B2: The Keep on the Borderlands
If you’ve been in the RPG hobby for long enough (almost four decades for me), then you’ve at least heard of The Keep on the Borderlands. The module was published by TSR in 1980 (and updated in 1981) to support the Basic D&D system box set created by John Eric Holmes that was later updated by Tom Moldvay. The module was included in those box sets, so you could dive right in and start playing once you had read and gotten a grasp of the rulebook.
You might even have been a player in the module or perhaps even a DM running it. The module’s concept is that it’s intended for new DMs and players alike. There is a section near the front on how to be an effective DM and another section near the end with tips for the players. These sections might have been better placed in the appropriate sections of the rulebook, but they landed in the module instead.
In this article, I’ll be reviewing, commenting on, and updating the “how to be an effective DM” section. I’m mainly doing this to give younger players some perspective on where the more experienced players may have cut their teeth and to see how far we’ve come in DM advice in the intervening decades. In my next article, I’ll review and comment on the “tips for players” section of the module.
How to be an Effective Dungeon Master
I have the legally purchased PDF version of this book as my physical copy has vanished to the ages through various moves and shifts in life. In my PDF, the How to be an Effective Dungeon Master section is on page 7 of the PDF (with the “page number” being 4 in the display). The advice starts near the top of the page on the left column and barely bleeds over into the right-hand column. That means they didn’t put much meat on this particular bone, but that’s okay. The RPG experience was still pretty young as compared to the maturity is has now.
Let’s dive into some topics from top to bottom in the section of B2!
To quote the module, “The DM is the most important person in the D&D® game.” I vehemently disagree with this assertion. There is no “most important person” at the table. Everyone there is equally important, even in traditional role playing. If there is no DM, the players have no game to play. If there are no players, the DM also has no game to play. Everyone is vital.
The module goes on to say, “He or she sets up and controls all situations, makes decisions, and acts as the link between the players and the world he or she has created.” Okay. I can get behind most of this. Let’s start at the high level here. The DM is, by far, the busiest person at the table. This might imply that they are the most important (see my previous comments), but this is a false conclusion that “busy equals important.” Let’s tackle these three tasks deemed to be in the hands of the DM.
The module says the DM “controls all situations.” This is laughable. Anyone who has run a fair and collaborative RPG for more than about an hour will quickly realize that the players have much more control of the situations and narrative than the DM. Yes, the DM can seize the control and railroad people. Yes, the DM can force the players’ hands into decisions they don’t want to make. Yes, the DM can “control all situations.” However, if the DM wants to do all of this, that DM should consider writing a novel, not run an RPG campaign.
The task of “makes decisions” is very vague here. Too vague, really. The players are typically the ones making decisions, and the DM adjudicates difficulties, results of die rolls, NPC reactions, monster actions, and so on. Yes, there are decisions made within each of these, but the flow of the story usually (and should) hinge on player decisions, not DM decisions.
The module goes on to say the DM is “the link between the players and the world.” Yes. Totally this. Absolutely. If the DM doesn’t include something in the description of an area, then the players have no way to know that thing is there. This means, for the players, that thing simply doesn’t exist. Same with NPC descriptions/actions/reactions. Same with the presence of monsters, traps, hazards, and other dangerous situations. The DM has the responsibility of providing all sensory inputs for the PCs.
The last bit of the first paragraph advises that it is “… possible to read through the rules and become slightly lost by all the things that must be prepared or known….” In the 70s and 80s, this was extraordinarily true because companies, layout people, writers, editors, and producers of games were still trying to figure out how to meld the concepts of collaborative storytelling, fiction, and instruction manuals all into a single entity. To some extent, we’re still figuring that out, but things have improved considerably in the past 20-30 years.
Unfortunately, this section of the module doesn’t really tell you, the DM, how to remediate the confusion that can come from cold reading rulebooks of this era. Also unfortunately, I don’t have the space in this article to expand on the concepts of how to learn a new game. There are existing articles and Gnomecasts that cover this topic. Using the search bar in the top of our page and plugging in “learning new” will give you some quality results.
I’m not going to quote this paragraph, but the gist is that it compares and contrasts D&D and boardgames. The comparison is that both have rules. The contrast is that (per TSR’s assertion) in boardgames players take turns moving pieces and interacting with the game, but in RPGs, things are more chaotic and only limited by characters’ abilities and players’ imaginations. I find it strange that an RPG with an initiative system that adjudicates action order would contrast itself in this way to “ordered boardgames.” Sure, out of combat, things can get chaotic as different people want to try and do different things at the same time. If this becomes the case for me, I either go around the table clockwise and handle sub-tasks of each thing the player wants to do before moving on to the next person. This orderly approach keeps me from being bombarded by my players’ desires.
