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Posted on April 17, 2019, 03:56:52 PM by Jubal
Exilian Interviews: Stormwell!

A Conversation With: Stormwell!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

Stormwell (besides being second in Exilian's "most topics started" stats at 189) is a designer and writer of tabletop gaming supplements - in particular Frozen Skies. This dieselpunk setting for the Savage Worlds RPG takes players into the frozen northern land of Aleyska, flown over by planes and huge airships, with great wealth to find but great risk, weird tech, and terrifying monster along the way. We sent Jubal up over the barren cold waste in the Exilicopter, to hunt Stormwell down on his sky pirate vessel and ask him a few questions...

Frozen Skies from Utherwald Press
Jubal: First, tell us about yourself a bit - how did you first get into tabletop RPGs? And what made you decide to take the jump into founding Utherwald Press and designing primers and settings?

Stormwell: Well, I’m a born and raised Sci-Fi geek. During my childhood I regularly watched Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Babylon 5, UFO, Space 1999 and more obscure series such as Space Precinct. Star Wars also got a look in, as did later series like Stargate SG-1, Firefly and countless films. Fantasy for me during this time was lucky to get a look in once a blue moon, being limited to a handful of extracts from The Hobbit and some films. It wasn’t until high school that I developed an interest in reading, particularly when I first came across the late, great Terry Pratchett’s most wonderful Discworld series. It was at roughly this time that I became aware of tabletop games, chiefly Warhammer 40K when one day I saw a friend looking at some 40K models on the computer. It was a work colleague a couple of years after leaving school who actually got me started with 40K.

(OK, I’m beginning to ramble here, but it is bit of a complex web when it comes to my gaming background, and I hope to be done within another ten paragraphs...)

Right, where was I… ah, yes. What has probably had the biggest impact for my gaming habits is computer games. I’d first cut my gaming teeth on my dad’s 1980s Amstrad computer and later went onto the Sega Megadrive and then the first Playstation. Possibly recognising where my interests laid, or just thought I might be interested by it, my parents brought me a magazine mainly focused on card games such as Magic the Gathering. The thing that caught my attention was an ad for a computer game due out the following year called Arcanum; Of Magick and Steamworks Obscura. This game has probably had the biggest impact upon me of any I’ve played; I still play it from time to time some 18 years after its release. The world of Arcanum is your typical Tolkienesque fantasy thrown headlong into the Industrial Revolution, sitting under the banner of what I would later know as Steampunk. The game saw my first forays into internet based play-by-post roleplaying and developed my initial interest in Steampunk, which probably also owed a bit amount to my earlier passion for trains (which I admit was a factor in me picking up the game as it had a train on the cover). Arcanum also prompted me to start buying PC Gamer magazine on a regular basis after it did a review of the game, which would prove fortunate as the magazine also saw me buy the Crimson Skies and the first two Fallout games after it did articles on those. With my growing interest in Steampunk I also read the works of H.G. Wells and the novel The Difference Engine, developing a desire to write my own book.

I’d been playing 40K for a while when I finally got introduced to tabletop RPGs, there was a group that regularly met where we played wargames and included a couple of people I knew. Curious, I asked about it and then got invited to join a game of the grandfather of RPGs; Dungeons & Dragons. After a handful of games of D&D I wanted to run my own games and had, by that point, been introduced to the Iron Kingdoms/Warmachine setting which I bought the books for and ran. My desire to write a book evolved into a desire to create my own setting, influenced by my interest in Steampunk at the time, which would be the genesis for what became Frozen Skies and the world of Darmonica.

Over time I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the D&D system, prompting me to try out different games and other systems. It was when I was playing a Rogue Trader RPG campaign that Savage Worlds came to my attention, the GM had brought a copy with him and I fell in love with what I saw when I flipped through the book. Frozen Skies had begun to mature as a setting by that point and I had considered publishing it as a system agnostic setting, but saw that Savage Worlds had a licencee programme for other publishers and so decided to adapt Frozen Skies to that system!

Jubal: A few questions on your Darmonica setting and especially your book Frozen Skies. Firstly, what inspired you to go for a snow and ice themed setting specifically for your book, out of all the different options that Darmonica might include?

Stormwell: Ironically, Star Wars.

The Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back and a couple of maps from the original Battlefront games appealed to me. So did a world from the TV series Firefly. There's just something about an ice-bound frontier that really stands out to me. I suppose the hazards and challenges imposed by an arctic environment helped reinforce my vision of a frontier setting with a true "edge of civilisation and the world" feeling to it.

Jubal: Alongside humans in your world you have at least a couple of other species, the mysterious wyndryders and genchi. What do you think the importance of these other peoples is in an otherwise quite human dominated setting, and what inspired you to include them?

Stormwell: In all honesty I was in two minds about including them, torn between making the setting full dieselpunk or include some fantasy. I think including them helps make Frozen Skies stand out as a setting and enriches its background lore.

People have done some interesting things with the traditional Tolkien races, ranging from the Steampunk Arcanum through to the futuristic Shadowrun. Though I feel theres only so much you can do with dwarves, elves and orcs before you start running out of ways to reinvent the wheel. At least with the genchi and their Windryder cousins I have more wiggle room to explore different concepts regarding them.

Aleyska's Sir Brone Langworth, playing the 'tache game like a champion.
Jubal: Your setting is a fantasy, but it’s one with a lot of quite modern elements due to the dieselpunk style. Do you think this creates any particular challenges to think about for you that medieval fantasy authors don’t have to worry about? Can more modern fantasy settings end up feeling “too close to home” with problems the real world has had?

Stormwell: I think the biggest challenge has been being aware how nations work and how they interact with one another. In a medieval setting people, as a general rule, don’t normally travel much further than the next village over and would be vaguely aware of who ruled over them. Frozen Skies is much closer to the 1930s/40s of our world, meaning more integration on the national level, greater mobility of people and better access to things that a medieval peasant could only dream of. Have I managed this? Well, more than one person have commented how ‘real’ the nations in the setting are.

It all depends on how it’s approached. The best example I can think of is Pratchett with the dwarves and trolls in his Discworld setting. He used these two races to tackle both racism and extremism in a way that appealed to people and made them think about it.

