Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Weather for wilderness travelers

Weather makes for hard choices.  Do we push onwards into the icy rain, or do we spend the night in this barn?  Do we risk driving the livestock in the blazing heat, or do we stay here and fight the sharp-tooth raiders?

Because it's so ordinary, and because it's often not dangerous at all, it's easy to overlook.  (I know I've run games where weather never really mattered.)  But if used well, weather can make for a very interesting challenge.

A few tips:
  • Mention the weather every day.
  • Don't change the weather just to mess with the party.
  • Show what bad weather can do to someone else first.


The obvious danger is cold itself: frostbite and hypothermia do plenty of damage, but a well-equipped adventuring party surely remembered to bring warm clothing.
Washington at Valley Forge.

Hiking in the cold, you'll find your body requires more food than you expected, just to keep itself warm.  Antarctic explorers tended to eat two or three times as much food in the cold.  At a certain point, the body just can't absorb calories fast enough, no matter how much you eat.  You can starve to death walking long distances in the cold, even while you're well fed.

And speaking of food, there isn't much to eat in the winter.  Animals tend to hide, hibernate, or simply die off from the weather, and plants aren't putting out too many tasty fruits and shoots in the cold.  Water is a problem too, freezing in your canteen before you can drink it.
(Ted Slampyak)

You need rest to recover your strength, but in the cold it's more complicated.  On a warm summer's evening you might just toss your hammock over a branch and get a good night's sleep.  When it's bitterly cold out, rest requires warmth.  Just making a fire out in the open probably won't do; you need a tent or a shelter of some kind, something to keep out the wind and keep in the heat.

Lakes and rivers can freeze over, which is very useful for travel, but only if the ice is thick enough.  Fall in, and you'll need to get dry and warm now if you want to stay alive.  And that's assuming you can come back up through the same hole in the ice you fell in...


Beyond the dangers of cold, snow presents its own challenges.  If it's sunny while there's snow on the ground, the dazzling white can burn your eyes, resulting in snow blindness.

Snow makes footprints easy to see, but if it's still snowing, those footprints will be covered up quickly, along with that medallion you dropped and the trail you're searching for.

Driving snow makes it easy to get lost.  People aren't good at walking in a straight line without landmarks.  A blizzard takes away your sense of direction, leaving you to wander aimlessly and die in the cold, possibly not far from a safe shelter you just couldn't see.

Avalanches are a problem in steep, snowy areas.  Too much movement or even noise could trigger an avalanche, pummeling everything in its path and burying the survivors deep in snow.


The wetter it is, the more likely everyone is to get drenched, along with all their inventory.  Wet gunpowder is no good to anyone.  Waterproof containers exist for a reason.

To get a good night's sleep, you'll need to dry off.  Shelter from the rain, some warmth, and a change of clothes should do the trick.

Footprints are easy to track in mud, but mud is hard to walk in, sucking the boots right off your feet.  Hard ground is less muddy, but you're more likely to slip and fall.

A hard rain can cause streams to rise and overflow their banks, washing out trails and bridges.

Caves, mines, and narrow ravines can quickly flood, leaving you to drown or be trapped by the rising waters.  Flash floods can travel faster than you can run.



Thick fog is ominous for a reason: you can't see what's out there and you can't hear as well, sounds being deadened by the fog.

Creatures that can see into the infrared (heat vision) can see through fog fairly easily, so while you might think you're alone, something might be stalking you just out of sight.


(Dean Sewell)

Heatstroke is a common killer.  Your body can only get so hot before it shuts down, and physical exertion pushes you towards that limit.  You'll need to drink plenty of water in the heat, too: often twice as much as usual.

Hot weather is when mosquitos like to come out, biting and carrying disease.  It's also when wildfires tend to start, roaring through grasslands and forests.  Large parts of the world burn every summer.


It can start fires, but it can also kill you more directly.  Many people struck by lightning survive, but with serious burns, neurological problems, and weird mental changes that we don't fully understand (and hopefully won't be testing in the lab).

(Drew Angerer)

Lightning typically occurs during rainy thunderstorms, but it can be found with snow, dust storms, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions.  It usually (though not always) strikes tall things, so don't be the tallest thing around in a thunderstorm, and don't hide under a tall tree, either.

