Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dead-Faces; or, how legendary Creatures drive adventure

Tall, shadowy figures that peer out of the woods at night, snatch up children, and stamp out fires.  Just a local legend or a real danger of the North?

(Michael Morris, Watcher of the Forest)

Dead-Faces (or yagira-skot) are one of the many rumored creatures of the Northern Lands.  In any given campaign, they might exist or they might not.  Spread rumors, but keep the truth lurking just out of sight.

Semi-legendary creatures like these are good for a number of reasons.
  • journey
  • discovery
  • danger
  • superstition


Signs in the Wilderness is about a great wilderness to explore, a poorly-charted land to travel through.  But to make travel feel meaningful, different lands have to actually feel different.  Local legends like the Loch Ness monster or the Jersey devil are particular to their own regions.  If this country here is said to be safe for travel, yet that country there has eyes in the woods, here and there are two very different places.

The Dead-Faces are only said to exist in the oak forests in the country west of the Flint Hills.  It's a region of winding creeks and plenty of deer, a good place for hunting and traveling.  The humans and goblins of the region believe in Dead-Faces and are careful not to cross them.

Down by the coast, the elves have recorded hundreds of rumors from the people indigenous to the North, but they don't believe most of them.  The elves are sure that these creatures are just a story made up to frighten children and foolish travelers.

(Romi Volentino, Forest Ghost)


Legendary creatures can also lead to the thrill of discovery, if you manage to find them.  The moment the party first finds proof that these creatures exist, they've been granted entry into a sanctum of secret knowledge, becoming more accomplished explorers, more knowledgable of the world they dwell in.  Discovery is one of the many kinds of fun roleplaying games can provide.

They say the Dead-Faces are tall beings that sway in the wind, like robes draped over branches.  They might be twenty feet tall, or they might be fifty (6-15 m).  Their faces are blank and uniform, save for their sparkling eyes.  Everyone agrees that you never see one of the Faces at a time, but that they huddle in groups, peering out of the trees.  Then again, you never seem to find anyone who's actually seen them, but everybody seems to know someone who knows someone who has.

Dead-Faces leave footprints that are perfectly round and quite small, like the end of a staff pressed into the soil.  They never speak to people, but they can sometimes be heard whispering to each other in the night.

(Lautrec Winifred, Enoch)


The threat of danger, of course, is great at driving adventure.  To make these legendary creatures truly matter, they're going to need to affect the party, and threatening their safety is a direct way to do that.

Dead-Faces don't like noise and light, so if you think they're nearby, you should quietly put out your fire and head the other way.  People stay away from places they believe to be inhabited by them, leaving out gifts of pine nuts and acorn flour to appease them.

When people talk about how dangerous the Dead-Faces are, they don't talk of immediate danger.  Fire at the Dead-Faces and they quickly slink away into the night, vanishing somewhere in the shadows.  But their vengeance is certain (or so they say), coming when you're not watching to poison your food and watch quietly from the woods as your village starves to death.  Children and livestock alike disappear into the woods when the Dead-Faces' anger has been aroused.

(Reddit u/Carlen67)


In many fantasy games, the players can look up all the monsters in the book and find out exactly what they're like.  And there's no question as to whether they exist — when you hear about orcs causing trouble in the hills, you don't ask yourself if orcs are even real.

That's a fine way to play, but sometimes I'm looking for a bit more mystery in the world.  Semi-legendary creatures might exist, but they might not.  Rumors and legends certainly abound, just like in our own world, of creatures that probably aren't real.  But if these creatures might actually be real, it's prudent to listen to the warnings and protect yourself the way the locals do.

The result is a bunch of superstitious PCs, tossing salt over their shoulder and closing umbrellas indoors, because even though the players know each rumor has a good chance of being false, it's better to be safe than sorry.

If the people around here tell stories of the Dead-Faces, roll for two rumors on the table below.  The first is the truth.  The second is a grave misunderstanding that's only partly true.

Rumors (d20)
1Their appearance is a sign of hungry days ahead. They're mostly seen after the last harvest in the fall and before the snow melts in the spring.
2They're creatures of shadow, without real bodies like yours and mine. They emerge from shadow at night and dissipate in the morning.
3They're dead, made from the spirits of those who died alone in the woods. They can't be harmed, but they always stay near their old bones, hoping for proper funeral rites.
4Before daylight comes they go down and fold up into holes in the ground. You do not want to wake them.
5They won't cross human boundaries, like walls and fences, but you'd better not cross their boundaries in the woods.
6They eat birds and bats that they pluck out of the air, crunching up their bones, but they never eat creatures from the ground.
7They only come out on dark nights: during the new moon or under cloudy skies.
8Their touch will leave you blind for days.
9They leave food behind as a gift: nuts and broken birds.
10Their eyes are glittering gems that the elves will pay handsomely for.
11-20Dead-Faces aren't real, just misunderstood sightings of something benign.

grave misunderstanding

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Kingdom come

This is a dark and fallen world, but there's a new day coming. The promised land is just around the bend; the new world we've been hoping for is here any day now.

A generation ago the world fell in darkness.  The starving time killed off most who lived, and their bodies lay upon the ground with no one to bury them.

People these days grew up hearing tales of the end of the world.  It's only natural that their view of the world involves change.  Most people believe the ultimate destination is coming, a new kingdom to be built on earth.  Most people think it's going to be better.  Some don't.

Through the trial to the glory

Pretty much everyone agrees that there's a step that has to happen first, some kind of trial or transformation.

