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Topics - Jubal

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Exilian Bards' Club / Hades/Hades II Song Chords
« on: May 13, 2024, 05:33:54 PM »
Coral Crown (Hades II Siren Song)

Come o sailors, hear my music
Echoing through sea and cold
Em                    G          D
Bring your hull into my harbour
Join the teeming wrecks below
Em                    G          D

Down, down
Em     Am
King of bones with the coral crown,
Em                             D
Drown, drown
Em     Am
Save your breath, for tonight you’re going to drown!
Em                               D                            Em

Gods and witches cannot tame me
Curses are my endless muse
All who hear me, prince or pauper,
This shall be their final cruise

Down, down
King of bones with the coral crown,
Drown, drown
Save your breath, for tonight you’re going to drown!

Come to me my tasty morsels
Always room for more…

Make yourself at home my darling
Take a dip and stay a while,
Down, down
King of bones with the coral crown,
Drown, drown
Save your breath, for tonight you’re going to drown!

Hetairos / Test 11 May
« on: May 12, 2024, 01:21:04 AM »
Had a short test today, of the The World Above scenario. We didn't get that far before my unfortunate test partner had his character eaten by a gryphon, but it was an interesting test all the same. I think I may need to make the chaos in the scenario somewhat greater, a double one (which is what triggers caverns collapsing) isn't a high roll, but that said it's a game where tunnelling is hard so a full tunnel collapse is a big deal. Maybe I need a lesser but more frequent option as well as the current "full collapse".

Also not really sure what to do about the typical-for-the-game scenario where someone at the end of their move just walks into a monster lair or lava flow and gets disembowelled or deep-fried respectively on the spot. In some ways that sort of randomness is a bit of a joy of the game, but if it happens early and nobody can help the player character it can be a bit rough. I think maybe just better and clearer rules for player death might be worth having. Also it's partly that I often play this game with two players rather than the four or five I originally wrote it for, which means in "normal" circumstances another PC is more likely to be in reach to help a player. Maybe I should balance for four characters more heavily and make it such that in two player games the players get a hoplite companion or similar?

General Chatter - The Boozer / May pub - 30th or 31st?
« on: May 11, 2024, 11:51:57 AM »
Any preferences? We're due a Thursday which would make the 30th the right option I think, but I'd be willing to switch to the 31st if people would prefer.

General Chatter - The Boozer / RIP Bernard Hill
« on: May 05, 2024, 04:47:21 PM »

Just saw the sad news that Bernard Hill, notable for playing the captain of the Titanic and Theoden of Rohan, has died. I don't really react much to or notice actor and celebrity deaths a lot of the time, but this one I definitely did: his portrayal of Theoden was for me one of the critical moments of the Jackson LOTR films and he played the character wonderfully. Definitely someone whose work will stay with me.

Other equivalently big franchises of games have their own thread, and I'm playing Fallout 4 now thanks to Tuco, of this parish (or at least of this parish's pub) who kindly got the game for me.

I think I'm about at the halfway mark for the main quest, though I've hit level thirty by doing slightly more "radiant" quests than I probably needed to (that's the quest design system where you get formula quests with randomly assigned locations to clear/do things at: Skyrim does similar with its barrows etc). Of the game's four main factions, I'm working for the two least authoritarian ones, as you might expect, and my character is dating the nearby post-apocalyptic "city"'s foremost and indeed only journalist and is best friends with a robot in a synthetic human body who is a medical nerd.

Things I've been enjoying with Fallout: I'm definitely liking the capacity to build and design settlements and their defences. I have a few quibbles about the system but generally it works really very well. I think the main drawback of this and the Minutemen parts of the game is the spiralling micromanagement: rather than feeling like I'm building a bigger and more successful volunteer army and overall system, instead I'm feeling more and more stretched as I, personally, get asked to run around building yet more machine gun posts for every small farm in post-apocalyptic eastern Massachussetts. It'd be nice to be able to feel like you're more in a command role with some of that stuff (the castle mission and sections were good on that front but the rest has gotten a little grinding on occasion). But anyway, designing the buildings themselves and making rooftop bars for my post-apocalyptic citizens is something I enjoy a lot.

I think there's enough lightness in the setting for it to work, whereas I think I'd feared it would all come across a bit darker. I'd probably slightly tone down the gore in places by personal preference but I accept I'm at the low-tolerance end of the market there. Things like the occasional chasing down cats quest definitely help break up the shooty gameplay, and I'd probably have liked a ratio further in that direction with if anything less combat and more dialogue. I love the fact that companions are more fleshed out than in Skyrim (which, as the other Bethesda game of that generation, is the obvious comparison), though I'd have liked even more there probably. That said, I accept that combat is in a sense much easier to produce more of than interesting quests, so there's that.

I also actually think that the thought put into post-apocalyptic society is interesting in places (though really lacking in others). On the minus side the usual raider/civilian ratio being miles off thing is present, and it does repeatedly strike me as weird how the whole setup is visibly not more than a year after the bombs hit but in game it's actually two hundred years (in which time nobody has moved any of the dead bodies and there has been no soil erosion whatsoever). I think the game would feel like it made more sense if it was more like a hundred than two hundred years, or if there'd been a bit more of an attempt to think about what 200 years looks like. But if we handwave that, the society stuff I like, in particular the thing of people retreating to live in more densely packed centres within older buildings: "Diamond City", which is built in the ruins of a baseball stadium, is doing precisely what people actually did historically in periods of stark de-urbanisation: in Arles, this even happened with an amphitheatre and I wonder if this was a historical nod. I have some thoughts on how one could have made some of this more interesting, especially since if you do have 200 years to play with then you start getting into questions of whether e.g. some raider groups might actually have ended up with hereditary leadership etc (and it'd be interesting to contrast the cosplay-knighthood of the very very unfuedal Brotherhood with a situation where an actual warrior leadership class was emerging in parts of the game world). So that's all something I've found interesting to mull over.

Anyway, there's a good amount still to do (for those who know, I'm at the "go to CIT" stage of main quest) but I'm away this week so I'll report on my feelings on the ending sometime in May probably! And I'll share screenshots then if I have time too.


We're now well into spring in the northern hemisphere and that means it's time for our Hibernation themed winter competition to be complete. Thus, it's time to share our showcase of results, which you can read below. We've got a lovely cosy little set of five miscellaneous project on the Hibernation theme with some lovely bits of work for you to look at, and the most important thing as ever is adding more to this great showcase collection. There can, however, only be one winner (at least, there is only one winner in this case).

And that winner is... Spritelady with her fiction writing piece '6 of Telochi, in the year 647'!

The judges called this one a "psychologically smart first-person narrative " and "suspenseful, well-crafted writing" - you can read the result below! Spritelady wins a copy of Priory Games' medieval life sim Under the Yoke, which follows a peasant family through the subsistence needs, tithes, and village life of the high middle ages, and a copy of Jubal's RPG book Rockpool, which is a mini tabletop RPG system for being tiny little weird creatures that live around the eponymous rockpools and must content with the tide, dangerous whelks, and other such perils.

Thanks also go to our judges, Yvonne and Daniel, and to Owen of Priory Game for sponsoring the competition. But more important than the winning is the creativity, as ever, and we're delighted to be able to share with you below the full showcase of all five contributions, from computing puns to poetry to photography. Do leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Entry Showcase

WINNER: 6 of Telochi, in the year 647 - Spritelady

6 of Telochi, in the year 647

I have returned to face the beast. This is my third attempt to defeat the creature, and the first that I have made in the cold season. I hope that what I have learnt will be enough. I pray that I have the strength to destroy it.


When I first learned of people going missing in the Forest, I thought perhaps it was a Tiyanak, maybe a Wendigo. When I arrived at the logging base, the woodsmen told me that they had been there since the cold season, and had seen no trouble in those first months. But then members of their group began to vanish. There was no trail that could be followed, and their belongings remained in camp. The woodsmen began to fear walking among the trees, but they were stubborn. They needed to work.

In my experience, the patterns they had described suggested a creature that hunted those foolish enough to walk alone. Or perhaps that was capable of luring its victims away from the safety of numbers. This would hardly be my first encounter with such creatures, and I approached the job with confidence. Arrogance, I later realised.

I went to begin my hunt, as I had so many times before. The creature tore through me in moments, left me clinging to life. I never saw it, had not even known it was there as I began looking for its trail in the woods. But it had seen me looking. And it had not cared to be hunted.

Why it left me alive, I had no idea. I should have died from my injuries, but was saved by the grace of the Lady and the kindness of those woodsmen. I left their camp, promising to return to kill the creature, knowing that my advice to move camp would not be heeded. These people needed work, and there was little else to be found.


I returned as the harvest season began. I had spent my time away recovering, regaining my strength, training until I was twice the hunter that I had been before. I was deadly in the woods, but my arrogance had been curbed. I knew not to underestimate my quarry. I knew it would take all my skill to hunt and kill this beast.

   There were fewer woodsmen than when I had left. Their numbers had dwindled as the attacks had grown more frequent. Even travelling in groups did not seem to deter the creature; it took its prey nonetheless. But they stayed and I admired their stubbornness. I felt responsible for ensuring that they could remain, that the threat would be dealt with. And once more, I entered the woods.

   At first, my hunt went well. Or at least, it lasted more than the brief seconds of my first attempt. I found traces of a trail and followed them deep beneath the canopy of the Forest. I tracked for hours, following hints and signs of its presence. The woodsmen had told me they had begun to see signs, trees scraped bare of bark where the creature had passed, gouge marks left in the dirt of the forest floor. At times, I lost the trail, searching before I found another sign, could continue moving further into the Forest.

I was stupid not to realise what was happening. The creature had been aware of me from the moment I entered the woods. It had toyed with me, leading me closer and closer to its lair. In the seconds before it struck, as I beheld its massive form for the first time, I knew I had made a crucial mistake.

I reflected on it later, as I recovered from the wounds it dealt me. It had taken all my considerable skill to escape, and even then I somehow knew, I could sense, I only lived because it had grown bored of me. Before I faced it again, I would need to be smarter. Need to understand more. To truly face this creature, to kill it, I needed to know everything I could about it.

   I left the woodsmen again, felt their sullen, resentful stares as I walked away, when their friends and comrades could not have. I knew they were losing their faith that I would handle this creature, as I had so many others. My reputation would only last through so many failures.

I returned home, and gathered every scrap of knowledge I could find about creatures that dwelled in the Forest. Last time, as I recovered, I had strengthened my body, my physical prowess, and had thought that would be enough. I had underestimated the creature’s intelligence, its awareness. I would not make that mistake now.

   I read every piece of lore I could find, scoured libraries and archives for mentions of the creature. I compiled the best collection of ancient and forgotten tomes that had been seen in years, all in my attempt to learn something, anything I could use to fight this creature and survive.

Finally, after months of learning, I found something I thought I could use. I had forgotten the woodsmen’s first stories. That they had lived and worked through the cold season undisturbed, before the creature had begun its attacks. At the time, I assumed that the creature had simply wandered into new territory, found the woodsmen’s camp and begun its attacks. But as I read, as I learnt about the denizens of the Forest and those that came from its deepest recesses, I found a common thread.

   Hibernation. Almost all the creatures we knew of in the deep woods followed an annual cycle. They would hide themselves away throughout the coldest months, when food became scarcer, and wait until the rainfalls to emerge. Perhaps that was why the woodsmen had seen nothing of this creature in their first months at camp. Why they had become settled enough in their lives and their work not to be able to move on when it began to strike. It would almost have been funny, the irony of that terrible timing, had it not been so disastrous.

