Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Keeping it on the Borderlands

Lately I came across a review of B2 Keep on the Borderlands that was...well, let's say net negative.[1]

It came at an opportune time in that after many years of gaming drought I have at last found a few people who are interested and recently started a B/X sandbox style game using B2 as its core. While I'm not entirely surprised to find that a modern gamer (23 years later!) found B2 a little wanting, there were aspects of this review that surprised me a little. Frankly, I thought that the author really didn't get some dimensions of the module, though I'll grant that the treasure is...blase.

The most puzzling aspect of the review for me was the author's objection to the amount of detail provided in Gygax's treatment of the Keep itself - and the things Gygax opted not  to detail

The mistake I made back then, and the mistake the reviewer is making, was to assume that B2 is intended to be an "open the cover and start playing" sort of module like many of the later BECMI products were. But the truth is that's not what Gygax was doing.

What he was going for, it seems to me now that I look at B2 again and begin to prepare for an actual campaign, is demonstrate the process he had in mind when he wrote instructions in the 1e DMG for how a beginning DM should go about starting what these days we would call a sandbox campaign:

  1. Develop the outlines of a community the PCs can use as a base of operations.
  2. Place the entrance to the dungeon not too far away.
  3. Sketch out pertinent details of the surrounding area.
  4. Add some "dressing" to the community as well as the dungeon for the PCs to interact with. Include some hints as to where adventure might be found.
  5. Set up necessary random tables (wandering monsters, events, etc) or odds of variable things happening (% chance key NPCs are in the tavern)
  6. Be prepared with sketched out ideas of what happens when PCs go to certain places or interact with certain people/things.
  7. Introduce the players to the game.

From here, Gygax assumes that much of what happens will be in reaction to the players' actions - he doesn't assume the DM will have considered every eventuality, but that some things will be made up on the spot, others determined by a die roll, and most things will emerge from play. This is why Gygax was so adamant that strict timekeeping be the rule - with a strict timeline and tools to "automate"[2] things like random encounters and events such as weather the DM can concentrate on simply responding to the players. In some senses, the setting is the DM's character.

In this model the keep isn't just a save point. It's part of the game, a place where adventure can take place. Of course it needs just the kinds of details Gygax provides. It needs more as well - and in the text Gygax urges the DM to sketch floor plans of the more important buildings, and to add details such as the names of NPCs as appropriate. Gygax's instructions make it clear that he didn't expect the DM to just open the module and start - he expected the DM to take what he had already prepared (the meat of the 7 points above) and build details into it that fit the sort of game intended (the gravy).

I'll be the first to gripe about Gygax's poor sense of things in the details - in fact reading his personal gaming material I often stumble on things that are just madenningly poorly thought out. But I honestly think his grasp of the big picture really was excellent, and a lot of his advice on the strategic and processes level is spot on.

It's been about 27 years since I ran a B/X campaign, so I thought I'd put my money where my mouth is - I'll take Gygax's advice, both specifically from B2 and his more general advice on campaigning as presented in the 1e DMG, and build my campaign as suggested. As I do, I will sketch some of my progress here, perhaps a play report pr two, and we'll see if I'm right about Gygax's advice.
1. It's the review here:

2. By which I mean randomize, as opposed to the DM deciding by fiat or logical progression.

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