Jubal: A lighter one now - what’s your favourite character that you’ve created in the setting, and why?

Stormwell: Hmm, favourite character, eh?

Hands down it has to be an Andrei, a character that has featured in the Frozen Skies campaign I’ve been running. He’s what called a ‘keeper of secrets’ or information broker, effectively the guy everybody goes to for information - if they’ve got the money! Certainly has been a character that my players have taken seriously, and he still has plenty of secrets of his own left...

Jubal: Are there any particular books, or authors, or other fictional worlds, that particularly inspired you when creating your Darmonica setting that users of your book could go to for inspiration?

Stormwell: The computer games Arcanum and Crimson Skies spring to mind right away, both have certainly left their mark on Frozen Skies. Others that deserve a mention include Indiana Jones, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Firefly, the webcomic Alpha Shade and the Brendan Fraser Mummy films.

Jubal: A few questions on technical and rules-driven stuff now. You write for Savage Worlds as a system – what attracts you to that ruleset in particular and why do you feel it works well for the adventures you want to create?

Stormwell: What attracted me to the system was its free-form character creation and advancement, it felt like a refreshing change to the rigid class system of D&D. Having run the system as a GM I really like how it feels so much easier to do things on the fly, come up with new NPCs in an instant compared to the hours that could be spent doing the same thing in D&D. It feels so much more flexible and a better laid-out toolkit for the GM.

Jubal: Recently, Savage Worlds has been releasing its Adventurers’ Edition, SWADE – how have you found the rules changes from that? Do you have a favourite improvement or change they’ve made?

Stormwell: I’ll echo what others have said; it’s still Savage Worlds under the hood.

SWADE feels like a refinement and upgrade with plenty of new options, some of which I’ve incorporated into my game current with great success. The changes to character creation and advancement give more options, though at the same you have to think more particularly with assigning skill points.

The new Chase rules are my most favourite thing about SWADE, when I first read ‘em I like them over the previous version. Plus I’ve really grown on me since I’ve used them a couple of times, just need to find more opportunities to use ‘em.

Jubal: What events or scenes do you find the biggest challenge for you to simulate for your players with the base Savage Worlds rules, and how do you cope with this as a GM and/or a setting designer?

Stormwell: Generally most things that I ask Savage Worlds to do it does it well, heck I used the Social Conflict rules for a trial and it worked extremely well. The only thing that I can think of that’s challenging is making combat interesting and engaging for the players, though that’s more on me as a GM remembering to use the various tools that Savage Worlds gives you for this. If I use stuff for NPCs in combat, usually the players will start using them as well. SWADE gives a few more options, too, especially with the new status states.

A windryder, one of the stranger inhabitants of the Aleyskan north...
Jubal: Writing fiction is obviously a strong part of designing a setting like the world of Darmonica. How closely integrated is that with your processes of designing the rules – do stories you produce give you ideas for the primer and rules tweaks, or are they more something that comes at the end of the process for you?

Stormwell: Considering how a fair bit of Frozen Skies was already written before I even considered using Savage Worlds, certainly have to say that story normally comes first. Of course there are exceptions where rules, character abilities or even artwork will prompt story.

Jubal: And, as someone who’s now done the whole process, what advice would you give to anyone interested in publishing their own RPG books?

Stormwell: The biggest one which a lot of other people also say: know the system you’re writing for.

Tying into that would be to start off small by writing adventures or creating characters, particularly as these will help you understand the system. 'Course there are also programmes like the Savage Worlds Adventurer’s Guild (SWAG) and the Dungeon Master’s Guild (DMG) where you can create and sell content without going down the licensed publisher route. Those will help with your portfolio and will allow you to see what bits of your work people like.

Jubal: Finally, what’s coming up next for you and your work? Any conventions people should catch you at or releases to keep an eye out for?

Stormwell: Unfortunately it's looking to be bit of a quiet year, though there is a few things of note.

Granted, it’ll be finished by the time this interview gets published, but a Frozen Skies game was run at SavageCon which is the UK’s Savage Worlds convention. I provided some prize support and hope to be able to attend next year. UK Games Expo is another convention that I hope to do, again it’ll probably be next year when I go again. On a more positive note, I’m back at Diceni in Norwich, at the Forum on Monday 6th May. This is awesome as, save for the past couple of years, I’ve usually had a stand since this event started. NorCon is another event in Norwich that I hope to do, but cannot say whether I will. Frozen Skies has also been submitted to this year's ENnie awards, so keep an eye out there.

Releases-wise, it’ll probably be the SWADE version of Frozen Skies before I work on a follow-on book called Skies of Crimson that focuses more on the sky pirates of the setting. I also have some other settings in the works, plus I’ve released an adventure through SWAG called Operation Thule. The adventure is Weird Wars inspired and is set during the 1982 Falklands Conflict, guest-starring a creature out of South American folklore. I'm hoping this will garner interest for a much larger project called Cold War Skirmishes...

Jubal: From cold skies to cold war! Looking forward to seeing the results, and thankyou for talking to us.

Stormwell: Thanks for having me.

You can get Stormwell's Frozen Skies supplement for Savage Worlds here, and do also take a look at regular blogposts on the Utherwald Press website here, as well as Exilian's Utherwald Press Forum.

Got more things to ask Stormwell? Please tell us in the comments below! And let us know what you thought of Jubal's choice of questions.

As ever, please do also check the guidelines and send in any articles you'd like to write for the Exilian Articles section, we'd love to hear from you!

Posted on February 28, 2019, 03:35:24 PM by Jubal
Exilian Interviews: Aure!

A Conversation With: Aure!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

Aure, or Aureus, has been a familiar face (OK, avatar) on Exilian for a while now, and his own Moral Anxiety Studio recently managed the successful release of a great slice of life visual novel, Tales from Windy Meadow. We sent Jubal to go and track Aure down to find out more about the game, its setting and development, and what future plans there are for the game world...

Jubal: Hello there! Before we get on to talking about Tales From Windy Meadow, tell us a bit about yourself – how did you get into game development?

Aure: I honestly can’t be happy if I don’t create things and find new ways to express myself. As a teenager I was writing crappy short stories, while during early college years I was focused on poetry. Finally I spent a couple of years designing and writing tabletop RPGs, though they were all published in Polish, my native language.