Scientific and industrially-minded people think this is going to be an age of reason, a time when superstition and backwardness are banished and a glorious new age dawns upon the world.  Their faith sustains them as much as it does anyone else.  They're quite sure that education is the key, that all the backward tribes and hidebound bureaucrats will recognize the brilliance of the shining future they intend to build, if they're only willing to learn.

A common refrain is repentance, a call for the people to turn away from sinful ways to reach the better future.  A prophet among the humans near Lake Ataska teaches that repentance will reveal the way to the promised land, a bountiful place for those whose homeland has been lost.

Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (Edward Hicks)

Old Orthodox elves are less optimistic.  They mourn the loss of the great temple in the old homeland and they refuse to accept that the Emperor himself (long may he reign) could be dead (though concede that no one has heard from him in quite some time).  They believe there will be still darker days ahead, but that in the darkest times the Emperor will be revealed and the temple will be restored and all will be well in the world again.

The New Ancestors movement has taken a darker turn.  These are elves who also mourn the loss of so many temples and the ancestral spirits enshrined within, but they've decided to replace the spirits with those of new elves.  For now it means they'll be capturing and killing elves, enshrining their spirits in makeshift houses, but they know the ancestors will see their faithful obedience and return to the shrines to protect the living once again.

The new kingdom

A typical message of the new era to come has two parts: a period of trial and a new way of things.

Trial (d4)
1repentanceThe people must give up their sinful ways.
2judgementEveryone will be judged for their deeds.
3warStrife and warfare will wash over the world.
4enlightenmentIgnorant and backward thinking must be replaced by knowledge and wisdom.

New way (d6)
1the promised landA new and bountiful land is promised to those who have wandered far from their old home.
2invulnerability in battleThough so many have fallen in battle with our enemies, this new way will surely bring victory if we are worthy.
3abundance and prosperityDirt-poor folks are glad to hear that a time is coming when there shall be no hunger, with a roof over every head.
4deliverance from evilBeaten-down people seek freedom from oppression and evildoers.
5peace among the nationsAfter so much war and strife, an era of peace is surely at hand.
6apocalypticThe dark days came to cleanse wickedness from the earth, and they will come again right soon.

Roll up your own message of things to come:
message of things to come
new way

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Memory transference

When the elves first showed up in the North, they brought many wondrous inventions with them, but one of the strangest was their power of memory transference.

It's a learned magic, a skill taught to every elven child.  With this power, one person can touch an object and imbue it with a memory or a thought.  Another who knows the skill can recognize the tell-tale markings on the object and retrieve the memory into their own mind.  It's best done using a wand or a brush of some kind, but simple thoughts can even be conveyed with nothing but your fingertips.

You and I know this power as writing.  For us it's entirely unremarkable, but to an illiterate society, writing is magic.

An incident from the 1620s might illustrate this better.  One missionary sent a note to another asking for a fresh canoe, and the Hurons traveling with him were amazed that it worked:
They said that that little paper had spoken to my brother and had told him all the words I had uttered to them here, and that we were greater than all mankind.  They told the story to all, and were filled with astonishment and admiration at this mystery.
They weren't fools, just people confronted with a radical new technology.  Theirs was a world where the spoken word was the only way to convey thoughts.  Reading someone's thoughts from a piece of paper was tantamount to reading their mind from far away.

handwriting in the Cherokee writing system

In Signs in the Wilderness a similar discovery of writing is underway.  Humans, giants, and tree goblins got on just fine without it for all the thousands of years they've lived in the North.  Now elves have shown up and brought writing with them.

Giants are completely unimpressed.  They believe (like the ancient Gauls) that writing corrupts the mind, robbing you of your powers of memory.  To a degree, they're right.  No one who relies on the crutch of writing can remember the copious amounts of verse that an oral storyteller can recite.

Humans are in awe of the power of writing, but they don't have any widespread theories about it yet, other than considering it some kind of elven magic.

Goblins, however, know exactly what writing is.

Trapped spirits of the written word

Tree goblins have experts (shamans) who go into trances and dreams to contact the spirits and interact with them.  They understand that writing holds memories and can speak messages to those who listen.

When you come across a piece of writing, the prudent thing to do is to take it to a shaman.  With their skills, they can contact the spirit in the writing and find out what it knows: not just the message it was tasked with delivering, but other things the spirit has seen and heard.

For this reason, goblins are wary around writing, as they know the spirit trapped in the writing might be listening to every word they say.

Destroying a piece of writing in the right way can release the spirit inside.  If it's a good spirit (or at least a harmless one) a shaman would prefer to release it so it doesn't become angry and hurt people.  But if it's already vengeful and evil, the shaman will probably bury the written material far from home to keep the spirit from getting out and causing trouble.

Truth and superstition

This is probably all just superstition.  Writing probably works just like it does in our own world, with no spirits or memory magic involved.

But there's a chance that the goblins are right, that writing really does trap a spirit that remembers what you tell it.

Personally, I like to have about a 20% chance of truth to these kinds of beliefs.  That's low enough that it's probably false, but high enough that you can't discount it entirely.

If you're not sure about the nature of writing, roll to see what's really going on:

trapped spirits of the written word
the truth

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Towns of the human folk

Humans are one of the more dangerous and capable species you might find in the wilderness.  Here are some tables to find out what a human settlement is like.

First you need to know what kind of humans these are.  If you don't know the tribe they're from, roll up a new one.

Signs of settlement

Human activity isn't confined to town.  As you approach the settlement (within about a mile or less) you're likely to come across signs of its presence.

