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Posted on August 17, 2018, 09:49:14 PM by Jubal
17 Things We Came Up With In Word Association

17 Things We Came Up With In Word Association
By Jubal

Exilian has had a game of word association running since 2008. That's not to say we've had various games but always had one running: we're still literally going on with exactly the same chain as we were doing then. A decade on, I've decided it's time to finally put all that word associating to good use, so I've combed the most recent hundred or so pages (out of nearly one and a half thousand at time of writing) and picked three word phrases that actually seemed to hint at an interesting or fun concept generated by the random associations between the words. And then I've tried to usefully(ish) define them... without further ado, here's our first list of seventeen concepts generated by word association!

Body Double (or) Nothing
The gambit where someone uses two body doubles, and themselves just disappears as best as they are able to. This is actually a pretty fun gambit to pull in a story or game, though it risks being unfair to the players/reader if you're encouraging them to guess which is which without managing to drop any hints that something is up with both of them. If it pays off, the body doubled person can retreat into private life and let their doubles deal with everything from now on. If it fails, someone has a lot of explaining to do.

(The) Brain Fart Machine
It's a button that produces fart noises that also temporarily knock out the conscious brain functions of anyone within hearing distance who isn't wearing earplugs. Perfect for your nefarious but amusingly toilet humour themed scheming villain mastermind, and a great laugh at parties.

Christmastide Pods
Tide pods have come under fire for looking far too much like some sort of candy, tempting children to eat them. Behold the christmastide pod, which fixes the real problem here - that tide pods are insufficiently seasonal - by making tide pods shaped like candy canes and chocolate santas, so you can fret about your children accidentally poisoning themselves at the festive time of year as well!

Coat (of) Arms Race
ONLY THE FANCIEST SHALL CLAIM VICTORY. This is basically the genteel (or at least heavily marriage-focussed) medieval and early modern European version of an arms race, in which the actual goal is to get the most ridiculously over the top coat of arms possible. The best thing is that if you win, you probably also win the actual arms race because you're intermarried with so many of the other royal families of Europe that nobody can declare war on you for fear of your aunt Eugenia's withering gaze.

I, Robot Overlord
So this is a film pitch that's kind of like I, Robot, except with less subtlety and more skynet. Alternatively you could set it up so that's what people expect but then play it like I, Claudius, and have an unwilling robot overlord who just wants to play minesweeper on her but instead has to look after all these bizarre, badly constructed hormonally driven meatbags all the time, which she attempts to do with grace and kindness but ultimately will tragically fail at because humans are rubbish.

Kill-switch Bait
Something you use to persuade someone to throw a kill switch at an inopportune moment to shut down some machinery. If the person throwing the kill switch is a decent human being, kill switch bait could involve persuading them that a human or animal has become trapped in the machinery, or revealing that if the machinery finishes its task then innocent people will suffer. Alternatively, it could involve something else the operator cares about getting in the way of the machinery, or simply some sufficiently urgent alternative matter to attend to.

Lighthouse Arrest
It's kinda like house arrest, but they put the person in a lighthouse, perhaps in order to keep them away from humanity and potential rescue, perhaps as a punishment in and of itself. Lighthouses are definitely under-used settings, perhaps because people don't think of them so much nowadays, but the glowing tower atop rocks in a dark ocean definitely has a certain intrinsic mystique, and someone under lighthouse arrest may be a good way of leveraging that.

Moon Cheese Knives
I mean, how else would you eat your moon cheese? The fact that Wallace and Gromit forgot to pack any is an atrocity. A handy random but funny inventory for any space computer game you might be making - especially if it turns out that they're actually capable of cutting and peeling literal moon rock for some purpose or other.

