Reworking B2 - The Keep On The Borderlands // Design Questions and remarks // spoilers

So I was thinking it would be fun to run B2 The Keep on the Borderlands somewhere in summer. Work on it now is slow since being a teacher during COVID times means reinventing yourself constantly. But yeah, having been a Graphic Designer in a previous life I wondered if I could apply some information design to the module, just as a fun exercise.

I’ve kind of combed through the keep itself for now with regards to NPC’s and factions etc. There are some good ideas there that would be worked out more thoroughly now with clocks etc. (I’m thinking of the trigger for being noticed by the Castellan and getting a secret mission, which I’m thinking I might make into some kind of Countdown-Clock type thing now.)

There are also some weird decisions that seem to have been made which I did not really understand. Then again I’ve never really played/run Basic D&D, so I might not get it. Which is why I’m starting this thread, to voice my ideas or questions about the module and game design and see what you guys would answer.

The big one that jumped out to me is that (SPOILERS) the Curate suspects the other Traveling Priest to not be on the up and up, but that there’s only a 50% chance of him voicing this point to the PC’s.
My question here is why it’s a % chance? What is the benefit. Why make it hinge on a roll instead of the PC’s behavior/class/reputation or the situation in the Keep itself? (like, if adventurers keep disappearing and the Priest keeps showing up, claiming to be spared by The Powers That Be, etc.)

Is there a good side to making it a dice roll wether or not he shares his suspicions or not? Am I missing something?

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Another thought is about the alignment which is just the Law vs. Chaos line, with neutrality in the centre. It’s unlearning the LAW vs. CHAOS + GOOD vs. EVIL axis in the more modern versions, as a priest/cleric can have levels and still be chaotic but mask as law.

I feel like it seems that “Law” is more like some kind of unwritten Moral Law or a Chivalric Code or the amount of Conscience you have rather than the more modern approach of following the ‘letter’ of the law.

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I don’t have good answers to your other questions, but as regards alignment in those early modules, especially B2, I find it helpful to think of them as factions rather than personal orientations to the world. So the Chaos and Order factions eaxh has an ideology of sorts, but not every individual or subfaction needs to be perfectly aligned. Law wants order, control, stability; Chaos wants well, chaos, freedom, anarchy. Different subfactions might pursue these goals in different ways, there might be intra-faction dispute, but they have shared goals and shares institutions.

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I’ve run b2 a few times using B/X, and I think one of the things that’s key is recognizing that the adventure sets up a situation that the players will upend. That’s its strength, and generally a positive in classic style play, but how exactly that happens is rarely the same. Another key aspect is that the PCs aren’t meant to be able to take the Caves on solo - playing the factions within is almost a necessity.

As for clocks and faction Yes b2 could do with a more explicit faction focus, and some exploration of the various Cave and Keep faction goals. It’s such a terse module as it is, and Gygax really expects the GM to build that part out, but gives little guidance. Explicit clocks might be one way - though I think a Chaos Index based on player actions or even a weighted random event system might be more in keeping with the nature of the module?

As for the Curate and the evil priest The Curate’s suspicions have never really come up for me in play (that Priest is plenty suspicious), but sound far more like something from the rumor table then something in need of a discrete, special mechanic (which Gygax loves - often to his detriment). It’s also something that might work into a structure for PCs building relationships with the Keep factions (though any such system deserves a Cave counter-part). Making the Keep and the Caves near mirrors is an interesting approach and I think a worthwhile one that honors the spirit of the original while also offering comment on its colonialist gloss.

I should add that @Jesseabe is right on about how to approach alignment (if you use it at all) in these adventures. My personal take is that Alignment is a bad rule that began as a way to pick army lists in Chainmail, persisted because of Gygax’s religiosity and monomaniacal devotion to taxonomizing and then as a counter argument to the Satanic Panic. It endures as a vestigial rule and way to avoid examining D&Ds tendency to indulge in and glamorize the massacre of thinking creatures.