Signs of settlement (d6)
1smokeThin columns of smoke can be seen in the distance.
2trailsA narrow trail, trampled by years of use, leads to the town.
3gathered plantsTrees have been cut down, branches gathered, reeds cut, sod cut from the ground.
4burned areasIntentionally-set fire has swept through this area in the last few months, clearing away undergrowth.
5soundsSounds can be heard from the town while it is still out of view: people talking, dogs barking, singing, chopping down trees.
6challengeThey notice you first and send someone out to you.

Attitude towards outsiders

Humans aren't usually friendly to outsiders who show up unannounced.  Roll to see how they respond to your visit.

Attitude (d10)
1ambushThey ambush intruders, attempting to kill them.
2-3hostileOutsiders are driven away by a loud and ferocious show of arms.
4-5waryThe leaders want to speak with outsiders and encourage them to leave as soon as possible.
6-7tradeThey try hard to sell things to anyone who visits: something they produce or trade for.
8theftOutsiders are robbed (possibly after being invited to spend the night) then thrown out.
9-10friendlyVisitors are invited to stay in the leader's home and treated as honored guests.

The town itself

The traditional houses and food of this tribe may suggest a certain kind of location, or you can roll randomly on the table below.  Even if the other people of their tribe typically live a certain way, the people of this settlement might have a different kind of home or way of getting food, especially if they've picked them up from a neighboring tribe.

Site (d12)
1-3on the shore or on the banks of a stream/river
4-6on the sloping side of a hill
7-9at the highest point around
10-11on a small isle in a lake
12on stilts over water

Most towns are fortified in some way for defense.  (Add 3 to the roll if this is a farming town, subtract 3 if these people live in very simple/temporary houses.)  If the result can't possibly work with this site or their type of houses, roll again.

Fortifications (d20)
≤2well hidden amongst the trees
3-5no attempt at fortification
6-7simple fence
8-11sturdy wooden palisade
12-16ditch (roll again to see what's behind the ditch), filled with (d4) 1-2: nothing, 3, sharp wooden spikes, 4, water
17-18raised earthworks around the town, with a (d6) 1-2 palisade on top, 3-4 steep stone outer face, 5-6 palisade and stone face
≥19town is built on a raised earthen mound (roll again to see how the mound is defended)

Roll up a random human town of your own:

random human town

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Choose your own Gold Rush

Earlier I wrote about what happens when a new resource is discovered and people rush in to stake a claim.  Let's take a look at some choices you can make to make this Something Rush your Something Rush.

What is it?

The big question: what's the resource?

Resource (d12)typical use
1-2gold, silvercurrency, jewelry
3diamonds, rubies, jadejewelry, specialized tools
4-5fur, horn, animal partsclothing, medicine
6fruit, seeds, plant partsfood, healing
7-8coal, whale oilfuel for furnaces, heating, lamps
9iron, flint, coppertoolmaking
10very fertile farmlandgrowing crops, homesteading
11combinedRoll twice (d10) and combine them into one resource.
12rumors of powerRoll again (d10) but it's said to have some strange power.  (20% chance the rumors are true.)

Some of these are straightforward and historical, but if you roll an 11 you'll be making up some strange new resource that's an amalgam of two other ideas.  Let's try a few:
  • 4 (plant parts) + 7 (iron, flint, copper): A tree of the hardest wood that can be grown and worked into useful tools.
  • 2 (gold, silver) + 3 (diamonds, etc.): Jade with veins of silver running through it.
  • 1 (gold, silver) + 4 (plant parts): A plant that has deep roots into the earth, taking in gold as one of its nutrients, resulting in a fruit with gold inside.
  • 8 (farmland) + 5 (animal parts): There's an animal with valuable fur that can easily be raised in captivity, but only with the soil/weather/ecosystem of this one region.

How is it hard to get?

Even once you show up to the place where this rush is happening, you'll still find that the resource is hard to get or hard to work with.

Difficulty (d8)
1deep in the earth
2covered by material that's difficult to remove
3threatened by dangerous creatures/disease/presence
4in difficult terrain, too rugged/cold/dry
5resource itself is hazardous
6difficult to find (thinly spread, nearly extinct, hard to see)
7difficult to transport (fragile, heavy, squishy)
8only found underwater

What are the locals doing?

The people who live in this area are likely to already know about this resource and are getting involved in some way.

Locals (d6)
1They were already extracting/using/trading it and are trying to maintain their control.
2They knew about it but don't like to use it because it's sacred, dangerous, or attracts too much trouble.
3They're joining in the rush alongside everyone else.
4They're selling things/services to the newcomers, trying to get rich.
5They're being forced to work, but they're making plans to revolt, demand proper wages, or otherwise put a stop to their intolerable conditions.
6There are no locals; this area was mostly uninhabited.

What are powerful figures doing?

All this activity has drawn the attention of powerful figures: trade companies, tribal confederations, kings, prophets, the viceroy, etc.  Someone important is going to want a piece of the action.

Powerful figures (d10)
1-2Outsiders don't have enough power to truly control matters.  Expect power struggles between prospectors, local bosses that rise in power, and feuds that flare up from time to time.  This is a lawless and dangerous place.
3-4They control the main route to this place, charging high tolls or ticket fees.  Expect small-time guides and ship captains who say they can get you there another way, but for a price.
5-6You have to get their approval to stake a claim, or else you'll get thrown out and lose what you've gained.  Expect illegal mining operations, legal challenges, and plenty of corruption as rich and well-connected people get ahead in line.
7-8They're trying to take over the supply business, to be the only ones selling supplies to the prospectors.  Expect them to use strongarm tactics to put their competitors out of business, and expect a black market as smugglers bring in supplies anyways.
9-10There's more than one powerful figure trying to control this place.  Roll twice to see what they're each doing.

