Thursday, January 14, 2021

Spoiling the Keep (p. 4)

Just continuing from where I left off... 

There's more I want to say about the humanoids living in B2's so-called "Caves of Chaos," especially the WHY of their presence...why exactly have they chosen to make the caves their home? Certainly communities require someplace to live...and for the most part, these are communities: tribal, family units living their lives, not hordes preparing for war against the human soldiers manning the nearby fortress. While the gnolls appear to be mercenaries engaged as extra muscle, and the bugbears (to my mind) are recently arrived refugees living as bandits, the goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, and orcs (both tribes) appear to have settled in for the "long haul."

What could have drawn them here? Historically, settlers tend to settle where there are resources that allow their communities to survive and thrive. Generally, that means food and shelter (i.e. security) and other items that will allow and supplement the acquisition of these things (trade goods, metals for crafting weapons, access to water ways, etc.). Clearly, the caves provide both shelter and security for the humanoids, and the textual existence of storerooms filled with food and provisions would seem to provide evidence that eating isn't an issue (though where exactly this food is coming from is a bit of a mystery).

And that's all well and good and, for the most part, answers the questions of why the caves have been chosen as tribal homes. But what about the Chaotic temple looming high above the settled denizens of the canyon? What role does this evil priesthood play in the dynamics of the community? Who are they, and why are they there?

Before I address the temple folks specifically, I'd like to point out that there are THREE religious factions in the B2 adventure text. Aside from the temple, there of course exists the Curate and his three acolytes, housed in the chapel, "the spiritual center of the Keep;" these (specifically the Curate), we are told, are the most influential persons in the Keep except for the Castellan and represent the spiritual "forces of good" in this region of the wilderness. Note that the Curate only arms and armors himself if the Keep is threatened; the chapel's arms (including those of the acolytes) are safely stored away unless absolutely necessary. This is not a military leader; he is not an adventurer, and exhibits no ambition of becoming a patriarch, founding a stronghold, or acquiring a barony. He is simply a minister, willing to defend his congregation (the Keep), not a proselytizer...though his under-clerics might prefer it if he were.

This last can be inferred from the way these acolytes "think very highly of the [itinerant] Priest, and will say so to any who ask about him." Spoiler: this Priest, a visitor to the Keep, is:

"...chaotic and evil, being in the KEEP to spy and defeat those seeking to gain experience by challenging the monsters in the Caves of Chaos."

[I will discuss the Priest more in a later post; I have much to say about him, including how he's interacted with my own group's characters; suffice is to say I do NOT see him as an agent of the "Shrine of Evil Chaos"]

So now we come to "the Shrine of Evil Chaos," the single largest complex in the Caves. I know that one of the standard narratives about The Keep on the Borderlands over the years assumes the temple and its priesthood operate as some sort of overlord or "unifying force" for the humanoids at the Caves; the evil priest who rules the place is a mastermind on par with Hommlet's Lareth the Beautiful and has designs to build up an army of monsters with which to assault the Keep and spill the forces of Chaos into the civilized lands.

Typical ancient
(subterranean) chapel.
Upon reflection, I think that's far from accurate. Nothing in the text suggests ANY interaction between the temple and the other denizens of the Caves. While every other entry in the adventure has instructions on where surviving humanoids go for help when facing defeat at the hands of (PC) invaders, not a single mention is made of the temple and its priesthood; likewise, no mention is made of in the temple entry about allies of the priesthood. Neither are there any notes of priests taking prisoners (or servants) from the humanoid populations, nor vice versa...there is no cross-pollination of any kind between the humans/undead of the Shrine and the non-human residents that pervade the Caves. The secret tunnel between the gnoll's hideout and the temple's storage chamber "is unknown to all."

Likewise with the congregation of the Shrine: there is none. Which is a bit surprising in and of itself, given the description at the beginning: "The floors are smooth and worn by the tread of countless feet of the worshippers at this grim place." Okay, so where are these countless worshippers? Not here...the only people one finds in the Shrine...EVER...are a single priest, four adepts, four acolytes, and a human fighter who acts as "torturer." The rest of the population is the silent undead guards: zombies and skeletons. And the evil priest (a 3rd level cleric) isn't even high enough level to cast animate dead, raising the question of how those undead got there in the first place.

