Sunday, January 10, 2021

In Pursuit of the Star, an informal online campaign

I'm starting up a very informal online campaign of Signs in the Wilderness.  It's not going to use any mechanical rules like hit points or encumbrance, this is really just a test of my worldbuilding tables.

As much as possible, I'm going to roll dice to decide what the campaign is like, while players tell me what the adventuring protagonists are up to.  And who are the players?  Anyone who decides to drop in!

If you'd like to experience the campaign more like a player, follow along at r/SignsInTheWilderness, where I'll be posting as the story moves along.

If you'd like to follow along from the GM's position, read on.  In this post, I'll be rolling up the starting premises of the campaign.

Spoilers ahead!

Falling Star, by me

Every campaign starts with three Great Opportunities.  I think it's best to ask the players what they're most interested in and use that for one of them.  Asking that question on Reddit, it turns out they're interested in the Falling Star.  Smugglers and exploring the wilderness came next, so I might use those or I might pick one at random.  Let's start by rolling up the details of the Falling Star.

Falling Star

  • Seen in the sky: a shooting star of green or gold, and a many-hued aurora in midwinter.
  • The stone itself is an immense quantity of some unearthly tool-making material, such as star-iron, sapphire flint, or red jade.
  • It also brings healing, cures a disease, or restores the dead to life (more or less).
  • It is sought by the usual assemblage of treasure seekers, pirates, and adventurers.  It is also sought by the imperial military, expecting it shall prove decisive in the next war.
  • The stone fell long ago, as told in story and song.  Now strange events are caused by it.
  • When it fell, people who saw it in the sky were blinded for days, and they had dreams of a frightful future to come.
  • It is currently located deep under the earth, in a crater, or in a canyon; in a place that's overgrown or has dangerous creatures.
  • Along the journey, you hear stories of the stone's effects, and you hear rumors that it does not exist.

That sounds like it could be a fun adventure.  There are a lot of open questions about it, but I think we can see the rough idea coming together.  For the other two opportunities people were interested in, I think an exploring expedition could work well with this; smugglers might not be as good for a long journey.

But before I go picking opportunities myself, let's roll the dice and see if we get something interesting.  The results: Exploring Expedition, and Visions and Prophecy.  I think we'll stick with that.  The prophecy could be related to the dreams caused by the stone in olden days, and the exploring expedition could be what sends you into farther countries to begin with.  We'll have to roll up the details to see what we get.

Exploring Expedition

  • The expedition is sponsored by a learned society, like the Royal Geographical Society.
  • They're offering a great reward for success.
  • Primary goal: explore the full length of a river with a rugged canyon, ice in winter, or a trackless swamp.
  • Secondary goal: track down a poorly-understood polity and make some manner of treaty with their ruler.
  • The sponsor is offering a captive to take with you who can translate, knows a route, or may be returned to their home in exchange for help.  This is helpful.
  • They're also offering the account of a previous explorer who may have traveled most of the way there.  This is not helpful.
  • Before you leave, an early winter threatens your expedition.  There is competition from another sponsor or another team.

Let's go with a team from another sponsor.  You have the full backing of the society sponsoring you, but they are backed by someone else, possibly the military so they can later go after the stone.

  • Along the way, you find that the objective has recently changed and the old one is no longer suitable.
  • You also find that someone else already attained the objective, but died before they could return.
  • You have the opportunity to become warlord of this country during a conflict.

That last one makes me think this should be a country rather far from the colonies, somewhere that doesn't have guns yet.  And if you show up there with the sapphire flint of the stone, you would only be more powerful.  There's going to have to be some kind of conflict going on in this country.

I think the useless account is probably from the same explorer that you find has died.  They set out to explore this river once and turned back, leaving their terribly inaccurate account behind.  Later, they set out again and successfully explored the length of the river, but died in that country.

Visions and Prophecy

The movement arises among displaced goblins and their fellow refugees.

  • A visionary prophet speaks and all listen.
  • Leaders call for zeal for the cause, fervor, willingness to die.
  • The movement finds itself aligned with an ongoing struggle to abolish a tax or crippling debts.

Just because of that, we'll probably need some kind of powerful authorities in this country, able to impose a tax on the populace.  Impoverished refugees in the land can already cause strife.