If you're not sure which options to choose, try this random roller:

random resource rush
powerful figures

(Incidentally, I still haven't figured out how to get this random table roller to work on mobile devices.  If you happen to be a Blogspot expert I could use your help.)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Colonial America" the way Lord of the Rings is "Medieval England"

Working on a brief description for this setting, a metaphor occured to me:
Signs in the Wilderness is to Colonial America as
Lord of the Rings is to Medieval England.

Like all metaphors, it breaks down if you look too closely, but let's see how far it goes.

Home that never was

Both settings are suffused with nostalgia for the olden days, but a gentler, kinder version that never quite existed.

The Shire is right out of the English countryside, an idyllic pastoral landscape of cups of tea and smoking pipes and horse-carts and a pint with the neighbors down at the village pub.  It's quaint and lovely.  But it's also imaginary, a nicely-chosen slice of Merrie Olde England to hearken back to.  The hobbits aren't serfs toiling for a local lord, no one's starving to death, and folks aren't heading off to the smokestacks of the industrial city looking for work.

In short, it's the kind of England Tolkien would have been most comfortable in.  And that's an excellent thing for a story.  Stories aren't just supposed to be good for the reader, but for the writer as well.  Write what you know is good advice; it's equally important to write what you love.

For me, the Shire doesn't feel like home.  Village lanes and horse-carts are like...lightsabers or rodents of unusual size: familiar, but things out of stories.  The Shire is full of foreign names like Eastfarthing, Bucklebury, and Willowbottom.

I'm from a different country, one with names like Poughquag and Conshohocken, Last Chance and Six Mile Run.  The idyllic past is a log cabin in the rainy woods, canoeing down an icy creek, hiking over red-leafed mountains, and thunderstorms on a muggy afternoon.  That's the world of stories from childhood, the slice of yore that never quite was.

A different age

Middle Earth is based on the high to late Middle Ages...more or less.  It's a time of swords and knights and shining citadels.  Gunpowder is just starting to show up, and it's likely to upset everything (if Saruman gets his way).  If you only get one picture in your head of the local technology level, think medieval.

Then again, the usual idea of medieval doesn't entirely line up with history.  Some parts of Middle Earth are a bit further along.  There's a clock in Bag End that would be at home in the 1800s along with Bilbo's waistcoat and handkerchiefs.

Other regions draw inspiration from an older age.  Rohan, in particular, seems closer to the Saxons and Goths of the Migration era.  The hall of Meduseld could be right out of the pages of Beowulf.

Likewise, I'm grounding Signs in the Wilderness in a particular era, more or less.  The core would be the 1700s, with flintlocks and telescopes, but its inspirations go as far forward as the mid 1800s (looking at steam engines and the Gold Rush) and as far back as the 1500s (with matchlocks, galleons, and so many unknown regions).

Doom and glory

Lord of the Rings is a story about impending danger.  There's a great evil in the world, something old and powerful that wants to blot out everything worth saving.  A slim hope is all that remains to try and thwart the onslaught of doom.  Success isn't really about making the world better, but simply keeping any of it alive.  Even if the heroes are victorious, the world will be scarred and battle-weary, leaving the survivors to rebuild.

It's no surprise that Tolkien would write this way.  As a man who served in the trenches of the Great War, he saw firsthand the devastation that England feared, a devastation that tore through Europe again while he was writing his book.  Lord of the Rings wasn't an allegory for the wars of the twentieth century, but those wars were so present in Tolkien's life that I imagine he could not have written a story entirely without them.

Such stories go back further.  A near-hopeless stand against impending doom — this is the legend of King Arthur, leader of Britain's last stand against the pagan invaders.  (Spoiler alert: the pagans won.)  I'd tell you more about what Arthur is about in British folklore, but Arthurian influence is so strong even to this day that I'm sure you're already familiar with the tale.

Over here in America, we're a different kind of people with a different kind of story.  Our tales are about bold individuals who worked hard to make a name for themselves.  They're about taking the raw world around you and molding it into greatness.  Paul Bunyan plowed the west with his great blue ox while Johnny Appleseed planted trees for food and cider all along the frontier.

But the best example of this peculiarly American mindset might be A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Written by Mark Twain (whose place in our country's legends is assured), it's a story about an ordinary man who gets thrown back in time to Arthur's Britain.  Once there, he does what any American would: he rolls up his sleeves, dazzles the yokels, and through bravado, hard work, and good old American know-how, he whips that kingdom into shape and makes it an industrial marvel in the Dark Ages.

While Connecticut Yankee is absurdly chauvinistic and over the top, there's a kernel of truth buried in there.  We Americans have long believed that success is achieved through hard work and ingenuity, available to anyone willing to go out and make it happen.  It's the American Dream and it's all through the mentality of our country, for better or worse.

Signs in the Wilderness isn't about impending doom; it's about great opportunities for those willing to take them.  Success means building something better in the world.  Failure means someone else gets to the opportunity first.

Legacy of the past

Middle Earth is a decaying land, littered with ruins of a better age.  Statues of ancient kings stand taller than anything men can build today.  Old technology can do wondrous things that no one now can copy.  Magic and the elves are leaving the world, never to return.

England, like most of Europe, grew up in the shadow of Rome, mourning in the tragedy of its loss.  Medieval Europe saw itself as a world falling away from the wisdom of the elders, a world where classical authors were the unquestionable experts on every subject. 