[in B/X clerics do not receive the spell animate dead, but in earlier editions, including AD&D, it is a third level spell available to clerics who have reached 5th level]

Clearly, the Shrine is an ancient place; we can infer this from the "ancient bronze vessels" in the Shrine's chapel with their powerful magic curse that forces thieves to return and serve as temple guardians "forever after." We can infer it from the description of the Shrine's crypt: a long hall lined with "many coffins and sarcophagi" containing "the remains of servants of the Temple of Chaos" (note: the remains are here; they have not been turned into zombies and skeletons!). We can infer it from the weird magics found in the Shrine, quite outside the "normal" magic of D&D (certainly of the normal clerical spells). We can infer it from the presence of more than three score undead, despite any of the priesthood's ability to create such creatures...they must have been animated long before the current clerics appeared.

For all it's "evilness," nothing here indicates the place is anything more than a quiet place of worship, and one that has been in operation for quite some time. The Shrine is no "hotbed of intrigue;" unlike other adventure modules, parties will find no documents detailing nefarious plans and schemes, no designs to unite the humanoids and make war on the forces of good. There are no "civilized folk" being held captive, awaiting fates worse than death, no fat merchants hanging from chains in the "torture chamber" (it's empty), no chopped up elves in the store room awaiting a cannibalistic feast. It's just a lavishly decorated monastery with a handful of devout (human) worshippers, that uses undead to guard its halls...understandable given the presence of dangerous non-humans in the vicinity and the lack of supplicants willing to visit/staff a Shrine located on the edge of the wilderness.

Heck, the itinerant Priest at the Keep is more nefarious then the Shrine residents: he at least is intent on joining adventurers in order to betray them (probably cackling a fiendish laugh as he does so). The only person being threatened by the Shrine priesthood is a medusa who they have captured...a deadly monster who will attempt to petrify any would-be rescuers! One might consider the high priest deserves thanks and praise for ridding the region of such a dangerous monster.

Here's what I think: I believe the Shrine area reads as a "reclamation project." Yes, it's been there a long, long time, but the current priesthood have not. It was abandoned...who knows why...some time ago, and has only recently been recovered and is in the process of being refurbished and rehabilitated. Note the mysterious "boulder-filled passage," not yet dug out, which may lead to a forgotten wing of the Shrine. Note the undiscovered secret passage to the much smaller (but higher on the cliff side) cave complex currently use by the gnoll mercenaries...probably this was once an annex area, or the former living quarters of the (ancient) priesthood. 

Someone built the Shrine; someone created its magics and animated its guardians. And clearly it's not the individuals currently living there and going through their rites and rituals; more than likely the place was long abandoned and inhabited by the medusa (why else would she have a potion of stone to flesh stashed nearby?). The humanoids tribes certainly were giving it a wide berth: note that the closest lairs to the Shrine entrance belong to the newly arrived (gnolls, bugbears), or large independent monsters (minotaur, owlbear). The local residents have removed themselves to the caves farthest from the Shrine. Which would, of course, suit the medusa's needs fine (she wouldn't have wanted to be peppered with spears from a distance)...but once a true believer showed up with the ability to control the Shrine's undead guardians, it was all over for her. It's easy to imagine much of the Shrine's current stores were bought with coin taken from the medusa's own hoard.

Looking at the Shrine through these eyes...and keeping in mind that alignment has been cut from my's hard to see how there's any actual conflict between its denizens and the player characters. For that matter, there's not much conflict between the PCs and the humanoids of the Caves, unless they initiate hostilities. But unless incited to action (most likely by residents at the Keep) there's not much justification for storming the Shrine or starting a war with the humanoids. Unless, you know, they just find the Shrine's religion or the non-humans' existence to be somehow distasteful.

Certainly there exists opportunities for the PCs. They could throw off the balance of power by aligning themselves with either the orcish tribes or the goblinoids. They could take out the owlbear or the minotaur and probably receive the thanks of the other residents. They could aid the bugbears in finding better accommodations, or possibly retaking their old forest residence (maybe that's the area currently being used by the bandits as a hideout on B2's outdoor map). They could join the Shrine and help excavate its ruins...or maybe just get paid to empty the annex of the gnoll "squatters" (which, of course, would lead to a change in the balance of power and probably put them into conflict with the orcs). And depending on how sleazy you want to interpret the Keep and its purpose, some enterprising parties could attempt to organize the humanoids themselves for a war on the "interlopers;" there's more treasure in the Keep, anyway.

Okay, that's enough for now. I'm not quite done with this series, but that should be plenty to chew on for the next few days.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Spoiling the Keep (p. 3)

Another year gone and, boy O boy, I was terrible at keeping any of my prior year resolutions. Which is why I try to stay the heck away from resolutions, generally: less chance to be disappointed in myself. This year, my ONLY resolutions are to get healthier (i.e. lose some weight), play more AD&D (however that happens), and get at least one book out the door. There are a lot of other things I'd like to accomplish, but I'll judge the year a success if I can get just those three done.

