Keep on the Borderlands shenanigans


In my Greyhawk Burning Wheel game we've had a couple of sessions now of KotB-related stuff, which I thought I would post about.

The campaign is set around the Hardby/Bright Desert/Abor-Alz region. A series of misadventures over ten or so sessions saw the PCs expelled from Hardby, board a cursed ship which subsequently sank in Wooly Bay, rescued by a passing elven mariner only to be dumped on the shores of the Bright Desert, where they fought some orcs and befriended a wise naga before travelling north to the Abor-Alz.

The PCs are:

(i) a minor illusionist of petty noble descent, who is trying to track down his brother Joachim, once his mentor but now possessed by a balrog;

(ii) a sorcerous ranger/assassin who was taught by the same Joachim, escaped when he tried to sacrifice her to dark powers, and is on a quest to find him and take her revenge;

(iii) an elven princess who is trying to avoid getting called back to the court of Celene by her mother, and is on her way to Greyhawk but (being an elf) is in no particular hurry;

(iv) the princess's human retainer, a young and somewhat naive widow who talks to spirits, whom the princess met on her travels;

(v) an elven "ronin", who wandered among the humans in his youth before returning to Celene to serve alongside the Knights of Luna; when he was unable to stop his master being killed by a orcs, he vowed to return to the wild lands of the orcs and humans to prove himself once again; about his neck, he wears the broken shaft of the black arrow that slew his master;

(vi) a somewhat crazy, snake-handling, spirit-talking healer wandering through the hills east of Hardby, whom the other PCs met in the previous session.​

In the first of the two KotB-related sessions, the PCs were pursuing a renegade elf who had attacked them in the Abor-Alz not long after the meeting between the other PCs and the snake-handler. The attack had happened when the PCs left the ruined tower where they had been living for a couple of years while the princess's retainer recovered from being shot in the chest by orcs; this tower had once been the stronghold of Joachim and his brother, and when they had first arrived there they had also found (in the ruins of Joachim's old workshop) black arrows like the one worn by the ronin, apparently manufactured by Joachim. After two years, what little stores they had been able to accumulate by simple trading with the local hillfolk had run out, and winter was proving too hard to take. The princess's retainer was well enough to be moved, riding on a mule, and so they had headed off to Hardby.

They had known for the whole time they were in the tower that a renegade elf (a "dark elf", in BW terminology) was in the vicinity, but this was their first actual encounter with him.

As they followed his trail west, they crested a hill in the mid-morning to see, below them, the borderlands of the Hardby region. More-or-less to their west they could see, sitting atop a lower rise with a stream at its base, a keep (on the borderlands - the module cover, including the illustration of the keep on the back cover, was displayed by me to the players to dispel any doubts or confusion). They could also see a covered wagon entering the keep.

More-or-less to their north they could see a small vale with cave mouths in it, where the trail of the dark elf clearly led. The princess's retainer, who already had a premonition that some sort of dark serpent spirit was rising in the land, received a message from said spirit whispered on the wind, calling her (and the rest of the PCs) to follow Maeglin the dark elf's trail into the caves (of chaos?).

They decided to pursue Maeglin rather than head down to the keep. I didn't use any of the actual Caves of Chaos maps - the exploration was handled by a combination of free narration plus responses to successful or failed skill checks. The PCs got split into two groups: the snake-handler, who was trapped by a rigged deadfall in a side passage having been lured in by an illusion of a pile of gold; and the rest, who came to a small stream running through the cave, and encountered the dark elf there. The elf shot the PC assassin, but for only a minor wound, and was then knocked unconscious and taken prisoner. In the kafuffle the PC illusionist fell unconscious, which ended his light spell; and in the ensuing darkness the PCs lost track of the dark elf's mace, which the illusionist was hoping to recover and train with.

The snake-handler, meantime, ended up finding a small passage which he crawled through before tumbling down a rocky slope into the lair of the dark spirit naga whose cave this was (and suffering a modest wound in the process). The naga cast a powerful charm spell while the snake-handler called upon the spirits to help him resist the magic. The snake-handler got a good roll and a good buff from the spirits, but I rolled exceptionally well for the naga and the snake-handler was charmed. (The BW spell in question, Force of Will, is similar to a D&D dominate spell, or to the way that Charm Person tended to be played back in the days when KotB was a new product.)

The snake-handler learned from his new serpentine master that the reason for trying to lure the PCs here was because the naga knew they had been staying in Joachim's ruined tower and believed them to be friends of Joachim, and wanted them to bring Joachim to the caves so that the naga can sacrifice him as part of some sort of mad ritual. The snake-handler was sent back out to rejoin his friends, telling them that he had seen a treasure deeper in the caves but that it was trapped, and so the group would need a powerful mage (perhaps like Joachim?) to get to it safely.

The session finished up with the assassin interrogating the captured dark elf while the princess and elven warrior travelled to the keep to acquire healing herbs to use to help treat the snake-handler's injuries. When they returned, the dark elf was dead (some over-zealous interrogation) - the PCs acquired some information, but I can't now remember what it was! There was also an argument between the illusionist and the assassin about Joachim's final fate should the PCs catch up with him - the assassin won, and the illusionist accepted that Joachim was beyond redemption, having been evil (as evidenced by the black arrows) before becoming possessed, and hence that the only option was to kill him. But the illusionist also had the assassin promise that, whatever is done to Joachim, must be done double to the possessing balrog.

The next session began with the PCs travelling as a group down to the keep, to spend the night. They arrived in the evening and received a warm greeting, as news had travelled over the preceding two years that the elven princess was in the region, and the dignitaries of the keep were happy to welcome her. Unfortunately, the best apartments were already taken by the travellers who had arrived with the wagon. The PCs (and players) had assumed it was a merchant wagon, but in fact it was a wagon travelling from Urnst west to Hardby to deliver gifts for the wedding of the Gynarch of Hardby to Jabal the Red, a mage of the same cabal to which the PC illusionist belongs. The PCs had heard rumours of this wedding from travellers while staying in the tower in the Abor-Alz, but this was concrete confirmation.

The princess learned that the person in charge of the wagon, a captain of Urnst named Dame Katarina, was dining with the bailiff of the keep. She also learned that the Dame's confessor, Father Simon, who was accompanying her, was in his apartment. So she went upstairs and introduced herself to him. He turned out to be very charming, but seemed to have a very great obsession with mortality (and a corresponding interest in elven immortality). As the priest plied the princess with brandy, he also contrived at a certain point to have a glass break and cut her hand slightly. He was apologetic, and swept up the shards of glass - but the princess suspected that he wanted her blood for nefarious purposes.

The snake-handler (whose personality descriptors include Always in the Way, Disturbed and A Little Crazy) tried to join the conversation between the princess and the priest, but the priest was very clearly unimpressed by the presence of a rustic shamanic type (who reminded him, as he explained to the princess, of other hermits he had heard of who wander the woods and hills) and directed him very clearly to leave his apartment. So the snake-handler went downstairs and instead made conversation with the wagon guards. After some time, when the princess left the priest's apartment, the priest himself came downstairs to see the snake-handler conversing with the guards. He came out very angry, berating the guards for violating their obligations of silence, and telling the snake-handler to leave. The snake-handler tried to pacify him (or something like that), and failed - so as he left, the priest sent two of the guards after him "to give him a good thrashing". The snake-handler's parting words were "You're an unlucky person." I didn't know what that meant at the time, but the player of the snake-handler was setting up the situation for bringing down a minor curse later on.

Meanwhile, in the common room of the tavern, the assassin, illusionist and ronin were plotting how to steal the wedding treasure from the wagon. Because at this stage I was mostly running the events involving the princess and the snake-handler I wasn't really paying attention to the details of their plan, other than - at an early stage - to confirm that the assassin (who has the best perception skills of the group) could establish that there was a small padlocked chest in the wagon, and also to confirm that the covers made it hard for the illusionist to detect whether or not there was magic in the chest.

After quite a bit of discussion (maybe half-an-hour: the stuff with the princess and the snake-handler went on for a while), they seemed to decide that they wanted to create a distraction, in the form of the illusionist starting a fist-fight with the elf. This may have been triggered by noticing the wagon was two guards down (again, the details escape my memory). One failed Acting roll later, and the tavern keeper was telling them to stop making idiots of themselves and get out of the tavern. The elf did try to take a swing at the illusionist, but the latter's Turn Aside the Blade spell kept him from harm. And the taverner just became more aggravated.