The paragraph also says the “play will often go in unexpected directions … not covered in the rules.” Here is TSR’s sideways reference to the fact that the players are in control of the story, not the DM. It also does cover that the DM is going to have to ad-lib and come up with rulings based on things in the book(s) but that are not strictly covered by the text of the rules. Of course, today we have the Internet for reference of “what if a player does X?” Back in the pre-Internet days, we had to resort to our imaginations, or, if we were lucky, a Dragon magazine article covered the situation.
This is, perhaps, the best of the six paragraphs when it comes to DM advice. While it compares the DM to a referee at a sporting event (which I disagree with that comparison), it does say that the DM must be fair and neutral in their decisions. It also states that the DM must not be “out to get the players” under any circumstances. If the players have defeated the monsters or other obstacles, then the DM shouldn’t throw more monsters their way solely for the purpose of defeating the players.
It also says that if the players have acted foolishly, they should receive “just rewards.” However, the book really doesn’t say what that is. I agree with this advice to some extent but being overly punitive just because a poor decision was made does not respect the goal of playing a game, which is to have an enjoyable time. There are times when a “foolish” decision is made on purpose for the sole sake of making the game more interesting. This is where the DM should lean into the “foolishness” and amp up the fun by grasping the interesting outcomes and running with them.
There is also some advice for playing high and low intelligence monsters, but this is very brief. It does capture the nugget of truth behind both of those extremes, though.
The last sentence of the paragraph states, “The DM must be fair, but the players must play wisely.” I’m down with the first half of that sentence, but the second half (which is really advice for the players) needs some work. I think the players need to play their personas and character abilities accurately. This means the player should try to embody the nature of their character and capture all benefits, flaws, ups, downs, powers, and weaknesses of the character. This might mean playing unwisely at times because of personality flaws or motivations or goals or simply having a low attribute score.
This paragraph is another good one. It touches on the concepts of encounter balance (which hardly existed in the 80s with D&D, if I’m going to be honest), difficulty of obstacles, PC abilities, and setting up non-boring challenges. With most advice from this era, it brings up the topic, but doesn’t really provide a solution. This is a great thing for DMs to be aware of, but it would have been nice for the newbie DM of 1980 to have some additional, concrete advice on how to come up with solid, challenging, balanced encounters.
The paragraph also says that the treasure gained should be commensurate to the dangers faced to obtain the treasure. This made me laugh because in the 70s through the 90s treasure was pretty much completely random. You had treasure types based on the letters of the alphabet that led to random charts that led to more random charts that led to 100% random treasure… unless the DM really needed a particular item to be in a treasure hoard for moving the story forward.
To finalize the paragraph, the module hits on one of my favorite topics. “As DM, much satisfaction comes from watching players overcome a difficult situation.” Yes! This! I love it when my players get by an obstacle I’ve placed before them. This can come from great ideas, great dice rolls, great creativity, and great teamwork. I am, quite frankly, the biggest cheerleader of the players during the game.
This paragraph delves deeper into the fact that the DM is the walking, talking eyes, ears, noses, and so on of the PCs. This topic was touched upon a few paragraphs ago, but this one gives more details and pitfalls if information is not delivered properly. There are quite a few articles on Gnome Stew referring to this fact and how to properly give information, so I’m not going to do my own deep dive into the topic. I’ll drop you a link to Elements of Description, which is an article I wrote last year.
The thing I like most about this paragraph is the concluding statement of “… the choice of action is the players’ decision.” In other words, once you’ve given all of the proper information of a setting/location to the players, it is up the players to decide how they are going to react to, interact with, or ignore the information you’ve given. This is my style of running an RPG. I’m very “hands off” when it comes to allowing the players to make their own calls. If they’re about to do something horrifically stupid (like touch the flaming wall), I’ll ask them if they heard the “wall is on fire” part of the description because sometimes a player (especially at the far end of the table) might not have heard that little detail.
After a few paragraphs of talking about player decisions and watching players overcome obstacles and such, the module falls back into the untruth of “… the DM must remember that he or she is in control.”
Nope. Not at all. We’ve covered this already, so I’m going to move on.
This paragraph is packed with similar sentiments along the lines of “… it is [the DM’s] game,” and “The Dungeon Master’s word is law!”
More Big Sighs.
Yes, RPGs can be run like this final paragraph describes. During the 70s, through the 80s, and deep into the 90s, this was exactly how many RPG sessions went. Now that I’ve gone back and done a deep dive into this module from 1980, I wonder if the “adversarial DM” actions came from paragraphs exactly like this one.
I’m glad we’ve moved on and grown from those days and more into the collaborative storytelling environment.
For its day (1980/1981) this is actually six solid paragraphs, but with a lens of forty years, we can see some glaring blemishes that mar the surface. Like with any advice (including my own and that of our Gnome Stew staff), take what works for you and leave the rest behind. That’s the path to happiness when it comes to accepting and enacting advisory words.