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Topics - Jubal

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The World of Kavis / Second Game
« on: June 16, 2019, 06:01:28 PM »
So, my second testing one-shot, entitled "even doves cast a shadow", happened, and I think it worked well enough :)

As a mystery story I think the plot here worked out quite well and didn't feel like it had too many obvious holes in it - the players expended quite a lot of resources in their efforts, but in a one-shot that's OK and expected. The final battle, a setup where the players had to hold off the called monsters of the main villain, worked pretty neatly as I'd planned it, though very fortunately I decided to give them eight rather than ten turns to hold out - a decision made because we'd have overrun badly on time otherwise, but also helpful because ten turns would've killed them. I generally managed to poke the players in the right direction enough but still have them come up with some of their own solutions which I wasn't expecting (stunning the fungi was smart, creative use of the beast handling skill on the Kalade and of falconry commands in the final battle too). There's definitely a particular thing for one-shots of having to keep the players on more of a track, but they were good about taking that track in the spirit it was intended so credit to them

I still didn't get into doing more detailed combat stuff as I'd hoped after the last game, but the players once again generally avoided fighting. I think the combat was successfully cinematic, though I was finding it a lot to think through in my head. In the final battle I did manage to let Clara/Robin use the "defend" action though I got how it was meant to work wrong (mea culpa), though my on the fly version fortunately worked fine. I definitely forgot to worry about or explain called shots and didn't use the ganging up rules - the latter probably a good thing. Toughness makes a big difference in Savage Worlds, I'm rapidly finding - the difference between a T4 and a T5 enemy is really very significant for a first-level, low strength character fighting with a dagger. This in turn makes decisions on how to equip/stat up enemies pretty important. I suspect this starts to become less of an issue and the fights get quicker and more deadly once you hit 2d6 being a more normal damage level, but I quite liked the desperate, low-power, defensive nature of the final fight in this one, which fitted the atmosphere I'd hoped for.

I think I possibly could've done with lower character complexity - I didn't have the time I wanted to really build up all eight or nine NPCs who turned up. Having to go through the basics of how religion works in this setting was a lot to dump on the players as well, though they handled it admirably. I need better notes on what information to give the PCs in future - I should probably have given them a hint about the knockers somehow, which wouldn't have been hard to do.

And here's the actually fairly long writeup of everything that happened:
Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Tabletop Design - The Senet House / Free RPG Day
« on: June 10, 2019, 11:01:20 PM »
Dunno if this is just a US-side thing but it sounds pretty cool:

The first Free RPG Day event happened in 2007 at hobby game stores all over the world. The idea was to bring new and exclusive RPG quickstart rules and adventures to both new and experienced gamers for $0. For one day, you could walk into your local game store and get a booklet containing simple, beginner-level rules for a tabletop RPG, which you could play with people there in the store or with friends back home. The booklet was yours to keep forever.

The event was such a smash hit that the tradition has continued ever since. This year, Free RPG Day is scheduled for Saturday, June 15.

The World of Kavis / First test!
« on: June 10, 2019, 11:18:47 AM »
A Storm over Gemiscare

This was now a couple of weeks ago, but I felt I should write something up on my first game running Savage Worlds anyway. It was definitely a learning experience, but one in which I think everyone had fun :)

I'd cobbled together a mostly relatively newbie gaming group - one experienced RPG player, three inexperienced ones, none of us had used SW before. It worked pretty well regardless, which I think is testament to a pretty strong core ruleset (and a decent amount of preparation on my part, I'd run several combats for myself so I knew the ropes well enough to run it moderately smoothly). Also, I had a really good balance of players, which helped, definite credit to them too.

We didn't really use any of the "alternative combat maneuvers" other than the basic attack - nobody had any spells except the priest having healing and light which didn't get used, and nobody had taunt. I think that was OK, especially as it was a learning game for all of us, but it's probably the next bit of the rules that would need to be introduced to make combat more fun. I also need to get better with on-the-fly adjustments to things - in a longer campaign, it's much more OK to have encounters the players have to run from, but if it's the final battle in a one-shot game it can really mess you up. I think I managed the NPCs fairly well, though that's going to take practice.

Anyhow, a full writeup of what happened is spoilered below if you want to read it...

Spoilered since I'm actually going to write this adventure up as a PDF at some point, but here's the notes/story on what actually happened:

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Exilian Articles / The Pararelational Paradox
« on: June 06, 2019, 05:26:23 PM »
The Pararelational Paradox
By Jubal

Are creators becoming overloaded nodes in our social networks?
So today I want to talk about pararelational hell, and whether and how we can avoid it. In short, what I’m talking about is the tendency for creators to either directly expose, or present a manicured version of, their lives outside their work, and directly drive engagement with their work by creating the impression that through it one can have a direct and personal relationship with them as independent from their work.

Examples of this are not hard to find, though there’s clearly a spectrum both in how well different people can cope with pararelational situations and how heavily people lean on this as a marketing strategy. I’ve certainly seen successful creators whose social media has ended up 50% apologies for being unable to respond to the deluges of personal messages they get from fans and connections, but who still feel that the solution to this is to keep engaging those people with “hey everyone tell me what you’re doing today” posts (as if this was something possible to keep track of for a person who’s at the limit of Facebook friends or who has tens of thousands of Twitter followers). On top of that there’s the pressure of being constantly accessible; whilst I’m sure some creators love being able to share good and bad news with the folk online who care about their work, others feel that they will be penalised for not explaining that no, they couldn’t get a comic up this week due to a recurrent illness or a bad breakup – and that part of their job is not only to share their own lives but to directly care about and deal with the issues in the lives of their community of fans on an individual level. It’s an impossible task.

I think this is genuinely primarily a tendency of the internet age: large numbers of people are now on the same social media services as creators they love, and this moves things from what in the old days would’ve been restricted to snail-speed fan mail (which few fans get the time and energy to write, except for e.g. world famous authors) to the point where a creator can tweet make a Facebook post and get two dozen replies within an hour. Broadcast social media such as Twitter and YouTube, which mostly function via open public posts, perhaps particularly encourage such a strategy, though Facebook tends to host the worst examples I’ve seen as the lure of being “friends” with a creator or commenting on their public posts seems to make people feel even more demanding of replies. Patreon and systems like it, whilst extremely good for the independent creative industries generally, also form a part of this, as one of the most standard marketing strategies is additional vlogposts, Q&As, and otherwise access to the creator in question.

