1E Keep On The Borderline
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    Keep On The Borderline

    So, here's the thing. At first blush I thought that Keep On The Borderlands was a great introductory module to teach new players the game, but that was based on a very cursory skim of the actual module. Being in the habit of doing everything bass ackwards, apparently, I was about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way done translating Keep to 5th Edition when I realized...I actually really dislike this module.

    Most of my complaints are the same as ones I've read online recently although I probably have a new one or two to add. For starters, the fact that neither the keep nor any of the many NPCs that live there have names is pretty off-putting. Maybe the intention was for the DM to customize the module by giving all of those NPCs names and personalities but as I started to do that for my 5E conversion I got frustrated pretty quickly: there are a LOT of largely fungible nameless NPCs. A complaint I haven't heard from others that I'll throw in is that the "Keep On The Borderlands" is actually a medium sized town. See, on my initial skim of the module years ago, I kind of got the impression from the text about the PCs using the Keep as a base of operations that it would be mostly deserted except for the PCs and the PCs could customize the keep as they saw fit but of course once I got into translating it was clear that that was REALLY REALLY not the case. With a bank and a guild hall and an inn and a tavern and multiple shops along with a seriously sizable army of defenders, the "Keep On The Borderlands" is actually a medium-sized or large town by D&D standards. Which actually makes it even weirder that it doesn't have a name.

    And finally, and this is a complaint I've seen before, it feels like a nonsensical quagmire of anti-logic how literally 8-10 tribes of demi-humans/monstrous humanoids have chosen to live right on top of each other tenement slum style in the Caves of Chaos when they have the entire surrounding wilderness to find lairs in where they're not tripping over each other. Then there's the fact that they are all completely passive: largely, each tribe of humanoids is just there in their caves waiting for the PCs to come in and try to kill them. The two semi-warring orc tribes are a baby step in the right direction but the fact that neither the tribes or their leaders have names is sort of a roadblock to the roleplaying possibilities. There's a real lack of enemy variety as while there are at least five or six varieties of monstrous humanoids to fight, there really isn't much difference between fighting orcs and hobgoblins, between hobgoblins and gnolls, between gnolls and orcs, between kobolds and goblins, etcetera. And finally, yes, it really does seem to amplify some of the gross and racist underpinnings of early D&D, explicitly stocking these caves with non-combatant females and children, and then encouraging you to go in and make widows and orphans of them which is perfectly okay because they look different than you do.

    So, personally, I have scrapped my plans to adapt KotB. I'm sure someone else has, or will, or both. As far as introductory modules go, I think I far prefer In Search Of The Unknown.

    What's your take on Keep On The Borderlands?

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    Quote Originally Posted by ParanoydStyle View Post
    What's your take on Keep On The Borderlands?
    It's D&D. It doesn't have to make sense. Also, 90% of everything is crap.
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    "My take" is the 4th Edition take. It was a season for Encounters. Then it became a long series of short adventures in Dungeon magazine. The keep (Restwell Keep) was fully developed and detailed in an issue of Dragon. And it all tied together. Look up the Chaos Scar. At least they tried something different.
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    Some people really like it, and I'm probably going to run afoul of them by posting this (again), but...

    Keep on the Borderlands sucks.

    My complaints against it aren't exactly the same as yours, but they have some parallels.

    My main problem with the module is that it is far worse as an introductory module for DMs than it even is as an introductory module for players. Sure, it's possible with a heck of a lot of work to imbed the module into a larger campaign scenario and make some sense of what it is about by detailing the geography and politics surrounding the Keep and the lands war with the forces of Chaos, but that's not at all something you'd expect a novice DM trying to run this module to do, nor does the module really make it explicit that you should. Indeed, even so much as generating floor plans and NPCs to inhabit the keep - something the module does suggest - is probably going to be a struggle for the novice DM.

