B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1979)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Bold adventurers from the Realm set off for the Borderlands to seek their fortune. It is these adventurers who, provided they survive the challenge, carry the battle to the enemy. Such adventurers meet the forces of Chaos in a testing ground where only the fittest will return to relate the tale. Here, these individuals will become skilled in their profession, be it fighter or magic-user, cleric or thief. They will be tried in the fire of combat, those who return, hardened and more fit. True, some few who do survive
the process will turn from Law and good and serve the masters of Chaos, but most will remain faithful and ready to fight chaos wherever it threatens to infect the Realm.
– Gary Gygax, Keep on the Borderlands, P.6
The Borderlands. Where the forces of Law and Civilisation reel and are thrust back. Where Chaos yet reigns supreme in blood-drenched darkness and savagery and chips away at the bulwark of civilization. Only the blood of heroes can stem the tide. A place of wilderness, the end of sanity, a call…to Greatness! Today we examine the most well-known of such modules.
Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax for Basic DnD is one of the most well-known, highly celebrated, most-frequently imitated module of all time. It is a natural successor to B1 in Search of the Unknown and like Terminator 2 or the Wrath of Khan, the sequel is superior to the original. If IsOtU sought to teach you how to run a dungeon, Keep on the Borderlands seeks to teach you how to run what is essentially a campaign in miniature, adding a surrounding wilderness area as well as a ‘homebase’ from whence the party can sally forth and fight the loathsome inhabitants of the Caverns of Chaos. If your players had made it through In Search of The Unknown without a scratch Beware! This is where the training wheels come off.
The premise of Keep on the Borderlands is straightforward and masculine like a right hook: Mankind’s realm is a few points of light surrounded by ignorance and savagery. The PCs have travelled to the last keep on the border in order to push back the darkness, one stinking-no-good humanoid at a time! It’s like Howard’s Beyond the Black River meeting The Hobbit.
B2 is interesting because of the insight it gives into how DnD was played in the dawn age, when it still drank ale instead of wine and wore mud-caked plate-mail to the ball. Forget the 4 party standard of the current era. Keep on the Borderlands is made for 6-9 characters of 1st level, with ample opportunity to hire sellswords and retainers in the keep. Parties of less then that MUST have access to mercenaries. Note the key word ‘access’. The module will never force you to rely on aid or pick a particular option. Keep is one of the most even-handed modules I have ever seen. It is all about giving players a fair challenge, and allowing them to hang themselves by their own rope if they don’t learn.
Also forget half-hearted tussling with elemental creatures by firing off nine spells per round in search of MacGuffins to give to a female enchantress so she can free her people. B2 is about pitched battles of up to 30 creatures at a time  in cramped corridors, butchering humanoids by the tribe, the foul designs of men corrupted by a formless malevolence, depravity and betrayal. Yet it never descends into grimdark territory either, with plenty of NPCs being portrayed as virtuous, fond of ale or likable. There is some room for levity with the encounters, with some being quirky or odd . It’s an odd style, very muted, more reminiscent of AD&D then Basic .
B2 serves its purpose as an introductory module fairly well, doing a good job of conveying what use its disparate elements should be put to and how to go about it, as well as giving a short recap on combat and adventuring procedures. The text might be somewhat dry for today’s attention deficient audience, lacking the bulletpoints and colorful diagrams needed to keep their dopamine levels up, but anyone bereft of a smartphone until the age of at least 12 should be able to cope. While the GMing advice and procedures from E.G.G. himself might be almost unconscious knowledge to the average OSR neckbeard, I’ll be damned if the mere act of reading it didn’t tighten a few screws and worked out a few chinks in my GMing style.
The module proper begins with the Keep. For all the characterization of Gygax as a player-killing homophobe with a troglodyte’s disdain for the noble arte of ROLEUHPLAYINGUE the recommendation to have the characters introduce themselves as the Men-at-arms give a “state-your-name-and-business” followed by a short interview with the Bailiff in the courtyard is actually a great way to help new characters find their feet and practice a bit of roleplaying. Keep gives the PCs some time to find their feet in the keep, do some shopping and get stuck in before setting out, which is commendable.
