Keep on the Borderlands

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?

According to Weakypeedia, Keep on the Borderlands was first printed / published in 1979/1980… and I think I first started playing in 1978 or so. After I got my start playing in someone else’s D&D campaign, it was love at first sight.  We sat down and rolled up ability scores, then Bob,  the guy who was running the game, looked at our scores and said things like, “You have a high strength; you should be a fighter… but if you become a dwarf instead, you will also get infravision… whereas, if you have high intelligence, you can be an elf… etc., etc…”
“What’s infravision?” we would ask… but we were already hooked.  My first character was an elf who had armor and weapons, a bow and arrows, spells (including ‘magic missile’; I was probably dissapointed to discover that my ‘magic missile’ was more like an arrow and less like an ICBM) and infravision as well as an assortment of ‘dungeoneering’ gear like flasks of oil, spikes, holy water, etc.
Having rolled up our characters, we would then go off to the dungeon.  And these early games had a ludicrously simple premise.  We were adventurers.  We gathered in the ‘town’ (I don’t think Bob’s town even had a name) and supply ourselves with swords, pointy-hats, torches, iron rations, coils of rope, etc.  And then we would tell our DM, Bob, that we were going ‘to the dungeon’ (which was apparently a short walk from town).  Bob described the dungeon entrance as a pair of rusted iron doors in the side of a rocky hill that led to a flight of stairs going down.  With graph paper and torches in hand, we would enter.

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.

However, part of the problem with ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ is that it is a pre-fabricated fantasy mini-setting that has (for better or worse) defined much of what came after it. I’ve always thought that part of the fun of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ was the dungeon building part of the game. As a youngster, I liked sitting down with my graph paper and notebooks and drawing hallways, caves, rooms, etc., and then trying to decide what went where, all in preparation for the point when a group of players was going to come in, knock down the doors, kill the monsters (or die trying) and loot what they could. Using a pre-made adventure felt like cheating. And, to be fair, Bob (my first DM), did try to roll with the punches and expand his setting as we returned, again and again, to play. We once found a cache of potions and the first player character to sample one died from poison. As players, we were then paralyzed with fear. None of us wanted to try a potion because we were certain it would be poisonous. Bob got past this roadblock by suggesting we take the potions to the town alchemist who would identify them for a small fee. I also remember Bob introducing wandering ‘adventurers’ who would give us hints or a little help from time to time. One of the advantages of having an ‘ill defined’ campaign is that one can always shoehorn in an alchemist, armorer or wandering cleric where one is needed. Similarly, I remember Bob later giving us hints that the ‘dungeon’ we were exploring was actually part of a massive underground fallout shelter and many of the creatures within it were the result of mutations gone wild by exposure to radiation — hardly ‘novel’ now, but it seemed pretty cool when he introduced the idea back in the day (Bob was also a WW2 buff; I think part of his goal was to eventually have us find Garand rifles and hand grenades in the deep recesses of the dungeon but I’m just guessing). On another occassion we stumbled into an evil gnome courtroom where another group of adventurers were on trial for ‘crimes against gnomes’ and we had to fight the whole court — judges, jury, etc. I don’t know if he thought these things up on the spur of the moment or if he had planned them before hand; all I know is that we had a lot of fun. One of the problems with playing someone else’s pre-written adventure is that you can always feel like if you make changes, you might be ‘doing it wrong.’ And, during the 1980s, one of the reasons I quit playing D&D for years was that the ‘You are doing it wrong!’ editorials in the Dragon got a bit much (or maybe I was ready for a break). As time went on, and the more I read  prefabricated adventures written by ‘professionals,’ the less time I spent designing my own (and the less I valued my own creations).  That’s kind of fucked up. “Paint by Numbers” might be a shorter, quicker path to a painting that the vast majority of people will recognize as a good representation of a horse or a clown or whatever it is that you are painting, but maybe ‘paint by numbers’ sometimes misses the point of personal expression that can come about when you sit down with a piece of canvas or paper and some paint and try to make a painting. Maybe ‘professionally designed’ adventures can be a crutch… I don’t know; I’m just musing here.

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.

6 Comments on “Keep on the Borderlands”

  1. I believe I read on Rob Kuntz blog that TSR did not make modules at first for the very reason you thought of in this blog post, ie, they will be missing a big part of the fun.
    But Judges Guild came along and started producing adventures and Gary saw that there was a market for pre made adventures so TSR followed the money, so to speak.

  2. I started playing about the same time you did, and my earliest adventures were exactly like you described. Still, Keep on the Borderlands has always been a favorite adventure that I come back to time and again. I have only run it as written once or twice. Every other time, I have changed and adapted things to suit whatever the players do. In some cases, the monsters have started fleeing the caves for safer venues. In others, they have set aside their differences and banded together to fend off the adventurers. In a few cases, they have all gotten together and taken the fight to the keep itself. The module is just a jumping-off point, and the players tell me where the campaign is going to go by what they do.

  3. It'll come as a real shock to some people that I've never played KotB

  4. christian says:

    Dang. Your post reminds me that I no longer own a copy of that module. eBays here I come.

  5. Stephan Poag says:

    C- I might have a spare copy. email me your snailmail address at sbpoag(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll look. I'm always trying to get rid of duplicates or stuff I never use.

  6. Stephan Poag says:

    Well, never mind. I don't seem to have a spare copy; I must have given it away already. Sorry to tease you like that.

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