Saturday, June 22, 2019

Travel through the Wilderness, references

Looking for sources to run a wilderness game?



Here are some great blog posts I've been reading lately (some from better authors than me) full of procedure and inspiration for wilderness adventures:
  • Over at Detect Magic, read about how Hexcrawls are Canceled (because you can treat the wilderness like a dungeon) and a guide to Describing Terrain Features.
  • Monsters and Manuals has an example walk through a typical six-mile hex on the isle of Lindisfarne.
  • At DIY & Dragons, read about Signs that come before Encounters.
  • Read the Meager Country Manifesto over at Dreams and Fevers to get in the mood for writing up your own campaign's manifesto.
  • Unlawful Games presents a set of tables for rolling up a Barrier Island.  It's a good example of how specific types of landforms make for evocative locations.
  • Goblin Punch has a great article on River Crossings and how they interfere with travel. 
  • You might enjoy Papers and Pencils' entire series of posts on Overland Travel and Hex Crawls.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Shining city in the wilderness

Somewhere out in a quiet corner of the wilderness, a community is building a wonderful new home: a gleaming city of marble, a valley of bountiful fields, a peaceful refuge in the trees.  They've left their old society in search of a place to live far from outside intervention.

Utopian dreams like this are common in the story of America: the Pilgrims coming to the New World, the Mormons establishing Deseret, Tenskwatawa's Prophetstown, the Oneida Community, and the list goes on.


But it's not a utopia yet.  They might never build one at this rate.  For now, they're a struggling community full of problems and promise.

And they're a great source of quests.

First, let's see which species this is:

People (d8)
1-3humans(d6) 1-2: a wandering tribe seeking a new home 3-4: a small group that left their people 5-6: refugees from many tribes coming together
4-7elves(d6) 1-3: a religious group considered heretical by most 4-5: veterans of the losing side in a war against the empire 6: people suffering from a disease that makes them outcasts
8giants whose ancestors adopted the elven religion at a mission and are keeping it alive in the face of heresy

The Holy City (Clarence Larkin)

A community like this will need help getting started, but they'll also be able to offer help.  Choose an ideal that this community is founded on.  This should suggest the type of help they might offer those who help them.

Ideal (d4)goalimageryfor their friends
1refugeoffer a safe haven for those in needwhite dove, fireplacefood, rest, healing
2strongholdbecome a place of military mightsword, towerpowerful allies
3isolationfocus on quiet contemplation and righteous livingplain dress, booka place to hide, secret knowledge
4industrywork and prosper togetherbeehive, plowfinancial/material help

Joseph Smith


Every utopian community is based on a vision, a shared dream of how they could build a better world.  Where is the inspiration for this community coming from?

Inspiration (d6)
1their leader, a charismatic visionary who is in charge of everything and is never questioned
2a prophet or elder that the leaders listen to, someone who speaks of visions and forgotten wisdom
3a martyr, someone who was killed for saying bold things and is now revered by the people
4their traditional ways and wisdom, prophecy passed down from olden days (possibly in a book)
5signs that everyone has witnessed, signs that a widely-known prophecy will be fulfilled by their new community
6a shared experience of struggle and hardship that binds them closer together

Cahokia (Michael Hampshire)


What difficult task is ahead of them that they'll need help with?

Difficult task (d10)
1Find/grow food for everyone in this barren land.
2Bring about or find the fulfillment of prophecy.
3Clear the land of dangerous creatures/plants/phenomena.
4Get enough of something for survival: guns, medicine, warm clothing.
5Obtain the foundation of the city: a sacred object to institute true worship, mothers and fathers to begin making babies, an official charter, a seedling of the perfect tree.
6Make lasting peace with a fearsome enemy that the party has crossed paths with before.
7Utterly defeat an outside enemy that's supported by allies of the party.
8Conquer the powerful fortress of the people who already live here.
9Open up a path to this place through difficult terrain: build a bridge, make a road, clear obstacles on a river, carve a tunnel/canal.
10Build an amazing structure: a mighty fortress, a wall to defend this community, an imposing temple.

