Monday, March 22, 2021

Acmori Route Maps

In my previous article, I laid out a proposal for a campaign heavily dependent on "Route Maps" (or "treasure maps.") These are ways for the player characters to choose which islands to explore and give them a rough idea of how far they'll have to walk along an icy sea to get there.

Art by Blake Rottinger

I. Basic Example

Ideally, this will feel like the Odyssey, or a Redwall adventure. Characters will contend with a variety of strange encounters as well as the weather. To facilitate quick generation of these routes, I'm working on several tables. Currently, a GM might generate something like this:

Towards the Malodorous Ruins

  • Head North-north-west
  • Keep going after descending the frozen wave
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • Turn right at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • Turn left in the fields of jagged ice
  • (encounter roll)
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: a single, large verdant island with no mortal inhabitants.
A rare resource: wood of healing.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are flying
The most prominent are:

  • tree claw predator (HD 0)
  • shrub shell centauroid (HD 1)
  • nest den liquid (HD 1)
  • genital cave aven (HD 2)
  • frill burrowing predator (HD 4)
The first part is a simple title to differentiate maps. The intriguing title is probably enough for a map found in an old buried chest, but player characters will want to ask questions of a merchant selling the map, and there should be some information available in that case. More on that in a bit.

The next part is the route itself, mostly divided between landmarks and (encounter rolls). Landmarks will have more details as the DM improvises or plans them, but can just be a 30-second stop to show that the party is orienting itself on this journey. The encounter roll is a 50% chance of a normal wilderness encounter, otherwise a minor weather complication. Obviously the PCs won't know exactly how often they'll run into something on the way there, but I think it's fine to let the players know, and understand this as an abstract measure of distance and time. If the DM has the time, they can preroll all of this and tweak it to their desire, but I want it to be easily designed that they won't have to do so, since the party may be choosing to follow only one of several maps they find.

The location and resource section tell us why the destination is desirable. Many will have settlements whose trade will directly impact the economic and political reality of the PC's home islands. All islands worth mapping a route to will also have a rare resource, something you can only be certain to find there. The "wood of healing" in this case might be mundane or magical, the source of a balm, oil, charm, blessing. It's a neat trick to make the resource static on the island, such that PCs might need to visit the island again later.

The ecosystem section informs us of the dangers at the destination. If there were inhabitants on this island, we will try to come up with three ways they're adapted to the place where they live. If all creatures fly here, maybe they have wide thorny hats to prevent them from being dived at by predators. Maybe they make a pomade from seawater that wards off the "genital cave avens." Maybe they just stick slivers from the wood of healing in their wounds and shrug off all attack.

Art by Leon Tukker
II. Characterized Example

Let's generate another example, and characterize the destination, its ecosystem, and its landmarks:

Towards the Hideous Ruins
  • Head North-west
  • (encounter roll)
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • Keep going at the hermitage
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • And then you’ve arrived
Location: three tunnel-tossed islands with no mortal inhabitants.
A rare resource: liquid of bane to evil.
In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are hibernating
The most prominent are:
  • jaw slimy tetrapod (HD 0)
  • crest nocturnal fungus (HD 1)
  • waist glowing detritavore (HD 1)
  • beach leg liquid (HD 2)
  • nest neck aven (HD 4)
Okay, so I imagine three islands connected by tunnels, maybe the former sewers of a former civilization. This dungeon-like environment would be a great place to put something valuable, so the "liquid of bane to evil" is obviously at the center of it. Perhaps some unknown property causes this thin condensation in the low places of the islands, calming evil hearts.

This is why the creatures are hibernating. They're not normal nocturnations but the imposed rest of the liquid, sometimes washed away by a major storm. The "jaw slimy tetrapods" are not aggressive enough to be sent to sleep. They swim in the liquid and track it around, leaving strange marks for adventurers to pick up. 

Perhaps the "crest nocturnal fungus" is ambulatory, and will infest the party's camp during the night, their blue crests giving off spores that increase aggression, in turn causing their victims to slumber, making an easy target for other creatures to turn them to fertilizer. Perhaps this is what the "waist glowing detritavores" do. They might also be reptiles with glowing bands around their midsection, performing defensive shimmers to confuse predators. 

The "beach leg liquid" must exist at the edges of the islands, where the pacifying liquid is less strong. They wrap around the fins of fish or the legs of terrestrial creatures, searing them. 

The "nest neck avens" are perhaps the apex predators, roosting far from the liquid in the spires of old towers and stone pillars, reaching down with long necks to swallow those who near their nests.