The Visions and Prophecy tables generate a sequence of events that describe the rise (and perhaps fall) of this new movement.  This isn't what's guaranteed to happen, but it's what will happen if no one else intervenes.  I like to use it to get a sense of the types of conflicts that surround this prophetic movement.  Let's roll some events:

  1. Reports of wondrous signs, miraculous healing.  (Remember how the stone causes healing?)
  2. A renewed call for zealotry.
  3. Further prophecy is revealed.
  4. The movement migrates, gaining hardship and unity.
  5. Volunteers arrive with weapons.
  6. Armed clash with local opposition.
  7. Thousands flock to the movement.  (This is where a heavily-populated area works well, as a source for thousands to join.  The migration was probably into some powerful kingdom.)
  8. Armed clash with local opposition.
  9. Suffer a harsh winter, flood, or earthquake.
  10. Grim portents are seen.
  11. Prophet is killed, new leader emerges.
  12. A powerful authority figure joins the movement.
  13. Authorities try to arrest/kill the inner circle.
  14. An army gathers for war.
  15. The movement is outlawed by local powers.
  16. The movement becomes the dominant power of the region, merging state and religion.

The farther down the list you go, the less likely these events are to occur, as the players are likely to get involved and mess everything up (as players are wont to do).  But if nothing changes, this would be a reasonable course for the movement to take.

We're definitely going to need a local power of some kind: a kingdom, a city-state, a powerful alliance of houses.  We'll see what we get when we roll up the country where the prophet migrates to, but it needs to be powerful enough to host all these large events.

Ideally I'd be able to roll up the prophecy itself, but I haven't finished those tables yet.  Whatever it is, it should have something to do with the fallen star that once caused dreams of a frightful future to come, a dream that came true with the apocalypse.  This prophetic movement is calling upon that older story.


So far we need a few different regions:

  • The powerful kingdom where the prophecy movement culminates.
  • The land with the fallen star.
  • The lands of the river that we're supposed to explore.

I think the poorly-understood polity that the explorers are supposed to find is going to be the powerful kingdom.  It's far away, but powerful enough that word of its existence has reached the colonies.  Let's start by rolling up a country.

Rugged ravines

Starting with terrain:

  • Waterways cut ravines, nearly impossible to walk in.  Water flows to the north.
  • One may walk with ease along the tops of mostly-parallel ridges running northeast/southwest.
  • Part of this country is treeless: bare rock once scoured by glaciers.

This sounds like a rugged country to travel through, maybe a good fit for the difficult river to explore.

  • Inhabited by humans.  Humans get -1 for rugged mountains: a struggling tribe among many ruins.
  • Inhabited by goblins, 2x.  Populous, good hunting grounds, outsiders fear this land, a few giantish traders pass through.
  • An expedition will come here.  (Well, yeah.)
  • Invasive vines overwhelm the land.
  • A true magick fails in this country.  (The only magic we've looked at so far is the fallen star's healing power.)
  • Steps cut in rock, a boon to travelers.  (This might be at a pass over the bare rock highlands.  There are ruins here, so maybe they're ruins from an earlier people that carved the steps.)
  • Named for the locals.  Since there are scary biting goblins here, let's call it Sharptooth Country.


  • Deeply indented coastline, bay, many inlets, streams, coves, isles.  Sea lies to the east.
  • A high north-south mountain range down the middle of the country or along one side.  Crossing requires mountaineering or knowledge of hidden passes.
  • The highlands are above the treeline.

This could be the land with the fallen star, or the place of the powerful kingdom.  It could also be another part of the journey along the river or further on.

  • Inhabited by giants, 3x.  Giants get +1 for highlands: two mighty ruling houses with several smaller ones, perilous ruins of a dead house.
  • Home of a new religious movement.  (I think this might be the powerful land the prophet moves to.)
  • Nearly uninhabited since the apocalypse.  Many bones, ruins, goods to salvage.  (That changes things -- this isn't the powerful kingdom, but it might be where the prophecy begins, among goblin refugees.)
  • Beasts we ought not have forgotten.  (And that might be why no one wants to live here anymore.)
  • Well-established trail/road, crossroad town.  (This might be where the refugees live today, at the central meeting place of the roads, in a fort that's in danger of being overrun by the beasts.)
  • Named for common vegetation or a common encounter.  (Is this country up north or down south?  I think I'll decide that later on.)

One question I'll need to answer is whether the expedition is exploring from the source of the river to its mouth, or if they're searching for the source of a river with a known mouth (like explorers on the Nile).  If I can't decide, I'll end up just picking one option at random.

