Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Kingdom come

This is a dark and fallen world, but there's a new day coming. The promised land is just around the bend; the new world we've been hoping for is here any day now.

A generation ago the world fell in darkness.  The starving time killed off most who lived, and their bodies lay upon the ground with no one to bury them.

People these days grew up hearing tales of the end of the world.  It's only natural that their view of the world involves change.  Most people believe the ultimate destination is coming, a new kingdom to be built on earth.  Most people think it's going to be better.  Some don't.

Through the trial to the glory

Pretty much everyone agrees that there's a step that has to happen first, some kind of trial or transformation.

Scientific and industrially-minded people think this is going to be an age of reason, a time when superstition and backwardness are banished and a glorious new age dawns upon the world.  Their faith sustains them as much as it does anyone else.  They're quite sure that education is the key, that all the backward tribes and hidebound bureaucrats will recognize the brilliance of the shining future they intend to build, if they're only willing to learn.

A common refrain is repentance, a call for the people to turn away from sinful ways to reach the better future.  A prophet among the humans near Lake Ataska teaches that repentance will reveal the way to the promised land, a bountiful place for those whose homeland has been lost.

Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (Edward Hicks)

Old Orthodox elves are less optimistic.  They mourn the loss of the great temple in the old homeland and they refuse to accept that the Emperor himself (long may he reign) could be dead (though concede that no one has heard from him in quite some time).  They believe there will be still darker days ahead, but that in the darkest times the Emperor will be revealed and the temple will be restored and all will be well in the world again.

The New Ancestors movement has taken a darker turn.  These are elves who also mourn the loss of so many temples and the ancestral spirits enshrined within, but they've decided to replace the spirits with those of new elves.  For now it means they'll be capturing and killing elves, enshrining their spirits in makeshift houses, but they know the ancestors will see their faithful obedience and return to the shrines to protect the living once again.

The new kingdom

A typical message of the new era to come has two parts: a period of trial and a new way of things.

Trial (d4)
1repentanceThe people must give up their sinful ways.
2judgementEveryone will be judged for their deeds.
3warStrife and warfare will wash over the world.
4enlightenmentIgnorant and backward thinking must be replaced by knowledge and wisdom.

New way (d6)
1the promised landA new and bountiful land is promised to those who have wandered far from their old home.
2invulnerability in battleThough so many have fallen in battle with our enemies, this new way will surely bring victory if we are worthy.
3abundance and prosperityDirt-poor folks are glad to hear that a time is coming when there shall be no hunger, with a roof over every head.
4deliverance from evilBeaten-down people seek freedom from oppression and evildoers.
5peace among the nationsAfter so much war and strife, an era of peace is surely at hand.
6apocalypticThe dark days came to cleanse wickedness from the earth, and they will come again right soon.

Roll up your own message of things to come:
message of things to come
new way

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Memory transference

When the elves first showed up in the North, they brought many wondrous inventions with them, but one of the strangest was their power of memory transference.

It's a learned magic, a skill taught to every elven child.  With this power, one person can touch an object and imbue it with a memory or a thought.  Another who knows the skill can recognize the tell-tale markings on the object and retrieve the memory into their own mind.  It's best done using a wand or a brush of some kind, but simple thoughts can even be conveyed with nothing but your fingertips.

You and I know this power as writing.  For us it's entirely unremarkable, but to an illiterate society, writing is magic.

An incident from the 1620s might illustrate this better.  One missionary sent a note to another asking for a fresh canoe, and the Hurons traveling with him were amazed that it worked:
They said that that little paper had spoken to my brother and had told him all the words I had uttered to them here, and that we were greater than all mankind.  They told the story to all, and were filled with astonishment and admiration at this mystery.
They weren't fools, just people confronted with a radical new technology.  Theirs was a world where the spoken word was the only way to convey thoughts.  Reading someone's thoughts from a piece of paper was tantamount to reading their mind from far away.

handwriting in the Cherokee writing system

In Signs in the Wilderness a similar discovery of writing is underway.  Humans, giants, and tree goblins got on just fine without it for all the thousands of years they've lived in the North.  Now elves have shown up and brought writing with them.

Giants are completely unimpressed.  They believe (like the ancient Gauls) that writing corrupts the mind, robbing you of your powers of memory.  To a degree, they're right.  No one who relies on the crutch of writing can remember the copious amounts of verse that an oral storyteller can recite.

