Category Archives: Adventure Design

#MoviePitch: The Vampire (A Universal Monster Shared Universe Concept)

How do you get a Universal Pictures Monsters shared universe off the ground? By focusing on making one awesome story that stands on its own, but does so in a way that picks up threats from the most popular such movies in recent memory, is inclusive and modernized, and hints at a larger world without taking time away from the things important to your first film. Here’s my pitch:

It is 1950. In communist Romania, Alex O’Connell (early30s white, British, he/him) manages to gain permission for an archaeological team to catalog and record items being removed from an ancient abbey in the Carpathian Mountains prior to its demolition as part of a plan to build a massive road to access the Transylvanian Plain. The Romanian official warns Alex he is only doing this as a favor to Alex’s parents, who were allies during the War and in the troubled years afterward.

Alex brings the good news to Jonsey Johnson (early 30s, black, French/American dual citizen with links to Paris and Harlem), the head of expedition security, and Doctor Mary Jessica Van Helsing (early 30s, white, Dutch, she/her), the expedition’s leader. The three talk about the archaeological value of such a mission, as well as the political and regional dangers, and all three hint their parents raised them to be… cautious. Alex has a cat. Jonsey has a German shepherd. Mary has a fancy white rat. The three animals get along surprisingly well.

Meanwhile at the abbey, looters are holding local workers at gunpoint, forcing them to use their digging tools to break through the back of the abbey’s basement wall. The looters have an old map that claims the “Eyes of the Dragon” have been locked away in a secret chamber. The looters think these are gems.

But the Eyes of the Dragon actually refers to Dracula, who leaks out of a tomb under the Abby in a mist form when the wall is cracked, and one by one turns the looters and workers into his ghoul minions. Only one manages to flee out of the abbey, into the sunlight.

Alex, Jonsey, and Mary (and their expedition) reach the base camp at one end of the Carpathian pass, but find it abandoned. Both become very suspicious, and eventually find the survivor, who explains what he saw. Alex asks if there were hieroglyphics, or Chinese or Aztec symbols. Confused, the worker says no. Jonsey asks if there were vials, chemical agents, or signs of drugmaking. More confused, the worker says no. Mary asks if there were signs of dragons and inverted crosses. The survivor says there were… maybe. He wasn’t paying much attention.

The expedition decides to send the laborer back to the big city with half the expedition’s Romanian guards, to report the attack to the government. Alex, Joney, and Mary all three slip him letters to send to their respective parents, each without the others knowing.

That night, the base camp is attacked by ghouls. The main character’s pets all send up warnings, allowing Alex, Jonsey, and Mary to gear up with their respective monster hunting equipment. (Alex’s are in the false bottom of a steamer trunk. Jonsey’s are stashed in muscial instrument cases. Mary’s are secreted away in a hidden drawer of her traveling work desk.) During the fight, they run into each other, and realize they all have anti-monster experience.

Mary: “You’ve fought vampires before?”

Alex: “Vampires? Those are real?! No, mummies. Mostly, And one dragon.”

Jonsey: “Mummies are real? I’ve fought vampires and a dragons, yeah. Never a mummy.”

Mary: “Dragons? Like, fire-breathing flying lizards? Those are real?!”

Curious as to how his ghoul’s attack was repulsed, Dracula visits the camp the next day. He asks one of their team-members if he can enter the camp, and is told yes, causing Dracula to give a big smile. He goes up to Alex, Jonsey, and Mary, and asks if they were the ones to treat his pets so harshly the night before. Alex begins to draw down on Dracula, but Jonsey stops him, asking the vampire if he was invited into the camp. He affirms he was, and Jonsey rolls her eyes. Mary then tells Alex a vampire can’t attack them while he is their guest, and if he is attacked they’ll be cursed.

Alex notes he thought vampires couldn’t move about in daylight. Dracula asks where he got that idea, and Mary confirms it’s true for some vampires, but not Carpathians. Jonseynotes it doesn;t apply to a lot of Non-western bloodsuckers.

Dracula says he is unsurprised they were able to send his servants fleeing, because Alex reminds him of his most beloved servant and general. Almost as if the spirit of Dracula’s dear friend was reincarnated in Alex.

Mary asks Alex if he could be a reincarnation of Dracula’s beloved friend. Alex shrugs, and says it runs in the family. Jonsey, meanwhile, tells Mary she quits, and walks away. Alex is flustered Jonsey would quit NOW, but Jonsey points out her name is on the papers the Romainian government signed too, so she can set up her own camp if she wants to. Mary tells him not to worry, she trusts Jonsey.

Dracula suggests Alex leave the expedition and join him. Jonsey is seen getting people to take down her tent, and draws a line in the dirt, loudly telling Alex and Mary that anything on her side of the line is now HER camp, and screw them. Dracula seems amused, and begins to talk about how hard help is to get these days, when Mary distracts him by noting Dracula still has some scars from where he was injured last century, and wonders how long it took him to heal from that near-death. He is angered and suspicious, and asks her how she knows about his last conflict. She tells him her family name, and he looses some of his cool and nearly attacks her.

In the background, Jonsey has gotten all the expedition members to set her tent BACK up. Alex asks if she is leaving, or not, and she tells him if he has a question for her, he can come over where she is and ask her. Alex has his father’s confused-and-annoyed expression, but Mary grabs his arm and hauls him across the line Jonsey drew in the dirt. All the remaining expedition workers are around Jonsey’s tent. Dracula goes to follow, but stops up short at the line, as if hitting a barrier.