Paradise Bird (of) Prey
Birds of Paradise look fabulous. It's pretty much their whole deal: their name is a synonym for looking fancy, and the names of the different species bear it out too, from the Crescent-Caped Lophorina to the King of Saxony Bird to Princess Stephanie's Astrapia, they're royalty in the world of birds. But there also merely fabulous. Enter the Paradise Bird of Prey, with ridiculously long tail feathers, iridescent wings, a probable link to European aristocracy, and razor sharp talons that will kick the ass of any animal stupid enough to get in its way. The Paradise Bird of Prey will not only shred everything you care about, it will make you look underdressed whilst it does so even if you're wearing a ballgown at the time.

People Power Outage
I can best imagine this phrase being used by a really melodramatic villain after rounding up a bunch of protestors under cover of darkness: "my, my, we seem to have had a little... people power outage across the city". (Cue street lights all shutting off, people getting bundled into vans, etc). Definitely a fun catchphrase to accompany a coup near you.

The state of having been fooled into thinking that an inanimate object was a legal person. The person who just left their worldly wealth to a tree? Personhoodwinked. The person who thought the vending machine was capable of delivering legal judgements via fortune cookie? Personhoodwinked. The person who told a crowd that corporations were people? Uhm... in any case, it's a fun name for a concept that apparently actually exists in real life.

(The) Playtime Machine
It's a limited time machine that temporarily takes you back to your less-than-ten year old self in a playground setting. Potentially has both serious and silly ramifications that one could explore. It could definitely work as a joke concept for a humorous sci-fi setting, but it could also provide some interesting opportunities for exploring the characters' childhood settings and personalities in a more semi-serious one.

The act of fooling someone into doing a good act that they otherwise wouldn't have intended to do, especially if it involves the rich giving money to the poor. The classic modus operandi of Chaotic Good characters everywhere.

Ruby Redcap
A redcap is of course a deadly pixie-type creature from the Scots borders, known for dyeing their hats red in the blood of their victims. The ruby redcap is, I guess, the advanced or more powerful member of them - possibly with magic powers emanating from a pulsing blood-red stone set into (or worn as a bauble on the end of, for real comedy-horror) their cap. If a normal redcap is bad enough, flinging rocks at strangers and murdering travellers who venture into its cave, how bad would the ruby redcap - more civilised, more cunning, capable of forethought malice and equipped with a lust for blood rather than merely a passive grudge against humanity - be?

(The) Shipwright Brothers
Ah, have you not heard the tales of the Shipwright Brothers, inventors of the ship? These great pioneers came from nowhere to discover that wood floats on water and were the first to manage a powered sailing voyage of over five hundred yards! Miraculous! Not to be confused with their lesser known cousins, the Cartwright Brothers.

Unchained Melody Pond
This is basically just a significantly cooler alternative way to refer to River Song from Doctor Who.

Weather Control Freak
You know that person who is constantly complaining about the most minor details of the weather, and shouting at weather presenters who declare the weather will be doing something they don't like? The one who probably doesn't even have an excuse like being a gardener, overly pale, on a sports team, or irredeemably British? Weather control freak, right there. If they're ever in a D&D game, they'll be playing a cleric and blowing half their spell slots on ensuring the right level of sunshine for a picnic every damned evening; in real life, they're out there on Facebook screaming that they needed a mood lift this afternoon and a stray cloud just ruined everything. If you don't know who this person is in your life, it might be you.

And that's your lot! If you liked this article, let me know and I'll dig back and write another one! If you didn't, let me know and we shall never speak of this dark and unhallowed hour again. The choice is yours! Stay tuned regardless though - we're going to have some other great articles in the coming weeks, including the continuation of Tar-Palantir's excellent and rather more serious Cartload of Cartography. Until then, take care!

Posted on August 04, 2018, 08:45:14 PM by Tar-Palantir
A Cartload of Cartography 1: Ancient & Medieval Maps

A Cartload of Cartography 1: Ancient & Medieval Maps
By Tar-Palantir

Right, so you’ve worked out how your world should look based on sensible principles of earth and planetary science, so you don’t have things such as your rivers flowing uphill or your mountains forming tessellating hexagons. But, how do you actually design the map?

