Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Monstrous and ordinary

Let's talk about how to make a new type of monster out of an ordinary creature.

Monster is a fuzzy concept, but for now, we could do worse than assuming a monster is:
  • an animal — A virus or an earthquake might be scary, but they don't feel like monsters.
  • somewhat intelligent — If you can ascribe malice to a creature's actions, its deeds become villainous, not merely dangerous.
  • feared for a reason — It has to actually be harmful to people for it to be a monster, something that's dangerous and hard to defeat.
I like starting with a creature people are already familiar with; not something fantastical, but something completely mundane, something you might have experience with yourself.  Instead of starting with an orc or a dragon, let's start with something simple: a crow.  (I'm assuming you have crows where you live.)

(Sue Coleman)
(You might also enjoy an earlier post on generating random creatures.)


What are crows associated with?  What do they feel like?  What kinds of stories do people tell about them?

Monstrous versions of regular creatures should probably stick to the same theme, amplifying and extending what those creatures feel like.  Using theme from the real world lets you build on your audience's preconceptions, on stories they've heard and ideas in the culture around them.

So what theme do crows go with?  Night, death, and trickery come to mind.  If you know stories about a creature, use them when you make a monstrous version of it.

crow from Resident Evil concept art


Crows have two out of the three monstrous characteristics already: they're fairly intelligent animals, but they aren't really feared by anyone.  Let's take a look at characteristics of crows and see what we find:
  • intelligent, good at solving problems and making simple tools
  • raucous, noisy, calling out to each other
  • collect trinkets and shiny things
  • daring, stealing tail feathers from eagles just to show off
  • skittish, quick to flee from unexpected danger
  • feed on just about everything, from carrion to small animals to grain
Haida raven (Bill Reid)
For each one of these bullet points, let's dial it up until we get something scary.
  • The monstrous crow is intelligent, more so than any other animal.  They know how to make tools, pick locks, get into doors and closed rooms.
Not too scary by itself, but if these crow-like creatures are dangerous, you certainly wouldn't want them picking locks.
  • They make noise to call for their friends and coordinate their actions.  They call for other dangerous creatures to arrive.  Things that gnaw bone and sip blood show up when monstrous crows cry out.
  • They is collecting things supposed to be scary?  Maybe it's what they collect: skulls of creatures they've killed, deadly poisons, sharp blades.  Maybe it's how they collect them: taken from their living victims, mementos of people they've killed.  Maybe it's what they do with their trinkets: bait to lure in children, valuables to trade for...murderous stuff?
Using trinkets as bait fits well with their theme of trickery.
  • They're not afraid of anyone.  Make some noise and throw things, and they'll fly off for a while.  But they're only tempted and angered when you chase them away.  Throw rocks at them and they'll come back for you one day.  Monstrous crows live for the daring assault on a prideful victim.
  • They're always watchful.  It's very hard to sneak up on them, as they're always looking over their shoulders and stopping to listen for sounds.  At the first sign of danger, they flee to watch from a safe distance.  (This isn't scary yet, so let's dial it up a bit further.)  They listen for every sound, knowing when your heart is beating a bit faster, when you've cocked the hammer back on your gun.  They pay attention to everything around and are constantly thinking about plans for escaping danger.
  • They eat everything, but most importantly they eat people.  Individual crows are pretty small and weak to take down a person, but we know these ones work as a team and use tools, so if they're hungry, they can certainly take down a human.
It sounds like we're getting to something scary here.  Glossy black birds that watch from the trees at night, watching for lone people to kill.  They call out for their cohort when they find a target, and by the time you know they're around, they've already been watching you, observing every move you make.  And when they decide to strike, they'll come at you from all around, eat your flesh, then each take a little trinket of you as they fly away.


The best monsters don't just pop up out of nowhere.  Tension and fear build up as protagonists stumble across signs of the monster's presence, signs that they too could become its prey.