So just to be clear here, I meant it when I used the term pararelational hell at the top of this post. I think pararelational marketing is exceedingly unhealthy. It screws over people who are unable or unwilling to participate in it by messing up audience expectations, burns out creators by getting them to effectively sell a huge amount of emotional labour along with their work, and leaves audiences understandably dissatisfied. The fact is that creators can’t put in the effort needed to have several hundred (or more) good friends who they talk to all the time as well as buying their stuff. I don’t say this at all as someone who feels like I’m immune to this sort of system – as you might guess from the fact I founded this website, I find creative people wonderful and interesting and want more chances to talk to them – but the extent to which we’ve normalised people being expected to lay their lives bare to those accessing their work I think is a problem, one that’s hurting creators who participate in it and those who feel unable to alike.

So what are the solutions, if there are any? It’s a difficult question to answer without trying to go through an unhelpful process of apportioning blame, which wouldn’t, I think, help anyone – both creators and fans need to readjust their habits toward something more healthy and it’s a question of how we put in systems to best help our communities do so. I think one big part is better community reporting and magazines in indie creative communities – they provide an alternative route for players and fans to find and appreciate creators’ work. Good indie journalism, if supported well, might take pressure off creators. Sure, it takes time to do press releases and so on, but better hub systems for such releases and more journalists willing to go out and find stuff rather than just waiting for press releases to roll in would help share a load which is pushed far too much onto the creators right now.

Secondly, I think we need better fan communities per se that are built around appreciation for the work, not built around personal interactions with the creator of a work. This is a problem for social media design as well, which elevates personal and direct connections to an extent which can swamp people. Actually, we may need to rebuild fan communities and news outlets which allow the creator to retain or regain a little distance. The collapse of an effective “mid tier” of fandom consisting of interviewers, community admins and moderators, and suchlike has rolled too much of the work in many cases onto creators themselves, many of whom don’t have the resources or experience to deal with it. We need to start valuing that interactivity in communities more, and see creative communities as, ideally, communities rather than just conversations. Connecting people up is not enough, and risks pressing creators to try and build the nexus of a community around themselves without the support that comes from taking a more workable, sustainable, communal approach.

All that said, I certainly don't have all the answers - I don't know what level of engagement is desirable or sustainable and I'm sure that this will vary hugely between people as it always does. But I do think the tendency to go pararelational, fuelled by a media sphere that emphasises individual connection over communal discussion, is something that we need to think about more, and I hope this has provided some thought on doing so - thankyou for reading!

Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen

It was in Aachen when I really realised where I was going. I’d planned this trip in advance of course – a night in Maastricht, then two in the small Belgian town of Opglabbeek, seeing some good friends and knocking two countries off my “not yet visited” list in disconcertingly quick succession. But in Aachen, waiting for the connecting train to Maastricht, I looked at some of the local light rail and bus timetables briefly, listened to the conversations, and it entirely hit me that I wasn’t, in fact, really “in Germany and about to go to the Netherlands”. That was technically true, but in fact I was just somehow… in Europe. The voices around me mingled French, German, Dutch and English in a swirling mixture, the local public transport simply ignored the technicalities of border distinctions. It was a funny thing to have happen in the city of Charlemagne, this appreciation of how intertwined this part of Europe now was. Maastricht was only to confirm that view.


The Helpoort. I had lunch at the cafe in the background.
Maastricht, where I arrived a little over an hour later, is according to numerous observers not so much a Dutch city as a polyglot European one that happens to be attached to the Netherlands for administrative purposes. It sticks out awkwardly on a territorial lobe that heads southwards - and thus upland and inland, and into majority Catholic country - from the wide, flat Netherlands to the north. In my native UK, its name is synonymous with the treaty that bears its name, the result of one of many international negotiations hosted by Maastricht in the last century or two - but one notable in the UK for sparking the Conservative Party civil wars in the 1990s, which in turn ultimately formed a prequel to the Brexit narrative currently unfolding; and it is an appropriate impact for a city that comes across as publicly and almost fiercely European to have had.

As one of the only Dutch cities that can reasonably trace its lineage back to the Roman era, it’s a city to which the idea of Europe is nothing especially new. Situated well to dominate a vital ford across the Maas (or Meuse) river, the city’s strategic position was claimed by the Romans, sat at the heart of the Carolingian Empire, and then had its governance shared between the prince-Bishops of Liege and a succession of secular actors – the Dukes of Brabant, the Spanish crown, the Dutch estates-general, and on several occasions the French. At almost any given time, then, the dominant power of the European mainland has counted Maastricht within its domains. Its fortifications have surprisingly large surviving sections considering this fact, including the Helpoort, a 13th century gate which is the oldest surviving city gate in the Netherlands. The ‘Hell Gate’ is an eighteenth century name, and for most of its history this was known as the High Bridge Gate, standing where the bridge over the Jeker would once have been, just north of the city park. The Helpoort is an impressive building and has a detailed museum display in Dutch inside and a fairly nice open-air café quite nearby – sadly the construction of the building does not allow for good views from it, but the display was interesting even as a non-Dutch speaker and English guidebooks (and a helpful English speaker on the desk) are available.

Europe’s largest non-state actor for the past two millennia, the Catholic church, was very much involved in the city as well, with the city’s two Basilicas, that of the Armenian Saint Servatius and the Basilica of Our Lady, the latter of which I was able to look around, enjoying the dark and somewhat atmospheric space. The modern, more secular-leaning Maastricht has ended up with so many spare religious buildings that it has practically developed “converted church” into an architectural style. One of the crowning glories of this is the former Dominican church that now houses a three-storey bookshop and cafe. The English language section thereof is extensive and has a SF/Fantasy shelving area that would be very respectable indeed in a similarly sized English bookshop; perhaps sadly or perhaps fortunately, I felt I was carrying quite enough luggage as it was.

The beaver of Maastricht, tucking into some food.
I was hosted by two old friends from the UK who are now living in Maastricht (one of them being Exilian’s Fish Priest) – it was very good to see them both, and after chatter about Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, and a good dinner, we went for a walk down the Jeker, a small river that feeds into the Maas in the city. Having been wandering through the city and its parks earlier, I had noted (besides the fact that everything was really very pretty) that there were an astonishing number of painted tortoises sunbathing on one of the ponds in the main city park. An American species, the painted tortoise is now well established on city ponds across Europe largely due to introductions and escapes from pet populations, and I had seen them in Frankfurt – but seeing thirty or so clustered on a small island, with moorhens and coot carefully picking their way around them, was still a surprise, as it was to my hosts, so we went looking for them. We did indeed find some swimming around in the late evening light, but they were rather surpassed by a much larger semi-aquatic visitor to the pond – which, as the eagle-eyed of you will no doubt have spotted already from my accompanying photograph to this part of the piece, was a Eurasian beaver.

