B2 - The Keep in the Borderlands
I swore to myself I'd never get into the review-writing habit, but a recent review on RPG.net sent me to the defense of one of my favorite modules of all time - The Keep in the Borderlands. When I started RPG games at an age so low I'm ashamed to admit it, it was with the D&D Basic set and the Keep in the Borderlands. Last Saturday, when I had a group of all-new players at the local game store who wanted a rousing adventure, out came the Keep again, and a good time was had by all. It's not perfect, but it's not all that bad.
The Keep in the Borderlands is, as it states, a microcosm of a gaming world. We have a base where the players can re-stock and plot (the Keep), the wilderness filled with perils through which they travel, and a place of unspeakable evil that must be cleansed (the Caves of Chaos). Some of the setting's details are vague - no names for the town's citizens, for instance - but I consider this to be more of a virtue than a drawback. There are too many RPG products these days that are "fully compatible" with your game only after you alter the setting, the characters, and the history, and buy (or change all references to) three or four other products. The Keep may take a little work to plug into your world, but that's it.
The Keep and the wilderness sections perform their duties rather well, so let's go straight to the Caves of Chaos. The Caves do have their difficulties - where do all of these groups get their food? - but these questions can be explained with a little work (they're being supplied as the humanoid's own equivalent of the Keep, perhaps?) and are not as blatant as those which appear in many other modules. There are quite a number of humanoid tribes based in the caves, watching each other across a ravine. They're not fond of their neighbors, but they can't wipe them out - no group is significantly stronger than the others, and an all-out war with one would leave them so weak that the rest would pick them off easily. Into this situation stumble our adventurers...
What really makes this adventure ideal for first-time DMs, however, are the hints and tips throughout the text. Many modern adventures give the DM a plot to follow, but give little guidance as to what happens when the adventurers do the unexpected. The Keep, on the other hand, provides the gamemaster with a setting, then tells the DM how to use it. What if the characters want to leave the map? What tactics will the monsters use, and how will they react to heavy losses? These problems are covered in some detail for each group. This could be improved - there are few guidelines for role-playing encounters with these creatures outside of combat, and there are little or no notes on using the temple of Chaos - but all of this is quite useful for a DM who is just getting started.
The Keep was pretty much par for the course in its time - the highly- acclaimed horror game Call of Cthulhu was publishing a number of glorified dungeon-crawls after 1980 - but has weathered surprisingly well. It may not be the most well-written or beautifully-presented piece, but it is one of the few that I believe a starting DM and players could pick up and run with without having to worry too much about the details. Whether the proposed reprint will improve upon it remains to be seen, but The Keep in the Borderlands will remain a classic module and a milestone in AD&D's history.
Style: 3 (Average)