Looking back at a classic D&D module.
“Welcome to the land of imagination,” wrote Gary Gygax in the introduction to Keep on the Boarderlands, the Dungeons and Dragons adventure module he wrote in 1980. “You are about to begin a journey into worlds where magic and monsters are the order of the day.”
What made Keep on the Borderlands so special?
The Keep on the Borderlands was a 32 page module by Gary Gygax, designed for people new to Dungeons & Dragons. It was included in several printings (1979–1982) of the Basic Set, but was also available for sale separately.
The premise was for player characters to arrive at a keep, then base themselves there as they investigated sprawling caverns in the nearby hills that are crawling with monsters. With such a simple outline, why is Keep on the Borderlands so beloved?
Keep was the first sandbox adventure. The term “sandbox” didn’t exist at the time, but this was the adventure that laid the foundation for the sort of open-ended adventures that are now relatively standard among modern D&D play. As was typical, Gygax was ahead of his time.
Right on the cover were the words “Special Instructional Module” and the pages outlined a wide open adventure where the DM was invited to fill in the details. The module supplied you with a few locations within the keep, plus several non-player characters who lived there, but there was also intentional ambiguity that allowed it to be fleshed out further.
It wasn’t dictated where players could go. Instead, they were tasked to explore, which very well could’ve meant an unmarked part of the map. While the “Caves of Chaos” were a focal point of the game, so also were the “Caves of the Unknown.”
Keep cast a spell on an entire generation of Dungeon Masters. The module sent the message that D&D players could build their own adventures.
The last several pages included tables that gave emerging DMs the confidence to create their own quirky NPCs. It had tips for drawing up your own maps and floor plans, plus included a blank sheet of graph paper to boot. And it even had tips for players that are surprisingly astute nearly 4 decades later.
Wrote Gygax, “by designing floor plans, you can experiment with many of your own ideas before starting a major project–like the CAVES OF THE UNKNOWN.” So many OG D&D players can trace hours spent alone with graph paper, drawing up dungeon maps, to the advice and encouragement of Keep on the Borderlands. It was an adventure with a little Dungeon Master’s Guide thrown in.
Despite its prophetic foresight to where RPG adventures would go, Keep still has an old school feel. In the early 80s, Gygax was still teaching us how to play, but let’s not forget that his full vision for the game was still being fleshed out.
For example, players were assigned mapping duties. Whereas nowadays we have an abundance of maps online or several companies willing to sell us preprinted or dry-erase maps, it was much more theatre of the mind back in the day. In fact, players had to hand draw their own maps as the DM described the scene. (Trivia: Old school D&D maps were printed in blue because that made it difficult for them to be easily copied with Xerox machines. Early DRM, y’all.)
What’s more, a single player in the group was to be selected as the “caller” for the party, and this person would speak to the DM on behalf of the entire group. The caller was instructed to discuss the party’s actions with the players, then inform the DM of the decisions of the group. Obviously, D&D play is much more individualized in today’s age. Gygax may have been an oracle, but was nowhere near the sole arbiter of the game for the past 40 years.
Monsters were expected to…actually think. Keep on the Borderlands was expected to change based upon the actions of players. If players cleared out an owlbear in the Caves of Chaos, it wouldn’t just respawn like in a video game. But Gygax made sure to instruct DMs to backfill that part of the dungeon with something even deadlier.
In fact, if players killed intelligent monsters, the monsters learned from that experience. When players returned, they could expect traps and defenses to be built up to repel them. One wondered whose side Gygax was on.
The adventure had perils and double-crosses, because Gygax. There was a traitorous priest within the keep. Gygax instructed DMs with the words “betrayal will always occur during a crucial encounter with monsters”, because making players paranoid was a beloved Gygax hobby.
There was also a vast wilderness with a mad hermit, spider lairs, and vicious lizardmen. When there wasn’t something deadly marked on the map, Gygax reminded us that “most features are unnamed, so you can name them as suits your campaign.”
That was just the outdoors. Remember, the main feature of KotB was the Caves of Chaos, a sprawling dungeon crawl that came to typify so much of what we all love about D&D. Sure, dungeons have changed dramatically in the history of D&D, but Keep was one of the modules upon which decades of D&D history stands.
Inside the Caves of Chaos, there was an abundance of magical items for players to find, which undoubtedly delighted the players. Unfortunately, their outlook probably changed when they realized a goodly number of the items were actually cursed items.
But Gary Gygax was also fair. Keep on the Borderlands clearly instructed the DM to be neutral. Says Gygax, “if a party has played well and succeeded, the DM should not punish them by sending more and more monsters at them to thwart their plans.” This was an adventure written for players level 1-3, after all.
Unlike Tomb of Horrors, Keep was designed to be a challenge, not a meat grinder. Gygax ended his tips to players with these words: “The game is designed to challenge the minds and imaginations of the players. Those who tackle problems and use their abilities, wits, and new ideas will succeed more often than fail. The challenge of thinking is a great deal of the fun of the game.”
Keep on the Borderlands succeeded in nearly all regards, particularly on the fun factor. That’s undoubtedly why it is held in such high esteem and routinely makes lists of the best all time modules.
Keep on the Borderlands is something that would convert really well for D&D 5e. Besides, it’s nice to play something so iconic. Noble Knight is a game store that specializes in old D&D adventures like this. Hit them up for a copy of this classic, as it just feels right to be able to physically hold a copy of something so important to the game.