You may find these two posts of mine helpful? A review of B2 and a set of bullet points on how Alignment and faction work for me in classic play.

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Good stuff here from Gus.

I’ll add something about the 50% chance of the Curate voicing a suspicion to the PCs.

While here it’s fairly vestigial - why not leave this up to freeform roleplay, or a Reaction Roll? - there’s certainly value in old-school play (like B/X D&D) to randomizing a lot of things which might not be randomized in other styles of play. All the random tables and rolls can seem dated and strange from a more modern perspective, but the fact is that old-school play of this sort just doesn’t operate the same way that, say, a modern story-oriented or drama-oriented game might.

If the idea is to create drama using the Lego blocks assigned in the module, sure, the priest definitely should tell the PCs (or do something else that’s similarly interesting and provokes a response). But the focus of play in the style of game is very different: it’s highly emergent, unpredictable, and demands that the GM (who’s called the “referee” for this reason!) isn’t keeping his/her thumb on the scales.

It’s very fruitful in this kind of game to leave a lot of things to random chance. First, it keeps things unpredictable and dynamic: the scenario will be totally different every time you play it, and the kind of strategic challenges the players will face are not set in this way, but emergent. Second, it allows the GM to maintain their neutral referee status, without having to feel that they’re either pushing a certain action on the players (by having the Curate voice their suspicions) or withholding important information (by having him stay silent). There is a sweet spot there where the game becomes quite fluid and unpredictable, for the referee as much as for the players, and a lot of these strange randomized mechanics in old-school serve that goal very well.

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The neutrality point is something I hadn’t completely considered yet! Thank you!

I had noticed the mirroring and liked it from a thematic point.

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An extra: I noticed that JB over at the blog B/X Blackrazor is currently running B2 for his kids and doing a lot of thinking about the moral implications of the setting. Most recently he’s decided that A) The wandering priest is not related to the Shrine of Chaos, he’s the clergy of another more sinister deity. B) The Shrine of Chaos is an old place, recently revived by adventurous clergy but not actively hostile to anyone. C) The bugbears are escaped enslave miners from the keep.

JB’s theories and playstyle are still very very faithful to the sources, but he’s doing interesting things with them and It’s an interesting process he’s using that might offer some inspiration:

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OK, why would there be a bank vault safe full of pit vipers? Who put them there and why? And why are the security systems not uniform? This is so random…

At least it would make for an interesting random event in the keep as I’ve been thinking of making to “show, don’t tell” a lot of the stuff. A thief (maybe encouraged by the chaos priest, maybe a new arrival), could be found dead in the bank vaults in the morning, bitten by vipers, or shot with four arrows, or succumbed to poison gas/needle/…

Okay, thinking about it like that, maybe the priest put the vipers there so that he could kill some random dude trying his luck like that, but that shouldn’t be his main modus operandi since he’s out to catch lawful types, not random bandits.

Anyway, strange thing, it seems like it’s just a gotcha videogame like thing. “This makes no sense, but don’t think about it, it’s a mini game of Russian Bank Vault Roulette.”

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What if the pit vipers were replaced with corn snakes or the like? Something that looks very similar to a poisonous snake to keep people out but the owners of the vault know better? I believe they might have even done this in the old west before all banks had strong vaults.

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Gygax loves poison snake guarding treasure traps. I wonder if it was a trope in 70’s adventure fiction or something. It’s D&Dism for sure.

Mechanically I’d ask what the Pit Viper does vs. the competitors? It’s not an instant trap like a poison spear, meaning it: A) Can’t be detected by a thief B) It feels coherent and vaguely naturalistic - everyone knows a viper is a dangerously poisonous snake. C) It has HD - you have to fight the snakes not disarm them.

I’d say the reason the snake is the trap here is to provide clear danger, and because its a novel and deadly trap after the poison needles. I assume the banker or maybe the wizard clerk after a sleep spell opens the box slowly and tosses mice in every once in a while?

Gygaxian naturalism doesn’t make a lot of sense at times, its the ecology and naturalism of bad adventure.

