Category Archives: Adventure Design
We introduced the Bottomless tombs, and their map, yesterday.
Now, it’s time to get to some adventure!
The Top of the Tomb
The first issue is reaching the shaft, and examine the areas around it before the PCs even think of climbing down the the shaft into the tomb and reaching the first side-passage. As the PCs reach the top of the tomb shaft, read or paraphrase the following:
The top of the shaft is a square hole in the ground, roughly 15-feet to a side. Dirt, sod, and bits of refuse are piled up around the hole, and the shaft itself is choked with long tree roots, clumps of matted grass, and a tangle or what seem to be old and broken woodwork and rope rigging. It doesn’t look particularly stable, but it does offer numerous handholds. Light doesn’t penetrate more than 40-50 feet into the shaft, but there is certainly no sign of a bottom to it within that range.
An iron ring, showing just some signs of rust, is looped through a large wooden stake driven into the ground 5 feet to the north of the hole. Not far from that sits a well-defined fire pit, ringed in stones and filled with a dense layer of cold ash and charcoal. Bits of cloth, broken glass, chipped whetstones, and strips of rawhide are scattered about, more than half-buried in the grass. Old woven grass mats are laying on the ground in a semicircle around the firepit.
The firepit, mats, and refuse are the remains of numerous camps adventurers have made here over the past several decades, thought the gnomes who came through a few weeks ago didn’t use any of it.
Hazards: The mats are long-since riddled with lice, and anyone who sleeps on one must make a DC 10 Fortitude save or be at -1 to all Dexterity ability and skill checks from itching until they are deloused with a DC 10 Craft (alchemy) or Heal check. A DC 10 Survival check reveals the mats are infested, and can use smoke from a fire in the firepit to cleanse them.
Treasure: One sunrod, three pitons, a cold iron dagger, and 2 cp can be found with careful examination of the old campsite and refuse around the shaft. Each can be found with it’s own DC 10 Perception check, and an additional item found in one attempt for ever 5 the check exceeds that base DC.
Developments: Animals and outlaws both check this area from time to time, looking for food or valuables. They don’t make any dedicated searches, so any effort to bury or conceal items is successful. however, if tents, or mules, or food stores are left unattended and unguarded at the old campsite, there is a 1-in-12 chance each day that either a wolf of a brigand comes along and raids obvious materials.
Design Philosophy: It’s not that common for 1st level characters to get much use out of Survival (especially in dungeon-focused games), or from searching areas that aren’t obviously dangerous but that detail-oriented adventurers should want to check out.
This also already gives characters a reason to be happy to have an animal companion or basic hireling. If anyone (or, within limits, anything) watches their stuff they can safely use the old campsite as a base of operations. Neither wolves nor brigands will risk fighting for trail rations or spare blankets, though a guard left behind can let PCs know that someone has been prowling around after a week or more of time watching.
Low-level characters also often don’t get much benefit out of resistance to disease, or the ability to make basic alchemy and Heal checks. Lice isn;t life-threatening, but that’s the point,. Characters can begin to learn ways in which the game world is dangerous without risking having am arm drop off or becoming a mummy.
Not yet, anyway…
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My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
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First, note that I am a HUGE believer in playstyle being variable. I don’t think there is one BEST way to do almost anything in gaming. I often get annoyed if people are being too silly when I want a serious story… but that doesn’t mean I am right and they are wrong. Similarly if a group wants to focus on tactical miniatures combat using RPG rules, that’s fine, as long as they are all having a good time.
But for me, and the styles I engage in the most, this is the thing that I have done as a GM, and that GMs of mine have done, that has generated the most total fun.
Ready for the secret?
“Create the environment to tell the PCs’ stories.”
That’s it. … And that is a lot.
Anything I do — building memorable NPCs, adding GMPCs, worldbuilding, props, funny voices, creating a meta-plot, creating random encounters–it’s all designed to create an environment where players can build the story of their characters.
Yes, I want to have fun doing that. But I am specifically trying to tell HALF a story. I don’t want to write how the villain falls. I want to write how he rises, grows, becomes a threat… the players will write his downfall.
To me, this idea has two main corollaries.
