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Spicing Up ttRPG Combats: Local Benefits and Drawbacks

One way to make combat encounters more interesting is to add local features that can affect the course of the battle. Regardless of game system and whether using maps and miniatures, vtts, or theater of the mind, you can make a simple attack by brigands (or mob enforcers, walking tanks, dragons, or whatever lese works in your campaign) more complex and memorable by adding quicksand, tar pits, rickety bridges, vines, dense underbrush, boulders, eldritch altars, holy sites, traps, fog, and dozens of other elements.

Today I am going to discuss two kinds of elements — local benefits, and local drawbacks.

A Local Benefit: Anything that makes the PCs’ easier, but only in part of an encounter or only in limited ways. The most common examples of this in ttRPG adventures are concealment, cover, and holy auras, and those are great places to start. These can be ad hoc ( a pile of rocks that characters can get on top of or crouch behind), or more explicitly set up (an old ruined defensive wall still has a single one-person crenelated tower a archer or spellcaster can take cover within, and only two easily-guarded stairs grant access to it, allowing melee-focused characters to intercept foes trying to reach the tower top). Local benefits can be as simple as having the high ground or an easily defensible position, or as complex as a narrow zone on the map that can be seen by an allied sniper, fighting fire elementals in the rain, or having a space where PCs can set up traps and extra supplies in advance.

A Local Drawback: Anything that makes the PCs’ lives more difficult, but only in part of the encounter or only in a limited way. While things like monstrous spider webs, difficult or slippery terrain, enemies with cover, traps, and unholy magical auras are fairly common in ttRPG adventures, it’s possible to spread well beyond these examples For example, fighting in a cave behind a waterfall can drown out all sound, or fighting full amphibious foes around a deep, black pool they can easily see and move through but the PCs (or at least most of them) can’t.

It’s true that anything that counts as a local benefit for the heroes can be reversed to be a local drawback, but look out for things that seem local but are actually the only location the majority of the action is going to happen. A fight with a staircase on the field might well lead to a few interesting combat moments, but if the fight is focused almost entirely on getting up or down those stairs, they go from a regional effect to the majority of the terrain used in the encounter. There’s nothing conceptually wrong with that, but it can greatly magnify the impact the added element has on both overall fun and the outcome of the encounter

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Root of the Problem (A Pathfinder 1e Mini-Adventure)

I recently applied for a full-time, remote, full-benefits, game writing position at Foundry. (One thing I have learned in this industry is that you need to keep up with changing needs and markets.) While I didn’t make the final cut, I did get far enough along to do a timed writing test. I was given instructions at 10am by email, and had to return my work by noon. The test called for an adventure in any game system I wished, that included a missing druid as part of the plot and at minimum one encounter that included investigation, one that included talking to an NPC, and one that was potentially a fight. The main prompt was “The wilderness surrounding a remote town has become perilous. Wildlife that previously avoided contact with humans is now overcome with some form of madness or disease, attacking townsfolk with reckless ferocity. A local druid and longtime protector of the region has gone missing. The protagonists are tasked with investigating the nature of this affliction and resolving it, if possible.”

Obviously, with just two hours for a complete adventure I just managed a “first draft” level of manuscript. But I thought people might be interested in what a produced. So, with Foundry’s express permission, here is “Root of the Problem,” a Pathfinder 1st -edition Mini-Adventure for 3-4 characters of 1st level. By Owen K.C. Stephens.

(Art by Chaotic Design Studio, and not part of the original writing test)

Adventure Background
The Crosstimbers are a dense and ancient forest, filled with towering evergreen trees that rise up to 300 feet tall, smaller trees that grow in clumps so tight that their limbs cross and weave together to form natural platforms, and dense, thorny underbrush that is often impassable to anything larger than a rabbit. They are also the site of an ancient battle thousands of years ago, between a powerful necromancer queen and a court of faeries. Though relics of this battle are mostly buried deep beneath the roots and moss of the forest, their influence can sometimes reach up to the surface level.

