Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands
By Thilo Graf
This adventure from Raging Swan Press is 95 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages advertisements, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page statblocks by CR (and a cool rhyme for your bard!), leaving 86 pages of content, so let’s check out Raging Swan’s latest adventure!
This being an adventure review, I urge potential players to jump to the conclusion in order to avoid SPOILERS.
Shadowed Keep of the Borderlands is essentially a sandbox adventure in the truest form – intentionally reminiscent of the classic moathouse of ToEE, the now ruined keep was originally constructed by adventurers who have subsequently been routed and destroyed in a night of carnage by their goblinoid foes.
Now, the woods surrounding the keep have become rather unsafe – animals, vermin, bandits and worse prowl the woods and some sages speculate that a map to a famous lost dwarven hold might still lie within the keep – hopefully enough prompting to get the PCs to try to tackle the keep! The surface section of the keep essentially has two different areas – the bandit queen’s tower and the donjon of ruin. In the former, the bandits (who may be tricked, negotiated with and even be joined by your PCs and get the RSP NPC-treatment with mannerisms etc!) make for a potentially lethal coordinated defense and if your PCs think they’ll be in for an easy ride, they’ll learn a harsh lesson here – the foes in the keep react organically to threats. Which is a VERY important thing to consider about this adventure: The amount of detail provided for the keep is stunning – many rooms feature d20 tables to find valuables not found by other looters, bones of small animals, harmless mold etc. Essentially each room has SOMETHING going for them and NPCs and critters use the terrain to their advantage. Bandits use tables for cover, red hot pokers scare the hell out of goblins who used them on foes and know all too well the effect the things have, giant spider hang on the walls and throw nets on PCs, who in turn may hide behind tapestries – there is some environmental peculiarity in every room.
Wait, goblins? Yeah, but let’s talk about the donjon first – essentially the middle ground between the two factions of the fortress, the donjon is in a state of dilapidation and disrepair, overrun by vermin and haunted by the ghost of the former lord’s child who wants to have his remains buried with his parents – only that’s not as easy as one would hope. It is at the latest here that PCs will realize something – traps are not randomly strewn about, but instead can be anticipated and found via clever roleplaying, interrogation etc. The same holds true for the as of yet undiscovered and magically trapped vault of the adventurers, cleverly hidden within the donjon.
Beyond the donjon, in its cellar and dungeon, the blood moon goblin tribe has found a refuge and lurks, waging war on the bandits under the leadership of the despicable…ogre. Yeah. I was not impressed by that. How many adventure modules have you read for 1st level where the PCs eventually fight a damn ogre? My cynicism should be proven wrong in this particular instance, though, for said ogre-brute is a horned, EXTREMELY deadly fiendish monstrosity (with a corresponding artwork), guarded by 3 medium, dual poison-sickle wielding concubines! It should also be noted that PCs may actually use tribal politics to gain an ally in a megalomaniacal goblin adept as well as rescue prisoners and even attack the green threat with the bandits – all options that should be considered, for the PCs are up against a goblin tribe that may actually launch a coordinated defense against their intrusion and makes good work of their bugbear mercenaries and environmental surroundings.
Beyond the caves of the Blood Moon (which may be entered via multiple ways, btw.!), there lies the undercrypt, a once hallowed hall (essentially a couple of extra rooms) now teeming with undead – a strange, necrotic corruption is spreading from a fissure of dark, ice-cold water and hallowing the ground/finding out what the source of the corruption is, might make for a nice follow-up to the things happening in this particular part of the dungeon. Once the goblins have been crushed, the bandits defeated, the ghost laid to rest and the undead disposed off, the PCs might actually lay claim to the fortress, which would make for an interesting product in the future – here’s to hoping that RSP releases one!
The adventure comes with 9 pregens (including witch, oracle and magus, but no summoner or alchemist), 3 pages of handouts (an overview of the keep and two beautiful maps leading to the lost dwarven hold and depicting its layout, which served to immediately spark my imagination for further adventures) and 9 pages of illustrations that you can show to the players – this whopping amount of player-friendly additions is simply amazing.
Editing and formatting, as I’ve come to expect from Raging Swan Press, is top-notch – I didn’t notice any glitches. The layout adheres to RSP’s classic and printer-friendly, easy to read 2-column layout and the artworks are plentiful, classic b/w and amazing – with the exception of one piece (a certain treasure guardian, who looks cgi-ish and doesn’t fit with the rest of the artworks), the artworks are top-notch in quality and evoke not only a sense of nostalgia, but also help illustrating the mood of the locations. Even better, their additional reproduction as player handouts make it easy on the DM to just hand them off instead of having to cut up the printed-out pages. Neat! The pdf comes fully bookmarked and comes with an optimized version for use with e-readers.
I’m a huge fan of the maps of the dwarven hold (and want to see the adventure set there!), but I would have loved it even more if the PCs had some way to find a similar (perhaps faulty) map of the dungeon below the donjon. Oh well, you can’t have everything. Which brings me to the foes encountered.
I know, this is by design, but I’ll come out and say it. Bandits, ogres and shadows. I don’t want to see them in a first level adventure. They have been done to effin’ death. Seeing that this adventure is a homage to the classics and deliberately tries to evoke a feeling of classical modules, I’m willing to let that particular gripe slip, though – especially due to doing at least SOME things different.
Much like many classic modules, the shadowed keep is not necessarily a good read and when first going through it, I didn’t feel too impressed. In fact, I probably would have put this down, were it not for my experience as a DM – Creighton provided me with an advance copy and thus I had the option of running my players through the whole module prior to writing this review and… they had a blast, as did I. Which is not a given. I’ll come out and say it – I don’t like the “Temple of Elemental Evil”. There. I did it. Pull out the rotten tomatoes, but I never liked the module and always considered it extremely overrated. Thus, deriving any sort of enjoyment, let alone this amount from a module that is a declared and designated homage is rather astonishing.
While the story/location is not too exciting, it is all about the details in this particular adventure – the whole adventure makes for such an immensely detailed place, the foes and their tactics are so detailed that actually RUNNING the adventure is a blast, especially with all the things to show your players. Even better, the module provides quite a challenge – if you play your odds smart as a DM, the players will be up to a Frog God Games-level challenge – during our run, my experienced players had 3 fatalities and none felt unfair or unjustified. Brains is just as important as brawns when challenging the Blood Moon on their home turf, especially their chief and his concubines! Even better, a timeline of events to spring upon your players – wandering animals, weather phenomena, goblin attacks – you name them, is provided to make the adventure feel even more organic and alive than by virtue of its excessive details. Using this timeline and shifting events around enables a DM to further customize the individual playing experience and provides for an excellent tool to put up and ease off pressure from the PCs while they are exploring the keep, thus ensuring no boredom can ever settle while exploring the different areas.
All in all, we had a surprisingly awesome time while clearing out the keep and thus, in spite of my initial cantankerous nitpicking, I’ll settle for a final verdict of 5 stars for this very old-school module.