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D&D General Keep on the Borderlands - How do you run the Wilderness?


Eternal Optimist
As part of another discussion, I was reminded of Keep on the Borderlands and my first experiences with it as a DM (I'm not even sure I was a teenager then...)

I had trouble with the Keep, but the wilderness section really confounded me. It's worth having a look at how it is designed, and setting aside your gaming knowledge. How does it run when there are no wilderness random encounter tables, there are no wilderness rules except the half-a-page in the adventure (there are no such rules in Basic D&D, either Holmes or Moldvay).

There isn't a player map, and the DM map has so many squares mapping it isn't great (it's not designed that way, either).

Have a look at the adventure if you have it. I'd like to know two things:
  • How you would run it as a DM with just the information that it contained?
  • How you would run it today, with all your additional resources and knowledge?

How did I deal with it back in the day? As I recall, the players followed the road, where they found a sign pointing back the other way, until I grew very frustrated and just had them reach the Caves of Chaos.

I think the last time I ran it (back during the 3E days), I basically skipped the wilderness.

So, how would you have handled it, and how would you handle it now?


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I don't remember how I ran it back then (even though it was several times in different editions, including the revisited one in 2e). It feels like they just got on the road and basically hiked right there.

I've run it twice in 5e (using the Goodman Games version that had both B1 and B2 in it), and both times I've used a redone map to make it more interesting, at least to me : https://www.enworld.org/resources/reshuffled-b1-b2-borderlands-map.1628/

The party likely knows from some of the rumors that the caves (B2) are to the southeast past the big bend in the river, and also know from some that fortress of the heroes (B1) is that way too. Depending on what they do, they might also spot the traitorous priest and acolytes to or from the caves, or maybe a raiding crew from the caves out and about, or even some gnomes heading to the fortress. Some of the humanoids that could be encountered in the woodlands might be able to give directions as well, and in one I had the hidden temple of chaos (section M, room 7) give bad dreams to the party's Cleric and so he sensed the general direction.

I don't think I've used the random encounter tables with it unless the party really dilly dallied, but I have made it so the various groups that might wander (the bandits, the adventurers, and the hermit) did wander around, and I've had some other preplanned things wander through that were campaign specific.
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Let me crank this up.

Back in the day we skipped the wilderness and proceeded to the dungeon. That seemed to be how to play the game. There was a safe place and a bad place where monsters lived in levels. Things were binary and getting to the dungeon was not something we played.

Today I might have a few random encounter readied if needed and a few ideas of what else is around that can both help the PCs of hurt them is disturbed. Maybe I add a hermit that can make potions and some of the monsters know about him and the PCs find a clue to go looking for him.

I also think that 5e characters are a lot more powered in abilities and spells that help from getting lost. I'm not sure how much that making a group check in 5e vs DM fiat in Basic can compare.

In all cases "How I run it" is however I think will be most fun for me and my players. With any published adventure, chop and change it to suit yourself, it doesn't matter what the original author had in mind, they are not playing at your table.

As for what I would do:
There isn't a player map, and the DM map has so many squares mapping it isn't great (it's not designed that way, either).
The scrappy nature of the original map suggests the author did not think it very important. Why not? Because hexcrawls presuppose the area is unexplored, and the area around the keep is fairly well known to the people who live there. The PCs don't need to explore, since if they want to find something they can just ask a local for directions.

As for a player map, make them one. It doesn't have to be pretty or accurate - indeed it shouldn't be. Imagine you are a military officer sketching something out for a bunch of irritating mercenaries who you want to help deal with your monster problem. You sketch out a map of what you understand the local area is like with a stick of charcoal* on a scrap of parchment, with particular emphasis on where you think the monsters are.

You where right the first time your ran it, the wilderness isn't intended to be a significant part of this adventure. If the PCs survive the borderlands, then they can move out to explore the uncharted wilderness beyond.

Tonally, I suggest you have the PCs borrow horses and ride everywhere, and emphasise the barren emptiness in your descriptions. It goes with the Wild West feel of the adventure.

*If you don't have charcoal, use a soft pencil, photograph your drawing with your phone, enlarge it, use a black and white filter, then print it.
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IIRC, the road pretty much lead right next to the entrance of the caves, so the party largely just followed the road. When I wrote my own dungeon, I had another adventuring party describe where it was, so the party was able to find it pretty easily. Despite having run this adventure dozens of times, only twice have I had a party decide to explore the wilderness around the keep. In both cases I ran it square by square, describing the surroundings until they randomly wandered into one of the listed encounters. In retrospect I should have used those encounters more, either by stories in town or having them be encountered on the road as well.

Something I've found really interesting and important. Keep on the Borderlands is probably one of the best introductory adventures for new players. It is not written with a new DM in mind, and I think that a rewrite with this in mind would make it one of the best adventures of all time.


How I would have run it isn't all that much different than how I would run it now. There's going to be some sort of check(s) to see how easily you get to the dungeon. If you fail you hit some potentially deadly obstacles along the way both environmental and monsters, it takes longer than expected, perhaps the denizens of the dungeon know you're coming and have prepared. I wouldn't just have people explore every hex, if they go left instead of right I'll just give them a 30 second update "there's nothing there, give me a check to see if you can figure out how to get back on track".


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I'm going to put in my usual plug for checking out the 25th anniversary version, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. If you have access to it, it's worth checking out. It has a very good section on handling the wilderness in the area around the keep and the caves.


I cast invisibility
So, how would you have handled it, and how would you handle it now?
Personally, I LOVE the wilderness section! Last time we (co-DMed with @DND_Reborn) ran KotBL:


I used a rumor from the Keep that some fisherman had gone to the river, but not returned in two days, and the people are worried. A patrol found their boat washed up on the shore. Fearing the fishermen may be lost in the swamp, the Castellan asks the PC if they are willing to go into the swamp and look for any signs of survivors.