Quests also come from outside the community.  A place like this will have its enemies, quite possibly the people who already lived here and were driven out of their homes, or maybe the ones who drove them to live in this wilderness to begin with.

The First Sermon Ashore (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)


What danger is roused by the making of this utopia?  Roll twice, one danger leading to the other (though not necessarily in the order you rolled them) or both dangers springing from the same source.

Danger (d10)
1-2Displace the local people who will need a new place to live.  If they can't find one, they'll wage war on someone, possibly the party's allies or families.
3-4Draw the ire of religious/civil authorities (of the party's religion/group, if possible) who will try to end this place.
5-6Introduce something that disrupts the local way of life: disease, new religion, addiction, guns, a new invention.
7Disturb natural danger, causing it to reach new places: wolves, snakes, vultures, flooding, wildfire, thirty-year locusts wakened early.
8Thousands of people flock here from all around, making the other powers of the world wary of this community's power.  The newcomers might be in desperate poverty and in need of help.
9Deplete local resources: overhunting game animals, drinking the wells dry, chopping down all the trees for firewood.
10Attract the attention of powerful enemies who drove these people out of their original homes.

Kirtland Temple (Walter Rane)


What's wrong inside the settlement?

Problem (d6)
1Discontent over leadership/decisions is likely to cause a split, with one part of the community leaving to build their own settlement.
2The leadership is secretly corrupt: accepting bribes, giving privileges to sycophants, betraying the community to their enemies.
3They need better ways of acquiring food: new plows, a new crop, a network of irrigation canals, homemade goods to trade with a farming society.
4Many of the people have lost sight of the vision of this community, turning away from the ways/religion of the leaders.
5They've run out of money/supplies. Hope for the future is mixed with fear.
6The community hasn't found the site for their new home yet.


Roll up your own utopian community:

random shining city
people
founding ideal
inspiration
difficult task ahead
danger
danger
problem

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Lost Treasure of...

Going on an expedition for lost treasure is a staple of adventure stories, from Indiana Jones to the Argonauts.  It's an easy formula, which is why it works: a prize to inspire you, a journey to find it, trouble along the way.



Signs in the Wilderness is about the bright future that lies ahead, opportunity for those bold enough to take it.  Treasure is one of the great opportunities that drives an entire campaign.  (Previously we looked at a gold rush and a great migration.)



For a treasure hunt, first you need to know what you're hunting:

Treasure (d8)
1-3lots of valuables(d6) 1: gold doubloons, 2: silver dollars, 3: rings, necklaces, and other jewelry, 4: diamonds/rubies/emeralds/sapphires, 5: paper money or certificates, 6: set of identical statuettes/carvings
4-6single piece of artwork(d6) 1: statue/figurine/mask of stone, jade, ivory, or gold, 2: painting/tapestry, 3: crown/scepter, 4: large gemstone, 5: intricate necklace, 6: chalice/bowl/cauldron
7-8miscellaneous(d6) 1: taxidermied body of an unknown creature, 2: book of secret knowledge, 3: ancient sword, 4: ship, 5: bones of a saint/ancestor, probably wrapped or in a decorated container, 6: great new invention

A good treasure needs a name.  It's going to be talked about a lot, from gossip to newspapers to ancient clues, so be sensational.  Some names to get you started:
The Scepter of Ranava, the Lost Treasure of Bear Canyon, the Chalice of the Flying Serpent, the Beacon of the Dawn, the Tapestry of the Green Temple, the Accursed Emerald, Captain Hill's Treasure, the True Relic, the Silver of the Seven Shrines, the loot from the Ten Century Heist, the Great Wonder of the North, the Ivory Standard, the Empress of the Isles, the Thirty-Seven Certificates...


