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Topics - Jubal

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Please post in this thread or PM me to ask for your skill or resource to be offered in our next newsletter. Ideally no more than 1-2 lines of text per offer. Valid requests will get posted in the subsequent newsletter; once you've had an offer printed, we'd ask you to skip one issue of the newsletter before making the same offer again (different ones are fine). Please do fire away!

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Exilian Articles / An Unexpected Bestiary: Pangolins!
« on: February 16, 2019, 11:49:18 PM »
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Pangolin Parchment
By Jubal



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

An Intro to Pangolins

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Pangolins as inspiration

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

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

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


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


Conclusion

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



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

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

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The Town Crier! Announcements! / Cyril & Methodius Day 2019
« on: February 14, 2019, 09:45:25 PM »
Happy Cyril and Methodius Day!


Once again it's Cyril and Methodius Day, February 14 - Exilian's festival of alphabets, languages, international friendship and geekery for everyone who needs it today! Today's a great time to get that book sitting on your shelf read, construct a new alphabet for your fantasy setting, learn a language, and chat to friends from around the world. As usual, we're raising funds for Room to Read, a great charity that helps bring the power of literacy and reading to children around the world who need it, and we hope you'll chip in to help bring those people wonderful opportunities of writing and wonderful worlds that they can discover, whether in books or through opportunity unlocking the rest of the world. Happy Cyril and Methodius Day!


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Exilian Articles / The Problem of Focus
« on: February 10, 2019, 09:07:39 PM »
The Problem of Focus
By Jubal



What is focus?


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

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

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

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


The Use of Focus


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

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

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


Problems of focus

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

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




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


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Game Reviews / Tales from Windy Meadow - a review by Jubal
« on: February 04, 2019, 10:06:11 PM »
Tales from Windy Meadow - a review by Jubal

Game Type: Indie/Commercial
Genre: Choose Your Own Adventure

Link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/875660/Tales_From_Windy_Meadow/

Graphics rating:
Gameplay rating:
Immersion rating:
Overall rating:


Tales from Windy Meadow, coming from Moral Anxiety Studios in Poland, is a story-game (that is, effectively a choose your own adventure) based on the struggles of three young people growing up in a small village in a fantasy setting. The first sections of the game involve a chapter for each of the three main characters (Iudicia, a herbalist, Fabel, an odd-jobber who dreams of being a bard, and Vena, a hunter/warrior).

The three core characters are compelling, and represent a good approach to diversity in a fantasy setting – one character, Fabel, has a severe mobility disability; another, Iudicia, is clearly intended to be autistic (and is also possibly implied to be asexual; her plotline centres around her marriage and her difficulties coming to terms with the idea). In general, these characters’ traits manage to construct their characters without wholly defining their characters, striking an effective balance in storytelling which I very much appreciated. The supporting cast are also effective and interesting, although perhaps a little large – by the time I knew all their names, I was getting to the end of a playthrough. This might have been helped by having slightly longer scenes with more ‘bulked out’ conversations to establish the minor characters. This would also have had the useful effect of stopping me over-thinking some of my other choices – in this sort of slice of life game, it’s perhaps better to have a bit more conversation that doesn’t focus on the key decisions and turning points, to allow the player to contextualise the decisions they make better.

The difficulties I had with the game are the same ones I always have with this genre, namely the frequent frustration at having a set of options in front of me, often none of which I particularly wanted to pick. That’s natural, I think – of course the characters’ range of possible responses in a situation will differ from what my own would be, and I did find something relatable in all three characters, be that Iudicia’s introversion, Fabel’s love of story-crafting, or Vena’s concern for her family. More of a downside was that some paths make some scenes that should be rather dramatic become a bit passed by – Fabel being introduced to the town’s sacred places/graves felt like it came fairly late in the story by which time I’d already more or less committed him to leaving Windy Meadow.

