Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fortress on the Borderlands

I don't think that I'd be speaking only for myself if I were to say that there is an enduring appeal to campaigns that are set outside the bounds of civilization on the border of the great unknown.  The perils of exploration, the thrill of discovery, and the promise of untold riches have provided the starting hook for many a campaign over the years, most especially for those of us whose first introduction to D&D was with Gary Gygax's adventure module, Keep on the Borderlands.

The focal point of Keep on the Borderlands is the keep, itself.  The sole bastion of civilization on the edge of the great frontier, the keep provided a home base for adventurers to rest, resupply, and sell off their loot.

During my recent trip to Churchill, I had an opportunity to visit a real Keep on the Borderlands at Cape Merry, where the Churchill River empties into Hudson Bay.

The strategic importance of Hudson Bay cannot be understated, as it was the gateway to the interior of North America, providing access to a wealth of natural resources.  The mouth of the Churchill River is guarded by Fort Prince of Wales, which was built in the early 18th century as a Hudson Bay Company outpost.  The HBC, one of the world's oldest corporations, was established in 1670 to engage in North American fur trade and is still operates as a Canadian department store chain with its main branch in Winnipeg.

In 1770, a rival corporation, The Northwest Company, was formed to break the HBC's stranglehold on the fur trade, and so intense was the rivalry that armed conflict often arose in what has become known as 'The Fur Trade Wars.'  (Indeed, my home in Winnipeg is just a few blocks from the site of the 1815 Battle of Seven Oaks in which Governor Robert Semple, with a force of HBC men, unwisely left the safety of Fort Douglas to engage a band of NWC men and were massacred in the ensuing battle.)

Fort Prince of Wales across the river from the gun battery

Fort Prince of Wales, shown above, served a similar function to the Keep on the Borderlands by providing a haven for fur traders to resupply and sell their wares.  On the Cape Merry side of the river, the mouth was guarded by a gun battery to prevent enemies gaining access to the interior water ways.

The battery, built more than 250 years ago, still serves its purpose, manned today by an armed Parks Canada sentry on polar bear lookout.

The battery still has a rusted cannon pointing out across the river.

The picture shown above is the partially constructed remains of the original battery.  The project was abandoned when it was realized that the battery was pointing directly at Fort Prince of Wales, and should the battery fall into enemy hands they would be able to bombard the Fort with its own guns.  The existing battery was built so that no gun would have line of site to the fort.

The fort also served as a whale fishery, and looking out at the bay at any given moment one will see several beluga whales broaching the surface (in the picture below, the white dot in the water is a beluga).

I always get a lot of gaming inspiration from my summer field work, and many of my campaign settings are heavily influenced by my own real-life adventures.  Taking a couple hours off work to visit Cape Merry gave my imagination a good stir, and as I leaned against the gun ports of the battery looking out across the water I gained a very visceral appreciation for resource-based wilderness campaigns.

Ze Bulette recently posted an article on Alternatives to Capitalism in role playing games, which proposed replacing the gold standard monetary system with a real-world barter system.  This has been done in a few games, such as Fantasy Flight's Midnight campaign setting, but in truth we don't tend to see it as often as we might.

Most often, treasure in our campaigns consists of chests of gold coins and sacks of gems and jewelry, but there is a whole lot of wealth to be obtained from exploiting the resources of the unexplored reaches of the campaign world.  Considering how many people became filthy rich off the fur trade, imagine dealing in such exotic products as wyvern skins, couatl feathers, or the oh-so-sleek owlbear pelt.  I suspect that trade in hard-to-get spell components would be very lucrative and it never hurts to know powerful wizards who owe you a favour, and venom sacs would fetch a good price from the local assassin's guild.  Providing there is a convenient outpost where adventurers can sell their goods, this could make for a very interesting type of campaign that encourages players to look for new avenues of profit and take the lead in planning their adventures.  So maybe it's time to dust off the Keep on the Borderlands and press it into service once again by dropping it into your favourite wilderness setting and using it as a base of operations for a game of exploration, because as my favourite cartoonist, Bill Waterson, once said in a Calvin and Hobbes strip: 'There's treasure everywhere!'


Trey said...

There was a dragon article (maybe called "Into the Wild" or something like that)that gave values for skins are stuff as I recall. I think a little versimilitude in terms of treasures only enhances the game--at least for wilderness adventures.

Sean Robson said...

Me too. In the first Baldur's Gate computer game you could collect the chitin from slain Ankhegs and have them made into a cool set of armour. I loved that bit of value-added looting.

Maybe someone should revisit that old Dragon article and write up the value of skins, organs and the like.

Lasgunpacker said...

Excellent post! Considering how much of North America was settled based on fur, hides, wood, and other natural resources, certainly a frontier setting seems like it ought to include trade in these items. In addition to PCs returning with mock-dragon scales (used by the wealthy as tea cup saucers), there should be caravans of wailing wood harvesters, nahrpig hunters and the like.

Sean Robson said...

In addition to PCs returning with mock-dragon scales (used by the wealthy as tea cup saucers), there should be caravans of wailing wood harvesters, nahrpig hunters and the like.

Absolutely! Another cool thing is to use these things to craft neat items for the characters, like the dragon scale shield used in the movie Dragonslayer to protect against dragon fire. As Trey pointed out, these types of treasures add a lot of verisimilitude to a campaign.

Shane Mangus said...

One of the best games I can remember running had the characters working directly for a powerful mage collecting his spell components. It was a simple setup, but worked well to present a reason for adventurers to trek off to exotic locations, while maintaining a sense of realism behind their motives. Realistically looking at a fantasy world where magic is prevalent, I wonder how its economy would be affected by the presence of magic? Would gold still have the relevance and importance, the same value, as it would in a real world medieval economy? Not sure, but I can see where the value of rare spell components could have a significant influence on said economy. Has anyone written an article that analyses fantasy economics and presents a trade system for D&D that reflects the impact magic would have on trade and wealth? I am sure there had to be one published in Dragon, but nothing readily springs to mind.

Sean Robson said...

I don't think I've ever seen a discussion of how magic would affect the economy, but it is an interesting topic upon which to speculate.

I once read an article explaining how dungeon delving influences the economy by creating a gold-rush leading to inflation, but that's about it. It sounds like we could use an OSR redux on fantasy economics.