Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Star-currency of the gods

You've probably heard of the stone money of Yap Island, great stone wheels called rai.  They're terribly impractical: large, cumbersome, fragile, just about the most awkward currency in the world.
In fact, they're so awkward to move that no one really moves them around anymore.  When you spend one, everyone knows who it now belongs to, so you don't need to bother rolling it all the way over to their house.  And when they spend it, everyone knows who it belongs to now.

The stones change ownership without ever changing hands.


As Yap islanders once used stones, giants use the stars.

When the world was young and the giants first emerged from the earth, the gods opened their mouths and taught them to speak.  They told them the names of the animals and mountains and the stars.

The gods gave stars as gifts, a sign of honor for the noblest and most loyal giants.

Owning a star means knowing its name and its place in the heavens, and being able to recite its history many generations back.  Gifted with prodigious memory, giants know the names of thousands of stars and their owners across the land.

Stars can be sold or given away, but only at an annual gathering where others may bear witness to the transaction.  Dim stars are traded away regularly, but bright stars are reserved for the most valuable of purchases or gifts bestowing high honors.



Stars function as something like money in the bank, a form of wealth universally accepted, but kept in a form that's very hard to steal.  Instead of a ledger showing how much you have in your account, the collective reckoning of giantish society keeps track of who owns which stars.

There's a bit of a delay in passing along that information.  It may take several years for knowledge of a transaction to propagate to the farthest reaches of the continent, but it will eventually get there.

Stars have fallen into the hands of other species.  Some have been given to human tribes as a peace offering.  Some have been used in trade with the goblins.  A few have even been given to the elves since their arrival a century ago.  But even the most giant-friendly of outsiders don't keep track of stars across generations, so giants will, from time to time, inquire about lineages and inheritance in an effort to determine the rightful owner of a star.

Many stars were lost in the apocalypse as people died without kin and heirs.

Giants name stars by their place in a constellation.  Each is named for a divine figure: a god or something like a god from one of the stories.  These are some of the major constellations; there are also many minor ones.

Constellation (d20)
1Old Porcupine
2Talking Goose
3Granny Vulture
4the Flock of Quail
5One-Eyed Bear
6the Poet Cricket
7Lean Coyote
8Salmon Who Listens
9the Thundering Moose
10Youngest Squirrel
11Snowstorm Jackrabbit
12Lame Deer
13Devouring Owl
14Mother Skunk and her Three Children
15Too-Fat Turkey
16the Unrepentent Raccoon
17the Crow Brothers
18the Great Rattlesnake
19Sleeping Turtle
20Many-Hued Beetle

Once you know the constellation, make up a position that makes sense there or choose from the list below.

Position (d20)
1the outstretched wingtip of
2the broken horn of
3the left shoulder of
4the third right toe of
5the end of the branch dropped by
6the long tooth of
7the wound in the side of
8the corner of the mouth of
9the tip of the tail of
10the drop of blood from
11the neck of
12the nose of
13the stone before
14the stolen amulet of
15the fly that annoys
16the eye that watches
17the one that pursues
18the bright eye of
19the second point of the right antler of
20the ear of


Roll up a random star yourself:

random star
star

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Pioneers and refugees

There's a better life out there on the frontier, but you have to go out and make it for yourself.
The apocalypse upended everything, destroying whole tribes and nations.  Once-great cities fell to starvation and disease, towns were abandoned, and alliances ended.  Survivors took refuge in a few crowded havens.

Now a new generation has been born, and they don't have to accept the hand their parents were dealt.  It's a big world, and there's bound to be somewhere better out there.  Pioneers are headed into the wilderness, migrants and refugees and wagon trains streaming across the land.



For this post, I'll mostly be talking about ways to make money (since it's useful for everyone) but migrations are important for more than just wealth.  If it's your group of people that are migrating, their success matters to you.  Helping or hindering a migration might factor into other plans.

Hired hands


Before a migration can get underway, they'll need a suitable destination, a new place to live and a way to get there.  Scouts and wilderness guides can help.  Guidebooks to the wilderness are traded and sold across the frontier, all of dubious quality.  If you find a better route through the wilds, you might make some good money leading people on it.

Humans are some of the most common migrants, usually fleeing from enemies and setting out for new farmland, hunting grounds, or fishing harbors.  If they don't already have a place in mind, they'll send out scouts and consult their prophets (a topic for a future post).

