Thursday, August 30, 2018

Make sure they stay dead

It's a familiar tale: live, die, get buried, crawl back out of your grave.  Just about every culture has stories of malevolent undead.

In a world where the undead are real, people will eventually find a way to stop the dead from rising (if it can be done at all).  Choose one or two methods that work:

How to prevent the undead (d10)
1Burn the body so no part remains.
2Remove an essential part of the body (eyes, heart, teeth, head) so the undead can't act.
3Stab/cut the body to release the spirit.
4Feed the body to carrion beasts (or eat it yourselves) so its potency is divided up.
5Have a ceremony to make sure the dead person has no reason to come back (releasing them from debts/obligations, banishing them from the community, promising to make grave offerings).
6Bury the body under a large stone or deep in the ground to make sure it stays buried.
7Dispose of dead bodies far from the settlement on the far side of some obstacle (river, mountains, cliff, lake) so they won't walk back.
8Give their spirit somewhere more suitable to live (graveyard shrine, temple, offerings, carved wooden body).
9Make a false village (or just a model, a picture, trinkets from the village) to confuse the undead and keep them away from the real one.
10Sacrifice animals/servants at the funeral so the person who died isn't alone and angry in the afterlife.

There's a certain amount of Darwinism at play.  Like species, cultures evolve over time.  After tens of thousands of years, cultures that couldn't deal with the undead are outcompeted by cultures that found a solution.  But that's assuming the undead are actually a threat.

How correct their methods are (d8)
1The undead are a major threat and always have been.  Correct procedure for dead bodies is part of their religion.
2The undead haven't been a problem for many centuries.  They keep using their method for the sake of tradition, but they've made it simpler/easier.
3-4The undead are a sporadic threat that comes and goes, based on something people haven't figured out (planetary alignment, 11-year locusts, humidity).  They use several methods at once, with more complexity than necessary.  Methods vary from culture to culture, but the correct method is included in all of them.
5-6The undead are a new threat (a recent plague, new arrivals to the area, new planetary era) and people are still figuring out how to deal with them.  Different groups are trying different methods, prone to switching rapidly and falling for scams.
7-8The undead are just rumors and myths.  Some cultures have a method, some don't.

The threat of undead could be the entire explanation for why a culture handles dead bodies the way they do.  Try rolling up some death culture for yourself:

death culture
How to prevent the undead
How correct their methods are

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The forbidden country of the Ashen Council

While the surviving elves huddle along the coast, rumors of an inland power grow.  Coastal tribes speak of the fearsome Isquentaga, the people of the Ashen Council.

(Viktor Titov)

Closed kingdoms (like 1800s Tibet or Tokugawa Japan) can make for some great adventures.  They're full of challenges:
  • It's hard to get past the appointed guardians.
  • At strong settlements they try to kill you or throw you out.
  • At weak settlements they close their doors and want nothing to do with you.
But they're also full of opportunities:
  • They have things no one else has ever seen.
  • You have things they've never seen.
  • If it's hard to get goods through, people might pay a lot more for them.
  • If you get the approval of the leaders of a closed country, you can operate in a place your enemies can't easily reach.
In a way, a closed country is something like a giant dungeon, full of treasure and danger.

(Frank Victoria)

They say the Isquentaga are a mighty human confederacy, jealous guardians of their place in the high country.  All trade from the far north passes through their hands.  Copper, silver, and furs come down, iron, cloth, and guns go up.  It is unlikely that they allow guns to go any further inland.  Likewise, the most powerful things of the high country are not likely to come down any further.

All trade with the Isquentaga is done at a few places of meeting, each one controlled by a different clan.  They only trade with a few outside agents, some humans and some giants.  It may be that none of the elves have yet attempted to open trade with the Isquentaga; such an attempt would probably be rebuffed.

Choose three widespread rumors about the people of the Ashen Council.  One is false, but deliberately spread by them.  One is more or less accurate.  One is a heavily-distorted version of the truth.

Rumors (d8)
1They hang their enemies' bodies from trees to mark their territory.
2They eat the flesh of fallen enemies.
3They pay great bounties for elven captives.
4They drive sick animals into enemy territory to infect others.
5They sharpen their teeth into points.
6They kill anyone who strays into their land, with no exceptions.
7Anyone who they allow to trade with them is marked with a sign.
8Those who trade must kowtow as a sign of submission, and never look directly at them.

The Isquentaga are a dangerous adversary to have, but they guard many secrets and treasures.  They have knowledge of the striding behemoths and of the sunken cities.  A word from the ashen council can raise an army or grant a fortune.  But reaching the ashen council will be a most perilous journey.

