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.

The third opportunity is a natural resource discovered.  This one I have tables for.  The resource is like iron, flint, or copper, something used in toolmaking.  It's found in difficult terrain.  The locals were already extracting it and are trying to maintain their control.  Powerful figures control the main route to this place, and charge for access.  Small-time guides / ship captains say they can get you there cheaper.

Three is plenty to start with, so it's time to combine them.  Let's say the unexplored wilderness is the area where the natural resource is found, so one reason to chart the wilderness is so the authorities can figure out how to take control.  The opportunity for a salesman could be selling things to the people who live there, or selling to the prospectors who show up, but I think I'd like to give it some life of its own: let's go with the new invention option.

The invention

The new invention reveals knowledge, such as finding your position at sea or seeing things that are tiny or far away.  It fits in your pocket, though you might need to open it or set it up to use it.  It works quite well.  It's a clockwork-powered device, so it probably needs to be wound up.  It features smoke, dirt, soot, ash, or has a foul smell or taste.  It has a dangerous reputation or it's illegal or immoral.

So it's a...what, exactly?  What kind of knowledge is it revealing?  A few ideas:
  1. It's a mapping device.  You open it up, drop in some of the local soil, and turn the crank.  It grinds and processes the soil in some way, turning it to a fine dust that you sprinkle on a piece of paper.  The dust orients itself on the paper compared to any other dust made in this way, resulting in an accurate positioning system based on previously-collected samples.
  2. It processes soil, looking for traces of the toolmaking mineral.  Not sure why this would have a dangerous reputation.  Maybe it has a tendency to catch fire?
  3. It's a lie detector.  You wind it up and attach it to your subject somehow, then it shows whether they're telling the truth.  It might cause the subject to experience a foul taste in their mouth, or it might give some kind of mild electric shock (which is kinda similar).  Maybe when they lie the device emits a foul smell.  I can definitely see why this thing would be illegal or dangerous.
I don't know what repercussions it'll have, but the lie detector option sounds fantastic and likely to cause trouble.  Let's say the lie detector has a reputation of being dangerous to the subject, and is likely to be outlawed as soon as the authorities get wind of it.

Mineral country

We know the country where the mineral is found is difficult terrain of some kind.  I'll roll up a random wilderness area, then if none of the results make it difficult, I'll go back and reroll till something does.

Checking my list of human words, let's call the mineral emakanya "blood sharpness".  It can take a really sharp edge and it's blood-red in color.  Good enough for now.  (I have a general rule about using a limited number of invented words, and only for things that matter enough.  The mineral that drives much of the campaign is probably a good use of one.)

Emakanya is a mineral found in a region with patches of woods and fields, with swamps if it's humid enough.  Most streams flow into a major lake, which has a river outlet.  This area has rocky spires or buttes.  It's a hot and humid country.  It's difficult to traverse because of the people, who are afraid of greedy outsiders.  That fits perfectly.

To make this easy, let's say this region is called the Mire.  Emakanya itself comes from some kind of difficult terrain, so let's say it's mined high up on those rocky spires that rise out of the swamp.

I'm guessing the river that drains the lake is the only easy way in and out of here, so the powerful authority that controls access is probably somewhere downriver.

The Mire isn't the only region of this uncharted wilderness, but we'll get to more regions later.

The local people

They're mining the blood-red emakanya and trading it with nearby people, defending their claim and keeping outsiders out of the Mire.  Which species are they?

I'm thinking they're either humans or giants.  Goblins would enjoy the swamp, but probably wouldn't be mining anything in bulk.  If they were elves, this place would probably already be on the map.  Either option sounds like fun, so let's roll a d2...and they're giants.  We'll put the humans downriver as the ones controlling access to the region.

Let's roll up their annual gathering to learn more about these giants.  They meet in a desolate highland, which I assume is the top of one of the spires.  Goblins visit from the nearby swamps.  They carve a new totem pole each year to commemorate the gathering, which means they're hauling whole logs up to the top of this spire.

At the moment, they're pleased about how all the giants here are getting along with each other (which implies they might not have gotten along in the past, or might not in the future).  They're upset about the behavior of the elves, which says that elves have made it to the Mire already, yet the place isn't on the map.  That means the elves never returned home.  Maybe they died, maybe they're stranded somewhere, or maybe they decided to set up their own little empire here.