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As an aside, you’ve reminded me that I started in on an isometric map of the place, but never did get very far.

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Wow, spectacular, Michael!

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Sweet! Mind if I yoink that? I saw that B/X Blackrazor has the keep all drawn out in 3D as well!
(if I have time I might try my hand at it myself, but I doubt it will be better.)

Once I get to the caves I’m wondering if they could be split up in separate dungeons across the wilderness or not, but we’re not there yet. I’m still working my way through the keep.

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I had some more thoughts about alignment while combing through the given NPC’s.

In the keep there seems to be a focus on hierarchy and merit. Servants and lackeys “obviously” sleep in the stables (#14 of the Keep, p.13), The Captain of the Watch is rich but pays his people only little.(#12, p.13) Does this imply that you need to earn your wealth or that he has a character flaw?

There are multiple “flawed” people in the keep. Why? Is this to show that Law isn’t black and white and even lawful people have flaws, or does it show the creep of Chaos even in a bastion of Law? I like the corruption angle, which makes it more Tolkienesque. It also seems most obvious in how the Castellan and his knights and collegues in the Castle/Keep itself are paragons of Law, but the guards and watchmen have a bit more flaws. They are probably more between law and neutral than the Castellan. Also, it has to be kept in mind that is only a single character flaw we see on which we are judging them. The lawfulness is otherwise implied and not vocalized. Maybe we should read it more as: He likes money but … and have something good to balance it out, since if that is his only flaw, he probably is a better person than I am.

Like “The Corporal of the Watch is easily taken in by a pretty girl, but he will not be openly lecherous.” or “The Corporal of the Watch is easily taken in by a pretty girl but will not keep pushing if turned down.” Maybe he can have a corruption countdown clock though, in which he might suddenly start catcalling girls or stalking or … abusing his position of power. This can tick forward as he might go to confession to the traveling priest instead of the Curate over time or something like that.

The divide in the lawfulness in the keep also seems to imply that nobility implies a moral high ground. (the Cavalry and the Masters of the Keep have no flaws that I’ve discovered (except the Castellan’s tendency to make hasty decisions), while the Guards definitely do.) There could be arguments for it, as the nobles are reared to be examples of virtue and get trained to “guide the masses”. History on the other hand shows a lot of corrupt nobles, so there are definitely arguments against it. Perhaps the amount of corruption one is influenced by is dependent on the amount of power. The need to be Lawful is probably greater for a Noble who needs to guard himself of the lure of abuse of power daily while a serf working the land with no prospect can comfortably retain a neutral attitude, just looking out for themself and their family without a lure for power abuse.

The Tavern has a Potboy, which the game’s own words list in the end of the book defines as a servant or even a slave. The option of it being a slave is in there. There’s also something in the rules about bringing in captives from the monsters to ransom (One of the options to unlock access to the Keep, the Castellan and the Special Mission). Slavery doesn’t seem to be seen as Chaotic in itself by the module. An option could be to have the potboy in the tavern be a captured goblin or other monstrous humanoid from the caves.

Well, that was a word-vomit of only slightly coherent thought. I hope it’s useful to someone or provokes people to give me different insights.

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These are interesting observations, and certainly Gygax seems to have viewed the Keep as a bastion of goodness threatened by a few insidious evils and the dangerous monsters of the Caves.

For my own takes on the Keep I tend towards a more grey v. grey morality. Not only does it better describe my own view of the world, and uphold my preference of not using alignment rules, but it seems to make the moral decisions of the players less obvious. If the game presents the Keep and good and Caves as evil there’s rarely any real impetus to make moral decisions - massacre of evil is okay and the busting into peoples homes and taking their stuff element of classic D&D is justified. Better to make everyone (or at least everyone with power) a bit dubious, make the players pick a side - aim for Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo rather then Ballad of the Green Berets – but that’s just my method of playing these things.

