Category Archives: Setting


Hello sports fans!

I know it’s been a while . . . Real life has been kicking my butt in the form of my 6 month old’s first cold, and training him to soothe himself to sleep . . . the entire family was running a fever simultaneously last week! IRL can be more perilous than the game world sometimes . . .

“I would like all of the drugs, please.”

Anyway, I know I was supposed to do a character biography next, but I’ve switched to primarily writing this blog on a chrome book, which has been awesome so far, but I’m not 100% sure how to create the editable sheet I was working with on my iPad to make a character that you can just print and play, so until I figure that out, the bio’s will have to be on hold.

Instead, what I would like to talk about this week is a common plight of the GM, namely that we never get to play in the games that we hold closest to our hearts.  A friend recently started running a game in the new Star Wars system I’m calling, affectionately? D-sh***y, mostly because I hate games that make me buy stuff above and beyond the already pricey book . . . Ugh, I digress.  Anyway, he loves Star Wars in the same way you might say a new parent loves sleep, and what’s more, he loves this new system.  It involves a set of dice with faces that range from “Triumph” to “Despair” with varying gradations of success and failure in between, designed to encourage role playing from the PC’s and GM, as apposed to the simple, “I rolled a 15,” “You hit it,” mechanic in more conventional games.  While I was skeptical at first, and while I still loathe the dice themselves, I have come to really enjoy the abstract and story-telling-heavy sense of play that I get from this game.

“What’s the problem?” you ask, sitting in your ivory tower, judging me for not getting to the point . . .

Pictured: You, in your tower . . .

Well, like all GM’s, we like to keep our eyes open for new experiences, rule sets that change up the state of play, and when we find something we like, we usually dive into it, headfirst, with all the excitement of drug addict finding an 8-ball in his coat pocket from last winter.  Of course, this is what my friend did, to the tune of three books, a starter set, two decks of cards, several boxes of minis and two sets of dice.  None of this would be a problem, except he fell into the classic conundrum of the Game Master: I love this game, I want to run it for you in the hopes that you will, one day, run it for me.

Of all the members of the Borderlanders, only he and I truly have the kind of love for Star Wars that allows me to tell you, in all seriousness, that the crew compliment ranging from about 30 to over 150, depending on how many systems are slave-rigged, and what kind of modifications have been made.  My point is, no one else in our group would even consider running a Star Wars campaign, because they don’t have the raw nerd knowledge to know the difference between a R2 and an R5, and what if it comes up?!

“Hey, that rebel pilot should’t be on the same board as a clone trooper! They’re 20 years apart in the timeline . . . ” “NEEEEEEERRRRRRRRDDDDDD!!!!!”

He recently told the group that he wanted to play a character, and since he knew that I would never run this new system, he felt like he should just roll up a character for his own game and play it as a background, almost NPC to fill in our gaps as a party.  @#$%^&* . . . I suddenly felt a great disturbance in the force, as though a thousand GM’s heavy-sighed in frustration, and were suddenly silenced . . . Ok, so not a thousand, but I know a few of you groaned!

Basically, what I’m trying to get at in my long winded post, is how to make running a system you’re not crazy about fun for your PC’s.

I was listening to the System Mastery podcast today, in which two guys review garbage, out of print systems for their merits and flaws, and this particular episode mentioned a mechanic in which each character picked a “Best Friend” and a “Rival” out of the other PC’s, and every time they crit, the best friend decides how the bonus comes into play.  Every time they botch, it’s the rival’s job to tell how the egg ends up on their face.  While the game that this mechanic came from sounds absolutely awful, (It’s called Panty Explosion, which I think is enough said on the matter) the mechanic has excellent applications in a game like the Fantasy Flight Star Wars, which is heavy with “Advantages” and “Threats” that you spend every time you roll to your character’s boon or bane, respectively.  Therefore, I am going to run this system for my friend, so that he can experience his favorite setting in his favorite system.  Ostensibly.  Really, I’m going to run a mad experiment to see if this mechanic is a viable way to keep all the player engaged in a system where, often, character are specialized to the point of having literally nothing to do in about a third of the situations that crop up.

“I wish I’d put points into literally anything social . . . “

Let me know what you think, and tell me your stories!  What have you tried, house-rules-wise, in order to make an undesirable system more tolerable? I’m all ears! And as always, roll enough advantages so that you don’t fall for the old Kobold Pit Trap!

Secret Cults: Spotlight on Antagonists

Sorry about the late post, againI’ve been trying to balance being a new dad with grades due at the end of the nine weeks, and life has been extra . . . Well, just extra lately!

So, my last post was about recurring villains, one of my favorite topics, and one of the most challenging to include in a game. This week, I thought I would explore one of the easiest ways recurring villains into your game.

“This? It’s a . . . doll for my son?”