The giants have divided opinions on rumors of a great opportunity.  I think the obvious choice is the opportunity they're sitting on, the emakanya itself.

Trade goods at this gathering include furs, longhorned elven cattle, and carvings out of stone.  The furs are probably skins of animals the goblins hunt in the swamp, cattle are probably something people have been spreading inland ever since the elves first arrived in this continent, and the carvings are probably tools made of emakanya itself.

The swamp

The swamp has a few interesting things going on: goblins and some kind of animal to skin.  Let's see what lives around here: copperhead snakes, possums, doves, wild hogs, and crows.  Wild hogs are the only one in that list big enough to be worth skinning for trade, I suppose.

Giantish traps probably catch possums, doves, and wild hogs, which means their traps have plenty of variety and can catch fairly large creatures.  That'll matter when elves start showing up.

Speaking of which, who are those elves that showed up that the giants aren't pleased with?  Let's roll up some attributes for the leader of the elves.  He is a young adult whose position was snatched away.  He's gung ho: impatient and eager to get down to work.  He's also unsettled: always on the move looking for new opportunities or new surroundings.

I'm imagining a teenager who isn't going to get anything out of life that they don't seize for themselves, leading a group of similar people on an expedition to make a fortune, whatever the cost.

So...adventurers.  The giants are upset because an elven party of adventurers showed up.

I don't know what's happened to these adventurers yet, or what exactly they did to anger the giants (probably the usual trifecta of theft, murder, and jaywalking).  Maybe some of them are still in the Mire.  Maybe the last survivor just made it back to elven civilization with word of their discoveries.


The main way to access the Mire is by the river, which is controlled by humans.  I'll say they live far enough downriver that the countryside is a bit different, so let's roll that up first.  Patches of woods and fields, a range of mountains/hills, rugged areas of fallen scree, and dangerous creatures that the locals are afraid of.

This sounds like a water gap where the river has carved its way through a mountain range.  The river meanders through a swampy upland basin, then winds down between the hills, then...onward to the sea or somewhere else.

I'm quite interested in the dangerous creatures here in the hills.  It's something like a reptile or amphibian.  It's poisonous to eat and it can spray like a skunk.  It collects something and it's kind to people in need.  Ok, this isn't the dangerous creature at all.  This one is...a stinktoad that catches fish, collects their bones to make its nests, and is rumored to bring fish to people starving in the wilderness.

Let's try again.  It's a water creature that changes color with the seasons and uses echolocation to find its prey.  It has an unusual food source and mimics some other creature.  Checking my list of creatures, I think this is some kind of water snake.  It hides in grasses and muddy water, able to find its prey even in the dark.  Its skin is silvery and shimmering, just like some of the fish that live around here, or green like the watergrass, depending on the season.  The unusual food?  Since the humans are scared of it, I'll say it eats humans, so it's probably a large and venomous snake.  Humans call it the sleep-strangler, either because it strangles you in your sleep, or because it bites you with its paralytic venom before strangling you.

Humans of the hills

When they're not fending off sleep-stranglers and stinktoads, the humans control movement on the river.

This tribe of humans has a reputation for being generous.  They grow most of their own food, specifically peanuts and beans.  They build fortified towns: longhouses surrounded by a palisade on raised earthen mounds.  These results come with axes, spears, burning down enemy towns, powerful chiefs, etc.  These sound like powerful people with a stable food source, easily the sort that could control the river.

They build rafts of logs lashed together.  They carve stylized faces onto their homes, fortifications, and rafts.  They do a solemn dance to make a time or place sacred.  Captives are adopted into the tribe.  These people have pierced ears.

During the starving time, they lost their old crop.  Picking at random, I say they lost the beans they once grew, and now supplement their food with...whaling on the open sea?  (That doesn't work with their rafts.  Reroll.)  ...maple sugaring?  (Not in this hot, humid climate.)  ...acorn gathering.  (Perfect!)  Living on just peanuts and acorns makes for an odd diet, but you only roll for the more culturally significant food sources.  We can assume they also hunt and fish and gather like anyone else.

The tribe is led by popular consensus, where a large portion of the people gather together to debate and voice opinions.  They have eight towns.  Men are in charge of farming and construction, women are in charge of fishing and hunting.  That means it's likely to be women who first meet outsiders, since they're the ones traveling farther from town.

