Thursday, November 29, 2018

Behind the scenes: generating a completely random adventure

And by "adventure" I mean "bit of campaign setting" or more realistically, "gibberish you could hammer an adventure out of".

I've written up a lot of random tables.  For this post, I'm going to roll up a brand new Signs in the Wilderness adventure and explain the results as I go.  (Normally I don't recommend choosing everything at random.)  At this moment I haven't picked anything out yet, and I'm not going to backtrack along the way, so this is going to be completely at the mercy of the dice and my horribly incomplete tables.

Great opportunities

Let's start with the table of great opportunities, since those are what drive the story.

The first opportunity is an unexplored wilderness.  According to my notes, this could look like an expedition of discovery, charting the wilderness, cataloguing new species, or establishing a claim.  I haven't written up the subtables for this one yet, but that's four (somewhat overlapping) options right there, so I'll roll a d4 and...charting the wilderness it is.  That means I'll need to figure out who wants this wilderness charted and why.  This opportunity is shown by the existence of the unknown country itself, and by competitors being sent to do the same job.  Plenty of open questions.

In the meantime, the second opportunity is wealth, an opportunity for a salesman.  Some indicators of this opportunity: a new invention, shortages or high prices, eager/hungry newcomers, and isolated communities.  This could dovetail well with charting the wilderness.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Random adventure?

Would anyone be interested in reading about an adventure made entirely at the whim of the dice?

I've been writing up a lot of random tables for Signs in the Wilderness.  My usual rule is that if I can't think of three options for a concept, I probably don't have a good sense of that concept yet.  So every time I'm writing down notes for an adventure, I end up building a new random table or expanding an old one.

At this point, I've got enough tables to start rolling up a completely random bit of setting, enough to cause some conflicts, present some interesting stuff to do, and have a bit of the world to adventure in.  I know the random tables are incomplete, so trying to use them for everything would probably fall flat, but it might be an interesting experience to share.

Kick-Up at the Hazard Table, Thomas Rowlandson

So would you be interested in reading along as I try rolling up a completely random adventure/mini-campaign?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Elven delicacies

There's the simple way, then there's the elven way.  Elves have a reputation for complexity and over-engineering, in everything from law to technology to food.  A fine elven meal is hardly complete without a special delicacy, a treat for everyone at the table.

(This is a rather silly post, so if you're just here for wilderness adventures, you should probably look somewhere else.)

Chinese pastries,

Start with its shape.  I'll roll up a random delicacy as we go to show you how it works.

Shape (d12)
1round ball
2flat disc
3long stick
8twisted into a knot
9flattish with a pressed floral pattern
11irregular cluster
12layers of the exterior and filling

Decide what the outside of the delicacy is made of, and then what kind of finish it has.

5: This food is cut/pressed/molded into a diamond or parallelogram shape.

Exterior (d20)
1-4no outer layer around the filling
5candy shell
6mochi (sticky rice candy dough)
7steamed dough
8baked dough
9fried dough
10sugar glaze
12a pepper
14crispy pastry
15a tomato
16hollow/folded pasta
17a raspberry
18sticky rice
20crumbly cookie

14: It's a diamond-shaped crispy pastry.

Finish (d20)
1-2no special finish
3powdered sugar
5edible rice paper
6patterned paper wrapper
8cocoa powder
9crushed walnuts
10shredded coconut
11pine nuts
12dusting of flour
14sesame seeds
19grated cheese
20olive oil / butter

3: Diamond-shaped crispy pastry coated or topped with powdered sugar.


There's a filling inside:

Filling (d20)
1hard candyflavored with (d20) 1: honey, 2: molasses, 3: tomato, 4: pistachio, 5: cheese, 6: lemon, 7: pineapple, 8: peach, 9: coffee, 10: butter, 11: tea, 12: jasmine, 13: lavender, 14: rose, 15: licorice, 16: peppermint, 17: frankincense, 18: salt, 19: rum, 20: roll twice
2chewy sweet (like nougat or taffy)
4creamy filling
5ball of cotton candy
6spongy bread/cake
7crispy cookie/cracker
8candied apricot
10cluster of sesame seeds
12bean paste
14puffed rice
15candied ginger
16fig paste
17dried plum
18soft cheese
19hollow inside
20an inedible trinket with writing on it

19: The pastry is hollow inside.

Anastasiya Sviderska

In polite society, there's a proper way to eat these delicacies.