Wind, tornadoes, hurricanes, and hail

Typical winds aren't usually a problem (though they matter a great deal when you're at sea) but higher winds start to knock people over and blow things around.  But it's not just that the wind is blowing, it's what the wind is blowing.  Flying debris in a storm can...well, there's nothing quite like a fencepost through your abdomen to ruin your day.

(Cameron Nixon)

Tornadoes tend to be violent and wandering, but limited in area.  Hurricanes build up over a day or two, and they come with rain, wind, and plenty of flooding.

Hail isn't much of a problem as long as the hailstones are small enough.  Once the weatherman starts talking about "grapefruit-sized hail" you'd better get down in the storm cellar.

Bad weather isn't just a problem for the party; it's a problem for everyone else, too.  No one wants to come out and fix your wagon or buy your wares in a blizzard.  Armies don't want to march when it's too hot or too cold.  Just about everyone hunkers down for the winter.

This post is long enough, so I'll write about the random weather tools I've been working on another day.  I'll end with a question:

How would bad weather have affected the last roleplaying session you were in?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Languages and roleplaying

Fantasy languages are a strange problem.  It's fun for them to exist, but much less fun to use them at the table.  Somewhere in that pile of languages is an interesting story waiting to emerge: an important trade deal or secret diplomatic message depends on it.

Trade between civilizations.  (by the "artist of the chief mourner" 1769)

So how are you supposed to handle all these languages?  Realistically, every tribe and kingdom is likely to end up with a language or two.  But unless you're playing a game about linguist adventurers (please make that game) there's just no room for all that.

830+ languages on an island the size of Texas + Louisiana.  (Wikipedia user kwami)

Here's the way I handle it:
  1. If you don't have a language in common with someone, you can point and gesture but you can't communicate beyond that.
  2. Important languages are used widely for trade, so if you speak one of those, you'll probably be fine.
  3. Foreign things have made-up language names.  Your people's kind of things have English names.
For the setting of Signs in the Wilderness, there are only two languages you really need to know, the big Common tongues of the world:
  • Elven pidgin, simplified from the elves' native speech.  It's the language elves use when speaking to their animals, so they naturally extended it to the "speaking beasts" found in the Northern Lands.
  • The language of the Isquentaga, a powerful human confederacy.  Their language is spoken widely for trade and diplomacy from the sea to the high mountains.
Any adventurer should already know one, if not both, of these widely-known languages.  Most people speak a few local languages as well, so if you're from, say, the Black River giants, you speak your native tongue, probably the language of the nearby humans, and likely one or both of the widespread languages above.

Giants have been very receptive to missionary efforts to spread the elven religion, so many of them have learned to speak the language of the elves, at least for liturgical purposes.  Humans often learn the language of nearby giants for trade.

No one speaks any goblin languages, except the goblins themselves.  Goblins are very good at imitating sounds, so it's far easier for them to learn to pronounce your language than for you to learn to pronounce theirs.  At the game table, goblins never have an accent.

Using invented names

If you really want different cultures' names to sound different, you can make up the barest minimum of a fictional language: a set of names that all use the same kinds of sounds.  (If anyone's interested, I could give a tutorial on doing this quickly.)

But be careful how often you use them.

If the players are leaving the town of Borgoch headed for Maldol via the Torbart road so they can get to Gomgul, you might as well not name anything.  The strategy I've ended up with is to use invented names for:
  • major foreign places: "A ship from Tara Nun arrived just this morning."
  • whole countries: "The king of Cambramor would like to see you."
  • personal names: "The fisherman's name is Yanako, and he's delighted to meet you."
  • modifiers on wholly invented things: "She carefully mashes the yendelin flower into a paste."
Otherwise, use English names as much as you can (or whatever language you speak at the table):
  • "Crossing the White Mountains you find the weather starting to turn stormy."
  • "This letter needs to get to a town called High Post, up the valley about three days' walk."
  • "The Salty Sturgeon set sail two weeks ago and hasn't been heard from since."
News from home.  (George Baxter)

Invented names feel strange, foreign, impenetrable, but also intriguing and flavorful if used sparingly.  Given enough of them, they all start to sound the same.  English words (or whatever) can be transparent and familiar, but sometimes also dull and ordinary.

This can be used to your advantage.  A place called Quentahog sounds strange, but interesting.  That same place called Council Rock is easier to understand: more meaningful but less flavorful.  If the party is from the local culture, I'll call it Council Rock.  If they're foreigners from another land, I might call it Quentahog (if there aren't too many invented names already).

