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Posted on January 18, 2024, 10:32:45 AM by Jubal
Exilian Interviews: Phoenixguard!

A Conversation With: Phoenixguard!
Your Interviewer: Jubal

The RPG design team at Norbayne have been key parts of the Exilian community for many years, especially their captain and lead designer James Gatehouse (Phoenixguard09). We caught up with him for a chat in our latest Exilian interview, now going up as Exilians 150,000th post! Read on to find out more about the project, the influences and issues on indie fantasy RPG design, and a fair bit of nerdery besides...

Jubal: So, we’re here mostly to talk about your tabletop RPG project Norbayne, but first, let’s talk about you: what got you into tabletop RPGs to begin with?

Phoenixguard: Hey Jubs, thanks for having us here. For anyone not aware, my name is James Gatehouse. I am the initial creator and lead developer of the Norbayne tabletop role-playing game.

The story as far as my initial tabletop experience is, I think, at least a little atypical. I went to a pretty fundamentalist school in my early years. Dungeons and Dragons for instance was a complete no-go, I was somewhat ostracised because I had read Harry Potter, the whole Satanic Panic made somewhat manifest in suburban Queensland, Australia. Narnia and Lord of the Rings were fine though, so there was some form of acceptable fantasy - though I must admit, I did not get into Lord of the Rings until just before The Two Towers came out in cinemas. I think my first dabbling with a tabletop game was perhaps around early 2003, with a kind of bizarre, dice-less, largely solo-player narrative adventure game with a real kitchen-sink fantasy setting. Somehow, I managed to rope my poor mother into playtesting it for me, which still to this day means a great deal to me, though she has never let me forget what a sacrifice it was for her to sit through!

Around that same time, I got absolutely hooked on Lord of the Rings and devoured absolutely everything Middle-Earth related I could get my hands on. At the end of 2003, after the theatrical release of The Return of the King, I received a copy of the Games Workshop Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game starter box. I was quite young at the time and it took me a fair while to properly parse the rules, but I found it absolutely fascinating. I spent truly unreasonable hours learning the game, painting the miniatures, crafting terrain, playing against myself, memorising the rulebook by rote and soon, I was creating my own rules content as well, coming up with new units and an unreleased ‘campaign’ type system for you to create your own little warband. I would have been insufferable as a child (still am by most accounts).

I progressed into Warhammer pretty smoothly from that point, crafting another homebrew RP system to use with the Warhammer Fantasy setting, this one relying on D6 dice pools. Not long after running a few games of this at school, I was introduced to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons and played a few games, but I was never really enamoured with the D20 system.

Since that time, I’ve dabbled a bit in a few different tabletop systems, particularly enjoying the 2nd edition of Fantasy Flight Games Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing Game, which gave me a great appreciation of the versatility of a percentile-based system. It is an appreciation which has informed many of the design decisions which have, in turn, given rise to Norbayne.

A draft title page from an earlier Norbayne version.
Jubal: And what made you start work on the Norbayne setting – were there particular media or ideas that inspired it, or did it just grow out of the play culture at your own table?

Phoenixguard: I think it was late 2011. I had been struggling for months to write a story. I had all the ideas for an interesting setting and world, but could not come up with a compelling story to write. The depression was setting in alarmingly quickly, until a friend of mine at the time (now wife), Stephanie, told me one evening, “Don’t write a story then, use the world you’ve created for something else.”

In hindsight, that advice seems very simple, but at the time, my mind was blown. It hadn’t occurred to me to even consider such a thing. So I think maybe ten months passed, where I worked on this thing basically in secret. I put together what I felt was quite a robust system to go with the setting and then began to invite a few people I thought may be interested. At the time, we didn’t actually have an explicit table as such, it was the playtesting of this game which brought our gaming group together. Thus was the Three Coins campaign born, which would last approximately nine years in the end, albeit with a couple of hiatuses in there due to various real-life scheduling issues.

Jubal: Can you give us a quick pitch – what makes Norbayne stand out for you and what makes it differ from other TTRPG settings out there?

Phoenixguard: From a setting perspective, there’s a bit of everything. We’ve got some allusions to an almost space operatic in the deep past of the setting, a classical fantasy kind of feel with some unique twists to the formula and then a legitimately in-depth evolutionary origin for the various species at large in the world. I think we’ve hit a really good balance between providing a detailed framework and providing enough freedom to come up with your own parts of the setting.

On the mechanical front, it’s elaborate. We’re a hard class-based percentile system with a fully independent ruleset and multiple ways to play baked into the core rules. While we may have a hard class-based design, the customisation available to you within your Class selection is prodigious, and to be fair, is probably the biggest part of why we’re still in development.

Jubal: If you could pick one place and one character that really sum up the setting for you, who and where would those be – and why?