First: Build the details in the places the players show interest.
Yes, it can be annoying if I mention there are two people in a bar (a mysterious cloaked figure with a circle of runes floating around her head, and a dirty pig-farmer), and the players only show interest in the boring one I *didn’t* build an adventure around.
But that’s okay. All my ideas connected to the circle or runes are still available. I just get there a different way, or table them until later. If the players want to know what’s up with the pig farmer, then THAT is the story they want, and I’ll give it to them.
What IS a pig farmer doing in the same bar as women with magic halo crowns? How can he afford a drink? Why isn’t he tending his pigs?
The answers to those questions can form the same story, or a new one. I’m even okay railroading PCs… as long as I build the track through the scenery they want to see.
Second: Give PCs opportunities to change, and be changed.
Gaining a flaming sword? Kinda cool, especially for some players. Gaining the ability to make any sword you use flaming because you saved a fire elemental envoy from being killed by evil water wizards and were named a Knight of Emblazoned Honor, a peer fo the Plane of Fire?
Of course, the player can turn that down. Or then seek out other elemental titles. Or embrace the idea of fire being their birthright.
On a smaller (lower-level) scale, let players save the owner of a tavern, and get free drinks. Be befriended by an entirely mundane mockingbird. Have one horse hate them. As with all elements of telling their story put out feelers, and build on what the players enjoy.
Look at their character histories for hints on this. A summoner who doesn’t know why they can summon a chickenlike outsider? Give hints to multiple potential answers, and see which ones they build on. A fighter who carried their grandfathers sword from the Otyugh Wars? Leave hints their grandfather did more than they ever let on… and the sword may have a destiny as well.
While non-item rewards are part of this, so it just giving the players a sense that their characters impact the world in ways large and small, and the world can impact them as they interact with it.
Don’t force change. But make it available.
While, of course, trying to give players more of the things they seem to enjoy, and less of the things they don’t.
It’s the most complex simple thing in the world. 🙂
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If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.
Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.
Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.
So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.
If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!
Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).
I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.
THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!
SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!
You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework, you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.
Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.
For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.
(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)
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Sometimes when looking to create superhero worlds or adventures, all you need is an idea to run with. It could be a jumping-off point, a villain, a dead hero to draw the protagonist’s interest… just something that feels like it comes from a comicbook sensibility but (and this is the hard part) without being a direct ripoff or sharing a name with any character from mainstream comics.
So, here are a bunch.
I can’t claim they are all entirely original–many are intentionally based on existing tropes–or even that the names aren’t used in any comic/supers stories. But I developed them independently of other sources, and casual searches didn’t show parallel development of note.
These are designed for you home games or to spark new ideas original to you (though if you have some potential commercial use, feel free to drop me a line).
Aberzombie & Glitch.
Annoying, immoral preppy necromancer and technomancer who manipulate magic they barely understand, while stylishly dressed. Note that being shallow doesn;t automatically make these villains. they could be the kind of allies you avoid… until you absolutely need their help. Or even neutral to greater conflicts, and just sometimes dragged in on one side or the other.
A heavy weapons vigilante, mercenary, or assassin who uses an AK.
A villain. A terrorist who takes the unscientific belief that vaccines are dangerous and to be avoided to extremes by killing those who perform/promote vaccines, and tries to prove they are ineffectual by spreading deadly contagious diseases among vaccinated communities.
A woman with classic “brick” powers (high strength and resistance to damage) and no fucks to give about other people’s opinions. She could be a dauntless hero, a bitter villain, a self-interested mercenary, or anything in-between.
A penal superhero unit of convicted criminals who can cut time off their sentences by performing high-risk missions for the government. Run by Captain Cannon, a hardass patriotic supersolider with a cybergun arm who does as he is told and rules over the ‘Fodder’ with iron discipline.
The Fodder are run by the Combine, and operate out of a mobile secret base ship called The Trough. Cannon’s Fodder are often B- and C-grade villains (and occasionally antiheroes, vigilantes, and heroes who ended up on the wrong side of something), but are quite a dangerous force combined with the gear the Combine can arrange for them, and Cannon’s tactical acumen and willingness to sacrifice the lives of his Fodder if that’s the only way to get the mission done.
