I agree Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to authenticate logins, deliver better content and provide statistical analysis. You can adjust your browser settings to prevent our site from using cookies, but doing so will prevent some aspects of the site from functioning properly.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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!
Discuss this blog on paizo.com.