Saturday, July 25, 2020

Through the Saw-Grass, a randomly-generated campaign

Today I'll be rolling up a random campaign, full of opportunities for adventure, intrigue, and exploration.  That's the plan, anyhow.  We'll see how far my random tables take me.

By the way, I'm going try using the term cazandi for the imperial elves.  If you're not familiar, they're the city-building people from the empire destroyed in the apocalypse.  Imagine the Spanish and British empires, with influences from India and China.

Once I'm done writing it all up, I'll link to the write-up here.

This post is about the process, not the end result.  Follow along with me as I roll up random adventury stuff and piece it all together.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Moonlit Play

On nights when the moon is full, performers across the land dress up for the Moonlit Play.  In elaborate costumes they take on a variety of roles from animal star-gods to wandering folk figures to hidden people.  They act out stories through word, dance, and song: some passed down from their ancestors, some newly-invented.

This is one of the traditional religions of the Northern Lands, most commonly performed by giants and tree goblins.  Like most religions, it brings a community together, links you to your ancestors, and passes on hidden knowledge of the dangers of the world.

Kwakwaka'wakw winter dance

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Random Map: terrain table

Let's make a random map!  Like last time, I'm going to roll up a few wilderness countries, mapping along the way.  My supplies are just a ballpoint pen and a regular sheet of paper.  Whatever the dice say to draw, that's what I'll draw.

Here's the final result, colorized because I felt like it.

The main table generates Terrain features.  Roll a d20 and a d12, three times.  The default terrain is mostly forested with streams and rolling hills, if the terrain table doesn't change any of that.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Randomly-generated Maps

Today I'm going to walk you through the makings of a random map.  Normally my mapping is all digital, but for this one I decided to do it by hand.  Here's what I'll be using:
  • an ordinary ballpoint pen
  • a regular piece of paper
  • a handful of dice
  • random Wilderness Country tables

Before we get into the process, here's the end result, with a nickel for scale:

I'm looking at this now thinking how I need better lighting, better hand technique, better pens...but that's not the point.  Drawing maps is something you can do whether you're trained or not, and whether you have fancy art supplies or not.

Let's go through the process together.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Down in the Roots

The smallest of the four peoples are the goblins who live in the trees.  For their appearance, think of lemurs and raccoons.  They're ambush hunters who imitate animal calls, lie in wait, then leap down in a burst of teeth and claws.

Their activity takes them all throughout the forest and occasionally into lands beyond, but the heart of goblin life is the tree.  Up in a tree is safety, family, and home.  It's where children are raised and it's where you rest at night.

Danger lies below.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The True History of the Conquest of New Spain

First-hand accounts from history usually make for dry reading, but when a good author meets the front lines of change, the results are worth reading.  The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is a thrilling tale of adventure and brutality, the story of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Aztec Empire, told by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who was part of the events.

It's a story any band of murder-hobos would understand.

The central figure of the True History is the expedition's leader, Hernando Cortés, the epitome of cleverness and cruelty.  Where he comes from isn't important -- his hometown never plays a part in the tale, and he's not really working for anyone, despite his claims of being loyal to the Spanish crown.  Cortés is, foremost, an adventurer out for his own interests.

Reading about the expedition, I was struck by how much it sounded like a roleplaying game.  Typical people only fight as a last resort, when they've been pushed far enough and have no other choices.

Adventurers, I think, are not typical people.  Cortés fights for his own gold and glory, and no amount of danger seems to deter him.

The story begins in Spanish Cuba, 1519.  Rumors of treasure come in from the west.  Against the governor's orders, Cortés gathers some ships and a party of soldiers and heads for the unexplored country.

It's a straightforward setup for an adventure so far.  Treasure is their only goal, in whatever form.  They've heard that the mainland might have gold.  But the truth is that the party has no idea where they're going; the coast is just a question mark on a map.

The first encounter is immensely helpful: they find a Spanish priest, the survivor of a shipwreck who has spent years as a slave among the Maya people.  Most importantly, the priest has learned the Maya language.

Next along the coast in Tabasco they have a combat encounter.  It doesn't start as one, but like proper adventurers, they take any opportunity they have to start a fight.  By the end, Cortés and his party sail away with a bit of loot: some golden jewelry, rich cloaks, and several women (one of whom speaks the Aztec language) as slaves for the men.