What you'll have to do to find this treasure depends on how it got lost in the first place.  Roll to see how it was lost, which might suggest the type of clues left behind as to its whereabouts:

Lost (d8)clues
1lost by accidentshipwreck, wagon went off a cliff, fell overboard during a storm, left behind when its keepers were driven offthere might have been survivors, someone recorded/remembers them passing by, the owner of the vessel/treasure knows where it should have gone
2deliberately hiddenburied/hidden/disguised to keep it away from the law, tax collectors, pirates/bandits, enemies in warthey might still be alive, left clues/map for their allies/heirs to recover it
3keepers are gonekept in its usual spot, but everyone who knew about it died, could be recently lost or from an ancient civilization rumors that they had a treasure, historical clues about who they were and where they lived, accounts from those who saw it on display
4stolendiscovered and taken to a private collection, stolen while in transitwitnesses and survivors, signs of a break-in, someone tried to sell it
5-8complicatedIt was lost one way, then lost even further another way.  Roll (d4) for each.



If this treasure isn't sounding fantastic enough yet, roll up an exciting fact or two about it.  The treasure needs to be so important that adventurers might risk their lives for it.

Significance (d12)
1many treasure hunters have lost everything seeking it, both fortune and blood
2many people have died defending it or keeping it hidden
3reputed to have magical or healing powers
4religious/ceremonial: from a shrine, long used in political ceremonies, too sacred to gaze upon, etc.
5from the founding ancestor of a tribe/lineage/city
6from a major historical event: famous explorer, major battle, day of peacemaking
7a war or great battle was fought over it
8many believe that it was not made by people, but instead fell from the sky, grew from a seed, was made by the spirits, etc.
9said to be cursed, or is part of a widely-believed prophecy
10very large, or a set of similar objects
11contains something very valuable within it (possibly another random treasure)
12a small piece of it is already famous, on display, used in ceremonies, a symbol of an entire tribe or city, etc.

Where do you first learn the information that gets you started on the treasure hunt?

News (d6)
1article in the newspaper or news from the town crier
2dying words of a stranger or something they're carrying
3someone you know asks for help or wants to hire you
4finding a clue hidden somewhere, maybe in an old book
5overhearing/reading a private conversation
6public discussion, everyone is talking about it



Other people will make this treasure hunt more complicated.  Roll twice:

Trouble (d8)
1A rival treasure hunter/expedition is already on its trail.
2Whoever's responsible for it being lost wants to keep it that way.
3The people who live near it will fight to keep outsiders away.
4The rightful owners want it back, or there's a dispute about ownership.
5Whoever has it now (or controls the area where it's hidden) will do anything to keep it.
6Everyone knows you're searching for it and they all want a cut.
7The authorities demand their share, possibly the whole thing.
8Someone has information you'll need, but they're in jail, exiled, or in hiding.



How is it situated now? Roll twice, then put the results together in some way: they both apply at once, or one happened first and then the other.

Situated (d12)
1underwater
2sunken into mud, possibly in a swamp or marsh
3in a gully, gorge, or canyon
4underground
5in or under vegetation that has grown around it
6deliberately sealed in a crypt or locked away in a safe or vault
7on display in public, but disguised in some way
8in a private collection, maybe in a temple/shrine
9surrounded with traps and hidden spikes, maybe in a giant's trapped treasure hoard
10very far away from where the party is or where they might expect it to be
11in the territory of a very hostile group
12in difficult terrain: rugged mountains, harsh desert, thick swamp

Roll up your own lost treasure:

random lost treasure
treasure
lost
significance
how you hear the news
trouble
situated

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Hucksters, tinkers, and peddlers

Out in the wilderness, far from the cities of the elven strangers, manufactured goods are hard to come by.  If they don't make it in your community, you'll have to get it from a wandering trader.

Ausrufer mit Hobeln


It's always an exciting day when the huckster comes to town.  Loaded up with plenty of doodads and knick-knacks, the huckster has a little bit of everything for sale.  Need some new shoes?  He's probably got a few (mismatched, of course).  Need a new musket?  She's probably got one that's in fairly good shape, just missing a screw or a spring.

