Monday, July 30, 2018

All for one and one for all

There's a rule in many games where you can only have one of any given class: only one thief in the party, only one wizard, only one hallucinogenic-using shaman, etc.

It's a sensible enough rule.  If you're the only thief, all the burgling and pickpocketing falls to you.  You have a clear role to play, and a way to shine where no one else can.  If everyone's different, everyone's the best at their own thing.

But what if everyone played the same class?

(The Man in the Iron Mask)

All playing the same class has its advantages.  First, it helps focus the story.  If we're all playing musketeers, we all have some relationship with the king's guard, we all care about good swordplay, and we all understand the same moral code.  Most GMs would be delighted to have such clear hooks to hang an adventure on.

A party of a single class also helps bring out deeper character.  When you're the only wilderness ranger in a mixed party, all anyone needs to know is that you're the guy to track footprints and hunt for food.  But when you're in a whole party of rangers, personality and depth start to emerge.  Maybe you were kicked out of the 12th regiment because of your conduct during the war.  Maybe you're a farm kid looking to put your hunting and tracking skills to good use.  Maybe you're an unscrupulous mountain guide for rich, would-be explorers.

A common class for everyone helps build camaraderie.  With related origins, the party starts off with a shared concept, making it easier to treat the party as a character.

Personally, I like both sides of the coin.  The party should either be all the same or all different.

(The Avengers)

Partway in between is the worst of both: you're not unique so you don't have your own niche, and you don't have the shared team identity to draw out your distinctiveness.

(The Avengers)  Don't ask.

But no matter how diverse your team is, if you zoom out far enough they're all similar.  The elven priest, the giantish trader, and the human tracker seem like they're all different, but they're still all adventurers from the same setting.  A goblin shaman would be similar to the other characters; the mayor of Mexico City wouldn't be.

My advice for starting your game off right:
  1. figure out what your party is about
  2. and find your place in it.
So what's your ideal role in the party?  What's your favorite part to play?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Forts on the frontier

Out on the frontier (and these days, it's pretty much all frontier) you're going to need a military presence if you want your empire to be taken seriously.  Forts let you control an area with a small number garrison, as a safe place for them to retreat to when outnumbered and sally forth from to raid your enemies.

Fort Recovery (Chris Light)

Pick and choose some features from the tables below, or roll if you'd like a random result.  If this is a very important fortification near a settled area add +1 or +2 to each roll.  If this is a minor fort or trading post out in the wilderness, use a modifier of -1 or -2.


Start by choosing what type of fort this is, which determines how many defenders and cannons it's supposed to have.  (Whether those defenders and cannons are here right now is another matter.)

Type (d8)defenderscannons
≤3small wooden blockhouse2d40-1
4-7wooden palisade around a sprawling collection of wooden buildings4d61d4
8stone/brick watchtower2d61d4 - 1
9+star-shaped fort with low stone walls1d10 × 102d12

Fort Stanwix (NPS)


The fort was built for a reason, which determines where exactly it's located and what it has a good view of.

Purpose (d6)
≤1oversee a wide area of wilderness
2-3watch/control passage on a river
4-5protect a wilderness route
6defend against an enemy fort/settlement
7+defend an entire region or collect tolls for a road/bridge

Maham Tower


The area around the fort may have been prepared with defense in mind.  Ideally every fort would have an approach well-suited to defense, but time and labor are often in short supply.

Approach (d8)
≤0No attempt to clear out brush or to level out uneven ground.
1A rise in the terrain allows attackers to sneak up fairly close.
2-4Trees have been cut down for clear lines of fire.
5-6A split-rail fence that's too open to provide much cover.
7Wooden stakes have been driven into a shallow, muddy ditch to make it hard to charge ahead.
8A trench has been dug with a vertical outward side for attackers to climb down, and a sloped inward side so defenders can see to the bottom of the trench.
9+The ground slopes upward at just the right angle for the defenders to watch you approach, but so that most of the wall is hidden. The ground drops away just before the wall.

Fort Stanwix (M. Colangelo)

Blind spots

Defenders up in the watchtowers might not have a perfect view of their surroundings.  Roll to see where there are blind spots in their defenses.

Blind spots (d8)
≤1A muddy brook runs down a ditch that's mostly concealed from the defenders' view.
2-3Anyone right up at the base of the wall can't be seen by the defenders above.
4The watchtower(s) can't see one side of the fort very well, probably the side that is hardest to assault.
5Tree stumps and rocks provide just a bit of cover.
6The road leading into the fort is raised up and provides a bit of cover on either side.
7Defenders in the tower(s) can see out just fine, but they can't see inside the fort.
8+Snipers in the squat watchtower(s) can see just about everywhere.

