|B2 - Rear Cover Art.|
1. Introductory Advice. The first few pages of Keep on the Borderlands give advice on running the game. Notably this is very ‘old school’ advice. For example, to aid the players rather then fudging random encounters (as advised in B5-Horror on the Hill) B2 advises sending a few NPCs (replacements?), men at arms (cannon fodder?) and lesser magical items (healing potion and weak magic items) along with the party in their expedition. This isn’t bad advice, and the first and second ideas still get traction as a ‘solution’ to old D&D lethality (as funnels) while the last is not well regarded these days. Another nice piece of advice is the frequent admonishment to make B2 fit one’s own campaign world, to expand from it and to modify it in any way the DM wants. This is a spirit I also enjoyed in B4 Lost City, and while it should be unnecessary to say, it vanishes from later TSR/Wizard’s products – even items from the mid 80’s. Advice on play and GM duties (e.g. how to play monsters - play them fully! Ham it up! Make monster noises!) is also excellent and quite applicable.
2. Points of Light. Explicit on the first page of Keep on the Borderlands is a campaign concept that is still widely popular, and maybe the a key to “D&D fantasy” in both table top and computer games. "Points of Light" is a concept where the world's goodness, order and humanity are both synonymous and limited to a few bastions surrounded by a monster haunted wilderness (and as Keep hints – an evil nation). While my own impulse is to change this a lot, eliminating the Manichean, reactionary overtones to create a gray v. gray world rather than black v. white, the point of "light" in the wilderness idea is still one of the best ways to start a campaign. Now Keep seems to suggest that this is a expansion of civilization into the wilderness (...Keep has an arguably colonialist worldview), it seems more popular these days to have civilization fallen and a few surviving towns or regions fighting a desperate battle against encroachment.
3. A Sandbox. B2 is a sandbox. A small one (The caves are about 2 miles from the Keep, which seems like it would have presented construction problems), but a Sandbox all the same. It’s odd in that the walking movement rate is listed at 3 squares (900 feet or 2/10 mile per hour as opposed to the human preferred speed of 7392 feet, or 1.4 miles per hour, but it's not really that bad, rough ground and frequent rests or something) which could make for a larger map. I’m not complaining, but this sort of odd thing is why I like “time between nodes” wilderness mapping. Still. It’s an open world with explicit encouragement that the party must ‘search’ for the caves and some nice small locations/encounters keyed on the map, such as the Mad Hermit and his killer pet.
4. Monster Characterization. Monsters have strategy in the text. Keep Guards, Lizardmen, the Mad Hermit and the denizens of the caves all have battle plans (some aren’t very good – but then some of these opponents are pretty unsophisticated), and this is excellent – giving the DM an idea of how monsters will react is very helpful. Also the Caves have actual factions! The monsters will ransom captive characters and accept surrenders! Restocking the caves is encouraged! These are great, often underutilized suggestions, and while the notes about them are simple, I can’t understand why this sort of thing was dropped from many later products.
5. Simple but Good Detail. Caves have excellent detail and some nice simple traps/tricks as well as evocative, if bland, environments. The orc wall of trophy heads (with spy hole for an orc to peer through) is maybe the best example of this. The bands of humanoids also fight fairly intelligently and come to their fellows' aid within the lairs. The group sizes are not too large, but not especially small either. The large orc tribe for example has 23 combatants and a leader, while their weaker allies have 16 combatants. The treasure descriptions are also decent, with concealment, and at least some bit of detail beyond being simple coinage.
1. Excessively Keep Focused. The Keep, as written is heaped with loving detail to almost no obvious purpose. There are some good encounters within (the jovial, outspoken and thoroughly evil Priest planning a double cross, or the bank) but generally the amount of detail provided for the keep is excessive for the amount and type of adventure that the module assumes will occur within. Arguably this thoroughness is useful because it doesn’t assume the players' intentions are to plunder the caves, and provides a basis for whatever else might unfold beyond an expedition the Caves of Chaos. Still, given the limited information provided about some actual adventuring locations, the detail of the Keep provides too much for too little.
2. Evil Evil Monsters. While some monsters should just be evil, predatory and hateful, humanoids especially shouldn’t always be. Yes, Keep on the Borderlands recognizes interactions with the Cave’s denizens beyond frontal assault, and suggests that the rivalries of the monsters could ultimately be used as a means of destroying the Caves. Stil,l there is no real thought given to the possibility that a party might decide to work for one of the the monster factions. Allying with the orcs to slay the hobgoblins, or protecting the kobolds in exchange for information, even rallying the varied humanoids to sack the Keep - all are possible. Of course some monsters should attack, but not all. For example, with the central gorge of the Caves is a no-man’s land between orc and goblin both should at least be interested in recruiting the characters to harass, kill, and spy on the other faction. Even the evil priest has a lot more to gain from recruiting the characters rather then sacrificing them to his dark lord. This problem is compounded by the silly “Different types of humanoids in different caves with better and better HP: ½ HD, 1-1 HD, 1 HD, 1+1 HD, 2HD, 3+1 HD”. While some of the caves – especially those of the orcs and hobgoblins have fun elements, they aren’t very different, description is basic to the point where they give a general feeling of video game levels. The heroes move from stage 1-1, fighting little dogmen up to 1-2 vs. ugly green guys. It goes on and on: pig men, big ugly green guys, big dogmen and finally big ugly hairy green guys – all with the same stone cave background and maybe a palette swap or two. Some variation in these humanoids and their lairs seems important.