I moved into video games to combine a couple of passions at once. I love building my own fantasy world, writing stories, experimenting with dialogues, RPG-ish aesthetics. There are stories that can be told only through video games. I honestly believe that Tales From Windy Meadow couldn’t keep its power if it would be a book.

A view into Tales from Windy Meadow
Jubal: Now, Tales From Windy Meadow – firstly, congratulations on its release! How have you found people’s reactions to the game so far? Is it something you pay a lot of attention to?

Aure: Thank you! And yeah, I’m unhealthily interested in how people perceive my works. I want to grow, get better, deal with my creative shortcomings, especially since I don’t allow myself to stay in my comfort zone.

Nevertheless, Tales From Windy Meadow is extremely niche. A pixel art, fantasy, slice-of-life Visual Novel... I honestly think that there are no people who would buy such a game just because it’s on a store shelf and looks kind of nice. People who play it are interested in what it has to offer. All the reviews are either positive or quite enthusiastic, and I think people can sense that the game was made with love and passion.

Jubal: Yes, it's unusual in several ways, bringing together a game genre (slice of life/choose your own adventure), and a setting (medieval fantasy) which are rarely seen side by side. Did you see the game as experimental when you were making it, and did you have any dead ends when working on that format?

Aure: I never give myself a task to write something unique or different, though I’m usually most interested in ideas that challenge me, and catch my interest by showing me something that I can’t think of on my own. The original idea for the story wasn’t that fascinating. I had to invent a completely new structure for it, but ultimately I was able to invent something that made me feel excited about sharing it with other people.

And as you say, it turned out a bit unusual. I was aware of that. Trying to find an audience for such a game was extremely difficult. I hope that in the future more people will try to merge slice-of-life topics with fantasy settings. The potential of new metaphors and timeless surroundings that can travel across various cultures is great. I’d dare to say that many creators try to add some slice-of-life elements to their books, but there’s a lot of pressure to turn all the stories into empowering adventures. I just find repeating the same ideas boring.

As far as the dead ends go, I encountered some, but I mostly blame my own inexperience and wrong decisions that I made. I had to fix my mistakes and learn how to give up on some ideas that I loved, but weren’t really that good. Thankfully, everything turned out pretty well. Or so I hope. When I was translating the game from English to Polish, I was actually amazed that I somehow pulled such a weird story off.

Jubal: Iudicia has in more than one review been noted as an example of a character who’s heavily implied to be autistic, and Fabel is physically disabled – what research went into creating those characters?

Aure: Fabel’s condition was a bit easier for me to grasp, though I would also point out that both of these characters suffered from painful childhood traumas as well. Ever since I was a boy I had contact with people who faced even more advanced physical limitations than Fabel, such as my mother’s friend who was born without legs and with only one arm.

I’d say that Fabel is somewhat lucky - he lives in a community that is ready to support him, and offer him help and directions. He wasn’t left alone. Even in modern societies there is a lot of people with disadvantages, who are completely capable of achieving great things, but face a lot of rejection from their society. Very often these limitations are rather social, than physical. There are, however, works of fiction that did justice to these topics much better than I ever could, so I decided to not sink into them.

Writing Iudicia with an autism spectrum in mind was extremely difficult for me. I mostly spent time learning about the diagnostic procedures (which are much easier for children than adults) and what people with Asperger syndrome have to say about their adulthood. It’s not difficult to write a stereotypical person with Asperger’s, but I wanted to avoid silly stereotypes. My plan was to design a character that yes, has an unusual brain, but also much more than that - it’s a person, not just a development disorder put inside flesh. I think her relationship with Evolo serves here pretty well.

An additional difficulty was putting this topic into a pre-scientific fantasy realm which doesn’t know what “autism” or “developmental disorders” are. Iudicia only knows that other people see her as a weirdo. And she thinks that they are weird as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if some players didn’t even notice her condition. There was just so many ways to screw this up that I can now only hope that I chose the right approach.

Jubal: The setting design is one of the most iconic features of Tales From Windy Meadow, especially the giant, aggressive nature of the animals and wilderness. What inspired that aspect of the game’s world?

Aure: As I mentioned before, designing tabletop RPGs was one of my strongest passions. The setting of Tales from Windy Meadow is called Viaticum, and it’s something that I’ve been working on for about ten years now. Even Windy Meadow doesn’t perfectly reflect the current state of this setting - I made some major changes to it since the beginning of the game’s development, and some of these changes couldn’t be portrayed without delaying the game for another half a year or so.

The core concept of Viaticum is to portray a fantasy world in which nature is more powerful than mankind. So here are some ideas that were meant to complement this concept: the complex social structures known to us from history are not be fully developed, and the human settlements are constantly threatened by the monsters hidden in the wilderness. The monsters are not some intelligent creatures that you can make a pact with. They are a force of nature - heavily inspired by the Earth’s prehistoric animals. Dragons are dinosaurs, unicorns - elasmotherium. The goblins, which you can see in the game, are pretty much a hybrid of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus.

There is a ton of material that just didn’t make it into the game, but having a complex lore helps me a lot with keeping the mood and the game’s world cohesive. I could talk about it for hours, because I absolutely love this setting. I hope to share it one day online.

A conversation in Stabulus' tavern
Jubal: A more fun question; if you could take the place of one of the Windy Meadow villagers (any of them, not just the protagonists) – who would you be and why?

Aure: For me, all of these questions are fun! But it’s a tough one. I identify with the majority of characters presented in the game. All three protagonists are in some minor parts a bit like myself. Many side characters are based on people I know or some old dreams of who I wanted to become.

Nalia, for example, is a character that was the protagonist of my previous, much humbler video game, The Tavern. In Tales from Windy Meadow she’s 40 years older and is struggling with the demons of her past, mistakes (or terrible things) that she made. I would like to be like her younger self... But I wouldn’t like to take her place in Windy Meadow. She’s sort of a sad, troubled person.

If I would have to choose one character, I would take the place of Stabulus. Having a tavern in a fantasy village is like ten times more fun than working in a bar, and who wouldn’t like to have their own bar?