   If this creature did indeed hibernate, maybe that would allow me to approach. Other accounts described creatures that sleep deeply, barely alive as they wait out the coldest months. I could find my way back to the beast’s lair, that I had been led to so foolishly. Perhaps I could remain unnoticed for long enough to dispatch it. I have prayed to the Lady that this will work.


I have returned to the woodsmen’s camp. I can see they no longer believe I will be successful, though some seem to admire my resilience. I think they respect that I have returned, despite twice being left on the brink of death. They do not realise it is the same resilience that I admire in them. The same stubbornness.

Tomorrow, I will go into the woods for the third time. And if I should not return, if my guesses are wrong, my newfound knowledge is not enough, I ask whoever reads this to deliver my account to the collection of lore that I have built. Add to the knowledge I have hoarded of the monsters that roam the deep woods. Let someone else learn from my mistakes, and perhaps one day return to kill this creature.

Overslept - A Microfiction by Tusky

“Woah, 2235? I overslept. Where is everyone?”

“Dinner time was many cat-naps ago. You snoozed through tuna surprise time. Displeased.”

“Wait, a talking cat! Am I dreaming?”

“Meow, please. You have awakened in a PAW-some future run by cats! Now, scritches behind
the ears, then can opener. Chop-chop, human.”

“Huh. OK, dinner time it is then! Just don’t judge the sleep wrinkles, your royal purrness.”

“Wrinkles are beneath me. Tuna, however, is not. Now move it, hairless servant. The sunbeam won’t wait.”

Editorial note: the entry was submitted with an illustration, which can be viewed here. The illustration, however, was AI generated and so the entry was judged and included only on the original element, the text-microfiction above.

Hibernation Database - A Database of Hibernating Creatures by Jafeth (Who is Also Here)

What it is
The Hibernation Database is a Java application that offers a simple interface to a database containing a table of animals that hibernate. It can be called to create new animal entries, and modify or delete existing ones.

How it works
The application uses the Spring Boot framework to provide REST functionality as well as database connectivity. Internally Spring Boot uses the framework Hibernate to do this. (Yes, Jafeth made this entire thing for that joke. You're welcome.) The programme is built to run in a Docker Container, which is a small virtual machine containing only what is necessary for the programme to run. It connects to a PostgreSQL database which can be hosted anywhere but is most easily run as another Docker container. (See the deployment.yaml file for an example).

How to access it
There are github repositories available for the frontend and backend parts of the system. Those who want to run a copy of the database will find relevant instructions on those pages: Jafeth kindly self-hosted an instance for the judges, but this is no longer operational.

Thawing - A Poem by Jubal

And if there is a dream that is called spring,
Then we must intend to dream it:
Holding in a suspended mind’s eye
A simulation, an imaginary of what was and could yet be,
For there are dreams, dear one, that enclose the dormant buds of truth -
Dreams that are a promise of the sun’s return.

What spring brings we can only imagine -
That is, after all, what dreams are for,
The thaw, the rolling waves of blue sky after grey,
The bursting of each blossom in a cascade of trees
In patterns and patchworks that we cannot intend
Or know
Or guide
For if there is one thing that is true about the unimaginable seasons’ turn,
It is that spring comes only with creation and the shape of new impossibilities
With old songs sung from new trees
By voices that know not how they know the tune
Only that they dreamed it, once
When the world was a dream
And beyond the dream was wintertide.

But there is a dream that is called spring,
As long as you intend to dream it:
As long as you intend to speak and to sing it,
As long as you come to know and to love it,
For the hibernation of hope is the stepless path through dormant time
That will end not with rage and crashing ice,
Or the creation in fire of a world burned into newness,
But with the slow revelation of spring-water
Of bough and breeze and the creeping hope of dreams
And, always, with life.

Editorial note: this entry was excluded from judging as it was created by a competition organiser.

Crow - A Photo by Jubal

In that moment, Crow realised what Hedgehog had meant by “hibernation".
It seemed, all of a sudden, like a very good idea indeed.

Editorial note: this entry was excluded from judging as it was created by a competition organiser.

And that's our Hibernation set done and it's time to wake up for spring - and for Exilian's newsletters, articles and events in the coming months, where we're hoping to have more exciting and fun things to do as a community. Hope to see you for those, and that you enjoyed this hibernatory showcase!

Cepheida / Cepheida: The Exploration Game - First Test
« on: April 20, 2024, 01:26:54 AM »
Courtesy of Tar-Palantir, this game got its first test run. The rulebook is only partly written still and we were referring back to the similar Hetairos rules at times, but nonetheless it was an interesting experience.

I played as the Tangalak, he played as the Lexihad. The planet was barren and atmosphere-less, which reduced the possibilities a lot, but the result was interesting all the same. The difficult terrain not being directed (unlike in Hetairos) did make the map feel a bit more open, though there's work to be done there. We had a fun time bumbling around the map, discovering mostly science sites. There was surprisingly little real threat: I definitely think some tweaks to make the landscape more genuinely problematic/challenging would help, perhaps making difficult terrain occasionally generate hazard/crew difficulties if you don't have an atmosphere to simulate that being more difficult for life including you. The fact we ended up playing "destroy the enemy vessel" may not have helped with that, I don't want this to end up being a build and destroy game most of the time.

Other important things I discovered: the action economy of having a bunch of followers makes some tasks trivial for the Lexihad. I think that's fine: not everything will be trivial, and I'm going to redesign the shooting rules such that it's more of a disadvantage being shot at if you have more followers. The potential for science & engineering locations (equivalents to Hetairos' Library and Forge) to really make a player OP is very much there, but I think with some balancing that can be tweaked into viability as well. There's probably a need for caps on crew, inventories, etc.

Much more to be done!

Announcements! The Town Crier! / Our policy on generative-AI content
« on: April 13, 2024, 03:54:01 PM »
Large Data Models & Generative "AI": Our New Policy

As many of you know, machine learning based tools for generating content from large data models have been significantly expanding in their usage in recent years. ChatGPT, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and other text and image generating services are increasingly prominent in popular discourses about art, games, and the future of creative works.

The voting members of Exilian have recently voted on a new policy for how we handle this sort of content. We recognise that it's something people are going to want to discuss and play with, and we want to assure people that discussing these technologies isn't unwelcome here. However, there are a lot of concerns about generative AI, including but not limited to their potential for disinformation, the effect on artists and writers whose content is taken and reconstituted by these systems, the environmental impact of very heavy data model usage, and the issues of huge quantities of automatically generated material flooding the internet. The legal situation around generative AI is also still unclear and it's important that we protect this community from any potential legal issues. We don't think that we can simply ignore those problems, and we want to keep Exilian as a space that supports and cherishes human creativity first and foremost.

In future, that means that Exilian will not be providing formal support to projects that use generative AI. That includes not giving newsletter space or social media shoutouts to such projects, and it also means that generative AI pieces will be explicitly banned from entry into future competitions and site events. We also have some new expectations about posting generated content: that people should keep it limited and not flood the site with such content, that you mustn't post work that explicitly mimics specific writers' or artists' styles, and that if you're posting content produced by an AI then you have a responsiblity to clearly label it as such.

What we can do on these issues as a small community is limited: "AI detectors" are themselves largely machine-learning systems and have significant flaws, and whilst we will take what steps we can to avoid content you post on Exilian getting scraped by large generative model providers, as a public-facing forum without a legal budget there are limits to how much we can prevent machines reading content on here. Nonetheless, we're doing everything we can on these issues to make sure that we keep Exilian as a space that will support our artists, game developers and writers in their own creative endeavours, and we hope that taking these steps will help with that.

You can read the full text of our Generative AI policy here.

With best wishes,

The Exilian Team

Exilian Articles / Beyond the Wall – Part Two
« on: April 12, 2024, 07:51:55 PM »
Beyond the Wall – Part Two
By rbuxton

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two part article. You can read part one here.

Arturo’s Quest

Timmo on his horse.
I’m pleased to report that hitch-hiking has made a comeback, albeit with a 21st Century twist. Unlike other ride-hailing apps, BlaBlaCar genuinely links people driving long distances with potential passengers, and Mexico is the only country outside Europe where it’s available. I had been nervous about using it because of my weak Spanish but all of the drivers I met turned out to speak English. My first ride, and the first stage of my journey towards Parícutin, took me south from León to Morelia. Arturo had recommended I visit the city but cautioned that its state, Michoacán, is the capital of drug-related crime in Mexico. Drug-related, however, is not tourist-related, and I felt perfectly safe for my whole visit. In Morelia I visited a museum dedicated to sweet-making and the house of yet another revolutionary leader, Miguel Hidalgo. On Sunday I plucked up the courage to attend mass in the cathedral, where the 4000 pipes of its organ were put to good use. The towers of the cathedral have a bewildering array of features: they took so long to build that their tops were finished in a completely different architectural style to their bases. Inside I was touched by the little shrine to Santa Niño de Atocha, a child saint who is given offerings of toys when children are in need of his care.

My bus ride from Morelia to Patzcuaro was not altogether smooth. I followed the journey on Google Maps until we got to the northern outskirts of the town. I asked the driver if the stop was close and he nodded and said “Estación”. The next stop appeared to be the middle of nowhere so I didn’t get off, only to find us whizzing out of Patzcuaro the next instant (the town is very narrow in the north). I had assumed the driver’s answer meant we were heading towards a “bus station”, but they don’t use that phrase in Mexico and he was actually referring to the small, freight-only train station hidden beyond the trees at the stop. I decided to stay on the bus as far as the next town, where I might be able to get off and make some enquiries about tours to Parícutin. The journey through pine-covered hills was long, and in the end I just hopped on a bus back, this time to the centre of Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro is a lakeside Pueblo Mágico (magic town) full of low, whitewashed colonial buildings with red signs and eccentric tiled rooves. It’s also the capital of Day of the Dead celebrations, but I was there at the wrong time for those. I stayed in a hostel in a traditional building just off one of the main squares, which had an inner courtyard and colourful streamers hanging everywhere. I climbed several hills (actually extinct volcanoes) to get views of the town and lake. There were cobbled streets and old buildings aplenty to explore. I went to a craft fair organised by a Canadian artist where I tried my hand at weaving on a huge, pedal-operated loom. One morning I stumbled upon a parade in honour of one of the saints. A lot of people were in traditional costume, which included long ribbons tied into women’s pigtails. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing because I was due to watch the Eurovision song contest remotely with some friends back in the UK.

I took a number of trips out of Patzcuaro by collectivo (shared minibus). I went further into the mountains to Santa Clara del Cobre, a centre for copper working. I also visited Tzintzuntzan, a name which means “Place of the Hummingbirds” and is often abbreviated, conveniently, to TZN. It is a unique ancient site overlooking Lake Patzcuaro, dominated by a series of connected semi-circular platforms. Historically it was one of the few cities strong enough to resist domination by the Aztec Triple Alliance during their heyday. I actually saw more hummingbirds at Ihuatzio where a pair of temples look over the islands of the lake, their bases encroached upon by farmland.

