Sunday, November 1, 2020

Tavern generator

Taverns and inns are the heart of the community in the Northern Lands, a place for lodging and drink, where news is told, letters are received, and new ventures are begun. 

In fantasy roleplaying games taverns are a traditional gathering place and springboard for adventure.  This, I think, has less to do with anything medieval (where taverns were yet to develop) and has everything to do with one salient example from literature Tolkien's Prancing Pony.  While taverns may not have been especially medieval, they were certainly a feature of colonial America, and thus they're entirely appropriate for Signs in the Wilderness.

We'll start with the name. Roll 1d6 and 2d12.

Name (d6)

1-2: X and X 3-4: Color X 5-6: Adj. Inn

X (d12) Color (d12) Adj. (d12) Inn (d12)
1 Anchor Red Wayside Tavern
3 Fish Blue City
4 Key
5 Fiddle Old Publick Inn
6 Lobster Shoreside
7 Lion White Stone
8 Goat Admiral's
9 Eagle Green Shepherd's House
10 Hook Black Governor's
11 Gong Great Wayfarer's
12 Hen Golden Seafarer's Alehouse

I rolled up two example taverns: (2, 5, 3) gives us the Fiddle and Fish.  (6, 8, 3) is the Admiral's Tavern.

Roll 3d20 for what you find at this tavern.

Features (d20 thrice)
1-2 folks down on their luck, eager for work
3-4 a wretched hovel: cold draft and leaky roof
5-6 reading a newspaper aloud: news of trouble or a great opportunity
7-8 fearful of strangers due to recent trouble
9 militia drills outside, smell of gunfire
10 work for someone tough, brave, and discreet
11 influential people discussing a grave threat
12 a party to celebrate a safe return from afar
13 military recruitment drive
14 hiring for a job seemingly proper and official
15 a letter for you or someone where you are traveling to
16 crowded, smoky, no room to stay tonight
17 a peddler showing their wares
18 song and storytelling
19 an unwanted inspector or tax collector
20 people of an unexpected species

The Fiddle and Fish (3, 12, 15) is a wretched little place: cold in the winter and leaky when it rains, but it's the best this frontier town has to offer.  Tonight there's a bit of celebration going on, as one of the townsfolk has safely returned from a long journey.  There's a letter waiting for you at the tavern -- did someone back home know you'd be passing through here?

The Admiral's Tavern (9, 11, 6) has an atmosphere of grave concern.  Outside the militia has been performing drills all day, and the smell of gunpowder pervades.  Someone here is reading the latest newspaper aloud for their neighbors: an article about recent trouble.  Influential people from this town are gathered at one table, discussing a threat to the community.

Food and drink are obvious, but what's a tavern without gambling?  Roll a d6 to see what game of chance is typical at this establishment.

Gambling (d6)
1 A noisy game of dice and rhyming in the corner.
2 All have wagered money on the outcome of a game of cavál (akin to chess, but where one spends money to ransom captives).
3 A round table of a card game with pictures of tropical animals and farm implements.
4 Guessing the weight of a sheep outside or the number of coffee beans in a jar.
5 Selling tickets for a raffle for a cow, a bottle of drink, or an unexpected reward.
6 Gambling is decried as sinful and not practiced here; perhaps a lecture is offered instead.

At the Fiddle and Fish, there's a rowdy crowd gathered around a game of cavál.  They're all betting on who's going to win, so you can tell when someone makes a strong move just from the noise.

The Admiral's Tavern doesn't go for any of that low-class gaming nonsense.  Instead there's a sign up that they're raising funds to rebuild the church; buy a raffle ticket for a chance to win a fine bottle of whiskey on display behind the bar.

Frontier towns are short on community spaces, so the tavern tends to fill other purposes.  Roll a d8 for another complication about this place: once if it's in a big town, up to four times if it's in a remote frontier outpost.

Also (d8, 1-4 times)
1 Coin is in short supply in this settlement; folks run a tab and settle their debts monthly.
2 The tavern also serves as general store for the town.
3 They're closed during the work day.
4 Instead of smaller rooms, there's one big communal room upstairs where guests sleep.
5 If you want to buy the local products, they're auctioned off here monthly.
6 A local official conducts business at their usual table.
7 The inn serves as the town's courtroom when needed.
8 This is a polling place for elections. The local council meets here.

The Fiddle and Fish is in a small outlying settlement that's short on actual currency.  Folks run up a tab at the tavern and settle their debts monthly, usually in farm produce.  On that day there's also an auction for the sale of livestock, grain, tools, whatever surplus the town has to offer.