Humans are in awe of the power of writing, but they don't have any widespread theories about it yet, other than considering it some kind of elven magic.

Goblins, however, know exactly what writing is.

Trapped spirits of the written word

Tree goblins have experts (shamans) who go into trances and dreams to contact the spirits and interact with them.  They understand that writing holds memories and can speak messages to those who listen.

When you come across a piece of writing, the prudent thing to do is to take it to a shaman.  With their skills, they can contact the spirit in the writing and find out what it knows: not just the message it was tasked with delivering, but other things the spirit has seen and heard.

For this reason, goblins are wary around writing, as they know the spirit trapped in the writing might be listening to every word they say.

Destroying a piece of writing in the right way can release the spirit inside.  If it's a good spirit (or at least a harmless one) a shaman would prefer to release it so it doesn't become angry and hurt people.  But if it's already vengeful and evil, the shaman will probably bury the written material far from home to keep the spirit from getting out and causing trouble.

Truth and superstition

This is probably all just superstition.  Writing probably works just like it does in our own world, with no spirits or memory magic involved.

But there's a chance that the goblins are right, that writing really does trap a spirit that remembers what you tell it.

Personally, I like to have about a 20% chance of truth to these kinds of beliefs.  That's low enough that it's probably false, but high enough that you can't discount it entirely.

If you're not sure about the nature of writing, roll to see what's really going on:

trapped spirits of the written word
the truth

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Towns of the human folk

Humans are one of the more dangerous and capable species you might find in the wilderness.  Here are some tables to find out what a human settlement is like.

First you need to know what kind of humans these are.  If you don't know the tribe they're from, roll up a new one.

Signs of settlement

Human activity isn't confined to town.  As you approach the settlement (within about a mile or less) you're likely to come across signs of its presence.

Signs of settlement (d6)
1smokeThin columns of smoke can be seen in the distance.
2trailsA narrow trail, trampled by years of use, leads to the town.
3gathered plantsTrees have been cut down, branches gathered, reeds cut, sod cut from the ground.
4burned areasIntentionally-set fire has swept through this area in the last few months, clearing away undergrowth.
5soundsSounds can be heard from the town while it is still out of view: people talking, dogs barking, singing, chopping down trees.
6challengeThey notice you first and send someone out to you.

Attitude towards outsiders

Humans aren't usually friendly to outsiders who show up unannounced.  Roll to see how they respond to your visit.

Attitude (d10)
1ambushThey ambush intruders, attempting to kill them.
2-3hostileOutsiders are driven away by a loud and ferocious show of arms.
4-5waryThe leaders want to speak with outsiders and encourage them to leave as soon as possible.
6-7tradeThey try hard to sell things to anyone who visits: something they produce or trade for.
8theftOutsiders are robbed (possibly after being invited to spend the night) then thrown out.
9-10invitingVisitors are invited to stay in the leader's home.

The town itself

The traditional houses and food of this tribe may suggest a certain kind of location, or you can roll randomly on the table below.  Even if the other people of their tribe typically live a certain way, the people of this settlement might have a different kind of home or way of getting food, especially if they've picked them up from a neighboring tribe.

Site (d12)
1-3on the shore or on the banks of a stream/river
4-6on the sloping side of a hill
7-9at the highest point around
10-11on a small isle in a lake
12on stilts over water

Most towns are fortified in some way for defense.  (Add 3 to the roll if this is a farming town, subtract 3 if these people live in very simple/temporary houses.)  If the result can't possibly work with this site or their type of houses, roll again.

Fortifications (d20)
≤2well hidden amongst the trees
3-5no attempt at fortification
6-7simple fence
8-11sturdy wooden palisade
12-16ditch (roll again to see what's behind the ditch), filled with (d4) 1-2: nothing, 3, sharp wooden spikes, 4, water
17-18raised earthworks around the town, with a (d6) 1-2 palisade on top, 3-4 steep stone outer face, 5-6 palisade and stone face
≥19town is built on a raised earthen mound (roll again to see how the mound is defended)

Roll up a random human town of your own:

random human town

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Choose your own Gold Rush

Earlier I wrote about what happens when a new resource is discovered and people rush in to stake a claim.  Let's take a look at some choices you can make to make this Something Rush your Something Rush.

What is it?

The big question: what's the resource?

