Monday, November 29, 2010

About burials, Chaos & Law in the Borderlands

Long time I didn’t posted, due to my almost full-time involvement into the social movement in France. So, today, I will release a text I started to write just before I vanished from this side of the blogoshpere. So, continuing my study into the Borderlands anthropology, I discovered some aspects I wouldn’t have suspected. A good remark from a reader led my on that way. What are burial customs in the Borderlands? This inquiry leads me, as one can expect, to the religious background of the Keep and the Caves.

 Two points should be noted to begin this inquiry. First, there’s no mention of graves, or a cemetery, nor any burial ground in the Keep. Second, there are coffins and sarcophagus in the Caves. The easiest way would be to say: “Keep’s graves are elsewhere, or unmapped”. This is not the solution I will adopt here. Rather, I consider the lack of grave or cemetery in the Keep should be considered as an anthropological feature. There’s No graves, no burial in the Keep.

Presence of graves in the Sanctuary of Chaos, in the Caves, is part of a more general design: Chaos is strongly associated to corruption, night, darkness, blood, evil, pain, torture, death and demons. It has nothing to do with freedom, at all. Instead, Chaos is a plain submission to a strong hierarchy, which is obviously a corrupted mockery of the Law. Here, any debate about nature of Chaos and its relationship to evil is pointless: Chaos is Evil, incredibly Evil, and death is one of its attributes. Why does servant of Chaos have coffins? For their own servants, says Gary, and it seems clear the Wight is a former servant himself. So my suggestion is that Chaos uses graves because they hope to turn undead – in the strongest sense, they seek to become themselves undeads, as a reward of their dedication to Chaos.

What do we know about the religion of the Keep? Even if almost no detail is explicitly written, it seems most inhabitants are servants of the Law. People are described as seeking champions of the Law, and being themselves law-abiding and honest. More, each day, up to 100 silver pieces are offered to the chapel, in a place where a little more than 200 people are listed to live. Even if, like I suspect, more people live in the castle than those listed, and the chapel may be a religious centre for villagers as well, this is a sign of a living religious practice. People of the Keep are pious and view themselves as soldiers of the Law, even if they’re in service of a castellan. This explains why the curate is the second influential person in the keep.

The chapel itself has an altar and seems to be a luminous place, with tainted glass windows, but there’s no mention of any statue, or any painting. So, what deity or deities could be venerated here? My suggestion is the chapel is dedicated to a unique, unnamed and somewhat conceptual deity. Unique, because the priest likes to discuss theology, which is rather a monotheist feature – a polytheist would more likely discuss about cosmology or mythology. Unnamed, because, as I already suggested in a former post, if Borderlanders consider as rude to call someone by his personal name rather by his title, this custom would likely extend to their religion. Think to Judaism, where the name of God is so sacred it can’t even be pronounced. Conceptual, because this unnamed deity seems to equates the Law, rather than being a mythological being with associated tales.

Reverse of Chaos, Law is righteousness, sun, light, good, health and life – a list of words which fits the spells the clerics can use. I will suggest that in the Borderlands, blood and death are so strongly associated to Chaos that they should be avoided absolutely, like a taboo. This would explain both why there are no graves in the Keep, and why clerics should use only maces, which are reputed to be bloodless weapons. Incineration of bodies is probably the best way to keep them from turning to undeads and to keep the purity of the citadel of the Law, the Keep. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A frightful hobgoblin is stalking Europe

I have ideas and plans to continue the Borderlands analysis, and expand it to others 'B' modules. But, I currently lacks the time I need to do it quietly, because of my involvement in the preparative of strike. As you know, France is the country of strikes. It could be discussed as a reality, as the US working-class movement is impressive in its own way, but French' strikes turned to be like a cliché. So, as tomorrow will be a national day of strike, I want to speak of something D&D and communism have in common: Hobgoblins.

