Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Island of Death and Rubies

Today I'm rolling up another random campaign.  I'm choosing two of the three starting adventure opportunities to test out their roll-up tables, then letting the dice decide the rest.

You can follow along with the process below, or you could skip straight to the resulting one-page campaign.

Settlement on the Frontier

The three adventure opportunities: a new Frontier Settlement, some sort of Raiders or Pirates, and a Military Expedition.  We'll start with the frontier settlement, which has plenty of details to roll up:

  • The plan is short-term resource extraction: pan for gold, gather jade, etc., then go home.  No one wants to invest in this town, they're all just hoping to strike it rich and leave.
  • But that's never going to get them rich.  They'd be better off growing crops for export: tobacco, coffee, tea, etc.
  • On the way there, the settlers run into dangerous creatures who attack, eat their livestock, pursue them, something like that.
  • The authorities from their homeland expect to extend their rule over the new settlement.  This is supposed to be an outpost of the motherland, not an independent settlement.
  • The site is near a river, a lake, and a cavern.
  • There's a local power here that makes demands of the settlers: taxes, tribute, allegiance, something like that.
  • The settlers are well-stocked with food to start their colony, but they have a problem with how others view them: they're not respected by the neighboring people, they follow the wrong religion, the authorities back home find them a nuisance, etc.
  • They'll have three projects that ought to be tracked for their completion: making peace or defeating a dangerous enemy, getting a consistent source of clean drinking water, establishing a proper food source.
  • The people of this country all died in the apocalypse, leaving ruins that aren't entirely understood.  Everyone here is new to the land.
  • There's a seasonal problem that they don't know about: flooding, drought, wildfires, hurricanes.

An Island Country

I think we need to see the country where all this is happening.  Let's roll that up now:

  • It's somewhere near Alligator Gulf, down in the hot and humid southern part of the continent.
  • There's a cliff / mountain range / escarpment that runs east and west with many waterfalls coming down it.  Up in the high country live independent or rebellious folk.
  • Waves beat against rocky cliffs, making it hard to find safe landing sites.  This country is an island or a chain of islands.
  • The south coast is deeply indented with many bays, inlets, and little coves.
  • This is a largely-forgotten country with ruins of a lost civilization or kingdom, a place mostly known by legends elsewhere.

That's enough to start sketching up a map.  I'll grab a big messy brush and rough out some islands, then draw the coastline.

Continuing on the random country tables, let's see who lives here:

  • Goblins (+1 modifier: +cliffs, +forests, -islands).  Villages of three major clans.  People travel here from far away to study, trade, visit renowned hermits.
  • Elves (+1 modifier: +warm coast).  Largely controlled by a far-off company: resource settlements, trading posts, old fort.
  • Giants (-2 modifier: -forests, -far south).  Scattered trappers, fishers, traders.

The frontier settlement we're following sounds like an elven one, so that's an easy choice.  They were sent here by a far-off trade company.

We already know the people are all newcomers to the land, within the last thirty years since the Starving Time.  Let's say the other elven stuff in the isles is all from before, from a colonial attempt that failed and left behind mysterious ruins.

This is a major center of goblin cultural activity.  Let's say their people lived here before the apocalypse, died off, then the region was repopulated by other goblins of those clans.  All their settlements today could be arguing over clan rights to different areas, since the people who knew the exact demarcations are now gone.

Recent elven ruins isn't quite a forgotten kingdom, though.  Let's check the ancient civilization tables to see who used to be here long ago.

  • As the story goes, there were once five ancient cities that warred with each other.  The table gives several question prompts: Why was the greatest city overthrown?  How could they move such stones?  Where was the fifth city?  I think it was here in these islands.
  • The symbol of the city is a mountain with a single eye.
  • This city fell a thousand years ago, remembered only by one culture as part of their founding myth.
  • Remnants: tunnels for irrigation or transport, hidden knowledge of ancient arts passed down in families, great stone statues of people or animals (marking sacred sites or buried treasure).

I think the city might have been the origins of some group of giants, so their ancient arts might still be known by some of the giants who fish and trade in these waters.

Populating the Map

We've got a lot of things to add to the map, so let's add those now:

  • The mountains running east-west, cliffs along the north coast.
  • A few rivers.
  • The new elven settlement we're following, near one of the lakes.
  • Hidden ruins of the ancient city.
  • Ancient aqueduct tunnels.
  • Ancient statues.
  • Goblin villages, including one that's powerful and near the elven settlement.
  • Elven ruins from the previous attempt at colonization.