Thus while you can use noteworthy villains for your campaign’s Cannon’s Fodder, you can also just grab any terms or names you think of to be the “current” team, repurposing any write-ups you already have to represent the B List. (For example, the Feb 2019 team might include Bear Man, Deadnought, Killer Kaiman, Layaway, Punching Judy, Sister Sirocco, Spotlight, and Tigerdrake.)
A highly trained spy and combatant, who has luck that increases as the chance of failure goes up.
A team of 5 teens who can transform into powered, color-coded versions of themselves. Anywhere from Power Rangers to Sailor Scouts. Could be heroes, villains, or just an annoyance.
A berserker who gains size, strength, and resilience (including to mental powers) as he becomes angry. Most likely an antihero.
A rogue genius pharmacologist who gains massive psychic powers when high. could be an antihero, a villain, or just an unreliable hero.
A pulp-era-style detective or hit man who is happy to pit his/her skills and a single common handgun (the “gat”) against whatever superpowers foes have.
What if the Punisher had Batman’s training, resources, and skills?
That would be Hardcore.
The Knackerman, or Knacker, is a supernatural force who clears corpses from roadways and public spaces, and repurposes them as revenants. Usually the Knacker just gives abused animals a chance to return and punish their abusers, or sometimes save a beloved human in trouble. But sometimes Knacker brings back cars, or toys… or people.
Can slow down anyone or anything, so all actions and reactions take longer.
A mastermind crime boss, who is known to also have powerful connections to legitimate political authorities such as mayors, judges, and law enforcement–though no one knows exactly what those connections are. the combination of ruthless underworld agents and corrupt politicians and agents and moles makes him (or her, regardless of the name), well, untouchable.
A massively overweight werebear. Might be a cuddly hero, but might also be a bitter villain jaded from years of mockery and abuse.
Psychic Stripling Samurai Snakes.
Five sibling anthropomorphic snakes with mental powers and samurai training.
(Some of these ideas are less original than others.)
The world’s best detective, an unassuming pulp-era style investigator in a trench coat and fedora. QED can take apparently unrelated facts and use them to describe events that must have occurred to cause the known facts, thus revealing things that seemed unknown or unknowable.
A feared, immortal assassin. When you truly need someone to suffer, you Get Rekt.
The Shark Brothers.
Card Shark, Loan Shark, and Pool Shark, three mobster brothers with bites that can sever gun barrels, each with their own specialty in crime.
The idea of someone who neutralizes mutant/metahuman powers is fairly common. This idea puts a slight spin on that, as someone who neutralizes all forms of magic.
A “family” of superbeings who are evolved and sentient magic items from mythology. Some, such as the swords Durandal, Gram, and Nothung, and the rings Andvarinaut and Draupnir, were forged directly by the sorcerer/smith Weyland while others, such as Fragarach, Mjolnir, Nemean, and Tarnkappe, were reforged/rewoven by Weyland to grant them sapience, sentience, and human forms.
The Relics are reincarnated if slain, so while some have been active and alive for centuries, others are born as aparently normal humans, and then begin to gain powers of the reliquary nature sometime between their 12th and 18th years. Relics are not as a group entirely good or bad. Some, such as Durandal, appear to always be driven to work for justice. Others, such as Draupnir, seem to always seek power and wealth above all else.
And all sense that they exist to serve some great purpose in Weyland’s plans… which he refuses to talk about, though he calls them his “true children” and often aids them if they are in serious danger.
The ancient nordic sorcerer/smith of Germanic myth, though his origins are neolithic and he has survived to the modern era. Forged or reforged the Relics, causing them to be true living beings. Wayland is not evil, per se, and isn’t willing to see the world devastated, but his own plots and plans that take place over a scale of centuries, and mostly doesn’t care about “petty” issues like crime and justice.
Generally opposed by his equally immortal, but not quite as skilled, son Verlandsson, who mostly just hates his father and wants to stop the elder’s plans whatever they are, whatever the cost. Verlandsson is sometimes aided by his grandfather Vade, a giant and sorcerer/smith, who mostly just wants to be left alone.
