Saturday, June 30, 2018

Ambush hunters in the trees

Continuing the series of intelligent primates, this next species lives up in the trees of the deep forest. Like the giants, this species is also missing a few human features:
Lemur leaping with young.  (Eden)
  • No endurance.  This species is great in bursts of activity, but they tire easily.  They can outrun anyone in a 20-yard dash, but run out of steam before they reach 200 yards.
  • No throwing things.  They don't have the right kind of arms, but it goes further than that...
  • No tool sense.  Unlike humans, these people don't incorporate tools mentally as extensions of their own body.
    (Ravendark Creations)
Real-world humans aren't the only species to use tools, though we are especially good at it.  Some of our tool skill is probably due to our intelligence and manual dexterity, but some of it might be helped by our psychology.

When you pick up a tool you've never used before (a pair of tongs, for example) you're focused on how the tool feels in your hand, how to operate the tongs themselves.  Once it feels comfortable, you start using the tongs to manipulate other objects.  (Try asking a person with tongs to touch something; see if they touch it with the tongs or with their fingers.)

This tree-dwelling species has some manual dexterity, but not the mindset to manipulate things with tools.  For them, using a tool on an object is like...cutting a piece of paper with a pair of scissors tied to the end of a pair of pool cues.  You might be able to do it, but why?

Some of their features are more helpful:
Flying squirrel.
  • Gliding from tree to tree, using skin that stretches from arm to leg.  This lets them move through the forest canopy very quietly while following prey below.
  • Sharp teeth and claws.  When they decide to strike, they come down from above and strike fast.
  • Imitating sounds.  Some humans are pretty good at making the sound of a dove or a turkey.  These people of the woods are the best mimics, luring in prey with their own call.
  • Patience, allowing them to spend long periods of time waiting quietly for an opportunity to arise.
Climbing trees, leaping and gliding, they look somewhat like lemurs or flying squirrels.  They're small and fairly weak, relying on surprise and a burst of aggression to win in a fight.  Once the struggle is over, they retreat to their nests high in the branches.  These people are well suited to a life of ambush hunting in the forest.

(I'm using the terms "person" and "people" for any of the four intelligent, most relatable species of this setting.)

We've been calling these tree goblins, though it's admittedly an ill-fitting name.  Having an English name is usually a helpful starting point, but in this case the name might be more of a hindrance.

What would you call them?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On the System or Theory of Pharmacology

An old textbook found in a ruined house, pointing to an old secret that has repercussions today.
title page of "Pharmacopoeia Londinensis" from 1654

or Theory of Pharmacology
or, a Treatise
concerning the Principles
of the
New Elements of Medicinal Preparations

The book describes a wide number of medicines for all sorts of ailments.  Some make use of astrological theories, but most have a basis in some kind of medical knowledge.

There are a number of handwritten notes in the margins, but enciphered in some way to protect their secrets.  Dangerous poisons?  Private memoirs?  Secret confessions?

A folded-up page is tucked in the book, an old single broadsheet newspaper that's been folded and unfolded many times.  The main article is about someone famous at the time being poisoned.  It's not clear from the article whether the poison killed them or not.

The book and the newspaper were published within a year of each other in the same city, a decade or so after the apocalypse.  There's a chance the author might still be alive today.

After forty years or so, how could the secret in the margins still matter now?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trouble at Mudwater

A random scenario I rolled up this morning:

The Hunting Party
a hunter by an oak tree, with a turkey over his shoulder
Returning from the turkey hunt.

The rain has finally stopped, though it's still cloudy.  A cold wind is blowing.

You're traveling through an oak forest in a valley, a place of large trees with high-up branches.  This forest is an old, quiet place. You hear little but the wind rattling the branches and the creaking of the trees as they sway.  Large boulders are strewn about, deposited here long ago.  A creek flows down the valley to the southeast.

A voice calls out in the trade pidgin language, telling you to stop.  A group of humans emerge from their hiding places, muskets in hand but not pointed at you.  Their leader is a young man, not yet twenty.  He seems jumpy and nervous.

They're a group of nine in total, with a few lanky dogs following along.  Everyone is bundled up against the cold.  Some are carrying dead turkeys.  By their spiky hair, you might recognize them as people from the Snapping Turtle tribe, famous for being tireless runners and eager traders.

They were on their way home from a hunting trip when they spotted something unusual: large footprints and fresh droppings in the woods, like those of a panther, but bigger.  They followed the signs to this valley, but the trail has since gone cold.  Now they're not sure if they're hunting or being hunted.  Anything could be hiding amongst the boulders and fallen logs.

If you'd like to travel with them, they'd appreciate the extra pair of eyes.

(The big cat is very hungry and has been watching them for a while, staying downwind.  It would prefer to just grab the turkeys, but if anyone wanders off from the group, fresh meat would be even better.  If the humans spot the cat and put up any resistance, it'll run off.)