Some signs of these monstrous crows: trinkets of the dead used to lure people in, cawing to call for the others once you're already alone and deep in the woods, footprints of scavengers that take the bones from crow kills, leftovers from previous prey (bones cracked open, possessions with all the shiny pieces stripped off).

Consider signs of a monster from its footprints, voice, remnants of its food, things it plays with.

Monsters also end up with rumors about them.  The local people tell stories that are mostly true, or at least based on a kernel of truth, but with exaggerations and shortcomings.  Rumors about a monster should probably stick to the themes of the creature.

Inaccurate rumors about monstrous crows: that they can see in the dark, that they're afraid of light, that the sound of creaking branches is actually them, that any small discarded item you find is bait by the crows.


Every monster is vulnerable in some way.  It could be a single spot, like Smaug's missing scale (or Achilles' heel, I guess), or it could be something less substantial, like greed or self-loathing.

My favorite method is to draw the monster's vulnerability from the same characteristics that make it scary.  Considering attributes of the crow, let's pick one or two as vulnerabilities:
  • collect trinkets
  • daring
These crows are intelligent and cautious, but they can be lured into making mistakes if the trinket is alluring enough.  So what do they like enough to risk their lives for?  I'm guessing shiny, round objects, tools that help them get food, unobtainable mementos of dangerous creatures. 

More monsters!

Here are a few more monstrous versions of ordinary creatures you might enjoy:
  • RaccoonsThey grab their prey with their dexterous hands, then drown their prey in streams.  They're much larger than ordinary raccoons, strong enough to grab a person and hold them under the water.  They ought to be more concerned by the presence of other creatures, but they're not.
  • Skunks — They spray a terrible noxious fluid that causes sickness and death, and also stains your skin.  They seem like they'd be cute and friendly, but they'll spray you, wait for you to die, then nibble on your corpse.  They're overly reliant on their spray for defense, so any creature that's immune to it has a major advantage.
  • Porcupines — They can shoot their barbed quills quite some distance.  They can climb just about anywhere, waiting patiently to strike when people come too close.  Their bellies are soft and vulnerable.
  • Buffalo — Thundering giants of muscle and horn, they get together as a group and run through buildings and fields, trampling people to death and destroying their livelihood.  They flatten whole villages that encroach on their territory.  They're prone to panic, though, if too many buffalo in the group become frightened.
raccoon washing cell phone

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Hunger River

For this post, I'm rolling up a completely random region where some kind of trouble is happening.

Alaskan river (NOAA)


The Hunger River

(As if that's not an ominous name to roll up.)

Up north, where the nights are long and the days are cold, the Hunger River winds its way through valleys with steep bluffs, carved by glaciers long ago.  Stunted short-needle conifers (fir and larch) reach awkwardly for the sky.  People use their needles as medicine against scurvy, their white wood for carving, and their branches for bedding.

There are many smaller streams in this country, along with slender lakes and cascading waterfalls.  Most flow to the river.

Folks around here live in fear of the fire crow, a clever bird that preys on humans.  By day, it looks like a pale-colored crow.  At night, it can make itself glow like firelight, luring in lost travelers looking for warmth.  Its feathers are poisonous, deadly even to the touch.  The fire crow is clever enough to leave its fallen feathers in places where a human might touch them, then feast on their corpses.

Firebird (Yelena Polenova)

There are wolves and black bears in this land, too, along with huckleberries to gather in the fall and ducks to hunt.

The Gristle Chewers

The local humans are a tribe called the Sagayeka, the "gristle chewers".  They once had a great wild goose hunt each summer, but since the Starving Time the geese have dwindled in number, and none have been seen in these parts for years.

People say the Gristle Chewers are bold and courageous, good to have at your side in a fight.  They live in ten little settlements of lean-tos, painted with signs of owls thought to keep fire crows away.  They are skilled archers and good at sneaking up on enemies.

traditional inland Salish shelter

The Gristle Chewers make little coracles to travel on the river, hides stretched over wooden frames.  They wear warm hats made of squirrel fur.

