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Posted on October 31, 2021, 10:46:30 AM by Jubal
Riddles on a Cold Moon

Riddles on a Cold Moon
By Jubal

It's the time of year for moonbeams and shadows in the dark, the dying of summer plants and the turning of the seasons: a time for warlocks and silvery ghosts, the wakened dead and unhallows all. Yes, it's All Hallows' Eve, and so here's a special set of autumnal or dark themed riddles for you to try out. All of these were written specially for the season this week, and it's up to you to puzzle out the answers - if you dare, that is...

Riddle 1.
‘Twas you stole my unborn, you who slashed me apart,
And you too must be blamed for my burning heart.
Though you strive by my start iron and water to bend,
Your brother and mother will meet my end.

Riddle 2.
I once took gold from powers on high,
But lost my purpose when night drew nigh,
I’m often torn from gnarled, hard limbs,
And teeth rip at me on beasts’ dark whims,
Til’ when nights turn to deathly cold,
I fall: I turn to dust and gold.

Riddle 3.
I protect all that’s you, be you peasant or earl,
Be you bard who would raise me to speak of a girl,
Unless I am naked, to name me is rare,
And when I am naked, no name comes from there,
So I wonder the reason for your unease?
I’m a mere memento, plus, that which sees.

Riddle 4.
Legs needed I none to give wisdom’s euphoria,
But I’ve four if you find my home under Victoria,
I’m in the precise things you needed to know,
I’m done unto eggs: say my name, and I’ll show,
And if you’re now stumped, if there’s aught you require:
Let’s make a deal – I know you’ve what I desire.

Riddle 5.
Those said to be like me may wheedle and flatter,
But my biggest lie – it’s not me holed in batter.
Though my cousins found fame on the Owl-queen’s town’s stage,
And dropped on two crowns through a sky-threatened rage,
I’ve not got their complexion, but I’m doing just fine,
So if you stayed in check, then I’ll be at the line.

Riddle 6.
They made me from that which was dead,
They bound my fingers to make my head,
My namesake’s robed in gold and green:
But I grasp dirt they don’t want seen.
And I am grasped in turn, and rise,
By these unhallowed hands and thighs,
My head, from dust, thus seeks the skies.

Riddle 7.
These tired rivers now flow blue,
They say, for kings, they always do,
But not for you and I, my friend:
The proof can come from blades that rend,
Though they sound much like preening pride,
You need these rivers, deep inside.

Hope you enjoyed these riddles! Feel free to comment answers, ideally in spoiler tags, below. If you enjoyed this riddle set, do check out our regular riddle thread for the latest unsolved puzzle there! Stay scary, and have a suitably happy, or horrifying, Hallowe'en!

Posted on October 27, 2021, 07:09:07 PM by Jubal
Apocalypse Now, Or Never: A Brief History of The End of the World

Apocalypse Now - Or Never?
By Jubal

Part 1: A Brief History of The End of the World

Some days, you just need to turn the planet into a supermassive black hole. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“The world is in peril. You are all that stands between the gathering darkness and the fragile lives of every-day folk in villages and cities scattered across the lands you know as home.” If this situation sounds familiar, well, it probably is. The total and existential threat is a classic of fantasy stories, gaming and is an exceedingly common trope in modern fantasy RPGs, both computer-driven and otherwise.

There are various minor variants on apocalyptic showdowns: what “destroying the world” literally means, whether it’s a black hole or turning the planet into a demon-only hellscape or simply a thousand years of oppression by brutal dark overlords, can vary. What all of these things fundamentally share is that they are worse than anything you or any regular actor in the setting can imaginably do. No regular despotic tyrant could even envisage this sort of power: and that’s why you have to stop it. There’s no question of where it sits on your to do list (at least in theory), because if this doesn’t get done then you won’t have a To Do list.

In this and hopefully one or two subsequent articles, I’m going to take a look at the end of the world, where it fits into our fantasy settings, and some problems with using it that we may or may not be able to solve. I’m mostly going to focus on ends of the world that are mythic or intentional, such as tend to fit into classic fantasy settings, rather than mass depopulations and post-apocalyptic waterless wastelands. In this first part, I’d like to take you on a whistle-stop tour through the history of the apocalypse, and we’ll see if we can find one or two interesting things to discuss along the way…

Ragnarok: is facing the apocalypse a god's job? Johannes Gehrts, via Wikimedia Commons
Facing down the apocalypse has a long history: the first imagined apocalyptic event in known literature is possibly Ishtar’s threat to release the dead to devour the living in the Epic of Gilgamesh (though this is a threat to ensure she gets to provide her preferred albeit technically lesser punishment to the epic’s heroes, specifically releasing the monstrous Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk). It’s notable that whilst the Bull is defeated, Ishtar isn’t – ultimately, in ancient societies, apocalypse is in the hands of the gods more than mortals. We see the same in the medieval Eddas’ tellings of Norse mythology, where Ragnarok is specifically a conflict between gods, one in which others may fight but ultimately a cosmic inevitability. Christian revelation, likewise, is an apocalypse of gods, not of heroes.

