coyote land

Lodged in faults and crevices a hundred feet above them were nests of straw and jetsam from old high water and the riders could hear the mutter of thunder in some nameless distance and they kept watch on the narrow shape of sky overhead for any darkness of impending rain.

Setting: You go in from the coast, in through the valley-and-mesa. Then the mountains arise before you, all boulders and chaparral and blue oaks. Up and down the mountains, like a green carpet, the shitty scratchy kind you find in a low-rent community rumpus room, avocado with grey splotches like old foot-ground gum. But the chaparral is deceiving; for all it looks like rolling carpet, it hides sharp gullies that can eat man and horse and spit them out somewhere else bloody and bewildered. Roll d10.

1: An old blue oak spreads wide over a bald hilltop. Tied to the limbs with hempen cord are wrist-thick locks of hair, each painstakingly braided. They wave in the breeze.

2: Four metates are worn in the smooth top of the granite. They are always full of water, no matter when it last rained.

3: A wedding under the oaks. Each tree is bound with bright, makeshift ribbons. Shabby lashed-wood symbols of incoherent make hang from the trees. An elfgirl. An elfboy. Guests, strictly segregated by some unknown code of ancient manners. Many sentinels, and arrows for interlopers—two feuding bands are being bound today, and expect other bands to disrupt.

4: Some of the long-limbed oaks are bound with bright, coarse-woven cloth, ribbons tightly interlaced, carefully knotted, not a loose end anywhere. Those are the safe oaks.

5: When the sun rises or sets, the watching shadows stand atop the hills, elongated giantmen staring into the twilight.

6: The valley floor, straw-colored swaying dried weeds, waving in the wind, begins to move. Really move. The weeds run. Uproot and frantic, they all flee together, swirling and wheeling around obstacles like a flock of starlings.

7: You smell it first. Then you see the haze of white smoke, smudging out the distance. Then the billows. Brush fire. Don’t run uphill—that shit’s faster than you.

8: The air smells of rain. Blue sky, but it’s there in the distance, grey needles from sullen withdrawn far-off clouds. The arroyos will be full in a second—in a flash, as freight trains of filthy frothing flood comes, half water and half skull-smashing debris.

9: The fire has gone but the rain has come. The black hillsides groan under the weight of water, gravity grinding gravel and substrate no longer tendoned by roots and dendrites. The hills will fall; will you be beneath?

10: The coyotes are here. All of them.

The chaparral hides more than it will ever show.

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why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 2

Goblins are really rare. Solitary. You don’t often see one, and almost never see more than one together. And they’re smaller than you’d think, little more than half-size to a halfling. And emerald green. Yeah, they hide a lot.

But sometimes not, none of that.

Sometimes, when happenstance or outside design brings goblins together in close proximity, something truly remarkable happens. If two goblins are in skin-to-skin contact for more than a day—huddling in a burrow from a predator, perhaps, or trapped—they begin to change. They become gregarious goblins. Doesn’t that sound nice?

It isn’t.

Something about that skin-to-skin contact causes a release of something in the goblins. They grow bigger. They change color, from that otherworldly emerald to a contrasting black and savannah tan. Their body plan shifts, becoming longer of limb, lean, whipcorded like greyhounds. And they gather. Something about a gregarious goblin attracts other goblins, solitary and gregarious alike. They hunch together, and the solitaries turn gregarious. The more of them there are, the more powerful and wide-ranging the attraction. This works exponentially, as more gather, more turn, attracting more to gather.

Woe betide.

Now you have a plague of goblins. And, hungry, they’re on the move.

A plague of goblins—that’s what it’s called, and what it is—is insensate, insatiate, and inexhaustible. It will carpet the earth and befoul watersheds. It will eat everything more than halfway edible in its path, and it moves at a rolling sprint. As the front of the plague stops to eat clean its environs, the back has already exhausted its own and sprints forward to begin anew. In such way the plague continually rolls forward, denuding everything in its path.

It is just as well that goblins are, mercifully, solitary creatures. A plague may come once every other generation, and none but the elves below the sky and the dwarves below the hills have more than one in living memory.

why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 1

So we have this on-and-off effort to figure out why low-level humanoid monsters (think: goblins, orcs, kobolds) are boring1 and what we can do about that.

Our inquiry for today: why aren’t goblins scary?

Phrased another way: when you see a spider or a snake, even moreso in an unexpected context, people jump. We just do. We know there’s a frisson of real danger there—the toxins involved can sicken, and in rarer cases, actually kill—but that danger is overblown compared to the actual toll taken on humanity. It’s unlikely, in your hamlet, that spiders and snakes are going to be a real cause of mortality.2 I’d much rather be bitten by a black widow than kicked by a horse, but horses don’t give me the shivers.