The men are the woodcarvers, in charge of deciding where to settle, and they handle death rituals.  The women are the hunters and the ones who ultimately settle disputes.

subarctic caribou hunters

Like many people of the north, the Chewers practice antler burial.  Their men carve figurines of prey or enemies out of antlers, then bury them in hidden places in the wilderness to ask the spirits for help and protection in battle.

a shed antler

A few years ago, a larger tribe of humans showed up from the south, fleeing from danger and in need of help.  The Gristle Chewers gave them food and shelter, but now fear their numbers.

The Buffalo People

The Tontaka "buffalo people" are the new arrivals in the Hunger River country.  They once lived somewhere far to the south, where the men hunted wood buffalo and the women grew corn, until they were driven out by a tribe armed with guns.

Buffalo Hunt (George Catlin)

A few years ago, they fled through tree goblin territory not far south of here, where the goblins killed and devoured many of the tribe.  Ragged and bloody, the survivors reached the Hunger River valley and sought shelter with the Gristle Chewers.

One day they will have their vengeance against the tree goblins, who still watch this land from their forests to the south.

At this point, the Buffalo People have the Chewers under their thumb.  They pay tribute in food and labor to the Buffalo People, fearing reprisals if they do otherwise.

Today the Buffalo People live in six large settlements, one for each of the six clans.  A council of high-born elders gathers periodically to make decisions for the tribe.  Their homes are made of hides over a wooden frame, easy to dismantle and move to a new site.  Whenever they settle in a new place, they set up a standing stone.

The tribe is known as trainers and breeders of the best dogs, used for hunting and to pull sledges over grass and snow.  You can recognize Buffalo People by their hair, shaven into a mohawk.

dog pulling travois

The men do all the warfare, hunting, and woodcarving, while the women do weaving and settle disputes.  In the old country the women grew corn and made corn husk dolls, but it's too cold for corn here.

Traditionally, the Buffalo People feared the influence of witchcraft.  They wore copper medallions with embossed designs to ward off evil, kept hidden under their clothing.  At each meal, the head of the family tossed a bit of corn or fruit onto the home fire to keep evil out.  Some of the old men were seen as prophets, speaking of how evil and ignorance must be replaced by wisdom, and then there will be peace among the nations.

In general, the men still follow the old ways, but most of the women have abandoned the old religion, taking up antler burial instead as a way to protect their families.

Crow Meadow

The largest settlement of the Buffalo People is at a place called Crow Meadow.  They've lived here for years, since first arriving in this country.

It's a meadow in a wide valley with an easy trail leading to it.  If you approach the village, they'll send someone out to greet you, and if you're not threatening they'll invite you to come and meet the chief.

Kids are playing in the creek nearby when you arrive.  The settlement itself is surrounded by a ditch filled with wooden spikes.  There are twenty-two hide huts, all facing towards a standing stone in the middle.  There are many dogs here, wiry ones good at pursuing prey.

Recently, the people of Free Camp (belonging to a different clan) made some kind of insult.  In response, young men from Crow Meadow snuck in and painted rude figures all over Free Camp's standing stone.

Now Crow Meadow is expecting some kind of retaliation, about which rumors abound.  But while they're expecting something fairly small, the men of Free Camp have just sworn an oath of vengeance.  They're tired of a long history of slights from Crow Meadow, and they intend to do something about it.


As usual, I rolled up some random great opportunities to get some ideas for entry points into the setting: migrants trying to make a home in a new land, and preaching the word amidst religious strife. These fit quite well with the story so far, and suggested a few ways to stir up more trouble:
  • The adventurers are desperate refugees themselves, roaming into the Hunger River region, looking for a new home.
  • A survivor of the lost seventh clan of the Buffalo People comes straggling down to Crow Meadow one day.  The rest of the clan is still alive, living just on the other side of the goblin woods.  They're trapped between the fearsome goblins and hostile people to the south, and want to migrate north to join the others.
  • All these people abandoning the protections against witchcraft may turn out to be a mistake.  Signs of witches have been seen: strange bloody carvings on trees, unexplained deaths, dogs born with three eyes.
  • The geese stopped coming after the Starving Time, but it's not because they died.  It's because the spirits that dwell in this land aren't being treated the way they used to be.  Too many of the elders of the people died out in those days, and the proper way of carving antler amulets died with them.  Someone needs to contact the spirits and teach proper antler burial to the people.
In some ways, this setup looks more like a Dogs in the Vineyard game, where the player characters roam from one village to another, solving problems and instituting justice.