Phoenixguard: I’m afraid I really can’t pick a single place or character right off the bat, but I think the initial Three Coins group is pretty representative of the setting. For that matter, there are worse locations to consider than the independent township of Summer Hill, in which we spend a great deal of time throughout the course of the Three Coins campaign. A Midland town sitting on the border between two powerful kingdoms, Summer Hill society is a conglomeration of various peoples, as are most towns throughout the Midlands of Norbayne come the modern era. One big design concept I wanted to emphasise right from the beginning was to stay away from the idea of great monolithic cultures being demarcated by species. In some places, this is still the case, but these cases are largely the exception, usually due to remoteness of location and the deliberately insular nature of the culture itself. By the modern age of Norbayne, most of the more populous settlements will have a mixed species population, and the society reflects this.

As for our initial playtest group, in large parts they defined the quintessential member of their people. For instance, George’s character, Harold Oakenshield provided us with a great example of just what an Invarrian was. He threw himself into the physiology of the species, for example always asking specifically if he could smell anything when I asked for Perception Checks, but he also really embraced the mentality of the Invarrians, their dualistic nature and dichotomy between their generally fun-loving personality and their inherent thrill in causing destruction.

He wasn’t alone in this. For instance, Steph’s Danann, Maebh Preachain-Eite really delved into the psyche of a Fell Clan Danann who had imposed a form of self-exile upon herself.

This is not to say we have not had similarly well-fleshed out and compelling characters since this time. Steph again has really hit the brief perfectly with another Danann, Bedelia Ceanndorcha in our Forgotten Glories campaign for example, nailing the concept of the Fell Clan Danann trying to exist in a society she really doesn’t quite understand, all the while dealing with her own, personal historical trauma.

Jubal: The aesthetics of much of Norbayne have a European feel – with for example the highlanders having very Scots aesthetics, some celtic myth terms like Danaan used. But, of course, you and your team are all Australian. What do you think is the attraction of building that Europeanism into your worlds – and how do you think your experiences and surroundings growing up in Australia might have influenced Norbayne?

Phoenixguard: In large part, this particular influence has come from me. The Lord of the Rings in particular was a huge influence upon me and most of the work I have done, even outside of the Norbayne project. I’d consider the Warhammer setting to also be a significant influence too, which definitely has a fairly strong European feel to it as well. I think personally, it’s a matter of comfort. I understand European folklore and languages quite well and can therefore incorporate it more easily as inspiration for my own works.

That is one thing to note, I guess. A lot of the structure of the setting is built around my personal love for and interest in languages. We use real-world languages to help us represent the in-game dialects (similarly to what Tolkien did, what with using Old English to represent Rohirric for instance, though I am not talented nor mad enough to construct my own languages), and as such, relationships between languages in the real world can help reveal various relationships between the languages, peoples and cultures of the world of Norbayne. It’s a fun little game you can play while you make your way through our years of collated lore. 

Some highlanders from Norbayne's, well, highlands.

Jubal: To return to the other part of the question about whether there's any 'Australian-ness' in how Norbayne has come together, do you think your relationship to that European folklore differs from authors who live in Europe, in aspects of landscape, wildlife or culture that might resonate differently for you?

Phoenixguard: Oh definitely, no doubt at all. I think being so far removed from that European ‘base’ has given our development a sense of other-ness. There’s a sense of it still being mysterious and foreign, without it being wholly unrecognisable and unfamiliar. Particularly from a landscape perspective, Australia doesn’t exactly have mountains, or at least not really in the sense other continents do, so there is a sense of the mountain ranges of Norbayne feeling perhaps a little more fantastical as a result.

There’d be quite a few things in that vein too, for instance, wolves. Wolves in many places in Europe are a very real and somewhat mundane creature (for all they are endangered in many regions today) however from an Australian perspective, there is so much mythology built up around those animals which cannot be experienced in day-to-day life. The Norbayne setting treats various species and variety of wolf perhaps more seriously and with more reverence (not sure if it’s the correct term) than other comparable settings may.

Jubal: You mentioned Warhammer and Tolkien as core inspirations. Warhammer in particular is a sort of "bucket of oddments" approach to a setting, whereas Tolkien's work has something of a more internally consistent and less anarchic feel (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). Which of those approaches do you think better characterises how you build fantasy?

Phoenixguard: I think I aim for somewhere in between, as close to the centre as possible, while pushing to one extreme or the other as the whim takes me. While that sounds anarchic and unfocussed, I think it adds to the depth of the setting as, ideally, we’d like to think there should be something for everyone.

It's probably fair to say I aim for internal consistency everywhere I can and have spent countless hours mulling over the evolutionary paths of any given ancestry in an attempt to tie their birth into the setting’s prehistory, but sometimes, just as in the real world, occurrences can be wild and unexpected and there may just be no explanation every now and then, which just adds to the mystery and excitement.

I hope so, anyway. 