Eurasian beavers, a distinct species from their American cousins, are on the increase across Europe after being nearly hunted to extinction by around 1900, and the smaller rivers and wetlands around Maastricht are known to have them. That fact did not in any sense decrease the surprise at seeing, one or two metres away, a beaver in the central park of a city, entirely unbothered by the excitable hairless apes chattering and pointing funny black boxes at it and just getting on with mowing through the grass with all the gusto that over twenty kilograms of rodent can muster (which, for the record, is plenty). Not far off a metre long even discounting the tail, beavers are the second heaviest rodents in the world after capybaras, and one really gets a sense of that size when privileged to have such a good view of one. Whilst the light wasn’t fantastic, I did my best to get some good pictures – none quite perfect, but some quite acceptable results thanks more to my supremely relaxed subject than any ability on my own part. A mix of Dutch and English chatter ensued as tourists, students, and residents alike stopped to be captivated by its stoical and businesslike progress through consuming the local flora - it was a strangely unifying moment for people from different walks of life. All was not to remain peaceful for the beaver though, as two mute swans sailed up with all the grace of high class Mafiosi – outnumbered two to one as much as the human observers were rooting for it, and faced with a barrage of threatening hisses, the beaver first retreated along the bank and then slipped back into the water, heading out towards the Jeker again to make good its escape. It’s probably the most exciting wildlife sighting I’ve had this year at least; being able to get such a close view was definitely a privilege, and one I was glad I could record.


A nature reserve near Opglabbeek - the frogs in this pool were extremely vocal!
The next morning, I headed to Genk on the bus, crossing the seamless border into northern Belgium, and then changed at the station to head onward to Opglabbeek, where I would be staying for the next two nights. Rural Flanders of all places reminded me strangely of Lincolnshire in the UK – a somewhat rolling countryside with a mix of mostly twentieth or nineteenth century brick buildings of one to two storeys, some flat-topped shops, advertising hoardings, and a somewhat bric-a-brac approach to planning in which little thought had been given to consistency and demand had not been so high as to fill in the gaps between the houses. This region, and Maastricht’s part of the Netherlands, are both known as Limburg – a curious name, since the historical Duchy of Limburg actually incorporated none of this territory, and lay further south in what’s now Belgium’s Liege province, as can be seen from the location of Limbourg itself. The modern Limburg, straddling Belgium and the Netherlands, was originally to be called Maastricht Province after its main city, but William I of the post-Napoleonic Netherlands was loath for the name of the Duchy of Limburg to be lost from the organisation of his new state, and solved the problem by relabelling Maastricht province to that effect.

Opglabbeek, whose name means something like “clear beck”, was bundled into that new Limburg like many other nearby places. In the medieval period it was within the County of Loon, dominated by the aforementioned prince-Bishops of Liege and roughly coterminous with modern Belgian Limburg, though the Abbey of Averbode were the direct overlords here. The modern town has a small, open, centre of shops, with its old church at its heart (which sadly I wasn’t able to look inside). Parts of the church are medieval, parts early modern, and parts twentieth century – in general, the town feels more modern than old in its building style, having grown rapidly post-industrialisation.

The friend I was staying with there, besides being an excellent host, is a hammered dulcimer player and singer who performs as Elvya Dulcimer and whose YouTube channel is very well worth a listen with two albums if you find you like the results! I got a brief chance to try playing the instrument myself, but fortunately for the world no recordings were made of the attempt! As she’s a fan of barefoot walking, I followed suit for much of the time I was there, which was another interesting aspect of the trip as a whole. I definitely felt the lack of my guitar, which is currently sitting in Vienna and which my current wrist RSI problems make it difficult to play for long periods in any case – not that the woods of Belgium ended up devoid of music on either of our parts, as voices at least are portable.

One of the two imposing towers of C-mine. The metal wall on the left is part of the maze.
Elvya is among other things a fairly serious player of Ingress, so this trip reintroduced me to Niantic-style mobile gaming which I hadn’t touched since 2016 – nonetheless my Pidgeot named Rustaveli and my Bulbasaur named Alexiad were still sitting on Niantic’s servers so I fired Pokemon Go up again and spent a while playing as we were going around the area. These sorts of geographically focused games which encourage players to move and find different stops are interesting, and clearly excellent for building local communities of players, not just for playing but for metagame aspects like submitting and placing new stops – two of which in the area my friend had created by doing pieces of street art where she wanted the stop to be and submitting those! I still find Pokemon Go frustrating after a while due to the lack of tactics and the extent to which one gets swamped with carrying around over a hundred Pokemon (at which point, naturally, remembering which is which gets rather futile). The charm for me of a game like Pokemon is the idea of building my own team and then carefully using them, whereas the approach adopted in Pokemon Go feels rather blunter and more based on doing a lot of screen tapping which is less to my taste.

Back in the real world (or as close to it as this leg of the trip got, at least) our travels took us out to the woods around Opglabbeek twice, both an interesting insight into the area and its wildlife. The clear beck that gives Opglabbeek its name, the Bosbeek, flows through an area of significant natural importance, with dense wet woodland but also sandy ridges and dune formations. The mixture of dry and wet woodland, grassland, and ponds provide a wide range of local habitats, and numerous very pleasant walks. Beavers are growing in number in the landscape, and we saw at least two dams while there. Without binoculars and given the hot weather I had little luck with the local birds, and wished on more than one occasion that I was better at identifying bird noises – there were definitely interesting things there and a wide range of calls to be heard. I did a little better with the local invertebrates and amphibians, it has to be said, and got some good practice with the macro setting on my camera. There were lots of very loud frogs, and baby frogs crossing the path regularly as well; this area hosts two frog species of European interest, the moor and pool frogs. The sandy parts of the woods host ant-lions among other things, though these were sadly not so forthcoming.

