This is my most recent experiment in playing a system in pure referee-style, six three-hour sessions of Knave in the famous B/X module Keep of the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. Previously, I attempted forty hours of a 5e West Marches Campaign which was a mixed experience. My sense of “referee style” is to stick adamantly to the module’s direction for game elements and its implicit notions of what is and isn’t possible. I might develop elements present in interesting ways but otherwise, the module lives or dies on its own merits.
Knave is a classless creative commons open system designed to be widely compatible with OSR material, especially B/X materials. Its author has cultivated a successful personal brand as an advocate for OSR with a particular focus on challenge, GM-as-referee, and emergence. B2 was chosen in anticipation of playing B10, Night’s Dark Terror. Both have wilderness exploration and have a lot of internet resources for comparison.
These choices were made in view of my West Marches failure. Most players had no willingness to engage with 5e’s complicated systems. Since I’m just interested in focused play, I wanted a system that people could pick up and understand. Knave’s ethos of “no class abilities” was promising because it emphasized a closed-loop from “exploring and acquiring stuff” to your character’s set of abilities.
My hope was that we could discover interesting situations and challenges without forcing them into play. This happened about once or twice a session in my West Marches experiment, but mostly from strong choices I made in the scenario design (imbalanced opponents, spells, keyed hexes, etc.)
The situation for Keep of the Borderlands is simple. The players come to a keep in the mountains armed to the teeth with soldiers which acts as a base of sorts. From there, they can explore the environment dealing with a few “monster situations” and eventually foray into “The Caves of Chaos”, a cave formation in the mountains home to different monster races living close together.
Running the module was quite challenging. Its conception of the environment is relentlessly spatial and it’s clear that I’m a failure as a human being because I can’t visualize how far the horizon is for someone standing atop a 1500 foot hill or how far someone can see into the darkness of winding passageways with two torches instead of one. When I run games, I am immensely clear about interpersonal relationships, character motivations, and information asymmetries. The module is immensely specific about every spatial detail of the keep like it was slavishly copied from the map of a computer game.
The result was a really even and nearly rote play cycle. The players would travel to the caves, kill as many enemies with ranged weapons as they safely could, and retreat back to the keep. If I presented other opportunities, they would simply ignore them and continue doing the exact same play loop.
It seemed like the players and I had very different experiences with the same play. The players seemed to find this fun or rewarding and I found it maximally dull, like watching people play one of those gacha games. Challenging situations only developed at my direct behest- playing out dinner with the master of the keep, an eldritch artifact picked up.
I can’t say that the players’ methods were particularly ineffective. Picking up a lot of followers and concentrating on ranged DPS is extremely effective if your enemies are the ultra-vanilla creatures featured in the module and there aren’t any traps.
In discussion with some OSR folk, it was suggested I play the enemies as more intelligent though it arguably flies in the face of the module’s design which is very “room-oriented.” Arguably, this is a crucial weakness in the entire genre of play. If enemies coordinated realistically, they would attack at once like real armies and overwhelm the players with DPS. The convention of disconnected groups of enemies located in rooms is 100% an artifact of design as far as I’m concerned and I’m not sure how to “balance” the two perspectives.
Play continued with the same group past this into the B/X module B10: Night’s Dark Terror. And this story shall also be told.
4 responses to “Keep to the Path: Knavish Adventures in Keep of the Borderlands”
Musings on a “Classic”.
Any particular expression of art, even commercial hang it in the dentist office art, has a certain amount of context surrounding its creation. I do not know the specific story behind this module, but extrapolating from B1: Into the Unknown, B2 is meant as the next step in "adventure" exploration. Modules are meant to be tools and I suspect, aside from their utility as convention play, they were designed to teach the game or aspects of the game. It is also fair to say that Keep is famous because it was included in so many boxed sets and was many players' first adventure.
My own nostalgia aside, the fundamental flaw in play here is that Keep on the Borderlands is not an adventure with an internal consistency or a narrative structure that can be followed. It cannot possibly make sense in that regard. Though there is information asymmetry, the design does not reward that without a ton of prep. The fact that many folks "played" it successfully is largely because no one thought that hard about it at the time. It is not an adventure and it is not a set piece dungeon, though it has a set piece dungeon within it for the purpose of play. What I think Keep is, is a micro-setting where the player taking on games mastering or dungeon mastering can set their own situations. It has rumours, set piece encounters, wandering tables, and a host of nameless medievalist npcs for you to give some personality and momentum to. It took me litreal decades to get the idea that they were nameless so I could name them myself.
