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Saturday, 28 September 2019

'B2' Series: JN1 The Chaotic Caves

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 until the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and then Goodman Games with Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands, which covered both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands, it would be other publishers who would revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Kenzer & Company visited it not once, but twice. First with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4 in 2002, and then again in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure. Another publisher to revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands was Chris Gonnerman, with a scenario written for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

The Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a retro-clone based on Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons from the early eighties, but with some changes. Most notably, they include d20 System-style ascending armor class and the separation of character race and class. The fantastic thing is that the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is free to download, as are the various scenarios available for it. Further, even in print, both the roleplaying game and the scenarios are inexpensive, so that for £10, a gaming group can have a copy of the core rules and one or two scenario books, representing numerous sessions of play. Arguably, the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game offers one of the cheapest options for getting into the Old School Renaissance. JN1 The Chaotic Caves: A Basic Fantasy RPG Adventure Series For Characters of Levels 1-3 is one such scenario. It is written by J.D. Neal and is an adaptation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands to the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, who would later revisit X1 Isle of Dread with JN2 Monkey Isle—itself recently adapted to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition in Original Adventures Reincarnated #2: The Isle of Dread and G1–3 Against the Giants with JN3 Saga of the Giants.

JN1 The Chaotic Caves: A Basic Fantasy RPG Adventure Series For Characters of Levels 1-3 presents a very familiar set-up: a bastion of civilisation on or just beyond the frontier, a wilderness area home to various threats, most notably an outpost of evil.  In B2 Keep on the Borderlands, these are the eponymous keep and the infamous Caves of Chaos. In JN1 The Chaotic Caves, they are an unnamed town and the eponymous Chaotic Caves. In fact, much like most of the NPCs and monsters in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, those in JN1 The Chaotic Caves also remain unnamed. Similarly, the town is not named either. The town itself is a rough, though not lawless place. Behind its wooden barricade—a stonemason has been hired to replace it with a stone wall, but in the meantime, the town is vulnerable—it maintains a garrison of troops and is home to farmers and smallholders, lumberjacks and hunters, traders and craftsmen. There is even a tax collector and a barber. What with that and the number of widows, maiden aunts, and even old coot with a penchant for telling fanciful stories, the town does not really feel like a fantasy town. It has the feel of a town in the Wild West. All it would need is the addition of a coffin maker and that impression would be complete! In fact, with a tweak or three, the unnamed town in JN1 The Chaotic Caves would work well with Pelgrane Press’ Owl Hoot Trail.

Beyond the town’s wooden barricade, JN1 The Chaotic Caves provides a large area map, covering over two thousand square miles. The area is not overly populated, there being an encounter table, plus six locations, ranging from an abandoned Halfling burrow and bandits on the road to a man bothered by a boar and a ruined castle. These are all quite restrained in nature, but offer a nice mix of roleplaying, exploration, and combat encounters. Of course, the area being fairly large means that there is room enough for the Dungeon Master to add more locations as she sees fit. One of these is the Chaotic Caves. Some eight lairs are detailed as running off the narrow valley containing these caves, their being home to Bandits, Bugbears, Goblins, Gnolls, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, Lizard Men, and Orcs, as well as an abandoned cave system. Noticeable amongst this list of lair dwellers are the Bandits and Lizard Men, their being included as denizens of the Chaotic Caves in JN1 The Chaotic Caves rather than living elsewhere in the wilderness surrounding the town, as in the original B2 Keep on the Borderlands.  

In comparison to the town, the Caves of Horror are quite well detailed. In particular, there is a lovely, if underplayed, nod to the cover of the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition; there are potential roleplaying encounters too, whether with wily Goblin priests, surly bandit prisoners, and prisoners of all sorts to be found and released; and the various locations are decently described. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone who has read or run B2 Keep on the Borderlands, so for example, the Kobolds are reviled as little more than vermin and the Ogre’s brawn is available for sale. There are though, two notable omissions. The first is the adult tone of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its later iterations, so as written the Lizard Men lair is strewn with bones, but the bones of animals rather than the skulls, femurs, and ribs of humans and other demi-humans. This is because JN1 The Chaotic Caves is written to be child friendly in play, but for the Dungeon Master there is the suggested option to include them. The second is the exclusion of the Shrine of Evil Chaos which lies at the heart of B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

Instead, there is an Abandoned Manor. This sits to the west of and above the Chaotic Caves—just off the map—and actually has the feel of the keep from B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but on a much smaller scale, inhabited by forces preparing to fall upon the nearby town and ransack it. As the finale to the campaign, this is neither as evil or as constrained as the Shrine of Evil Chaos. The latter consisted of a relatively small number of rooms, but this is a large, fortified manor, manned by several fighters and is the headquarters of the bandit forces looking to build their own empire in the region. They are evil with a small ‘e’ rather than the ‘EVIL’ of the Shrine of Evil Chaos, but rather mundane and not as interesting as the priests, acolytes, and artefacts of the Shrine of Evil Chaos. The inclusion of the bandits and the abandoned manor does not readily and clearly explain the reason why the various Demi-Human species are residing cheek-by-jowl in the Chaotic Chaos—learning that simply from exploring the abandoned manor is not as interesting and not as easy. That said, the inclusion of the abandoned manor and its inhabitants is in keeping with the toning down of the ‘adult’ tone of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which was done earlier in the module with the Lizard Men,

The constrained nature of Shrine of Evil Chaos in B2 Keep on the Borderlands made its exploration more measured, but in JN1 The Chaotic Caves, the likelihood is that the player characters will come upon the abandoned manor, get attacked, and wonder why… Then when they go to investigate further, the inhabitants will quickly react to their intrusion, making this a potentially deadly encounter.

Physically, JN1 The Chaotic Caves is well presented and well written. A nice touch is that like all monsters and NPCs for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, those for this module have their Hit Points marked in boxes for the easy marking of. It is lightly illustrated, but what artwork there is, is decent. The one real issue, physically, is the size of the map of the Chaotic Caves is too small to read with ease.

JN1 The Chaotic Caves: A Basic Fantasy RPG Adventure Series For Characters of Levels 1-3 certainly packs equally as much adventure into its pages as B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but with room enough for the Dungeon Master to add her own. Much like the original, it does suffer from a lack of story to pull the player characters into the adventure and in part, the replacement of the Shrine of Evil Chaos with the abandoned manor and the bandits does not help in that, since ultimately, the motivations at the heart of the adventure are somewhat opaque. Nevertheless, JN1 The Chaotic Caves is a charming homage to B2 Keep on the Borderlands, offering an inexpensive means to play the classic adventure.

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