Also I'm redrawing the coastline -- I did it with a really thick brush for some reason the first time and it's bugging me.

To figure out the icon to use for goblin settlements, I rolled on the clan tables.  As it turned out, all three clans in this country build different kinds of homes, making it easy for the map.

  • The Shining Skull clan lives up in the trees, with hammocks and rope bridges.  They use tobacco smoke in rituals.
  • The Red Snake clan prefers to live in caves or on cliff ledges.  They use the hunt for wild honey as an important ritual.
  • The Wounded Hawk clan is originally from wetlands and prefers to build log dwellings in ponds with underwater entrances (like beaver dens).  They eat the flesh of their fallen enemies.

Red Snake Raiders

The second adventure premise is where desperate times have led many to a life of banditry.  Let's see what these pirates are up to.

  • They are skilled in camoflage, hiding in this land.  (I'm thinking the raiders might be the goblins of the Red Snake clan, living up in the highland interior.)
  • They raid settled towns, farmers, local forts and their treasure.
  • Their fearsome sign is a circle drawn in blood.
  • The die roll said they sell goods at some kind of lawless border town, but I'm not sure how to make that fit here.  Let's say they sell their plunder to someone from the mainland who visits the islands, willing to buy from these fearsome raiders.
  • These people turned to raiding to survive after being on the losing side of the recent war.  This is actually a surprise

I'm starting to get a picture here: the other goblins here grow crops and gather gold or jade or something, the Red Snake clan raids them and sells their plunder to the mainland.  The first two clans came back shortly after the apocalypse, then there was the war, and then Red Snake came here to raid the others. 

Military Expedition

The third adventure premise is a military expedition to the isles.

  • The expedition is sent by the remnant army of the Viceroy.
  • They're moving against a trade company that owns vast lands.

That puts the frontier settlement in grave danger, though they don't know it yet.  The trade company must have extensive holdings elsewhere, maybe causing some kind of trouble for the Viceroy.  The settlement is going to have to make alliances with the local people to survive.

  • The goal of the expedition is to scout out the trade company's strength here and to destroy a fort or ship of theirs.
  • The expedition has no knowledge of this country, with bad maps or no maps at all.
  • If they attack the goblins, both sides will be willing to massacre each other.
  • This expedition is likely to spark another war.

I think the company settlement is going to be a great source of adventure drama.  They're in a lot of trouble from different sources, but they'll have some chances to play off those problems against each other. 

Some open threads that we'll need more information about before the adventure is ready to go:

  • The company that's in charge of the settlement.
  • The trade good that people are raiding these islands for.
  • A few details about the different villages on the map.
  • The second half of the random country tables.  (I just realized that this country doesn't have a name, which means I got distracted halfway through rolling up the country and never came back to it.)
  • The dangerous creatures here.
  • The secret art passed down from the ancient city of the giants.
  • Hermits among the goblins here.

The Imperial Gem Society

The trade company that's sending the settlers:

  • They have remote trading posts in many lands, but the company is short on arms for a conflict.  This means the settlement probably won't have much gunpowder with them.
  • Their original purpose was to buy local goods (furs, silver, ivory, etc.) but since the apocalypse they've branched out into shipping as well.
  • The company's charter for this region was recently revoked by the Viceroy.
  • They're about to make people angry by engaging in trade of some unlawful goods.  (I think their charter to trade in the local products here is what was revoked.)
  • They're called the Imperial Gem Society.  Probably just Imperial Gems or IGS for short.

As for what they want in this land, I think it's going to be rubies.  The goblins here have been finding them in streams or in certain types of soil, but they're not common.  No one has found a place to mine them from the rock.  It's hard to get rich just searching for rubies.

The giants come and buy the rubies then resell them on the mainland, unless the Red Snake clan intercepts them first.

Details of the Islands

Finishing the random country rolls, an interesting result came up:

  • There's a rising warlord or a rogue general here.

Maybe the military expedition is unauthorized, its leader being on a vendetta against the company based on the previous war, and now the expedition might start a new war.  There might be a military group sent to rein in the leader, but if the expedition gets into enough trouble, the new group might just be reinforcements.

  • A marsh/swamp in a low region.
  • Waterfalls, rapids, sandbar, or hidden reef.
  • Colonial goods that are traded here: alchemical products, copper pans/kettles.
  • Country goods that are traded here: fish, shell beads, plus the rubies we already know about.
  • These islands are named for local wildlife: the Cottonmouth Islands.