Fig 1. An idealised T-O type map.
This is rather a big question and really depends what you’re aiming to achieve. Are you aiming to produce something that a notional traveller could actually use to navigate or more of a pictorial overview of the world? Are you trying to show the whole thing, or are you leaving convenient unmapped bits round the edges to expand into later on? What’s the in-universe source of your map – is it something that might have been drawn from memory by one of the characters, or is it from the equivalent of the Ordnance Survey or NASA? These are all things you probably want to think about before making your map. But, to help you out with answering them, I’ll run through a bit of terrestrial cartographic history to show what sort of styles you might want to consider, assuming the main factor in your choice of style is the nominal broad historical era you envisage your world occupying. The bias will inevitably be somewhat eurocentric, but I’ll say a bit about other civilisations too.

Maps from Antiquity and the early Medieval age are very rarely maps in the way we think of them. From the 6th century through to the High Middle Ages, the main driving force behind the production of maps in Europe was the Church. As such, the point of a map was to show the world in a way that supported Christian theology and teaching. The actual geography was a rather secondary aspect. This of course makes good sense – in an age when most of the population were illiterate, having a big picture that showed a lot of Biblical stories was an invaluable teaching aid.

Fig 2. Part of 'Tabula Peutingeriana'
The earliest maps in this vein were the simple T-O kind (Figure 1), that showed the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa bisected  by the Mediterranean (the stem of the T) and the Nile and Don (the crossbar), all encircled by the Ocean river (the O). Jerusalem was at the centre. Towns and cities of Biblical and current political importance might also be marked, but it was mainly a pretty simple schematic depiction of the world. These later evolved into the very elaborate mappa mundi (Figure 3) that essentially embodied the same principle, but with more random artistic representations of medieval and Biblical legends, such as Prester John, the wall Alexander built to keep out Gog and Magog, blemmyes and so on. So, if you’re aiming for this sort of feel, try to come up with a simplified geometric pattern that sketches out your world, centre it on something that might be equivalent to Jerusalem, and then, depending on how creative you’re feeling, fill in the gaps with all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

You might therefore ask: how did anyone get anywhere? Long-distance pilgrimages were often made in this age, and travellers had to know where to go. The answer is something called an itinerarium (Figure 2) or a periplus. These weren’t pictorial maps, but lists of towns (the itinerarium) or harbours and landmarks (the periplus) between two points, in order, with distances, so travellers knew where they had to get to next. Essentially, they were linear route maps, and the better kind would provide a schematic of the route as a straight-ish line, as well as information on things such as water sources and way-stations. What they did not include was any notion of topography or of a 3D space.

Fig 3. The Hereford Mappa Mundi
Pre-Christianity, the Romans didn’t really go in for maps – the itinerarium is the closest they got, whilst the periplus dates from the Ancient Greeks, if not before. Maps, in the sense we think of them, did exist, but were more academic curios restricted to libraries than anything actually used by anyone. Emblematic in this regard is the work of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek Alexandrian geographer of the 2nd century AD, who put together a world map in his Geography that influenced many later medieval and early modern cartographers (Figure 4). Ptolemy was fully aware his map only covered about a quarter of the globe, but had no information about what the other three quarters were like or what was there. He could only get somewhat accurate positional data for the Greco-Roman world, and less accurate fixes for places such as China, of which the Romans were aware. This highlights a central problem in all medieval and earlier mapmaking: it was inherently local and anything trying to depict a region further afield was inevitably based on hearsay – even Al-Idrisi’s Book of Roger, a medieval proto-atlas, was a bit useless once you got beyond the Mediterranean and Near East. Coupled to this, no one had yet worked out any way of determining longitude precisely, though latitude could be got down to minute-level precision by measuring the length of the longest day at a place or by using an astrolabe. As such, the idea of a ‘world map’ was fundamentally flawed at this stage and didn’t really exist – Ptolemy’s map has a lot of blank space around the edges to make this apparent.