Jubal: Norbayne is a setting first and foremost but it’s also a completely independent game with its own rules. What made you decide to develop Norbayne as a totally independent system, rather than a setting supplement for a major published TTRPG rule set?

Phoenixguard: In light of the recent Wizards of the Coast Open Gaming Licence drama, I’m very glad I chose to do something different. Largely, I struggled to find a system which properly modelled the specifics of how I wanted the setting to be represented. The WFRPG, while excellent and a favourite of mine, doesn’t lend itself particularly well to being translated to other settings. I’ve never really liked most D20-based systems and I definitely did not want to work with Vancian-style casting for Norbayne’s various magic systems.

In the end, it almost felt like less work to build a system from scratch, as compared to chopping and changing something which already existed to make it fit reasonably well.

I remember the very early days of the project, trying to show people and explain it to them and I’d regularly be met with a barrage of, “Why don’t you just use the D&D rules?” Considering that fact, you would think I’d have a better answer for this question by now.

GMing Norbayne: Phoenixguard in action
Jubal: Could you give us a blow-by-blow account of a quick example combat round, to give people an idea of how some rolls might play out in your system?

Phoenixguard: Of course. I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible, as while on the tabletop this is usually pretty quick and efficient, in prose it might come across a bit rough.

On any given combat round, each participant would act in Initiative order, which is determined by rolling a single d10 and adding it to your character’s Initiative Statistic. For example, let’s say two of our longest running characters, the sisters, Mathlynn and Aracaeda Cild-Ailith are going to have a little sparring match to pass the time.

They’d each determine their Initiative, with the higher result acting first. In this case, it is likely Aracaeda would act first as she has the higher base Initiative, but there is a chance she’d be slow on the uptake. For the example’s sake, let’s say she rolled higher. Each character generally has a Movement Action and a Full Action to utilise on their turn. Aracaeda may move up to her Speed Statistic in feet as a Movement Action every turn. In addition to this, she may elect to perform a Full Attack with her Full Action or a Quick Attack with a Half Action. By electing to do the latter, Aracaeda may hold a Half Action in reserve to use as a Dodge or Parry should the occasion call for it.

She does so, moving into close combat with Mathlynn and making a Quick Attack with her longsword. She must then determine her target number to hit Mathlynn. By adding her Dexterity Statistic to any bonus she may have to her Close Combat Skill and her longsword Weapon Proficiency and then subtracting any situation negatives she may suffer to the target number, Aracaeda can determine her target number. She may then roll a d100 to determine her success, wanting to get as far under the target number as she can. She will then advise the Games Master of how many ‘degrees of success’ she achieved, by determining the difference between the ‘10’s’ die of the d100 and the ‘10’s’ place value of the target number. For example, if her target number was ‘87’ and she rolled a ‘24’, she would have achieved 6 degrees of success.

Mathlynn, should she have a half action available to her, may attempt to Parry or Dodge this oncoming attack. She would do this by either rolling a d100 and attempting to achieve higher than Aracaeda’s target number to hit, or alternatively rolling under her own Agility Statistic plus any bonus she may have to her own Dodge Skill. In this case, Mathlynn knows Aracaeda’s target number is very high and so would likely attempt to dodge the strike. Should she succeed, no Damage would be done, though on her turn, Mathlynn would only have a Half Action with which to perform any activities, as she would have used a Half Action to perform the Dodge Check. Should she fail to perform the Dodge, she would of course take damage, equal to Aracaeda’s degrees of success to hit, the damage value of her sword and her Strength Modifier, plus any other bonuses Aracaeda may have. This would then be mitigated by any damage reduction and resistances Mathlynn may have, with the final total subtracted from Mathlynn’s current Health total.

This is our basic close combat mechanic, though different weapons, armour, Talents and other abilities can cause this initial mechanic to take on further varied forms. On her own turn, Mathlynn, a Necromancer, may well seek to raise some nearby corpses and use them to apprehend and detain her sister.

Jubal: What have been some of the biggest problems and changes you’ve had to make on a mechanics and rules level to the game over time, and how do you approach those challenges?

Phoenixguard: We’ve seen quite a few major paradigm changes to the system over the years. I think the first big one (and likely the most contentious in practice) was implementing Soulfire as a generated Statistic for your character. Previously, we balanced magic by making it very dangerous, but it quickly became apparent this was not particularly working. As such, I reduced the inherent danger of Arcane Magic by a little and incorporated Soulfire as a way of tracking your character’s ability to sling spells around. There was a varied reaction to that change, let me tell you.

On the one hand, about half the party were very happy with the change, while particularly Steph, who was playing a Mage, could not have felt more differently.

I think the most important thing we’ve had to embrace with regards to this is the fact our stories to date, while the game as a whole is now largely realised, remain playtests. As such, when a balancing issue does become apparent, we normally try and implement fixes in between sessions. In recent years, this has become significantly less prevalent, but I can’t deny, it has taken some cooperation and understanding from the playing group.

