Friday, December 10, 2010

Reviews of Classic DnD Modules 1: (B2) The Keep on the Borderlands

B2 Keep on the Borderlands

Experiences and Reminisces: The Keep on the Borderlands was the first D&D module I ever owned, purchased in 1979. It was bundled with the “Blue Box” rules, the ones that took you character to level three and had dragon on the cover that was a pretty cheesy ripoff of Smaug from the Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit. I spent endless hours playing this scenario, mainly because it was the only one we had. Usually I gamed with just another friend or two, since the heyday of D&D was still a few years off, and only the seriously nerdy were willing to give the game a try. I still have my copy, covered in penciled notes in my shaky seventh-grade hand. The map of the keep and the lands around it, is worn so thoroughly that it looks and feels like rag paper. Curiously, I made no notes on or alteration to the map of the Caves of Chaos.

As much as I played this scenario with my friends, I have few recollections of actual game play. I remember rolling up characters in this period, and I remember moments from other adventures I played in middle school. This one is just a blur…oh, wait. I think I remember an encounter with the gelatinous cube. How sad is that?

What Made it Popular? Well, for a while, it was the only game in town. B1 (In Search of the Unknown) was hard to find, because it had been bundled with an earlier printing. The AD&D modules were just on the horizon, and I believe that S1 had just been published (Imagine if THAT was your first experience with D&D!). That said, I believe that a lot of gamers have a soft spot for B2 which goes beyond “You never forget your first one.” The Caves of Chaos are pretty much a hackfest. When you’re a nerdy twelve-year old kid, that’s pretty much all you want out of gaming (I remember endlessly sketching various types of polearms in my school books in those days). The setup for B2 was pretty simple: a safe base of operations, a fairly small and well-defined wilderness (only four encounters prepared, with the option for the DM to add more), and a rather unusual dungeon built around a box canyon, with a fairly clear hierarchy of difficulty laid out for the players. Many old hands like myself get misty for the days of “old school” gaming. Well this was it. No narrative for the DM to railroad his players through, no boxed text. Just kick in the door and kill the beasties.

Test of Time Some serious adaptation would have to be done to make B2 palatable for modern gamers. I never really understood the Keep when I was a wee one. None of the characters within have any personality of note. Indeed, they don’t even have names. It was years before I learned that “Castellan” was a title, not a man’s name. Unless players actually actively seek to cause trouble, nothing of interest will ever occur in the Keep. It’s just a place to resupply and…well…nothing.

The wilderness are needs to be shaken up to. There was an effort to add depth to the Borderlands in the “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” update, issued about a decade ago. It’s more than the number of potential encounters that the wilderness section needs. It’s the sense that it is completely unconnected to either the Keep or the Caves of Chaos. I mean, here we have to strongholds at war with each other, and neither one is active in the few miles of frontier that separate them? I find that hard to swallow.

And the Caves of Chaos are what they are. Few published adventures have lined up such a buffet table of humanoids, waiting for the slaughter. Some critics have pointed out that the mix of races and alignments would result in a violent (and probably rather short) clash. Those critics aren’t much fun. One could, of course, rationalize such a strange and strained political situation, as the authors of “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” did, by assuming that some higher power (such as the priests in the highest caves) is imposing order on the humanoids below to serve some nefarious scheme. But such adjustment is not necessary if B2 is run as what it was meant to be: an introductory module designed to teach new players the ropes. If the Caves have a weakness, it is in the monotony of the encounters. Fighting bands of humanoids is all well and good, but such fights dominate B2 to the near-exclusion of traps, puzzles, and more unusual monsters. Of course, a clever DM could add the opportunity to negotiate with the humanoids and throw in an occasional trap or riddle. A DM with experienced players would almost have to do that.

I always thought B2 would be an ideal setting for a fantasy setting of Feng Shui, the HK-style martial arts RPG. That game has rules for combats against large numbers of nameless mooks that might suit a romp through B2.

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