Playing more Dungeons & Dragons seems by far the long as I have children who continuously clamor to play. Finding time to prep the game is tough...but the kids will be back in school come Monday and so long as I can manage my time, that should make things a bit smoother.

[Obligatory Note: I began writing this on January 3rd; MUCH has happened since then]

For now, I still have The Keep on the Borderlands, an adventure I could (nearly) run blindfolded.

In my last post, I examined the "why" of the Keep's existence, but this time I want to examine the "why" of the module's main adventure site: the so-called Caves of Chaos. A largish box canyon riddled with nearly a dozen caves, opening (mostly) onto carefully worked subterranean complexes, the Caves have often been derided as the stereotypical "monster apartment building," featuring multiple humanoid "tribes," a temple of (chaotic) religious fanatics, plus the odd owl bear and minotaur, all living together in close proximity...if not exactly peace and harmony. Hundreds of "evil monsters" just waiting for some intrepid band of adventurers to sweep through with swords, sleep spells, and flasks of flaming oil before collecting the coins and treasures these poor bastards have hoarded.

Cardboard enemies to score points against, in other words. 

Which is why the inclusion of so many non-combatants is crazy. Unless, Gygax was some sort of weird sadist (a possibility, I suppose), why populate the place with women and children "who will not fight" ...and yet still have hit points to deplete? 

Today, I am mainly going to be talking about the humanoid "tribes" found in the Caves: the orcs, goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, bugbears, and gnolls. The hapless "forces of Chaos" that populate the warrens of the area. These provide the vast bulk of potential opponents (i.e. monsters) that adventurers will discover in the complex. Minding their own business, living their lives.

That's the thing that's so striking...these are families living together. Leaving out the lizard folk of the fens (who could easily be included in the same category) you have close to 380 individuals in the Caves, of which more than 200 (about 53%) are lesser or non-combatants: women, children, perhaps elderly or decrepit members of the tribe. They have food stores consisting of "normal provisions" including cloth, grain, food (much of it salted/preserved), and drink. Some of this is tabbed as stolen or "spoils," but not all...not even most. These are communities residing together, with furniture and fire pits. Despite the presence of guardsmen (who are no different from the other male combatants found in the "common" tribal areas) there is nothing here to indicate they are not simply peaceful nonhuman species living in relative harmony...little different to certain medieval cities of the Iberian peninsula (looking at you, Toledo) where member of multiple disparate cultures (Christian, Jew, and Muslim) lived and worked and thrived together.

And they seem to have been there for a while: long enough to have furnishings, alliances, stairways, stockpiles. These are not newly arrived refugees driven from their homes (one possible explanation for so many different species residing together in such close proximity). There are rivalries, but no open fact it is clear from the textual notes that IN MOST CASES humanoids pressed by invaders (i.e. PC adventurers) will put aside their differences and work together. The oft-floated idea of "faction manipulation," playing off tribes against each other, appears to be a Big Fat Myth.

These are not "creatures of Chaos;" hell, they're not even all that murderous, given that they will capture and ransom intruders for small sums (10-100 gold coins a pop). They are as civilized and savvy as any member of the Keep military installation, the fact of their living in caves being mainly a sign of their nocturnal/subterranean physiology. 

Of course, they also appear to live in abject squalor. The square footage of "real estate" for these communities is absolutely abysmal. A few quick searches on Ye Old Inter-Webs shows most estimated requirements to be about 200-500 square feet of living space per individual...and that hasn't changed all that much since medieval times, either (medieval peasant homes to have somewhere in the range of 637-1500 square feet for an average of 3.5 to 6 peasant-to-hovel ratio). However, the "common living spaces" for the majority of tribe members is pretty bad, being about 75-133 square feet per individual in the hobgoblin common rooms, and only 40-46 square feet for the goblins (depending on how you measure the area of the oddly shaped chamber).

Now, one might say: they're goblins, they're small, and need less space. Okay, that makes some sense...but then wouldn't the LARGE humanoids, like gnolls and bugbears need more space? Instead, their common spaces get SMALLER, with bugbears having barely 46 square feet to the individual and the 7+' gnolls having less than 43' apiece! Factor in all those long bows, pole arms, and great axes they wield, and you're looking at a ridiculously cramped space for the proudest and strongest humanoids. 

Here's what I think: only some of these residents are permanent occupants. The kobolds, orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins have the best digs of the bunch. In size order, the amount of square footage for tribal common areas looks like:

Kobold: 40 square feet per individual
Goblin: 47 square feet per individual
Orc (smaller tribe): 77 square feet per individual
Orc (larger tribe): 97 square feet per individual
Hobgoblin: 106 square feet per individual

Those are definitely "cramped quarters" but assuming they are stealing or trading with outsiders for their arms and provisions (as opposed to needing areas for forging and manufacturing), I suppose one could squint at the numbers and (accounting for really squalid living conditions) give the set-up a pass.

