Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Secret of the Keep on the Borderlands

For those who missed it, James Raggi is a genius.

In his latest greatest post over at LotFP, Raggi does a brief analysis of the old TSR adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, including what he feels it does right and what it does NOT. His post includes a comparison between the treasure found in the Caves of Chaos (the local dungeon) and the treasure found in the Keep, with a startling realization: the Keep yields the bigger payday (in terms of magic items and outright treasure) than the Caves…by a wide mile.

Which reminded ME of something I realized years ago (or at least sniffed around) but subsequently forgot in my 20+ year hiatus from Dungeons & Dragons:

The Keep IS the target objective of the adventure.

That is to say, pillaging the keep should be the main goal of any adventuring party.

This becomes immediately apparent with a little scrutiny for any player that grew up pre-Mentzer, pre-2nd edition. After all, the Moldvay generation wasn’t taught PCs were supposed to be “heroic adventurers.” Instead, we were told that you should cannibalize your dead party member’s pack for treasure, and the only reason to take the “high road” is to keep on the good side of the party’s Lawful cleric. To folks like me, “rogue” isn’t a class…it’s the Tao of Adventuring.

Let’s talk about it.

Exhibit A: The title of the module.

Early TSR adventure modules don’t beat around the bush: the title inevitable tells you the TARGET OBJECTIVE of the adventure. The Tomb of Horrors. The Lost Shrine of Tamoachan. White Plume Mountain. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Aerie of the Slave Lords. If a PLACE is named in the module title, that place is the site the PCs are expected to explore, invade, and loot.

B2’s title is NOT “The Caves of Chaos.” It is THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS. Obviously, the Keep IS the target.

This explains the detailed key of the Keep, front and center to the module. The main “dungeon” is the Keep, a well-detailed, site-based adventure. Everything else is an afterthought. What’s the next section to the module after the Keep?

Adventure Outside the Keep

Indeed. Once you’re finished looting the Keep, then you can participate in other adventures outside. But the implication is one must first have an adventure or two within the Keep.

Exhibit B: The Key to the Keep

Every single man-at-arms and soldier is detailed in the Keep. Each tower, its contingent of men, info on their shifts, info on their supplies and armaments, is detailed…information that can only be useful in the case of an invasion. And yet no part of the module involves any incursion from the Caves, or the outlying monster communities (the lizard folk keep to their swamps and the bandits rob folks traveling the road). In fact, the implication is that while the Chaotic temple at the Caves has an interest in keeping tabs on the Keep, the humanoid tribes are too disorganized to launch an actual assault on the Keep.

This latter has been my primary motivation for adventuring parties I’ve run through B2: the threat that the humanoids might unite, and the need to exterminate them while they are still divided. Reasonable enough…but if that’s what the module is about, then why do we need to know how many soldiers staff the south tower and the number of crossbow bolts they carry?

Why indeed.

Why bother to describe the treasure in each location…the bank, the trader, the private apartments, the castellan’s fortress. Sure, one might want to know the magic items possessed by the Keep’s denizens in case a party needs a “reward” of some sort…by what the need to detail the coinage and treasure? Unless it is designed to be stolen. And if an NPC were to steal a jeweled set of writing implements (or whatever) why would the actual gp value of such an item be important to know?

It only becomes important for PCs who want to steal it and pawn it.

The Keep IS the objective.

Exhibit C: The Detailed Personalities of the Keep

While one can play D&D in the simple fashion of “kick in door, fight monster, steal treasure” (i.e. the dumb-dumb way), as an RPG the game shines when it highlights the features of an RPG: creative problem solving, negotiation and social interaction, outside-the-box thinking for overcoming challenges. The D&D game comes alive when players are forced to think as if they were present in their characters’ shoes.

The Keep offers far more opportunities for these “shiny moments” than the Caves of Chaos do.

The Caves, for the most part, are simple monster dens. The Keep has hooks and colorful personalities…from the easily seduced gate guard to the unscrupulous trader to the rivalry between the Keep’s curate and the visiting itinerant priest to the officers of the watch regularly found boozing it up in the tavern (implication: drunks).

The political implications of the Inner Bailey (invitation only) is especially interesting: in all the years I’ve run B2, no party has ever visited the inner bailey or the castellan’s fortress. Not only is it the seat of power for the dungeon/Keep, it is the lair of the baddest monster in the module (the castellan!) and the main treasure hole.