And don't be surprised when the players make fun of a name you made up.  It's pretty much inevitable, no matter how reasonable-sounding you think your names are.  Don't take it too seriously.  (This is just a game, after all.)

Inventing languages

I've made up some lists of names to give a bit of flavor to cultures.  The players never need to know what these names mean, they're just there to make different kinds of names sound different.

  • Elven names tend to have lots of s/t/a/th, sharp names like talassa, karetikes, athala, variki.
  • Coastal human names tend to have lots of k/q/w/sk, names like: quowak, misinikeg, waskakowet.
  • Local giantish names tend to be rolling and rumbly and use your vocal cords: umburugul, aranda-mago, omorgu.
  • Eastern goblin names are nearly unpronounceable to outsiders, so they never come up.

You should stop once you've got a list of names.  Seriously, stop.  Don't invent more language than you have to.  None of the players will care and you won't be able to speak it with anyone.


If you really can't help yourself...
Note that this is chapter five.  Turn back before it's too late.

If you really must make up a whole language, have fun with it!  I think it's loads of fun, playing with different grammatical structures and phonological constraints and sound changes.  And no matter how far you go, you can always go further.  I've worked out how Imperial Elven descends from an earlier Old Elven language, but I haven't gone any further than that.  And just think of all the related elven tongues that might still exist in some far-flung colony of the empire.

Just remember not to foist it all on your poor players.  They have enough to remember as it is, discovering and inventing the story.  Having to pick up a new language on top of it is far too much.  (Unless you get a player who's weird like me...)

As the humans would say:

Ha ye chaskapa agakens.
Do not outdo yourself in speaking.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Seven Towns of Blind Lake

There's a place out in the backcountry called Blind Lake.  It's mostly woods and lakes around there, maple and beech trees with broad branches and a canopy of leaves that turn orange and red each fall.  The whole area is full of little ponds and lazy, meandering streams that flow into the lake, with a large, slow-moving river that flows out to the east.  Beavers have dammed up many of the streams, forming even more ponds; good places for fishing.

Forest (d20)signs
1-5hawkscircling overhead, screeching call in the distance
6-9humansthin columns of smoke, footpaths, distant sounds of talking, barking dogs
10-12goblinsbones that have been chewed on, a baby's cry in the forest
13-15beaversdammed-up creeks, gnawed stumps and trunks, sound of slapping the water
16-17black bearwide tracks with claw marks in mud, scraped and clawed trees
18-19elvesfootprints, discarded paper, music/singing, gunfire, trampled ground of campsites
20(d6) 1-3: skunk, 4-5: crows, 6: turtles

(Diego Delso)

(Ilu Tepui, by Lazsp)
Towering over the landscape are these high, rocky buttes, like islands up in the sky.  They say the tops of them are desolate and rotting, full of mosquitos, so nobody ever climbs up there.  A few thin waterfalls stream down from each butte to the forest below.

Buttes (d20)signs
1-5mosquitosclouds of tiny buzzing insects that bite
6-9turtlessunning themselves on rocks, disturbed soil where eggs are buried
10-12mountain lionmedium-sized tracks with four round toes, carcasses of other animals
13-15garter snakeblack snake with thin yellow stripes
16-17beaversdammed-up creeks, gnawed stumps and trunks, sound of slapping the water
18-19cardinalrepetitive birdsong, bright red bird
20(d6) 1-3: humans, 4-5: goblins, 6: wild geese

The humans have seven towns in the area, all on or near Blind Lake itself.  Further from the lake, goblins are the most common people.  A single elven lumber camp is on the river just downstream from the lake.  The rest of the area is uninhabited wilderness.

The Humans of the Seven Towns

This is a new tribe of humans, formed by the merger of two closely-related groups of survivors after the apocalypse.  The elders are ashamed of what they did to survive through the starving time.
(Warren Moorehead)

The seven towns are built on earthen mounds, both for defense and to avoid flooding.  A wooden palisade surrounds each town.  People live in wooden longhouses, growing beans and raising turkeys.  Rafts are used to get around the area.

People of the seven towns wear beaver-pelt hats in the winter and long woven grass capes.  They make pottery, hammered copper ornaments, and they do geometric carvings on their houses.

A single chief or king rules the tribe, taking food as tribute and demanding warriors for military expeditions.  In war, they tend to burn down enemy towns and take captives as slaves to do menial work.

