Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Monstrous and ordinary

Let's talk about how to make a new type of monster out of an ordinary creature.

Monster is a fuzzy concept, but for now, we could do worse than assuming a monster is:
  • an animal — A virus or an earthquake might be scary, but they don't feel like monsters.
  • somewhat intelligent — If you can ascribe malice to a creature's actions, its deeds become villainous, not merely dangerous.
  • feared for a reason — It has to actually be harmful to people for it to be a monster, something that's dangerous and hard to defeat.
I like starting with a creature people are already familiar with; not something fantastical, but something completely mundane, something you might have experience with yourself.  Instead of starting with an orc or a dragon, let's start with something simple: a crow.  (I'm assuming you have crows where you live.)

(Sue Coleman)
(You might also enjoy an earlier post on generating random creatures.)


What are crows associated with?  What do they feel like?  What kinds of stories do people tell about them?

Monstrous versions of regular creatures should probably stick to the same theme, amplifying and extending what those creatures feel like.  Using theme from the real world lets you build on your audience's preconceptions, on stories they've heard and ideas in the culture around them.

So what theme do crows go with?  Night, death, and trickery come to mind.  If you know stories about a creature, use them when you make a monstrous version of it.

crow from Resident Evil concept art


Crows have two out of the three monstrous characteristics already: they're fairly intelligent animals, but they aren't really feared by anyone.  Let's take a look at characteristics of crows and see what we find:
  • intelligent, good at solving problems and making simple tools
  • raucous, noisy, calling out to each other
  • collect trinkets and shiny things
  • daring, stealing tail feathers from eagles just to show off
  • skittish, quick to flee from unexpected danger
  • feed on just about everything, from carrion to small animals to grain
Haida raven (Bill Reid)
For each one of these bullet points, let's dial it up until we get something scary.
  • The monstrous crow is intelligent, more so than any other animal.  They know how to make tools, pick locks, get into doors and closed rooms.
Not too scary by itself, but if these crow-like creatures are dangerous, you certainly wouldn't want them picking locks.
  • They make noise to call for their friends and coordinate their actions.  They call for other dangerous creatures to arrive.  Things that gnaw bone and sip blood show up when monstrous crows cry out.
  • They is collecting things supposed to be scary?  Maybe it's what they collect: skulls of creatures they've killed, deadly poisons, sharp blades.  Maybe it's how they collect them: taken from their living victims, mementos of people they've killed.  Maybe it's what they do with their trinkets: bait to lure in children, valuables to trade for...murderous stuff?
Using trinkets as bait fits well with their theme of trickery.
  • They're not afraid of anyone.  Make some noise and throw things, and they'll fly off for a while.  But they're only tempted and angered when you chase them away.  Throw rocks at them and they'll come back for you one day.  Monstrous crows live for the daring assault on a prideful victim.
  • They're always watchful.  It's very hard to sneak up on them, as they're always looking over their shoulders and stopping to listen for sounds.  At the first sign of danger, they flee to watch from a safe distance.  (This isn't scary yet, so let's dial it up a bit further.)  They listen for every sound, knowing when your heart is beating a bit faster, when you've cocked the hammer back on your gun.  They pay attention to everything around and are constantly thinking about plans for escaping danger.
  • They eat everything, but most importantly they eat people.  Individual crows are pretty small and weak to take down a person, but we know these ones work as a team and use tools, so if they're hungry, they can certainly take down a human.
It sounds like we're getting to something scary here.  Glossy black birds that watch from the trees at night, watching for lone people to kill.  They call out for their cohort when they find a target, and by the time you know they're around, they've already been watching you, observing every move you make.  And when they decide to strike, they'll come at you from all around, eat your flesh, then each take a little trinket of you as they fly away.


The best monsters don't just pop up out of nowhere.  Tension and fear build up as protagonists stumble across signs of the monster's presence, signs that they too could become its prey.

Some signs of these monstrous crows: trinkets of the dead used to lure people in, cawing to call for the others once you're already alone and deep in the woods, footprints of scavengers that take the bones from crow kills, leftovers from previous prey (bones cracked open, possessions with all the shiny pieces stripped off).

Consider signs of a monster from its footprints, voice, remnants of its food, things it plays with.