Hucksters trade in odds and ends, the leftovers of manufacturing everywhere.  Like a convenience store selling loose cigarettes, hucksters are who you go to when you can't afford to buy the whole quantity at the general store in the next town over.

Peddler (Eric Sloane)



Roll to see what this wandering trader looks like, how they're carrying their goods, and what sort of goods they're most likely to have.

What they look like (d10)appearancetypical goods
1-3giant(d4) 1: pack almost as big as its bearer, 2: pulling a travois, 3: pulling a sled, 4: pushing a one-wheeled cabinetwide variety of goods and news
4-6human (from a tribe)(d4) 1: canoe full of tightly-wrapped bundles, 2: dog pulling a travois, 3: dog pulling a cart, 4: on snowshoes and hunched over with a big packagricultural products and metal implements
7-8goblin(d4) 1-2: big bundle slung over one shoulder, 3-4: many small bagssmall scavenged valuables and metal items, drugs, bones, claws, shells
9-10elf(d4) 1-2: riding a fancy painted cart pulled by an ox/donkey, 3-4: group of elves carrying small packsalchemical products, cloth goods, cookware

(If you're looking for a deeper character, try rolling up a random personality issue as well.)

Most hucksters follow a general circuit, making their rounds of the usual settlements over time.  Roll to see how long it's been since they were last here:

How long since the last visit (d8)
1days, something happened to make them turn back
2-3weeks, they have news from a nearby town
4-6months, everyone is glad to see them
7-8never been here before, might be a swindler

Roll to see where they've been recently that you might want to know about:

Recently been (d6)
1at a nearby settlement, fort, or trading post, where something is wrong
2selling something strange to enemies of the people who live here
3in a hidden ruin, cave, shipwreck, etc.
4selling shoddy goods to allies of the people who live here
5in jail, held captive, chased by enemies
6on a route they can't return by: bridge washed out, landslide, fallen trees, hostile people

a Chinese porter (William Alexander)


They've acquired something interesting that they're offering:

Something interesting (d10)
1news about a great opportunity
2rumors of danger
3news about someone gathering followers
4a tiny artifact from an ancient kingdom
5a small sacred item lost by a human tribe during the apocalypse
6a new invention that they're trying to sell
7a key, an old doubloon, jewelry, a strange edible object
8a part for some kind of machinery, something powered by clockwork
9an old book, a certificate or bearer bond, a map, a contract that someone still cares about
10a powerful alchemical product, but only a small quantity

If you want to buy something from a huckster, they'll usually sell it for up to 2× trading post prices.  Hucksters' goods aren't cheap, but you can buy in tiny quantities and you can find them out on the frontier.

This traveling trader has picked up something that they're tired of and would like to unload cheaply, for less than post price:

Trying to unload (d4)
1perishable food: eggs, berries, mushrooms
2clothing: a warm coat, a fine hat, some shoes
3a tool/weapon that has something wrong with it: knife, lockpicks, axe, musket
4some troublesome alchemical product

If you want to sell to a huckster, they'll take things off your hands for less than ½ post price.  You won't get rich selling to them, but you can make a little coin when you need it.

Roll to see what they're especially interesting in buying or trading for.  They'll pay extra for this:

Looking for (d6)
1a new pack/canoe/cart, something to help them carry things and get around
2something people make on the frontier: rope, pottery, cloth, cornmeal, dried fish
3something nice to pass the time: alcohol, tobacco, a musical instrument
4an armed escort to their next stop, a guide to get around an obstacle
5something to use as a gift: a silver locket, shell beads, a golden bracelet, fine gems, a music box
6an introduction to the leader of a town that does not allow outsiders

Tinker (Franz Feyerabend)


Most peddlers pick up some kind of skill on the road:

Skill (d6)
1good at fixing things (goblin: good at identifying things)
2entertaining: stories, jokes, singing
3know all the trails and back ways for many miles around
4owed favors by people all along their route
5always have an inkling where you might find something
6allowed in to places outsiders normally can't go

When the party wants to buy something from a huckster, you can usually use your GM sense to decide if it's available (A deer's jawbone? Sure, why not.  An axe handle?  Yeah, I guess so.  The jeweled scepter of the viceroy?  Definitely not.) but sometimes players ask for things that you haven't decided about.