One such ancient power is the Grave of Lord Vaugir, also known as the Baron of Stakes. A powerful wight warrior who served the necromancer queen, Vaugir had a particular hatred of vampires (even those who were theoretically his allies), and carried a number of wooden stakes he used to both unsure those he killed would not raise as vampires naturally, and to destroy any vampire he could successfully accuse of treachery to their queen. Lord Vaugir was slain by a group of faerie Swan Knights, and buried in a stone tomb hundreds of feet below the surface. While Vaugir himself remains trapped in the tomb, a few roots of one redwood have cracked one corner of his burial vault, and been tainted by his undead powers.

This influence has not gone unnoticed, as the dwarven druid Ferron Ironbark has long known one of the Crosstimber’s mighty trees was fighting some dread infection. Ironbark has monitored the tree for decades, doing his best to heal and nurture it in the hopes it would overcome what ailment was attacking it. However, at the last new moon, the necromantic energy finally took control of one of the redwood’s roots right at the surface becoming the Grave Root and, when Ferron came to visit it, it impaled him through the heart. Ferron’s apprentice, a brownie named Rumpleridge, managed to drag Ferron back to the druid’s grove, and has watched over the body to ensure it won’t rise as some form of undead.

The Grave Root still does not control more than one short length of the redwood it is attached to. It cannot free itself, and cannot, yet, taint the entire massive tree it’s attached to. However, it can reach a spring adjacent to where the redwood grows, and has been tainting that water for a month now. The spring is a common watering hole for native fauna, which are also being tainted by the Grave Root’s power. This makes them ravenously hungry and much more aggressive than usual, but also causes them to work together and not attack one another regardless of the natural instincts.

Not far from Ferron’s grove is the town of Highmoss-On-The-Hill (often just referred to as “Highmoss”), a walled settlement just outside the Crosstimbers. The people of Highmoss have long been on good terms with Ferron, and work to maintain a sustainable relationship with the Crosstimbers. They gather herbs and wild mushrooms, hunt only as much food as they can eat, drag out dead timber for their own use, and make sure any foray into the forest is able to come home before nightfall. While an occasional attack by minor monsters or wild animals is not unknown, in the past month anyone who stays in the Crosstimbers for more than 2-3 hours has suffered an attack by wolves, wolverines, a bear, or even packs of apparently-rabid squirrels. No one has seen Ferron (and the town is unaware he has died), and in recent days some townsfolk have been attacked within sight of Highmoss’s walls, not even within the Crosstimbers.

The Town Council has decided someone must venture into the Crosstimbers are travel to Ferron’s Grove, a 6-hour trip down a well-known path, and speak to the druid. This group should confer with Ferron, determine what is going on, and if possible assist him in fixing it. The more experienced hunters in town who would normally undertake such a missing are missing or too injured from wildlife attacks to attempt it, so the PCs have been chosen to do so. It is the height of summer, and daylight lasts 15 hours from sunup to sundown. If the PCs hurry it is hoped they can enter the Crosstimbers at dawn, consult with Ferron, solve the issue, and return before sundown.

Random Encounters
Wandering around the Crosstimbers is genuinely much more dangerous than usual, and there’s a chance the PCs may encounter some of the fauna that has been affected by the water tainted by the Grave Root. Until the water source is cleaned, for each hour the PCs are exploring the Crosstimbers there is a 20% chance of the PCs being confronted by one of following random
encounters. That chance doubles at night, and is halved if the PCs have been confronted by an
encounter in the past hour.
[Insert CR ½-1 random animal encounters here]

The Dead Hunter
The trail is marred by the smell of blood and signs of a vicious fight. Torn leather and cloth are scattered about, and a few tufts of black fur sit matted in old pools of blood.

This is the location where a Highmoss senior hunter, Apaxus Longshank, was attacked and killed by a pack of black wolves tainted by the spring next to the Grave Root. His body was dragged off the trail when they ate him, and a DC 10 Survival check to track or DC 15 Perception check to spot signs of the drag marks can locate him.