    But aside from that, the DM that taught me how to DM when discussing this module brought up one of its major flaws when he described how when it was run for him, they spent most of the game robbing the Keep. In other words, they invented their own fun and played a 'Bank Heist' game, based on the problem that the best treasure and perhaps most interesting challenges aren't associated with following the path the module expects you to follow, but in robbing the good guys. And this is a further intellectual problem because the Keeps inhabitants are vastly better prepared to fight the force of Chaos than the PC's are, and have vastly more motivation to do so, and the module does really nothing to give the PC's motives. Why do they care about banditry on this road? Why do they care if there is an evil temple operating in the cave? An experienced DM can answer these questions and provide hooks, but the module itself does not.

    Finally, for me the really startling problem with the caves as a lair is that there is no really evident economic activity going on in the caves. What about the caves makes them so attractive that all these different tribes are willing to fight over them, and what do these tribes do to support themselves when they are there? How do they feed themselves? How do they arm themselves? The only labor we see in the whole module is a small number of goblins foraging, but this foraging wouldn't represent a particularly potent bandit threat to as powerful of forces as we see defending the keep. Six goblins could scarcely threaten more than a tinkerer or a vagrant, and not a merchant caravan with real valuables. Yet only the goblins are really doing anything other than waiting in their lair to be killed. The problem with the tribes as villains is less that they are faceless or racist than that they are never active or proactive, but only reactive.

    (You might could argue for racist if in fact you didn't have a lot of human foes - bandits, evil priests, etc. - among the forces of chaos that are equally expected to be slaughtered, or if the humans themselves were depicted in racist terms. I think that seeing racism here is reading way much more into this than is intended. A much simpler explanation here suffices and that is that 'men' were listed in the monster manual alongside 'owlbear' and 'minotaur'. Truly complex interaction between the PC's and the monstrous foes wasn't expected or considered by the writer. There is no reason to think that kobolds, bugbears, ogres or gnolls are stand ins for any human race or that orcs or goblins are here meant to be anything but other monsters. Just because it is a bad module doesn't make it racist, and I think to see racism in it says a lot more about the viewer's perceptions than the writers.)

    But the complaint I would make against the foes in the caves is that they are just cartoonish villains in that they don't really seem to have a motive. We got these evil priests of evilness (or chaos, or whatever) and they have somewhat lurid depictions of their evil - demonic wall hangings depicting horrid rites, torture chambers, Cthullan temples, etc. - but its left up to the DM to give these villains in sort of depth or purpose beyond being XP bags and largely simplistic tactical obstacles. It's a really grindy module as written that will come down to a large number of mass combats in choke points in the dungeon as the party masses on one side of a door or in a narrow corridor to neutralize the numbers advantage the tribes have. As soon as the PC's get a couple suits of plate armor or can afford them, the whole module becomes fairly easy and pointless.

    I've ran the module twice. The first time I was 12 and neither I nor my players really knew any better or demanded much more from the game than what you'd get from a game of risk - 16 hours of dice rolling and not a lot of gameplay. The second time I was 17 and I started to realize the module had problems and needed some adaptation. I addressed a lot of what I mentioned above, and it went pretty well. But now that I've been doing this for 30+ years, the amount of adaptation I'd need to make this module truly worthwhile, I might as well just write my own stuff. I started working on it once before, and even then I ran into problems because really the caves of chaos end up being the chaotic counterpart to the keep, and the whole thing starts becoming a more militaristic campaign which isn't anything I'm really interested in running and which isn't really suited for low level play, which means you have to develop side quests to support the endeavor and turn it into a mini-campaign, and that's just way too much work.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ParanoydStyle View Post
    What's your take on Keep On The Borderlands?
    My take is that when I was 12 I thought B4 - The Lost City - was a much better adventure than KotB was.

    Now more than 30 years later I not only continue to believe that, but I also think that B5 - Horror on the Hill - is the much better version of B2. Both as an introductory module and as a classic dungeon crawl, B5 is just a better experience overall.