If you're not sure the huckster has what they want, roll for a random response:

Do they have it? (d6)
1They have exactly what you're looking for, but it'll cost you.
2They have one, but it's broken or in bad shape.
3They have only part of one, much less than you were looking for.
4They had one just recently, but they traded it to someone.
5They know who has one, but you won't like who it is.
6They hear you can buy one at the store / trading post (somewhere nearby, if possible).

Japanese peddler 1901

Roll up your own random peddler:

random wandering trader
appearance
how long since the last visit
recently been
they have something interesting
trying to unload
looking for
skill
do they have it?

Friday, April 26, 2019

Strangers from a distant land

Recent years in the North have been dominated by the strange folks from over the sea, the empire that sent colonists and then vanished, never to be heard from again.



So far I've been calling these people "elves", but it's a very poor fit.  They're not forest-dwellers, not long-lived embodiments of human ideals; they're not archers, and I don't really care whether their ears are pointy.  (I guess they do manufacture toys more efficiently than anyone else, but Santa's elves these are not.)

Instead, these people are:
  • from a coastal hot and dry climate
  • physically weak, bad at throwing things
  • hive-based, where only a few Mothers and Fathers in each city breed, while the rest work
  • excellent tool-users, with nimble fingers and specialized tools
  • flexible and acrobatic
  • milk-drinkers and bread-eaters
To humans, tree goblins, and giants, these people are strange interlopers, outsiders who don't fit the usual understanding of life.

To the northern folk, these are the Strangers.  It's a North-centric term (no Stranger would call themselves one) but considering three of the four intelligent species are indigenous to the North, I don't mind leaning in their direction.


What they call themselves almost doesn't matter, as they've never dealt with other intelligent species until now.  When you don't know anyone else, you end up calling yourself something generic, like the People or the Ordinary Boys.

In the pseudo-American framework of Signs in the Wilderness, the strangers are inspired by English alchemists, sultans of Delhi, Malay pirates, master craftsmen of the Great Qing people from all corners of the Old World, strange and exotic to the people of the New.



I'm still rolling the term around my head, but for now, I think I like calling the imperial folk Strangers.  A few terms I've considered lately:
  • elves
  • strangers
  • imperials
  • southerners
One thing is certain: I'd like to use a name that isn't entirely invented.  Calling them Strangers suggests something, that they're known for being outsiders, mysterious newcomers.  Calling them Abskiul or Marecun or Tsadelath doesn't really suggest anything at all.


(And yes, I'm being deliberately inconsistent with the capitalization of Stranger.  On the one hand, I haven't decided which I prefer.  On the other, I'll probably end up uſing more Capital Letters anyhow for that early modern Flair.)



I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on the topic.  I imagine there's no perfect solution, but I'm sure there's one out there that's good enough.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Great Migration

Migrations are a great way to cause trouble, and trouble usually leads to adventure.

American frontier history is full of migrations: the Lakota fleeing onto the Great Plains to escape the musket-wielding Ojibwe, the Oregon Trail drawing American settlers to the west, the Cree following the fur trading posts through Canada, the Mormons (and the Pilgrims before them) heading out to establish a holy city.  It's a long list.

