09 December 2021

How B2 became part of Basic Dungeons and Dragons

As I’ve mentioned before, my “gateway drug” into this hobby was the “Holmes” Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, a gift from my parents over four decades ago. My version included the infamous “chits” instead of dice, and the classic Gary Gygax module B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

 [Erol Otus's evocative picture of the keep on the back of B2]


I later learned that earlier versions of the Holmes box set included Mike Carr’s module, B1: In Search of the Unknown. I always had been puzzled as to why this change was made. (At the time I also was confused as to why my box had irritating chits and others had dice, but I later learned that that was because TSR couldn’t obtain enough dice to include in all their fast-selling sets.)


Both modules (B1 and B2) include lots of helpful advice for neophyte DMs. And while B2 is, I think, the superior module overall—it includes a fleshed-out “safe haven,” a “mini-wilderness,” and a complex “dungeon” environment that, in addition to providing a variety of different kinds of monsters and challenges, can enable the players to engage in some role-playing (e.g., allying with some groups against others). Nonetheless, for starting DMs, I think B1 is a better option. It is a classic, straightforward “dungeon crawl.” Also, I thought at the time, shouldn’t B1 be included in the Basic Set?


The explanation for this change, it turns out, was Gygax’s avarice. Jon Peterson explains:

“With the Basic Set carrying In Search of the Unknown now bringing in nearly 100,000 sales per quarter and rising, the 11 cents per copy due to Mike Carr started to amount to real money, especially in pre-1980 dollars.


It was then that Gygax apparently grasped that […] perhaps TSR could try substituting in a different module to the Basic Set — one of Gygax’s own creation, Keep on the Borderlands (B2), which began to ship early in 1980.”

The full story involves TSR’s legal dispute with Dave Arneson and is explained by Peterson in his Polygon article, “How a pending lawsuit changed the original Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.” (The article was posted two months ago—alas, I’ve been pretty “out of it” over the past few months and only read it today.)


This is hardly the biggest story in the history of role-playing games. But it’s something I distinctly remember wondering about back in the day. It’s nice to know the answer, some forty years later.


  1. My Holmes Basic box came with "Dungeon Geomorphs" and a "Monster & Treasure Assortment" in lieu of a module. At least I got some crappy dice with it.

    1. Yeah, I'm glad I got B2 instead of those, despite the lack of dice. The DM advice was helpful as I was teaching myself how to play (I still didn't run DnD remotely correctly for a few years afterwards...).

  2. Mine came with B2. Can't say as I have any complaint about that, although yet more evidence of Arneson being treated badly by Gygax and TSR doesn't thrill me.

    1. I think B2 is the superior module overall, but B1 would've helped me more as a starting DM (I think).
      I plan to read Peterson's book (Game Wizards) in the new year. I haven't read his earlier books (they struck me as too "academic," and I already have enough academic stuff to read). But I'm intrigued to learn more about the early days of TSR and the rise and fall of Gygax (a flawed individual, but also a creative genius IMO).