Jubal: Can you talk a bit more about how you deal with that playtesting element? Are there particular guidelines you have to set yourself with how to approach rebalancing and other issues, like not changing too many elements at once, or do you just reshuffle the game as needed and eyeball the outcome you're after?

Phoenixguard: Again, probably a bit of both. I try my best to factor in the feedback from each of the players at the table and any reports I may get from outside it. I personally try to make changes to a certain mechanic or area of the game in one hit and hope not to change too many other major elements at the same time in an attempt to help the players keep track of changes when they occur. By dint of the various campaigns we play though, this can be somewhat difficult at times, which again, as mentioned previously, requires some understanding and cooperation from the players.

As the ruleset is, to be frank, pretty sprawling at this stage, there’s certainly an element of simply eyeballing changes and trying to monitor it in play. We are lucky to have a few members of the team with a bit of an analytical bent. Previously, one of our inaugural players, Geoffrey, provided us with some significant statistical breakdowns for a fair few concepts to help give us an idea of places we should look to redress, which was very useful.

We are bringing quite a few new players into the game in the next few months too, which I’ll mention again a little bit later. We’re definitely hoping to continue to build up our resources in this area as we are constantly looking for different perspectives and experiences to help us enrich the game experience.

The Norbayne team busy with a long Hallowe'en playtest session
Jubal: Of course, Norbayne’s a team project: how do you balance different people’s inputs and interests, and how important is that collective part of the effort to what Norbayne has become?

Phoenixguard: It’s been huge, right from the outset. I mentioned before how we’ve had so many elements of the setting informed by the creativity of our players. So much of the Invarrian society for instance was laid out by George initially when he played Harold Oakenshield in Three Coins, but then a lot more of it was codified by Bri when she put together an elaborate backstory for Assar Eiliert upon the resumption of The God King campaign.

Skye has been huge in this area too. There’s a lot of depth in many different places which is owed to Skye, firstly as a player, then as part of our development team and, more recently, as a games master too. We have a private chat where Skye just asks me random setting-related questions, which I may or may not end up finishing the answers to.

The balancing act has been interesting. I think it’s fair to say, from a setting and lore perspective, the entire team is more than happy to cede overall decisions to me, but I guess I’m lucky in that the whole team has a good grasp of the feel of the setting. Most discussion surrounding, “Can I do this in the setting?” is normally very positive and built around discussing exactly how such a thing could work. It is very rare I’ve had to say to one of our players, “No, it doesn’t work like that, you couldn’t do such a thing.”

The rules and system differences can be a little more contentious. Again, normally the final decision pretty well comes down to me, but there’s been a few times where I’ve been outvoted. I try to remain as balanced and even-handed as possible and I’ve had to learn to take a step back and let others provide their input even in those situations where I disagree.

The key principle we’ve really tried to push recently has been the idea of, ‘Responsibility, not ownership.’ There was a tendency in the past where individual developers would feel a sense of ownership over concepts and elements of the game they had worked on, which led to a feeling of discontent upon other members of the team running an eye over those elements and offering feedback, or, in my opinion, even more distressingly, a sense one could not work upon a certain concept or class because it was one individual’s personal project. We’ve consciously tried to move away from this, seeking a holistic design process which encompasses the core team as a base and referring to our consultant team as required.

Jubal: And to give people an insight into your next steps, what can we expect from Norbayne in the near future?

Phoenixguard: At this stage, we’re getting mighty close to launching our Kickstarter campaign. We’ve been dedicated to making sure the actual content of the game is completed before launching the Kickstarter, so all we will need to do is fund the artwork and overall design of our product and then printing and distribution costs.

We’re currently in the process of really opening our playtesting group too. We’ve had a significant influx of interested newcomers looking to play some one-shot games with our development team after we put out a call to arms of sorts.

Steph and I got married last April, so we’re taking a little bit of time to enjoy that before launching into what is shaping up to be our biggest year yet. Between our newcomer one-shots, the launch of Arc 3 of Seven Stones and a Pale Shadow and hopefully the release of our Great Maw table-read, there’ll be plenty of content to experience in the lead up to the Kickstarter campaign.

There’s also been a little bit of talk around a streamed game, though I probably shouldn’t say too much more about that.

Jubal: And finally, where can people find out more about the game?

Phoenixguard: At this stage, a lot of our material is based here on Exilian. We will be moving to our own website in time, but we’ll be maintaining a strong presence on Exilian to discuss elements of the game moving forward.

If you’d like to join our community and keep abreast of any and all updates, please join our Discord. You’ll note we’re still taking expressions of interest for prospective newcomers. At this time, we’re only able to cater for players local to the South-East Queensland area in Australia, however we are working to incorporate a remote option for our friends further afield.