Examining the body show bite marks that can be identified as wolves, but the more significant clues are on Longshank’s own weapons. He fought with a masterwork handaxe and shortsword, which are still clutched in what’s left of his hands. They are bloody from the fight, but the blood is streaked with dark, oily slime. A DC 10 Knowledge (religion) check reveals this is necroplasm, a material sometimes used in place of blood by undead creatures. Finding it mixed with actual blood suggests the attacking wolves had been tainted by undead energy, but not yet true undead.

The Grove of Ferron Ironbark
The dense canopy of leaves and branches above break open, and light shines down to reveals a small, neat grove just off the path. There is a round hut with neatly fitted stone walls, a low, wide wooden door, and a roof apparently made of interwoven tree leaves and needles. A firepit sits in the middle of the clearing, with a wooden framework holding a small iron cauldron and
kettle side-by-side above it, but there is no fire now.

To one side of the clearing a neat pile of rocks has been build in an elongated dome roughly five feet long and three feet high. Laying next to it is a short humanoid, no taller than a human’s knee, with a bulbous head topped with a pointed felt cap.

This is the grove of Ferron Ironbark, but now it is his burial place. The brownie Rumpleridge build a stone cairn for his teacher and friend Ferron, and guards it all day and night. Rumpleridge won’t notice or acknowledge the PCs unless they call out to him, and even then, he’s slow to realize who they are or what they want. But eventually his enormous tear-streaked eyes will focus on them, and he’ll answer their questions as best he can. Rumpleridge wants to honor his teacher’s alliance with Highmoss, but is unwilling to leave the cairn for any reason. He plans to stay here through the summer and fall, and only come winter will he consider moving on.

Rumpleridge knows the general backstory of the Crosstimbers, but not the details of Lord Vaugir’s tomb or creeping influence. He does know Ferron was convinced some ancient, deeply buried evil was tainting a specific redwood an hour from the grove, at a major watering hole, and that a root from that tree impaled the druid. He gets tearful when he admits he saw the event,
and that it took all his strength and cunning to drag Ferron back home, and bury him.

Rumpleridge knows animals are going rogue, and can confirm that behavior began when Ferron was killed. It doesn’t occur to Rumpleridge that the Grave Root is infecting the nearby watering hole, but he does mention the infected redwood is “By the main watering hole in this section of woods,” and if a PC asks if the watering hole could be the source of the problem, Rumpleridge agrees the animals becoming vicious are all ones that would periodically drink there. As Ferron had been checking on the tainted redwood for decades, there is a well-worn path leading from the clearing here to the watering hole.

If attacked or pushed too hard to render aid, Rumpleridge will use his brownie powers to harass and confuse the PCs, but he won’t risk harming them. If he must, he flees into the Crosstimbers, and only returns to the cairn after the PCs have left.

The Grave Root
A large pond sits in a low point in the forest, a short outcropping of rocks surrounding it to the north and west, and the roots of a mighty redwood bordering it to the south and east. The surface of the pond’s water seems oily and black, with dark swirls spinning within it though there seems to be no breeze or current to cause the movement. At the southern edge of the pond, one root among the masses is darker, wetter, and more gnarled than the others, it’s 10-15 foot length pulsing slightly. The tip of the root moves, dipping itself into the pool to release a black ooze that joins the oily darkness covering all the water. The root then curls up, rising like a wooden tentacle, and sways back and forth.

The Grave Root uses the stats for a Draugir (HP 19, Bestiary 2), but with the following changes.
It has 15 feet of reach. It is immobile. It can fire a hunk of its own rotting bark as a target as a ranged attack that uses its slam attack, but has a range increment of 20 feet.

If the Grave Root notices the PCs, it immediately attacks. If destroyed, it breaks down into rotting mulch, and the oily blackness begins to clear from the water (taking 2-3 hours to be fully gone). If a PC drinks the water before it is clear, they are immediately confused and affected by the rage spell for 1d10 minutes.

The oily material on the pond is necroplasm, and PCs who found Longshank’s body can identify it as the same as was in the blood on his weapons. Without the Grave root, the water will run clear within hours, and the tainted animals return to normal within a few days.

