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Sunday, 3 April 2011

A New Keep on the Borderlands

Having looked at B2, The Keep on the Borderlands for Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, you would have thought that this mini-series would have ended there and then. After all, there is no version of the scenario available for the game’s current iteration, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. In which you would be absolutely correct, but also quite, quite wrong. Keep on the Borderlands, as it is now known, is not available to the general public and so cannot be found on the shelves of your local friendly gaming store. Rather it was made available via Wizards of the Coast’s in-store D & D Encounters official play program. This program is built around short campaigns or seasons consisting of several chapters, each chapter containing four sessions or Encounters. An Encounter is designed to take roughly two hours to play through with just the one encounter being played through each week. Thus a complete season should offer about twenty sessions of play. The aim of the program is not only to introduce both new and old players alike, but also to facilitate easier and more casual play. Hence the shorter playing time for each Encounter and the capacity for players to drop out one week and return another, presenting a version of the game for which less commitment is demanded of the players.

The other purpose of the Encounters Program is to promote particular releases from Wizards of the Coast. For example, the second Season of the Encounters Program tied in with the release of Dark Sun Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Similarly, the Keep on the Borderlands series – the third Season – fittingly ties in with the release the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line, in particular, Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Rules Compendium, since it takes the game back to the archetypal setting popularised by B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. It should be pointed out that this review is also being done in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast’s promotional efforts, though of the Encounters Program, rather than of the Keep on the Borderlands Season as a new Season of scenarios is now being run. The reason for my providing you with this information is because Wizards of the Coast is the only source of these scenarios and I had to ask for them directly. That said, entries from each season have appeared on eBay, but their relative rarity has made them collectible and means that their prices have been quite high. Anyway, I appreciate Wizards of the Coast giving me the chance to look at this particular season and so enable me to bring this mini-series of reviews to a logical conclusion.

Physically, each Encounters Season consists of several kits, one per chapter. So for example, the complete Keep on the Borderlands Season consists of five individual kits. The first or base kit comes with a few more bits and pieces than just a scenario. The first of these is a double-sided poster map that has two purposes. One side can be used to promote the Season’s regular sessions, whilst the other is used to track the Renown Points gained by each player over the course of the Season. Next is a set of six character sheets, done in full colour and double-sided. They include a Halfing Rogue, a Human Fighter, an Elf Sun Warpriest, a Human Storm Warpriest, a Dwarf Fighter, and just a single Eladrin Wizard. In general, these sheets are well done and easy to read, but it would have been nice to have a little background on each character from which their players could have roleplayed. In addition, there is a set of Delver Reward cards, earned during play and an Instruction Sheet. The latter describes the contents of the kit and how to use it, plus a blank character sheet and a tracking sheet for each session.

Also in the base kit is a set of twenty-seven On-going Damage Cards. Each of these is a Condition Card that can be used in both this Season and in a normal game of Dungeons & Dragons. They serve as the reward for the DMs who run this particular Season.

The scenario itself – and every Chapter after – comes in the traditional folder format. The card cover contains the twenty-page black and white booklet that is the actual adventure and a full colour poster map that folds out to show the four locations the chapter’s four Encounters. The maps are also reprinted on the inside of the card cover, though in black and white rather than colour. A set of player character, monster, trap, and condition token are provided to use with the poster map.

Playing through the Keep on the Borderlands Encounters Season not only earns the player characters rewards in the traditional sense – gold, Experience Points, and magical items, all of which are listed at the start of each chapter, but also Renown Points. These are awarded to the players for actions in the game and out of it. For example, five Renown Points are awarded if a player creates his own character for the Season; three for completing an Encounter; and one each for reviving an ally, killing three enemy minions in one attack, hitting a single enemy for fifteen or more damage, and so on. Once a player has accrued twenty Renown Points he is given one of the Delver Reward cards. These can be used once per subsequent Encounter to grant the user’s character a bonus to his next roll as well as a slightly better bonus to an ally character. Later on the Season, a DM will be able to hand out other rewards, but these do not come in the base kit.