Method of Eating (d12)
1-2Pick it up with two fingers, but not using your thumb.
3-4Use a spoon.
5-6Use small tongs.
7-8Use chopsticks.
9-10Use a tiny sieve to dip it in tea or coffee.
11Stab it with a sharp skewer.
12Break it apart with a flat knife and a little mallet, then pick up the pieces on the knife.

7: You're supposed to eat this pastry using chopsticks.  Hopefully it's small enough to make that reasonable.

But there's a complication, something that makes these rather awkward.

Complication (d12)
1They are absurdly large.
2They are very small.
3They are eaten together with another delicacy.
4You and your neighbor feed each other.
5Surprisingly, these are the main course of the meal.
6Eat one to show that you would like to leave.
7You will have to pay for each one you eat.
8You are supposed to take one and pass the dish.
9The dish is placed near you, but you are supposed to ask the host to serve you when you want one.
10A large number of them are served to you, but this is not the main course. You are expected to return any you do not eat.
11They are served in a sauce.
12They are eaten in silence.

2: Turns out it's surprisingly small: a tiny, hollow, crispy pastry in a diamond shape coated in powdered sugar, eaten with chopsticks.  I'd eat that.

Let's roll up a few more:
  • A flattish layer of sesame seeds (probably held together with honey or something) with icing on top in a floral pattern, and then more sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  Eaten with chopsticks, but it's understood that you'll pay for each one you eat.
  • An irregularly-shaped crumbly cookie, filled with fig paste, wrapped in edible rice paper.  You take one and pass the dish, then dip it in your tea/coffee with a small sieve.
  • Egg, pressed into the shape of a camel.  (That's it, no exterior or finish.)  Pick one up with two fingers (but not your thumb) and feed it to your neighbor.
  • A long, skinny pepper filled with marzipan and dipped in olive oil.  Eat one to show that you would like to leave.  (I don't want to eat one of these).
  • A ring-shaped folded pasta (like tortellini, I suppose) with a creamy, tea-flavored filling, and sprinkled with poppyseeds.  The dish is placed near you, but you ask your host to serve them to you, then you dip them in your tea.
  • A crispy pastry shaped like a hockey puck, with a walnut inside.  Eaten with your fingers as the main course of the meal.

Roll up an elven delicacy of your own:


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I wouldn't go there if I were you

Every settlement has something wrong with it, some reason why people would rather stay away.  It might not be enough to keep the town completely isolated (if they find gold, people show up no matter how bad it is) but every inhabited place would be better off if something were different.

Poor Village, Ast Ralf

Choose two reasons why folks stay away from this place.  The first reason has led to the second, in some fashion.  (Feel free to tone these down or ramp them up as needed.)

Why do folks stay away? (d10)
1under threat of attack
2hard to get to, difficult terrain
3dirt poor, nothing to offer
4history of disease
5violent and aggressive towards outsiders
6swindlers and thieves prey on travelers
7crop/mine/fishing has nearly run out
8strange cult-like devotion
9bad/dangerous things live around here
10inwardly-focused, no care for the outside world

Joseph Smith, CCA Christensen

Decide who (or what) folks are most afraid of around here.  This might not be their enemy, just someone whose power they fear.

Who/what do they fear most? (d20)
1-5their rivals or competitors
6-7the authorities, government, or the warlord who rules over these parts
8-9a poorly-understood group of people on the other side of a river/mountain/swamp
10far-off invaders rumored to exist
11each other
12-13starvation, running out of necessities
14-15creatures that may or may not exist
16-17the days to come, according to their understanding
18-20whatever their neighbors/allies fear

The Battle of Sitka, Louis Glanzman

Let's try rolling up a few.

First we have a human town, some corn farmers who live in a valley.  They've been attacked many times, so they've become violent and aggressive towards outsiders.  They (along with the other humans in the area) are afraid of creatures rumored to exist in the surrounding woods.

Next is an elven mining settlement.  This place has a history of unexplained disease, which has led the people to turn to a strange religious movement.  Their cult-like devotion and rituals are strange enough that people don't like coming here anymore.  They're afraid of their competitors in the mining business, who would probably use underhanded tactics to drive them out.

Now let's look at a scattered group of giants who gather once a year.  They're very poor, desperately eking out an existence in the high country.  As a result, they never have anything to trade, and have become inwardly-focused, not interested in the goings-on of the larger world.  Starvation is a constant source of fear.