Lastly, we have an Instagram page at the moment, where we’ve historically posted all kinds of concept art, fan art and sometimes photos and snippets of video from our sessions. Feel free to give us a cheeky follow on there.

Posted on September 17, 2023, 12:04:48 AM by Jubal
Unusual selections from a magical library

Unusual selections from a magical library
By Jubal

Whilst digging through the lost libraries of the depths of Exilian, I decided to note down a selection of the most intriguing magical texts, to give you all some more ideas about what might lurk at the heart of any magical libraries, wizards' towers, or other such spaces that you may be creating for your TTRPGs, computer games, fantasy fiction, or similar. As such, here are twelve magical texts that you might come across. Read on... though, as ever, remember that knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

The Aumanac
If read normally, is just a series of folk tales: but it can be read in a different way (back to front, in columns, every other line: it's a hidden text puzzle) and if this is done the Aumanac bonds with the reader, its covers forming a breastplate, the pages a robe and cloak, and the metal corner caps transforming into a helm. The Aumanac armour does not have a terribly high armour value but works more by providing beneficial effects (forcing opponents to fail or re-try attacks, permitting the hero to try again when they fail at something) and also meaning deus ex machina events happen to the hero a lot: it is, in fact, literal plot armour.

The Holy Laws Of Meryten
A set of laws devised to govern magic by some gods at the dawn of time: these were long since forgotten but are mostly technically still in force, meaning that a user who has properly read the book has the opportunity to resist almost preternaturally well or even produce a full counterspell any time they are targeted by a magical attack, as long as they can come up with a plausible sounding novel loophole or legal technicality that makes the action illegal. The book can only be properly memorised by one person at a time, because the lawyer who wrote it all down didn't want anyone stealing his business.

The Good Little Bullywug
A children's tale about a sad little bullywug (that is, a frog person, for those who do not know D&D monster lore). She wants to be a princess but turns out to actually just be a bullywug after all. The tale appears unimportant, but if a hero expresses sympathy for the bullywug and hugs or gives a kiss to the book, the bullywug will be summoned. She is neutral good, really really wants to help the heroes, and mostly has the stats of a bullywug, but is *completely indestructible by any means* - she could be lost by e.g. being portaled away, but no attacks or environmental hazards will ever affect her. She will also leave the party if they do too many evil deeds, because, well, she's literally a children's book character and doesn't want to be disappointed by you.

The Volumomanteion
A tabletop-game only option. Pick another book from nearby the gaming table (not a rulebook, ideally a novel). The user of the Oracle should roll d100, and count pages and pick a sentence depending on the phases of the moon:

  • Crescent moon: Count from the back, first sentence on the page
  • Waxing moon: Count from the front, last sentence on the page
  • Full moon: Count from the front, first sentence on the page
  • Waning moon: Count from the back, last sentence on the page

The reader then becomes the agent of this prophecy: they get a small penalty, at the GM’s discretion, until they can reasonably argue that they have fulfilled the spirit of their selected sentence, at which point they get a small permanent bonus.

The Periplus, Commesian the Navigator
Often wrongly assumed to be the periplus (travel account) "of" Commesian, but actually Commesian transformed himself into a book to better record his voyages, which encompassed everywhere on the prime material plane. Commesian did so hundreds of years ago, but this means he can basically be used as a historial hitch-hiker's guide who can reveal the locations of lost treasure, cities, etc, often in the form of slightly annoying reminiscences about how everything was better when he was young. The book is sentient, but only talks if provided with incentives either by threatening its fabric or by coaxing it with offers of travel and stories of what the world is like now.

A History of Swords
This is a book that rewrites itself to be the history of whatever sword the reader is actually carrying and/or any swords in the room. Could reveal who was killed with them, those people's life stories, any magic item secrets, etc. It may reveal things about non-sword weapons but will be incredibly rude about their inferiority due to them not being swords.
The Prophecies of Ceraphai
The Prophecies is not, in fact, a book that may tell heroes prophecies about themselves: rather, it’s a magical book that seeks to make the reader an agent of prophecy, and will open itself to pages relating to areas, families, or that it senses the heroes may be near. The prophecies will not always be happy ones, but the heroes can loophole them and the writing is often such to allow for this.

A prophecy being fulfilled will cause the book to replace that page with some information of use to the fulfiller – be that a small bit of local wisdom, the location of nearby treasure, or similar. Pointedly failing to fulfil a prophecy or refusing to, conversely, will cause the page to be filled with a minor curse, explosive runes, or similar.

