I enjoy running Keep on the Borderlands with new players, however I find myself wanting to embellish the area map more and more the more I play it. I believe it is well known at this point that old pulp stories provide a better resource for stocking a wilderness map than either fantasy novels from after 1980 or rpg supplements. For those that are still not convinced, I offer this example.
Rather than start the classic module at the keep where the players can buy equipment and collect rumors, I want to play out part of the travelling that happens before they get there.
On the road to the keep, the players encounter a bedraggled survivor of a caravan that was destined for the keep. He tells of veritable army of bandits that emerged from the forest, ransacking and plundering the goods, killing the troops that were meant to relieve the forces of the keep, and kidnapping the merchants and artisans. And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the warriors with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
The players have to decide whether to continue on the road and risk being waylaid by a superior force… or perhaps go around.
Now… to the north of the road, there is a random encounter table loaded up with mostly cannibals. (Give a 1-6 chance for a bear, spider, or wolf– otherwise it’s cannibals!) If the players strike off into the forest they will stumble across this grisly scene:
In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.
For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.
Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.
If the players want to follow this up, they will find the village “Bogonda, ruled by Kuroba the chief and Goru the priest.” They’ll be attacked by harpies on the way there, of course. And have to figure out what to do with a village penned in with harpies exacting an awful tribute on one side and merciless cannibals hemming them in on the other.
Meanwhile, to the southwest lies city of Ib. This is the closest thing to civilization that the players could reasonably get to if they would like to look for reinforcements.
It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib.
To the south there is a strange mausoleum:
And so they passed through the jungle until they came to a strange clearing among the giant trees—strange because nothing grew there. The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner, and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion. And in the midst of the glade stood the mausoleum.
A great brooding mass of stone it was, pregnant with ancient evil. Dead with the dead of a hundred centuries it seemed, yet Kane was aware that the air pulsed about it, as with the slow, unhuman breathing of some gigantic, invisible monster.
To the southeast the players will eventually stumble across the bandit’s camp. The players could attempt to infiltrate it and rescue captives or else try some other insane scheme.
How much should you prep for this scenario…? Eh, D&D is not that complicated. Make something up! You don’t know which way the players will go or if they will bypass most of this altogether. The point is to throw all this at them as the need for it arises and then see what they are most into playing. Read the three pulp stories referenced here before the game. Be prepared to wing it. Do additional prep if any of this strikes a note with the players.
It’s okay if the players ignore all of this and instead make for the keep as quick as they can manage. There’s nothing wrong with looting the Caves of Chaos instead! Of course, if they want to sell certain offbeat magic items, the City of Ib is going to be their best bet. And getting additional gear at the keep is going to be tough until those bandits are dealt with!