The last couple nights, I've been reading Tolkien's The Lost Tales (volume 1)...a Christmas gift from my wife...but I'm still only in the "foreword" of the thing. With regard to The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien's opus) perhaps the thing I find most fascinating is that his trilogy is built on a fully developed (or near-full) world and mythology of his own creation; Tolkien was writing stories about silmarils and elves long before he was writing about hobbits and their antics. And all the "allusions" to fictional history found in his main works...including The Hobbit...are more reference to these earlier, unpublished works, rather than an artistic device to make his fantasy world seem bigger than it is.
For most fiction, this ain't the case. When Ben Kenobi is telling Luke Skywalker that he fought alongside Luke's father in "the Clone Wars," George Lucas had no idea of what that was or meant to his Star Wars universe. It was color added to exposition establishing a relationship with the character (an uncle-like figure) while simultaneously developing that character (establishing Ben as a former warrior); the "prequel trilogy" had not yet been conceptualized (and would, in fact, undergo several iterations...in various SW mediums...prior to the actual films getting green lit). That's a good example of how the device usually works.
However, when Tolkien writes that Glamdring is a famous sword worn by the King of Godolin in the Goblin Wars, he is referencing an existing history...The Fall of Gondolin was, in fact, the first story Tolkien ever wrote down (and attempted to rewrite multiple times during his life). It's not just "color," nor is elvish language simply composed of nonsensical syllables smashed together. This depth of world building is responsible for much of the richness of Tolkien's stories.
And "richness" and "depth" is what we're looking for in our D&D campaigns...not because we want to dazzle our players with our ability to write fake histories (that they generally don't care about), but because it allows DMs to create a sensible environment for exploration, aiding the immersion process.
The Keep on the Borderlands, as written, has very little to it in terms of backstory and history. Part of its power comes from its succinct distillation of what some might consider "pure" D&D play. It presents a home base, a small wilderness, and a progressively tiered "dungeon" of monsters, and then asks players to go explore (while trying not to get killed). It is a GREAT introduction to the game...so long as one doesn't examine it too closely. In a vacuum, there's a lot to recommend it.
But campaign play requires more...it demands that close examination, because adventure sites and scenarios need to be fit into the campaign world in order for adventures in that world to have value and heft. Long term campaign play cannot be sustained with unrelated episodic play because nothing of value can be built in a purely improvisational world and the padding of a PC's stats over time gets stale when one's play has no concrete impact.
So let's try to give the Keep some context.
The first thing to discuss, I think, is WHY the Keep exists at all. Large stone fortifications are not just built in the middle-of-nowhere "just for the heck of it." With all apologies to Ludwig the Mad, large stone structures aren't built ANYwhere without reason. Building any castle structure is a large undertaking, requiring substantial resources of time, money, material, and manpower, and aren't undertaken lightly.
The Keep in B2 is clearly meant to be a military fortification, with the majority of its listed NPC population being fighting men...a bit more than 200 men-at-arms, plus officers. That the Keep is ruled by a castellan ("The Castellan") backs this up, based on my understanding of the history of the term (i.e. based on what I can glean off the internet, especially wikipedia).
[people are going to have to excuse my lack of scholarship and general hackwork. I am not a historian (except of the armchair variety) and did not study it at university. Also, libraries are still closed in my city due to the pandemic, and even before they were, I can tell you that the public libraries were pretty light on the types of scholarly references one might use for this kind of work...assuming, of course, I could speak any language besides English in order to DO research across multiple cultures. So apologies; I'm just a blogger]
The title of castellan can be hereditary (with the domain presided over called a "castellany") but it is more usually understood to be an appointment by a higher noble...and given Gygax's own definition of the term in B2's glossary ("a governor or warden of a castle or fort") I think it safe to assume that this is the type of castellan we have at the Keep: a career soldier type assigned the task of running the garrison. Being that the Keep is set "on the Borderlands," one might imagine the region to be part of the march (and, thus, under the jurisdiction of a marquis), a buffer zone between the civilized realm and the untamed wilderness. Perhaps there are several such fortresses within a few days ride of the place.
|The Keep in 3D.|
Regardless, the Keep has a heft of permanence to it. This motte-and-bailey took years to build, and it seems to have been built for the long haul. Clearly, someone felt the need to construct a stronghold of this size, and yet it is not the fortified residence of a nobleman and his family (the castellan, as noted, appears to be an official and a bachelor). Likewise, the Keep doesn't appear to have interest in (or means of) collecting tolls (from the southern road) or taxes (from the local populace...which appears absent anyway). In short, there seems no way for the Keep to generate income...certainly not enough to feed and supply the military personnel. Some "state power" (marquis, king, whatever) must be footing the bill...and they must have a good reason for doing so.
But what? Protecting one's borders? That would make more sense if there was a rival power, but in the generic D&D realm it would seem that border only divides "civilization" from "wilderness." As a base to act as a launching point for taming the wilderness? Even if there was evidence of the Keep engaging in warfare with the nearby humanoid populations (there isn't), the scale of the place is off for such an undertaking. Plus, one would assume that once a hostilities commenced, there would be no respite for building a massive stone construction until AFTER the locals were pacified.
So while the Keep is most assuredly "on the Borderlands," I don't think it's purpose has anything to do with extending or protecting its border. I think it's there to protect itself...and since that interest isn't a familiar one (i.e. there's no ruling family present), it must be guarding some resource. A resource that is desirable enough for the nobility to fund such an undertaking. Something valuable worth guarding, in other words.
Given the personnel and services found in the Keep compound, the absence of any other revenue source, and the nearby terrain, I'm inclined to think the place has been set up as a mining operation. The place has all the trappings of an "Old West" boom town, save for an undertaker and an assayers office...and the latter is less useful in a state-run operation than when dealing with numerous independent miners. The wealth from such an operation (depending on the ore being dug up) would explain the nobility's interest in bankrolling a sturdy, permanent fortress in the wilderness. It explains the need for a money-changing bank and a guild house, it explains the presence of both a provisioner and a trading post, as well as the reason why traders bother making the journey into the disputed Borderlands (and the reason the Keep has warehouses, stables, and an inn within its 20' high curtain walls).
I am inclined to believe that "the Caves of the Unknown" are the original mines (now played out) that the Keep was set to guard. It explains why the Caves are so close to the Keep (a couple miles), and it starts to paint a picture of the Keep's relationship (and potential dealings) with the nearby humanoid tribes in the area dubbed "the Caves of Chaos."
But I'll discuss those guys in my next post.