Elves can also be found seeking a new home in the wilderness.  Organized groups supported by a city are out establishing farming settlements, mines, forts, and trading posts.  They're willing to pay for porters to carry their things once they're in rugged terrain where ox carts won't help.  Religious pilgrims can also be found, exiled as heretics and looking to found a new home in the wilderness.  They're more likely to need guards if traveling through dangerous areas.

Tree goblins tend to migrate in small family groups, looking for dense forests to settle in.  They're likely to avoid other people if possible, but they might hire a guide if they don't know the way.

Individual giants migrate all the time, but they don't usually do so as a group.

Prices vary, but in general:
  • Scouts and porters earn 1 or 2 shillings/day.
  • A very knowledgable wilderness guide could earn 5 shillings/day.
  • Armed escorts in dangerous country might make 2 or 3 shillings/day.
  • Guidebooks about a wilderness country cost anywhere from 1 to 5 dollars.

Permission


The elves are all about protocol.  You don't head out to colonize the wilderness without a charter and a proper plan.  Imperial or city charters cost money (the more the better) and require the right connections.  New charters are hard enough to come by, so would-be colonists often buy up shares in a previously-chartered company.

Wherever settlers are going, they're likely to run into some kind of local rulers.  There's plenty of open land nowadays (after the starving time) but authorities tend to expand to fill the space available.  Anyone leading a migration needs bit of diplomacy, some well-placed bribes, and gifts from far-off lands.

So why would rulers let people settle on their lands?  Newcomers can bring plenty of trouble and use up resources, but they're also good for a few reasons:
  • They could join their hosts' group and provide extra labor or military might.
  • The hosts could trade the right to settle in exchange for something of value.
  • The newcomers could bring valuable knowledge and techniques.
  • Unoccupied land might be taken by enemies; new settlers help establish a claim to the land.
Passing through someone else's territory isn't always free.  If the locals are stronger than the migrants, they might demand gifts or a toll before allowing passage.

With all these travelers coming through, a few types of establishments are useful:
  • Trading posts to sell supplies.
  • Forts to provide defense for the region.
  • Ferries to carry people and cargo across a river.

Trouble

Some people seize the opportunity to prey on pioneers.  Charging tolls isn't very friendly, but it's generally accepted.  Outright robbery (often accompanied by murder) is considered criminal just about everywhere.

Some human tribes are known for taking captives.  A group of unguarded refugees could easily disappear into the wilderness, taken for slave labor, without anyone else ever knowing their fate.

If the migration is a threat to your people, you'll probably try to get them to go elsewhere.  Just telling them to leave might be enough, but threats can easily escalate to warfare.  If enough migrants meet a grisly fate, the rest are likely to change their route, but that's also when they might call for military aid.  You don't want the army showing up, and you especially don't want a band of hired adventurers.



Coming soon: what happens when these pioneers get where they're going, an article about founding settlements and trying to get them through the winter.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Gold! (or, riches and chaos)

A great resource is discovered, drawing all manner of trouble as people toil and struggle and contend for riches.



Signs in the Wilderness is a setting driven by opportunities, not threats.  It's about the great potential out there, a hopeful future full of the dreams of today's poor folk out on the fringe.

This post (hopefully the first of a series) is about a clear opportunity driving story, a rush for a newly-discovered resource.  The resource could be gold, but it could be plenty of other things just as easily.  A few ideas:
  • gold in the rivers and the rock
  • diamonds dug out of the deep earth
  • delicate fruits that heal and save
  • seedlings of a fabled tree
  • bountiful farmland for struggling pioneers
Most people have heard of one gold rush or another (the '49ers of California, the Klondike, a whole pile in Australia).

Less well known is the story of the trek for the stone that fell from the sky, the iron Cape York meteorite of western Greenland.  Around the year 1000, the Thule people (ancestors of today's Inuit) lived in northwestern Alaska, a world of whalebone and walrus hide where iron was a near-legendary treasure.  Rumors came from the east of a great resource, a boulder of iron there for the taking.  The Thule people traveled over two thousand miles across the frozen wastes of the Arctic, all the way from Alaska to Greenland, just to gain the riches of the meteorite.

(Archaeologists tell a more cautious tale: they might have taken up to 150 years to make the journey, they may have been driven by more than just the meteorite, etc.  But the exciting trek in search of treasure is definitely one of the possibilities.)



Rumors and signs


A rush doesn't always start all at once.  The first person to find gold/diamonds/whatever will probably try to keep it secret for as long as they can.  Or they might only find a little at first, so when their neighbors come looking there just isn't enough to start a stampede.

