Review: Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands
Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands opens up with several pages dedicated to briefing a prospective GM on how to read and run the material within; from the anatomy of an encounter to the identification of treasure, these segments provide a concise crunchy rundown–and could well serve as cheat sheets for future reference, if one were so inclined. Along with the table of stat blocks organized by challenge rating is also included a rather keen bit of poetry in reference to the Shadowed Keep itself–a nice bit of extra fluff for the adventure!
Once past the mechanical introductions, we’re off to the background behind the adventure at hand–describing the rise and fall of former adventurer Valentin Ironwolf and his efforts to form a fortress to serve as hearth and home. During the pursuit of securing the safety of such for his family and holdings, Valentin’s campaign ultimately led to his downfall as retribution roused among his enemies was visited at last. This development lends to the presence of the Blood Moon goblins still lingering about the fortress to this day–as well as other bits of intrigue to come.
Following the background is a footnote suggesting how a GM might incorporated the Shadowed Keep into their own campaign, among which is put forth what is probably my favourite part of the module’s potential: once the party has cleared the keep, they might endeavour to claim and rebuild it themselves. Given the thorough detail and flavour of the environs throughout the module itself, I love this prospective aspect and feel that it could serve as the foundation for a campaign in and of itself.
An opportunity for a freshly formed party of adventurers to acquire a fortress of their own early in their careers is a rather cool one–and acquiring the necessary networks and resources to truly bring the keep into full swing could easily provide the foundation for many forays and adventures. To this same vein, a GM might also incorporate any number of product from among the Raging Swan stable for tribes, random encounters and the like to yield plenty of fun, flavourful adventure material for more of a sandbox-styled campaign. Excellent!
Information comes up next–both for running the module in a general sense and for providing hooks for a prospective party’s allure. Lore checks for the keep are present, as are rumours to be gleaned from gather information attempts–both welcome elements. Among the reasons for their direction to the keep, I found the most interesting premise to be the pursuit of a pair of maps located somewhere within the fortress which might lead adventurers to the dwarven hold of Hadramkath. Said maps are also included as very cool player handouts, a nice bonus!
Next we find a ready reference for the wilderness territory surrounding the keep, including random encounters and terrain considerations to utilize throughout the woodlands. Stat blocks are presented for the encounters herein–while the premise also lends itself handsomely to the Random Woodland Encounters from Raging Swan as well if one is so inclined (though these would better serve after the completion of the keep if you’d rather not make adjustments to the encounters within. )
A brief overview of the keep follows, describing the different areas which serve in turn as the sections of the adventure ahead; much like the Moathouse to which the Shadowed Keep pays homage, each of these areas of the keep holds its own theme of sorts–with a different variety of encounters, obstacles and flavour to be discovered by the adventurers. A nice evocative piece of artwork is provided here to set the tone as well, along with a player handout which displays an overview of the keep’s surface layout (available both with and without labels!)
Finally, the last segment before we enter the meat of the adventure itself offers suggestions for further adventures upon its conclusion. Here, the claiming of the keep is presented as one possible option (one which I am quite fond of, at that) as well as delving of the myriad caverns deep below the fortress, pursuit of the previously mentioned dwarven hold and an eerie chasm found within the under-crypts that might also be plumed.
With these segments drawn to a conclusion, we’re off to the heart of the matter–the adventure itself. Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is comprised of the Watchtower of the Bandit Queen, Donjon of Ruin, Realm of the Blood Moon and the Undercrypt–and each of these sections provides a nice variation of challenges and encounters to present to an exploring party.
During his writings regarding the creative process of the module, author Creighton Broadhurst noted one of his goals being to present segments for every flavour of character to have a chance to excel at–and this is something which certainly shines through as you traverse the environs herein! Let’s take a look at each of these areas and see just what they have in store. SPOILERS AHEAD: If you’re a player apt to play this module, I suggest skipping from here to the conclusion of this review!
In the first stroke, the Watchtower is where you’ll find a group of (mostly human) bandits holed up in their pitched struggle with the other denizens of the keep for control of the fortress. Running the gamut of the tower proves tight and quick, with small encounters which can quickly chain into their neighbours–calling upon reinforcements or falling back to their fellows depending on how battle pans out.