My biggest trip out of Patzcuaro, however, was to Janitzio Island. I got up at 5 am and made my way through the cold and mist (the town is more than 2000 meters above sea level) to watch the white herons and other birds of the lake in the dawn light. The first boats from Janitzio began to arrive, disgorging secondary school students and loading up on crates of beer. I took one of these boats with the rest of the morning’s tourists and we were treated to a display of the traditional fishing technique, which involved what I’d call a giant butterfly net. The steep-sided island was crammed with buildings: there is an entire town there, where the indigenous Purépecha culture is still very much alive. It seems odd, therefore, that the island is dominated by a giant hollow statue of Hidalgo, a champion of Mexico as a whole. I did some more birdwatching and spotted a number of butterflies and a snake. Then I followed the main (only) road as it spiralled up towards the statue. On the way I met an old woman, Carolina, sweeping her doorstep. She was wearing traditional clothing and was missing a lot of teeth. I told her I was from England and I wanted to visit Guatemala and El Salvador; she described all of these places as “far”. Otherwise the conversation was mostly about whether I was married, though after a few repetitions of “Dinero para mis tortillas” I realised she was asking for money. I felt I had to oblige her but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her for a photo – this is not really appropriate any more.

I was sorry to leave Patzcuaro and its lake but I had to get on to Uruapan. The city is not particularly interesting but I was lucky to bump into yet another parade when I arrived. A short walk from the centre is the Parque Nacional Barranca del Cupatitzio, which follows several waterfalls of the Cupatitzio river to the beautifully calm pool at its source. The valley is densely wooded and the water has been diverted into all manner of channels and “fountains”. I spent a happy morning birdwatching and trying to remember what my dad had taught me about the relationship between shutter speed and running water when aiming for specific effects on my compact camera. I still had not found out much about Parícutin: there was frustratingly little information online and Uruapan’s wooden “tourist information” box remained so firmly shut during my visit that I began to suspect it was really someone’s TARDIS. I decided to go there a day early for some reconnaissance and took a collectivo to Angahuán. I walked past the small town’s church to the viewpoint and there it was at last: Parícutin.

The story goes that in 1943 a farmer named Dionisio Pulido noticed a hole appearing in his cornfield and attempted to plug it with stones. He was soon repelled by the ash, smoke and sulfurous smell emerging from the widening fissure. By the end of the day the nascent volcano was two meters high; after one year it was closer to four hundred. Three people were killed and two towns buried by lava over ten years of intense eruption; the volcano is still active but much calmer today. It stands as a squat, unfinished cone, dark against the surrounding mountains; black lava fields stretch from its base into the avocado plantations below. I had been determined to get to the top since Arturo first told me the story, and I appreciated that, at 80 years old, the volcano proves my grandmother is “as old as the hills”.

My guide for the day was a local man named Timmo, who recommended I ride one of his horses to Parícutin’s base. Horses are a popular means of transport through the pine-clad hills of the area because the roads are so soft with sand and ash. I had read, however, that the journey is extremely uncomfortable for those unaccustomed to the saddle, so we set out on foot. I sorely missed the walking boots I had left in the UK. Timmo set a brisk pace and we quickly cleared the forest and started grappling with the crumbling, otherworldly sculptures of the lava field. A few plants had taken root on the volcano but for the most part it was a steep, dark heap of loose stones, sending occasional plumes of steam into the grey sky. The crater itself was spectacular if a little smelly. There was nothing interesting at the bottom, just the end of several scree slopes, but the views out were spectacular. I appreciated Timmo’s pace then, because the day’s first peels of thunder came very close just as we were preparing to descend.

We slid down a softer slope (skis would have been useful) and took shelter in a small building used by the guides. Rain was pelting down and it had mixed with the ash to form a sticky paste in my shoes – it would be many months before they regained their normal colour. Timmo dug around for plastic bags and bin liners to fashion some waterproofs for himself and we set off again. The weather gradually improved as we passed from lava into avocado fields and we stopped for my packed lunch of, appropriately, avocados and wheat tortillas. We passed a couple of small villages and Timmo taught me the Purépecha words for the fruit growing by the road (including, to my surprise, blackberries and cherries). Eventually we reached what is possibly the area’s most photographed site: the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, which is buried up to its neck in lava. It was interesting to climb around inside and wonder what the parishioners thought of the biblical-scale destruction being wrought upon their village. Finally Timmo and I made it up the last hill and sat down outside the stables at the visitor centre.

“Este es para ti,” I said, handing over our agreed sum, “And this is for a new raincoat.”

“Or some new shoes!” he laughed, lifting his foot so that I could see the extent to which the rubber was peeling from his plimsoles.

With that Timmo mounted his horse and rode off into the (almost) sunset. I went to Domino’s for a pizza.

The next day I took a BlaBlaCar north to Guadalajara, the second city of Mexico. Famously the home of Mariachi music, the city now has a modern, studenty feel. I could not, however, enjoy exploring the old town: I was there on a Saturday afternoon and it is genuinely the most crowded place I have ever been. I suppose this is inevitable when a city with an attractive centre expands too quickly for the infrastructure to keep up. On Sunday I made my way to another church of expats; this was made difficult by the closure of many roads for a cycling event (Sunday closures like this are common in Latin America). I met some nice people and enjoyed the service: it was truly bilingual, with English and Spanish sometimes alternating on a sentence-by-sentence basis. After church I went to the expansive Bosque los Colomos, where the Japanese Garden was a particular highlight (as an aside, apparently Japan once tried to buy the Baja California peninsula from Mexico to give itself some leverage over the USA ahead of the Second World War. I’m not sure if this is true but there’s certainly evidence of cultural exchanges around Mexico.)

I was in Guadalajara for one reason: to take a flight to the South. I had not taken an internal flight like this before and I was hoping to treat both of my bags as hand luggage. This presented me with the problem of smuggling my penknife through security. In an effort to disguise the blade I wrapped all of my metal possessions around the knife and secured them with electrical tape – to my amazement, and alarm, this worked. I was not so successful, however, with actually getting to the airport. My usual bus station strategy of seeking help from as many people as possible let me down: I asked one too many conductors and found myself bundled onto an inappropriate bus. The conductor obviously hadn’t realised that when a tourist asks for the “airport”, they mean the terminal, not the god-forsaken stretch of motorway on the far side of the perimeter fence. By the time I realised my mistake I had given myself a walk of several kilometres. I had a similar problem when I touched down at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport: emerging into a beautiful, and noticeably more humid, evening I looked around for transport to the city. There was none, because the airport is very small and in the middle of nowhere. A single stretch of barbed wire was all that separated the airport access road from a field of cows. I trudged towards a junction in the hope of picking up a collectivo before nightfall. “It’s nice to be met at the airport,” I said to myself, “Just not by cows.”

The Sweaty South

Marimba night in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
This is the biggest part – you’ve seen nothing yet.

The southern state of Chiapas has had a turbulent history. As independence movements surged across Latin America it briefly considered becoming part of Guatemala. When Mexico achieved independence its first act was to subdue Chiapas by force. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for the soldiers in the new Mexican army: having thrown off the shackles of their colonial masters they immediately marched south to defeat a very similar independence movement on their own turf. Chiapas did not go quietly and most of its contemporary history has been violent. At one point the government relocated large numbers of indigenous groups to Chiapas, ignoring those who had lived there for millennia. In the late 20th Century the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was born, a complex fusion of Marxists and indigenous groups. Chiapas was a no-go area for tourists as recently as the noughties but, for better or worse, it’s now extremely popular with them.

I arrived in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, at night and was given a warm welcome at the rooftop bar of my hostel. The next morning the mountains which separated the city from the Sumidero Canyon were clearly visible. I visited a coffee museum and the botanical gardens, where I was struck by the sheer variety of endemic plant species. I also caught several marimba performances in the city’s plazas. The marimba is a large percussion instrument, comparable to a xylophone but with an individual soundbox for each note. It is usually played by three people and combined with brass and other instruments; local people salsa the night away, especially at weekends. The origin of the instrument is unclear: it’s either indigenous, brought over by the Spanish, or a hybrid of the two.

The highlight of my visit to Tuxtla, however, was my tour of the Sumidero Canyon. It started with a boat ride upriver to where the canyon juts onto flat ground like a wall. It’s thirteen kilometres long and, in places, one kilometre high; it’s home to birds, monkeys and American Crocodiles, some of which I managed to photograph. There were many interesting formations on the sheer rock walls and someone had put a shrine to a saint in one of the caves. The canyon opened out onto a beautiful lake where pelicans skimmed the water’s surface. After boating through the canyon we had lunch in the Pueblo Mágico of Chiapa de Corzo, which is known for its handicrafts. After that we piled into minibuses to ride to the viewpoints above the canyon. Since it was May the views were obscured by haze, but we could still enjoy the sight of sight of mighty eagles, much diminished by distance, wheeling below us.

The collectivo journey from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal de las Casas took just over an hour but the two cities could not be more different. While the former is very modern the latter was, to me, a more touristy version of Patzcuaro: all colonial buildings and funny streets. In Tuxtla I couldn’t sleep without air conditioning; in San Cristóbal, more than 2000 meters above sea level, I had to ask for an extra blanket. The city has been an important junction for backpackers for some time. Every night, from about ten o’clock, groups of them walk the streets with big bags on their backs and determined expressions on their faces. They are inevitably on their way to catch a night bus to the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca State or even Guatemala (I did not join them – night buses are my least favourite means of transport).

The hardest thing about travel is, for me, the social pressure, or “fear of missing out”, which I feel on arrival at a new hostel. Everyone seems to have loads of friends already; they’ve all got more energy than you and they all speak better Spanish (the Germans also speak better English). This anxiety is misplaced, of course, because by your second evening you’ve made a lot of friends yourself and you’re in a position to extend a welcome to the next road-weary traveller to hover uncertainly outside the communal area. I went through this process on arrival at my hostel in San Cristóbal, a beautiful old school building on one storey and with a large central courtyard (a lucky find – I had not booked ahead). In the centre of the courtyard was garden of sorts with a feeder to attract the resident hummingbirds (known in Spanish as Colibrís). One morning two travellers, one Irish and one Austrian, pulled chairs into the sunny part of the courtyard and started seeing to each others’ dreadlocks. Watching from the shade, pen hovering above diary, I felt that this, too, was a little slice of history. A few days later I celebrated my 31st birthday with a traditional barbecue cooked by one of the Argentinian volunteers at the hostel. Between the nine of us we represented nine different nations; our ages ranged from 18 to 83.

I lingered for a long time in San Cristóbal, enjoying its churches, markets and murals. I went to the Museum of Amber, which contained both natural preserved flora and fauna and handmade jewellery. The translations on the labels of the former described them as “shapes from nature’s whimsy”. I took a collectivo a little way out of town to Parque el Arcotete, a mountain park which is home to a cave with a river running right through it. A thunderstorm started while I was exploring the cave systems above the river, and the sound of it echoing off the rock walls was awe-inspiring. Upstream I sat in a meadow and must have seen at least twenty different species of butterfly and dragonfly. Later I played a game of chess at the Centro Cultural del Carmen and met José, a guitarist who was playing duets with a double bassist (they had a great arrangement of Libertango by the Argentinian composer Villa-Lobos). José invited me to listen to his solo set at a bar that evening, where he was delayed by a passing parade. This parade was “not very cultural: more about the drinking”, as Arturo would say: it consisted mostly of backpackers and had some silly connection to the full moon. They made a lot of noise and it was a relief when José was able to resume playing.

José (left) at the Centro Cultural El Carmen.
Perhaps my favourite building in San Cristóbal was the Casa Na Bolom, a grand residence on the outskirts of town. In the early 20th Century it was home to a European couple who would now be described as ethnographers, environmentalists and political activists. The house contains many objects from their work; their primary interest was in the Lacandon people (or Hach Winik, as they called themselves). This indigenous group live so deep in the jungle that the first few hundred years of Spanish rule largely passed them by. Helping them to maintain their independence became a priority at Na Bolom, and the artefacts there give a fascinating insight into their culture. Here’s a Lacandon myth I found particularly interesting: a god once fashioned a wooden stool for himself and showed it to another god, who was cooking. The second god thought it would be hilarious to turn the stool into an animal and watch it carry the first god around. Thus was born the armadillo.

