I ran the Keep on the Borderlands on Saturday night for two of my regular players. Stalwart players, never miss a session. We rolled up some new characters using the Red Box ’83 Basic Rules. For me, this was the first D&D rule-set I ever saw. Living in the arse-end of the world, I didn’t even know that there were any other rules that had come before this glorious creation in red.
By the time I got into it properly in ’86, Gygax was out of TSR. Didn’t know that either. Not that it really mattered, what he left behind was better than good enough for me.
That changed though, my understanding of the hobby, but only many years later was I able to learn about the pedigree of one of my favourite past times. I begged/borrowed/stole a bunch of modules from my cousin who lived in Johannesburg. He was moving up to AD&D and giving me all his Basic D&D stuff, and for that I am eternally grateful. I have written about the above before, last year, I was reminiscing about how I got into playing RPGs.
Anyway, I got a stack of modules, and I was going through them when I came across the Keep. It was old even then; dented, dinged, loose pages, been played to hell and back. I was curious about it, because it looked nothing like the slick stuff TSR had been producing round about then. This had…charm, character. The cover was so-so, but I turned it over and something about that picture on the back just fekkin’ clicked for me. You know what I mean, the Otus one, with the party walking up the causeway in the blazing light toward a Keep that’s coated in the sun’s rays making it glow.
Yup, I remember staring at it for ages, just enjoying its powerful simplicity. From seeing the map I figure it’s a sunrise, and I suppose there’s a bit of symbolism there, who knows. But for me, it’s always been a sunset. A grand glorious light, so bright, that you would have to squint to see where you were going. It made the Keep feel almost unreal, as if this was the end of their adventuring days and they were coming here to rest. Put their feet up after all the rigours of the road and the dangers of the dungeons. Smoke their pipes, drink a flagon or ten, and generally just relax. It made the Keep become almost a type of Valhalla in my mind’s eye.
Maybe these characters were dead? Who knows? Maybe they are trudging up the road toward their final destination? That the Keep is not actually a Keep, but a place of sanctuary? Like when the Astronauts land on Mars in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Martian Chronicles’ and they see that it is identical to what they have just left behind. Familiar faces, smells, people, tastes, sight and sounds. In fact, just like home. But beneath all that nostalgia, there is a dark undertow… not so for the Keep. I imagined it filled with all the people that they might have lost along the way, populated with friends, family even. Dare I say a sort of adventurer heaven? That’s how I feel when I look at it.
"All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire."
— Robert E Howard's suicide note.
Yeah, a great sense of nostalgia there, on that back cover. When you are young, for most of us at least, life is simple, smooth, uncomplicated. It might not feel like it at the time, but it usually is. When you get older, the road gets rockier, the pressures more pressing. Mortgages, bills, marriage, children, responsibilities all tumblin’ over one another. It can be scary. Really scary. But as life would say, ‘Hey, what you gonna do about it?’ And really, what can you do about it? Who knows, just Keep on Keepin’ on I suppose.
So, do we play stripped down RPG systems that are similar to the ones from our youth, because we have enough complications in our life at present and we just want something easy, simple and fun to run? Or, do we play stripped down systems because it reminds us of our youth and a time where things were, simple, fun, and easy to run? I don’t know. I’m not sure I know the answer to that. For each of us it will be different I suppose. All I know is that Otus did a great piece of art there... oh, and the modules not that bad either!