When you consider the Keep as a dungeon, the outer bailey is “Level 1” and the inner bailey is “Level 2.” And with that perspective, the Caves of Chaos (and the other minor adventures outside the Keep) become a means to an end…they are the “key” to gaining entry to the Inner Bailey. Only those who can “prove themselves” can get in to the IB (without mounting a suicidal frontal assault), and doing the Caves’ “sidequest” is the ticket to getting a spy or scout into the castellan’s sanctuary.

But you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity. You’ve got to think outside-the-box. You have to approach the adventure as “GIVEN that the Keep is the objective, what’s the best way to crack this nut?”

Exhibit D: Floor Plans of the Keep

At the end of the module, the reader is instructed to draw up floor plans for individual buildings of the Keep. Not the dungeon…the Keep! Examples are given of the inn and maybe one other building (I don’t have my module in front of me at the moment).

Why would one need to draw floor plans of Keep structure? Because Gygax is trying to teach 10 year olds how to be decorators/designers/architects?

OR is it because it might be tactically useful to know the lay-out of the battleground when you’re fighting man-at-arms house to house?

I think the latter.

Now in all seriousness, it’s quite possible Gygax did NOT write B2 with the conscious idea that players should choose to assault the Keep. But even if it wasn’t conscious, he provided all the tools and information one needs to do so. Perhaps he felt that such should be an option (after all, the choices in an RPG are only limited by one’s imagination) but decided that stating so implicitly would be “sending the wrong message” (i.e. that over-throwing the one bastion of civilization in the area would be both good and desirable).

In fact, there ARE some inherent dangers in sacking the Keep, and not just dying at the end of a pole-arm. If the Keep SHOULD fall, there is a strong suggestion that it will open the way for humanoids to invade the civilized lands. Treasure taken from the Keep will still need to be pawned/changed somewhere (the nearby monsters aren’t likely to pay for it), which means finding a suitable fence, possibly requiring a dangerous over-land journey burdened by the loot of the Keep.

Of course, such a journey might be made easier if the PCs can wipe out the bandits prior to sacking the Keep (perhaps as part of a bid for that inner bailey invitation?)…or if the PCs co-opt and join the bandits for mutual profit (in the sacking of the Keep).

Oh, I dig it. So many more possibilities when you stop looking at the Keep on the Borderlands as a “home base” and start seeing it for what it REALLY is: a fat prize ready to be plucked by a band of ambitious cut-throat adventurers.

You know, a sleep spell knocks out a lot of men-at-arms.
; )


  1. Does that mean the 23 gp in the breadbox is the secret objective in The Village of Hommlet?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I've seen folks rob various targets in the Keep over the years, even a bit of brawling and violence requiring to escape but never a frontal assault. thieves have a darn good chance of climbing walls and the keep has a whole lot of walls.

    @Zak, "The Village of Hommlet" isn't the target of that module but the super secret objective is surviving in Hommlet while exploring and adventuring.

  4. Personally I like the idea that this is a sandbox adventure - Here's the keep, here's the local wilderness, here's the Caves of Chaos. Now what do you adventurers want to do with it?
    I certainly agree with
    "Now in all seriousness, it’s quite possible Gygax did NOT write B2 with the conscious idea that players should choose to assault the Keep. But even if it wasn’t conscious, he provided all the tools and information one needs to do so. Perhaps he felt that such should be an option (after all, the choices in an RPG are only limited by one’s imagination) but decided that stating so implicitly would be “sending the wrong message” (i.e. that over-throwing the one bastion of civilization in the area would be both good and desirable). "
    If Gary had really wanted PCs to attack and loot the Keep, I think he would have said so more plainly.

  5. I don't buy it as far as being the intention of module when it was released. No other modules of the era or Gygax D&D material centered around pillaging civilization (other than Lankhmar-ish thief-ish ubran adventure stuff). The keep is fleshed out because Gygax loved indulging in filling in the blanks in particular areas. The 1E DMG and PHB are full of that.

    That keep is great material that can be dropped in any campaign. I'm fairly certain I played a game in the 80's that involved a mass combat invasion of that keep.

  6. KotB is a classic arnesonian CHAINMAIL skirmish set up between the forces of Law vs. chaos and their respective hero units with neutral forces (bandits/lizardmen) and neutral heroes (hermit+puma/spiders) that could be swayed to either side. D&D simply allowed for the players to run individual veterans, mediums, and cutpurses instead of one entire army. I suppose wiley PC's could loot the keep during the battle and make off with a goodly amount of loot.

    I wrote up KotB using arneson's FFC and Chainmail a while back:


  7. A started a group of characters off arriving at the Temple of Chaos, the evil priest gave them three months to topple the Keep and left the details up to them. Some of the cave tribes were wiped out and some joined the cause. A great time was had by all.