The Admiral's Tavern is a more respectable establishment that isn't open for public drinking during the workday.  When this town has occasion to convene a court, the court meets at the tavern. 

Roll up your own tavern:

Click here for a random Tavern.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Magick disguised as Technology

An age of Progress is under way, as the apocalypse swept away the old to make room for the new.  Folks now devise all manner of strange Contraptions and Engines to ameliorate the many miseries of life.

This is a story of technological progress and new development, but it's also a fantasy of the remnants of civilization in the wilderness.  Where some fantasies have magic items, this story has technology.

(It also has magic, but that's for a different post.)

If we're going to talk about Magic and Technology, I think we should figure out the difference between them.  You've probably seen this quote from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Imagine handing a flashlight to someone from ancient Egypt.  Understanding what it is and how you use it only takes a moment, but understanding how it actually works is far outside the science available to that Egyptian.  What looks like technology to us would look like magic to them.  It's not magic, but they could easily mistake it as such.

To be fair, how many of us know how a flashlight works anyhow?  Why do batteries work?  What is electricity?  Why can't we know where an electron is and how fast it's going at the same time?  Dig down far enough and you'll eventually hit a point where your knowledge ends.

But even though I have no idea why electrons behave the way they do, a flashlight still doesn't feel like magic to me.  The difference is one of expectations.  I don't know exactly how batteries work, but I expect that the answer would make sense.  It's technology, after all, so it's made of sensible parts that I could learn about for myself.

For that Egyptian, a flashlight is magic, so far outside their realm that they don't expect to understand how it works.  Open it up and of course there's no flame inside, but instead some cylinders full of inexplicable magic energies, and of course they're covered in strange symbols that no one can read.  None of it works like it should -- it's magic, after all.

This must be technology, because it has captions explaining how all the parts work.

For Signs in the Wilderness, I'm interested in exploring magic that looks like technology.

It's magic, because it doesn't really follow any of the usual rules of how the world works.  I couldn't tell you the science behind the Golden Goggles or the Atmospheric Engine because there isn't any.  They're just magic items that I made up.

But they look like technology because of the expectations people have.  Sure, we don't know what's inside the Engine, but that's just because we haven't opened it up for a look.  Of course we'd find gears or pulleys or lenses that all make sense if you study them, because that's just how technology is.

With the right expectations, you can slip just about any magic item into the story under the guise of technology.  And in this post-apocalyptic setting, every new invention has something obfuscating about it anyhow -- the inventor might be dead by now, and no one knows how it works.  But because it's technology (and most certainly Not Magic) we expect we'll figure it out eventually. 

Let's roll up a random Invention.

Purpose (d12)
1 travels across the Sky: hot air balloon, cable car, pigeon
2 allows travel Underwater: diving suit, submarine, air pump
3 transports over Land: bicycle, pneumatic tube, sail-carriage
4 affects the Weather: causes rain, attracts lightning, emits fog
5 transmits Messages: semaphore, megaphone, tiny writing
6 Entertains or distracts: music, image projector, carnival ride
7 Detects hard-to-find items: ores, gems, water
8 helps with the Crops: harvesting, weaving, baking
9 creates Light/Fire: lighter, safety lamp, gas tubes
10 provides Security: safes, explosives, alarms
11 reveals Knowledge: find position at sea, show the future, read minds
12 improves Health: food preservation, healing, prevent scurvy

5: This invention transmits messages in some way.  There are plenty of options here, but first we'll need to know what the invention looks like.

Form (d10)
1 wearable and cumbersome
2 pocket-sized, must open or set up before use?
3 heavy item that takes two hands to use/carry
4 only works when installed in a common thing
5 large, must be set in ground, unlikely to be moved once set up
6 colossal device, moves on a track of some sort
7 huge engine on spindly legs
8 small barrel/box, must stay still while in use
9 large, freestanding, can be moved about
10 enormous, built in place, an entire building?

2: It's pocket-sized, and might need to be opened or set up before use.  (Unfurled, maybe?)  It could be something like a signal mirror, or maybe a portable telegraph device, or even a radio by some other name.  Let's look at its overall style next:

Style (d8 twice)
1 wheels, gears, ropes, belts, pulleys
2 glass, silver, silk, kept inside amber glass
3 noisy, clanking, rumbling, high-pitched squeal
4 smoke, dirt, soot, ash, foul smell/taste
5 sparks, embers, flames, electrick shocks
6 leather, brass, pipes, mirrors
7 polished mahogany, walnut
8 emerald, amber, quartz, amethyst

3/6: It's noisy/clanking and it has some combination of leather, brass, pipes, and mirrors.  I think this might be a sound-based device, maybe something that can focus the sound of your voice on a point many miles away.