Settlement Details

The colonial settlement they're trying to establish:

  • Smells like tar, from weatherproofing wooden structures.
  • Doesn't have a defensive wall yet.
  • Fearful of raiders, enemies in the woods.
  • They've brought some indentured laborers to do the heavy work.  (Let's go with giants, so we don't have to introduce another species of people to this story.)
  • They have many dead bodies to deal with.  (I'm assuming this is from the dangerous creature attack they had on the way here.)
  • The settlement is called Crow's Nest.

The nearby goblins are of the Shining Skull clan, living up in trees with hammocks and rope bridges.  This settlement:

  • Has shaped paths through thick undergrowth to funnel prey and passers-by into ambush points.
  • They fear ghosts and avoid abandoned sites from the people who lived here before.
  • There's a shipwreck nearby.
  • They want to drive away the outsiders who have invaded their territory, also they want to take their metal.
  • They make many smoky fires to seem more numerous than they are, and to lure would-be invaders away from their actual village.

I'll keep rolling on those tables for the other settlements.

Dangerous Creatures

What are the dangerous creatures here?  We know they attack the settlers early on.  I think I'd like them to be mainly based on crocodiles.  Let's roll for their features.

  • Better at swimming.
  • Inedible, as their flesh is poisonous.
  • They hunt in packs.
  • They dig impressive dens where they keep bones of their prey.

The Secret Art

The ancient city had some kind of magic art that has been preserved in secret, passed down by some lineage of giants.  Some of the ones who visit the islands know the art.

  • Ability to go unseen.
  • It only lasts as long as you hold your breath.
  • Those who practice it don't make a sound when they walk, even when not using the art.

Goblin Hermits

Goblin society has a role for hermits, the hidden ones, recluses who live outside the village.  I'm going to roll up the hidden ones for the three clans in the isles, then only use whichever one sounds most interesting.

  • They perform divination to see the future.  They live at an old ruin in the woods, staying hidden.  Anyone who visits them must not look at them or speak directly to them.
  • They take you on a journey to the spirit world by way of hallucinogens.  They live in caves in the woods.
  • They perform healing rituals.  They live up on hills and high places.  Visitors are to bring a gift of animal teeth.

There are other loose ends we could keep rolling for, but I think we've got enough here.  I'll make up an encounter table and write up all the moving parts, and I think the adventure will be done.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Talking Knots

In the old forests where the tree-goblins once lived, their voices might be rare today, but they still speak through the Talking Knots.  All the peoples of the North use ropes and cords, but only goblins use them to carry messages.  Strands of cord in different colors are tied into knots, each one with its own meaning.

an Andean quipu, the inspiration for Talking Knots

These days there are few people left who can read the knots, fewer still who can tie them.  It's an ancient art, passed down from elder to apprentice over the generations, but like so many things it was nearly lost during the Starving Time.

Traces of talking-knot culture persist.  It's common for pregnant women to wear a bracelet with the "life" knot repeated around it.  Hunters often wear a necklace with the complex knot for a type of prey, though they usually don't know which knot goes with which animal, or even that they're representative at all.

A few villages still have one of the old bundles of knot-cords, taken out for village ceremonies, even if they have forgotten how to read it.

Talking knots aren't a full writing system, but a partial one.  There are particular knots for clan names, common animals, some things in the natural world.  A few knots show directions or other descriptors, but without grammar to join words together, a strand of knots is more like a list than a sentence.  And because the set of words is limited, sometimes you have to resort to kennings or other wordplay to try to describe something.  There's no sign for "skunk", for example, but if you find the knot for "weasel" tied to several of the knot for "stink", you can guess what it means.

Goblins who know the knots emphasize that these are definitely not that dangerous elven writing in any way.  No, the talking knots are just a wholesome, traditional art for sharing stories among the people.

There are many different technical terms, of course, but the basics are as follows (in the Middlesea language):

  • ňúica NOO-ee-kah "knot"
  • tàirai TAH-ee-rah-ee "strand of knots on a cord"
  • tocó toe-KO "bundle of strands tied together at one end"
  • tocotómi toe-ko-TOE-mee "one who can read knots"
(Ok, the ň in ňúica is actually not an /n/ sound, it's a nasalized dental click /ǀ̃/.  The accented vowels are actually pitch accents: á is high stress, à is low stress, so the syllable in a word like ňúica go high-low-low.)

