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.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Lost City of Legend

It could be a lost city of gold, or maybe the silver mine those two men were killed over.  Or maybe it's a whole lost kingdom in the mountains, full of jade and fruits and luxury.

Legends of lost and bountiful places make for great adventure.  They're a great way to combine searching for a lost treasure with exploring the wilderness.

Overgrown Ruins - Nicole Cadet

Lost places come in many kinds.  For this article, I'll be focusing on five:

Lost Place (d10)
1-2a lost Mine for a valuable mineral
3-4a lost City of wealth and wisdom
5-6a lost Tomb that might contain power and truth (along with bones, of course)
7-8a lost Colony built around a bountiful crop or healing waters
9-10a lost Country ruled by a good philosopher-king

Legends of lost mines show up all throughout America, and they're easy to drop into a setting just about anywhere.  A ragged mountain man shows up in town one day with some bits of silver they don't want to talk about, and presto: the legend of a mine is born.  (A legend of a lost mine can easily overlap with a gold rush.)

Lost cities are a bit harder to hide, but in a vast enough wilderness full of hostile people and hostile terrain, just about anything could be out there.  In a land that has suffered a great apocalypse, there's always the possiblity that a wealthy city once existed whose inhabitants all died, leaving their treasures behind.

Tombs and burial mounds are left behind by many civilizations, and it's no surprise when their richest people are buried with great wealth.  Most of these get plundered almost immediately, but every now and then the tomb of a powerful ruler is lost to time (like the tomb of Genghis Khan).

Colonies don't usually disappear, but when they do (like Roanoke) speculation runs wild.  Did they leave for greener pastures?  Did they all die?  (A search for a missing colony can fit well with a great migration going on.)

A lost country is much like a lost city: hidden by distance and unknown country more than anything else.  Legends of the great power to the north or the Jade Empire to the west might turn out to be true.  Medieval European legend spoke of a great Christian kingdom somewhere beyond the Arab world, ruled by the wise Prester John.

Let's roll up a lost place as we're going along.  4: A lost city of wealth and wisdom.

St. Brendan the Navigator
What esoteric or secretive group was said to have founded this place?

Supposed Founders (d8)
1an elven imperial military unit that was supposedly wiped out by a poorly-known enemy
2a fierce giantish house whose annual monument was made of human skulls
3an ancient human kingdom said to know secrets of the earth
4a wise giant poet who led a band of followers into the mountains and was never seen again
5an elven religious brotherhood that was expelled from the empire
6a human conspiracy said to practice witchcraft and summon spirits
7a utopian society of two peoples working as one
8a company or lone entrepreneur who hired/enslaved workers

A good legend of a lost place starts with its founders: the secret silver mines of the Jesuit order, the lost cities of the ancient ancestors of the west, the tomb of the Crow King.  They supposedly went off to go build this place for their own private reasons.

8: A company or lone entrepreneur who hired/enslaved workers.  I'm imagining one of the powerful elven trade corporations, going off and founding a secret city somewhere in the Northern Lands, as their own private enclave, outside of imperial authority.

But how have they managed to keep it secret all this time?  Why would they want to keep it secret in the first place?

Reason for Secrecy (d12)
1-3so the authorities couldn't take a share of its wealth
4-6so their enemies wouldn't destroy it
7-9so they could prepare for war
10-11because they all died before it could be discovered
12to wait until the world was ready for its revelation

9: Secret so they could prepare for war.  A corporation founding a secret city so they could prepare to wage war against...another company?  One of the major colonies?  The empire itself?  Some kind of great intrigue was going on with this place, intrigue that might still matter in politics of today.

The secret city of the Indigo Company, full of guns and ready for war.

(Looks like I need to finish that blog post about random trade companies.)

All they found was "Croatoan" carved on a tree.

Some clue gets the adventure started.  Roll to see how the protagonists become aware of the legend, then roll again for another clue to get the ball rolling.