So why do we care about migrations in a roleplaying game?
  • They're often a consequence of a conflict.  Help the local people win a war, and the losing side might have to flee somewhere else.
  • They cause conflict of their own.  Most places are already inhabited to some degree, so a bunch of newcomers showing up is likely to get folks ready for a fight.
  • Migrations need resources.  Plenty a trader has gotten rich on selling goods to migrants passing through.  Someone's likely to hire guides and armed escorts.
  • Migrations bring resources, too.  They might be the first ones in the area with guns, or they might be carrying sacks of gold to buy land.  Raiders might make a good living preying on these folks.
To create a great migration, you might find the following tables helpful.  As usual, you can roll randomly if you like, but you might just use the tables for inspiration.

Mitchell Pass, Oregon Trail - Todd Williams


Why migrate?


Pick two reasons from the table below.  The first is obvious and visible to outsiders; it's the reason you're likely to hear about.  The second is quieter, a reason that most outsiders don't know about.  It might even be a secret reason only the leadership knows about.
 
Why migrate? (d8)
1A bountiful land full of resources beckons to those who are ambitious or desperate.
2Enemies are driving them out to take their land.
3Their livelihood is running out: the land is barren, the fish are gone, the mines have run out.
4Fleeing from persecution, they want a place to live by their own ways.
5They aim to build a utopia, a shining land of virtue and prosperity.
6A prophecy, a vision, or a great spiritual teacher leads them into the wilderness.
7Trade opportunities beckon: access to trading partners, guns, a port, a trade route.
8They need to settle close to powerful allies.

Trail of Tears - J. Crosby


Difficult terrain


There's a major obstacle in the way of this migration, some kind of difficult terrain that's going to be hard for everyone.  Crossing this obstacle might be where the migration is most vulnerable.

Obstacle (d10)
1-2a vast, trackless plain, bitterly cold in winter and blazing hot in summer
3-4a rugged mountain range, nearly impassable under winter snow
5-6a great expanse of swamps, lakes and/or rivers
7-8a deep canyon, a high bluff, or a difficult portage bypassing a waterfall
9-10a journey on open water: over the sea, across a strait, hopping from island to island

Waka - Charles Goldie and Louis J. Steele

Progress


Roll to see how the migration is progressing.

Progress (d6)
1The migration is just talk so far. They do not know much about the destination yet.
2An outsider has been to the destination and back. Everyone is intrigued by their report.
3All the people are about to migrate in one large caravan.
4Groups of dozens of people are just starting out now, armed and vigilant.
5Families or very small groups are setting out, trying to keep out of sight.
6Most of the people already traveled the first step a while ago, but they ran into problems and hunkered down. Now they have to decide whether to keep traveling or return home.

Handcart Company across the Sweetwater River - Clark Kelley Price


Surplus & shortage


People on this journey are going to need help.  Roll once on the chart below to see what they need most desperately.  Roll again to see what they have in abundance.

Surplus/Shortage (d8)
1safety, forts to take refuge in, armed escorts, guns, powder
2food, grazing for pack animals, water in a dry country
3guides, maps and guidebooks, a navigator, an interpreter
4warmth, shelter, suitable clothing for the weather
5a safe place to cross an obstacle: a portage, pass, ford, strait, etc.
6boats, wagons, snowshoes, draft oxen, porters
7leadership, confidence, belief in their purpose
8money, trade goods, permission to pass through someone's territory

Trading Post - Hubbell


If you get the same result for both rolls, treat each one differently.  Let's say you rolled a 6 for both (boats, wagons, snowshoes, draft oxen, porters).  They could have plenty of canoes for the river-borne part of the journey, but be desperately short on hands to carry everything over the portage from one river to the next.  Or some of the people could have oxen and good wagons, while the rest are stuck hauling everything on their backs.

Hard work ahead


The migrants believe they'll have a hard task ahead of them at the end of the road. They might believe this from prior experience, or because of rumors headed their way, or maybe by the words of a prophecy about their new home.