    Roll up a random (bundle) to find in your own adventures:

    Location (d6)
    1 in an abandoned village
    2 in trade from a wandering giant
    3 private religious items of a village
    4 kept by an elven academic society (though they do not understand what it is)
    5 carried by a goblin who can read it
    6 merely an impression left behind in clay/mud

    Purpose (d6)
    1mnemonic for telling an epic tale
    2an accounting of valuable goods
    3warning about dangerous enemies or witchcraft
    4letter to a loved one
    5secret call to arms
    6location of a hidden refuge

    Difficult to Read (d10)
    1-2uses a few unusual knots, need to find someone who knows them
    3-4has gotten all tangled together
    5-6part of it is missing
    7-8colors have faded, some ambiguities
    9-10strands from two bundles are joined together

    Click here for random results.

    Thursday, August 25, 2022

    Talk like a Human

    Traveling across the North you're likely to meet some humans.  Many of those humans speak the language of the Isquentaga, or something closely related to it, so it helps if you know a little of that tongue.  Here's a quick intro.


    When elven memory-transfer technology is used to record human words, here's how they're spelled.  Vowels are sort of like Spanish:

    • a [a] as in swat 
    • e [e] as in whey 
    • i [i] as in ski 
    • o [o] as in tone 
    • ų [ʌ̃] as in skunk

    These consonants are just like in English: p, t, k, ch, s, h, m, n, l, w, yG is always [g] like in gear or give (not like in gem).  Qu is a [kʷ] sound like in English.  Ts is the same as in English, but note that it can show up at the start of a word, like tsigem "seagull".


    The most common greeting is simply yeque "health".  If you want to know who you're dealing with:

    • Ska naga?  "Who are your (f) people?"
    • Ska taga?  "Who are your (m) people?"

    The way to say "your" changes by the gender of who you're talking to.

    • To a man: tachale "your canoe", takata "your mother", taquotsi "your dream".
    • To a woman: nachale "your canoe", nakata "your mother", naquotsi "your dream".

    Answering the question is easier, since it doesn't change for gender.

    • Ogansi iga. "Ogansi is my people."

    Asking someone's name works the same way:

    • Ska nawana?  "What is your (f) name?"
    • Ska tawana?  "What is your (m) name?"
    • Ųskalak iwana.  "Ųskalak is my name."

    There's no word for "is" in the Isquentaga language.  To say "What is your name?" you literally say Ska tawana? "What your-name?".

    Any noun can take a possessive prefix.  Wana "name" becomes:

    • iwana "my name"
    • tawana "your (m) name"
    • nawana "your (f) name"
    • kewana "his name"
    • niwana "her name"
    • akana "its name" (ak-wana but the w disappears)

      Offering in Trade

      If you don't speak the language well, trade will have to be simple and blunt.

      • Itsya sehek. "I want an arrow."
      • Ketsya olet.  "He wants a jackrabbit."

      Here we have itsya "I want" (pronounced like "eats ya") and ketsya "he wants".  The root word is tsya "want" plus a prefix to show who's doing the action.  Verbs use the same prefixes as possessive nouns, so the i- in iwana "my name" is the same as the i- in ipo "I hunt".

      • Itsya cho chale. "I want this canoe."
      • Itsya na chale. "I want one canoe."
      • Itsya qua chale. "I want three canoes."
      • Itsya pamak chale. "I want all the canoes."

      Nouns don't change to become plural, so chale means either "canoe" or "canoes".

      • Ikatsya. "I want those."
      • Ikatsya chale. "I want the canoes."
      • Ikitsya. "I want it."
      • Ikitsya chale. "I want the canoe."

      Notice the -ka- in ikatsya?  Verbs can take a prefix for their object as well, the thing being acted upon.  I-ka-tsya is basically "I-them-want". 

      • verb structure: subject-(object)-root

      Sometimes a prefix changes depending on the sounds around it.  The rules are a little complicated, but we can see an example with ikitsya "I-it-want".  The "it" prefix is actually ak- but i-ak-tsya isn't allowed.  The i-ak merges together to ik- and then an -i- is inserted to make the word more pronouncable: ikitsya "I want it."

      • Inaman cho squana. "I offer this blanket." 
      • Iknaman cho squana. "I offer this blanket."
      • Iknaman. "I offer it."

      Here, i-ak-naman "I-it-offer" becomes iknaman as the sounds merge together.  The -ak- "it" prefix is optional if the object is mentioned explicitly, so you can say either "I-offer this blanket" or "I-it-offer this blanket".

      Nouns in this language have a gender, so if do you use an object prefix it has to be of the right gender: ak- "it", ke- "he", ni- "she".

      • Maknaman chale. "We offer a canoe (it)."
      • Makatsya chochag. "We want hominy (it)."
      • Maketsya aya. "We want clay (him)."
      • Makenaman samas. "We offer an antler (him)."
      • Manitsya nala. "We want copper (her)."
      • Maninaman mak. "We offer a dog (her)."