Resource (d12)typical use
1-2gold, silvercurrency, jewelry
3diamonds, rubies, jadejewelry, specialized tools
4-5fur, horn, animal partsclothing, medicine
6fruit, seeds, plant partsfood, healing
7-8coal, whale oilfuel for furnaces, heating, lamps
9iron, flint, coppertoolmaking
10very fertile farmlandgrowing crops, homesteading
11combinedRoll twice (d10) and combine them into one resource.
12rumors of powerRoll again (d10) but it's said to have some strange power.  (20% chance the rumors are true.)

Some of these are straightforward and historical, but if you roll an 11 you'll be making up some strange new resource that's an amalgam of two other ideas.  Let's try a few:
  • 4 (plant parts) + 7 (iron, flint, copper): A tree of the hardest wood that can be grown and worked into useful tools.
  • 2 (gold, silver) + 3 (diamonds, etc.): Jade with veins of silver running through it.
  • 1 (gold, silver) + 4 (plant parts): A plant that has deep roots into the earth, taking in gold as one of its nutrients, resulting in a fruit with gold inside.
  • 8 (farmland) + 5 (animal parts): There's an animal with valuable fur that can easily be raised in captivity, but only with the soil/weather/ecosystem of this one region.

How is it hard to get?

Even once you show up to the place where this rush is happening, you'll still find that the resource is hard to get or hard to work with.

Difficulty (d8)
1deep in the earth
2covered by material that's difficult to remove
3threatened by dangerous creatures/disease/presence
4in difficult terrain, too rugged/cold/dry
5resource itself is hazardous
6difficult to find (thinly spread, nearly extinct, hard to see)
7difficult to transport (fragile, heavy, squishy)
8only found underwater

What are the locals doing?

The people who live in this area are likely to already know about this resource and are getting involved in some way.

Locals (d6)
1They were already extracting/using/trading it and are trying to maintain their control.
2They knew about it but don't like to use it because it's sacred, dangerous, or attracts too much trouble.
3They're joining in the rush alongside everyone else.
4They're selling things/services to the newcomers, trying to get rich.
5They're being forced to work, but they're making plans to revolt, demand proper wages, or otherwise put a stop to their intolerable conditions.
6There are no locals; this area was mostly uninhabited.

What are powerful figures doing?

All this activity has drawn the attention of powerful figures: trade companies, tribal confederations, kings, prophets, the viceroy, etc.  Someone important is going to want a piece of the action.

Powerful figures (d10)
1-2Outsiders don't have enough power to truly control matters.  Expect power struggles between prospectors, local bosses that rise in power, and feuds that flare up from time to time.  This is a lawless and dangerous place.
3-4They control the main route to this place, charging high tolls or ticket fees.  Expect small-time guides and ship captains who say they can get you there another way, but for a price.
5-6You have to get their approval to stake a claim, or else you'll get thrown out and lose what you've gained.  Expect illegal mining operations, legal challenges, and plenty of corruption as rich and well-connected people get ahead in line.
7-8They're trying to take over the supply business, to be the only ones selling supplies to the prospectors.  Expect them to use strongarm tactics to put their competitors out of business, and expect a black market as smugglers bring in supplies anyways.
9-10There's more than one powerful figure trying to control this place.  Roll twice to see what they're each doing.

If you're not sure which options to choose, try this random roller:

random resource rush
powerful figures

(Incidentally, I still haven't figured out how to get this random table roller to work on mobile devices.  If you happen to be a Blogspot expert I could use your help.)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Colonial America" the way Lord of the Rings is "Medieval England"

Working on a brief description for this setting, a metaphor occured to me:
Signs in the Wilderness is to Colonial America as
Lord of the Rings is to Medieval England.

Like all metaphors, it breaks down if you look too closely, but let's see how far it goes.

Home that never was

Both settings are suffused with nostalgia for the olden days, but a gentler, kinder version that never quite existed.

The Shire is right out of the English countryside, an idyllic pastoral landscape of cups of tea and smoking pipes and horse-carts and a pint with the neighbors down at the village pub.  It's quaint and lovely.  But it's also imaginary, a nicely-chosen slice of Merrie Olde England to hearken back to.  The hobbits aren't serfs toiling for a local lord, no one's starving to death, and folks aren't heading off to the smokestacks of the industrial city looking for work.

In short, it's the kind of England Tolkien would have been most comfortable in.  And that's an excellent thing for a story.  Stories aren't just supposed to be good for the reader, but for the writer as well.  Write what you know is good advice; it's equally important to write what you love.

