Burst of Insight—Weird Campaign Prompt, The City of the Dead


I’ve enjoyed doing the Weird Prompts in the past and I thought I’d revisit the concept once again. So without further ado here we go again, this time with a single campaign prompt. Way back in October, I posted about a campaign I was running based in the afterlife and the city of Purgatory. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived campaign but I thought I’d share a few of my notes as a part of the weird prompts series.

The Pitch—“We won’t be playing in Golarion or any other published world. We’ll build aspects of the world during character creation and play. Your characters can be from any traditional sort of fantasy region originally although for ease and familiarity I encourage you to stick to fairly common western tropes like you would find in Golarion, Oerth, Toril, Krynn, etc. Only the Core Races are allowed but all Paizo classes are allowed except the occult classes. Run anything else you’d like to play by me if I have easy enough access to it I’ll probably allow it.”

“You’ll each be playing a fifth level character so they’ve had some adventures, earned some fame. Put yourself in your PCs shoes. Think about your best haul or your most famous deed. You each made friends and enemies. Think of those people whose lives you’ve touched. Think about those you’ve put in the ground already. Give your character goals. Then decide how your character died.”

Up until this point I’d made no reference to the type of campaign I’d be running. The sudden revelation that the characters were deceased sold this concept to more than one of the players.

As we begin play the PCs reside in the surreal city of Purgatory in the lands of the dead. Each character has unfinished business in the world of the living, loved ones left behind. Destinies unfulfilled. The PCs have made contact with each other. Discuss how your characters connect to one another, who knew who before and who met who after. 

You have all also had dealings with Valdis Firth a rogue charon (rank and file member of the Guild of Soul Ferriers or just Boatman’s Guild in the vernacular). Valdis has been known to smuggle in the living for final goodbyes and instructions and on rarer occasions, he’s smuggled in other things from the world of the living. He’s every PCs primary contact with their pasts. You should decide how you met Valdis and how your character perceives their relationship with the rogue charon.”

Important Factions of the Setting

Some other details from my early notes.

The Guild of Soul Ferriers: The charons are the rank and file members of the boatman’s guild. Many charons are deceased themselves the upper ranks are exclusively extra-planner emissaries of death.

Order of the Shroud: Better known as reapers these extra-planner beings are responsible for the harvesting of the dead. Very few of the Order is seen in Purgatory outside of their headquarters, the Obsidian Keep.

Cerberai: Purgatory’s police force. The Cerberai have a reputation for ruthlessness. Very few of the dead citizens are accepted to serve but a few do and some have reached surprising ranks.

Facts of the World

Purgatory doesn’t just take on the recently deceased. Sometimes items destroyed in the mortal world also cross over. Scavengers search the wastes around Purgatory for valuables that arrive in the afterlife unexpected and unguided.

While the wastes fill with detritus other items are guided through the veil either manifesting with the deceased by force of will or they are guided by the collective unconscious of the living and the dead. Books tend to appear in the library of Purgatory’s Grand Arcanum.

After death, the disappointing fact is that life goes on. The rewards (both good and bad) have been suspended. No one in the city is quite certain why. It is a popular belief that the Order of the Shroud knows why and may even be responsible for the embargo. With the gates of the various afterlives closed the countless souls in Purgatory typically pick up where they left off in life.

Homelessness is rare but not unheard of. When a new resident arrives in the city their home manifests somewhere in the city. This home is born from the subconscious of the recently deceased and the thoughts of those still living most emotionally affected by their passing. Sometimes, a new resident takes ownership of a compatible home already in existence but no longer occupied because the previous owner has either passed to their Reward or met death for the dead.

Death for the dead.

There are three kinds of death for the dead.

  • Oblivion: Murder is almost unheard of but when the dead are “killed” again pass into Oblivion. It requires special materials or extreme circumstances to kill the dead.
  • Shambled: Healing is uncommon in Purgatory and violence is not unheard of. Anyone who suffers too much damage becomes too broken joins the mindless hordes of the shambled. The Cerberai force the shambled into the wastes.
  • Faded: Those who have been dead for too long risk becoming one of the faded. The faded have long been forgotten by the mortal world and in turn, have forgotten their own ties to the mortal realm. As this occurs the subject begins to fade ultimately becoming insubstantial even within the world of the dead.

Neighboring realms: Purgatory borders on the Wall a barrier between the whole of reality and the madness and horror beyond. It also borders two mortal realms including the World of Dreams and the Shadow Realm itself directly adjacent to the World of the Living.

Navigating Purgatory: so long as a residence knows the proper name of a location they can find it. Getting from place to place in the same neighborhood seldom takes more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Getting to somewhere else in the infinite city can take literally forever if they do not know the name of the locale. When the name is known it seldom takes more than an hour to reach the right neighborhood. A character who is feeling an urgent need to get somewhere faster may make a Knowledge (local) check to get somewhere more quickly. Failing this check by 10 or more can result in becoming lost.

Desired Travel Time DC
5 minutes 40
10 minutes 35
15 minutes 30
20 minutes 25
30 minutes 20
45 minutes 15
An hour N/A


Failed DC Adj. Travel Time
>10 or natural 1 +3 hours
>15 8 hours
>20 1 day
>25 1 week
>30 10 days

Burst of Insight

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.