      To show the one who benefits from the action, use the helping verb si at the beginning:

      • Tasi inaman squana. "I offer you (m) a blanket."
      • Isi ninaman chale. "She offers me a canoe."
      • Kasi tanaman yama. "You (m) offer them a potato."

      Tasi "for you" has a prefix to show who this is for: "you-for I-offer this blanket". 

      Trade Questions

      We've seen how to make statements, now let's try some questions.

      Nakatsya. Nahotsya? Hokatsya?
      na-ka-tsya na-ho-tsya ho-ka-tsya
      you.f-them-want you.f-what-want what-them-want
      "You (f) want them." "What do you (f) want?" "Who wants them?"

      Instead of using a personal prefix (like i- "I" or ke- "he") there's also a question prefix ho- that means "what" or "who".  Ho- can be used as the subject or object of a verb, and it can also be used as the possessor of a noun.

      • Hotsya pamak tųk? "Who wants all the rocks?" 
      • Hosi taknaman tųk? "Who do you (m) offer the rock to?"
      • Natsya hotųk? "Whose rock do you (f) want?"

      Yes/no questions are a little more complicated.  To make a statement into a yes/no question you add go at the start, then tack the suffix -a onto the last word in the statement.  Both parts are required.

      Tatsya mak. Go tatsya maka?
      ta-tsya mak go ta-tsya mak-a
      you.m-want dog q you.m-want dog-q
      "You (m) want the dog." "Do you want the dog?"

      Negatives use a similar structure, adding ha at the beginning and adding -ens to the last word in the part being negated.

      Itsya chale. Ha itsya chalens.
      i-tsya chale
      ha i-tsya chale-ens
      I-want canoe
      not I-want canoe-not
      "I want the canoe." "I don't want the canoe."

      A Quick Trade

      Here's a little dialog to show how trade might work.  The only new vocab word here is ųm "give".

      • A: Yeque!  Atalak iwana.  Ska tawana?
      • Hello!  My name is Atalak.  What is your name?
      • W: Yeque!  Weyanoto iwana.  Tahonaman?
      • Hello!  Weyanoto is my name.  What do you offer?
      • A: Iknaman cho chale.  Go takatsya?
      • I offer you this canoe.  Do you want it?
      • W: Ikitsya.  Go tanitsya inala?
      • I want it.  Do you want my copper ornament?
      • A: Ho initsyans.  Go takanaman tasquana?
      • I don't want it.  Do you offer your blankets?
      • W: Go ikanaman, takųm chale?
      • I offer them and you give me your canoe?
      • A: Tasi im chale.
      • I give you the canoe.

      That's all for now.  Let me know if you'd like to see more content like this, either in this language or in one of the other languages.

      Monday, August 15, 2022

      Humans, the People of the Valley

      All along the creeks and the lake-shores live the humans, farming and hunting where the water and the woods meet.  Humans are a proud people, bold and eager for fame.  Whenever you hear shouts and the barking of dogs, get ready it's either time for a feast or time for a fight.


      Humans (called yaskan yah-skahn in their own tongue) are taller than goblins, shorter than giants and elves, and quite strong for their size.  They are mostly hairless except for the hair on their heads, which grows very long and is the object of much attention and vanity.

      Unlike other species, humans have a very poor sense of smell, having to rely on the senses of their dogs instead.


      The yaskan are the only people with enough strength and accuracy to use throwing weapons.  While they do make their own (such as spears) a human is never unarmed as long as they can find a rock or a heavy stick to throw.

      When playing a human character, here are some tips to make them feel more human:

      • Show your value.  Before a fight, make a show of your strength and ferocity.  When trading, show off the superior qualities of your trade goods.  In a social gathering, tell a boastful tale of your accomplishments.
      • If you're not sure what to do, improvise.  Humans are famous for jury-rigging a solution out of whatever tools they have at hand.  If anyone's going to use something the wrong way and make it work, it's a human.

      If you're going to have the indigenous humans in your roleplaying game, I've got some other guidelines you might want to consider:

      • Being poor doesn't mean you deserve it.  You can make all the right choices and still lose.
      • Everyone is active in the world; no one's just sitting around waiting to be discovered.

      These guidelines apply to all three of the indigenous peoples, but I'm mentioning them here for human characters because the real history is all about humans, and some of those humans got about the shortest end of the stick ever offered in this universe.


