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The Reccuring Villain

First off, I would feel remiss if I didn’t finally give a major shout out to the website Pixabay, from which I have drawn most of the images from this blog so far. If you’re interested in doing something like this, please swing over and check out their vast library of open source photography. Pixabay is awesome!

Now, onward to The Borderkeep!

I’ve written a great deal about the various benevolent, and not so benevolent, npc’s that you might use in an adventure set in the Borderkeep. As I was playing the newest installment in the Destiny franchise, however, I started thinking. Villains. Specifically, the recurring villian. Any of you who have ever planned your own campaign, written your own villains with inspirations like Tywin Lanister, or The Man in Black, or even characters like Kefka and Sephiroth, then you know what it means to attempt to recreate that feeling you get when, around every bend and turn, the heroes are hounded by what seems like an insurmountable force.

Seriously? What about me?

If you have, then you’ve realized the same basic truth that I have . . . Realistic recurring-ness is reeeeaaaaalllly hard in a game that, at its most basic function, relies on random chance. We’ve all been there. You have the evil genius, who has finally chosen to make his presence known. He has am escape route, he has minions, he has every opportunity to get away free and clear, when,

Ranger: “Dude! Nat-20!”

The party starts cheering, because they know they’ve already done a ton of damage to this guy . . . And this, well, this must be the culmination of all their cleverness and hard work. At this point, you have two options; let him die and then pull a finial fantasy nine and toss in an even worse threat that just has to feel contrived, or have him escape deus ex machina style, which is even worse than the other option.

"I've won again, Rand Al'thor"
“I’ve won again, Rand Al’thor”

Well, here are some simple tips that I’ve learned along the way. First, never have your villain present himself in a vulnerable position unless you are absolutely ready for the possibility of his or her death. Second, the gaming world is a wide, weird place. If you want to, give the villain an extraordinary ability that helps him escape, but make sure your players see him use it BEFORE he uses it on them. Third, every good villain has equally diabolical minions, with their own fleshed out personalities and machinations . . . That, despite their usefulness and utter evil effectiveness, will inevitably be sacrificed like the pawns they are in the Gillian’s epic game of chess against your pc’s. I could go on sooooo very long about this topic, that I think I will, right after I write character biography 3, on the mysterious court wizard!

I hope I was helpful! Please click like, or even better, leave a comment, question, or request behind as you go. Get the word out, and visit my partner blog, Tales from the Borderkeep, and our parent website, The Borderlanders, and as always, don’t fall for the 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!

The Court Wizard

Dear readers, this one is near and dear to my heart.

My favorite type of character to play, in literally any type of game, be it D&D, Elder Scrolls, or even Destiny, is a magic user.  There’s just something about having the ability to remake the reality around you to suit your whim . . . to break all the most annoying laws of physics and create something from absolutely nothing . . . to be the mysterious, dangerous, soft-spoken scholar, wielder of scroll and book, fire and lightning, rod and staff.  To get this reaction:

"Get down! I think he's about to-" BOOM!!!!!! "Ulrich?!"
“Get down! I think he’s about to-“

I’m not alone in my obsession.  Many of the most famous characters in our venerable genre are wizards . . . Elminster, Raistlin, Gandalf, Harry Dresden . . . even Harry Potter.  There is a reason the world wants so desperately to believe in and read about magic.  It’s cool.

So, the question is, how do you bring that level of cool to your game-table without overshadowing your fledgling characters?  You have to blend mystique and accessibility, power and a willingness to share that power that is very often not a part of the wizard stereotype.  My solution? The Court Wizard:

Pictured: The last face your chaotic-nuetral, party-screwing thief sees before being sent to the afterlife.
Pictured: The last face your chaotic-neutral, party-screwing thief sees after he tries stealing from the lord of the keep.