Men's work is considered to be raising turkeys, working copper ornaments, and settling disputes.  Women's work: growing beans, deciding when/where towns move, and handling death rituals.

The Elves of the Logging Camp

It's a fairly new place, founded only a few years ago by a partnership of three investors who live in the camp.  Elves from the city come here to make some money cutting down trees, sawing them into boards, and sending the lumber downriver on rafts.

The settlement is called Shanakävthe "Sleeping Bear Camp" in the language of the elves.  (For those of you who prefer IPA: /ʃanakævθe/.)

Flooding is a perennial problem.  The roads through the settlement are often just mud, and every building has a high water stain on it.

(Osmond David Putnam)

Everyone at Shanakävthe sleeps in the dormitory.  The elves keep the place smelling like frankincense.

Last year, something went wrong during a trade deal with the humans, and now both sides refuse to talk to each other.

The three partners are deeply divided about the future of their venture.
  • The first is afraid of the humans, but desperately clinging to her vision of the lumber company she founded.
  • The second is older and disheartened, wanting to sell off his share in the company and return to his home city.  He used to be a friend of the king of the humans, but they haven't spoken since falling out last year.
  • The third is a young protege of the first; she's nervous, worried about the settlement's future.

The King's Town

The king of the local humans lives at the town of Pahakok "Boulder Point" (/pahakok/ in IPA).  If you come near and look like trouble, they'll send a party out to chase you away with a loud and ferocious show of arms before you even see the town.

If you have a reason to be let into the town, you'll see that they have eight longhouses here, with about 140 people living in Pahakok.  Things people are doing when you arrive: cleaning a musket, airing out bedding, cooking fish over a fire.  The dogs of this town look strong enough to tear you limb from limb.

(Carel Fabritius)

The king is a troubled man who's faced a hard road so far and expects more of the same.  He feels guilty over how he mistreated his wife, who has since left him with their young daughter and returned to her home town.  He secretly sends gifts to his daughter.

The king has no close friends or advisors left, only subjects.  He's unsettled, unwilling to commit to any long-term plans.

One of the towns (where his wife and daughter live) has recently resumed trading with the elves, in defiance of the king.  They sent the king a prized necklace as a way of apologizing, but they haven't actually stopped trading.  He's trying to decide what to do next about this.


A lone elven missionary lives in Pahakok as a guest of the king.  She preaches about elven ideas of propriety and veneration of the ancestors.  People question why the king hasn't kicked her out yet.

The humans of this tribe are mostly following new teachings that guarantee prosperity and the end of hunger.  Practitioners paint little pictures of predators and animals that eat crops, then hang them up in large numbers to keep those animals away.  People sometimes go alone to the lake and toss in a handful of dry beans, believing it will bring them help.

There's an old holy site a few miles from the lake, but very few people still follow the old ways, doing so in secret. The site is a large flat rock with a small wooden building on top.  Inside is a carved wooden statue of an ancient king.  Initiates in the old ways secretly still come here to atone for their sins.

The future of the Blind Lake country is unclear.  A few local conflicts are going on, but big news should shake everything up.

What news would throw this region into turmoil?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Random book

All manner of useful books can be found in the ruins or in private libraries.  Use the tables below to generate a random one:


Roll to see why this book is useful:

Topic (d4)usefulnesstitle structure
1technical manualhow to build/operate inventions (d8)
1: alchemy (gunpowder, medicines, poisons),
2: gunnery (pistols, muskets, rifles, cannons),
3: steam engines (moving minecarts, paddlewheel boats, pumping air/water),
4: shipbuilding (ships, boats, primitive wooden submarines),
5: mechanical systems (gears, belts, pulleys, pistons),
6: flight (kites, hot air / hydrogen balloons, parachutes),
7: music (melodies, complex instruments),
8: ciphers (encryption, codebreaking)
(d6) 1: The Mechanical Codex,
2: A Dictionary of the Art of Flight,
3: Gunnery: or, a Treatise of the Art of Fire-Arms,
4: The Construction and Principal Uses of Steam Engines,
5: The Alchemical Triumph,
6: A Dissertation on Shipbuilding
2scientific workscience to help you find/use natural things (d6)
1: geology (valuable minerals, caves),
2: botany (plants, herbs, poisons),
3: zoology (strange and dangerous creatures),
4: astronomy (eclipses, comets),
5: anthropology, in a broad sense (customs of other species),
6: physiology (surgery, first aid, wounds)
(d8) 1: Experiments and Observations on Geology,
2: On the System or Theory of Astronomy,
3: A Universal Dictionary of Zoology,
4: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Anthropology,
5: The Doctrine of Lunar Eclipses,
6: The New Science of Physiology,
7: Elements of the Theory of Botany,
8: Mysteries of Entomology
3journallearn from experience about one or two of these (d6)
1: a difficult river journey,
2: navigating along a coastline / island chain,
3: an overland wilderness route,
4: a human/giantish group,
5: barely surviving a dangerous wilderness,
6: hunting strange creatures
(d8) 1: A Short Narrative of the Voyage of the Dragonfly,
2: An Account of the White River Expedition,
3: A Voyage to the Black Sea,
4: A Tour through the Whole of Seal-Eater Country,
5: Voyages and Travels,
6: Description of the Blue Mountains,
7: Journey from Tara Nun to the High Gate,
8: The Travels of Lt. Shima Avalath in the Eastern Isles
4miscellaneous(d6) 1: official history,
2: prophecies and predictions,
3: journal of personal observations and secrets,
4: accounting books showing bribes and money laundering,
5: schedule of shipping/deliveries,
6: information about famous people
History of the Shining Spire,
Meditations upon Things to Come,
Analects of the City of Copper,
The Judgement of the Empire,
An Account of the Lives and Works of the Most Eminent Silversmiths,
A General History of Notorious Pyrates,
The True Speaker's Almanack,
The Beginning and Progress of the Western War,
The True History of the Conquest of the Summer Isles,


Roll up to three times for Details about the state of this book:

Details (d6)
1many woodcut illustrations
2condition (d4)
1: surprisingly pristine, with crisp pages,
2: poorly printed from bad type, some letters and whole pages being hard to read,
3: worn, with dog-eared pages,
4: falling apart
3missing pages/chapters
4something tucked into the pages (d6)
1: a hand-drawn map,
2: a dry leaf/flower,
3: an important folded-up page from another book (roll for Topic),
4: a letter to the previous owner warning of danger,
5: paper money or a note entitling the bearer to some reward,
6: a sketch of an important person/scene/event
5unusual size (d8)
1-2: large, about a foot and a half across (46 cm),
3: very large, about two feet across (61 cm),
4: easily a thousand pages thick,
5-6: a thin folio of only a dozen pages or so,
7-8: small, about 4 inches across (10 cm)
6handwritten notes in the margins (d6)
1: corrections from a later scientist/explorer/etc.,
2: secret details not included in the main text,
3: hints of further, hidden information,
4: warnings not to pursue some danger,
5: unhinged philosophical ramblings,
6: roll again, but the notes are encrypted

Let's try rolling up a few:
  • A handwritten journal of personal observations and secrets, so worn that it's practically just a sheaf of loose papers in an old leather cover.  Notes are written in the margins (in different handwriting) rebutting and contradicting the main text.
  • The Construction and Principal Uses of Balloons, a dry text on small balloons and the sorts of meteorological experminents one can use them for.  Handwritten notes on some of the pages seem to be from the author, talking about their experiments with larger balloons that can carry people, but most of the notes refer to their logbook, elsewhere.  There's a strange note tucked in the pages, recognizing that the bearer has deposited twelve silver dollars with the Temple of the Tasselled Drum.

Inspirational music

Here's some music I find inspirational for Signs in the Wilderness:

Music (d10)artistmood/idea
1Game of Thrones themePatty Gurdyadventurous hurdy-gurdy
2A Kazakh MelodyAbigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartetpeaceful farmers in a bountiful country
3Wondrous LoveBear McCrearyheartfelt evening hymn
4Två KonungabarnMyrkurmournful fiddle in an unknown land
5Nassau ShoresBear McCrearypirates putting in to harbor
6II. Largo from Vivaldi's "Winter"Yo-Yo Mahopeful journey
7Vive Le Regiment SaintongeMiddlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums1700s military march
8Leaving EdenCarolina Chocolate Dropshope in rough days
9Strange ThingsAbigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quarteteerie modern folk song
10Black Powder Is HereKevin Kinerready for a fight

Falls on the Genesee.  (u/ilikecheetos42)

Music helps establish the mood of an adventure, letting you feel the world start to take shape around you.  I've never actually used music during a game, but it's been helpful beforehand to get everyone together.