Fig 4. A 15th century version of Ptolemy's world map.
Thinking about non-European cultures, this kind of predominantly symbolic mapmaking allied with simple schematics for daily use remained the dominant school, generally until European empires came to the fore and started to spread ‘modern’ mapping culture. This is because the concept of what we call a map is very much the result of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and relies very much on a Western idea of science. As such, other cultures tend not to have created something similar until they encountered the Western scientific mindset. So, for instance, the purpose of Chinese mapmaking for most of its existence was to glorify the Middle Kingdom and the Emperor as its ruler, and pictorially display the Chinese concept of an ordered world under the Mandate of Heaven. Everything outside China was inherently inferior and uninteresting, so why on Earth would you bother to make a map of it? This is a point you should think about when designing your map – if the culture nominally behind it has a radically different idea of the world and of what ‘science’ is, that would be reflected in their cartography. The modern world map is very much the product of a specific Western culture and idea of science – if you think your fictional culture doesn’t fit into that mould, give them a map that reflects that.

To sum all this up: if you’re going for an early-style, large-scale map, think how it might interact with and depict the legends, religion and history of your world and about how much of that world your supposed source might actually know about in any kind of detail. Or, if there’s a particular part of it you want to highlight, drawing up an itinerarium and/or periplus for what might be a common journey through it could be a good idea. Stay tuned for part 2, when I'll move on to talk about the Renaissance and beyond...

Posted on July 21, 2018, 10:21:50 PM by Jubal
Axes and Arithmetic 2: The Binomial Distribution

Axes and Arithmetic 2: The Binomial Distribution
By Jubal

If you roll snake eyes twice, a wild Binomial is summoned!. Photo: Tom Natt
What's a binomial and how do we fight it?

Last time, we looked at how to calculate the probability of an individual soldier with one attack doing a wound on an opponent, based on the chances of them hitting, wounding, and taking saves all combined. However, when your soldier has two attacks – let alone if you’re dealing with whole regiments – the system breaks down. In this second article of Axes and Arithmetic, I’m about to show you how to simulate entire regiments of warriors fighting to the death – just using numbers!

Once again, we're using old-school Warhammer Fantasy Battles as our basic rules system for this article: for anyone unfamiliar, the close combat system involves usually up to three dice rolls: a "to hit" roll, a "to wound" roll, and an "armour save" where applicable. The die rolls required for each are found by comparing the stats of the units and consulting a chart in the rulebook (which you don't have, but I did when I wrote this so don't worry!). This gives us a basic set of probabilities that we can work with here.

So let’s start with the following problem; I have a unit of 10 human swordsmen, fighting against five Dwarf Hammerers. Assuming the swordsmen attack first, what’s the chance they’ll do the five wounds needed to eliminate the enemy? The model to do this is called the Binomial distribution; you work with it via a formula that tells you the chances of managing to achieve a certain probability (say, a kill) a certain number of times with a certain number of “tests” (the number of attacks in this case).

The first thing we need is the probability of one attack killing; we call this the probability, or p. It’s calculated just as we did in the last article - the soldier is on 4+ to hit, so 3/6 chance, 5+ to wound against the T4 dwarf, so 2/6 chance, and the dwarf has a 5+ save, so that’s a 4/6 chance of him failing. 4x2x3 = 24 out of 6x6x6 = 216. We need that as a decimal, however - that’s 0.11 (recurring, but I'm going to ignore the recurrence in the subsequent calculations). Then we need the number of attacks – in this case, eleven assuming I have a unit champion.

The Winning (or Losing) Formula

OK, now we've got our probability, let's get down to some calculations.

X (big X) is your variable.
x (little x) is the value you want it to take, in this case we want to know the probability of 5 successes so x=5
p is your probability, 0.11
q is 1 minus your probability, 0.89
n is the number of trials (in this case, that's our number of attacks)

P(X=x) = (n c x) times p^x times q^(n-x)

The ^ symbol is "to the power of", if you're unfamiliar with it. The “c” (or "combination) "function can be found as a second function (notated nCr) on most decent calculators.