But why are they all living together? Well, they're really not, are they? The orcs (who are friendly rivals...the chiefs meet with each other and regularly strategize) are on one-side of the canyon while the goblins and hobgoblins (clear symbiotic units) are on the other side. The presence of the mercenary ogre near the goblins has allowed them the extra muscle they need to remain independent from the hobgoblins, who would otherwise enslave them (given their penchant for bullying, militarism, and torture). The kobolds, hated and despised by all, have allied themselves with a giant rat colony in order to protect themselves...and even so, they are forced to dig pit traps to protect their territory, the smallest of the "permanent" tribal settlements.
living space...

So then, what of the gnolls and bugbears?
These are recent arrivals but for different reasons. The gnolls are clearly mercenaries (explaining their "loose alliance" with the orcs) who have been bought to help against the goblin-hobgoblin-ogre faction. This explains the gnoll and orc prisoners taken by the parnoid hobgoblins (most likely spies being "questioned," given their location in the hobgoblin torture chamber). No open warfare yet exists, but it seem the orcs felt some balancing of power was necessary. The women and children that accompany the tribe are the equivalent of gnollish "camp followers" as their lair is clearly too small to support even the small number of their kind that appears in the adventure. 

The bugbears are the true outsiders here, and of all the groups appears the most likely to be refugees from their traditional arboreal territory. As only one force in the area (the Keep) is strong enough to compel servitude from their tribe, I think it's a fair assumption that they were previously enslaved mine workers who are holed up in the Caves as they plot their revenge. This explains many aspects of their tribe: why they have taken captives from ALL the tribes, why they have to send out "hunting parties" for food (they aren't yet settled), why their living conditions (square footage) is so terrible, and why they have a room for "spoils" rather than "supplies" or "stores." It is obvious they are living a bandit lifestyle. I find it highly likely that the area in which they resided originally belonged to a 3rd orc tribe they have since ousted (note how their cave entrance lies on the same level and same side of the canyon as the other two orc groups). It is far too small for their numbers, and it can only be a matter of time before they are forced to make some move...either out of the Caves (unlikely, given the continued threat of the Keep) or into an additional, larger cave complex. 

[the signs near the entrance, by the way, were not written by the bugbears, but by members of the human mining guild set to entice and entrap humanoids. When the bugbears broke their chains and revolted, they took these (along with other souvenirs), leaving them at the mouth of their cave as a warning to stay the heck away or face their wrath]

Finally, please note that this reading also makes sense in light of what the Monster Manual says about the various humanoids ability to mine and tunnel. Goblins are noted as being "fair" miners, orcs are "accomplished," and hobgoblins considered "highly adept." These are the beings making these caves (note the rough, unworked caverns used by the minotaur and owl bear). The MM states specifically that gnolls are not good miners and that they generally "dislike work," giving additional credence to their temporary presence in the Caves. 

All right, that's enough for now (probably more than enough); next post I want to talk about religion, specifically its presence and role for the humanoid tribes. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Write Your Congressman

I was going to post more about The Keep on the Borderlands yesterday when things exploded in my nation's capitol. I know, I know...people read my blog for the gaming stuff not my uneducated commentary on current (politicized) events. Apologies...sometimes, my conscience gets the better of me. And my emotions: that's the reason for the foul language (apologies for that, too).

But...apologies again...not quite ready to get back to the gaming thing. Because we still have a treasonous demagogue in power who has yet to suffer any consequences for his actions. Sure, his delusional supporters incited to violence and revolt will face years in jail (10+ it appears), but the would-be despot-in-chief? Nada. And I can't just do nothing, right? No...because I don't want to be culpable in my silence, do I? 

Of course, I have little power to effect much change in the situation. So I sent a letter to my Representative  tonight (only the House of Representatives may bring articles of impeachment against a sitting president). It's a pretty easy thing to do given technology these days, you just go to this web site and type in your zip code. You'll see an image of your Representative that you can email your strongly worded letter. Here's mine, just in case you want to copy-and-paste something similar:

The events of yesterday (January 6th, 2021) were saddening, shocking, and unprecedented in the history of this country…or ANY “first world” nation with the values that ours purports to champion. That a sitting president can commit TREASON and not be called to task is worse than unconscionable…it is disgraceful and an insult to both the rule of law and the Constitution on which our laws are built. 

