Keep on the Borderlands: Great Module, or the Greatest Module?

Posted by Labyrinthian in , ,

The release of Frandor's Keep prompted a question from a fellow site owner on the RPG Bloggers Network, "Keep on the Borderlands: Great Module, or the Greatest Module?"  Those of you who watch the Colbert Report will understand the intended humor of the question, and those of you who have played the very best published Dungeons and Dragons modules understand how difficult this question is. 

In 2004 when Dungeon magazine was still around they set out to make a list of the thirty greatest Dungeons and Dragons adventures of all time.  I had fully expected Keep to be in the top three, but it actually came in at number seven.  As we are only interested for the moment as to whether Keep is the Greatest let's look at its competition in the top 10.

1. Queen of the Spiders, 1986 (G1-3, D1-3, Q1)
2. Ravenloft, 1983 (I6)
3. Tomb of Horrors, 1978 (S1)
4. The Temple of Elemental Evil, 1985 (T1-4)
5. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, 1980 (S3)
6. The Desert of Desolation, 1987 (I3-5)
7. The Keep on the Borderlands, 1979 (B1)
8. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, 2001
9. White Plume Mountain, 1979 (S2)
10. Return to the Tomb of Horrors, 1998        

All right, let's begin at the top.  Number one is a complete and utter cop out by the people who assembled this list (Bruce Cordell, Monte Cook, Ed Greenwood, and Christopher Perkins).  Queen of the Spiders isn't a module but rather seven modules all strung together.  It has often been called a "supermodule" based on its length and not its quality.  A lot of people lament the fact that QotS relies almost exclusively on combat leaving very little room for role playing.  Peter Green in White Dwarf #85 said, "What Queen of the Spiders gives you is slaughter on a grand scale. There are supposed to be various power struggles in progress in the depths, but the players never really get to see any of this."  Now I'm not saying that QotS isn't a good module, it is.  But really this should have been broken up rather than being presented as a whole.  I would have listed the Giants series and the Drow series separately, but hey either way I don't think it is better than Keep.  

I'm sure right now you think this is going to be a list of me going through each adventure by pointing out that Keep on the Borderlands is Better.  Nope.  Because number two is Ravenloft.  I'm not sure I can say any module is better than the original I6.  At only 32 pages it delivers more than most adventures could in ten times that number.  This adventure spawned an entire setting, and though I didn't like much other than the original module, still stands testament to how much Ravenloft ignited the imagination of Gamers everywhere.  So which is better Keep of Ravenloft?  Well they are good for very different reasons.  Ravenloft is a streamlined module that encapsulates the Gothic Horror genre seamlessly into the Dungeons and Dragons.  It is amazingly replayable because its classic villain, Strahd von Zarovich, has goals that change with each playing.  Where Ravenloft is linear Keep is anything but.  It is more of a setting that allows the players to explore the nearby Caves of Chaos at their own pace and for their own reasons.  Both approaches have their merits and neither is better than the other. 

I don't think the Tomb of Horrors is a really great module and coming in at number three is certainly too high on this list.  I realize that some people love this module based mainly on nostalgia, but if you look at it with a cold eye it isn't good enough to rank in the top three. 

Number four is the Temple of Elemental Evil is a good module, though it spawned a truly awful computer game.  Its demon spawn aside I still like Keep better.  Expedition to Barrier Peaks was a module I never really liked.  I just couldn't get past the whole crashed spaceship thing.  I don't like technology in D&D.  Number seven the DoD which I have never played so I can't comment too much on it.  I've read through some of it and it did have some interesting elements to it, but I'm not sure I would ever run it.  Eight is Return to the the Temple of Elemental Evil which I wouldn't have in the top 10.  Maybe they felt they needed to have a certain number of 3rd edition modules near the top, that's about the only explanation I have for its presences here.  Number ten, return to the Tomb of Horrors, is another sequel that somehow made its way into the top 10.  The very fact this Return presents the original Tomb of Horrors as a mere antechamber to the real Tomb pisses me off to no end.  Needless to say I don't think it belongs in the top 10 or anywhere within 20 slots of Keep.

Right about now some of you are saying, "Hey you skipped number nine!"  Which is obviously true.  That is because I think White Plume Mountain deserved some special attention.  It is a great module that is extremely linear with a very straightforward plot.  It doesn't try to do anything complex or overly complicated, but it is immensely fun to play.  Do I think that it is better than Keep?  No, but I certainly have no problem with it being in the top 10 and would recommend it to those of you who haven't played it before.

In the end White Plume Mountain and some of these other modules are really good, they just can't stand up to what Keep on the Borderlands offers.  It is in some ways a microcosm of the soul of D&D itself.  Some adventurers travel to a small keep on the edge of the wilderness hoping for fame and fortune.  They delve into the unknown facing peril around every corner.  If they survive they will find everything they have ever dreamed, money, power, notoriety, but many will find nothing but death. 

Keep on the Borderlands continues to fascinate us more than thirty years since its original publication.  Aside from the original B2 module itself there has been a sequel, a Hackmaster 4th edition parody, a novelization, and most recently a serious homage to it in the form of Frandor's Keep.

So... Great Module or the Greatest Module?

Put me down for Great. 

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at Wednesday, March 17, 2010 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Keep on the Borderlands is good but Ravenloft is definitely better. I had a blast when I was younger playing Against the Giants so I'm a little bias there.

March 17, 2010 at 7:58 PM

I love the original keep on the borderlands. I think its the best. I plan on getting the new one for Hackmaster 5th edition.

March 17, 2010 at 9:09 PM

The thing that makes Keep "better" than the rest is it's an introductory module, that teaches DM's and players how to play.

It's not really comparable to those others as it is to B1, X1, maybe T1 and other "training" modules.

And ToEE computer game rocked!

March 18, 2010 at 12:38 AM

Keep was great,
Ravenloft was better,
ToEE was best.

Gonna have to agree with Labyrinthian though. that game stunk it up. It wanted to be Baldur's Gate but failed miserably.

March 18, 2010 at 12:47 AM

Norman- I believe that Keep is elegant in its simplicity, but I don't think that can solely be attributed to its status as an introductory module. Additionally, I don't feel it is too much of a stretch to compare Keep to these other modules. It certainly seems far easier to do that than to compare huge compilations like QotS to stand alone modules like Keep or White Plume Mountain.

March 18, 2010 at 8:25 AM

> I believe that Keep is elegant in its simplicity, but I don't think that can solely be attributed to its status as an introductory module.

I agree. I'm saying out of the intro type modules Keep is one of if not the best.

There's definitely a gradient of modules from tiny T1 to monsters like S3 or G123.

March 18, 2010 at 11:24 AM

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