For me, the Shire doesn't feel like home.  Village lanes and horse-carts are like...lightsabers or rodents of unusual size: familiar, but things out of stories.  The Shire is full of foreign names like Eastfarthing, Bucklebury, and Willowbottom.

I'm from a different country, one with names like Poughquag and Conshohocken, Last Chance and Six Mile Run.  The idyllic past is a log cabin in the rainy woods, canoeing down an icy creek, hiking over red-leafed mountains, and thunderstorms on a muggy afternoon.  That's the world of stories from childhood, the slice of yore that never quite was.

A different age

Middle Earth is based on the high to late Middle Ages...more or less.  It's a time of swords and knights and shining citadels.  Gunpowder is just starting to show up, and it's likely to upset everything (if Saruman gets his way).  If you only get one picture in your head of the local technology level, think medieval.

Then again, the usual idea of medieval doesn't entirely line up with history.  Some parts of Middle Earth are a bit further along.  There's a clock in Bag End that would be at home in the 1800s along with Bilbo's waistcoat and handkerchiefs.

Other regions draw inspiration from an older age.  Rohan, in particular, seems closer to the Saxons and Goths of the Migration era.  The hall of Meduseld could be right out of the pages of Beowulf.

Likewise, I'm grounding Signs in the Wilderness in a particular era, more or less.  The core would be the 1700s, with flintlocks and telescopes, but its inspirations go as far forward as the mid 1800s (looking at steam engines and the Gold Rush) and as far back as the 1500s (with matchlocks, galleons, and so many unknown regions).

Doom and glory

Lord of the Rings is a story about impending danger.  There's a great evil in the world, something old and powerful that wants to blot out everything worth saving.  A slim hope is all that remains to try and thwart the onslaught of doom.  Success isn't really about making the world better, but simply keeping any of it alive.  Even if the heroes are victorious, the world will be scarred and battle-weary, leaving the survivors to rebuild.

It's no surprise that Tolkien would write this way.  As a man who served in the trenches of the Great War, he saw firsthand the devastation that England feared, a devastation that tore through Europe again while he was writing his book.  Lord of the Rings wasn't an allegory for the wars of the twentieth century, but those wars were so present in Tolkien's life that I imagine he could not have written a story entirely without them.

Such stories go back further.  A near-hopeless stand against impending doom — this is the legend of King Arthur, leader of Britain's last stand against the pagan invaders.  (Spoiler alert: the pagans won.)  I'd tell you more about what Arthur is about in British folklore, but Arthurian influence is so strong even to this day that I'm sure you're already familiar with the tale.

Over here in America, we're a different kind of people with a different kind of story.  Our tales are about bold individuals who worked hard to make a name for themselves.  They're about taking the raw world around you and molding it into greatness.  Paul Bunyan plowed the west with his great blue ox while Johnny Appleseed planted trees for food and cider all along the frontier.

But the best example of this peculiarly American mindset might be A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Written by Mark Twain (whose place in our country's legends is assured), it's a story about an ordinary man who gets thrown back in time to Arthur's Britain.  Once there, he does what any American would: he rolls up his sleeves, dazzles the yokels, and through bravado, hard work, and good old American know-how, he whips that kingdom into shape and makes it an industrial marvel in the Dark Ages.

While Connecticut Yankee is absurdly chauvinistic and over the top, there's a kernel of truth buried in there.  We Americans have long believed that success is achieved through hard work and ingenuity, available to anyone willing to go out and make it happen.  It's the American Dream and it's all through the mentality of our country, for better or worse.

Signs in the Wilderness isn't about impending doom; it's about great opportunities for those willing to take them.  Success means building something better in the world.  Failure means someone else gets to the opportunity first.

Legacy of the past

Middle Earth is a decaying land, littered with ruins of a better age.  Statues of ancient kings stand taller than anything men can build today.  Old technology can do wondrous things that no one now can copy.  Magic and the elves are leaving the world, never to return.

England, like most of Europe, grew up in the shadow of Rome, mourning in the tragedy of its loss.  Medieval Europe saw itself as a world falling away from the wisdom of the elders, a world where classical authors were the unquestionable experts on every subject. 

There's an interesting Wikipedia article on the world record for the tallest building over time.  For nearly four thousand years mankind built nothing taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.  That's the world of Middle Earth, too, a place where the statues of the Argonath were nearly two thousand years old by the time Frodo glimpsed them, statues that no one could build in those later days.