What music inspires you for writing or playing an RPG?

Killing and eating people, with a bit of trade on the side

Goblins, giants, and humans have lived alongside each other for tens of thousands of years.  Dealing with each other isn't just something they talk about; it's part of their deep culture, the stories and practices passed on for generations without anyone knowing why.  Whole civilizations have evolved and fallen in this multi-species environment.  These species have learned how to truly coexist: not to live in peace, but to simply survive in the face of such competition.

Humans and Goblins

Humans and goblins are direct competitors.  They both hunt for the same game and live in similar environments.  If they're living near each other, someone's getting hurt.
(New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team)

It starts with threats: humans shout and bare their teeth, the goblins whistle and imitate human voices, both sides continuing until one backs down.  Usually someone does, moving their families to better grounds, away from the threat.  Humans are good at looking scary, so goblins are usually the first to leave.

But if both sides are desperate or angry enough, it escalates.  Goblins steal and eat the humans' dogs, the humans set fire to the forest where the goblins live, the goblins murder some humans, the humans murder some goblins, and eventually only one side is left in the area, chewing on the remains of the other.
(World Rainforest Movement)

Natural boundaries help stabilize the relationship; good rivers make good neighbors.  With hissing goblins on one side and shouting humans on the other, neither side will risk a crossing.

Some areas are only suited well for one or the other.  Humans don't usually live in the deepest forest where goblins like to dwell high in the trees.  Goblins don't often cross expanses of water (since they don't swim well and don't build boats) so islands off shore are usually occupied by humans.
(Steve Rawlings)

Thousands of years of learning have led to some natural aversion.  Goblins don't like dogs.  Even if they don't know why, it still keeps them from danger.  Humans have learned to be wary of noises in the woods.  The sound of a baby crying or someone calling for help is probably a trick, made by creatures that can imitate sounds to lure in prey.

Goblins and Giants

Goblins and giants aren't in quite as direct of competition.  Goblins hunt for fresh meat; giants like theirs a bit old.  Goblins ambush prey in woods where they can hide; giants set their traps in open lanes where animals travel.

Being nomadic, giants tend to have a wider range of people they trade with, making them natural merchants.  Goblins want things they can't make themselves, like ropes, bags, and ornaments, and they can offer dead animals in return.  Trade is common between these two species.

Giantish traps, however, have caused something of an evolutionary arms race.  After all these millenia, goblins have learned two things:
  1. Traps are dangerous.
  2. Traps may contain food.
Goblins that can steal meat from traps without getting caught themselves are more likely to survive in lean times, so their trap-defeating knowledge is likely to spread.  But giants who construct traps that goblins can't steal from will be more likely to have food for themselves, so their trap-constructing knowledge is likely to spread.

Giants and Humans

Long ago (or so they say) humans used to hunt giants, skinning and eating them.  The giants swore they would get their revenge, but the humans forgot the threats and kept hunting.  Then one day, the surviving giants came down from the hills and wiped out whole tribes of humans, killing until no humans would dare hunt them again.  Now the two peoples live in peace.

Whether the story is true or not, it illustrates an important point: peace is a safe strategy between humans and giants.  If a giant kills a human, the humans could hunt down the giant, but then the giant's descendants might come back decades later to avenge their ancestor.  Humans are good at making strong, temporary teams.  Giants are good at remembering and holding a grudge.
Where are all the men?  (The Godfather)

The safest way is peace with a bit of forgiveness.  Giants and humans both have a healthy respect for each other, tinged with fear.  Humans tell their children stories about the fearsome yet wise people who dwell in the highlands.  Giants tell of the fearsome yet brave people down in the valley.  Both come together to trade.

There's another solution to these interactions: wars of extermination.  In some parts of the North, humans and giants fell into a cycle of vendettas that could only be broken with overwhelming force.  There are isolated pockets of humans in the wilderness who have learned to kill any giants who come near and have done so for generations.  Likewise, there are giants out there who have learned to kill humans who drift into their land.

Overall, everyone has learned to be a little wary when dealing with people of other species.  After so many long generations side by side, everyone has learned to tread softly but carry a big stick.

