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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Retrospective: B2, Keep on the Borderlands

That B2, Keep on the Borderlands is perhaps, one of the most famous modules ever released for Dungeons & Dragons is hardly a surprise. For gamers of a certain age, for those that began play with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons box set, it was their introduction to both the game and gaming. For three years, between 1980 and 1982, it appeared in that boxed set, providing the base template for adventures to come as well as hours of play. Gary Gygax’s module holds a certain place in many a gamer’s heart, and has since been celebrated with a sequel, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands – released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition as part of TSR’s 25th Anniversary; a reprint as one of the modules included in the TSR Silver Anniversary Collector's Edition boxed set; and a revisit for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line as part of its in-store “Encounters Programme.” In addition, B2, Keep on the Borderlands appeared at position number seven on “The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” in issue one hundred and sixteen of Dungeon magazine – as described here.

Like those gamers, B2, Keep on the Borderlands was my starting module. I am not sure that I ever played it, but I certainly ran it, and it is the chance that I might run again – one player in my Monday night group not having played it, and neither has my partner, Louise – that spurred me to take another look at the module. So thus I dug out my copy of the adventure from the battered box that is my copy of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and found it to be in almost as worse a state as the box and rulebook are. It was definitely used, full of pencil marks, some of its pages separated, but everything was there. Whether or not I get a chance to run the scenario is moot, but in the meantime, I can at least give it my best thoughts and a review.

The setting for B2, Keep on the Borderlands is stated as simply and as clearly as possible in the title. It is set in a Keep – or castle, and said Keep does stand on the borderlands, in this case on the borderlands that lie between the civilised lands that comprise the Realm of Man and the wilderness beyond. Just as the Realm of Man has its bastion of civilisation in the region – in the form of said Keep, the forces of Chaos have their own stronghold, a network of caves and tunnels – the Caves of Chaos, dominating a ravine lying just two miles and over a hill away from the Keep. The intention is that young adventurers will travel to this border region, and using the Keep as their base of operations, strike out into the untamed wilderness beyond the walls of the lawful redoubt. Already, the adventurers know of the Caves of Chaos and armed with a rumour or two about the area, and have merely to finish equipping themselves and perhaps hire a henchman or two, before sallying forth.

The Caves of Chaos are almost literally up the road from the Keep. They consist of eleven cave complexes of varying size and complexity overlooking a steep ravine dotted with barren trees. The caves are themselves home to a variety of monstrous humanoids, from Kobolds and Goblins up through Orcs and Hobgoblins to Gnolls and Bugbears. At the rear of the ravine lies the Shrine to Evil Chaos, from within which the forces of, well Evil and Chaos, plot the downfall of the Realm of Man. The wilderness surrounding both the Keep and the Caves of Chaos is also home to numerous inhabitants, some of whom if encountered, will be as deadly a threat as any to be found in the Caves themselves.

Written for characters of first through third level, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is designed to work as an introductory module for both DM and players. It is for this reason that so much of the module is devoted to advice for running and playing the adventure. Naturally, the bulk of this advice, five-and-a-half pages of it, is for the DM’s eyes, whilst just half a page is given to the players. The focus of the advice is very much on running the mechanical elements of Dungeons & Dragons (be it Basic or Advanced, because B2, Keep on the Borderlands can easily be run with either version, and its simplicity does allow it to be run with most Retroclones too) – handling combat, time, the division of treasure and Experience Points, and so on.

As presented, the Keep is a microcosm of the society that it stands as the last bastion of civilisation. It has a bank, a guild house, a tavern, an inn, provisioners and traders, a chapel, and so on. The most noticeable fact about the Keep and its inhabitants is that none of them are named. They are purely known by their role – the barkeep, the smith, the priest, the clerk, and so forth. Almost as noticeable is that none of the rooms are described effectively or clearly, and it is up to the DM to extract and create these descriptions as much as it is up to him to supply the names of the men and women living at the Keep.