(George Catlin)

And they're not just sitting around, waiting for you to approach.  The council is doing things.  They've got big plans in the works, and they don't really care what you think of them.  Choose two looming plans from the table below:

Secret Plans (d8)
1They've heard of a new invention or discovery and they'll stop at nothing to get it.
2There's a weakened group nearby; the Isquentaga plan to swiftly overwhelm them and offer a deal: obey and receive aid, or be destroyed.
3They've acquired something of great power or value, and they intend to use it.
4One of their clans has been trading away secrets and treasures that they swore to keep hidden, so the council is planning retribution.
5They've been quietly purchasing cannons and capturing experts in elven fortifications, preparing to build fortresses guarding the mountain passes.
6They're weaker than they let on, afraid of a rising power in the lowlands.  A careful alliance could be to their advantage.
7The clans of the Isquentaga are all ready to turn on each other in a desperate bid to seize power.
8A far greater threat looms on the far side of their lands.  They're considering a migration to get out of the way, taking whatever land they need.

If you don't know who lives nearby, consider rolling up a random human tribe or a giantish rendezvous.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Striving against the world

I find myself looking for a fight.  An uphill struggle, striving against a world opposed or indifferent to my goals — that's what I like in a roleplaying game.

(In this post, I'll be using a lot of shoulds and don'ts and unwarrantedly absolute statements.  These are really just for me.  As long as you're having fun, you're playing the right way.  If you want to play the way I do, read on.)

But in the midst of all the talk about how roleplaying games should work, it's easy to forget that the players and the GM are playing two different games.

As a player, I'd better be using my wits, paying attention, and coming up with good plans, lest I get all our characters killed.  For me as a player, this is war.  Whether it's a gunfight in the street, a court case over our colonial charter, or chasing cryptic clues to buried treasure, I want to strive as hard as I can.  Whatever the struggle we're facing, the world isn't going to play fair and it's going to hurt if we fail.

Hopefully it's not too gauche to quote my own article about another game I worked on:
[This game] is like climbing a mountain it's about a titanic struggle against a cold, hostile environment, striving to be the first to the top. It's about facing a challenge and working to overcome it. The greater the challenge, the more triumphant the victory.

As a player, I'd like to use every tool in my arsenal to achieve a triumphant victory (or at least manage a narrow escape).

As a GM, on the other hand, I can't do any of that.  Struggling with all my might against the world or against the players' plans isn't helpful.  Being in control of the world, the GM is no longer a reasonable adversary.  This leads to an important principle:

When you have creative control over the world, striving is meaningless.

If the players want to strive the way I do when I'm a player, there needs to be a dividing line.  On one side of the narrative boundary the players strive and contend for glory.  On the other side the GM manages a world for them to contend within.  Crossing the boundary in either direction ruins the game.
  • If the players control the world their achievements are made meaningless, like they've been playing with cheat mode turned on.
  • If the GM controls the players' characters, the players' achievements are also made meaningless, as their characters have become merely puppets for the director.

So what kind of game is the GM playing?  How can they be successful?  For me, it's twofold:
  • presenting a living world
  • making the adventure be worth the struggle
A living world is a tall order.  As much as I'd like to build my own creation and see its every detail, making a whole world is beyond any of our abilities.  Instead, I'd like to make enough of a world that it feels like there's always more to be seen.  Make enough agents and cities and forests for a first glance, then keep building under the spotlight of the players' gaze.

To make the world feel alive, it should act on its own, apart from any plans of the players.  If the party doesn't go down to the docks, the ship headed for the Summer Isles will still leave.  If the party never comes back to the old mission, goblins will probably move back in.  The world is full of its own comings and goings and generally pays little mind to the party unless they make it take notice.

Presenting this world well is also part of the measure of a GM.  An intricate clockwork realm entirely in your head is worth very little.  The best enjoyment in life is best shared.

All that worldbuilding is good, but I believe it's not sufficient.  Putting dangers and rewards in the world is necessary, so the players have something to strive for and struggle against, but just putting it there isn't quite enough.

The players need to know that the dangers are worthy of their skill, that the rewards are worth attaining.  In short, the players need to know that the adventure is worth the struggle.

To that end, it's my job as GM to give the players a hint of where the adventure lies, to tantalize them with treasure, to raise the stakes to make sure they know this is an adventure worthy of their efforts.