Indeed, we might even suggest that an apocalypse the protagonist can get involved with and one only the gods can manage are semi-exclusive: a genuine world-ending scenario to be defeated cannot so easily be envisaged when it’s a tenet of faith that there is one specific world ending, which has already been mapped out and is core to your religious understanding of the world and its cosmology. You may be on the look-out for symbols of your pre-existing apocalypse (and there have been, to put it gently, a lot of false start calls on those over the years) but it’s harder to then invent or conceptualise other literary apocalypses.

Another feature of apocalypses as imagined in religion and myth is that they are frequently in some way punitive, a setup for the next world, or both. That is, not only is stopping the end of the world not a thing you actually can do, but it’s a thing that would ultimately be bad if you managed it. Either that or they're mainly to be combatted through fundamentally internal, moral struggle: the external problem is a consequence of moral failure. See for example Dr. Eleanor Janega's notes in this post on Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, who did believe the apocalypse could be delayed, but only through fixing what he saw as the moral and social failings of his contemporaries, in particular re-instating a harder line on clerical celibacy and establishing a more powerful, unified, Christian empire at the heart of Europe. The changes he sought were ultimately socio-political, not individual and heroic, in character. The concept of the end of the world coming alongside a general degradation of humanity that necessitates its destruction can be seen not only in Abrahamic faiths but also in for example Vaishnavite Hinduism (where at the end of the Kali Yuga, our current age of decay, the incarnation of Vishnu called Kalki will come and rally the righteous to purge the world of evil). Both Vaishnavite and Norse eschatologies, along with others like that of Zoroastrianism, also include the concept of a post-apocalypse world better than the one that passed before being formed after an almighty final battle.

So, whilst the end of the world has a long history, for most of it there hasn’t been a lot for heroes to do with it other than perhaps get judged with the rest of us or turn up as groupies for whichever deity is purging the unrighteous. Or at least, that’s mostly true: apocalypses as world domination, rather than as world destruction, are a slightly different matter. Even these are quite rare in classical and medieval texts (with the usual caveat that my knowledge is relatively Eurocentric in these matters). An exception would be some (though not all) western medieval treatments of the Mongols. Writing in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan friar Giovanni di Plano Carpini assured his readers that “The Tartars mean to conquer the entire world if they can… it is said, they do not make peace with anyone unless they submit. Therefore, because except for Christendom, there is no land in the world which they have not taken, they are preparing to fight us.” The concept of a mighty threat from the east which must be resisted at all costs is in some ways an echo of ancient Greek writers’ views of the Persians, but when added to the religious, moral threat that someone like John saw in the Mongols, we move from invasion to apocalypse: in a future dominated solely by the Mongols, there will be nowhere in the world left to run to. As Giovanni puts it, “it is not fitting that Christians should submit to the Tartars because of their abominations, and because the worship of God will be reduced to nothing and their souls perish and their bodies be afflicted”. Not only moral risk to the soul, but physical corruption is hypothesised as the effect of the Mongol advance. In his account the Mongols are somewhere between the human and monstrous: beatable as long as Christendom unites in time and adopts the right methods for dealing with the threat, but a threat on an existential and spiritual level, nonetheless.

Did a more global world need world-shattering villains? Via Internet Book Archive
These templates of world ending as conquest and world ending as true apocalypse are brought together in the grandfather work of modern fantasy – Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sauron is an apocalyptic figure, well beyond the potentialities of any human ruler, and physical and moral corruption is core to the systems of his power. There are echoes of John of Plano Carpini in the presence of orcs as corrupted peoples (exacerbated by Tolkien’s private descriptions of them as ‘mongoloid’, one of the more awkwardly racist notes in the Professor’s conception of his world). There are echoes, too, of the extent to which uniting against him is key to his downfall. Middle-earth, though, is a heroic fantasy, and this unity can be built by a small number of exceptional individuals. It is important to Tolkien’s conception of Sauron that he is small on a cosmic scale: even his master is in truth only of a super-angelic rank, with the real eschatological muscle in the hands of the creator. Ultimately, though, Eru Illuvatar is a more modern sort of God: a background figure whose ultimate justice does not prevent proximate world-ending catastrophe.

Tolkien wrote against a backdrop where the end of the world had come closer to home in literary terms. The genre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction had developed through the nineteenth century in English & European literature, though most of these works covered ideas of natural (or divine) catastrophe and the possible aftermath situations. A turning point to note was perhaps H.G. Wells’ 1898 The War of the Worlds – one of the first modern works in which ultimately, though not due to its heroes, the apocalypse was both driven by a sapient, intentional force, and also lost. An apocalypse that could be defeated: the path for the modern heroic fantasy was open.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the dawn of fantasy gaming created new demand in the apocalypse market – we’ll look in the next section of this series at why apocalypses are such a useful plot driver in games. It was now more socially acceptable (the so-called “Satanic Panic” notwithstanding) to reincorporate demonological works and other aspects of Christian and mythic eschatology into fantasy literature and games, with the additions of Moorcock’s concepts of Chaos and some aesthetics from the eldritch works of H.P. Lovecraft creating a wide range of looks already associated with end of the world scenarios that writers could draw upon. With fewer religious themes in these works, too, the apocalypse had lost its sense of providence and possibility: the pathetic-aesthetic protagonists of Warhammer or the anti-heroes of sword and sorcery novels invited us to consider that the end of the world might not have anything better after it, and if it did, well, what was the chance of scumbags like us being among the morally pure elect?