Jonsey says she didn’t invite him into HER camp. Alex grins, and he and Jonsey and Mary unload at Dracula, who is taken by surprise and flees.

The plot can proceed from there along pretty typical adventure/horror lines — Alex, Jonsey, and Mary decide Dracula is growing stronger by the day, and they can’t wait to stop him, so they go after him in the tomb complex. The three have different and complimentary skills, and make a good team. They hunt down Dracula and seem to destroy him, but when he “dies,” a gem that looks like a snake eye falls to the ground. Mary realizes this is one of the two legendary Eyes of the Dragon, relic of the Order of Dracul, and it’s how Dracula survived her grandfather’s assault in the late 1800s. Alex smashes it, and asks how many such gems there are. Mary says two, and three agree they need to find and destroy the other one.

Searching through in notes found in the camp of the Looters who released Dracula, they find that there were two places the Looters thought the Eyes of the Dragon might be. One was here. The other was Castle Frankenstein, and there is a map to a Lost Lab of Frankenstein’s, which might hold the secret location of his original Castle.

End movie.

Castle Frankenstein then becomes the next movie. In that story, Alex, Jonsey, and Mary seek to find Castle Frankenstein, but find they are competing with a man who can become invisible, who apparently is part of an evil occult organization…. and a little mad. During the source of that movie, it’s revealed some of Doctor Frankenstein’s reagents for creating life came from a lost Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein had sent Igor on an expedition there to gather more materials just days before the villagers stormed his castle, which is why Igor wasn’t around when that happened. There’s no note saying if Igor ever came back…

As the Shared Universe expands, I can get Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, and even the Hunchback into this if the first few are successful. The original characters from The Mummy (1999) as occasional support characters. Like, if the Invisible Man’s formula turns out to need blood of an ifrit of the djinn, who are naturally invisible, one of the movies can include a backup appearance by Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bay. And, of course, we can bring in elements from Mary and (rightholders willing) Jonsey’s families as well.

Both heroes and villains expand their plans, form allies, and build toward the end of the first story arc, a final showdown with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Woflman. But even that is only the FIRST story arc…

(Art by WavebreakmediaMicro)

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Doom has come to the Northfells!

Now funding on Kickstarter, the Skaldwood Blight Adventure Path is a complete campaign for Pathfinder Second Edition, taking characters from 1st level all the way to 20th level in a massive book over 250 pages long! A demon lord has invaded the far northern land of stalwart barbarians, righteous priests, and mysterious fey. Can the heroes uncover the demon lord’s many plots, vanquish his minions, and save the Northfells from corruption and destruction? Here is your chance to save the land!

 The Adventure Path’s setting, the Northfells, can be easily dropped into any campaign world. There’s plenty of wilderness adventure, but the Skaldwood Blight’s heroes must delve dungeons, infiltrate insular cities, and negotiate with supernatural forces for vital aid. There’s something in the Skaldwood Blight Adventure Path for every player!

 The Skaldwood Blight Adventure Path began when Paizo, Inc. developer (and veteran adventure author) Ron Lundeen set out to build a compact yet complete adventure path from the ground up on his blog at RunAmokGames.com. The pieces of the Adventure Path have now been compiled, expanded, and reconfigured into a massive book presenting an entire campaign, complete with art, maps, designer commentary, and more!
 This 250+ page book contains everything you need to run the campaign, including:

  • 20 chapters of adventure, one for each level of play, in a thrilling, danger-filled campaign!
  • An overview of the Northfells, a hard region of ice and fury. Menace lurks in every proud city-state, along every trail, and in every frost-shrouded forest!
  • Unique backgrounds suitable for any character!
  • Copious art and maps by industry veterans!

Additional rewards to unlock throughout the campaign include:

  • Additional backgrounds that tie directly into the campaign’s characters, locations, and plots!
  • An expanded gazetteer of the Northfells, the campaign’s thrilling setting!
  • A designer commentary about building the Adventure Path from the ground up!

By Ron Lundeen, Paizo’s Developing Manager for Pathfinder, veteran and fan-favorite adventure writer, owner of run Amok Games, and licensed lawyer and member of the Washington State Bar Association!

Stretch Goal 1: Northfells Gazetteer [LOCKED – $`15,000]

We’ll provide a four page, high-level gazetteer of the adventure path’s entire setting, including all the key towns the heroes will visit (and even some they won’t, giving GMs room to expand). The gazetteer also includes the dangerous forests, waterways, and mountain ranges of the Northfells, too, as much of the campaign occurs in the wilderness! A map of the entire Northfells is included.

This gazetteer is player-focused, providing tantalizing hints but no spoilers, so it’s suitable for GMs to give to their players.

More Stretch Goals To Be Announced As We Get Closer To Them

Adventure Set-Ups: The Free City of Delve

It can be useful to set-up a homebrew campaign to support the kinds of adventures you want to run. Want high-seas adventures? Set up a world with lots of good reasons to be on the high seas. So, obviously, want a reason for new, inexperienced adventurers to go dungeon-delving a lot? Build a campaign that supports that idea.