Next let's see how this device is powered:

Power Source (d8)
1 consumed by use, inert, reflects light and sound
2-3 handcrank, pushed by hand, turned by oxen
4-5 has its own: waterwheel, windmill, coal-fired steam engine
6-7 clockwork, windup spring, weights on chains
8 slowly powered by heat of the sun, alcohol flame, requires ice or noxious chemicals

1: It doesn't need a power source: it's inert or runs on its own.

This device is like a line-of-sight walkie-talkie.  It lets you communicate by voice with anyone else who has one, as long as they're visible, even if they're many miles away.

Let's call it the Voicecaster.

In form, it's something like an umbrella or a modern tent (a bit bigger than pocket-sized, but still easily portable), folded up for carrying (probably in a protective case) then unfurled for use.  The structural ribs are made of shiny brass pipes that snap together, supporting a hemisphere of thin canvas with leather straps in places for strength.  Out at the edges of the frame, the brass pipes flare into complex little trumpet shapes.  At the center the pipes all come together.

To use a voicecaster, you set it up facing in the right direction, then sit down so your head is in the middle of the device.  There's a tube in front of you for sighting your target, so you carefully aim it at whoever you're trying to communicate with, as far away as the horizon.  There's another tube by your mouth that you speak into, and one by your ear so you can listen.

This raises an interesting question: does the other person need to have one of these devices to hear your voice, or can you project your voice at any point in the distance?  Or maybe they don't need one of these devices to speak, and you can just listen in on conversations from miles away?

A real listening device, meant for hearing incoming aircraft.

But like all magic, this device shouldn't be too commonplace.  In the story, it's meant to serve the purpose of a rare magic item, something powerful and important, but not so common that the basic concept of the world changes.

What's stopping this device from being widely adopted?

Rare Because (d8 twice)
1 design still unfinished, not yet functional
2 reclusive inventor, state secret
3 rumors of peril, illegal, addictive, deadly
4 costly, hard to make/use
5 many would lose their livelihood by it
6 not understood, inventor died in the apocalypse
7 fragile, easily damaged
8 legal battle over ownership, distribution, usage

8/1: There's a legal battle over who owns it, and it isn't entirely functional yet.

Let's say the voicecaster works just fine for listening and speaking once you've got it aimed right, but the process of getting it aligned is too finicky at the moment.  If there's a demonstration model, it's permanently fixed in place to avoid this problem.

The inventor has an idea of how they might fix the alignment problem, maybe using something like a spyglass with a small hand-crank, but they haven't had a chance to try it yet.

Besides, they're trying to stay out of sight for now.  To get the funding, they turned to some investors who are expecting the device for their own use.  I'm sure we could think of some shadowy and nefarious people to have behind the scenes.

Let's roll up another one, just to see how this works.

  • purpose: traveling across the sky
  • form: huge engine on spindly legs
  • style: ropes and pulleys / polished wood
  • powered by: clockwork, windup spring
  • rare because: many would lose their livelihood / said to be dangerous

This is a flying machine, a giant winged ornithopter powered by clockwork made of wood and rope.  Its spindly legs somehow support its weight while on the ground, then can be folded up while in flight.

Of course it's terribly dangerous, but if it could be flown safely it would provide safe travel over difficult terrain and rough seas, putting many porters and wilderness guides out of work.

Click below to roll up one of your own:

Newfangled Invention
power source
rare because

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Mapping tutorial: Serpent Coast (part 3)

I'm drawing a map of the Serpent Coast, a rugged country from a campaign I'm writing up called The Legend of Copper IslePart 1 showed the steps for drawing a coastline full of fjords, then in part 2 we added rivers and mountains and started labeling.

(One small change: I noticed a much better site for the house of Flying Bar Goose, so I moved it.)

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Mapping tutorial: Serpent Coast (part 2)

I'm drawing a map for the Serpent Coast, part of a randomly-generated adventure The Legend of Copper Isle.  In part 1 we ended with a coastline full of fjords:

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Mapping tutorial: Serpent Coast (part 1)

I need to make a map for an upcoming adventure, so I thought I'd share my drawing process with you here.  If you'd like to follow along, grab a pen, some paper, and a pencil for planning ahead.

