Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Zone of Silence

I have been reading a book about  songbirds and it has made me think about attention.

Songbirds basically can’t do shit to stay alive except know what’s going on. So they get good at it.

They each have territories which they return to again and again. The territories of different species overlap because they feed on different things in different ways. They sing boundaries, they have companion calls, which is one bird talking gently and continually to its mate when they are out of sight. This is a negative alarm, it goes off when the signal stops, that’s when they know something’s wrong. And there are various male aggression calls and so on but the thing that concerns us here is the alarms.

Birds listen to each other all the time. Other species listen too, they use the birds as an early warning system. They birds themselves don’t just listen to their own species, they know the patterns and alarms for every nearby bird. They all sing-semi continuously and they listen to each other. So the aural landscape of a forest is a web of mutually reinforcing signals. When one bird gives an alarm the others will know why and they will repeat and reinforce the signal. The signals have measurable shapes. If it’s a multi-species alarm, ie squirrels and chipmunks too, you know it’s a big deal.

Bird Plow – This is the big one. Usually caused by humans. This shows the presence of an unconcerned alien, abrupt, heedless and uncaring. We don’t kill many birds but they freak the fuck out when we go in there. Birds explode in every direction away from the point of entry, setting of sympathetic alarms from other birds, who then set off more alarms and so on. So an experienced tracker can see someone approaching two minutes before they come into sight by watching the birds.

Sentinel – The birds fly up to a vantage point, rank up and keep watch like guardsmen. If an alarm is spreading through the forest, it will stop at the sentinel line. This is one of a variety of factors designed to make sure alarms don’t just go on forever, spreading and combining. Birds a few feet away from a sentinel line will carry on as normal. Can be for unidentified threats, a form of containment.

Hook – If you spend fucking ages getting your body language right and familiarising yourself with the local forests, you can sometimes persuade birds to ‘hook’ instead of creating a bird plow. This is the alarm for a known predator like a local cat. The bird flys out of its perch away from you then ‘hooks’ back into the edge of its territory, just out of your expected reach. They will never move further than they need to, so you could estimate the leaping distance of a predator by the birds movements around it.

Popcorn – Popcorn is a series of hooks moving along the line of a threats advance as it goes through the forest. The birds ‘pop’ up in a line and circle back. The interesting thing about this is that you can tell there is a ground disturbance moving at a fast controlled pace. If it was accelerating and slowing down, that would be a different alarm. If it’s a person they have a calm, controlled demeanour, of they would have set off a bird plow. If it’s a predator you know it’s moving and not hunting. And you never need to see the cause, just the signal.

Umbrella – This is a dome of birds, facing towards the centre of the dome. This is for egg stealers, nest robbers, sometimes for dangerous predators that have just eaten so the threat level is down. Some birds dive-bomb the threat. If it moves it moves slower than a popcorn signal. The dome traces the threat.

Weasel – This is a good one. Weasels move much more randomly than other predators. They deliberately loop back, take strange paths, freeze for long purposeless periods. The alarm shaped by a weasel is shapeless and unfocused as the creatures disappears and re-appears. The birds can’t find it. That shapes their response and that’s how you know it’s a weasel.

These are the basic ones. The Bullet, the Ditch and the Hawk Drop are all forms of individual movement which can tell you the nature of a predator. Hawks that hunt in mid-air cause songbirds to drop a few meters down into the canopy and then carry on. Hawks that hunt in the forest are much more dangerous and provoke bullet and ditch evasion manoeuvres.

The Safety Barrier is a really elegant one. In this case you think the birds are feeding unusually close to you. In fact there is a more specific predator in the area and birds are using you as a kind of cover.

And finally the Zone of Silence. Hawks fly in silence, mainly because every bird around them shuts up when they are around. The size and shape and depth of the arrow if silence heading into the woods can tell you the size, threat and speed of the predator. And it cycles upwards, when the eagle fly’s past you can see the haws performing songbird manoeuvres to get out of the way. When you walk in the woods you probably carry a zone of silence with you. It’s a negative space. The nature of the absence tells you what causes it.

So why have I been thinking about this stuff?

Firstly I was thinking about druids and rangers. This is the kind of stuff they should know about and wouldn’t it be cool if you could model it in a game. But that requires the person playing the druid to continually ask the right questions and for the DM to give the right answers. Which is hard, and doesn’t scale across multiple gaming groups.

