Monday, December 28, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 1)

For those of us who started in the D&D hobby with some version of pre-1983 "basic" (Holmes or Moldvay) the adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands is pretty familiar. It was included in those old box sets and many of us cut our teeth on it (as a player or DM or both), back in the day. Many folks, re-entering the hobby after decades (or returning to "old school" play after experience dissatisfaction with latter edition sensibilities) have pulled a weathered copy of the module to fire up a new campaign. I've used it myself for this purpose...more than once! 

The B2 adventure is ubiquitous in old school circles...and in D&D, generally. Towards the end of the 2nd edition era, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was published, a silver anniversary rewrite of the adventure updating the thing while reusing the history and locations found in module. Goodman Games put out a "5th edition conversion and classic homage" called Into the Borderlands -- with the original Roslof art gracing the cover! -- a couple years ago, and that mammoth tome can still be found in stacks at local game shops, including WotC's main retail store here in Seattle. 

The original adventure has been lauded and lambasted; analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized. People have apologized for the module, praised it (and elements of its design), and suggested ways to "rehabilitate" it. Many of us have run it, played it, read it, and blogged about it over the years; on my own blog I see I've already more than 30 posts tagged with the "B2" label...not surprising given the impact it's had on me as a DM. After all, it was the first published adventure scenario I ever picked up.

And now I'm returning to the thing, running it for my kids, albeit using the AD&D system.

[which doesn't require all that much adjustment...really]

Pretty sure I've posted
this image before...
This time, however, is a little different. In past runnings, I've always played the module "straight," i.e. as written and wholly unexamined. The play has been the thing, not the "story" of the Keep and the Caves. And this approach has served MY needs well enough, though frustrating in one respect: players have had difficulty with the challenges presented. Back in my (very brief) BECMI days, I had a party that managed to clean out most of the Caves, earning enough x.p. and treasure that they were ready to move on to a new adventure site. But in the main, I've seen players fail miserably at invading the Caves, losing character after character (and party after party) until finally "giving up" and deciding to take their adventure aspirations elsewhere. 

And none of that has required any more story than what is given in the text. A fortress on the edge of the wilderness. A cave complex occupied by hostile monsters. A band of plucky adventurers looking to score a pile of bloodstained coins. Do you need more "story" than that to have a good time? Not everyone does; I didn't, for a quarter century.

I'm looking at things differently now. I'd like to say that my "needs" as a DM have changed, but only because that's an easy phrase to reel off; there's something more going on in my head that is much harder to articulate. And I'm not going to try right now...suffice is to say that the old approach to running B2 no longer satisfies. The text as written can no longer go "unexamined."

SO, my plan (such as it ever is) is to start a new series of posts on this hoary, ancient module, even as I run it (again) for my children. They will include my thoughts on the thing, its setting, and my modifications to the adventure as I try to beat it into some semblance of a "useful play aid." Because that's how I'm looking at the module at the moment...not as an adventure to be "won," but as a campaign opportunity to be explored without any sort of expected outcome.  Doing some examination and analysis will (I believe) allow me to do a better job running the adventure that way.

This series (I am assuming it will be a series...there's a lot to discuss here) will, by necessity, contain a lot of *SPOILERS* because, I'm sorry, if this type of thing is at all interesting to you then I'm going to assume that you are already familiar with the module and none of the things I "reveal" will ruin the adventure. Not that there's a whole lot of surprises in the adventure as written (though more than I want to enumerate), but you can consider this my one and only warning on the issue.

All right, that's it. I'm still putting together the order in which I want to do this, but I'll start in earnest with "Part 2" of this series...hopefully before the New Year!   ; )



  1. If it helps, I have reviewed as many titles related to B2 Keep on the Borderlands as a I can, ultimately finishing with the Goodman Games reprint.

    1. Hey, Pookie: I actually came to your blog a little "late in the game" and misses most (all?!) of those B2 reviews. I will be sure to check them out...thanks!

  2. Ironically, I was one of those guys who got B1 with my boxed set of Basic (Holmes edition). I went on to get the Expert (Cook edition), but never bothered to pick up the Moldvay Basic box or B2 (never saw the need). Indeed, the first physical copy I ever owned was the Goodman Games special re-issue (which I got for all the B1 goodness, not the B2 stuff). So, in a weird vicarious way, I am looking forward to this series because it will tread familiar ground I never trod.

  3. One recent and very good 'zine surrounding B2 is the "Beyond the Borderlands" zine by Alex Damaceno published by Swordfish Islands

    For this issue, the author turned the lands surrounding the keep and the caves into a hex-crawl

  4. I'm interested in this take on B2 too.

  5. Returning to the Keep is always a fun time. Just like returning to the playoffs!!!

    GO Hawks !!!

  6. It's a module that even I, the guy-who-doesn't play-D&D, have run a dozen times over. I think I've only played through it once and even then not through the entire adventure.

    I always applied a story to it and it because a key location in several of my 'Winghorn Guard' campaigns.

    I am curious to see where you go with this.