I can imagine adventuring here! Since I suggested there was once a civilization here, I should think about how they were adapted to life on this island, and what remains of those adaptions. If hunting is untenable, perhaps PCs will find rows of flat land that was once used to raise grains. I imagine this civilization using stilts and raised docks near the beaches to avoid the "beach leg liquid." (Presumably they had better names for these creatures.) I can also see them carrying around the "waste glowing detritivores" strapped to their arms to warn of approaching predators and light their way.

That leaves the two landmarks on the way to the Hideous Ruins, the desert island and the hermitage. These don't need to be directly related, but they could be. I like the idea of the desert island at one time holding an offshoot of the ruined civilization, long-since overtaken by violent neighbors. Now all that remains on the island is some shrines, remnants of their writing, and the occasional pirate cache. As for the hermitage, I'd want it to be a more thematic connection, perhaps to do with hibernation. The hermit, Sansus, watches over the stony, sleeping giant Iamrand, and will sell barnacles from off the giant's back. Sucking on such a barnacle is said to give you the dreams of others.

Art by Amarynceus
III. Fully Pre-rolled Example

Here, we do as example II, except we also roll for the encounters.

Towards the Hated Tower
  • Head East
  • Encounter: apparition expedition.
  • Turn right at the shrine
  • Encounter: rain that freezes on all it touches, like frozen shells pulling the expedition into the ice.
  • Keep going at the sea-stack
  • Keep going at the shrine
  • Encounter: those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Encounter: those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Encounter: giant pike and a large stone.
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: several small pulsating islands with some structures but no current inhabitants.
A rare resource: wood of earth.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are lactating
  • The most prominent are:
  • nose tree fungus (HD 0)
  • nest waist fish (HD 1)
  • den egg reptile (HD 1)
  • poisonous cold-blooded bird (HD 2)
  • furry mobbing reptile (HD 4)
Lactating, huh? Gross. I imagine the Hated Tower as some kind of magical experiment in farming, the "Wood of Earth" is a kind of tree which decomposes easily into a rich fertilizer, and the various milks on tap have varied mystical effects.

So, the "nose tree fungus" preys on the trees, and also infests other climes. It seems like a grey fuzz with nostrils oozing fluid, but all of this melts into the same milk in a warm hand. Contact with the milk provokes a save versus Nerve Emersonia

The "nest waist fish" fires milk to cloud the water, or to harden into a nest. This can be harvested as glue. 

The "den egg reptile" is of human size. Its eggs float on the water, filled with buoyant milk. These are used as bobbers to notify the reptiles of passing fish, which they hunt. The eggs are harder than you would think, but the adults have a strong instinct to attack anything that disturbs them. 

In the heated spine of the Hated Tower, the "poisonous cold-blooded bird" waits. Perhaps they are motley-colored to warn of their poison. Perhaps they are relatives of the den egg reptiles. 

The apex creature here is the "furry mobbing reptile." These aren't always predators, and from what we've established these could be the livestock of the island's original inhabitants, big furry lizards that tend to pile up against the things that scare them. They are frightened of sudden sounds.

A reasonable adaption for the previous settlement here might simply have been that the tower was once sealed, admitting no wildlife. To assure the "furry mobbing reptiles," the farm-mancers might have worn bells so as not to sneak up on them. Perhaps riverside folks use poles with bright feathers to distract the "den egg reptiles" when an egg needs to be scooched aside. We can imagine also all kinds of rare items and devices in the Hated Tower, the purview of a full adventure.

Coincidentally, it seems most of our random encounters are environmental. That makes me want to make the two shrines sort of a big deal. Let's make them large and active shrines, with followers in opposition over which has purview over the sea-stack, a tall pillar of rocks where Dodkulists say the Precepor sheltered and were shown a secret storeroom in a vision, and where Socu Worshippers say the Priestess Uden expounded against the twin impostors, compassion and cruelty. By the time the party passes by it, the stack is almost a warzone. 

The first encounter of the journey is an "apparition expedition," surely a procession of ghosts. Given the theme of the destination, it might be good to introduce a score-score, the heroic ghosts of cattle war guerrillas, or some other portent. 

The odd encounter of "giant pike and a large stone" is the last encounter before arriving, so I think I'm going to have a giant fish choking on one of the hard, floating eggs of the island. As the players approach, the egg cracks open and an over-developed reptile emerges, dying in the cold.

Art by Rainman Page
IV. Example Prophecy

This is as above, prerolling and tweaking everything except it is no longer a simple map, it is a prophecy. The PCs can essentially treat every "random" encounter as a landmark telling them they're going in the right direction, because they have prior knowledge that they will encounter such things. We as DMs are less constrained by plausibility, but should be careful to phrase prophecies in ways that don't assure a character will successfully reach their destination, merely what is there to be met. 