The first major roadblock to your enjoyment of the Keep proper rears its ugly head. The keep is desperately in need of an overview, troop roster and a general strategy in case the keep is attacked. Instead the keep is described as a series of rooms, with text conveyed in thick blocks, describing the structure, inhabitants (each with stats), treasure and services they offer, in haphazard order. Some kind of key on the map of the keep itself would have been immensely helpful. This counts for the Caverns as a whole! Text is described in THICK BLOCKS of creatures, treasures and tactics with no rhyme or reason that makes it IMPOSSIBLE to quickly assimilate what is going on and why. USE BULLET POINTS.
That being said, the Keep represents a dynamic environment, with multiple things going on. Almost every building has some treasure stashed away somewhere, a Gygaxian design flourish that originated from a time when players were less docile and would routinely try to steal everything that was not nailed down. Help can be hired, but crucially, not all help can be trusted! One ally within the keep is secretly a Chaos Worshipper and not all adventuring companions are Lawful! Crucially, the module also rewards proper roleplaying and gaining people’s trust WITHIN the keep by hinting at this treachery. There is even a sort of sub-questing system. Characters can get invited into the Inner Keep and meet with the Castellan if they achieve recognition (by either returning with a lot of loot for a gift to the keep, bring back a valuable prisoner or something similar) and can be sent on honest to god missions with a levy of soldiers (again, unless they piss off the guy, Gygax notes).
The Keep, and by extension the adventure, is very much described in terms of components that can be interacted with, with the wider existential, political or metaphysical implications left to the GM to interpret. The organization of the Keep is not a feudal one, and nowhere is there mention of nobles. Instead you get the impression of a professional army, with 1st and even 0th level troops wearing state-sponsored plate or chainmail that they would never be able to afford for the pay they would draw . But it also feels like a living, breathing place, complete with a church, merchant caravans, guilds, a tavern, a money-lender, a chance for them to be in a tavern, prices for drinks listed etc.
Speaking of which, there is also a shitton of magic items in the Keep, let alone the Caverns of Chaos? You know how people bemoan the commodification and proliferation of magic in later editions of DnD? Turns out there is nothing wrong with cramming a module full of magic items, it’s how you present them that counts! Even a lowly Bailiff carries a weapon+1 in the keep, but you can’t buy a magic item anywhere. The keep is chuckfull too, its almost as if magic items make their way from the untamed lands of Chaos into the world of civilization, like a reversed gold rush.
The wilderness proper is a throwback grid-map with one incredibly irritating feature that I will gripe about. As soon as you get within 6 squares of a numbered encounter, you have a 1 in 6 chance of running across it if you camp outside, with the chance increasing by 1 for each square you get closer to it. Color-coding or in some way delineating the encounter distance on the map would have helped immensely. Curiously for a wilderness area, there are no random encounters in the wilderness.
The map is pretty sophisticated otherwise, using lines to indicate a change in elevation, and making the actual Caves of Chaos decently challenging to find. The module even goes so far as to recommend pointing the players in the right direction if they wander off the map, possibly using some sort of traveller, talking animal or some “other helper ”
The actual encounters are few but good: A deranged hermit, raiders spying on the caves, a tribe of evil lizardmen etc. There is a Versimilitude to the encounters, a gygaxian naturalism to borrow a term, that makes them blend in seamlessly with the fantastic milieu. Nothing feels out of place or contrived. Intelligent opponents use tactics (a feature that will be seen in the Caves too). Gygax left a little room on the map for the GM to place a dungeon of his own design, named the Dungeons of the Unknown, which is honestly fine with me. I’d be lazy and find some OSR adventure to throw in there . Bonus points for good suggestions in the comments section, my money is on Maze of Nuromen.
The Caves proper are situated in a ravine and consist of seven partially interconnected caverns across different altitudes containing disparate and warring tribes of humanoids. Again, Gygax knows how to set the scene. Everyone hates boxed text but that’s right Grognards. E.G.G. was a boxed text spammer!
[…]The sunlight is dim, the air dank, there is an oppressive feeling here – as if something evil is watching and waiting to pounce upon you. There are bare, dead trees here and there, and upon one a vulture perches and gazes hungrily at you. A flock of ravens rise croaking from the ground, the beat of their wings and their cries magnified by
the terrain to sound loud and horrible. Amongst the litter of rubble, boulders, and dead wood scattered about on the ravine floor, you can see bits of gleaming ivory and white –
closer inspection reveals that these are bones and skulls of men, animals, and other things,. . .