Few people would link hobgoblins to communism. Let me explain. The first English translation of Karl Marx's famous Communist Manifesto, published in the chartist paper The Red Republican, by Miss Helen Macfarlane, started by this phrase: "A frightful hobgoblin is stalking Europe". Later, the frightful hobgoblin was replaced by a spectre, closer to the German version. But the word Hobgoblin is still a part of the Communist heritage, and The Hobgoblin is today the title of the paper published by The International Marxist-Humanist Organization.

I wonder why Helen Macfarlane choose Hobgoblin as a translation. It seems, when she write it in the middle of the 19th century, it was an accurate word for a ghost, but later translators apparently didn't find it self-evident, as they replaced it. The German word Gespenst, choose by Marx in the original version, probably had something to do with Hegel's concept of Gheist, which is both a mind, a spirit and a ghost. This is an interesting clue, as the word Hobgoblin is not so common: Helen McFarlane's hobgoblin is more or less an undead. Trolls, in Norse sagas, are undead as well, as are most dark creatures. The border between living creatures and undead is not so clear in Norse and German mythology than in modern role-playing games. As I'v been a long time Vampire player, I can't avoid to note that Miss Macfarlane identity is barely known and nobody knows where and when she died. But that's another matter...

Studying the genealogy of the gnoll to write the Gnoll's article for Wikipedia, I noted that gnolls and hobgoblins have strong links, and both of them are also linked with undead. In the lbb's, gnolls and hogbolins are closely associated, several times, and the thoul - even if it could first have been a typo - is noted between gnoll and ghouls. Then in Molday's D&D, Thoul is described like being between troll, ghoul and hobgoblin, often mistaken with the later. Last, Yeenoghu as links with gnolls and ghouls (interestingly, arabian tales describes ghouls as being able to change to hyenas). So, all these creatures are linked, I should say chained, with ghouls, an undead creature.

Chaos in OD&D is strongly tied to death and darkness, and hobgoblins are part of Chaos. I don't know what Gary had in mind, and how his thoughts evolved on that point, but he's well known for his love for German mythology. Hobgoblins are closer to their mythological sources and far much more impressive when they're some mysterious creatures bewteen life and unlife, than just a tribe among others. So, let's Frightful Hobgoblins stalks your campaigns! 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Archaeology of the Keep

Archaeology is my daily job, so when I’m not writing about Dungeon & Dragons or about Marxism, I practice archaeology.  So, that’s why, when I started studying Keep on the Borderlands with a closer look, I decided to analyse carefully the Keep’s plan itself. It reveals some details which seems me interesting enough to share my thoughts, even if I’m still struggling with most details. Let’s discuss these 7 points first.   

  1. The general outlook of the Keep’s Fortress suggests a taste for symmetry. It seems to be in the middle of the north wall, but a careful look shows it’s not: 6 cases from one corner, 8 from the other. Why? Probably because the Fortress is older than the wall itself. Structure of the wall is tied to topography, so when it was built, it was not possible to find a symmetry because there was already a building. A possible clue on the keep’s inner chronology. I got another alternative I’ll explain later in that post.
  1. Same thing for the Inner gatehouse. Its position on the middle wall is not aligned on the Fortress. Fore sure, middle-age construction is not always obsessed by symmetry, but my experience is that such details reveals generally a lot about phases of a building. Here, the same problem happened than about the Fortress itself: probably, the Chapel was already built when the Inner gatehouse was added.

