Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Another Keep on the Borderlands

Hell’s Throat is a seventeen-mile long river gorge that cuts through the Krond Heights. In the past century it has been used as means for orc and goblin tribes to invade settled lands of the city-state of P’Bapar below. A decade ago, a great confederation of Orc tribes flooded through the pass and sacked the keep that had been built on an island above Tanara Falls. In response, the Earl of Reyifor constructed Frandor’s Keep, a larger and more impressive fort intended to monitor and curtail any further incursions down Hell’s Throat, on the same site. In the years since, it has become a base for hunters and trappers, lumberjacks and prospectors, as well as a focus for bandits and thieves and orcs and goblins that have snuck into the region to prey upon the merchant traffic that passes through the Borderlands to Frandor’s Keep and back again. Such is the threat that they represent that the Earl has established a bounty on the heads of all non-humans and non-demi-humans in the region. In the keep itself and in Quarrytown—the shantytown outside it—rumours abound of ghosts on Hell’s Throat Trail, of missing trappers, and more…

Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure is a mini-campaign setting for HackMaster Basic published by Kenzer & Co in 2009. One reason that I did not review it at the time was because of how irritated I was by certain parts of HackMaster Basic, though my intention had been to review it as part of the mini-series of reviews devoted to B2, Keep on the Borderlands. Putting aside my dislike of HackMaster Basic—or least certain parts of it—I finally picked up Frandor’s Keep and decided that I wanted to review it. The good news is that I was more than pleasantly surprised by how good it is.

Designed for characters of levels one through five, Frandor’s Keep takes its cue from the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons scenario, B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Its set-up is that of a lonely outpost located in the hinterland between civilisation and orc or goblin infested wilderness. Unbeknownst to the soldiery and inhabitants of the keep, dangers lie close by and a serious threat is readying itself to sack the keep and sweep down on the civilised lands—just as the orcs and goblins did years ago. It is to this keep that the adventurers will come and in the course of interacting with its inhabitants will learn rumours and pick up small tasks that will eventually lead them to not only uncovering this threat, but thwarting it too. So saving the keep, its inhabitants, and the civilised lands behind the keep.

Much of Frandor’s Keep’s one-hundred-and forty-four pages are devoted to describing the keep’s history and the region around it, before focusing specifically on the keep itself. The setting is that of the Kingdoms of Kalamar, Kenzer & Co.’s house setting for HackMaster. Thus it moves from B’Par to the Earldom of Reyifor to the vicinity of Frandor’s Keep and the series of watch towers mounted on the peaks above Hell’s Throat. Frandor’s Keep really consists of two locations. The first is Quarrytown, the former quarry the mined stone from which was used to build the keep, the second the keep itself. No longer mined, Quarrytown has become a shantytown, home to outcasts from Frandor’s Keep itself, its continued existence allowed by the Earl so that he can keep an eye on its inhabitants. It is a lawless place, though a gang known as the Ravens maintain order and exact taxes of their own. The Ravens serve as the supplement’s primary antagonists.

Frandor’s Keep consists of an Outer Bailey, Lower Bailey, Middle Bailey, and Upper Bailey. Its various buildings and inhabitants are described in some detail, but the buildings themselves are not individually mapped. Two aspects of the supplement stand out throughout the descriptions given. The first of these aspects is the book’s cartography. Where possible, an isomorphic view is given of the layout of the buildings. This provides a three dimensional view of the buildings, the effect being to make them stand out and bring them to life. The other maps in the supplement are clear and simple, but lack the sophistication. The second aspect is effort made to integrate the NPCs into the setting of Frandor’s Keep. This is done through their knowledge of the keep and its surrounds—several lists of rumours and commonly known information being included in the bok, and by providing story hooks designed to get the players and their involved in the life and events of the keep and its surrounds. Each is also accompanied by a story award of several Experience Points.

For example, when the adventurers enter the keep for the first time, they see a man manacled to the pillory. He is a hunter who has been whipped because it believed that he committed a murder—he brought in the head of his victim saying that it was that of a centaur in order to claim the bounty placed by the Earl of Reyifor on the heads of non-human humanoids. If the adventurers can find the body of the centaur and prove to the officials at the keep that hunter was telling the truth, then they will have gained an ally and earned themselves 200 Experience Points.

Opportunities for story awards are seeded throughout the supplement. As long as the players engage their characters in the setting beyond the desire loot and pillage—though there is opportunity to do that too—all the GM has to do is work them into the game and the events of the campaign should all but drive the play of game forward. This is in addition to six named, larger encounters in the book and three multi-session adventures that round it out. Of these three, it is the first—‘The Ransom’—that stands out and is the most interesting. The other two, ‘The Kobold Brambles’ and ‘Mine of the Goblin King’, feel like more traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures and are not quite so tightly bound into the setting of Frandor’s Keep. Lastly, player characters from the keep and up to one of the watch towers overlooking Hell’s Throat. Both The Mysterious Shrine and White Palette, Ivory Horns are available for free, whilst In the Realm of the Elm King serves a similar function and is available for purchase.

Physically, Frandor’s Keep is well presented. It is clean and tidy, and reasonably illustrated in a fairly simplistic style. Bar a single map of the greater region that lacks detail, the maps in the book uniformly good. What is particularly pleasing after having read and reviewed HackMaster Basic, is that the writing is straight and to the point. There is none of the silliness and missed opportunities that marred the pages of that book.

Still, Frandor’s Keep is not perfect. Both ‘The Kobold Brambles’ and ‘Mine of the Goblin King’ could have been better woven into the campaign built around the keep and lastly, it is missing the one element key to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and its various iterations—that is the equivalent of the feared Caves of Chaos. That equivalent is actually the Mines of Chaos as described in the adventure supplement, The Mines of Chaos. Intended for use with higher level characters and HackMaster Fifth Edition, the sad news is that five years after the publication of Frandor’s Keep, its sequel campaign is yet to see print.

Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure lives up to subtitle. It works very hard to involve the players and their adventurers in what is a low fantasy setting—one that could easily ported over to another setting or ruleset, the Kingdoms of Kalamar not being absolutely necessary to play through Frandor’s Keep. It works hard to involve the adventurers and it presents them with plenty of story and plenty of opportunity to create stories. It is this that makes the HackMaster Basic iteration of B2 Keep on the Borderlands a surprisingly mature and contemporary approach to a classic set-up and format.