Revisiting The Keep on the Borderlands

Schmoe

Explorer
Earlier this year, at my son’s request, I began running a D&D game for he and two of his friends. Although they were all familiar with D&D in some form of another, this would be the first ongoing game that any of them participated in. As I wanted the introduction to the game to be about the kids exploring what they could do, rather than running through some pre-set adventure, I decided to start with the original sandbox – The Keep on the Borderlands.

As most people who’ve played D&D know, the module B2 – The Keep on the Borderlands can be said to be the original classic. With its inclusion into the D&D Basic rules, virtually everyone who started playing D&D in the 80’s played through this module. The adventure, which can be found on the DM’s Guild, is truly a barebones module, and it shows its age. While I did very little prep of the adventure for our first few sessions, as we got into it, and as the kids have shown that they are more interested, I’ve begun adding my own touches.

I wanted to share some of the modifications and additions that I’ve been making to the Keep on the Borderlands with folks here on ENWorld, both the details of the changes and my reasoning for making the change. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this is how I typically run and prepare for games, with which I’ve had good feedback in the past for a variety of groups, but I’m interested in hearing how it compares with the approach that others take. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to use this as a guide for new DM’s as an example of how to add your own touches to an adventure. It should give an idea of the type and amount of work that can go into a module and give new DM’s something by which to set their expectations. In fact, one of the boys in our group has already said he would like to learn how to DM, and once we’re done with this module, I’d like to give him my B2 hardcopy, along with my notes, and point him to this thread as something to read.

As I go through these, it’s important to remember that I didn’t just sit down and create all of these all at once. It has been a slow accumulation of tweaks and nudges that I wrote down as I had ideas. I didn’t force myself to do any of this, I just documented my ideas as I thought about the adventure and thought about what I felt was missing. I won’t be presenting these in any particular order, either, as I have no idea what came first, second, or even last any more. So without further ado, thanks for reading this far, and I’m looking forward to any comments or feedback you have!
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #1 – NPC Roster

Change: I created a very simple spreadsheet for the NPCs in the Keep that lists the title (Jeweler, Smithy, Bailiff, etc), name, brief personality notes, and a numbered reference to where the NPC is described in the module.

Reason: There are a lot of NPCs in the Keep. I’d like the Keep to feel like a dynamic place, with people moving around and want to be able to have NPCs show up here and there. I can’t keep all of the details of everyone in my head, so it’s nice to have a quick reference sheet to look at when I need to find an NPC and remember if she’s grumpy, or greedy, or overly friendly. This took about 30 minutes, but I felt it was critical for the long term to make the Keep itself a somewhat interesting place.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #2 – Enemy Stats

Change: I created better statistics for some of the key enemies in the Caves of Chaos. I’m using 3.5 edition rules, so this entailed writing up 3.5 edition stat blocks for the key enemies.

Reason: I went through the first few sessions by using standard Monster Manual stats for the humanoids and monsters, and winging any modifications to leaders based on descriptions in the module text. After that, I decided that I wanted to customize the leaders more in order to provide a more effective challenge within the 3.5 edition rules. I certainly could have continued to wing it, but I’m more comfortable with well-defined stats. I made sure to only create stat blocks for the key enemies, leaving all of the prisoners, slaves, and Keep NPCs unchanged. This is not something I’d need to do if I wasn’t converting the module from Basic rules to 3.5 rules. It took me about an hour to write up or copy the stat blocks I wanted, but I also enjoy creating 3.5 edition stat blocks, so it was fun for me.
 

JeffB

Legend
Neat thread. I will enjoy this. One of my very fave things Gary did (and a small piece from Frank).

Nitpick- Keep is definitely not the original sandbox for D&D. Judges Guild was producing official D&D sandbox stuff for nearly 5 years before B2 surfaced. :)
 
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Schmoe

Explorer
Change #3 – Map Notes

Change: On the Caves of Chaos map, by each cave entrance I wrote the type of humanoid that lives in the complex. On the Keep map, in each building I wrote the name of the building (smithy, tavern, etc).