Jubal: A few questions on the development side – how big a team contributed to Tales From Windy Meadow in the end, and in what roles?

Aure: It’s difficult to give you a specific number. Every person added something special, but for some people it was hundreds of hours of work, while for others it was less than a day of effort.

The most important part of the crew are people from Indonesian artist guild Oray Studios and two other pixel artists - Roberto Luquero and Andrea Zevallos. Oray Studios drew the majority of character animations and almost all of the backgrounds, which I love beyond reason. Andrea stands behind character portraits and core visual designs of their sprites, while Roberto provided general graphics support - he’s also the person who drew the map of Windy Meadow.

I also feel that the whole game would be very different without music from Doctor Turtle. His guitar-folk experiments were inspiring me long before the first draft of the story was written. Joanna Falkowska worked on the game’s website and helped me pretty much on every level of development, and of course the game was made in Ren’Py engine, which is designed to support Visual Novels and is a priceless (yet free) tool.

Jubal: You mentioned on the development thread that about half a year into the project you had a team member leave, and you yourself had to move from intending to do a lot of pixel art and design work yourself to taking on a lot more of the programming and outsourcing more design. How difficult was that change, and what would you say to any reader who found themselves in a similar position?

Aure: Don’t find yourself in this position. Instead, do your best working a day job and saving money on reliable professionals, or have another backup plan.

The game was initially developed on a shared revenue model, which means that other team members were working in their free time, in hope that after the game’s release it would return their investment. It also meant that the people who worked on the game were passionate about the general idea and were interested in seeing what can we create together.

There would have been nothing wrong with someone quitting the project, since time and effort are valuable and many things can change in a couple of months, but our programmer kept participating in game jams, spending her time on travels, and working on her own projects, and after a couple of months there were pretty much no results to show. As a result, I had to take this responsibility on myself. I changed the game engine to a simpler one, learned how to use it, and limited my drawing work to the simplest edits.

It was absolutely exhausting and extremely stressful. It did allow me to modify the game many times through the project, though, adapting many scenes to what I felt was feeling the best at any given moment. I learned quite a lot.

Concept art for the next venture into Viaticum!
Jubal: The pixel art graphics are a really important part of Tales From Windy Meadow. What made you choose that art style in particular, and how pleased are you with what it eventually contributed to the game?

Aure: I’m very happy with the final results. Pixel art has an amazing strength to it - it doesn’t try to portray every little detail and leaves a lot to the player’s imagination. Your brain fills the canvas on its own.

In many low-budget Visual Novels backgrounds are not very important for the story - a bedroom is a bedroom, a street is a street. In Tales From Windy Meadow, however, they are essential to follow the plot, especially since character sprites literally walk around and interact with their surroundings. So the game has a couple of points to pay attention to at once: the text, the character portraits and the backgrounds with their animations. It’s easy to miss some details. Pixel art allowed us to provide a lot of contrasting colours and make sure that the backgrounds are easy to comprehend and follow, without providing too much distraction - just like in an old-school adventure game.

It was also important for me to instantly make it clear that the game is not your “regular” Visual Novel with cute manga girls nor nudity, just to make sure that no one would feel cheated! I was strongly inspired by my favorite Visual Novel, VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. Va-11 Hall-A is using pixel art to draw manga-like portraits. I decided to go a step further.

Jubal: Finally, can we look forward to seeing more of the Viaticum world? What are your next plans?

Aure: My goal for the next couple of months is to work on the prototype of my next game - a non-linear RPG with Visual Novel elements to it. It’s going to be set in Viaticum, about 20-25 years before the events from Windy Meadow. Here on the right you can see the first concept art that I drew for this project.

I'll also be working on the next edition of the Viaticum tabletop RPG. The game is pretty much complete, but needs some more testing; it is also spread among various, chaotic files and needs to be re-written from the ground, so I’m not going to work on it right away. It’s just a side project.

I have many ideas what to do next, but I assume that even these plans will take all of my creative power for the next two years, so let’s stop at that...

Jubal: We're certainly looking forward to seeing it. Thank you very much for talking to us!

Aure: Thanks for having me!
You can get Aure's game, Tales from Windy Meadow, here, and of course also visit the Moral Anxiety Studio website here.

Got further questions for Aure? Please drop them in the comments below! And let us know which of Exilian's many creative folk we should be interviewing next!

If you have an idea for an article yourself, meanwhile, please do check the guidelines and send it in, we'd love to hear from you!

Posted on February 16, 2019, 11:49:18 PM by Jubal
An Unexpected Bestiary: Pangolins!

An Unexpected Bestiary: The Pangolin Parchment
By Jubal

Long tailed pangolin, Image: US Fish & Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons.
In this special issue of An Unexpected Bestiary for World Pangolin Day, we're looking a my favourite scaly friendbeasts, the pangolins!

An Intro to Pangolins

To begin with, a recap of what pangolins are is probably in order. They’re an unusual order of scaly mammals, the pholidota  (from the Greek pholis, for a scale). Whilst sometimes confused with armadillos, pangolins are an old world order living in Africa and southern Asia, and their characteristic scales overlap much like scale armour, whereas armadillo scales form hard bands of nodes around their body. There are eight living species of pangolin, and at least one known extinct species: the smallest tree-living pangolins like the Long Tailed Pangolin of central Africa weigh just a kilogram or two, whereas their southern African cousins, the Giant Pangolins, live in burrows and can be over thirty kilograms – about twenty percent of that weight being in the hard suit of armour.

The English name of the pangolin comes from the Malay pengguling, or “the one who rolls up” – indicating another of their best known abilities, rolling into a ball so that their scales form an impenetrable wall on all sides to protect them from predators. That’s not all they can do though; their hefty claws can dig or tear apart pretty solid obstacles (such as termite mounds). They have no teeth, but eat stones to help grind up food in their stomach and have very long tongues to help satisfy their insect-eating diet, so much so that the root of the tongue muscle is planted deep in the animal’s body rather than at the back of the mouth. Their strong prehensile tails help balance them for upright walking, allow them to hang from tree branches, or even let them walk up a tree solely on their hind legs, claws gripping the bark and tail providing balance. Finally, in case the scales aren’t enough, they can emit a noxious scent in a similar manner to a skunk.