One thing that really interested me with Windy Meadow and which I’d have liked to see considerably more of was world-building, which was very well executed – I very much hope the developers go back and give us either more games or more content that will allow us to explore this setting more. The underlying tensions between mankind and a literally larger than life natural world were ones that I’d not come across presented in quite this way before, and I really enjoyed it. Whilst it’s in some ways an effective part of Tales From Windy Meadow that the city only appears via the characters’ attitudes to it, it does mean the player probably gets Vena and Fabel’s intrigue at its opportunities which is an itch that never gets scratched even if you choose to send the characters there.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed Tales from Windy Meadow, which stands up well on all areas for a solid 4 out of 5 overall score on my ratings system, and I’ll do my best to go back and try the other character paths, though my first playthrough felt like the “right” set of endings for me – I’m not a player who likes forcing my characters to give up their dreams! I’d recommend getting a copy of this game if you like compelling storytelling and interesting fantasy settings, and I’m looking forward to seeing if any more comes of it.

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The Boozer / Cyril and Methodius Day is Thursday Feb 14, 2019!
« on: February 03, 2019, 03:24:15 PM »
Cyril and Methodius Day is, as always, February 14, which in 2019 is a Thursday. So here's a thread to tell you what it is and how to celebrate it if you want to! Use this thread to wish everyone a happy C&M day and all such similar chatter :)

Please click and donate to our official charity fundraising effort for the day here!






Media
Here's a video I made way back in 2015 which explains some of the details:

FAQs

What is Cyril and Methodius Day?
As celebrated by Exilians and many others, Cyril and Methodius Day is a festival of literature, learning, languages, and linguistics. It's an alternative or additional celebration to the feast day of Saint Valentine - not as an "anti-Valentine's" project, but providing people another choice of celebration for the day.

How do I celebrate it?
  • Read a book.
  • Hug a friendly linguist, and tell them how much you appreciate alphabets.
  • Tell other people it's Cyril and Methodius day. Spread the word!
  • Recommend good books to a friend. Make ALL the reading happen!
  • Celebrate and discover more about European, and particularly eastern European, culture, writing, food, arts, and more.
  • Do some work on learning a language.
  • Talk to your international friends from Europe (and beyond).
  • Do conlanging/make a new alphabet!
  • Donate to a reading-related charity

Is religion important here?
We've claimed Cyril and Methodius' Day in an entirely non-denominational fashion, as has happened to many other Saints' Days, so there is no religious prerequisite for celebrating it. Cyril and Methodius were of course Christians, as were almost all people in their cultural place and context, but their work included many fields combined with or outside purely religious functions including diplomacy, law, and languages.

You've got the date wrong!
Cyril and Methodius' Day is celebrated on Feb 14 in the Catholic and Anglican traditions - the Orthodox church and others celebrate their feast at other times of year.

Why can't you just celebrate Valentine's Day?
Not everyone wants to, for all sorts of reasons. Valentine's Day tends to involve heavy commercial promotion of a certain type of romantic relationship that just doesn't suit everyone - some people are happy being single, or indeed are aromantic, or asexual, have other reasons for not wanting to celebrate, or just don't want to define their relationships and celebrate them in the way that Valentine's Day now has a tradition of promoting. Other people may just decide that Europe, reading, and languages are something they value and want to celebrate more than the alternatives. Cyril and Methodius day offers a choice of festival that embraces this and can give people a fun and interesting rationale for something different to do on Feb 14.

Who were Cyril and Methodius?
Cyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavs, were Greek saints in the ninth century AD. They're primarily known for the creation of the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet designed specifically for slavic-family languages, and the ancestor of the modern Cyrillic (which is named after Cyril). They accomplished numerous missions on behalf of the Byzantines, including to the north of the Black Sea, though most famously to Moravia (modern Slovakia). There they worked to create and spread a uniquely Slavic Christian tradition, drawing on both the Latin and Greek traditions of learning but with many unique elements. Despite Moravia moving into the Latin sphere after their deaths, their followers moved to other Slavic nations, especially Bulgaria, from which their work influenced many eastern Europeans to this day. They are patron saints of Europe in the Catholic church.

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I thought this was a really nice read:

Quote
In his Foreword to The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the late Sir Terry Pratchett writes, "Imagination, not intelligence, made us human."

Most people know Pratchett as the author of Discworld, the famous fantasy series about a flat planet balanced on the backs of four elephants. However, what many people don't know is that the knighted author was also a massive fan of video games - so much so that he actually worked on mods for Oblivion, most of which were spearheaded by a Morrowind modder named Emma.