The tribe is named for their activity or skill.  Let's call them the Maquanak "mountain guardians".

Most of the young people have joined a new religion while the rest follow the old ways.  This will be a source of tension.

The main rival of the Maquanaks is an elven company.  They were rivals, then briefly got along with the company but fell apart due to betrayal.  The Maquanaks' main ally is a closely-related tribe of humans.  The Maquanaks are recently arrived in this area, getting help from their relatives.

I don't think we need all the details about the relatives.  They're the ones who taught their lowland cousins how to safely eat acorns.  Let's call them Hanokansi "hill craftsmen".

I can see a story emerging from this.  The Maquanaks used to live further downriver near the coast, where they clashed with the elven company.  After the starving time, they turned to the elves for help, but were taken advantage of.  The Maquanaks fled inland and got help from their relatives in the hills.  Now they hate the elven company and want revenge.

What next?

So far we've got information on:
  • The Mire, a swampy area inhabited by goblins and by giants who climb up the rocky spires to mine the valuable emakanya mineral.
  • The hills (that need a name) where the river (that also needs a name) flows through the water gap, defended by the Maquanak humans.
A few rolls on my incomplete name tables and...the Mud River flows down from the Mire through...the Bald Hills (so we'll assume they're forested in the valleys and grassy on top).
I'd like to find out more about the elven company, since they're already involved down near the coast.  Of course that's one area where I haven't written up many tables yet, but we'll see what we can do.

I'm also curious about whoever would be trying to chart this part of the world.  It could just be the company, but they have competitors, and the various elven authorities probably want to know what's going on.  That leads to learning about at least one elven city, which might be where the lie detector device was made.  I'm picturing that one lone survivor of the elven adventurers to the Mire straggling back to the city, telling tales of the swamp and the spires and the blood-red stones, rumors flying everywhere.

Around the water gap, I'd like to learn more about the Maquanaks: how they would respond to explorers, who they'd have do the talking, etc.  They're likely to be a big part of any adventure into this region, so it would help to know them better.  It would be very interesting if they have the lie detector, taken from the elven adventurers, and they use it on intruders into their land.

Properly, I'd be making a real map as I go, but for now I'll be satisfied with just rolling up the regions around.  So far I know the river leads down to the sea where the elven company has shown up, and that the areas around the Mire are hard enough to traverse that the water gap is the main route.

The elven company

At some point I'll have tables for a random elven company.  For now, let's use the tables for a random elven settlement and work backwards.  They operate trading posts in outlying regions.  A few random trade goods they might be interested in: wood, guns, alcohol.
  • Guns are almost exclusively made by the elves, so they're selling guns on the frontier.
  • Wood is something they're probably buying from humans or giants, not sure if it's general lumber for ships/buildings or if it's rare, valuable hardwoods.  A die roll says it's lumber for ships, probably tall, straight wood for masts.
  • Alcohol could go either way, as the elves make one kind and the humans make another.  Rolling a's elven alcohol they deal in, distilled and flavored liqueurs like rum and retsina.
Let's call them the South Woods Company, though their proper name is probably something grandiose like The Imperial Chartered Timbering Company of the South Woods.

This whole region is still basically uncharted, so the SWC can't be too involved in the region yet.  The coastline is probably somewhat known, having been vaguely charted by one of the early elven explorers 150 years ago.  The company has a small presence by the sea: a trading post, maybe a logging camp.

The governor of the company (probably back in one of the elven cities) is older, desperately clinging to the resources the company already has.  He's unsettled, so he's always worried that they've invested in the wrong things, always looking to move the company's resources to a different safe haven.  His goal is to make sure the company doesn't lose money, not to grow and expand.  He's also easily offended, quick to be provoked by small matters.

The shore

As the Mud River flows further east to the sea, the hills turn into steep, forested mountains, and the river flows through a deep and treacherous canyon.  This is a place of fast-moving creeks, cascades, and waterfalls.  These are the mountains of the Misery Range.

The range ends with a long escarpment, a cliff hundreds of miles wide where the mountains reach the sea.  The Mud River ends in a spectacular waterfall over the cliffs into the ocean.  I'm picturing a range of mountains like the Sierra Nevada: gentle hills on the west side, gradually growing and becoming more rugged to the high peaks, then dropping off abruptly on the east.