Jungle plateau

  • Cliff/escarpment/range running north/south divides this land from a higher or lower one, waterfalls tumble over the cliff.
  • Ridges that run north/south.
  • Dense and hard to travel through: a rainy jungle of towering trees and incredibly thick undergrowth.

I think that answers my question about north or south.  While this could be a temperate rainforest (like on the Olympic Peninsula), this sounds like a tropical rainforest to me.  It could be on the mainland somewhere off to the southwest or it could be on the big island of Turucaya. 

  • Inhabited by humans, colonials, and giants.
  • Humans have a trade center here, many other towns, roads.
  • Colonials have a -2: inland, no obvious route to the sea.  Imperial guns and trade goods are here (to some degree), but no actual colonials.
  • Giants have a -1 for being so far south.  Perilous ruins of a dead house.

This could be the powerful kingdom where the prophecy comes to a head.  That dividing cliff makes a difference -- I think the cliff leads down to the country where the giants once lived?  Wherever it goes, I like the idea of this being a jungle country above the falls.

  • Signs here from a kingdom long ago.
  • True magick fails here.
  • Inhabitants permit no entry to this country.
  • Well-established trail/road, crossroad town.
  • Named for the locals.  (The human tribe here is called the Okamani "mighty descendants".)

I think we need at least one more country, the place where the star once fell.  Let's see if this next country feels right.

Swampy coast

  • Swamp: mosquitoes, deep mud, rotting trees.
  • Long sandy spit or grassy cape, straight coast with a few harbors or inlets.  Dangerous sand/gravel bars in river mouths.  Sea to the southeast.
  • Many parallel creeks merge together to flow out to the southwest.

I have no idea where this country is located compared to the others.  I'm going to have to try putting these next to each other to see what works, like a little puzzle. 

  • Inhabited by humans 2x, goblins.
  • Humans have a -1 for swamps: a struggling tribe among many ruins; an ancient ruin, strife with a newly-arrived tribe.
  • Goblins have a +1 for swamps: three villages compete for hunting grounds, prey on livestock of others.

Maybe this country has the mouth of the river we're trying to explore?  Not worried about it yet, I'm sure it'll all become clear when I put these countries next to each other.

  • An expedition will come here.  (That makes it sound like it should have the river mouth.
  • Inhabitants permit no entry to the country.
  • Beasts we ought not have forgotten.
  • Well-established trail/road, crossroad town.  (We've gotten this result several times in a row, so I'm rerolling it.)
  • Ancient causeway in marsh.
  • Named for its terrain.  (I'm going to borrow an awful and evocative name from Central America here: this is the Mosquito Coast.)


Now it's time to arrange these countries.  I can't figure out how they're actually laid out, so I'm going to make some very quick little maps and move them around.  We're talking scribbles on scraps of paper here, nothing fancy.

After a minute or two, here's what I came up with:

Works for me.

The initial expedition is to explore a river whose mouth is known, and to make contact with the poorly-understood jungle kingdom upriver.  We know that the objective of the expedition turns out not to be suitable, so I think they have the wrong idea of where the river goes.  They send you to the country of the dead giants, to explore up one of those rivers to the kingdom, but you find that none of those rivers come from the kingdom.  Instead, it's a river on the Mosquito Coast that you need to explore.  This won't be obvious, of course, so you'll have to traipse around the wilderness for a while.

This also puts you in contact with the nascent prophecy movement in the dead giants' country, so you can learn about the story of the fallen star.  The stone itself is somewhere further inland from Sharptooth Country (since the stone's magic fails in Sharptooth).

I'm going to stop there for now and post what I have so far.  Next up, let's find out more about the society that's sponsoring the expedition, then the people of the various countries along the way.

Let me know if you have any questions about how I'm rolling this up, or if you have a direction you'd like to see more of in the next few posts.


  1. This is great stuff. I can't wait for you to publish what you've been building.

  2. I've been following your blog for a while-- I love the content! I'm juts wondering if the tables for Visions and Prophecy or other things that you're rolling up will be made available, either in the blog or online somewhere or for purchase.

    1. I'll probably do a post on the "Visions and Prophecy" opportunity soon.

      As for all the content together, I'm working on a book that will be available for purchase whenever it's done, or whenever I've given up adding more to it.