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Friday 20 September 2019

'B2' Series: B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands

The reputation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Yet before that, another publisher would revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands not once, but twice. The second time was in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure, but the first was in 2002, with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4, upon which Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure was based.

Like B1 In Search of the Unknown before it, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is written for use with written for with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, Kenzer & Company’s retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, but ultimately derived from the parody of Dungeons & Dragons played by the characters of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. (A review of HackMaster Basic, the introductory rules to HackMaster, Fifth Edition can be found here.) Where B1 Quest for the Unknown is not a parody of B1 In Search of the Unknown, so B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is not a parody of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Like B1 Quest for the Unknown it is rather, a mostly faithful adaptation from Basic Dungeons & Dragons to HackMaster, Fourth Edition—and more. In B1 Quest for the Unknown that more was only slightly more; in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, that more is a whole lot more!

Beyond the obvious pink colouring of the trade dress—an obvious nod to B2 Keep on the Borderlands—the first thing that you notice about B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is the size. The original B2 Keep on the Borderlands was a mere thirty-two pages, but at one-hundred-and-forty-four pages, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is over four-and-a-half times the length. That sounds like a lot, but actually, some fifty of those pages consist of detachable Battle Sheets listing the stats for the various NPCs, monsters, and creatures, along with the ImageQuest Adventure Illustrator. The latter is a set of seventeen images which the Game Master is prompted to show the players when their characters come upon a particular scene or locale, much like S1 Tomb of Horrors and the other scenarios in the ‘S’ series. Instead, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is about two-and-a-half time the length of the original. The other noticeable thing about B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is the cover, which depicts a rather bloody encounter between a group of adventurers and an Owlbear. Like the cover to B1 Quest for the Unknown, this is a rather grisly cover and hints at things to come inside the cover of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands. The back cover though, lovingly recreates the actual cover of B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

The set-up for B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands will be familiar to many. 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. The likelihood is that this will take multiple sessions of play and multiple excursions from the Keep out into the wilderness, and certainly, the scenario’s Level range of 1–4 lends itself to that…

In fact, as written, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is really designed for characters of Second to Fourth Level. Now the scenario can be run and played as an introduction to HackMaster, Fourth Level, with the player characters having made their way from civilisation to have their adventure and make their first mark on the frontier. Really though, the intent is that the Game Master will have run and the player characters completed B1 Quest for the Unknown first. After the events inside Quasqueton—and this is not the only link between B1 Quest for the Unknown and B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands—it is inferred that they will have fled into the wilderness and after wandering in the region for a while, will have finally have come across one last bastion of civilisation. Which of course, is Frandor’s Keep, standing on an island atop the Tan’Gra Falls. 

The first quarter of the actual content in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is devoted to describing Frandor’s Keep and its inhabitants, a history of the region, and more. The history places Frandor’s Keep and the surrounding region in HackMaster’s ‘Garweeze Wurld’ setting—as opposed to the Kingdoms of Kalamar of Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure—hinting in particular why the inhabitants and soldiery of the keep have little or no idea as to the existence of the nearby Mines of Chaos. Located in the valley known as Hell’s Throat, the keep has protected a major access route down to the civilised and so has been targeted by Orcs again and again. They have successfully laid waste to the keep and so presumably the knowledge was lost… 

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. Fans of Glorantha and Apple Lane (and thus RuneQuest) will enjoy the inclusion of Gwindle’s Pawnshop, but the keep is also home to a jewel merchant, a charter house for all guilds—including adventuring party guilds, a fortune teller, traders of various skill levels and demeanour, taverns of varying character and price, and more. There is a wide variety of NPCs here for the player characters to interact with, which ideally will ultimately be with the Keep’s commandant if they are of good character. Further, these are fun NPCs for the Game Master to portray and roleplay. Mixed in with this is a notice board of announcements and job adverts—also available as a ImageQUEST illustration so that the players have a handout—that should provide various story hooks and links into the scenario. One aspect of the set-up in Frandor’s Keep that some may find disquieting is an institutional distrust of Demi-Humans—Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, and Pixie Fairies—are begrudgingly tolerated, but Half-Orcs, Half-Ogres, and Grel are not and refused entry. Except if they are bounty hunters, and that means bounty hunting on Orcs, Lizardmen, and other Demi-Humans. In fact, the player characters could make some money by handing in Demi-Human ears…

Beyond the walls of Frandor’s Keep, the surrounding area is lightly sketched out. The Caverns of Quasqueton—as detailed in B1 Quest for the Unknown—are marked, as are various other adventure sites not detailed in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, but elsewhere. Just a few locations are detailed in the campaign supplement, perhaps the most fun of them being a nice little nod to the cover of the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. This again sets up another plot strand, but one that lurks in the background of the campaign, rather than the one that is ongoing in the keep.