The country we'll be mapping is called the Serpent Coast.  Here's what I know about it so far:

  • Deeply-indented coastline.
  • Lots of islands.
  • Mountains.
  • River flowing in from the southwest.

Let's head over to Google Maps for some inspiration.  This adventure is supposed to feel sort of American so I'll start with the American coast and wander around for just a few minutes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Legend of Copper Isle - randomly generating a campaign

Last randomly-generated campaign worked well, so let's do another one.  This post is about the process of generating the campaign, then I'll post the writeup once it's done.

Here's a link to the writeup.  (or where it will be later)

Like last time, I have no idea what this campaign is going to look like.  I'm just rolling the dice, following the procedures, and seeing what happens.  Randomly rolled items are in bold (unless the text is very long, in which case just the first few words are in bold).

First we'd sit down with the players and talk about what kind of adventures sound like fun, but since we don't have any players, I'll just roll up some great opportunities randomly.  (If any of the ones from last time come up, I'll roll for something else because that sounds fun to me.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Through the Saw-Grass, a randomly-generated campaign (results)

In the last post, I rolled up an entire random campaign premise, starting from scratch and writing it up while going along.  Since then, I've drawn up a map, organized my notes, and cleaned up a few loose ends.

Here's the result:

The first page (shown here) is taken up with the map and local descriptions.  Each one has some kind of trouble, something they need, or something else going on.  The second page has information on each faction, encounter tables, how to start the campaign, etc.

This adventure premise is based on three great opportunities: Lost TreasureGold Rush, and Shining City in the Wilderness.

As for the actual ruleset, I suggest choosing something low-magic, with good support for overland travel.  I've been using some homebrew rules myself, which I could post more about if people are interested.

If you could take a look at the pdf and tell me what you think, I'd appreciate it.  Let me know if there are any other big parts that ought to be included in a writeup like this.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Through the Saw-Grass, a randomly-generated campaign

Today I'll be rolling up a random campaign, full of opportunities for adventure, intrigue, and exploration.  That's the plan, anyhow.  We'll see how far my random tables take me.

Here's the final result (pdf).

The rest of this post is about the process of getting there.  Follow along with me as I roll up random adventury stuff and piece it all together.

By the way, I'm going to try using the term cazandi for the imperial elves.  If you're not familiar, they're the city-building people from the empire destroyed in the apocalypse.  Imagine the Spanish and British empires, with influences from India and China.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Moonlit Play

On nights when the moon is full, performers across the land dress up for the Moonlit Play.  In elaborate costumes they take on a variety of roles from animal star-gods to wandering folk figures to hidden people.  They act out stories through word, dance, and song: some passed down from their ancestors, some newly-invented.

This is one of the traditional religions of the Northern Lands, most commonly performed by giants and tree goblins.  Like most religions, it brings a community together, links you to your ancestors, and passes on hidden knowledge of the dangers of the world.

Kwakwaka'wakw winter dance

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Random Map: terrain table

Let's make a random map!  Like last time, I'm going to roll up a few wilderness countries, mapping along the way.  My supplies are just a ballpoint pen and a regular sheet of paper.  Whatever the dice say to draw, that's what I'll draw.

Here's the final result, colorized because I felt like it.

The main table generates Terrain features.  Roll a d20 and a d12, three times.  The default terrain is mostly forested with streams and rolling hills, if the terrain table doesn't change any of that.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Randomly-generated Maps

Today I'm going to walk you through the makings of a random map.  Normally my mapping is all digital, but for this one I decided to do it by hand.  Here's what I'll be using:
  • an ordinary ballpoint pen
  • a regular piece of paper
  • a handful of dice
  • random Wilderness Country tables

Before we get into the process, here's the end result, with a nickel for scale:

I'm looking at this now thinking how I need better lighting, better hand technique, better pens...but that's not the point.  Drawing maps is something you can do whether you're trained or not, and whether you have fancy art supplies or not.

Let's go through the process together.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Down in the Roots

The smallest of the four peoples are the goblins who live in the trees.  For their appearance, think of lemurs and raccoons.  They're ambush hunters who imitate animal calls, lie in wait, then leap down in a burst of teeth and claws.

Their activity takes them all throughout the forest and occasionally into lands beyond, but the heart of goblin life is the tree.  Up in a tree is safety, family, and home.  It's where children are raised and it's where you rest at night.

Danger lies below.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The True History of the Conquest of New Spain

First-hand accounts from history usually make for dry reading, but when a good author meets the front lines of change, the results are worth reading.  The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is a thrilling tale of adventure and brutality, the story of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Aztec Empire, told by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who was part of the events.