Monsters also end up with rumors about them.  The local people tell stories that are mostly true, or at least based on a kernel of truth, but with exaggerations and shortcomings.  Rumors about a monster should probably stick to the themes of the creature.

Inaccurate rumors about monstrous crows: that they can see in the dark, that they're afraid of light, that the sound of creaking branches is actually them, that any small discarded item you find is bait by the crows.


Every monster is vulnerable in some way.  It could be a single spot, like Smaug's missing scale (or Achilles' heel, I guess), or it could be something less substantial, like greed or self-loathing.

My favorite method is to draw the monster's vulnerability from the same characteristics that make it scary.  Considering attributes of the crow, let's pick one or two as vulnerabilities:
  • collect trinkets
  • daring
These crows are intelligent and cautious, but they can be lured into making mistakes if the trinket is alluring enough.  So what do they like enough to risk their lives for?  I'm guessing shiny, round objects, tools that help them get food, unobtainable mementos of dangerous creatures. 

More monsters!

Here are a few more monstrous versions of ordinary creatures you might enjoy:
  • RaccoonsThey grab their prey with their dexterous hands, then drown their prey in streams.  They're much larger than ordinary raccoons, strong enough to grab a person and hold them under the water.  They ought to be more concerned by the presence of other creatures, but they're not.
  • Skunks — They spray a terrible noxious fluid that causes sickness and death, and also stains your skin.  They seem like they'd be cute and friendly, but they'll spray you, wait for you to die, then nibble on your corpse.  They're overly reliant on their spray for defense, so any creature that's immune to it has a major advantage.
  • Porcupines — They can shoot their barbed quills quite some distance.  They can climb just about anywhere, waiting patiently to strike when people come too close.  Their bellies are soft and vulnerable.
  • Buffalo — Thundering giants of muscle and horn, they get together as a group and run through buildings and fields, trampling people to death and destroying their livelihood.  They flatten whole villages that encroach on their territory.  They're prone to panic, though, if too many buffalo in the group become frightened.
raccoon washing cell phone

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Hunger River

For this post, I'm rolling up a completely random region where some kind of trouble is happening.

Alaskan river (NOAA)


The Hunger River

(As if that's not an ominous name to roll up.)

Up north, where the nights are long and the days are cold, the Hunger River winds its way through valleys with steep bluffs, carved by glaciers long ago.  Stunted short-needle conifers (fir and larch) reach awkwardly for the sky.  People use their needles as medicine against scurvy, their white wood for carving, and their branches for bedding.

There are many smaller streams in this country, along with slender lakes and cascading waterfalls.  Most flow to the river.

Folks around here live in fear of the fire crow, a clever bird that preys on humans.  By day, it looks like a pale-colored crow.  At night, it can make itself glow like firelight, luring in lost travelers looking for warmth.  Its feathers are poisonous, deadly even to the touch.  The fire crow is clever enough to leave its fallen feathers in places where a human might touch them, then feast on their corpses.

Firebird (Yelena Polenova)

There are wolves and black bears in this land, too, along with huckleberries to gather in the fall and ducks to hunt.

The Gristle Chewers

The local humans are a tribe called the Sagayeka, the "gristle chewers".  They once had a great wild goose hunt each summer, but since the Starving Time the geese have dwindled in number, and none have been seen in these parts for years.

People say the Gristle Chewers are bold and courageous, good to have at your side in a fight.  They live in ten little settlements of lean-tos, painted with signs of owls thought to keep fire crows away.  They are skilled archers and good at sneaking up on enemies.

traditional inland Salish shelter

The Gristle Chewers make little coracles to travel on the river, hides stretched over wooden frames.  They wear warm hats made of squirrel fur.

The men are the woodcarvers, in charge of deciding where to settle, and they handle death rituals.  The women are the hunters and the ones who ultimately settle disputes.

subarctic caribou hunters

Like many people of the north, the Chewers practice antler burial.  Their men carve figurines of prey or enemies out of antlers, then bury them in hidden places in the wilderness to ask the spirits for help and protection in battle.

a shed antler

A few years ago, a larger tribe of humans showed up from the south, fleeing from danger and in need of help.  The Gristle Chewers gave them food and shelter, but now fear their numbers.