The Caves of Chaos possess the same problem, but the issue at the heart of this module’s design is its artificiality. The odd thing is that initially, the Caves of Chaos do not feel artificial. Whereas a dungeon is artificial because the deeper a party ventures, the greater a challenge it offers, B2, Keep on the Borderlands foregoes that in the sense that while the more challenging caves lie at the rear of the ravine, the party is free to wander into any cave mouth that it wants. So that a fearless party – or is that foolish? – could make its way up the ravine and enter the caves home to the Gnolls, the Hobgoblins, or the Shrine of Evil Chaos itself!

Yet the set-up of having the various humanoid races all crowded in on each other is artificial. Although the module suggests relationships between some of the tribes – an alliance between two and one stealing from another, for example, how the tribes came to be living in such close proximity and why they never turn on each other is never discussed. Similarly left undiscussed are the plans that the priests resident in the Shrine of Evil Chaos have on the Keep and its inhabitants. Nor does Gygax suggest what the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos do on a day-to-day basis beyond going out hunting; what they do as a whole in reaction to any incursion by marauding humans – the reactions of individual tribes are discussed, but not the faux community that is the Caves of Chaos; and what the Keep knows about the Caves of Chaos and it intends to do about them – after all, if the player characters know about them, why not the Castellan of the Keep?

Whilst the advice given for the DM is excellent by the standards of the time, by today’s standards it is lacking. What it ignores is story. There is very little atmosphere or plot to be found within the pages of B2, Keep on the Borderlands, though there are story and roleplaying hooks, such as a merchant being rumoured to have missing in the area scattered throughout the module. The lack of plot means that B2, Keep on the Borderlands is a very static affair, there being nothing to drive the adventurers deeper into the Caves of Chaos apart from the prospect of further treasure and Experience Points. Yet while some might decry the lack of plot and story, this absence leaves room aplenty for the DM to set up more of a story for his players and also leave room for him to have the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos react against the party’s incursions. Similarly, the scenario has abundant room for the DM to expand on the environment surrounding the Keep and the Caves of Chaos and so create his own material, and that is in addition to the Cave of the Unknown which is included in B2, Keep on the Borderlands and left up to the DM to develop. The question is, does the advice included in B2, Keep on the Borderlands help the DM deal with either issue? By the standards of either today or thirty years ago, the answer would be barely.

In recent months, I had to re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer as part of a book club. What is so readily apparent in that novel is how so much of the genre it engendered has since been adopted and subsumed into the mainstream such that for even readers new to the novel so many of its elements were familiar. In looking back at a module like B2, Keep on the Borderlands, there is a similar feeling. Its set up of a village – in this case, a Keep – threatened by an uncivilised peril is exceedingly familiar, and if you look at the adventures that have appeared since, from U1, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and “The Halls of Tizun Thane” in White Dwarf #18 through to Scourge of the Howling Horde for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and H1 Keep on the Shadowfall for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, then you will see it appear again and again. Whilst some might suggest that the earlier Gygax authored T1, The Village of Hommlet set this archetype up in 1979, the exposure to Dungeons & Dragons through the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set and its adventure, B2, Keep on the Borderlands, surely cemented it in gamers’ minds.

In truth, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is not my favourite module, but I have a certain regard for it as much as I consider its faults. Its set up is clear, simple, and familiar, to the extent that its challenge is not running the scenario, but in getting a story from its content with which the player characters can interact with. That challenge is born of the fact that ultimately, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is perhaps just a little too shallow. It needs depth and it needs explanation of its set-up, and as much as I want to run it as is, I would appreciate it all the more with more contemporary advice. I would like to see a version of B2, Keep on the Borderlands that updates and develops its set-up in this way, but that is unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, if I am given the opportunity to run the module, I will probably do it as is, in part because the players mentioned at the top of this piece should experience it that way as the author intended.