Gaining entry to the tower can be accomplished in a variety of fashions and beyond simply bashing one’s way in through the front door and raising the alarm, a party might elect to try and scale the tower’s exterior or even attempt to bluff or strike a more diplomatic entrance into the bandits’ midst. Presented in the module are suggestions for how these approaches might pan out, along with appropriate DCs and reactions–a very welcome touch for easy reference.
One of the things I liked about the bandits on the whole is that they are offered with a variety of tactics and approaches to each area in which they fight. Rather than simply slugging it out with the PCs and fighting to the death, the bandits will topple tables and other furniture for impromptu cover and attempt to impede prospective ‘invaders’ while rallying with their fellows; if things turn ugly, many will vie to get out with their lives and lend a nicely organic feel which pervades throughout many of the encounters in the Shadowed Keep.
Each area of the tower includes a detailed breakdown of elements in the room and how they might be utilized either in or out of combat; as an example, the tables might be used for cover if hid behind or a higher ground advantage if leapt upon. Within the tower the party may also discover a pair of prisoners from whom further information, a replacement party member or additional support in assaulting later areas might be plied.
Firean Maiethil is the so-named ‘Bandit Queen’ of the watchtower, a half-elven fighter/cleric presented with some interesting flavour; I’d have personally liked to see her ‘built’ a bit differently as far as feat selection and the like, as some of the picks for her abilities in my opinion leave her a bit wanting as the ‘boss’ of the watchtower. These tweaks are easily affected to suit your particular style, however–and like all the encounters in the module, there are options presented to raise or lower the difficulty she presents on the fly.
After the Watchtower we have the Donjon of Ruin, a sizable structure which turns from bandits to a variety of vermin inhabitants (the largest of which being a mated pair of web-spinning spiders). The Donjon also boasts traps and even the haunting presence of Valentin’s now ghostly son–presenting a rather sad scene to come upon and an opportunity for evocative roleplay. Deep within the Donjon is The Demonic Door, a fairly cool trap, before a fight with a necrophidius–potentially quite nasty for a low level party!
On the whole, the Donjon really oozes a lot of flavour throughout its environs; the evidence of what once was is found in every room and helps to paint the image of Valentin’s rise and fall within. While much of the area is spent on exploration rather than encounters, there is much flavour to be found as a party proceeds. Einar’s ghost presents a very compelling quest for the party to recover and lay to rest the bones of the Ironwolf family once and for all.
One of my favourite things about the Donjon is the hall in which the giant spiders are fought: since said spiders are up in the rafters, players are presented with a bit of a challenge to reach them–but might do so by climbing the tapestries or lifting one another via the chandeliers, a fun little extra element. I also enjoyed the atypical traps presented here, as most low-level modules stick with the standard pit fare; in particular, the booby-trapped door at the entrance is apt to be a surprise. The necrophidius certainly serves as a ‘boss’ for the Donjon and as said, might be rough!
Next we delve into the Realm of the Blood Moon, a tribe of goblins one might recognize from other Raging Swan product; I’ll start off by saying that this section of the keep has an especially cool layout, map and environmental element to it which really help it to shine during exploration. To add to this, the section’s opening even includes a table for random ‘dungeon dressing’ to further flavour areas as they are explored. Cool!
As the Blood Moon tribe has had an ongoing feud with the bandits above, they are well-used to skirmishes and defending what they feel to be their territory; tactically this means that once a party of adventurers begins to engage the goblins, they will quickly begin to make attempts to rally with their brethren–as well as to alert Ruknar, their fiendish ogre warrior chieftain, in order to rebuke the incursion on their realm.
Once again there are interesting tactics and methods to the encounters presented here; rather than a fight-to-the-death slog-fest as so often plagues early fights in a campaign, the goblins attempt to mire adventurers with tanglefoot bags and other elements, target obvious spellcasters and defensively retreat and regroup to better face their invading foes. Players will need to be swift, decisive and very careful with tackling the Blood Moon tribe or else they can very quickly find themselves in over their heads.
Among the encounters presented in the cellars of the fortress beyond the goblins you’ll also find a pair of gnolls (on a mission from the Bleached Skull clan, a potential future adversary for a party), bugbears, and even the infamous gelatinous cube makes an appearance. There are also some unexpected hazards, such as an unstable well–as well as an interesting twist by way of the goblin Sar who would like nothing more than to overthrow Ruknar and may seek to enlist the PCs in achieving such an end.