Reason: As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to value quick references more. I look at the maps constantly during play, so the more information I can put on the maps, the more I can focus on running the game before I need to hunt for the detailed information in the module. For example, knowing at a glance which caves house which humanoids allows me to quickly figure out if the orcs are interested in a giant melee outside the hobgoblin caves, or if instead the goblins would notice and send reinforcements. Knowing quickly where the smithy is in relation to the trader allows me to have the trader give directions to the party without pausing to hunt down the information in the notes. This took me about 10-15 minutes, but it saves tons of reference time during the game.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Neat thread. I will enjoy this. One of my very fave things Gary did (and a small piece from Frank).
Thanks! I'm glad to hear it, and looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Nitpick- Keep is definitely not the original sandbox for D&D. Judges Guild was producing official D&D sandbox stuff for nearly 5 years before B2 surfaced. :)
Fair enough :D I wish I had gotten into the JG stuff more when I was young. I think I can still pedantically claim correctness if you qualify it as the original sandbox for the majority of players at the time.
 

Bill Reich

Visitor
I am definitely going to follow this thread. Keep is the only module that I ever ran, although I bought plenty and read them for pleasure and for ideas. It fit into an area of my gameworld and it was lots of fun.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #4 – Humanoid Motivations

Change: I detailed more information about each of the humanoid groups, including why they were in the Caves of Chaos and what they were trying to do. I determined that the Ogre and Kobolds were the original inhabitants and had always been there. The Cult moved in about 10 years ago, bringing the hobgoblins and their goblin lackeys along. The gnolls were drawn by the Chaos source of power that the cult was building, though they haven’t allied with anyone and will opportunistically attack any other group to enslave and eat them. The minotaur likewise was called by the Chaos, but keeps to himself. The orcs and their bugbear “allies” are the most recent arrivals and are currently fighting against the hobgoblins and goblins for the favored position of power in the eyes of the cult. The cult, for their part, are content to let the humanoids fight it out for now. They are focused on consolidating their power and trying to gain either converts or sacrifices from the nearby Keep or from caravans that they attack.

Reason: The module gives very little background information about the Caves of Chaos. There’s a cult, there are a bunch of humanoids (orcs, kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and gnolls), and there’s a rivalry between the hobgoblins and goblins on one side, with the orcs (and sometimes gnolls) on the other side. But why are they all there in this small ravine? I wanted to tie the groups into a cohesive story with the cult at the center, as well as provide a reasonable history as to how and why the groups are all in the Caves of Chaos. This arrangement will help draw the PC’s towards a climactic confrontation with the cult, and it’s also easier for me to run the opponents in a realistic way if I have a goodunderstanding of their motivations.

Because I’ve decided that gnolls are savage and don’t ally with others, I mixed up the alliances a bit from what the module presented. The bugbears came with the orcs as ostensible allies, but they keep their opportunistic nature and will turn on the orcs without a second thought. I want to make sure that I'm distinguishing the different humanoid populations. The Caves have so many different humanoid groups that the encounters could easily begin to feel just like one battle after another against the same opponents, just with different names. Keeping the different motivations distinct helps to distinguish the groups.

I spent a lot of idle time thinking about this over a period of weeks until I was more comfortable with the arrangement, and then it took me about 10-15 minutes to write it down so I wouldn’t forget.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #5 – Lair modifications

Change: I made some adjustments to the kobold and goblin lairs, and I replaced some of the gnolls with hyenas.

In the kobold warrens, I added a cramped, narrow tunnel in the wall between areas 6 and 4 and the connecting hallways. The tunnel rises sharply to about ceiling height and has ledges overlooking each of the halls leading to areas 4 and 6. The kobolds can use these ledges to snipe at the characters, and they can use the tunnel as an escape route so they don't get boxed in. I also described the caves and tunnels as littered with thick debris that restricts movement (difficult terrain) and hides wolf traps beneath the debris.

For the goblin warrens, in areas 17 and 18 I added deadfall traps that can be triggered by crude levers in the respective rooms.

Reason: As I mentioned earlier, I want the humanoid populations to really display different characteristics and pose different challenges so that the Caves of Chaos don’t become a boring slog-fest. Goblins and especially kobolds are known for being sneaky, cowardly, and making frequent use of traps. The goblins already have an ogre and the hobgoblins that they can call on, so I didn’t feel they needed much. The kobolds, on the other hand, needed a little more attention. I’m trying not to turn this into a Tucker’s Kobolds death trap, but these changes should be just enough to get the point across. Adding hyenas to the gnolls introduces some non-humanoid enemies with unusual tactics (trip).

