B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
B2 The Keep on the Borderlands Playtest Review by James Landry on 13/04/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 2 (Sparse)
Definitely skippable, get only for the nostalgia, but remember to make up names for everyone.
Product: B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
Author: Gary Gygax
Line: Basic D&D
Page count: 32
Year published: 1981
Playtest Review by James Landry on 13/04/01
Genre tags: Fantasy
This is one in a series of reviews covering most of the Basic D&D sets and modules. I was digging through my old D&D materials before selling them, and decided to write reviews of them for people to know what is worthwhile and what should be avoided.
These reviews will contain spoilers, so avoid at your own risk. Of course, since these modules have been out for 17 years or so, maybe it is a little late for spoiler warnings.
What about B1?
I don't own this one, so I can't really review it. For the sake of completeness, it was a 32-page module with maps and tables of suggested monsters and traps. It was a stock your own dungeon, presumably so that it would have a lot of replay value. (There weren't a lot of modules in those days.) There was some background on the Caverns of Quasqueton - they were run by Rogahn and Zelligar, a powerful fighter and mage.
This module came out in 1981 and was packaged with the Basic Set. It was written by Gary Gygax.
What is the purpose of this adventure? It is designed to be a "ready-made scenario", "specially designed for use by beginning Dungeon Masters so that they may begin play with a minimum of preparations". In addition, the "KEEP is a microcosm, a world in miniature. Within its walls your players will find what is basically a small village with a social order, and will meet opponents of a sort. Outside lies the way to the Caves of Chaos where monsters abound."
I want to evaluate this module on how it accomplishes this goal.
First off, the basic structure of the module is in three parts. The first part details the Keep, the second the sometimes hostile wilderness, and the third the Caves of Chaos, with all their monster denizens.
The module has a fair amount of information on how to be a good DM and sections, time, dividing treasure, and computing experience. These will help the DM of an adventure, and a few of the tips (like the ones about using noises to simulate monsters - e.g. chittering for rats) I don't usually see.
After that comes the keep, in many ways a major disappointment. As the characters approach the keep, they must declare their names and profession. Unfortunately, all the people in the keep only have a profession (castellan, priest, level 1 guard, etc.). No one in the keep has a real name provided. This is criminal negligence toward DMs who want to run this adventure with a minimum of preparation. It's another sign that most role-playing in Basic D&D was supposed to be intra-party. Shockingly, Gygax seems to have thought that a need for names for the inhabitants would never come up!
The keep has some real social characteristics built into it. There is a bank, traders, expensive private apartments, etc. Some effort was made to build a somewhat credible society here, but it is really only a bad joke on the DM when no one has a name.
Outside the keep, it doesn't improve that much. There is some information about camping outdoors, and then we get to the adventures. Most of the encounters listed attack on sight, lining up to be slaughtered by the PCs. The mad hermit can be used as a fifth column, but it makes it a little hard when he doesn't have a name. "The mad hermit" is unlikely to fly with the PCs.
Then we get to the Caves of Chaos, another poor design decision. This is a case of the constraints of the game getting in the way of suspension of disbelief. The caves are clearly populated with different monsters to provide the PCs with a series of challenges, but there is no way this collection of monsters would stay in such close proximity while fighting with one another. This kind of quasi-static situation is completely unbelievable.
On the other hand, it isn't just mindless. The DM is encouraged to play the monsters as thinking inhabitants who can learn from PC tactics and make alliances. The problem here is that the monsters are completely reactive. As long as the PCs are not around, they sit around in rough multi-species harmony and drool. As soon as the PCs show up, they start thinking and fighting intelligently. It doesn't add up.
Another problem is that once again, none of the monsters have names! They also don't really have personalities. Role-playing interaction with them is hard to pull off with the material presented. The DM has to create this from whole cloth. The traps and encounters are thought out, but the entire unspoken idea is to kill all of these monsters and take their treasure. Punishing them for their misdeeds doesn't really enter into it. It's all greed and mayhem, all the time.
As a side-note, the artwork to me seems like nothing special, but many people seem to like Erol Otus's painting of the keep on the back cover.
In conclusion, this module only half supports its goal. If the PCs are narrowly focused on killing and looting with appropriate tactical considerations, the DM can easily run through this module. On the other hand, if the PCs actually want to interact with inhabitants of this module, it offers very little. The DM has to do a lot more work to flesh out the material so that it makes sense for the players. I don't think this module really is possible to run right out of the box with a minimum of effort unless the players are completely focused.
I don't think this is worth picking up unless you want it purely for nostalgia. Should you wish to use this in 3e, there is a conversion available.
I'd like to end with a Gary Gygax quote, which I think give some of the flavor of his writing and indirectly the pretensions of this adventure.
"You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow."