Friday, February 26, 2021

Starting Over

Wonder if I've used that title for a post before. Probably more than once.

I've been cooking a lot lately by which I mean 'a lot more than usual' (and by lately I mean the last month or so). I've really tried to be attentive to what I'm preparing as far as food for my family and what they/we eat...not only to ensure proper nutrition for growing kids (and for geezers like myself that need to *ahem* slim down) but because a variety of good, solid foods, well-prepared taste better and are less detrimental to your health, energy, and longevity. 

Also, it's cheaper. Who doesn't want to save money?

Fortunately, I live in Seattle which is positively overflowing with a cornucopia of foods, reasonably priced, all year around...more than I'll probably ever have time to learn or try, let alone master. Others aren't so lucky..."food deserts" abound in this country, and in a society that's mostly forgotten how to grow/raise their own food, that leads to a variety of problems. 

Me...I'm blessed. My grocery bills are half what they were, we're wasting less food, eating better, and the only thing it costs me is time. Time, that most precious of commodities. Being mortal (as we all are), you really come to appreciate that resource, especially the less of it you have.

Today, I have a little extra (time) because it's Friday during Lent, so the food prep is ultra-simple. Thus, I have time to punch out a quick blog post. 

Tuesday's AD&D session saw the death of my players' first, main characters. Out of spells, down three party members and wounded to the point of exhaustion the survivors were forced to retreat from an elite force of hobgoblins (the leader was dressed in plate and shield). Valens, the 5th level elf fighter (with a comatose Jesse - 4th/5th level halfling - lashed to his back) broke from the rest of the group and jumped from a cave ledge 50' above the ground, using a bracelet of swimming & climbing to try to gouge handholds in the cliff face as he plunged toward the canyon floor. 

He landed on his right leg and shattered his ankle. 

[this was a bit of a rough one. The character was not attempting to climb the wall but, instead, break his fall using the magic item's ability to "give the wearer a very strong gripping and holding ability" ...much the same as a high level monk. As the climb vertical percentage given by the item - 95% - is about the same as a 7th level monk, I allowed that the character could remove 30' from from the potential falling damage (as a monk of that level can fall 30' and take no damage) with a saving throw to mitigate damage from the last 20'. He ended up being reduced to exactly 0 hit points by the fall and, given the circumstances, decided to allow him to remain conscious in exchange for a serious, debilitating injury]

The hobgoblins were not about to give up pursuit, however, as the party's raid had killed some 30+ of their number. As some members of the war party raced to fetch a rope ladder, crossbow bolts rained down upon the elf, as he struggled to cover the hundred yards or so to where the party's horses had been tethered near the entrance to the canyon. Holding his shield +1 above his head (he had tossed it out the cave mouth before tossing himself) and using trees for cover, it was a valiant effort...only a natural 20 would be enough to hit him.

Unfortunately, he fell pierced through the neck.

Something like this.
"I can't believe Valens got killed!" my son exclaimed Wednesday morning over breakfast, probably for the 10th or 15th time. "He was so beefy!" And he had been: 5th level, 40 hit points, an AC of 1 thanks to magical leather armor and an 18 dexterity, a +2 long sword, etc. My daughter's character (a fighter/thief) hadn't been nearly as fight-worthy, but she'd been plenty formidable in her own arena, and exhibited bravery, cleverness, and compassion (for both henchmen and foes alike) on plenty of occasions. 

They had, however, been nearing "retirement" anyway due to AD&D's restrictive level caps on demihumans (the halfling had already reached maximum fighter level and the elf was but one level away). One way or another their adventuring days had been drawing to a close. And - thankfully - neither child was particularly torn up about their deaths (i.e. there wasn't any crying or fussing or begging for a "do over").

And so they rolled up new characters. Trying something different, we used Method III from the DMG and ended up with some pretty solid characters; Diego even had good enough stats to be a paladin. Instead, he wanted to try a half-orc fighter/assassin and only changed his mind when he realized his starting age (per the DMG) would put his character at Middle Aged (for a half-orc)...and one year away from Old Age!

"This game sucks!" he said. "How did I end up being such a geezer?" Well, learning two different professions takes a lot of time, and orcs aren't known for their longevity...something about the 'evil, corrupting magic' leeching out the lifeforce. Ah, AD&D: so good at balancing itself!

He decided to be an elven assassin instead. His sister's new character is a half-elf cleric/ranger

[I'll note, the boy considered a half-elven assassin because they have a higher level cap (11th instead of 10th), but eventually settled on the elf race because its superior bonuses and abilities were a decent trade-off]

For multiple reasons (which I hope to describe in a future post) we have decided to reinstate alignment in the game (sorry, Alexis!). At the moment, its inclusion means little (other than the players had to choose alignments for their characters and these were limited based on their classes): the cleric/ranger is lawful good and the assassin is lawful evil. There is no restriction on rangers adventuring with evil characters (unlike the rules for paladins) and we have decided the PCs are half-siblings, there being only a 30 year age difference. 

SO...to sum up, we are starting the campaign over from scratch. And this time, I'm not using published adventures (at least, not to start). The bulk of our Thursday session (yesterday) was spent equipping their characters, exploring the village in which they found themselves, and locating some sort of adventure to be had. Hopefully, we'll be able to run through it in the next day or two: the local witch needs some powdered kobold horn to complete the potions of diminution she's been commissioned to brew, and she's a little too busy (and old) to go tracking after them. A small hillside lair is known to be located a couple days ride from the town...and if nothing else, sending them off on the quest (with a promise of payment) was enough to get the pair off her property for a few days....

We'll see how this turns out; those giant weasels are pretty vicious.
; )

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Roman Catholics, and I attended Mass this morning (with my wife and children) for the first time in nearly a year. In fact, Ash Wednesday of 2020 might have been the last time I was at Mass, though probably there were a couple Sundays before the Church shut everything down.

It felt good to be back. Yes, it was quite different from usual. Social distancing and masks. No singing, collections, or hand shakes. Ashes were sprinkled on the top of the head instead of being signed on the forehead, and partaking of the Blood was right out the window.

But still: taking the Eucharist. Saying the Our Father. Professing our faith as a congregation...as a community. And kneeling in prayer together, offering our heartfelt thanks as well as supplications for better days. 

I've missed that.

I don't know the next time I'll be back in Church...the Sunday services are limited and by registration only at this point, and my family is a bit lackadaisical about getting up on weekends (today's 9am service was "open" because it's in the middle of the week...plus, I had to take my kids to school this morning anyway). Yes, I realize that writing that is an indictment of just how poor my devotion is, but I'm willing to wear it.

[the process of building one's churchy habits is, after all, a lifelong one for those of us that choose this particular road. I have time to improve]

For now, I'm just very happy that I dragged my lazy ass down to the Mass. I needed that. And it was a good way to kick off the Lenten season. 

Just wanted to make a quick note of it. Peace and love to you all.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Off the Rails

As I'm sure I've written before, the problem with not posting for a month (or more) is that the brain keeps working and the ideas/concepts keep accumulating and you end up with a bunch of random detritus you want to talk about and no good way to organize it into something manageable.

*sigh*

Ah, well. Guess I'll start with the title.

The AD&D game with my kids continues (sporadically) and they're doing fine and still rather enthusiastic about the game. But (of course there was going to be a but, right?) I'm having...um..."issues." It's not the system, or the complexity, or the rate of advancement, or the game "tone" that's bothering me. Nor is it the attention to detail or the depth of simulation which (despite adhering to the rather abstract AD&D rules) is (still) pretty deep. All that is well and good. 

It's just that...mm...the thing lacks "magic."