I think about these things in my spare time, and I don’t consider that time spent “working” on the adventure. It’s just me daydreaming about things I like to daydream about and coming up with ideas. Over the last month, I’ve probably spent one to two hours sitting down really thinking hard and writing about how to introduce variety into the lairs. I’ll add more things if I have more ideas, but I’m pretty satisfied with where things are right now.
 

kurowa04

Visitor
My players loved playing through Keep on the Borderlands. They had never played D&D Basic before, only 5e, and so I was motivated to show them what the game was like in its earlier form. They loved the freedom they had to choose their own path and it was a lot of fun for me to add the details to the non-descript NPCs and the characters in the keep. It spawned one of my players' favorite villains, "Broken" Maffew Bartlebee, who was discovered to be the antagonist behind all of the activity in the Caves.

To your point about creating the feel of activity and change within the keep, one of the things that made it really work was having little mini events every time the players went back to the Keep. One of their first return visits they found the bailiff who originally hired them to investigate the caves murdered which spawned a detective like mini-session where they questioned individuals and tried to discover who the perpetrator was. On another they learned that an estate auction was being held after the alleged death of a wealthy merchant (who they later found captured in the caves).
 

Nupo

Visitor
I took that dungeon and split it up into nine different mini dungeons. Also updated it to 3.5 edition at the same time. These mini dungeons can be dropped in almost anywhere, in almost any terrain, or climate. For example, you can have the party come across a merchant wagon that was just attacked by orcs. They track the orcs to one of the mini dungeons to rescue the merchants, and wallah you have a quick little adventure. I use them all the time, you can make a few small changes (like changing the orcs to duergar) and it is a whole new adventure with very little prep time.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #6 – New Developments

Change: I have started introducing new events that occur when the party returns to town, or adjustments in the enemies at the Caves of Chaos when the party returns to the caves. One of the recent events that occurred when the party returned to the Keep is that they found a heightened guard presence at the gates and throughout the keep. In addition, the Castellan implemented the new policy that all visitors to the Keep must pay a 5 sp tax to keep their weapons at hand, and those weapons must be bound even if the tax is paid. As the players asked around, they found that this is because the daughter of the provisioner vanished in the night, and for his own reasons the Castellan suspects foul play.

Reason: This keeps things changing and prevents the locations from becoming stagnant. The development with the missing daughter can eventually tie in to the corrupt priest at the Keep, and it also helps tie activities at the Keep to the enemies in the Caves. Bear in mind that I have a group of very new players. I want to make sure that the players can see that things happen even without their involvement and are encouraged to think of the place as an organic location.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
My players loved playing through Keep on the Borderlands. They had never played D&D Basic before, only 5e, and so I was motivated to show them what the game was like in its earlier form. They loved the freedom they had to choose their own path and it was a lot of fun for me to add the details to the non-descript NPCs and the characters in the keep. It spawned one of my players' favorite villains, "Broken" Maffew Bartlebee, who was discovered to be the antagonist behind all of the activity in the Caves.
Nice :). Every player is different, though. One of my players has played before, but I get the feeling that his experience was in a heavily story-driven game where he was expected to follow a particular story. He has asked several times "what is our goal here?" When I recap the situation and what he knows, he always picks it back up, but I'm going to have one of the town NPCs engage him and specifically ask him to do something, either to rescue a prisoner, or cleanse the Caves, or something similar. Some people do best with a little bit of direction, too.