Bringing mythic and weird fiction elements into apocalypse fiction for modern fantasy audiences meant changing them to fit, however. In particular, it meant humanising and rationalising concepts and creatures that were primordial, unknowable, or defined by a fundamentally pre-set place in a story in their original contexts. Rather than being primarily intangible threats to morality and the soul, to become drivers of an apocalyptic story demons also need to become tangible threats to material reality. Pulled out of their original context, demons (and, in a different but not wholly dissimilar way, elder gods) could become far more present, tangible forces of destruction ready to destroy the worlds we know, rather than primarily forces of temptation and corruption that undermined them from within. For this to make sense, in many cases the aims of apocalyptic villains needed to be changed to more tangible and material ones - actions that a heroic character or characters could then fight back against. Gods were either elevated too high above the picture to influence it (as per Tolkien), removed entirely, or reduced to the point where they, too, were at risk from the course of events.

There are now more pieces of apocalyptic fantasy game and fiction than any one writer can cover, but this pathway to the present highlights a few features of how they got that way. We’ve seen how apocalyptic events were once more the preserve of the gods, and how the presence of a pre-defined idea of apocalypse in faith might be a barrier to telling other tales of the ends of the world. We’ve seen that eschatological apocalypses aren’t always evil or created as evil acts: they may be punitive, but this comes as part of the ultimate destruction of evil and sin. Giovanni di Plano Carpini’s ideas of the Mongols offer them as an alternative premodern view of absolute destruction, one that can be resisted, though one also tightly bound up with ideas of faith, monstrosity, and moral risk.

In modern fiction we’ve seen how some of those ideas of corrupted monstrosity and ultimate moral hazard recombine in Tolkien’s apocalyptic antagonists, after a 19th century surge of interest in world-ending scenarios – and then how the reintroduction of classically demonic or new eldritch aesthetics and their increasingly tangible position within fantasy worlds created the scope of apocalyptic possibility that’s easily available to fantasy writers today.


So, welcome to the apocalypse – I hope you’ve enjoyed the few thousand years it’s taken us to get here. In the next article in this series, I’m going to write a bit about why the apocalypse is so useful in modern fantasy and game writing, and question whether there are alternative ways we could use and frame it outside the ones we use so often. See you then!

Posted on October 24, 2020, 12:36:43 PM by Leafly
Seven More Things to do with Giants by Jubal

Seven More Things to do with Giants
By Jubal

Sinbad Plots Against The Giant by Maxfield Parrish
Used under CC license by, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

Giants are a core part of many fantasy settings, and there are very good reasons why. Literally larger than life, giants are a core part of mythologies worldwide. They provide over-size mirrors for us to hold up to ourselves, with our passions and our best and, more often, worst sides oversized along with them. Whilst there's a fairly standard fairytale giant that commonly appears in fantasy settings - big, brutish, kicking houses down and getting outwitted by farm-lads - the possibilities of giants are actually much wider across world folklore and literature. In this article I explore a few more options and thoughts on how you can use giants narratively to best effect, whether for an RPG, a story, or anything else you might be working on.

Giants around the world

A few of the other items in this article draw upon folklore from parts of the world outside the Anglosphere and Western Europe more generally. Giants are often assumed to be the creatures of a standard jack and the beanstalk narrative, usually presented, but a huge range of world cultures have some sort of giant myths, and not necessarily ones in keeping with our standard understandings of giants as brutish antagonists.

In Somali folklore for example giants like Biriir ina-Barqo are heroic characters: it's perhaps a peculiarity of western myth that whilst super strength is seen as a good power - a sign of heroism - super size is generally seen as a negative. This need not be the case.

There's also no reason why giants can't travel, and arguably many reasons why they should in a fantasy setting. The prodigious size and appetites of a giant both give them the ability to travel and many reasons for leaving (one too many disappeared sheep) or heading for new places (how many lords would like to hire a literal giant for their army)? As such, it is perfectly explicable to have a giant who is from outside the mainstream culture sphere of your setting. One caution to perhaps give with that would be to avoid the "monstrous races" trap in which giants are solely coded as a foreign "other" to your default setting area: whilst this trope did exist in medieval writing, there's a fair point that uncomplicated use of this sort of portrayal has had a very dark historical pedigree, especially in the colonial era. Nonetheless, there's a lot to be said for portraying giants who come from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, and for upending the idea that it's necessarily the protagonists who travel to the giant rather than vice versa.