Skip ahead a bit in that article and you'll see where America grew up, a time when the record kept being broken (usually by Americans).

Both Tolkien's esteemed writing and my own (rather less esteemed) feature an older civilization that's been swept away.  His works conveyed a profound sense of loss and gave a chance to marvel at things long gone.  My hope is to convey a sense of new opportunity in the wake of destruction.

Signs in the Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic world, but its eyes are looking forward, not back.  It's been a generation or two since the Starving Time.  Those who grew up in the new days aren't standing around gawking at the past like their grandparents; they're moving on to build a better future for themselves in the new world.

I'm grateful to be living in such a prosperous age, and thankful that we have access to such great authors as Tolkien.  Hopefully you've read some of his works, firstly because they're excellent, and secondly (though distantly) so that my comparisons in this article might make sense to you.

I also hope this article doesn't come across as too pompous or pretentious.  Tolkien was a college professor who wrote a modern epic; I'm just some uneducated guy with a blog.  If I get even one millionth as many readers, I'll be happy.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Better living through alchemy

They're in every home and shop in the land: paper packets full of powders and tablets, glass bottles of unguents and solutions, pots of foul-smelling pastes.  Everyone swears by the alchemical products of the elves, many bearing the familiar red sign of the Three Spoons company, makers of those horrid pills your grandmother used to make you take.  They're an old-fashioned product for a scientific age.

They don't always work.  Some of them never work.  In fact, it's unclear if alchemists have had any real success since inventing gunpowder.

Most magic isn't real.  But every once in a while it turns out to be true.  Maybe most alchemical solutions are phony, but there's that one gooey liquid that actually turns iron into gold.  Maybe most monsters are just rumors, but the spiny tree-goat turns out to be real.

Signs in the Wilderness is a setting full of rumors and superstitions.  Most of them are false, but just enough of them are true that you can't afford to dismiss any out of hand.  I like a truth rate around 20%, low enough you can rail against superstitious yokels, but high enough there's always a nagging worry in your mind.

When you find some alchemical product on a shelf, check to see what it is:

Form (d20)
1-4powder in a paper envelope
5-7envelope of tablets
8-10thin liquid in a glass bottle
11-13thick, goopy liquid in a glass bottle
14-15pot full of thick paste
16-17dark glass bottle of pills
18-19solid block to be crumbled up or dissolved, wrapped in paper
20something immersed in liquid

Hopefully the label (or some handwritten note) says what this stuff is supposed to do:

Purpose (d10)
1-4medicine(d8) 1-2: cure a particular ailment, 3-4: heal a wound, 5-6: avoid a future health problem, 7: give energy / prevent sleep, 8: dangerous longevity treatment
5-7flammable(d8) 1-3: works like gunpowder, 4-5: firestarting material for wet wood, 6-7: explosives, 8: stuff ignited by water/air
8-9miscellaneous(d8) 1-3: substance that glows for a while, 4-5: help crops grow, 6: caustic acid that eats through just about anything, 7: very strong glue, 8: treatment for a tool/weapon to make it tougher
10transmutationturn one substance into another (d8, roll twice) 1: some kind of stone, 2: water, 3: ash/sand, 4: glass, 5: air / flammable gas, 6: iron, 7: mercury, 8: gold

This stuff is difficult to work with.  The reason might be marked on the label, but it might not:

Problem (d6)
1must be kept away from light/heat/moisture
2fragile, has a reaction if shaken/broken
3ridiculously flammable
4terrible stench, gives off noxious fumes
5stains anything it touches
6more poisonous than you'd like

The big question is how useful this stuff actually is:

Effectiveness (d8)
1-3It doesn't actually do anything.  People say it's working, but in a way you can't see, or that it takes more time, or that you just got a bad batch, or that you need to mix it with something else (that actually works).
4-6It does just a little of what it's supposed to to, but it causes some harm/damage that's small or temporary enough that you might put up with it.  People say that's how you know it's working.
7It does what it's supposed to, more or less, but it has an additional Problem.
8It works as advertised, but it (d6) 1-2: is no longer manufactured, 3-4: is very expensive, 5: is all that's been made so far, 6: will cause an unwanted result days or months after use.

Products like these are common in elven settlements, as well as anywhere among people who trade with the elves.  The further you get from the elven cities, the rarer alchemical products are.

random alchemical product