Last Sun Day, before the good towns people of Pracola, better known as the Borderkeep, had open mass at the temple to Apollo, a few townspeople went missing . . . At first, it was easy to explain away, as the festivities on the night before Sun Day, The Night of Moon and Stars, was unusually . . . Festive this year. But then the first body surfaced, and lately, neighbors have been locking up earlier and earlier. People who have know each other for decades are turning with shadowed faces toward their own domains, sparing not a single cup of sugar for their allies on the border. They don’t dare speak it aloud, but in the warm fires of the bar, bolstered by spirits and ale, they might whisper: The Cult of Everlasting Night.

Secret cults provide a unique experience for your players in that, along with a supply of potentially powerful villains, they add a sense of intrigue and suspense to your game. Old lady Marth wasn’t at feast day last week’s end . . . Was she simply baking her famous Sun Day cookies, or was there something more nefarious afoot? Goody Dellah was seen at the outskirts of town, clutching a strangely shaped bundle under her thin arm . . . The lamb for the feast day veal pies, or sacrificial daggers?

“She was helping me milk the cows, honestly. You people fret too much.”

When a mysterious force begins taking hold of a small town on the edge of everything, everyone is suspect. Your players will probably begin by looking into the fringe element in town . . . The people who never quite fit in are, after all, usually have the exact personality type that is often preyed upon by charismatic cult leaders.  That might be true in the real world, although even here, without the aid of dark magics and darker gods, events are never so clean-cut, in your fantasy world, you can make your players work a little harder. Create suspicion around several characters, and make the least likely the most devoted of the cult followers. Remember that secret cults have to stay secret by their very nature, and are often led by wickedly intellegent people, so why not make their modus operandi equally intelligent? Perhaps they work in a system of cells, designed so that each one has just enough member to enact rights designed to grant them boons for the low price of a sacrifice or two, but no two cells know of anyone else in their group. Maybe only the leader and his or her lieutenants are the only ones with everyone’s identity . . . Everyone else always meets with hoods on, and no one can guess who their fellow cult member is.

“I hereby call this meeting in order to enact the right of the blue pill . . .”
“. . . Karen?”

Your players should have the feeling that literally anyone could be a cult member. Perhaps float a rumor that the lord of the keep himself is at the dark heart of this plague on Pracola. Make them shadow members of the community, and build the suspense by making it really seem like the person they’re following is one of the cultists, only to reveal, at the last-minute, that they have a perfectly good reason for being out in the dead of night under the full moon. If you’re really adventurous, have them try to infiltrate the cult, which can be as tense or as fun as you want it to be, especially if the first group of cultists they manage to apprehend are a bunch of morons, made patsies by the real powers in the Borderkeep!

I hope you enjoyed my treatise on the nature of putting cults in your game! I certainly enjoyed writing it! Head over to Tales from the Borderkeep to check out some originally fiction based on some of our games, and as always, don’t fall for the old kobold pit trap!

The Inner Keep

The Borderkeep, as I have explained before, is a place of near infinite story-arc potential. Some of the places I’ve touched on have a great deal of low-level type quests and side missions, and possibly a few mid level, but where we go next . . . well, let’s just say your players need to earn their place at the big kid table.

The Borderkeep is a blanket term I use to talk about the entire town, from the farms outside the walls to the shops and housing within, but the inner keep!  This is where the Lord Himself eats and sleeps, dreaming of ways to keep his tiny kingdom safe from the encroaching chaos without.  Without referencing A Song of Fire and Ice as hard as I possibly can, your choice in Lords falls into four broad categories; The Drunkard, The Man of the People, The Stern Ruler, and The Villain. Each has its flaws and merits, and I will go into much greater detail when I focus on the Lord Himself in a later post.  For this one, I’m going to stick with the story and setting that the inner keep represents.  I suppose I should point out that the words “Lord” and “Lady” are more or less interchangeable, especially if you enjoy having strong female characters in your game.

"Presenting Lady Paunchbottom!"
“Presenting Lady Paunchbottom!”

For the first few levels, your players are mucking out the stables of the keep, so to speak.  Dealing with goblin raiders, find herbs for Father Harverard, avoiding the Court Wizard at all costs. Then, something changes.  The heroes pull off a particularly daring feat, something that benefits the entire town . . . maybe they finally route  out the gnoll warchief that’s been plaguing commerce, or they put an end to a powerful fey who’s been enchanting young lads from the keep, and all of a sudden, the holy grail . . . They’re invited to dine with the lord of the keep.

The keys to the kingdom!
The keys to the kingdom!

Some GM’s will tie this event to the level of the party, which isn’t a bad idea, as long as that isn’t the one and only thing it’s tied to.  After all, we’re not playing wow, where killing chickens outside the gate for twenty hours is rewarded with fifteen levels.  No, this is a ROLE playing game, and rewards should be tied to a storyline in which the players have earned their place in the keep.  After all, the Lord of the Keep isn’t going to invite just any chicken kicker in for Sunday brunch.

The point in the story in which the players get this very special invite should be tied to the moment when they stop being just another group of adventurers, and start being a recognizable force in the local community.  And as such, the Lord will have greater challenges, as well as greater rewards than ever before.

Like fancy ass-kicking boots!
Like fancy ass-kicking boots!

