First, a bit of news: We were hoping to get the compilation of last quarter's material out on DrivethruRPG this weekend, which may still happen, but illness has struck, yet again, and thrown off our production schedule. Which isn't any fun. So we're playing a bit of "catch up" and having less fun than any table top game. Even the bad ones. Monopoly is more than than Catch Up, but not ketchup (or catsup)...mmmm, tomatoes.
I wonder if I have any ketchup flavored potato chips around (yes, they're a thing and they're amazing). It's time to go on a quest through the Wilderness (because it's thematically appropriate)!
Trailblazing has a long and honored history full of excitement and adventure. It spans the continents, across the pond it's known as "way marking", and, interestingly enough, has been found to be a somewhat universal language -- when very specific symbols aren't being used anyway. The activity involves marking, with blazes, the correct path in a recreational wilderness area. These blazes can be anything from paint on a tree, poles, small statues, or carvings to broken twigs and cairns.
The idea of trailblazing is fairly simple: don't get lost. The wilderness is an endlessly large expanse, especially in a medieval based fantasy setting, and it's very easy to get lost...and eaten. There are countless stories of bugbears, wolves, witches, and so many other dangers in the woods to encourage people, mainly small children, from wandering off and getting lost. Therefore, a system of symbols and statues was developed, likely by nomadic tribes in far antiquity, to help guide the informed to safe passages, food, shelter, and even issue warning.
Much like mile markers on many American highways, blazes usually occur at regular intervals -- the items being equidistant from one another is more a guideline than a rule (which can be mildly frustrating). Though the three main modern methods mostly maintained as markers today (forgive me an alliteration, they make me happy), we'll talk about cairn stone markers, carving, and the more anciently used snapped twigs. However, out illustrations will only be cairn stones.
One of the chief requirements of a blaze is simplicity. A symbol full of squiggly doos and pictographs will only confuse followers of the trail, and may actually lead them in the wrong direction. As that's a bit counter productive, unless you're a bit of a jerk (or the antagonist), keeping your marks simple is key. As an example, arrow carvings and signs are not infrequently found. Generally speaking, however, the use of simple, but specific elements are used.
Looking at the use of cairns, four examples with be discussed:
1) The first example is a pair of stones stacked up. This being two stones is very important; three stone will be addressed shortly. A two stone cairn indicates that the wanderer is on the correct path and should continue. Now, one could say the height of the cairn is more important than the actual amount of stones being used. Whichever method you may incorporate, the importance is in consistency.
2) This illustration indicates a right turn by placing a smaller stone off to the right, but touching, the main pile.
3) The same is done for a path that turns to the left.
4) A pile stacked higher than normal general indicates something worthy of alarm, or otherwise dangerous and notable. Hence, consistency within the methods.
To briefly mention some of the other methods, boxes are carved into tree bark in specific patterns, usually similar to the stones above, while twigs were placed upright in the ground and snapped in certain directions. Simple, yet effective.
If a GM decides to institute trailblazing as a story element for ranger characters, or in general, there's a wealth of symbols to pull from real life examples; one might even look at tramp markings for a good example of urban trailblazing. It'll certainly offer an interesting new dynamic to a wilderness adventure if the characters have to find specific trail markings to ensure they're on the right track. Perhaps, even, a traitor with the knowledge of blazes starts to misdirect them by switching the symbols, rearranging the stones, or corrupting the carvings.
How have you handled traveling on a wilderness path in your games? Let us know in the comments below!