You know that you have certainly discovered the Caves Of Chaos.
You tell em Gygax! There is even a note on how the vegetation grows more twisted and unnatural as you approach the Caverns. A clear delineation between the mortal realm and the Mythical Underworld you are about to penetrate!
The caves themselves are mostly hewn rock, no sprawling nonlinear mazes but definitely branching passageways where it is possible to get trapped or take a wrong turn. Some of the humanoid caverns are connected to others by way of secret doors (since the tribes hate eachother by and large). With seven points of entry, it allows for nonlinear exploration.
The inhabitants of the Caverns are the tribes of kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, bugbears and gnolls that inhabit the place, kept together, presumably, by the Chaos Worshippers at the top. Or perhaps they are merely drawn to the very evil of the place itself. We have seen these creatures before even then (they are iconic), but where B2 separates itself from B1 is mainly in the degree of organization.
Humanoids are organized on both the tactic and the strategic level. Tips are given to have the humanoids adjust to any tactics the PCs might employ (like burning oil, frequent retreats, stealth etc.), each tribe has a fallback option in case it loses its chieftain, use of sentries, alarms, traps and ambushes. Tribes will resort to moving in with other tribes once they lose a chieftain. Each tribe fights differently! Kobolds use trained Giant Rats! Orcs will attempt to place a crossbow ambush! Goblins will sound the alarm and will attempt to bribe a nearby Ogre to help them (That Can himself be bribed by quick-thinking players!). If you compare the organization and intelligence between this and a 3e lair the difference is SHOCKING. It is also brutal. This is not a fight between professional soldiers. This is a war between peoples. Female humanoids will fight as a last resort and the young do not attack nor give XP, but you know how this is going to go. Stay not thy hand brother, for t’is impossible to sin against these abominations!
There are so many great design choices here. There are areas that function as subtly-telegraphed death-traps, meaning the party will have to learn when to get the FUCK OUTTA DODGE or find itself up against an Owlbear, Minotaur or a fuckton of Orcs. It is very likely the players will attack the caverns in quick Raids only to make a retreat when the rest of the tribe is alerted. Some caverns have prisoners you can rescue, again with some turning upon you if rescued. It’s good stuff.
If I were to make another lamentable observation, if only for an opportunity missed in what is a terrific adventure by any metric, the possibility of faction play is discussed as an option for clever players but is never really explored as more then a vague suggestion.
Vanilla does not mean boring. There is some gruesome imagery of violence, darkness
and savagery in the lower caverns and the Shrine of Evil Chaos takes the cake. Check this out:
A faint, foul draft issues from the 20’ wide cave mouth which is the entrance to this
place. The worn path through the copse of obscenely twisted and oddly bloated trees gives those approaching along its length an eerie sense of unease, and as soon as they enter the cave mouth a dim awareness of lurking evil will pervade their senses. Red strata intertwines with bulging black veins running through the hewn rock walls beyond the entrance. The wide corridors and chambers are deathly still. A faint groaning
sound, and a shrill piping may be occasionally heard, barely perceptible even if the party is absolutely silent and listening.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is terrifying, like you are sneaking into Satan’s basement itself. The temple proper is all good shit, with cursed relics, priests garbed in black and red, the living dead and blood-stained altars. The final showdown is a place of almost palpable evil, with bone furniture, mesmerizing shapes and leering demonic idols.
A point often remarked upon in this module is the use of amulets to increase the turn resistance of the various undead encountered in the temple. I personally do not see how it is different from, say, having monsters wear armor or a ring of protection but I will blame it for starting the wretched writing practice of taking monsters with classic vulnerabilities and then equipping them with the exact combination of items they need to counteract those vulnerabilities. Something best used in moderation.
Treasure is meticulously described gem-inlaid object the arts, foodstuffs that can be carted off and sold in bulk, sable cloaks, the occasional copperware/gemstones worth so and so and a staggering amount of coinage of various metals. Far more noteworthy is how the treasure is used: Treasure placement is almost always given careful consideration, with intelligent monsters hiding their treasure whilst mere animals leave it strewn across their lair. It’s very easy to miss treasure if one is not meticulous.