The snake-handler went to find some corner of the keep to lie down in to sleep. When the two wagon guards approached, he managed to persuade them not to thrash him - that his existing bruises, plus a bit of rolling around in the mud and filth, would be enough to make it look like they beat him up. (He was helped in this attempt by summoning a spirit to aid his persuasion.) When the two guards returned to the wagon outside the tavern, the other PCs (except the princess and her retainer, who were sleeping in the tavern) found the snake handler in his corner and joined him for a poor night's sleep (which didn't help the illusionist trying to recover exhaustion from his earlier spell casting).

In the morning, Dame Katarina arrived at the tavern to superintend the departure of the wagon. The illusionist tried to approach her - his own background is a noble one - but with no fine clothes (they had been lost in an earlier session when the ship the PCs were on sunk, and looking terrible after a night sleeping outdoors in a filthy corner of the keep, she dismissed him. (Though, not long after, she did send out the trenchers from the previous evening's dining as food for the "varlets" outside. The PCs, being poor and hungry, ate them. They declined to drink the dregs of last night's wine, though, which were also sent out for them.)

The princess was not too badly hung over, and remembered the shard of glass with her blood on it. She had some awareness that blood can be used in sorcery, and - given the priest's evident obsession with death and immortality - was worried about what it meant. After a brief conversation with Dame Katarina - which made very clear the Dame's extremely high regard for her confessor - the princess shared all this information with her companions, while they tried to contrive some way of delaying the departure of the wagon by a day. (To give them another chance to rob it.) The snake-handler was not part of these conversations, though. He wanted to make good on his remark of the night before, that the priest is an unlucky person. He summoned a spirit in the muck outside the tavern where the wagon was waiting, and the priest slipped over and spoiled his finery. (Mechanically, the remark made the previous night provided the basis for including the PC's Omen-wise skill as a bonus to call the spirit.) Cursing "in the name of all that's holy and unholy" (which the princess heard, and which added to her suspicions about him), he returned inside while servants were called to launder his clothes.

The taking of the priest's fine clothes down to the stream that runs below the foot of the rise on which the keep stands triggered another round of mad scheming and bizarre plots (eg to try and place some sort of triggered debuff on the clothes). While this happened, the snake-handler, still being mostly ignored by the other PCs, made his way up to the cave where the dark elf had been defeated. He wanted to inform his naga master that he had discovered that Joachim was not a friend but an enemy of the other PCs. The naga was happy with this news, and changed the parameters slightly - the snake-handler has to try and persuade the other PCs to bring or lure Joachim to the caves to take their revenge, so that the naga can then actually deliver the killing blow as part of his ritual. The snake-handler also tried to recover the dark elf's mace from the stream where it had fallen in the cavern. He found it but, when trying to grab it in the dark, managed to dislodge it and send it down into a cleft where the stream ran out. So he returned to the keep empty-handed.

Eventually, as the snake-handler returned to the keep, the illusionist and assassin decided to go out and see what was happening down where the priest's finery was being laundered. As far as the two servants were concerned, they had the whole day to skive off washing some clothes in the stream and so had not been making any great haste. As the two PCs approached them, they saw an interesting scene: one of the servants reached into the stream, and pulled out the dark elf's mace! (The players were speculating how a mace could be washed down a stream, and so quickly. In my mind, this was (i) the workings of spirits, who - between the naga, the snake-handler, the princess's retainer and other NPC hermits in the area, are quite active, and (ii) a chance to throw a bone to the player of the illusionist, who had been having a bit of a rough time of things over a few sessions now.)

The PCs walked up. At first the illusionist tried a bluff - "Ah, I see you've found my mace" - but his failed check resulted in the servants telling him to p*ss off right quick. So instead he called up his aura of fear and the servants went running (but taking the mace with them). As the assassin followed them discretely back into the keep, the illusionist took the priest's clothes and hid them under a rock.

Back in the keep, the servants blamed their loss of the clothes on a mad hermit who had come and stolen them, while they went and hid the mace in the loft where they slept. The assassin noted all this, snuck into the loft and stole the mace, which in due course she gave to the illusionist.

