Saturday, June 15, 2019

Once More Unto the Keep: Another expedition into the "Keep on the Borderlands"

When we rejoined our merry band, they had retreated from the Caves of Chaos to the Keep itself to rest and claim the bounty on "goblin heads" posted by the Keep's bailiff. While he scoffed at their initial report that hobgoblins were lurking in the caves, the hard proof of hobgoblin heads was enough to convince him that the militaristic humanoids had made a foothold in the caves.

The bailiff suggested further scouting into the caverns, as the position of "Chief Scouts of the Keep" had recently been vacated, (the previous holder's of that office having encountered and been slain by DOOMKNIGHT, a terrifying undead thing that lurked in the woods to the north.)

With blades sharpened, torches purchased and loins girded, the party set off once again into the wilds beyond the safety of the Keep's walls. Join them after the jump.

Returning to the ravine, the mist that had obscured it on their first foray had lifted, revealing a number of cave entrances higher on the cliff walls farther into the defile. I gave the party some stock OSR advice ("Towns are safe. Roads are a bit less safe. The wilderness is really dangerous, and the further you get from the surface - deeper into a dungeon or higher into a wizard's tower for example - the deadlier the creatures you'll find"), information they filed away for later, marching their characters to the goblin cave they had entered before.

They negotiated with the goblins again, who were anxious that the hobgoblins would blame them for the party's recent attack, but promised them a healing potion in return for slaying more of the orange skinned brutes. To keep the goblins honest the party required two members of the tribe to join their expedition. The goblin leader drafted two runts - Gubbins and Milktoad - into the party's employ.

The party negotiated with goblins just within the entrance to the creature's warren.

Following the tunnel they had entered earlier, the party climbed the steps towards the hobgoblin lair ("oohhh, we're going up, so I guess the monsters are going to be tougher!" my neophyte dungeon delvers realized).

The torture chamber of the hobgoblins.

Opening the door they could hear the crack of whips and the whimpering of captives. Sneaking forward they could hear hobgoblins chortling as they "tenderized the meat" for the evening's feast. The party burst in upon them, quickly dispatching the hobgoblin torturers and freeing tonight's menu: a merchant, his wife, their two caravan guards Zeke and Deke, and a captive goblin, Beerfrog. (The original module includes an orc and a gnoll here, but I wasn't quite ready to bring those factions into play yet).

My wife's halfling thief, backed up by Zeke and Deke (portrayed tonight by a pair of Lord of the Rings orcs)

The merchant, his wife and Beerfrog were in no shape for fighting and were sent to the rear, but Zeke and Deke were eager to mete out revenge for the abuse they'd suffered under the whips of the hobgoblins. Further explorations into the caves uncovered a large central hall, with a grand staircase heading up and a pair of large wooden doors, cracked open sufficiently to allow light from the outside to stream in.

The party gathered here to survey the central hall of the hobgoblin stronghold.

 The few hobgoblin guards here were slain quietly, and before the party could be discovered the halfling thief looted them (grabbing a parchment with non-human names written in hobgoblin on it) and fled.

Claiming the potion in return for a new sack of hobgoblin heads, the party dropped off their goblin escorts and rescued captive and returned to town with the merchant and his entourage in tow.

The party received a reward from the merchant's guild for the liberation of one of their own. Grateful for their rescue, the merchant's wife offered the party a magic dagger in thanks. Taking the party thief aside the merchant also mentioned that he had been waylaid returning from the east bearing a stone tablet covered in the ancient runes of the long dead serpent people. "If you return to that vile place and locate the tablet among the goods the hobgoblins stole from me, I would be most appreciative."

The party reported their findings to the bailiff and formed an adventuring company, officially in the employ of the Keep as scouts. The bailiff tasked them with gathering a full report on the nature and number of the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos, so once again the party set off into the wilds.

On this excursion they decided to locate the entrance they glimpsed from inside the central hall.  Passing both the goblin cavern and a secondary cave near the floor of the ravine, they located an eroded series of switchbacks that ascended to the great wooden doors. The party's halfling scout spied several hobgoblin guards on watch throughout the entry hall.