Fort Augusta (Bernard Willington)


Heavy things like cannons are hard to move around.  Roll to see how they can get cannons in and out.

Access (d6)
≤1hauled up a steep slope
2hoisted with ropes/chains and pulleys
3access to a dock
4+decent road access

Fort Meigs (Triple Try)


Roll twice: the first roll shows what this fort is well-stocked with; the second, what they'd run out of during a siege.

Supply (d20)
≤2warm clothing/blankets

Other aspects of life at the fort can be rolled up as an outlying settlement (an upcoming article): what kind of trouble they've been having, business establishments, relations with the local people, etc.

Let's try making a few forts:
  • A trading post surrounded by a wooden palisade, meant to survey a large area of wilderness.  16 defenders, but only a single cannon up in the watchtower where it was hoisted with chains and pulleys.  Trees around the fort have been cut down for clear lines of fire.  Anyone who gets right up to the base of the palisade can't be seen.  Plenty of warm blankets for trade; they'll run out of food in a siege.
  • A small wooden blockhouse built to keep an eye on an enemy settlement across the valley.  It's surrounded by a muddy ditch with sharp stakes driven into the ground.  There are only 5 defenders, but they're well-stocked on firearms and can see everything around the fort.  In a siege, the first thing to fail will be their morale.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Tech after the apocalypse

This is a world of inventions and contraptions, a world where technology marches ever onwards. The apocalypse destroyed the old world, but so much of its knowledge survived. Here in the ruins, new things are invented all the time.

There are two (somewhat contradictory) things to know about technology:
  • The finest things come from the Old Country before the fall.
  • The best things are being invented now.

Old Finery

The old elven empire was a land of millions of people in the early stages of an industrial revolution.  They had the finest silversmiths and gemcutters, the most precise instruments, and wealth—so much wealth, almost beyond imagining.

(astronomical clock of Prague, Jay8085)

When the people of the North first saw elven ships come sailing across the seas, they saw a great opportunity.  Wealth had come to them, in forms they never imagined, and they were determined to get some of it for themselves.

(Spanish galleon)

Today, after the end of the old world, elven finery from the lost homeland is highly treasured.  Old things are repaired and reworked many times over, so the ivory handle of that knife might have been part of a mantlepiece once, and the hands on that clock have been soldered back together a few times.

Elven technology usually seems overcomplicated, with too many moving parts prone to failure.  And with the industrial base of the empire gone, every moving part has to be made by hand.  The toys of the old world will eventually break down for the last time.

Modern Invention

(David Bushnell's submarine Turtle)
But let's forget about the past with its cramped cities and hidebound ways.  This is a new world, vast and full of opportunity.  People today are moving on, taking apart the fancy doodads of the olden days and making them into useful things, profitable inventions to hunt and fish and till the land.

In Finnish mythology, the Sampo is a many-sided mill that makes all the things you need in life, crafted by the gods and fought over on earth.  Wondrous treasures like this are common in fantasy, given by (or stolen from) divine and legendary beings: Excalibur is given by the lady of the lake, Perseus got his winged sandals from Athena, Sigurd stole his ring from Fafnir's hoard.

Taking after American stories, Signs in the Wilderness is a place where powerful things are created by mortals, not taken from the gods.  New contraptions and devices are being invented all the time and will surely change the world.  To put it another way...

(Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin West)

In America, the Sampo is invented.

Monday, July 23, 2018

They can't both be vampires, can they?

(Max Schreck in Nosferatu)
In the process of researching folklore about death, I got a bit sidetracked by vampires.  They occupy a strange place in fiction, gaining and losing characteristics from one adaptation to another.  Nosferatu (1922) and Interview with the Vampire (1994) are both movies about vampires, but their monsters have hardly anything in common.

In RPGs, I like introducing creatures without naming them, showing signs of their activity and letting the players try to figure out what they're dealing with.  Sometimes the creature is something new that they've never heard of.  Sometimes they're already familiar with it.

So imagine if you ran across a creature that:
  • is a person who died, returning to their coffin periodically to sleep
  • is repelled by garlic
  • does not have a reflection or cast a shadow 
  • has powers of mind control 
  • can fly, but cannot cross running water
  • can make others into the same type of creature by biting them
  • can be killed only by decapitation
You'd probably call that a vampire, right?  It certainly feels like one, though it doesn't drink blood and can act in daylight.

