Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Expedition to the Keep on the Borderlands

On Saturday I headed up to Collector’s Corner in Bel Air to play in the Harford County Game Day. I’d signed up for the Expedition to the Borderlands B/X game, mainly because I’ve never actually played a B/X game, or Keep on the Borderlands, or even in a hex crawl. Once, ages ago, I ran Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, but didn’t really get what the big deal was at the time.

I was the last one to the table, as it was my first time to Collector’s Corner, and I took a wrong turn on the way. Peter, the DM was just getting into it, going very quickly over the basics of old school D&D. Then it was time to pick our characters. He had multiple 2nd level pregens for each class. We ended up with:

Nala the fighter played by Katherine
Alsador the cleric played by Warren
Jax the thief played by John (?)
Gorinka the dwarf played by Cathy
Melvin the Magnificent the magic-user played by me
- Wandra the Warrior, Melvin’s hireling/bodyguard

The adventure was set in a 5 mile hex with the Keep at its center. Our group was tasked by the local baron to investigate when the Keep hadn’t sent any reports recently. We started the adventure at the edge of the hex with a dwarven caravan heading back to Rockhome, and an intro combat with a pack of gnolls. Melvin’s sleep spell did drop one of them, and made another a little sluggish, but then he hid under one of the wagons.

Aside from that initial dropping of a gnoll, it would have been a very early TPK had it not been for the dwarves. Aside from winning initiative most of the 10+ rounds of combat, including the first 4 rounds in a row, we whiffed, fumbled, and missed nearly every attack roll, and our damage output was miserable when we did hit.

Did I mention that our 2nd level characters had typical ability scores for B/X? When you roll 3d6 in order, it’s not pretty. For example, Melvin had 7 Str. 14 Int. 6 Wis. 7 Dex. 9 Con. and 14 Cha. For those keeping track, thats an overall ability modifier of -2.

I know early edition is supposed to have fast combat, but that’s really only true when characters actually hit. As it was by the end of the combat we were already an hour into the game.

We pressed on with the dwarves, arriving at a small monastery surrounded by worked fields and a wooden palisade wall. The dwarves were continuing on to the west, while we would take the road north to the keep. While stopped at the monastery Melvin spouted his belief that there were in fact no gods, and that all magic was drawn from the same non-divine source. He then got to wait outside the wall. A pair of red uniformed guards from the keep were due to return, so we would all travel together. We were supposed to pass their relief on the way. We didn’t.

Upon reaching the keep, Melvin noted the blue uniformed watch standing guard. Already concerned that they hadn’t passed the guards relief, he pulled a wand from his robe and demanded to know why they were in a different uniform. Mind you, the wand was just a non-magical stick, but the guards didn’t know that. Turns out the watch and the guard have different uniforms since they do different things.

It also happens that the Lord of the Keep had ridden out nearly a week ago to investigate the sighting of undead in the swamp with 10 guards, which was why no guards took over at the monastery. Apparently both gnolls and undead are rare in these parts, and their sighting had everyone very concerned. Since we were tasked with finding out what was going on, we attempted to meet with the castellan. She refused to see us.

We stayed for the night at the inn, hired the stable boy to be our guide, and took off in the morning. A day of getting bit by mosquitoes didn’t turn up any traces of the lord or the 10 guards he took with him. We returned to the keep to head out again in the morning. That night we met a priest of Vara, the poet god. Wandra stepped on Melvin’s toes, preventing his further ranting on the false nature of gods. The priest was very interested in our tales, though his acolytes were silent “until the poetry filled their voices”.

The next morning we again headed out with the stable boy. Before reaching the marsh, the stable boy spotted something large moving off in the distance. We decided to investigate, and found a cave with signs posted outside it. Being the highly experienced group we were, we investigated subtly, letting everyone in the area know what we were about. The conclusion was ogre. Eventually Melvin proposed a plan to have half the party up on the hill across from the cave with weapons ready, the dwarf on one side of the cave and the thief on the other, with a trip line across the entryway. Melvin would then call out, and we would subdue the monster with his sleep spell.

Things went a little sideways when it turned out to be pumpkin headed bugbears. Thankfully the three that charged out all hit the tripwire and fell. Melvin ran for cover behind the dwarf, and combat was joined. Melvin took a hard hit, but remained standing. The same could not be said for the thief who went down with a single hit. The sleep spell dropped two, the other was killed. We tied up the injured sleeping bugbear, and killed the other. The thief was revived with the cleric’s healing. Then we woke it up and Melvin interrogated it in orcish. It didn’t give us any useful info. Also, it seemed to think the word for “Lord” was “Fart” Lopping off a finger didn’t produce any effect except to have a deep rumbling voice from the cave demand we release the monster. Still thinking ogre, and feeling the pain of the battle still, we ran.

Later, in the marsh we discovered a mound above the soggy mess, and investigated it. Once again, our initial thought of barrow mound proved to be incorrect, and we found ourselves fighting lizardmen. Thankfully the entrance to their lair was so small that only one could exit a round. We killed 4 when those within called for parlay. This was probably because while the rest of the group was killing the lizardmen that came out, Melvin was dropping open flasks of oil into the hole. They offered us a bar of gold to go away, so we did.

Unfortunately that was the end of our time…

All in all I had a great time. Peter used a homebrewed travel tracking system, which I thought worked well. The 5 mile hex was divided into both 1 mile hexes and 0.2 mile hexes. We were given a mostly blank hex map with only the main roads, the keep, and the monastery on it. This was my first time doing a hex crawl, and I really liked how it went. I was always a bit unsure about how to run one before, but this made sense, and I can see doing a similar system in the future.

Also, if you’re at all familiar with Keep on the Borderlands, you know that the monsters are almost all found clumped together at the caves of chaos. In Peter’s Expedition to the Borderlands, the lairs are all spread throughout the hex. Honestly I think this is an improvement over Gary’s original.

Other house rules that Peter used were:
  • 2 weapon fighting is a single attack roll at +1 to hit
  • Sleep gives a saving throw
  • 0 HP was down, but not necessarily out, if magical healing can be applied.
  • Weapon damage is by class

Lastly, if you note the picture above, Peter used Dyson’s character sheets!


  1. Cool writeup, thank you! I was planning on doing my own, alas I am being delayed on just about everything right now. I look forward to playing again, Melvin was awesome to watch cowering under that wagon! :-)

  2. Sounds like a great game. Thanks for the writeup.