Some of the sundials in Sundial Park - note the digital display sundial on the left!
Besides the forests, there were also trips to Genk itself. Unlike Maastricht, Genk is a fairly new city – a quiet backwater for centuries, its great resource only came into use in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a brief, heady, and indeed literal blaze, and is all but gone again today. That resource is coal, and one of Genk’s two main attractions today for tourists (and mobile gamers, as it turns out) is C-mine, a cultural/creative centre and cinema built around two now disused coal mine towers which are left standing as part of the city’s cultural legacy. A maze at the centre of the complex provides some artistic shots and its rough metal feel gives a certain post-industrial dignity to the place. Genk’s miners were in many cases migrants, and today the town is very diverse as a result. One friend who we went to C-mine with and who kindly discussed several aspects of the place with me was from a Greco-Turkish family who had come to dig coal and stayed. Those from new families will just as happily give you a joking warning about the dangers of going to Wallonia as the longer-rooted members of the Flemish population, of course – some things are pretty unifying in Flanders.

Genk’s other major attraction is Sundial Park, which I can wholeheartedly recommend if you happen to be in town on a nice day. As the name implies, it’s a park full of sundials – twelve of them, each with very different workings, including a book sundial, a sundial that contains a moondial for time telling at night, and what was apparently the world’s first public digital sundial, in which a clever arrangement of slits allows the sun to shine through clearly readable numbers to tell the time. All of the pieces are fascinating (though one or two are sadly lacking necessary parts), and I enjoyed my trip there enough that I took an hour out of the journey home to go and have another look at several of them. It’s a nice park generally too, with some chickens and goats by way of animal enclosures, a large lake with some impressive ornamental water-birds that look a bit like a cross between a turkey, a mallard, and a tyrannosaurus, a lot of moorhens, and some woodland areas where I found and photographed a field-mouse. If you want to find out more about Sundial Park and how its attractions work, I can very much recommend the online guide written by Dutch engineer Frans Maes, which I used myself as a guide to the park and which was very helpful.

After a rather epic scale dinner at Sashimi, Genk’s rather good all you can eat sushi restaurant, a night-wander back through Sundial Park found me in a contemplative mood – when one finds oneself sitting on part of a giant Belgian sundial, at night, in the dark, with a belly full of Japanese cuisine and no shoes on, contemplation seems like the best activity to engage in. The next morning nonetheless beckoned me onwards, via the aforementioned final stop in Sundial Park, towards Maastricht. My train was booked for half past six from Maastricht, but arriving there at around two I made a quick decision to cut off the early part of the journey and hop on a bus to where I would meet my connection – that is, I headed back to Aachen. It was not a decision I in any way regretted.


The Elisenbrunnen - note the cathedral roof in the background.
The bus pulled up next to Aachen’s Elisenbrunnen park, which boasts a rather nice colonnade-type building (the Elisenbrunnen itself) at the bottom in which some classical musicians were playing. It’s a small park and was fairly packed with people, though worth a visit nonetheless for the small pavilion of historic ruins which contains a good potted exhibition guide to the city’s history, from its beginnings as a Celtic settlement where people gathered at the hot sulphurous springs and worshipped the god Grannus, hence the subsequent Roman town of Aquae Grannus. From a Roman bath town, it became Charlemagne’s preferred residence in the heyday of his Empire – the twenty years in which Aachen was his main winter residence were just a short episode in the city’s history, but they determined much of its future. In the distance, above the buildings, I could already see Aachen’s cathedral – built with the octagon of Charlemagne’s palatine chapel still standing at its heart.

Inside Odo of Metz's octagonal masterpiece.
It was over a century between Charlemagne’s death and the decision of Otto I to claim his legacy for his Ottonian dynasty by being crowned in Aachen, on the surprisingly plain throne that his Carolingian predecessor had placed there and which still sits on the upper level facing the choir, just about visible, today. Otto’s decision set the trend so that for half a millennium, German kings followed that road to this otherwise relatively unassuming and neutral city, before in the early modern period coronations finally moved to larger and more powerful Frankfurt. The cathedral was extended in the late middle ages with a huge gothic choir, impressive in its own right, with vast stained-glass windows. It is the Carolingian octagon, though, surviving past French and Spanish invasions in the early modern period and even heavy Allied bombing in the 1940s, that forms the real majesty of the building. We even know the name of the architect, Odo of Metz, who may have been of Armenian origin according to some sources, from a tenth century inscription around the dome (along with St. Servatius this makes two Armenians mentioned in this piece, which is two more than I expected to turn up in a piece on a trip to the low countries!) In any case, whatever Odo's origins, if any of us can put our name to something quite so impressive, standing so long, we will have done well indeed.

The octagon is free to enter, with a one euro charge to take pictures – though it’s tricky to take anything that really gets the scale of a building that is far taller than it is wide. A squat ground layer gives way to high Roman-era columns and arches that reach towards a high golden roof, with neatly chosen stonework and beautifully made mosaic, with utterly stunning mosaic ceilings around the edge of the octagon which support the mezzanine level on which Charlemagne’s throne (not accessible to the public) can be found. Many of the staples of medieval church art are there, such as the medieval pelican, but also a lion, a rooster, a ship, and numerous birds can be found. Even the borders and pattern designs are individually extremely impressive pieces of work. I frequently find the highly decorated cathedrals of mainland Europe to be too artistically busy for me for me to appreciate them, but Aachen retains sufficient consistency and is of such quality that it was simply an overwhelmingly beautiful place to visit.

The "Oliphant of Charlemagne" - probably actually of 11th century Mediterranean origin.
The artworks and relics of the church, and the nearby Cathedral treasury which can be found just to the north of the cathedral courtyard and which is also well worth looking through, are an impressive collection both in their antiquity and their historical resonances. The mighty golden 12th century Karlsschrein in the choir of the cathedral contains Charlemagne’s probable remains, while the smaller 13th century Marienschrein (Shrine of Mary) contains the principal relics of the church – the supposed loincloth and swaddling cloth of Jesus, the dress of Mary, and the execution cloth of John the Baptist. The octagon’s chandelier was donated by Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century, and the golden, gem-studded pulpit and golden altar front are 11th century additions. In the treasury, meanwhile, a number of other treasures linked to Charlemagne can be found, including the ‘Oliphant’, a beautiful elephant ivory hunting horn which in fact post-dates Charlemagne by a century or two, an eighth century Damascus steel knife which apocryphally belonged to him as well, and a Roman era sarcophagus which according to some was his original resting place before his remains were reinterred in the Karlsschrein some centuries later. Beside these, a number of impressive relics and heraldic items are on display, including the crown of Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV who married Charles the Bold of Burgundy – between that and the 11th century sheath of Charlemagne’s hunting knife, on which the inscription is in Old English, it served as a surprising reminder (though it should have been no surprise at all) of how inseparable my home islands have always been from the workings of the continent they are a part of.