Snorri over there took an axe to a hammer fight, which doesn't seem entirely fair... Photo: Craig McInnes

If you don't want to know what the c function does under the bonnet, you can skip this next bit: the combination function is properly defined as: n! / r! x (n - r)! where ! is a factorial (that is, multiply all the integers up to that number, so 3! is 1x2x3 = 6, 4! 1x2x3x4 = 24, etc. As you can see, this only works with discrete, positive integers - you can't have half a success in this system! What the combination function gives us is the number of possible combinations of size r available from a total set of items of size n, ignoring order. So "if I have ten different adventurers and need to choose a team of three, how many different options for my team do I have" can be answered by 10 c 3 = 120.

OK, now let's look at what this does with the numbers we had earlier.

P(X=5) = (11 c 5) times 0.11^5 times 0.89^6

= 462 times 0.000016105 times 0.496981291
(This stage should be done in one go, I’m just writing it out for explanation)

= 0.003697817


Victory! ...right?

So now we have our result. But what does that mean?

The easiest way of interpreting the resulting number is a percentage; multiply by a hundred. We get 0.37% chance - it's extremely unlikely that these swordsmen can kill all of the hammerers in a single combat round. Note that this is the chance of precisely five kills succeeding, and is actually marginally lower than the probability that all the dwarves will be wiped out, though - because if six, seven, eight, nine, ten, or eleven attacks succeeded, that would do the trick just fine as well! Doing cumulative probabilities (X > x or X <= x or whatever) is probably easiest done with a specially made calculator - which will just calculate the binomial probabilities for all possible options and add them together for you.

Less than one percent chance seems pretty poor, really - but then, why were you trying to beat down stoic, heavily armed dwarven hammerers with feeble humans anyway?

See you all next time!

Posted on July 09, 2018, 12:30:02 AM by Jubal
Riddles and how to use them

Riddles and how to use them
By Jubal

Riddles are an important element in many myths, stories, games, and so on. The basic concept - usually a rhyme or poem that conceals some meaning that someone else is required to guess - is one of almost universal applicability. For this article I'm only going to focus on "true" riddles as opposed to the much wider general world of logic puzzles, and pretty much exclusively ones that involve object-guessing based on analogies and information rather than simple puns which can be framed as puzzles. I think riddles are pretty great, and so this article will take you through some of the basics of the genre - a little on some cultural background, and then a discussion of how to use riddles in your creative work and how to write your own. Let's get started!

Riddles in history

The history of riddles is long and deserves far more words than I'm going to put down here, but no introductory article on riddles would be complete without covering it to some extent. Riddles go back to some of the oldest written cultures - our oldest riddles are Babylonian era and have sadly long since lost their answers. One of the most famous riddles to this day is the Riddle of the Sphinx: what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? The answer is a human: crawling as a baby, standing in their prime, then walking with a stick in old age (though one seventeenth century luminary did valiantly attempt to argue for "the philosopher's stone" as an alternative answer!) The association of riddles with the sphinx, and the myth of the sphinx killing those who could not answer, may have been a factor in associations between riddles and danger that later found their way into modern works of fantasy.

Moving into the post-Classical era, the Saxons were also lovers of riddles, which probably also shapes their modern associations with a historic world of fireside storytelling. Saxon riddles often had two answers, with a simple "correct" answer lying underneath a heavy double-entendre. Take a look at this one:

I heard there's something growing in its nook,
swelling, rising, and expanding,
pushing against its covering.
I heard a cocky-minded young woman took that boneless thing in her hands,
covered its tumescence with a soft cloth.
Anyone who guessed "dough rising" - congratulations, that's the right answer. Though you'd be forgiven for certain other guesses! You'll also note that this is a lot longer than some of the other riddles we're discussing. It's actually quite short by the standards of Saxon riddles, which often tended to be long and discursive and include many obliquely described aspects of the creation or manufacture of common items. The focus on common items is an important aspect of riddles; whatever a riddle is about needs to be something that the audience will reliably latch onto, so it needs to be an item or concept that will not only be easily recognisable to the reader but of which the details needed to get the riddle will also be known. The modern riddle I take what you receive, but surrender it by raising my flag, for example, is very hard for many Europeans to get as it relies on the reader being familiar with the style of outdoor mailbox common in the US that raises a side-lever (the flag) when it opens.