You might hear about the discovery by talking to a traveler from that distant land, someone who saw the stuff with their own eyes, maybe dug a bit up themselves, but someone who doesn't think there's any more of it left.

But sometimes a rush gets big real fast.  When Sutter discovered gold in California, he tried to keep the news quiet (as he rightly feared it would destroy his nascent agricultural empire) but word got out in only a few months.  It was talked about on the streets, in the newspaper — the president even made an address to Congress about the news.

Riches and trouble


A resource rush is an opportunity for even the poorest prospector.  All it takes is one gold nugget, one perfect diamond, and you've struck it rich.  It's the appeal of the lottery but earned through toil in a far-off land.

Precious few make it rich, of course.  Most prospectors run out of funds before they find their treasure.  Some return home in poverty.  Others never can afford to leave, spending their last shilling to drink away the despair.  But enough do strike gold to inspire all the rest, the boundless hordes of eager souls looking for a piece of the action.

Wiser ones aren't there for the resource itself; they've come to sell supplies to the hopeful and naive.  You might pay a few pennies for a shovel back home, but here in the gold fields you're paying ten or twenty times the price to the only folks smart enough to bring what you need.  (This too can backfire, as his imperial majesty Norton I can attest, having attempted to corner the rice market.)

A rush also brings trouble, just about all of it driven by greed.  You'll have to fight your way through other prospectors who don't respect your claim.  Companies and families might be willing to make trouble to get you to sell your claim.  And all kinds of authorities will show up looking for their coin in licenses, fees, taxes, and tribute.

Then there's the danger of the resource running out, or the process of obtaining it causing something else to go wrong.  Digging deep into the ground or stripping away the earth makes a mess and tends to anger things.  Cutting down trees and planting crops could do the same.



How the locals respond


Many stories talk about the local people, the ones indigenous to the land where this stuff is discovered.  They're often portrayed as victims who only react to the actions of the invaders.

Truth is, people are clever and ambitious and tend to see to their own interests.  Local people are as smart as newcomers, and just as eager to advance their own cause.  When the Iroquois saw alien European technology, they didn't wait around hoping for charity, they figured out what the newcomers wanted (furs) and they used all their craft and might to obtain them so they could buy the fantastic new technology.  A short while later, they were the well armed rulers of everything from Vermont to the Mississippi.

The Northern Lands feature three indigenous species (giants, humans, and goblins) in the face of one newly-arrived group (elves).  All four are as likely to pursue a newly-discovered resource as any other.  They're all desperate for wealth and safety, with mouths to feed and family to protect.



A newly-discovered resource makes for a great opportunity to drive story and adventure.  If you'd like to see more posts like this, let me know which opportunity sounds interesting:
  • smuggling and avoiding pirates
  • a new contraption everyone will want
  • making a new home in the wilderness
  • preaching the word
  • starting a revolution

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Difficult terrain: when a day's journey is just a few miles

If you're traveling through wilderness the terrain itself can be the biggest obstacle.

Cracking open my old Dungeon Master's Guide, it suggests a human can travel around 24 miles a day over easy terrain, or as little as 3 miles a day over the most difficult terrain.

So what makes terrain truly difficult?  Good places to travel are level, clear, and have a trail to follow, so let's take all that away.  The first one might come as a surprise:

Grass


You'd think grasslands would be easy crossing, and usually they are, but grass comes in many kinds.  Tallgrass of the prairies easily grows 7 feet tall (2 m) which is high enough to leave you basically blind as you're traveling through it.  (It's also the perfect place to get ambushed by a lion.)


Pampas grass is notorious for its razor-sharp blades that can cut up anyone wading through it.  Turn up the danger just a bit further and you get a grassland deadly to most things that don't normally live in it.



Jungle


Thick woods can be more than just trees, and dense undergrowth hides more than just the path.  When you can't see where you're putting your feet, fallen logs and uneven ground might result in a broken leg.  And any place that has plenty of plant life is likely to have plenty of creatures crawling about, too.


Jungles don't have to be hot places.  Wet and cool climates can have temperate rainforests that are as thick and dense as the Amazon.


Wetlands


Mud and mire can stretch for miles in the right conditions, making passage nearly impossible.  From a distance, marshes and bogs might just look like another type of grassland, but they can have mud deep enough to sink in and disappear without a trace.


Standing water is a great place to get an infection, though alligators, leeches, snakes, and mosquitos might drive you off first.


