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Topics - Jubal

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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.

The World of Kavis / Lords & Vassals
« on: April 06, 2019, 04:25:14 PM »
This is a list of some of the rulers & vassals in the world which I wrote a while back. It's likely to be subject to a lot of change but dumping it here anyway.

A few notes:
> Alasia is the biggest & most central country on the continent I'm starting working on - think maybe not quite Charlemagne's empire, but certainly height-of-power Ottonians or whatever, it's a big and rather loosely constructed central polity but where Lothar still hast to derive much of his power from his personal (demesne) lands.
> Icenica is a northerly peninsula-bound nation whose royal house are gnomes
> Serraty is between Icenica and Alasia, and is a contested region
> Sterne is the southwesternmost country, and along with Alasia has significant interests to its south
> Genasta and Caprane are part of the Oak Islands, the major archipelago that lies between this continent and the one to its south
> Much of the east of the continent is more mountainous and fractured, or plays host to more nomad bands. It's the east where I'm focusing most strongly in other notes and where I expect player campaigns to start a lot of the time - there's more diversity and better plot hooks out there!
> Soros (yes, the same Soros from my previous adventure game) is one of the largest countries of the east and is still tiny compared to the huge rambling western countries.
> Travel/Taravel is basically just one town and a small island, and is a not-quite-vassal of Soros (it's a "we agree to vassalage and in return you agree not to actually ask as for anything" deal). It's so small it would be excluded here, but it's likely to be the major campaign start point for players, I have three campaign ideas so far all of which start here.
> Yes there will be a map - when I get round to scanning, colouring, and adding layers to the base map I've drawn.

The KING of ALASIA, Lothar I the Proud
Country Info:
Adjective: Alasian, Noun: Alasian
Vassals & Court:
-   His older son, Prince Liudolf, Captain of the Royal Armies
-   His younger son, Prince Arnulf, commander of the Alasian force in Caprane
-   His brother, Duke Herbricht of Andernach
-   His wife’s father, Duke Alessor the Bearded of Sarlace
-   The Duke of Monsany, Burchard the Dwarf
-   Americh Halfelven, Earl of Etoile
-       Tancred Flammifer, Earl of Serraty (claimant)

The KING of ICENICA, Egbert I the Defender (Gnome)
Country Info:
Adjective: Icenic, Noun: Icene
Vassals & Court:
-   Rede, Earl of the Spines
-   Kardjik, the Gnomewarden (wife’s uncle)
-   Mander Greatspear, Earl of the Lacken Isles
-   Hemond Achifer, Earl of Serraty (claimant)

The PRINCE of NISTRIA, Cadwaer II the Young
Country Info:
Adjective: Nistrian, Noun: Nistrian
-   Tammen, younger brother, Lord of Intria

The KING of STERNE, Baldwin II
Country Info:
Adjective: Sternish, Noun: Sternishman
Vassals & Court:
-   Hermann Silverbeard, Dwarf, Count of the Castellines
-   Baldwin of  Etoile, Lord of Starshore
-   Lothar, Duke of Herasse
-   Ambert Halfgnome, Count of Nirilac

The CONSULS of GENASTA, Mannoso Rana and Larsingo Carjaro
Country Info:
Adjective: Genastan, Noun: Genastan
-   Mannoso, Consul of the City and the Law
-   Annabella, Duchess of the City
-   Larsingo, Consul of the Armies

The DOGE of CAPRANE, Erhem I the Leper
Country Info:
Adjective: Capranese, Noun: Capran
~No Vassals~

The DUKE of SOROS, Varison IV
Country Info:
Adjective: Soroscene, Noun: Soroscene
-   Wilbar, Lord of Sandford
-   Tammen “the Archer”, his heir, Captain of the Islands
-   Estergon, Lord of Rayne

The LORD of TARAVEL (or Travel), Kantaron
Country Info:
Adjective: Travene, Noun: Travenner
~No Vassals~

Adj: Kesratan, Noun, Kesratan

Adj: Tabnirene, Noun, Tabnirian

So I thought I'd share this one with you - I'm hopefully going to be designing and then, in the winter semester later this year, teaching a course on game development and medieval history and digital humanities and how all of those intersect.