If any characters are from this land, they're going to have a vested interest in the success of one group or another.  War is likely to break out, in several different ways.

If the party has guns or other fancy elven equipment, they're likely to be a formidable fighting force.  They're also likely to completely upset the nature of the Hunger River country by introducing new technology.

If the party has any specialized knowledge, someone's likely to try and kidnap them to make them work for the local authorities.

By the way, I just started a subreddit for Signs in the Wilderness content, since that site is where I've had most of the discussions online about this setting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Getting a feel for different species of people

I've written a little about the biology of the four species of people, but that's not an easy place to jump in.  In this post, I'm not going to talk about how their bodies work or what they make their homes out of.

Let's talk about what these people feel like.

We'll start with the most stereotypical views, what outsiders think of each species.  Afterwards, we'll look at variations, and how to adapt them for your own campaign.


Humans are the most like adventurers.  They're rowdy, bold, and hungry: hungry for knowledge and money and power.  They're noisy, with barking dogs and a fearsome battle cry.  Humans come to town and there's gonna be a brawl or a party, or maybe a mix of both.

For an outsider's perspective on humans, think pirates and nomads and outlaws, roving teams of deadly hunters, ragged fearsome bands carving out their survival in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.

a wedding haka

(Read about the people of the Ashen Council, or how to roll up your own human town.)


Giants are fur-trapping mountain men, pensive loners.  They're quiet and brooding, wandering the land fishing and watching the stars, remembering the stories passed down from their grandmothers' grandmothers.

Giants would rather leave you alone.  But if you harm a giant, they will never forget, and they will bring vengeance down upon you, and their descendants will tell the tale for generations.

For a giant, think of an old prospector, a ranger in the woods, a self-reliant hobo riding the rails with stories to tell and a keen glint in their eye.

a Mongolian herder

(Read about their great annual gatherings, or how they trade the stars.)


Elves are a bit like you and me, something like modern day people.  They're city folk, a product of a civilized world.  Elves are suited for comfortable houses full of manufactured goods, social organizations with books full of rules, and mixed drinks with too many ingredients.

Take away their coffee and their indoor plumbing and they're pretty much lost.  The end of the world has been especially hard on the elves.  They're not really the wilderness survival type.

But despite all their weaknesses in this dark age, elves are rich.  In their few remaining cities, the elves have amazing gadgets and powerful weapons, libraries full of knowledge and vaults full of artifacts of the old world.

Imagine law-abiding clergymen and diligent chemists, by-the-book naval officers and studious accountants, ordinary folk who distressingly find themselves carrying a gun these days.

Aurangzeb, Mughal emperor

(Read about elven alchemy, or the last remnant of their empire.)


Goblins are the backwoods clan you don't want to stumble across.  Get on their good side and they're known for their hospitality.  They'll feed you some kind of meat and give you weird stuff to smoke and ask all manner of nosy questions about what your kind of people do for fun and how shoes are supposed to work and why you're not married yet.

But most folks are not on their good side.  Goblins are the reason you don't go too far into the woods.  They're sharp teeth and haunting calls.  They're not afraid of outsiders; they lure them in just to get a fresh meal.  They've got strange medicines and hexes and hoodoo.

Goblins are curious about the world, yet they're sure they know how it really all works.  They're eager for news even though they're sure it's all some conspiracy they're glad to be avoiding by staying at home.

porch sitting

(Read what goblins think of writing, or how they ambush prey.)

Now that you know what's typical, it's time to make some changes for your own setting.  For each of these species, you could choose two attributes from the table below.
  1. They're overly _____, almost absurdly so.
  2. They're not really as _____ as people say.