Continuing the Adventure
Dealing with the Grave Root eliminated the immediate problem, but the risk presented by Lord Vaugir’s tomb remains. Striking up a friendship with Rumpleridge can help explore the region and safely travel further into the Crosstimbers. Seeking a senior member of the faerie court that claims rulership over the forest may reveal the true nature of the evils buried beneath it, and
lead to finding and dealing with Lord Vaugir, and other threats like him.

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The Dichotomy

As a GM, I often want to make sure I am providing a rich environment where players can roleplay, explore, build connections and networks, expand into their own character and story, and feel they have a voice within and impact on the world they are thrust into. I try avoid making every session just a “monster of the week” fight, or endless dungeon stomp.

As a player I love those things when they seem to evolve naturally. When it feels like they are being forced and this results in slow sessions where no player is particularly engaged and things are sow, I desperately wish we could just go smash undead/punch fascists/shoot robots. I much prefer even a typical monster-of-the-week fight to a roleplaying session where things aren’t gel-ing.

This makes me wonder how often I am trying to hard as a GM, failing to just let things naturally evolve on the RP side. I have begun to think part of the issue is that my own GM style tends towards crucial, needful conflicts that can’t wait. That’s partially in response to my players generally being the opposite of murder hobos — they don’t want to have characters that murder and loot for the sake of murdering and looting, but want to be heroes who put themselves in harms way while saving others… even as they as players enjoy the action and reward of fighting and looting. So, I often generate foes who *must* be opposed for ethical reasons, and then players feel like they can’t take a day off without letting someone down.

Maybe I can find a way to have more fights and risks be optional, things you can feel good about going and opposing, but not feel bad if you let them sit because everyone really wants to help the orphaned goblin child find a home this week.

This is the other side of roleplaying for me; the flip side of rules and tactics and action economies and even storytelling. The fine tuning of figuring out what activities the GM and players will all enjoy going through within the game.

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“Celestial Heroes,” An Adventure Sketch (With Notes for 4 Game Systems)

I’ve wanted to do a full write-up for this adventure for years, but never had time. So, here’s a sketch of the general idea.

Players their PCs are all very junior angels–celestial outsiders who mostly sort through prayer requests to see what to pass up to higher ranks of the divine bureaucracy, but who also get an occasional flash of excitement by being summoned by the faithful to aid in a fight. The players should give their characters names and personalities, but not worry about game stats yet.

The PCs are spending time sorting through prayers, and notice that a specific priest keeps praying for guidance about the impending destruction of the Astral plane (the “Catastralphe”). There’s nothing in their sorting guidelines about that topic, so protocol is to take it to a one-rank-higher angel, who assures them there is not such thing, and to file the prayer requests under “mortal paranoia.”

Then, on their way back to their duties, the PCs are summoned… by that selfsame priest! She’s 1st level, so she can only keep them for a limited about of time.

If you are running this as a 5e game, the priest has used a scroll with a 1st-level variant of conjure animals, and gets the PCs as minor celestials instead, but can’t give them verbal orders and she can only concentrate on it for up to 1 minute. If this is a PF 2 game, the PCs are summoned with a summon lessor servitor spell and can be around for up to a minute if the priest is able to maintain concentration. If PF 1, it’s summon monster I to call up celestial animals for 1 round. If Starfinder, it’s summon creature at a 1st-level spell, again for 1 round.

Rather than just sticking with the creatures those spells normally summon, allow each PC to select a creature of the same power level to represent their summoned form, AND let them pick anything vaguely appropriate for their appearance. If the rules would let them be an eagle, but they want to be a winged housecat, let their imagination loose. Note to the players that they are celestial spirits in a temporal mortal body regardless. Death has no consequence for them here.

(Art by lenka)

The priest doesn’t speak any of the languages they do, so they have to guess what she wants them to do — but they are summoned while she and four other people (clearly adventures — a fighting type in heavy armor, an arcane type, a sneak, and some kind of sage) are fighting for their lives (all already badly damaged) against what appear to be negative wind elementals (just use air element stats and have them do cold or shadow damage) in an ancient stone chamber that clearly depicts the Astral Plane being rended to destruction, and all the planes of the multiverse being flung apart (no longer able to connect to each other).