Human interactions with pangolins are the main subject of news on them nowadays, for the simple reason that we’re wiping them out, despite their impressive evolutionary defence arsenal. Huge demand for pangolin scales and meat as a miracle cure or aphrodisiac has driven massive levels of hunting, and pangolins often die rapidly in captivity from stress, with techniques for captive populations only starting to evolve in very recent years as conservationists desperately study how to ensure some survive the attentions of poachers. But why are pangolins seen as such a potential asset, and why are people so willing to believe in their magical properties? This fascination has long been apparent; the four Asian pangolin species are in the genus Manis, which Linnaeus in the 1790s named after the Manes, spirits of the dead in Roman mythology. The answer may in part lie in the extent to which the pangolin defies classification: scaly but mammalian, some arboreal and some ground-living, plodding along on two or four feet, it’s little wonder that they have frequently been ascribed otherworldly properties.

Pangolins live in various habitats, from jungle to near desert.
Myths and Legends

In various southern African mythologies, the pangolin seems to have a range of associations with the sky, luck, and fortune. The Sangu of Tanzania traditionally believed that pangolins fall down to earth from the sky, and select a particular human, whose village then performs various rituals which ultimately involve the pangolin being sacrificed. An interesting Sangu story involves a chief who turned into a living tree during the day, but ‘separated’ into a human and a pangolin at night, until his wife killed the pangolin, keeping the chief in human form.  A number of South African tribes likewise believe that pangolins come from the sky but during thunderstorms specifically, and several also believe that pangolins will bring luck to the person they appear to. From further north in Africa, meanwhile, the pangolin is a cunning creature – a recorded Ba-Kwiri story has a pangolin, Kulu, beating an antelope, Kawe, in a running race by posting a hundred of its friends along the route, having each one appearing fresh when the last tired – the gazelle, unable to tell them apart, tired out far sooner and was unable to prove the deception.

Another common thread is the idea of pangolins having hidden characteristics or power; Malay and Sri Lankan folklore apparently holds that pangolins can kill an elephant by biting its feet, then coiling itself around the elephant’s trunk to suffocate it. In some Malay myths, this is extended, and some kinds of banyan or "jawi-jawi" tree are apparently avoided by the elephants altogether for fear of the pangolins which leave their stench their (which given their ability to produce noxious sprays may not be a stupid move on the pachyderms' part). Another hidden power link is the obvious association of these burrowing animals with the earth. The central African Mbuti, according to one paper, held that pangolins if angered could drag humans down to the underworld through their burrows, which is a fascinating idea of the pangolin having hidden power. Some Chinese folklore apparently holds that pangolins can travel right round the world with a network of subterranean tunnels that they create, and one Chinese name for the pangolin, "the animal that digs through the mountain", reflects this story.

Finally, it's worth noting that as much as some of us may love pangolins, they aren't universally beneficial in folklore. In some South African cultures they bring bad rather than good luck, and it's often considered taboo to touch or eat them due to their supposed mystical properties. Among cultures that sacrifice pangolins,it is often a ritual done with great care: the Sepedi never kill pangolins during the rainy season for fear of causing a drought. The Tswana, meanwhile, have one of the mouse interestingly gruesome pangolin myths, believing that you must never carry a captured pangolin in a sack over your shoulder, or it will use its long tongue to suck your brain out through the ears. Otherworldly mystery, to say the least, isn't always friendly.

Pangolins as inspiration

We've just scratched the surface of the world’s pangolin folklore, but gives a great starting point for thinking about the pangolin if you’d like to use them in settings, writing, games, and so on. Some good hooks; firstly, pangolins have value in magic and belief, and less scrupulous characters are likely to want to make use of that whether or not you actually impart the pangolins of your setting with power. There’s a good chance either way that pangolin-related potions may (sadly) be existent in your setting – possibly even pangolin-scale armour, too, though to me either of those feels rather like unicorn blood in that there’s something unsettling and taboo about killing such a creature.

If you have regular pangolins as we have in our world in your setting, they're no particular threat to humanoid characters, though you could certainly over-emphasise some of their physical characteristics to make them more of an issue in that regard rather than them just being a helpless (to humans) hunting target. Even if not as a threat, just emphasising the pangolin scales and their defensive powers could be interesting. On the other hand, if you wanted to make a really large and more potentially aggressive pangolin, then a metre or two long pangolin could be pretty scary with a mix of horrifically noxious sprays and hefty claws as well as the razor-sharp edges of its scales. The toughness of pangolin claws would be a fun thing to emphasise with regular size pangolins too - having one break out of a supposedly secure box or enclosure just by tunnelling out through some concrete would be a fun move to pull.

A tricky question when it comes to the Kawe and Kulu story and things like it is how much sapience you want to give pangolins in fantastical settings. My recommendation is "not too much" - it's easy to end up writing pangolin-people instead of pangolins, which are also fine but are quite a different thing to be working on. I think in some ways it may ruin the enigma as well if you go down that route. An important part of the pangolin feeling magical is the mystical nature of it as a creature, so even if you want pangolins to have meaningful interactions and understand humans to an extent then I wouldn't go as far as making them just another speaking 'civilised' race for the most part (though I suspect one could work out some good exceptions to that!)

Sky-shaker, or down underground? Photo: USFWS
The sky and earth associations in different cultures are both good options if you want to actually give magic to a pangolin, which is the other option for rebalancing them vis-a-vis sapient species: having them rattle their scales to call down thunder, or be a strange two-part organism with a human like in Sangu legend, or give them some sort of exceptional thinking/cunning reputation, could work well. Having them as deliverers of luck can be a nice simple use too, especially for gaming purposes where that can be a pretty mechanically simple way of showing the type of setting you're building. The idea of them providing passage to the underworld is equally intriguing (especially if combined with Linnaeus naming them after spirits of the dead); in the Mbuti myths they only do it when angered, but what if your lead character actually wanted pangolins to provide access to hidden passageways? The idea of pangolins ‘adopting’ and following humans as some of the southern African cultures suggest makes them an interesting possibility for a familiar, though their stress around unfamiliar humans and general enigmatic self-reliance make them a much less friendly and easy choice than some more standard companion animals.