As a player, I think I'm probably somewhere in the old-school camp, poking at rocks, ambushing enemies, and expecting death around every corner.  As a GM, I'm probably in some muddled mix of narrative, story-game, simulation, whatever the kids these days are calling it.  Those of you better versed in theory, I'd appreciate your insights.

But as I said, this is all just about the kind of roleplaying game I like best.  If none of this sounds like fun to you, go find your fun and know you're doing it just as right as anyone else.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Summer Isles

Jewels in the sea, the Summer Isles are the last vestiges of the splendor of the fallen Empire.  They're a rich and warm place, of silk and persimmons, elephants and lavender, bronze and frankincense.

The first elven city on this side of the world was founded in the Summer Isles, nearly two hundred years ago.  From this city, a viceroy has long governed the colonies, on behalf of the lost emperor (long may he reign).

Once the Summer Isles were the gateway to all the North, a comfortable center of administration and trade.  Now they're a stranded borough of Old Empire, fading in the sun.


They say many things about the Isles.  Choose three rumors from the table below.
  • One of them is abundantly true, not exaggerated in the slightest, but it's in danger of failing.
  • One is absolutely false, though it used to be true before the apocalypse.
  • One is twisted: with an unexpected purpose, using a strange method, or it is not like it appears.
Rumors (d8)
1A great fleet of ships, swift and terrible.
2Bountiful fields, a place untouched by hunger.
3Mighty workshops churning out machines and cloth and cannons.
4Fine jewelers and watchmakers who design intricate devices.
5Wise astrologers who study the heavens and learn the secrets of the stars.
6Alchemists and doctors who can cure many ailments.
7A library where knowledge from the empire is stored.
8A great many people, ten thousand elves or more.

First impressions

Choose a few first things to notice upon arriving at the Summer Isles.

Things to notice (d10)
1giants gathering sap from thorny incense trees
2fragrant jasmine and roses
3great stone fortifications with rusting cannons
4many small boats, gathering kelp and diving for pearls
5a large encampment of elves on a mission
6distant music: singing and stringed instruments
7many-colored banners flying in the breeze
8gunfire and urgent military drills
9smoke everywhere from coal fires
10a great ship preparing to set sail


Visiting the Summer Isles is not easy.  They're a few days' sail south of the mainland, and society there is closely guarded.  Choose three rules that apply in the Isles:

Regulations (d8)
1Weapons may only be carried with a license from the office of the viceroy.
2Chartered companies have a monopoly on each major trade good. You will need their permission to sell your wares.
3Pay a toll for docking a ship, a toll for unloading goods, and a toll for entering the city.
4Papers from the government of your home city are required to set foot in the Isles.
5Show proper respect for spirit houses and temple processions. Temple law is strict here.
6Curfew during the middle of the night and during the midday rest.
7Register upon arrival with the local lodge of your secret society and wear their emblem, as they will be responsible for your good conduct.
8Outsiders must be invited by a local official if they wish to visit.


The viceroy is supposed to be the representative of the emperor (long may he reign), but no ships from the empire have been seen in fifty years.  The old viceroy, the last one properly appointed, made it clear before he died that his lieutenant was to be in charge until contact with the empire could be restored.

It's been nearly ten years.  She knows the empire isn't coming back, but as viceroy, it's her role to maintain the facade of empire.  Her position is a dangerous one, balancing between competing forces that threaten to tear the colonies apart.

(Choose some serious personality flaws for the viceroy.)

Under pressure from all sides, the viceroy has two main goals right now:

Priorities (d10)
1Strengthen her position by taking down a rival: having them arrested, killed, shamed, or exiled.
2Gain the support of someone powerful: lavishing them with gifts, giving them an important position, making a public display of support.
3Eliminate a heterodox religious movement.
4Correct a wayward colonial city.
5Interfere with the local city government here, much to the displeasure of the Lord Mayor.
6Mount an expedition to search for one of the lost elven colonies in the North.
7Reestablish a resource-producing colony that was lost during the apocalypse: wheat, gold, tobacco, timber, etc.
8Revoke the charter or trading license of one of the major companies.
9Send agents to infiltrate an organization.
10Find a good scapegoat for the problems in the Summer Isles to deflect blame.

The viceroy is charged with governing the entirety of the Northern Lands.  All the elven cities, all the colonies and missions of the region (and even the humans, giants, and goblins) are all officially under her domain.  Most surviving elven cities still send imperial taxes to the viceroy.

Over the course of the story, the viceroy might have to choose between maintaining her position and maintaining the entire colonial venture itself.  Will she see another govern a prosperous world in her place, or will she have a long reign as the last viceroy of the North?

