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.)


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.