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.


  1. Maybe the undead are the animated corpses of the thieves forced to guard the temple forevermore...

  2. Maybe the undead are the animated corpses of the thieves forced to serve as guardians forevermore. They could constantly replenish.

    1. @ Argus: that’s definitely one way to interpret the bronze vessels’ curse of serving the temple “forever after.” Though it raises the question, why are there skeletons? Assuming, of course, that the animating magic preserves the zombie corpses’ meat.
      ; )

    2. I have to say (also) that I really dig the possibility the Shrine would ALLOW the bronze vessels to be stolen in order to replenish the zombie ranks. : )

  3. Hi JB,
    I ran a heavily modified version of this with my sons as players. I had talked to them about taking over dungeons, as Alexis mentions on the Tao of D&D.
    In my running, the keep was a ruin, and much smaller, more like a chateau, having been recently reinhabited by some bandits. The bandits were fixing the place up. They were also aligned with the priests at the caves.
    The non humans at the caves were working several separate veins of metals (tin, copper and lead), giving them an economic reason to be there.
    The party hired enough mercenaries to lay a weak seige to the chateau. This was a blind, as they mined their way in to the chateau (my eldest son's idea) and after a brief and bloody fight, took out the leaders. They learned about the caves, and set off to take them over, but not before hiring every mercenary they could afford (including a couple of erstwhile bandits). After sneaking in, they managed to take the orcs out, and then left being rapidly persued, drawing persuers into an ambush.
    After that, the structure of the caves worked against the defenders, as they can't communicate with each other. Th party went in to one cave after another and demanded surrunder, very obviously letting survivors go with their non- coms and possesions, less hard coin.
    Voila, party has a chateau and cave complex with mineral resources.

    1. Huh, cool idea. The 2E adventure Return to KotB changes the Keep to a much smaller, poorer garrison, but doesn't go so far as to make it a ruin. I think that's a bad idea at all...but given the strategic value of such a fortress, I'd probably have something beefier than bandits taking ownership (probably one of the humanoid factions).

      Still, that's a pretty neat twist.

  4. I took some notes from the 25th anniversary Return to the Keep on the Borderlands and had the evil influence of the old shrine be part of the "Cult of Chaos" that was growing in my world. The evil humanoids were attracted to it; much like demons, vampires and other evil creatures were attracted to the Hellmouth in the Buffy RPG.

    I made this more explicit when I reran the KotBL using the Army of Darkness RPG. I made the cult the followers of Ereshkigal.
    Worked out well.

    1. I own Return, but have never run it. I honestly have no experience with "Buffy" in any way, shape, or form, other than I saw the original movie (with Rutget Hauer and Paul Reubens) when it was in the theater.

      Return has some cleverness to its updates, but the overall feel of the thing I The Caves actually feel more disjointed / compartmentalized (i.e. lacking inter-relatedness) than the original. And I find a lot of artificiality to the encounters, perhaps due to the translation from B/X to "low-level AD&D" which have very different scales.

      Making the shrine some sort of "demon magnet" or open Gate (which I assume is kind of what the Hellmouth is) goes a long way towards providing a reason for evil monsters to be drawn to the site.

      [I think it's interesting that the cultists in Return are followers of Ereshkigal and Nergal when neither of these deities are present in 2E (so far as I can tell...the 2E Legends & Lore leaves out Babylonian and Sumerian deities). But, maybe they showed up elsewhere; I admit my 2E knowledge is pretty weak]

  5. I'm enjoying these extrapolations and your overall project of building towards a tense morally ambiguous toy box for B2.

    Your take on the Shrine is good. Building on it my own would be that it's a natural holy place for some ancient religion - a site of pilgrimage and a place where the space between worlds is thin (perhaps this explains the humanoids as well - they have crossed from unnatural spheres). Fallen into decay it has caretaker priests and the old sybil has been possessed by the cthonic gods -- transformed into a medusa (but still gives prophecy). Few come seeking oracles now though.

    As to worshipers - there's one faction you don't mention that seems potentially useful are the Raiders (wilderness Area 3 pg. 13) who are described as "a dozen chaotic fighters" scouting the keep.

    They offer some possibility. Perhaps they are worshippers headed to the shrine, or fanatics for the old gods of the shrine - a warband come to raid the land about keep and encourage conflict between their culture and the intruders?

    1. I'm still working out my thoughts on just what exactly humanoids are...are goblins really a different species from hobgoblins? I'm starting to feel more like the hobs are the "warriors" and the gobbos are the "workers," though not in hive-like sense...more like the difference between the 0-level citizens and the 1st level fighters that act as town guards. This makes much more sense with regard to AD&D's combat system (in which a fighter can "reap" huge swaths of creatures less than 1 hit die), because the "goblin warriors" aren't really the soldiers of the species, but instead the equivalent of peasants picking up farm implements for defense.

      The sybil thing is good, though it doesn't work as much with the text as written (why sacrifice the creature? why not try to reverse the transformation? maybe a new Quest for the PCs!). A darker, more necromantic tone might call on the wight to the same duty. Ha!

      I haven't had a chance to write about the raiders yet, though I plan to. There's a certain temptation for DMs to look at the adventure with an eye of "all roads lead to the Chaos Shrine" when it comes to B2 (the itinerant priest is a spy for the Shrine, the bandits are worshippers, the Mad Hermit is an ex-agent of the Shrine, the humanoids have been "called to service," etc.). I'm trying to avoid that mentality as much as I can, even as I appreciate the notion.

      And, for me, there just aren't enough "raiders" to make for the kind of hill folk tribe you describe. Oh, I suppose these could be the escaped "warriors" of such a tribe that was pressed into peonage by the Keep (in order to work the mines, natch) and who are trying to figure a way to save their people and bring down the Keep. But then I'd expect more action/involvement on the part of the Shrine, and more organized effort at the Keep to stamp out the "insurgents" (the Keep seems unaware of them). "Chaos" being in the eye of the beholder (in my game, at least) I see these guys more as opportunistic bandits...and small-timers...rather than a strike force from the Shrine. And not a cleric among them? Hardly the "pilgrim" type to my mind.