Quag Keep: alternate-history D&D

Quag Keep is a bizarre book. It’s the first D&D novel (it was published in 1978, so it was written before Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came out). It’s by Andre Norton, an Appendix N author and a well-respected fantasy/sci fi writer, above the level of most licensed-setting writers. And yet it’s neither a great novel nor a great D&D book.

It seems to be based on a alternate-dimension version of Greyhawk D&D: there are many ideas that are quite interesting, but don’t appear anywhere else in D&D canon. Perhaps this can be explained by the book’s blurb:

“In 1976, Andre Norton was invited to play a new sort of adventure game, Dungeons & Dragons. Its creator, E Gary Gygax, introduced Norton to his world of Greyhawk. After a session of world building, role playing, and fantasy adventuring, Norton wrote “Quag Keep”, a tale of six adventurers from our world who journey to the city of Greyhawk in order to aid a wizard and unlock the secrets of the stronghold of “Quag Keep”.”

It makes a lot of sense that Andre wrote this after a session of D&D, not multiple sessions, and presumably without a lot of subsequent input from Gary.

The book is interesting as a piece of D&D history. It’s also interesting as a different take on D&D: a way D&D could have gone, had it taken a different branch in the road. Who knows, maybe it has some ideas worth bringing back into D&D canon.

I’ll read Quag Keep and look for its idiosyncrasies and see if I can figure out ways to use any of them in a game.

OK, here’s the basic premise: a bunch of real-world people get sucked into a game of D&D, where they are railroaded into an adventure via a geas. OK Go!

Boar helm, boar cloak-memories and knowledge Milo did not consciously search for arose. This other was a berserker, and one with skill enough to turn were-boar if he so desired.

1978 was well before the introduction of the Barbarian class, so the berserker here is either a Fighting Man or some unique pre-barbarian class. It seems like the latter, since at high level, the character gains the ability to turn into a were-boar. It’s an interesting idea for a class. I actually seem to remember reading something similar to this in an early piece of Dragon Magazine fiction, so maybe there was a fan-made Berserker class floating around somewhere.

Nor was he surprised that the stranger should have the pseudo-dragon as a traveling companion or pet, whichever their relationship might be. For the weres, like the elves and some others, could communicate with animals at will.

More details about the Berserker class! And also, incidentally, details about the elven race that you won’t find in the PHB: they can speak Animal.

This makes me think that it might be kind of cool to add a few languages to the usual D&D collection of Common, Goblin, Lawful Good, etc: maybe 5 or so animal language (Wolfish, spoken by mammal predators; Deer, spoken by mammal herbivores; Avian, spoken by birds; Piscian, fish; etc.) Let them be taken as bonus languages just like any other language. Maybe they would be restricted to “weres, elves and some others.”

The eternal war between Law and Chaos flared often in Greyhawk. It was in a manner of speaking a “free city”-since it had no one overlord to hold it firmly to his will. For that reason it had become a city of masterless men, a point from which many expeditions, privately conceived and planned for the despoiling of ancient treasures, would set out, having recruited the members from just such masterless men as Milo himself, or perhaps the berserker only an arm’s length away. But if those on the side of Law recruited here, so did the followers of Chaos. There were neutrals also, willing to join with either side for the sake of payment. But they were never to be wholly depended upon by any man who had intelligence, for they might betray one at the flip of a coin or the change of the wind itself.

As a swordsman Milo was vowed to Law. The berserker had more choice in such matters. But this place, under its odors of fresh and stale food, stank to Milo of Chaos.

As D&D has gone on, the importance of the battle between Law and Chaos has gradually diminished. in 1978, it was still a big thing. But the importance of the “eternal war” in Quag Keep is maybe even more important than it is in the OD&D rules. It’s explicitly a game-world concept, like race, not a meta-game concept like class or hit points. Furthermore, it’s a palpable thing: Milo can smell it.

Speaking of in-game concepts: as a “swordsman” (an OD&D level title for Fighting Men, right?) Milo is “sworn to Law.” It’s hard to say exactly what this means in QD&D (Quag Keep D&D), but it might mean that a) all Fighting Men are lawful and b) OD&D level titles aren’t metagame descriptors: they are the names of in-world military orders or ranks.

Berserkers, apparently, don’t have to be lawful: more evidence that they’re a separate class from Fighting Men.

“Deav Dyne, who puts his faith in the gods men make for themselves.” There was exasperation in the wizard’s voice as he spoke the name of the next. By his robe of gray, faced with white, Deav Dyne was a follower of Landron-of-the-Inner-Light and of the third rank.

Perhaps the most interest thing about Quag Keep is that nearly everything that I think of as a game-only concept turns out to be explicitly known by the characters in the novel. Deav Dyne is a third level (or rank) cleric. Furthermore, he wears a color-coded robe that shows that he is a third level cleric. When he advances to fourth level, he’ll get a new robe.

