Monday, December 24, 2018

Post-apocalyptic 1700s

Some posts here are about the bright and hopeful future; this isn't one of those.  Signs in the Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic setting, and while it's been long enough that things are starting to look up, the terrible world after the fall is still everywhere.

When I think of these kinds of stories, movies like Mad Max, 12 Monkeys, or even Zombieland come to mind, all set around the modern day.  For this setting, I've been thinking about how the usual post-apocalyptic tropes can apply to an earlier era.

Reclaimed by nature

With so many people dead, the wilderness is full of ruins: forts and villages and mines that were once maintained by people, but have now fallen to the forest.  Abandoned sites have layers of history, even in the short time since the apocalypse.  You can see why they were built, how they fared in the end, how the forest has grown over them, and even who's been there since.

Overgrown Tomb, Steven Belledin

Ruins aren't clean, static places; they're as changing as the forest.  Rain gets in, flooding and rotting.  A wall becomes home to bees.  Tree goblins nest in the rafters.  A cellar holds a sleeping bear.  Floors crumble and rot through, stairs fall apart, and the site gradually fades away into the forest.

You'd have to be pretty desperate to try to make a living on scavenging from the ruins.  But most adventurers are desperate, in one way or another.


Crops failed in the starving time.  Tens of thousands left home in search of a chance at survival, anything to eat, anything better than where their neighbors died.  When it's either you or them, someone dies and someone gets to eat for another day.

Those few who were better stocked with food found themselves the target of repeated attacks.  In many cases, the walls held and the raiders starved or moved on.  Others were not so lucky.

Over time, raiding and thieving became a way of life for many, an accepted means of supplementing your food supply in lean times.  Out away from more prosperous parts, it's still a desperate world, full of people who have no qualms about robbing a stranger to feed their kids.

Ambush at Lovewell Pond

Meeting someone on the road is a wary affair.  There's a decent chance they're here to rob you, or that you're here to rob them.  Keep your hand on your pistol and assume every encounter is a trap.

Everyday violence

This generation was raised by a broken and traumatized people.  Their parents watched people starve in the streets, buried piles of bodies when the plague came, and did things to survive that they're not proud of.  Brokenness begets brokenness, and their children learned hard lessons at a young age.

Rude words lead to a fistfight.  Slight someone's honor and you might face them in a duel.  Intrude on the quiet of a town and you might get a beating, but you might get hanged from the nearest tree.

Duel with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya

A party of adventurers is always in danger around other people.  They're perpetual outsiders who can be blamed for all ills, strangers with no one to avenge them.  To survive, they'll have to be ready for violence, which only makes isolated settlements even less likely to want them around.


The cruel hand of fate didn't strike everyone evenly.  Anyone with a good source of food and some decent weapons might find themselves much better off than their neighbors.  That kind of power corrupts.  You end up with petty warlords, ruling over a valley or two by doling out survival to those who fight for them.

Loyalty to the warlord means you get to eat.  Defiance brings punitive raids.  You can't fight for long once someone's burned down your barn, and with it all your corn for the winter.

Powhatan, John Smith

These days, every government or power structure operates a bit like a warlord.  A company administrator hands out rations and beatings just as well as a tribal chief or an elected mayor.  Traditions and pieces of paper don't bring power the way food and guns do.

For up-and-coming adventurers, this means hard choices.  To get along, you're going to have to gain the favor of some bad people.  The company might pay well, but they might send you to burn down a whole village.  The council might keep you fed, but only as long as you bring them the heads of their rivals.  And what happens when you're powerful enough that you don't need some warlord's support?  How do you stay in charge without resorting to their cruelty?

Dirt and grime

Everything is broken and dirty.  Someone comes stumbling into the tavern?  You know they're covered in mud, soot, dust, blood, whatever.  Every inn is a grimy little place.  Every traveler looks a bit like the road they travel down.

Couple in a Tavern, Todeschini

But to make the griminess really stand out, a bit of contrast is in order.  The spirit glass hanging outside the city is actually kept clean and sparkling.  The boss takes a bath every night, and her guests eat a proper dinner from fine china.  The telescope is wrapped in a clean, white cloth.

If you want to look rich, look shiny.  Hot baths and clean clothes are a luxury few can afford.

Makeshift and repurposed

People are clever, especially when they don't have any better options.  Old things that can't be made anymore are too valuable to throw away, so they get repurposed and made into other things.

Every settlement has something from the old days that's been repurposed.  The inn used to be a grist mill.  That spearhead used to be a drainpipe.  The tank from the brewery is now a boat.  They tore apart the ship and built it into their fortifications.  That necklace is made of old doubloons.