Streams


Moving water is its own kind of problem.  Coming across a stream in the wilderness, far from any trail, you'll have to search for a good crossing point.  If you're lucky, there's a ford where the water is wide and shallow and you can wade across.  If you're not, you either swim or find something that floats.

Crossing has a few dangers of its own: losing your footing, getting your powder wet, getting swept downstream, not to mention bitey things in the water.



If you have boats and are headed in the right direction, creeks and rivers are better than roads.  But if you're on foot and one is lying across your route, it's going to take some time.


Rocks


Sharp, jagged, or loose rocks can be terrible to walk across.  This is broken ankle country:


As bad as rocky terrain is for your feet, it can be even worse for most livestock.  Drive a herd of cattle through a place like this and you'll mostly end up with beef that's still crying out for a while.


Up and down


The steeper the ground gets, the more arduous of a journey it'll be (even if there's a trail).


Cliffs and escarpments can stretch hundreds of miles across the landscape, leaving no way around.



Canyons and gorges pose a similar problem, though usually with a rushing watercourse at the bottom.




If your game has exhaustion rules, you're going to need them crossing the wilderness.  Plenty of other things can hinder your journey: deep snow, bad weather, dangerous creatures, but these are all topics for another time.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Mystery plot hooks: foreshadowing without railroading

Or, how to look like you've planned it all from the start without railroading the story.

Imagine, the party finally breaks through into the crypt under the village.  Inside they find a massive one-eyed clay statue.  As the thief reaches out his hand, the eye opens.  They have awakened the Eye in the Mountain, a mystery you've been planning out for months.

Only you didn't really plan it out.  You just tossed in the phrase "Eye in the Mountain" and let the players run with it for a while.



I like to keep a list of mystery plot hooks, about four or five at a time.  In the very first adventure, throw in a snippet of vague but evocative information.  It could be a password, an engraving, a note clutched in a dead man's hand — anything to drop it in the game.  Don't worry about what it means yet.  In fact, it's more fun if you have no idea yourself.

The idea here is to foreshadow things you haven't even planned out.

I don't care for preplanned plots, myself.  They always end up robbing the players of their agency in the world, making their choices feel insignificant in the shadow of the story the DM wanted to tell.

But preplanned plots do allow foreshadowing, building of tension towards a narrative climax and a more satisfying story.

One way to combine the two is to add mystery hooks that you'll figure out later.  Short phrases tend to work best:
  • the Lady of Spring
  • the Withering Stone
  • Silence will Fall
  • Beware the Red of the Grumbler
  • the Day of Resounding
Toss a mystery hook into the game with no leads, no clues of how you could learn more about it.  Let the players speculate, but don't give them more information yet.

There are many ways to sneak a hook like this into the game.  Some that I've enjoyed:
  • a nursery rhyme
  • the last words of a dying man
  • an informant tells you they overheard it while spying on someone
  • inscribed on an artifact
  • a prophecy being talked about by superstitious people
  • carved into a tree (but misspelled)
For example:
Beneath the dry hand of the corpse you find a page that's been scribbled all over, random squiggles around a single phrase written in the center, "the whispering glass".
Don't explain it.  After all, you don't know what it means yet either, but don't tell the players that.

Then wait a few game sessions, and throw in another reference.  This time add a few details nearby that don't really explain anything.
She says there was a fairy tale her grandmother told her, many years ago.  Something about stone and glass and whispers you shouldn't listen to.  So long ago, when she was just a little girl.  They lived by the sea then, and she ate corn porridge with a bit of pepper.
Over time, sprinkle a few of these mystery hooks into the story.  Listen to the theories the players come up with, and let the mystery stew for a while.

Then when you need to introduce a new element to the story, decide how it relates to one of the hooks you already introduced ages ago.  Armed with more of an explanation, you can start to add clues that actually mean something.

Maybe the Whispering Glass is a globe full of tortured souls that will drive you mad by listening to it.  Maybe there's a looking glass that whispers secrets you wouldn't want revealed.  Maybe there's a secret society that has a ritual where all drink from a common glass and speak in whispers.

Whatever the hook turns out to mean, the players will already want to know.  They'll be paying attention the moment you say "whispering".  If it's something they thought of, they'll feel proud for guessing what was coming.  If it's nothing like their ideas, they'll be surprised at the result.