How to put this...hmm. An idea came into my head a few days ago; an idea that took the form of a couple questions and a couple answers. For the benefit of my readers (and my own sanity), I'll go ahead and type 'em out so they stop rumbling around my noggin:

  1. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new spells to (the original) D&D rules, beginning with the Greyhawk booklet ("supplement 1")?
  2. Why did Gygax end up adding so many new monsters to the game (see Fiend Folio and the Monster Manual 2 for plentiful examples).

I have come to believe that the answer to both these questions is: because he needed to.

After all the work I've done over the last 11+ years of writing this blog, I consider myself something of an expert on the B/X edition of D&D, and a passingly knowledgable mind when it comes to OD&D as well as other "basic" editions of the game. With regard to AD&D, however, I barely scratch "journeyman" status...yes, I can run the game just fine using the core three books, even down to running an unarmed combat with the system given in the DMG. I can parse out the initiative sequence and make use of speed factors and whatnot, I can locate drowning rules and wilderness travel rates, and have a good head for encumbrance and what constitutes "bulky" armor. I've got a handle on the basics of the game.

But I don't know everything. Not in a truly comprehensive way, not by a long shot. Not in a way that allows me to take in and digest the game as a whole and manufacture something that makes use of its various nuances. 

This became readily apparent to me when I was listening to last week's Grogtalk podcast (their "Valentine Special").  The use of two monsters from the MM2 in their playtest adenture (the "annis hag" and the "stench kow") completely threw me for a loop...despite having owned the book for decades, I had no idea that these creatures were even "a thing," and simply assumed that the monsters in Carlos Lising's game had been specifically created from whole cloth for the module. Not so; Carlos was utilizing the AD&D resources that he's become familiar with over decades of constant AD&D play. Then there was the (frankly hilarious) discussion of various hybrid creatures and PCs that took place over the last 40 minutes or so of the special (interbreeding and "love connections" being part of the Valentine theme)...it raised all sorts of valid questions like: Just why the hell are there half-elves in the game anyway? All issues of disparate cultures aside, the sheer magnitude of longevity difference between the species makes any sort of romantic relationship incredibly unlikely. What elf wants to marry (or dally with) a human whose lifespan isn't even a tenth of her own? What elven parent wants a child that will age and die before she's even reached middle age

Kind of crazy...once you consider it. Which I hadn't. Because I'd been too intent just running the game.

And that's the thing. Focusing on the simple nuts and bolts of the system and the game world...things like halberd formations and goblin motivations and market economics has been a "drill down" that sacrifices the forest for the trees. Resulting in a game that has been interesting and (in its way) "logical," but lacking in magic. Not magical items or wizards per se (though both these things have, to date, been rare in the game)...I'm talking about the magic of playing a fantasy game in a fantasy world. Not going gonzo and nonsensical but certainly "off the rails" more than negotiating relations between humanoid tribes and the local human garrison. Jesus, this is a game that contains the Machine of Lum the Mad for goodness sake! Shouldn't it be a bit wilder than the step-and-fetch (or seek-and-destroy) of a 5E scenario?

[wondering what I'm talking about? Check out the 5E "Essentials Kit" for examples. Here's one: take a message to a logging camp. Fight some ankhegs. Return for a reward. Go to an apothecary hermit with a message. Fight a manticore. Return for a reward. That kind of thing...]

It brings me back around to those questions above (and my presumed answers for them). Gygax didn't just add astral projection and gate to the spell list of Greyhawk just because he wanted to fatten the page count, nor did he throw owlbears and beholders into the book just for the sake of creating new intellectual property. Things like probability travel, nightmares and devils, liches and golems, artifacts and relics...these were things that were used...they weren't just added to show "what is possible" or define parameters of the game or "fill in niches" (like aquatic elves or evil dwarves). Rather, these things were practical content, used to enrich the game being played at the table. These things...just like assassins guilds and psionics and level drain and (yes, even) alignment language...these things that seem wily-nilly, half-baked, and off-the-cuff (i.e. poorly thought out) aren't just there for kitchen sink, 31 flavors, pick-and-choose your poison. They ARE the game. 