Full article:
https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2019-01-29-the-story-behind-the-oblivion-mod-terry-pratchett-worked-on

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The Town Crier! Announcements! / Election Results, Jan 2019
« on: January 17, 2019, 07:36:05 PM »
Election Results

This month's elections did not result in any changes to the staff team, with the full results being as follows:

Regularly Elected Staff

Jubal (FIF) re-elected unopposed as Basileus, 5 votes to 0 with 1 abstention
Tusky (Ind) re-elected unopposed as Spatharios, 6 votes to 0 with 0 abstentions

The position of Sebastokrator remained vacant (no candidates)
The position of Tribounos remained vacant (no candidates)

Ratification of Permanent Staff

Jubal (FIF) ratified as Megadux, 6 votes to 0 with 0 abstentions
Glaurung (Ind) ratified as Sakellarios, 5 votes to 0 with 1 abstention
Lizard (Ind) ratified as Technikos, 2 votes to 1 with 3 abstentions



Thanks to everyone who voted and to all our staff: the next regular elections will be in June, with opportunities for joining the staff team in the meantime likely to be announced in the Questions & Suggestions forum.

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The Town Crier! Announcements! / Creative Competition Results & Showcase!
« on: January 13, 2019, 10:21:45 PM »
Creative Competition: Candle - The Results

Our midwinter creative competition this year was on the theme "candle", and we had three fantastic entries with very different media and different ways of approaching the prompt. The judges had a difficult time deciding, and the scores were tight at the top, but there could of course be only one winner in the end.

The Winner is...

COMRADE_GENERAL, whose entry of an 8x10 canvas of a candle impressed both judges and with one exceptionally high score put him on a huge 35 points of a possible 40 as the clear competition winner. You can check out the winning entry with the others below - congratulations to CG!

That makes CG the new proud owner of our GRAND PRIZE, which for this competition is:

1x Key for TALES FROM WINDY MEADOW by Moral Anxiety Studios
1x Key for ESCAPE FROM BIOSTATION by Tusky Games
1x poem on a topic of his choice, by Jubal

Thanks again to our prize-giving sponsors at Moral Anxiety and Tusky Games for their support of this competition, and thanks to Alice Baillie and Jennie Rigg for being our two fantastic judges - we're very grateful to all of you for helping make this creative event possible.


The Entries

Of course, the real point of our creative competitions is the creativity not the competition, and here's our showcase of all the great things people came up with. There are some lovely pieces of work here so do have a browse and see what everyone came up with.

Comrade_General - Candle, 8x10 canvas


Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Alyona - Somnambular (Poem)

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Jubal, A Dream of Light (Poem - Organiser's Contribution, Not Judged)

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Tusky, Mr. Elwes' Candle (Comic, 3 Pages)

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

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Pangolin Games / Exile Princes Closed Beta Testing
« on: January 10, 2019, 10:58:23 PM »
OK, I'm going to tentatively start punting copies of this to a small group of testers. Please report bugs here, and also shout here if you want in on the betas but don't have a copy yet.


Open Bug Reports
> Apparently cities can vanish in some circumstances. Not been able to replicate this yet.

Open Feature Requests/Plans
> Maybe make "you caught them unawares" more explicit when you fight unarmed fugitive
> Clarify search boost somehow
> Make last message clearer in log?
> Lack of variation in Search City results

Closed Reports/Requests
Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Versions and Changelog
Current version: 005

Changelogs
Spoiler (click to show/hide)

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The Town Crier! Announcements! / Updates from the Forge 32: New Year 2019
« on: January 04, 2019, 11:16:00 PM »
Issue 32: New Year 2019

EDITORIAL

Hello and welcome to Updates from the Forge!

We've had loads of great stuff happening in the last month, and we've got a good bunch of it for you in this newsletter. In addition to what we've got here, we had the release of the great Tales from Windy Meadow, which is very well worth checking out. We also had a successful Christmas competition, for which the results will be announced soon, and we've started our regular elections so we'll be able to confirm in a week or two how if at all our staff team has changed as a result of those.