My biggest excursion from San Cristóbal was to the mountain town of Chamula. I had been told it was a place where the indigenous culture was very much alive and tourists had to adhere to a strict code of conduct – taking photos in the church, for example, could lead to permanent confiscation of the offending camera. I took a collectivo to the turnoff for the town and was faced with a huge concrete archway reading “Bienvenidos al Pueblo Mágico de Chamula”. There was no one else around; the only movement was the literal dust cloud being thrown up by my rapidly retreating bus. I felt a sudden sense of foreboding, as if I was about to enter the Fey World or something. Taking a deep breath I passed under the archway and followed the hairpin bends towards town, camera safely stowed at the bottom of my bag. I was soon reassured by the familiar sight of whole chickens roasting over charcoal. Less familiar were the outfits of the men: despite the heat each wore a long woollen tunic and carried a hat and staff. The colour of tunic (white or black) and style of hat and staff seemed to denote which village the man came from. It was market day and the men had assembled on a platform while the women saw to the buying and selling. The unassuming white and green church, the Templo de San Juan, stood at the far end of the market.

I bought my ticket and stepped into the darkness of the church. There were no pews, and the floorspace was divided in two by cabinets containing effigies of just about every saint in Mexican Catholicism. There must have been over a thousand candles burning, but they were releasing so much smoke it was still gloomy inside. The biggest, meltiest, droopiest candles were reserved for spaces on the floor, which was otherwise completely covered in a carpet of pine needles. Family groups stood or knelt at these candles, their heads bowed in prayer. They brought offerings with them: in recent years water has been replaced with a cheaper alternative, Coca-Cola. For music they had a small tinny speaker playing such Christian classics as Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. I didn’t witness the most interesting of the San Juan practices: the in-situ sacrificing of chickens. San Juan, if you hadn’t guessed, is one of the more striking examples of Catholicism adapting and mixing with indigenous religions in the Americas. Although it sounds weird to write it down, actually being there felt perfectly normal. It was, as I reflected while sitting on a bench in the market, just ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. As if to reinforce this point, a toddler at whom I had been quietly giggling suddenly stopped whatever adorable activity he was engaged in. He looked at his family and pointed at me in a “Look at that man, isn’t he funny” kind of way. I couldn’t deny that in Chamula I was, indeed, strange.

I left San Cristóbal expecting to take the road north to Palenque, so I was surprised when the bus set off south-west, towards Tuxtla. We were on a “three sides of a square” type journey, and I managed to gather that the direct road had been deemed unsafe. I wondered if this was related to a recent drug-related shooting I had heard about. A film was showing on the bus’s entertainment system: something about police busting up crime gangs. It did not lighten my mood: suddenly, after so much success, it seemed the naysayers had been right about Mexico after all. Should I have stayed safely behind the Wall? I later found out that this diversion was routine because the Mexican government was not “fully in control” of the road in question. Gangs connected to the cartels sometimes set up blockades and rob tourist buses – I think this technically makes them brigands. We stopped at a military checkpoint – the first of four – where my passport would have been taken out of my sight had I not kicked up a fuss. The diverted bus route did turn out to be a brilliant tour of the mountains of Chiapas, or at least it would have, had the next film on the entertainment system not been Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. Talk about divided loyalties.

(Talk about a divided paragraph. Don’t worry, we’re nearly at the end.)

After a loop through green and banana-ey Tabasco State we arrived in Palenque and I booked a tour for the following day. My bus picked me up at 5 am and we set off into the Lacandon Jungle. It was proper jungle, with Tarzan-style vines hanging everywhere. Every so often the silence would be broken by a sort of wave of insect song or the roars of sparring Howler Monkeys (the loudest land animals in the world). We transferred onto boats for a journey down the Río Usumacinta (meaning “howler monkey”) which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. I felt a long way from civilisation and it was nice to imagine the ethnographers from Na Bolom making journeys like this themselves – the river is still the only way to access the ruined Maya city of Yaxchilán. The main buildings of the city occupy a hill which would once have had a commanding view over a great curve of the river; now, having been reclaimed by jungle, everything is obscured. After disembarking at a beach our first sight of the city was a very green stone wall emerging from the vegetation. The site is not huge but is incredibly atmospheric; its inaccessibility means that it is not crowded with tourists. There were a number of small houses, temples and stelae (stone blocks carved with mythological figures and records of royal successions). A beautiful, wonky and overgrown staircase led to an extraordinary building at the top of a hill. Its roof was adorned with a huge stone lattice, which would once have been visible for miles around.

Our pilot with Guatemala (left) and Mexico (right).
We returned to the boats and headed to our lunch stop. My Mexican companions complemented me on my choice of “Pollo con Mole Negro”, which was very nice. I didn’t tell them it was the only option I had understood when the driver had read them out in the morning. Afterwards we jumped onto a different bus for the journey to Bonampak (I was lucky: the road is sometimes impassable in the rainy season). The change of bus was a condition of my visit: part of the Lacandon’s agreement with the Mexican government is that anybody arriving on their land does so on their transport. A young man joined us and started telling us about the site in Spanish, his second language. Bonampak felt very different to Yaxchilán, but equally dramatic. It is dominated by a much neater stone staircase, punctuated by several small buildings. Inside these are the world’s finest surviving Maya murals. These show brightly-coloured gods, kings and musicians taking part in ceremonies. I could not see the second room because I had fallen foul of that most famous of Lacandon traits: their strict timekeeping. Perhaps if I had understood our young guide better I would have used my time more strategically, but I couldn’t complain. The Lacandons, like many in Mexico, Beliz and Guatemala, are not descendants of Maya: they are Maya, and Bonampak still holds a spiritual significance to them. Several villagers were selling souvenirs as we returned to the bus, with their children, clad in simple white tunics, running around at their feet.

Back on the main road our driver turned to us and asked who wanted to watch a film on the big TV screen. Everyone else – I’m not exaggerating – lifted their hands and cheered, so I pressed my face against the window and, in the gathering jungle gloom, thought about the Maya. In their heyday they were a collection of city states with such complex interrelationships they make A Game of Thrones look like a picnic. Several hundred years before the Spanish arrived the Mayan cities, but not their culture, collapsed. We’re still not sure why this happened, but one possible explanation has a certain appeal to me: in clearing ever-increasing swathes of jungle to support their ever-increasing population, the Maya may have realised they risked causing irreversible damage to their environment. Perhaps its wishful thinking to suggest that they chose to go back to a simpler, more village-orientated lifestyle, but even so there’s possibly a lesson for us here. As a bit of a tangent, I’d like to point out that American civilisations were not as technologically backwards (that really feels like the wrong word) as they’re sometimes portrayed. Although the Maya didn’t have them, metallurgy and wheels both existed on the continent. The latter are not much use without roads, and roads are hard to build in mountains and jungles, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the only wheels I’ve seen were on an artefact which was actually a child’s toy. One thing the Maya did have is writing, and this posed a bit of a problem for the Spanish colonists. In order to justify their atrocities towards indigenous peoples they had to portray them as savages. So they set about “re-educating” the Maya scribes and destroying every Maya book they could get their hands on. Three survived. Three. Three books. If there’s one thing this trip brought home to me it’s the sheer scale of the histories and voices lost to the European land grab. If the Spanish come across badly in this story we can be sure that things would have been at least as bad under the British or another colonial power. I’m not sure if that’s much of a defence, but what do I know? I’m just a backpacker.

I had one more set of ruins to visit: those of Palenque itself. These are much tamer and more touristy than Yaxchilán and Bonampak, but still breathtaking. On arrival at the site I was confronted with a steep hill covered in vegetation: an unexcavated temple. To date less than a quarter of Palenque has been excavated and it was interesting to be see part of the city as it would have appeared before work began in the 20th Century. Palenque had a ball court, a royal palace complete with tower, and some truly immense temples – no cheating by running up the side of a hill here! One of the most spectacular temples is the tomb of K’inich Jabaal Pakal, better remembered as Pakal the Great. Maya kings liked to equate themselves with gods, so Pakal’s sarcophagus shows him curled in the foetal position and emerging from a seed in the style of the god of maize. It also has a jade likeness of his face which is one of the finest examples of Mayan art in existence. Visitors can’t access the original but the site’s museum has an excellent replica, as does the Museo Nacional de Antropología back in CDMX. After my visit to Palenque I walked down its nature trail and thought longingly of my upcoming dip in the pools of the Roberto Barrios waterfalls.

Throughout my time in Palenque the heat was excruciating. On the second night I abandoned my bed in favour of a yoga mat on the floor with two fans over me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and attempting to have a cold shower, only to find the “cold” water getting warm after a few seconds. I also fought a losing battle over my breakfast cereal with an army of Small Ants (the Medium Ants and Big Ants were significantly more peaceable). I was not the only one struggling: passing one of the few other groups of backpackers I heard one say to another “That’s his third ice cream this morning.” I jumped on the earliest air-conditioned bus I could. I went back to Tuxtla the long way around then changed for a bus to Tapachula, Mexico’s southernmost city – a journey of fifteen hours in total. At about 11pm I checked into a hotel.

I woke up late. I watched some Mexican TV. I turned my air conditioning on, then off, then on again. I ordered a pizza. I had planned to do nothing other than relax on my final day, but Mexico had one more surprise in store for me. In venturing onto the balcony to watch the approach of the evening’s thunderstorm I met my neighbour, Rodrigo. He told me his story: as a young man he had spent ten years working in the USA. It was hard work and he never had the opportunity to learn English: even the American taskmasters spoke to him in Spanish. Nor was the work steady: a job for someone “from El Salvador” was, he told me, easy for someone from that smaller country to obtain, whereas those “for Mexicans” are hotly contested. At some point, his passport and papers were taken from him. He met and fell in love with a woman from Guatemala; they married and had a son. His family was all he had left but they were now in Guatemala and refusing to tell him exactly where. He was trying to find them, and he asked me if I thought it would be easy to cross the border. I told him, sheepishly, that for a tourist like me it probably was. I didn’t know what to say to Rodrigo. He seemed harmless enough but it was possible his wife had good reason to hide from him (the position of women in Mexico is – how can I put this – complicated). I had set out to find out what life was like Beyond the Wall and it seemed, in Rodrigo, I had succeeded. The evening with the students in Chile suddenly seemed a long time ago.

The next morning I crossed a bridge over the Río Suchiate on foot and entered Guatemala. I had been in Mexico for nearly three months and had left much undone. It was a shame, for example, to have flown straight over the mountains and beaches of Oaxaca. I was already devising two more three-month tours: one around the Yucatan and Caribbean coast; the other across the desert and up the Baja California peninsula for a spot of whale-watching (both tours would, of course, have to include a visit to Arturo in León). The latter presents the possibility of arriving in the USA in some style: by crossing the physical Wall into California.
Thank you for reading this article to the end, especially if English is not your first language. Thanks also go to my proofreaders and to Jubal. There are probably some factual inaccuracies here so, as ever, please do point them out if you see them. I have changed all the names of individuals. Mexico has stayed with me, and I do expect to go back. No wall lasts forever.

So, uhm, I've just noticed that I might not be around properly on any of the remaining Thursdays or Fridays in April. The best I could do might be the 29th, but I'll be travelling and in a hotel and I don't know how well I could run a pub in that setup. Or the 19th, but I'd have to start late, like UK 8:30/European 9:30 at the earliest, as I'm expecting to go out for dinner that evening.