Able to send and receive any broadcast signal. Makes an excellent “Overwatch/Quarterback/Ally in the chair” character, for good or ill, but could also be a badass in their own right with equipment and skills any superhero-level human can achieve, plus the WiFi power. Or, could have a swarm of drones. Or, all of the above.
In ancient Rome, someone who was banished from civilization was marked with the brand of the Wolf’s Head, meaning they could be hunted and killed as if a rogue wolf. One of those branded criminals turned it into a badge of honor, forming the Church of Crime and becoming the first popelike Wolfshead of All Crime.
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“I want to aim for his eye! So I can blind him, and kill him in one shot!”
“Okay, his eyes widen as he sees your malicious intent, and he throws up a guard. Make an attack roll.”
“What modifiers for aiming for his eyes?!”
“None. You’re always aiming for your foes’ eyes.”
“No I’m not! I’m just trying to hit. I want to do a lethal blow now!”
“You’re always trying to land a lethal blow, unless you do something special not to. It’s a fight. Your character is always doing their best unless you say otherwise. Your attack rolls already represent the very best attack your character thinks can land. Of course you want to stab him in the eye, or cut off his head, or pierce his heart. And that’s represented by the existing combat rules of the game. And when the foe goes down, that is when you succeeded.”
“But maybe I can do those things before that!”
“Sure. It’s called a “critical hit.” in this game. A “stunt” or special maneuver in other games.”
“But I want a SPECIAL chance to kill him in one shot!”
“Okay. Do you want every foe you ever fight to have a special chance to kill you in one shot, too?”
“You’re no fun!”
“If you want to try to be flamboyant in your attacks because that’s fun, I am fine with that. That’s why I said he reacted to your effort. And if this attack kills him, it’ll be because you ran him through the eye, and that’ll be awesome.
If you want to have a reduced chance to be effective because of what you are trying, feel free to not use your full combat bonuses.
If you want an increased chance to be effective because of what you are trying, once I allow that why wouldn’t you always do that? And every other PC? And every NPC?”
Runeblades always have cool, evocative names… but it can be a pain to have to come with them from scratch all the time. So for all your Runeblade name needs, here’s the What’s Your Runeblade quiz!
Take the second letter of your first name, and the last letter of your last name. So, as Owen Stephens, my Runeblade name is Shadow Slayer. (Or Shadowslayer—you can run them together or not, as you prefer.)
Or, you can roll 1d100 twice to create a random name.
Or just pick something cool. 😊
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Second letter of your first name, or 1d100)
A (01-04). Ash
B. (05-08). Bane
C. (09-12). Battle
D. (13-16). Blaze
E. (17-20). Blood
F. (21-24). Bright
G. (25-28). Crimson
H. (26-32). Dawn
I. (33-36). Death
J. (37-40). Doom
K. (41-44). Fear
L. (45-48). Foe
M. (49-52. Gray
N. (53-56). Hell
O. (57-60). Ice
P. (61-64). Luck
Q. (65-68). Mourn
R. (69-72). Night
S. (73-76). Pain
T. (77-80). Rage
U. (81-84). Run
V. (85-88). Sea
W. (89-91). Shadow
X. (92-94). Soul
Y. (95-97). Storm
Z. (98-100). War
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Last letter of your last name, or 1d100)
A. (01-04). Blade
B. (05-08). Bringer
C. (09-12). Claw
D. (13-16). Cleaver
E. (17-20). Crasher
F. (21-24). Dragon
G. (25-28). Fist
H. (29-32). Flame
I. (33-36). Friend
J. (37-40). Gate
K. (41-44). Hammer
L. (42-48). Iron
M. (49-52). Master/Mistress
N. (53-56). Moon
O. (57-60). Raven
P. (61-64). Razor
Q. (65-68). Sigil
R. (69-72). Skull
S. (73-76). Slayer
T. (77-80). Song
U. (81-84). Star
V. (85-88). Thunder
W. (89-91). Tomb
X. (92.-94). Tooth
Y. (95-97). Wand
Z. (98-100). Widow
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Blackskull (and its mistress) is a location you can use as the seed of one or more adventures. It can be a side-quest, the end of a small adventure, a goal for players to claim, or even act as a patron’s home base. Legend claims it is the remains of Akash, the Titan of All Knowledge and avatar of the Akashic Record. You can set it in a vast desert, at the center of a massive barrow ground, at the peak of a dangerous mountain, or just at the edge of a small town that has spring up to house and make money off people who come to speak to the oracle of Blackskull.