Heading downstream, the valley flattens out.  The oaks gradually give way to aspens with white bark and yellow leaves.  The trees are closer together here with plenty of undergrowth, making it hard to see very far ahead.

The Village
fog on the marsh
Fog on the marsh.

The weather turns overcast and a fog moves in.  The aspen forest ends at a marshy lakeshore.  Mudwater is the name of this lake, according to the humans.  Their village is on the far shore, a few hours' walk from here.

It turns out to be a well-hidden village, only betrayed by a thin column of smoke rising from the red-leafed maples above the lake.  You can hear the rhythmic sound of someone chopping down a tree somewhere nearby in the fog.

The village consists of four grass huts with a few small dugout canoes outside.  Some old women have a fire going to keep warm as they mash up something in bowls; rice for some kind of drink, apparently.  They're glad to see the group return, but they have some urgent news.

One of the young men translates for you as best he can.  There's another village nearby, at a place called Little Gulch.  The people from Little Gulch keep trying to gather rice from Mudwater Lake even though they're not supposed to, and now it seems they've stolen one of Mudwater's boats.

The hunters discuss matters for a bit and decide it's time to go and steal something from Little Gulch in return, maybe take a few captives while they're at it.  Unbeknownst to the people of Mudwater, Little Gulch had nothing to do with the missing boat.

Things are about to get ugly.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Lone trappers in the wilderness

If humans are human-flavored, other intelligent species need to be...other-flavored.  Let's take a look at one of the species I've been designing.  First assumption: they're primates, close relatives of Homo sapiens.

monstrous horned face

For this species, let's start by taking away a few human features:
  • No groups.  This species doesn't live or work in groups like humans do, no families or towns or tribes.  They get together once a year to mate.
  • No running or throwing.  Their musculature just isn't right for it.  That means they probably don't hunt, at least not by chasing or ambushing game.
And let's add a non-human feature.  Since they don't run...
  • Big and tough.  They have a thick hide and plenty of fur, like bears or mammoths, making them hard to attack at all.
So how do they survive?  Where does their food come from?
deadfall trap
  • Scavenging.  They eat dead animals, chasing off vultures and coyotes to do so.
  • Gathering tasty vegetation to eat.  They pick fruits, nuts, and the more nutritious leaves.
If they're intelligent tool-users, a few other food behaviors present themselves:
  • Trapping.  They make traps to catch wild animals.
  • Burying food for later.  They dig to make pit traps, so they might dig storage pits as well, storing food for the winter.

orangutan mother with her baby

So what do they look like?  Big, tough, and furry.  Teeth for ripping meat and chewing leaves.  Hands that can dig pits and pull apart carcasses.  Sounds like some kind of great ape to me.

These creatures are massive, weighing at least twice as much as a human.  Like gorillas, they usually walk on all fours, but can stand upright to reach high branches.


They live as individuals, roaming in a circuit across a wide territory, checking their traps, eating carcasses, and picking fruit.  Less perishable food they bury for the winter.

To keep track of everything, these creatures have an excellent memory.  Speed of thought isn't needed, but given time, they can recall nearly any detail.  They're ponderers and dreamers, deep thinkers.

Their annual meetings are the most crucial event of the year.  They gather to mate, but also to trade, gossip, and discuss plans for the next year.

I've been calling these creatures giants, though it's not a perfect fit.  They're large and strong, but not much like the giants people usually think of.

An invented name would avoid preconceptions, but it wouldn't suggest anything if you don't already know it.  Meeting a dumaka or a sosketi starts with nearly nothingspotting a giant walking along the ridge, you have a picture to start with.

What would you call these creatures?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Random tables

Roleplaying games are a strange art.  Somewhere between strategy game and improv theater, they draw on an odd mix of skills.  And like improv theater, sometimes you just freeze up and can't think of what to do.
stage fright: a man peering out from behind a curtain

Two things have helped me with this: practice and random tables.

"Exploit your prep" is a rule in games like Dungeon World for a reason, but it only works if you've prepared something to exploit.  Invariably, the players end up trying something I hadn't planned for, and I need a new location/person/problem/whatever on the spot.  Sometimes improvising works well for me.  Sometimes it falls flat.

Writing (d4)
1-2Write more stuff.
3Edit and rework something you already wrote.
4Throw it away, nobody wants to read it anyhow.

Making random tables beforehand gives me planned surprises.  I get to write the kind of thing I'd like, but still come up with something unexpected during the game.  The table sets the bounds, but the random rolls generate combinations I hadn't thought of.

