The Alexandrian

B2 Keep on the Borderlands - Gary GygaxCouple congruent thoughts synchronistically spun themselves into my head recently.

First, Delta’s D&D Hotpost asked, “Was Module B1 a Good Design?” This revived my old argument that B1, B2, and the original version B3 are — at least conceptually — a really solid introduction to dungeoncrawling:

B1 teaches the DM how to key a dungeon. For those unfamiliar with it, the module provides a map with an incomplete key: Rooms are described, but blanks are left for monsters and treasures. At the back of the module, a list of monsters and treasures are provided: The DM is supposed to take them and assign them to rooms. In practice, this teaches the DM that:

(1) Rooms are not defined by the monster you fight in them.

(2) The distribution and arrangement of monsters and treasure will fundamentally change the gameplay of a dungeon.

(3) You can stock a given chunk of geography in many different ways (and many different times).

B2 teaches the players how to play. When you go the Caverns of Chaos, you enter a valley and the first thing you see are a dozen cave entrances: So the very first action the players have to take in the module is to make a choice. And the choice they make will completely alter the future course of events through the module. It’s an incredibly empowering moment and a really important lesson for any player of an RPG to learn.

Finally, the original version of B3 (which was very different from the version eventually published) introduced what was originally supposed to be the centerpiece of every D&D campaign: The megadungeon. Jean Wells provided the upper levels of the dungeon, but included several “empty” rooms which the DM was supposed to key for themselves. And she included a number of passages that would lead down to lower levels that the DM was supposed to design for themselves. Although sometimes crude and inadequate in its presentation, B3 would have transitioned the DM into designing and expanding their own megadungeon on the superstructure it provided.

None of these modules were perfect. But new players who worked their way through them received a really solid education in what it meant to run and play an RPG.

In the years since then, a lot of introductory adventures have been produced by the RPG industry. And the interesting thing about most of them is that they take a very different approach: They try to simplify and carefully curate the first experiences of new players. They spoon-feed the GM and hand-hold the players.

Which brings me to the second thought, this one from the Psychology of Video Games: “How Game Tutorials Can Strangle Player Creativity.” In this essay, Jamie Madigan discusses a psychology experiment which demonstrated, in brief, that:

(1) If you take a toy with many different functions which are not immediately evident and introduce a child to it by “spontaneously” discovering one of its functions, then the child will experiment with the toy and discover its many different functions.

(2) But if you take that same toy and introduce a child to it by saying, “This is an awesome toy. Here’s how you use it.” And then demonstrate one of its functions, the child will spend less time playing with the toy and discover fewer of its functions.

(Madigan’s discussion of the study is excellent. I recommend clicking through the link and reading the whole thing.)

The application to roleplaying games should be almost self-evident: Introductory scenarios should be robust (so that new players don’t become stymied or lost). But that robustness should not take the form of hand-holding or railroading. If you want to introduce a new player to roleplaying games, then you need to embrace the Caverns of Chaos: You need to show them twelve options and say, “The choice is yours.”

Because, ultimately, it is that power of choice which makes RPGs special and exciting and worthwhile.

9 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Introductory Adventures”

  1. Allan Grohe says:

    Very nice analysis, Justin!

    Allan.

  2. M. R. Mathias says:

    You wrote this at Fantasy Faction: “However, I’ve never met an author in my entire life who has openly said: “My books are some of the best fantasy ever written.” To dismiss works or to put yourself on a level alongside authors such as Sanderson, Hobb, Goodkind, Tolkien, etc is not only not something you, yourself, do not have the right to do – but it is damned right offensive.”

    Interesting choice to include Goodkind on that list. Goodkind actually IS one of the authors who has touted himself as being uniquely magnificent.

    I was quoting about 17 reviews that were written for my books, sir. I was not touting myself, but repeating what others have said. :-) and FYI I currently have 9 Novels in the top 100 of their genre and two in the “Highest Rated” epic fantasy top 100 at Amazon. So anything I said, however egotistical, was true.

    Since you were tacticly polite and not disrespectful to me I would offer you a copy of ‘The Sword and the Dragon’ FREE in your choice of formats so that you can read and judge for yourself. I was the dungeon master in my AD&D games. Maybe you can relate. :-)

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Well… That was an unexpected reply to this post. ;)

    As a quick note: The only part of that which I wrote was the “Interesting choice to include Goodkind on that list. Goodkind actually IS one of the authors who has touted himself as being uniquely magnificent.” bit. The rest was a quote from the blogger I was replying to.

    But, sure, I’m willing to take a look at your book. Epub format would work for me and you can find me e-mail address if you click the “About” link on the right.

  4. ProfessorOats says:

    That first link doesn’t go to Delta’s D&D Hotspot

    I should really play Keep on the Borderlands one of these days. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and feel like I’ve missed out on an integral part of the D&D experience. Unfortunately, everyone I meet wants to play the newer “furries built on point buys in a railroaded steampunk story” style, so I may need to arrange it myself

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Link is fixed. Thanks.

  6. GreyKnight says:

    This was interesting reading, especially since I’m looking at designing introductory adventurers for an RPG at the minute.

    You said that B2 “teaches the players how to play”. What, in your estimation, is the main thing the players get out of B1?

  7. GreyKnight says:

    It just occurred to me that this has implications for character creation, actually. There is an expectation in 3.5e and PF that your character be “optimised”: i.e. character creation is turned into a mini-game in its own right. New players often seem to get instruction from the other players on how to make a “proper” character, which is basically a tutorial-style introduction for this mini-game (in extreme cases the player might get most of the choices effectively made for him).

  8. Joseph says:

    GreyKnight was a very good point. The counter to optimization is typically randomization and packages of abilities (rather than a menu). But the more things that players can directly control, the more likely it is that vastly more effective options can be created.

    I am also a little bit amazed at how much ability scores have progressed from Swords and Wizardry (where it was all about strength) to 3.5E where the new linearization and unlimited progression of scores led to all sorts of ways to focus a character.

  9. Keith says:

    My first D&D product was the holmes boxed set with B2. I think it was brilliant. You had a town/home base with the Keep, some some NPC’s with a touch of color/plot (Wando the Wanderer fit my image of Strider perfectly), an overland with a variety of terrain and a dungeon. It had enough detail to get you through if you just wanted to go room by room, but I think it was open enough to spark the imagination, and before long I was improvising my own scenarios, creating my own creatures and organizing stiffer resistance among the surviving humanoid tribes. By happenstance the players didnt go to the evil chapel until last, and by then the clerics had been working overtime converting all those poor dead humanoids into a little army… great stuff.

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