The one true power of Blakcskull is the highest chamber within the skull, known as the Lore Room, which once per day allows anyone making a Knowledge check there to gain a +10 circumstance bonus to the check, as the ancient knowledge of Akash soaks into their mind.
(Blackskull cartography from Dyson Logos, and available for use by license)
For years, Blackskull was a focal point for petty squabbles among various sects of gods of knowledge and wizards who wished to use its resources to design new forms of hybrid animals. After an unfortunate incident when two such forces combined and made a small chimera-like creature with the body and one head of a racoon, wings and head of a magpie, and additional head of an tiger keelback snake, which began stealing the holy books of all religious orders, the local baron set up a challenge that Blkacskull would be granted to the scholar who could answer the most difficult question the baron could pose.
And the winning sage was the Fel Sage, also known as the Blood of Knowledge, a minor bard lich who poses as a vampire.
The Mistress of Blackskull
The Fel Sage is legendary as a “reasonable” undead. She doesn’t have any ethical limitations on her choice of actions, and would happily burn orphanages to the ground if it further her own researches one iota. However, she is also an apt historian who has a clear view of what happens to evil overlords when they become a threat to the world at large—heroes come and destroy them. The Fel Sage doesn’t want to rule the world—that sounds like a lot of work—she just wants time to read all the books, scrolls, tablets, and folios she has gathered over more than a lifetime (which is why she became an undead to begin with—to have more time to read).
So, she used the power of suggestion to convince the baron to pose a question she already knew the answer to, answered it in a public show of her vast knowledge, and laid claim to Blackskull. As a result she even has some legal protections—as long as she doesn’t break local law, it’s illegal to kill her just for being an undead. Further, she acts as a sage for numerous adventuring parties and heroes, to ensure she has more allies than enemies—part of her plot to survive forever.
Though she used trickery to win her roost, in truth, the Fel Sage is capable of answering questions well beyond the norm for creatures of her power level. If she chooses to use the akashic communion spell she can gain a +10 insight bonus to one Knowledge check, and combine that with Blackskull’s Lore Room for a +10 circumstance bonus and her archivist version of lore master that allows her to take 20 on one Knowledge skill check per day, getting most of her Knowledge skill totals to +49 to +51. Of course even when this is her plan to answer a question, she insists such knowledge comes from days or even weeks of research, and generally only promises to have an answer after a petitioner has gone and gathered some rare book she desires (or rubbings off new ruins that have been discovered, or a drop of blood from an unidentified body that might spark a border war in a conflict zone so she can cast blood biography, or anything else that might quench her thirst for knowledge).
The Fel Sage only willingly sees people under the guise of a disguise self spell, and normally thus restricts herself to one meeting a day so as not to drain her spell resources (though she has scrolls if she is forced to break that rule). She doesn’t use her disguise self magics to appear human—that’s beyond the power of the spell. Instead she uses it to appear to be a vampire, a different form of undead than her own lich status, and an undead with a very different set of limitations and weaknesses.
While she sees significant tactical benefits to being mistaken for a vampire, her main motivation is actually pride. She is an extremely weak lich, having only barely managed to transform herself and only because she found a document with the easiest, most carefully-explained lich ritual ever. She fears mockery if the world at large ever discovered she was, essentially, the weakest lich ever. But if she poses as a vampire, her immunity to daylight and ability to claim she holds off bloodlust through ancient elixirs and pure willpower make her seem extraordinary and special.
She also uses her disguise self to make her whip look like a dagger, and to make an impressive magic ring appear on her hand, which she pretends is the source of her paralyzing touch lich power.
