Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review: Frandor's Keep

Well, I've had the module in my hands since about release day, so I figure it's about time I gathered myself to say something. Just finished reading through it last night thanks to hectic schedule pushing me to read about 1 page a day, but anyway.

Physical Appearance

The book has absolutely no shortcomings here. The cover art (pictured here) is evocative of certain old school images without being a straight rip off, and definitely evocative of the mood and atmosphere of the module itself. Interior art, maps, and layout are impressive, especially when it is considered that Kenzer employs something on the order of about 6 people irregularly. Old school, reminiscent of Kenzer's HM4 art but without some of the hokiest qualities that could plague that. Most often simple line drawings that are, nevertheless, quite excellent. The quality of the materials used in construction, as well, is evident. Kenzer continues to be plagued by editing mistakes in the text, but they are unobtrusive here, and infrequent. To put it succinctly, the quality of the book makes things coming out of a certain coastal wizards' lair look like crap.


First, a note: this is, very loosely, a sequel to their prior "Little Keep on the Borderland" which was, itself, either an expansion of or a sequel to the original "Keep on the Borderland." It is not, however, dependent that one knows about the previous materials in order to understand the module, nor are their such distasteful elements as plot, merely something that'll make those in the know chuckle to themselves as they read it in passing, something emblematic of the humor that the authors shine at. Of special note is the origin of the mad hermit in the wood, who is not the prior hermit in the wood, who was himself not the original hermit in the wood.

Another important thing to know is that this book is not, in strictest terms, a module in the sense of an adventure. It is, as the cover states, an "immersive setting for adventures" instead. Of course, that's a particularly dry rendering of it, but that is, frankly, what you get: a location based product that goes into extreme effort to detail the areas in and around the eponymous Keep on the Borderland to an extent that would keep a group of players with an uninventive GM busy for months without exhausting all the possibilities or having to add any more. Of course, those of us who laud the qualities of "less is more" and minimalism will likely go into apopleptic fits over the volume of material detailed here, and that's entirely expected. The module is not written in the minimalist mode and no apologies are made for that here. One hopes, though, that even the staunchest of Gygaxian gamers will find something they like about the book.

The first half to two-thirds of the book devotes itself to in-depth descriptions of locations in and around the Keep and the road from the nearest civilized settlement, "Vew." There are some minor encounters mentioned, but for the most part, it's a travelogue and guide more than anything. The marvelous keyed 3-D projection maps (available for free, by the way, from the Kenzer Co. website) list who owns each paticular business/building, who lives there, their personality's, foibles, and involvements and most sections include a note about how the PC's might be expected to interact with each person lest we think this is merely a massively overdeveloped castle out of somebody's home campaign. There's a great deal within the walls of the keep itself to keep players busy and I envision many sessions never leaving the Middel Bailey at all as the curiosity and foolishness of PC's gets the better of them.

Additionaly, there are notes throughout helping a GM to "breathe life into the Keep" rather than just turning it into a static lump in a corner, the six acre gorilla in the room so to speak. That seems to be a strong theme in this product. Frandor's Keep is a learning module as much as the original Keep was. It's filled with not only advice on how to invest the entire assembly with motion and energy, but with notes that help novice GM's and players to test the width and breadth of Kenzer's new game system, Hackmaster Basic without ever devolving into didacticism and always remaining entertaining and challenging.

The new Keep is set in the Kingdom's of Kalamar world, and it is strongly felt throughout the product. The maps are straight out of the Kalamar Atlas volume, and some pains have been taken to link entities within and around the Keep to the larger world outside. It is assumed that groups will play in that world, though with effort, it is possible to transport the whole assemblage to another world. Unfortunately for those who wish to do so, there are more and stronger threads to be cut and rewoven, but it is conceivable that any low/infrequent magic world with a moutainous border region could receive the module without too much fuss.

The greatest difference between this module and the original, the one that everybody will notice first upon picking up the book, is that the Caves of Chaos are not here. This is, possibly, a deal breaker for some, but I don't think it should be. Yes, they're missing from this particular book, but they are due to come out soon in conjunction with the Advanced Hackmaster rules since they are of higher level material than the rest of the area and, as I said above, there's enough material within to keep most parties busy for a long time, especially with the addition of the three PDF modules "White Pallette, Ivory Horns," "In the Realm of the Elm King," and "The Mysterious Shrine," all available on the Kenzer Co. website for free, or for cheap. At least I see three months of gaming time in this book, assuming weekly sessions of considerable length. Those of us who know the joys of gainful employment in this day and age will likely find even more here.

The assumed system of the module is, of course, the new Hackmaster Basic (HMB) which is certainly not to the tastes of all. I confess myself not entirely enamoured of it, though I find it to be excellent on its own merits, just not something that gels perfectly with my own style as I'm sure many others will agree. However, the system does little to influence the wrigting of the material and it would be a trivial matter indeed to utilize Swords and Wizardry, AD&D, or even BRP to play here.

A high note here may be that some of the forced humor and over the top confrontationalism of the HM4 days is absent. There is a bit of "Gary Speak" involved, but it is much toned down and the "joke elements" are much reduced. Those of us who looked on the previous Hackmaster as a joke game will have to re-evaluate our opinions. It remains to be seen, though, if the designers will swing too far in the other direction in their efforts to shed the joke system mantle that saddled them throughout their prior years. For instance, in the new game, the bugbears have an interesting quirk of biology which is definately designed to get at our squick factor: the female of the species must consume an infant of a sentient race in order to go into heat and reproduce which provides one of the primary modes of conflict between humans and the bugbears. On the one hand, it's not over the top, but it does smack of the sensationalist gross out factor that so many mistake for more adult or darker these days. I hope that this does not become a trend in the new material.


Overall, for quality of production and content, the module earns 5 out of 5 stars. A truly remarkable effort that proves that the folks at Kenzer & Co. can really out do themselves even after years of truly excellent products. They've set the bar high for their future offerings, and I've little doubt that they will exceed our expectations. Frandor's Keep is, frankly, the best RPG product I've seen in a year. While it might not be entirely to the tastes of all gamers, one cannot deny that this book sets a high standard for the entire gaming industry.

Those of us looking for the minimalist approach will be unhappy with what's here, but that is not now, nor has it ever been Kenzer & Co's vision of Old School, and they make no appologies for it, nor should they. Rather than throwing a generic, undeveloped location at the GM, instead the module throws a fully evolved and integrated Kalamar location, complete with links to the larger world without ever devolving into the world shattering events and plots of grand and global scope that so tainted later Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft materials. At its heart, Frandor's Keep is a strong location based adventure locale that takes the extra step that GM's normally would to bring the module fully into the assumed setting. And it does it with true style.

Get this if you're looking for a setting based module for the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting with real life and energy.

Don't get this if you're looking for something in the same style and mode as the original Keep on the Borderlands, minimalist and generic enough to cameleon its way into any world with no effort.

Frandor's Keep, here, takes effort, love, and work to work and play well. It takes a strong and inventive GM, curious and even foolish players who won't get bored by not having a gaff sized hook to lure them on by the nose from A to B to C, and a willingness on both parts to fully engage the material that is presented and build on it. It's worth it though.