Traits (d8)humanselvesgiantsgoblins
3aggressiveeloquentobservantfond of complaining in solidarity
4boastfulritualisticpensivegood at reading people
7celebratorysecretivefond of appealing to historyproudly unrefined
8casually violentmeticulouspedanticexcitable

typical traits
Humans are overly...
Humans aren't all that...
Elves are overly...
Elves aren't all that...
Giants are overly...
Giants aren't all that...
Goblins are overly...
Goblins aren't all that...

Player-characters are the protagonists of a roleplaying game, so if anyone's going to be an unusual example of their species, it's probably them.  You could use the traits above as a guideline, but don't let them be a straitjacket.  Feel free to portray your character (PC or NPC) however you like.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Post-apocalyptic 1700s

Some posts here are about the bright and hopeful future; this isn't one of those.  Signs in the Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic setting, and while it's been long enough that things are starting to look up, the terrible world after the fall is still everywhere.

When I think of these kinds of stories, movies like Mad Max, 12 Monkeys, or even Zombieland come to mind, all set around the modern day.  For this setting, I've been thinking about how the usual post-apocalyptic tropes can apply to an earlier era.

Reclaimed by nature

With so many people dead, the wilderness is full of ruins: forts and villages and mines that were once maintained by people, but have now fallen to the forest.  Abandoned sites have layers of history, even in the short time since the apocalypse.  You can see why they were built, how they fared in the end, how the forest has grown over them, and even who's been there since.

Overgrown Tomb, Steven Belledin

Ruins aren't clean, static places; they're as changing as the forest.  Rain gets in, flooding and rotting.  A wall becomes home to bees.  Tree goblins nest in the rafters.  A cellar holds a sleeping bear.  Floors crumble and rot through, stairs fall apart, and the site gradually fades away into the forest.

You'd have to be pretty desperate to try to make a living on scavenging from the ruins.  But most adventurers are desperate, in one way or another.


Crops failed in the starving time.  Tens of thousands left home in search of a chance at survival, anything to eat, anything better than where their neighbors died.  When it's either you or them, someone dies and someone gets to eat for another day.

Those few who were better stocked with food found themselves the target of repeated attacks.  In many cases, the walls held and the raiders starved or moved on.  Others were not so lucky.

Over time, raiding and thieving became a way of life for many, an accepted means of supplementing your food supply in lean times.  Out away from more prosperous parts, it's still a desperate world, full of people who have no qualms about robbing a stranger to feed their kids.

Ambush at Lovewell Pond

Meeting someone on the road is a wary affair.  There's a decent chance they're here to rob you, or that you're here to rob them.  Keep your hand on your pistol and assume every encounter is a trap.

Everyday violence

This generation was raised by a broken and traumatized people.  Their parents watched people starve in the streets, buried piles of bodies when the plague came, and did things to survive that they're not proud of.  Brokenness begets brokenness, and their children learned hard lessons at a young age.

Rude words lead to a fistfight.  Slight someone's honor and you might face them in a duel.  Intrude on the quiet of a town and you might get a beating, but you might get hanged from the nearest tree.

Duel with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya

A party of adventurers is always in danger around other people.  They're perpetual outsiders who can be blamed for all ills, strangers with no one to avenge them.  To survive, they'll have to be ready for violence, which only makes isolated settlements even less likely to want them around.


The cruel hand of fate didn't strike everyone evenly.  Anyone with a good source of food and some decent weapons might find themselves much better off than their neighbors.  That kind of power corrupts.  You end up with petty warlords, ruling over a valley or two by doling out survival to those who fight for them.

Loyalty to the warlord means you get to eat.  Defiance brings punitive raids.  You can't fight for long once someone's burned down your barn, and with it all your corn for the winter.

Powhatan, John Smith

These days, every government or power structure operates a bit like a warlord.  A company administrator hands out rations and beatings just as well as a tribal chief or an elected mayor.  Traditions and pieces of paper don't bring power the way food and guns do.