3. Bad Magic. Magic items in B2 are simply awful and everywhere. Everything is +1 this and +2 that. There aren’t any interesting magical items at all, it’s all from the book. For my taste there are too many magical items generally (let’s just add a better armor – say ‘full plate’ that has an AC of 2, because there’s way too much +1 Platemail in the Keep and the Caves). Some of the monster owned magic armor and weapons should simply be replaced with better ACs and damage for monsters (it’s not a magic +1 axe, it’s just too huge for a human to use it), or evil items from the shrine of chaos, but so much of the treasure is uninteresting magical items as well. Better a few strange wondrous feeling items then a slew of soulless mechanically beneficial crap.
4. Unimaginative Undead. Yeah there's a Temple of Evil in the Caves, and while it's well enough keyed, it depends on making the zombies and skeletons hard to turn. This is a favorite reprehensible Gygax trick. It's frustrating and uninteresting. Better to increase the number of dead, or allow the evil priests to unturn/bolster undead moral with a turning roll. There are plenty of them in the shrine of evil, so the GM really doesn't need to resort to silly amulets for dead people. This is a personal peeve in old D&D modules but it really sets a bad example here.
WAYS TO CHANGE
1. The Keep. The Keep is good, but it’s presented as too good, too strong, or too morally correct for me. I’d introduce factions, making the keep less easy to love. A fortress of a corrupt authoritarian government built to protect and pacify a penal colony and hellish mine. The demesne of a decadent lord that seeks to take a good portion of treasures recovered from “his” lands as tax. It's setting dependent, but I'd want the sort of environment that emphasizes some core conflict other then "good vs. evil". Even order vs chaos, or the Western version of civilization (hierarchy) vs wilderness (freedom). Other than playing to my personal ideology and making a more nuanced campaign world, this scenario has the advantage of suggesting that the Keep itself might be a target of character aggression/plundering /takeover. This is helpful because it gets the players thinking about the balance of factions and the dynamics of power in the game – something that tabletop games are still better at then computer games.
An alternative (If one wants to keep Gygax's framing for some [awful] reason) to a keep ruled by dubious forces, could be a keep far less impressive and unprepared to hold off the incursions of the wilderness. A half-built fortification, under garrisoned by incompetent border troops that actually needs the party to protect and improve it. A place where the PCs actions are in some way heroic or necessary rather then simply mercenary plundering expeditions. This would require plenty of changes to the Caves as well, but allows the Keep to be used as a location for adventure – for example when it needs to be defended from the Caves’ residents, either initially or united and enraged by the characters' incursions.
|B2 - Internal Art - Mad Hermit|
3. The Monsters. I’d reskin the monsters away from D&D archetypes and make them a bit less wholly evil or if wholly evil a bit more reasonable. Likely I’d replace the kobolds with classic mine kobolds – wizened little proto-dwarfs in rat skins (they have a giant rat farm and make rat cheese!) who want to be left alone and hate everyone else in the caves. The orcs would get a beastman sort of gloss – still orcs, but more thuggish barbarians than outright evil - or make them bands of human barbarians. The goblins and hobgoblins would need to be thoroughly reimagined as some kind of evil fey. Cruel (especially the hobgoblins who have some much torture and militarism in their lair) and alien, but willing to deal and willing to work with strong groups of humans to destroy the brutish unaesthetic orcs. In fact the goblins and hobgoblins would be excellent deceivers – let’s just call them elves and make the Caves a fairy mound that’s been overrun by uncouth, filthy barbarians. These monsters need more goals as well – the goblins want to reclaim their mound perhaps, while the kobolds want peace to mine down to some sort of horrible earth god, and the orcs want dominance and a safehold to attract more of their fellows from far away.
Gnolls and assorted other big monsters would just get minor reskins (If the orcs are beastmen, the gnolls would be another variety of beastmen) as they all act as mercenaries or are largely uninvolved in the faction fight between orc and goblin (the goblin ogre would be exactly that though – a huge monster fey/elf thing). The bugbears are slavers and seem best to replace with some kind of vaguely giant or powerful human (who is obviously evil) so they can sometimes trade captive with the Keep (assuming it’s not the bastion of goodness provided by the original module).
4. More detail. While there’s certainly some detail in the caves, I’d want to make many of the caves more interesting by giving them some decoration. Especially the evil temple. A city of Petra style caved "Portico of Evil" would be a good start. The caves themselves need detail as well, different stone types, levels of civilization (goblin-fey caves worked strangely with bad fairy magic and glowing mushrooms, while the orc caves are all log buttressed tunnels), and fixtures that reflect the obvious interests of the inhabitants. Magic items of course would need to be fixed, and while the mundane treasure generally has sufficient detail to be fun, some of it could be improved. In general modifying the nature of the inhabitants, giving them backstories beyond – Pig/dog/green men would be a start. Orc magic items are simple and bloody, while the goblin ones are all horrible fey trickery dedicated to inflicting pain or concealing the user from retribution for inflicting pain.
|B2 - Front Cover Detail|