Making random tables also forces me to have a clearer vision.  If I can't think up four different kinds of human weapons or goblin religious rituals, do I really know what they're like?  I've written up a bunch of random tables for Signs in the Wilderness, from escalating conflicts to flavors of cake.  Some have turned out more useful than others, but all of them have helped me get a better sense of the world they're set in.

Human-flavored humans

(No, this isn't the post about cannibalism.)

If you're going to have a bunch of different species in a story, they all need some sort of flavor, something that makes them different from everyone else.  Dwarves, for example, tend to be short, underground miners and craftsmen who like to drink.  Elves are usually portrayed as slender, wise, nature-loving elder beings.

What about humans?

Humans are often "special" by just being average.  Elves are graceful and long-lived, orcs are brutish and quick to die, so humans are right in the middle.  They're not as good at metalworking as the dwarves, but they do fine.  Humans can't swim as well as mermaids, but they can swim well enough.

Don't get me wrong—there's nothing wrong with having humans as the default.  Most of your readers are human, after all [citation needed], so being human is what they know best.  But for me, humans as jack-of-all-trades has gotten stale.  For this project, I'd like to try something different.  I'd like humans to have their own flavor, things that make them notably human instead of generic.

Human Qualities

So what makes humans different from other real-world species?  Sure, we're smarter than everyone else (that we know of) but some other fantasy species will likely be intelligent too.  What else is special about humans here on Earth?
humans and dogs pursuing prey
Humans and dogs pursuing prey.
  • Humans have endurance.  We (well, those of us in better shape than me) can outwalk pretty much any other creature on Earth.  Humans can simply walk their prey to death, pursuing them until they die from exhaustion.  (We're pretty good at deliberately enduring pain, too.)
  • Humans have dogs.  Dogs and humans are together in just about every culture.  We've brought dogs with us as we explored the world, from the Kalahari to the Australian outback to the South Pole.  We've even taken dogs to space.  Humans have a lousy sense of smell, so we made up for it by adopting dogs.  One theory says humans actually evolved to work with dogs.
  • Humans can throw things.  A few other species can throw a little, but none of them have the musculature or depth perception needed to precisely throw things like humans can.  We don't have sharp claws or fearsome teeth, but leave a human alone with a rock or a stick or a can of beans, and they're armed with a fairly long-range weapon.
  • Humans are good at forming impromptu groups to do a task.  Watch what happens when there's an emergency and a bunch of unrelated bystanders form a rescue team almost instantly.  This is at least partly because humans are used to being part of a kin group, but we do this even with random strangers we're not related to.
bystanders working together to rescue someone from a burning car
Working together in an emergency.
Put all these together and you get an interesting species.  Now, it's true that not all humans do all these things, and that if other intelligent species evolved they might do some of them, too.  Yet this is a great place to start for what humans are actually like compared to others.


So what would it look like for an intelligent species to be bad at these things?
  • An intelligent species without endurance could be done in plenty of ways.  They could be good sprinters, like deer or cheetahs.  They could be massive and tough to kill, like elephants or musk oxen.  They could lie in wait to ambush prey, like snapping turtles.
  • A species without dogs would be...well, they just wouldn't have dogs.  They might simply have other kinds of domesticated animals, or they might not have any animals at all.
  • If they can't throw things, they'll have to rely more on their own reach or jumping/flying to get to things they can't reach.  Inventions might let them affect things from further away.
  • Without impromptu groups, they could either be loners who never work together, or they could have fixed groups that are already practiced at working together to accomplish a task.
For Signs in the Wilderness, I've been using these concepts to work up four different intelligent species, humans being one of them.  Is this the right way to make fantasy creatures?  I don't know, but I'm having fun with it.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Signs in the Wilderness

Welcome, readers!

I've been working on a roleplaying game setting called Signs in the Wilderness, a 1700s post-apocalyptic hopeful frontier fantasy world.  That's a mouthful.
  • The tech is 1700s-ish: great sailing ships, flintlock muskets, telescopes, hot air balloons.
  • It's post-apocalyptic: the old world was swept away by a cataclysm, leaving ruins and changed societies in its wake.
  • And yet, it's hopeful: not a grim, gritty post-apocalyptic world of survivors picking through the ruins.  This is the world of their children and grandchildren, the ones who grew up in the new world, knowing nothing but stories of the old.  Great opportunities are out there, a fortune for those who can take it.
  • The frontier is where the action is, the meeting of cultures and eras, where old meets new, where one civilization meets another.  It's a world of wilderness that no one truly knows from end to end.
  • It's a fantasy setting, with intelligent species, strange creatures, and possibly a bit of magic behind the scenes.

Haida paddling in dugout canoe confront a large Spanish sailing ship on the open sea.
The Haida meet the Spanish.  (Mark Myers)

If that sounds interesting to you, stick around.  Let's see where this story goes.

(Follow along on Reddit at r/SignsInTheWilderness.)