The princess, meanwhile, hearing that the priest was now without any finery at all, went to the provisioner and established that some cloth of not-overly-poor quality was available, and so arranged to purchase it and have it tailored for the priest. She returned with the tailor to the priest's apartment, and the assassin - who is skilled at seeming innocuous - also came along (presumably a servant). As the priest stepped behind a screen so the tailor could take his measurements without any embarrassment, the assassin looked around the apartment for the glass shards. She didn't find them, but she did notice something else - a book sitting mostly covered, bound (she could tell, recognising it from some of Joachim's foul tomes she had read as his pupil) in human skin. So she took it! And when she and the illusionist then read it, they confirmed that it was a book of dark rituals for priests of Chemosh, enabling the raising of bodies as undead, or the transformation of the worshipper into a lich.

The PCs then debated what to do - blackmail, confrontation, speaking to the authorities in the keep, etc. The ronin's core conviction is to Confront evil whether it resides in orcs or humanity, and so he persuaded them to go to the authorities and demand that the priest be confronted. At the princess's request the PCs were admitted to see the bailiff, who met with them politely. When they spoke about the episode with the glass and the princess's blood he was politely sceptical - surely it was just an accident! - but then they revealed the book, duly shocking the bailiff. The bailiff decided to call Dame Katarina to join them. The PCs were worried that she might be ensorcelled by the priest (given her evident regard and respect for him) but accepted this course of action. When the Dame arrived, she immediately acknowledged that the priest was carrying a dark tome, but she explained why: the tome had been found in the ancient libraries of Maure Castle in Urnst, and had been recognised as a dark work, and so had been sent to Father Simon - a leading scholar and theologian of Urnst - for investigation. And Father Simon, in turn, had realised that only a powerful mage like Jabal of Hardby could truly discern the significance of the work. Hence, even as they travelled with the wedding gifts for Jabal and the Gynarch, they were also carrying the tome.

The PCs didn't buy this, and continued to press their accusations - relying especially on the episode with the glass and blood, plus also (I suspect) driven by the players' knowledge of their GM's proclivity for including evil cults and cultists in his fantasy RPGing. The session ended when Dame Katarina responded to their accusations by putting herself forward as her confessor's champion, and inviting the PCs to put forward a champion of their own to contest the issue with her - for, as she explained, "No knight who is false can triumph in single combat over a knight who is true." It seems likely that the elven ronin will prosecute the case for the PCs, though the illusionist is angling to get in a try with his mace, pointing to the fact that his Turn Aside the Blade spell can keep him safe.

To conclude this long post: the last time I ran anything with KotB was about 25 years ago. In that earlier game the action didn't leave the keep until the PCs, tracking down connections to evil cults and cultists, found themselves in Critwall. (On that occasion, I located the keep in the Shield Lands rather than near Hardby.)

This time, I think there are clear elements of the keep in play - caves, a suspicious priest, the keep dignitaries - though a lot of what has actually driven the action has been the result not of the module itself but the orientations and aspirations brought into the game by the players and their PCs.

Still, it's always fun to revive this one - and for one of my players, it is actually the first time he has encountered the keep. (When I told the players their PCs could see a keep on the borderlands, everyone else laughed or groaned, but he had to be filled in on the joke. He didn't start RPGing until I inducted him into my RM game in the late 1990s.)

If you're still reading, and have KotB stories of your own, share them!

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Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
I saw this post back in 2015 and thought I'd respond to it as I'd been running a KotB game of my own around that time. I'm finally responding now, almost three years later, because I recently logged into a campaign log I'd been keeping about the game on and was reminded of this thread.

I'd decided to run KotB for a game I was playing with my son. The original plan had been to work it into a MERP game we were playing, but when I began to research the adventure for some ideas on how to run it, I came across the D&D Next playtest, which was going on at the time, and its adaptation of the Caves of Chaos. We decided to use the playtest rules and to set the game in Greyhawk, loosely following the suggestion in RttKotB. I thought the "Dreadmarsh" area to the east of the Yeomanry seemed like a good fit for the lands of chaos mentioned in the module.