This makes it more plausible that Milo’s title of “swordsman” is also an identification of his character level. (Furthermore, later in the novel, someone says that Milo is “a swordsman, a rank that marks you as a seasoned fighting man.”)

The other interesting thing from this passage: Deav wears a robe. In QD&D, clerics are clothies.


12 Responses to “Quag Keep: alternate-history D&D”

  1. Jeff B. says:

    Issue #3 of The Dragon, dated October ’76, has an actual Berserker class, which includes a “wereshape” that the character takes on when in combat.

  2. Jeff B. says:

    Also, I found Quag Keep plodding and dull. The characters are thinly-developed and neither relatable nor likable. I’ve read it a couple of times over the years to glean some insight about early D&D and to see if my liking of it improved (it didn’t). The much-later (2006) sequel by Norton and Jean Rabe is more readable. It seems to me, based on the writing styles, that Norton had very little to do with it.

    Still, yours is a good analysis from a game standpoint. You make solid points.

  3. Jeff B. says:

    One last note – here is a relevant quote from the Berserker article that I cited above: “When the berserker earns his wereshape, he gains the ability
    to speak the lycanthropic language while in human form and
    communicate well enough empathetically with normal animals of his
    clan type to give simple commands which will be followed. At this level,
    horses will check reaction at -2 whenever he approaches.”

  4. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Yeah, I thought Quag Keep was a stinker too. Good point about Norton maybe not having much to do with it…

  5. Gilmoure says:

    The Law and Chaos fight reminds me of the Elric of Melniboné novels (Michael Moorcock). I’m guessing early D&D picked up on that? I was 10 when I got the white box set and didn’t see a Dragon magazine until the early 80’s (high school).

  6. Jeff B. says:

    Gygax cites Moorcock’s books in Appendix N of the 1e DMG, so I’m sure they influenced the more Law/Chaos focus on alignment back during that era. I’d have to go back through the OD&D books and the Dragon Archive to see how much, or if, Moorcock is mentioned, but his work was pretty popular in the ’70s. Plus, I shouldn’t rely only on Moorcock as the creator of the Law/Chaos concept, because he wasn’t solely responsible for it, though he certainly dealt with it more than any other author I can think of. Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions is cited as an influence on Moorcock. Anyway, the long and short of it is that Moorcock would have to be one of, if not the most, major influence on the Law/Chaos axis of early D&D.

  7. Jon Peterson says:

    I found it particularly interesting that “Quag Keep” was structured as a story about real people entering a fantastic world, as fictions with this structure (like 3H&3L) played a large part in inspiring D&D: after all, when we play D&D, we are all normal modern people who take on these fantastic roles and characters. The early Blackmoor campaign operated on this principle explicitly, as players were effectively playing themselves in a fantasy world. “Quag Keep” does indeed take place in Oerth, with numerous references to famous place-names and so on, and does indeed botch many D&D concepts and systems.

    Perhaps worth mentioning as well that a good chunk of “Quag Keep” appeared as a “preview” in Dragon #12, at a time when the Dragon was trying to establish itself as a venue for fantasy fiction. I am also interested in the ways that D&D ended up influencing the fantasy literary genre (hint: not always for the better), and seeing this story appear alongside Gygax’s own fiction, or reprints of Harold Shea, or new work by Leiber or Fox, definitely contextualizes it and helps to explain why it exists. Leiber understood well that D&D was helping to fuel popular appetite for fantasy fiction, and helpfully points out in Dragon #1 which of his stories might be considered “a treasurehouse of D&D material.”

    And yes, certainly 3H&3L, and the work of Anderson in general, is a good place to look for Moorcock’s sources – not just alignment. The cursed runeblade destined to bring about the apocalypse, that kills the loved ones of it’s wielder? Read all about it in Anderson’s “The Broken Sword,” a novel that Moorcock famously preferred over LotR.

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  11. What I wonder is just how much this book influenced the creation of the later Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. Like Quag Keep, the cartoon features a bunch of real-world kids who get sucked into the game and railroaded into adventuring through it as characters.

    At the time the cartoon was being made, there wouldn’t have been any other D&D novels yet, and I expect TSR would have provided as much material pertaining to their game as they could. Surely that would have included this book.

  12. Zimriel says:

    White Plume Mountain has the Black Sword as one of the artifacts you find, the third and most infamous of them.

    As far as Law / Chaos, that survived in AD&D in the Rod Of Nine Parts cycle. The Wind Dukes, Misha the Wolf Spider and all that. I assume there was an adventure around it in the 1970s but it never saw the light of day. We did get an adventure around the Rod much later although I never picked it up.

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