With a well thought out Court Wizard, you get two or three benefits in one.  First, you have a mysterious figure, one who might take a special interest in the party, and perhaps build tension as they try to ascertain where his morality/loyalties lie.  Second, you have a source of magic for you party.  This can be tricky, because you don’t want your players to grow in power too fast, so in my games.  My advice is to have your Court Wizard be honest with the players.  He doesn’t know if they’re ready to call the fires just yet.  Maybe he thinks they need more discipline, or maybe he simply doesn’t trust them.  On the flip side, he does present a possible source for pretty much any spell from first to third level, so your wizard pc has something to spend his money on while all the fighters are buying shiny new breast-plates.  Third, Court Wizards can’t be bothered by pesky things like gathering components, so you can use him for low-level quests.  He also can’t be bothered to check out that weird magic resonance near the old silver-mine, so upper level stuff is a go also.

Don’t let him be a buddy to your party. He should stand aloof, perhaps only truly ever speaking at length to the lord of the keep. My favorite quirks to give a Court Wizard are things like having the characters feel a chill every time he looks at them. Roll fake will saves to keep them on edge. Have strange lights and otherworldly sounds seep out of his research tower at night.

"Did you still want to knock on his door?" " . . . Uh, no . . . I'm good . . ."
“Did you still want to knock on his door?”
” . . . Uh, no . . . I’m good . . .”

You don’t want to come right out and say “oh yeah, he’s mean-mugging you something fierce,” but maybe have him never smile around the party.  But if the party tries t cultivate a relationship with him, be open to that possibility too. In the first major game I ever played, my wizard was taken under the wing of the old elf Court Wizard. It took a long time, and a lot of role playing, but I still remember that experience fondly.

If you couldn’t already tell, I think I’m going to make this character my next biography, which I hope will be as helpful to you as it is fun for me. I’d like to take this time real quick to acknowledge Pixabay, which provided all of the pictures I’ve been using these last few months. Stop by and check it out, and buy their donators a cup of coffee. I also want to remind you that my parent site, The Borderlanders, is going to be up and running soon, filled with awesome stuff for the modern gm. Also, my brother blog, Tales from the Borderkeep, is up and running, full of awesome posts and stories from the players and gm’s of our gaming group. If you like short fiction, Star Wars, or just like reading about adventures, check out the Tales from Teemo’s Folly. I’m diggin’ it.

Thanks for reading, and as always, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap!

Character Biography 2: Father Harverard

Welcome back to the Borderkeep.  True to my word, today, I’ll be sharing another ready to play NPC, custom-built for my Borderkeep setting, but applicable to virtually any story with a few small tweaks.  A quick shop-keeping note; I’ve decided to simply upload a character sheet for anyone to use, rather than type out the full stat blocks.  Let me know what you think!

Without further ado, Father Harverard!

"This? It's a Priest's Cap. What?! Look, do you want healing or not?!"
“This? It’s a Priest’s Cap. What?! Look, do you want healing or not?!”

Father Gerald Harverard was born the 8th son of a wealthy, if minor, noble house in the waterfront metropolis Gulf City.  From a very young age, he watched as his eldest brother prepared to take command of the family holdings, being forced to learn discipline, diplomacy, and finance.  His other brothers prepared either to marry, in order to secure dowries from other noble houses, or else trained to accept a position in his eldest’s house one day.  As was the tradition in Gulf City, however, Harverard knew that he was destined to be tithed to the local temple, made a priest of (Insert any Good Aligned God Of Community that might suite your campaign, hereby referred to as GAGOC).  While most might bemoan the life of a priest, however, Harverard saw it as an opportunity; a chance to see the world!

Harverard learned to read, write, and pray under the tutelage of the high priests of the temple of GAGOC, but unlike the other boys, he favored books that spoke of the world outside the city of his birth.  Strange planes and stranger beings, prayers not of healing, but of battle aid and daring.  Seeing this, the elder priests of GAGOC THE ALL POWERFUL decided to nurture the young man’s fervor, and sent him to train with the gaurds of the wall, as a medic and battle-priest.

To this day, in certain circles, Harverard is still known as a consecrated battle-priest of GAGOC THE MERCIFUL, but these days, most of his battles are fought against an ever increasingly large prostate, and the afflictions of what he calls “advanced age.”