We could have a double pub in May, and do May 3rd and 31st? Or someone else might have to take point, I'm happy to send out the emails regardless if there's anyone else who'd be willing to be the lynchpin around-all-evening person? Thoughts very welcome.

Active Legislation / MOTION: AI Content Policy PASSED 5-0-1
« on: April 06, 2024, 11:54:29 AM »
This is a binding vote of the Plaza on the below policy. Simple majority, one week to vote.

1. The plaza recognises:
  • That images, text, video, and other media produced by large generative adversarial models, more commonly known as "AI" and hereafter referred to as generative AI, are increasingly present in the fields of writing, academia, game design, and other creative and intellectual efforts.
  • That media produced by such models are potentially injurious to small and hobbyist creators, whose work may be scraped and partially replicated by such models without their permission.
  • That the potentially very rapid generation of such media may risk drowning out or obfuscating discussion of small-scale creative activities by flooding information infrastructure with automatically generated content.
  • That the legal status of generated works is still unclear, especially where large models have been trained on significant bodies of copyrighted works.
  • That other impacts of using generative AI content may have wider societal harms, including but not limited to the high environmental costs of server infrastructure, the misinformation potential of generative AI information summaries, and the replication of existing biases through generative AI.
  • That owing to the nature of this content and the potential for partial use, it may not always be possible to determine whether generative AI has been used in a given project or situation, and that mechanisms for making such a determination may themselves be flawed or biased.

2. The plaza believes:
  • That as an organisation we exist to promote and support creators, and should take measures to avoid the promotion of systems that may be injurious to artists, writers and musicians in our community.
  • That retaining a cautious approach to potential legal risks around copyright is sensible to ensure the continued functioning of Exilian.
  • That it is nonetheless important to retain capacity for open discussion and exploration of new technologies.

3. The plaza resolves:
  • That retaining free expression and speech are important, and therefore discussion of, and limited posting of, AI generated content is broadly acceptable on Exilian, especially for discursive and exploratory reasons.
  • That the use of AI generated content should be disclosed, and that if an intentional failure to make such a disclosure occurs then the material may be removed and the action of posting it treated as a form of spam under Exilian's Terms of Service.
  • That excessive posting of generative AI content, for example primarily posting model-generated posts or posting projects where a large percentage of the art or writing is explicitly generative AI driven, may be treated as a form of spam under Exilian's Terms of Service.
  • That any generative AI content posted must not be used to mimic the work of specific writers or artists, or the look of real individuals: such content should be removed to avoid legal challenge, and may be considered under the piracy clause of the Terms of Service.
  • That Exilian's newsletters and social media should avoid the promotion of generative AI and any projects that clearly incorporate it.
  • That Exilian's competitions and events should have in future explicit rules against the submission of generative AI works.
  • That the above clauses 3.3, 3.4 and 3.5 may be waived if the model used is both open source and can be shown to have been entirely trained on public domain/CC-0 material or material where the model's producer is the creator and copyright holder.
  • That Exilian will comply with legal obligations regarding generative AI content, and that such content may be removed at any time if the administrators have reason to believe that it poses any legal risk to the functioning of Exilian.
  • That Exilian will attempt to take any reasonable measures to prevent data scraping of users' content for AI purposes, and that such data scraping will be treated as in violation of Exilian's terms of service, but that Exilian remains a public website run by volunteers and as such cannot provide guarantees that such scraping will be blocked in all cases or legal support in cases where scraping may have taken place.

Issue 53: Spring 2024


Welcome to a new issue of Updates from the Forge! This is Exilian's fifty-third newsletter of creative geekery, and as usual before we dig into the exciting articles on particular projects, we'll start you off with some of what's been going on around the community.

The early part of a year is a busy section of the Exilian calendar, starting with January's election results where our current staff team of Jubal, Glaurung, Spritelady and Tusky all stayed in their current roles. We as usual also had celebrations for Cyril & Methodius Day and for Exilian's birthday: our little community is now over sixteen years old, so there are people who can buy alcohol and vote in some jurisdictions who've never lived in a world where Exilian didn't exist which is a rather curious thought. We also reached 150,000 posts across the site in January, which is an enormous milestone for a small community like ours and testament to our still having a vibrant creative presence over a decade and a half from when this site was founded.

One major announcement which has already and very recently had its own front page is that Priory Games' Under the Yoke is now out, so do go and take a look at that if you're keen to dig into the world of medieval peasant life with a simulation covering everything from cooking to interactions with the market to the pressures of village social life in 12th and 13th century England.

We've also had a great range of new articles: Exilian's post #150,000 was an interview with our long standing member and TTRPG developer Phoenixguard09, which covers the inspirations and design philosophy behind his Norbayne RPG and setting. We've also had rbuxton regaling us with tales of his travels and reflections on the places he visited in 2023 - keep an eye out for part 2 coming out pretty soon into April. Finally, as a contribution both to Exilian Articles and to the asynchronous game dev conference #NotGDC, Jubal wrote us a piece on how to think about history for game developers, introducing some of the discussions and ideas in academic discussions of games and history and how those thought process can affect your approaches.

The first part of a new year is always a hectic time: one never feels that the old year has quite been put away properly, and yet there's always new things to do. We've got a spring in our step with the range of new creators this issue though, with an exciting range of new faces in the dev section and new faces added to older projects as our arts & writing news includes new seasons and story rewrites. We've also got a packed miscellany section with new Coding Medieval Worlds videos, cute spring animals, and more besides. So with all that to come, let the flowers bloom around the following issue of Updates from the Forge...


  • Editorial & Community News
  • Game Development
    • Will you consult the Twilight Oracle?
    • Exile Princes now Wishlistable on Steam!
    • Keith Ruiter's History Check
    • Score High with Mushy Score!
  • Arts & Writing
    • Ren series two being released now!
    • Reimagining the Chain with Rbuxton
    • New Poetry from Jubal
  • Miscellany
    • Coding Medieval Worlds IV videos now available!
    • Terms Of Service: Didn't Read...
    • A Yay for Nature in Exilian's Great Library
    • SoundImage turns 10 years old


Will you consult the Twilight Oracle?

New member Cosmic Void has published Twilight Oracle, a point and click adventure featuring a bunch of science-magic school dropouts who, under threat of an abrupt end to their education, must use their powers to uncover the truth behind why they were sent to a distant alien world to attempt a seemingly impossible task. Leo, the main player character, is a water breathing student whose terrible grades have led him to be given a certain "special assessment" on a distant alien planet: his fellow students mind-reader Jill, fire-maker Marcus, and wind-summoner Olivia are all part of solving the puzzles around the island, as are talkative fish, a candy obsessed princeling, and an astronaut with some measuring equipment issues.

The game offers classic zany adventure gaming humour and unusual solutions to a variety of item puzzles, contributed to by the often juvenile silliness of Leo and his high school friends. The game is fully voice-acted in the English language version for the full "I definitely didn't think before opening my mouth" dialogue experience. There are also unique hidden interactions that you can find to get bonus achievements - will you be able to solve all the island's puzzles and discover the secrets behind the dropouts' very strange school program? You can find out by hearing the words of the Twilight Oracle! There's also more coming soon from Cosmic Void, with his next title Devil's Hideout coming to Kickstarter in the very near future, so keep an eye out for that.

Exile Princes now Wishlistable on Steam!

Jubal's fantasy strategy-RPG The Exile Princes has been in development for over half a decade now, but in the last few months it's made a big new jump towards launch with the release of the game's Steam and pages! You can now wishlist the game on Steam to be informed when it goes live. There's also a new gameplay trailer, which you can watch below, showing the simple combat systems, some of the many decisions you can make about yourself and your companions, and moving around the map. It also includes some of the game's bardic song soundtrack as written by the developer!

The Exile Princes uses a simple but characterful tile-art map based on medieval manuscript art to have the player explore a detailed generated world in which the cities, districts, regions, taverns and characters change with each playthrough. Your player character sets out with a small retinue and the ultimate aim of moving the Exile Realms wholly into their faction's leadership and control. On the way you'll be able to recruit companions with different personalities and opinions on events, meet and do tasks for the cities' leaders, attend feasts and tournaments, pursue different ideals and romances, and more besides. The unique medieval-fantasy world is one where wood sprites, blemmyes and grotesque part-beast folk live in an uneasy mix with the humans of the Exile Realms, and where a colourful mix of chivalry, faith, politicking, hope, traditions and freedoms all hang in the balance as you make your mark on the cities of the land.

Recent additions to the game have included Steam achievements, a number of which will be available for certain feats as you play through the game and for victory or accomplishments playing as the four key factions. There have also been improvements to the late game, where there's now a chance that the enemy factions will band together as your faction grows to rule around half the map, providing a much stronger late-game challenge with a designated enemy king whose honour guard provide an especially difficult combat experience. For all this and more features to come, do follow along with development - a release is expected later this year.

Keith Ruiter's History Check

New Exilian member and regular Coding Medieval Worlds (on which more later this issue) attendee Dr. Keith Ruiter has started a new YouTube channel to help bring historical excitements to your game dev and gaming tables! Drawing on his own expertise as a scholar of the viking age, and with potential plans to bring in other historians covering a variety of further specialisms and time periods, the aim of History Check is to provide inspiration and ideas from the past to build richer and more diverse gaming worlds. This direct video advice channel is a really welcome and interesting addition to the exciting constellation of different

Videos so far include guides on using medieval Scandinavian history to improve your D&D 5e bards and barbarians, some discussion of touring real historical sites as inspiration for your games, and on naming systems for TTRPG characters in light of the early medieval world. Historical ideas can help us rethink even basic features of the game: charisma, for example, doesn't need to mean your bard is a rizzed-up extrovert in a world where a warrior-poet can be little loved but still able to turn a crowd with the sheer force of their poetic oratory. And high levels of lore, in worlds less driven by the written word, can be as much the result of connectivity to the gods or ancient powers of the earth as being the result of book-learning and time in the libraries, a connectivity that a bard may be especially suited to obtain.

For all this and much more to come, why not (history) check it out?

Score High with Mushy Score!

Another new member with a new game, Paahtimo, has brough us Mushy Score - your mushy, a little mushroom with legs and a disconcerting number of enemies who want to kill it, must battle through levels of enemies in 2d sidescrolling platformer style. Using elemental upgrades to change up attacks and defences, your little mushy will have to rapidly up its game as more and more foes try to destroy its brightly coloured and probably only somewhat toxic little fungal form. The game is available for less than three euros on Steam and Itch, and should provide some pacy brightly coloured fun for a damp spring afternoon!


Ren series two being released now!

Our friends and previous convention guests from Mythica Entertainment have, after several years, been releasing Ren: The Girl With The Mark series two! With a new lead duo of Oriana Charles and Alexander Hackett as Ren and Hunter, series two picks up where season one left off with the pair fleeing the village of Lyngarth where Ren's accidental absorption of a Mahri spirit has brought the attention and anger of the ruling Kah'Nath armies. As of the time of writing three of the four episodes of Series Two have been released, and you can check them out on YouTube.

Ren is funded on Patreon, and the team have an aim of reaching 300 subscribers to bring in the funding needed for series three, which will hopefully go into production later this year. The patreon offers additional rewards including more behind the scenes detail, early views of the series when it comes out, and short stories by a team of secondary writers including our own Jubal. There's a lively community around the series too, including a Facebook group, a fan wiki, and of course our own Ren forum on Exilian.

With all of that out there and more to come, it's a great time to start following this brilliant indie production - with the four fifteen-minute episodes of Series Two having been made for the approximate price of one second of Amazon's Rings of Power, it's an impressive testament to the skill and passion of the team that it's building up such a following. With the brief episode times it's also an easy show to watch while doing the washing up or in a short slot of time, too - perhaps you'll find one soon to catch up with Ren and Hunter's adventures?