Hard Work (d6)
1expel the people who live there already
2defeat those who will follow after them
3clear the wilderness to make room for settlement, felling trees, opening rivers, digging wells
4build a great colony/city
5learn how to survive in such a strange place
6prepare for dark days to come: starvation, disease, cold weather

Clearing the Land (Quebec)




Roll up your own great migration:

a great migration
obvious reason
quiet reason
major obstacle
progress
in desperate need of
have in abundance
hard work ahead

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Message for you, sir

After a long trek through the wilderness, the party makes it back to the watering hole at Flint Ridge.  Dirty and exhausted, they slump into their usual chairs.  There's a letter waiting for them with the tavern master.  The lieutenant digs out a shilling for it, then unfolds the letter.  Could it be news about the war?  Answers about the lost treasure?  A letter of credit to pay off the party's debts?

Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks


In a world where writing is magic, the post office is like the astral plane.  Secret messages, hidden money, many powerful things can be sent through the post office.

The colonial postal system almost didn't survive the apocalypse (hard to keep the mail going when no one's left to send any) but it's been a generation.  The viceroy, nominal ruler of the elven colonies, has reestablished post offices and messenger routes.  This is good for communication, but it also means the viceroy has agents visiting every major elven town, reporting back about the conditions and goings-on of the scattered colonies.

Getting a letter


In larger elven settlements there's a local post office.  Mail can be delivered to local addresses, though roving adventurers usually have things sent to the post office where they can pick them up.  Smaller outlying settlements aren't big enough for a post office, so there you can pick your mail up at the local tavern or the general store.

Unlike modern mail, in the colonies the recipient pays for correspondence.  If you don't pay for your mail, it ends up being thrown away.

Letters from another city cost a shilling (the usual small silver coin, worth half a day's wages or a ferry ride across a river).  Letters from across town cost only a penny or two.

Thomas Webster, A Letter from the Colonies


What they want (d6)
1They want the party to do some work for them.
2They want the party to stop interfering and go away.
3They say the party owes them a debt.
4They want to warn the party about danger.
5They want information from the party.
6They want to use one of the party's resources.

Why the party cares (d6)
1They claim to be the authorities or powerful figures.
2They have something the party wants.
3They are offering to pay in some way.
4The letter contains valuable information.
5They are close to an enemy of the party.
6The party owes them a debt.


a letter arrives for the party
what they want
why the party cares

Sending a letter


If you want to send a letter, there are a few different ways:
  • Larger towns and cities have a post office, so you can drop your letter off there.
  • In port towns, just hand your letter to the next ship captain headed to a major city.  They're supposed to drop it off with the postmaster when they arrive.
  • Many inland settlements are visited by postal messengers on their route.  Wait for one to come along and you can hand your letter to them.
  • You could entrust your letter with a member of the community (the innkeeper, the clerk of the general store, etc.) for them to hand off the letter for you.
So how long will it be till someone picks up your letter?
  • From an elven city to the viceroy's capital in the Summer Isles (or vice versa), it'll be 1d6 days till a ship leaves carrying your letter.
  • From one city to another, 1d4 weeks.
  • To/from any other port settlement, 1d8 weeks.
  • To/from any other elven settlement, 1d6 months.
Taconville, Messager Boiteaux

There are many reasons the party might send a letter:
  • Asking for information: when a ship will sail, whether someone has been seen at an inn, where a lost ship was last seen, etc.
  • Requesting money from their sponsor, likely in the form of a check or a letter of credit that could be turned in for coin at a bank.
  • Mail ordering supplies.  Plenty of companies will do business through correspondence, shipping goods and accepting payment over a distance.
  • Asking a friend for help.
  • Impersonating someone powerful.
  • Getting information published in a newspaper.
  • Hiring someone to do a job.
  • Blackmailing someone.
  • Warning someone about danger.
Beyond the elven colonies and a few of their allies, the mail just doesn't get through.  Humans send runners with messages, giants memorize copious amounts of news on their wanderings, and goblins pass along a lot of garbled rumors.

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.)

Theme


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

Characteristics


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 collect...how 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.

Signs


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.


Vulnerability


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