There's an interesting Wikipedia article on the world record for the tallest building over time.  For nearly four thousand years mankind built nothing taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.  That's the world of Middle Earth, too, a place where the statues of the Argonath were nearly two thousand years old by the time Frodo glimpsed them, statues that no one could build in those later days.

Skip ahead a bit in that article and you'll see where America grew up, a time when the record kept being broken (usually by Americans).

Both Tolkien's esteemed writing and my own (rather less esteemed) feature an older civilization that's been swept away.  His works conveyed a profound sense of loss and gave a chance to marvel at things long gone.  My hope is to convey a sense of new opportunity in the wake of destruction.

Signs in the Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic world, but its eyes are looking forward, not back.  It's been a generation or two since the Starving Time.  Those who grew up in the new days aren't standing around gawking at the past like their grandparents; they're moving on to build a better future for themselves in the new world.

I'm grateful to be living in such a prosperous age, and thankful that we have access to such great authors as Tolkien.  Hopefully you've read some of his works, firstly because they're excellent, and secondly (though distantly) so that my comparisons in this article might make sense to you.

I also hope this article doesn't come across as too pompous or pretentious.  Tolkien was a college professor who wrote a modern epic; I'm just some uneducated guy with a blog.  If I get even one millionth as many readers, I'll be happy.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Better living through alchemy

They're in every home and shop in the land: paper packets full of powders and tablets, glass bottles of unguents and solutions, pots of foul-smelling pastes.  Everyone swears by the alchemical products of the elves, many bearing the familiar red sign of the Three Spoons company, makers of those horrid pills your grandmother used to make you take.  They're an old-fashioned product for a scientific age.

They don't always work.  Some of them never work.  In fact, it's unclear if alchemists have had any real success since inventing gunpowder.

Most magic isn't real.  But every once in a while it turns out to be true.  Maybe most alchemical solutions are phony, but there's that one gooey liquid that actually turns iron into gold.  Maybe most monsters are just rumors, but the spiny tree-goat turns out to be real.

Signs in the Wilderness is a setting full of rumors and superstitions.  Most of them are false, but just enough of them are true that you can't afford to dismiss any out of hand.  I like a truth rate around 20%, low enough you can rail against superstitious yokels, but high enough there's always a nagging worry in your mind.

When you find some alchemical product on a shelf, check to see what it is:

Form (d20)
1-4powder in a paper envelope
5-7envelope of tablets
8-10thin liquid in a glass bottle
11-13thick, goopy liquid in a glass bottle
14-15pot full of thick paste
16-17dark glass bottle of pills
18-19solid block to be crumbled up or dissolved, wrapped in paper
20something immersed in liquid

Hopefully the label (or some handwritten note) says what this stuff is supposed to do:

Purpose (d10)
1-4medicine(d8) 1-2: cure a particular ailment, 3-4: heal a wound, 5-6: avoid a future health problem, 7: give energy / prevent sleep, 8: dangerous longevity treatment
5-7flammable(d8) 1-3: works like gunpowder, 4-5: firestarting material for wet wood, 6-7: explosives, 8: stuff ignited by water/air
8-9miscellaneous(d8) 1-3: substance that glows for a while, 4-5: help crops grow, 6: caustic acid that eats through just about anything, 7: very strong glue, 8: treatment for a tool/weapon to make it tougher
10transmutationturn one substance into another (d8, roll twice) 1: some kind of stone, 2: water, 3: ash/sand, 4: glass, 5: air / flammable gas, 6: iron, 7: mercury, 8: gold

This stuff is difficult to work with.  The reason might be marked on the label, but it might not:

Problem (d6)
1must be kept away from light/heat/moisture
2fragile, has a reaction if shaken/broken
3ridiculously flammable
4terrible stench, gives off noxious fumes
5stains anything it touches
6more poisonous than you'd like

The big question is how useful this stuff actually is:

Effectiveness (d8)
1-3It doesn't actually do anything.  People say it's working, but in a way you can't see, or that it takes more time, or that you just got a bad batch.
4-6It does just a little of what it's supposed to to, but it causes some harm/damage that's small or temporary enough that you might put up with it.  People say that's how you know it's working.
7It does what it's supposed to, more or less, but it has an additional Problem.
8It works as advertised, but it (d6) 1-2: is no longer manufactured, 3-4: is very expensive, 5: is all that's been made so far, 6: will cause an unwanted result days or months after use.

Products like these are common in elven settlements, as well as anywhere among people who trade with the elves.  The further you get from the elven cities, the rarer alchemical products are.

random alchemical product

Monday, September 24, 2018

The danger of this place

If each place has its own danger, places matter.

As a GM, I like each location to have a single listed danger.  There can be other dangers, like the regiment patrolling around or the spined coyotes the party just woke up, but I like to have one danger that's about the area itself, the danger of that place.  A few examples:
  • In the coal mine, air that's thick with coal dust is likely to explode on contact with flame.
  • Out on the bog, legs and wheels could get stuck in the mud.
  • Near the fort, there are spiked pit traps to grievously wound unwary attackers.
Having one single locational danger is very helpful for me.  If there's always a danger, I'm used to thinking of it.  And if there's always only one danger, it's easier to remember.

Dangers like these are also helpful to give the players a sense of the world.  The mine where explosive dust is a problem feels very different from the mine where all the timbers are about to collapse.  The players get to learn about a problem that they can interact with, something that reacts to their actions and can be overcome by their ingenuity.