For up-and-coming adventurers, this means hard choices.  To get along, you're going to have to gain the favor of some bad people.  The company might pay well, but they might send you to burn down a whole village.  The council might keep you fed, but only as long as you bring them the heads of their rivals.  And what happens when you're powerful enough that you don't need some warlord's support?  How do you stay in charge without resorting to their cruelty?

Dirt and grime

Everything is broken and dirty.  Someone comes stumbling into the tavern?  You know they're covered in mud, soot, dust, blood, whatever.  Every inn is a grimy little place.  Every traveler looks a bit like the road they travel down.

Couple in a Tavern, Todeschini

But to make the griminess really stand out, a bit of contrast is in order.  The spirit glass hanging outside the city is actually kept clean and sparkling.  The boss takes a bath every night, and her guests eat a proper dinner from fine china.  The telescope is wrapped in a clean, white cloth.

If you want to look rich, look shiny.  Hot baths and clean clothes are a luxury few can afford.

Makeshift and repurposed

People are clever, especially when they don't have any better options.  Old things that can't be made anymore are too valuable to throw away, so they get repurposed and made into other things.

Every settlement has something from the old days that's been repurposed.  The inn used to be a grist mill.  That spearhead used to be a drainpipe.  The tank from the brewery is now a boat.  They tore apart the ship and built it into their fortifications.  That necklace is made of old doubloons.

Zuni blacksmith shop

Things have stories.  Treasure in this world comes with complications: competing claims, malfunctioning parts, and unexpected benefits.


After a great collapse, people tell stories about the world that came before.  The past is simplified and idealized, turned into a standard story to help you understand the way things are now.

Some people say it was a better time, venerating the ancestors and calling for a return to their way of life.  Some say it was a decadent age, swept away in a great cleansing of the world.

city of the Mound Builders

Many are in mourning for the old world.  Those few elders who lived in it wistfully think back on the days of their youth.  Their children and grandchildren who grew up in the new days speak of the old as a lost age of glory that will never be attained again.  Whole societies can go on for centuries mourning their golden age.

Relics from the olden days elicit mixed responses, from awe to disdain.

For this article, I've deliberately avoided mentioning some of the usual post-apocalyptic tropes about cars and ammunition.  I think you can still get across most of that concept in a world of muskets and canoes.

I've got a few ideas for posts I'm working on.  What would you like to see next?
  • how people are changed by the frontier
  • population dynamics of the elven hive
  • prophets and preachers of new religions
  • how humans are scary monsters
  • newfangled inventions

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Apocalypse for everyone!

Signs in the Wilderness is a mash-up of a few concepts, but a big one is this:

What if the American apocalypse happened to both sides?

You might not have heard of the American apocalypse by that name.  I'm talking about the vast outbreak of Old World diseases that came over with Columbus and so many ships thereafter.  Smallpox, cholera, a mighty host of sickness that felled tens of millions.

It's likely the greatest outbreak of disease the world has ever known.  Central America, home of the powerful Aztec Empire, is believed to have lost 90% of its population in the first century of contact.

To put that in perspective, imagine if everyone in the US died except for those born in another country.  Or everyone in the US outside New York and Pennsylvania.  Or everyone in the US under the age of 65.

The exact numbers get debated heavily, but the basic fact remains: the Americas are a post-apocalyptic world.

It's an apocalypse that's easy to miss.  Most of the accounts we have of indigenous Americans are from the era after the apocalypse already happened.  It was a vast, empty continent, ripe for the taking because most of the locals had died.

Aztec drawing of smallpox victims.

None of this is a surprise these days.  Maybe you've read Guns, Germs, and Steel or 1491 and you know all about the Great Dying.  It was probably an inevitable plague.  And with human nature as it is, the conquest of America and the near-extermination of a large part of mankind's culture may, sadly, have been inevitable too.