The founders of this nation defined “treason” narrowly, to account for its possibility while offering protections against arbitrary accusations. In 1807 the act of “levying war” against the United States was stated to NOT be merely *conspiring* “to subvert by force the government of our country,” but would require an “actual assemblage of men for the purpose of executing a treasonable design.” It is clear, that these are exactly the actions of the president. This is the very definition of treason. 

It is understandable that Congress has taken time to process the shock of yesterday’s events and allowed the president a chance to resign his post, or to allow his cabinet to remove him under the 25th amendment. But as neither of these events have occurred since the president’s reprehensible actions on January 6th, the time has come for action. The House of Representatives MUST bring articles of impeachment against Donald J. Trump immediately, and not wait for additional time to pass. To delay or ignore the abominable events that occurred in this, the world’s longest standing democracy, is to condone and normalize activities that cannot, must NOT be allowed to stand unquestioned and unpunished. 

It matters not that Trump will be ousted on January 20th. It matters NOT the will of the Senate to ratify impeachment; in all probability they will not do so, given the cowardice and hypocrisy of Republican senators. But the Democrats must take action; they must STAND UP for the country, for its laws, for its Constitution, and for its people…the people that they are elected to represent! As a lifelong resident of Washington State, a voter of nearly 30 years (I will be 48 in November), a lover of this nation, and as a constituent, I demand that YOU, as my elected Representative do your duty. Implore the House Speaker to bring articles of impeachment against this traitorous demagogue who besmirches all that this country is supposed to stand for. For the love of this nation, do NOT let this stand!

That's me, though. That's my conscience. If you feel like me, maybe you'll urge your Representative in similar fashion...and if you want to copy my words (or paraphrase them) I don't mind at all.  I mean, what else can we do?  This is up to our elected officials to stand up and enforce the checks and balances built into law; We The People can only ask them, our Congressmen, to be accountable to their oaths of office. We have an obligation as citizens of the United States to communicate our will to our own governance...both by exercising our right to vote, and by ensuring our representatives understand the concerns of their constituents (i.e. ourselves). 

Now...having done what I can, I will try (really) to return to the "normal programming" of this blog.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

High Treason

Domestic terrorism in the United States capitol. Shocking and sad and unclear why an armed mob is allowed to injure multiple law enforcement without bringing in the National Guard to deal with these pieces of shit.

Yes, pieces of shit

14 days till we can get this rat-fuck out of office. The 25th amendment should have been activated a long time ago. 

Un-fucking-believable. Treason is still illegal in this country, right? 

Today is the feast day of Epiphany. The "12th day of Christmas." And just a real kick to the balls of anyone who loves this country and what it's supposed to stand for. 


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 2)

The last couple nights, I've been reading Tolkien's The Lost Tales (volume 1)...a Christmas gift from my wife...but I'm still only in the "foreword" of the thing. With regard to The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien's opus) perhaps the thing I find most fascinating is that his trilogy is built on a fully developed (or near-full) world and mythology of his own creation; Tolkien was writing stories about silmarils and elves long before he was writing about hobbits and their antics. And all the "allusions" to fictional history found in his main works...including The Hobbit...are more reference to these earlier, unpublished works, rather than an artistic device to make his fantasy world seem bigger than it is. 

For most fiction, this ain't the case. When Ben Kenobi is telling Luke Skywalker that he fought alongside Luke's father in "the Clone Wars," George Lucas had no idea of what that was or meant to his Star Wars universe. It was color added to exposition establishing a relationship with the character (an uncle-like figure) while simultaneously developing that character (establishing Ben as a former warrior); the "prequel trilogy" had not yet been conceptualized (and would, in fact, undergo several various SW mediums...prior to the actual films getting green lit). That's a good example of how the device usually works.

However, when Tolkien writes that Glamdring is a famous sword worn by the King of Godolin in the Goblin Wars, he is referencing an existing history...The Fall of Gondolin was, in fact, the first story Tolkien ever wrote down (and attempted to rewrite multiple times during his life). It's not just "color," nor is elvish language simply composed of nonsensical syllables smashed together. This depth of world building is responsible for much of the richness of Tolkien's stories. 

And "richness" and "depth" is what we're looking for in our D&D campaigns...not because we want to dazzle our players with our ability to write fake histories (that they generally don't care about), but because it allows DMs to create a sensible environment for exploration, aiding the immersion process. 

The Keep on the Borderlands, as written, has very little to it in terms of backstory and history. Part of its power comes from its succinct distillation of what some might consider "pure" D&D play. It presents a home base, a small wilderness, and a progressively tiered "dungeon" of monsters, and then asks players to go explore (while trying not to get killed). It is a GREAT introduction to the long as one doesn't examine it too closely. In a vacuum, there's a lot to recommend it.

