Timeless Advice From Keep on the Borderlands

As you might know, I’m a bit of an old fart when it comes to gaming. Not only did I cut my teeth on Basic D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but even now I love returning to the “scene of the crime”.



I’ve been recently re-reading classic tomes like the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide with a view to seeing what lessons the games of yesteryear can teach the gamers of today. It was inevitable, though, that I’d also check out the famed stalwart of the early hobby—B2 Keep on the Borderlands. As you probably know, it was designed as an introductory adventure and so it had some special notes for beginning players and GMs.

DM Advice

All the notes below are direct quotes from page 4 of the Keep on the Borderlands. I think you’ll agree this advice is both timeless and (ironically) basic.

  • The DM must be fair. He or she cannot be “out to get the players” nor should he or she be on their side all the time.
  • If a party has played well and succeeded, the DM should not punish them by sending more and more monsters at them or thwart their plans
  • If the players have acted foolishly, they should get their “just rewards”.
  • In combat, the DM should play the monsters to the best of the monster’s ability
  • The DM must be fair, but the players must play wisely.
  • The DM is also the designer of the situation and must bear in mind the abilities of his or her players.
  • It is the job of the DM to see that the situations and character balance.
  • As DM, much satisfaction comes from watching players overcome a difficult situation. But they should do it on there own.
  • To defeat monsters and overcome problems, the DM must be a dispenser of information.
  • The players must be allowed to make their own choices.
  • It is important the DM give accurate information.
  • The DM must remember that he or she is in control.

It’s good to see the basic role of a GM hasn’t really changed all that much over the last forty years or so. I think it’s fair to say the dynamics and size of most groups has changed over the last four decades but a GM of today reading the list above could implement all of Gary’s suggestions (in fact, I’d argue every GM *should* follow his advice).

In fact, the only piece of advice above I slightly disagree with is “It is the job of the DM to see that the situations and character balance.” I agree with that up to a point, but I’d add the caveat, “unless the players do something stupid.”

Player Advice

All the notes below are direct quotes from page 25 of the Keep on the Borderlands. I think you’ll agree this advice is both timeless and (ironically) basic.

  • Players should be organised and cooperative.
  • Each player should have complete information on his or her character easily on hand.
  • Players should work together to use their abilities effectively.
  • Arguing among players will cause delays, attract monsters and often result in the deaths of some or all of the members.
  • Cooperation should also be given to the DM.
  • The game should be fun for all involved.
  • Planning is another important part of play.
  • Caution is also necessary and is a part of planning. A party that charges forward without preparation is almost certainly doomed.
  • Too much caution is as dangerous as too little.
  • Above all a player must think. The game is designed to challenge the minds and imaginations of the players. Those who tackle problems and use their abilities, wits and new ideas will succeed more often than fail.
  • The challenge of thinking is a great deal of the fun of the game.

I think pretty much all the advice above is still relevant today. It’s all basic, foundational stuff and that cheers me immensely. While the games many of us pay nowadays have evolved to be more complex, more tactical and more option rich, they are essentially the same games.

And I think that’s a good thing.

What Do You Think?

Is this advice still relevant? Are some aspects of successful game play essentially eternal or have we moved on? Let me know, in the comments below.

Published by


Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

19 thoughts on “Timeless Advice From Keep on the Borderlands”

  1. I hate to pile on the 3.x/Pathfinder system again, but much of the advice, while indeed timeless, has been supplanted.

    For example, “a player must think.” Not any more. A simple d20 roll to bluff the guard, or to notice the open window, is now all that is needed. Planning is no longer required thanks to generous uses of cantrips and osirons (light, water, and food are no longer an issue). Magic items are “required” and encouraged by the Wealth by Level, so every group in middling range has access to bags of holding.

    Old school games had random encounters which usually didn’t have any treasure. Since treasure was an important part of experience points, smart groups avoided those resource-sinks. Today, just charge through, because XP!

    On the other side, a DM almost cannot remember all the abilities of PCs thanks to the explosion of classes, feats, spells, and abilities. I know what a 1st edition party can do, because the classes were well defined. The challenge came from how players interacted with the world. Now it seems that the players can change the world to fit their needs, which is a very different way to play.

    As for seeing that the characters and the situation balance, I think it is appropriate that the DM let the players know when they’ve got in over their heads. A new player might think hunting a dragon at 1st level is a good idea, but the DM should realize the character doesn’t. Even experienced players can misinterpret the world, so when I DM I clarify things with the players when they misstate known world facts (the aforementioned dragon, for instance, but they might misremember that the treasure room was the third door on the right, instead of the fourth on the left).

