A Review: Return to the Keep on the Borderlands

Creighton Broadhurst wrote a nice article on the advice Gary Gygax gave to Dungeon Masters and Players in the module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.  This reminded me of a review that I wrote for a now defunct website.  It has been 17 years, since this review has seen the light of day.  I’ve fixed a few typos and grammar errors and added a few hyperlinks and here is the review for your perusal and enjoyment.

A Return to Games Past

Was it really nineteen years ago that I first read The Keep on the Borderlands and thought, “What a lousy module?”  Yes, I guess it was.  As you may be able to guess, I was not the most sophisticated of gamers, when I was sixteen.  I had already played the module In Search of the Unknown, designed, and ran my own multilevel dungeon (that involved a wilderness adventure) by the time that I was given The Keep on the Borderlands.  I did not need a module to tell me how to DM nor did I want a place with a whole bunch people running around that were not monsters.  Boy, was I foolish.  Now that TSR has released the Silver Anniversary module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, I have a chance to redeem myself and prove that I have grown as a gamer and a Dungeon Master.

Return to the Keep on the Borderlands does an incredible job of updating a powerful module.  John Rateliff matches the format of Gary Gygax’s original module, by dividing Return into four sections: the first is on Dungeon Mastering, the second is about the Keep, the third section is on the wilderness outside the Keep and finally there is the section on the Caves of Chaos.  Rateliff has carefully expanded and updated each section, adding material only when needed.

Rateliff’s advice to Dungeon Masters is very good.  He rightly points out that players and Dungeon Masters sometimes need to “re-invent the wheel”.  After reading this section, I was somewhat saddened to be running a game already in progress with characters well beyond first level.  I could really hone my skills as a DM by running lower level games again.  Rateliff points out many things that can be great role playing challenges, things that I seldom, if ever, use.  I had forgotten to use bad weather it isn’t always late spring and sunny.  Dungeons and cavern complexes are dark and first level characters cannot afford continual light spells I don’t remember the last time my players relied on torches.  Sometimes the monster is just too big and you have to run away – my players cannot remember when gnolls where dangerous.  It is easy to forget the basics, when you are running a campaign in a world that you have been building for twenty years.  While I did not want advice on DMing, when I was sixteen, I see how I still need it when I’m thirty-five.

One of the things I hated about the original module was the all the space spent on the Keep and the people in it.  When The Keep on the Borderlands came out it in 1980, it was twenty-eight pages long and half of it seemed to be filled with information about the Keep (a place that players really could not explore) and the Keep was filled with people (things that players really could not kill).  Now in 1999, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is sixty-four pages long and the Keep and the people in it are the best part of the module.  The new release does more with the people of the Keep than its predecessor did.  Each of the NPCs has a name in Return and that is a grand improvement over the original.  As a DM, I hate having to come up with names for NPCs.  Mr. Rateliff names the good guys, the bad guys, and the dead guys.  (Do you remember the name of the lord in The Keep on the Borderlands-No; you don’t, because it was never given.)  There are connections between each of the NPCs in the Keep; some are married, some are related by blood, and others are just friends or regular customers.  With all of this information, the DM can really set up some good encounters and have something to fall back on when his or her players suddenly decide to the unexpected while staying at the Keep.

While I think all of the information on the NPCs is great, I really like the section on “Potential Henchmen and Allies”.  Finally, someone has gone to the trouble to write up henchmen in a way that covers more than just the statistics.  These people have reasons as to why they might want to adventuring.  They also have pasts and that gives them more depth and character.  I have two favorite NPCs from this bunch: “Third” and Dubricus D’Ambreville.  Dubricus is a member of the D’Ambreville family which is found in the module Castle Amber, while “Third” is from the underground city in the module The Lost City.  As a long time player, I like these references to other parts of the original D&D world.  If a DM has these modules, these NPCs give him or her a great opportunity to pull them out and run them again.

While the layout of the Keep and the profiles on its inhabitants are the meat of the section on the Keep, it is sandwiched between two fine slices of bread: “History of the Keep” and “Adventures in Town”.  The “History of the Keep” is yet another excellent example of John Rateliff’s knowledge of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons product line and his logical use of that information and history.  “Adventures in Town” closes out the information on the Keep, by offering the DM three ways to expand Return to the Keep on the Borderlands after the players have exhausted the Caves of Chaos.  This is really good before and after stuff.

The information on the wilderness surrounding the Keep is very well thought out.  John Rateliff has kept most of the original information about the area and just updated it.  If you can compare the area maps from each module, you will see that they are the same.  One of the things Mr. Rateliff updated was the Cave of the Unknown.  What was listed as the Cave of the Unknown on the original map is now listed as Quasqueton-the dungeon from In Search of the Unknown.  The spiders that the characters might encounter now come from the Spiderwood.  It all makes a lot of sense and is fun to run.

Finally, I get to discuss the Caves of Chaos, what was most likely the most fun to the hack and slash gamers I knew back in the early 80’s.  The DM is once again given a map of the Caves with topography lines drawn on it, so he or she can gauge how far below the surface the characters have gone.  However, unlike the original map this one is brightly colored and coded for easy reference.

The information about the Caves and their inhabitants is divided into eleven different sections each one labeled with a letter of the alphabet starting with A and running through K.  Each area has an overview of what the players may encounter while exploring that section of the Caves.  Mr. Rateliff also offers hints to DMs on how to handle various encounters found in that section.

Of all the great stuff you can read about in the Caves of Chaos, two stand out for me: “Cave F: Former Hobgoblin Lair” and “Cave K: The Hidden Temple”.  I like Cave F because it has two unique forms of free willed undead: the skeltar and zombire.  It is so hard to have low level undead for characters to fight.  Skeletons and zombies are boring after the first few encounters with them, but thinking undead are a different story and the skeltar and zombire make excellent foes for low level parties.  I like Cave K because of the whole temple/religious setup.  While The Keep on the Borderlands had a temple of evil for the characters to destroy, it was never defined…it was just evil.  The Hidden Temple, on the other hand, is very well thought out.  The priesthood of the temple has goals and plans and even has a god to worship.  (They worship the evil god Erishkigal-for those that have to know.)  While there are nine other sections to the Caves, F and K are the ones I like the best.  The Caves of Chaos are probably eight to ten adventure sessions in themselves and each cave complex is interesting in its own right.

While I could talk on and on about the skillful way Mr. Rateliff wrote about the changes in Caves and talk about the neat tricks of the Labyrinth or the fun encounters with the parlaying bugbears, I won’t.  I can talk about how much I have been reminded of as a Dungeon Master, but I won’t.  I could even give you, fine readers, three more pages on the changes I have seen in AD&D over the last twenty years and how John Rateliff has carefully updated Return to the Keep on the Borderlands to reflect those changes, but I won’t.  I will end this review with these simple statements.  I have only good things to say about this module…no, they are adventures now…this adventure.  You really have to go get it and Return.


Please go check out Creighton’s post and give him thanks for a great blog and for inspiring me to dig up my past.  So, did you read and/or run either The Keep on the Borderlands or Return to the Keep on the Borderlands?  What did you like about them?  What did you steal from them?  Did you read about my misattempt to use them?  Until we meet again, Game On!