There are caves in the Misery Range carved by flowing water, many of them flooded.  This region is particularly hard to traverse because of the environment itself.  One of the suggestions for environmental difficulty is thick fog, which sounds good.  A hot, humid, misty range of rugged mountains where rivers flow through canyons to waterfalls that drop into the sea.

The locals are afraid of a warlord, a tyrant, some powerful figure in the region.  I'm still not sure who the locals are in this area.  The South Woods Company is here and the Maquanaks used to be.  Let's say the Company people are the only ones left in any real numbers, now that the humans have fled.  The tyrant is probably whoever runs the company settlement.


The settlement, a place called Tideport, is built here primarily because of the change in transportation needs, the last stop for the company before entering the wilderness.  This is where you get off the ship and all further travel inland is on foot.  The settlement is...abandoned.  It was abandoned some time shortly after the apocalypse and is now in a ruinous state.

So whatever happened forty or fifty years ago led to Tideport being destroyed and the Maquanaks fleeing upriver.  I'm imagining a war: the South Woods Company tried enslaving the humans to cut more timber, the humans revolted and burned down the settlement, then the SWC sent reinforcements and drove the humans out.  They never rebuilt Tideport, choosing a more defensible position instead?

Defiance Island

The new settlement is called Defiance Island.  With that name, I'm assuming it's just off shore, within easy reach of the mainland by small boats, possibly in sight of the ruins of Tideport.  Defiance Island is a run-down has-been of a settlement.  Forty years ago it was probably something better.  Travelers still show up on occasion, probably all on SWC business, so they still get news.

Lately they've been dealing with heavy rains, washing out roads and flooding buildings.  The place smells of coal fires.

There's a general store that sells a little bit of everything for high prices, a lodge where workers sleep, a tavern with food, drink, news, and some beds for visitors upstairs.  There's a tiny little temple with a priest to make offerings for the dead.  There's a company doctor here to tend to the sick and wounded.

The person who runs this settlement is fairly young, but her position in life has been snatched away.  I'm guessing she was once a rising star in the company somewhere more prestigious, maybe the protege of someone important, but she lost her position and was sent to Defiance Island.  She's overly eager to please and has a vision for the future.  Let's call her the Factor (an old term for the administrator of a trading post).

This doesn't sound like a fearsome tyrant.  She seems more like a bright new leader making the best of a bad situation.  So who's the tyrant?  A few ideas:
  1. Another powerful figure in the settlement who doesn't respect the new leader, maybe someone in charge of a garrison, maybe the priest or the doctor.
  2. A leader among the giants who cut down trees for the elves, maybe indigenous to the area, maybe brought here by the company to work.
  3. Some kind of pirate or filibuster who has shown up and taken over the settlement by force for some reason.
  4. The governor of the company who has come here to oversee matters personally.
All four sound interesting, so it's a die roll...option 1, another powerful figure in the settlement.  She is also young, planning for her own advancement.  She's arrogant and impatient.  I like the idea of her being something like a military officer for the company, in charge of a small garrison of soldiers.  Like Cortez, she's tempted by the idea of building her own empire on these foreign shores.  Defiance Island is just the beginning.  Let's call her the Captain.

The Factor is officially in charge, but everyone lives in fear of the Captain who doesn't respect the Factor's authority.

In the big city

Let's roll up an elven city to see how things are over there, since the elves will be interested in charting the wilderness.

My first attempt resulted in a ruined city, abandoned after the apocalypse.  Worth putting on the map and possibly a place to go scavenging, but not the city I'm looking for.

Let's see if there's another city around.  Their flag is orange with a crossbow as its emblem and the phrase Victory and Unity written underneath.  The city is but a shell of its former glory, decimated by the apocalypse.  A few bad harvests might bring it to an end.  They're currently in desperate need of food.  Humans have been raiding their outlying farms regularly, causing food shortages.

The city is called Anchor Isle, on an island just offshore of some larger landmass, possibly the continent.  Approaching the city, you can see smoke in the distance.  Orchards of pear and peach trees spread across the mainland nearby, along with thorny incense treesUndesirables and outcasts hang around outside the city, desperate for work.  The main industries of this town are incense and shipping.  It's a hub for large oceangoing ships and small riverboats meeting up to load and unload.  There are many places for travelers here.  Giants come to Anchor Isle to trade and study.

