Review: Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands (5e)

Adventure: Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands
Author: Creighton Broadhurst
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
System: Dungeons & Dragons – 5e
Summary: The Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is a sandbox adventure—the characters can explore the various zones of the keep in almost any order. Thus the characters will find some areas easier than others, and they may never even discover other portions of the complex. Similarly, there is no time pressure during this adventure—the characters can explore the Shadowed Keep at their leisure.
Snap Judgement for Busy Wyverns: This adventure is one of the best possible ways to start your campaign. Contains a city that’s not too small, not too big, and full of intrigue; a keep that begs exploration and has secrets on every level; and tons of adventure hooks that can be meshed in with nearly anything a GM can think of. Highest recommendation – get this adventure and have it handy at all times.

What is it?
This is a 94-page adventure with a pedigree going back to Pathfinder 1e. Creighton Broadhurst has now updated this classic gem to use D&D 5e rules, fleshing out some gaps in the story and really tightening up the flow of the module. It is set in Raging Swan’s “Duchy of Ashlar” campaign setting – but this can be dropped into pretty much any typical fantasy world with minimal modifications.

In it you get an in-depth city setting with Dulwich, a roughly 5,000 person town full of guilds at war with the mayor, upscale and downscale taverns, thieves guilds and plot hooks galore. The Shadowed Keep section doesn’t even start until 35 pages into the book! You could run multiple sessions, and even launch a campaign, just from the Dulwich location alone. But the Shadowed Keep adds even more great stuff.

The Shadowed Keep has a long history, with all the background provided in the book to the GM. Reveal at your discretion as the players explore. Bandits occupy the outer tower, all with their own personalities, motivations and suggested actions. Inside is a haunted castle, and then a lower level populated by a goblin tribe. Plot hooks abound in the goblin warrens, and in their conflict with the bandit “queen” above. And below that lies a crypt full of all the sorts of things crypts should have.

A GM will never feel unprepared or without some inspiration with this adventure – it’s just jam-packed with everything needed to pick it up and blast into a long-running campaign.

What makes it good?
It’s absolutely a complete adventure setting – all the prep work is done for you. Lots of hooks, often bolded and called out; NPCs have full stat blocks, descriptions and roleplaying notes; every location is mapped and tagged. Classic-style fantasy artwork graces the pages in black & white, reminding me of old-school memories.

How do I use it?
Give it a good read-through and then just drop it into your campaign – probably on Session 1! Maybe the characters meet in a tavern (The Dancing Bear!) or perhaps use one of the many Starting Adventure Hooks Creighton provides. Or come up with your own reason for the characters to be there – there’s no shortage of tie-ins available.

I’ve started 2 campaigns now with The Shadowed Keep and it has NEVER failed to succeed. My players have always found some thread to pull on that fascinates them, whether it’s the corrupt and authoritarian mayor, or maybe the ghost boy in the Shadowed Keep itself. Some have wanted to help the new cleric in town that’s caught between the mayor and the guilds, others have wanted to relocate the goblins to a safer place. Really any direction is possible, and that’s thrilling to GM.

Even though everything you need is in this adventure – there’s ample room to make it your own too. It answers all the right questions and leaves space for jumping off points. For me, I secretly made the captain of the guard a drow – to potentially hook into a drow invasion storyline. I made the maps of the dwarven hold difficult to return to the Dulwich sage (it’s carved into a giant 400 lb. geode in my campaign!) and they hook into the classic Forge of Fury adventure (now found in the Tales from the Yawning Portal anthology).

With this conversion to 5e, Creighton has removed the biggest previous problem with this great adventure – that it was only available in Pathfinder 1e rules. Now, no conversion is necessary and every stat block is as it should be. I honestly can’t think of many problems with this adventure, it’s worth every penny. It can easily support levels 1 through 4, as advertised, and beyond if the players want to continue pulling on threads.

The biggest downside you face is that your players may never want to leave and go on to new adventures. There’s so much to play with here!

Final Thoughts
I never have to worry about running games for a new group – I have this adventure. I can literally begin a campaign on zero notice – it’s harder to schedule the date and get snacks! Get this and put it in your library today – and you’ll never have to worry about what adventure you’ll run on Session 1.

Recommend or Not?
Highly recommend – this is a top notch product that, in my opinion, is the absolute best adventure to start a campaign with. It’s got something for everyone, and yet still has unlimited places to improvise your own additions and plot hooks.

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