Giants as endurance hunters

If we're going with bad giants that eat people, how they hunt is worth considering regarding their threat to other characters around them. This is one place where I disagree with Dael Kingsmill's brilliant video on giants: her view is that giants, being big, should also be fast, able to catch up with horses. There's undoubtedly a good chase scene there, but I think that it somewhat clashes with our view of giants as lumbering, and that we can do scarier things as alternatives. Whilst the giant's long legs of course would give a giant a short speed advantage, big bipedal predators like Tyrannosaurus were probably ambush, not pursuit, predators: and besides, there's a far scarier thing we can do with giants as predators, which is to scale up the predation strategy of arguably the most successful apex-predator meat-eating species in earth's history: us.

Humans don't hunt by outrunning things, and we don't usually hunt by ambushing them: we are neither faster over long or short distances than a quadruped like a deer. What we're really good at, instead, is walking. And keeping walking. And keeping walking. A prey animal can run as fast as it likes - we'll catch up eventually. We don't need huge amounts of food and can keep going for days and eventually most things will get tired before we do. Endurance predation is the hominid strategy: and giants, being hominids scaled up, could very validly become scaled up endurance predators.

Dear reader, apply this to a giant hunting you and it's terrifying. Sure, you can saddle up on your horses and outride the giant: the giant doesn't care. He can still see you (an extra five or ten feet of height gives a good vantage), and possibly smell you too if we're going with giants having the blood-smelling fairytale characteristic. So he'll keep walking after you, quickly but never running - and also never stopping. Your horses can outpace him for hours: he can keep walking for days. You could try and hide, but how well can you mask your smell? You could hope the horses sate him, but do you want to negate the rest of your speed advantage? There are probably at most small settlements anywhere near, and you'll have to decide if you want to risk setting a hungry man-eating giant on innocent villagers for the slim chance offered by safety in numbers.

The endurance hunting giant presents a more tense, longer-term potential threat, and a difficult tactical and moral situation, and I personally tend to find those more narratively interesting than a rapid chase - your mileage may vary, but it's an option to have in mind.

Giants finding humans cute

Humans' inevitable reaction to tiny things is to find them cute. If confronted with an entire village full of waist-high or knee-high people, many people's first instinct would be to see them as children. Especially if you're not going for explicitly evil or man-eating giants, one could plausibly and amusingly have giants with exactly the same reaction to human beings around them. What if a giant just thought you were kind of adorable, and didn't really see you as a serious being?

Now, there are some narrative issues with this, the biggest one is that protagonists often really don't like being talked down to. Nonetheless, especially for a lower level group where they don't pose any threat to the giant, this does make for a narratively interesting problem: it may well be that the giant has something that you need, or can do something that you can't, on account of being a giant, but how do you persuade them to help you? What does a giant want, and how can you get the giant to take your request seriously? Perhaps indeed they never do take you or your request seriously, and you have to find some way to get them to treat it as playing along with your "little game".

Giants as resource denial

I feel that we're sometimes insufficiently imaginative in the threat that bad giants pose. The tendency is that the threat of the giant is direct and physical - the problem is that the giant wants to eat you. Sometimes there's also a power structure issue: the king is, or has, a giant and you need to defeat it, David and Goliath style.

David and Goliath by Carravagio
Used under CC license by, Caravaggio Wikimedia

But societal power and direct murder aren't the only ways that a giant's strength can allow them to be a threat. Think of the various things humans need for life - whether that's water, food, shelter, company - and it quickly becomes obvious that, especially for resources that are already stretched, the power of a giant can simply be in denying resources to other people. This could be either unintentionally, perhaps we can't hunt because the giant is eating all the wild oxen, or entirely intentionally, if say the giant has a hidden cave that only he has the strength to open the giant door of, and he keeps a key resource hidden in there and forces people to do things for some limited access to it.

This particularly struck me in the Somali myth of Xabbed ina-Kammas and Biriir ina-Barqo, where Xabbed, the evil giant, doesn't eat people, and he doesn't - he just uses his prodigal strength to put giant rocks over all the wells in the area and then extorts camels from people to eat, only allowing them access to their wells if they provide him with food. This is a really interesting way of playing the giant, one that recognises and emphasises his incredible strength, but without him being reduced to a symbol of brute force. We're more uncomfortably reminded in Xabbed's story about very human ways of using power and strength to extort, rather than simply as brute force, and that can very effectively set the giant as villain apart from other monsters and make their role more individual.

Giants as role embodiments

We accept the idea that giants are larger than life versions of things we do as humans, but often this is restricted to general traits - like appetite, or boastfulness - or to roles in kingship or war, where the giant's prodigal strength could be seen as a natural qualification. But we can also scale up other traditional roles and embody them in giant form. We could have a mother-giantess that looks after the women of a particular valley, or a smith-giant who teaches the craft to young artisans, or a woodcutter giant who lives out in the wilds and watches out to help those who venture into the woods alone. A particular inspiration for this is the Musgoso, a giant from northern Spain, who is a "shepherd of shepherds" and looks after the herdsmen on the mountain hillsides, being called upon when they are under threat.