So, fright response far outsized to actual danger. We think about it for a moment, we’re much more at risk from the miller wearing a hard drunk and a beltknife, or from hunting boar through the thick brush, or from the fevers, or from the rain not falling all season, or from an unseasonable winter and the snow not melting off until May. But none of those make us jump, to hiss in breath, legs sprinting away before we even connect the two thoughts SNAKE – RUN.

So why is that? And how do we make goblins inspire that same startle response in our PCs?

Maybe it’s because spiders and snakes simply have such a different body plan from humanoids that it triggers some monkey-brain fear response below the level of conscious thought. (THIS IS PROBABLY THE CORRECT ANSWER.) Bilateral symmetry, two arms, two legs, and a noggin = good. Skittering multiple legs = bad. No legs at all = bad. Small (compared to human-scale) size = worse, because can be overlooked until right up on you. (HELLO I’M A SPIDER AND I’M IN YOUR HAIR!) General skulkiness, whether slithering in the grass or hiding in dark corners = trifecta of creepiness.

So what do we do to our goblins? Well, for one, quit calling them goblins. Too much subcultural baggage, the accretion of metagame knowledge and implicit associations and general cruft built up over the years. Second, take them off the humanoid body plan. Too far—six-legged goblins?—and we’ve strayed from our mission and created a whole new thing. We need unheimlich, something close enough to be recognizable but just off enough to create that twinge. Maybe the arms are just too long, dragging the ground. Maybe the head’s the wrong shape, or they lack facial features. Or maybe we get rid of the symmetry, maybe one side is off-balance and that makes movement uneven and strange. Goblins shouldn’t run; they should slink, sidle, skulk. No stand-up fights unless the PCs have a well-executed plan to corner and slaughter them.

I GOT STUCK HERE AND DECIDED TO END IT. THERE WILL BE MORE. 

1 Actually, we know why: they’re overused. Worse, overused in the same way, over and over again. Why does a random encounter entry of “Hill Men” seem more creative than actual in-the-Monster-Manual monsters?

2 Unless, we suppose, you’re from Australia. Don’t be from Australia.

don’t stat out your dragon

You don’t hunt a dragon, or fight a dragon, or slay a dragon.  You invade a dragon.  Or depose one.  Or usurp one.  Or destabilize one.  But you don’t walk over and kill one.

Dragons just aren’t like other creatures. A dragon is more akin to a force of nature than a giant beast. What could an Alexander do if with a nigh-invulnerable physical form, personal spellcasting, and wings when the fastest man travels on horseback?  Oh, and about a thousand more years of life to accumulate, compound, sway, consolidate, learn?

The mistake is in thinking of dragons like any other creature, with a statline and a singular Monster Manual entry. Don’t think of a dragon as a creature, no matter how powerful. Think of a dragon as an institution.

It’s tempting to get this one wrong. We’re people and we think like people. Say you see a tribe, and you want to lead it. Maybe you go over and kick the shit out of the guy in charge, and now you lead the tribe. That makes sense, at the most basic level of human society. The biggest badass gets to be in charge; you kill the chief, you get to be the chief.

This only works because humans are within an order of magnitude of each other. You can be a tough motherfucker, but ten slightly-less-tough motherfuckers still win. A dragon is a different thing. A dragon is many orders of magnitude more powerful than a humanoid.

Even if you were standing next to a dragon, what are you going to do? Hit it with a sharp thing you’re carrying?

A landbound juvenile. Smack it with a sword and see what happens.

The point is, D&D is thinking at the wrong scale. A dragon isn’t just a big beast that you can chase down with enough men and pointy sticks, as though it were a particularly nasty mastodon. To issue forth to bring low a dragon is more akin to sitting in Ionia and plotting how you’re going to march to Susa and kill Darius. Or how you’re going to get to Seoul so you can find your way north and end the Kim Dynasty. In a very real way it doesn’t matter whether you could kill Darius in a swordfight—that isn’t the point.

The point is that you’re trying to bring down an institution, an organization controlling territory and an economy and a society, an institution that may have been successfully fending off interlopers since before your father’s father’s father’s . . . nix that, since before your race figured out the addition of tin to copper makes bronze. And by interlopers, not a plucky band of misfit rogues and swordsmen and magisters, but real interlopers: armies and climate change and pestilence, mana barrens and barbarians and forces bringing other empires low.

Any dragon past an adolescence has satrapies and vassals, an economy and a culture, death squads and intelligence cabals, a court and counsel. And it will have all of these things after the ones it has die off, and their sons and daughters pass from remembrance. Ultimately, institutions can and do fall; but they are rarely slain by cave-creeping good-for-nothings with glowing swords and stage-magician cantrips.