Try rolling up your own Summer Isles:

the Summer Isles
Rumorstrue but failing
false since the apocalypse
Things to notice
Priorities of the viceroy

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Firelock on your shoulder

Swords and knives died in the apocalypse, or nearly so.  Today's weapons strike fire and breathe clouds of smoke, and they mean business.  A lead ball in your gut will likely spell death, so don't start a firefight unless you're sure to win.

Truth be told, the old weapons aren't entirely dead.  Spears never run out of ammunition, and you don't have to keep your axe as dry as your powder.  But guns are the great equalizer, needing neither strength nor especial skill.  And while the arms themselves are rather dear, shot and powder are quite cheap.

Let's take a look at how the lock itself puts fire to the gunpowder.


The oldest firearms were just a cannon with a little hole in the side.  You pour some gunpowder down the barrel, pack some kind of shot in next, and you hold a bit of flame up to the little hole so the gunpowder inside can explode.  It was basically a two-man job.

matchlock being fired
Today's firearms are a bit more practical, with a spring-loaded match holder to free up your hands for aiming.  A matchlock holds a piece of smoldering rope (called a "match") at the ready.  When you pull the trigger, the lock swings forward, touching the lit match to a little pan of gunpowder, setting off the main charge inside the barrel.

an old matchlock, with the pan open and the match unlit (Rainer Halama)
Matchlocks have one big advantage: they're very simple, which means they can be repaired by just about any blacksmith.  (This also makes them cheaper than other guns.)

They also have a few disadvantages:
  • Everyone can see (and smell) your smoldering match.
  • Rain or even damp air can put out your match.
  • Wind can blow sparks from a lit match, igniting other gunpowder nearby.
Matchlocks have been a favorite trade item since the elves first came to the North.  Just about every tribe and village has a few, no matter how far inland you go.


You know how a lighter works, where you spin a thumbwheel against a striker to form sparks?  That's pretty much how a wheellock works, too.

wheellock pistol (the circular silver part is the wheel that spins)

A wheellock is named for its wind-up wheel that spins against a striker when you pull the trigger.  This throws sparks into the pan, setting fire to the powder.

wheel with winding key still on it (Ian, Forgotten Weapons)

Wheellocks are better than matchlocks in some ways:
  • They can fire in just about any weather, other than the hardest of rain and wind.
  • They're very responsive, with little delay between pulling the trigger and the gun going off, making it easier to aim at a moving target.
But there are a few disadvantages too:
  • You can't wind up the wheel without a key of some kind.  If you lose the key in battle, you might as well be carrying a club, not a firearm.
  • Wheellocks are delicate, fiddly weapons.  Only specialized gunsmiths (and possibly jewelers) will have the tools and expertise needed to fix a damaged wheellock.
Wheellocks are the gentleman's firearm of the fallen empire, a complex weapon from a more civilized age.


Today's latest invention is the flintlock, a simpler, better firearm, the product of modern ingenuity.  Flintlocks make fire by swinging a piece of flint against a steel plate.  The steel flips up, uncovering the pan as sparks fly in.

flintlock just after firing (Brian Nesslage)

Because the steel cover keeps the powder in the pan, you can keep a flintlock loaded and ready to fire at a moment's notice.

The only downside to flintlocks is that they're very new, not readily available yet.  Give it a few years and they'll be just about everywhere.

so much smoke (Christopher Delano, Don Reimert)

Other features

Firearms come in two general lengths: muskets and pistols.  Muskets are the standard weapon, 3 to 5 feet long (1 to 1½ meters).  Pistols are only good at short range, but they're light and concealable.  (Though you'd better not light the match on your matchlock pistol before tucking it under your coat.)

Muskets can be improved by carving spiral grooves down the inside of the barrel, to help the bullet spin.  With one of these rifled muskets (or just rifles) a good shooter can hit a target at a very long range.

double-barreled wheellock made for Emperor Charles V

A double-barreled weapon is like two firearms built side by side.  Load both barrels, put some powder in both pans, and you've got a gun that can be fired twice in a row.

pepperbox flintlock, where the barrels rotate into place

Pepperboxes and revolvers go even further in that direction, with six or so rounds all loaded up at once, rotating into place as you need them.  (Revolvers have a cover over each pan so they can be kept loaded like a flintlock.)

matchlock revolver (Bullenwächter)

Large-caliber weapons pack a serious punch, tearing a hole through just about anything.  Big guns like these have a nasty kick, so they tend to be special-made for humans and giants who can handle them.

