Shadowed Keep on the Borderland Backstory Case Study

Last time, I talked a little bit about the initial concepts of the Shadowed Keep of the Borderland’s various “adventure zones.”  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.

By Marc Radle
By Marc Radle


One of my bugbears about some adventures I’ve run is that the adventure (or sometimes even a specific encounter) has loads of cool backstory, but 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. It 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. By the end of the module, though, the PCs should have a decent chance to discover what was actually going on!

One of my key goals for the adventure was that the ruin should/could act as a potential springboard for further adventures. I thought eventually 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 would spawn a whole series of new adventures. 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. Thus it was logical to assume 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 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 background. Of course, not all the elements of the background needed to flow from the adventurer and his family. So I decided Valentin built a crypt to house his fallen retainers and that a later influence corrupted their remains. I also decided this level should be free of goblin taint, so that it offered a completely different experience. Thus, I decided a minor earthquake struck the area after Valentin’s fall opening up a link to a deeply buried corruption.

The Backstory is the Adventure’s Spine

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 any halfway competent group would try and learn as much about the keep as possible before setting out (and provided tables to handle that).

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 titanic 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).

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.

Next time, in my last instalment I’ll talk a bit about the design philosophy that drove my adventure zone and encounter design.

This article is part of Dungeon Design Fortnight. Dungeon Design Fortnight celebrates Raging Swan Press’s upcoming release of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing – a huge 336-page tome dedicated to all aspects of dungeon design and dressing. I’m insanely proud of GM’s Miscellany Dungeon Dressing and I hope if you are thinking about designing dungeons you check it out.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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