But campaign play requires demands that close examination, because adventure sites and scenarios need to be fit into the campaign world in order for adventures in that world to have value and heft. Long term campaign play cannot be sustained with unrelated episodic play because nothing of value can be built in a purely improvisational world and the padding of a PC's stats over time gets stale when one's play has no concrete impact. 

So let's try to give the Keep some context.

The first thing to discuss, I think, is WHY the Keep exists at all. Large stone fortifications are not just built in the middle-of-nowhere "just for the heck of it." With all apologies to Ludwig the Mad, large stone structures aren't built ANYwhere without reason. Building any castle structure is a large undertaking, requiring substantial resources of time, money, material, and manpower, and aren't undertaken lightly. 

The Keep in B2 is clearly meant to be a military fortification, with the majority of its listed NPC population being fighting men...a bit more than 200 men-at-arms, plus officers. That the Keep is ruled by a castellan ("The Castellan") backs this up, based on my understanding of the history of the term (i.e. based on what I can glean off the internet, especially wikipedia).

[people are going to have to excuse my lack of scholarship and general hackwork. I am not a historian (except of the armchair variety) and did not study it at university. Also, libraries are still closed in my city due to the pandemic, and even before they were, I can tell you that the public libraries were pretty light on the types of scholarly references one might use for this kind of work...assuming, of course, I could speak any language besides English in order to DO research across multiple cultures. So apologies; I'm just a blogger]

The title of castellan can be hereditary (with the domain presided over called a "castellany") but it is more usually understood to be an appointment by a higher noble...and given Gygax's own definition of the term in B2's glossary ("a governor or warden of a castle or fort") I think it safe to assume that this is the type of castellan we have at the Keep: a career soldier type assigned the task of running the garrison. Being that the Keep is set "on the Borderlands," one might imagine the region to be part of the march (and, thus, under the jurisdiction of a marquis), a buffer zone between the civilized realm and the untamed wilderness. Perhaps there are several such fortresses within a few days ride of the place.

The Keep in 3D.
However, the Keep is MASSIVE for such an out-of-the-way area. This is no wooden hill fort or lonely tower stronghold. It has shops and stores and services that appear somewhat independent from the functioning of the place as a medieval border fort. While on first pass the "village" of the outer bailey has similarities to a small western town (at least of the cinematic variety: Deadwood, Tombstone, etc.) upon closer inspection the thing feels much more like a (small) modern day military base. Here's the PX store, here's the mess, here's some on-site residences for visitors; knowing Gygax spent some time in the marines, it wouldn't surprise me if this was part of his inspiration for the Keep (albeit with medieval trappings...stables instead of a motor pool, etc.).

Regardless, the Keep has a heft of permanence to it. This motte-and-bailey took years to build, and it seems to have been built for the long haul. Clearly, someone felt the need to construct a stronghold of this size, and yet it is not the fortified residence of a nobleman and his family (the castellan, as noted, appears to be an official and a bachelor). Likewise, the Keep doesn't appear to have interest in (or means of) collecting tolls (from the southern road) or taxes (from the local populace...which appears absent anyway). In short, there seems no way for the Keep to generate income...certainly not enough to feed and supply the military personnel. Some "state power" (marquis, king, whatever) must be footing the bill...and they must have a good reason for doing so. 

But what? Protecting one's borders? That would make more sense if there was a rival power, but in the generic D&D realm it would seem that border only divides "civilization" from "wilderness." As a base to act as a launching point for taming the wilderness? Even if there was evidence of the Keep engaging in warfare with the nearby humanoid populations (there isn't), the scale of the place is off for such an undertaking. Plus, one would assume that once a hostilities commenced, there would be no respite for building a massive stone construction until AFTER the locals were pacified. 

So while the Keep is most assuredly "on the Borderlands," I don't think it's purpose has anything to do with extending or protecting its border. I think it's there to protect itself...and since that interest isn't a familiar one (i.e. there's no ruling family present), it must be guarding some resource. A resource that is desirable enough for the nobility to fund such an undertaking. Something valuable worth guarding, in other words.

Given the personnel and services found in the Keep compound, the absence of any other revenue source, and the nearby terrain, I'm inclined to think the place has been set up as a mining operation. The place has all the trappings of an "Old West" boom town, save for an undertaker and an assayers office...and the latter is less useful in a state-run operation than when dealing with numerous independent miners. The wealth from such an operation (depending on the ore being dug up) would explain the nobility's interest in bankrolling a sturdy, permanent fortress in the wilderness. It explains the need for a money-changing bank and a guild house, it explains the presence of both a provisioner and a trading post, as well as the reason why traders bother making the journey into the disputed Borderlands (and the reason the Keep has warehouses, stables, and an inn within its 20' high curtain walls). 