Here’s an example: The Free City of Delve

The Free City of Delve sits on the Isle of Acmonides, among the ruins of the Acmonidesi Empire of giants. Once a world-spanning superpower, Acmonides was the most advanced civilization, with titans and cloud and storm giants ruling over a hundred subjected kingdoms and enforcing their will on dozes of smaller species. Three centuries ago, some massive civil war set the giants against one-another, and the sub-giants (cyclops, ettins, athach, ogres, trolls, and so on) were so devastated they lost nearly all their culture.

Nearly a century after Acmonides fell, seafarers found the island that was its capitol, the location of which had been a well-guarded imperial secret. Camps were set up to loot the islands, then a town evolved as ways to loot the rest of the empire were discovered, and finally the Free City of Delve established.

The center of Delve is the Catacomb Market, built around an ancient step well 60 feet across and 2,000 ft. deep. Hundreds of channels run from various levels of the well. Each channel was once part of an Empire-wide aqueduct system, with teleportation gates bringing water in, and taking it out. For security, only appointed Tibiax, water-workers, could travel the gates. Each gate was controlled by a set of Keystones, attuned to specific Tibiax.

Tibiax were rarely giants, the job instead going to smaller subjugated peoples. The role was often hereditary, so Keystones still work for the descendants of ancient Tibiax, if first used in in the step well on Acmonides Isle.. As the Empire spanned the world, Keystones can be found anywhere worldwide. Merchants in the Catacomb Market import and buy Keystones, and prospective delvers walk the market to see if any stones will work for them. If a stone works for you, it grants potentially exclusive access to some distant part of the Empire, through the magic waterways.

Since the system was specifically designed to allow scions of Tibiax families learn the ropes of maintaining the mystic aqueducts safely, young and inexperienced individuals who first access a keystone are generally sent to a location no one has been sent to in decades or more (since those are the areas with the most failed sections of waterworks) that aren’t extremely hazardous (since the keystones are designed to find problems their attuned Tibiax can handle). The system isn’t perfect, but it means youngsters who discover there’s a Keystone that will work for them can generally gather a group of allies and explore some new part of the collapsed Empire that, though often dangerous, is rarely beyond their ability to cope with. And, they can freely teleport between that location and the step well at the center of Delve.

A a Keystone-bearing group fixes the problem in the region they teleport too through the step well, the keystone then begins to grant them access to new areas — often nes with bigger risks, and sometimes bigger rewards.

The primary trade of Delve is to equip adventurers to loot sections of the long-fallen Acmonidesi Empire, through expeditions sent through the Catacomb market’s magic waterway teleport gates. Loot is brought back to Delve, and used to fund more expeditions. While many nations would love to conquer and control Delve, so far none have wanted to risk angering all the other interested parties by trying to do so through force.

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Dungeon Name Generator

I unironically love dungeons.

Now, I use a pretty broad definition of “dungeon.” In fact, I’ve written whole series of articles about what I consider to be dungeons, in ttRPG terms.

But part of a cool dungeon is a cool name. And, I love creating name generators. So while I don’t claim this article can name every dungeon in all of fantasy gaming, it can certainly create more names than any one campaign world can use.

Using the Generator

Roll 1d6 to determine how to generate your dungeon name.

1-2: Start with “The,” then roll once on Table 1 and once on table 2.

3-5: Roll once on Table 2, add “of,” then roll once on table 3.

6: Start with “The,” then roll once on Table 1 and once on table 2, add “of”, then roll once on table 3.

Table 1 (Roll 1d100)

01-03: Azur

04-05: Bastard

06-08: Barrier

09-10: Candle

11-13: Collapsed

14-15: Crimson

16-18: Crumbling

19-20: Demon Queen’s

21-23: Demonweb

24-25: Dragonbound

26-28: Emerald

29-30: Fallen

31-33: Frostfell

34-35: Gallow

36-38: Guardmoor

39-40: Hastur’s

41-42: Haunted/Haunting

43-45: Hellspike

46-48: Hollow

49-50: Icy

51-53: Iron

54-55: Kobold

56-57: Lost

58-60: Nightfang

61-62: Nightworm

63-65: Red

66-67: Shattered

68-70: Silver

71-72: Sinister

73-75: Standing

76-77: Stonefang

78-80: Sunless

81-82: Thunderspire

83-85: Tiger’s

86-88: Trollhunt

89-90: Terrifying

91-93: Under

94-95: White Plume

96-98: Windswept

99-00: Yawning

Table 2 (Roll 1d100)

01-02: Abby/Abbies

03-04: Acropolis

05-06: Barrow(s)

07-08: Bastion(s)

09-10: Cairn(s)

11-12: Catacomb(s)

13-14: Cave(s)

15-16: Cavern(s)

17-18: Castle

19-20: Citadel

21-22: City

23-24: Dungeon

25-26: Enclave

27-28: Fane

29-30: Field(s)

31-32: Forge(s)

33-34: Fortress

35-36: Gate(s)

37-38: Grotto(s)

39-40: Hall(s)

41-42: House(s)

43-44: Keep(s)

45-46: Kingdom

47-48: Labyrinth

49-50: Lodge(s)

51-52: Manor(s)

53-54: Mine(s)

55-56: Mount

57-58: Mountain(s)

59-60: Palace(s)

61-62: Pass/Passes

63-64: Peak(s)

65-66: Pit(s)