Then about a hundred years ago, the elves showed up, with no experience dealing with other intelligent species.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Wilderness dungeons

Dungeon crawls don't have to be underground: zoom out a bit and the wilderness itself makes for great old-school crawl adventures.
(William McAusland)

These kind of adventures have been around since the very beginning of roleplaying games, and they've remained popular in all the decades since.  Dungeons usually work like this:
  1. Go into a twisty network of rooms and passages, all alike.
  2. Avoid/solve traps and other obstacles to movement.
  3. Fight monsters.
  4. Get loot.

It's a simple structure, which is both good and bad.  You probably don't want to ask too many questions (like what these monsters eat when they can't get adventurer).  But the simple format offers several clear types of fun:
  1. Mapping and exploring an unknown place.
  2. Thinking of clever ways to solve an obstacle.
  3. Struggling against a killable adversary when death is on the line.
  4. Being rewarded for your efforts.
If these sound like fun to you, try a dungeon crawl!  But even within that format, people enjoy different kinds of fun.  You might like the mapping and exploring part more than anything else.  Maybe you'd rather spend hours looking for a clever solution to a puzzle.  Maybe you're all about a good fight.  And though it might surprise you, not everyone cares about getting a reward for besting their enemies.

(Josh Burnett)

Dungeon crawls also constrain the adventure, providing both structure and challenge:
  • The network of rooms and passages limits the paths you can take.
  • A traditional dungeon crawler provides a gradient of difficulty, with the easier monsters at the start and the scariest ones at the end.
  • Being underground in a dangerous makes limited resources a challenge of its own.

(Jim Holloway)


A good wilderness looks a lot like a good dungeon, but not at the ten-foot scale.  You have to zoom out a bit, both in time and space.

(Charles Jefferys)

Recapping from earlier, a good dungeon crawl provides constraints:
  • limited paths
  • gradient of difficulty
  • limited resources
The last of these is easy: traveling through the wilderness uses up limited resources, whether it's rations you're eating or bandages you're using up.

A gradient of difficulty appears in the wilderness not because of the wilderness itself, but because of civilization.  Wandering in the woods near the big city you won't find any wolves, not because the wilderness couldn't support them, but because the city just won't allow it.  Civilizations tend to kill off threats over time.  Saber-toothed tigers don't exist in North America today because when we arrived in the continent we killed all of them.  So the most dangerous beasts tend to survive only out in the distance, far from people who would wipe them out.  Wandering deeper and deeper into the mountains you find strange creatures.

Close up, the forest doesn't seem to have limited paths.  The woods outside my house look much the same in every direction: a bit of undergrowth, trees set reasonably far apart.  You could walk any way you like.  But zoom out and the forest starts to have structure.  To the north there's a deep river canyon.  To the south there's a ridge and a bluff.  When you consider a mile at a time, there are only a few ways to travel that make any sense.

(Thomas Cole)

These criteria do seem to single out certain kinds of wilderness.  Mountains, swamps, and rivers make for good constraints on your movement.  Open plains tend more toward extended chase scenes than dungeon-style adventures.

Recapping again, dungeons provide several kinds of fun:
  1. Mapping and exploring an unknown place.
  2. Thinking of clever ways to solve an obstacle.
  3. Struggling against a killable adversary when death is on the line.
  4. Being rewarded for your efforts.
Let's see how we could find these in the wilderness:
  1. Mapping and exploring?  Plenty of that in an unknown wilderness.  Toss the party a few rumors and the journal from a previous expedition and watch the exploration begin.
  2. Obstacles are everywhere: rushing rivers, leech-filled swamps, avalanches, pit traps, high cliffs, etc.  Each one presents a particular danger and can be solved/traversed/avoided in various ways.
  3. Plenty of killable adversaries in the wilderness.  Just about anything that can live in a dungeon can live outdoors as well.  In fact, setting your dungeon crawl in the wilderness avoids many of the problematic questions.  We know what the goblins are eating in the woods just look at the animal bones.
  4. Understandable enemies make for understandable rewards.  If the ogres live here, they might ambush caravans there, so it makes sense for them to have loads of silk that they intend to trade with the giants.
Jedediah Smith about to be severely injured.

Not that any of this is new, of course.  Wilderness adventures have been around since the early days of roleplaying too.  But for me, it's been very helpful to think of how the wilderness can look much like an old-school dungeon crawl, putting a familiar place in a new light.

So what sort of dungeon crawl would you like to see run as a wilderness adventure?