Keep on the BorderlandsPosted: September 28, 2012
|If you started playing D&D in 1982 or so, you were here at some point.|
I think might be just a year or two older than the average forum lurking, blogging OD&D enthusiast because I didn’t know anything about one of the old game’s quintessential adventures, “Keep on the Borderlands” until years after it had been released. My first D&D set had a book of rules, some dice, a ‘Monster & Treasure” booklet and some maps that looked like Gary Gygax got stoned and covered a couple of sheets of graph paper in rooms and hallways that went nowhere. But for so many of my fellow enthusiasts, Keep on the Borderlands is still the true shizzle, the distillation of the D&D experience, the original article, what the game is all about, the ultimate adventure, the yardstick by which all other adventures are judged, etc. And yet I never played in it. What did I miss?
There was little rhyme or reason to those early dungeons. There would be hallways with doors sprinkled around at random and rooms filled with monsters. One room might have a group of zombies guarding a chest of silver coins, the next room might have goblins or giants spiders, etc. I don’t think any of us wondered who put the coins there or why the zombies were guarding them. We didn’t question the existence of the dungeon or why the goblins in room 2 were still alive when there was a hungry owlbear in room 3. Perhaps we were young and unsophisticated in our entertainment (the original ‘Battlestar Galatica’ was still on TV and video games were in their infancy — PONG, Centipede, PAC-MAN, etc., were considered ‘cutting edge.’). But I also think there was something else going on. We were snot-nosed punks who didn’t know shit from shinola and this game was challenging us in ways we hadn’t encountered before. We got to choose between actions and consequences. If Jim’s character was down to his last few hit points, did you announce that your character was going to jump into the fray and try to save Jim or did you slam the door and run, leaving him to his fate? We also learned of social consequences: stabbing your buddy in the back meant that his NEXT character was quite likely to stab YOUR character in turn. Maybe the consequences were not real, but the social consequences of behaving like a dick in the game taught some of the less socially gifted of our circle some good lessons in social behavior. Sometimes I wonder if this crazy game didn’t help some of us develop into actual people instead of the mouth-breathing cretins that we might have otherwise become. Or, maybe I’m just trying to justify all the time I wasted fighting orcs and ghouls while the dean of students told us we were ‘never going to amount to anything’ if we continued to play ‘that stupid game.’
So, how do we compare an adventure like ‘Keep of the Borderlands” to (for lack of a better name), “Bob’s Town and Dungeon”? (which was followed by “Stefan’s Town and Dungeon” after Bob gave up DMing duties, but I digress…) As far as a document to read, ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ is/was doubtlessly better — it features Gygaxian prose (Gygax loved his thesaurus). My home made dungeons were usually nothing more than maps with creatures and treasures tossed randomly together scrawled out in pencil; Borderlands has a fully detailed town with shops, an inn, guards, etc, with maps, illustrations, etc. The ‘Caves of Chaos’ consists of a valley filled with numerous caves (some of which interconnect) filled with different tribes (orcs, gnolls, goblins, etc.). The fans of the ‘strictly realistic’ might not find the ‘Caves of Chaos’ to their taste; it’s a bit like a “Holiday Inn” where gangs of different humanoids have checked into each suite and there are occasional rumbles down by the ice machine, but, compared to my home-made dungeons, it reads like it was written by a team of sociologists attempting to describe a dungeon eco-system with a roughly defined sort of a circle-of-life where the orcs ate goblins, goblins ate kobolds, kobolds ate rats, etc.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, one of the advantages of the pre-made adventure is that you can discuss it afterwards with other enthusiasts. The forums are filled with excited discussions of, “This is what happened when we played through ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ back in the day…” Maybe adventures like ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ are a part of the shared experience of the hobby. Perhaps rejecting ‘Keep’ is a form of throwing the baby out withthe bathwater. But, fuck it, part of the point of having a blog is putting whatever crazy thoughts are rolling through my head out there so anyone who cares to can read them.
Maybe I’m reaching when I compare my 13 year old self sitting down to ‘draw a dungeon’ to an artist painting a canvas… but if there is a creative component to it, I’m reluctant to disavow that by saying, “Well, Gygax is the professional, so we should stick with, ‘Keep on the Borderlands.’” Part of me feels like when people who gather to play D&D end up running nothing but pre-made adventures, they will be missing a big part of the fun (making shit up). Back in the day, one of the slogans of TSR (original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) was, “Products of your Imagination.” If I remember right, it was printed right there on the front of “Keep on The Borderlands.” Indeed.