I wandered Aachen’s streets for a short while as well, looking at the Rathaus, itself an immensely impressive building with some elements of its 14th century construction and style surviving, sitting north of the Cathedral and just south of the main old market square. Just south of the Cathedral its small predecessor, the Grashaus, also survives and can be seen. I also got to see both of the city’s surviving city gates, part of a once extremely impressive double wall fortification system – the Ponttor, in the north, is the more impressive of the two, and contains the statue of Mary in her traditional niche, watching still over a gateway that no longer guards the entrance to her city. The other surviving gate, the Marschiertor, is easy to see even if you have only a short stop in the city as it's conveniently placed five minutes walk from the station to which, regretfully, I had at last to head to make my way home.


And so I left Charlemagne’s Imperial capital, whose very existence was undoubtedly a recognition that something had changed in post-Roman Europe – that the reins of power could be held on the Rhine and Maas as much as on the Tiber. Since that twenty year period, twelve hundred years ago, this part of Europe has been skipping between its warring neighbours, servicing their aspirations to power, adapting to their shifting borders, and eventually rolling out the tables and chairs when they finally decided to sit down and talk, drawing the world around them quietly but inexorably together. For much of Europe, the modern, borderless reality we now live in is still a brave and exciting new departure; for the cities around Aachen and the Limburg borderlands, it is hard not to see that reality instead as a vindication of the long arc of their history. And on the train back to Frankfurt I wondered, as I reflected on friends made and sights seen, and as I started to write this piece, whether just maybe they’d managed to draw me, too, into being a part of that European journey.

I thought this was an interesting piece:

Basically the tl;dr is that if the US, the biggest market for RPG products, starts slapping a 25% import tax on toys and games from countries like China, where most of the actual manufacturing happens. The upshot in an industry as low-margin as RPGs will be to massacre the small players (because it still won't be profitable to produce stuff in the US, it just won't be profitable to make things in China either).

Thoughts on this? (NB - please keep the thoughts to the impact of this on the gaming world: if too much discussion happens on the pure politics of tariffs, I'll have to split it off and take it to the debate area)

The Boozer / Google translate does Georgian animals...
« on: May 07, 2019, 06:12:00 PM »
OK, so I asked Google to translate for me the names on the list of Georgian mammal species and the results are so amazing that I absolutely had to share them. You should be able to get the original list at:

So let's play a game. One point for every correctly guessed species on this list :P

Spit outSpotsOpthalmic Strip
OkayTeethThe teeth white
TeethThe teeth are small
Brown biscuitsLittle brown biscuits
So how are you?
Caucasian brown biscuits
Caucasian little brown biscuits
Many morePudding
Bulldogs batsBulldog batsBulldogs
BrushesBruisesBruce Black
Bruce White
To find outBearingsBear the broom
DolphinShorts DolphinsThe usual dolphin is short
HazelThe earrings are waterI'm watering
Forensic ForestThe red is a familiar one
Hammer krcutusHazel ordinary
Memoirs PrometheusMemoir is Prometheus
Hamsters are mediumZamuna Rade
Hazel brands
Memeres of snowI'm a European snowman
The Gudauri snowfall
Memorable is Robert
Memeres SeriesI'm a common man
Memorandum is Schildowski
The message is public
The Dagestan is the Memorial
I'm the bushes
HedgehogThe hedgehogsEastern European hedgehog
Southern hedgehog
Sea pigSea pigsSea pigs
MouseMice forest and fieldMouse field
Mouse Asian
Mouse cursor
The mouse on the forest is small
Mouse shirt
Little mechidsThe front line is in me
Little miceLittle mouse
House miceHome mouse
The Macedonian mouse
RatsGray rat
Black rat
TirednessThickersTrenchous Caucasian
The twilight is blind
DeerShellsDread European
Rope cymbals
True deerDeer is noble
CatsCatsLily cat (Subspecies: Caucasian lady cat)
Forest cat (Subspecies: Caucasian forest cat)
LynxLynx Caucasian
PantherJick (leopard)
MartenGoGo to the usual
MartenA white marten
Forest marten
SparklingTap of the tap
Has gone (Subspecies: The Caucasian has gone)
The queen
Rabbit landThe hare in the landGerbo is small
Gerbo is great
I do not knowI'm confusedI'm getting upset
True slopesBerry saladsWhite stripes
SemiconductorsMountain goatsNivari Kavazi
The Tribal Caucasian
East Caucasian turquoise
NewspaperKurtsikhi (jeyarani)
ChancesChameleon ordinary
PigBoatsWild boar
DogsWolvesgrey Wolf
FoxesThe fox is normal
DysfunctionalForest diggsThe sound
SquirrelsSquirrelsSquirrel is normal
Squirrel Caucasian
HorsepowerHorsesKanjari (donkey)
With eyesSighnotes Nose south
The nose is big
The nose is small
The nose-wolf
BruisingBruisesA slap in the forest
The curse of the Caucasian
Write to Kazbegi
Crouching Cluck
NightclubHurry upHurriedly European
Hastily Asian
StolitinesCelestine desert
Selatin North
Celtic late
BumpsOrdinary bakery
The casketsThe fog is long lasting
A knife is sharp
A three-color figure
The lavish
A poetic figure
The poem of Nepal
BluesMegamura giant
Meghamura is small
Meghamura Riza
PipitivesPipette in the Mediterranean
Pipette Forest
The pipette is dwarf
The pipette is small
LeatherPipette leather
BrahmsUmno brown
Two-color batsTwo-color bats

So, some guy on Masto decided to start a new comic/story zine, and I've got a piece in the first issue:

It's on page 18. (Also I made us our own mirror rather than having the thing on someone else's dropbox).