Six example prophecies
1 - The last heir of (family) must admit their true love before the month ends
Note: This isn’t necessarily a matchmaking task! Finding what they already love, in any sense of that term, and getting them to admit it should count. Though matchmaking might also work.
2 - The ruler of (place) is fated to die before the month ends
Note: actually easily loopholed by finding someone already on their deathbed and temporarily making them the ruler until the end of the month.
3 - There shall be no king/mayor/duke upon the throne of x hereafter
Note: just persuade them to change the titulature! Though having a revolution also works.
4 - Their bones shall be broken, their flesh burned, their home shall lie empty in the dark.
Note: bones and flesh can be purchased by the prophesy-holder at all good local butchers, thus becoming theirs. Their home doesn’t have to be emptied for more than a night.
5 – Only when a sapling planted this year touches the roof of the tallest tower will the city be safe from the plague.
Note: the prophecy never states that the sapling’s roots still need to be in the ground. Behold, a way to include plot-critical flowerpots and roof climbing into your fantasy worlds.
6 – The lovers shall never be allowed to marry without bringing bad luck to all the fishermen of the area, unless they dance their marriage dance upon the sea-floor.
Note: I don’t have a good way to rule this one, but it is a really good way for someone who took control water or waterbreathing spells to have a moment to shine. Also, a scene where the heroes have to let the lovers keep dancing while fighting off an evil overlord’s angry fish-men/drowned dead/giant doom nautilus might have something to it.

The Three Walled Castle
A children’s book. When opened to a certain page and sung the right nursery rhymes the book opens out into a tiny castle full of little fey spirits who are excessively and bizarrely chivalric. The castle only has three walls, and takes up approximately a 4ft (1.2 metre) square. The inhabitants are tiny (7-10cm), equipped variously as knights, archers, and royals, and number around twenty: they are very persuadable to take on anything that can be made to sound like a chivalric enough task, but conversely will refuse to help with anything that sounds unchivalrous.

The Heresiarch
This book contains details of hundreds of lost heresies and minor gods whose cults were wiped out by various inquisitions and similar. Not all the gods in it are evil, but all of them are chaotic or otherwise opposed to the usual ordering of society. At least, that's a first impression. Heroes reading this book will actually tend to find more and more heresies or ideas that speak to their particular frustrations with the social order they find themselves in, as the book tries to give them the information and ideas to break out of those bonds or strictures - for better or for worse, as the book is an agent of heresy for its own sake.

The Doomscroll
When unrolled, the Doomscroll is always full of tiny annal entries containing the worst things happening in the world. This is useful for discerning what the heroes need to be doing in an up to the minute way, but there is a catch. It may cause temporary penalties to intellect and wisdom to use, and those who know of its existence, especially its mysterious original author, can manipulate it to show what they want the heroes to see.

Tapputi's Laboratory
Mostly an alchemy guide, but opening a hidden part of the book's cover correctly lets you into the extradimensional laboratory, which is a small dungeon-style adventure themed around potions and alchemy that needs clearing. If this is done, Tapputi's ghost will be found at the centre of the laboratory and will provide useful advice on potions beyond those which can normally be created by mortal kindreds.

The Nestognomeicon
The pages of this book are quite loose. All of them contain terribly done pictures of gnomes. If one falls out, a gnome is spawned. Note that the book is around 350 pages long so if all of them fall out at once there may be some issues.

The gnomes from the Nestognomeicon have entirely beetle-black eyes, a preternatural sense for where paintings, metal items, and mechanisms are, and a tendency to hoarding behaviour: they speak their own clicking and guttural language unknown to those around them. In general they will attempt to find a suitably safe, small space and busily start hoarding items that are precious to them there. They are otherwise, well, gnomes.

The lost librarians of Exilian hope you found these texts interesting and enlightening, and remind you that under no circumstances are readers allowed into the Forbidden Shelves of the site archives. Have you seen anything similar to these books in stories or campaigns, or do you have any entries to add? Do say, and let us know what you might do with these texts and ideas, in the thread below!

Posted on August 23, 2023, 05:16:52 PM by Spritelady
Exilian Chain Writing - 2023: complete story!

Chain Writing 2023: The Complete Story

By Seven Wonderful Chain Writers (edited by Spritelady)

Our chain writing tale is now complete, and I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who took part (who are more than welcome to lay claim to their writing below, or leave it a mystery!). I really appreciate everyone's time and effort, and especially that everyone managed to return their writing well before the deadlines!

I think we have a really interesting story, and I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts. So without further ado, our fantasy tale...

There was time to spare, for once, but that night’s journey was still uneasy.

Following her companion, the stocky little woman crept through unlit passageways with a level of quiet, slow purpose more usually reserved for snails than people. Light was not an option. Talking was not an option. Breathing was just about acceptable, as long as she held the imagined death-stare of a librarian in her mind to ensure, with withering glances, that she kept the noise down.

She adjusted her pince-nez and re-pinned a stray grey braid as she walked: there was no need for haste, and keeping her hands quietly busy helped with the nerves. The route was cool, even airy, but a nervous sweat still moistened her hands.

It took another hour of twists, turns, circles – some passages only opened if one went round a loop twice, or shut certain routes once every 20 minutes – but with her guide ahead of her, these were merely rituals rather than problems. She just had to be quiet enough not to attract undue attention: and as she’d never been good at attracting attention when it was frankly more than due, this was just fine.