Of course, half of the actual content of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is dedicated to the infamous Mines of Chaos, home to a plethora of Demi-Human tribes, including Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, and Bugbears, just as in the original scenario. In comparison to the original module, the Mines of Chaos have been switched to run West to East rather than East to West, with several of the individual complexes split across two levels. Then below that there is another series of caverns. The individual tribal complexes will be familiar to anyone who knows the previous versions of the module. This does not mean that there are not differences. The most obvious is in the individual location descriptions, which start with detailed lists of the location’s contents in terms of their monetary value and denizens in terms of their Experience Point value. Basically, these work as checklists for the benefit of the Game Master who can return to each location after her player characters have explored it and then work out how many Experience Points they have earned and what goods and items they have discovered. The other major change is to the temple of evil, which here is tied into ‘Garweeze Wurld’ with the substitution of the Shrine of the Ape Gawd, served by several Ape priests. Throughout though, there is plenty of flavourful description, a great deal of effort is put into making the tribes different—the various slogans of the disciplined Hobgoblins are hilarious, and many of the monsters are given motivations and personalities, so that as much as HackMaster is a roleplaying game of ‘dungeon hacking’, it is also possible to interact with many of the inhabitants of the Mines of Chaos rather than hack at them.

The other connection between B1 Quest for the Unknown and B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is an NPC, Melanee. Like B1 Quest for the Unknown, she does not actually appear in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, but Melanee her presence and influence in Frandor’s Keep has consequences which will affect everyone in the keep, including the Player Characters. Having fled Quasqueton, abandoning her former boyfriend in favour of his henchman, she has dumped him, taken up with the commandant of Frandor’s Keep, made him pay for the luxury to which she is accustomed, and is now on extended ‘holiday’ in the nearest big city… Her plot intersects with another ongoing plot in the scenario and the consequences ripple all the way through the adventure. If anyone had sympathies for Melanee after playing through B1 Quest for the Unknown, the likelihood is that they will have evaporated after learning of her exploits at Frandor’s Keep.

Physically, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is an impressive book. The contents are clean and tidy and in general, well written. The book includes a detailed index and barring the ImageQUEST illustrations is lightly illustrated, some of it having a rather cartoon-like quality. The maps, although readable, are a little cramped and it would have been nice if the area map around the Mines of Chaos had been produced larger so that the Game Master could better understand the relationship between the two levels of the various cave and mine networks. Of course, all of the stats, maps, and the ImageQUEST illustrations are neatly organised ready for the Game Master to pull out of the book should she so desire.

In comparison to earlier interpretations of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the tone of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is more mature and does involve content of a more adult, even prurient nature. They include elements of necrophagy and male rape, which are likely to sit uncomfortablely in today’s gaming culture. It should be noted that B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands lacks the sheen of the scenario it is based on—and similar adventures, and many locations, especially the Mines of Chaos, are mucky, dirty, and vile. This is reflected in there being an increased chance of the adventurers of catching diseases from the unclean locations detailed in the pages of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands.

As much as B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is based upon B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the adventure it feels like it draws from more heavily is Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, primarily because of the detailed and named NPCs at the keep and because of the stronger story threads that run throughout B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands. Not as strong or as well handled as they are in the subsequent Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure, but they are present. B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands also feels quite self-contained—despite the links to B1 Quest for the Unknown—primarily because of the tight network of valleys that represent the playing region in comparison to the more open nature of the playing region in B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands greatly develops B2 Keep on the Borderlands, filling in a great many of the details, in particular, fully populating and naming the many notable NPCs residing at Frandor’s Keep. It also adds strong plotlines to the scenario’s exploratory and combat elements, which all together provide quite a lot of strong play over the course of the player characters’ first four Levels. The module does lack the advice of B1 Quest for the Unknown, but as much as it is designed as an introductory module, the Game Master may need a little experience under her belt—and may well have got that running B1 Quest for the Unknown.

Now of course, in terms of the Old School Renaissance, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands has been surpassed by Goodman Games’ more recent Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and were a Game Master to want to run a version of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, that would probably be the obvious choice. Were a Game Master be interested in examining a developed version of B2 Keep on the Borderlands then perhaps B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands might be of interest to her. Ultimately though, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is a HackMaster scenario first and foremost—and a suitable first exploration and combat adventure, plus quite a lot of plot, for that roleplaying game.

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