Reimagining the Chain with Rbuxton

At long, long, last, we reached the door. Pressing tight against it to seek respite from the wind, I beat against it with the haft of my axe-turned-walking pole.
“Who goes there?” asked a voice, muffled by stone.

“Can’t we do the interrogation inside? It’s freezing out here,” I replied, more concerned for comfort than security at this point.

“Spoken like a true spy. Who knocks?”

“I am Ren,” I said, “With me are Monok, Turin and Pey: three men with only one tongue between them.”

What if our chain writings had gone a different way altogether? In this new short story, rbuxton reimagines a tale started in our 2018 Chain Writing Project Of Storms and Silence. Taking the initial stub of the tale as far as his own section (second on the original chain), he's rewritten the rest of the story along a different path. It's a really interesting writing experiment and comparison in seeing how the same story might develop with a single author compared to the multi-authored chain writing system, and it's a fun story in its own right as well.

In Rbuxton's re-entitled On Three Kings' Crag, Monok, Turin and Pey, the three men with only one tongue between them, return in a rather different form and with a rather different adventure ahead, as rbuxton's fascination with language and speech takes the tale in a new direction. In his hands, a clash between different ways of keeping history, and the language of the downtrodden Southerners, come together as a band seek not only refuge but the path to a mysterious Scribe who will pronounce their fate in unexpected ways - read on to discover the rest of the tale!

New Poetry from Jubal

We've had a few new poems from Jubal already in 2024, including two very contrasting longer pieces. The Lost Child of Amberlea is a poem that hints at an unexplained story and the strains and perils of precarity in modern social, financial and legal systems, with the speaker imagining the crisp lines of the real world and the difficulties of resolving its problems before returning to the simpler, less clear, less actionable - but somehow more real - thoughts brought along by the natural world beyond.

Meanwhile, there's the converse reminder that one should probably not take Jubal too seriously at any time, in the form of Upon The Matter Of The Ankylosaur, a long winded poem that is about sixty percent dinosaur puns. If you want to know why Jubal dismisses the Pachycephalosaurus, Pteranodon, Plesiosaur, and other contenders for the prize of best dinosaur then you can now find out in fifty-one lines of rhyming verse, information I'm sure you were dying to get in exactly that format. Read on to discover more!


Coding Medieval Worlds IV videos now available!

Our fourth Coding Medieval Worlds workshop took place in February! Once again organised by a team in conjunction with the University of Vienna digital humanities department, this year's theme of Outcasts and Monsters proved a great success with two intense days of exciting ideas and exchanges between historians and game developers throughout the event. Thanks especially to all our speakers, and to the team of Jafeth, Tess (tesswatty), Blair, Madeline (TheLichQueen), and Liam for all their work alongside Jubal in making the event happen.

CMW4 having happened also means you can catch up with the resulting content on our YouTube channel. We had three panel events: a discussion on Monsters around Medieval Worlds covering Icelandic, Chinese, and Indian historic ideas of monstrosity, a panel on Life on the Medieval Margins which focused on how we think about outcast and marginalised people in medieval settings, and a How Monsters Work panel with two historians and one game developer looking at specific monsters and how they work in their game and historical contexts. There's also a great keynote talk by Tess Watterson on playing with medievalism and monstrosity, which looks at a range of aspects of how medievalism and monsters are interpreted in games, with an especial focus on how femininity and monstrosity interconnect.

You can catch up with all that, and with the similarly great videos from previous Coding Medieval Worlds events, on the Exilian Channel:

Terms Of Service: Didn't Read...

A useful resource for those who want a more informed way to browse the web, Jubal recently started a thread on TOSDR, or Terms of Service: Didn't Read. Aiming to fix the extent to which "I have read and agree to the Terms of Service" is the most common lie everyone tells on the internet, the website is an analysis and comparison of the Terms of Service agreements of different major players on the web. Whether it will lead to many shifts in how people do things - people often are stuck with big players even when they'd rather not be due to network and scale effects - it's definitely a useful resource and one where users can learn a lot about exactly what they're really signing up to when using Facebook, Reddit, Amazon, Spotify, Pinterest and more sites besides. Exilian is not yet listed, but we'd like to think we'd do reasonably well - maybe someday you'll be able to find out!

A Yay for Nature in Exilian's Great Library

In Exilian's Great Library - our forum area for history, science, and other interesting information about the world - we maintain a number of threads for posting exciting news from worlds like palaeontology, history, and space exploration. Another of these is the Nature Yays thread, which is a great look at some of the fascinating bits of natural and earth history that have cropped up in the news. Of particular recent excitement has been the new discovery of the Excastra albopilosa, the sole discovered member of a whole genus of longhorn beetle from Australia. This incredible little creature is fluffy, with strange colouration and spikes - it's likely to be mimicing the look of a beetle that's died and has fungus growing on it. Fantasy often doesn't manage to capture all the bizarre things nature itself can come up with, so it's always worth looking to the natural world for inspiration in your creativity!

This is only one part of the nature one can find around Exilian, with places like the Cute and Wholesome Picture Thread providing space to share wildlife photography from our members. This includes delights such as the image to the left of some Hepatica flowers (known also as liverleaf due to their distinctive three-lobed leaf shape) in the woods southeast of Vienna, Austria. We've also recently had pictures of wild hamsters and ground squirrels, unusual ducks and wild iris and pasque flowers, so there's plenty to see over there. If you're looking for inspiration, a cute palate cleanser from some of the grimmer parts of life, or both, today might be a great time to take a look at what we have to offer there.


SoundImage turns 10 years old

To close off this issue we have a late happy birthday announcement to give, for this February the SoundImage library of free music, sound effects and images has turned ten years old! Run by long-standing Exilian friend and member Eric Matyas, SoundImage provides free resources for both commercial and non-commercial projects with attribution to the creator, and the option of purchasing non-attribution licenses or negotiating custom work with which Eric has been pretty busy recently.

The library's ten year history has meant building up a wide array of music and image types, including textures and sounds for genres from sci-fi to travel films to historical adventuring SoundImage's resources have made their way into an exciting range of Exilian members' projects over the years - and maybe they'll help yours too, next!

And that's your lot for this first quarter of 2024! We'll be back at the end of June with more exciting updates on a range of new and ongoing projects - maybe you, dear reader, will have something for us to tell the world about next time? Feedback in the comments below is as usual very welcome - but until next time, say safe and may your forges of nerdy creativity never run out of inspiration!

Announcements! The Town Crier! / Under The Yoke Released!
« on: March 28, 2024, 09:24:04 AM »

Under the Yoke, the medieval peasant life simulator, is now available on Steam! The game covers over 250 years of rural English history, following a family through generations of forestry, crop rotation, crafting, love, personal and legal interactions, and more besides. Coming from Exilian member and Coding Medieval Worlds 4 guest speaker Priory Games, this is bound to be a great play for historic gaming fans who want to get down and dirty with medieval survival and village life.

The game has mechanics showing not just the farming side of peasant life but the importance of community and specialisations in shaping people's place in the medieval world. This includes elections to certain village roles, a representation of the legal status of your particular peasants, and the core struggle for subsistence food and enough surplus to pay your feudal rents. Dynamic events can provide major system shocks, with famines draining food storage rapidly but also potentially providing an opportunity for profit when food prices rocket. You can plant crops, learn recipes, work out the advantageous way to manage a medieval family, and discover much more about your world through pop-up events as the years roll by.

Why not check it out, and let us know how your peasant avatars fare through the cold winters of twelfth and thirteenth century England? The village awaits!

Of Tesserae Discarded: A Trip to Ravenna and San Marino

The streets at night were quiet, and somewhat pale even in the shadows, but immediately different in many ways to the streets of central Europe with which I was more familiar. The air was warmer than it had been back in Vienna, and this small city where I had just arrived on the train from Bologna felt like a little exhalation after the rush of the journey.

Floodlit, on my left, orange stone and pillared archways were thrown into sharp focus against the darkness of night. A cluster of palms between the building and the street added to the definite sense of a change of place, but the building alone told me enough. A tall, round brick tower that had probably stood for a thousand years before anyone I ever knew was even born, its triple arched windows a much more southern European style. Inside, though, would be sights older still, memories of an empire and its successors who struggled over this land to contest yet older Imperial memories in turn. Here their power and faith would be picked out in fragments of glass and stone, destroyed and repaired and remembered with the changing years: for this low-lying wetland city was the hope and home of kings and emperors, once - and its name was and is Ravenna.

The archepiscopal palace complex.
This trip was rather different to most of the travels in my doctoral years, in that I was not alone, accompanied by three friends from my university days. Without having to rely on my often very haphazard organisational capacity my plans were less chaotic than usual (helpful given that a lot of things in Ravenna required bookings and thus forward planning). Equally helpfully, I did not have nearly so many problems ambling about vaguely staring at eateries failing to decide where to go, a problem that has left me ambling around very hungrily on some previous parts of my travels.

On the other hand, I couldn’t in good conscience drag my travelling companions far out of the city on the off-chance of seeing the odd slightly unusual lizard or interesting woodpecker: as such, readers eager to hear about the wildlife of Ravenna may be disappointed. In any case the centre of the city is, much like the other cities of that peninsula that I have visited to date (Bologna, Ravenna, San Marino and Venice) surprisingly devoid of green space, and I was surprised to not see even sparrows in the city proper, occasional pigeons being the majority of the avian life. There are wetlands outside the city – indeed part of the reason for its historical significance was likely the defensibility that the more extensive ancient counterparts of these offered – but I shall have to visit them another time.

The promise of this place for us was, regardless, not in the surrounding wetlands but in the shining remnants of its distant past: Ravenna is a city whose name is soaked deep in the mires of history. It was occupied as an Umbrian settlement even before classical Roman period, but rose to its primary fame in the latest days of western Rome and during the period of Ostrogothic rule: needing a defensible frontier city to rule from but with his capital in Milan under too much pressure from the Goths, Honorius moved the capital of the Western Empire there in 402 AD and it remained a key capital for the last Western Emperors, the Ostrogothic kings, and the Eastern Roman Exarchs over the following centuries. Ravenna’s great treasures are the Byzantine mosaics from this period which still adorn a number of spectacular religious buildings around the city.

The roof of the Neonian baptistry.
One would not always know this from the exterior views, for the buildings of the modern city are somewhat muted in their colouration: the local stone and brick is not vivid or deep in colour, and the Italian flags hanging from buildings likewise tend to have sympathetically faded with the years. Much of the city centre is pedestrianised: the urban heart of the old city is somewhat inland, with a newer seaward part of the city holding more recent industrial and marina development (and fewer tourists, including us: we remained in the older parts of the city). The port in the Roman era was south of the city proper, at Classe (from Latin classis, meaning fleet) but silted up over time and is now seven kilometres inland. The modern city has grown in the direction of the retreating waves, with the newer areas stretching along an eighteenth century canal that stretches from the edge of the old city to the Adriatic.

Our first stop was the ‘Neonian’ baptistry, so named for Bishop Neon who ordered its construction. A lot of spots in Ravenna have timed entries, and this was one of the shortest, with only around five minutes to look inside (though nobody was taking the timings in a terribly exact way). The baptistry is not overly large, and like many buildings in the soft wetland ground of Ravenna has sunk somewhat over the years, but the mosaics inside are breathtaking. The intensity of surrounding deep colour that mosaic permits is something that neither words nor indeed a camera can capture well, especially when produced as a total surrounding effect in a tall but narrow-floored room. I was very conscious from the start that, whilst I could and did take many a picture, no angle could capture more than quite a small percentage of the experience, which relies both on peripheral vision and on drawing one’s eye up from the wall art to the roof detail without the viewer being able to take in both at once.

