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Designing Thornkeep

Hi, folks! I'm guest blogger Rich Baker, designer of the "town, surroundings, and main dungeon level" portion of the upcoming Thornkeep book. Ryan asked me to share my thoughts about the process of designing Thornkeep in this edition of the Pathfinder Online development blog. I just finished my design turnover to the gang at Paizo this week, so now's a great time to talk a little about this corner of the River Kingdoms and how one goes about building a town there. (Note that Paizo and Goblinworks haven't finalized my manuscript yet, so some details discussed here may change prior to publication.)

The first step in creating Thornkeep was a concept meeting a couple of months ago in Lisa Stevens' office at Paizo. I batted ideas around with Lisa, James Jacobs, Mark Kalmes, Erik Mona, and Ryan Dancey (participating via conference call). I took several pages of notes about what we were shooting for: "hive of scum and villainy," "Deadwood," "village of Hommlet," "constantly shifting power groups," "goblin slum or ghetto," and a couple dozen more. We knew that this would be the place where rogues, rangers, barbarians, and other such characters would like to begin in Pathfinder Online. We also realized that the story should be about the PCs who come to Thornkeep, rather than any strong narrative based on the story of the NPCs living in Thornkeep.

The Strongest Rules

I went back home and cracked open the books, studying up on the northwest corner of the River Kingdoms. The first bit of writing I did for the project was simply assembling a timeline of what exactly was in this area, and when it existed. I discovered references to Azlanti ruins in the Echo Wood, an old goblin-kingdom known as Zog, and tribes of Kellid barbarians passing through the area to raid the lands to the south. Those elements gave me the kernels of Thornkeep's identity: After Zog was wiped off the map about four hundred years ago, an illegitimate Ustalavic lord by the name of Anton Druscor decided to establish a holding of his own on the east bank of the West Sellen. He claimed that he was clearing and settling the forest, but in truth he wanted to set himself up as a robber baron and make a comfortable living off the trade along the river. Over generations, the Druscors slowly died out, and an ambitious crusader lord passing through the area saw Thornkeep virtually undefended and decided he liked the idea of being a baron better than fighting demons in some northern waste. This established the sad tradition that survives in Thornkeep to this day: If you control the castle, you can call yourself the Baron, and you get to rule Thornkeep until the next adventurer, gang leader, or bandit prince ousts you and takes your place. The current ruler is Baron Tervin Blackshield, a mercenary captain who seized the castle from the previous baron just two years ago and is now rarely seen outside its walls.

Law and Order, or Not

Establishing the proper amount of law and order in the town posed a bit of a challenge. We wanted to present a lawless, anything-goes kind of settlement, but we also were looking ahead to the day that Thornkeep would serve as a starting area for new Pathfinder Online players, and thinking about just how much protection beginning characters should be able to count on. I realized right up front that for a town to be lawless, the central authority must either too weak to assert itself, uninterested in doing so, or divided among multiple factions. Accordingly, in my first draft I portrayed Baron Blackshield as a very weak ruler, so impoverished he could only keep a dozen or so wretched, ill-equipped guards on his payroll. In this version, the gang leaders of Thornkeep—the "Blades," as I called them—took care of law and order because everyone in the town was buying protection from one Blade or another. However, this wouldn't necessarily help player characters threatened by other player characters. Thornkeep was shaping up to be a little too lawless. We wanted the Wild West, not Mogadishu.

Going back to the Wild West idea, I considered "lawless" Western towns in film and fiction. I found myself thinking about movies like High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, and The Quick and the Dead. It occurred to me that the kind of too-dangerous-to-challenge figure who takes over was another way to present lawlessness. If the authority figure is strong but capricious, that's just as good for depicting a chaotic neutral town as an authority figure that is weak and irrelevant. Thornkeep has been ruled by a succession of strongmen going back for decades; there's no guarantee that some completely different ruler won't take over tomorrow. Thinking of Baron Blackshield as Gene Hackman's sheriff from The Quick and the Dead (or Unforgiven) provided a different take on authority: He rules because he's the toughest guy in town, but you just don't know when or if he's going to act. The baron responds to any direct challenge with immediate violence, but generally ignores anyone who isn't a threat. He doesn't actively terrorize or oppress his people the way a chaotic evil ruler would, but he's no good guy either. Tervin's approach to governing is simple: Take care of your own, don't challenge him, and if you have something you want him to do, you'd better be able to explain why it's his problem.