We often give these sorts of hyper-embodiment roles to elderly characters - but giants, great in size where the elderly characters are great in age, can also work well for them. Much like an older character's age, a giant's size can set them in a somehow magnified position, and give them an easily visible hook that displays why they in particular have this role. Some roles don't work well for this - especially those that rely on nimbleness or dexterity, so a giantess as the embodiment of roguery and theft probably isn't on the cards. Nonetheless, if our characters are going to go and seek help or take an NPC to the master of their craft, having that character be a giant can be an interesting and less immediately common way of setting them apart and one that, because the scaling up of the giant's size somehow logically fits with the scaling up of their societal role, oddly does work on an intuitive level.

Giants as heroes

As noted above, giants' size is often portrayed negatively: we tend to like stories of the smaller, quicker witted hero defeating the bigger, lumbering villain. The idea of the giant as villain isn't universal though: we've met the giant heroes of Somali myth already in this piece, and the legendary ten foot tall Emperor Keikō of Japan also deserves a mention among other giant heroes worldwide. For these heroes, their giant nature allows them to fight otherwise impossible enemies, achieve tasks no other person could, and may be a sign of particular favour or being marked out for big things in some way (no pun intended!)

There are some interesting twists one could run on moving giants into a more protagonist role - Gullivers' Travels in Liliput, where Gulliver, there in the role of the giant, has a variety of demands made of him by his tiny hosts, and those sorts of situations can provide excellent opportunities for particular sorts of adventure. It's important that where the protagonist and hero is bigger than surrounding people, that we establish clearly the morality of the situation through other means, though: nobody wants a situation where the giant hero just splats tiny enemies with relative ease and there's no sense of threat or challenge. Rather, we have to focus on the giant's size enabling them to take on proportionally bigger challenges that ordinary people could not - and perhaps also we need to establish that size isn't everything, with potential drawbacks to being a giant whether that's the cost of food, the inability to fit into the same sized spaces as everyone else, or the jealousy or hatred of others.

Giants as landscape designers

One thing that giants are especially good for, compared to other kinds of monster, is having roles in shaping the landscape and world around them. This is because they combine the scale and strength needed to feel like potential landscape-shaping creatures with enough rationality and humanity to allow them to do so in a more thought out way than, say, a hydra or most dragons. The real world has plenty of examples of this, from the giants' causeway to the 'cyclopean walls' of Mycenean Greek cities made of stone blocks that seemed otherwise unmoveable.

All too often, the worlds of fantasy settings lack the powerful link between creatures and the land around them which is a massive part of most real-world mythologies, settling into being a generic backdrop of trees and hills. Linking stories and creatures like our giants back into that landscape, even when they're not visible, can be useful in a number of ways. First, it can be a trailer: you set up the sheer enormity of the giant when you see the huge lake that locals say he dug one day just so he could have a bath big enough to sit in, or the mountain ravine that she cleft out with her axe because she was angry that the mountain was bigger than she was. Second, it can show the giant as existing beyond, and potentially having utility beyond, its role as a combat encounter. Could the characters trick or bribe a giant into reshaping the landscape to their benefit in some way? Third, it can create a sense of spectacle and draw characters, players or readers back towards the physicality of the world they're moving through.


As a final point, it's worth me pointing you to a few other sources that sparked this thinking. Most notably, I mentioned Dael Kingsmill's ideas for giants video above, and friend of Exilian James Holloway's Monster Man podcast also has lots of episodes with giants (seriously). I hope you find these useful additions to your thinking.

So there you have it - some more ways and thoughts on how to use giants and why they can be such useful and versatile parts of a setting. Have you had particularly good uses of giants, or have you used one of the tropes discussed in this article? Do let me know in the discussion below!

Posted on August 28, 2020, 10:10:45 AM by Leafly
My Final Fantasy by rbuxton

My Final Fantasy
By rbuxton

The Final Fantasy (FF) series is one of gaming’s best-known franchises. Each game in the main series (there are many spin-offs) is a stand-alone good vs evil story set in its own fantasy world. They are role-playing games (RPGs) in which the player takes on the role of the main protagonist and leads a team of characters. The series is synonymous with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the director of the games until about 2003. I’m going to describe my personal relationship with the games but let’s start with some facts, courtesy of Google:

Years active: 1987 to present
Games: 94 (15 in main series)
Units sold: 154.5 million
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: All of them, but traditionally consoles like the NES

Final Fantasy XII. Gameplay image, Bing.

Playing an FF game involves wandering around a fairly open world, meeting interesting characters (some of whom join the party) and gaining experience from random encounters with monsters. Characters have various combat roles – magic, melee weapons and so on – and there’s usually a small amount of customisation possible (picture Pokémon but without the animal cruelty). Certain features reappear time and again in the series: spells, races and big flightless birds you can ride on.

I first encountered the series in about 2001, when I was 9 years old. My older brother came home one day with a list of spells from FF8, which he and a schoolfriend had been pouring over. I noticed the spells were neatly categorised and used the word “party” without mentioning presents or cake. When the schoolfriend brought the game over my imagination was immediately caught by the battles, monsters and bizarre guardian angels. Since I’m being open, I’ll add that the seeds of my sexual awakening may have been planted by the game’s female characters (this was before some FF characters were forced into bikini armour. Or bikinis). My brother and his friend spent years playing and talking about FF games; they once agreed to race to complete one. I was furious – since his opponent was an only child, my brother’s only hope of victory would be to “hog” the PlayStation 2.