At last, she gingerly stretched her legs down a ladder – this place felt built for someone at least half a foot taller, if built was even the correct term. There was light, finally: the woman and her guide saw each other, curiosity and fear mingled between them, for the first time. They had arrived.

“We can speak now. The guardians will not detect us here.” Her companion said.
The woman’s eyes widened as it threw back its hood. They had not known each other long, but she still found the appearance strange. Her guide was a birdlike creature, covered in crimson feathers. It had a curved, blue beak and tiny black eyes. Eyes that were fixated on what lay before them.

Dim green light was emanating from an immense golden cube in the middle of the cavernous room they found themselves in. Its sides were alive with glittering ornate glyphs which held unknown meaning.  On each side of the cube were set four huge doors, each inlaid with a fist sized, glowing emerald.

Finally, she had found it. It was the device! She shuddered, thinking of the amazing and terrible things that could be done with it. 
“Was it you that sent me the message about this?” The woman asked apprehensively, finally tearing her gaze away from the device.
“Yes, Briyya'' It said. Its beaked mouth was clumsy with her name. “You are the one who can operate it.”

It was a statement, not a question. She had spent many years in the unseen corners of bookshops and libraries reading endless texts in the hopes of finding any mention of this mythical item. Her persistence had not been in vain. Nobody knew it better than her.
She gave a reluctant nod.

She pressed her left hand firmly against one of the emeralds. It was cold to the touch, yet glowing with heat. A wave of relaxation and a surge of energy hit her at the same time.

She said the words that she had practised a thousand times, her hand on a pomelo pressed against the kitchen wall. Hesitant at first, then louder, then chanting.

With her other hand on the door, she pushed. It gave way, not hinging but straight inward, as if carving a tunnel through solid gold. With her first step into the cube the pain started. Not nearly as bad as the scriptures had led her to believe. Her second step made her falter a little, but she knew she had to press on.

By now the pain was intense. Looking back she saw how far she had gone, the entrance a speck of light. It was excruciating, like being ripped apart, skin burning, blood boiling, bones twisting. She pushed on, her hand still on the emerald. No, in it. Past it. She entered the emerald, became it, its infinite reflections were her own, until finally she was reborn, stepping out all four sides of the cube.

Looking over one shoulder, then the other, she saw herselves. She was her body, cold but strong. She was her spirit, burning and free. She was her blood, flowing beautifully. She was her bones, crackling with power.
“Time to get to work,” she said in unison.


Arrakam watched the human disappear into darkness and allowed himself a sigh of relief. He had worked for centuries to reach this point: hiding in the shadows of the human cities above; learning their language; stealing the materials he needed for his forgeries. "Scriptures" they called them, gullible creatures! He needed them no more: the Host - his Host - would soon emerge. He hoped there would be time for a little conversation with someone he respected.

At that moment, he heard footsteps in the corridor above him; he recognised them even after a millennium of separation. His sister Arrasai flung herself down the ladder and landed crouching, feathers erect and talons outstretched. Her eyes found his.

"Arrakam," she breathed, "What have you done?"
"It's good to see you too, sister," he replied, "I have released us from our imprisonment."
"You have broken our oath!"
"Not so. Our purpose is to protect the Dako from misuse by our own kind."

Arrasai hesitated for a moment, then approached the door. The light from the Dako was growing brighter by the minute, but the doorway remained shrouded in darkness.

"You put a human inside," she said, turning to face him again. "You know its brain can't cope."
"They were once little more than animals," he replied, "But they have grown to embrace power, even as we fear it. This will suffice."
“What happened to you, Arrakam?” she asked with a quivering voice. “You’re barely anything like the Xellian I remember. You think I haven’t heard of everything you’ve been doing?”

A sneer crossed Arrakam’s face.
“What does it even matter? You come to lecture me, and call me oathbreaker? You think I enjoy this? Do you think that lowly of me? I am simply willing to do what must be done, even if it means not playing by their stupid rules anymore.”
“So, it's all about trickery to you?”
“No, no... I detest trickery. But if we ourselves are to suffer deception, our hands are no longer tied. I’m sick of these false moral shackles. ”
“If you’d prefer shackles of the iron variety, that can be arranged,” Arrasai hissed. “Imprisonment would be a merciful sentence for your crimes.”

Arrakam ruffled his feathers in impatience.

“The threat of punishment hasn’t deterred me during my centuries of planning. Why should it stay my talons now, on the brink of victory? If you want to report me to the guardians, go fetch them and leave me to my work.”

Arrasai sprang forward, her beak clicking in an aggressive battle cry. Arrakam widened his stance and prepared to ward off his sister’s attack. They both noticed the changing light from the Dako at the same moment and stopped to stare.
The Host was emerging.