Here's a family group of goblins living in the deep woods.  They're very inwardly-focused, refusing to interact with anyone else.  As a result, they've ended up without medicines goblins normally get in trade, so they're always suffering from ailments.  As suspicious as they are of outsiders, they're even more afraid of each other, constantly on the watch for treachery and attempts to seize power by their kin.

Lastly, let's consider one of the surviving elven cities.  They're known as a den of thieves, a place you should never go if you value your coin more than your life.  Pirates sail from their harbor and raid up and down the coast.  As a result, they're always picking up plagues and diseases from one port or another.  They're afraid of creatures that come out of the sea and drown sailors.  These creatures may not exist, but they certainly believe in them.

Roll up some trouble for your own settlement:

stay away from trouble
first problem
which has led to
what they fear most

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wilderness rules, a wishlist

I'm looking for a good set of wilderness travel rules.  The setting of Signs in the Wilderness is a wide, poorly-explored country, where settlements are rare and scattered.  Travel itself is the framework for adventure.

William Manly, Andy Thomas

So far I've been using homebrew, hacked-up versions of other games' rules.  For many years my usual group had some mix of AD&D 1e/2e rules, using whatever seemed to work well enough.  For the last game I ran, we used a homebrew set of PbtA-style moves for overland journeys, and it worked surprisingly well.  (Some rulesets, like the one from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival, I would be less likely to recommend.)

So what would a perfect set of wilderness travel rules look like?  They would:
  1. cover the most typical situations for this genre of adventure,
  2. yet be flexible or general enough to apply to unexpected situations as needed,
  3. and not take too much time, brainpower, or paper.
Tough Decision, Jim Killen

There's a long list of situations that I'd love to see covered.  I imagine a ruleset that handles all of them would turn out to be far too cumbersome, with page after page of tables, endless die rolls and modifiers, and no one would really know the rules that well.  But if I could have it my way, the rules would be great for:

Travel itself

Start with a day's travel:
  • How far do you get?
  • Do you get lost?
  • Do you get hurt/cold/sick/exhausted?  Does your morale drop?
  • How much food/water do you consume?
For each of those, a few conditions should matter:
  • How are you traveling (on foot, by canoe, etc.)?
  • What kind of terrain are you traveling through?
  • What's the weather like?  (Getting lost in fog, drinking lots of water in the hot sun, etc.)
  • How much are you carrying?
  • How sick/injured are you?

Dealing with obstacles

I'd like rules for obstacles to be general purpose, but there's one particular obstacle that seems to show up all the time in this genre: crossing a creek.  It presents a few particular dangers:
  • getting your powder wet
  • losing your gear and having to search downstream
  • being swept away yourself to be buffeted against rocks
  • getting soaked from head to toe in winter and dying of cold
I'd like to see the party struggle with the decision to cross now, as quickly as they can, or spend hours searching for a safer place to cross while losing valuable time.

There are other kinds of obstacles (portaging canoes, climbing a cliff, spelunking) so I'd enjoy seeing a general rule for crossing an obstacle to movement, but at the same time I appreciate having some of the consequences of danger spelled out for the GM.

Doing things along the way 

  • foraging for food/water
  • noticing things along the way: animal activity, smoke from distant campfires 
  • tracking, following a trail of footprints and other signs
  • trying to cover your own tracks as you go
  • setting an ambush, lying in wait
  • noticing an ambush before it's sprung on you
Again, terrain and weather matter.  It's easy to follow footprints in the snow, but if it starts snowing again they'll be covered up quickly.

Making camp

  • rest, recovering health/morale, based on how good the camp conditions are
  • who/what notices your encampment, based on how well concealed it is, fire, noise, etc.
  • keeping watch, looking out for danger at night

Lewis and Clark, Mort Kunstler

Some of what I'm looking for is rules: concrete ways to decide what happens, to give the hard decisions to the dice and the tables, not the GM.

The other part I'm looking for is inspiration: ideas and suggestions to help describe this genre of adventure.  When running a game, a list of possible results is often handy, not as a way to constrain what the GM does, but as suggestions and inspiration.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dead-Faces; or, how legendary Creatures drive adventure

Tall, shadowy figures that peer out of the woods at night, snatch up children, and stamp out fires.  Just a local legend or a real danger of the North?

(Michael Morris, Watcher of the Forest)

Dead-Faces (or yagira-skot) are one of the many rumored creatures of the Northern Lands.  In any given campaign, they might exist or they might not.  Spread rumors, but keep the truth lurking just out of sight.

