Designer’s Diary: Raging Swan Press – Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands (Pathfinder)

Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands
Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands is an adventure module for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game published by Raging Swan Press.
By Creighton Broadhurst

Welcome to the thirty-third Designer’s Diary, a regular column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product. If you’d like to share your product in the Designer’s Diary column, send a message to

The following article was extracted from a series of Design Thoughts posted at the Raging Swan Press blog, used with permission. For more information, visit Raging Swan Press at

One of my all-time favourite modules is T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. I’ve run it many times (and even got to play parts of it on occasion). It is a classic in every sense of the word and still an awesome module. In Dungeon magazine, it was ranked the 4th greatest D&D adventure of all time.

My favourite part of the adventure is the Moathouse, I think that in many ways it is a near perfect starter adventure. A small ruined location that low-level PCs can poke about in that has several different “zones;” the upper ruined level claimed by a small group of bandits and various monstrous animals and the lower levels claimed by the evil cleric Lareth and a variety of humanoids.

It provides an excellent blend of challenges and leads into a greater adventure if the PCs so wish. It’s a challenging locale, but rewards are there to be had for the brave and perceptive.

I’ve always wanted to write a module like the Moathouse, but never got around to it. I was surfing the net last year, when I came across an awesome image by Marc Radle.

Before I knew it, the image had leapt off the screen, belted me around the face and shouted “Moathouse!” Needless to say, I immediately purchased it, stuck it on my wall directly above my desk and began to ponder how I might use it. It did become immediately apparent to m e that I really needed to set a module in the ruined keep, but I hate to rush things and at the time I was writing other stuff so I didn’t immediately jump into the project.


I’m one of these people that like to plan something before I get started; I find it very hard just to dive in and get cracking (as previous experience has taught me doing that inevitably wastes time and the result is normally inferior). Once I’d decided to write a homage to the Moathouse, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about why I liked the Moathouse so much and how I could emulate that experience in Pathfinder. To me the Moathouse had several essential elements:

  • The Moathouse made sense – it reeked of a decent amount of realism without sacrificing game play.
  • It had different zones: some parts of the upper ruins were inhabited by various monstrous inhabitants while bandits lived in another part. Below ground, the evil cleric Lareth held sway. Different zones required different skill sets and tactics which kept play fresh.
  • There was minor grade conflict between some of these groups. This could be exploited through clever play.
  • There were loads of detail in the Moathouse that, if you paid attention, could give you clues about its past. In this way you got rewarded for poking about and investigating stuff instead of just blindly whacking everything in your path.
  • While the original module didn’t go into great detail, the Moathouse was part of a larger adventure – you could go on from there to explore other locales that led directly from what was discovered therein.

I knew that Shadowed Keep on the Borderland had to have these elements. Along with Raging Swan’s basic design principles that underpin every product we put out, I added these additional criteria:

  • The module locale should be richly detailed so the players can immerse themselves in the ruins.
  • There had to be a good story behind the ruins (and PCs should be able to discover that story; the best story in the world is pointless if the players don’t learn it.)
  • The module had to be generic enough that almost any GM could add it to their campaign with minimal effort.
  • Like T1, the Shadowed Keep had to be a “starter dungeon” in that it would be suitable for 1st-level characters.
  • Players should be rewarded for being clever and paying attention.
  • No railroading. Players should have meaningful choices about the order in which they explore the ruin and about how they dealt with those challenges.
  • Provide areas for different classes to shine. So for example, I needed to include undead for clerics to blow up, physical challenges and traps for rogues to disarm (and so on).

Once I’d decided what I wanted to achieve with the module, I started to flesh out the basic details of the site.

I started to flesh out the basic details of the place. Of course, the first thing to think of was exactly how big an adventure I wanted. After some thought, I settled on having four distinctive zones within the ruins. Four is a good number because it lets you have a decent amount of variety without having to make design concessions or come up with an increasingly bizarre backstory to justify everything within the ruins.

Each zone, of course, had to have its own flavour otherwise the ruins would be kind of boring (and therefore not very fun to design, prepare or play). So before I started proper design, I had to come up with the absolute basic theme for each area. Now obviously Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands was a homage to the Moathouse from The Temple of Elemental Evil and so some of the choices were very obvious. Others, were driven by game design requirements to allow certain classes or races to shine.

After some thought, each zone’s basic “headline” shook out like:

Zone 1: Watchtower claimed by bandits. As an organised force, the bandits compete with the goblins for control over the ruins. Heavily fortified but with several ways in (for clever PCs).

Zone 2: Ruins inhabited by animals and vermin; the easiest of the zones. Access to a hidden zone (the keep’s treasure vault) the PCs will probably only find if they use their wits and diplomatic skills.