Either way, you'll look like you planned the whole thing and they'll get the satisfaction of uncovering the mystery.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Some newfangled contraptions: the spindly Sun-Walker, Pellet Lanterns, and the Silver Sight

I've been rolling up some strange newfangled contraptions, and I thought you might find some of them interesting.

The Sun-Walker


An enormous mechanical creation up high on spindly legs, the Sun-Walker is made mostly of brass.  Glass lenses concentrate sunlight onto fine metal spindles and vanes, causing them to bend and flex, moving the Walker inexorably forwards.  Its legs are articulated to lift high with each step, allowing the Walker to slowly traverse some of the most rugged terrain.

The inventor has tried to market the device, but it has only been ridiculed in the local press.  It's hard to control, but the inventor is confident that it can be improved.

Kinda like this, but with more sunlight and less smoke.  (ebalint96)


Pellet Lanterns


A safer, longer-lasting lantern has been invented.  A single pellet can keep it glowing for an hour, it doesn't warm up, and it won't ignite explosive gases down in the mines.

The lantern is a small glass globe (inside a protective wire cage) with a geared mechanism attached to one end.  You stick in a pellet and turn the crank; the pellet is crushed to a fine powder that glows with a bright bluish light inside the glass.

The lanterns themselves aren't that expensive, and you can buy a hundred pellets for just a shilling.  Or at least, you could.  Trouble is, there's a legal battle going on over who owns the imperial license to manufacture the pellets.

Imagine a cross between a pepper grinder and one of these old lanterns.  (Garrett Wade)


The Silver Sight


The Sight is a colossal telescopic device, mounted on a track so it can swivel and aim in any direction.  A massive clockwork mechanism causes it to rotate as needed, powered by weights hanging from chains below the main platform.

Inside the Sight are many colored glass lenses, complicated prisms, and silver reflectors.  It collects not light, but some other form of ray that can bend over the horizon.  Looking through the eyepiece, you can see the grey, indistinct forms of people hundreds of miles away.

Not that you'll ever get to look through the Sight yourself.  Its existence is a closely-guarded state secret, an intelligence-gathering device belonging to the Viceroy, who uses it to extend imperial power (or rather, her own power) across the Northern Lands.

A bit like this, but much bigger. (David Wenzel)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Make sure they stay dead

It's a familiar tale: live, die, get buried, crawl back out of your grave.  Just about every culture has stories of malevolent undead.



In a world where the undead are real, people will eventually find a way to stop the dead from rising (if it can be done at all).  Choose one or two methods that work:

How to prevent the undead (d10)
1Burn the body so no part remains.
2Remove an essential part of the body (eyes, heart, teeth, head) so the undead can't act.
3Stab/cut the body to release the spirit.
4Feed the body to carrion beasts (or eat it yourselves) so its potency is divided up.
5Have a ceremony to make sure the dead person has no reason to come back (releasing them from debts/obligations, banishing them from the community, promising to make grave offerings).
6Bury the body under a large stone or deep in the ground to make sure it stays buried.
7Dispose of dead bodies far from the settlement on the far side of some obstacle (river, mountains, cliff, lake) so they won't walk back.
8Give their spirit somewhere more suitable to live (graveyard shrine, temple, offerings, carved wooden body).
9Make a false village (or just a model, a picture, trinkets from the village) to confuse the undead and keep them away from the real one.
10Sacrifice animals/servants at the funeral so the person who died isn't alone and angry in the afterlife.



There's a certain amount of Darwinism at play.  Like species, cultures evolve over time.  After tens of thousands of years, cultures that couldn't deal with the undead are outcompeted by cultures that found a solution.  But that's assuming the undead are actually a threat.

How correct their methods are (d8)
1The undead are a major threat and always have been.  Correct procedure for dead bodies is part of their religion.
2The undead haven't been a problem for many centuries.  They keep using their method for the sake of tradition, but they've made it simpler/easier.
3-4The undead are a sporadic threat that comes and goes, based on something people haven't figured out (planetary alignment, 11-year locusts, humidity).  They use several methods at once, with more complexity than necessary.  Methods vary from culture to culture, but the correct method is included in all of them.
5-6The undead are a new threat (a recent plague, new arrivals to the area, new planetary era) and people are still figuring out how to deal with them.  Different groups are trying different methods, prone to switching rapidly and falling for scams.
7-8The undead are just rumors and myths.  Some cultures have a method, some don't.


The threat of undead could be the entire explanation for why a culture handles dead bodies the way they do.  Try rolling up some death culture for yourself:

death culture
How to prevent the undead
How correct their methods are