Keep on the Borderlands is a lot of people’s first experience with a pre-written D&D adventure. While it isn’t the first published D&D adventure, or even the first 1st Level D&D Adventure, it’s one of the first ones with a drawn out map and wilderness environment combined, and many people’s first D&D adventure – including mine. Since the first time I’ve played the adventure, I’ve played many more RPGs in a multitude of systems, and had an opportunity to GM a couple times. So, I’m revisiting the adventure.
As far as adventure plots go, the plot for The Keep on the Borderlands is pretty straightforward – the player characters have come to the titular keep in order to seek their fortunes, and are basically directed to the nearby Caves of Chaos in order to take out the monsters within.
The Caves of Chaos interestingly structured, as far as dungeons go. The caves are a series of monster lairs, built into caves around a U-shaped cliff-face. Each lair is relatively self-contained, and the lairs – on their own – make sense from a dungeon agricultural standpoint. Each lair has an entrance way, with decorations and warnings to intruders, social area with a selection of warriors, living quarters with any children and female monsters, and the chamber of the chieftain. This has the semi-unfortunate side effect of making the Caves of Chaos come across like Monster Condominiums.
The adventure advises the DM to encourage their players to pit the various factions against each other, stating that the Goblins and Orcs don’t get along, with the Kobolds trying to stay under the radar and the Bugbears picking over the spoils of the conflicts. Considering the low survivability of low level D&D characters, this makes sense, but it only serves to call attention to the artificiality of the larger dungeon structure.
I spent some time thinking about this, and I put together a few thoughts of how to slightly re-structure the adventure, from a narrative standpoint, to make the setup work from a dungeon ecology standpoint, without requiring a more dramatic re-write.
The lynchpin of all of this is the Cult of Evil Chaos within the dungeon. I would recommend putting this in whatever setting you use, on the border between a more evil aligned country and a good aligned one.
A group of priests of a Chaotic Evil God seek to take this fort, but they cannot bring the forces together for a direct assault (nor the follow-up that would come with starting a larger war), so they have a cunning plan – to starve the fortress out by ambushing the merchant caravans. Their larger goal depends on where you’re putting this. Maybe it’s to expand the reach of an Evil Empire. Maybe it’s to use the keep as a larger base for their cult. If you’re planning on feeding this into the Temple of Elemental Evil, this could be a lead in to that – to introduce the Cult of Elemental Evil.
Now, the monsters the priests have gathered do not get along well, and consequently even if the Priests did want to attempt a more overt action against the fort, at present they do not have the strength of will or charisma to hold such a force together for a major battle. Thus, minor infighting has ensued among the major factions and should the PCs choose to take advantage of this, they can make their job easier by playing the factions off against each other to bring about open conflict. This also gives the PCs a possible route to do this – by posing as the priests.
There are a few issues with the nuts and bolts of the adventure as well. The Minotaur’s lair exists under the influence of a spell which doesn’t particularly operate under any of the other rules of D&D, with only the party’s designated mapmaker being able to make a save, and saving only on a 19-20. I’d change this to using a more standard Save vs. Spell (or a Wisdom save if you’re using retro clones modeled after D&D 3e or 5th edition)
The booze in the Gnoll’s treasure room should require a save vs. poison or a CON save before someone is intoxicated – Dwarves are immune to this poison.
Before becoming possessive of the vessels in the Shrine of Chaos, characters should make a Save vs. Spell/Wisdom save. Paladins and characters under the influence of a Protection from Evil spell are immune to this effect. The vessels – in addition to being bloodstained – will show a slight magical aura if examined under a Detect Magic spell, but not a big enough one to say that the item is itself actually magic.
For the medusa, the text says that the medusa was captured by the undead minions of the cultists. To provide more of a hint to the characters what the medusa is, if the PCs eavesdrop on the cultists before killing them, have a couple of them complain about the medusa and argue about what to do about it (including the logistics of sacrificing a medusa), without actually saying that it’s a medusa. It rewards players who are more willing to be cautious by not only giving them warning about an existing fight (the cultists) but also warning them about an upcoming one (the medusa).
Aside from those tweaks, the adventure is very well crafted, and serves as a great introduction to players to the concepts of cautious dungeon delving, along with giving a rough introduction to dungeon ecology for new Dungeon Masters.