The area is well furnished, and a small chest of drawers contains a sack with 50 platinum pieces tied shut with a rope of climbing.
It’s subtle and easy to miss, rewarding thoroughness and prompting the use of spells like Detect Magic. Magic items are all book standard and fairly simple, which I would argue is a feature, not a bug. Like the monsters, treasure is book standard because the module seeks to convey the proper utilization of the different components that make up Dungeons and Dragons in as clear a fashion as possible. Adding off-beat, innovative or nonclassical elements would only blur B2’s lessons.
B2 remains a classic and well worth getting and running even today, if the dozens and dozens of imitators are any indication, capable of astounding not as much through its content but through its structure and context. It illustrates what a good chunk of DnD, not all of it but a significant chunk, is about and explores that scenario with a thoroughness, intelligence and depth that is nothing short of breathtaking. There is almost nothing that is really lacking or superfluous in Caves, the amount of cavern entrances is just right, dangers are almost always telegraphed or can be anticipated by thinking on one’s feet  and the challenges presented, while relentlessly difficult, can be overcome with the right combination of cunning, strategy, bravery and pluck!
B2’s presentation is its one Achilles heel: preoccupied with listing the contents of rooms in autistic detail and conveying its room contents in thick, indigestible chunks, language is the one section where B2 really shows its age. The encyclopedic room content format can add depth but most of it is going to end up on the cutting room floor. Give the GM tools to improvise some good concealed NPC treasure and focus on the dungeon instead.
The one area where B2 falls short compared to later, equally familiar modules is its sense of wonder. Compared to later modules like the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or even In Search of the Unknown, B2 is relatively mundane, the Temple of Evil Chaos nonwithstanding. This lack of embellishment means it is easy to get at the underlying structure of the campaign and makes it effective as a playing aid but might not capture the imagination of jaded OSRites as well as other modules have.
Despite its soccer-mom trappings, B2 is a staple of oldskool gaming that illustrates many of its foundational principles with admirable depth. It is such a robust scenario with hundreds of possible permutations that should serve as required reading to anyone wanting to dip his toe into the fetid mire of OSR design. Unsuprisingly, Gygax is a true master of the craft. Rating it anything less then a 9 out of 10 would be a disgrace. Keep is good, but its not AS good as some of Gygax’s later modules.
 The Eponymous Temple of Evil Chaos has a gong that will summon 10 skeletons and 10 zombies into the temple to aid the evil High Priest and his 2 Acolytes.
 A bugbear trying to trick you into taking a bite of shiskebab only to use the skewers as a weapon or an Orc spying on the party from a small window in a wall of alcoves containing severed heads are good examples.
 Considering AD&D would be Gygax’s lovechild this is hardly surprising.
 The subsequent placement of the Keep in Mystara’s Grand Duchy of Karameikos would make all the more sense given its adventuring origins and lack of an established aristocracy.
 I made a wandering OSR luminary d8 table in case anyone needs something off the cuff:
1. Indignant Patrick Stuart
2. Nonplussed Venger Satanis wearing something purple (50% makes indecent proposal for 25 gp, 25% asks for review, 25% both)
3. Drunk James Raggi in the act of burning pile of She Bleeds softcovers (50% chance will throw himself on the flames “no rest for Raggi and Chaipraditkul, we will burn like heathen kings etc. etc.”)
4. Terrified Kiel Chenier
5. Hungry Were-lobster Jordan Peterson (Al CE, 5 HD D 1-8, MV 180 Spec Mass Charm 1/day) in search of Kiel Chenier
6. Nothing but mirthless cackling, flogging molly and the scent of black bush to turn you away
7. Drunk Prince in the act of burning pile of She Bleeds softcovers (50% will throw himself on the flames to impress audience, 50% will actually finish his fucking adventure)
8. Lonely Zak (will entreat party to stay, will accuse them of lying if refused, 10% actually Kent in Zak disguise)
 I think when I ran it the last time I put something called the Shrine of the Unknown Gods there, but it was pretty small.
 With the exception of the classic Wight in the Tomb (at level 2-3?!?) FUCK YOU GAYGAX