Let me know what you think of my story! :)

The Boozer / Lindworms and Sparrows: A Trip to Klagenfurt
« on: May 04, 2019, 07:26:15 PM »
Lindworms and Sparrows: A View of Klagenfurt

The Klagenfurt Lindworm.
According to legend, in the hills of Carinthia on the shores of a bright river, there lived a great lindworm, a mighty scaled beast whose rage caused the very river itself to swell and flood, sweeping homes away; the beast ravaged crops and took what humans it pleased for its fill. In desperation, the Duke offered a reward for the destruction of the beast, and two young men took up the challenge. By a ford in the river, they constructed a stout tower, and chained a bull at the top, fashioning a chain with fearsome barbs. The great lindworm, driven by its insatiable hunger, consumed the beast, but was caught like a fish on the chain, and as it thrashed around and tired the stronger of the men was able to take a great spiked club and kill it dead. From having been a place of woe, the ford was now the perfect place for a new town – and Klagenfurt was born.

Having wound for hours on a train through first Bavaria and then the high alps, ski slopes, chalets and fortresses of the Tyrol, my train reached the city founded by the lindworm’s conquerors. As I reached it, today’s Klagenfurt felt, for the most part, rather less shrouded in myth. Outside its central district it is very much a town of the twentieth century, with blockish business units and sizeable roads. As the town has expanded, it has fully reached the shores of the Wörthersee, where parks and marinas form something of a second centre for the city (one that I sadly did not manage to reach during my stay). Where the Lindworm no longer roars, the engines of buses do their best to provide a replacement – that, and the screaming of sparrows, whose calls fill every street, leaving scarcely a rooftop without them.

And so for two days, working from a very nice Airbnb some way east of the centre, I hopped past sparrows and sparrows hopped past me as I shuttled to and from meetings; it was my second annual meeting of the KONDE digital editions network, and plans had to be laid for future workshops and research outputs, in my case as part of the group on alternative text encoding – the Text Encoding Initiative or TEI provides an XML schema that is considered the standard for digital editions of texts, but other ideas, in particular the encoding of texts in a graph format (useful for comparing variant texts where they then become easier to connect), also exist and the aim of the working group I have been part of is to identify and produce tools to support such methods.

The workshops happened at the Robert Musil Institute, named for (and housing many of the papers of) the eponymous modernist author and Klagenfurt native, an internationalist anti-authoritarian writer who had the misfortune to find himself an Austrian in the first half of the twentieth century. He died in Swiss exile during the second world war. The Institute is by the railway station and just south of the old town centre, where I was able to take some time to explore.

In 1246 the town moved further away from the river to avoid flooding - an echo, perhaps, of the Lindworm’s anger? Or indeed an echo of the mythical dwarf who according to some tales created the Wörthersee, flooding the homes of a sinful populace by pouring water out of a magical ever-flowing barrel ( a small metal statue of him can be seen near the central square). In any case, having moved away from the river, the resulting new market site is where the centre still stands. It’s a clearly defined square district which was once surrounded by the town’s walls, destroyed by Napoleon in 1809 bar one lonely section of the west wall – the architecture is mostly renaissance to eighteenth century, with a sixteenth century fire having flattened so much of the city that the Emperor sold it to the duchy’s collective nobility rather than pay to rebuild it himself. The city is not built high, and churches dominate its skyline still. It feels neither especially busy nor noticeably laid back as a place, with occasional statues sitting as curiosities more than anything. In the central square, a huge statue of the Lindworm stands, spewing water toward its club-wielding foe: at night, lit purple, both figures feel equally menacing to look at, whilst in the day both are equally used as perch and toilet by the local pigeons and omnipresent sparrows. Perhaps the man and monster are less different than they would like to think?

The redstart I met in the park.
The centre of town has minimal parkland, though what there was gave me a good view of a redstart, a migratory insectivorous bird which had probably not so long ago arrived back from its wintering grounds in central Africa.  Given the lack of greenery there and the heat of the day on the Thursday I walked up to the botanic garden where some nearby hills jut into the town – the buildings are just tall enough in much of the centre of town that it’s easy to forget the landscape in which Klagenfurt sits, nestled in its river valley at the head of the lake with imposing mountains on both sides. Climb just a little, though, and you can be left in no doubt: church towers that seem imposing monuments from up close look strangely delicate when framed against the heavy, rolling scale of the alpine peaks behind.

Where the forests start, at last, the sparrow chirping stops, to be replaced largely by the songs of blackbirds, occasional flickers of movement as nuthatches flitted around tree-trunks, and a range of finches whose seed-cracking beaks are well suited to the mixed but often pine-heavy woodland. Chaffinches were the most common of these, though I got a recognisable if not presentable photograph of a hawfinch, one of the largest of these – among the species of bird which, if captured for any reason, should not be allowed to get too near your fingers. A beak that is built to crack cherry stones will not lead to pleasant results if applied to the human hand!

The second of my days in Klagenfurt clouded over and rained first as trickles and then as torrents; fleeing from it, I headed for Klagenfurt’s cat café, which turned out to be a good move all round. The cats were supremely disinterested in me – cats are now thought to be somewhat social animals, and the constant inflow and outflow of humans who they never get to know probably leads them to be considerably more indifferent to strangers than their house-cat counterparts. It was nice to watch them nonetheless, mostly fast asleep, sometimes curled up atop the fish tank to make best use of its heating element. I felt it was an experience I’d like to go for more if I had a nearby cat café and could get to know the animals there, but it was a pleasant enough time nonetheless.

A two day visit ends fast, in any case, and before I knew it I was hauling my luggage to Klagenfurt station, grabbing a mohnschnecken large enough to feed me for most of the day from the station bakery, and heading off through the rolling high hills, a landscape of impressive castles and wide forests. When that journey ended, it was nice getting back to Vienna for a night at last – even if the streets seemed quiet without so many sparrows!

Discussion and Debate - The Philosopher's Plaza / UK politics 2019
« on: May 03, 2019, 11:11:30 PM »
It's a mess! But it's a mess I'm making this thread to be smug about because we just had the local elections and my party did really well :P

Basically both the main parties did badly - the main opposition, Labour, did moderately badly, and the Conservatives got slaughtered. Over 1300 councillors lost in a single election, which is the largest loss for any party in a single night so far this century. The big beneficiaries were the Lib Dems, who gained 700 seats; the Green Party gained about 150 which is big news for them, and there were over six hundred independent candidates elected, which is a huge increase there as well. In all three cases (LDs, Greens, Independents) they more than doubled their starting total over the course of the night, and the Lib Dems gained complete control of ten councils whilst the Conservatives lost control of forty-four (mostly to "No Overall Control" situations).

