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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Retrospective: Return to the Keep on the Borderlands

Having taken you back thirty years for a retrospective of B2, Keep on the Borderlands, it all but behoves this reviewer to move on two decades to examine that classic module’s sequel. Published in 1999, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was released at time when TSR was still TSR, but had by that time been owned by Wizards of the Coast for two years. With its all silver trade dress, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was part of a series of modules that included Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff, Dragonlance Classics, and Return to White Plume Mountain, which were in turn, revisited, revised, and updated. This time frame firmly places all of the modules in the era of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, never the most popular of Dungeons & Dragons’ iterations, and being so late in that game’s era, it means that there is a degree of detail not to be found in the module’s forebear. In fact, if there is one element that stands out in Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, it is its degree of detail.

Beyond the silver trade dress, what strikes you first about Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is its comparative physicality. At sixty-four pages, it is double the length of the original, its front cover is not only in full colour, but done in a more realistic style. Inside the cover folder, the original map has been upgraded to full colour with more detail, and as to the booklet, not a single page is wasted. There is information on every page. That said, the cover artwork looks odd, and the internal artwork is variable in quality.

Like the original though, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is still designed for a party of first through third level characters. Instead of updating the setting so that higher level characters could return to the scene of their first forays as adventurers – and that remains an untapped possibility, and would in a sense have been an actual sequel – it has been updated and reworked to take account of twenty years of in-game history. In other words, it presents the titular Keep and the nearby Caves of Chaos twenty years after adventurers first struck at the evil residing just beyond the border of civilisation, so giving it time to recover and make plans anew for the inhabitants of said Keep. The idea at the heart of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is that its player characters have journeyed to the area to make names for themselves after having heard of the legends created from the play through of B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. This possibility lends itself to the idea that the original adventurers would be the parents of the new.

Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is structured much in the same way as B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. It opens with a few pages of advice aimed at the novice DM, the most notable of which suggests that the DM hand out Experience Points for treasure gained, a rule to be found in Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition rather than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, and so at odds with emphasis placed on story awards in the latter game. The issue here is that it is also at odds with the intent behind Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Is it an exercise in nostalgia or a module written for the beginning DM? If the former, then the inclusion of this rule is acceptable, but if the latter, then the rule is for the wrong game system as opposed for the one it is written for. In either case, it would have been better if story awards had been included as well.

The second section details the Keep itself, and it is here that the module first shows the wealth of development that comes after twenty years. The most obvious change is that every single one of the NPCs that inhabitant the Keep is named, whereas in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands this was not the case. From this naming process, we learn who founded the Keep and its history, and what has changed since the last time adventurers passed through the region. The political situation is also very different. In B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, the Keep was obviously part of a feudal and mercantile system, but here in the sequel, it can become more commune-like, and more democratic. In addition to naming every NPC, the module details their motivations and aims; goes into detail as who knows about the Caves of Chaos and what they know; gives plots or storylines that play out as the player characters return to the Keep after each foray out into the surrounding wildness; and NPCs that the player characters can hire as henchmen, become replacement player characters, or form a rival party of adventurers. What is interesting about the design of these NPCs is that they each have flaw written into them which means that as henchmen makes them unsuitable to lead the party, and if properly played, from the DM dominating the player characters.

What is implicit in the description of the Keep is that the Keep and its inhabitants are under threat from the denizens to be found at the Caves of Chaos in the surrounding areas. A slow growing threat to be sure, but a threat nonetheless, and if the player characters fail to thwart the evil efforts of the Caves of Chaos, then the likelihood is that the clerics there will eventually amass enough undead to overwhelm the meagre defences of the Keep.

The wilderness beyond the Keep has also undergone a redesign and a restock. Many of the previous inhabitants of the forests, river, and swamp that either side of the road that the Keep stands on have retreated, smarting at the efforts of the adventurers in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. To these are added refugees from the Caves of the Chaos, encounters with the undead and variations upon classic Dungeons & Dungeons creatures, and many of the previous inhabitants of the forests, river, and swamp that either side of the road that the Keep stands on have retreated, smarting at the efforts of the adventurers in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. To these are added refugees from the Caves of the Chaos, encounters with the undead and variations upon classic Dungeons & Dungeons creatures, and then actual encounters tied into what is going on at the Caves of Chaos. Some of these encounters quite deadly, even for third level characters, let alone for new player playing through his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. That said, not every encounter has to end in a fight, and the region is home to potential allies in addition to its many foes.

One significant change to the surrounding area is the removal of the “Cave of the Unknown,” an unmapped area that was left up to the DM to create and develop. Here it has been turned into simple alternative entrance to the nearby Caves of Chaos.

As with B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, the description of the Caves of Chaos makes up the bulk of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. As with the rest of the module it has undergone a major redesign, though not in layout. Barring a labyrinth that runs around and connects each of the individual cave systems, nothing has been added to the physical layout. Instead, the inhabitants and contents of the caves have been greatly changed. The most obvious effect of this is to break up the artificiality of Caves of Chaos in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands that had innumerable humanoid tribes crammed into this small area. The original module never explained the reasons for this, but its sequel uses it as the basis to present both the changes and evidence of the plot being worked from within The Hidden Temple.

What is again evident in every entry for the caves is the wealth of detail that the author has brought to them. In comparison, the write up of these locations in the original B2, The Keep on the Borderlands are starkly empty, barely described, and all but bland. Similarly, every creature or group of creatures is brought to life with fears and motivations as well as courses of action that you wish had been present in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. For example, the reactions of the Kobolds in the original are barely described, but in the sequel, their tactics are given in detail, including the traps and tricks that they will use against any intruders. Both traps and tricks are highly inventive; for the players and their characters, cruel; and for the DM, actually cruel and funny, such that it is clear that the author had fun writing them. Similarly, there is an obvious ghoulish delight in describing some of the new denizens, all of which fit in with the plans hatched within the corridors of The Hidden Temple.

Perhaps the oddest factor about Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is its choice of placement and its gods. The module’s back cover clearly states that the Keep is located in the World of Greyhawk, but B2, The Keep on the Borderlands was never placed there, so why the change? And if so changed, why not state where the Keep is actually located? All of which should have been irrelevant because B2, The Keep on the Borderlands was always intended as a generic module. None of this confusion is helped in the choice of the gods worshiped by the clerics in the Hidden Temple – Erishkigal and Nergal, both of which are Babylonian gods and not from the World of Greyhawk.

There is a lot to like in Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. It does an excellent job of updating the original, fleshing it out a great deal, and adding innumerable story elements. Yet despite its intentions, it fails to be a suitable adventure for the beginning DM. There is just too much detail contained in its pages such that it could overwhelm the neophyte. Yet if the DM can handle the degree of detail, this can be an excellent adventure and one that will take the adventurers beyond third level.