Last time, I revealed how I set my design goals for Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands before I started any actual design. Today, I’m going to share how I started to flesh out the basic details of the place.
The first thing to decide was exactly how big an adventure I wanted. After some thought, I settled on having four distinctive zones within the ruins. To me, four zones enables a decent amount of variety without having to make design concessions or come up with an increasingly bizarre backstory to justify everything within the ruins. (See my “Story” design criteria from last week).
Each zone needed its own flavour otherwise the ruins would be boring (and therefore not very fun to design, prepare or play). So before I started proper design, I decided on the absolute basic theme for each area. Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is my homage to the Moathouse from The Temple of Elemental Evil ; thus some of the choices were obvious. Others, were driven by game design requirements to allow certain classes or races to shine.
I also knew I wanted to follow the old adage that the deeper you go the more dangerous it gets. It’s one of the dungeon design concepts that’s so universal that everyone understands it instinctively. So, the further away from ground level the characters get (either up the watchtower or into the dungeons), the harder things get.
After some thought, each zone’s basic “headline” shook out like this:
Zone 1: Bandits
Watchtower claimed by bandits. As an organised force, the bandits compete with the goblins for control over the ruins. Heavily fortified but with several ways in (for clever characters).
Zone 2: Ruins
Ruins inhabited by animals and vermin; the easiest of the zones. Access to a hidden sub-zone (the keep’s treasure vault) the characters will probably only find if they use their wits and diplomatic skills.
Zone 3: Goblins
Underground dungeon level claimed by goblins and their allies. The goblins compete with the bandits for control of the ruins and are aided by several different types of allies; waves of identical goblins are very, very boring. Potential for further adventures.
Zone 4: Undead
Underground ruined dungeon level populated by undead and constructs. Potential for further adventures.
No Railroad Here
As a player, I loathe railroading with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns and I saw no need to inflict it on anyone playing Shadowed Keep. The module’s layout should not dictate the order in which the characters explore the ruins.
Players should be able to make meaningful choices about their exploration from almost the first moment of the adventure. There should also be multiple ways of accessing some of the levels and the layout of the place should reward clever play. (For example, a secret entrance to the goblins’ lair that they don’t know about—and don’t guard).
The adventure should also support further adventures so the GM can customise and add to it as they see fit.
As an aside, when I updated the Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands in 2021 I had plans to include an additional cave level below the goblins’ level. However, scheduling and work issues put paid to this idea at least for now. The idea is not yet completely dead, however. I’d love at some point to release a much larger edition of the adventure featuring at least one more cave level.
Finally, and this is a biggie, I wanted to build in ample opportunity for role-playing in the Shadowed Keep. It would be very easy to simply design a dungeon bash in which the characters hack their way through increasingly dangerous opponents. While there’s nothing wrong with that style of play, I felt it important to add in opportunities for the characters to get around problems using guile and charm.
Fitting it All Together
At this point in the design process, it was time to work out how to fit all these different themes into the keep’s background. I’m a big fan of adventures having their own logical consistency. Why are the goblins there? Who built the keep? Why? These and lots more questions had to be answered and so I set about writing the adventure background. I’ll talk about that next week.