Also in amusing news, MP for the 19th century Jacob Rees-Mogg, an aristocratic Catholic conservative who goes campaigning with his nanny, now has a Lib Dem as his local councillor, which is pretty funny.

Everything in the UK is still a mess, but I have something to celebrate for once politically, so I guess time to make the most of it :)

Exilian Articles / Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
« on: April 27, 2019, 05:39:11 PM »
Ritual and re-use: writing places that feel alive
By Jubal

It struck me recently that it’d be interesting to share some thoughts on place in writing and game design. Places are, to say the least, pretty vitally important to designing any setting. A good backdrop can really set the action of a plot into appropriately epic (or appropriately non-epic) context, and hugely affect the mood of an event: being charged by a troll when you’re defending the gates of an ancient temple is a much more heroic feeling action than being charged by a troll in a large sewer tunnel, even if it’s basically the same difficulty of encounter. More prosaically, places are often largely designed by means of function – there has to be a bunch of stuff in a place that does certain things.

Every house has its own story. Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Lasovarga & under CC licence.
Imagine a fantasy village called Isicando that we need a couple of rag-tag adventurers to visit. We’ll probably give them a tavern, the Blue Rose, to refuel and meet people, some sort of economic functional stuff (for the sake of argument, llama farms), a leader who we’ll call Ms. Marianda who can do local authority things, a temple, which can be to the air-spirits, and maybe a small fortified tower in case of attacks from the lizardmen. Boom, set of functions plus a not all that subtle Latin American evocation of place, and we have ourselves a settlement.

Function, however, is only a small part of what’s important to us about places, and few places are solely important to people for their intended function. Re-using and repurposing places for different things, and attaching unintended meanings to them, is a pretty natural thing for people to do. Places, for us, aren’t just about what you can do there, they’re about the stories we attach to them and the unintended aspects of their existence that make them unique. I’m going to suggest that it can add a lot of depth to a fictional setting if you incorporate that into your place design.

We’re already used to doing this a bit with taverns in particular – they’re expected to double up as “the place where a mysterious stranger offers you a quest”, rather than just being places to meet, eat, and drink. But even a tavern can have a lot of repurposing and additional meaning given to it as a place. Precisely which social circles meet at a particular tavern in any given town is important; does one guild favour one tavern and another their rivals, or perhaps a particular temple’s followers have a certain tavern they go and sing songs at after services. Maybe it’s the traditional gathering point for a certain ceremony or communal game, or hosts the village dances (with the result that about half the settlement’s people got together with their spouses there). Perhaps it’s not even humans who are repurposing the tavern – a particular tavern might be known for hosting a lot of birds’ nests in its roof, say.

Ritual and linkages are two key things to think about here, and I’ll talk about ritual first. In the previous paragraph I mentioned dances and ceremonies; settlements often have processions, carnivals, street parties, and other such events, and they’re important in binding the people of that settlement together. They also often mark particular emotional moments for people in the settlement, because they’re important in dealing with the major milestones of life, be that meeting partners, childbirth, marriage, coming of age, dying, and so on. Many of those rituals will not have discrete spaces in a typical settlement – trying to confine them all to “this is social stuff so it goes in a temple” is weird and just not how societies work. Instead, repurposed buildings and space inside buildings will double up as ritual spaces that tie everything together

That tying together leads us on to considering linkages between different societal functions. Take my example of a temple group going to the tavern to sing songs afterwards (perhaps keeping alive ones that have been removed from the official hymn book, a phenomenon that actually happened in real-world Sheffield). Or consider the relationship between governing figures and the military or economic aspects of a town – a small town leader is likely to have to take a hands on role in its economic life, and in lots of societies religious, secular, and military leadership roles could be doubled up in various combinations. Perhaps in this society the priest is required to be an active part of the garrison as the person most trusted with morality and virtue, while the town’s secular leader is mainly in charge of running the market and collecting taxes. And of course, everyone needs to meet up and have a pint now and again. So we don’t just want to think in terms of a functional model where place X hosts person Z who does thing Y – these functions and how places host them are an interlocking model, and how they interlock can be important.

Adding stories and purposes to buildings lets you promote or flesh out landmarks that are otherwise unremarkable. A village, to its inhabitants, is not simply comprised of some “function buildings” plus a few undifferentiated houses which may have different shapes or owners. Think about when you last spent time in an ordinary house in a game or story setting – it’s actually a surprisingly rare occurrence given that houses are a huge percentage of buildings in total. I think one reason for that is that in the functionality paradigm, houses are inherently boring; they get reduced to places to store stuff, sleep, eat, and poop. In practice, though, our homes are a massive part of our lives, and have a huge number of auxiliary functions and stories attached to them.

Homes can certainly be meeting places: after all, any old adventurer could just walk in on you in the tavern, so actually a decent guild gathering might well be happening at a senior guild member’s house, and even in humbler dwellings there’ll be some people who particularly enjoy hosting friends for a bite and a cup of wine. Homes are landmarks and story vessels, too – there’ll be the empty house where such-and-such who eventually ran away into the woods used to live, the house where someone got the door fixed wrong which is where you have to turn for the track down to the temple, the little white-polished house whose owner gets the job of keeping the town’s well working in winter, and so on. Homes can also be important in certain ritual or even defensive contexts, as well – perhaps one older house is built of stone and can be barricaded whilst its surrounding ones are less defensible and more vulnerable to fire, or maybe one has a cellar that the villagers know can be used to hide from the invading lizardmen.

A noticeable tree can be a camping or meeting point with different social functions.
Many of the functions we’ve mentioned can be applied to non-building features too. A particular tree or large boulder or stream crossing can be a meeting place for casual bartering, a place to join hands and do circle dances, the site of wedding dances, a mustering point at times of crisis, the political space where villagers come to elect their spokespeople or plead with their overlords, and so on. Especially in smaller and more medieval style settlements, the natural landscape can be a proportionally more prominent part of what’s going on, and features from it can provide some of the most memorable locations in a certain settlement. The village that has a burned oak on the heath where its villagers go as neutral ground, in order to stop the hotly contested elections to their reeveship spilling out into violence, feels a very different one to the village with a blossom-filled orchard in which people set up stalls at the weekend for an old barter-style market (much to the chagrin of some nearby knights who have been trying to get their own market licensed in order to be able to reap the spoils of local trade, but who are unable to stop the traditional bartering from continuing). That said, those two ideas may feel very different, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t both exist in the same village – life can, after all, be very multifaceted.