Now's also a good time to look back at some of Exilian's achievements in 2018. This was the year our community turned ten years old, a big milestone for a little forum-based collective and a testament to all the people who've come to this corner of the internet and decided it looked like a place they could turn into their online home - very, very many thanks to all of you. We had a great anniversary competition too, and a successful chain writing project that created three great stories, as well as a regular run of articles throughout the year. There've been projects published too: Tales from Windy Meadow we've already mentioned, but of course we should also mention Frozen Skies by Utherwald Press and Jubal's Doctor Who themed adventure game LIFE among other very cool releases by Exilian members in 2018. We're looking forward to many more great independent geeky creative things happening in 2019, and we hope you'll be along with us for the ride.

This is, sadly, likely to be the last monthly update in the near future after an uninterrupted run of 32 regular monthly Updates from the Forge newsletters - in 2019 we're planning to cut back to doing bi-monthly or quarterly issues. This is as a result of us lacking the staff time to keep producing these newsletters at the current rate, and low rates of readership which aren't justifying the current input. We hope that the time saving here will help us keep up a schedule of article content and focus on running more creative competitions, as well as maybe allowing Jubal to get some sleep on occasion.

Don't worry though - even if this is our last monthly-regular issue, we've made sure it's a good one. Music, creative resources, board and PC games, pen and paper RPGs and the evolution of porcupines, it's all here. Read on to discover more...

CONTENTS:

  • Heralding: Heralds of the Order...
  • Sprites from Soundimage? Sounds good!
  • Taking on the Death's Chase Air Race with SWADE
  • Spirit Storage on Fringe Planet
  • Mastery of Olympus now has a manual - or does it?
  • An Exilian Christmas Song


Heralding: Heralds of the Order...


Monks: bringing a wololot of pain to your enemies since the advent of PC gaming

A new project on Exilian in the last month is Heralds of the Order, a turn based battle strategy game with a deep fantasy setting and a range of scenarios on offer! You can already download an open testing version that pits a range of troops, from blademasters and shamans to monks and spearmen, against a larger enemy force that you must defeat with your wits and cunning. A square tile-based map with a range of different effect patterns for different attacks, plus god powers that can change the tide of battle and terrain bonuses that can shape the ebb and flow of the fight, combine to make a combat system that is driven by the genre's fundamentals whilst still providing a great range of tactical options.

The Heralds of the Order team have also posted [img=https://exilian.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=5836.0]http://one of their first devlogs[/img] on Exilian and are hoping to add more in future, so do go check those out and discuss them further - there's clearly a lot of good stuff still to come on this game!




Sprites from Soundimage? Sounds good!


As ever, Eric Matyas continues to add great new free music tracks and images for use by creators of all kinds. His website, SoundImage, is one of the largest centres for such free tracks and resources by a single creator anywhere on the internet. Whether you need a texture for your latest 3d model, a sound effect for your combat mission, or backing music for your YouTube video, there are absolutely loads of tracks, clips and pics to choose from.

An additional exciting announcement is that SoundImage will soon be including a new section for game art, including backgrounds and sprites which could be used in various games. This will be SoundImage's fourth major content area, along with sound effects, soundtracks, and textures, and will further improve it as a resource for game designers. As creative resource to bookmark and one that's always expanding, it's second to none.




Taking on the Death's Chase Air Race with SWADE


With the release of the Adventurers' Edition of the Savage Worlds RPG system, the Frozen Skies supplements and rulebooks by our friends at Utherwald Press are being updated to take account of the rules and balance changes in those books. The most recent release is the adaptation of the rules for the terrifying Death's Chase air race, a death-defying (if you're lucky) event in which the high peaks and deep valley's of Aleyska's most lawless areas must be navigated by fast-flying pilots. Not only do you have the risk of crashing to negotiate, but on the second and third laps of the three-lap race, planes are allowed to open fire on any opponents in front of them - this may be a race where it very much pays not to be leading the pack! You can read more about how running Death's Chase fared with the new SWADE chase rules here, and find all Utherwald's other posts on their forum.