During my teenage years my brothers and I played FF10 and FF12, complementing them with enormous guidebooks. FF10 remains the most emotionally affecting game I’ve ever played: its story of love, loss and daddy issues had me close to tears on numerous occasions. FF12, on the other hand, had a fascinating, fluid battle system which rewarded experimentation. Somewhere between the two, perhaps, lay my perfect game. FF12, however, was cursed with a limp, maguffin-led plot; while FF10’s battle system was clunky and repetitive. I clearly remember playing through a very atmospheric FF10 scene (the aftermath of a disastrous war), wincing every time it was interrupted by the thunderous battle theme and the same boring band of monsters. My dad felt the same way: from the next room he was driven to an uncharacteristic rage. “How can you listen to the same music over and over!” he scolded, “You are all musicians!”. Eventually I stopped playing FF10 and, like every other FF game, watched my brothers complete it. I’m still haunted by its final scene.

University opened my eyes to gaming culture through my housemate’s copy of FF7, easily the most iconic of the series. Released in 1997 it represented a milestone in gameplay and 3D graphics (though I was constantly struggling to walk through doors). Its main character, Cloud, is a very popular choice for cosplayers. I enjoyed playing bits of FF7 but for me there were too many tangents to the plot and the party was soon bloated with characters. As a perfectionist I felt I had to invest in all of them, even when they were as unfathomable as a cat riding a giant marshmallow. The nail in the coffin of FF7 came when the internet spoiled its twist for me (and what a twist it is!)

Cosplayer of Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII. Used under CC license by, Rob Boudon Wikimedia.

Though my relationship with the FF games is complex, with their soundtracks it is anything but. The partnership between Sakaguchi and composer Nobuo Uematsu has been likened to that of George Lucas and John Williams (unfairly, in my opinion, since Williams’ music keeps the audience engaged for a matter of hours, Uematsu’s for days). Uematsu’s musical interpretations of the FF stories cover every known genre and more; he is surely one of the greatest composers no one’s ever heard of. I can study for hours while listening to arrangements of the scores, tactically avoiding those, like FF9, which make me cry. Through YouTube recommendations I eventually discovered the work of another contemporary Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, which led me down a different rabbit hole altogether.

As a child I learnt to play the piano and for years I viewed this hobby as separate to my other interests. Though it wasn’t Uematsu who changed this (Hans Zimmer did) it was through him that I found my go-to piece, my muse, the first thing I play on a new piano: FF10’s To Zanarkand. My fingers know it so well my brain can no longer keep up. Is it arrogant to consider To Zanarkand my “theme”? Lots of the FF characters have themes - tunes as much a part of them as their thoughts, flaws and emotions - can’t I have one too? Pieces like this bring musicians closer to composers, and to each other.

Please don’t assume that playing FF pieces is a distraction from “proper” study of the piano – they are always challenging and frequently bizarre. I once asked my mum, a music teacher, to help my interpret a musical direction in FF8’s Find Your Way. She bounced over, as I knew she would, with her mental Italian dictionary at the ready, only to find the direction was in Japanese. It remains the best joke I’ve ever made at the expense of one of my family members. Between us we fill the family home with music, though it’s quieter now that my brothers and I have flown. Last Christmas my younger brother, surprised that I had learnt FF8’s Shuffle or Boogie, picked up his base guitar and started a jam. Before long, for the first time ever, all five of us made music together.

Where is the Final Fantasy series now? I don’t know and, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to. The old creatives have gone and, it seems, taken the soul of the series with them. This impression was reinforced by the announcement, in 2015, of an FF7 remake. I don’t really play video games any more but I’ll always cherish those moments of “overkill” and “limit break”; of the three of us curled up on the sofa laughing at Yojimbo’s silly sound effects or Zell’s not-so-white teeth. Final Fantasy made me see games as an art form which could immerse its audience in a way no film, book or play ever could. I fantasise about the games a little bit every day, and will continue to do so until I, too, reach Zanarkand.


Since music is such a key part of this story, I recommend the following playlist:

Nobuo Uematsu, To Zanarakand:

Joe Hisaishi, Always With Me:

Nobuo Uematsu, One Winged Angel (FF7):

Hans Zimmer, Davy Jones’ Theme: 

Nobuo Uematsu, Shuffle or Boogie: 

Posted on July 24, 2020, 01:16:47 PM by Leafly
Chain 3 – A Chance of Tentacles Past - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story 2020

Chain 3 – A Chance of Tentacles Past
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By justatoady, Waddleflap, SLiV, Muxley, Leo, KingSingh, Nakyo, and Jubal

The centaur sees no stars when she looks up at the night sky. Bright, blue-white lamps illuminate the clean streets and the furtive population, and the sound of her hooves on the concrete is absorbed into the city's melody. The centaur's legs have a memory of their own. She lets herself be swept along by the ponderous mass, her mind preoccupied with waking from its trance. She yawns and stretches and is mildly surprised when she comes to a halt in front of her destination. Before entering, she brushes dust from her hooves and undoes the top button of her blouse. At this time of night, she can take her pick of the tables, but she chooses to stand at the bar. She lays her laptop in its large, black bag on the counter, then takes off her glasses and puts them next to the bag.