But maybe there is a way to cheat. Because the DM is the world we can invert the pattern of attention and turn it into a pattern of creation. Instead of imagining a bunch of orcs tramping through a forest and carefully modelling the shape of the bird plow they would create, we turn the process inside out. We could, perhaps use these patterns of attention to produce the effect they usually warn about.

I was thinking something like this.

1 HD
2 HD
3 HD
4 HD
5 HD
6 HD
7 HD
8 HD








So two d8, one down, one across. I am not sure about what to put in the top row, but HD is already a pretty good abstract measure of threat right?

So, test roll, a 4hd monster generating a Popcorn alarm. Popcorn is always something familiar and not-currently-dangerously-active, so this is its habitat. That infers something natural But if we take into account a fantasy world with a fantasy forest, that could mean anything. A local ogre? Not dangerous, so probably just hunted some people. And it didn’t hunt the people here because no bird plow. Hunting kills create a lot of alarm.

The weasel alarm is good because all the freaky things like doppelgangers and displacer beasts can go in there.

So all you need to tell the druid is ‘you recognise a popcorn alarm about 50 meters away, its something much larger than you, moving in this direction at a steady pace, and it live here, or moves through here a lot’

To fill in the whole thing you would need to know a lot about D&D monsters. Maybe you wouldn’t want to fill it all in in order to leave fluidity. It also gets a bit mad towards the high HD monsters, but there are high HD birds in the monster manual that could give alarms. Does an eagle pulling hawk-drop like a songbird mean a dragon is overhead. And how big is a dragons zone of silence? 10-20 miles?

Once you understand a pattern of attention in the natural world, you should be able to abstract it, invert it, and turn it into a kind of unique generator, creating the things it was made to describe. I wonder if you could do it for other systems of nature?


  1. I really like this but I feel like it belongs in a novel rather than a game. Maybe it is best kept for flavour, so that you always give druids and rangers bonuses to surprise rolls in natural environments but when you describe why you attribute it to a popcorn alarm or whatever seems appropriate based on the monster you just randomly generated.

  2. I love this information and plan to read this book as soon as I can, but cannot think of a smooth way to sync into a game.
    Other than maybe using it as a different angle to think about encounters. Like categorizing various encounters as the birds would.

    So a Golem would be a "safety barrier" encounter.

    The reactions of the wildlife around it would be a high density of normally skittish animals, nervous bigger predators with weird injuries or unclaimed kills.

    So maybe sharing the encounter table with the golem are "the golem is near encounters" in this case say; less fazed prey animals (knowing they can run away and lead an aggressor to the golem).
    Or just if you roll an golem encounter, then roll a d6, on 1 the subtlest of signs and on a 6 ; the golem comes strolling out the bush right beside you.

    While a "hook" encounter would have dead quiet right near the creature and noise just outside its range?

    1. I think a hook would mainly be percived by movement, first the birds flying away, then hooking back just out of potential attack range to look at the threat. A moving hook is a popcorn and a still, intense hook could develop into an umberella, so it is a basic move that is a component in other alarms.

      My thinking was just to re-catagorise the entire encounter chart according to how the birds would react to each thing, then roll the alarm and use the alarm shape to generate the creature inside.

      So, turning the ususal cause and effect of encounters inside out. usually you work out what the thing is, then how it interacts with the PC's. Like there is a burglar in your house, so you roll a dice to see if they trip the alarm of if sleeping pc's hear anything.

      If you do it inside out, you roll police cars/house alarm, then think - what could cause that? Then decide, ok there's a burglar. But you start with the sensory awareness first.

    2. That last part is something to muse over definitely .

      also what about moving away from just bird calls and thinking of the other encounter spoor (debris, smells , foot prints etc), but still with the frame work of sneaky predator, oblivious threat, etc?

    3. That sounds interesting.

      I should clarify, when I say 'something to think about' what I mean is, 'would be cool if I did it but would take a shitload of work so I probably never will as i am doing a bunch of stuff at the moment'.

      The thing with bird calls is that its like a coherent living system that responds as one thing. And I actually know fuck all about it as I've only read one book in the subject. To bring in other encounter spoor, I would need to know something about tracking as a whole. And I am sure there is an enourmous amount to find out. So...

      It *might* happen, at some point...