  1. That north-east tower is really surprising, as it looks to be built directly on the cliff. Sure, it gives a good position above the road, but why such a difficult building? I must admit I don’t have a clear answer to that question, but it worth to be noted. A strange, but possible one is that a first tower was built, then the cliff broke and this tower was destroyed. With a stubborn energy, another one was built at the very same place…
  1. Did you notice the fountain is the only one to be noted in the Keep? Water supply is a major issue for such a castle. Is there wells or cisterns? None is quoted, but the fact there’s a fountain suggest an hydraulic system could have been managed. If not, this makes the Inner yard very dependent of the outer one in a siege. 
  1. Why does the smith’s workshop have defences of a tower? Larger walls could be explained by the danger of fire, but this doesn’t explain battlements and the like. The better explanation I can provide is it is really a tower, a vestige from a first keep or a first version of the outer fortress.
  1. This hypothesis is strengthened by the East wall of the stable and warehouse. This strong wall in front of the main door is a mean of defence, as it puts invaders in obligation to run from the doorgate under arrows from above, even when they forced the first door. This is a common feature for a concentric castle like the Keep. But, it seems already an old-fashioned defence, as big double-doors have been pierced trough the wall, for a better access to the stable and warehouse. A good thing for trade, probably a wise idea from the Guildmaster, it lowers the defensive effect – that’s why I consider these doors as being a later addition. If I’m true about the Old Tower (the smith workshop), the wall is itself probably a part of the first
  1.  Could the Inner bailey have been build before the outer one? Maybe.  This is the point I’m still struggling with. I’ll provide in another post my conclusions about it, but here’s the point: plan of the Outer bailey building seems less structured than the inner one, as if it was a village later included in a wall. It could even have been built in two different periods, the “smith tower” being a fossil of the first one. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Borderlands agriculture

The nearest villages, not to speak about towns are located faraway in the West, in the Kingdom, and there’s no signs of villages in the Borderlands. But we know, from the Keep’s Fountain’s square entry that farmers live around, as they come for holidays to sell their products. As Gary expressed many times his views about typical fantasy setting as being filled with petty landowners and freeholders, as opposed to the common use of salves in Dave’s Blackmoor, or to serfdom which is not mentioned, I guess we should read farmers in that meaning: owners of a farm, paying a yearly rent to the castellan. These farms are scattered in the landscape, the Keep being the only real “village”, as Gary refers it (p. 2).

To feed the more than 200 people living in the Keep, we could use several means of calculation, but I will use two very rough one. According to John Ross’ Medieval demography made easy, it means 2 1-miles hex are sufficient for this purpose, and a 40 people par 1-mile density seems to fit the region. So, let’s say around 80 farms surrounds the Keep in a one-mile line of sight from its towers. Another means of calculation would be to use a 10% ratio for “urban” population. Even if the Keep is not a town, this is a correct ratio for how many peasants are needed to feed non-peasants. If so, almost 1800 people could live in these farms, so more than 20 people dwells in each one. Note it fits John Ross supply value’s system, as 1500 people are needed to get 100% chances to get a smith and 2000 for a inn.

I first thought a farm could include an extended family (old people, couple, unmarried brothers and sisters, kids, etc.), but the Keep’s typical family is rather small: husband, wife and two kids, without any old people, which weaken that hypothesis. Demography is harsh: such numbers means that people marry late, children death is common and living old is not. So, I would suggest another model: farms are held by a farmer and its small family, surrounded by many daily workers and some wards, as the region is dangerous.

The Tavern’s (15) list of meals is an interesting source for local productions. You can’t find anything such as tea or coffee, but local people use bark tea as a warm drink, a very local custom. Wine is obviously imported from the West, as two tuns of wine are available in the common warehouse (5). But ale and beer could be local, which suggest than barley and hops are produced around the castle. Cool and contrasted climate suggest wheat as a prime cereal, so I suspects farmers practice shift of crops: one year with wheat, one year with barley and one year with legumes, most probably carrots and cabbages. These are the one you can expect in the Tavern’s soup or stew. Fruits could be apples, the most common, and seconded by pears. Raspberries and cherries are also very common in farmer’s personal orchards.

Honey mead may be from local bees, but its price two times higher than wine let suspects it could be either rare or imported from the West. Various quotes about meat are not so useful, as stew and roasted joint could be from any animal, while roasted fowl could mean almost any bird. My suggestion is that the most common fowl is Turkey, while the most common meat is hog. Quote of a hard cheese (in the ogre cavern!) and the fact that cheese is sold by wedges at the Tavern strongly suggest it is a cow’s milk cheese, probably a variety of Cheddar. So cows are probably raised in the lands surrounding the Keep, but for milk purpose rather than meat. It seems no textile is produced in the Borderlands, as clothes are also listed as products for merchants in the warehouse. So, sheep are unlikely to be raised there.

