We have begun playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands. For some, it is our first time delving into this classic scenario and cave complex, but for others, it is a nostalgia trip, having first played it some forty years ago. On Monday afternoon/evening, players from South Carolina, Maryland, California, Texas, and the United Kingdom get together for two-and-a-half hours and explore the infamous Caves of Chaos, creeping into caves, casting Sleep on goblin guard posts, engaging in desperate fights against hobgoblins, and slaughtering all before us! Just four sessions in, and the party has explored four rooms and a cave, leaving a trail of dead goblins and hobgoblins behind it, as well as a blinded by a Light spell, then dead, ogre!
Our rules system of choice is Old School Essentials, Necrotic Gnome’s reimplementation of the 1980 Moldvay/Cook version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. This is a very clean, very well-presented presentation of the rules, and if you have played any Old School Renaissance roleplaying game or even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, it is easy to pick up and play. To keep it simple and get that OSR-feel, we are adhering to THAC0, to spellcasters starting with limited or even no spells, to Player Characters reduced to zero Hit Points being dead, to Basic Dungeons & Dragons’ ‘Race as Class.’ Hence, Elves, Halflings, and so on are their own thing, and not including skills or backgrounds. However, we are going further in using Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules and Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy: Druid and Illusionist Spells to allow a full range of character Classes.
In terms of what edition of B2 Keep on the Borderlands the Dungeon Master is using, it is the standard version from 1980, just as many gamers would discover in their copy of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Box Set. To this, he is adding the descriptions of the various rooms and locations from Goodman Games’ Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands to add more detail and flavour.
Set-up and play is being done via Roll20. The Dungeon Master has imported the maps and used ‘Fog of War’ to reveal our progress as we delved further down the various passageways and into rooms and caves. Old School Essentials is already set up to run all of the mechanics and handle the dice rolls. This included character generation, the Dungeon Master enforcing a strict roll in order of attribute and take what you get, but allowing rerolls for truly terrible stats. Or in the case of the Barbarian, Ublaf the Unbelievable, a reroll for everything because it was all bad. Even then, it is his best attribute was a Charisma of 13. To begin with, our party consisted of Gargle the Wizard, Mebd the Elf, Nadroj, a Cleric of Peranios, Obyn the Scarred One, Fighter, Ublaf the Unbelievable, Barbarian, and Zami, a Thief. Gargle, unfortunately, only had the one Hit Point, but did have the Sleep spell, whereas Mebd had the Light spell.
In the first encounter, in the first session, the party cast Sleep and killed some goblins, but attacked more goblins in a second room, where strangely, a shout of “Bree-yark!” did not make them surrender. In this second encounter, we quickly discovered the importance of winning the initiative and how deadly Old School Essentials could be at First Level as we lost two Player Characters. We prevailed, but it was definitely a case, at low Hit points, of watching between your fingers in case the Dungeon Master would successfully hit your character and then rolled enough damage to kill him. Unfortunately, Nadroj and Obyn the Scarred One did not survive. In the second and third sessions, the Player Characters got lucky and gained the benefits their players learned from the first—be cautious and do not overstretch yourself. Now joined by Brother Maharis, Paladin of St. Cuthbert, and the Fighter Emanon (replacement Player Characters), they penetrated deeper into the goblin caves, going upstairs to discover a lair of hobgoblins and then be surprised when the first ones they encountered, a large group, promptly ran away! Except for one, who was left behind when the rest of them ran through the door and shut it behind them. He refused to yield, so he was the first hobgoblin to die. Progressing down the corridor, we caught up with the rest, used Sleep to subdue most of them before discovering a torture chamber full of prisoners. Most of whom we rescued, which made us popular at the nearby frontier keep, which is serving as our base. We also gained a pair of henchmen who pledged their support to us for a year if we maintained their upkeep. More recently, we were confronted by an Ogre, which seemed to want to be bribed to ignore us, but the Paladin was having none of it, and after being blinded by the Light spell cast by the Elf, was cut down.
We quickly discovered that there is a refreshing brutality to Old School Essentials and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. There is no way in which the party can romp from room to room, merrily cutting a swathe of death through the caves. Instead, gameplay has become procedural and often a matter of resource management. Have we cast the Sleep spell yet? If not, then we can move on. How injured are we? Not badly; then we can move on. Since the Cleric was not Second Level, she could not cast spells—so no Cure Light Wounds. So the party had no healing. Otherwise, retreat to actual Keep on the borderlands, rest up, and try again tomorrow or the day after… And as deadly as the roleplaying game and scenario are—especially for First Level Player Characters, it is still fun. It is taking us back to when and where we first started in the hobby but bringing with us all of the roleplaying awareness and skills we have developed in the years since.
This article was written and contributed by Pookie, who is playing Ublaf the Unbelievable in the aforementioned Old School Essentials game being run by Modoc.
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