I am inclined to believe that "the Caves of the Unknown" are the original mines (now played out) that the Keep was set to guard. It explains why the Caves are so close to the Keep (a couple miles), and it starts to paint a picture of the Keep's relationship (and potential dealings) with the nearby humanoid tribes in the area dubbed "the Caves of Chaos."

But I'll discuss those guys in my next post.

; )

Monday, December 28, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 1)

For those of us who started in the D&D hobby with some version of pre-1983 "basic" (Holmes or Moldvay) the adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands is pretty familiar. It was included in those old box sets and many of us cut our teeth on it (as a player or DM or both), back in the day. Many folks, re-entering the hobby after decades (or returning to "old school" play after experience dissatisfaction with latter edition sensibilities) have pulled a weathered copy of the module to fire up a new campaign. I've used it myself for this purpose...more than once! 

The B2 adventure is ubiquitous in old school circles...and in D&D, generally. Towards the end of the 2nd edition era, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was published, a silver anniversary rewrite of the adventure updating the thing while reusing the history and locations found in module. Goodman Games put out a "5th edition conversion and classic homage" called Into the Borderlands -- with the original Roslof art gracing the cover! -- a couple years ago, and that mammoth tome can still be found in stacks at local game shops, including WotC's main retail store here in Seattle. 

The original adventure has been lauded and lambasted; analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized. People have apologized for the module, praised it (and elements of its design), and suggested ways to "rehabilitate" it. Many of us have run it, played it, read it, and blogged about it over the years; on my own blog I see I've already more than 30 posts tagged with the "B2" label...not surprising given the impact it's had on me as a DM. After all, it was the first published adventure scenario I ever picked up.

And now I'm returning to the thing, running it for my kids, albeit using the AD&D system.

[which doesn't require all that much adjustment...really]

Pretty sure I've posted
this image before...
This time, however, is a little different. In past runnings, I've always played the module "straight," i.e. as written and wholly unexamined. The play has been the thing, not the "story" of the Keep and the Caves. And this approach has served MY needs well enough, though frustrating in one respect: players have had difficulty with the challenges presented. Back in my (very brief) BECMI days, I had a party that managed to clean out most of the Caves, earning enough x.p. and treasure that they were ready to move on to a new adventure site. But in the main, I've seen players fail miserably at invading the Caves, losing character after character (and party after party) until finally "giving up" and deciding to take their adventure aspirations elsewhere. 

And none of that has required any more story than what is given in the text. A fortress on the edge of the wilderness. A cave complex occupied by hostile monsters. A band of plucky adventurers looking to score a pile of bloodstained coins. Do you need more "story" than that to have a good time? Not everyone does; I didn't, for a quarter century.

I'm looking at things differently now. I'd like to say that my "needs" as a DM have changed, but only because that's an easy phrase to reel off; there's something more going on in my head that is much harder to articulate. And I'm not going to try right now...suffice is to say that the old approach to running B2 no longer satisfies. The text as written can no longer go "unexamined."

SO, my plan (such as it ever is) is to start a new series of posts on this hoary, ancient module, even as I run it (again) for my children. They will include my thoughts on the thing, its setting, and my modifications to the adventure as I try to beat it into some semblance of a "useful play aid." Because that's how I'm looking at the module at the moment...not as an adventure to be "won," but as a campaign opportunity to be explored without any sort of expected outcome.  Doing some examination and analysis will (I believe) allow me to do a better job running the adventure that way.

This series (I am assuming it will be a series...there's a lot to discuss here) will, by necessity, contain a lot of *SPOILERS* because, I'm sorry, if this type of thing is at all interesting to you then I'm going to assume that you are already familiar with the module and none of the things I "reveal" will ruin the adventure. Not that there's a whole lot of surprises in the adventure as written (though more than I want to enumerate), but you can consider this my one and only warning on the issue.

All right, that's it. I'm still putting together the order in which I want to do this, but I'll start in earnest with "Part 2" of this series...hopefully before the New Year!   ; )


Wednesday, December 23, 2020


 This is a bugbear:

I'm absolutely certain that 100% of my non-robot/spambot readers will recognize the character in this image, even if they haven't made a point of seeing every Star Wars film in the Lucas library.

The original description of the bugbear (from OD&D's Supplement I: Greyhawk) simply states:

These monsters are of the "giant class," being great hairy goblin-giants. Despite their size and shambling gait, they move very quietly, thus increasing their chance to surprise a party by 16 2/3%.