If a group comes to her with some question that must be answered she insist on being paid in rare knowledge and books, and often has some specific quest she insists on sending adventurers on. If possible, she picks tasks that are more dangerous than they sound, hoping anyone bothering her will be killed off rather than return for an answer—but if they do return, she sees the benefit in having adventurers who will put themselves as risk for her benefit, and treats them fairly. If any seem taken with her comely vampire guise, she does her best to establish a sense of intimacy, often creating a first name she offers to allow them to call her (which she makes up n the spot, the Fel Sage has long since forgotten her “life name,” which she considers irrelevant to her new existence).
Of course she is a lich, and she is evil. Someday, even with the tenuous protection of local law, someone will decide she has to go.
Her hope is that when that day comes, more adventurers will want to keep her around than get rid of her.
The Fel Sage
Female lich (human) bard (archivist) 7
NE Medium undead
Init +2; Senses darkvision (60 ft.), Perception +19; Aura fear (60-ft. radius, DC 19)
AC 18, touch 12, flat-footed 16 (+1 armor, +5 natural armor, +2 Dex)
hp 73 (7d8+35)
Fort +3, Ref +8, Will +7; +4 vs. bardic performance, language-dependent, and sonic
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +4; rejuvenation; DR 15/bludgeoning and magic; Immune cold, electricity, undead traits
Speed 30 ft.
Melee whip +7 (1d3–1), touch +2 (1d8+3 plus paralyzing touch)
Ranged light crossbow +7 (1d8/19–20)
Special Attacks bardic performance 22 rounds/day (countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire competence +3, lamentable belaborment*, naturalist +2*), paralyzing touch (DC 19)
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Bard Spells Known (CL 7th; concentration +12)
3rd (2)—akashic communion, charm monster (DC 19)
2nd (4) alegro, blood biography, invisibility, mirror image, suggestion (DC 18)
1st (6)—beguiling gift (DC 17), charm person (DC 17), disguise self, expeditious retreat, hideous laughter (DC 17), memory lapse (DC 17), saving finale, touch of gracelessness (DC 17)
0 (at will)—detect magic, ghost sound (DC 16), light, message, prestidigitation, sift
Str 8, Dex 14, Con -, Int 14, Wis 12, Cha 22
Base Atk +5; CMB +4; CMD 16
Feats Arcane Strike, Greater Serpent Lash, Lingering Performance, Serpent Lash, Weapon Finesse
Skills Acrobatics +12, Appraise +11, Disguise +16, Knowledge (arcana) +9, Knowledge (dungeoneering) +11, Knowledge (engineering) +9, Knowledge (geography) +9, Knowledge (history) +9, Knowledge (local) +11, Knowledge (planes) +11, Knowledge (nobility) +11, Linguistics +7, Perception +19, Perform (oratory) +16, Sense Motive +14, Spellcraft +6, Stealth +19, Use Magic Device +16
Languages Common, Giant, Polyglot, Necril
SQ bardic knowledge +3, jack of all trades*, lore master (take 20*) 1/day, magic lore*
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Combat Gear scroll of comprehend languages, scrolls of disguise self (2), scroll of restful sleep, wand of cause light wounds (50 charges), wand of grease (50 charges); Other Gear quilted cloth armor, light crossbow with 10 bolts, whip, cloak of resistance +1, headband of alluring charisma +2, backpack, spell component pouch, 25 gp
Blackskull in Your Campaign
You can use Blackskull and the Fel Sage as traditional villains and adventure locations if you wish–just have the Fel Sage send thugs to gather lorebooks by any means necessary, the thugs steal something from friends of the PCs, and the adventure is on! Or she can become a colorful patron, always willing to answer the PCs’ questions… in return for their taking on some dangeorus mission (which gives you, the GM, an easy work-around any time your PCs are stumped–they can get the answer to any question, as long as they do an extra adventure for the Fel Sage to make up for it).
Of a PC could become the “legal” owner of Blackskull somehow, and have to kick the Fel Sage out of it.
Or the PCs could discover some foe of their is always one step ahead of them because that foe buys information from the Fel Sage, and force the PCs to decide if they want to kill her, or buy her off to gain information of her own.
It’s easy to add some encounters to Blackskull to make it a mini-dungeon. Since the Fel Sage is CR 8, throwing together some CR 4-9 monsters is easy enough. here are some examples.