Brutality in this story runs deep, crimes highlighted all the more by their contrast with the noble words of those who commit them.  Cortés and his adventurers kill and rape and plunder without a thought, then speak of peaceful relations and spreading good deeds.  The priest occasionally complains of their behavior, but it continues nonetheless.

Each jaunt further into the unknown puts these adventurers in contact with another strange group.  From our perspective we can see that both sides are humans like ourselves, but to the people involved, it's more like first contact with an alien race.  The Tabascans have never seen anything like these Spaniards, being especially terrified of their cannons and horses.  From the Tabascan point of view, strange monsters have invaded from across the sea.

At this point, the party doesn't have a long-term goal.  They're looking for treasure, but they don't really know where to look, so they're just working their way along the coast, ending up in the region of the Totonacs.

Far away, in a highland country known as Mexico, a great emperor rules over cities and armies.  His agents travel far and wide collecting information and tribute, and word has come to emperor Moctezuma of strangers from across the sea.

A richly-appointed emissary of Moctezuma comes to meet the Spaniards at the coast, attended by sketch artists to record the event.  For the first time, Cortés and his men learn of the existence of this powerful empire.  The Totonac king is clearly terrified of the forces of Mexico, but he's also afraid of the guns and horses Cortés and his men have brought along.

All this leads to an argument among the adventurers.  Should they journey into the highlands and face the power of Moctezuma, or should they return home to the safety of Cuba?

Cortés resolves the argument by destroying their ships, leaving the party stranded in hostile territory.  In a way, this is where the adventure truly begins.

From that point on, they keep getting deeper and deeper into peril as Cortés drives ahead with little more than trickery and bravado.  I should avoid any spoilers -- we all know how the story ends, but what happens along the way makes for a thrilling tale.

There's treachery and murder, slaughter at a banquet, dignitaries arrested and humiliated.  Ships are built, great pyramids are climbed, and ancient cities are besieged.  They face the defiant yet impoverished Tlaxcalans, climb the volcano of Popocatepetl, and stand in awe of the splendors of the great city of Tenochtitlan.

There are many lessons you might draw from this when shaping your own adventure.  Three come to mind so far:

  1. Conflicting motives create drama.  Everyone wants something different, causing alliances to shift as conditions change.  Is Xicotencatl a friend of Cortés or an enemy?  In the end, he's a bit of both, seeking power in his own kingdom first.
  2. Shortage and hardship drive adventure.  Any time someone in this story is hungry or short on weapons, it forces them to make hard choices.  When Tlaxcala runs out of salt or Cortés runs out of powder, conflict is thrust upon them.
  3. All people can be monsters in their own way.  While it's clear that the author wants to portray the conquest in a good light, all the major figures come across as monsters.  Cortés and his men rightly fear that they'll be eaten, just as Moctezuma rightly fears that his people will be branded and enslaved.  This is not a story of good and peaceful men.
The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is one of the most fascinating adventure stories I've ever read.  If you're looking for a thrilling tale, I think you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Fictional Racism

This is probably going to be an awkward post, so bear with me.  It's about racism and fictional worlds, and why it all matters.

Not racism in the story -- that's actually the easy part.  Toss in a "we don't serve goblins here" and boom, you've got fictional racism.

Order of the Stick #13 - Rich Burlew

This is a post about real-world racism that fictional stories bring up.  Sure, this thing I've been writing is just a fantasy world, but like all fiction, it's made of metaphor and parallels and simplification from the real world around us.

The big parallel, of course, between Signs and the Wilderness and our own world is the story of the colonial frontier of North America.  It's not a perfect match, but it's clearly a major source of inspiration for what I'm writing, and it's the story of the land where I live and the culture I grew up in.  So while this setting is fictional, we humans are not as good at separating fact from fiction as we'd like to think.  The best fiction pulls us in and makes us feel like we're part of the story, and those emotions and impressions take root and stick with us.

Thankfully, I'm living in an environment where the most overt racism is abhorred.  If I went to work and started claiming I was part of some superior race that ought to rule others, I'd be fired in a heartbeat, and everyone there would think it just.  I live in a place where it's very easy to say "don't hate Thai people" and we all nod our heads and agree that hating people is wrong and we shouldn't do it.

It's another matter to face underlying racism that's part of our own story.

I'm an American through and through, which means my people came to be a people at the intersection of empire and slavery and manifest destiny.  It's a fascinating story and one that's worth telling, but it's full of darkness for one fundamental reason: it's easy to justify the use of power when you're the one in power.