Many long guns (muskets and rifles) have a mount for a bayonet, a long blade that can be attached to the end and used in close quarters like a spear.

fix bayonets and advance (bantarleton)

Some firearms are a bit too fancy, with gold leaf, mother-of-pearl inlay, or secret compartments.

(Every now and then, some gunsmith gets it in their head to combine a firearm with a sword or an axe or silverware to make some kind of monstrosity.)


In a typical elven town, prices like these wouldn't be out of the ordinary, assuming the items are available:

5d1 round of powder and shot
$120 rounds of powder and shot
$10matchlock musket/pistol
$20flintlock musket/pistol
$30matchlock rifle
$50wheellock musket/pistol
$50flintlock rifle
$100wheellock rifle

Other features can drive the price up quite a bit.  A wheellock pepperbox pistol with silver inlay and a secret compartment could easily run you $500, and you'll have to have it custom made.

Out in the wilderness, at some far off village or trading post, prices could easily be three times as high, with very little selection.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great kingdoms long ago

Before the apocalypse, before the elven ships ever came across the sea, there was a human civilization that rose and fell, leaving traces to this very day.

Mississippian mound-builder society

Decide what they say about this society, if anyone still tells stories about it.

What was it like? (d6)
1A peaceful utopia on a lake that fell to betrayal.
2A maritime society based on an island that sank beneath the waves.
3Five cities that warred and traded, with high kings and legendary craftsmen.
4A mighty empire whose god-king ruled with an iron fist, whose capital was consumed by the forest.
5-6There was no ancient lost society. The height of human civilization is yet to come. (Stop rolling here.)

Inca procession (Ned Seidler)

How long ago did it fall? The older it is, the less remains of it today.

When did it fall? (d6)
1-2Over a thousand years ago. Only one culture still remembers it. A few ruins and artifacts survive.
3-5A few centuries ago. Early elven explorers heard legends about it. Artifacts and stories are handed down in families with a veneer of myth.
6During the apocalypse. Some elders alive today were part of it. Leaders appeal to the old society as a source of legitimacy. Treaties from those days are still invoked. Sites are still known and many artifacts still in use.

Easter Island statues (Fernando Baptista)

Choose 1-3 remnants of the old civilization.

What signs are left? (d6)
1-2great stone statues of people or animals
3-4golden amulets, breastplates, wands, figurines
5-6earthen mounds as holy places, fortifications, burial sites of ancient kings
7-8animal figures across the landscape, cut from turf or earth
9-10hidden knowledge passed down by a few

Scythian golden ornaments (Ariadne Galleries)

In my own version of the setting, there are two ancient societies:
  • One religion among the humans originated in one of the five cities that fell over a thousand years ago, in the interior of the continent.  Heavily-worn, cryptic stone statues and odd bits of goldwork remain.
  • One human tribe is all that remains of a mighty kingdom that fell a hundred years ago, a generation or two before the apocalypse.  The elves have heard legends of it, but don't believe they're true.  The kingdom left earthen holy burial mounds with treasures inside.  Their descendants appeal to the memory of the old kingdom all the time, keeping up the royal lineage, the old religion, and its complex taboos and laws.

Try rolling up your own:

great civilizations of old
What was it like?
When did it fall?
What signs are left?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Misfits in the backwoods

The frontier's no place for sensible folk. Safety and comfort are back at home, where wiser people go about their lives. But out in the wilderness you find people who just...aren't quite normal.

Baron Ungern

When the party meets someone, choose one trait from the list below.
If they're even moderately important, or if the party wants something from them, choose two.
If that person keeps showing up, introduce a third trait that isn't obvious at first.