Clues of Its Existence (d12, twice)
1an incomplete map with very specific directions
2a ragged traveler on the brink of death who claims to have found it
3an old story of an explorer who made several attempts to find it, never returning from their last
4an old wooden object, carved with a revealing name or sign
5a small golden item with a face that has a strange feature
6an earlier site that turned out to be unsuitable for it and was abandoned
7tales of a treasure hunter who found signs of it a while back
8a piece of artwork depicting it in its surroundings
9a widely-believed prophecy
10records of the disappearance of its creators
11a song or nursery rhyme that everyone already knows
12an old book with some pages torn out

10: records of the disappearance of its creators.

Digging around in records of the Indigo Company (trying to find out what happened to a ship, the Saint Tevel) the party notices a curious pattern.  Several major administrators' records all stop in the year 1602 without any note that they died or left the company.  1602 is also the year several of the IC's ships disappeared, along with a sizeable amount of wheat, gunpowder, and gold.

7: tales of a treasure hunter who found signs of it a while back

Everyone who knows about the indigo trade has been telling the party to look for the wreck of the Saint Tevel down in the southern isles, but there's one account of a treasure hunter who claims to have seen the ship's bell in a human town up north.  That treasure hunter might still be alive.

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island - William Hodges

As they investigate the story, the adventurers should learn of some particular landmarks that lead to the lost place.  Whether there's an explicit map or just some bits and pieces of information about a journey, the tale tells of landmarks along the way.  (Three sounds like a good number.)

Landmarks in the Tale (d20, thrice)
1an out-of-place name or sign carved on a tree
2a cairn of stones with an unexpected artifact underneath
3a rock that looks like a face from the right angle
4an island surrounded by cliffs with only one safe landing place
5a two-headed mountain whose peaks line up with another feature
6a tribe of humans with an unusual appearance
7a stone statue from an ancient civilization
8a copper medallion, wrapped in cloth and recently buried
9sunlight on a certain day of the year shines through a gap to show the way
10a single tree that bears fruit in the wrong season
11strangely-colored birds who line their nests with something valuable
12a tree that has grown around bones
13a shipwreck quite a ways from the shore
14a mighty waterfall that can be heard for miles around
15a lone tree in a dry and barren land
16the place where jade and copper are traded once a year
17ruins of a settlement that was utterly destroyed
18a deep shaft into the earth where mining once failed
19an underground journey beneath the high mountains
20one of the great natural wonders of the world

18: failed mining shaft, 17: ruins of a settlement, 5: two-headed mountain

The treasure hunter's story eventually led them to the human town up north, where the party met an old human woman who had heard stories of elven castaways from her grandfather when she was a young girl.

She told them that the elves were shipwrecked and built a town to survive the winter, and that they killed many of the humans.  Her grandfather led an army to subjugate the elves, destroying their town and enslaving them to do menial work.  They were taken somewhere off to the west to work in the ancient mine where the two-headed mountain becomes one.

In the Longhouse - Lewis Parker

As the legend spread outwards from its source, it changed, getting less accurate as the miles and years wear on.  From the adventurers' perspective, the legend usually gets more accurate as you get closer.

When entering a new region or country, roll to see how the legend changes.  If you're on the right path, the local version of the story is more accurate than what you heard before.

Development (d6, occasionally)
1It gets bigger. (The lost city of gold? They say it's the capital of a whole empire.)
2It gets older. (The colony of Nayan? According to the journal, it was founded on the site of an earlier settlement.)
3It gets smaller. (Seven cities of jade? There's only one that I know of.)
4It gets darker. (The old mine of Taratessa? I hear they massacred all the slaves working down there.)
5It changes into a different type. (The fabled Snake Kingdom? They say its wonders were all buried with its last king.)
6The legends lead you to something similar, but underwhelming. This is not it, but a lesser place confused with it in the stories. The true place is still out there.

4: It gets darker.

Journeying into the northwest, the adventurers come to the Black River country, where they eventually find the mine once worked by the elven castaways.  There they read the words the elves left behind, scratched onto rock and written with blood.  The castaways were planning to escape and rejoin the other ships at the site of the secret city, and their writings reveal something dark about the purpose of that place.