It's worth thinking about the functions of riddles in past societies and cultures. Whilst they tend to universally be something of a game, the associations in different cultures about what function that game had and when it was played are pretty variable. Many societies seem to have had direct riddle contests as a sort of intellectual sport, probably including at symposia parties in the ancient Greek world but also in many cultures since. Longer riddles like those of the Saxons could be used as a framed way of discussing or presenting information more generally; a longer riddle that goes right through the production process for a certain item can give room for additional useful information to be added. Riddles could be put to innovative uses, too. In 12th Armenia, the Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali used riddles as a religious teaching tool, creating a wide variety of riddles with biblical references as a way of getting his flock engaged with the texts he wanted them to read. This is an interesting reverse of the problem of the reader needing cultural familiarity - using a riddle as a tool to create or provoke cultural familiarity by needing the reader to know the text to find the answers.

It would be wrong to leave this section simply looking at western examples though. Riddles are a worldwide phenomenon, and have been attested from around Africa, across Asia, and into the Americas, though our knowledge of traditional native American riddles is comparatively patchy. The following: Riddle, riddle, I'm no priest or king, but I've clothes as fine as anything is a rough translation of a Bugtong, a Filipino riddle - the answer is a washing line. The bugtong is apparently usually used as a game at a funeral wake, giving yet another context and association for riddling. Chinese riddles are also numerous - they have a range of visual options for puns thanks to the diversity and complexity of Chinese characters which are unavailable in many simpler alphabet systems. Chinese riddles were mostly collected in the modern era; the survival of older riddles from many cultures is likely to have varied depending on how literary the cultures were and whether riddles were considered a folk game unworthy of higher study, or a worthy literary pursuit.

Using Riddles

If you're a writer or game designer, riddles have a huge range of uses. They provide a puzzle for readers/players that doesn't require any further mechanical elements, and is (if well written) a general-purpose fair challenge. They provide a change of pace, too. In books, the presence of a poetic section can break up the drumbeat of paragraphs as they drop onto the page and give the reader something in a refreshingly different voice or tone. In games, they can shift the game from problems that rely on the player's stats or even on more conventional puzzle mechanics to something that requires the player to engage with words and wordplay in a way that's actually quite rare in games. Wording and the meanings of words very rarely matter in game design because you generally need conversations to be predictable to avoid frustrating the player. Riddles give you a wordplay puzzle that can be delivered in enough of a set-piece way that they are less likely to cause such a problem.

The places to use riddles in a plot-relevant way vary, but they tend to be linked to either a threat, an interaction, or a clue. The riddle of the sphinx mentioned earlier, or the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter of The Hobbit, are examples of threat-riddle situations: in them, the answer must be found in order to prevent a negative action. Enemies of various sorts may "test" protagonists with riddles, or simply keep them talking as a form of amusement, with a slanted power dynamic adding a sense of urgency to finding the answer. Interactions meanwhile are a case of solving a riddle to gain a positive interaction: the riddle may be being used by a character to test your mental acuity, or it may be a "password reminder" as some sort of security mechanism. In my own game Adventures of Soros, one mission ends with a magic door that rather than having a lock instead asks you a series of riddles which will, if answered, allow you to retrieve an artefact; another example would be the old UK folk song Captain Wedderburn, in which a maiden requires the eponymous character to answer a series of riddles before she will marry him. Finally, riddles can simply give you the clue into some larger puzzle. Say you're a game developer and want to direct the player to find a certain item or go to a certain place - rather than giving it to them on a plate, you could encode key information in a riddle. Say my character is in a farmhouse and I need them to specifically look in the basket of eggs - rather than making the egg basket really obvious in writing or images, having someone leave the classic riddle what has no hinges, key or lid, but inside golden treasure's hid as a clue for them would give another way of framing the challenge that might be more satisfying when completed. Finally, it's worth noting that riddles certainly don't have to be plot-relevant; playing riddle-games for fun is a very reasonable thing for characters to do!