Each danger has some kind of clue, a sign of its presence.  I don't like springing dangers on the party without any warning at all.  When my adventurers all die, they'll be able to look back and see how it was all my their fault.  (Here's a more serious take on lethality in RPGs.)
  • A sign at the entrance to the mine lists the mine company's regulations, including rules about wearing helmets, obeying the foreman's instructions, and only using safety lamps.
  • There's an abandoned cart halfway sunken into the mud at the edge of the bog.
  • A want ad is posted (with plenty of pictures) looking for giants to help dig pits around the fort.
You might prefer more explicit clues, or perhaps none at all.

Dangers could also happen in several steps.  The old bridge across the chasm won't give way all at once (assuming no one does anything stupid).  The first time you're on it, one of the crossbeams will break.  The second time the whole thing will creak and dip (time for an agility check).  The third time it'll crack and fall into the chasm.

What about places that don't seem to have an inherent danger?  My first suggestion is to figure one out anyway, even if it's not that big of a danger.  Places with no reward and no danger don't matter very much on the map.  (And if a place doesn't matter at all, just skip over it with a "You travel for several miles, reaching your destination...".)

But if you'd like to have a certain place in the game, yet there's no immediate danger, try one of two options:
  1. Show evidence of a danger that already happened.
  2. Show signs of a danger that's yet to come.
Crossing the high plains, the party might stumble onto a cabin that's been burned to the ground, along with the remains of its inhabitants.  They might find many square miles where a wildfire has come through.  Unknown creatures might have stripped the leaves from every tree around.

The director's office could easily hold danger (based on the party's standing with the company) but it's also a good place to show danger that's yet to come.  The director could know about threats to the company, impending war, famine in a nearby country, and so on.

Signs in the Wilderness is about adventure driven by big opportunities, not looming threats.  Danger is an obstacle on the way to your fame and fortune, not the driving feature of the adventure itself.  In an upcoming post, I'll talk about how to craft dangers that relate to the particular opportunities in your game so far.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Inner workings of a human tribe

In the previous post on human tribes, I talked about their food source, boats, houses, and a few other things, mostly visible when you first meet them.  This post is about how the tribe actually functions.


Some tribes aren't organized at all, being just a handy way to describe the culture of the local humans.  Each settlement in a such a tribe governs itself independently.

Chiefs rule some human tribes, kings that come from the upper class of the people.  Their towns send some kind of tribute, food, laborers, or warriors.  Chiefs tend to inherit their position or seize it through war.

Many tribes are more democratic, decisions being made by a council of delegates or by a popular assembly of as many as can gather.

Tribal Leadership (d10)
1-3no central leadershipEach town is independent. There is no tribal leadership. Roll again to see how towns are typically governed.
4-5chiefA high-ranking person rules the tribe, receiving tribute/labor/warriors from the various towns. The position is likely inherited or seized in conflict.
6-7council of chiefsA council of the most important high-caste people makes decisions for the tribe.
8-9assemblyEach family/clan/town sends a representative to speak at the ruling assembly.
10popular consensusA large portion of the people gather together in one place to argue and come to decisions.

Some tribes use a mix of these, with a chief who chooses the clans to be represented, or a popular assembly that elects a council, or a pair of chiefs with different areas of responsibility, etc.

Men and Women

Of all the talking species, humans have the most rigid gender roles.  They tend to divide up tasks and areas of expertise into men's things and women's things.

(Goblins have gender roles but are more flexible on them, giants are too independent to worry about such things, and elves are basically all the same gender, biologically, so they don't really understand the concept.)

Most tribes follow the gender roles handed down to them by their ancestors (so related tribes tend to follow the same rules) or they've adopted the practices of their neighbors.

1-2warfare, hunting, woodcarvingfarming, weaving, settling disputes
3-4dealings with outsidersdealings within the tribe
5animals, stone and metal working, settling disputesplants, water and settlement rights, death rituals
6farming, constructionfishing, hunting
7only men eat potatoes, salmon, turkeysonly women eat corn, wild rice, deer
8warding off dangerous creaturesinterpreting dreams and signs
9trade, searching for thingsmaking and using fire, keeping the history of the people
10roll again, but switch the results


The Starving Time broke many people's understanding of the world, forcing them to resort to new ways of thinking.  New religious movements have cropped up (all with something to say about the apocalypse of our parents' day) and they've been spreading across the land.

I'll be doing a post about how human religions work later on (and how to roll up a random religion of your own) but for now let's look at how this tribe relates to religious practice.

Religion (d6)
1-2Holding to tradition in the face of all these strange new religions. Some have secretly converted.
3Enthusiastic converts to a new religious movement. A few are quietly keeping to the old ways.
4Most of the (d4) 1: men, 2: women, 3: youths, 4: common people; have joined a new religion while the rest follow the old ways.
5Most people have fallen away from their ancestors' religion and are eager to listen to preaching.
6Deeply divided between two different faiths.

Roll up a random tribe's workings with the table below.  (Sorry, I still haven't figured out how to get it to work on mobile.)  I've copied over the entries from the first post in this series, head back there for more explanation about what they mean.

random human tribe
what they lost
men and women

Coming up: who the tribe's rivals and allies are, and how they came to be that way.

Star-currency of the gods

You've probably heard of the stone money of Yap Island, great stone wheels called rai.  They're terribly impractical: large, cumbersome, fragile, just about the most awkward currency in the world.
In fact, they're so awkward to move that no one really moves them around anymore.  When you spend one, everyone knows who it now belongs to, so you don't need to bother rolling it all the way over to their house.  And when they spend it, everyone knows who it belongs to now.

The stones change ownership without ever changing hands.

As Yap islanders once used stones, giants use the stars.

When the world was young and the giants first emerged from the earth, the gods opened their mouths and taught them to speak.  They told them the names of the animals and mountains and the stars.

The gods gave stars as gifts, a sign of honor for the noblest and most loyal giants.

Owning a star means knowing its name and its place in the heavens, and being able to recite its history many generations back.  Gifted with prodigious memory, giants know the names of thousands of stars and their owners across the land.

Stars can be sold or given away, but only at an annual gathering where others may bear witness to the transaction.  Dim stars are traded away regularly, but bright stars are reserved for the most valuable of purchases or gifts bestowing high honors.

Stars function as something like money in the bank, a form of wealth universally accepted, but kept in a form that's very hard to steal.  Instead of a ledger showing how much you have in your account, the collective reckoning of giantish society keeps track of who owns which stars.

There's a bit of a delay in passing along that information.  It may take several years for knowledge of a transaction to propagate to the farthest reaches of the continent, but it will eventually get there.

Stars have fallen into the hands of other species.  Some have been given to human tribes as a peace offering.  Some have been used in trade with the goblins.  A few have even been given to the elves since their arrival a century ago.  But even the most giant-friendly of outsiders don't keep track of stars across generations, so giants will, from time to time, inquire about lineages and inheritance in an effort to determine the rightful owner of a star.

Many stars were lost in the apocalypse as people died without kin and heirs.

Giants name stars by their place in a constellation.  Each is named for a divine figure: a god or something like a god from one of the stories.  These are some of the major constellations; there are also many minor ones.

Constellation (d20)
1Old Porcupine
2Talking Goose
3Granny Vulture
4the Flock of Quail
5One-Eyed Bear
6the Poet Cricket
7Lean Coyote
8Salmon Who Listens
9the Thundering Moose
10Youngest Squirrel
11Snowstorm Jackrabbit
12Lame Deer
13Devouring Owl
14Mother Skunk and her Three Children
15Too-Fat Turkey
16the Unrepentent Raccoon
17the Crow Brothers
18the Great Rattlesnake
19Sleeping Turtle
20Many-Hued Beetle

Once you know the constellation, make up a position that makes sense there or choose from the list below.

Position (d20)
1the outstretched wingtip of
2the broken horn of
3the left shoulder of
4the third right toe of
5the end of the branch dropped by
6the long tooth of
7the wound in the side of
8the corner of the mouth of
9the tip of the tail of
10the drop of blood from
11the neck of
12the nose of
13the stone before
14the stolen amulet of
15the fly that annoys
16the eye that watches
17the one that pursues
18the bright eye of
19the second point of the right antler of
20the ear of

Roll up a random star yourself:

random star

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Pioneers and refugees

There's a better life out there on the frontier, but you have to go out and make it for yourself.
The apocalypse upended everything, destroying whole tribes and nations.  Once-great cities fell to starvation and disease, towns were abandoned, and alliances ended.  Survivors took refuge in a few crowded havens.

Now a new generation has been born, and they don't have to accept the hand their parents were dealt.  It's a big world, and there's bound to be somewhere better out there.  Pioneers are headed into the wilderness, migrants and refugees and wagon trains streaming across the land.

For this post, I'll mostly be talking about ways to make money (since it's useful for everyone) but migrations are important for more than just wealth.  If it's your group of people that are migrating, their success matters to you.  Helping or hindering a migration might factor into other plans.

Hired hands

Before a migration can get underway, they'll need a suitable destination, a new place to live and a way to get there.  Scouts and wilderness guides can help.  Guidebooks to the wilderness are traded and sold across the frontier, all of dubious quality.  If you find a better route through the wilds, you might make some good money leading people on it.

Humans are some of the most common migrants, usually fleeing from enemies and setting out for new farmland, hunting grounds, or fishing harbors.  If they don't already have a place in mind, they'll send out scouts and consult their prophets (a topic for a future post).

Elves can also be found seeking a new home in the wilderness.  Organized groups supported by a city are out establishing farming settlements, mines, forts, and trading posts.  They're willing to pay for porters to carry their things once they're in rugged terrain where ox carts won't help.  Religious pilgrims can also be found, exiled as heretics and looking to found a new home in the wilderness.  They're more likely to need guards if traveling through dangerous areas.

Tree goblins tend to migrate in small family groups, looking for dense forests to settle in.  They're likely to avoid other people if possible, but they might hire a guide if they don't know the way.

Individual giants migrate all the time, but they don't usually do so as a group.

Prices vary, but in general:
  • Scouts and porters earn 1 or 2 shillings/day.
  • A very knowledgable wilderness guide could earn 5 shillings/day.
  • Armed escorts in dangerous country might make 2 or 3 shillings/day.
  • Guidebooks about a wilderness country cost anywhere from 1 to 5 dollars.


The elves are all about protocol.  You don't head out to colonize the wilderness without a charter and a proper plan.  Imperial or city charters cost money (the more the better) and require the right connections.  New charters are hard enough to come by, so would-be colonists often buy up shares in a previously-chartered company.

Wherever settlers are going, they're likely to run into some kind of local rulers.  There's plenty of open land nowadays (after the starving time) but authorities tend to expand to fill the space available.  Anyone leading a migration needs bit of diplomacy, some well-placed bribes, and gifts from far-off lands.

So why would rulers let people settle on their lands?  Newcomers can bring plenty of trouble and use up resources, but they're also good for a few reasons:
  • They could join their hosts' group and provide extra labor or military might.
  • The hosts could trade the right to settle in exchange for something of value.
  • The newcomers could bring valuable knowledge and techniques.
  • Unoccupied land might be taken by enemies; new settlers help establish a claim to the land.
Passing through someone else's territory isn't always free.  If the locals are stronger than the migrants, they might demand gifts or a toll before allowing passage.

