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Nerdarchy > Blast from the Past  > Keeping Old School D&D

Keeping Old School D&D

Skillfully Designing New Skills for 5E D&D
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Well, reader, it’s been a while.  My school work became rather overwhelming.  I figured you didn’t want to read about Decolonizing Western Uni-versalisms: Decolonial Pluri-versalism from Aimé Césaire to the Zapatistasi or such. I’ve still managed to play AD&D a little. It started as a second edition game but has become a hybrid first and second edition AD&D game. 

Get off my lawn.

Heroes approach the Keep on the Borderlands at dawn depicted by Erol Otus for the classic D&D adventure module.
The back cover of The Keep on the Borderlands shows heroes approaching the keep. [Illustration by Erol Otus]

Keep on the Borderlands remains a terrific D&D adventure

In any case for this campaign I’ve used one of the oldest and probably most used modules produced by TSR: B2 — The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax. You may have heard of him as he created the game along with Dave Arneson. For many old grognards back in the ’70s and ’80s this was the first adventure they played. Ask a gamer of my age-ish about B2 and they often get misty eyed about it.

Deep cuts trivia: Back then, the module coding system meant something. The “B” stood for Basic. The “G” in G1 — Steading of the Hill Giant Chief stood for Giant. S in S1 — Tomb of Horrors was Special. And so on.

Both Tomb of Horrors and Steading of the Hill Giant Chief were updated for 5E D&D in Tales from the Yawning Portal — Nerditor Doug

Is B2 that good? On its own, no. But it was the first sandbox module, which a Dungeon Master could add or subtract to make it her own. It has a lot of Gygaxian touches in it like a couple of monsters that would easily kill a 1st level party. 

B2 has two general parts — the Keep and the Caves of Chaos. The Keep is meant to be a home base of sorts where the party can heal between forays. Many of the buildings are not labeled, allowing the DM to populate the Keep their own way. The Caves are a prototypical dungeon crawl populated by various tribes of humanoids with a curve ball at the end. 

I knew one of my players had played this module at least once back in the day so I had to make some changes. As I wrote above the module was written with this in mind. Before we began I watched some play through videos on YouTube that people made. Some of them were really dark, with slavers and heads on pikes. I borrowed some things I saw and added my own twists. As I mentioned it’s a sandbox, meaning the players could do many things without “doing the module.” I gave the players multiple adventure hooks.

  • A merchant seeks people to investigate what’s destroying his cranberry bog on the edge of the swamp.
  • There are rumors of a mad hermit in the north woods who possesses a powerful magic item.
  • Rumors abound a young dragon has now settled in the eastern swamp, eating the lizardmen there. 
  • I added a bandit organization in the forest who conducted organized raids against shipping on the road through the woods. They are led by an enigmatic leader named Tucker who eventually makes an alliance with the humanoids in the caves and lays a lethal ambush for the PCs. 
  • Legend has it that the Keep was built on the site of an ancient elven stronghold and there are tombs of Elven kings nearby.

The PCs went for the money and investigated the cranberry bog, learning Giant Toads were destroying the crop. They then chased bandits into the north woods. Each of their actions spurred the story forward. After a few forays into the caves and successfully defending caravans from bandits the bandit and humanoid alliance began. Their trap killed a couple of hundred travelers on the North road before the adventurers broke their roadblock. An infiltrator in the Keep fed information to a different organization with evil plans for the Keep. This organization feeds lies to the ruler of the Keep that the adventurers were incompetent and plotting insurrection. Another operative becomes a favorite in the tavern and also starts laying the groundwork for a coup. The bodies of the travelers are buried in large pits near the Keep, from which someone starts raising them as zombies as well as attracting a small nearby pack of ghouls. 

I could keep going. I kept the structure of the module and my additions and after each session asked myself, “Okay, how will this group or person react?” And wrote notes. Some events had short term effects while others were more long game. The characters are now poised to complete the module, defeating the overarching bad guys and conquering the Caves of Chaos. Over the months I’ve challenged the PCs, puzzled them, frustrated them and rewarded their ingenuity. (I should’ve known a party with a former US Ranger and a Marine would quickly tactically diffuse the huge ambush!) NPCs came and went and as people joined the campaign a couple of the NPCs became PCs (and one PC became an NPC). Oh, and a fighter named Deadeye Diddums earned the nickname Deadmeat as he died three times. Each time he was raised by a high priest who eventually left the Keep when I decided the group were beyond the need for this sort of safety net. In any case Deadmeat became a non-factor due to his Constitution loss and disability.

All of this from a 26 page piece initially published 41 years ago.

So, what’s my point? Believe it or not there’s a reason D&D has lasted so long. The reason is TSR published some amazing game aids through the years. Younger players may see these pieces as useless antiques (and some of them are) but many of them contain great ideas! Most are easy to find on PDFs and print-on-demand these days or, if you’re like me and want originals, on various places like eBay. Some of them have been updated with varying success (the Tomb of Horrors update is crap!). Goodman Games did a 5E revision of B2 called Into the Borderlands in a hardcover but I haven’t looked at it. I’m content with the OG. [NERDRITOR’S NOTE: Adventure Lookup is a fantastic resource for finding the perfect modules you’re looking for no matter what edition of D&D you enjoy.]

So your players have seen it all? Challenge them with the old stuff! (Or just wipe them out with the original Tomb of Horrors — your call!)

If you’d like recommendations please let me know!

*Featured image — The cover for the original B2: The Keep on the Borderlands depicts a band of heroes in battle. [Illustration by Jim Roslof]

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Sophie Lynne

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