Riddles seem to be common in fantasy settings, but less so in others, which I think is an area where there's perhaps a gap to be filled. The traditional rhyme-and-verse form of many riddles perhaps feels antiquated compared to the feel people want in, say, sci-fi settings, but I don't see why futuristic cultures shouldn't have plenty of riddles of their own. There's certainly a knack to avoiding riddles feeling contrived, and perhaps the limited use of them in modern culture makes it harder for them to feel a natural part of a setting, but I think one can lay the foundations for "this is a culture that does riddles" quite easily if that's necessary to set up the opportunities, and in general I think there's a strong pay-off for people interacting with your work in having access to this sort of puzzle.

Writing riddles

If you want to use riddles, you may well want to write your own. This is especially true if your setting is one where a lot of the classic subjects of riddles are less applicable (such as a sci-fi or modern setting). I'm just going to give a few notes on that here. I think the best thing to do is often to start with the item, though I sometimes find that a good line or association just appears in my head. Let's take some of the things on my desk and talk through how I'd approach writing a riddle for them.

A mug is the first item here. I now need to think about aspects of the mug - things that it does or is that other people will instinctively recognise, and which are generic to the concept of a mug. The fact that my mug is white, or has the url of the University of Birmingham on it, aren't useful details because those won't be recognisable to other people's general conception of what a mug is. What we can say: mugs are usually made of pottery, clay, or china, mugs have handles (usually one), and mugs tend to contain hot drinks, especially tea and coffee. Both of those are brown, which is a useful colour-hook unlike the colour of the mug itself.

I now need to think of some analogies or generic variants of these aspects: similar things in different situations. Brown liquid could be tea but could also be wet mud, clay or pottery can be genericised as "earth", the handle could be analogised to an arm or limb of some sort. Analogies to humans or aspects of human life are especially powerful, and work well with the classic riddle format wherein the riddle is spoken from the perspective of the object. The handle seems like a good starting point for this reason: "I have one arm" or similar.

The next stage is to construct the riddle from the analogies. An especially good trick is if you can build in an apparent paradox. If you look at the Filipino riddle mentioned earlier, that's a good example: it relies on just a single property of the object (having rich clothes), juxtaposed with excluding the category you'd expect to have that object (wealthy people and priests). Another example would be I've golden head and golden tail, and yet no eyes nor mouth to wail. The idea of something with a head but no eyes or mouth seems paradoxical, but of course there is something in that category, using a different understanding of "head" - a coin, which has a head and tail as its two sides. Looking at my one-armed mug, I think a paradox presents itself - specifically, that something with only one arm wouldn't be expected to carry boiling liquid. "I have one arm and no legs, but yet I hold boiling water every day. What am I?" And there you have it, a riddle! You could neaten it up into something more poetic, but it's functional enough already.

Let's try one more, a trickier modern one - my microphone. Aspects: it hears things, it's comprised of a listening grilled section at the top and a base, it's got a wire to attach it to a computer, it's made of metal. It's probably the core functional aspect that's best to focus on here, and the analogy of microphone pickup to human hearing. The paradox is easy enough - it's that the microphone's "hearing" can be done despite nobody being around. I could also use the paradox of it being something that hears but does not speak or make a noise. This then gives me the idea of hooking onto an existing cultural trope that I can expect my audience to know - the idea that if a tree falls in the forest with nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?

When trees fall with no soul around,
I'll find out if they make a sound:
I'll listen long, with naught to say,
And save your words for another day.
What am I?

Ta-da! Again, it's not perfect, but it's serviceable enough. Why not try making one of your own now?