[for the uninitiated, that would mean achieving surprise on a d6 roll of 1-3, rather than the standard 1-2]

Holmes's description in the original basic book changes this description very little, adding only that "they attack without warning whenever they can." Holmes also notes their alignment as chaotic evil, whereas the creature was originally presented (in OD&D) as having the potential for both neutrality and chaos.

The AD&D Monster Manual, as usual, expands the creature's description considerably, with special consideration given to armaments and tribal organization. However, the introduction to the entry is my main interest:

Bugbears live in loose bands, and are typically found in the same areas as are goblins. Unlike their smaller cousins, however, these hairy giant goblins operate equally well in bright daylight or great darkness (as they have infravision to 60'), so they are as likely to choose a habitation above ground as they are to select a subterranean abode.

Just what am I doing here? Well, I'll tell you. Remember this recent post of mine discussing how I've found I can get by without alignment in the game? All well and good and working just fine (still). Here's the thing though: once you remove the idea of "cosmic evil" from the game and are simply left with sentient humanoid species, you've only got a couple easy ways to go with your "fantasy races:" full on conquistador (conquering the "savages" and all of the imperialist tropes and associated awfulness), OR  create some sort of fantasy Star Trek-like utopia with all the species intermingling and elbow-rubbing one expect to find in a Roddenberry space station.

I don't like either of those options. And since my fantasy world has some established concept parameters (for example, humans dominate, cultures tend not to mingle unless sharing a species, no concrete alignments), I've got to go a different, harder route and make things work. I've got to basically make each species its own damn alien thing, that keeps the creature from adapting to humanity's ways (setting up shops in the town) while not making it a cardboard villain to be cut down.

And there are a LOT of humanoids in the game. Gnolls are basically Warhammer beastmen (uplifted, mutant animals), and orcs are simple mutants ("half-orcs" being first generation spawn of normal parents). But goblinoids...there are a LOT of goblinoids...especially if you start including the aquatic versions and variants found in later "monster manuals." 

TWO...two types of goblins are about all I can stand (which is why, when running UK2: The Sentinel I changed the blue-skinned xvarts into blue-skinned goblins). "Goblin," I've decided is just a human word for any sentient, non-allied humanoid species. Big goblins, little goblins, hairy goblins, and militaristic, jackbooted goblins (could D&D hobgoblins take their name from the hobnails they sport? Sure, why not). 

But I'm only having two species of goblin in the game, and their differences are largely that of culture and priority. Hobgoblins are to goblins as Spartans were to ancient Macedonians, and if you think I'm paying them a compliment, then you should probably read Bret Devereaux's blog. Spartans were pretty awful, in just about every way possible, and hobgoblins (in my campaign) are the same.

SO...bugbears. They are most assuredly not goblins. They're not big goblins, they're not hairy goblins, they are their own darn species. They are wookies. They can live in caves, but they prefer arboreal surroundings. They are diurnal, unlike goblins...their "infravision" is a way to model their keen sense of smell. Their armor class and high hit points represents their innate toughness; they wear little in the way of armor (hence, their increased stealth ability...which is still not as good as an unarmored elf, seeing as how freaking big they are). They are, however, tool users, and construct their own homes and weapons. They hire themselves out as mercenaries, and covet treasure both as a means of exchange with other races, and for ostentatious displays of wealth. 

They have a love for family and a cultural tradition of honor that includes life debts, ritual combat, and mating for life. Despite their mercenary ways, they hold themselves aloof from other species and tend to look down on them (for failing to share their cultural values) and they often bully smaller species. It doesn't help that their ability to communicate is hindered by limited vocalization, but they comprehend other languages -- including the common tongue -- as well as any human of equal intelligence, and other races can learn their language with a bit of patience. Still, this lack of "speech" and their intimidating stature has led some to see them as little more than primitive savages. 

They are strong workers and are prized as slaves by unscrupulous cultures. This has done nothing to improve their relationship with other races.

"Bugbear" is not a name they call themselves. In fact, they find the term derogatory and insulting, and have been known to pull the arms off those brazen enough to use it as a form of address. 

My players (i.e. my children) have not yet encountered bugbears...not in B/X or OD&D or (as of yet) AD&D. That will soon be changing. They have created new 1st level characters, ostensibly to give their other PCs "a rest" after the saga that was UK2 and UK3. This time, the plan is for them to once again journey to The Keep on the Borderlands. Yes, yes...cue the groans. I'm trying something a little different with it this time around, and I'm not just talking about using it in an AD&D game. 

I'll tell you all about it, one of these days; just not right now (sorry).

My plan is to be pretty busy over the next couple days. Hope everyone has a happy best we all can. Best wishes!