I have some ideas of what the dark purpose of the city could be, but I'll wait till I've rolled on the last table below.  Something about the nature of the apocalypse?

Seekers of the Seven Cities of Gold - Jim Carson

The lost place will not be easy to find.  Following clues and legends is hard enough, but there are other reasons the journey will be difficult.

Difficulties (d10, twice)
1It's much farther inland than the legends say.
2It's in a very rugged/dangerous country.
3The legends have gotten it mixed up with a different place.
4It was moved/rebuilt at a new site.
5It's now underwater, covered by the sea/river/swamps, possibly only visible at low tide.
6Someone powerful is gaining great wealth/knowledge from it.
7Its builders (or their descendants) still defend it.
8Searching for it will draw the attention of a cruel enemy.
9It's buried under a present-day settlement, reachable only by a deep well or chasm.
10A strange and fearsome species dwells in the vicinity.

2: rugged/dangerous country
5: now underwater

The secret city of the Indigo Company was built in one of the fjords of the inhospitable northern coast.  Mountains in the interior, rocks and fierce storms on the shore, there's a reason the elves never officially ventured this far north.

When the apocalypse came, a great wave destroyed the city and its ruins are now only explorable at low tide.

Discovering a Lost City - Søren Bak

Discovering this lost place will change things in ways beyond the control of the protagonists.  There could be a powerful artifact here or immense wealth.  This place could contain truths that should have remained hidden, or it could be the sign spoken of in the prophecy.

Effect of Its Discovery (d10)
1-2It contains something amazing: a lost technological marvel, a magic tool from folklore, or a lost treasure.
3-4You will learn the secret behind the rise of one of the great powers of the world.
5-6Immense wealth can be found inside, though it'll take a lot of work to extract/transport it.
7-8Kings and governors will wage war over this place.
9-10The prophecy will come to pass and a sign will be seen in the heavens.

1: It contains something amazing.

The secret city of the Indigo Company contains a lost technological marvel of the age before the world ended, a great engine that could detect deposits of gold from hundreds of miles away.  It functioned best in the cold winds of the north, and it consumed great quantities of coal each time it was run.  But it also caused catastrophic side effects that eventually collapsed the land around the secret city, and it was smashed by the great wave.

They knew about the side effects, and they didn't care that it would eventually destroy the city and kill its inhabitants.  As long as the Company gained enough gold to fund its army, they didn't care how many lives would be lost in the process.  But the city failed before the Company could find the gold.

So of course the adventurers discover the logs of the distant gold detected by the engine, along with plans for the engine itself.  The Company survived the apocalypse.  It's not so clear the adventurers will survive the Company.

Roll up your own lost place of legend:

random Lost Place
lost place
supposed founders
reason for secrecy
clues of its existence
landmarks in the tale
development as you travel
effect of its discovery

Friday, October 4, 2019

Magic Tool of Folklore

Many cultures tell stories about someone who carries a magic tool.  It could be a whistle that summons birds, a shoe that turns into a boat, a lasso that can catch stars...

a fishhook that can pull land up from the bottom of the sea

Stories like these are common in the Northern Lands, especially among the indigenous goblins, giants, and humans.  Like most folklore, these stories are full of myth and legend, but there's a chance that they contain a kernel of truth.

You might find one of these magic tools in your travels, and it might even have real magic.

Tool (d20)
3carving knife
4big straw hat
5leather boots
6woolen blanket
7gloves, mittens
8canoe, kayak
12sewing needle
13wooden mallet
14bow, arrow, arrowhead
17flute, whistle
18silver mirror
19copper kettle

a canoe that glides through the air

Whatever this magic item is, it's fundamentally a tool with an ordinary purpose.  In the stories, it's used in some special way:

  • Some tools are just very, very good at what they do: a key that opens any lock, an arrow that always strikes its target, a cooking pot that makes all food delicious.
  • Some tools are used in the usual way, but with a different target than you'd expect, or operating in a different medium: a canoe that glides through the air, a ladder to climb to the night sky, a drum that can only be heard by the dead.
  • Some tools are used in a very unexpected way, or used like something with a vaguely similar form: a spoon that digs better than a shovel, a tentpole that shoots like a musket, a mitten that unfolds to be used as a tent.