Let's say you and your fellow protagonists dispatch a few of these "vampires" and move on.  Then a year or two later, you run into one of these:
  • a beautiful or charming person who only comes out at night
  • has fangs, biting people to drink their blood
  • is harmed by sunlight
  • can be killed by fire or a wooden stake through the heart
  • can climb on walls and ceilings
  • is repelled by crucifixes
  • cannot enter a house without being invited
That's...obviously a vampire too, right?  Except it isn't even undead.

(Jonathan Brugh in What We Do in the Shadows)

For a vampire species of your own, pick ten features from the list below.  If you'd prefer random results, roll a d6 and a d4 to choose, rerolling any results you've already gotten:

11has no reflection/shadow
2sleeps in a coffin with soil from their home / burial place
3turns to dust when killed
4cannot enter a house without being invited
21is beautiful/charming
2can fly/hover
3is dead, but their bodies do not decay
4repelled by garlic
31bites people and drinks their blood
2cannot cross running water
3can turn into a bat
4has superhuman senses
41can make others into the same kind of creature by biting them
2fangs or long teeth
3feels compelled to count things like fallen grains
4can be killed by a wooden stake through the heart
51is harmed by sunlight
2can be killed by decapitation
3can climb on walls and ceilings
4has powers of mind control / hypnotism
61does not age, healing from most injuries
2can be killed by fire
3repelled by crosses/crucifixes
4is hideous

So what's your kind of vampire like?

Friday, July 20, 2018

The beleaguered city of Longwater

The elven city of Vayapara "Longwater" is in some trouble.  They came through the apocalypse well enough, even growing in the years since.  New buildings have gone up and new ships have been built.  Their motto is Prosperity and Sovereignty, written on their flag and over the gates, but lately they haven't seemed to have much of either.
(unknown artist c.1850)

Longwater is one of the more northerly elven cities that survived, lying on a natural harbor surrounded by densely-forested pine hills.  As you approach the city, the first thing you'll notice are the uniformed military sentries bearing muskets.  If you're a human, they probably won't let you pass.  Humans have been raiding the outlying farms and settlements regularly, and elves aren't always careful to distinguish one tribe of humans from another.


Closer to the city, you come across great fields of alfalfa and pastures with a few cattle grazing.  There's a long building where a number of giants are gathered, a mission where they come to trade and learn the ways of the elven religion.

The city itself has a wooden palisade on the landward side, with watchtowers flying the white-and-tan, the striped flag of Longwater.  Just outside the palisade are a number of miniature wooden houses, brightly painted, mounted on poles a few feet off the ground.  (You might recognize these as spirit houses, places for lost spirits of the dead to dwell until they can be collected up and returned to the temple.)

(A. M. Vastnetsov)

At dawn, the gate is opened and a trumpet is sounded.  An honor guard of the city watch walks along the perimeter with lanterns to certify that the city is safe.  Each night at dusk, the process is repeated, a trumpet sounds, and the gate is closed.

To enter, you'll need a citizen of the city to escort you in.  It's customary to leave an offering at the gate before the image of the lost child emperor (long may he reign).  Just a penny or so will suffice.


Longwater smells of coal fires, the acrid stinging smoke of blacksmiths' forges.  People in this city look tired and thin.  Food has gotten scarce with all the human raids lately.  The city is surviving mostly on seaborne trade.
(Kate Baylay)

The most prominent people of the city are two powerful Ministers, who serve for life:
  • The Minister of the Sea is in charge of ships, docks, the navy, and all oceangoing trade.  She was appointed a few years ago by the eldest Mother of the city.
  • The Minister of the Land is in charge of agriculture, overland trade, the army, and relations with humans.  The previous one just died recently, so the temples are holding an election shortly to choose a new one.
  • A few other ministers have lesser portfolios: Rites, Justice, and the Guilds.

Day to day, the Magistrate is more visible, in charge of collecting taxes, diplomatic relations with the viceroy and other cities, and tending to the needs of the household of Mothers and Fathers (who are the heart of the city).  The magistrate is chosen each year by the secret society that bid highest in an auction.

The current magistrate has been chosen before, during more prosperous times a few years ago.  She's a smooth talker, eager to please.  She'll say whatever it takes to make an interaction go more smoothly.  That, combined with the recent successful years of the city, has made her popular among the secret society leaders.  It's no surprise that she's been chosen to be magistrate multiple times.

But this current food crisis has her in a panic.  Bad under pressure, the magistrate is starting to make rash decisions, teetering on the border of fear and despair.