Personality (d12)
1stubbornThey almost never change their views.  They won't give up on a goal, but they also won't admit fault.  Loyal, dedicated, and unchanging.
2guilt-riddenGuilty and broken, full of self-hate for what they've done or how they've failed.  They try to keep their brokenness hidden.
3arrogantThinks everyone is beneath them.  They treat you as a fan and a supporter, or else an enemy or a nuisance.  No one is their equal.
4eager to pleaseOverly eager to please, they'll say whatever it takes to make an interaction go more smoothly.  They're always saying what they think you want to hear, or whatever lie avoids a difficult truth.  Inspiring words, but broken promises.
5inspiredThey have a grand vision for the future, a dream and the drive to pursue it.
6optimisticThey see the best in everything and everyone, even if it's unwarranted.  Always finding the silver lining in a difficult situation.  Won't acknowledge what's wrong.
7gung hoImpatient and eager to get down to work.  The time for thinking and talking is past; it's time for doing.
8penny-wiseFocused so much on the details that their larger goal suffers.  Always reorganizing the supplies or saving pennies from the budget, missing the big picture.  But with such focus, they're good at the details.
9burnedDeeply wounded by something in their past, they're always avoiding it.  It's something big: war, hunger, home, family, success, forgiveness, etc.
10unsettledAlways looking to pull up stakes and move on down the road, looking for a new opportunity or new surroundings.  Staying too long with the same job, same home, or same companions makes them uneasy.
11addictedDependent on a drug, they get irritable and shaky when they can't get it.  (fermented drinks from corn or potatoes, potent tobacco tea, complex distilled and flavored alcohol like rum and retsina, strange plants to smoke and chew)
12panickyBad under pressure.  Prone to panic, freeze up, or fall into despair when the going gets tough.

If you can't decide, roll for two random traits, then make them work together even if they seem contradictory.


random personality

Let's try a few combinations for someone in charge of a trading post:
  • Gung ho and addicted.  They're working hard, putting up new buildings and making deals, but if there's no newt-leaf in the next shipment, someone's getting hurt.
  • Unsettled and guilt-ridden.  On the run from what they did back home.  They'll stay here for a time, but they'll leave the trading post behind soon enough.
  • Penny-wise and panicky.  They'll haggle over a single raccoon fur and make sure the shelves are dusted, but when war looms and goods become scarce, they'll fall into despair and panic.
  • Optimistic and inspired.  They see a town growing up here one day, a great meeting place, a shining beacon in the wilderness, and their vision is contagious.  Nothing fazes them: all setbacks are temporary, all progress leads surely to the goal.
Capt. James Cook

For a true monster, whether pitiful or villainous, take one of these traits to an extreme:
  • Burned.  They've seen hunger in their past and they'll do anything to avoid it again.  Hoarding supplies, never sharing a morsel or letting anyone in, they'll kill you for your rations at the first hint of scarcity.
  • Inspired.  Their great dream for the future is persuasive and all-encompassing.  A visionary cult leader, they've convinced so many others to dream the same future.  Everything that crosses their path is fodder for the goal.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Roll up a human tribe

The wilderness is a dangerous place and humans are some of its most fearsome inhabitants.  Bold, intelligent tool-users that can pursue prey for days, humans are a species you want on your side, not chasing you through the forest into an ambush.

If you need a quick human tribe, get your dice out and start rolling.  (If any results don't work, the first roll is what they did before the apocalypse; roll again to see what they do nowadays.)

I'll roll up an example as we go along, results in italics.

(M. François-Girard)

Start with this tribe's reputation: what people say about them, whether it's true or not:

Reputation (d10)
1fearsome and ferocious, avoid at all costs
2treacherous snakes
3old-fashioned, stuck in their ways
4generous and kind-hearted
5bold and courageous, good to have at your side
6clever and hard working
7stern and cold, but very reliable
8pitiful wretches, deserving only scorn and charity
9keepers of secret wealth
10skilled craftsmen who know secret ways

1: This tribe is said to be fearsome and ferocious, to be avoided at all costs, so of course the party will end up in their territory.

(Reza Afshar)

The starving time broke everything down and when the survivors rebuilt their world, something was lost forever.  See what these people lost in the dark days:

Starving Time (d10)
1They lost their history.
2No one is left who can do their craft.
3Their sacred items went missing.
4No one knows how to plant or harvest their old crop.
5They're all that's left of a powerful city/kingdom.
6Several groups of refugees came together to form this tribe.
7There was once a great hunt among this tribe.
8They abandoned their old religion.
9Danger drove them far from their old home.
10The elders are ashamed of what they did in the dark days.

3: Their sacred items went missing after the apocalypse.  What if they were rediscovered?  And what if half the tribe had converted to a new religion and didn't want them anymore?

(David Wright)

So what do they eat?  Food influences just about everything, from settlement to warfare to technology. Roll for their most traditional food, then if you'd like more depth, roll again for their next main food source.