The PCs search, and are confronted by a group of lizard men. Now, the players have to decide how to handle it as the lizard men are cautious, but not aggresive. If the players attack, the lizard men will fight back. If the players try to parley, the lizard men will take them to their village. The lizard men are not "evil" (as the module says), but are more on guard because of a neighboring tribe of bullywugs that has moved in the eastern part of the swamp. The lizard men know the fisherman were captured by the bullywugs and if the PCs want, they will help them rescue the fishermen if the PCs will help the lizard men drive the bullywugs from the swamp.

We had a paladin in the party who wanted to test his strength against the lizard men, so after a series of physical contests, the PC won (barely), was honored by the tribe, and given one of their "home-made" spiked shields.

Anyway, the PCs agreed to work with the lizard men, had to navigate a "reed-maze" patrolled by bullywugs (the rogue-assassin was awesome during this, taking out bullywug guards!), found the bullywug encampment, defeated them, and returned the fishermen to the keep. At the same time, their assistance fostered a "peace/ loose alliance" with the keep and led to trade between the lizard men and the keep.

While clearing the caves, the PCs found evidence of a dragon living south of the river, perhaps in the woods. This led the PCs to searching these woods later on. The ended up finding the spiders, but at their current level I added an Ettercap to the encounter IIRC. They didn't find any signs of the dragon, but found a ruined temple that was centuries old. This was where the spiders made their lair.

Inside the temple they also found ancient texts about the history of the region, including the founding of the keep by a past warrior, Rogahn the Fearless (from B1). This is the first hint of a major plot point later on.

This one is fairly basic. The raiders attacked a caravan and a merchant at the keep is offering a reward for the recovery of his goods. The survivors of the raid can tell the PCs which direction the raiders came from (the south), and the PCs have to find the camp if they want to recovery the goods and get the reward. The reward inclues a writ from the merchant's guild, waving exchange fees, etc. for one year.

The hermit will approach the PCs during one of their forays to the caves, asking for help because his "pet" is hurt. If the PCs don't help, he leaves them, but later on will seek revenge with his healthy "pet" later on. If the PCs help, he leads them to his home. The mountain lion has been wounded by fighting another creature in the woods. In exchange for their help, the PCs will learn more about the history of the region, including Zelligar the Unknown and his hidden lair (at the Caves of the Unknown). He can lead them there, but warns them it is a very magical and dangerous place!

When the PCs were 5th level, some captured kobolds led them to finding, after some searching, the dragon's lair: a 20-foot wide sinkhole which led to an underground lair. The PCs thought it was a young green dragon and maybe a wyrmling. But were shocked to learn a young black dragon had moved in, killing the two younger green dragons. It was an incredible fight when they finally searched the stagnant pool. Too much to really go into detail here.

This ended up being the tombs of Rogahn and Zelligar. Series of traps and magical challenges, a few animated foes, etc. Here they inadvertantly released Zelligar from his stone-statue prison. Zelligar was a weakened archmage (few spells, low hp), and the PCs nearly killed him (literally the last attack missed!), and he was able to flee.

This led to another encounter near the southern river, when the PCs were looking for a friendly guardian naga. Earlier in the adventure, the PCs defeated a spirit naga and the guardian naga it was fighting agreed to help them if they needed it.

Anyway, the next day, fully recovered, Zelligar returned and fought the reduced party (one PC died in the previous fight), killing them all but the rogue-assassin who managed to hide and flee. After Zelligar left to go to the keep and drive out all the inhabitants, the rogue found the guardian naga, who after a few days, raised all the killed PCs.

Realizing the Keep was taken by Zelligar, the PCs fled the area.

At 18th+ level, the PCs returned to finally defeat Zelligar. After they arrived at the Keep, they were magically transported to Zelligar's hidden island, where they had dozens of encounters with powerful foes Zelligar had conquered over the centuries. They eventually made it to his stronghold, defeated Zelligar, and returned heroes.

Unfortunately, the players never realized that they didn't actually defeat Zelligar--just his simulacrum. They did everything else, so thought it was over, but @DND_Reborn wanted to keep the truth hidden in case we ever played those PCs again.

Of course, none of this includes the actual adventures in the Caves of Chaos, which were extensive, and the blocked tunnel (area 51 LOL) led to more adventures leading into the Underdark, but the PCs never went all the way.

We played in this region (or launching from it) until 7th level. It's wide open IME to create so many adventures!


Lurker Extraordinaire
Back in the day we skipped the wilderness and proceeded to the dungeon.
This is how i (vaguely) recall playing B2 back in the day. The Keep was home base where treasure was spent and XP awarded, and the Caverns were the dungeon to pillage. The road between was inconsequential. To be honest, the only part of B2 that I ever really liked was the Keep. I find the Caverns, as written, to lack verisimilitude.
I've run it twice in 5e (using the Goodman Games version that had both B1 and B2 in it), and both times I've used a redone map to make it more interesting, at least to me:
I also used Into the Borderlands in a 5E game, with a different map. The one I used was based on the work of Black Wyvern, a poster on Dragonsfoot which removed the canyon of caverns and spread the various humanoid caves around the wilderness area; on an expanded map. This removed questions of why the bugbears didn’t just wipe out the koblods of the goblins.

I kept the canyon as the location of the Shrine of Evil, with a contingent of humanoid guards, appropriately enthralled by the servants of Tharizdum, but the hodge-podge of caves was removed.

By having the caves spread around, it made the wilderness the area of focus, with clues that would eventually lead the shrine.

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