The ironmongers' guild here is collaborating to keep prices for tools and weapons very high, and they're quite aggressive about keeping their monopoly.  Smugglers sneak tools and weapons into the city to sell for a lower price without the knowledge of the guild.  (The lie detector device could be something bought from smugglers, making it hard to get information about what it is, how it works, or track down where it came from.)

The authorities or guilds of Anchor Isle are trying to get into some trade opportunity, but there's a large company that's trying to get there first.  This could be a great way to tie the city to the emakanya mineral.  Let's say the giants who come to Anchor Isle to trade occasionally have little bits of emakanya to sell, which merchants of Anchor Isle are able to sell to bigger cities for lots of money.  The city and the company (the Imperial Company of Gunsmiths) both want to find out who the giants are getting it from, and try to seize control of the trade for themselves.

Things got out of hand.  Anchor Isle (or some guild/merchants/company from the city) entered into a contract with the Gunsmiths to have the company do the actual exploring to find the giants' source, but then the city (or whoever) broke the contract to do it themselves.  To stay on good terms with the city, the Gunsmiths gave up their claims over the broken contract, but the city is still going their own way, so now they're regretting letting the city off the hook.

Competition and trouble so far

At this point we have several groups all interested in the emakanya mineral:
  1. The giants of the Mire who mine and sell it.
  2. The small group of elven adventurers who made it to the Mire, some of whom might still be alive in that area.
  3. The Imperial Company of Gunsmiths who's trying to track down the source of emakanya.
  4. Merchants of the city of Anchor Isle who are also trying to track it down.
Then we have at least one group that would want to get into the emakanya trade but doesn't know about it yet:
  1. The South Woods Company (SWC) that already has a timber outpost near the mouth of the Mud River, but doesn't know about the mineral.
A few other problems are going on:
  1. Anchor Isle is short on food, but people are still looking for work.  That means there's food to buy somewhere, but many people have no money to buy it with.  Some combination of starvation and uprising is likely to occur.
  2. Humans have been raiding the outlying farms of Anchor Isle.
  3. The struggle between the captain and the administrator of Defiance Isle would be a minor side issue, except that Defiance Isle is likely to become the main port of access for the emakanya trade.

Near Anchor Isle

The mainland near the city of Anchor Isle has two other groups present: giants who trade with the city and humans who raid the farms.  Let's start with the humans.

Human raiders

They're known as a fearsome and ferocious people, to be avoided at all costs.  They're primarily hunter gatherers, digging for clams and gathering ferns.  They live in simple grass huts, which means their villages can be relocated easily, making these humans hard to track down for the elves.  They only build small rafts, so their reach is confined mostly to the mainland.

You can recognize these humans by the animal tattoos on their faces.  Their fearsome reputation is probably deserved, as they're known for killing and eating captives.

The giants nearby are their main rivals.  The humans want revenge on the giants for something terrible they did a few years ago.

The humans' main ally is an elven company that they've got under their thumb.  Ok, that's going to cause trouble.  Somehow they've gotten power over an elven company, and that company is working with them, even though they're raiding the elven farms.  There's already one company in the area, the Imperial Company of Gunsmiths.

My theory is that the Gunsmiths set up their main office somewhere on the mainland in one of the smaller settlements, as a way of maintaining their independence from the city authorities.  Now the humans have taken over the region, taking hostages (some of whom they haven't killed).  They allow the company to continue operating in exchange for guns.  Life on the frontier requires compromises.

They are called the Nontoga "thunder people".  There's a single chief of this tribe of humans, but only two villages.  The chief is a man who lost everything during hard times and is now trying to rebuild his peoples' standing.  He's guilt-ridden over his past, and easily offended.

Giant traders

The giants near the Nontoga and Anchor Isle hold their gathering several days' travel inland, up on some desolate treeless plainElven trading companies send representatives to trade with the giants, as well as human traders from far away.  At the gathering, they trade muskets, dried roots, honey, and whatever other valuable items come into their hands, such as the small pieces of emakanya they've gotten so far.