67-68: Oubliette

69-70: Prison(s)

71-72: Portal(s)

73-74: Pyramid(s)

75-76: Redoubt

77-78: Rift(s)

79-80: Ruin(s)

81-82: Sanctum

83-84: Shrine(s)

85-86: Spire(s)

87-88: Stone(s)

89-90: Temple(s)

91-92: Tomb(s)

93-94: Tower(s)

95-96: Wall(s)

97-98: Warrren(s)

99-100: Well(s)

Table 3 (Roll 1d100)

01-03: Annihilation

04-06: the Archmage

07-10: the Borderlands

11-13: Broken Souls

14-16: Chaos

17-19: Deception

20-22: the Drow

23-25: Elemental Evil

26-28: Fandelver

29-31: the Feathered Serpent

32-34: the Forgotten King

35-37: the Frog

38-40: the Frost Gant Jarl

41-43: Fury

44-46: the Ghouls

47-49: Graves

50-52: Harpies

53-55: Hawksmoor

56-58: the Horned ________ (roll on Table 4)

59-61: Horrors

62-64: Ice

65-67: Lies

68-70: the Necromancer

71-73: Peril

74-76: Ravenscroft

77-79: The Ravenous Moon

80-82: Redcliff

83-85: Ruin

86-88: the Serpentfolk

89-91: the Shadowfell

92-94: Shadows

95: Slaughtergarde

96-98: Spiders

99-100: the Winter King

Table 4 (Roll 1d6)

01. Bear

02. Crown

03. Man

04. Rat

05. Skull

06. Wolf

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Quick Tips: GMing with Taste, Touch, and Smell

One of the most challenging jobs of a GM is to serve as the describer of everything the PCs experience in the fictional game world. This is especially true when the GM wants to convey information through those descriptions–it’s one thing to say a tavern smells stale, and another to say the stale mix of herbal sachets on the walls and sawdust and straw scattered across the floor can’t quite cover the lingering coppery scent of spilled blood, watered-down mead, and urine that permeates the main room.

Lots of advances in gaming have been made with visuals and soundboards. Between being able to do internet searches for interesting visuals and great sound-effect programs designed specifically for ttRPGs (such as Syrinscape, who I love but have no association with), it’s pretty easy for a GM to be able to skip needing to describe sights and sounds. But what about taste, touch, and smell? Just a single extra description for each major element of an encounter can go a long way to both adding immersion, and conveying clues the PCs have a chance to pick up on. If you link any unusual sensation to a specific element within your game, players will often pick up on it and use it as another clue to use to experience and understand your world.

Taste: The most obvious time to describe taste is when PCs eat or drink something, and many ttRPGs have more than enough potions, oils, and magic cupcakes to make this a useful sense to think about in advance. A GM can make the identification of some potent potables easy by deciding healing potions all smell like honeysuckle and mint, or that ungol dust has a distinctive acidic bite in the back of the throat. If the GM doesn’t want to be that easy and consistent, it can still be fun to add taste elements to specific kinds of potion — perhaps potions made by clerics tend to have a strong medicine taste, those made by druids are usually overwhelmingly herb-flavored, and those made by alchemists tend to have a powerful saccharine-sweetness to them. That doesn’t tell PCs exactly what a potion does, but it does become an interesting piece of information that can help the game world feel more well-rounded.

The other fun use for taste is for things that impact the PCs to impact their sense of taste without being directly connected to eating or drinking. Maybe a mummy’s curse makes you constantly get a taste of dust in your mouth, or getting a serum of invulnerability injected into your system causes you to feel like you are licking oiled steel. Powerful smells can be tasted as well, so the rotting meat scent of the zombie bloom may also cause those near it to taste raw mushroom flavors in the air, or the choking smokebomb actually tastes like black pepper.

Touch: PCs don’t often rub their bare skin against adventure site walls and monster hides, so things like smooth, rough, sharp, fluffy, and sticky may not come into play often. But touch can also express things like temperature, and feedback from hitting things with weapons. One of the most successful descriptions of a foe I ever gave noted that while the creature seemed to be a hunched humanoid under a ragged veil and cloak, when a PC hit it with their sword, it felt like chopping into green woo. There was give as the blade chopped into the creature’s flesh, but it was far tougher than any human or even monstrous skin, muscles,and tendons.

Similarly, if touching a glowing sword makes a chill run down a character’s spine, or grabbing a Xorarcan plasma-lance makes any other humanoid’s fingertips tingle, that can be great descriptive information. If a character makes a saving throw against a gaze attack that makes their eyes itch, the player has reason to suspect a failed save results in blindness. If even approaching the stone archway covered in glowing runs makes it seem like the ground it tilting away from you, it suggests the gate may be tied to movement of some kind.

Smell: In many ways smell is just taste at a greater range, so all the taste notes apply here as well. But smell is also one of the most powerful senses for evoking primal fears–we evolved to know that the smell or rot is bad, the smell of blood is dangerous, and the smell of smoke calls for caution. Smell can be used to give clues to some kinds of deception–the high ghoul illusionist can make herself look like a human, but needs to use heavy perfume to cover the scent of the grave; the stench coming from the locally feared Troglodyte Clans Cave is bad, but not THAT bad; the bandits in the tavern smell like chili peppers, ebcause they infuse their boots with pepper oil so guard dogs can’t follow their scent.