There's so much more to be written about pangolins in folklore and their storytelling potential: most of what I've read has been scattered studies from across Africa, so Asian pangolin folklore has been dealt with pretty lightly here and if I find more good resources on it then I may have to do some more writing in future. The pangolin is an animal I've found captivating for many years now, and I hope from this brief little introduction you can start to see why. Happy World Pangolin Day, and let's hope our scaled friends are with us to inspire us for many, many more to come. Thankyou so much for reading!

You can read part one of the regular An Unexpected Bestiary series, here, part two here, and part three here.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate a bit to the IUCN pangolin specialist group whose work is vital to keeping Pangolins around.

Posted on February 10, 2019, 09:07:39 PM by Jubal
The Problem of Focus

The Problem of Focus
By Jubal

What is focus?

A functional world, or are things in the lap of the gods?
Much ink has been spilt (at least proverbially) on the differences between “High” and “Low” fantasy and the characteristics of these two subgenres. It’s clear that there are a wide range of characteristics that tend to define where a particular book might be categorised – and so of course the high/low fantasy distinction is really far more of a spectrum. In fact, more than that, what we really have is a multidimensional space made up of a load of different axes and dichotomies that we can move between.

Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean. Firstly, there’s how ‘realistic’ a world is, with low fantasy tending to have less, and less obvious, magical elements. There’s also how ‘pathetic’ or ‘heroic’ the aesthetic is - a pathetic-aesthetic protagonist could be a scoundrel who ends up fighting giant rats in a sewer, while a heroic protagonist actually stands against whatever in their world counts as fearsome odds with a brave heart. Another factor is the ‘grit level’ – that is, grimmer and darker settings that involve painful human failings and unpleasantness are often considered ‘lower’ fantasy as a result. And there’s the issue of how clear and functional the events and fantastical elements are – do they just fit in as additional technology or species that can be used predictably by characters and other agents, or do they signal a world where the rules are decidedly more like guidelines, to be discarded when the plot demands?

It’s this last idea I want to look at today: how much focus does your world have? This is an idea that can bridge high and low fantasy; whilst a crisper focus may tend towards low fantasy, there’s no hard and fast rule. In science fiction, the equivalent concept is a much more key divider. “Hard” sci-fi which exists within the bounds of physics is very much in-focus and functional, whilst “soft”sci-fi of space opera and space fantasy kinds is very low-focus, preferring to wave away the technical elements with a few science sounding words at most. This concept is very useful when applied to fantasy too, though. A setting with more mythical elements, that’s happy to say “it just is” or “it was called into being by power beyond ken”, is a low focus setting; a high focus one, conversely, stipulates that things operate in predictable ways under the same circumstances, and that whilst the rules and boundaries of this world may be different to the ones we're used to, they exist nonetheless. When just applied to magic this is sometimes referred to as the difference between a functional magic system (where magic has reliable set ways to invoke it, with set effects and set rules) and a mystic one (which is less tightly defined and more mysterious). The idea of high and low focus can apply to the rest of the setting too though. Is the setting’s history built in known tomes or shrouded in confused oral tradition? Are mythical beasts just another species that mates and has babies and so on, or are they singular miraculous creations from the very earth or gods themselves?

Some examples might help at this point. The world of Harry Potter is very high focus; there are some clear bounding rules on what magic can do, spells have a predictable, reliable (if you fulfil the requirements correctly) effect, and so on. D&D settings are generally high focus – you shout “fireball”, cast a fireball, and a fireball probably happens. Even for clerics, divine intervention comes in the form of clearly defined slots into which you can prepare defined abilities. Tolkien and Lewis on the other hand both write low-focus works. Gandalf’s powers are never explained, bounded, or made consistent, and it’s important for the book that they aren’t; they are revelatory and miraculous, not a tool in the hands of just another character. In Lewis, the religious elements of his work import the low focus of religion with them. Aslan’s rebirth on the Stone Table is a miracle, and its miraculous nature and the numinous sense that invokes, the realisation of Aslan's divinity, are what's important, not the unanswerable question of "so how did he do that".

The Use of Focus

Are your heroes problem solvers or virtue paragons?
So why use high or low focus? There are certainly uses to both. High focus gives reality clear bounds within which both protagonists and antagonists must operate, and those bounds can be helpful to a storyteller and satisfying to readers who want to work out a plot ahead, reassured that there will be no deus ex machinas to spoil their fun. In a high focus setting, the reader may know that, for example, the dead cannot be brought back, or if it’s a more high fantasy setting they’ll know that bringing the dead back has certain requirements and can look for the characters to fulfil them. High focus, in other world, implies a world where mysteries can be solved. Games especially tend to be high focus, because it's important foe a player that they know what they're capable of doing in order to plan what they should do.

Low focus is the opposite, and low focus worlds can delight readers precisely because ultimately their mysteries cannot be solved; there are things that the reader, or their perspective character, and perhaps even the author, do not or cannot know. This sense of miracle is common, indeed the norm, in the folkloric, mythological and religious texts from which most modern fantasy ultimately derives a lot of its creatures and heroic narratives; it has a tendency to disappear in the hands of many more modern writers who want to drive a compelling plot where the readers will feel they fully understand the resolution. This is in some ways a pity, because the effects of low focus can be spectacular; by declaring an exception to the laws of nature as we know them, a writer declares that there are things more powerful than those laws.

Rather than the intellectual thrill of seeing a plot point resolved, then, the reader of a low focus fantasy can be given a more gut-punching emotional thrill; that of seeing in your fantasy something fundamentally and incomprehensibly larger than oneself, whether that’s a deity, a concept, or whether it’s left barely named. This is used in myth so much because mythic heroes often embody virtues; we’re not meant to consider how we could’ve copied or improved upon the hero’s exact actions, we’re rather meant to appreciate and emulate the virtues that in turn allowed them to make those calls on the underlying powers of their world. In the Odyssey, Hermes giving Odysseus the antidote to Circe’s magic isn’t a sign that Odysseus can’t solve the puzzle himself; it’s a signal that Odysseus is a great enough hero that the deities who represent the fundamental forces of human society and nature are willing to make a direct exception for him. In Tolkien, the continued enigma around the powers of the various magical beings is important in providing a sense of great depth to the whole setting.