Pictured: the "dangers" of retirement.
Pictured: the “dangers” of retirement.

After fifty years as a medic on the walls of his city, Harverard has grown into an excentric old man.  He often greets the sun “as the gods made him,” claiming that GAGOC THE EVERLASTING is pleased with his spry old form.  This, of course, leads to the occasional awkwardness with the younger members of his temple staff, but at 75, Harverard has no functional concept of the word “embarrassment.”

As a reward for years of hard service, Harverard was given his own temple in the still exciting, if out of the way borderkeep of Ft. Pracola, where his excentricism might be overlooked due to dire need of experienced healers. Older now that he every truly figured he would be, he still keeps his trusty mace and old rusty armor within arms reach.  His tall frame still carries the signs of a once powerful man, but father time makes ruin of us all, and his strength has been adjusted accordingly.  Likewise, though he was once a very powerful caster, he has been reduced to around level 5 due to falling out of practice.  half of his spells are healing, and the other half battlefield control.  He still remembers the days when he might turn the tide of the impending darkness, and he is ever ready should those days return.

When confronted with strangers, Harverard is open, friendly, and often a little too over-sharing.  His favorite trick is to cast a zone of truth around a new party, and ask them pointed and personal questions.  His “Priest’s Cap” is never far from his head, and his pipe is ever lit.  In times of extreme need, he may be able to pull off a much more powerful spell, a sign that GAGOC THE UNREPENTANT still favors him.  I like this character.  I would play this character.  I hope you enjoyed reading about him, 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, theborderlanders.com, and as always, don’t fall for the Kobold pit trap!

Setting: The Borderkeep

Great stories can be told across settings.  Think about how many iterations of Sherlock Holmes have popped up in the last twenty years or so.  From Robert Downy to The Great Mouse Detective, the compelling characters, universal themes of good vs. evil, and the tension created when that evil is just as capable as the good, could come together to form a story relevant to any time or place in human history.

“Grawp really think killer left call sign?”
“Elementary, my dear Gurk.”

Is the same thing true for a setting?  Could a place be so inherently pregnant with potential story arcs and memorable characters that it could be the staging area for high adventure in any time across human history?  I’m sure there are many correct answers to this question, but today, I want to talk about that first setting that really captured my imagination; The Keep on the Borderland.

Pictured: The only equipment you need after the kobold cave.
Pictured: The only equipment you need after the kobold cave.

I never played it in its original glory . . . we actually were playing a 3.5 adapted version, but oh my god, I still remember our shock when, after facing orcs, gnolls, and a minotaur, we had to flee the caves of chaos at the hands of a tribe of kobolds.  Well-played, Gygax . . . well-played.

It’s more than just the memory of that first, memorable foray into the world of D&D, though.  Of all the games we have played in the last 15 years, my honest estimate would be that at least a third feature some version of that first setting.  Gamma World, Star Wars, Pathfinder, and now even 5th Edition, we just keep coming back to that last bastion of civilization on the edge of the wild frontier.

Hell yeah!
Hell yeah!

So two things: What makes this setting so versatile, and how do you recreate it at home?!

Well, the magic of the border keep is less about any specific keep, and more about what the keep represents.  By the very nature of its name, the border keep is a walled fortress, out there on the edge, protecting the rest of us from the chaos of the wildlands.  Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, A Song of Fire and Ice’s Wall, and to a lesser degree, the Stark’s castle, the Serenity in Firefly, all places on the edge of civilization that must be protected, manned, supplied, or otherwise interacted with for the sake of good storytelling everywhere!  Supplies will always need to be guarded that close to the border.  The Lord of the Keep will always need a few good mercs to bolster his guard when the hoards come.  The roads and pathways will aways need to be safer.  The possibilities here, more than any other setting I’ve ever played, are nearly endless.

Yeah . . . She knows what I'm talking about.
Yeah . . . She knows what I’m talking about.