Gangs, Guilds, and Goblins

After settling the Baron's role and nature to my satisfaction, I refined my list of factions just a little bit. I wanted to make sure there was something appealing for each character I could imagine beginning a campaign in Thornkeep. For example, I imagine that many barbarian characters will want to be from Thornkeep, so I made sure that a local barbarian tribe was represented—the Wolfmanes, a clan of Kellid barbarians living in the Echo Wood. The Goblinworks team is naturally jazzed about the idea of featuring goblins in the game, so we kicked around some ideas for a goblin tribe living right underfoot and why the humans of Thornkeep might tolerate that. This gave us the idea for the Brambleclaw Tribe, the wretched survivors of the great goblin Kingdom of Zog, and the potential for ruined goblin strongholds and castles scattered throughout the Echo Wood. A classic thieves' guild was a must, so the Three Daggers joined the mix, a gang of thugs and brigands extorting protection from half the common folk in the town. And a mercenary company supports a variety of different character types, so the Blue Basilisk Company took shape as a place where anyone can find a job. There are other organizations, but I'll stop there; we want to keep a few surprises!

People and Places

With an idea of the power structure and potential faction spread in mind, I started to actually build the town. I kicked off this phase by listing out all the goods and services you'd expect to see in a town: an inn, a tavern, a weaponsmith, an armorer, a stable, a purveyor of spell components, and so on. (The Greenforest Inn is the place that will welcome most newcomers to Thornkeep, and will likely serve as the centerpoint of the game down the road, but any adventurer with hair on his chest will of course do his drinking at the Thirsty Ogre.) I did a little research on what forests were good for in medieval times, which suggested some of the common industries you'd expect to find people plying in the area: logging, trapping, mining, glassmaking, and some amount of livestock-keeping (pigs and goats, mostly). Thornkeep's surroundings aren't very good for farming, but most townsfolk keep small vegetable gardens, and there are a couple of large apple orchards on the outskirts of the town. Then I sketched out a map and began putting names to places and people. I discovered that adventure hooks and storylines arrived by the bucketful: giant ants in the fields, a goblin bazaar where you can find anything someone threw away in the last couple of weeks, merchants looking for caravan guards, a new gang moving into town, spies, murderers, and more.

I moved on to the Echo Wood after that, and described a dozen interesting sites within a day's march of Thornkeep—mysterious ruins like the Misted Vault or Castle Baskraal, dangerous monster lairs such as the Skull-Bashers' Den and Jaderazor's Cave, and a few interesting spots like the Murdoon Homestead and Jarthan's Crossing. Any GM worth his or her salt can find the ingredients for months of campaigning in Thornkeep and its surrounding area; I'm looking forward to running a game here the next time I get a chance!

The Accursed Halls... and What Lies Beneath

My last major task with Thornkeep was designing a dungeon based on the material Goblinworks is developing for the Tech Demo—a dungeon that will be expanded on by Jason Bulmahn, James Jacobs, Erik Mona, and—if the Kickstarter crosses the $200,000 threshold—Ed Greenwood! My level of the dungeon is known as the Accursed Halls. Although the Halls were abandoned long ago, a malign awareness still lingers in the place, and the dungeon seems to draw dangers into itself—and also to remember when treasures are carried out of it. The Thornkeep adventure presents a low-level experience with some "middle of the fairway" monsters such as goblins, undead, and vermin, but the different chambers present a variety of challenging battlefields. In addition, there are some dangerous traps and hazards to navigate, plus an area guarded by a grand puzzle: The Door of Seven Stars, beyond which no adventurers have ever passed.

After the Pathfinder Online Tech Demo Kickstarter closes, backers will participate in surveys to determine the themes of the lower dungeon levels. Here are the potential themes that Kickstarter backers will select from:

Options for Jason Bulmahn's level:

  • Haunted Crypts: The dead do not rest easy in the crypts beneath the goblin warren. Undead prowl the ancient halls, but one lone figure moves among them, clad in scarlet robes, bearing an ancient silver lantern. What's worse, the dead seem to follow his commands.
  • Lord of Webs: The halls beneath the goblin den are the home of countless spiders, spinning thick webs that block the way and snare the unwary. More than just mindless hunters, the spiders act with purpose, funneling their prey into the deeper halls where an even more dangerous foe awaits.
  • The Statuary: Some master craftsman must have spent a lifetime carving all the statues carefully placed throughout the halls beneath the goblin lair. Oddly, the statues seem to be telling a story. While the meaning is not entirely clear, one thing is certain: Something terrible happened here and the malevolence behind it still lurks nearby.
  • Watery Grave: The caverns beneath the goblin tribe's lair are flooded in places, apparently intentionally. Cunning traps and deadly chambers await those brave enough to risk the dark waters. Worse still, there are creatures that have taken up residence here, hunting in the stagnant pools.
  • Forgotten Laboratory: The goblins of the dungeon's upper level took more than one trinket from the ancient laboratory that dwells beneath them. The wizard that created these items also performed dangerous experiments, many of which have gone out of control over the years. Stranger still, someone appears to be using the ancient equipment with sinister results.