      Humans mostly live near lakes and small waterways, preferably in lightly-forested or grassy areas.  You won't find many humans in areas that are too dry, too cold, too overgrown, or too waterlogged.  Living near the water, humans use canoes or other small boats to get around.  On land they travel by foot, by dogsled, or by travois.

      Their preferred weapons are guns (when they can get them) or bows (when they cannot).  In close quarters the humans often use iron throwing axes and wooden war clubs.

      Humans are divided up into tribes, identifiable to outsiders by their tattoos, clothing, and hairstyles.  Outsiders who don't know any better tend to judge humans by their tribe, bringing retribution on everyone.  To themselves, the primary unit of human governance is the town.

      Their usual food is heavy in corn, fish, and potatoes.  Human food is known for being smokier and greasier than other people like.

      Other People

      These days, the yaskan often find themselves at war with their neighbors.  Times are tough and resources are scarce.

      • The elves are a dangerous and wealthy foe.  Individual elves are weak and fare poorly in the wilderness, but a whole regiment of elves can kill and loot as they please.  Humans have gone deeply into debt buying the guns and powder they need to fight the cities of the elves.
      • Most human tribes have a healthy respect for the giants, telling folktales of the terrible vengeance of the giants in days long gone by.  When a giant wanders through a human town today, they're respected as a trader and storyteller.
      • Goblins are the reason humans don't like to go deep into the woods.  You hear the cry of a child or the patter of distant conversation, but it's all a ruse, and a dozen goblins land on you with teeth and claws.

      Most human tribes are struggling to reclaim what they lost during the Starving Time, seeing their lands encroached on further and further each year.


      Humans in this setting fill the historical role of organized indigenous people responding to colonialism: the Iroquois League, the stratified societies of the Pacific Northwest, the Lakota moving onto the plains, people trying to rebuild a life after the decimation of warfare and disease.

      Their aesthetics are mostly inspired by the indigenous people of the eastern woodlands of the US, with some Maori influence thrown in.  Their language borrows its sounds mostly from Algonquian tongues (because that's what all the placenames were in where I grew up) but a few consonant clusters are taken from Iroquoian languages.  (As much as I'd like to, I won't try to make my players pronounce Salishan-inspired names.)

      Saturday, August 13, 2022

      Goblins, the Tree People

      Deep in the forest live the goblins, the reclusive people of the trees.  They lie in wait to ambush their prey, making calls to lure them in.  Goblins are the reason outsiders fear the woods, but they fear outsiders in turn, only occasionally venturing out to investigate the dangerous world around.


      Tree-goblins (nuruí noo-roo-EE as they call themselves) are a type of small primate, looking something like lemurs or raccoons.  Their hands and feet are well adapted for gripping branches, but they're also ready for a brief sprint on the ground.  Like a flying squirrel, a nuruí has a flap of skin that's revealed when they spread out their arms and legs, allowing them to glide through the air.  Their fur is usually striped, spotted, or mottled in some way, providing useful camoflage in the forest.


      Nuruí are the smallest and weakest of the four peoples.  They avoid extended combat at all costs, preferring to rely on surprise and rapid movement.  Tree-goblins can remain vigilant and perfectly motionless for hours, waiting for the right time to silently glide down or burst out of hiding in a flurry of teeth and claws.  Their fights are won in moments, or else they sprint away and bound up into the trees to return to safety.  Goblins are fast, but they tire quickly.

      To act like a tree-goblin, remember these two rules:

      • Go see for yourself.  When they say there's an enemy over the hill or some tasty soup in the pot or a trap full of spikes, give it a try yourself so you can learn what it's like.
      • Show while you tell.  When you tell about something, bring a little piece of it along for everyone to experience: a souvenir from the enemy camp, some meat out of the pot, a sharp spike from the trap.

      Tree-goblins are particularly good at imitating sounds, like animal calls from the forest where they live.  Some are even good at imitating the accent and voice of other kinds of people.


      Goblin homes are in hard-to-reach places, to keep them safe from predators.  Typically they build nests high up in the trees, made like woven baskets or rope hammocks.  Where trees aren't a good option, goblins sometimes make their homes in caves and clefts in the rock of high cliffs.

      Their homes are near each other, forming a village of a dozen or so families.  Each village works together to shape the land around to discourage intruders and to make ambush points for prey.  Paths in the forest near a goblin village are no accident, but are deliberately constructed to lead you where they want you to go.

      Each village belongs to a clan, a network of kinfolk that spans the entire continent.  Clans aren't geographically based (there's no country of the Red Tooth people).  There's no one in charge of a clan, but since they all see each other as kin, word gets around.  An enemy of one village is an enemy of the whole clan.