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I’m still forming my view on the Keep, but I like the Knightly Knights of Arthur vibe that is going on, so I’ll probably lean more into the original bastion of good vibe. Which does not mean good men cannot fall. That will make it all the more tragic. I’m thinking more of leaning into flavors of Law and Chaos, of the Pendragon system with the virtues/vices for example, of the way Burning Wheel or Mouseguard handles these kinds of things with a Steel Check for humans, some kind of Lethal Nostalgia Sadness Check for Elves, Greed for dwarves and Nature for Mice. Changing Alignment to such an approach is kinda what I’m looking at at the moment. But more on that once I’ve worked my way through the module more I think. Now I’m just observing. Changing stuff is for later.

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Some more Keep related remarks as I keep going through that part of the adventure. This time more confused about how the B/X rules line up to it or not. It’s not really important until you did something to impress the Castellan and unlock the revel, but it’s about the Castellan and his advisors.

They look and feel like “retired adventures” that perhaps adventured together. They are about the same level and have loads of magical gear. There are a few things that are off about it though. The elf advisor would have to be adventuring for twice as long as the others to have the same level as the XP requirements for the Elf class are about double, it being basically two classes in one. I mean, you could explain that they met up for the last adventure, maybe recovering this Keep from the Chaotic wilderness and settling in, but still, it shows some of the inequality in levels. The Elf class looks very interesting when you start out, because you get to wear armour, wield weapons and do magic. Furthermore you get some special abilities such as an immunity to being paralyzed, but in the end you will turn out to be the one that will have less HP than others of the same level, advancing slower, getting slower access to high level spells, etc.

Also, rules wise adventurers only get to retire when they reach LvL 9, so what’s going on there? I think I recall reading that Basic DnD was sold separate from Expert DnD and the first was focused on the first three levels while the latter was for more advanced play, in higher levels.

Still, it seems weird to have these “rulers” be so low level in what’s supposed to be a place conquered on and being reclaimed by Chaos. I was thinking that the abundance of +1 weapons in the keep meant that the Elf was making these, but I’m not sure a LVL3 character should be making magical items. I haven’t read the crafting rules in Old School Essentials yet though, but I might have to see how I will spin this or if I will crank their levels up significantly. I dunno. LVL 3 is about the highest level in the module I think, except for one LVL4 enemy NPC I think, but I’m not sure. More food for thought.

So far the abundance of +1 weaponry (which is kinda boring as far as magic weaponry goes) might be framed as loot from Keep Patrols roaming the Wilderness, trying to keep the road safe, so the merchants can pass through.

Not sure if I’m going to read through the keep again and see if I can summarize the rooms better now that I have more of an idea of the relations inside the keep, or that I will head on to the wilderness area and start thinking about squares vs hexes and invisible walls etc.

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I keep hanging around on the Keep, and just browsing through it, before a new in depth reading/conversion I stumbled on some new questions. Mainly the one question: Where does it all come from?

It started as my eye got caught on the menu in the Tavern, which seems to be able to provide Roast Fowl and Roast Joint any given day! That’s a lot of livestock! There is no farm connected to the Keep that we can see, no pigsty, to henhouse, etc. I mean, I know it’s probably background stuff for most games, but I’ve been reading the “The Tao of D&D” blog and their simulations approach, and that gives me some questions. It makes my mind think about these things. Is it all trade? This is supposed to be a dangerous, chaotic environment! Is it all hunted fair? It’s a possibility, that gives the watch a bit more to do than patrolling the walls I guess. Or the Mercenaries that hang around. Still, this is only the Tavern, as much we know only the Watch, Visitors and Mercenaries eat here, and perhaps the Clergy. But would they all eat at the Tavern, is there enough room? Do they have their own food in the barracks of their towers etc?

Then I had to think about the Smithy and Armourer. They need iron for their craft, and they probably use it most for horseshoes and repairing gear of the Watch, the Guard and the Castellan. How do they have time to craft all the other stuff they sell? I might have to rework the price list or availability of items I guess.

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Yes. I always thought of them like terrorists and counterterrorists.