It's a story any band of murder-hobos would understand.

The central figure of the True History is the expedition's leader, Hernando Cortés, the epitome of cleverness and cruelty.  Where he comes from isn't important -- his hometown never plays a part in the tale, and he's not really working for anyone, despite his claims of being loyal to the Spanish crown.  Cortés is, foremost, an adventurer out for his own interests.

Reading about the expedition, I was struck by how much it sounded like a roleplaying game.  Typical people only fight as a last resort, when they've been pushed far enough and have no other choices.

Adventurers, I think, are not typical people.  Cortés fights for his own gold and glory, and no amount of danger seems to deter him.

The story begins in Spanish Cuba, 1519.  Rumors of treasure come in from the west.  Against the governor's orders, Cortés gathers some ships and a party of soldiers and heads for the unexplored country.

It's a straightforward setup for an adventure so far.  Treasure is their only goal, in whatever form.  They've heard that the mainland might have gold.  But the truth is that the party has no idea where they're going; the coast is just a question mark on a map.

The first encounter is immensely helpful: they find a Spanish priest, the survivor of a shipwreck who has spent years as a slave among the Maya people.  Most importantly, the priest has learned the Maya language.

Next along the coast in Tabasco they have a combat encounter.  It doesn't start as one, but like proper adventurers, they take any opportunity they have to start a fight.  By the end, Cortés and his party sail away with a bit of loot: some golden jewelry, rich cloaks, and several women (one of whom speaks the Aztec language) as slaves for the men.

Brutality in this story runs deep, crimes highlighted all the more by their contrast with the noble words of those who commit them.  Cortés and his adventurers kill and rape and plunder without a thought, then speak of peaceful relations and spreading good deeds.  The priest occasionally complains of their behavior, but it continues nonetheless.

Each jaunt further into the unknown puts these adventurers in contact with another strange group.  From our perspective we can see that both sides are humans like ourselves, but to the people involved, it's more like first contact with an alien race.  The Tabascans have never seen anything like these Spaniards, being especially terrified of their cannons and horses.  From the Tabascan point of view, strange monsters have invaded from across the sea.

At this point, the party doesn't have a long-term goal.  They're looking for treasure, but they don't really know where to look, so they're just working their way along the coast, ending up in the region of the Totonacs.

Far away, in a highland country known as Mexico, a great emperor rules over cities and armies.  His agents travel far and wide collecting information and tribute, and word has come to emperor Moctezuma of strangers from across the sea.

A richly-appointed emissary of Moctezuma comes to meet the Spaniards at the coast, attended by sketch artists to record the event.  For the first time, Cortés and his men learn of the existence of this powerful empire.  The Totonac king is clearly terrified of the forces of Mexico, but he's also afraid of the guns and horses Cortés and his men have brought along.

All this leads to an argument among the adventurers.  Should they journey into the highlands and face the power of Moctezuma, or should they return home to the safety of Cuba?

Cortés resolves the argument by destroying their ships, leaving the party stranded in hostile territory.  In a way, this is where the adventure truly begins.

From that point on, they keep getting deeper and deeper into peril as Cortés drives ahead with little more than trickery and bravado.  I should avoid any spoilers -- we all know how the story ends, but what happens along the way makes for a thrilling tale.

There's treachery and murder, slaughter at a banquet, dignitaries arrested and humiliated.  Ships are built, great pyramids are climbed, and ancient cities are besieged.  They face the defiant yet impoverished Tlaxcalans, climb the volcano of Popocatepetl, and stand in awe of the splendors of the great city of Tenochtitlan.

There are many lessons you might draw from this when shaping your own adventure.  Three come to mind so far:

  1. Conflicting motives create drama.  Everyone wants something different, causing alliances to shift as conditions change.  Is Xicotencatl a friend of Cortés or an enemy?  In the end, he's a bit of both, seeking power in his own kingdom first.
  2. Shortage and hardship drive adventure.  Any time someone in this story is hungry or short on weapons, it forces them to make hard choices.  When Tlaxcala runs out of salt or Cortés runs out of powder, conflict is thrust upon them.
  3. All people can be monsters in their own way.  While it's clear that the author wants to portray the conquest in a good light, all the major figures come across as monsters.  Cortés and his men rightly fear that they'll be eaten, just as Moctezuma rightly fears that his people will be branded and enslaved.  This is not a story of good and peaceful men.
The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is one of the most fascinating adventure stories I've ever read.  If you're looking for a thrilling tale, I think you won't be disappointed.