    I've run B2 a few times over the years but the last time I did was over a decade ago with a 3e conversion that had me realizing that it just was a whole lot of work to convert for not a whole lot of fun. I don't think I've even thought about running it since, though I pick it up and thumb through it periodically to see if perhaps I've changed my mind. So far I haven't.
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    Its not really that good, B4, B5 and B10 are the best of the B series IMHO.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
    "My take" is the 4th Edition take. It was a season for Encounters. Then it became a long series of short adventures in Dungeon magazine. The keep (Restwell Keep) was fully developed and detailed in an issue of Dragon. And it all tied together. Look up the Chaos Scar. At least they tried something different.
    Like a lot of D&D fans, I spent most of the 4th Edition era either playing 3.5 or not playing D&D, so I would never have known about this if not for you. Thanks! I'll try to check it out.

    But aside from that, the DM that taught me how to DM when discussing this module brought up one of its major flaws when he described how when it was run for him, they spent most of the game robbing the Keep. In other words, they invented their own fun and played a 'Bank Heist' game, based on the problem that the best treasure and perhaps most interesting challenges aren't associated with following the path the module expects you to follow, but in robbing the good guys
    Apparently nothing has changed between 1980 and 2019 because THE SECOND the PCs heard there was a bank, they wanted to rob it. Fortunately, we'd decided ahead of time that one of the PCs was already in the keep, but I hadn't had a chance to establish why she was there, so since she was a wizard I replaced the magic user guarding the bank with her and explained to everyone that it was actually her job to guard the bank. Fortunately, this headed the bank-robbery off at the pass...

    Incidentally, the Keep's defenses and defenders are written up in SO MUCH DETAIL that one almost gets the impression that Gary WANTED the PCs to fight/rob/raid the Keep. "Assault On The Keep On The Borderlands" might be a better module. Hmm...and if the party were demi-humans coming from the Caves of Chaos...that might be interesting to write some day.

    And this is a further intellectual problem because the Keeps inhabitants are vastly better prepared to fight the force of Chaos than the PC's are, and have vastly more motivation to do so, and the module does really nothing to give the PC's motives. Why do they care about banditry on this road? Why do they care if there is an evil temple operating in the cave? An experienced DM can answer these questions and provide hooks, but the module itself does not.
    This, so much this. I tried when I was DMing to somehow make it into a positive thing, trying to double down on the fact that the PCs had just come here "to adventure", for adventure's own sake, and the sake of being adventurers and this wasn't like the 5E AL games they'd played where an NPC was going to come up to them and give them an errand to run, that they were free agents out for themselves, but yes...there is no motivation or hook whatsoever for the PCs to a) go to the keep in the first place, b) leave the keep once they're there, or c) fight the monsters in the caves of chaos.

    I also REALLY don't know how Gary wanted or expected the wilderness crawl leading up to the keep to work. Like, I had no idea how to play that section so as soon as I found an excuse to fastrack the PCs to the caves I took it (they met a pegasus in the woods that took the ranger above the tree cover so they could see where the Caves wee in relation to them, at which point I just gave the party the wilderness map).

    Since I've been DMing this for playtest purposes, I tried to give the PCs an out last night to take the campaign elsewhere (namely the free city of Greyhawk), but they opted almost unanimously to stay in the caves. Fortunately, I have made the caves more interesting: there's a barrier on the door to the temple of evil chaos that can only be opened by finding three mcguffins hidden throughout the rest of the caves, all of the bugbears in the bugbear cave are bugbear statues now because a mated pair of basilisks moved in, the labyrinth of the minotaur is now a young black dragon's lair, and I changed the hobgoblin complex into a svirnfeblin community (because I don't know why EVERY SINGLE kind of non-human living in the caves has to be evil, and because I like deep gnomes and have never gotten to use them before).
    Last edited by ParanoydStyle; Thursday, 28th March, 2019 at 01:11 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ParanoydStyle View Post
    Incidentally, the Keep's defenses and defenders are written up in SO MUCH DETAIL that one almost gets the impression that Gary WANTED the PCs to fight/rob/raid the Keep.
    Gygax's 'Havens' are consistently weird and I've never fully understood the design of them. I suspect that they are gamist in design (that is to say some metagame considerations guides the design), but exactly what game that they are intended to support I've never been sure.