Food (d20)food/methodsettlementswarfarerelated features
1-3hunting(d12) 1-3: deer/moose, 4-6: wild pigs, 7: buffalo, 8: mountain goats, 9: rabbits, 10-11: turkeys, 12: quail/pheasants(d6) 1-3: lean-tos, 4-5: hides over a wooden frame, 6: dugout housesarchery, sneaking up on enemiesanimal disguises, hunting expeditions, smoking meats, scraping and stretching hides, drums
4-7fishing(d12) 1-3: salmon, 4: cod, 5-7: trout, 8-9: herring, 10: snapping turtles, 11-12: bullfrogs(d6) 1-2: bark over a wooden frame, 3-4: wooden plank houses, 5: houses on stilts over water, 6: living on boatsspears, nets, hiding in marshesswimming, small boats, smoking and drying fish, fish grease, shell beads
8-11gathering(d12) 1: huckleberries, 2-4: wild rice, 5: ferns, 6: bird/turtle eggs, 7: maple sap for sugar and syrup, 8-10: acorns, 11-12: digging for clams(d6) 1-2: simple grass huts, 3-4: conical bark huts, 5-6: small hide tentsknives, driving enemies awaybaskets, stones for mashing and grinding food, trade with other tribes
12-16farming(d12) 1-3: potatoes, 4-5: corn, 6: beans, 7: pumpkins/squash, 8: sunflowers, 9: peanuts, 10-11: turkeys, 12: pigsfortified towns that move every few years (d6) 1-2: plank houses with a wooden palisade, 3: log houses with a simple fence, 4: sod-roofed wooden houses in a raised earthen enclosure, 5: thatched wooden huts on a hill, 6: wooden longhouses in a palisade on a raised hillaxes, spears, burning down townspowerful chiefs, pottery, copper ornaments, stones for grinding food, burning forests to clear undergrowth
17-20whaling/sealing(d12) 1-6: hunting on the open sea, 7-9: waiting in bays and inlets to drive whales to the beach, 10-12: hunting seals/otters on shore(d6) 1-2: communal plank houses, 3-4: small stone huts, 5-6: hides over wood/bone framesharpoons, raiding partieslarge canoes, catamarans, sails, woodworking, oil lamps, teamwork, large feasts

6, 2, 6: salmon fishers who live on their boats.  They use spears and nets, drying and smoking their catch to preserve it.  Living on the water, these people can strike coastal settlements at will, and can disperse and sail away when pursued.

Adding a bit more variety, I rolled again: 17, 1, 3: whaling/sealing on the open sea, with stone huts and raiding parties.

(Herb Kawainui)

Humans build boats for everything from ponds to rivers to the ocean. This tribe's method of subsistence may suggest a certain type of boat, or you can roll.

Boats (d10)
1no boats at allsledges pulled by dogs over grass and snow
2raftslogs lashed together as a floating platform
3-5birchbark canoeswooden frame covered in birchbark, easy to carry over portages
6-7seaworthy dugoutsdugouts up to 50 feet long, made of cedar, fir, or redwood, with steam-shaped sides
8-9dugouts w/sailsocean-going dugouts with sails to allow long voyages
10sails and outriggersocean-going dugouts with sails and outriggers for added stability

3: birchbark canoes, which changes their focus a bit.  These people aren't sailing out on the open ocean, they're sticking to the bays and channels, retreating to rocky islets off shore, but also raiding far upriver.

(Ray Troll)

This tribe probably treats captives from raids or warfare the same way the other tribes nearby do, but if you'd like something different, roll:

Captives (d4)
1enslavedCaptives are kept as slaves to do menial work.
2ransomedCaptives are ransomed back to their own people.
3cannibalizedCaptives are killed and eaten.
4adoptedCaptives are adopted as members of the tribe.

4: adopted.  Those they spare in battle are adopted into the tribe, raised as their own.  Those who won't join are dealt with swiftly.

Next up: the inner workings of the tribe.

For faster results, try this automatic roller below.  It doesn't work on mobile (yet), but I just threw it together, so I'm just glad it does something at all.

random human tribe
what they lost

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Heed the call, come down the mountain!

Once a year, the lonely giants come down out of the mountains.  To trade, to mate, to share gossip and news, they all gather and spend a few days in fellowship.

(Ray and Sue travel photography)

Giants are a solitary race, making their rounds in the high country, checking their traps, digging up roots, and generally not talking to anyone.  But every spring, all giants go to the nearest Gathering.

Coming together

Giantish mating season is in the spring, anywhere from the spring equinox to midsummer's day.  Each gathering happens in the same place and same time from year to year, led only by consensus and tradition.  Many gatherings have been going on since before the apocalypse.