My rough plan is to take a set of thematic topics and then look at each from two angles: firstly, a "thinking critically" section where we discuss how current games present that topic, what the medieval source material or evidence might imply about it, and how those connect up. Then it'd lead on to a "making models" section on the theme where we discuss the challenges and simplifications needed to model the concept in a computer setting and some ways of doing that.

So for example a theme section on travel would be fun - we could look a bit at medieval travel narratives, the actual issues and realities of medieval travel, and compare both to how travel is presented in medieval/ancient/fantasy themed games. Then we'd move on to looking at how historians model historical travelling routes (like al-Thurayya, a mapping system for the medieval Islamic world) and the challenges of representing medieval travel in both digital history and gaming contexts. Other probable themes could be material objects, medieval aesthetics and art, race/ethnicity, heroism and the hero in society, warfare, gender, power & rulership, etc.

I dunno if this is too ambitious, but it'll be really fun if I can pull it off and I thought I'd drop a post here to see if anyone here had thoughts given this is probably on the crossover of other peoples' interests too.

Issue 33: Spring 2019


Updates from the Forge is back! Everyone's (OK, probably not anyone's, but a writer can dream) favourite indie/hobbyist creativity newsletter has another wonderful round of projects for you to look through As you can tell from the gap we're now onto a quarterly schedule, due to a mixture of short staff and health issues that have meant your writer/editor is now typing this in arm braces. We're keen to step up the schedule again if we can find an editor or more writers, of course - let us know if you can help.

We've also made some format changes, and are looking at making more, dividing the newsletter more clearly into linkable sections to help you find what you want. Other changes I'm looking at include having a section at the end for recent advertisements (eg for playtesters). I'm also considering whether tabletop and PC game dev should be split into separate sections, and whether the "community news" part of the newsletter, currently incorporated into the editorials, should actually have its own section so I can use the editorial space more for general musings that might be of interest to our readers. Please comment or get in touch to let me know what you think of the changes that have been made or proposed!

In the first three months of 2019, we've celebrated Cyril & Methodius Day, raising over £100 for charity, had the results of our creative competition, which was won by Comrade_General with his painting of a candle, and had our eleventh birthday. We've been producing articles as well, including a new interviews series that's started with Tales From Windy Meadow creator Aure, and also a special issue of our An Unexpected Bestiary series in which Jubal goes into the myths and folklore around his beloved pangolins. You can find all our articles in their own section of the site here.

And with that, I (and the imaginary llama who co-writes this newsletter) present a new bunch of Updates from the Forge!



Cogito Colony Continues

Returning after a year, we've had some good updates from Thalanor's Cogito Colony, a cyberpunk metroidvania style game with cool pixel graphics. In the most recent update, Thalanor revealed that the game will be moving to a new and more easily maintainable engine, which will include moving to a less performance-intensive and more flexible sprite animations system, the first hand-drawn anims from which look excellent!


One part of the work that is going fast is the soundtrack, where lots of tracks have been added and updated over recent months, including the DRAMATIC MUSICAL CUES of the track Methusalem, above. Even if you're not a metroidvania type gamer, they're a good listen (and make nice atmospheric backing music for your life generally!), and you can find them all on Thalanor's soundcloud.

You can read and ask more about the project in Thalanor's devlog:

The Exile Princes: Characters and Catacombs

Jubal's python-built RPG set in a world of medieval manuscripts and madness, has reached its first major beta milestone - the 005/6 closed beta releases give new features including clearly marked map edges, companion characters who will upgrade over time, new quests, and a range of other features. Additional writing and depth has also been added to enrich the world, whether it's reports on how well you slept in a tavern to unexpected twist endings to certain quests and plotlines. Modular, flexible generated quests may well be a feature of future versions of the game, and some additional quests have been added that will lay the groundwork for this.

A newly hired priest goes out to smite some wibulnibs. Fear the holy banhammer!

Companion characters are perhaps the largest major recent addition - companions can gain skills, giving either bonuses around the map or powerful new battle abilities, as well as providing a solid addition to your fighting force - some missions will only allow you to take companions alongside your hero, making these characters vital for, among other things, exploring mysterious tunnel networks below the cities. So far the sergeant, ranger, and priest companions are all working and ingame. Future plans include providing a lot of additional depth to the character system, with the groundwork for character personalities giving the potential not just to get to know your fellow travellers better but potentially also for new plot hooks involving them.