Supposed Function (d10)
1-4Used for the usual purpose, but works unreasonably well.
5-8Used in the usual way, but with an unexpected target or medium.
9-10Used in an unexpected way, or as something with a vaguely similar form.

an axe that chops down the largest of trees

In the stories, it was always wielded by the same person.  The item belongs to them, at least in the popular imagination.

Wielded By (d6)
1-2a clever craftsman who made it (d4) 1: a while back, 2: far away, 3: for a wealthy patron, 4: for the gods
3-4a rising figure out on the frontier (d4) 1: a warlord, 2: a prophet, 3: a bringer of justice, 4: a renegade
5-6a culture hero who might have been real (d4) 1: a trickster, 2: a wise grandmotherly figure, 3: a kid who always finds a way out of trouble, 4: a thief/pirate

a rope that can lasso the sun

The stories tell what this object looks like.  If it's a knife, it's not just a regular knife; it glows in the moonlight or it has blood on it that won't wash off.

Appearance (d8)
1writing/picture/symbol carved into it
2has blood on it that won't wash off
3much larger than it has any right to be
4wrapped/covered in crow feathers, salmon skin, buffalo hide
5shiny, brightly colored, glows at night
6got some kind of eyes, hands, or feet
7makes a ringing or singing sound
8in an ancient style, worn smooth

a harpoon that catches the skin off a creature while it swims off to grow a new one

Legends and powers aside, if you find this tool, you might not want it.  Rare and famous things bring all kinds of problems, but if you need some ideas for what trouble this brings, roll a die.

Problem (d8)
1stolen from someone very powerful
2broken, fragile, bent, missing a piece
3people expect its holder to fulfill the original role from folklore
4troubled people need its help
5believers say it is a sign of the prophecy
6thieves/pirates on the lookout for it
7said to work too well: axe that keeps cutting down trees, shoes that make you walk too far
8said to stop working at inopportune moments

Roll up your own magic tool of folklore:

random magic tool
wielded by

Monday, September 9, 2019

Book of random tables?

I've been rolling on the Strange Life Events table a bit too much lately, but in between I've had some time to work on a book.

It's a guide to building your own campaign in this setting, full of random tables for generating everything by rolling dice and drawing maps.  Maybe people will enjoy it, or maybe it's just for me to use at the table.  Either way it's been fun.

Here's a quick mockup I did of what the interior might look like:

Still working on the random table layouts, but overall I'm rather happy with them.  The real test will be how well they work for other people using them.

Any thoughts on the look so far?  (The covers won't look like that; this mockup is really just for the interior.)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Unified wilderness travel table

I've been testing out some wilderness travel rules, and I'm pretty happy with them so far.  For the GM, the goal is twofold:
  1. Reduce how much you have to think about in game.
  2. Force the adventurers to make decisions.

There's a single die roll that drives all this, on a single unified wilderness travel table.  The table includes so many different things, and the best part is that I don't have to think about them until the table tells me to.  Some things that can come up on the wilderness travel table:
  1. Signs of a potential encounter from far off (footprints, a bird in the sky, noises, etc.).
  2. Getting exhausted from travel.
  3. A change in the weather.
  4. Getting lost.
  5. Suffering ill effects from weather, like getting lost in the fog.
  6. A rare encounter without any warning signs.
Each half day of travel, you roll once on the wilderness travel table.  The die roll tells you how far you travel (in "steps") and what else happens along the way.

The length of each "step" varies by terrain, which sounds difficult, but in practice it's been very easy.  On open, level ground, I put a little tick mark for a step every 2 miles on a trail.  In rougher terrain, I put the tick marks closer together.  On steep slopes with rough terrain, I put the tick marks really close together.