At the last gathering, the giants were upset about rumors of a great opportunity.  They're glad to hear that the blood-red emakanya mineral is worth more than they'd expected, but they're upset that the elves are trying so hard to bypass the giants and cut them out of their profits.

I'm not sure what the giants did a few years ago to earn the ire of the Nontoga humans, not sure if it matters yet.


This is plenty of material to get started with.  There are a few major groups likely to be in conflict with each other, and a few major goals worth pursuing.

Things I'm most interested in exploring further:
  • What the towns of the Maquanaks are like.  They're the people who try the hardest to stop outsiders getting to the Mire, to maintain their monopoly on the emakanya trade.
  • The middleman (-men) between the Maquanak humans and the giants near Anchor Isle.  The giants really don't want to say where they get the emakanya from (as their power is maintained by their monopoly) but they will if you make them a good enough offer or present a serious enough threat.
  • The religious strife of the Maquanaks.  I've got some fun tables for human religions, and a larger, regional religious conflict makes for an interesting source of trouble.
  • The elven adventurers who made it to the Mire.  I'd like to learn what the survivors are doing and what their current goals are.
So that's all for now.  Congratulations for reading this far.

If you'd like me to roll up more about this particular story, or roll up a brand new one, let me know.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Random adventure?

Would anyone be interested in reading about an adventure made entirely at the whim of the dice?

I've been writing up a lot of random tables for Signs in the Wilderness.  My usual rule is that if I can't think of three options for a concept, I probably don't have a good sense of that concept yet.  So every time I'm writing down notes for an adventure, I end up building a new random table or expanding an old one.

At this point, I've got enough tables to start rolling up a completely random bit of setting, enough to cause some conflicts, present some interesting stuff to do, and have a bit of the world to adventure in.  I know the random tables are incomplete, so trying to use them for everything would probably fall flat, but it might be an interesting experience to share.

Kick-Up at the Hazard Table, Thomas Rowlandson

So would you be interested in reading along as I try rolling up a completely random adventure/mini-campaign?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Elven delicacies

There's the simple way, then there's the elven way.  Elves have a reputation for complexity and over-engineering, in everything from law to technology to food.  A fine elven meal is hardly complete without a special delicacy, a treat for everyone at the table.

(This is a rather silly post, so if you're just here for wilderness adventures, you should probably look somewhere else.)

Chinese pastries,

Start with its shape.  I'll roll up a random delicacy as we go to show you how it works.

Shape (d12)
1round ball
2flat disc
3long stick
8twisted into a knot
9flattish with a pressed floral pattern
11irregular cluster
12layers of the exterior and filling

Decide what the outside of the delicacy is made of, and then what kind of finish it has.

5: This food is cut/pressed/molded into a diamond or parallelogram shape.

Exterior (d20)
1-4no outer layer around the filling
5candy shell
6mochi (sticky rice candy dough)
7steamed dough
8baked dough
9fried dough
10sugar glaze
12a pepper
14crispy pastry
15a tomato
16hollow/folded pasta
17a raspberry
18sticky rice
20crumbly cookie

14: It's a diamond-shaped crispy pastry.

Finish (d20)
1-2no special finish
3powdered sugar
5edible rice paper
6patterned paper wrapper
8cocoa powder
9crushed walnuts
10shredded coconut
11pine nuts
12dusting of flour
14sesame seeds
19grated cheese
20olive oil / butter

3: Diamond-shaped crispy pastry coated or topped with powdered sugar.


There's a filling inside:

Filling (d20)
1hard candyflavored with (d20) 1: honey, 2: molasses, 3: tomato, 4: pistachio, 5: cheese, 6: lemon, 7: pineapple, 8: peach, 9: coffee, 10: butter, 11: tea, 12: jasmine, 13: lavender, 14: rose, 15: licorice, 16: peppermint, 17: frankincense, 18: salt, 19: rum, 20: roll twice
2chewy sweet (like nougat or taffy)
4creamy filling
5ball of cotton candy
6spongy bread/cake
7crispy cookie/cracker
8candied apricot
10cluster of sesame seeds
12bean paste
14puffed rice
15candied ginger
16fig paste
17dried plum
18soft cheese
19hollow inside
20an inedible trinket with writing on it

19: The pastry is hollow inside.

Anastasiya Sviderska

In polite society, there's a proper way to eat these delicacies.

