Mod of the Week: The Keep on the Borderlands, for The Temple of Elemental Evil
I was scrolling through ModDB's latest offerings, as I do most mornings, when the words "The Keep on the Borderlands" first caught my eye... then caught my memory. See, The Keep on the Borderlands was the first module I ever played in Dungeons & Dragons, the pen-and-paper RPG, back when I was in grade school in the early 1980's. It's been modded into The Temple of Elemental Evil, the 2003 D&D video game by now-departed developer Troika. Though the full-conversion mod is still in development, I couldn't pass up the chance to check it out while getting all nostalgic for my first D&D campaign.
I knew nothing about D&D when I was first invited to play with a couple of grade school friends, except that it involved rolling a bunch of dice. They already had a fighter, thief, dwarf, and cleric, so I had to play—as they were called back in the day of Basic rules—a magic-user. I named my magic-user Greeble, and on the character sheet drew what I thought a spellcaster looked like: an old guy with a long white beard wearing a robe and a pointed hat covered in stars and crescent moons.
In the mod, I did my best to re-create Greeble, giving him the Magic Missile spell that pretty much defined his offense. I don't know how it works these days, but back then magic-users were only allowed daggers, which is why, to this day, seeing Gandalf with a sword in his hand just feels kinda wrong to me. I picked four more characters from those available, we geared up in the starter room, and began our journey.
The mod begins the way the original module began, with the party arriving at the Keep on the Borderlands, and having to answer some questions posed by an understandably suspicious guard. Moments later, we're inside, running around and poking our heads inside all the buildings, looking for quests. I'm quite eager to visit the Caves of Chaos, the part of the module I remember best.
Looking at the original map (above) of the Caves of Chaos now, it strikes me just how ridiculously convenient an introduction to the game's monsters it was. A bunch of well-spaced cave entrances along the walls of a rocky ravine, each housing a different family of monsters, so players could just go down the line like they're trick-or-treating, meeting a new group of baddies at every door. In the original campaign, one door leads to a lair kobalds (plus a few giant rats, the starter monster of all starter monsters). Another area had orcs, and another had goblins. There's a cave for hobgoblins, owlbears, skeletons, and many more, providing a nice cross-section of baddies, including a big boss-type or two. There's even one chamber with a shallow pool, which taught me the important lesson that shallow pools usually conceal a) some shiny bit of treasure and b) some hard to spot slime monster (in this case, grey ooze).
In the mod, though, you can't just traipse off to any spot on the map and get your dagger dirty. First, some quests need to be collected. As we explored the sprawling town inside the walls of the Keep, I was pleased to find a hat merchant, allowing me to outfit Greeble in a suitably pointy hat. We also visited an animal seller, where I picked out Greeble's familiar. I honestly can't recall what Greeble's familiar was originally—knowing my lack of imagination, I assume it was a black cat—but this time I picked out a box turtle. Yeah, I know it's not fearsome, but neither is a dude named Greeble.
We also came across the chambers of a priest who, if memory serves, I owe a nice big stab in the back from thirty-odd years ago. Sadly, he wasn't taking visitors, so perhaps I'll come back when we're all a few levels stronger. And, finally, we found a notice board in the general store, listing a couple quests we could agree to perform. The notice board isn't the only thing in the room, either. As with many of the rooms and chambers in the mod, there are lots of items in the shop to interact with: books to read, objects to examine, goodies to pilfer, giving the game some additional life and providing some reasons to really snoop around.
We accepted the quest to find the missing adventurers, which took us to a swamp, which I definitely recall from the original module. I was expecting to run into some lizardmen, but instead we just found some snakes, big ones, that came slithering out of the marshes to greet us. It was a lengthy battle, mostly comprising of misses on all sides. Greeble, actually, turned out to be the best fighter in the group, something that definitely wasn't true in his past life. He scored several hits with his Magic Missile, connected with a couple acid splashes, and healed several injured and poisoned party members.
Less useful was our stupid monk, who didn't connect with a single fist or foot for the entire fight, which was doubly irritating because monks have a flurry attack so she missed twice as often as everyone else. Use a weapon, stupid monk! I'd be holding a damn battle axe if I were allowed. It didn't matter anyway, because after the snakes, some much larger reptiles completely slaughtered us.
Reloading, we tried another quest, this time investigating some woods filled with spiders. Bigguns. That went a little better, but after killing some big spiders we were all killed by some little spiders. Huh. That seems backwards. We tried again, this time meeting some wolves. That went well right up until it didn't, and soon, Greeble was the only one left alive and was forced to summon his... well, his box turtle. It didn't do much to help. But it tried. Then it died. Then Greeble died.
Clearly, one does not simply walk into the Caves of Chaos. Luckily, though, there are console cheats to let you load maps even if you suck at everything. Don't worry! I just wanted to take a look at the Caves to see if they were faithfully represented, and I'm happy to say, yes, they are. The ravine and the cave entrances along the walls are there, all ready for some D&D trick-or-treating! I even poked my head in and fired a quick magic missile at an Owlbear.
I'll get there legitimately someday, and along the way, there will be plenty of new features of the mod to enjoy. It adds a new alchemy system and a number of other class and racial skills, and clearly, tons more maps. Despite repeatedly getting my new party killed by starter monsters, it was a great little trip to take: this mod brings new life to a great old adventure.
Installation: Obviously, you'll need a copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil. No worries if you don't have a CD copy: GoG has you covered. Then, download the mod here: it's self-installing, just plop it into whatever directory your copy of ToEE is in. It will also install a new front-end which will let you run the mod (and other mods and add-ons). Full instructions here for unpatched versions of ToEE. Once installed, you may need to launch it as an administrator (right-click it and choose "Run as Administrator").