Ruknar, his son Razogen and the pair’s entourage are a fierce fighting force together and sure to provide a stout challenge for most low-level parties; as the ‘boss’ of the Realm of the Blood Moon segment, Ruknar is a beastly brute of a fellow who utilizes the unbreakable fighter archetype and a large falchion to devastating effect. Be prepared for an extremely tough fight with Ruknar, especially if the other Blood Moon goblins are able to rouse him into reinforcing them in an earlier battle during the tour of the cellars! Ruknar is a brutal boss–and a good one.
Finally, the last part of our round through the Shadowed Keep is the Undercrypt–and as one can imagine, here is where the flavour turns an eye towards the undead. As with the Realm of the Blood Moon, there are additional dressings one can roll at the beginning for extra spice to the areas ahead–while the undercrypt itself is comprised of broader chambers in comparison to the tighter confines of the floors above.
Right from the entrance we establish that this section is full of surprises–a long pit with murky water hiding a pair of fast zombies to assail anyone unfortunate enough to end up at the bottom. Further on, a caryatid is discovered in a columned hall which will doubtlessly startle most adventurers–and if that weren’t hazard enough, the ceiling might collapse in said hall as well. This latter hazard is presented nicely with details from round to round on how it can progress making for another fun bonus in play.
Once the PCs have made their way past pit, sludge, column and collapse they’re into the crypt itself which is presented with one of my favourite pieces of art in the module, depicting a cleric whirling a swinging censer about as if it were a meteor hammer against skeletons as vapours trail. But wait–it isn’t just artwork: herein is a chained silver battle aspergillum, filled with holy water and ready for use. How often does this implement ordinarily get to see play? Awesome!
Here the party will fight skeletons, among which are a Grave Chill variety–a re-flavouring of the burning skeleton template presented herein and fitting perfectly with the presentation of the scene. If the players emerge victorious, there are some nice bits of flavoured treasure to find. Beyond, the last remaining area of the crypts joins both halves–the chasm of ebon depths.
From the chasm a fight with a shadow can be found, somewhat of a ‘boss’ to the crypts–but the real challenge here is the corruption within the chasm itself and the eerie black waters therein. The exact execution of the necrotic corruption is left up to the GM, with several suggestions presented here–but resolving the source of such is apt to bear the party rewards and doubtless be a desirable measure if they have designs to call the keep home!
With that, we’ve covered the areas of the keep and found a variety of encounters, obstacles and challenges within. Each offers up the potential hooks to additional adventures to spiral off from the Shadowed Keep environs–whether the party elects to claim the fortress as their own and seek to rebuild it or simply to pursue the mysteries and threats discovered branching from within its walls.
We’re not done with content yet however: following the Shadowed Keep is a collection of nine pre-generated characters which each boast a quality portrait. A cleric, fighter, rogue, illusionist, oracle, witch, ranger, a second fighter and even a magus are included and ready to play. After this are player handouts and finally a section with the artwork throughout the module collected together closes out the remainder of the book.
Overall: Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is a whopper of a module and comes packed with illustrations, maps, player handouts and reference materials. With the final copy I’m also happy to see that everything is nice and smooth on the editing front as well–a good amount of time went into such a big production! Formatting is great and there is a remarkable amount of sheer information to work with throughout the adventure; I can’t stress enough that this would be a fine foundation for an entire campaign.
I’ll take an aside to say that Creighton was nice enough to provide me with a review copy of Shadowed Keep a fair while back to give it proper runs–and my endeavour to do so culminated into a pair of games, one at the table, and one via VTT; it was interesting to me to find the divergences in each group’s approach to tackling the keep’s differing segments, their order of direction and so on–but in both cases, the two different parties had a blast and as a GM it left me keen to utilize the material as a springboard for a grander campaign.
Finally, the point I’d like to leave in the forefront is this: Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is a fine example of an adventure which is a labour of love and the flavour and style to be found shows this well. Beyond these reviews, you can check out Creighton’s development journals and session recaps; this is a grand, fun adventure and deserves high marks and recommendations alike. It likely comes as no surprise, but I definitely give the Shadowed Keep five stars and feel any group’s apt to have a good time with it, be they long-time veterans at the table or players new to such adventures. Now start working on that stronghold supplement!
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