So, the common Borderlands’ farm is probably like a little keep, as the keep is like a little village: a yard for the Farmer’s private house and another for his workers, with a common room, a barn, the pig-house and building for cows and turkeys, all being surrounded by stone walls to protect against raiders. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nepeta cataria

What's Nepeta cataria? It’s a small plant better known under its nickname, Catnip. If you’re lucky enough to have a cat as pet, maybe you already had Nepeta cataria home, for this plant is know for his effects on felines. Apparently, it influences their mind to the point it’s consider to be nearly hallucinogenic. Most of you don’t own a tiger, but it seems they enjoy the same effects from Nepeta cataria. Note it can also be used in many other ways, like as a mosquito repellent or as medic against flues and colic.

Why do I speak about catnips and its effects on felines? Because, according to Gary, “catnip, something these particular bugbears relish » (Keep on the Borderlands, p. 19). This is a good early sample of Gygaxian naturalism, and most of all, an interesting clue about what are bugbears. As wolfbane can affect werewolves, adventurers could bring catnip to avoid bugbears.

Bugbears’ name and fur led to picture them as goblinoid bears – and the French translation, Goblours (literally, gobl’bear) sent me that way ; that’s the reason I was thinking the goblinoid could be related to bears in the same ways humans are to apes. Catnip’s connection leads to another way: could bugbears, and by the way all goblins, be related to cats? Why not, after all? In D&D, description of goblins is very limited, except for their taint (grey and chalky). Size is only suggested as relative to other goblins (in OD&D, kobolds > goblins > orcs > hobgoblins > bugbears, this chain being shorter in D&D). Nothing prevents to picture them as catlike beings – just have a look on the picture.

So bugbears’ relation to cats could explain, more than bears, why theses big and clumsy critters could be so sneaky, because of toe paws. Then, it could lead to plenty of ethological features for Borderlands’ goblinoids. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Borderlands cultural anthropology and geography

Still thinking about Borderlands geography and anthropology, I found some interesting points. 

First, anthropology, about the lack of names in Kotb. This is a common criticism about this famous module to say: "they didn't even give names to NPC's". The common answer is to explain that, being a very generic module, the lack of names helps to includes in any DM's own campaign. The most subtle explanation I read until now was, once again, from Geoffrey McKinney, who suggested this was a major feature of this module, a part of its mystery, as names like The Castelan could be related to some kind to tarot figures. 

My own explanation is probably less brilliant an esoteric, but maybe easier to include in a campaign: In the Borderlands, it would be very rude to address someone by his name rather by his title, and knowledge of a personal name is a mark of real familiarity. Asking someone his name would be considered as a kind of offence, and asking someone the name of another, a mark of silliness. So, people find absolutely natural to speak about the Castellan or the Money-lender. 

Weird? Maybe not so much. Personal name have strong ties with magic and sorcery, and some cultures dislikes using it. In her book on Yanonami people of Amazonia, Helena Valero explains she has been one the wives of a well-known chief, but learned his name only after years. So, this can become a feature in a campaign. "Who are you to ask mylord the Castelan's name?" 

Now, there's the question about geography. I searched clues in Keep of the borderlands, and I found evidences for a major fact:  Borderlands are in British Columbia.

I studied it first in the French version, which was the first D&D module printed in my native language. But, to verify some details, I went back to the English one and found a very important one: The pine trees where live the Spiders are Tamaracks, a detail which is ignored in French version. So, I looked after tamaracks. It names two different species, both of them being specific to Canada and, oh surprise, Great lakes region. Just look these two maps: Geography of Larix Laricina and Pinus Conforta

Then, I looked about fauna. Few are listed, except if we use the generic wandering monster list or fantasy creatures. Among those listed, ravens and vultures have a very wide distribution, so should be discarded for that purpose. Note that's, from a European perspective, D&D world is obviously settled in North America by its typical fauna. In fact, that's even more obvious in AD&D monster manual, because the red box has more an Oriental / Indian mood. 

