Monday, December 24, 2018

Post-apocalyptic 1700s

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

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

Reclaimed by nature

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

Overgrown Tomb, Steven Belledin

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

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


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

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

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

Ambush at Lovewell Pond

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

Everyday violence

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

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

Duel with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya

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


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

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

Powhatan, John Smith

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

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

Dirt and grime

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

Couple in a Tavern, Todeschini

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

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

Makeshift and repurposed

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

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

Zuni blacksmith shop

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


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

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

city of the Mound Builders

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Apocalypse for everyone!

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

What if the American apocalypse happened to both sides?

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

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

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

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

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

Aztec drawing of smallpox victims.

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

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

Jamestown settler dead, Sydney King

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

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

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

William McAusland

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Religion that can't be avoided

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

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

Tuvan shaman, Alexander Nikolsky

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

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

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

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

W. D. McIntyre

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

Beliefs were tested.  Many didn't survive.

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

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

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

Santeria, Mick Palumbo

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Behind the scenes: generating a completely random adventure

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

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

Great opportunities

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

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

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

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.

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.
9-10invitingVisitors are invited to stay in the leader's home.

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