Thursday, December 31, 2020

Spoiling the Keep (p. 2)

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"allusions" to fictional history found in his main works...including The Hobbit...are more reference to these earlier, unpublished works, rather than an artistic device to make his fantasy world seem bigger than it is.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 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 long as one doesn't examine it too closely. In a vacuum, there's a lot to recommend it.

But campaign play requires 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.
However, the Keep is MASSIVE for such an out-of-the-way area. This is no wooden hill fort or lonely tower stronghold. It has shops and stores and services that appear somewhat independent from the functioning of the place as a medieval border fort. While on first pass the "village" of the outer bailey has similarities to a small western town (at least of the cinematic variety: Deadwood, Tombstone, etc.) upon closer inspection the thing feels much more like a (small) modern day military base. Here's the PX store, here's the mess, here's some on-site residences for visitors; knowing Gygax spent some time in the marines, it wouldn't surprise me if this was part of his inspiration for the Keep (albeit with medieval trappings...stables instead of a motor pool, etc.).

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.

; )


  1. I’d always assumed the keep was the remains of a larger settlement in better days and now that civilization has retreated it’s a manned fort.

    The intro does say a bit about civilization retreating if I remember correctly.

    1. @ Rup:

      I really don't get that reading of the setting from the intro. "The Realm of manking is narrow and constricted" and "the forces of Chaos press upon its borders," yes, BUT "there are always certain exceptional and brave" individuals who rise up and "join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land." We are told that while some of these may fall (to death or corruption) most will remain faithful and act to fight any Chaos that "threatens to infect the Realm."

      It's very Warhammer-y in this idea of constant battle between Law and Chaos, but (important!), NO WHERE in the text is this portrayed as a LOSING battle. Rather humanity (and its demihuman allies) are portrayed as having established *many* strongholds surrounded by "lands which may be hostile to bold adventurers." Despite evil's attempts to encroach on humanity, humanity appears to be holding its own...and champions (like the PCs may become) are expected to "carry the battle to the enemy."

      Viewed through cynical, post-colonial eyes, the whole thing sounds a bit "cowboys and Indians" to expansion into the west against hostile, heathen peoples by self-righteous opportunists backed by an industrial war machine. Dances With Orcs, I guess.

      But no where in the text do I see it imply that civilization has been forced to retreat. To me, it's clear that Gygax's vision is one where "good" inevitably triumphs...albeit after much bravery, challenge, and hardship.

  2. This is why thought experiments like this are so much fun! Asking that all important question "why?" is so important to the establishment of long-term, immersive campaigns. Even if you didn't go much further than this, it allows the DM to know why the world is what it is and communicate that to players.

    Ironically, though, the most inspiring bit in this post to me was your off-hand comment about Ludwig. As someone who did go to university to study history, Bavaria has a very interesting status within the German Empire. Militarily, it was largely independent and even had their own uniforms. Given the fact that the Known World as presented in Cook had a German/Austro-Hungarian vibe to it, I would be very tempted to paint the March as something similar to Bavaria. It would further help emphasize the importance of the mining operations to help fund and maintain that autonomy with the larger empire.

    Good stuff.

    1. For the Keep as written to work as Bavaria, you'd need the Czechs to be "a forsaken wilderness beyond the ken of Law." Part of the set-up is this border being on the edge of darkness...a kind of Minas Ithil *before* it was overrun by Sauron's forces.

      But one hardly needs to run the Keep "as written." And I don't really want to put a "Sauron-type" in my campaign.

  3. Interesting. Was doing some checking on Gygax's Gamma World module ( ), and felt he had put a bit of thought into the scale of things: population density, numbers of fighting men available. There even the capital only has modest fortifications (rammed earth ramparts and ditch). So he would have known the Keep is large. How does it compare to US Cavalry forts from 19th century?

  4. When I run the Keep (and as I prepare off and on for my next campaign), I too think of it being the remains of a larger settlement, kind of a bastion against other countries. WHile I love the idea of the mining outpost suggested here, I usually use the keep as the last bastion of an over-extended kingdom. When I put it on a map, it is usually "the last stop", with no organized settlements beyond it, and many post of abandoned ruins (like Quasqueton) populating the wilderness of forests and swamps that stretch to the foothills of nearby mountains, on the other side of which is another nation which constantly pushes the borders, using abandoned mountain paths to test the borders of its foes.

    Yeah, that ran on a little. 8)

  5. A couple of tangent thoughts:
    1. I think in a fantasy world like Greyhawk, the undertaking of building multiple stone fortifications along chaotic borders could be aided by high level mages engaged by powerful states... faster, cheaper, easier maybe? Different context than our own medieval human history.
    2. While this fortress is overkill for random tribes of humanoids that occasionally reach out to harass human lands, the real concern is when these creatures are organized by a more powerful evil central figure (evil mage, demon/devil, demigod, etc). So the need for more significant fortresses may be in that context.

    I like keeping the higher level magic context present in D&D, even if most play is at lower level where the game feels more martial and medieval.

    1. @ Sir Rob:

      These are good points, specifically: 1) the potential danger posed by a united humanoid horde, and 2) the need to keep in mind the existence of high level magic.

      That being said, I think it’s tough to apply them to the B2 scenario as presented. The Keep doesn’t appear to be particularly ancient, and yet there’s no evidence of (recent) high level magic in its vicinity. And I don't think the humanoids as presented in the module represent a particularly looming threat, even to the few residents of the Keep...I hope to discuss “why” in my next post in this series.

  6. Just wanted to chime in and say I'm very much enjoying this series, even though I have no experience with the module!

  7. Your mining theory is intriguing, and would totally work as a campaign reason for the keep to exist. However, I've always seen D&D and the Keep as "A Western with swords". In that vein, the Keep is "Fort Apache" - pushing back the dark, mysterious, frontier. As far as the Keep being a massive stone fortification, that is simply because D&D is Medieval, not a true Western.

    1. I second this. Now that "Hiking with the Avengers" is the dominant theme in 5E base setting, it is easy to forget that Western-inspired S&S was an important part of Appendix N. As you know it is certainly very present in Howard's "The Black Stranger". A huge fort does not necessarily need an immediate economic explanation : an easily defendable location on the frontier, near an important road, is justification enough for the central authority to post troops even if there are only scattered settlements further down the path.