Smells can also be fun because they can carry varying distances depending on local conditions, and what they promise is not always what they deliver. If the scent of fresh-backed pastries wafts tantalizingly through the woods, are the PCs about to stumble on a halfling village, or a giant baker that literally grinds human bones to make his bread? Is the smell of honey just a pleasant spring scent, a warning sign of giant paper wasps moving into the dense wilderness, or the smell of an undead mellified man about to round the corner and attack?

Conclusion: You don’t have to go crazy with secondary senses, but adding the description of a single noteworthy taste, touch, or smell in each major encounter can help round out the sense of what your game world is like.

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Quick Tips: Designing Adventures Backwards

If there’s one thing I think is most likely to trip up new GMs when they design their own adventures, it’s that they tend to design them front-to-back. That is, most GMs (and adventure writers) I see who begin creating adventures from scratch for the first time want to write the first encounter first, the second encounter second, and so on.

Now, that makes a lot of sense on the surface. That’s the order gamers encounter other people’s adventures in, so it’s a familiar pacing. Also, it means that if you plan to have 4 game sessions worth of adventure, you only have to do the first 4 encounters of work before you can run the first session. No need to design more than you need for the next game night, right?

Well…

Look, that works great for a lot of GMs, and if it works for you, more power to you. There are absolutely advantages to that system, and lots of ways to make it work to your advantage. But for many GMs, it means they introduce a problem and the mystery and the clues… before they know what the mystery is, or what the clues are supposed to be pointing to. That often works fine when you first introduce elements — everyone has seen the stories where the map has a big blank spot, or the detective finds mud they are sure is important, or the prophecy only makes sense after it’s fulfilled. So if you tell the ranger that yes, the site of the bandit attack has lots of wolf and goblin footprints, but on top of all of those are sharped bits of wood, as though from a whittled stick, which was done 2-3 hours after the bandit attack, players will file that away as an important clue for later.

Which is great–if you ether have a rough idea what you are doing (so you can make up clues that’ll fit in) or are good at bringing things together in the last few chapters even if you had no idea what you are doing when you leave a clue. But if you’re GREAT at coming with evocative and intriguing set dressing, but terrible at connecting them together after-the-fact, the end game of your adventures may be much more stressful and dissatisfying than you’d like.

For such GMs, writing your adventure backwards can make things much easier.

For example, let’s say you decide the end villain of your adventure is an evil ranger, who riles up local wilderness threats, directs them at farms and villages, and then charges those settlements money to “solve” the problems he’s creating. You give him a couple of personality quirks — he’s arrogant, handsome, and can whittle small wooden symbols that anger specific kinds of wildlife. You want a fight with him to end your advneture.

You want some investigation in town to happen just before that fight. So you create an event rh PCs could investigate once they are suspicious enough. You decide the ranger runs a protection racket, but a newcomer bard was becoming suspicious. So the ranger poisoned a local goblin tribe with herbs that make them battle-mad. Then he faked a note from the goblins to the bard making it seems the goblins wanted to tell the bard something important. When the bard went to where the note indicated, the herb-maddened goblins killed the bard. The ranger came by after the battle, whittling more of his magic traps, and stole the bard’s gear.

With that in place, it’s easy to see how the Ps get involved. Locals think the attacks are getting worse, and that the ranger isn’t enough to deal with them anymore. They hire PCs to help, but the PCs keep finding evidence of an unseen figure behind the attacks. You can have them fight some maddened animals the ranger sends after them hoping the PCs will be killed, have them ask folks what might have riled the animals, get told the new bard asked similar questions before being killed by goblins, seek ut the bard’s hidden notes because the bard was already onto the ranger, get pointed at the ranger, want to find the bard’s loot so they search the ranger’s hut and find it, then confront the ranger. Easy.

It may not solve all adventure problems, but often working backwards from the end is the easy way to decide what clues and story beats the PCs will find as they move forward through the adventure.

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ShadowFinder Adventure Sketch

The ShadowFinder Core Book won’t include a full-length adventure–there’s neither time nor room to get one crammed into that first book–but it WILL include some GM/Adventure support. There will be a section that talks about how to take typical Starfinder Adventure Paths and “reskin” them for the ShadowFinder Play Mode. And there will be some Adventure Sketches.

These are short outlines of what an adventure might include, with sections outlining “What It Looks Like,” “What’s Actually Going On,” “How Do PCs Get Involved,” “How Does It End,” and “Then What.” They are designed for GMs to use as inspirations and jumping-off points, with just enough details to explain what the adventure is about and how it may go, but without so many it’ll be difficult to mold into an existing campaign’s events. For example, while this adventure sketch mentions “the city,” it doesn’t tell you if it happens in New York City, Tokyo, or Absalom. That’s up to the GM.

I kinda hate to preview an Adventure Sketch–they take a lot of effort to write compared to their size and I see them as being a big part of what makes the ShadowFinder book work, despite their relatively small wordcount–but for exactly the reason I want them in the Core Book, I think they do a great job of showcasing what kinds of stories I think ShadowFinder is going to be great for playing through.

So, I picked one of my favorites — Save the City Beneath — and am showcasing it here.

