Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The Secret of the Keep on the Borderlands
For those who missed it, James Raggi is a genius.
In his latest greatest post over at LotFP, Raggi does a brief analysis of the old TSR adventure module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, including what he feels it does right and what it does NOT. His post includes a comparison between the treasure found in the Caves of Chaos (the local dungeon) and the treasure found in the Keep, with a startling realization: the Keep yields the bigger payday (in terms of magic items and outright treasure) than the Caves…by a wide mile.
Which reminded ME of something I realized years ago (or at least sniffed around) but subsequently forgot in my 20+ year hiatus from Dungeons & Dragons:
The Keep IS the target objective of the adventure.
That is to say, pillaging the keep should be the main goal of any adventuring party.
This becomes immediately apparent with a little scrutiny for any player that grew up pre-Mentzer, pre-2nd edition. After all, the Moldvay generation wasn’t taught PCs were supposed to be “heroic adventurers.” Instead, we were told that you should cannibalize your dead party member’s pack for treasure, and the only reason to take the “high road” is to keep on the good side of the party’s Lawful cleric. To folks like me, “rogue” isn’t a class…it’s the Tao of Adventuring.
Let’s talk about it.
Exhibit A: The title of the module.
Early TSR adventure modules don’t beat around the bush: the title inevitable tells you the TARGET OBJECTIVE of the adventure. The Tomb of Horrors. The Lost Shrine of Tamoachan. White Plume Mountain. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Aerie of the Slave Lords. If a PLACE is named in the module title, that place is the site the PCs are expected to explore, invade, and loot.
B2’s title is NOT “The Caves of Chaos.” It is THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS. Obviously, the Keep IS the target.
This explains the detailed key of the Keep, front and center to the module. The main “dungeon” is the Keep, a well-detailed, site-based adventure. Everything else is an afterthought. What’s the next section to the module after the Keep?
Adventure Outside the Keep
Indeed. Once you’re finished looting the Keep, then you can participate in other adventures outside. But the implication is one must first have an adventure or two within the Keep.
Exhibit B: The Key to the Keep
Every single man-at-arms and soldier is detailed in the Keep. Each tower, its contingent of men, info on their shifts, info on their supplies and armaments, is detailed…information that can only be useful in the case of an invasion. And yet no part of the module involves any incursion from the Caves, or the outlying monster communities (the lizard folk keep to their swamps and the bandits rob folks traveling the road). In fact, the implication is that while the Chaotic temple at the Caves has an interest in keeping tabs on the Keep, the humanoid tribes are too disorganized to launch an actual assault on the Keep.
This latter has been my primary motivation for adventuring parties I’ve run through B2: the threat that the humanoids might unite, and the need to exterminate them while they are still divided. Reasonable enough…but if that’s what the module is about, then why do we need to know how many soldiers staff the south tower and the number of crossbow bolts they carry?
Why bother to describe the treasure in each location…the bank, the trader, the private apartments, the castellan’s fortress. Sure, one might want to know the magic items possessed by the Keep’s denizens in case a party needs a “reward” of some sort…by what the need to detail the coinage and treasure? Unless it is designed to be stolen. And if an NPC were to steal a jeweled set of writing implements (or whatever) why would the actual gp value of such an item be important to know?
It only becomes important for PCs who want to steal it and pawn it.
The Keep IS the objective.
Exhibit C: The Detailed Personalities of the Keep
While one can play D&D in the simple fashion of “kick in door, fight monster, steal treasure” (i.e. the dumb-dumb way), as an RPG the game shines when it highlights the features of an RPG: creative problem solving, negotiation and social interaction, outside-the-box thinking for overcoming challenges. The D&D game comes alive when players are forced to think as if they were present in their characters’ shoes.
The Keep offers far more opportunities for these “shiny moments” than the Caves of Chaos do.
The Caves, for the most part, are simple monster dens. The Keep has hooks and colorful personalities…from the easily seduced gate guard to the unscrupulous trader to the rivalry between the Keep’s curate and the visiting itinerant priest to the officers of the watch regularly found boozing it up in the tavern (implication: drunks).
The political implications of the Inner Bailey (invitation only) is especially interesting: in all the years I’ve run B2, no party has ever visited the inner bailey or the castellan’s fortress. Not only is it the seat of power for the dungeon/Keep, it is the lair of the baddest monster in the module (the castellan!) and the main treasure hole.
When you consider the Keep as a dungeon, the outer bailey is “Level 1” and the inner bailey is “Level 2.” And with that perspective, the Caves of Chaos (and the other minor adventures outside the Keep) become a means to an end…they are the “key” to gaining entry to the Inner Bailey. Only those who can “prove themselves” can get in to the IB (without mounting a suicidal frontal assault), and doing the Caves’ “sidequest” is the ticket to getting a spy or scout into the castellan’s sanctuary.
But you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity. You’ve got to think outside-the-box. You have to approach the adventure as “GIVEN that the Keep is the objective, what’s the best way to crack this nut?”
Exhibit D: Floor Plans of the Keep
At the end of the module, the reader is instructed to draw up floor plans for individual buildings of the Keep. Not the dungeon…the Keep! Examples are given of the inn and maybe one other building (I don’t have my module in front of me at the moment).
Why would one need to draw floor plans of Keep structure? Because Gygax is trying to teach 10 year olds how to be decorators/designers/architects?
OR is it because it might be tactically useful to know the lay-out of the battleground when you’re fighting man-at-arms house to house?
I think the latter.
Now in all seriousness, it’s quite possible Gygax did NOT write B2 with the conscious idea that players should choose to assault the Keep. But even if it wasn’t conscious, he provided all the tools and information one needs to do so. Perhaps he felt that such should be an option (after all, the choices in an RPG are only limited by one’s imagination) but decided that stating so implicitly would be “sending the wrong message” (i.e. that over-throwing the one bastion of civilization in the area would be both good and desirable).
In fact, there ARE some inherent dangers in sacking the Keep, and not just dying at the end of a pole-arm. If the Keep SHOULD fall, there is a strong suggestion that it will open the way for humanoids to invade the civilized lands. Treasure taken from the Keep will still need to be pawned/changed somewhere (the nearby monsters aren’t likely to pay for it), which means finding a suitable fence, possibly requiring a dangerous over-land journey burdened by the loot of the Keep.
Of course, such a journey might be made easier if the PCs can wipe out the bandits prior to sacking the Keep (perhaps as part of a bid for that inner bailey invitation?)…or if the PCs co-opt and join the bandits for mutual profit (in the sacking of the Keep).
Oh, I dig it. So many more possibilities when you stop looking at the Keep on the Borderlands as a “home base” and start seeing it for what it REALLY is: a fat prize ready to be plucked by a band of ambitious cut-throat adventurers.
You know, a sleep spell knocks out a lot of men-at-arms.