So I started to wonder what it would be like if the apocalypse struck both sides, indigenous and colonial alike.  What if the European world came to an end at the same time?  How would the survivors of both sides move forward?  Who would rule this New World, with the ashes of the old worlds swept away?

Jamestown settler dead, Sydney King

What would that European apocalypse even look like?  Imagine if, somehow, Europe itself just went missing.  News from the old country would cease, as would immigrants and supplies.  Ships sent out to investigate would leave Virginia, never to return as they ran out of food somewhere in the ocean where Europe once was.  The fledgling colonies might die out or be absorbed into the local populace, Roanoke writ large.

Signs in the Wilderness is about the frontier between civilizations, but also between the lost world of the past and the new world to be built.  The apocalypse has already happened.  One way or another, most people died, and their worlds died with them.  Now the survivors have grown up, and their children have grown up, and they've begun to build something new.

It's a world that's still mostly empty, with ruins of the past but hope for the future.

William McAusland

So how did the world end?  I like to leave plenty of mystery around the days of the apocalypse.  It's a dark time that the elderly survivors don't like to talk about.  But it left scars not only among the people, but on the world itself.  At some point, you'll need to know how it happened.

Pick two items from the table below.  The first is what actually caused the end of the world.   The second isn't the main event, but it may have happened as well or it might just be a widespread rumor.

Apocalypse (d10)signs
1-2meteorite impactwave-scoured shores, tales of darkened skies and crop failures, meteor shower every year
3-4pandemicbones and abandoned villages, fearful isolated settlements, chance the plague may return
5-6forbidden knowledgescientific research into terrible things, backlash against science
7divine retributionnew theology, theories about what distinguished those who were allowed to live
8long wintertales of starvation and years of ice, dead forests
9hibernating creaturesphysical remains, legends, theories about how many centuries the creatures sleep
10years of droughtland scorched by fire, fallen trees, lost crops from the old days

the real cause of the apocalypse
but at least one rumor or sign points to

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Religion that can't be avoided

The world is a dangerous place, full of death and chaos.  What little people have been able to figure out about it they've passed down to their children and grandchildren.  Societies that discover the right way to live might prosper; those that don't are doomed to fail.

This hidden knowledge of the ages isn't something you can afford to ignore.  It's folklore and science and culture all wrapped into one.  This is religion.

Tuvan shaman, Alexander Nikolsky

In our present day, there's a rift perceived between religion and science, two areas of life set at odds against each other.  To many, religion is something you do in private for vaguely "spiritual" reasons or to "be a better person".  Science (like its aft-facing counterpart history) is seen as a proper area of learning and study, where useful knowledge can be obtained.

With that mindset, it's easy to forget about religion.  In the world of Signs in the Wilderness, everyone is religious, in one way or another.
  1. Religion is ancestral.  It's been passed down from generation to generation, a tangible link to the ancestors who came before you.  You might not own anything your great-great-grandmother once had, but you can still practice her religion and know her story.
  2. Religion is cultural.  If all our people do things the same way, that way identifies us as a people and shows who belongs to our group.
  3. Religion is political.  When religion determines identity and prescribes conduct, religious authority becomes political power.
  4. Religion is knowledge.  The ancestors did things this way for a reason.  We've lost a lot since the apocalypse; following their ancient rule may save us from dangers in ways we don't even understand.
That's fine for background material, but you might be wondering how it actually matters.  How does all this religion make any difference in a roleplaying game?  Why would a party of adventurers actually care?

Let's look closer at those four points:
1. History is passed down through religion.
  • Your grandfather's musket comes with a code of honor and a story of how it was used.
  • Conflicts in the past can spill over into the present, especially if they're still talked about in the religion.
  • Likewise, old alliances can be rekindled if both sides remember the old stories.
2. Cultural identity is religious identity.
  • If you want to fit in, you're going to need to show that you know the signs and the stories.
  • Breaking the religious rules gets you exiled from the group (or worse).
  • If you're of the wrong religion, you're not welcome here.
3. Political power can stand on religious authority.
  • A revered prophet speaks, and the people believe.  The one who bears the signs of the prophecy will be given great power.
  • A leader breaks a taboo or opposes the will of the ancestors, and the people will not allow them to remain in power.
  • Religious support strengthens a regime, so a wise conqueror will go to the priests for confirmation of their right to rule.