    The advice is timeless, and useful to all people playing the game. I wish more people would remember this advice. It would make the game experience much more meaningful.

    1. Greetings from Texas!
      Respectfully, I would ask you to consider wether many of your complaints have much to do with design and execution of specific games rather than an entire ruleset.

      This week, our group of players were enjoying a game from 5e. There were a few times when we had to stop to work as a team to determine specific rules regarding spells, actions, special abilities, etc. It slowed down the action, but the approach was collaborative and each player and the DM was at ease afterward.

      I don’t agree that the DM must know every rule and spell. Being familiar with the classes of your PCs is not hard with a party of 4 or 5. My goal is to be flexible when something new arrives, and to learn from that player.

      I hope you are still enjoying good games and good company whatever edition you play.

  2. The “Keep on the Borderlands” and “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” formed the basis for the campaign I linked to in my comment on Gygax On…Preparing Modules. The advice in those modules are very relevant. They are about the GM being the Game Master no the Game Read Outlouder. They remind the me of a basic tenant of gaming…”Own your game.” If you are the Master of the Game, then know that you are final arbitrator. What goes on in your world at your table is your responsibility. Play responsible.

    Thanks again for another great article.

    1. This is all rock-solid advice, the and now. I’ll be forwarding a link to my players!

      1. I’m running Keep tomorrow evening virtually for my nephew and my sister (her first time playing). It’s still a great place to start.
        The advice to DMs at the beginning is still helpful for me after all these years.

  3. I have to admit that I find this advice was rarely used when I was playing a lot of D&D with many different groups. I realize that OD&D probably means a return to these ideas, but I find more DMs today embracing these ideas than I ever did 30 to 40 years ago, which was the heyday of my playing. I dropped out of half a dozen groups in a five year period from 1990 to 1995 because the DMs were either out to get the party, or changed the rules mid-game, or consistently did not understand how to provide challenges that didn’t just kill everyone all the time.

    Having said that, I find the suggestions for players still relevant. For the first time in a long time, I have new, teenage players in my group and they still play like we all did when we were teenagers. They often throw caution to the wind, often look out only for themselves, rarely have character information handy or even understand where to find some information on their character sheet, and rarely think. They do follow one of the suggestions though, and that is to have fun.

  4. The advice, both that for DM’s and players, remains sound and relevant to this day.
    Your observation that the RPG’s today have evolved to be more complex, tactical, and option-rich, however, they are essentially the same games is golden, too.

    Another superb posting, Creighton. Thank you!

    Most Sincerely,

  5. like you start at the beginning Cir 1978. Been playing on and off now till this present day. Ageless advice always good :). I just wish I could capture the feel for the game I had when I first started. I have watch role-playing games evolve from the beginning and to be frank with all they have done to them turning them into mostly commercialize junk with all the rules and numbers ect. I have lost interest in them . But every couple of years or so I buy into the next set of books coming out. I am a junkie I guess lol. But back in the day they were mikl and honey so to speak.

  6. You forgot…..If all else fails, have a talking magpie guide the characters back on track to the adventure.

  7. I started in 78′ took a break for 10 years and only just came back at the end of 2017. This was also one of my favorites. I love the basic advice, and to be honest sadly many people don’t know them or follow them. My Rule as a DM has always been to KILL the Players every session (but fail). If the players do smart things, I’m not going to let the Dice kill them if I can help it. I play my Monsters and NPCs based on what they know, or what they think they know. Example Ambush of PC party by 20 Goblins and a Mounted Hobgoblin on a Worg. We out number you 10 to 1, surrender and you will live. They didn’t know the Mage knew Fireball and they were packed on the bridge preventing the PCs from bull rushing and getting across the river. Oops.. Took me 5 minutes to set the mini’s out, give the speech and 10 seconds for the Mage to wreck it all. Still one of my favorite battles… LOL

  8. The Player’s advice that: “Arguing among players will cause delays, ATTRACT MONSTERS….”
    is very suggestive: ie. deal with arguments among players with a roll on the wandering monster table.

    I’ve seen DM advice that stated if an encounter doesn’t advance the story dont include it; meaning wandering monster tables are pointless so dont use them. I get the just of this advice but never made up my mind on it.

    This page 25 KotB advice suggests a solid purpose for wandering monsters.
    and being old school I like the old ways and the Hickman revolution often as not feels like a rail road to me. So its good to get this light shown onto the purpose of wandering monster tables.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.