Zone 3: Underground dungeon level claimed by goblins and their allies. The goblins complete with the bandits for control of the ruins and are aided by several different types of allies; waves of identical goblins are very, very boring. Potential for further adventures.

Zone 4: Underground ruined dungeon level populated by undead and constructs. Potential for further adventures.

Additionally, it became very clear to me that the module should not dictate to the players in what order they should tackle the ruins. As a player  loathe railroading with the fiery passion of a thousand suns and I saw no need to inflict it on anyone playing this module. The players should be able to make meaningful choices about their exploration from almost the first moment of the adventure. There should also be multiple ways of accessing some of the levels and the layout of the place should reward clever play. (For example,  a secret entrance to the goblins’ lair that they don’t know about  – and don’t guard).

The adventure should also support further adventures so that the GM can customise and add to it as he sees fit. I also knew that I wanted to follow the old adage that the deeper you go the more dangerous it gets. It’s one of the dungeon design concepts that’s so universal that everyone understands it instinctively. So, the further away from ground level the PCs get (either up the watchtower or into the dungeons), the harder things get.

Finally, and this is a biggie, I wanted to build in ample opportunity for role-playing in the Shadowed Keep. It would be very easy to simple design a dungeon bash in which the PCs hack their way through increasingly dangerous opponents. While there’s nothing wrong with that style of play, I felt it important to add in many opportunities for the PCs to get around problems.

So at this point, it was time to work out how to fit all these different themes into the keep’s background. I’m a big fan of adventures having their own logical consistency. Why are the goblins there? Who built the keep? Why? These and lots more questions had to be answered and so I set about writing the adventure background.

Coming up with the basic themes for each area was relatively simple. What was a bit tricky was designing a backstory that both made sense and that the PCs would be able to discover during the course of the adventure.

One of my bugbears about some adventures I’ve run is that the adventure (or sometimes even a specific encounter) will have loads of cool backstory, but that essentially there is no way for the PCs to discover that story. Sure, it’s a great read for the GM, but essentially it’s just wasted space in the module, and can even lead to player frustration as they have no idea why the NPC was acting that way, why the monsters were there (or whatever). To me, a module which forces the GM to say “don’t worry, it all makes sense” to the players has failed to create an engaging and believable experience. That’s not to say a module shouldn’t have mysteries within, but that by the end of the module the PCs should have a decent chance to discover what was actually going on!

One of my key goals for the Shadowed Keep was that the ruin should/could act as a potential springboard for further adventures. One of my ideas for the keep to continue to focus in the campaign was that eventually, perhaps, the PCs could return when they had grown in power and claim the place as their own, repairing it and using it as a  base to subdue the surrounding territory. I thought a cool way of implanting the idea in the players’ heads would be to have the keep the home of a semi-retired adventurer and (as it turned out later) his family.

Sadly for that adventurer (Valentin Ironwolf), of course, there had to be a reason for the PCs to explore the ruin and thus his demise was assured. Conflict is at the heart of any good story and luckily the keep stands in a borderland area and thus it was logical to assume that Valentin had failed in his quest to establish a safe home for his family. Having decided that one of the adventure zones would be inhabited by goblins, it seemed obvious to determine that the tribe was responsible (at least in part) for the keep’s fall. Thus, when the PCs eventually defeated the goblins they would be revenging the fallen Valentin. The goblins lurked under the keep leaving the upper levels to fall into ruin – hence why monstrous creatures lurked in the donjon and why bandits eventually took over the watchtower.

The presence of the bandits also enabled me to add conflict into the current-day keep. Neither the goblins or the bandits would be happy with the presence of the other and so the two groups would be fighting over the keep when the PCs arrive. Clever PCs could discern this rivalry and possibly even use it to their own advantage.

Explaining the presence of the undead and constructs in zone 4 would be trickier. I wanted to include such a zone for PC clerics and paladins to show off their specialised abilities, but having such a locale under the keep of a retired adventurer required an extra element of the background. Of course, not all the elements of the background needed to flow from the adventurer and his family. So I decided that Valentin built a crypt to house his fallen retainers and that a later influence corrupted their remains. I also decided that this level should be free of goblin taint, so that it offered a completely different game experience. Thus, I decided that a minor earthquake struck the area after Valentin’s fall opening up a link to a deeply buried corruption.

Of course, the challenge of the module’s design was to enable the PCs to discover as much of this background as possible. In Pathfinder, of course, PCs can make knowledge checks to learn more about their environment – I just had to nudge them to make those checks. I was relatively certain that any halfway competent group would try and learn as much about the keep as possible before setting out (and provided tables to handle that) but I also scattered “calls to learn” throughout the keep – tapestries, carvings, remnants of the keep’s former occupants and a ghost who could provide much of the backstory. In the lower level (zone 4) the very condition of the dungeon – cracked and damaged walls, sagging ceilings and damaged columns all hinted at some movement of the earth. The chill temperature – that got colder as one approached the closest part of the dungeon to the corruption below – also highlighted the reasons for the undead being present (and possibly provided an avenue for future adventure).