With a bit of luck the summoned celestial PCs can save the heroes (if not, just replace any that get killed in future encounters), and regardless of how the fight goes the PCs see that the ancient temple clearly has some real eldritch power connected to it, and the impending Catastralphe.

When their time is up, whether the priest and her adventuring party are safe or not, the PCs return to the angelic plane. They can take up the issue of whether the Catastralphe is real or not, but the celestial bureaucracy considers it to be much more likely that a set of junior angels misinterpreted what they saw than for there to be a true multiplanar threat the Angelic Host never heard of.

Later, the PCs get summoned again… but it’s clear that months have passed on the mortal plane, and the priest is now 3rd level, so she can use more powerful spells to summon more powerful allies. The PCs can maintain their appearance (or evolve it, perhaps from winged housecat to winged bobcat), get to choose new higher-level creatures for their ability scores. This time they are helping defend the priest and her adventuring allies who are being attacked at night, in an inn, by humanoid assassins who have no face, just a lamprylike fanged maws taking up the whole of the front of their heads. (Pick any CR-appropriate monsters and just give them new descriptions).

The priest is clearly surprised to see the PCs, suggesting they are not what she thought she was summoning, but she is also happy for their help.

Upon their return to the Angelic Host, if the PCs bring it up the event, they are directed to the Conjuration Control Department, where they discover there’s at least one other angel that believes in the Catastralphe, a planar traffic controller who is directing them to answer the priest’s summoning when she is showing to be near an important moment in her life.

The adventure goes on like this, with PCs working their way up through the ranks of the Celestial Bureaucracy, most angels not really believing in the interplanar threat, but grudgingly suggest the Pcs should look for specific clues when summoned. The GM should come up with a list of things — specific sigils, or eldritch currents, or the scent of the abyssal influence, so PCs can have investigating they can do when summoned. Meanwhile the priest continues to gain levels and summon the PCs with higher-and-higher level spells, months or years passing between the times they see her, and her quest is also clearly taking a toll on her. Some of her companions die, and are replaced. She loses and eye, from then on having an eyepatch when the PCs are summoned. At some point, she manages to learn their language, so she can speak to them when they arrive… but they can only go to her when she summons allies in a crucial moment in her life, so communication is always rushed during a desperate fight.

As the PCs gain influence among Angels, they are allowed to explore Forbiddings –places within the Heavens once kept by angels that fell and became devils. These encounters are to seek out lost lore on the Catastralphe, as their recurring encounters with cultists and supernatural entities on the Mortal Plane trying to kill the priest and her adventuring party suggest it might be real after all. However the Forbiddings are in the same heavenly reality as the PCs. While they use the same game stats as when they were last summoned for adventures in the Forbiddings, death there is permanent even for up-and-coming angels.

Eventually the combination of clues gained when summoned and when exploring the Forbiddings expose that the Catastralphe is real, and it is the eons-long plot of a fallen angel who wishes to rip the planes apart so it can become effectively a god of whatever bit of the multiverse it has access to after the Astral plane is destroyed. Once this revelation is in place, there are two more major encounters. First, the Fallen Angel can only be stopped with a weapon found in the most dangerous of Forbiddings, and that weapon can only be wielded by those who procure it, so the PCs must go get it. Second, the Fallen Angel’s ultimate base of operations is impossible for any celestial to enter without being summoned from within. So the PCs must wait for the priest to call them for aid one last time, and hope she does so in time for them to use their newly acquired relic weapon to stop the impending Catastralphe.