My son's character was a wood elf rogue with the guild artisan background. It was decided that he was a bladesmith from a family of wood elves that originated in the Dreadwood but had become a member and agent of the Weaponsmith's Guild of Longspear. His patron, the Master of the guild, was sending him on a mission to rescue a merchant who was important to the guild and had gone missing a week before when his caravan was waylaid on the eastern road, possibly by goblins. For that purpose, the rogue was given a riding horse and was dispatched to the Keep, a few miles west of where the ambush occurred.

After travelling for a week, mostly following the course of the Javan river under cloudy skies, wind, and rain, the rogue arrived at the Keep. He spent the first few days frequenting the tavern and met a band of mercenaries, a jolly priest, and a hill dwarf fighter on successive days. He also made contact with the local merchants' guild, which was offering a 100 gp reward for the rescue of the merchant, and gathered rumors as to the merchant's possible whereabouts and the mysterious location known as the Caves of Chaos.

The rogue's player decided to organize an expedition to the Caves and assembled a party consisting of the priest and his acolytes, the hill dwarf fighter, and four hired mercenaries. They traveled east along the road until midday when they left the road and headed towards a forest which rose to the north. They came to a high meadow in the afternoon where they made camp. That night a thunderstorm came upon them, and a heavy rain continued to fall into the next day.

They pressed on to the northeast across the meadow when the rain lifted the next morning. After passing through more dense forest, they came to a ravine and entered a cave inhabited by a tribe of hobgoblins. They killed thirteen hobgoblins as they found their way to the chamber of the Hobgoblin Warlord, at which time the priest and his acolytes turned on the rest of the party, injuring them with magic and leaving them for dead. The entire party was captured, but the rogue, who still remained conscious, called for a parley with the warlord, and ransomed himself and one of the mercenaries for 43 gp, agreeing to return with more money to ransom his companions. A light rain fell as the two made their way out of the ravine, having found that their horses were gone, and camped in the large clearing in the forest that they had passed through on the previous day. The rain continued into the predawn hours.

The next day dawned clear with little wind. The rogue and the mercenary returned to the ravine and attacked a cave inhabited by kobolds. They killed nine kobolds before they were driven out, taking one prisoner. The rogue's player interrogated the prisoner, who gave him a map of the kobold lair and some general information about the ravine. The prisoner was released, and a parley was called for with the kobolds' leader, the Trap Lord, who eventually emerged to negotiate. The rogue's player proposed forming an alliance with the kobolds, but the Trap Lord refused due to a failed Persuasion check and instead gave the rogue some information about the tribe of goblins across the ravine.

The rest of the day was spent hiding in a small grove of trees, and at dusk, the rogue and the mercenary sneaked back into the hobgoblin tunnels and found a torture chamber where the hill dwarf fighter, the other mercenaries, and some other prisoners were being kept. The rogue slew the two guards and released his friends and the other four human prisoners: the lost merchant, his wife, and their two caravan guards. They escaped from the caves and journeyed back to the Keep through the night, their way lighted by a waning crescent moon.

The ten companions arrived at the Keep before daybreak as clouds began to gather. They were admitted and told that the priest and his acolytes had returned the day before, leading the party’s horses and claiming that the rest of the party had been slain. The rogue's player then publicly accused the priest of using dark magic. Guards were sent to the priest’s house and arrested him and his acolytes. The rogue was given a reward for rescuing the merchant, and the merchant's wife requested to join the party as the rogue's apprentice, offering her magic dagger as payment to be delivered upon completion of the apprenticeship, which terms the rogue's player accepted. The merchant's guards also offered their services to the party for one year in exchange for their rescue, requesting only living expenses.

That night, there was a thunderstorm with high winds in the midnight and predawn hours, and two days later, a party consisting of the rogue, the hill dwarf fighter, the merchant's wife and guards, and the ransomed mercenary, traveled back to the Caves with the goals of recovering their captured gear and taking revenge on the hobgoblins. The other mercenaries were staying at the Keep until their equipment was retrieved. The party camped in the forest nearby as light rain fell throughout the night.

Clouds persisted through the next day. The party left the mercenary to guard the horses and attacked the hobgoblin cave once more, but this time, the hobgoblins had set a guard near the door. After much fighting, the warlord herself along with her personal guard came to meet the invaders. Many hobgoblins were slain, and the merchant's wife and one of his guards lay unconscious, but the hobgoblins were finally defeated.