*An androsphinx waits outside, having paid the Fel Sage to find him a new riddle, and he attacks anyone who tries to go in before he has his answer from her.
*An annis hag has become the Fel Sage’s apprentice, usually taking the form of a sky maid named “Lilly.” Lilly tries to get visitors to violate any of the Fel Sage’s rules, so she can kill and consume them. Also, she makes soup.
*One of the upper elvels is protected with a flame strike trap.
*A hill giant, Onks, serves as the Fel Sage’s guard. She has convinced him he is descended from the titan Akash, and that if he serves her long enough he’ll become smart. This is a lie.
*The lowest level has been blocked off and flooded, and there’s a globster in it. because the Fel Sage read about one, got one imported to study, and now doesn’t know what to do with it. She doesn’t feed it much, so it’s hungry.
The Fel Sage has stuck a lurker above in the room off the right eye socket, to protect access to the Lore room. It knows she’s rotted meat, and has no interest in eating her.
*Two bookcases are actually Wood Golems.
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Adventure Sketches are just the most basic set up, plot, twist, and development for as many or as few sessions as a GM wants to turn them into. They’re enough guidance to make plotting out a game easy, but not so much it’s hard to fit into any existing campaign.
Intended for Pathfinder, this adventure sketch can be modified to work with nearly any RPG with lawless lands, frontier zones, and numerous races.
The rapids are the most dangerous part of the great river, but are also on a branch of the river easily bypassed by those wishing to use it for travel. The land around the rapids is rockier and heavily overgrown, bad for farming and hard to travel through. It was considered to be most concerning as a potential place for bandit hideouts, but no such group was ever known to use it. As recently as a generation ago the rapids were considered too far from anything of value for any thinking group to bother with them.
But in recent years, numerous aquatic animals and magical beasts have attacked all up and down the rest of the great river, and most ponds and lakes near it. At first such attacks were only on isolated groups, mostly itinerant traders, and local settlements ignored it. But in recent months the attacks have been bolder. Major trade shipments have been attacked, and a few small thorps have been abandoned, with signs of attacks in the disused buildings.
Major merchant princes in faraway lands wish the disruptions of trade to end, and assume some brigand ranger or petty druid is finally using the lands of the rapids to set up an outlaw camp. The merchant princes wish to end the problem quickly and cheaply, and thus have placed a bounty on the leader of these presumed “rapids rogues.” The PCs are drawn into this situation, perhaps to pay off a debt, perhaps as guards for a river trader and his shipment, perhaps as a favor for a struggling vendor, or perhaps just for the bounty.
But in truth, it’s a brine dragon (a juvenile brine dragon perhaps, CR 8, and a good capstone fight for 5th or 6th level PCs) and its lizardmen conscripts that have been causing problems. The brine dragon, Breakwave, has also conquered the local nixie clan who once lived in idyllic peace in the rapids and surrounding lands. Breakwave wishes to build an empire, and forces the nixies to use their talents to train and command aquatic threats (giant caimans, anacondas, arapaima, monstrous electric eels, and dire river otters), and uses threats and bribes to turn any other nearby creatures into soldiers.
The PCs must fight their way through the rapids, learn the true nature of the threat, rescue citizens of the abandoned settlements (many of whom have been pressed into service by Breakwave), bypass monstrous and aquatic guards, and finally defeat Breakwave himself.
And then the real adventure begins.
Breakwave has angered numerous other nearby threats–attacking some, extorting others–and his death causes those threats to rush into the lands around the rapids to claim his presumed hoard. Further, without his *undesired) patronage, and with the rapids now seen as a crucial tactical location, the nixies and their care for that section of the great river are doomed–unless they can convince the PCs to protect them (perhaps in return for the nixies’ loyalty).
And the merchant princes suddenly think the PCs may be making too great a profit. And the lizardmen came from a not-too-distant tribe, who expected regular payments in return for the lizardman mercenary service, and will demand recompense for the loss of the income Breakwater provided.