  8. And for the record as I show in my CHAINMAIL write up. The caves of chaos has the superior army. More hero units, and about 10 more units of normal troops than the keep. So Raggi is entertaining in his blog post, but wrong on the relative strength of CoC vs. KotB.

    The PC's will need to sway the neutral forces to the side of Law in order to turn the tide of the battle and conduct a gurrilla campaign against the caves in order to defeat the forces of chaos.

  9. Actually, we did rather ef up the little village, once we got bored of the moathouse. I'm pretty sure if you stat it, we will kill it, given enough time.

  10. On the subject of it stetching verisimilitude to have a horde of neigh random collection of orcs (two waring tribes!) goblins bugbears ogres and evil priests, my answer is a resounding. "duh!". It's the force of chaos made flesh in those caves. The one thing going for the side of law, is that they're organized lawfully. That to me is the meticulousness of their write up in kotb. We know the job of every soldier down to his sleeping quarters.

  11. Didn't Jolly Blackburn already come to this conclusion with Little Keep on the Borderland for the old 1eAD&D style Hackmaster? Unlike most of the other 'hacked' 1e adventures Little Keep was more of an expansion, but still with the idea that the players were looking for treasure and xp wherever it might be found.

  12. @ Luke: I think you're probably right, I'm just thinking SUBCONSCIOUSLY Gary might have been interested in a Caves versus Keep scenario, old wargamer that he was!

    @ UWS: I did my own work-up of the Caves forces versus the Keep that was suitable for the mass combat system of my own B/X Companion. By my calculations, the Keep was stronger, though I may be mis-remembering.

    Yes, I DID want to run a mass combat (though with the PCs on the side of the "good guys"); however, the whole idea of looting the Keep has seized on my imagination.
    ; )

    @ Pierce: I want to run in YOUR games!
    : )

    @ JasonZ: Little Keep is one of the HM modules I wanted but never got, so I can't speak to it. Sounds like their style, though!

  13. Eh, maybe. I think it's more like the situation is set up to be interesting. There's no particular goal, but players can make their own. That goal might be to loot the Keep, and the information is there to do so, but that's probably not even something that Gygax was thinking about when he wrote it (except, as you say, perhaps subconsciously).

  14. Except this is contradicted straight away, starting from the blurb on the cover:

    [...]plus an interesting area for characters to base themselves in (the Keep) before setting out to explore the Caves of Chaos!

    Sometimes it's useful to read a source beforehand ;)

  15. Jokes apart, I think the setup of B2 is so generic, that apart from what is stated on the cover, everything could happen (and in my campaigns, HAS happened.) I recall the first time I ran the module, I only had the red box, the characters where 1st level, and they were in awe of the Castellan, which I told them was an Hero of 4th level, an unthinkable (at the time) goal. It turned out that the Castellan was Lawful; but in a tyrannic way, so they took him in antipathy and made a long term goal of stealing the keep from him.

  16. Gygax was all about the sandbox. KotB was a sandbox. So was Hommlet/ToEE. Even when a plot hook led you to a dungeon (e.g., defeat the giants), it was basically sandbox once you got there. Vault of the Drow was the ultimate sandbox, and it best demonstrates the principle. Initially, the party presumably goes there to avenge the people killed by the Drow-organized giant invasions, but if they stop there, they never encounter Lolth. Clearly, players were meant to explore and develop new missions in response to what they found. Striking alliances with potential enemies was expected. Ditto attacking and robbing targets of opportunity. I don't think Gygax would have been shocked if a party had tried to loot the keep. He would have rolled with it. When you put the players in your sandbox, you give them permission to play within and often beyond its parameters.

  17. If KotB were a CRPG, my little party could be sneaking around pickpocketing everyone, peeking into everything, trying to get as many resources as possible before hitting the Caves. Take Exile: Escape from the Pit for example. In that CRPG, towns have their treasuries detailed and though well-protected you can often make off with them. It's possible to steal from a dragon who you're supposed to get information from, making it hostile to you. They didn't go the route of Pool of Radiance's silver dragon in the NW corner of the overland map (dragon has no treasure and you can't kill it, it just flies away). The programmer of Exile put the treasury there and it's up to you whether you want to try to steal it or not.

    It's kind of like JRPGs where you wander around looting people's cupboards for random potions and 3 GP here and there. Baldur's Gate was bad about that, and Neverwinter Nights made it a continual mini-game to spot the containers you could loot.