Friday, September 14, 2018

Gold! (or, riches and chaos)

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

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

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

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

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

Rumors and signs

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

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

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

Riches and trouble

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

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

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

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

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

How the locals respond

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I'm in love this setting. Really interested to see "making a new home in the wilderness."

  2. I was just reading elsewhere about how RPG dragons have become increasingly banal over the years, and now I have a thought. Why not replace a gold rush with a monster rush? Magical beasty bits are great for all sorts of wonders! You even get a side of ecological consequences thrown in for free.

    Put me down for "preaching the word". The whole Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh story's pretty engrossing. And it would be nice to see cleric players trying to proselytize.