'I thought you weren't coming,' the Pudding King tells her. He kisses her on both cheeks. 'How late do you work now?' he asks.

'Not as late as you,' she tells him. 'You have my reward?'

The Pudding King produces a heavy crystal chalice and offers it up to the centaur.

'Sticky Toffee Love,' he names his creation.

It smells like a freshly baked cake. She lifts a silver spoon to her lips and loses herself in the warmth and the sweetness.

The Pudding King grants the centaur this single moment of bliss. 'Vanessa is here,' he admits.

The tiniest hesitation as the centaur takes her next mouthful, which has already lost some of its sweetness out of the door the Pudding King's words have cracked ajar in her mind. Studiously unreactive, she continues eating.

The silence threatens to swell into and overflow the gaps of their conversation as the centaur teeters on the edge of memory, the Pudding King unsure of how he might help. Slowly, almost mechanically, the spoon continues on its circular journey between chalice and mouth. She knows she can't just stay silent; the emptiness of the chalice forces her hand as she looks up to meet the Pudding King's eye, one eyebrow arched sardonically.

'Sticky Toffee Love?'

He blinks, mouth slightly agape.

'I...yes. It just seemed fitting somehow.'

'Because she's here?'

'I suppose.'

She snorts. Ever clichéd, always just that one step wide of the mark, the Pudding King's obliviousness to all but the most obvious of facts would be laughable at any other moment. She knows from long experience that there is no point starting an argument over it.

'Did she say anything?'


'Well, unless she's somehow managed to refrain from speaking, she must have said something. Expecting an answer as to where on earth she's been for the last three years may be a bit much, but you never know.'

The Pudding King tries to make decisions quicker than his mind can actually handle to answer the question. Before he can even open his mouth fully, though, the door behind him opens.
A familiar sense of comfort floods the room. The centaur fights it, determined not to let go of her anger. She looks down and starts playing with the spoon in front of her, hoping to appear too distracted to notice the golden-haired girl stepping through the doorway. Instead she becomes mesmerized by the crystal's cruel reflections, slowly adjusting the angle of the spoon as the inverted figure approaches her.

'I see you still have a sweet tooth,' Vanessa says with a grin.

The centaur glares at her, but says nothing.

It takes a gentle tap on his shoulder to disrupt the Pudding King from hopeful anticipation. 'I'll leave you two to it, then,' he says, before turning around and making his way to the kitchen.
'I know I hurt you,' Vanessa begins when he's gone, more serious this time, but still with an airiness that somehow doesn't feel as inappropriate as it should. 'What we had... I was foolish to think it could work.'

'You knew exactly what you were doing. It's who you are. I don't blame you for that. In your eyes I was just another nymph-head looking for a fix, and you were happy to oblige.'
'That's not true. You were special to me.'

The centaur had felt special, at the time. But then wasn't that the point? Even now, part of her wants to believe Vanessa, to forgive, to forget. She shakes it off.
'That's not what you told the police.'


Vanessa paused, taken aback the bluntness of the centaur’s statement.

‘I was scared.’ She said, averting her eyes and sweeping her fringe out of her face. ‘I didn’t want anyone thinking we had planned it together… it was all your idea, anyway.’

The centaur felt rage surge through her as she stared down her former lover. ‘All my idea? Was it my idea to bribe the munchkin council to get the logging rights for the gumdrop forest? Was it my idea to secretly fund teddy bear insurgents to scare the natives away? WAS IT MY BLOODY IDEA TO...!?’

The centaur stopped, peering around at the audience she had been gathering before returning to look at the quivering mass that was once the woman she loved.

‘Y-you were the o-one who started emb-bezzling from the pension f-fund’ Vanessa stammered, again adjusting the fringe of her blonde wig.

Even with all that had happened, seeing Vanessa so terrified still sent a twinge through the centaur’s hearts. She unclenched her hooves as she looked into Vanessa’s eyes, all six of them spread randomly over her grey, slimy body.

The centaur raised a hand to brush the Shoggoth’s fringe behind one of her many, many tentacles, ‘remember when I said I would love you forever?’

Vanessa lifted her gaze, giving a nervous smile through one of her churning maws of nightmare. ‘You said nothing could ever tear us apart.’
The centaur gave her a smile right back. ‘I lied.’

She couldn’t bear to tell Vanessa what she’s now been reduced to. She couldn’t imagine why an ethereal beauty like her could still have her eyes set on a disgraced centaur. After having done time for five centuries at the Booyardar Penitentiary, the centaur tried to put the failed heist behind her and went on to earn an honest living as a resurrectionist.