Spirit Storage on Fringe Planet


There are plenty of new updates from Fringe Planet, a game in which a small number of individuals find themselves on a lost fragment of rock floating in the void of space. What challenges they face, how they got there, and how they will deal with the eldritch terrors and simple chilling cold of their new world will all be up to you as the player. Recent updates include a lovely dev blog post on Occult Machinery, which will be a key part of the game's technology possibilities. You can box spirits up, store them (as in the somewhat Ghostbusters-inspired storage unit shown above) and ultimately use them as a power source that will keep machines running and - hopefully beyond hope - keep your peons alive in the terrifying wilderness they inhabit. Other recent devlogs include a roadmap of the game's development plans, with a hoped-for release sometime in 2019 which we're very excited about. Do head over to the Fringe Planet and find out more about this great game as it develops!



Mastery of Olympus now has a manual - or does it?


It's pretty hard for tabletop devs to hide and watch their players...

We've recently had a new update from rbuxton, developer of Ancient Greece themed boardgame Master of Olympus, in which the players take the positions of different gods whose followers vie for power hexagon by hexagon across the Ancient Greek world. With mighty god powers, great battles, and monsters to offer, it's nonetheless a game with smooth and efficient gameplay - but how easy is it to write the manual? That's the subject of the latest Master of Olympus blogpost, in which we're treated to a developers'-eye view of one of the first blind playtests of the game. Both the successes and the frustrations - people missing the one all-important sentence, or leading 75% of their troops to die in the first winter, but also seeing people getting a handle on the game on their own - are very much evident, and it's well worth a read.

You can find out more and ask questions on the Master of Olympus forum thread:




An Exilian Christmas Song


It's nearly the end of Christmas (twelfth night is this weekend, and Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th), so we thought we'd share again with you Jubal's rather unconventional Christmas carol which has been posted to Exilian Media, one of our two YouTube channels along with TheExilianChannel. ExilianMedia focuses on talks, music, and productions, whereas TheExilianChannel contains (rather sporadic) news, vlogs, announcements, and other such content. In the Exilian Media archive, as well as singing of the delights of porcupines, there's Jubal's sequence of Game of Thrones songs, fascinating talks from our past conventions, and a range of other music, spoken word, and drama projects. Please do like and share our videos, it means a lot to all of us on the Exilian team!




And there we are! We'll see you some time in February or March for the next issue of Updates from the Forge - as ever, we welcome any of your thoughts and feedback and thanks to all of you who read these newsletters. Be creative, be geeky, be welcoming, discover interesting things, and have a wonderful 2019, all of you.

13
Exilian Articles / An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
« on: December 29, 2018, 03:31:39 PM »
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Third Parchment
By Jubal

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



Image credit: Bernard Dupont
Hyraxes

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

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




Image credit: Lilac Breasted Roller
Oilbirds

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

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





Image credit: Lee Elvin
Caracals

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

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




Image credit: Alif Abdul Rahman
Sea Sheep

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

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




Image Credit: Alex Pyron
Slender Lorises

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

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




Video credit: Willy Escudero
Pink Fairy Amadillos

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

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




Wilson's Phalarope. Image credit: USFWS
Phalaropes

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

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




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

14
The Town Crier! Announcements! / Happy Christmas!
« on: December 25, 2018, 01:50:55 PM »
Merry Christmas


However (and whatever) you're celebrating this midwinter, season's greetings from us at Exilian. We hope you've been having a lovely time with the people that you care about, and that good food, good presents, and good fun come your way. Best wishes from all of us!

15
The Town Crier! Announcements! / Tales from Windy Meadow RELEASED
« on: December 20, 2018, 10:22:46 PM »

We're very excited to announce that our friends at Moral Anxiety Studios have released their game Tales from Windy Meadow, an interactive story/visual novel in a fantasy setting that explores the lives, hopes, and anxieties of three young people growing up in Windy Meadow, the small eponymous village of the game's setting. Focusing on developing the characters and showing their lives and choices rather than on action and adventure or on romance elements, this unique creation looks to be a very rewarding narrative experience. Congratulations to Aure and the Moral Anxiety team on the release, and we hope you take a look and have a go at the game!


You can get the game on Steam, discuss it here on Exilian, or find out more at the Moral Anxiety Studios website below:


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