And that's it.  The party sets out in the morning, so they roll a die.  That tells me how far they get, how the journey affects them, and what kind of encounter they have.  If they decide to travel further in the afternoon, they roll again and repeat the process.

I'll post more on this process soon, but for now, here's a brief travelogue using this travel table:
  • Day 1.  The party sets out from the tip of Ghost Cape on a cloudy day, traveling a few miles before spotting a warship out at sea.  It starts to rain around nightfall, when they make camp on a high area overlooking the sea.
  • Day 2.  It's still raining as they head west across open fields, hoping to find the river on their map.  The rain grows heavy and everyone is drenched to the bone.  They find the river and head north along its banks, straggling into the town of Goose Meadow by nightfall, drenched and exhausted.
  • Day 3.  The weather has cleared up.  The party hikes north, upriver.  Around midday they notice the dark form of a blood vulture circling over the falls up ahead.  They fire a few shots and scare it away.  They spend the rest of the day clambering up the bluffs near the falls, ending up a mile or so away from the river at the top.
  • Day 4.  Cloudy skies and not much progress as they hike through the forested hills, continuing roughly north and getting back to the river.  By midday they've found the settlement of Hidden Rapids.  By nightfall, they've run across a trail heading in their direction.  They make camp just off the trail.
  • Day 5.  A light rain starts up.  From a hilltop, the party can see the silhouette of a fort a few miles up ahead.  They arrive at Fort Protection by midday, finding it looted and abandoned.  According to their map, the elven settlement of Refuge City is only five miles or so past the fort, so they continue onwards.  The rain grows heavy, soaking everyone thoroughly, but they arrive at Refuge City by nightfall and get some rest at the inn.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed this little vignette.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Magical deniability

Magic should be hidden.  It should lurk around the door, beyond the trees, in that little mahogany box under the floorboards.  Magic should be so secret that you're not quite sure it's really there...

...and then the door is thrown open, the stars rain down, and for a moment, the world is a truly magical place.

It's a hard feeling to capture.  Magicalness, almost by definition, can't be understood.  If you look at it too closely, it isn't magical anymore.  To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, "any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology".

I've got a recipe for making magical moments.  It doesn't always work, and it probably won't work if you use it too much, but I thought I'd share it with you anyhow:
  1. Hide your magic in a mundane world.
  2. Show its effects, but explain them away.
  3. Reveal the magic.
  4. Take the magic away.

Sand in your shoes

First, you need a relatable, mundane world.  Magic is only special by comparison.  If you want to build to an amazing magical moment, you need to start with a mundane baseline.  This isn't a story about wizards flying around on dragons in space, this is a story about a guy who goes to the store and scrounges for change to buy some candy for his kid.

The details of your world don't have to be the same as ours, but they have to be relatable.  The players/readers/audience need to be able to imagine having their own everyday struggles in your world.  I'm not a fisherman or a turkey farmer, but I've had roughed-up hands from a hard day's work, and I know what a coop full of chickens smells like.

The more you focus on everyday struggles, the more wonderful magic will seem by comparison.  If your adventurers have struggled with mud and grime, and gotten scraped up sliding down a gravelly slope, and are tired and hungry, they'll be well-grounded in relatable details.

(This is part of why I'm so interested in outdoor survival in Signs in the Wilderness, and how it taps into your own experience in a visceral way.)

Deny everything

Next, you need plausible deniability.  If you reveal the magic too early, it won't feel magical; it'll jut feel like a dumb twist.  Imagine watching the first few minutes of a cop show, then having a wizard pop up out of nowhere.  It might be intriguing, but it won't actually feel magical.

You need to put signs of magic in your world, but explain them away.  This is laying the groundwork for the big reveal later, giving the players all the clues they need to realize the magic was there all along, but not enough clues to see the magic for what it is too early.