For the past three painful years, she had been trying to locate her former lover, but to no avail. With every cadaver she collected, she had wished that she could at least be reunited with the mass of her beloved. If not for the Pudding King, she would still have been kept in the dark. But what was three years compared to five hundred, they both meant an eternity to her.

The centaur tried to hide her bitterness, but her tender affection for the Shoggoth could not mask her true feelings. Nonetheless, she still tried.

‘So you lied? All these while?” Vanessa stammered softly, refusing to believe all her eight ears.

‘You know you asked for it,’ the centaur whispered stoically, with her eyes falling on the shimmering corner of her laptop exposed from her bag at the counter, where the Pudding King was eyeing the duo intently.

Vanessa followed her gaze towards the laptop. ‘You’re still carrying that old thing round?’ she said after a long silence. ‘I thought you would have covered up all the evidence.’

‘You’d think wouldn’t you,’ replied the centaur, still staring at the laptop. ‘But I thought I’d hold onto it just in case you wanted another crack at the job.’

Vanessa’s eyes darted towards the centaur, all twelve of her fang filled mouths twisted in shock, ‘Surely you’re joking?’ she whispered harshly, ‘They’d be expecting us, especially after how badly we biffed it last time, and don’t forget how you murdered the whole crew as soon as we got past the first gate because one of them looked at you funny!’

The centaur snorted.

“Really. You think after 503 years they’re still on high alert waiting for illegal loggers with botched permits?” The centaur said, pointedly ignoring the accusation. Vanessa shifted, her tentacles writhing around her. The centaur could read Vanessa well enough to know that meant her proposal had been rejected.

“I’ll take that as a no then.” The centaur said, starting to shove the laptop into the bag. 503 years she’d been dragging around that laptop, following any lead on Vanessa she could find. She hadn’t realised how much she’d invested in the idea of pulling one last job with Vanessa when she finally found her.

Only to find that the Shoggoth had lost her nerve.
“Shame.” The centaur flicked her mane out of her face. This time she didn’t even try to hide her bitter tone. “Why are you here then?”
Vanessa shifted again, before she finally said,

“I heard you’ve become a resurrectionist.” Three of Vanessa’s eyes were watching the centaur warily, while the other three darted around the room. They rested briefly on the Pudding King, before coming to rest on the centaur again. Confident no one important was listening, she opened just one of her mouths. “I want you to resurrect me.”

The centaur blinked, her tail starting to twitch behind her. So, Vanessa already knew about her embarrassing new profession. Shame burned through her, her tail starting to flick more violently in response.

“Well, I hate to state the obvious, but you’re not dead.”

“Not yet,” said Vanessa. “Soon.”

“What do you mean? You’re nigh invincible...” the centaur looked at the Shoggoth closely. There was something a little different, those eyes still the colour of fresh toffee, the tentacles still delicate, but somehow… oh. Oh, no…

“You think I lost my taste for adventure for nothing?” asked Vanessa. “I cut and ran because I had to, because I knew what was at stake, because…”

“…because you never needed to finish the job,” completed her erstwhile colleague, eyes closed and five hundred years of realisation crashing in. “Because you’d already found what you needed. Because it wasn’t about gumdrops, and it wasn’t about money, it…”

“Yes.” Vanessa’s voice was quiet. “It was about freedom.”

“You didn’t trust me.” The centaur’s voice was flat.

“I am trusting you now. Please.”

“And doing this… will kill you. Is killing you.”

“Yes, I ate the helix. And if I die,” said Vanessa, “what will become of them? Where will they turn?“

“I’m an ex-con with a murder record,” snorted the centaur, suddenly laughing despite herself, “and a former lover who you ditched for half a millennium, and I’m somehow the person you have in mind to help you save your entire species?”

“You wanted one last job,” smiled Vanessa with half of her mouths. “How about the biggest jailbreak in all creation?”

The centaur grinned. “I’m in.”


It is morning, and the Pudding King walks out onto the terrace and plucks a sugar-flower, smelling sweetness and lavender between his fingers. Somewhere below the earth, ten thousand shoggoths are writhing free of aeon-old prisons, called to life again by sacrifice and desperation. Their ends will be their own. He hopes they will forgive the sins of his ancient forefathers against them, he hopes that they will find a peace for themselves in this strange new world. But that will be up to them.

He hopes they will enjoy his chocolate implosion cake. Everyone deserves to enjoy chocolate.

The morning is cold, and wisps of his breath solidify into candyfloss in air that feels, somehow, just a little lighter today.

This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2020 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: At first you think it is a food story, maybe even a cooking battle of some kind that the centaur has come to rule on. Maybe there are a set of contestants? But you would be wrong. A tale of betrayal, nearly lost love and imprisonment. Vanessa once helped imprison the centaur but now needs the centaurs help to eventually help herself and free her people. Though their time away from one another has been great, the memory and assurances are still fresh as ever. Time the centaur spent captive has not been forgotten, as though it happened only yesterday. A story of lost love and being conflicted with many choices. 

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: What you all thought of the story of course!