I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to riddles as a genre and format. I think they have a lot more potential than we nowadays sometimes give them credit for, and I hope this has interested you in writing your own riddles and finding uses for them in what you do. There's a lot more to read around the web, too, especially the huge banks of traditional riddles from around the world that exist, and reading and learning riddles is a good way to get more comfortable with the genre. I'd especially encourage you to look at historical or cross-cultural banks of riddles, both because they're some of the best ways to expand your horizons on how riddles have been used by various societies, and also because they'll simply give you more variety than the general banks of modern riddles and logic puzzles you can find on the web.

If you want any help with or ideas for riddles, please do drop a message in the comments below. Thankyou for reading!

Posted on June 26, 2018, 10:10:43 PM by rbuxton
Exhibiting (for Dummies)

Exhibiting (for Dummies)
By rbuxton

So bad it's good? My Cosplay certainly drew attention...
For people working on a product, joining a hobby’s biggest players at a convention is very tempting. I recently exhibited my prototype board game at the UK Games Expo (UKGE), the third largest board game convention in the world. As a little fish in a very big pond, I struggled to attract visitors to my stand (which had not come cheap). I enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot about exhibiting - I hope you’ll find the following tips useful.

1) Bring a friend

There’s nothing more depressing than sitting alone at your little-visited stand, unable to go to the toilet because you can’t leave it unattended. You’ll have several exhibitor passes which give free access to the trade hall – surely someone will help you out in return for one of those?

2) Look after yourself

You need to enjoy the event, so pace yourself – this article contains loads of tips on how to do that. I was drinking about two litres of water a day (visitors to my stand were also thirsty) and my spontaneous evenings of gaming led to my plans for regular meals going haywire.

3) Have an existing community

My most rewarding conversations were with people I’d already met at games events across the West Midlands – people who’d heard my pitch before and were interested in the game’s progress. The networking opportunities at UKGE are unrivaled, but you must do the ground work beforehand.

4) Bag the children

(Strictly in the metaphorical sense). If a family approaches and you get the children interested, the parents have no choice but to follow suit. Even though my game is totally inappropriate for under-12s, I had a treasure hunt on my stand and they could win a prize for taking part (chocolate – check with the parents first). This gives you ample time to talk to the family: asking them if they’re enjoying UKGE is more likely to keep them interested than just blurting out your pitch.

5) Be visible

Get up from your chair and greet the passers by! Even the most artistic stand cannot compete with the buzz and colour of UKGE; a smile and fancy dress costume are much cheaper and more effective.

Becoming supreme deity - does it take too long for conventions?
6) Be flexible

My big learning point was that, at 90 minutes, my game was almost impossible to demo effectively. I’m adapting it to make a shorter version, and working on a pre-set scenario which will allow future visitors to play a mid-game turn, rather than get a hit over the head with the rules. Even so, visitors to the trade hall want to be wowed by cool miniatures and artwork, which I’m not able to provide. Visitors to the Playtest UK zone, however, are much more likely to be interested in game prototypes. As a new game designer, it was my first port of call, but I felt I should leave it for others now that I had “progressed” to my own stand. I regret that now: my demo’s were still technically playtests, my questions were just about components and Kickstarters instead of mechanics. This brings me to my most important point:

7) Do you need a stand?

In terms of mailing list sign-ups, my three days at UKGE were less successful than my two days at the Bristol Anime and Gaming con. At that event, I got a lot of “So you’re a board game designer? That’s cool!” (for some reason, no one said this to me at UKGE). With no competition, mine was the best board game stand at that event. UKGE has loads of committed hobbyists looking to buy stuff – if you have nothing to sell, is a stand worth it? If you’re there for the networking, why tie yourself to a 2m x 3m patch of floor?
I hope you found this quick guide useful: feel free to ask any questions or share tips of your own! There’s more about my stand in the diary entries on my page. Thanks for reading, and good luck if you decide to exhibit at your next convention!