Monday, November 6, 2017

A Look Back at The Keep on the Borderlands

Let's take a look at a classic D&D adventure module - B2 The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. I'm not sure if this is a review with a healthy dose of nostalgia, a retrospective, or something else. In any case, I'm not even going to pretend to be impartial as I examine the module's place in gaming, it's effects on me as a gamer, and take the module apart to see how it works.

Dungeon Module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands was the first RPG adventure module I owned. It came into my possession the same way it did for so many others - it was part of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set. My set was the victim of too many moves from place to place in my youth. The rulebook, dice, and cardboard box are long gone. My current copy is second hand from Half Price Books.

The Keep on the Borderlands was intended as an introduction to D&D. Space is given to advice aimed at new players and DMs. Much of Gygax's advice still holds up decades later - things like "be fair" and "read the module before running it". A few pieces - like designating a "caller" to act as an intermediary between the DM and the other players - reflect practices specific to the time or to Gygax's gaming group.

The titular Keep is detailed enough to support adventures by itself - rob the bank, recruit some NPCs to help the party, or maybe even try to impress the person who runs the place. Curiously, the Keep is presented in much the same fashion as the module's dungeon - the Caves of Chaos. There are combat statistics for the Keep's inhabitants and notes on how they will respond to threats. A modern presentation might omit these details on the assumption that nothing would happen to the party's home base. One wonders if Gygax had players who were inclined to just straight up assault locations like the Keep for one reason or another. Another curiosity is the lack of names for the NPCs of the Keep. Each is referred to by their title - the Jewel Merchant, the Curate, the Castellan, etc. This gives the Keep a generic feel and places the burden of coming up with names for the NPCs on a DM running an introductory adventure.

The map of the area around the Keep and the Caves of Chaos places the two locations within a few thousand yards of each other. However, Gygax presents the Caves as something the party needs to search for, despite the presence of a road that runs close by it. The inhabitants of the Caves do not seem to be engaged in hostilities with the Keep or any traffic using the road. Otherwise, the garrison at the Keep would have already been deployed to neutralize the nearby threat. The Keep's garrison also seem to be content to leave the handful of wilderness encounters described in the module for the adventuring party to deal with. Why the Keep and the Caves of Chaos are located so closely to each other is never explained.

The majority of the module presents the Caves of Chaos. The dungeon is not a linear series of static encounters. The players are free to choose the cave entrances in any order they wish. However, knowledgeable players will generally opt to tackle the lower caves first, since they contain less challenging monsters.

Each of cave entrance leads to an underground area inhabited by a specific group of monsters - kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, more orcs, gnolls, etc. Gygax includes notes on how each group will react to invading adventuring parties. It was not Gygax's intent for the monsters to stand around while a battle rages within earshot. The monsters sound alarms to bring in reinforcements and employ various tactics to counter those of the player characters. There are even notes on how each group of monsters will behave if the party leaves any survivors behind, but this is rare in my experience.

While there are suggestions of conflicts between the different groups of monsters inhabiting the Caves of Chaos, it is still difficult to imagine all of these monsters co-existing in such a small space. The space occupied by the Caves of Chaos is comparable to an apartment complex. Perhaps the evil cult exerts some influence on the other groups? In any event, internal politics exist in Caves of Chaos and can be exploited by the player characters. However, Gygax provided no mechanism for the DM to use to pass this information on to the players.

The Keep on the Borderlands may have prompted the earliest arguments about alignments and morality within the D&D setting. The various groups of humanoid monsters contain family units, including children, living with them. Their fate is entirely up to the players, but the module provides no advice to the DM on how to resolve the issue.

The module's text and art evoke strong imagery. Gygax's description of the party's journey to the Keep conveys the sense of leaving the safety of civilized lands behind for a dangerous wilderness. Erol Otis' piece on the back cover of the Keep - standing tall atop a hill as the party approaches it - suggests its role as a solitary bastion of law on the wild frontier. The Keep on the Borderlands has a raw quality found in many early RPG products. It lacks even a hint of professional polish, relying on unrefined energy and amateur enthusiasm to carry it forward.

There's no way I would run The Keep on the Borderlands for my current group of players. They are mostly veterans to the hobby and have been through it far too many times not to have it memorized. I've run homages, borrowing elements and breathing a little nostalgia into newer systems, but I haven't run the module directly for many years. If I ever had a group of players fresh to the hobby, I might run it. Maybe. It no longer holds any surprises, secrets, or lessons for me. It's place in my collection is as a touchstone to days long gone.

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