Method of Eating (d12)
1-2Pick it up with two fingers, but not using your thumb.
3-4Use a spoon.
5-6Use small tongs.
7-8Use chopsticks.
9-10Use a tiny sieve to dip it in tea or coffee.
11Stab it with a sharp skewer.
12Break it apart with a flat knife and a little mallet, then pick up the pieces on the knife.

7: You're supposed to eat this pastry using chopsticks.  Hopefully it's small enough to make that reasonable.

But there's a complication, something that makes these rather awkward.

Complication (d12)
1They are absurdly large.
2They are very small.
3They are eaten together with another delicacy.
4You and your neighbor feed each other.
5Surprisingly, these are the main course of the meal.
6Eat one to show that you would like to leave.
7You will have to pay for each one you eat.
8You are supposed to take one and pass the dish.
9The dish is placed near you, but you are supposed to ask the host to serve you when you want one.
10A large number of them are served to you, but this is not the main course. You are expected to return any you do not eat.
11They are served in a sauce.
12They are eaten in silence.

2: Turns out it's surprisingly small: a tiny, hollow, crispy pastry in a diamond shape coated in powdered sugar, eaten with chopsticks.  I'd eat that.

Let's roll up a few more:
  • A flattish layer of sesame seeds (probably held together with honey or something) with icing on top in a floral pattern, and then more sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  Eaten with chopsticks, but it's understood that you'll pay for each one you eat.
  • An irregularly-shaped crumbly cookie, filled with fig paste, wrapped in edible rice paper.  You take one and pass the dish, then dip it in your tea/coffee with a small sieve.
  • Egg, pressed into the shape of a camel.  (That's it, no exterior or finish.)  Pick one up with two fingers (but not your thumb) and feed it to your neighbor.
  • A long, skinny pepper filled with marzipan and dipped in olive oil.  Eat one to show that you would like to leave.  (I don't want to eat one of these).
  • A ring-shaped folded pasta (like tortellini, I suppose) with a creamy, tea-flavored filling, and sprinkled with poppyseeds.  The dish is placed near you, but you ask your host to serve them to you, then you dip them in your tea.
  • A crispy pastry shaped like a hockey puck, with a walnut inside.  Eaten with your fingers as the main course of the meal.

Roll up an elven delicacy of your own:


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I wouldn't go there if I were you

Every settlement has something wrong with it, some reason why people would rather stay away.  It might not be enough to keep the town completely isolated (if they find gold, people show up no matter how bad it is) but every inhabited place would be better off if something were different.

Poor Village, Ast Ralf

Choose two reasons why folks stay away from this place.  The first reason has led to the second, in some fashion.  (Feel free to tone these down or ramp them up as needed.)

Why do folks stay away? (d10)
1under threat of attack
2hard to get to, difficult terrain
3dirt poor, nothing to offer
4history of disease
5violent and aggressive towards outsiders
6swindlers and thieves prey on travelers
7crop/mine/fishing has nearly run out
8strange cult-like devotion
9bad/dangerous things live around here
10inwardly-focused, no care for the outside world

Joseph Smith, CCA Christensen

Decide who (or what) folks are most afraid of around here.  This might not be their enemy, just someone whose power they fear.

Who/what do they fear most? (d20)
1-5their rivals or competitors
6-7the authorities, government, or the warlord who rules over these parts
8-9a poorly-understood group of people on the other side of a river/mountain/swamp
10far-off invaders rumored to exist
11each other
12-13starvation, running out of necessities
14-15creatures that may or may not exist
16-17the days to come, according to their understanding
18-20whatever their neighbors/allies fear

The Battle of Sitka, Louis Glanzman

Let's try rolling up a few.

First we have a human town, some corn farmers who live in a valley.  They've been attacked many times, so they've become violent and aggressive towards outsiders.  They (along with the other humans in the area) are afraid of creatures rumored to exist in the surrounding woods.

Next is an elven mining settlement.  This place has a history of unexplained disease, which has led the people to turn to a strange religious movement.  Their cult-like devotion and rituals are strange enough that people don't like coming here anymore.  They're afraid of their competitors in the mining business, who would probably use underhanded tactics to drive them out.

