc slaves and the Troglodytes on the lower level when I ran it last time

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16 thoughts on “[Review] B1 In Search of the Unknown (DnD Basic); Firmament

  1. I think we spent a few hours in that Room of Pools when we were kids. We had to try each one and part of the internal game is to get the other characters to try it out first so that it was ‘safe’. I took a group of 9-12 year old girls through it about 2 years ago…they did not like the gelatinous cube I threw in there near the room with all the doors…good stuff.

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    1. I remember a perfectly timed Silence potion in that pool shutting up the 5 Int Dwarf that my loudest player insisted on playing. Everyone swore it was GM bullshit at the time. Good stuff.

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  2. Nice to learn Kent has used some of the proceeds from Horse-Fondlers of Greater Aione to sponsor new reviews of these old chestnuts. Very noble of him, and my single regret is that he did not pay me first.

    The most surprising thing about B1 is that it has a second level. Everyone remembers the pool room, that portcullis trap, and the magic mouth entrance – pure fantasy, I agree – but that measly cavern system? “The lower level of the complex is rough and unfinished”, says the description. That was supposed to be a threat, not a promise.

    The least recognised virtue of the module is the NPC system in the back. Great names, unpredictably trans-classed elves, and just enough customisation to create memorable followers, who are not quite PC calibre, but more than basic, nameless owlbear fodder.

    Oddest thing: room numbering in Roman numerals. Room XXVII and XLIX even. Now that’s a standard which didn’t stick around, but I bet every kid DM who figured them out felt proud of the accomplishment. An undeniable attraction of early TSR releases: they treat the reader like an educated adult, which is like cocaine for every impressionable, snobbish kid (“As we all know, the carefully constructed milieu is the sine qua non of the superior campaign”, rambles Gygax, as the reader reaches for his imaginary monocle).

    Funniest little detail: David Sutherland and Dave Trampier (both shamefully uncredited) signing the cover art as “DIS & DAT”.

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    1. Hi Melan, Welcome to Age of Dusk.

      I’d read most of the old catalog as part of my re-initiation into DnD and my new first Campaign was set in Karameikos. I felt I should show some love (and gain some valuable insights at the same time) and repay Kent for all the kindness and joy he brings to the hobby.

      I think you phrased a similar observation about the second level in your review of Red Prophet Rises (for which I should thank you btw, it was a good and insightful review), and I agree with you that it’s unfinished, though I am not sure whether I’d call it superfluous. There is something about a second level that acts as a potential multiplier and adds to the mystery of the place. I had an instance where the party fell into the trapdoor into the pool (where they awakened the pool ghouls, a placement I would not repeat I should add) and the single cleric now had to drag his paralyzed friend back to the surface and find a way to escape. I thought that was neat in concept, just boring in execution.

      The names are awesome and its very interesting to see how something as simple as character names can convey tone and atmosphere.

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  3. I really gotta run this module. I’ve been saying that for years. Curious has the reviewer heard of the goodman games reprint of this? I hear it’s a bit bloated. (note they released isle of dread just lately as well).

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    1. Highly recommend running it if you’ve never had the chance. Its an emminently runnable module and the dungeon stocking is still good fun.

      http://goodman-games.com/blog/2017/03/26/classic-dd-module-collectors-editions/

      It looks…too much like nostalgia bait to me. I like me some 5e as much as the next guy but I can’t see the oldskool playstyle make it through the conversion process without being irrevocably altered. Its good to see the stuff return in print and Goodman generally does a good job but I say fuck the conversion, just bring it out in PDF, stuff like this should be treasured and shared, not kept in a vault and milked infinitely for cash. Still, if you are a collector and a hardcore fan of the old stuff, it does look like you might be getting your money’s worth.

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  4. This afternoon my HackMaster party will visit Quasqueton for the third time. I use HackMaster 4e’s Quest for the Unknown, but toned down the silliness and treasure to be more fitting for HackMaster 5e. I did keep the rogue magic mouths that keep insulting player characters, it’s just too much fun – almost as much fun as seeing the trash ogre deal 30+ damage to the fighter thanks to penetrating damage rolls. Poor guy keeps burning honor to survive, by the time he can become a Knight he won’t have enough left to fulfill the promotion requirements.

    They have seen around the half of the first level so far. Hopefully they will find the pools this time.

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    1. I think Venger is spot on. In Search of the Unknown Play reports need to happen. The customization element makes it almost a sub-genre in itself.

      I’d heard that Hackmaster 4e did a bunch of semi-parody riffs of classic dungeons that were emminently gameable. Any other ones you’ve tried?

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      1. Not yet, but if Kenzer & Co doesn’t get their shit together I will have to use the Caves of Chaos from the 4e Little Keep on the Borderlands. I have already salvaged it for some ideas (lizardman temple ruins, thug halflings).

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