Of course, it was not my intention to beat the players over the head with my Background Stick. At the end of the day, some gamers play just to hit stuff and the adventure had support that style of play. Including major encounters in which success hinged on knowing some key facet of the background were thus off the table – however, I knew that rewarding players who were paying attention to the various “calls to learn” was a Good Thing.

At the end of the day, the backstory is the spine of an adventure – everything should hang off it and everything should hang together to make a coherent, logical and believable adventure. If the backstory is illogical, baffling or indecipherable, the adventure itself would be a disaster.


In my opinion, modules are getting harder. What I mean by this is that designers seem to be writing adventurers to challenge the super-optimised group – the kind of guys who tweak their characters to the nth degree. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that style of play – in fact I do it myself on occasion – the problem is that writing to challenge the toughest, best prepared players inevitably rogers senseless the less prepared, casual, or god-forbidden, neophyte player who is just getting started with the hobby.

When I was on Living Greyhawk’s Circle of Six I witnessed a kind of bizarre, escalating arms race in which module designers and players each strove to outdo one another with the toughest legal builds. I like a challenge as next as the next player – there is nothing better than crushing the evil villain and saving the day – but similarly I don’t want every adventure or encounter I play to be balls to the wall, crazy dangerous.

As the “arm’s race” intensified, I got the impression that some modules were nothing more than a series of rather tough fights  – the background, plot, environment, NPCs and everything else that makes a great module seemed to be more and more pushed to the periphery of the design process.

That was not going to be the case in Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenging encounters in this adventure, but there are also very easy ones.

So with that rant out of the way, here are the principles (or “the spine”) of my encounter design philosophy for the adventure:

  • Meaningful Choices. I loath railroading modules with the fiery passion of a thousands burning stars and I believe most players also feel that way. At almost every juncture, the players should have a choice about how they proceed. Do they try the tower or the donjon first? How do they get into the tower? Do they deal with the goblins or dare the undercrypts?
  • Reward Clever Play. Players who pay attention, come up with clever ideas, remain observant and so on should be rewarded. Skill use should be rewarded. I tend to break skills down into two basic, very broad categories: combat (things like Stealth, Acrobatics) and knowledge (Appraise, Knowledge, Diplomacy etc.) Both sets of skills should be useful in the adventure. After all, if a rogue takes Appraise or a wizard takes Knowledge (engineering) and never gets to use them, that sucks. Part of the dungeon should only be findable if the PCs are paying attention, but this part should not be an essential part.
  • Logically Consistent. Each encounter should be logically consistent with the history, background and current condition of the keep. What was the room once used for? What is it being used for now? Can the PCs make educated guesses based on the conditions, contents and decorations of the area?
  • Danger. Obviously, there will be danger in the Shadowed Keep, but this danger should grow greater the further away from ground level (in either direction) the PCs venture. So, for example, the upper levels of the bandit’s tower and the upper level of the donjon are more dangerous that than the floor beneath.
  • Avoid the 15-Minute Adventuring Day. I hate the 15-minute adventuring day. Such days normally come about because the challenges the PCs face are tough, forcing them to expend precious resources quickly. Encounters should generally be easier so the PCs can explore more areas without having to rest. This builds a sense of achievement and progression and leads to more “organic” forays where the PCs stop to rest after they have cleared a whole section rather than when they have run out of cure light wounds.
  • Stuff for different classes and races to do: All characters cannot be equally engaged in every encounter all the time. That said, some classes (clerics, rogues, paladins etc.) are particularly suited toward certain kinds of activity. They should be given their time in the limelight. Similarly, are their places or environmental conditions that only Small characters can take advantage of?
    • Environment: Fights don’t happen in featureless rooms. Furniture as well as unique features like rafters, chandeliers and so on can all be used by canny combatants to gain advantage. Include these where appropriate. Similarly, a decent amount of detail makes an encounter come alive. What do the tapestries depict? Is their graffiti on the walls? Are small, low-value treasures yet hidden within the keep that a good Perception check uncovers?
    • Diplomacy: Not all encounters should end with a fight. Where appropriate, allow PCs to use cunning, duplicity and even diplomacy to “win.”
  • Varied Opponents. Particularly tricky to achieve in the goblin lair, as goblin tribes tend to be made up of basic warrior types. Do the goblins pay mercenaries? Are they hosting emissaries from other tribes? Do different tribal warriors use different weapons or fighting styles?
  • Be Easy to Run. This is huge; the best module in the world can be a complete disaster if it is hard to understand, prepare or run. Encounter text should do as much of the work for a GM as possible so that preparation is quick and simple.

And that’s pretty much it!

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