You might point out that America isn't unique in this regard, and you'd be right.  Plenty of other countries were built on racial oppression and there are plenty of other cruel stories in history.  But the story of America is the one I know best, so that's the context I'm using today.

American Progress - John Gast

I should keep some perspective here -- none of what I'm writing is going to fix this dark history, and I'm still learning about it myself.  But something I can do is point at it so we don't forget it's there.  I'd like to make sure my writing doesn't try to hide racial oppression or pretend it never existed.  How much you choose to engage with that is up to you.

With that in mind, I'm looking at three areas where oppression has left some nasty scars on our landscape of ideas, three kinds of justifications for racism that I think I need to keep myself aware of:

  • That the oppressed are Evil and the oppressors are Good.
  • That the oppressed are Passive and the oppressors are Active.
  • That the oppressed are Gone and the oppressors have Replaced them.

Civilization vs. Evil

This is the easiest form of racial oppression to see, so thankfully it's one our society has come around to recognizing more and more.  But based on my own limited experience with education, I think it still needs to be said.

Colonial empires are brutal, both in building them and maintaining them.  Sure, disease played a huge role in the conquest of the New World, but colonial empires followed it up with a great heaping of theft, destruction, and murder, and they justified it by finding real or imagined flaws in their victims to call them Evil, while ignoring their own flaws to call themselves Good.

Power corrupts.  We all know it, and we all need to keep remembering it.  When the big, powerful empire wants the land and resources of other people, of course they'll make that conquest sound good and noble and justified.  And for the most part, they'll probably believe that's exactly what they're doing, seeing the suffering they've wrought as good and necessary.  It's easy to justify getting what you want.

Not that oppression somehow makes an oppressed people good.  People are people, and every society has its flaws.  Everyone in, say, 1600s New England had practices that look strange and unreasonable to us today.  There are no races of good people and races of evil people.

But when you're the powerful ones, it's easy to spend all your time talking about other people's flaws and minimize your own.  So while I'm including strange practices in all the species of my fictional world, it's the brutality of the colonial empire that has done the most damage (both the fictional one and the real-world ones) so that's the brutality that needs to be pointed out.

Passive Victims

There's another racist idea that is more subtle, which has let it hold on longer.  It's the idea that people from the empire are the only ones Doing things, while indigenous people are just waiting around for things to happen to them.

Think of the typical adventure story: the empire sends people out to explore, while the locals are sitting there, waiting to be explored.  Those stories are half true: that explorer really is going out and exploring, but they're also half false: the other people aren't actually waiting around, they're striving and achieving with all their strength and with all the resources they have.

In Signs in the Wilderness, I want to make sure to show that every group is striving and doing, that all people are protagonists of their own stories.  The empire may be richer, but that doesn't make their stories better.

Power is like its constituents wealth and technology.  It lets you conquer more or build bigger, but it doesn't make you strive harder for success.  (If anything, having more certainly makes me more complacent.)  Power lets explorers travel farther, but it doesn't make their stories better, just more widely known.  Great kings and scholars and lovers once lived and fought and dreamed in the land where I live now, and their stories were worth telling, even if no one alive remembers them today.

Replacing a Dying Race

This last idea I think is the one that's put down the deepest roots in our own world, the idea that the oppressed people are all gone now, or are fading away, and so while it may be very sad, they're all gone so they don't really matter anymore.

Here in the US, it's so terribly common to think of indigenous people as something of the past, and I've heard that view is common elsewhere.  Yes, there's no longer, say, a Comanche empire ruling over Texas, but the loss of political power isn't the same as vanishing altogether.  But it's easy to conflate the two, so we've got a lot of stories where native people were rather than are.

I'm not sure what to do about this idea in my own setting, made strange by fantasy and the passage of centuries.  Like the rest of these pernicious ideas, I'm just trying to point at it so we don't forget it's there.  I'm glad to see that people are writing stories about and from indigenous people today, people who can write more informed and meaningful stories about their own society than I ever could.

(Incidentally, while reading about this concept I came across a number that surprised me.  How many indigenous people do you suppose there are in the US today?  Six million, give or take.  That's more than the population of Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis combined.  I think that's a fact that deserves to be pointed out.)

I'm sure none of what I'm doing here will have any impact in changing people's lives.  There's no room for illusion: I'm writing a little hobby game that maybe someone will enjoy for a good adventure or two.  It's just fantasy.  But maybe that fantasy will help tell the true story of how we got where we are today.  We can't go back, and we can't undo.

But we can remember.