With all these travelers coming through, a few types of establishments are useful:
  • Trading posts to sell supplies.
  • Forts to provide defense for the region.
  • Ferries to carry people and cargo across a river.


Some people seize the opportunity to prey on pioneers.  Charging tolls isn't very friendly, but it's generally accepted.  Outright robbery (often accompanied by murder) is considered criminal just about everywhere.

Some human tribes are known for taking captives.  A group of unguarded refugees could easily disappear into the wilderness, taken for slave labor, without anyone else ever knowing their fate.

If the migration is a threat to your people, you'll probably try to get them to go elsewhere.  Just telling them to leave might be enough, but threats can easily escalate to warfare.  If enough migrants meet a grisly fate, the rest are likely to change their route, but that's also when they might call for military aid.  You don't want the army showing up, and you especially don't want a band of hired adventurers.

Coming soon: what happens when these pioneers get where they're going, an article about founding settlements and trying to get them through the winter.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Gold! (or, riches and chaos)

A great resource is discovered, drawing all manner of trouble as people toil and struggle and contend for riches.

Signs in the Wilderness is a setting driven by opportunities, not threats.  It's about the great potential out there, a hopeful future full of the dreams of today's poor folk out on the fringe.

This post (hopefully the first of a series) is about a clear opportunity driving story, a rush for a newly-discovered resource.  The resource could be gold, but it could be plenty of other things just as easily.  A few ideas:
  • gold in the rivers and the rock
  • diamonds dug out of the deep earth
  • delicate fruits that heal and save
  • seedlings of a fabled tree
  • bountiful farmland for struggling pioneers
Most people have heard of one gold rush or another (the '49ers of California, the Klondike, a whole pile in Australia).

Less well known is the story of the trek for the stone that fell from the sky, the iron Cape York meteorite of western Greenland.  Around the year 1000, the Thule people (ancestors of today's Inuit) lived in northwestern Alaska, a world of whalebone and walrus hide where iron was a near-legendary treasure.  Rumors came from the east of a great resource, a boulder of iron there for the taking.  The Thule people traveled over two thousand miles across the frozen wastes of the Arctic, all the way from Alaska to Greenland, just to gain the riches of the meteorite.

(Archaeologists tell a more cautious tale: they might have taken up to 150 years to make the journey, they may have been driven by more than just the meteorite, etc.  But the exciting trek in search of treasure is definitely one of the possibilities.)

Rumors and signs

A rush doesn't always start all at once.  The first person to find gold/diamonds/whatever will probably try to keep it secret for as long as they can.  Or they might only find a little at first, so when their neighbors come looking there just isn't enough to start a stampede.

You might hear about the discovery by talking to a traveler from that distant land, someone who saw the stuff with their own eyes, maybe dug a bit up themselves, but someone who doesn't think there's any more of it left.

But sometimes a rush gets big real fast.  When Sutter discovered gold in California, he tried to keep the news quiet (as he rightly feared it would destroy his nascent agricultural empire) but word got out in only a few months.  It was talked about on the streets, in the newspaper — the president even made an address to Congress about the news.

Riches and trouble

A resource rush is an opportunity for even the poorest prospector.  All it takes is one gold nugget, one perfect diamond, and you've struck it rich.  It's the appeal of the lottery but earned through toil in a far-off land.

Precious few make it rich, of course.  Most prospectors run out of funds before they find their treasure.  Some return home in poverty.  Others never can afford to leave, spending their last shilling to drink away the despair.  But enough do strike gold to inspire all the rest, the boundless hordes of eager souls looking for a piece of the action.

Wiser ones aren't there for the resource itself; they've come to sell supplies to the hopeful and naive.  You might pay a few pennies for a shovel back home, but here in the gold fields you're paying ten or twenty times the price to the only folks smart enough to bring what you need.  (This too can backfire, as his imperial majesty Norton I can attest, having attempted to corner the rice market.)

A rush also brings trouble, just about all of it driven by greed.  You'll have to fight your way through other prospectors who don't respect your claim.  Companies and families might be willing to make trouble to get you to sell your claim.  And all kinds of authorities will show up looking for their coin in licenses, fees, taxes, and tribute.

Then there's the danger of the resource running out, or the process of obtaining it causing something else to go wrong.  Digging deep into the ground or stripping away the earth makes a mess and tends to anger things.  Cutting down trees and planting crops could do the same.

How the locals respond

Many stories talk about the local people, the ones indigenous to the land where this stuff is discovered.  They're often portrayed as victims who only react to the actions of the invaders.

Truth is, people are clever and ambitious and tend to see to their own interests.  Local people are as smart as newcomers, and just as eager to advance their own cause.  When the Iroquois saw alien European technology, they didn't wait around hoping for charity, they figured out what the newcomers wanted (furs) and they used all their craft and might to obtain them so they could buy the fantastic new technology.  A short while later, they were the well armed rulers of everything from Vermont to the Mississippi.

The Northern Lands feature three indigenous species (giants, humans, and goblins) in the face of one newly-arrived group (elves).  All four are as likely to pursue a newly-discovered resource as any other.  They're all desperate for wealth and safety, with mouths to feed and family to protect.

(Roll up your own random Rush in part 2.)

A newly-discovered resource makes for a great opportunity to drive story and adventure.  If you'd like to see more posts like this, let me know which opportunity sounds interesting:
  • smuggling and avoiding pirates
  • a new contraption everyone will want
  • making a new home in the wilderness
  • preaching the word
  • starting a revolution