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Monday 27 February 2023

‘B2’ Series: Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion

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 since then, Wizards of the Coast has all but ignored B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the module that preceded it, B1 In Search of the Unknown, barring the publisher’s 2012 Dungeon Module B2 The Caves of Chaos: An Adventure for Character Levels 1-3. This was the playtest scenario for D&D Next, first seen in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which was essentially previewing what would go on to become Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Instead, it would be other publishers who would revisit both scenarios in the twenty-first century. So Kenzer & Company first published B1 Quest for the Unknown, a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown for use with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, and would follow it up with not one, but two versions of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. 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 JN1 The Chaotic Caves, a scenario written for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. In addition, Faster Monkey Games published its own homage to B1 In Search for the Unknown with The Hidden Serpent, whilst Pacesetter Games & Simulations has published a number of extra encounters and sequels for both scenarios, most notably B1 Legacy of the Unknown and B2.5 Blizzard on the Borderland.

Yet Wizards of the Coast did not ignore its extensive back catalogue. It would release numerous titles in PDF, and even allow Print on Demand reprints, including both B1 In Search of the Unknown and ;B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Further, in 2017, it published Tales from the Yawning Portal, a collection of scenarios that had originally been published for previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and even D&D Next. These scenarios though, did not include either B1 In Search of the Unknown or B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Which upon first glance seemed a strange omission, but then came the announcement from Goodman Games about Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands.

Arguably, Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands would prove to be the ultimate version of the classic module, but authors have continued to revisit the original even since such as with the fanzine version from Swordfish Islands LLC, which so far consists of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2. Yet there remain oft forgotten visits to the famous ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ and the equally infamous, ‘Caves of Chaos’, which are worth examining and shining light upon. For example, Warriors of the Gray Lady’ is a prequel to Return to the Keep of the Borderlands by Jeff Grub, but there have also been expansions to B2 Keep on the Borderlands. It is often forgotten that the infamous Caves of Chaos are not the only cavern system to be found in the region. Located in the large unforested area between the Caves of Chaos and the eponymous keep are the Caves of the Unknown, mislabelled on the wilderness map as the ‘Cave of the Unknown’. This is mentioned twice in the module. Once on page 12 where it says, “The Caves of the Unknown area is left for you to use as a place to devise your own cavern complex or dungeon maze.” and then again, in location #51, in the ‘Shrine of Evil Chaos’, where a “Boulder Filled Passage” can lead to the Cave of the Unknown. Left up to the Dungeon Master to design and detail, one option has been to simply insert the Caverns of Quasqueton from B1 In Search of the Unknown and this was the option chosen for Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. However, other designers have embraced Gygax’s advice in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and created their own dungeons to fill this spot. Perhaps the earliest was Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion, published by Usherwood Publishing in 2013, but it would be followed by others, including RC Pinnell, who has a history of writing sequels to classic Dungeons & Dragons modules, would release his own version at about the same time as Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands was published.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is written for use with both Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and OSRIC, or ‘Old School Reference and Index Compilation’, the retroclone based upon Advanced Dungeons & Dragons originally published in 2006. It is part of the publisher’s ‘High-Adventure from Middle-School’ line of adventures designed to ape the style and look of the adventures that we wrote for Dungeons & Dragons in our school days when we were first beginning to roleplay. Consequently, Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion has a certain look. It is presented in a font designed to look like handwriting and done on the type of paper which has holes along one edge for it to be clipped into a file and both of the scenario’s maps are drawn on squared paper, with the ‘Supplemental map 1 to: Keep on the Borderlands (The Environs of the Keep)’ coloured with pencils. It gives the whole look of the scenario a certain charm, perhaps best from a sense of nostalgia, but also a certain tackiness. It does not help that the choice of font makes the scenario awkward to read and use. However, get past that and surprisingly, Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion does exactly what the title says as well adding a new threat and a new storyline.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion focuses first on the Cave of the Unknown. Although there is a cave entrance, here it is more of a dungeon complex with some twelve rooms. Together with the addition of a tower above the complex, they are the forward base for a group of bandits. In fact, a large number of bandits. Altogether, there are some eighty-five bandits in the complex together with their stores and equipment. Most of the bandits are Level One, although sergeants are Level Two, a Lieutenant Level Three, and a Captain, Level Four. They are led by Malthus the Grey wizard and Gwethlos the Red Cleric, both evil NPCs and both Fifth Level. The complex of rooms feels too small for this number of men and the descriptions of the rooms themselves are simplistic and plain. To some extent this can be explained by the ethos of the scenario, the ‘High-Adventure from Middle-School’ look and feel, but it leaves the Dungeon Master to do all of the hard work in adding flavour and detail to the scenario.

If the description of the Cave of the Unknown fails to intrigue or entice, the plot, whilst still simple, more than makes up for that. Malthus the Grey wizard and Gwethlos the Red Cleric are gathering men to make an assault upon the keep, and not only that, but they are also negotiating with the goblins and hobgoblins in the Caves of Chaos to recruit them to their cause. In addition, Palthos, the son of the Castellan of the keep, disappeared near the caves. The Castellan, greatly worried at his son’s disappearance, has put out a huge reward for the return of his son. In addition, there is a second force of bandits just outside of the area detailed in B2 Keep in the Borderlands. They have begun raiding caravans travelling back and forth from the keep and are holding several prisoners. The prisoners include merchants who will pay the Player Characters a monetary reward if rescued and several mercenaries who will serve the Player Characters for a limited amount of time if also rescued. The camp itself is not described, but is clearly marked on the ‘Supplemental map 1 to: Keep on the Borderlands (The Environs of the Keep)’ map.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is basic, perhaps too basic. It has three major problems. The first is is the lack of description and flavour and detail. The second is the fact that Palthos, the son of the Castellan of the keep, is mentioned at the beginning of the scenario and never mentioned again, and arguably, his disappearance and the potential reward for his return are the major hook for the Player Characters. This is a major omission. However, neither problem is insurmountable and with some effort upon the part of the Dungeon Master, better descriptions can be added to the scenario’s dungeon and the location where Palthos is being held prisoner can be decided upon. The third is the lack of description of the region beyond that described in B2 Keep in the Borderlands bar the mention and location of the bandit camp. Again, it is left up to the Dungeon Master to not only describe, but actually develop.

Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is a really more of a framework to expand to B2 Keep on the Borderlands than a ready-to-play addition. It has a pair of decent story hooks and these are worth developing to expand and enhance the play of a classic module. Keep on the Borderlands: The Expansion is worth looking at for these very reasons and the fact that it is free is bonus.

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