Setting limitations and toning down the weirdness is a bit of a disservice. 

That's why, I think (maybe), my recent experiences have seemed to lack "magic;" the scenarios created in UK2 The Sentinel and UK3 The Gauntlet and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are far too reasonable; it is far too easy to assign real world analogies, motivations, and "naturalism" to them. These adventures are dealing with banditry and sieges and diaspora and treachery and colonialism...dammit, that's all just too "normal" for the campaign to feel like a D&D game. Where are the giant magic statues? Where are the subdued dragons being used as mounts? Where are the sentient blobs and oozes looking to melt your face off?

There's not enough "dungeon" in my Dungeons & Dragons game...and I'm not talking about some sort of absurd, dozen level mega-dungeon. Been watching a lot of History Channel this last year with the Search for Yamashita's Gold and the Curse of Oak Island and all that jazz: finding subterranean treasure chamber's in our real world is hard, dangerous work and it should be even more so (with suitably bumped up rewards) in a fantasy adventure game. In D&D, Howard Carter would have had to deal with actual magic curses (and probably undead monsters) before he could recover King Tut's treasure because that's the game. I haven't been giving that part of the campaign enough attention. 

I realize there are those people who, upon reading this post, will reflect that my issues relate to the pre-fabricated source material I've been using for my campaign, and that's a fair point to bring up. While the main reason for using these adventures has been a matter of convenience (my time for producing adventure material is pretty scarce) and familiarity, I suppose I could be choosing different modules...except that many end up in the same category of mundanity when scrutinized. Certainly I'd throw the Slaver series (especially A1 and A2) into the same pot, the Giant series (though giants are neat, they're still just big humanoids), and even Dwellers of the Forbidden City (not enough snake-folk to make the thing truly strange). The Special series (S1-S4) clearly fits the bill of what I'm looking for, but those adventures are all designed for higher level characters than what my players have...all the low-level stuff is uncovering cultists and rooting out bandits and fighting goblins. 

Ugh. Simply not good enough. And maybe I'M not good enough (or not familiar enough) with AD&D to design myself out of this funk that I seem to be digging for myself.

[if you think THIS post is ranty, you should have seen the one on the draft board that was never posted. This is my attempt at being "thoughtful"]

Anyhoo, that's where my head's at (with regard to gaming) at the moment. Just to be clear, I'm not of the opinion that "all hope is lost;" the campaign is still in its early stages and I think there's plenty of time/space to inject some "magic" into the thing, but it'll probably require me taking my eye and focus off the mundane aspects of the campaign/system, and instead shift to the strange(r) aspects inherent in the game. Heck, I'm even considering bringing back cosmic (capital-E) Evil...despite all the handwringing over alignment, it does provide some shape to the cosmology of the game.

[perhaps in a later post I'll talk about how that lack of "shape" ends up requiring a lot of rewriting of system when one starts needing to justify souls and spirits and raise dead with regard to different game species (like elves)...systems that provide balance and necessary checks to the game. Pull one thread and the whole thing starts to unravel...]

Too bad there're no gnomes in the party; would really love to introduce some talking squirrels or woodchucks into the mix. What ancient secrets could they reveal!   ; )

All right, that's enough for now. We're still on mid-winter break in the JB household, and while the snow from "Snowmageddon 2021" distracted us for a couple-three days (building forts and snowmen and having snowball fights) things have warmed up enough to slush-ify most of it. As such, our gaming has moved indoors, and I'm nearly certain we'll have a chance for some more campaign crawling once the kids are up and breakfasted. Maybe. We still have a pretty solid game of Axis & Allies (& Zombies) going on from last night. More info to follow.

Later Gators.


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 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.

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 easiest...so 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 warfare...in 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.
Itty-bitty
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. 

Crap.