Save The City Beneath

What It Looks Like: Water is mysteriously disappearing. From the drinking water system, reservoirs, even entire rivers and lakes are showing water levels way, way below what they out to be. The systems are all connected to the city’s drinking system, and if the loss isn’t stopped, the entire city is going to have a water shortage.

What’s Actually Going On: The city sits atop “The City Beneath,” a subterranean mix of old, unmapped sewers, storm drains, bootlegger tunnels, heating shafts, closed-off basements, cisterns, bomb shelters, previous cities, and secret underground complexes, natural caves, mined-out salt mines, where a civilization exists with only sporadic contact with the normal city above them. The City Beneath has actual physical portals to the Shadowblast, but also to demiplanes with less malignant residents and much ancient lore and preserved mystic libraries.

The City Beneath is not an inherently evil place. It’s a city, with good people, bad people, homeless people, gangs, unions, charities, arks, and everything else you’d expect to find in a big city—just all underground. But a powerful and judgmental person or group in the upper class of the “normal” surface city (we’ll call them F.L.O.O.D. – Friends of Law, Order, and Organized Democracy) has decided the City Beneath is an unacceptable danger. This group wants to find the City beneath, scour it of everything of value and power, and destroy it.

So, FLOOD are flooding the lower sections of their own city—uncaring that they are drowning the homeless, flooding out the dispossessed, and terrifying the vulnerable members of the lower class in the process—to follow the water drainage into passageways to the City Beneath.

Of course, in the process they are also waking up and releasing things the City Beneath locked away as too dangerous centuries ago.

How Do PCs Get Involved: If the mystery of a regionwide water shortage centered on a major city isn’t enough to get the PCs poking around, when some monsters start popping up in basements, abandoned bank vaults, old tunnel systems, and trendy secret clubs, the PCs can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, someone working for FLOOD might even try to hire the PCs to protect their water-trackers, hoping monster-hunters will blindly accept that the City Beneath must be “dealt with.”

How Does It End: The PCs figure out what FLOOD is up to, and either expose them to the public (which won’t result in anyone important going to jail, but will bring enough pressure for FLOOD to give up… for now), or hunt down and take out the FLOOD manager in charge of the deadly operation. FLOOD won’t be destroyed either way, but will decide such high-profile, headline-grabbing operations are a bad idea.

Then What: Assuming the FLOOD threat to the City Beneath is ended, the PCs now have access to an entire hidden society. In future adventures they can explore, train, use Coin of the Realm to buy magic items, set up bases, make allies, and go adventuring to deal with the City Beneath’s unsavory elements and gangs.

For inspiration on the City Beneath, look up the real-world locations of the Aldwych tube ghost statipn in London, England; Avinguda de la Llum in Barcelona, Spain; the Burlington Bunker in Corsham, England; the Cincinnati Subway in Ohio; Derinkuyu, Turkey; Dixia Cheng in China; the Estación de Chamberí abandoned subway station in Madrid, Spain; K’n-yan; Metro 417 in Los Angeles, California; Naours, France; New York City’s City Hall station; The Paris Catacombs, France; Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine; Portland Underground, in Portland, Oregon; Three Kings Catacombs in Tizimín, Mexico; and the Seattle Underground, in Seattle, Washington.

(Seriously, I can’t wait to show you all this Jacob Blackmon ShadowFinder art!)

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How to Use the ShadowFinder Book

I’ve made a big deal out of the upcoming Starfinder Infinite project called ShadowFinder being a Play Mode for Starfinder, rather than a separate campaign or ruleset. So, if it’s designed to create a different play experience, but is 100% Starfinder compatible, what do I expect people to actually do with this book?

Well, no shock, I write about that a bit in the book itself.

Okay, What Do We DO With This?

ShadowFinder is designed to be use a few different ways, depending on your interests.

First, it’s everything you need to start running adventures in a new Play Mode, with a focus on the aesthetics and tropes of modern urban fantasy, rather that the more scifi-fantasy of Starfinder. We present enough information to get you started, including a quick description of the planar scar known as the Shadowblast, and the two worlds it links – Lost Golarion, and Rasputin’s Legacy Earth. If you are the type of group who just wants some rules and a setting, or maybe also some adventure seeds, and then you craft adventures and storylines yourselves, you can get started right away.

Second, it’s a big set of additional options for any Starfinder game. The new classes, class options, feats, and spells are all designed for use in ShadowFinder, but since the rules are 100% compatible with Starfinder, if you want to add enigmas, warlocks, and even sword saints and technicians to a non-ShadowFinder game, they’ll fit right in. There are some options rules in ShadowFinder that aren’t designed for other uses, such as Heroic Defense, but I’ve carefully kept those separate from other player-facing material. That means if you want to play a ShadowFinder game with Heroic Defense, it applies to any PC (even those uses classes from other sources), and if you want to play a warlock in a game without Heroic Defense, the class remains balanced.

Third, and most excitingly for me, it’s a toolkit of ideas you can take and use to create your own Play Mode, unique campaign, or even related Starfinder Infinite products! This book is very much the product of exactly what I wanted to make, but I see that as a beginning, not an end. Now that these rules and ideas are out in the world, I hope you will take the opportunity to shape, mold, and build off of them to create whole-new things I could never dream of.

(Yep. It’s a Nuar in a Suit)

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ShadowFinder Inspirations List

This week seems to be all about previews of some of the material from the ShadowFinder book I announced in my ShadowFinder Is Coming post.