The Buffalo People

The Tontaka "buffalo people" are the new arrivals in the Hunger River country.  They once lived somewhere far to the south, where the men hunted wood buffalo and the women grew corn, until they were driven out by a tribe armed with guns.

Buffalo Hunt (George Catlin)

A few years ago, they fled through tree goblin territory not far south of here, where the goblins killed and devoured many of the tribe.  Ragged and bloody, the survivors reached the Hunger River valley and sought shelter with the Gristle Chewers.

One day they will have their vengeance against the tree goblins, who still watch this land from their forests to the south.

At this point, the Buffalo People have the Chewers under their thumb.  They pay tribute in food and labor to the Buffalo People, fearing reprisals if they do otherwise.

Today the Buffalo People live in six large settlements, one for each of the six clans.  A council of high-born elders gathers periodically to make decisions for the tribe.  Their homes are made of hides over a wooden frame, easy to dismantle and move to a new site.  Whenever they settle in a new place, they set up a standing stone.

The tribe is known as trainers and breeders of the best dogs, used for hunting and to pull sledges over grass and snow.  You can recognize Buffalo People by their hair, shaven into a mohawk.

dog pulling travois

The men do all the warfare, hunting, and woodcarving, while the women do weaving and settle disputes.  In the old country the women grew corn and made corn husk dolls, but it's too cold for corn here.

Traditionally, the Buffalo People feared the influence of witchcraft.  They wore copper medallions with embossed designs to ward off evil, kept hidden under their clothing.  At each meal, the head of the family tossed a bit of corn or fruit onto the home fire to keep evil out.  Some of the old men were seen as prophets, speaking of how evil and ignorance must be replaced by wisdom, and then there will be peace among the nations.

In general, the men still follow the old ways, but most of the women have abandoned the old religion, taking up antler burial instead as a way to protect their families.

Crow Meadow

The largest settlement of the Buffalo People is at a place called Crow Meadow.  They've lived here for years, since first arriving in this country.

It's a meadow in a wide valley with an easy trail leading to it.  If you approach the village, they'll send someone out to greet you, and if you're not threatening they'll invite you to come and meet the chief.

Kids are playing in the creek nearby when you arrive.  The settlement itself is surrounded by a ditch filled with wooden spikes.  There are twenty-two hide huts, all facing towards a standing stone in the middle.  There are many dogs here, wiry ones good at pursuing prey.

Recently, the people of Free Camp (belonging to a different clan) made some kind of insult.  In response, young men from Crow Meadow snuck in and painted rude figures all over Free Camp's standing stone.

Now Crow Meadow is expecting some kind of retaliation, about which rumors abound.  But while they're expecting something fairly small, the men of Free Camp have just sworn an oath of vengeance.  They're tired of a long history of slights from Crow Meadow, and they intend to do something about it.


As usual, I rolled up some random great opportunities to get some ideas for entry points into the setting: migrants trying to make a home in a new land, and preaching the word amidst religious strife. These fit quite well with the story so far, and suggested a few ways to stir up more trouble:
  • The adventurers are desperate refugees themselves, roaming into the Hunger River region, looking for a new home.
  • A survivor of the lost seventh clan of the Buffalo People comes straggling down to Crow Meadow one day.  The rest of the clan is still alive, living just on the other side of the goblin woods.  They're trapped between the fearsome goblins and hostile people to the south, and want to migrate north to join the others.
  • All these people abandoning the protections against witchcraft may turn out to be a mistake.  Signs of witches have been seen: strange bloody carvings on trees, unexplained deaths, dogs born with three eyes.
  • The geese stopped coming after the Starving Time, but it's not because they died.  It's because the spirits that dwell in this land aren't being treated the way they used to be.  Too many of the elders of the people died out in those days, and the proper way of carving antler amulets died with them.  Someone needs to contact the spirits and teach proper antler burial to the people.
In some ways, this setup looks more like a Dogs in the Vineyard game, where the player characters roam from one village to another, solving problems and instituting justice.

If any characters are from this land, they're going to have a vested interest in the success of one group or another.  War is likely to break out, in several different ways.