To your point about creating the feel of activity and change within the keep, one of the things that made it really work was having little mini events every time the players went back to the Keep. One of their first return visits they found the bailiff who originally hired them to investigate the caves murdered which spawned a detective like mini-session where they questioned individuals and tried to discover who the perpetrator was. On another they learned that an estate auction was being held after the alleged death of a wealthy merchant (who they later found captured in the caves).
Hey, great minds think alike! Notice my latest update... ;)
 

Schmoe

Explorer
I took that dungeon and split it up into nine different mini dungeons. Also updated it to 3.5 edition at the same time. These mini dungeons can be dropped in almost anywhere, in almost any terrain, or climate. For example, you can have the party come across a merchant wagon that was just attacked by orcs. They track the orcs to one of the mini dungeons to rescue the merchants, and wallah you have a quick little adventure. I use them all the time, you can make a few small changes (like changing the orcs to duergar) and it is a whole new adventure with very little prep time.
That's actually an awesome idea. I'll have to remember that one.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
I am definitely going to follow this thread. Keep is the only module that I ever ran, although I bought plenty and read them for pleasure and for ideas. It fit into an area of my gameworld and it was lots of fun.
Thanks for reading. I run a mix of modules and my own homebrew. As I've grown older, I find that I never run a module "as-is" anymore, I always end up making tweaks here and there. I wonder if this is more related to the type of module I run, though. For one such as Keep on the Borderlands, it's a pretty open playground that really begs to be customized. I don't generally run modules with tight story-lines, although there are a few that have caught my eye over the years (Red Hand of Doom, Zeitgeist, to name a few).
 

Nupo

Visitor
I actually prefer these kinds of bare bones modules. They're what I'm used to. I started with 1st edition back in '79. I prefer modules that are pieces of the bigger campaign, not the whole thing. I prefer for the big picture to happen organically. I have some other old 1st edition modules that I sometimes convert and use, but mostly just create things myself. Never been a fan of the highly directed "Adventure Paths." About the only thing I have purchased from gaming stores in years is dice. I always give a new set to someone when I introduce them to the game.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Fair enough :D I wish I had gotten into the JG stuff more when I was young. I think I can still pedantically claim correctness if you qualify it as the original sandbox for the majority of players at the time.
All deference to [MENTION=518]JeffB[/MENTION] but I'll second the "original sandbox for majority of players" line. Due to its widely printed status, B2 was my first sandboxy module (my first module, actually!), and first for all the players I knew back then. I had never even heard of Judges Guild until sometime in the late 80s. I think I've probably used B2 to start new groups off at least four times!
 

JeffB

Legend
Well sure, Keep was printed in orders of magnitude more than the Wilderlands. And Keep was far more high profile. But it's definitely not the original sandbox, and Jacquays was doing it in Dungeoneer too in 1976/1977.

Don't get me wrong, you will find no bigger fanboy of Gary, than I! it's simply a nitpick and just giving credit where credit is due for bringing the concept to print (and JG was official D&D material long before Keep was printed) :)
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #7 – Integrating the Hermit

Change: I added a conversation overheard at the bar between three guards where one mentions that the hermit living north of the keep is a “monster who eats children.” I also have one of the slaves in area #40 who has been driven mad and will rave to the party that the cult is going to doom them all, and only the hermit knows their secret. Finally, I’ve decided that the curate in the Keep knows how to approach the hermit without the hermit attacking on sight. Essentially, the party must wear crowns of leaves and always, always speak in the third person.

Reason: It always bugged me that every encounter in the wilderness was just a straight up combat encounter as written. I also always thought that there was a lot of role-playing potential with the hermit. This set of linked clues allows me to give the party a chance to get some vital information from the hermit and tie him into the adventure in a more meaningful way. It should also be fun seeing the players try to have a conversation strictly in the third person. :D

I spent probably half an hour to an hour writing up the conversation, thinking about how to tie things together, and coming up with a key for the party to be able to interact with the hermit safely. I'm really hoping to use this one.
 

Schmoe

Explorer
Change #8 – Prisoner notes

Change: I gave names to most of the prisoners in the Caves and jotted down notes about any ties they have back to the Keep.

Reason: I’m terrible with random names at the spur-of-the-moment. When left to my own devices, all of my NPC’s become either Hank or Sue, and there can only be so many Sue’s in the world. I’ve tried having lists of names handy to choose from, but that just becomes another piece of paper I have to shuffle through my stack to find, and I end up shuffling through papers for two minutes then calling the NPC Sue because I can’t find the list.

In addition, having put some forethought into the background of the slaves will help me make them seem like more fully developed NPCs. The module already provides some background (but no names) for the prisoners in area 24, but there’s no such information for those in area 40. I spent less than an hour on this.
 

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