Keep on the Borderlands – Abandoned

Back in May of this year I wrote an article detailing my experiences as a Dungeon Master playing through another of my ‘bucket list’ quests, that being the original Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax.

If you missed that first piece you can check it out here.

The short version of that article was my lamentation at the difficulty of the module. Since then we fixed that by scaling the encounters down a little. My party started to get a few kills and finally gained a level (or two), making the entire experience a bit easier.

Ultimately though, we fell into other pitfalls, such as repetition, boredom, and a moral conundrum.

You see, aside from a few interesting parts the bulk of the Caves of Chaos are caves stuffed full with goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, kobolds, and the like. Each cave is home to one species and each cave has a chieftan, guard rooms, and a common room filled with a whole bunch of males, females, and children.

It’s the same routine, six caves in a row. We got to the point that we were so bored the conversation derailed for a good couple of hours and I was nodding off at the table.

While the keep itself has to the potential for some interesting roleplay experiences, the caves themselves play more like a boardgame, with the only viable tactic being to ‘kick-in-the-door’.

Now to be absolutely fair, Keep on the Borderlands was first published December 1979. Roleplaying games were in their infancy and this sort of simplified gameplay should be expected.

But.

We hit an even bigger snag, that being more of an ethical one. No reason is given as to why the players are heading out to the Caves of Chaos other than ‘they can’. Once there, there is no real reason as to why you’d push into a cave filled with sentient creatures only to commit some kind of small scale genocide.

Reading through the prologue information there is no indication that the keep is under any threat from the caves. The only inspiration is for the players to ‘destroy the minions of evil’, making the entire thing feel more like a crusade than an adventure.

It’s made more problematic when you enter into the large living quarters and are confronted with women and young. While the book indicates the females will fight (likely defending their young), the children won’t. While you could argue that it’s entirely up to the players and the Dungeon Master on how the scenario is resolved, ultimately the real problem here is – ‘Why are we even in this place to begin with?’

In the modern world the entire scenario is just morally… uncomfortable. The book assumes you sweep through the place and wipe every living thing out, but at that point I’d argue you’re a zealot, a psychopath, or evil yourself. So with the ‘sensible’ solution being to simply leave the denizens of the caves alone, it kind of makes the entire module redundant.

Even when you discover that some innocent humans have been captured (and are being prepared to be eaten), it’s still hard to justify wiping out an entire tribe, women and children too.

So I’m sorry Gary but we decided to abandon your quest. The caves were extremely repetitive and the morality was just troublesome, even for a group of scoundrels with ambiguous morality like ours.

We didn’t have a great deal left to explore (and mercilessly wipe out), but even if the party had managed to explore every nook and kill every living thing, it would be like a Doom level with no exit button. There’s no ‘congratulations you won’ scene, reward, or explanation of what happens next.

I do own, but haven’t read through or played the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module of ‘Return to Keep on the Borderlands’, and I’m aware the module was re-released in an updated fashion for 5th Edition. No doubt some of my concerns have been addressed.

For those Dungeon Masters looking to play through this classic module, my advice would be to add some pretty meaty hooks to give the players reason to enter the caves, maybe the cliché rescue the princess (or prince?) scenario, with a piece of him/her being delivered to the keep each week a ransom isn’t paid. I’d also dump the ‘family dens’ and make the caves more of a forward staging area, changing the enemies found inside the caves to only consist of warriors.

Oh, and add some logic to things as well. How do low-intelligence kobolds have the only pit-trap in the entire dungeon, and it’s a feat of engineering? That got removed pretty quickly, feeling more like it was added because it was a ‘cool game thing’ rather than for any logical reason. The creatures also have no access to fresh water, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

In fact, there is very little about the Caves of Chaos that makes any sense. Sorry Gary.

Sooooo…. now we’re going to shift over to some Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and take a stab at the recently re-released Masks of Nyarlathotep. I hope to share some thoughts on that campaign once we’re in the thick of it.

Let me know in the comments your thoughts and experiences with Keep on the Borderlands.

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