You need to call your magic something else.  And I don't mean you should just call it "sorcery" or "thaumaturgy" or "hexing" or whatever; the word "magic" isn't the problem.  You need to call it something that sounds non-magical.  Dress it up as a new scientific invention, or a weird drug.  Have psychologists explain how it's just a placebo effect.  Show that it's a hoax.

Throw open the door

Then there's the reveal.  For a moment, take the magic out of the box and let it shine.  Don't explain how it works, just show it.  Let the adventurers push the button and say the words and spin the dial.  Let the magic do something big that changes everything.

And give the protagonists a chance to triumph with the magic.

It's tempting as a GM to always throw obstacles in their way.  After all, that's most of your job, to explain why they haven't succeeded at their quest yet so they have something to do all day.

But for the big reveal, make it big, make it meaningful, and let the players have their chance at glory.  Combine the thrill of possible success with the wonder of seeing the veil torn asunder and magic revealed.

Get off the submarine

Then make them want the magic to go away.

Like a monster in a horror movie, magic loses its charm if you look at it too closely.  You can't tear it apart, see how it really works, and expect it to still feel magical.  If you really want the magic to feel like magic, you have to take it away.

But players don't like it when you take their fun, shiny toys away, and it's not fair anyhow, since you're the one with all the power.  So you have to make them want you to take it away.

There's a wonderful story to be told about how they all went into a magical world and had endless adventures, each more magical than the last, in an ever-increasing cascade of wonder.  I'm not the one to tell that story.  (I'm not sure if anyone is.)  I have no idea how to keep the magic coming, to keep escalating the wonders beyond imagination.

That world has to be hidden away again.  The door has to be closed.  The magic, once revealed, must be put away lest it lose its power.

Some reasons why they'll know the magic has to go away:
  • It's too dangerous for our world.  Keeping the door open will spill crazy, powerful beings into our world, so it has to be sealed up and locked away.
  • The magic needs our protection.  Magic is a beautiful realm or a tiny baby or a precious gem with a universe inside, and if we don't protect it, it will be destroyed.
  • It has to be consumed for a noble cause.  There's one great deed that must be done, and it will take all the magic we have.  The wizard will give his life, the children will be saved, and we'll all be big, damn heroes. 

Signs in the Wilderness 

In my own setting, there might be magic.  Lots of magic.  People certainly belive in magic, but most of what they believe to be magic isn't so.

Prophecies are widely believed in.  At the start of a Signs in the Wilderness campaign, you write up a prophecy that's circulating on the frontier.  (I'm partway done with a random prophecy generator, too, which has been loads of fun.)  Are prophecies real?  People certainly think so, but they're vague enough that it's hard to prove.  Then one prophecy comes perfectly true...

Newfangled inventions can do things people never dreamed of.  Guns, telescopes, steam engines, weather control devices, vaccines, hot air balloons — it all sounds a little magical.  But you keep telling everyone that it's just the wonder of modern science, and it's all easy to understand once you know where to look and how to do the math.  Then you open up the engine and see what's really inside...

Rumors of strange creatures abound.  It's a new world, both for the elves who came from the south, and for the locals who lived through a world-ending apocalypse.  There are all kinds of ordinary, understandable creatures that we just haven't seen yet.  You hear a rumor of mind-controlling bees, and they turn out to just be carriers for a disease that gives feverish dreams.  You hear about colossal alligators that can devour an ox in a single bite, but they turn out to just be a bit larger than regular alligators.  Then it turns out that jackalopes really can fly...

Most potential magic isn't actually magic in this setting.  I like to give each rumor one chance in five, so 80% of the rumors aren't true.  But that 20% is enough to keep you guessing, to keep you a bit superstitious.  You know that throwing salt over your shoulder to keep the devil away is just a silly backwards custom, but you do it anyway, because just maybe...

And that's where magic is, in the just maybes of the world.  It's a brief glimpse in the shadows and a rumor that might be true.  And if you keep looking at the just maybe long enough, magic might come to you.