      Tree-goblins make very few tools compared to the other peoples.  Their technology focuses on forest chemistry: making pigments, medicines, glues, hallucinogens, etc.  They make some pottery and rope for their own use, but they also trade with the giants for these.

      Other People

      Here's how the goblins see outsiders:

      • Giants are good to have nearby.  They make traps to catch prey and they don't check them too often, so if you're very careful you can get yourself a meal out of a giant's trap.  Giants also make good traders, showing up with a backpack full of goods and trinkets from the world around.
      • Elven settlements are dangerous but they have some of the most interesting treasures.  Their ruins tend to have bits of metal and glass that you can trade to the giants, but it's their inhabited settlements that have a wonderful variety of food and drink to take home for the whole village.
      • Humans are the worst neighbors to have.  They hunt most of the same prey as we do, leaving nothing for us to eat.  Humans also have dogs and bows, making it hard to hide from them and hard to stay safe up in the trees.

      Outsiders are the reason to venture out of the forest on occasion, but they're also the reason to stay home most of the time.


      Tree-goblins are inspired (in feel more than material culture) by the insular rural life of the northern Appalachians, wary of encroaching modernity and longing for the old days when they could live in peace without all this fuss and bother.  The signs they paint at their villages are based on Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs.

      The language of the tree-goblins gets sound inspiration from the Arawakan and Cariban languages of South America, but its grammar is entirely different.

      Friday, August 12, 2022

      Giants, the Wandering People

      A giant's life has always been a lonely one, even before the Starving Time.  They wander the land alone, checking their traps, watching the stars, and telling tales of old to those they meet along the way.  What other peoples have forgotten, the lonely giants remember.


      Giants are a large primate, something like a gorilla or sasquatch.  They are the tallest of the four peoples by only a little, hunched over as they walk, but they are the strongest by far.  Their thick fur comes in colors from charcoal black to russet brown to pale grey.


      Giants (ogolon O-go-lone, as they call themselves) are incredibly strong, able to carry heavier loads and break through tougher obstacles than anyone else.  Their slow speed works against them in a fight, but this is offset by the protection afforded by their thick hide.  While giants have traditionally not used many ranged weapons, they eagerly make use of elven firearms as much as they can, even carrying smaller sorts of cannons on occasion.

      When playing a giant, here are some tips to make them feel even more giantish:

      • Appeal to history for justification.  Invoke ancient alliances in a call to war, bring goods to trade that were sung about in the olden days, recite a poem from your grandmother's grandmother when making peace.
      • Look and listen, then ponder your words before you speak.

      Giants have deep memories, remembering details from ancient tales that others have forgotten.  Some are skilled enough in memory to recite hours-long epic poems or to recall the words of conversations they had many years before.  (The elves think some of the giants can read elven holy scriptures, but in fact the giants simply listened and memorized the entire book.)


      Giants wander the land alone most of the year, favoring colder, higher, and drier places than other people.  They make elaborate traps to catch birds, fish, and land creatures alike, and they don't mind if the meat has gotten a bit old before they eat it.  Some giants do more fishing instead, or gathering wild plants, while others tend to herds of livestock: llamas, alpacas, and yaks, mostly.

      While giants mostly wander alone, they do belong to an ancestral house that governs the vast territory where they roam.  Should a giant be killed, the vengeance of their house will be slow, but it will be remembered for generations.

      A giantish ancestral house is a physical structure, but it's thought of as something like a person, the embodiment of their kinship group, capable of owning property and bestowing honors and titles.  A few people stay at the house all the time, generally elders who are too old to roam the land, members of the first rank, and perhaps some warriors for defense.

      The members of a house are divided into ranks (typically four per house), showing their prestige and role in governance of the house.  Giants inherit a place in the house one rank lower than their most prestigious parent.  The members of a rank may invite someone from the rank below to join them, in recognition of their skills or service to the house.

      Each spring the house hosts a gathering.  Everyone returns home from their lonely wandering for a few days of trade, mating, gossip, and making plans for the year ahead.

      Like the other indigenous peoples of the North, giants mostly used stone and copper tools until the strangers came from across the sea.  Elven trader introduced the giants to firearms and kettles, but they also destroyed many trade networks, either by outcompeting them with industrialized products or by brute conquest.  Many of the giantish houses fell into debt, trading away everything to the elves just to survive.  As a result, giants can now be found as laborers around most elven settlements, working for mere pennies, if they're paid at all.

      The houses that still stand tend to follow the old ways, telling tales and doing dances for the star gods.  Some have been converted to the elven ancestor-worship religion instead.