(The truth of prophecy is a potent tool, but you have to be bold and clever. Don't give out prophecies which can be interpreted to mean anything. Say "the queen of Eulif will die in one week" and mean it. Warn players that if their characters ask a seer when they will die and the answer is "one week," they have no recourse. Be warned, a PC who is certain they won't die for a week is a dangerous thing.)

Towards the Hideous Palace
  • Head North
  • Encounter: Snow-blinding angler fish, with a parasitic mate, which is a potent mage and useful in magical rituals.
  • Encounter: Ice-fishing vultures. A large, white-tusked thing with a strange form.
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • Encounter: The Devil leading an expedition of slaves.
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Turn right at the frozen whirlpool
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Encounter: Noble thought dead, disguised. Leads an expedition of mutinously tired rangers.
  • Encounter: Those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Turn left at the sea-stack
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Encounter: Those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: several small boggy islands supporting several Nasjicu-speaking elf farms and a town center, with worship centered around a temple of Dodkul. Among them is a eunuch of great renown.
A rare resource: metal of bane to evil.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are flying
The most prominent are:
  • den spongey herbivore (HD 0)
  • pouch fin detritavore (HD 1)
  • belly crest tetrapod (HD 1)
  • nocturnal shrub fish (HD 2)
  • nest long humanoid (HD 4)
Coincidentally, this is the first route we generated that has significant inhabitants, a community of Dodkulist elf farms led by a prominent eunuch. Apparently these are elf farms OF PROPHECY.

A hideous palace rises from the wind-wracked marshes, formed from dozens of long, leaning poles rising from diverse islands to form a wooden syzygy of stakes and hidden recesses. It is the mausoleum of the town, Rovak-Porsus, for the swampy ground swallows any bodies interred, and the Dodkulists prefer to let them rest in good conditions until they wake and speak secret lore. 

Perhaps this is why the journey to Rovak-Porsus is prophesied-- there is much providence in the pole-sage dead of Rovak-Porsus, and an important event is about to happen there. They also collect Penous Alloy, a kind of tin that rises up from the bog. It is a strong weapon against the calm, forgiving, and craven, and although it is not otherwise much more potent than normal tin once forged into a blade, it is carried by warriors who wish to signal their virtue.

Crusty sponge creatures make their home in the mausoleum, as well as the surrounding trees. They float in great clumps on the wind to migrate and to escape the "pouch fin detritavores" that scrape the trees for food. These, too, float, inflating a central pouch and deflating it to leap long distances. 

The "belly crest tetrapod" floats upside-down on the water, where its crest acts as a sail, darting in and out of bushes which are, in truth, "nocturnal shrub fish," which absorb sunlight and water over the day before sloshing into a flapping, net-like fight to hunt bugs and the pouch fin detritavores. 

Finally, we have to imagine the concerning combination of a 4 HD "nest long humanoid." Perhaps these are responsible for the amazingly long poles that make up the mausoleum, tending marsh trees to form bars and traps running under the water's surface. These are essentially like if you stuffed a human in an aquatic snake and gave it the instincts of a beaver.

In a bog, it always sucks to have to walk through the murk and the grime. I think the farmers make frequent use of coracles to avoid it, and when walking over uncovered land they're liable to wear reed mesh to prevent the den spongey herbivores from filling the creases of their clothes. Perhaps a pole or spike-stock would not go awry here either.

The landmarks on the way to the boggy islands are a desert island, a frozen whirl-pool, and a sea-stack. For these, we want to thematically tie back to the hideous palace, and we're not constrained by plausibility, since this is all prophesied. The desert island is home to Dwi, a warrior who seeks to forge a Penuous spear to depose her mother. She was zoa-wrecked here after a late-Autumn storm in which the crew sighted a giant eye floating in the rain. Now that winter has come, she has prepared to wander out, but lacks the proper supplies. 

The frozen whirl-pool is bereft of much of note, save the barely-visible bodies of the ice-drowned dead embedded deep within it. 

Camping besides the sea-stack is Pursuant Chinyere, who was rejected by the Righteous Dead for his unnatural calmness. If told that the party is approaching the Hideous Palace, he will claim that the dead there have become affected by some curse, and try to enlist the party in helping him fell the supports that hold the palace up. 

These encounters with Dwi and Chinyere will likely be significant, and I want the prophesied random encounters to emphasize them. Before the party meets Dwi, they will encounter the snow-blinding angler-fish and ice-fishing vultures. Normally, I would imagine the angler as merely blinding, but what if this blindness contains some ultrawhite vision, some further foreshadowing? Those afflicted see a scene played out in retinal burns, a knot of wood (the hideous palace) torn from its moorings and sinking into mud, pale faces submerged forever. 