The game is very much in want of playtesters, so please do contact Jubal if you're interested in contributing and helping shape this game and its world!

The Cursed One RPG

“She shall be the one to bring chaos and death.” Or will she?

It's always great to be writing about new projects in these newsletters, and. Nanna, who first came to Exilian via writing us a great article on Nordic Larp, has returned with new RPG project The Cursed One! This RPG, inspired by classic pixel games like Legend of Zelda, sees its protagonist Ellie, marked from birth as an agent of chaos and death, set out to prove the prophecy wrong and save the world. Can the bringer of destruction manage... not to?

The game is made with RPG Maker MV and will likely move into beta testing in April, offering a mix of problem solving, NPC interaction, exploration and battle to its players. You can find out more about the game at the links below...


Enter Aviarium

In another really exciting new project that's appeared here in recent months, new member Ierne has been posting some lovely art and ideas from her setting Aviarium, a fantasy of time and universe travel with a range of fantastical creatures and flight as a core element. In this picture, you can meet a dragon called Mishka, who's a delicate-looking fireheart, and an Adhar fire-mage, Aliya - both capable fliers even if Aliya's ethereal wings aren't currently showing!

The setting centres on Atana, a world entirely cut off from other universes, inhabited by dragons and other winged beings. Meanwhile, in a more familiar world, a perfectly ordinary time-traveller,  called Winter is busy with continual wandering, befriending Shakespeare, and so on. Parallel universes just seem like a quaint myth, until a pathway across to a very different world indeed opens in a familiar location...

It's always exciting to see new worlds and be able to explore them along with their creators, and one of the nicest things we've managed in the past year has been to get a few more active projects in the writing and arts sections of the site - hopefully there'll be more to come through 2019. You can of course find out more about Aviarium, and ask questions of the author, on her thread!


More Mountain Leopards

Caption Goes Here

Jubal's webcomic based on Georgian & world mythology has seen some new page updates, as the characters meet a new friend who may have more skills than meets the eye - we also get our first brief glimpse of the great city of Gulansharo, find out what some of the more eclectic spells available to clerics of Otarid are, and discover that for scrying, it's pretty important to get the right person's hair...

The comic's art style and self-aware fantasy setting is an homage to the excellent Order of the Stick, but the story and mythical background invite you to discover a very new and different fantasy world. Between a drily witty storyteller-cleric, a deadpan jerk of a soldier, an upbeat but cunning runaway maiden, and a dramatically inclined enchantress, there's a whole lot of fun to be had - and mysterious plots beginning to unfold.

Want to share some poetry?

It is dawn, and the light wolf comes
Howling quiet
And as if her fur were gossamer
She glistens

Exilian's poetry and writing sections are always looking for new writers to come and share & discuss their work! Whether you're writing just for your own amusement, to seek to get things published, for stories to put within other contexts - we're very keen to see what you've got to share! There's also of course loads of stuff in there if you're an avid reader, with our archives stretching back over 11 years of uniquely crafted stories and poems that you can have a read through and comment on.

We're also likely to have a new chain writing project in the next two months, after the success of last year's project which created three excellent writing chains, so please do keep an eye out for that. We're always keen to do more projects and host ideas that will help new and less experienced writers get experience and get started, so please do jump in!


Riddles in the Dark...

Most readers of the Hobbit, and many more besides, will have discovered a love of riddles and riddle-games at some point. A pure match of wit and wordplay in which unwrapping the meanings and hidden effects of words is vitally important - as long as nobody ask's what's in their pocketses! Try this one for size...

My name's said when you lift a load,
To carry it along the road,
And though you fear me, run, and hide
You'll rest tonight with me at your side.
What am I?

To get the answer. and play more riddle-games, do join Exilian's "Riddles in the Dark" thread, where members take turns to post and guess riddles of varying types and complexities, leading to lots of original brainteasers being produced. Whether you're getting interested in riddles for the first time, or are just bored of the set of old riddles you already know, Riddles in the Dark is the forum space for you to hone your skills - and of course grab some new riddles to take away and try out on others...

And that's your lot! Apologies that you're getting far fewer of these this year, but it's good to have another issue done and I hope you've enjoyed reading it and want to find out more about some of the lovely projects we have coming along. And of course, do let us know about your own work as well - it could be you in the next issue of Updates from the Forge!