      Other People

      To the giants:

      • Humans are rowdy and sometimes troublesome neighbors, but they make many good products for trade, and in the end they usually remember to treat giants with respect.
      • Goblins have an irritating tendency to break into giantish traps for the meat inside, but where they're not competing for food, giants and goblins can get along well enough for trade.
      • Elves are wealthy traders and skillful teachers of religion and science, but they're also the cruel tyrants everyone seems to owe money to, or the capricious conquerors who kill people and take their land.

      Because they get along with the other peoples well enough, giants tend to be the best traders and diplomats.


      Giants in this setting are inspired mostly by the North American fur trade.  They're the lonely mountain men who wandered the west trapping for furs, coming together for an annual rendezvous.  They're also the indigenous tribes who pushed across the frontier to follow the trade companies, sometimes benefiting from access to trade goods, sometimes suffering from the destruction of the old trade networks and the new indebtedness to the companies.

      Their aesthetics are a mix of Siberian and Pueblo, with architecture particularly inspired by the Japanese shinmei-zukuri style.  The sounds of the giantish language are inspired mostly by Hopi and Inuktitut.

      Saturday, August 6, 2022

      Elves, the City People

      Elves are the city-dwellers, the colonial conquerors from beyond the ocean sea.  They came a century ago in their great ships and established outposts of empire here in the North.  Now the empire is gone, but a few colonies remain, citadels of power and wealth.


      Elves (cazandi cah-ZAHN-dee in their own tongue) are primates from a hot and dry continent.  They are taller and thinner than humans, with long spindly limbs and digits.  Outsiders cannot recognize any distinctions of gender among them.  Their skin tends toward dark, earthy shades of gray and brown, but their eye colors are brilliant gem tones.


      Playing as a cazand one must be careful.  Elves are weaker and more easily injured than most people, and are unskilled at running and throwing.  But what they lack in physical prowess they make up for in wealth and connections.  An elven character starts with more money, access to more technology, and membership in the organizations of colonial society.

      If you're looking for some roleplaying tips, here's how I like to make a character feel more cazandi:

      • Always be polite, especially when being cruel.
      • When in doubt, do it by the book and the ancestors wrote a book for everything. 

      An elven adventuring party likely has a name, an emblem, elected officers, and written bylaws, with specific provisions for what happens if a member dies and the proper ritual for inducting a new member into the group.


        Elves are a eusocial species: only a few of them, the Mothers and Fathers, actually reproduce.  Each city is like a vast extended family, all descended from the city's lineage of Mothers.

        Within the city, each cazand is part of several different overlapping societies: a guild or company where they make their living, a fraternal order where they share a morning meal, a temple maintenance society where they work together for the upkeep of one of the city's shrines, an alumni association for the cohort of schoolmates they were raised with, and so on.

        They subsist mostly on bread and vegetable products, but they do also eat fish and a few types of meat.  Elves are the only people capable of digesting milk as adults, so they keep livestock for dairy products.

        Technologically, they're at the level of muskets, telescopes, and joint stock corporations.  Most elves can read and write.

        Their cities are usually on the coast or on rivers, as they use ships for most of their commerce.  They have some draft animals to pull wagons (oxen, donkeys, and even a few surviving elephants) but they do not generally ride animals.  In the cities you might run across an elf with a tally bird, a sort of domesticated parrot that can count and do basic arithmetic.

        In extreme conditions of drought or heat, elves can go into hibernation, seeming nearly dead until conditions improve and they wake again.

        Other People

        The typical elven view of the other species of people is deeply racist and condescending:

        • Giants are like some kind of intelligent livestock.  Strong and useful, and even possible to educate if you're patient.  Occasionally giants have been known to revolt, for some reason.
        • Humans are fearsome enemies, preventing the colonies from making full use of the countryside.  They're treacherous and primitive, but sometimes you have to make concessions to keep the peace.
        • Goblins are vermin at best, deadly threats to travelers at worst.  The forests cannot be trusted, full of goblin ambushers ready to attack with teeth and claws.

        Those kinds of views are common in the cities where cazandi only deal with other cazandi.  But out on the frontier where the Four Peoples meet, you learn to get along or you find yourself getting in trouble.


        Elves in this setting take the role of the European colonial powers in the New World.  As such, I've styled them after a mix of some of Old World aesthetics: Mughal architecture and textiles, Mediterranean galleons and xebecs, English hats and coats, etc.

        Their language is meant to sound vaguely Romance without being from anywhere specific, like it's wearing the coat of Catalan or Old French, but underneath it's something entirely different.