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. 


  1. This is fascinating. I never thought about how cramped, loud and filthy those living spaces must be. Very good work, my friend!

    1. Appreciate you saying so. I actually feel I left out more that could have been said (I’ve been distracted this week and just wanted to get the thing posted)...but I plan on a few more installments.