Preparing their attack, unbeknownst to the dozing hobgoblin guard.

Using the entrance as cover the party attacked with ranged weapons. The wily hobgoblins returned fire with crossbows, but two of the humanoids darted down side tunnels to fetch reinforcements.

Intent on wiping out the hobgoblin cannibals, the party's fighters formed a shield wall to give the ranged attackers cover. As they pressed forward the party could hear the gathering hobgoblin host. Drums sounded in the deep, the clanking of armor and boots grew louder and soon a tide of humanoids swept down upon the party.

With hit points dropping rapidly and outnumbered two to one, the halfling thief tried shouting the words from the parchment she'd found earlier. "Sumali, Gureelio, Kursah, and Nardo say stop!"

This only enraged the hobgoblins more, and seeing things spiraling out of hand my son's morale broke. "Mom, we have GOT to get out of here!" The party fled, their hobgoblin enemies slamming the wooden doors behind them.

Stray Observations

  • Because we jumped right into playing after rolling up characters, none of the PCs had extensive backstories. This isn't a high drama campaign that required such history, but I needed some sort of reason the characters were risking their lives in the pursuit of treasure besides "it's a game" to suspend my disbelief. I knocked together a crude character background generator for my wife and son to create a skeleton of a backstory for their characters. I grabbed a few bits from Dungeon Crawl Classics but added some additional backgrounds that best fit my game. Feel free to check out/use/steal my OSR character background system in case it's useful for you.

  • While this is Keep on the Borderlands, I've been cherry picking bits from the Hackmaster version, cobbling things together on the fly, as well as throwing together a hex crawl region beyond the Keep and Caves, and setting up threads for potential future adventures. That's the fun part of DMing, but I have to restrain myself from adding on unneeded detail when it's entirely possible the party will never stray from the Keep or Caves.
  • I began running D&D in the mid 90's, when the adventures featured in Dungeon seemed to be burdened with complex NPCs, backstory and "cruft" that I found burdensome to get through, all pretty unusable for my needs. I ignored most earlier modules as well, and only gave them a second look when the OSR movement started pointing out how the lightly described dungeons were an asset, not an obstacle. I've read through a bunch, but this is the first OSR module I've run, and Keep on the Borderlands plays much better than I expected it would. The various factions jammed into close proximity force the DM to work out how and why they are coexisting (hence my hobgoblins apply increasing pressure to get the goblins into an allied and subservient role, all in service of their as of yet unnamed masters.) Discovering unknown cave entrances gives the party a small thrill, and being able to get a sense of the geography of the whole "dungeon" (spotting other cave entrances higher on the cliff walls) rather than being completely unknowable by being buried underground helps the party understand how to tackle it.
  • Part of the fun of running games for an inexperienced group is seeing them come to the sorts of solutions to problems more experienced groups take as second nature. Scouting out opposition, setting up ambushes, using fighters to screen the softer classes, etc.  While I've given some general, generic advice for OSR gaming, my wife and son are playing fairly cagily, the game evolving into an "adventuring as war" aspect simply as a result of the limited hit points and spells available to the party and the unpredictable and unbalanced foes they wind up facing.
  • I don't really know what the hell my brain was doing when I had to create goblin names at the drop of a hat. "Milktoad"? sheesh.
Really enjoying our trips into the dungeon, and looking forward to our next excursion!


  1. That's really awesome John! Wasn't able to comment on the first adventure as I was still having issues with my Google account, but it's just fantastic that you and the family are doing this adventure together! Looking forward to the next one 😃

  2. Well done, that sounds like it was a ton of fun.
    Simple but effective!

  3. Love following your blog, especially these dungeon crawls!

    1. Thanks D Pham! I just ran a "virtual" dungeon crawl over Zoom as a test for a potential virtual game convention. Hoping to get some notes up on the blog soon!