Obviously, this can be as quick as a 3-4 session mini campaign, or as long as a 1st-20th game, depending on how many encounters the GM decides to fill into this vague sketch of plot points. But I love the idea of Pcs being summon creatures (originally the idea was celestial badgers, back in 3.5 rules days), who have no fear of dying in most of their fights, but have to get anything they want done in the mortal realm done quickly, when summoned, while another fight is already going on. I also like the idea of players not having to make characters in any traditional sense, though it would be easy enough to let them pick special abilities as they “gained levels,” like being to reroll one attack roll per fight, or one saving throw, or teleport once, to represent their angelic nature growing stronger even as they hop from stat block to stat block as more and more powerful spells call them to battle.

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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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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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The Bottomless Tombs, Area 2

You can find the introduction, map, and index of the Bottomless Tombs here!

Area 2: The First Passage

Thirty feet down the shaft is the first passage, off the south wall. When the heroes are free to pay attention to it (likely after killing the centipedes in Area 1, though who knows how PCs will react to a vertical battle?), and assuming they have a light or can see in the dark, read or paraphrase the following.

An opening in the southern wall reveals a small space, no more than five feet wide and six feet tall. A 1-foot ledge sticks out into the shaft forming a narrow balcony that is part of that space’s floor. The opening is no more than a large hole in the shaft’s wall, with a broken door sitting in a stone frame 5 feet in. The floor is littered with bits of broken pottery, wood, and dirt, and the walls are stained by dark splashes of color.

More than one adventuring party has left a guard here over the years, and just left their refuse behind. The stains can be identified with a DC 10 Knowledge (dungeonering), or (nature) check to be a mix of water stains from when rain gets into the holw and old ichor, maybe from large vermin.

If more than one Small or Medium creature tries to fit within the space, they must squeeze.

The door was once fine preserved wood and brass, but has long since been smashed in and the brass fittings and hinges removed. A careful examination allows a DC 15 Perception check to realize the door was not designed to ever be opened once it was closed, and it had a trap built into the wall, though it is also long since gone.

The doorway leads to a 10-foot-long, 5-foot wide corridor, which ends in a portcullis. Read or paraphrase the following:

A portcullis blocks passage any further south. Made of rusted iron, it runs the width of the corridor, and its spiked bards set into small holes in the floor. It is covered in worn runs, and shows obvious signs of having been battered and hammered on, and one bar is bent outward toward you, making a space roughly the size of a cat. Just past the portcullis is a cross-corridor, running east and west. A lever, also of rusted iron, sits in the wall of that corridor, currently in the ‘down’ position. A rotting bag of sand is attached to the leaver by a frayed rope.

If you lift the leaver, the portcullis goes up. The last group of adventurers here tied a sandbag to the lever so it would be pulled down after they left. There’s no easy way to use a rope or similar flexible device to pull up on the lever from the north side of the portcullis.

The portcullis can be lifted by a DC 24 Strength check (so an 18 Strength character can do it by taking 20, though this is loud and time consuming). A Small creature can get through the bent-out bars with a DC 18 Escape Artist check, though failure results in 1 hp of damage from jagged edges. The portcullis has 8 hardness and 30 hp per bar, so a group could just hammer on it and hope to break open a bigger hole.

A DC 15 Disable Device check allows a character to find a way to trigger the lever, and a DC 15 Engineering check can be used to rig a staff or similar device to flip the lever u by using the crossbars on the portcullis as a leverage point, though this also requires a successful DC 15 Strength check.

Developments: The louder the PCs are, the more likely it is they draw out something from Area 3.

Design Philosophy: It’s a dungeon, so it should reward people ready for traps and mechanisms… but also not prevent groups without such preparation from getting to the fun part if they work at it. So this has lots of solutions, and is mostly about the players deciding how they want to handle such things.
It also establishes that doors here may have traps, which will matter later, with being a gotcha moment for players.

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The Bottomless Tombs, Area 1

We introduced the Bottomless tombs, and their map on Monday, and discussed the staging area around them yesterday.

So, it’s time to head down the shaft!

Area 1: Entering the Shaft [CR 1]

If the players closely examine the shaft before heading down, read or paraphrase the following.