4. Hidden knowledge can be found in religion.
  • Throwing salt over your shoulder might actually ward away bad luck.
  • Hanging mirrors around a graveyard might actually keep the spirits of the dead out of the village.
  • There might actually be a being watching from the mountain, and the local religion teaches how to avoid angering it. 

W. D. McIntyre

Fifty-odd years ago, the world nearly came to an end.  Darkness covered the sun, cold winds blew down from the north, and there was hunger and war and death.

Beliefs were tested.  Many didn't survive.

Think of difficult times as a scientific experiment.  Previous experimenters had come to various conclusions, but now a larger experiment was being run, testing the foundational beliefs of the world.  Everyone had a hypothesis, a theory of their own about how the world truly worked, and everyone was about to see the result.  Some beliefs turned out to be right, gaining support from the experiment.  Some beliefs turned out to be wrong, leading some to change to better-supported theories while others dug in their heels.

The old ways have been shaken, challenged, and often broken by the apocalypse.  Great rifts in society have opened up, room for conflicts that can engulf everything, including unwary outsiders.  People today fall into a few major groupings:
  1. Those who hold even tighter to the old ways.  They're deeply conservative, trying to protect their people from any dangerous innovations.
  2. Followers of new religions.  They are certain that the old ways led to destruction.  They believe in their religion's promise of a new world.  It's likely that they follow a teacher or a prophet.
  3. Victims of the ongoing social trauma of the apocalypse.  They're stunned, in mourning, part of a culture that has lost its purpose.
At least one religion predicted that a great catastrophe was imminent.  It's no surprise that they've only gained adherents since the apocalypse, going from a tiny tribal religion to a widespread movement throughout the North.

New religions have also shown up since the apocalypse.  For many people, it seemed like none of the theories explained what had happened.  That's when to sit down and think and come up with a new theory, a new way to understand the world and figure out what to do next.

Santeria, Mick Palumbo

If religious movements were purely scientific, there'd be a lot less resistance to changing from one to another.  (Though there'd still be some resistance — scientists are as stubborn as anyone else.)  But when religion isn't just about knowledge, but also political power and cultural identity and ties to one's ancestors, changing religions undermines all of society.

A few topics I'd like to get to in future posts:
  1. rolling up a random human religion
  2. the fracturing of the elven religion after the loss of the great temple
  3. goblin shamans: spirits and pharmacology
  4. giants who converted to the old orthodox elven faith
  5. playing as a missionary character
Do any of those sound interesting?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Behind the scenes: generating a completely random adventure

And by "adventure" I mean "bit of campaign setting" or more realistically, "gibberish you could hammer an adventure out of".

I've written up a lot of random tables.  For this post, I'm going to roll up a brand new Signs in the Wilderness adventure and explain the results as I go.  (Normally I don't recommend choosing everything at random.)  At this moment I haven't picked anything out yet, and I'm not going to backtrack along the way, so this is going to be completely at the mercy of the dice and my horribly incomplete tables.

Great opportunities

Let's start with the table of great opportunities, since those are what drive the story.

The first opportunity is an unexplored wilderness.  According to my notes, this could look like an expedition of discovery, charting the wilderness, cataloguing new species, or establishing a claim.  I haven't written up the subtables for this one yet, but that's four (somewhat overlapping) options right there, so I'll roll a d4 and...charting the wilderness it is.  That means I'll need to figure out who wants this wilderness charted and why.  This opportunity is shown by the existence of the unknown country itself, and by competitors being sent to do the same job.  Plenty of open questions.

In the meantime, the second opportunity is wealth, an opportunity for a salesman.  Some indicators of this opportunity: a new invention, shortages or high prices, eager/hungry newcomers, and isolated communities.  This could dovetail well with charting the wilderness.