I’ll try and make this last part brief, because I’m almost over my word count goals for this post. What do you need to recreate the awesome story generator that is a Borderkeep for your game? Honestly, I’ve been trying to answer that very question with every single post I’ve made since the inauguration of this blog.  If this concept is even slightly interesting to you, go back and read some of my posts.  Leave a few comments if you have questions or suggestions, click a like, share it with your friends, and most important of all, stay tuned! The Borderkeep is just getting started, and I’m excited to be a part of it!

And as always, don’t fall for the kobold pit trap.

The Blacksmith

Ok, so your dowey eyed, 1st level players have heard rumors in the bar about an upcoming caravan job.  Cpt. Winters tries to talk them out of it, but they won’t listen . . . the pull of sweet, sweet freedom is just too irresistible.  The wizard points his bespectacled nose into a book and might as well not exist for the next few days.  The monk meditates on how awesome it is not to have to buy gear, and the barbarian pulls a stiff, foul-smelling hide over his head, much to the displeasure of everyone around him.  Your poor fighter, however, looks to you and, breaking character, says, “Well, what about me?”

Padded armor isn't going to cut it.
Padded armor isn’t going to cut it.

“That’s ok,” you say, stern, but reassuring, utterly impressive in both your delivery and composure.  “This town has a blacksmith.”

This week, I’m primarily writing for games set in medieval times, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  When I think of a blacksmith, I can’t help but picture the big man with a handlebar mustache and a bald pate in Army of Darkness who was the first person to say, “I’ll stand by you.” Now, maybe that warped my 12-year-old brain . . . among other things . . . but ever since, I can’t help but feel the urge to bathe the blacksmith in a positive light.  Smithing is a hard job. If it takes 2,000 hours to become a professional, and 10,000 to master any skill, I would just as soon not spend those hours in a literal oven working bits of molten metal into usabl- who am I kidding?! Blacksmiths are awesome!

Pictured: Awesome
Pictured: Awesome

I’m not alone in my bias, either.  In The Wheel of Time, Perrin Aybara is the most level-headed and honorable of the three main characters.  occupation? Blacksmith.  Charity Carpenter from The Dresden Files dabbles in smithing, and you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of bravery and honor, with the sole exception of her husband.  Hell, in A Song of Fire and Ice, they have an entire god, one of “The Seven” fashioned after a blacksmith, because the “honorable” trope is that hardwired into the fantasy-lovers psyche.  He or she is always the first to pick up a hammer, stand at the walls, hold the gates, and defend the town.

While we’re on tropes, I’ll bet you already have an image in your head of what the gold standard blacksmith looks like too, don’t you?

“Is he reading my mind?! He’s reading my mind, isn’t he!”

That is, unless you’ve been watching Pirates of the Caribbean or Kingdom of Heaven . . .

Pictured: the blacksmith in both movies.

All jokes aside, any blacksmith worth his salt needs to look stouter than a Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Banana Ale.  Portland, you know what I’m talking about. Seriously, it’s a job where you pump bellows all day, and if you aren’t pumping bellows, you’re holding bars of red-hot metal in place for someone, and if you aren’t doing that, you’re using an 8 pound hammer and your wrought-iron will to shape metal into what you see fit!  I guess I just don’t see Legolas doing any of those things.

Ok, here’s your stat block:

Str 16-18, Dex 10, Con 16-18, Int 12, Wis 14, Cha 10.

Obviously, he or she will have a high skill in smithing.  For even a low-level character to have this, simply give them the skill focus feat in crafting.  If your blacksmith is just a blacksmith, give him 13 hit points.  If he’s going to do any heroic, tropy stuff, double that.

Blacksmiths are gruff, no-nonsense kinda characters.  It comes from all the years of hard work they put in to their field, but remember to give your blacksmith something that makes him stand out.  This can be a particularly epic handlebar mustache, or gruesome burns across his forearms (A sign of a careless smith).  My personal favorite, though, is to give the smith a super attractive, (adult, obviously) strong-willed son or daughter.  It’s always fun to have players interact with both at the same time, making them walk that fine line between flirting and angering the only man in town sure to have a sword handy.

Until next week, thanks for reading, and don’t fall for the kobold pit trap!