Zuni blacksmith shop

Things have stories.  Treasure in this world comes with complications: competing claims, malfunctioning parts, and unexpected benefits.


After a great collapse, people tell stories about the world that came before.  The past is simplified and idealized, turned into a standard story to help you understand the way things are now.

Some people say it was a better time, venerating the ancestors and calling for a return to their way of life.  Some say it was a decadent age, swept away in a great cleansing of the world.

city of the Mound Builders

Many are in mourning for the old world.  Those few elders who lived in it wistfully think back on the days of their youth.  Their children and grandchildren who grew up in the new days speak of the old as a lost age of glory that will never be attained again.  Whole societies can go on for centuries mourning their golden age.

Relics from the olden days elicit mixed responses, from awe to disdain.

For this article, I've deliberately avoided mentioning some of the usual post-apocalyptic tropes about cars and ammunition.  I think you can still get across most of that concept in a world of muskets and canoes.

I've got a few ideas for posts I'm working on.  What would you like to see next?
  • how people are changed by the frontier
  • population dynamics of the elven hive
  • prophets and preachers of new religions
  • how humans are scary monsters
  • newfangled inventions

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Apocalypse for everyone!

Signs in the Wilderness is a mash-up of a few concepts, but a big one is this:

What if the American apocalypse happened to both sides?

You might not have heard of the American apocalypse by that name.  I'm talking about the vast outbreak of Old World diseases that came over with Columbus and so many ships thereafter.  Smallpox, cholera, a mighty host of sickness that felled tens of millions.

It's likely the greatest outbreak of disease the world has ever known.  Central America, home of the powerful Aztec Empire, is believed to have lost 90% of its population in the first century of contact.

To put that in perspective, imagine if everyone in the US died except for those born in another country.  Or everyone in the US outside New York and Pennsylvania.  Or everyone in the US under the age of 65.

The exact numbers get debated heavily, but the basic fact remains: the Americas are a post-apocalyptic world.

It's an apocalypse that's easy to miss.  Most of the accounts we have of indigenous Americans are from the era after the apocalypse already happened.  It was a vast, empty continent, ripe for the taking because most of the locals had died.

Aztec drawing of smallpox victims.

None of this is a surprise these days.  Maybe you've read Guns, Germs, and Steel or 1491 and you know all about the Great Dying.  It was probably an inevitable plague.  And with human nature as it is, the conquest of America and the near-extermination of a large part of mankind's culture may, sadly, have been inevitable too.

So I started to wonder what it would be like if the apocalypse struck both sides, indigenous and colonial alike.  What if the European world came to an end at the same time?  How would the survivors of both sides move forward?  Who would rule this New World, with the ashes of the old worlds swept away?

Jamestown settler dead, Sydney King

What would that European apocalypse even look like?  Imagine if, somehow, Europe itself just went missing.  News from the old country would cease, as would immigrants and supplies.  Ships sent out to investigate would leave Virginia, never to return as they ran out of food somewhere in the ocean where Europe once was.  The fledgling colonies might die out or be absorbed into the local populace, Roanoke writ large.

Signs in the Wilderness is about the frontier between civilizations, but also between the lost world of the past and the new world to be built.  The apocalypse has already happened.  One way or another, most people died, and their worlds died with them.  Now the survivors have grown up, and their children have grown up, and they've begun to build something new.

It's a world that's still mostly empty, with ruins of the past but hope for the future.

William McAusland

So how did the world end?  I like to leave plenty of mystery around the days of the apocalypse.  It's a dark time that the elderly survivors don't like to talk about.  But it left scars not only among the people, but on the world itself.  At some point, you'll need to know how it happened.

Pick two items from the table below.  The first is what actually caused the end of the world.   The second isn't the main event, but it may have happened as well or it might just be a widespread rumor.

Apocalypse (d10)signs
1-2meteorite impactwave-scoured shores, tales of darkened skies and crop failures, meteor shower every year
3-4pandemicbones and abandoned villages, fearful isolated settlements, chance the plague may return
5-6forbidden knowledgescientific research into terrible things, backlash against science
7divine retributionnew theology, theories about what distinguished those who were allowed to live
8long wintertales of starvation and years of ice, dead forests
9hibernating creaturesphysical remains, legends, theories about how many centuries the creatures sleep
10years of droughtland scorched by fire, fallen trees, lost crops from the old days

the real cause of the apocalypse
but at least one rumor or sign points to

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Religion that can't be avoided

The world is a dangerous place, full of death and chaos.  What little people have been able to figure out about it they've passed down to their children and grandchildren.  Societies that discover the right way to live might prosper; those that don't are doomed to fail.