The powerful viceroy has sent word from across the sea that Longwater is to provide aid to one of the other cities, a rival city in the grips of an even worse famine.  The magistrate has received the message, but hasn't spoken to the esteemed ministers about it yet.  She sees a few options ahead:
  1. Do nothing, incurring the wrath of the viceroy, but saving as much food as possible for the hungry people of Longwater.
  2. Try to convince the ministers to send aid.  This would be the kind of unpopular move that could end the magistrate's political career.
  3. Once the new minister of the land is elected, request that they assemble an army for a punitive expedition against the humans.  It could be very dangerous, but ending the raids (and taking some of their food in return) would give the city more options.
What would you do?

Random wild creature

The vast wilderness of the North is home to many strange creatures, some of which haven't even been described in print yet.  Here are some tables to help you roll up an unusual creature of your own.

Jackalopes are real, I tell you.  (

Start with a Base, a real-world creature to base this strange one on.  It should be something from this climate's wildlife list (a topic for a future post), but the table also has a few suggestions.  (If you roll up a plant, be ready to get really creative.)

Base (d20)examples
1-4large land animalwolf, alligator, mountain lion, moose, bear, caribou
5-8small land mammaljackrabbit, skunk, otter, raccoon, beaver, porcupine
9-11flying creaturevulture, heron, bat, crow, chickadee, parrot
12-13bug / crawly thingleech, ant, bee, lightning bug, scorpion, tarantula
14-16reptile/amphibianbullfrog, snapping turtle, rattlesnake, salamander, lizard, poison dart frog
17-19water creatureorca, catfish, eel, crawdad, jellyfish, sea turtle
20plantpoison ivy, venus flytrap, redwood tree, sunflower, spanish moss, coconut palm

Let's roll up a new creature for a rugged mountain range (oaks and chestnuts in the lower parts, aspen higher up): 7, so it's a small land mammal.  A jackrabbit sounds good.

Roll twice for its Physical Features:

Physical Features (d20)
1-3unusual size(d8) 1-3: half the usual size, 4-7: larger than usual, 8: far larger
4-5drawing attention(d8) 1-2: brightly colored, 3-4: patterned appearance, 5-6: dance, movement, threatening display, 7-8: loud call
6-8camouflage(d8) 1-3: color/pattern matches background, 4-5: silent/stealthy movement, 6-7: changing color seasonally, 8: changing color quickly
9-10poison(d8) 1-2: venomous bite, 3-4: venomous stinger/claw, 5-6: poisonous to eat, 7: toxic/dangerous to touch, 8: tends to live/nest among poisonous/dangerous plants
11-13unusual features(d8) 1-2: porcupine quills, 3: glow like lightning bugs, 4: rattlesnake rattles, 5-6: antlers, 7: horns, 8: skunk spray
14-16movement(d8) 1: very fast-moving, 2-3: better swimmer/diver, 4-5: can leap high/far, 6-7: good at climbing, 8: can glide/fly
17-19senses(d8) 1-2: heat vision, 3-4: echolocation, 5-6: excellent sense of smell, 7-8: excellent hearing
20useful(d8) 1-3: excellent fur/hide, 4-5: made of tasty meat/food, 6-7: good for medicine, 8: can be tamed

The first roll is a 19 followed by a 1: this jackrabbit-like creature has heat vision, allowing it to see predators in the dark.  Next we have a 3 and a 2: it's tiny, half the usual size.  Sounds like they'll be hard to catch.

Roll at least twice for its Behavior:

Behavior (d20)
1impressive lairbuilds structures, dams, nests, mounds, tunnels that are especially large, complex, deep
2collects thingslong-term food storage, valuable local resource, stealing parts, decorations/toys, tools
3unexpected reachgo unexpected places: get into containers, climb trees, sneak into settlements, squeeze through tight spaces
4understandingrecognize labels to know where food is stored, knows enough words to get some idea what people are up to
5learninghas learned how to avoid traps, take cover from gunfire, avoid food that might be poisoned
6deceptionfalse lairs to confuse attackers, luring into a trap or away from their young, deceptive call
7tool usebait to attract prey, tools to reach food, making use of existing machinery
8coordinationact as a team/pack, communicate information about threats to each other
9defensive attitudepatiently waits for opportunity, pursues over long distances, holds a grudge
10charmcute, good at begging, can herd livestock, act like pets
11aggressiveeager to attack, more violent than necessary, kills people for fun
12kidnappersteals/lures away children, carries off small livestock
13playfultoys with its victims, steals things to play with, teases creatures for fun
14kindtends to the needs of lost/injured people as best it can, especially children
15unusual fooddrinks blood, chews on trees and wooden buildings, hunts/eats some even rarer special creature
16symbioticpoints out prey for predators to get some of the reward, immune to some plant's poison so it can eat the fruit, obtains food that it can't open for a large creature that can't reach it
17fearfulafraid of people, attacks and then runs away quickly, afraid of something particular without a clear reason
18territorialclaims a territory as its own, attacking anyone threatening who enters it
19mimicry (despite earlier rolls)looks/sounds almost exactly like some other Base creature, unusual footprints look like they're leading the other way
20strangehas a strange power, if such things exist in this world (a topic for a future post)