The campaign was abandoned at this point and hasn't been resumed. I'd like to take it up again, but there may be a lack of enthusiasm from my son, possibly due to my use of the priest's treachery as scripted by Gary Gygax. When it happened in the game, my son wanted to know if it was in the adventure or if I'd just made it up. I told him I was following the adventure's instructions for that NPC, but If I was to run this again, I'd make sure it was telegraphed more effectively.


[MENTION=6787503]Hriston[/MENTION], thanks for replying to my old thread!

Your last paragraph caught me a bit by surprise - I hadn't guessed from the earlier passages that the betrayal played out so contentiously at the table. I've always felt that NPC treachery is treacherous terrain for a GM, and it seems that your experience confirmed that.

The parleying you decribe I also found interesting - though I was a bit disappointed that the heroes failed to follow through on their ransom promise to the hobgoblins! But that to one side, I think ransom, imprisonment, etc is really very underused in FRPGing (I think maybe the D&D hp system of find-until-dead-at-zero helps contribute to this). I also think a change might have taken place in the early-to-mid 80s, from relying on the reaction dice to determine the outcomes of encounters, to a greater degree of evil NPCs attack on sight or an expectation that good PCs will never negotiate with evil NPCs.

I was also intrigued by the role that weather seemed to play in the backdrop to your game. I must admit I don't use weather very much.


Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
[MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION], you're welcome! I'm glad I finally got around to it. So far no one has chided me for posting in a three-year necro, so I guess I made it in on time. :)

The betrayal by the jolly priest wasn't so much contentious as it was both surprising and disappointing for the player. This was a solo game, but I was running the adventure as-written, so he was encouraged, both by me as DM and by some of the NPCs he met, to surround himself with a party of NPCs. In hindsight, I think this was a little unfair. I played the priest as close to Gygax's description as I could, presenting him as a warrior against evil in all of its forms. The one red flag that seemed to give the player pause in accepting the priest into the party was that he didn't want any share of the treasure, claiming that thwarting evil was his only goal, whereas the hill dwarf fighter insisted on a full share and the mercenaries' fees weren't exactly cheap. The player ignored these misgivings, however, and not wanting to tip my hand, I didn't play up this detail as much as I now think I should have. Following Gygax's advice, I waited for a critical moment to spring the trap. With the party deep in the hobgoblins' lair, facing their warlord, there was no chance of victory once the priest and his acolytes switched sides, which made sense to me as to why the priest would choose that moment to strike. I rationalized the fact that the priest had helped to kill hobgoblin soldiers up until that point by making up some backstory to the effect that the hobgoblin warlord had rejected entering into an alliance with the priest in the past and that the priest meant to both weaken the warlord as punishment and offer the captives as an enticement to reconsider his offer. Another piece of backstory in my game is that the jolly priest, while associated with the cultists in the temple of evil chaos, is secretly attempting to set up his own locus of power within the caves in order to overthrow his master, and has made a pact with a pit fiend to this end as well. In any case, I think the player was right in feeling that a situation that seemed winnable to suddenly be revealed as unwinnable due to formerly hidden information was unfair game-play.

It has been a long time, but I think the attack on the kobolds was made in an attempt to raise the ransom funds to make good on the bargain with the hobgoblins, but when it didn't prove to be as easy as first thought, other tactics were resorted to including hostage-taking and negotiation. Unfortunately, CHA is this character's lowest score. Finally, the rogue decided to resort to his class's strength by using stealth instead of the frontal assaults that had been tried so far, which proved to be much more successful, so I think that was actually a good moment in the development of the character.

As far as weather, I was using the weather generation tables from the Greyhawk boxed set. I had decided to set the campaign in Greyhawk and liked the idea of there being weather tables particular to the setting. Having used them, they're a little cumbersome but do a good job of producing the sort of naturalistic result I was after.

I thought it was interesting that you also decided to use the Keep in a Greyhawk campaign. My plans for this campaign were to eventually work in as many of the classic Greyhawk modules as I could, but since KotB is an old favorite and also written by Gygax, that was my starting point. Really, it's a module that pretty much provides its own setting. I think if we ever do continue this campaign, I could see many levels of play revolving around the Keep's immediate area.

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