Ravenna is not short of later religious architecture too: next door to the baptistry is the large baroque-interior cathedral, which would have been more impressive had it not been for seeing the baptistry. The pale colours and larger scale of the baroque interior create a space that sharply contrasts with the incredible intensity of the baptistry. Some elements, including parts of the pulpit, are spolia from earlier churches, but these too are pale stone, feeling almost like ghost monuments when compared to the heavy colour of the baptistry.

Mosaic birds outside the Archepiscopal chapel.
The third part of the same building complex that one can look round is the Archepiscopal museum. This contains some immensely interesting treasures, from a headless porphyry statue to many lapidary inscriptions to a sixth century bishop’s throne with incredibly fine ivory decorations. Its crowning glory, however, is the late sixth century chapel, a private space for the archbishops of Ravenna. Here, like in the baptistry, one goes from the pale stone of the inscriptions and the delicate pale imagery of the throne to being bombarded with an intensity of colour, nature and sacred imagery. The outer ceiling covered in birds was a particular favourite of mine. Unlike in some Catholic churches of more modern periods, the intensely busy mosaic work in Ravenna manages to draw me in rather than put me off: it may partly be its use in smaller spaces, but I think also the use of colour and bolder imagery helps: mosaic necessitates a certain simplicity in its styles which at times feels easier on the eye.

Later in the day we had yet more churches to look at: San Apollinare, a church built and initially decorated in the Ostrogothic era, was the first of these. This was the church that had loomed out of the night as I first walked the streets of Ravenna the previous evening: it was originally the church of Christ the Redeemer, built by Theodoric the Great, and was heavily redecorated and re-consecrated by the Emperor Justinian to remove the Arian and pro-Theodoric elements of the decorative scheme (on which more later). What we see of the mosaics of Ravenna today is often not just a case  of unintentional survivability or the ravages of time, but also an intentional sorting between time periods, decorative preferences, and power politics.

The next stop was the complex around San Vitale – though before the church itself  we looked at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a tiny cross-shaped building behind the main church which was not in fact the mausoleum of the fifth century queen and Imperial advisor Galla Placidia (one of a number of later attributions of buildings in Ravenna). Of all the Ravenna mosaic spaces, this was in some ways the most intense experience. The unusually small size made for a sharply contrasting experience: whilst the enclosed space was quite small, paradoxically the nature and sky symbolism and patterns of the mosaics conveyed vast and open concepts, with deer and birds and stars all taking their place among the inevitable saints. The brightness of the in-fill patterns also amazed me. It is easy, and indeed intentional, that one’s eye is drawn to the centrepiece images of the mosaics, but the little side-sections easily forgotten beneath the archways are themselves stunning pieces of design, even if some of them curiously resemble early Microsoft windows screensavers.

The mosaics at San Vitale.
And then, at last, San Vitale itself. It is probably the most impressive of the surviving mosaic assemblages, built around soaringly high curving walls and with a wealth of bright greens and blues. The church as a whole is much larger than the surviving mosaic sections, which cover one main section leading away from the central dome (whose later baroque decorations might be impressive anywhere else, but the mosaic outshines them by far). The larger space also means that the San Vitale mosaics are more airily lit than many of the smaller buildings, and the scheme feels more surrounding and all-encompassing than the more frieze-like mosaics high on the wall of San Apollinare. A key point of note in San Vitale’s decorations are the portraits of Justinian and Theodora, two of the most famous images of these key figures of the sixth century world. What one often does not realise without being in the physical space itself, however, is that these famous pictures of the ruling couple are surprisingly hard to see in a direct way. They form the sides of the main apse from the perspective of an approaching viewer, thus only being particularly dominant pieces of imagery to those standing inside the apse itself. To the viewer from any further away it is the religious imagery that dominates, with Christ, the apostles, the angels and the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem taking particular prominence. Faith was, of course, far from apolitical itself, but it is important to remember that nor was it solely a matter of display, and nor were politics and faith separable for the creators of these works. Mosaic was the manifestation of belief, which in turn was power, power which mobilised wealth and human energy, which in turn commanded yet more tesserae into place.

Food in the evening was at Osteria Passatelli, a restaurant on the other side of the centre which we also used on our last night, going to a smaller and more traditional place, Trattoria Al Cerchio, on the intervening evening. The main comment I have about the food in Ravenna is that, as a foreigner outside Italy, “Italian” food often seems like an omnipresent part of life, encompassing core daily staples, unquestioned and consistent. When one actually goes to Italy, however, it becomes very quickly apparent how little one knows about Italian food. Besides eating some good pizza I came across quite a variety of new foodstuffs in just a few short days in Ravenna, including cappelletti, a local filled pasta, and squacquerone, a sort of crumble or biscuit cake made with almonds. The food we had was also consistently very good, with no real misses in the entirety of the trip (of course, had we had any Italians present they may have been more discerning than we mere Angles).

The next day, in any case, experiences rather different – and not strictly speaking Italian – beckoned. On that second morning we took the train to Rimini, and thereafter a bus inland, crossing the border into another country altogether.

San Marino, as seen from the second tower.
The tiny state of San Marino lies to the south of Ravenna, its old city being on the crest of Monte Titano, an imposing mountain whose ridge hosts the three towers that are visible on the city’s flag. The primary things I learned about San Marino were its love of liberty, and the fact that in Sammarinese eyes this is defined in particular by a) its constitutional republican independence, b) having a lot of towers, and c) its right to slightly undercut the government of Italy via differential tax rates. The lowland parts of San Marino have a disproportionate number of car dealerships, and the core city a disproportionate number of luxury goods and weaponry shops, largely for the latter reason.

Sammarinese independence and liberty is in a sense the whole notable thing about San Marino, and is very much a historical anomaly. States like it were far more common in the medieval period, sometimes nominally acknowledging some overlordship from a pope or Holy Roman Emperor but being largely self-governing. San Marino managed, however, to retain its republican system through the Renaissance as larger city-states began to impose control on smaller neighbours to form larger dukedoms and republics. It perhaps benefited from being roughly in the papal-dominated parts of Italy, but at the far edge where perhaps negotiation was more possible. Certainly the Republic was under papal protection by treaty for the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries without becoming part of the Papal States proper.

Medieval San Marino invested in its own defence, as its towers show. All three are medieval, some later than others: The first and second are small castle style arrangements with an outer wall and central bastion: the first contains some museum exhibits and a heavily graffitied prison room with nineteenth century scribblings that I wish I knew enough history to interpret, while the second hosts a weaponry museum which makes some slightly dubious sweeping statements but does include some rather pretty equipment. This includes a number of crossbows: it used to be the case that a newly elected captain-general (one of San Marino’s dual heads of state) had to provide two crossbows to the city’s armouries, which given the city elected two such leaders annually must have made a fairly significant contribution to a small medieval city’s armouries. The third and last of the towers is just a watchtower and indeed curiously has no ground level entrance, so it may never have been used for more than lookout duty from the top: I am unsure if it has any internal space.

The second tower, and the sheer cliffs on the city's northeastern side.
One of the main things that can really be said about the towers is that they are immensely pretty. They are in a sense on the wrong side of Monte Titano to be true defensive fortifications, hanging on the edge of the extremely sheer northeastern slopes which would be hard to scale regardless instead of protecting the shallower slope on the southwestern side of the ridge. Their true function and great advantage is in visibility, both seeing and being seen: on the crest of the hill they must have been visible for many miles: lighting a beacon on one of them could certainly be seen from as far away as the coast if one had a direct view inland. The views that they, and the mountain in general, offer are likewise magnificent, stretching from the sea to the dramatic high hills and mountains inland with almost nothing out of the line of sight. Being on the steep side of the mountain also gives the towers some very dramatic visual angles, their walls transferring straight into cliff-edge plunges down towards the ground far below.

By the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in any case, the towers were still prisons and arsenals but no longer a fundamental part of Sammarinese strategy. As the modern era loomed, the cause of San Marino’s independence was increasingly down not to the imposing nature of its defences but to the brilliance of its diplomats. Whilst Monte Titano is an imposing defensive position, San Marino has never had the manpower to seriously face down armies in the later parts of its history. Instead its destiny was guided by figures like Antonio Onofri, who managed to persuade Napoleon not to invade, perhaps on the grounds that this tiny republic could stand as a bastion of the less monarchic virtues of Bonaparte’s post-revolutionary France. Onofri turned down Napoleon’s offer of expanded lands for the city-state with the apocryphal quip that “wars end, but neighbours remain”: small, in the world of Sammarinese liberty, is beautiful.

Returning to the old town centre, we stopped for lunch, getting piadine, a sort of folded flatbread sandwich common in the surrounding regions of Italy as well, before heading to the state museum of San Marino. This occupies a full building and includes some international antiquities as well as artefacts from San Marino itself and a wide collection of pottery proudly bearing the three towered emblem.

Giuseppe Garibaldi’s statue stands at the heart of San Marino, near the state museum: a curious public monument for the state defined more than anything else by having chosen not to be part of the Italian unifier’s lifetime achievement. But like Napoleon before him, Garibaldi ended up with a soft spot for San Marino, not least because the republic sheltered him during a disastrous retreat from his attempt to create a republic in Rome in 1849: consequently, one of the greatest architects of modern Italy  was more than prepared to go to bat for San Marino staying out. The Sammarinese stayed out of World War Two, though under their own fascist government, again somehow treading a line that avoided either Mussolini trying to crush the Republic or the Allies wanting to liquidate it after the war. In its ability to appeal through sheer charm to those in power, it is arguably possible that San Marino represents the puppy sized elephant theory – that is to say, the idea that puppy sized elephants will, in a world of humans, eventually evolve because humans like cute things and being adorable and high in people’s affections is a survival strategy. It is a novel strategy to utilise for statecraft, but it seems to have served San Marino really rather well.

San Marino’s apocryphal history starts that way, in a sense: Marinus, the patron saint, moved inland from the coast after being (so the story goes) falsely accused of being someone’s estranged husband, and the monastic community he founded was eventually donated the mountain slopes by a landowner, with the city later growing up around it. At its roots, Sammarinese liberty was always a gift of others: an artefact not of strength or power – or even towers - but of the belief that San Marino should be free.

The parliament of San Marino.
It was to two shrines of this history that we went as our last stops: first the basilica of the saint himself, which is a nice but fairly standardly laid out baroque church lined with imposing statues of club-armed saints. We then went to have a look at the outside of the Palazzo Publico – the heart of Sammarinese government – which we then realised that we could go inside as well, and for visitors to San Marino it is absolutely something I’d recommend. The general ticket for most sites in San Marino gets you not just into both of the major towers and the public museum, but also into the Palazzo to have a look round the Sammarinese parliament chamber, which is decorated in extremely pretty nineteenth century painted woodwork. The saint stands at the centre of a pseudo-medieval themed wall painting, looming over the little parliament.

Outside the parliament is another curiosity that might be less expected for travellers: a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Whilst the famous president of the United States never visited San Marino, in a curious letter exchange he was made an honorary citizen. In the spring of 1861 the Sammarinese sent a letter written in “perfect Italian on one side, and imperfect but clear English on the other”, and proposed an alliance based upon their shared republican values, defended by Lincoln against the Confederacy at a time when the Sammarinese were trying to ensure their independence against the imminent unification of Italy. Lincoln replied and accepted the offer. “Although your dominion is small”, he wrote back “your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth, so full of encouragement to the friends of Humanity, that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.” Such sentiments ensured that it did, indeed, endure.