So to recap, let’s look back at the Isicando we might have now. The air spirit temple is innately tied into the life of the tower garrison, which it operates. Its followers, after their weekly procession carrying offerings from the great boulder at the south end of the village up to the temple, are often to be found at the Blue Rose, singing the old songs that are no longer part of the official worship. Ms. Marianda mediates at times between a frustrated priest and his traditionalist flock, as well as leading some of the village’s less religious aspects: she is well respected by the llama herders, for whom she throws feasts once or twice a year at her house to ensure their continued support, and she can often be found heading out to help rescue an errant livestock animal stuck in the mud of the nearby swamp. As she does so, she’ll no doubt pass the well-house, a home on stilts built over the well to double up as its roof, and she’ll pass Meadow Cottage, a now-ruined old dwelling in the fields just outside the village whose owner died some years ago – the tumbledown building is now the most popular playground among the village children. We still have the same basic structures of economy, politics, military, and social gatherings, but now the places and structures are all tied together with a web of connections that both physically and socially wraps the village together and perhaps also helps us start to think better about how this society would react to the sort of pressures and changes that come along with adventurers and heroes turning up!

I hope this piece has given you a few ideas for how to get beyond that basic “here’s the menu of five places that do the things you want” system – I don’t want to be too down on that idea as it is a starting point that helps you cover the basics, but if you want to create somewhere that’s memorable and capable of sustaining the suspension of disbelief then starting to attach ritual, story, and tradition, even just occasional hints of them in the background, can go a long way towards building settlements that really feel alive.

Exilian Articles / The Betrayal of the Card
« on: April 22, 2019, 11:59:11 PM »

Permitted to gather wood - but for how long?
The Betrayal of the Card
By rbuxton

They’re the most important (or only) component in many games: randomisable, concealable, invertible, portable, rotatable, categorisable and packed with information. Cards have huge potential for a game designer, but my mechanics have always lacked something crucial. Take a look at these:

1. A combat system in which players use cards to increase their strength. Imagine a Risk variant in which the more cards you have, the more you can increase your die roll.

2. A second combat system in which strength is tied to how many action cards a player has used this round. Time your attacks for the end of the round for maximum effect.

3. A game in which “worker” pieces are placed on the board to collect resources. Some resources will be off-limits until you hold a certain number of cards.

Have you spotted it yet? I haven’t really told you what those cards do because it is largely irrelevant. Only the number of collected cards matters – I might as well use boring counters instead. My playtesters are also getting frustrated by a lack of interesting cards:

Does it matter what's on the other side?
“I completed my quest. What do I get?”

“You get a relic card!”

“Cool, which relic is it?”

“The relics are all identical, we only care about how many you’ve collected.”

“That sucks. Couldn’t it be a magical sword or something, which gives me new powers and makes everyone else afraid of me? Wouldn’t that be exciting?”

“…. I don’t do exciting.”

It’s a good point, but for now I’m preoccupied with something else: Decks. Decks are to cards what cubes are to squares: much more complex, but with many characteristics in common. I recently improved a deck by splitting it into three smaller decks, which had to be used up one after the other. I put the strongest cards in the final deck – this meant that there were no over-powered upgrades appearing early in the game.

This change also allowed me to improve game flow by categorising cards as “weak” or “strong”. If the weak version of a card was sitting unloved on the table, the strong card would eventually replace it. But there was another logical way of looking at this mechanic: perhaps the weak card was still present, it had simply evolved into the strong card.

So now we can imagine a new game in which weak cards are drawn early on, but bring with them a deck of two or three strong cards. Shuffle them up with your existing cards, draw them as the game progresses, control your deck so that the strong cards appear after the weak ones. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That’s right, watch this space for Pokémon, the Copyright Infringement Game...

Editor's note: You can read rbuxton's previous article, Game Design's Ultimate Challenge, here, which contains some of the mechanics discussed in this piece. All connected!

The World of Kavis / Cheloniads
« on: April 21, 2019, 02:44:47 PM »
The Cheloniads (as land-dwellers term them) are a human people who live on the backs of huge, slow-moving sea creatures, the Pariku.

The Cheloniads

Cheloniads live in village-size settlements, rarely more than a hundred people at most, on the back of a Pariku - too many of them, and the small land area would become insufficient. They thrive on a diet mainly of fish and sea molluscs, though they will catch cetaceans as well at times, and are somewhat helpful to their host in that they remove huge seashells that would otherwise slow it even further as well as fighting off any smaller predators that might try to take a bite out of it. The back of an old pariku often gets covered in deep layers of silt, from which the Cheloniads have various ways of constructing bricks for housing and caring for the flora, mainly tough grasses that are used for nets but also small shrubs and trees that provide valuable handles for bone tools.

The Pariku

Pariku are most closely related to turtles, though they are often known by a wildly divergent set of names by land-dwellers - they move quite slowly, and float, never diving and using the minimum possible amount of energy (a necessity given their immense bulk). They have a retractable baleen-type plate at the back of their mouths, enabling them to spend most of their time sifting plankton from the water as they move, though the plate can retract and they are capable of digesting larger plant matter and animals as well.

Young pariku are potentially very dangerous, easily larger than even a sizeable sailing ship and capable of smashing one to pieces in order to eat various parts of what's on board (crew included). As they get to full size, up to a kilometer in diameter, they become more docile and move on to baleen feeding. They will signal several months in advance when they need to mate, which they do only two or three times in a lifespan that may be hundreds of years long: when this happens, anyone on the island is well advised to relocate, for the pariku will dive and seek out mates, becoming much more active in a way likely to damage or destroy any settlements atop their back.

Design notes:
Spoiler (click to show/hide)

Exilian Articles / Exilian Interviews: Stormwell!
« on: April 17, 2019, 03:56:52 PM »
A Conversation With: Stormwell!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stormwell: Ironically, Star Wars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stormwell: Hmm, favourite character, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stormwell: Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

This is interesting but also creepy.


This site generates photos of people. None of the people exist. It's often hard to tell from the photos though!

It uses a GAN (Generated Adversarial Network), a system which basically involves two AIs (one generating images, one testing them) working against each other to progressively improve the overall output. The results are very effective. This does in turn create some worrying implications like with a lot of visual AI stuff - not being able to trust that people in photos/video are real and doing what it looks like they're doing is unnerving, if inevitable.

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