None of which is laid out or really explained. The Caves of Chaos are I think meant to be a dynamic environment, but that dynamism is maybe too subtle or was imagined in the author's head, but never made it to the page. Gygax broke the vertical dungeon into a (mostly) horizantal one, breaking down typical set piece dungeon into something different. The caves break a few rules, though I am not sure how ingrained those rules were.
Keep is also not a work of the OSR. It was not designed with OSR principles in mind, no matter what weird backflips any of us try to do to make that work. And I think the weaknesses of the design is evident when its taken outside of its largely middle-child "Basic" D&D system and mechanisms. I dare say it might not work as well for either Holmes or Mentzer, the latter of which has the exact same mechanisms, though is a completely different game than the previous basic D&D iterations.
I guess I am not surprised that it did not meet your expectations and was dull. I ran through it as a player in 5e recently and it was dull, because the DM treated thte caves like an adventure and not a resource of information that could be used to create satisfying situations.
Pure nostalgia opinion here: its the most vanilla or milk-toast Gygax module. It only comes into its own when we seperate the pieces, using situation to give the set-piece dungeons some context.
internal consistency or a narrative structure
Yes, internal consistency or a narrative structure was not a thing in dungeons and dragons play until later. As I recall it when I gmed it in 82, Keep on the Borderlands was just a place to go, fight monsters, and get XP and GP.
I see a problem of expectations here
Indeed, have you talked with the players about the issue?
If you propose Knave — an exploration and problem-solving focus Rpg — and Keep on the Borderlands, then you have set an expectation already: a campaign that focuses on exploring the wilderness and a dungeon; and outcoming challenges for treasure, knowledge, and other rewards will occupy most of the gameplay time.
If they are enjoying the campaign and they are finding their own goals, I see the game as a success. However, the question is whether you like this gameplay style or not as a referee.
The point is rather: is this experience engaging for the players satisfying for you as well?
From your answer, it seems no. So, have a conversation, and perhaps try to find another game.
Regarding the point on monsters and creatures:
In OSR, NSR, and classic modules expect that the Referee plays NPC and creatures in a dynamic way. So, they should act and react in a believable way to the characters' actions. Monsters and NPCs in the OSR have their own motivations and needs. They won't wait in a room to be killed: they have goals, projects, set plans, and they will wander around in search of resources. If the characters meet and interact with them, they will not necessarily be hostile — unless threaten. Have you tried with the Reaction Rolls in Knave?
According to the players' choice and the most logical reactions of monsters and NPCs, the environment will change: new traps, new base camps, and factions will pop up meanwhile. And this is what makes exploring the same space over and over again exciting in OSR and classic modules.
I chose Knave precisely for
I chose Knave precisely for its focus on exploration and problem-solving and to have a game players can quickly pick-up and understand the rules without my constant coaxing. But just going back and forth between two locations, and ranging down enemies didn't seem to involve much of either.
I tried playing the creatures in a dynamic way but felt a lot of conflict. The module absolutely presents the caves and the keep as a series of homeostatic rooms. No attention is paid to the inhabitants' resources, incomes, or any dynamic elements that might be used to change/improve their positions. From the descriptions of food and surroundings, the enemies seem to be living at subsistence or below-subsistence levels. Even the goblin-king's room is pretty spartan albeit with a small goblin-harem (I mean it's Gygax, right?).
I didn't use reaction rolls- I sincerely feel like my skills at endowing NPCs with interesting complex incentives, personalities, and motivations is far beyond what you'll see in traditional play. However, my expansions of characterization were almost invariably met with the same approach as they took with most opportunities for complex problem-solving.
Here are just a few examples.
Dealing with these issues was tied to real rewards as understood by the game. Characters in desperate situation were willing and able to share rewards through quests, items, followers, or other "game currencies". But really, they wanted to DPS down a lot of bad guys in the caves and they did.