UpKeep on the Borderlands: Introductions



This is the first in (hopefully) a series of articles on how I am approaching my first 4E D&D campaign. Consider this post zero; why I’ve chosen to use B2, Keep on the Borderlands as a basis to update, and my history with it.

My experiences with D&D go back to the ‘blue box’ days – Thanksgiving 1978 to be precise. On holidays, my family spent a good part of the day over to my grandfather’s house, and it was about the only time I saw my out-of-town cousins, a trio of boys roughly the same ages as my brother and I (they had more brothers and sisters, but they were younger). We had fun together; playing around the yard, sports, games of make believe, etc. This year they had something new to introduce us to, D&D. Already veterans of a couple of months of play, my cousin Josh ran the rest of us through a dungeon of his own making. What can I say, but that it was magical. But that’s something to expound upon in another post.

The Keep comes into the picture a scant month later, when I received that same Blue Box Basic D&D book for Christmas. Unlike my cousins, I didn’t get B1, In Search of the Unknown as my sample adventure included in the box (nor did I get dice – hard to believe there was ever a polyhedral dice shortage when looking at the pillow case full of dice one of my weekly players brings). What I got was B2, Keep on the Borderlands, an adventure my cousins hadn’t seen yet! And being a holiday, they would be at the usual family gathering, and it was my chance to repay them for introducing me to what would be a life-long passion.

One problem with my notion was that I had no time to become familiar with the rules before hand, and while we could have waited for the next holiday, or had one of my cousins DM for us, we decided upon an unusual solution. I wanted to play as well, you see, and since the adventure modules always had the interior cover map, and a keyed description inside, we decided to play in pure hack and slash mode (not that we knew that term then), starting at the mouth of Cave ‘D’, and working our way in. We’d make plans, choose our course to the next room, and then turn to the proper page in the book and read the entry for that numbered room to find out what we were up against. Of course, what we didn’t realize is that this particular adventure was an attempt at a mini-campaign, so there were keyed areas for the Keep, as well as the Caves of Chaos. And we opened the book to the wrong one.

The first numbered room we entered was 17, and the key told us this was the Chapel, which didn’t seem right. But, OK, we did what we thought we were supposed to, hacking our way through Curates and Men-at-Arms and collecting the treasure. Then the next room, which seemed to be a gatehouse? And an inner Tower next? Something was definitely wrong! Then we figured it out. D’oh! So, reset, and start over with the correct key for the Caves, and a much smoother and less confusing time was had by all. Even though B2 had a bit of backstory to work from, as with many of the early adventures it excelled in the hack and slash mode, so once we surmounted that particulate hurdle, it actually played out pretty enjoyably.

After that initial misstep I’ve had fun with B2 over the years. I graduated shortly thereafter to running my own dungeons, some of which I connected to the wilderness map found in B2. And I would return to B2 from time to time in the 80’s since I found it a great one-size fits all campaign starter. We didn’t always go straight for the Caves, either. I remember at least one run through that was spent almost exclusively in the wilderness encounters. Truthfully, I can only remember making it through the Chapel of Chaos exactly once, and it must have been shortly after seeing Clash of the Titans at the movies, since I recall someone making good use of a severed medusa’s head to turn some baddies to stone.

A few years later my brother got a copy of the Moldvay Red Book Basic set, which also had a copy of B2 inside. A much later printing, of course, with a few changes (the hermit’s puma becomes a mountain lion, a few picture changes, some minor rules revisions), but the same basic adventure. The same adventure that was the first glimmer I had of how to build a simple setting and campaign from. By then, though, I was more interested in the Expert Set, the Isle of Dread, and in AD&D. I left B2 behind for awhile. Until 3rd Edition, in fact. The second 3rd Edition game I played in was a version of B2. It was… unsuccessful, but I lay the failure entirely on the DM in that case, as he tried very hard to railroad us into his updated scenarios. Ragging on players to drink in the tavern so that after one sip they end up hung over and miss a key event the next day sort of railroading.

That wasn’t enough to sour my memories of the module, though, and when 4th edition was in the pipeline, I started casting about for what I might run. The core conceit, ‘Points of Light’, fits nicely with the limited outline that comes with B2. A close wooded map, with several encounter areas, and a base of operations outside of which you are in potential danger. Tailor made for 4th edition, it seemed. Plus, if I ran it myself, I could perhaps purge whatever bad taste the 3rd Edition attempt had left to color my experiences with B2. It needed to be expanded, of course. My sensibilities have changed over the years, and what I would run in the early 80’s now requires a little more depth these days. And a story. Definitely a story.

So the challenge would be to distill classic elements of the B2 experience, come up with a story that made some sense of them in the setting, and then do the necessary updates mechanically. Simple, right? Well, as we’ll see it’s more of an evolution than I originally expected.



8 Responses to “UpKeep on the Borderlands: Introductions”

  1. Christopher Tatro Says:

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually played B2. I’ve gone back and looked at it now and it is almost completely unfamiliar to me. Huh.

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      It’s a great little sandbox setting. Just enough detail to get you started, and plenty of things left undetermined for you to expand. The original ‘Point of Light’. My next article will try to deconstruct it – distill it to the classic essentials. A fresh set of eyes looking at it would be nice to see if I’m overlooking anything, so stick around!

  2. Bryant Says:

    I’m really stoked to see what you do with this.

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      As am I! 🙂 I hope to update once a week until… My players are just up to level three, and they haven’t left the immediate area of the Keep yet, so I’ve got plenty of material ready to go. And more to figure out.

  3. Bryant Says:

    Updates plz. 🙂

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      Mea culpa. I plead work and being out of town/off internet access for several weeks this summer.

      I have a draft of the next installment that’s been in draft for… ugh, months now.

      I will try and get something out again soon. My players made it up to 4th level, and we’re taking a break for my other game, Jazz-Era League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and we’re switching from Adventure! to Spirit of the Century), so maybe I can catch up.

  4. State of My Gaming: Or Be Careful What You Wish For « Claw/Claw/Peck Says:

    […] I have continued with my re-imagined 4E Keep on the Borderlands campaign (the characters have just leveled up to 6th, and have yet to approach the Caves of Chaos – but […]

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