Saturday, July 9, 2022

Defining a setting in Four Images

Adding detail is easy; taking it away is hard.  There's a value in distilling something down to its simplest elements, stripping away all else to reveal the bones underneath.  One of the hardest posts on this blog to write was the very first one, where I tried to summarize the entire concept of this setting.  Like it says above, this is:

A 1700s post-apocalyptic hopeful frontier fantasy setting for roleplaying games.

I saw a post from The Theoretical GM where he distilled his entire setting down into four images, and I thought that made for a great challenge.  So here's Signs in the Wilderness in just four images:

I'm not sure if these images convey all the concepts I was hoping for, but here's what I wanted to get across: the era of muskets, ambush and skirmish warfare, contact between different kinds of people, a big world full of wilderness to explore, canoes and travel by water, religion, ruin, and a North American setting.

If you've got a setting of your own, I'd love to see what four images you'd pick out.  Drop a comment below or send me a message on Reddit.

The Great Mountain

When rolling up a random country, sometimes you find a wonder of the world.  These are singular places, not found anywhere else.  There are many mountains in the Northern Lands, but only one is the Mountain.


To the humans it is Asanamaqua "noble mountain" or Nontomaqua "thunder mountain".  The giants call it Yaxokuy "ancient mother" or Yotoyasa "smoke mountain".  To the tree-goblins it is Taocabáya "the one that reaches highest".


The great mountain can be seen on the horizon from afar (from at least 50 miles / 80 km away), looking like a cloud at first, far higher than any mountain should be.

(If you'd like to use the great Mountain in your own game, roll everything up first before introducing it, as some of the rolls may influence how you present the mountain earlier on.)


As you approach the mountain, you find three things:

Approach (d10 thrice)
1Mountaintop is always wreathed in clouds.
2Black smoke, ash falls within 100 miles (160 km).
3Thriving society worships the mountain as a capricious god.
4Ancient lava tunnels with lost relics, strange bones.
5Lush & verdant landscape, strange plants found only here.
6Geysers & hot mineral springs, believed to heal.
7Locals forbid outsiders to set foot on the mountain.
8Pilgrims from an unknown land come to holy mountain.
9Symbol of the mountain on houses, boats, tattoos.
10Dying people come here to ascend into heaven.

Let's roll up our own version of the great Nontomaqua.

  • A thriving society lives in this land, worshiping the mountain as a capricious god.
  • There are geysers and hot springs nearby, said to have healing patterns.
  • Black smoke billows forth from the mountain, and ash sometimes falls on the land.

Climbing the mountain is an arduous task, requiring mountaineering expertise and equipment.  A climb is going to take several days at least, possibly much longer.  Use whatever mountaineering rules your system provides.

On your way up you find several things.  Roll on this table, but each time you roll, add +1 for each roll you've already done, then keep going until you hit End.  For example, your first roll is +0, then your next roll is +1, then a roll at +2, and so on until you get an entry that says End.

Ascent (d10 +1 for each roll so far)
1Offerings left for the god of the mountain.
2Outlaws/lepers banished to live in caves.
3An annual climb to offer sacrifices on the mountain.
4Caverns and tunnels, plants with very deep roots.
5Sheer cliffs, hard to find a safe climbing route.
6Perpetual fog, fearsome plant/animal life.
7Cyclopean Monument of a lost kingdom.
8A garden of Rest and Sustenance among the clouds.
9Scrawny & gnarled trees as you reach the treeline.
10Loose rocks, scree, prone to landslides/avalanches.
11Signs of hidden/lost people living within the mountain.
12Enormous birds, heart-eating condors, nests.
13Saddle where a lesser peak meets this mountain.
14Remnant of an ancient bridge/steps/road.
15Perilous overhangs, chimneys, high winds.
16The air is hard to breathe from here on up.
17Tiny flowers that bring healing and true sight.
18Something that fell from the Heavens (this table should be ready soon).
19Wise teacher of unexpected age/species. (End)
20Ancient & Terrible being beneath the ice. (End)
21+The mountain reaches into the lower tier of the Heavens. (End)

On our example Nontomaqua, here's what we find on the way up:

  • People on an annual climb to offer sacrifices on the mountain.
  • A place of perpetual fog, with dangerous animal/plant life.
  • Loose rocks and scree, prone to landslides.
  • Sheer cliffs, hard to find a safe climbing route.
  • A cyclopean monument of a lost civilization.
  • The air is thin and hard to breathe from here on up.
  • A saddle where a lesser peak meets this mountain.
  • A place of perilous overhangs, chimneys, and high winds.
  • At the peak: a wise teacher of an unexpected age and/or species.

But before we figure out what all this means, we need to understand the secret of the mountain.  Roll twice and combine them, even if the results feel strange together.  Maybe one caused the other, or one is the guardian of the other, or one is the true form of the other.

Secret (d6)
1A mighty god of storms and ice inhabits the mountain, misunderstood by the people below.
2This volcano is soon to erupt, threatening all. Religions tell of a time when the world was once destroyed in fire, many ages ago.
3It is a petrified remnant, the stump of an ancient tree of inconceivable size. A seed of this tree remains, hidden on or beneath the earth.
4Spirits of the ancient dead dwell on the mountaintop and bid you join them, whispering in dreams.
5When a planetary conjunction occurs above, the peak draws near the heavens and the very stars.
6Its heart is a fallen tool of a colossal being of myth who shaped the young land long ago: the bag where they kept soil, the axe they used to carve canyons, a ball from a great game of the gods.

For our example mountain, the secret involves:

  • At the moment of a rare planetary conjunction above, the mountaintop draws near to the heavens and the very stars.
  • This volcano is soon to erupt, threatening everyone.

Both of these are events that happen at a moment in time, so let's say they happen at the same time.  At the moment of a rare planetary conjunction directly overhead, the mountain will erupt and cause a time of great darkness, but some strange and transcendant event will occur, connecting the peak to the heavens above.

I think this would make a great end to a campaign: astronomers predicting a rare conjunction, a prophet proclaiming that the planetary alignment will end the world, divine forces of heavenly beings at work, and everything comes to a head atop the tallest mountain in the world.


I'm deliberately leaving the strangest things of the mountain a little bit underspecified.  In a roleplaying game, I think it's the small things that need the most contrained guidance from the rules: how much you can carry, what happens when you try to stab someone, how often you need food.  The larger you go, the more open the guidance needs to be, until the rules are just a spark for your own imagination.  At least that's what works for me.

No random roller today (my code doesn't support an escalating sequence yet), so you'll have to grab some dice and try it for yourself.