Now let's look at a scattered group of giants who gather once a year.  They're very poor, desperately eking out an existence in the high country.  As a result, they never have anything to trade, and have become inwardly-focused, not interested in the goings-on of the larger world.  Starvation is a constant source of fear.

Here's a family group of goblins living in the deep woods.  They're very inwardly-focused, refusing to interact with anyone else.  As a result, they've ended up without medicines goblins normally get in trade, so they're always suffering from ailments.  As suspicious as they are of outsiders, they're even more afraid of each other, constantly on the watch for treachery and attempts to seize power by their kin.

Lastly, let's consider one of the surviving elven cities.  They're known as a den of thieves, a place you should never go if you value your coin more than your life.  Pirates sail from their harbor and raid up and down the coast.  As a result, they're always picking up plagues and diseases from one port or another.  They're afraid of creatures that come out of the sea and drown sailors.  These creatures may not exist, but they certainly believe in them.

Roll up some trouble for your own settlement:

stay away from trouble
first problem
which has led to
what they fear most

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wilderness rules, a wishlist

I'm looking for a good set of wilderness travel rules.  The setting of Signs in the Wilderness is a wide, poorly-explored country, where settlements are rare and scattered.  Travel itself is the framework for adventure.

William Manly, Andy Thomas

So far I've been using homebrew, hacked-up versions of other games' rules.  For many years my usual group had some mix of AD&D 1e/2e rules, using whatever seemed to work well enough.  For the last game I ran, we used a homebrew set of PbtA-style moves for overland journeys, and it worked surprisingly well.  (Some rulesets, like the one from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival, I would be less likely to recommend.)

So what would a perfect set of wilderness travel rules look like?  They would:
  1. cover the most typical situations for this genre of adventure,
  2. yet be flexible or general enough to apply to unexpected situations as needed,
  3. and not take too much time, brainpower, or paper.
Tough Decision, Jim Killen

There's a long list of situations that I'd love to see covered.  I imagine a ruleset that handles all of them would turn out to be far too cumbersome, with page after page of tables, endless die rolls and modifiers, and no one would really know the rules that well.  But if I could have it my way, the rules would be great for:

Travel itself

Start with a day's travel:
  • How far do you get?
  • Do you get lost?
  • Do you get hurt/cold/sick/exhausted?  Does your morale drop?
  • How much food/water do you consume?
For each of those, a few conditions should matter:
  • How are you traveling (on foot, by canoe, etc.)?
  • What kind of terrain are you traveling through?
  • What's the weather like?  (Getting lost in fog, drinking lots of water in the hot sun, etc.)
  • How much are you carrying?
  • How sick/injured are you?

Dealing with obstacles

I'd like rules for obstacles to be general purpose, but there's one particular obstacle that seems to show up all the time in this genre: crossing a creek.  It presents a few particular dangers:
  • getting your powder wet
  • losing your gear and having to search downstream
  • being swept away yourself to be buffeted against rocks
  • getting soaked from head to toe in winter and dying of cold
I'd like to see the party struggle with the decision to cross now, as quickly as they can, or spend hours searching for a safer place to cross while losing valuable time.

There are other kinds of obstacles (portaging canoes, climbing a cliff, spelunking) so I'd enjoy seeing a general rule for crossing an obstacle to movement, but at the same time I appreciate having some of the consequences of danger spelled out for the GM.

Doing things along the way 

  • foraging for food/water
  • noticing things along the way: animal activity, smoke from distant campfires 
  • tracking, following a trail of footprints and other signs
  • trying to cover your own tracks as you go
  • setting an ambush, lying in wait
  • noticing an ambush before it's sprung on you
Again, terrain and weather matter.  It's easy to follow footprints in the snow, but if it starts snowing again they'll be covered up quickly.

Making camp

  • rest, recovering health/morale, based on how good the camp conditions are
  • who/what notices your encampment, based on how well concealed it is, fire, noise, etc.
  • keeping watch, looking out for danger at night

Lewis and Clark, Mort Kunstler

Some of what I'm looking for is rules: concrete ways to decide what happens, to give the hard decisions to the dice and the tables, not the GM.

The other part I'm looking for is inspiration: ideas and suggestions to help describe this genre of adventure.  When running a game, a list of possible results is often handy, not as a way to constrain what the GM does, but as suggestions and inspiration.