This hidden knowledge of the ages isn't something you can afford to ignore.  It's folklore and science and culture all wrapped into one.  This is religion.

Tuvan shaman, Alexander Nikolsky

In our present day, there's a rift perceived between religion and science, two areas of life set at odds against each other.  To many, religion is something you do in private for vaguely "spiritual" reasons or to "be a better person".  Science (like its aft-facing counterpart history) is seen as a proper area of learning and study, where useful knowledge can be obtained.

With that mindset, it's easy to forget about religion.  In the world of Signs in the Wilderness, everyone is religious, in one way or another.
  1. Religion is ancestral.  It's been passed down from generation to generation, a tangible link to the ancestors who came before you.  You might not own anything your great-great-grandmother once had, but you can still practice her religion and know her story.
  2. Religion is cultural.  If all our people do things the same way, that way identifies us as a people and shows who belongs to our group.
  3. Religion is political.  When religion determines identity and prescribes conduct, religious authority becomes political power.
  4. Religion is knowledge.  The ancestors did things this way for a reason.  We've lost a lot since the apocalypse; following their ancient rule may save us from dangers in ways we don't even understand.
That's fine for background material, but you might be wondering how it actually matters.  How does all this religion make any difference in a roleplaying game?  Why would a party of adventurers actually care?

Let's look closer at those four points:
1. History is passed down through religion.
  • Your grandfather's musket comes with a code of honor and a story of how it was used.
  • Conflicts in the past can spill over into the present, especially if they're still talked about in the religion.
  • Likewise, old alliances can be rekindled if both sides remember the old stories.
2. Cultural identity is religious identity.
  • If you want to fit in, you're going to need to show that you know the signs and the stories.
  • Breaking the religious rules gets you exiled from the group (or worse).
  • If you're of the wrong religion, you're not welcome here.
3. Political power can stand on religious authority.
  • A revered prophet speaks, and the people believe.  The one who bears the signs of the prophecy will be given great power.
  • A leader breaks a taboo or opposes the will of the ancestors, and the people will not allow them to remain in power.
  • Religious support strengthens a regime, so a wise conqueror will go to the priests for confirmation of their right to rule.

4. Hidden knowledge can be found in religion.
  • Throwing salt over your shoulder might actually ward away bad luck.
  • Hanging mirrors around a graveyard might actually keep the spirits of the dead out of the village.
  • There might actually be a being watching from the mountain, and the local religion teaches how to avoid angering it. 

W. D. McIntyre

Fifty-odd years ago, the world nearly came to an end.  Darkness covered the sun, cold winds blew down from the north, and there was hunger and war and death.

Beliefs were tested.  Many didn't survive.

Think of difficult times as a scientific experiment.  Previous experimenters had come to various conclusions, but now a larger experiment was being run, testing the foundational beliefs of the world.  Everyone had a hypothesis, a theory of their own about how the world truly worked, and everyone was about to see the result.  Some beliefs turned out to be right, gaining support from the experiment.  Some beliefs turned out to be wrong, leading some to change to better-supported theories while others dug in their heels.

The old ways have been shaken, challenged, and often broken by the apocalypse.  Great rifts in society have opened up, room for conflicts that can engulf everything, including unwary outsiders.  People today fall into a few major groupings:
  1. Those who hold even tighter to the old ways.  They're deeply conservative, trying to protect their people from any dangerous innovations.
  2. Followers of new religions.  They are certain that the old ways led to destruction.  They believe in their religion's promise of a new world.  It's likely that they follow a teacher or a prophet.
  3. Victims of the ongoing social trauma of the apocalypse.  They're stunned, in mourning, part of a culture that has lost its purpose.
At least one religion predicted that a great catastrophe was imminent.  It's no surprise that they've only gained adherents since the apocalypse, going from a tiny tribal religion to a widespread movement throughout the North.

New religions have also shown up since the apocalypse.  For many people, it seemed like none of the theories explained what had happened.  That's when to sit down and think and come up with a new theory, a new way to understand the world and figure out what to do next.

Santeria, Mick Palumbo

If religious movements were purely scientific, there'd be a lot less resistance to changing from one to another.  (Though there'd still be some resistance — scientists are as stubborn as anyone else.)  But when religion isn't just about knowledge, but also political power and cultural identity and ties to one's ancestors, changing religions undermines all of society.

A few topics I'd like to get to in future posts:
  1. rolling up a random human religion
  2. the fracturing of the elven religion after the loss of the great temple
  3. goblin shamans: spirits and pharmacology
  4. giants who converted to the old orthodox elven faith
  5. playing as a missionary character
Do any of those sound interesting?