The setting for this Season’s campaign, more properly known as Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents, is the Chaos Scar. It is detailed both here in the first scenario and in Dungeon #176, though this article includes both that information and a better version of the area map given in the booklet. The region has been scarred in ages past by a starfall, and the barren strip has since become home to caves and monsters, a cult devoted to Tiamat, and other dangers. The module references the town of Fallcrest, so the Chaos Scar is located within travel distance of the Nentir Vale first described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Where exactly the Keep of this adventure is located in relation to the Chaos Scar is not made clear, as it is not marked on the map, but can only be a short distance away as the player characters move between the Keep and the Chaos Scar and back again, with some regularity. That said, the Chaos Scar itself is roughly shaped like a hemispherical amphitheatre, so it is not unlike the shape and structure of the ravine that is the Caves of Chaos in both B2, Keep on the Borderlands and Return to the Keep on the Borderlands.

The Keep in Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents is “Restwell Keep,” rumoured to have once been the home to bandits, a dragon, hobgoblins, and more. Of late it has been take over by a paladin, Lord Drysdale, who hopes to restore order over its previous lawfulness, and this has caused some friction with the inhabitants that have been there for a while. The player characters arrive in the traditional fashion that is, having worked as caravan guards. Once there, they find themselves in the employ of a local friar and herbalist, Benwick. A popular local man around Restwell Keep, he shares his concerns with the adventurers that cultists devoted to Tiamat have found a home in Restwell Keep and threaten both its future and that of its inhabitants. Benwick wants the adventurers’ help in routing out the cult and its members at the Keep, and to that end, has them perform a number of short tasks, including rescuing a spy within the cult and confronting the chief cultist at the Keep, the banker and self-confessed ex-thief, Ferdinand Ronnik. Although the adventurers will not confront Ronnik in the four Encounters laid out in the base kit, they will at least be on his trail by the end of the fourth.

There is a pleasing progression to the kits. In the four Encounters of the first kit, the adventurers visit a series of separate places, whereas in the second kit, they get to delve into their first dungeon which is comprised of three Encounters and does involve an actual dragon. By the third chapter, the adventurers are expected to be second level and thus ready to enter a testing dungeon located below Restwell Keep – something that never in previous iterations of the module. A major plot twist also occurs at the end of this Chapter, forcing the adventurers to change allegiance and sending them off into the Chaos Scar in search of their former ally, all before rushing back to help save Keep Restwell in the fifth Chapter. By now third level, the characters will find themselves deeply involved this cinematic defence, and should have accrued enough Renown Points earn an Adventurer Reward card each. This card can be used once per session to re-roll an At-Will or Encounter attack roll.

Each of the Encounters consists of a set-up scene and a combat scene, the latter making use of the poster map. The set-up scenes usually provide situations where the players can roleplay, and while most of the actual Encounters focus on combat, one of them does involve a skill challenge. The short nature of each session in the Encounters Program means that they are also very direct and straightforward. While two hours is the given play time for each session, divorce them of the Encounters Program and it would be easy enough for a normal gaming group to play through two of the Encounters in three hours.

In comparison with earlier iterations of the setting, Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents is very light in terms of detail. In fact, the Keep is barely described, the half page of details folded in with descriptions of the major NPCs and the immediate region around the Keep, and its best description is actually the view of it given from above. This should not be seen as a design flaw, but as part of the format and purpose of the Encounters Program. With B2, Keep on the Borderlands, it was a case of the DM having to extract a story from the contents of the scenario, whereas, with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, the DM had to pick and choose the elements he wanted, otherwise the degree of detail threatened to overwhelm his running of the module. The aim in Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents is very much on giving the players an experience and in the process, tell the story provided in the Encounters right through to its heroically rousing ending. The end result is that Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents is the lightest, yet most straightforward and direct version of the setting to date.