The sides of the shaft are worked stone, but show signs of considerable wear. In a few places, smooth, though cracked, finishing stone still lines the walls but most of that has long-since chipped away. Most of the shaft is cracked stones, and in many cases these have large cracks, through which thick roots and vines grow to choke the shaft, tangled around the wreckage of worn logs and rope rigging from one or more some kind apparatuses that has fallen into the shaft in recent years.

If the PCs have darkvision, or a directional lightsource (such as a bullseye lantern), or wait until the sun is directly overhead, add the following.

It’s impossible to see more than 35-40 feet down the shaft, but a dark shadow just short of the limit of that range suggests a side passage extends off the southern wall of the shaft.

The first side passage is 30 feet down on the southern wall of the shaft. The only way to get to it, is to climb (or fly, but mostly 1st level characters can’t do that).

Hazards: The Climb DC for this section of the shaft is 10 if a PC just tries to climb along the roots and wreckage. If a rope is added (perhaps anchored to the iron ring in the staging area), the Climb DC drops to 5. Characters can take 10 on this check as long as nothing is attacking them. (Yeah… wait for it)

If a character fails a check by 5 or more, they fall. Luckily, the shaft of the Bottomless Tomb is so checked with roots and detritus, they eventually land on something able to hold their weight. When a character falls, roll 2d6 – 1d6. This value is both the damage they take, and the number of 5-foot squares they fall before landing on something. Most of the damage is from bouncing off roots or falling through rotted wood or frayed ropes. A character can fall 55 feet and only take 11 points of damage because they never build up much momentum.

If the value of the roll is 0 or less, the character is caught within 1 foot by something, and takes no damage.

Foes: There are house centipedes living in the cracks in the walls of the top of the shaft. they pretty well ignore ropes, rocks, or other things being thrown in (unless someone things to dangle meat on a rope, in which case they come out and swarm up the rope to get at the PCs), but once a creature is 20 feet down, they crawl out to attack any potential meal.

If you want to make their attack dramatic, read or paraphrase the following:

A noise like sand trickling over tight leather slowly fills the shaft. Movement rustles roots and ropes, beginning at one of the walls. A long centipede crawls out, more that a foot from it’s clicking mandibles to the end of its 100-legged body, the length of a halfling’s arm! Two more follow it, their heads swinging back and forth as the crawl along the sides and bottoms of the detritus choking the shaft and scuttle toward you!

Three centipedes attack when the first character gets down 20 feet. They have climb speeds, so they easily reach any point in the shaft. They attack any adjacent creature, or if none is adjacent the last creature to attack them.

They have cover from anyone more than 10 feet away, due to how clogged the shaft is.

Remember that despite their massive strength penalties, they do at least 1 hp on a successful attack.

Developments: After 1d4+1 rounds, three more house centipedes attack having been drawn by the sounds of combat.

Design Philosophy: There’s a lot going on with this encounter.

First, if you manage at least a +0 Climb bonus you can safely move around until the centipedes attack, and if you thought to have a rope anyone with at least a +4 (likely including anyone with a rank and a class skill and light armor) still can’t fail. this rewards more mobile characters even at 1st level.

Second, it’s a high-tension fight over a bottomless pit… carefully set up so if you fall you get caught before you go too far.

Third, anyone with even one point of DR can largely ignore the centipedes.

Fourth, it’s a 6-foe fight, which rarely happens until much higher level.

Fifth, the cover means melee characters in the shaft have a real advantage over ranged characters. This may not be true for most of their adventuring career, but it’s nice to start things off rewarding the nimble rogue on a rope with a dagger in one hand.

Sixth… poison. Not too serious, but anyone with bonuses to saves against poison gets to benefit from that immediately.

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The Bottomless Tombs, Staging Area

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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The Power of Blackskull (for Pathfinder)

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

(Blackskull cartography from Dyson Logos, and available for use by license)

History

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

CR 8

XP 4,800
Female lich (human) bard (archivist) 7
NE Medium undead
Init +2; Senses darkvision (60 ft.), Perception +19; Aura fear (60-ft. radius, DC 19)
DEFENSE
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
OFFENSE
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
STATISTICS
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 languagesscrolls 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 +1headband 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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