Perhaps the ice-fishing vulture perches on an overturned rowboat, the escape vessel of Dwi's zoa. Within are two bodies, picked clean, one clutching a tablet from a Guian epistle against tyrants and the other leaning over a pole, the polished dragonblood-wood haft of what would have been Dwi's great motherbane.

The encounters between the island and the sea-stack include two environmental issues (cracking ice). This is good, because if the party has brought Dwi with them they will have to outfit or assist her-- she lacks an ice-stock. If we wanted to tweak this prophecy, we would maybe change it up so that there's one instance of cracking ice and another hazard, but this is fine as well. 

The other two encounters here are the Devil leading an expedition of slaves, and a disguised noble. This part of the journey must be crossing a commonly-used route, to see two expeditions so close together. The devil is currently near the apex of his power-- he can't be slain with spears at the moment, and I imagine the issue in meeting him isn't that he wants to attack you, but that he can act with relative impunity. If asked, he will say he's taking slaves to King Tavresh to sell them for animating golem-spirits. This is a lie.

Since this is a prophecy, we can explicitly charge the player characters with tasks to continue, and I think this is a good spot for it. Let's say that the Devil knows the way to the next leg of the journey, and the party is told they need to get it out of him. We can imagine that he might give them the information in exchange a favor, or in exchange for the life of one of the party. Any player worth their salt will dread both, and may freely try to trade something else or trick the Devil. If Dwi is here, we can also have a ticking clock where the party needs to come up with an alternate solution while urging her patience in accepting the Devil's bargain.

If the party chooses to continue without knowing where to go, there should be some significant diversion. Perhaps cracking ice worsens and swallows them into a mystical dungeon they must pass through to carry on.

Otherwise, the next encounter would be a disguised noble and their mutinous crew. Since we're not afraid of coincidence, we can say noble, Indah, is from the PCs' island, and may be one of their cousin or whatever. Her odyssey to return home has been stymied for years by the god Dodkul, whose reasons for cursing her probably differ based on the practices of the PCs' home. In any case, either she is eager to help and her crew will betray her at some point near the Hideous Palace, or her crew is eager to help and she will try to countermand them later in the adventure. Her expedition is one of those "more trouble than they're worth" deals. Those are a good way to make the default outcome of a scenario, where the players accept all offers and do what is most straightforward, a failing outcome, forcing players to do something creative or excellent.

The final encounters after potentially meetings Chinyere are environmental. These are great opportunity if the party is accompanied by anyone, since there will likely be some scrambling to make sure everyone is on a line and safe despite lacking supplies. If Chinyere is with them, we might add a screeching wind that seems to try to keep him back, and upon finally making it to the destination, have the expedition see a grim omen-- a large floating eye staring down at them from just above the trees, fortelling that something terrible will happen here.

All that remains now is the prophecy itself. In this case, I like the idea that it was sent in writing from a somnesite seer, someone afflicted by an STI that makes them a remote-viewing genderless cocoon. This means that after the adventure, the party can consider why this NPC had sent the prophecy, and spark further adventures.

Now, there's nothing wrong with just laying out the summary of what we saw here, but for the sake of fun I will write it out fully:

"In a grave above the ground,
the souls who have gone on are there!
they utter lies but show the truth
that will undo the doom of [PCs' home name]
Walk north in the first week of freeze.
Beware! Though light may show a sight
of what may be, (but may be only)
proceed, past shaft and tusk and wing
and when a warrior is met
whose measure mothers cannot make
go on, behold the adverse face
of him who long in darkness dwelt
and shall in darkness soon return
(for o, the time of days is brief)
and win from him the bearing of
the way to walk to reach the isles.
The ground will crack, the ground will turn.
(Water wears conviction once,
a season and dissolves again)
When the sea shall turn, turn to the right
and see the face of she once mourned
you know her but you know her not.
On the left-hand face of a tower rock
a man of orders, left of hands
plans Dodkul's virtue at Dodkul's cost
Where this priest remains, turn to the left
and brave the ice to reach the place
where your home's salvation is proclaimed.
(A hall of stakes, above-ground grave
where gone-on souls go in!)"


  1. This is awesome. How did you come up with the words to put in the tables? Is it just a mishmash of words that came to your mind? For the creature descriptions, did you create three separate lists to roll on and combine the results for each entry, or did you just roll three times on the same big list?

    1. Thank you. The ecosystem generator, which I plan to publish here when it is fully ready, was not pulled fully from any one source, thought I did search for things like body parts when brainstorming. Each animal prompt is made of three words, where the first two are adjectives, body parts, and/or place and the last word is a role, animal type, or body schematic. So you can't roll a "cave reeds beach" or a "tetrapod centauroid liquid."

    2. Makes sense, thank you. Super cool. I'm going to try and make something like this. Look forward to seeing yours when you publish it.