So, what on Earth has gone into my head to lead me to want to write this book? Well… there’s a lot of it.

Appendix A: Inspirations List

This excerpt of Appendix A is not part of the OGL content of this site, and it not covered by any of the licenses this product is published under. It’s a separate, editorial list presented under fair use.

While ShadowFinder is not an effort to duplicate any specific piece of genre fiction, it absolutely does draw inspirations from a wide range of movies, shows, anime, books, and comics. While I simply do not have room (or time) to compile a comprehensive list, I did want to touch on some of the biggest contributors to the zeitgeek I’m trying to tap into. Very few of these represent exactly what I expect a ShadowFinder game session to look like, but most of them have elements that could easily inspire ShadowFinder plots, adventures, and characters.

This is just the film and television parts of the appendix from the book, which also has comics and literature… though wow have I wanted more tv and movies in the past 20 years than read books. 😛

In some cases, I have listed the original source of a franchise, even though something later in the franchise might be the first thing that that inspired me. In other cases, I list some later product, because it stands out in my mind from the rest of its franchise. There’s a reason both Dawn of the Dead movies are listed but not all the related zombie films, and Friday the 13th Part II and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday are the only two Friday the 13th movies listed.

Inclusion here is absolutely not a claim of quality entertainment, in value, theme, presentation, or diversity. A lot of these are bad, and the very fact they are bad sometimes is what caused them to spark ideas in my head. In particular, many of these things now make me cringe when I read or watch them, as they have tropes, attempts at jokes, and stereotypes that should never have been acceptable. Please, check reviews and content warnings before trusting them to be entertaining. There are some great ideas in these, but too often they are mixed with bigotry and bias. I know we can all do a better job when importing the cool parts into our own stories.

Also, a lot of them are horror-themed, despite the fact I don’t consider ShadowFinders to be designed as a horror genre. But modern supernatural stories often are horror, and part of the point is that slasher and monster-in-the-sewer films go differently when PCs get involved.

[H2]Film and Television

Alias. Created by J.J. Abrams.

Alligator. Directed by Lewis Teague.

Angel. Starring David Boreanaz.

Angel Heart. Directed by Alan Parker.

Assault on Precinct 13. Directed by John Carpenter.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Directed by John DeBello.

Attack the Block. Directed by Joe Cornish.

Battle Royale. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku.

Belphegor, or the Phantom of the Louvre. Directed by Claude Barma.

Big Trouble in Little China. Directed by John Carpenter.

Black Dynamite. Directed by Scott Sanders.

The Blair Witch Project. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.

The Blob. Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

The Blues Brothers. Directed by John Landis.

The Boondock Saints. Directed by Troy Duffy.

Brimstone. Created by Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris.

Bubba Ho-Tep. Directed by Don Coscarelli.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The Cabin in the Woods. Directed by Drew Goddard.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Directed Ken Hughes.

C.H.U.D. Directed by Douglas Cheek.

Cool World. Directed by Ralph Bakshi.

The Craft. Directed by Andrew Fleming.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. Directed by Jack Arnold.

The Crow. Directed by Alex Proyas.

Dark Angel. Created by James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee.

Dark City. Directed by Alex Proyas.

Darkman. Directed by Sam Raimi.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder

Death Valley. Developed by Eric Weinberg, Curtis Gwinn, and Spider One.

Deep Rising. Directed by Stephen Sommers.

Demon Knight. Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.

The Descent. Directed by Neil Marshall.

Escape from New York. Directed by John Carpenter.

Equinox. Directed by Robert Day.

Evil Dead II. Directed by Sam Raimi.

Five Deadly Venoms. Directed by Chang Cheh.

The Fog. Directed by John Carpenter.

Friday the 13th, the Series. Created by Frank Mancuso Jr. and Larry B. Williams.

Friday the 13th, Part II. Directed by Steve Miner.

Fright Night. Directed by Tom Holland.

Fringe. Created by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.

From Dusk till Dawn. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Game of Death. Directed by Bruce Lee.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Directed by Jim Jarmusch.

Ghostbusters. Directed by Ivan Reitman.

The Golden Child. Directed by Michael Ritchie.

Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter.

Happy! Created by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson.

Hellraiser. Directed by Clive Barker.

Highlander. Directed by Russell Mulcahy.

Highway to Hell. Directed by Ate de Jong.

The Host (Gwoemul). Directed by Bong Joon-ho.

House II: The Second Story. Directed by Ethan Wiley.

House on Haunted Hill. Directed by William Malone.

Howard the Duck. Directed by Willard Huyck.

Hudson Hawk. Directed by Michael Lehmann.

In the Mouth of Madness. Directed by John Carpenter.

Infinity Train. Created by Owen Dennis.

John Dies at the End. Directed by Don Coscarelli.

John Wick. Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Directed by Adam Marcus.

Jurassic Park. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Directed by Stephen Chiodo.

The Kingdom (Original title: Riget). Created by Lars von Trier.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Directed by Gordon Hessler.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Creator Jeff Rice.

Kung Fu Hustle. Directed by Stephen Chow.

L.A. Story. Directed by Mick Jackson.

Labyrinth. Directed by Jim Henson.

The Lair Of The White Worm. Directed by Ken Russell.

Lake Placid. Directed by Steve Miner.

The Last Dragon. Directed by Michael Schultz.