(Alfredo Rodriguez)

The annual gathering is a big deal: dozens of giants show up, but many other people also come to trade and parley.  Choose one or two kinds of visitors:

Visitors (d12)
1-3spokesmen from a nearby human tribe
4-7humans come to trade
8-9goblin friends from nearby woods/swamps
10representatives of elven companies that want to hire giants or trade with them
11an elven missionary
12major annual trade fair for the entire region


The gathering is always opened with an official ceremony.

Opening (d12)
1-3welcoming ceremonyGuests, giants new to the area, and newborn giants are introduced and welcomed by the group.
4-5roll callEach attendee speaks their name and abbreviated lineage.
6-7recitationProminent attendees recite a traditional story or poem, each one sharing a different part.
8-9story of the apocalypseAn elder giant tells a colorful tale of the apocalypse, garbed in metaphor.
10-11callingThey loudly call out in unison for any other giants in earshot (miles away) to come and join them.
12elven songThey sing an elven song, taught to their ancestors before the apocalypse.

Each year a monument of some kind is erected to commemorate the gathering. At a site that's been used for generations there will be many of these monuments, or there might be one large monument, a new part being added each year.


Commemoration (d6)
1-2totem poles carved into natural figures
3standing stones with marks painted on them
4complex knotted cords tied/wrapped around trees or poles
5cairn of small stones over the skull of a giant who died this past year
6large, flat stone with a cache of tiny figurines buried beneath


Gatherings are always a time for discussion.  Giants speak directly, take their time to ponder, and eventually come to conclusions.  They accept disagreement more readily than other species.

(Charles Babault)

Choose three topics: what the giants are pleased about, what the giants are upset about, and what the giants have divided opinions on.

Opinions (d6)
1human hunting practices
2goblins and giantish traps
3how the giants of this region are getting along with one another
4quality of the game being trapped these days
5behavior of an elven community
6rumors of a great opportunity


Many events go on during the days of the gathering. Choose three for this year. (Mating, trade, and entrusting youngsters to elders happen at every gathering.)

(Alexander Romanov)

Events (d6)
1sportsfeats of strength, wrestling, tug of war
2tobaccodrinking a black soup made from tobacco, in a stupor afterwards
3businessdiscussion about goings-on, calls for action, complaints and gossip
4news from outsidersvisitors from other species address the group with news
5storiesreciting one's lineage, reciting poetry, telling tales
6marriage/divorcefollowers of the elven religion marry before mating and divorce afterwards

Trade goods

Choose several major trade goods that are always brought to this gathering.

Trade goods (d10)
1-2food(d6) 1: honey, 2: dried/fermented meat, 3: roots, 4: nuts, 5: fish grease, 6: dried berries
3-4animals(d6) 1: smelly yaks, 2: ornery llamas, 3: gentle alpacas, 4: furry bactrian camels, 5: stubborn caribou, 6: longhorned elven cattle
5-6handicrafts(d6) 1: ivory/antler scrimshaw and carved figurines, 2: small wooden dolls, 3: carvings out of stone (jet, soapstone, jade, serpentine), 4: braided rope, 5: woven belts, 6: tooled leather goods
7-8outside products(d6) 1: pottery, 2: woven fish-trapping baskets, 3: knives, 4: copper pots, 5: steel traps, 6: muskets
9-10found/trapped(d6) 1-3: furs, 4: horns/antlers, 5: jade/turquoise, 6: copper

(anonymous St. Lawrence islander)

After several days, the gathering officially comes to a close. There's a brief ceremony, then everyone parts ways until next year.

Let's roll up a random gathering:
  • The annual gathering at Silver Lodge is a major trade fair for the entire region.  Merchants from many days' travel gather together to buy and sell fishing baskets, woven belts, rope, and stone carvings.  Goblins in particular come here to buy things they need (like rope) but don't make themselves.
  • It is opened with a deafening call: dozens of giants calling out in unison to kin and strangers alike to come and join the gathering, their booming voices echoing over the land.
  • Many standing stones are here, one for each year the gathering has taken place.  Each giant attending paints their symbol on this year's stone.
  • After much discussion, it seems they're pleased with how goblins have been leaving their traps alone this past year.  They're upset about how giants in the area have been quarreling with each other.  Some of the giants are upset about humans crossing into their territory to hunt; others are pleased with how the humans are behaving.
  • There's a time when outsiders are invited to speak to the assembled giants, bringing news and presenting overtures from their people.  Afterwards the giants take turns telling stories and reciting poems.
  • Giants around here are generally followers of the elven religion, so they conduct marriages at the beginning of the gathering, mate, then get divorced at the end.  (Mating otherwise just wouldn't be proper.)
So what do you suppose your party would do at a giantish gathering?