The PCs can flee the situation, or try to use diplomacy to re-establish equilibrium, or claim the area as their own base of operation, of even pick up where Breakwave left off…
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One of the things I have given as advice to people who want to break into rpg writing or increase the amount of rpg writing work they receive, is to make pitches to smaller companies. The logic here is that while Paizo and Fantasy Flight and Wizards of the Coast pretty well all know exactly what books they are doing for the next 12-18 months, and likely already have some sense of their schedule over the next 5 years or so, smaller RPG companies are more likely to be flexible and interested in projects freelancers are excited to write. You probably can’t get WotC to publish your idea for an adventure or a book on halfling baking magic, but Rogue Genius Games, Rite Publishing, and other small-to-mid-range companies are more likely to be interested.
If you do it right. And I never really talk about what that looks like. So, here’s a new Writing Basics to cover making rpg-related pitches. A lot of this is going to carry over to other publishing mediums and freelance work… and a lot won’t. As usual this is where I have the most experience, so this is where I am focusing my advice.
Way Before You Pitch
But before you do more than jot down some ideas you want to pitch, you have some pre-work to do. A lot of this is boring, and requires you to put in a lot of effort and thought before you get to any of the fun stuff of making things up for a game. That’s one of the big secrets of freelance work. It’s three jobs—successfully get the assignment, do the assignment, and then get paid for the assignment. The willingness to do this “boring part” is a huge part of how to get good without depending on getting lucky.
So, you want to pitch some companies. That means you need to pick some targets, and study those targets. I don’t want to make this sound creepier than it has to, but that really is the best way to say this.
You need to know who to pitch to, and you need to know what to pitch to them. One good way to find companies who are doing current work in the game system you want to write for is to go to DriveThruRPG, search for the game system, and click its home page. On the left is a list of game companies that have had good recent sales on products for that game line. Those are prime targets, because they are making money on that game and are doing do recently.
That’s not the only method of course—see who is active, who freelancers are talking about, who releases lots of products. Ask around.
Once you know who you want to pitch, you want to make it as easy as possible for the people you pitch to say yes, and that requires knowing somethings about them. Check their web sites. Look to see if they have submission guidelines. Look to see if they have a “Contact Us” link somewhere. Look to see if the owners or employees or recurring freelancers have social media you can follow and, if they do, read everything you can.
You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. You want to know as much as you can about every company you are going to send pitches to. If they are looking for something specific, if they work in particular game lines, you want to know. Do they use a lot of authors for each product? What size product do they publish? What kinds of products do they publish? Adventures? Monster books? New rules content? Campaign settings? Entire game expansions? Whole games?
Before you ever approach a game company asking if they want to give you work, you want to have a solid idea what kinds of things they publish. That’s a big part of “making it easy to say yes.” Sure, if you have a brilliant idea that’s radically different from what a company normally does they may opt to take a risk on you… but that’s a bigger ask than suggesting you be the person to fill a slot they are already likely to want somebody to fill.
Also, BUY some of the company’s products. Yes, this means spending money before you make money. But not every game company has a style guide, and even the ones who do don’t include all the things they do out of institutional momentum. How a company arranges headers, whether it uses first-person, second-person, or third-person language, how it handles pronouns, how much art it uses, how many maps it presents, how serious or jokey their products are—those things can vary wildly (and can vary by line, or even by product). Knowing at least some of how a company actually presents game material is a huge help both when deciding what to pitch them, and in producing a manuscript they like enough to want to work with you again.
If you can, categorize the types of products produced by numerous game companies and their various lines. This can be helpful when you are first pitching, but it can also be helpful later on. For example, if you know what companies product short monster books for pathfinder tied to a single theme, then if you pitch a book like that to one of them and get turned down, you can quickly decide who to pitch it to next.
Finally, if you have any contacts within the industry, you may want to ask about their experiences working for each of the companies you have picked. Knowing if they are friendly, timely, how they pay (profit-share? Per word? Upon completion or upon publication?), what rights they take (work for hire or share of rights?) can help you know what to expect. You can always try to negotiate these things if they don’t match your needs (and should walk away from an offer rather than take one not worth your time or that takes advantage of you), but that’s another issue that may make it harder for a company to say yes to you.
We’ll continue this advice with Part Two: What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
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