Options for James Jacobs' level:

  • Caverns of the Blind God: The degenerate descendants of the wizard's apprentices live on in these tangled caverns in a way, although their lives are in fact unlives, for they have become ghouls and worse. They follow the commands of the squirming thing they know as the Blind God, a creature that dwells at the heart of the caverns and who will soon wish to spread its influence into the lands above.
  • The Clockwork Crux: The mad wizard who built and dwelt in these dungeons kept many secrets in a complex, clockwork library whose chambers at once point shifted and moved, yet now these chambers have fallen into disrepair and lie in a tangled, haphazardly connected mess—a mess that has become infested with strange and sinister intruders from the Darklands deep below.
  • The Enigma Vaults: In ages past, the mad wizard who dwelt in these halls collected many strange items in his travels—and the strangest of those he put on display here, in a museum-like complex he called the Enigma Vaults. When a group of thieves made their way into the vaults in hopes of a huge payday, they released something far beyond their capacity to control, and now they serve as the thralls of a sinister influence from a dark and distant world.
  • Fane of the Serpent Fiend: In the halls of a vast temple once devoted to the demon lord of serpents, strange shapes slither through the shadows. Here, a monstrous serpent infused with strange magic from the Abyss rules, and its devoted followers chant prayers to its squamous glory as they scour the wilds above for fresh sacrifices.
  • The Shrouded Chambers:: In what was once a magnificent complex of glittering banquet halls, fine bathing chambers, silk-draped harem rooms, and decadent deviations, strange fungal growths have taken root. What dwells here now is a foul mockery of the beauty that once graced these halls, and the creatures that now dwell within comprise the foul court of a sinister fungus queen who has turned her eyes to the lands above.

Options for Erik Mona's level:

  • The Halls of Refuse: The malignant leakage of 100 centuries pools in this fetid ruin, smeared with ancient oozes and polluted by far more contemporary mutants. With rival adventurers seeking to plunder the halls of their remaining treasures and a bizarre intelligence fueling the amorphous inhabitants, the Halls of Refuse promise rich rewards for those willing to risk an oozy oblivion.
  • Sanctum of a Lost Age: Scholars claim the dungeons below Thornkeep were built by the Ancient Azlanti, but how do they know, really? If Rozimus of Tymon speaks true, the third level below the goblin warrens holds survivors of that long-dead empire eager to return to the world and share the lore of their glorious age. They're not undead, Rozimus claims, or illusory phantoms, but true living and breathing High Azlanti! But why does Rozimus know so much about them, and why is he so eager to return to the dungeon he claims almost killed him 5 years ago?
  • The Grand Estate of Marquis Dorvenium Thallan (In Exile): Agents of the Gray Gardeners have tracked the infamous Galtan noble Lord Dorvenium Thallan to a ruined dungeon below Thornkeep, where he and his murderous agents fled the justice of the Final Blades at the dawn of the Red Revolution. Rumors claim Thallan liberated the treasures of several high-placed Galtans before fleeing here, and ever since True Patriots of Galt and the scoundrels of the River Kingdoms have tried to crack his lair and return the ill-gotten goods to the People (or, alternatively, to their own barren coffers).
  • Dust of the Darklands: Delving deeper beneath the dungeons of Thornkeep leads to an ancient temple overrun by the vanguard of an army of Darklands beasts boiling up from the depths! What fell designs does the unlikely alliance of gray dwarves, and morlocks have on the surface world? What is the creature they refer to as the "Veiled Master" that seems to lead them? And why do they seem to be fleeing something even worse from deeper below?
  • Final Exam: Decades ago, a long-dead River Kingdoms lodge of the Pathfinder Society used a dungeon below Thornkeep as a makeshift headquarters and final testing ground for their most promising agents. Sealed records in the deepest vaults of the Society's headquarters in Absalom suggest that the "infernal exam" housed in the dungeon eventually spelled the doom of the entire lodge, whose corpses lurk there still as animate proctors, still administering their challenges to those brave enough to attempt them.

Adventure Awaits!

That's the Thornkeep design process in a nutshell. I'm pretty proud of the town we built. Not only should it be a fine starting area for a MMO, but it's going to be a rock-solid RPG sourcebook too. You might want to pitch in on the Kickstarter just to get your hands on this sourcebook—I think it's that good. The first round at the Thirsty Ogre is on me, so I hope to see you there!

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