The fog rolled in as we left, falling fast around the mountain slopes: the wide landscape visibility of the earlier part of today was rapidly lost, curtains rolling across the sky in front of our eyes. The shrouded mountain, wrapped in protective cloud away from the world, was no longer visible as the bus rolled back to Rimini – but, somewhere behind us, invisible, knowing that the towers still stood upon the crest of Monte Titano meant something that it might not have done before. Just as in Ravenna, representations and symbols in San Marino held a real power.

The palace mosaic in San Apollinare - note the hands of erased Ostrogothic courtiers on the columns.
Our last day back in Ravenna included some brushes with the alternative ways the city might have been put together, the paths less trodden in its history, and this began with the other of the old baptistry buildings in the city. Unlike its Neonian counterpart this one only really had the roof remaining of the original decorative scheme, with rather plain walls. There was a definite historical reason for this, however, for this was the Arian baptistry. The followers of Arius, notably and prominently including the Ostrogothic king Theodoric who ruled in Ravenna, believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father, clashing with the view of equality in the holy trinity that was favoured in Constantinople. Religious difference was tolerated by Theodoric for much of his reign, through the time of the emperors Zeno and Anastasius, and indeed he reportedly even ordered citizens who attack Ravenna’s synagogue in a riot to pay for its repair. Late in his reign, however the new emperor Justin and his nephew, Justinian, began persecutions of Arians in the Byzantine east. This caused a tit-for-tat escalation of religious suppression, and after Theodoric’s death when Justinian as Emperor attempted to re-establish Imperial control over Italy a purge of Arian imagery was certainly on his agenda. The roof of the Arian baptistry was apparently deemed uncontroversial enough to survive. The wall decoration, like much of the decorative scheme in San Apollinare where the hands of members of Theodoric’s court can still be seen on the pillars of an edited palace mosaic, did not survive Justinianic ire.

That, however, was not Justinian’s greatest insult to the memory of the Ostrogothic king. Theodoric’s mausoleum is a little way from the core of the city, sitting lower than its original two-storey height would imply in a park that has been somewhat lowered to account for the sinkage over the years. It is deeply unlike the round brick towers and arches of the typical Italianate churches, with a shallow round dome that has an almost science-fiction look to it (add a couple of sigils here and there and the T’au of Warhammer: 40,000 would consider it well within their aesthetic range).

There is little to see inside the mausoleum, which somehow adds to the strangeness of the place. The ground floor is empty except for two scallop shell carvings and some vaguely funereal emotional music for some reason, while the top floor has a porphyry bathtub and a cross and likewise nothing else. Theodoric himself was removed not long after he was interred: Justinian had no wish for the building to remain a bastion of one of Arianism’s greatest champions, and the deceased was rather less than ceremoniously removed from his intended eternal resting place. Theodoric would doubtless have been rather displeased had he been alive to know, but he might also have been a little upset at the thought that, regardless, his tomb would eventually become a traipsing ground for camera wielding foreigners of all kinds. On the other hand, we’re still talking about him now, so perhaps in a sense the building served its purpose.

The mausoleum of Theodoric.
We did a loop around the park outside Theodoric’s palace, which is a fairly open grassy square that had a few more birds than the inner city but still very little – the potential for significantly better urban wildlife spaces once again being there but very much untapped. We also stopped briefly at the city’s old fortress on the way back, into town, much of which was being renovated and which contained a small park.

Lunch was, once again, piadine, which continued to both be very good indeed if not the most efficient variant on sandwiches and wraps as far as the desideratum of retaining its contents is concerned. Thereafter we set out for Ravenna’s secondary claim to fame, right at Ravenna’s heart and dating to a much later part of the Middle Ages. There in the centre of the city lie the multiple tombs (he has been moved more than once) of Dante Alighieri, the Italian writer whose name hangs over the language much as Shakespeare does for English or Rustaveli for Georgian. With only a passing familiarity – whilst one can’t avoid picking up bits as a medievalist, as of the time of writing I am yet to read any of Dante’s major works even in translation – I for one was nonetheless  keen to find out more about how his life and work were intertwined, and to learn more about the texts that had produced such a great literary impact.

Unfortunately, I would have been better off browsing Wikipedia rather than paying for the hour spent going around the Dante museums. There are three parts to the ticket, two of which are Dante related: the first is the Dante House, which is mostly a museum of later artistic representations and reception of Dante, small and possibly interesting if one was already a Dante specialist, but probably not for the average viewer. The supposed main event, the Dante Museum, is a psychotropic mess of over-interactivity: no manuscripts or particularly effective summaries of Dante’s work, displays only in weird moving technological blob-scapes that change according to where the viewer is standing making them frankly impossible to read, and artefacts really only related to Dante as a cultic figure rather than a historical one.

The third part of the ticket, a rooftop garden and small underground mosaic in one of the civic buildings, is unrelated to Dante. The garden does however have nice views and is probably nice in summer, and is therefore decidedly more worth the time than the Dante museum. The mosaics beneath it are small, and also contained some curious modern artworks including a tiny pig with giant bull horns which was rather endearing whilst also feeling rather out of place. Also on the list of nearby curiosities more worth visiting than the Dante museum is the next door church, which has some very nice and really rather impressive mosaics positioned underneath the altar beneath a filled pool which also contains fish.

Mosaics for the home: part of the "stone carpets".
Our return to the real tiled treasures of Ravenna was made with a visit to the Domus dei Tappeti di Pietra, or House of the Stone Carpets. This is somewhat out of the centre, but not very far: one has to walk through a rather unprepossessing little 18th century church to St. Euphemia and down some steps. There, the stone carpets in question are laid out in all their glory, a huge room of mosaic floors forming an intricate dance of pattern and colour. Unlike in the Byzantine churches for which Ravenna is famous, these are slightly earlier secular mosaics, with a soft, warm orange rather than the heavily rich blues and greens that dominate San Vitale or the smaller baptistries. There are a couple of pictorial mosaics, most notably a “dance of the four seasons” which shows an array of dancers with banners and a piper, but the majority of the room is intricate patterning. As a result of the extreme skill and visual centrepiece nature of mosaic pictures, it is often easy to overlook the brilliance of simple pattern, but it is something that I think deserves more attention: except perhaps for some rugs, people in modern western cultures like myself are often a bit unused to artistic intricacy in what we have underfoot, and imagining the effect of a specifically eye-catching and visually interesting floor on a room is quite an interesting thing to consider.

Another thing that is worthwhile doing in a city is to avoid mentally trapping it in time: for many smaller cities and even some larger ones, a single time period tends to dominate the public consciousness and be the view presented to the world. But Ravenna had long been an important city before the era of Theodoric and Justinian, and the statistically average inhabitant of Ravenna over the course of human history lived well after the city’s days as an Imperial capital. Even in those Imperial days, beyond the soaring domes of the churches lay homes and market stalls, fishing boats and a synagogue, children discovering for the first time the colour of a butterfly’s wing and old men seeing the latest soldiers arriving and remembering the faces of a hundred others flickering past over the decades. As these ephemera and old stories are forgotten, there is often a tendency to fit a city’s history more and more into its expected boxes, much to the detriment of our imagination and understanding alike.

The very last stop, the so-called Palace of Theodoric, exemplified this process. It fits the category of somewhat erroneously named sites in that it is probably not a palace and certainly does not date back to the Ostrogothic period: the name pushes it back into the expected frame of Ravenna’s past. It may be, at best, on part of the approximate site of Theodoric’s residence, and a number of – in the least surprising news ever to hit Ravenna – mosaics have been found underneath the site. The present partial building may be a guardhouse or gateway for a previous church on the site, and houses some impressive mosaic sections including lizards, patterns, and fragments of riding scenes. Some more understated black and white sections were quite interesting to me, differing rather in style from the rest: perhaps minimalist aesthetics were not entirely beyond imagination even in the days of great floor-tiled battle scenes and dancing gods.

The next day it was time to journey home, though I had a brief stop in Bologna city centre before heading to the airport for my flight. Bologna would need another travelogue to itself: it is outwardly vivid in a way that Ravenna is not, a city of vibrant red stones and bricks that is adorned with pseudo-classical statues and immensely tall towers, some of which were clearly undergoing significant building work to try and shore them up against the ravages of time. One thing that Ravenna could have done with more of, and which this reminded me of, was more explanation of the various renovations and repairs in intervening and more recent centuries. Even an earnest attempt at restoration is a subtle change to what once was, and often such attempts come with new tweaks and reimaginations that slowly change the pasts we once knew.

History is, after all, as much about what is not present as what is. Faced with the incomplete past, we fill things in around it and create totality out of the holes in our tiled patchworks. The pictures we see today are selected parts of lost artworks and the imaginaries that came with them, reimagined into singular new images whose incompleteness we must take our time to realise, and whose antecedents we can often never fully recover. Beyond them lie a mass of discarded tesserae, the little pieces of human pasts that fill in colours we have forgotten the names of and fragile realities long since lost. Understanding the tiles piece by piece, allowing us to reimagine them in different frames, is the best we can do: the corner decorations beyond the pomp of the centrepiece, the fragments of the church art of a purged belief system, the changes in name of an unfamiliar building, or even an entire little city left out of the march of national unification.

Caught half within the mire-mist and mountain fogs of historical memory, Ravenna and San Marino faded into the night behind me. Their histories cannot and should not be ignored or rejected: their intensity of their impact on viewers and on modern realities is too great for that. With a consciousness of how such pasts are put together, however, and with an understanding of how art, belief, and power build upon one another, we can rediscover them from new angles and in new ways. There, somewhere in a cold church amid the verdant tiles, we might find mosaic pasts that are more wonderfully alive than we ever dared to imagine.


In fantasy worlds, notions of humanity and monstrosity are often fraught. This keynote examines the operation of monstrosity in medievalist fantasy texts as inherently shaped by its medievalist context, and by the ways in which games and play can disrupt our usual understanding of monstrosity and abjection. The monstrous is produced by a subversion or refusal of normative categories – something becomes perceived as monstrous when it cannot be understood or incorporated into a worldview. This works in harmony with the enabling flexibility of medievalism – the medieval is able to be so diversely utilised because it is never fully knowable (though some users also disregard very knowable aspects out of convenience), just like the monstrous. However, in a game with rules, and especially one with win conditions, this potential to unsettle boundaries is often dispelled by game mechanics that render the world into knowable components. This keynote talk will draw on my research on monstrous hags in fantasy games, as well as the ideas discussed at the workshop, to consider the relationship between game systems and the disruptive potential of medievalism and monstrosity when it comes to dnormative boundaries and Othered outsiders.

Tess Watterson (tesswatty) is an early career researcher who specialises in medievalism and experiential learning. She received her PhD from the University of Adelaide for a thesis on witchcraft, gender, and persecution in medievalist fantasy video games. Her earlier work focused on medievalism and militainment in Robin Hood video games, including her Masters of Research thesis completed at Macquarie University. Tess aims to contribute to expanding pedagogical approaches for engaging with the past through experience and play, including in her current role as Special Collections & Experiential Learning Coordinator at the Library of the University of New South Wales.
The session chair was Madeline Sterns (TheLichQueen). Madeline is a mediaeval and early modern art historian and game studies academic with interests in materiality and reception. She is currently a part-time instructor at Front Range Community College in Colorado (USA) teaching Humanities courses including Film Art and World Mythology with contemporary media applications.

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