The World of Kavis / Duskfolk
« on: March 26, 2019, 12:00:24 AM »
The duskfolk (also known as darkfolk, lyrakin, shumat, among other names) encompass a wide range of mostly sapient creatures in the world of Kavis - in particular goblins (in their various forms), but also woses, nuberu, and a few others.

Duskfolk are largely crepuscular by preference, hence their name, but it is not this that mostly separates them from the other sapient species. Rather, it is that duskfolk are not in fact born from parents as is the case with other species, but created or summoned via magical means. This does not mean that they are beholden to summoners of other races - they are perfectly capable of summoning others of their own kin, given the right equipment and time, and this is how duskfolk reproduce. Of course it is likely that they were originally created by some other species, but this was far enough back in time that who or how has long since become unclear.

The duskfolk in many areas have somewhat antagonistic relations with other sapient species. They tend to rarely live integrated into human, dwarf, hanau, etc, society, and will often have their own tribes and villages that have an uneasy relationship with any nearby settlements of other species. They are particularly vulnerable to certain sorts of magical manipulations thanks to their summoned and constructed nature, and there are a range of "banishment" magics that work particularly well on them.

Goblins are by far the most commonly known duskfolk, being the easiest to summon and also the weakest physically (though not necessarily intellectually). Woses are somewhat larger than a human and mostly solitary, having a strong connection to a particular landmark to which they bind themselves, though occasionally they will be called upon to provide muscle to, or lead, goblin parties. Nuberu meanwhile are mostly a mountain race, very secretive, and have a strong magical affinity with the wind and storms. These and other duskfol will be expanded upon in their own articles.

The World of Kavis / Hanau
« on: March 25, 2019, 11:47:26 PM »
The Hanau epe, or long-ears, also known as "elves", but most commonly known as "hanau" (which is really literally just the word for "people" in their own language), are a moderately common people of the world of Kavis, especially its warmer climes.

The most obvious physical characteristic that marks the Hanau out from regular humans is their leaf-shaped, pointed ears, hence the term long-ear for them. They are often a little shorter and lighter of build than humans, though the difference is one of degree and with significant overlap. Whether they are genuinely a different species from humans is something of a mystery - interbreeding is rumoured to be possible, but there are few cases of it outside stories. They are not immortal despite some legends to the contrary among shorter lived species, but do not tend to show significant physical ageing signs other than a whitening of the hair after the age of around two hundred; older hanau also become increasingly forgetful of their youth, with something of a "memory capacity" issue after about 200 years. Many nonetheless die of diseases or through other causes such as war, childbirth, accident, and so on: the oldest of them may be very old indeed, but probably wouldn't actively remember that this was the case.

The Hanau mainly live in the equatorial regions of the world, and are keen sailors and traders, with catamarans being their characteristic ship style. Whilst their range of skin tones and hair colours is similarly broad to those of dwarves and humans, a stereotypical individual found in the parts of the world I'm initially covering with this setting would be more likely to have sallow, olive, or reddish skin, and dark brown to black hair. They tend to wear loose, flowing clothing appropriate to their area of the world, and headscarves and turbans are common headwear.

Design notes

The name "Hanau epe" comes from Easter Island folklore, in which they were one of two semi-legendary peoples who battled over the island sometime in the distant past. It does indeed mean "long ears" - probably. One specialist thinks it's actually "stout people", but ah well, it's "long-ears" here!

On March 26, the European Parliament will have a final vote on upload filters for websites. This is something we're probably generally opposed to, not least because it has lots of potential to mess up e.g. our YouTube uploads (we should be exempted as a smaller site ourselves, but I'm still not un-nervous about how that might work).

Anyway, you can look up your EU representatives if you're an EU citizen or resident and contact them via the website here:

The Town Crier! Announcements! / Exilian Day 2019
« on: March 18, 2019, 03:44:10 PM »
Happy Exilian Day!

That's right, Exilian is eleven years old today! Celebrating with us above are friends from just a few of the many, many projects we've hosted, supported, and created over the past few years (and there are many, many more we could have included)! Thanks to everyone who's been a part of Exilian's own story this year, and let's hope we get some great new projects going onward throught 2019 and into 2020.

With best wishes to all,

Jubal (Basileus & Megadux)

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