    The village of Hommlet in 'T1: Village of Hommlet" shares with the Keep similar features:

    a) There is a lot of attention lavished on the items of value to be found, and relative to their HD and combat capabilities many of the villagers have more stuff than the bad guys do. That seems weird unless the game is explicitly "rob the villagers".
    b) The village leaders on the other hand are vastly more capable of facing the threats and being the heroes that the party is expected to be than the PCs are. This only makes sense of if the purpose is explicitly to deter a game of "rob the villagers", because otherwise, why does the Castellan need to be a 6th level fighter with magical plate, a magical shield, and a magical sword? See also the 6th level cleric, 8th level M-U, 6th level fighter, 4th level thief, and 7th level Druid that lives in Homlett - who are described as greedy and desirous of adventure but who don't apparently decide to form up and check out the abandoned moathouse despite the low risk and high reward such an adventure would have for such puissant of a group. Who needs the PCs? Why not cut out the middle man?
    c) The two together inherently create a situation where PC's expect "friendly NPCs" to act illogically and even hostile to not only the PCs but to their own interests as NPCs. My guess is that this is to deter the PCs from seeing anything but the dungeon as where the game happens. Yet ironically, this encourages the PCs to see the NPCs as worthy of robbing (because they are hostile idiots) and all the treasure possessed by the NPCs rewards that, so is this in fact some sort of double fake where Gygax indeed expects the party to "rob the bank"?

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    I think worrying about PC or NPC motivations in B2 is a category error - the module rests on the premise that (i) the players will take their PCs on the adventure, and (ii) that the rest of the world is largely a backdrop to that adventure.

    That said, here are two very different takes on B2, one closer to the OP's post, the other closer to the first paragraph of this post: Mike Mearls and Luke Crane.
    Last edited by pemerton; Sunday, 31st March, 2019 at 11:39 PM.
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    Keep on the Borderlands will always be one of my favorite modules ever. I recently ran it for a bunch of new players (never played D&D before).

    The thing about Keep on the Borderlands is that it is intended to be an environment that you need to make your own. NPCs don't have names because it is up to you to name them and develop them. The context of the PC's relationship with the denizens of the keep is left up to the DM and the group and is not prescribed by the author. This gives you an incredible amount of freedom to make the keep and its environments work for you.

    I can come up with my own reasons why the various monstrous humanoid tribes are gathering and why they are a problem and why the PCs are needed to deal with them... when I'm using a module I just need the dungeon stocked for me... I don't need the author to tell me a story, I just need the busy-work done for me.

    It doesn't lead the players into any prescribed course of action. It presents a Keep, the Caves of Chaos, and a couple other wilderness locations and lets the group determine what to do about it... and yes... I do think the players uniting the monstrous humanoid tribes to assault the Keep for its treasures is a valid approach to the module.

    In my game, the players ventured to the caves and started exploring the caves. They ended up approaching the goblin cave, first, and after a frontal assault that left nearly all of them dead, they started instead to open parley with the goblins. They ended up ingratiating themselves with the goblins by helping them against the hobgoblins but ended up sabotaging that relationship when they failed to kill the ogre.

    Very early into the game (after they realized a straight kick the door and fight approach wasn't going to work), the players ended up getting deeply involved in the various power struggles of the different tribes. It was fantastic and exciting.

    This is the key to B2... its not a quest type adventure, it is an environment that has no clear goal but leaves it up to the group to make of it what they will.
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