The Lost Boys. Directed by Joel Schumacher.

The Lost Room. Created by Christopher Leone and Laura Harkcom.

El Mariachi. Directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Midnight, Texas. Developed by Monica Owusu-Breen.

MirrorMask. Directed by Dave McKean.

Monster Squad. Directed by Fred Dekker.

Mortal Kombat. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson.

National Treasure. Directed by Jon Turteltaub.

Near Dark. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Neverwhere. Created by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry.

Nightbreed. Directed by Clive Barker.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Directed by Chuck Russell.

Night of the Lepus. Directed by William F. Claxton.

The Passage. Created by Liz Heldens.

Pi. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.

The Prophecy. Directed by Gregory Widen.

Predator. Directed by John McTiernan.

Prince of Darkness. Directed by John Carpenter.

Pumpkinhead. Directed by Stan Winston.

Puppet Master. Directed by David Schmoeller.

Quatermass and the Pit. Directed by Roy Ward Baker.

The Quiet Earth. Directed by Geoff Murphy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Rawhead Rex. Directed by George Pavlou.

Re-Animator. Directed by Stuart Gordon.

REC. Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza.

Repo Man. Directed by Alex Cox.

The Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon.

Salem’s Lot. Directed by Tobe Hooper.

Sleepy Hollow. Created by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Phillip Iscove, and Len Wiseman.

Special Unit 2. Created by Evan Katz.

The Strain. Created by Guillermo del Toro, and Chuck Hogan.

Stranger Things. Created by the Duffer Brothers.

Streets of Fire. Directed by Walter Hill.

The Stuff. Directed by Larry Cohen.

Supernatural. Creator Eric Kripke.

The Swarm. Directed by Irwin Allen.

Them! Directed by Gordon Douglas.

They Live. Directed by John Carpenter.

The Thing. Directed by John Carpenter.

Thirteen Ghosts. Directed by Steve Beck.

Trancers. Directed by Charles Band.

Tremors. Directed by Ron Underwood.

Vampire Hunter D. Directed by Toyoo Ashida.

Vampires. Directed by John Carpenter.

Warlock. Directed by Steve Miner.

The Warriors. Directed by Walter Hill.

The X-Files. Creator Chris Carter.

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Making Combat Interesting: The Really Wild West Clockwork Platform Fight

I recently ran a fight in my Really Wild West campaign, using Starfinder rules, that took place atop a series of spinning, moving, shifting gears. Overall, it was big hit.

(Plus a hodge-podge of objective markers, miniatures, models, and standees)
(and one 3D printed mechanical dog, used to represent the old west mechanic’s steampunk canine drone)

Now, this was made much easier by the fact that one friend of mine made these big green gridded disks from flower/cake foam (to use as hills and such), and other got this spinning, sliding lazy susan tabletop. So all I had to do was tell folks the disks were big bronze gears, spin and turn them (they both rotated on their own axis, and spun around each other at different speeds), and players could rotate the whole map if they needed to see what was on the far side of the gear-pile.

I warned people that the mechanism was so complex as to be essentially unpredictable, so while I tried to follow some basic rules on how things spun and moved, if I messed up players knew that randomness was intended. While the gears were officially in constant movement I just relocated them at the end of each round, so players always had a chance to react to one position before they formed a new one (and, after all, realistically the characters are in “constant motion” as well).

On top of the big moving gear platforms, there were two sets of “control cogs,” parts of a Babbage system that controlled the movement of the gears (orange markers), and the actions of the constructs defending them (green markers). The mechanic in the group managed to get access to those things, though it wasn’t easily, and one-by-one shut down the constructs while their allies used mobility (including good Acrobatics or Athletics checks and actual mobility to avoid attacks from spinning gears as the dodged about), flight, and climbing to move around.

So, this encounter had fairly normal combatants, but a lot of other things going on as well. In fact I kept the combatants pretty straightforward (well… one had a steam-pressure triphammer than could boost for multiple rounds to gain more and more bonus dice to its next attack) just so I wasn’t throwing too much at the players.

I’ve done similar things with moving elements before–fighting on rafts in rivers choked with floating logs, conflicts on trains both mobile and stationary, running battled through tunnels with teleportation gates, stampedes as hazards with big rocks to hide behind and every other space counting as an attack of opportunity as you try to avoid being trampled–but I think this is the most complex and multi-moving-part encounter I’ve done. And my players are all veterans of gaming and general and, at 9th level, this campaign and these characters in particular.

And it’s fairly easy to spice things up with doing so far as to have two Jedi battle it out on rocks bobbing along streams of lava with guard skiffs flying by. A battle behind a waterfall makes everything wet, and drowns out all noise. Defending a wall gives all the PCs cover–or all the PC’s foes cover, depending on which side of the wall they are on. A cliffside fight is all about climbing up, down, and sideways rather than running N, S, E, and W. Fights on frozen ponds, or in hurricanes, or in grass fields that stand 12 feet tall — not only do these things give the players a new experience, it can make various class and ability options they take worthwhile. Who wants to move freely through natural terrain if there isn’t the occasional thorny bramble covering 13 of the map, with grig archers shooting out of it?

You don’t need to shake things up in every battle, but just a few props now and then, or a different kind of terrain or local hazard, can help a specific encounter be memorable.

PATREON
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