I’ve noticed a pattern that shows up a lot in folk tales, legends, and other stories in that style; a hero goes wandering not far from home and stumbles across a mysterious castle, manor, or some other mysterious structure. The location invariably becomes the source of adventure, often as home to some unearthly being or powerful wizard.
What strikes me as odd about this is that castles and fortresses are important landmarks. They confer control of an area, provide wealth to their masters, and are significant to life in the region.
In the case of the peasant-hero, the mysterious castle is understandable. It’s easy to explain that a peasant hasn’t traveled extensively, especially into woods or mountains where danger and the unknown abound. I am reminded of the scene in Fellowship of the Rings where Samwise takes his first step outside of the Shire.
However it makes less sense when reading about knights and nobles. It would be their business to know the people and strongholds of power that surround their world. It’s hard to believe that there would be a castle within a day’s ride of Camelot that an Arthurian knight wouldn’t know about.
Unless their world operates on different rules than ours does.
A common theme in early Dungeons & Dragons, and the Appendix N literature that inspired it, is the conflict between Law, represented by civilization, and Chaos, represented by the wilderness. Settlements are sanctuaries from the unpredictable and unearthly. Perhaps not safe, but their dangers are mundane and rational. Incursions of chaos into a city, through monsters or witchcraft, are treated as abnormal and cause fear in a different way that simple crime or political intrigue.
The wilderness is unpredictable, it shifts and changes when you aren’t looking. Paths in the woods lead to different places in the darkness. Forgotten groves may be both ancient and new at the same time. Those who ally themselves with Chaos may find that they can raise a castle from the darkness, to serve as a base of power or snare for a knight errant.
Through this lens the world becomes a shifting and unpredictable place. Castles, caverns, even entire dungeons may spawn in the dark places of their own accord, or by the will of powerful beasts, cunning Faeries, or sinister wizards. Rarely traveled paths may never lead to the same place twice and abandoned places may vanish entirely as memory of their existence fades.
In contrast, settlements impose order on the world. As they grow they become islands of stability, and well traveled roads become the framework on which Law fences off and restricts the spread of Chaos.
In this world brigands become the unwitting agents of Chaos, for when people fear to use the roads, the realms of Law become disconnected. Road wardens and Templars become paladins of Law, and settlers are the very seeds of Law who must be protected and nurtured.
Even the traditional “Murder Hobo” adventurers would be the unwitting minions of order, for as they plunder the wealth of dungeons and slaughter monsters in the dark places they open up new realms for settlement. No matter what alignment these adventurers claim, they serve the greater cause of Law by blazing trails into the heart of Chaos and opening the way for others to follow.
It would be fun to run a campaign that mixes the multi-generational feudal setting of Pendragon with the macabre sensibilities of Solomon Kane, where the true nature of the world is kept hidden from the players. Over time the characters and their decedents would discover the truth of the world, and how seemingly mundane events are vastly important on the cosmic scale. It would be fun to see how a group of characters would react, especially as they realize that those who know the truth can influence the universe.
Would they form knightly orders to spread Law? Form dark cabals to unfetter Chaos? Or create secret societies to hide the knowledge that reality is a malleable thing?
And my gaming bucket list grows ever deeper.