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.

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