The first roll is an 8: these tiny rabbits coordinate their actions in some way.  Communicating information about threats sounds useful, especially for such tiny creatures.

Next is a 15: they eat some unusual food.  Blood sounds nice and creepy.  They're interesting, but let's make them a little more so and roll again.

It's a 6: they're good at deception.  They've evolved or learned some behavior that helps them deceive creatures around them.  Let's say they've learned to put shiny objects in the entrances of their lairs, or in hollows of trees, or sticking out from under rocks with hiding places.  People reach down to pick up the shiny thing, and a dozen little bloodsucking rabbits spring out to get a taste.

Blood-hares sounds like a perfect name.  Nasty little creatures.

That's no ordinary jackrabbit.  (Morag Gunson)

They're not a major threat (unless acting in large numbers) but they're definitely not friendly.  If you find little jackrabbit footprints or see a shiny coin tucked somewhere suspicious, this is a very bad place to sleep.

random creature
physical features

Rolling up a few more random creatures:
  • Jar-rattlers are a type of rattlesnake that shed their skins a few times a year, changing color to match the season.  They're good at biting, slithering, and squeezing their way into containers you wouldn't expect.  And they've even learned how to recognize the label on a popular elven brand of food.  They say that jar-rattlers never bite children, so the local people always have kids check the pantry first.
  • Water panthers are a fearsome predator.  With very little fur, you can see their skin, but the skin changes color quickly to match their surroundings.  Water panthers are very good swimmers and divers, sleeping up on high outcroppings or tree branches over water for a quick getaway.  They've been known to drag away small livestock and possibly even children.
  • Five-toed turkeys thrive in these woods.  They're bright orange in color, with feathers that are greatly desired by the goblins a few valleys over.  Their call sounds nothing like a regular turkey, making a haunting, plaintive sound.  Turkeys like to eat snails, but some snails are too big and tough for them to get at the tasty meat inside.  Five-toed turkeys have learned to toss tough snails into the workings of elven machinery to crack them open.  (The elves are not amused.)  When flushed out by dogs, these turkeys have learned to scatter for cover and fly through the trees, avoiding the open sky where a hunter can get a clean shot.
(Bob Zeller)

And just for fun, let's roll up a plant, making more creative use of the results.  I'll choose a mountain fern as a starting point.  Rolling it up, these ferns: change color over the long term, are poisonous to eat, have some kind of understanding, and are in a symbiotic relationship.  Let's see...
  • Copper ferns grow in shady places in mountain gullies.  They're normally a sort of coppery color, making them easy to identify.  That's good, because they're also quite poisonous.  But if their growing conditions ever become poor (usually too sunny or too dry) they use the last of their energy to turn the same green shade as the edible ferns around them, losing their poison in the process.  Creatures eat the ferns when they're green, helping propagate the species through their droppings, hopefully in shadier or wetter places.
Apparently there's already a plant called a copper fern.  (Stauden Wichmann)

Try out the tables and see what you think.  Let me know if you roll up something interesting.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Weather for wilderness travelers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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


(Dean Sewell)

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

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


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

(Drew Angerer)

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

Wind, tornadoes, hurricanes, and hail

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

(Cameron Nixon)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Languages and roleplaying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using invented names

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

But be careful how often you use them.

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

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

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

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

Inventing languages

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

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

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


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

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

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

As the humans would say:

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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Seven Towns of Blind Lake

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

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

(Diego Delso)

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

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

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

The Humans of the Seven Towns

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

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

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

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

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

The Elves of the Logging Camp

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

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

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

(Osmond David Putnam)

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

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

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

The King's Town

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

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

(Carel Fabritius)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What news would throw this region into turmoil?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Random book

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


Roll to see why this book is useful:

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


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

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

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

random book