Ultimately, the right time for the players to get invited to the inner keep rests in the capable hands of the gm.  Whether the Lord has a special message that must reach a neighboring kingdom at all costs, needs help defending the walls against a powerful foe, or merely wants to extend his gratitude for the hard work the pc’s have been putting in, the invitation needs to be a big deal.  They’ve earned it, just by staying alive in your campaign, you demented shrew!

I’d love to get into my personal favorite of the Lord’s invitations, the festival, but that’ll have to wait for next week.  I have a cold, and the baby is teething!  Alas! In the mean time, head over to The Borderlanders to see make suggestions and see some of our other awesome blogs!  And as always, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap!

Setting: The Borderkeep Temple

Have you heard the good news?

That’s right, there is one place in town where your heroes can find true solace from the wearying adventures the Borderkeep has to offer . . . the local temple.  Situated at the crossroad between spiritual and practical, the temple occupies a special place in the borderlands.  It’s part refuge, part vender, with none of those pesky restrictions real world religion places on holy men and women.  And whether the high priest is a savior or a charlatan with a bag full of pig knuckle bones, one thing is certain; prayers are waiting to be answered . . .

"Right after father Beauverard  . . . recovers . . ." "Is that blood?!"
“Right after father Beauverard . . . recovers . . .”
“Is that blood?!”

A solid temple can provide a great deal of adventure hooks for your game, depending on how much work you want to put into it.  For a low-level campaign, the players might have to find rare herbs for the chaplain to brew potions of healing.  For slightly higher levels, a convenient ghoul infestation in the cemetery could yield significant reward.  For the bravest, or most foolhardy of adventurers, corruption at the highest levels of temple authority might lead to some very interesting story arcs should the pc’s notice that something is amiss.  One way or the other, the local temple wields the power to make life much easier, or more difficult, for your players.  So how to construct a temple?

Out of stone?
Out of stone?

First, you must decide which deity or deities are the most widely worshipped in your borderkeep.  NPC’s lead hard lives so far from proper civilization, and therefore need hard gods to see them through the long winter nights.  Therefore, I recommend selecting a god that has something to do with survival, community, martial prowess, or all of the above, if possible.  My personal favorite comes from Pathfinder’s Inner Sea setting.  Because Erastil is the god of the hunt, archers along the walls might whisper a prayer to him as they loose arrows in a desperate attempt to hold off the hobgoblin hoard.  Because he is a god of community, a short prayer might be incorporated into town hall meetngs and official get-togethers. Any major neutral-to-good aligned god from nearly any setting will do, though.  At the end of the day, the hearty peoples of the borderlands simply need someone to tend their sick and raise their spirits.

Second, you need a finely detailed priest.  Notice that I didn’t say “good” . . . Not everyone who gets sent to the furthest corners of civilization will be a good Samaritan.  Our real-world history is filled with examples of priests and friars who took advantage of their “flock” egregiously, and a crooked holy man is an excellent way to twist the plot right out of the old expected tropes of modern gaming.  Whichever way you choose, however, you’re going to want to give him or her at least one detail that will stick in the minds of your characters.  Perhaps he drinks heavily before giving sermons, leading to comical misquotes of holy texts.  Maybe he needs to be “as the gods made him” to perform his priestly duties, so the pc’s always have to be wary of walking in on a naked, wrinkly, shudder-inducing old man every time they want healing.

"Well, Hello . . ." "I NEED AN ADULT!!!"
“Well, Hello . . .”

Last, but certainly not least, you need to figure out what goods and services the temple has to offer.  This is a world in which magic is real, prayers are answered, and resurrections happen, even if you aren’t the child of a god. Almost every game will have a list of suggested prices in the gm’s portion of the book, but remember that sometimes, you might not want your players to have easy access to things like resurrections.  It does add a certain amount of tension when a beloved character can’t just be brought back at the drop of a hat that has been filled with a few thousand gold.

For a small borderkeep, I recommend one of the following: A young up-and-comer, new to the priesthood, passionate and looking to make a name for himself, an old man, too eccentric to end up in one of the major temples, and so sent off to idle his way through the golden years, or an obviously unsavory sort who has been banished to the place he’s most likely to die in the line of duty.  The young man would be lower level, but of the three, most likely to actively help the pc’s.  The old man might have been powerful in his day, but sometimes his mind wonders . . . along with his sobriety.  The ne’er-do-well might charge ridiculous prices for goods, but he does present the opportunity for an awesome redemption storylines.

"Normally, I'd charge you extra for looking at the pretty glass . . . but you saved my life.  That'll be 500 for the healing."
“Normally, I’d charge you extra for looking at the pretty glass . . . but you saved my life. That’ll be 500 for the healing.”

Remember that, regardless of what the book tells you, the final word on what is or is not available is up to you.  Next week will be my second installment of the NPC biography series, in which I will be showcasing my version of the old-man priest.  Stay tuned, PLEASE tell your friends about the borderkeep blog, visit my parent site,, and as always, don’t fall for the Kobold pit trap!