Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: Keep on the Borderlands

Over the next few months, I'll be reading some of Gary Gygax's more well-known works and writing about my reaction to them. I've been a gamer since 1993, but I've never actually had the opportunity to read anything by Gygax -- though his old-school approach has influenced my gaming sensibilities of late.

At first blush, Dungeon Module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands comes off as exceptionally detailed (dense?) and quite spartan in its visual representation. The text starts in the upper left-hand corner of the second page and continues virtually unimpeded through page 24, broken only by a handful of tables and black-and-white illustrations.

It's interesting that this module contains a fairly thorough introduction to roleplaying and a primer for first-time dungeon masters; pages 2-6 are mostly rules recaps and tips for running the module itself. Considering this adventure clocks in at just 28 pages, that's a large percentage of content devoted to first-time gamers -- especially considering this module was bundled in the D&D Basic Set.

Of course, the intro is pure gold from an old-school gaming perspective, chock-full of Gygaxian goodness intended to guide players new not only to this particular adventure, but also to the entire roleplaying hobby. It's accessible enough, though Gygax isn't prone to providing a great many examples to illustrate specific rule situations.

The substance of the adventure itself consists of a setting (a castle in fairly close proximity to the Caves of Chaos) and a few adventure hooks to get the party out into the wilderness. It's a sandbox setting for sure, and I understand that Keep on the Borderlands was one of the first published module to attempt such a presentation. Even so, it's clear that the wilderness setting is, by and large, just a vehicle to move the characters on toward the caves. Just a handful of encounters exist outside the Keep and the Caves -- though it's worth noting that Gygax offers up fairly diverse fare that ought to certainly spark the imagination of DMs and players who aren't interested in charging directly into the Caves of Chaos.

The most interesting aspect of the module is the cave complex itself. To me, the presentation doesn't evoke the feel of a warren of caves crawling with orcs, goblins and hobgoblins. Rather, each region (the Kobold Lair, the Orc Lair, etc.) feel more like a battle area in a miniatures wargame -- which makes sense, of course, given that D&D was less than a decade away from its roots as a tabletop wargame when Keep on the Borderlands was published. But still, each "lair" is essentially the same: several rooms stuffed with enemies and loot, culminating with a "boss" character who, in the module at least, appears willing to wait patiently in his chamber until the adventurers burst through the door. Though there are a few deviations, most of the lairs in each cavern seem to follow this pattern.

This is a bit at odds with my understanding of humanoid monsters. I have trouble envisioning female hobgoblins tending a cooking fire or bugbears keeping their loot in a locked storage room. Thankfully, I've read the various treatises on of Gygaxian naturalism that are floating around on the Web, so I understand completely why the module's author went out of his way to note how many kobold children might be present in a given room, or how easy it is to bribe the ogre who lurks in the caves. He was creating entire races and cultures, not just set pieces for the PCs to battle.

I think I understand the logic of the uber-detailed lairs, too. Gygax wanted the DM to have all the quantitative details (monster stats, patrol routes, rumor tables etc.) ready at hand, leaving him or her free to get creative with the rest of the Keep, the caves and their denizens. In fact, none of the NPCs are even named, not even the evil priest encountered deep in the Chapel of Evil Chaos; even this storytelling aspect is left entirely up to the DM.

Indeed, one could even say that Keep on the Borderlands is, by design, meticulously detailed but story-starved -- without condemning the module's author or early D&D in general. Gygax encouraged DMs to add or jettison anything that they felt appropriate. He provided the barest framework of a setting, confident that the circa-1980 gaming scene would offer up inspiration aplenty. Only then would a module like Keep on the Borderlands come alive and become a true adventure.


Supah said...

Keep on the Borderlands was my very first exposure to D&D. It was a hand me down from my mom's friend's kids, who were 2 years older than me. I even remember the stains on the map of the caves of chaos clear as an infrared hobgoblin shape. I long for those youthful days of reading rpg books for the first time and thinking "holy fucking shit, I want to crawl through caves and maul goblins with a sword."

B.G. said...

I recently acquired a copy of Keep on the Borderlands, my original copy was lost a long time ago, and after re-reading it I came to some of the same conclusions. Gygax really want the culture of his monsters to be a close representation of human cultures. The humanoid women tending to the children and cooking in the "dungeon" while the men hunted/raided outside their home. Part of it still makes me feel bad, Gygax wanted to show the monsters with compassion (in their own way)and we adventures go forth and destroy them. Using Gygax's themes how many orc and goblin children saw their parents killed or are now displaced from their cozy underground home (read dungeon) because of the callousness of the "evil" adventurers.