Problems of focus

As a final part of this article (or at least this part – I had a whole discussion geared up on high and low focus in game contexts which is going to have to wait), let’s look at some of the pitfalls with how writers use high and low focus. One of the most common is breaking a high focus setting for a single emotional low-focus burst – when love, or a deity, or the power of friendship, suddenly save the day in a way that the reader wasn’t expecting. If you’ve generally made it the case that the reader could expect a cause and effect relationship for things throughout the work, this easily comes across as lazy deus ex machina writing. A lot of this comes in how you set your protagonists up - it feels right when a druid can call on mysterious powers of nature they never knew at a critical moment to save the world, but very very wrong if, say, a MacGyver type engineer character at a critical moment suddenly stops thrilling us with clever tools and tricks in order to suddenly be saved because love has granted him immortality.

If you want to use low focus, you ideally need to establish a consistent sense of mystery and knowledge beyond what is accessible to your characters. Low focus, conversely, can’t be used to fire constant deus ex machinas. Simply because there isn’t a functional logic to how your fantastical elements work doesn’t mean that they should come out of the blue; it needs to feel right to the reader on an emotional or numinous level for them to be able to maintain the sense of wonder involved. Low focus, in other words, requires drama and theatre in its workings in a way that high focus fantasy doesn’t; it requires not just a general suspension of disbelief for the whole secondary world, but a specific, case-by-case suspension of disbelief for every particular magical instantiation.

So, what have we learned? High and low focus can both be good ways to write fantasy, and give very different feels to a setting, though ones that don’t always mix well. A world dominated by high focus is good for puzzles and plots, where you’re pulling the reader along with the intellectual intrigue of what characters will do. A low focus world is one where you can’t always puzzle things out and there are bigger and more mysterious things out there, enabling a sense of mystery and miracle that focuses far more on what characters can experience or feel. I hope you found this article useful – let me know (or start a discussion on) where your worlds fit into this in the comments below, and do let me know if this was useful to you as well. Thanks for reading!

Posted on December 29, 2018, 03:31:39 PM by Jubal
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment

An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
By Jubal

It's been a while coming, but here's the third part of my Unexpected Bestiary series, in each of which I look at seven lesser known or lesser thought about animals and give you some information on their lives, names, and culture, and perhaps an idea or two for how you might use them in your creative projects. As ever, please do let me know what you found useful in this and I'll try and ensure more of the things people are after get into the next article! You can read part one of An Unexpected Bestiary, here, and part two here. This time we've got hyraxes, oilbirds, sea sheep, and more besides, so do read on and find some stuff out...

Image credit: Bernard Dupont

These squat, furry mammals, mainly found in Africa, despite being superficially like a pika or marmot are curiously more closely related to the manatee and the elephant. Rotund and short-tailed, they live up cliffs in caves and small burrows, and are good climbers, mostly eating vegetation of various sorts. One curious quirk is their tendency to huddle – they actually have very bad internal temperature regulation compared to most mammals and will sun-bask or sit in huddles in order to compensate for the fact.

The hyrax is a bit mysterious in its way, being in a role we more usually associate with rodents or lagomorphs but not akin to them, and it is maybe in that role that it’s best fitted into stories and settings. They’re mentioned in the bible, and they make a suitable substitute for rabbits that mark out a warmer and more rocky setting, but they may have uses beyond that. In one rather obscure novel, Omar, a hyrax character claims their species was the origin of Lewis Carroll’s “frumious Bandersnatch”, and one can imagine these heavy-browed, almost lorax-like creatures taking up some sort of talking-animal or similar role.

Image credit: Lilac Breasted Roller

The oilbird, or guácharo, is certainly not a well known animal, and nor is it initially a very dramatic seeming one – it’s a medium sized brown bird that mainly eats fruit. There are a few things about the oilbird that make it rather more intriguing though; for one thing, the name “oilbird” comes down from the fact that people used to literally boil down oilbird chicks to get the oils out. Given this rather gruesome fate, it seems little wonder that the oilbirds have a famously harrowing cry – on Trinidad they were sometimes referred to as “little devils”. The oilbird has one other sneaky and rare trick up its sleeve too; it’s one of the only birds that can use echolocation, clicking its beak and listening for the echo to work out where it’s going at night. We are used to the high-pitch echolocation used by bats, which in any case we can barely sense, but there’s something decidedly unnerving about a flock of birds (and oilbirds live in cave-dwelling colonies) flying out into the pitch black, clicking their beaks as they find their way through the night.

The hunting of oilbirds was vividly recorded in the nineteenth century, when travellers to a Venezuelan monastery recorded the massacre of huge numbers of oilbird chicks around midsummer. Local people would apparently move their dwellings up to the mouth of the birds' caves and process the chicks on the spot after knocking them down with long poles, with the terrible cries of the adults in the darkness above their heads. As well as oil, they would cut open the crops of the birds and take out hard "guácharo seeds" for use as a fever cure. The oil harvest produced the whole year's cooking and lighting fat for the monastery - but as the fever cure story shows, the caves were nonetheless a place of superstition. This may be no surprise, either, with the birds literally able to fly far deeper into complete darkness than the humans could, with increasing numbers of increasingly piercing cries if one went further into the cave. The association with hell was very direct - death was known as joining the guácharos to the local people, and the exorcism of spirits (including a chief evil called Ivorokiamo) was noted as one of the activities happening at the cave mouth. They're evocative birds, I think, with real inspiration potential.

Image credit: Lee Elvin

The far from humble caracal has to be one of the most under-appreciated members of the cat family. Its name is Turkic, from kara kulak, literally “black ear”, and their impressive ear tufts along with their orange coat and sleek build make these visually very impressive animals. Whilst not as big as a leopard or lion, they are fast, agile, and capable of taking down prey far larger than themselves. Their powerful back legs give them a particularly notable jumping ability, which they can use to take down avian prey as it tries to fly away from them.