As a specific animal, there's the mountain lion, the hermit's pet. When I was a kid, I saw the mountain lion as a very D&D creature, as there's no such a thing in French - the name's is Puma, but it wasn't translated like this in the Red Box. So, I looked at the geographical distribution of Mountain Lions. 

There are some variants between the maps, but it's pretty clear the area where you could find both Tamaracks and Mountain Lions is British Columbia, and maybe west of Alberta. I just needed a confirmation. It was clear, for the bits of geology I studied, that the caves are a karst landscape. Just have a look on the pics above!

But, is there any karst in British Columbia? That was the blind test. According to the canadian ministry of forests and ranges"British Columbia is blessed with an abundance of world-class karst, (...) as well as Canada's longest and deepest documented caves".  The same ministry adds, about the cultural uses of karst that: "Karst caves were not only used for shelter, but were also considered by some groups to be sacred places for burial and ceremonial purposes", something which fits our caves as well.

So, British Columbia definitely fits the mood for our Borderlands. Being west of the still hidden castles & Crusades society map, it even fit the idea that Greyhawk is around Chicago while Blackmoor is around Milwaukee. I got weirder ideas about that geography, but I keep them for my return, as I will be on vacation up to 29. So, a last link, I can imagine being a landscape of the borderlands, with its two islands on the river and a Fort nearby:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chaotic Caves

Allready an old project, but as I quoted it today on Goblinoid's game forum, here's the Chaotic caves. Group project on a forum aree not easy things to handle and to achieve in a finished production, but J.D. Neal method proved as sucessful as his blue maps are inspiring.

Chaotic Caves I was released for Basic Fantasy RPG and provides an hommage to the original Caves of Chaos. Then, J.D. Neal provided a map and suggested that Chaotic Caves II could be released for Labyrinth Lord and settled by GG-forumers. I provided some stuff - namely, The Cradle of Thorgrins and The Baboon Troop, while Blood Axe, Cyberwraith and Bathwizard provided their own caves. Some nice ideas, like Bathwizard's Lair of the Bug-Master, makes this version of the Caves looking toward Moldvay's weird  fantasy, for my great pleasure.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Borderlands hexmap

Geofrrey McKinney, of Carcosa fame, pointed an intriguing question about the classic Keep of the Borderlands: the scale on the map and the wilderness movement rate in the text makes crossing the few hundreds yards from the Keep to the Caves incredibly slow. Most DMs fixed that issue by chosing one or the other. 

For this map, I assumed the text was correct, and the standard movement rate of a party is 60', ie. the fighter-in-plate rate. So, one square is roughly equal to half a mile. 

Using the genious Hexographer, I drafted this hexmap version with a scale of 1 hex = 2 squares, so one hex equal one mile. To figure the height lines, I made changes in the vegetation.  I didn't put any scale on the map, so it can be used at wider scales if needed - and that's what I plan to do.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dwarves in OD&D

The way Chainmail should or could be used in Dungeons & Dragons is always a matter of enjoyment. I drafted a 8-pages little guide about Dwarves, providing five different versions of the same, mostly by paste and copying bits from various sources in the LBB’s.
So, you'll find inside the Chainmail + Men & Magic dwarf, the Supplement I: Greyhawk Dwarf Fighter and Dwarf Thief, as well as complicated tables to deal with the Dwarf Fighter / Thief, and then, a suggested simplified version of a Dwarf class, as a variant of the latter. 
I didn't included quotes about Heroes and Super-heroes special capabilities, but I may include them later, after doing the same kind of exercise on Fighting-Men. I Thanks Greyharp for the bits I stole him for the lay-out. 
The file is here: