Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands: Design Principles Case Study

The Moathouse from T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil is one of my all-time favourite modules. I think it’s a great example of genius dungeon design and I’ve always wanted to design a similar location.

The Shadowed Keep on the Borderland By Marc Radle


When I saw the above image by jolly talented artist Marc Radle I immediately knew that I’d found “my Moathouse.” Eventually, I called it the Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands.

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 adventure experience. To me, the Moathouse had several essential elements:

  • Verisimilitude: It made sense – it reeked of a decent amount of realism without sacrificing game play.
  • Zoned: 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.
  • Conflict: There was minor grade conflict between some of these groups. This could be exploited through clever play.
  • Detailed: There were loads of detail in the Moathouse that, if you paid attention, provided clues about its past. In this way players got rewarded for poking about and investigating stuff instead of just blindly whacking everything in your path.
  • Expandable: 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:

  • Detailed: The module locale should be richly detailed so the players can immerse themselves in the ruins.
  • Story: 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.)
  • Generic: The module had to be generic enough that almost any GM could add it to their campaign with minimal effort.
  • Like the Moathouse, Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands had to be a “starter dungeon” in that it would be suitable for 1st-level characters.
  • Rewarding: Players should be rewarded for being clever and paying attention.
  • Choice: No railroading; players should have meaningful choices about the order in which they explore the ruin and about how they dealt with those challenges.
  • Variety: 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’ll discuss that more, tomorrow.

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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