Semi-legendary creatures like these are good for a number of reasons.
  • journey
  • discovery
  • danger
  • superstition


Signs in the Wilderness is about a great wilderness to explore, a poorly-charted land to travel through.  But to make travel feel meaningful, different lands have to actually feel different.  Local legends like the Loch Ness monster or the Jersey devil are particular to their own regions.  If this country here is said to be safe for travel, yet that country there has eyes in the woods, here and there are two very different places.

The Dead-Faces are only said to exist in the oak forests in the country west of the Flint Hills.  It's a region of winding creeks and plenty of deer, a good place for hunting and traveling.  The humans and goblins of the region believe in Dead-Faces and are careful not to cross them.

Down by the coast, the elves have recorded hundreds of rumors from the people indigenous to the North, but they don't believe most of them.  The elves are sure that these creatures are just a story made up to frighten children and foolish travelers.

(Romi Volentino, Forest Ghost)


Legendary creatures can also lead to the thrill of discovery, if you manage to find them.  The moment the party first finds proof that these creatures exist, they've been granted entry into a sanctum of secret knowledge, becoming more accomplished explorers, more knowledgable of the world they dwell in.  Discovery is one of the many kinds of fun roleplaying games can provide.

They say the Dead-Faces are tall beings that sway in the wind, like robes draped over branches.  They might be twenty feet tall, or they might be fifty (6-15 m).  Their faces are blank and uniform, save for their sparkling eyes.  Everyone agrees that you never see one of the Faces at a time, but that they huddle in groups, peering out of the trees.  Then again, you never seem to find anyone who's actually seen them, but everybody seems to know someone who knows someone who has.

Dead-Faces leave footprints that are perfectly round and quite small, like the end of a staff pressed into the soil.  They never speak to people, but they can sometimes be heard whispering to each other in the night.

(Lautrec Winifred, Enoch)


The threat of danger, of course, is great at driving adventure.  To make these legendary creatures truly matter, they're going to need to affect the party, and threatening their safety is a direct way to do that.

Dead-Faces don't like noise and light, so if you think they're nearby, you should quietly put out your fire and head the other way.  People stay away from places they believe to be inhabited by them, leaving out gifts of pine nuts and acorn flour to appease them.

When people talk about how dangerous the Dead-Faces are, they don't talk of immediate danger.  Fire at the Dead-Faces and they quickly slink away into the night, vanishing somewhere in the shadows.  But their vengeance is certain (or so they say), coming when you're not watching to poison your food and watch quietly from the woods as your village starves to death.  Children and livestock alike disappear into the woods when the Dead-Faces' anger has been aroused.

(Reddit u/Carlen67)


In many fantasy games, the players can look up all the monsters in the book and find out exactly what they're like.  And there's no question as to whether they exist — when you hear about orcs causing trouble in the hills, you don't ask yourself if orcs are even real.

That's a fine way to play, but sometimes I'm looking for a bit more mystery in the world.  Semi-legendary creatures might exist, but they might not.  Rumors and legends certainly abound, just like in our own world, of creatures that probably aren't real.  But if these creatures might actually be real, it's prudent to listen to the warnings and protect yourself the way the locals do.

The result is a bunch of superstitious PCs, tossing salt over their shoulder and closing umbrellas indoors, because even though the players know each rumor has a good chance of being false, it's better to be safe than sorry.

If the people around here tell stories of the Dead-Faces, roll for two rumors on the table below.  The first is the truth.  The second is a grave misunderstanding that's only partly true.

Rumors (d20)
1Their appearance is a sign of hungry days ahead. They're mostly seen after the last harvest in the fall and before the snow melts in the spring.
2They're creatures of shadow, without real bodies like yours and mine. They emerge from shadow at night and dissipate in the morning.
3They're dead, made from the spirits of those who died alone in the woods. They can't be harmed, but they always stay near their old bones, hoping for proper funeral rites.
4Before daylight comes they go down and fold up into holes in the ground. You do not want to wake them.
5They won't cross human boundaries, like walls and fences, but you'd better not cross their boundaries in the woods.
6They eat birds and bats that they pluck out of the air, crunching up their bones, but they never eat creatures from the ground.
7They only come out on dark nights: during the new moon or under cloudy skies.
8Their touch will leave you blind for days.
9They leave food behind as a gift: nuts and broken birds.
10Their eyes are glittering gems that the elves will pay handsomely for.
11-20Dead-Faces aren't real, just misunderstood sightings of something benign.

grave misunderstanding