If the party has guns or other fancy elven equipment, they're likely to be a formidable fighting force.  They're also likely to completely upset the nature of the Hunger River country by introducing new technology.

If the party has any specialized knowledge, someone's likely to try and kidnap them to make them work for the local authorities.

By the way, I just started a subreddit for Signs in the Wilderness content, since that site is where I've had most of the discussions online about this setting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Getting a feel for different species of people

I've written a little about the biology of the four species of people, but that's not an easy place to jump in.  In this post, I'm not going to talk about how their bodies work or what they make their homes out of.

Let's talk about what these people feel like.

We'll start with the most stereotypical views, what outsiders think of each species.  Afterwards, we'll look at variations, and how to adapt them for your own campaign.


Humans are the most like adventurers.  They're rowdy, bold, and hungry: hungry for knowledge and money and power.  They're noisy, with barking dogs and a fearsome battle cry.  Humans come to town and there's gonna be a brawl or a party, or maybe a mix of both.

For an outsider's perspective on humans, think pirates and nomads and outlaws, roving teams of deadly hunters, ragged fearsome bands carving out their survival in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.

a wedding haka

(Read about the people of the Ashen Council, or how to roll up your own human town.)


Giants are fur-trapping mountain men, pensive loners.  They're quiet and brooding, wandering the land fishing and watching the stars, remembering the stories passed down from their grandmothers' grandmothers.

Giants would rather leave you alone.  But if you harm a giant, they will never forget, and they will bring vengeance down upon you, and their descendants will tell the tale for generations.

For a giant, think of an old prospector, a ranger in the woods, a self-reliant hobo riding the rails with stories to tell and a keen glint in their eye.

a Mongolian herder

(Read about their great annual gatherings, or how they trade the stars.)


Elves are a bit like you and me, something like modern day people.  They're city folk, a product of a civilized world.  Elves are suited for comfortable houses full of manufactured goods, social organizations with books full of rules, and mixed drinks with too many ingredients.

Take away their coffee and their indoor plumbing and they're pretty much lost.  The end of the world has been especially hard on the elves.  They're not really the wilderness survival type.

But despite all their weaknesses in this dark age, elves are rich.  In their few remaining cities, the elves have amazing gadgets and powerful weapons, libraries full of knowledge and vaults full of artifacts of the old world.

Imagine law-abiding clergymen and diligent chemists, by-the-book naval officers and studious accountants, ordinary folk who distressingly find themselves carrying a gun these days.

Aurangzeb, Mughal emperor

(Read about elven alchemy, or the last remnant of their empire.)


Goblins are the backwoods clan you don't want to stumble across.  Get on their good side and they're known for their hospitality.  They'll feed you some kind of meat and give you weird stuff to smoke and ask all manner of nosy questions about what your kind of people do for fun and how shoes are supposed to work and why you're not married yet.

But most folks are not on their good side.  Goblins are the reason you don't go too far into the woods.  They're sharp teeth and haunting calls.  They're not afraid of outsiders; they lure them in just to get a fresh meal.  They've got strange medicines and hexes and hoodoo.

Goblins are curious about the world, yet they're sure they know how it really all works.  They're eager for news even though they're sure it's all some conspiracy they're glad to be avoiding by staying at home.

porch sitting

(Read what goblins think of writing, or how they ambush prey.)

Now that you know what's typical, it's time to make some changes for your own setting.  For each of these species, you could choose two attributes from the table below.
  1. They're overly _____, almost absurdly so.
  2. They're not really as _____ as people say.

Traits (d8)humanselvesgiantsgoblins
3aggressiveeloquentobservantfond of complaining in solidarity
4boastfulritualisticpensivegood at reading people
7celebratorysecretivefond of appealing to historyproudly unrefined
8casually violentmeticulouspedanticexcitable

typical traits
Humans are overly...
Humans aren't all that...
Elves are overly...
Elves aren't all that...
Giants are overly...
Giants aren't all that...
Goblins are overly...
Goblins aren't all that...

Player-characters are the protagonists of a roleplaying game, so if anyone's going to be an unusual example of their species, it's probably them.  You could use the traits above as a guideline, but don't let them be a straitjacket.  Feel free to portray your character (PC or NPC) however you like.