The caracal is stuffed with potential for stories, and has a long history of interaction with humans, mainly in that they can be trained as hunting animals (Iranian legend had the mythical Shah Tahmūraṯ select them as one of the first and best hunting animals to be trained, along with the cheetah). For any nobility who consider dogs just a bit too normal they can be used in much the same way, especially for running down small and nimble prey like hares or birds. Chinese Emperors used to give them as gifts, and it was common in parts of India to test trained caracals against one another by using them in competitive pigeon hunts (almost certainly thereby originating the phrase “put the cat amongst the pigeons”). A pet caracal definitely marks out either a setting or a character as either connected or existing outside a European-themed milleu, and bestows on them the feeling of seriously cool elegance that cats always have. There’s also definitely something more impressive about hunting with cats because we don’t expect it – humans regularly hunt with dogs and we tend to think of them as controllable, whereas we have a very different idea of cats and being able to command them feels inherently more impressive and very classy indeed as a result.

Image credit: Alif Abdul Rahman
Sea Sheep

The sea sheep is actually a sort of sea slug – a bizarrely diverse group of creatures with a multiplicity of forms – with a pale body and a mass of green fronds attached to its back. So why look at this particular blobby invertebrate? Firstly, it has a bizarrely cute face that looks very much like a cartoon farm animal, hence its name. Second, it has an absolutely incredible biological trick that’s well worth its inclusion here. Like most sea slugs, it eats algae. Unlike most sea slugs, it steals the chloroplasts out of the algae and reincorporates them into its own cells. Those green fronds aren’t just for show; they’re actually photosynthesising, letting the sea sheep produce energy direct from sun power.

The suggestion of photosynthesising animals has often been made in sci-fi (not least in some theories around 40K Orks) but it’s very cool to see a species that does it for real. We think of plants and animals - and different categories within either - as being fundamentally separate groups that we can distinguish by means of identifying characteristics. Creatures that by their nature play with and distort those boundaries always add significant interest, both in challenging the reader's ideas about the world and in making that particular animal stand out. The nuidbranch sea slugs of which the Sea Sheep is one are all pretty strange and have an almost science fiction feel to them to start with - to come up with strange things in space, starting here on earth is often a surprisingly fruitful point of departure.

Image Credit: Alex Pyron
Slender Lorises

There are two types of slender loris – the endangered Red, native now only to parts of Sri Lanka and with few left in the wild, and the commoner Grey which also lives in wide areas of southern India. They are primates with huge eyes, usually solitary and nocturnal and thus rarely seen, mainly feeding on insects deep in the forests of their home. Like all primates they are excellent climbers, and their huge brown eyes give them a strange sense of wisdom. They used to be considered quite ugly due to their thin, lanky appearance, and the Tamil word for loris, thavangu, could also be applied to ill and emaciated humans according to 19th century records. One old proverb recorded in the early 20th century was that they say that the loris's offspring is to it as beautiful as a gem - in other words, that parents will love their children even if they are ugly or misshapen.

For the lorises, humans and habitat loss are a major threat, but with some difficulty greys have been kept as pets. Slow-moving, and with strangely human-like hands and big front-facing eyes, they have reportedly been used by fortune tellers to select tarot cards, and that sort of mysticism suits their strange nature right down to the ground. Their association with magic and the mysterious extends to their use in potion-making traditions, from eye medicine to supposed leprosy cures. In setting design writing they would no doubt make an excellent companion to a mystic or magician for exactly this reason – there’s definitely something of the ethereal about these beautiful little creatures.

Video credit: Willy Escudero
Pink Fairy Amadillos

The Pink Fairy Armadillo’s name alone is more than enough to merit inclusion in the Unexpected Bestiary, but they’re also just all round lovely little creatures. They’re mainly burrowing animals, and small enough to fit quite comfortably in someone’s hand. Their slightly odd shape, with a very flat back end, is an adaptation to ensure they’re armoured from behind as they dig away at their tunnels: like all armadillos they of course have armour plating, too, though it’s not enough to fully protect them from feral dogs which are one of their major predators.

I think to include the fairy armadillo in setting design you have to double down on how weird it is. As a burrowing animal they don’t make good pets, so their use to humans is always going to be very restricted: their use to fairies, pixies, and sprites on the other hand could be great fun to read about, either for hole-digging or perhaps as beasts of burden. I don’t know if the pampas has many traditional little folk myths, but it would be great to see these combined with some such creatures for a story.   

Wilson's Phalarope. Image credit: USFWS

Heading out to the coasts, the phalarope is a bird of shorelines and salt lakes that has some surprising and interesting characteristics. There are three existing species: the grey, red-necked, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The most characteristic sign of these birds is their tendency to swim in apparently mad small circles – a behaviour that is actually a core part of how they feed. Their circular swimming creates a vortex in the water that pulls mud, small crustaceans and insects up from the bottom of a pool; the phalarope can then simply dip its long beak in and grab morsels to eat. It's an interesting feeding strategy and it might be a fun idea to apply to mythic creatures too - it's certainly a good alternative idea for where a whirlpool comes from! In phalarope society, it is also the female that rules the roost, with females being large, brightly coloured, and each engaging in competitions to win over a number of smaller, drab males with whom they mate and who they then get to look after and hatch the clutches of eggs they lay. Once the breeding season is over the birds will migrate every year to stay with the best feeding grounds.

The name ‘phalarope’ means ‘coot-foot’, referring to the coot, a commoner bird with which it shares a foot shape, and beyond its inclusion in the title of a 1953 novel by South African anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton there’s little more to be said there – its other names give some rather more exciting ideas, though. To sailors, it was once known as the whalebird, or mackerel goose; the names Wassertreter (German) or the beautiful veetallaja (Estonian) meanwhile indicate its water-treading habits as it swims in whirlpool-building circles. Given these birds’ distinctive circle-swimming and profoundly matriarchal society there’s a surprising dearth of folklore I’ve been able to find on them; perhaps that’s an opportunity as much as a drawback for a canny writer, though…

I hope you enjoyed this run through a few more obscure and interesting animals - there's plenty of fish left in the sea (we didn't even do any fish this time), not to mention birds in the air, etc, so I hope we'll get one or two more of these articles out in 2019. Please let me know if you enjoyed it - comments, and sharing the link to this article so others can find it too, are always hugely appreciated. And of course thanks for reading!