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.
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 game...it'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.