Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this adventure from the author. This is not a playtest review, although I fully intend to run the adventure for my group when we’ve got some time to play it.
Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is a 94-page adventure for 1st-level Pathfinder RPG characters, intended as a starting location for fledgling adventuring careers, to be easily inserted into a DM’s campaign. The name of the adventure spells this out too, harking back to the classic B2 (now being used to playtest D&D Next!) and the less-fondly remembered 4e introductory adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell. To me, the name also summarises what this adventure is – the classic, old school concept of an introductory dungeon (well, only part of it is an actual dungeon, but you know what I mean) brought up to date for today’s gamers.
Raging Swan Press uses a very crisp, easy to read, no-nonsense layout for all their products, and Shadowed Keep is no exception. The page design and the way the product is structured is intended to make it easy for the DM to run the adventure and pick out key information quickly and easily. It does this very successfully through the use of smart stat block and encounter formats, and by providing extras such as pre-generated characters (illustrated by the legendary Larry Elmore!), player handouts and illustrations to show the players. The maps are not fancy but are very clear, and there is good use of art throughout to illustrate the adventure.
So, what’s the adventure like, anyway? I don’t want to give too much away as my players are likely to read this, but the Shadowed Keep was built by the great adventurer Valentin Ironwolf forty years ago. After his drunken death at the hands of the goblins and orcs he spent his career murdering, the keep fell into disrepair and is now the sinister home of several different factions. Adventure hooks are provided to get the PCs to go there – bandits have been raiding the nearby villages, tales of Valentin’s riches and so on – as well as a rumours table (another welcome nod to the old school) for those players who like to spend some time researching what they’re about to get themselves into.
The adventure briefly details the wilderness around the keep, including a random encounter table and a handy menu of terrain features to add to any forest combats the PCs might experience en route. Full stat blocks are provided for the monsters involved to make it as easy as possible for the time-pressed DM to run. Later in this section a number of options for further adventures once the keep has been cleared out are given – including the intriguing possibility the PCs might claim the castle as their own base.
The bulk of the book, of course, details the keep itself. As well as the enemies, treasures and items of interest found in each location, there is also a timeline of events to make the keep a dynamic place with various inhabitants coming and going. This section also outlines a number of roleplaying possibilities as one or two of the factions living here may attempt to negotiate with the PCs.
Minor spoilers follow
The keep is divided into four sections, each home to a different group of opponents. The Watchtower is home to a gang of human bandits, the ruined Donjon is the lair of various dangerous and mostly unintelligent monsters, and the cellars beneath the Donjon are where the Goblins of the Blood Moon are based. Finally, the Undercrypt is under the influence of necrotic seepage with all that entails.
Encounter design is excellent, with lots of neat details on each area, including tactics sections for the monsters, terrain features that can be climbed, pushed over and pulled, and advice on scaling the encounter for weaker or tougher parties. As an added bonus, one of the encounters features one of my favourite low level monsters (a Fiend Factory classic). To make exploration more rewarding, the PCs can uncover clues to the history of the keep and its original inhabitants as they wander around, and even have the opportunity to interact with one of them. NPC opponents are well-detailed throughout, facilitating roleplaying if your group is prone to parley or take prisoners.
Overall, Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is an excellent way to kick off a new Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 campaign. It has a cool, old school feel – Creighton has said it’s his homage to the Moathouse from T1 on his blog – and presents a detailed adventure setting, full of memorable and fun encounters. Highly recommended.