Briyya’s many hands were a blur as they tapped the glyphs in a complex, rapid pattern. The interior of the cube flashed with thousands of faces, hummed with thousands of voices speaking a cacophony of dead languages she did not know. Yet Briyya could understand the meaning of the words in a corner of her consciousness which no longer belonged, entirely, to her.

Briyya was an elder by human standards, but she sensed the presence of much older minds swirling inside the Dako. The wisdom, prowess, and charisma of untold generations were preserved here, waiting to be channelled into a living vessel.

“Who shall I try on first?” she mused. But this was merely a rhetorical question, for one voice called to her louder than all the others. She knew who she must become.

Briyya now knew what the Dako was: knowledge. An archive with infinite revolutionary minds. She recognized some of them: Secundus the Silent, Beyonce. And the one who called to her: Seraphina, the librarian who’d protected the library of Xenaxos with her fiery blade. Briyya was a fan.

She spread her arms in the thick nothingness that surrounded her and whispered, “Seraphina, come to me,” until she felt a slow dislodging of her mind. They were ready.


The two Xellians were peering at the figure emerging from the blinding light. “You are going to be in so much trouble,” Arrasai hissed, whacking her brother’s arm with a feathery slap.

“Be silent,” Arrakam said, “and observe- we shall be free.” She narrowed her beady eyes at him.
“You’re allowed to act out at this age, but this is too much. You swore to mum a millennium ago that you would stop this!” Arrakam now turned to her, irritably. Just because he was going through puberty, people thought they could boss him around.

 “You do not know what I have to endure-”
“High school isn’t fun for anyone, Arrakam! We’re not imprisoned, you-”

Before they could continue the family argument that had started 2000 years ago, they were interrupted by someone clearing their throat.
“The Host,” Arrakam breathed. He spun around to meet his saviour- and froze.

There was an old lady. With Briyya’s pince-nez. And a flaming letter opener.
“Hello. I am Seraphina. Is there a bathroom around? I haven’t had a bladder in some time,” she said calmly. Arrakam blinked.

“You are the Host?”
 “The host? This is certainly not my home. Who’s that behind you?”
 “Are you here to incinerate my enemies? And… get me out of school?” the birdling tried. Arrasai was suppressing laughter. Seraphina straightened her back.

“No, I thought I might continue my research with Briyya. Or perhaps… bake a cake.” Arrakam buried his talons in his legs, pulling out feathers in the rage rising inside him.

“Are you alright, son? Perhaps some tea?” Seraphina asked.
“You have got to be f*cking kidding me!” Arrakam screeched.

Posted on March 26, 2023, 01:44:52 PM by rbuxton
Three Accidents in Andalucía

Three Accidents in Andalucía
By rbuxton

My brother arrived in Spain in January 2020 and, with one thing and another, it was three years before I managed to visit him. By then he was living in Madrid and I used that as a start point for a three week tour of Andalucía, the southernmost of mainland Spain’s “autonomous communities” (they are very autonomous, by the way). I was partly drawn to this region by its mild winter weather, but mainly by its promise of history, culture and mountains. The title of this article is not entirely honest: my first two stops, and my first “accident”, were actually in the central province of Castilla-La Mancha.

Humans were living permanently in caves in Andalucía from at least 25 000 years ago. The area was then colonised by Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors (Arabs and Berbers) and the Christian Kingdoms which would become modern Spain. In the 1st century AD a Jewish community – the Sephardim – settled in the area and experienced varying degrees of persecution until they were violently expelled in about the 14th century. Although they contain art and architecture from many of these different eras, the cities of the region do not feel like monuments to racial and religious harmony. The dominance of one group would come abruptly to an end and the conquerors would make their own mark on top of the old – quite literally, in places like Granada. Geographically Andalucía is fairly mountainous with several national parks and its dramatic coastline includes the Costa del Sol. There are some fertile river valleys to the west but to the east it borders a desert – the only one in Europe.

Many of Andalucía’s cities have an “old city” area which is clearly defined: on a hill in Toledo, an island in Cádiz. In Cordoba, however, it goes on forever, and the buildings there were noticeably lower and the narrow streets less gloomy as a result. Getting lost in these areas is part of the sightseeing experience, and the main buildings of interest sometimes spring out at you without warning. I saw a number of open-topped tour buses and wondered about their efficacy: a big bus in these places is about as useful as in, say, Venice. “There’s the roof of the cathedral… about a mile away, and the palace next to it… you’ll have to walk that bit.”


On my first day in Spain’s capital I saw the cathedral and palace then took the metro to the Buen Retiro Park. I walked through it, past the lake and monument to King Alfonso XII, to the Reina Sofia art gallery. This is home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a vast black and white painting depicting the 1937 Nazi bombing of the eponymous town. Next I went to the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple gifted to Spain in 1968. It was moved piece by piece to a hilltop in the city centre, where it has a commanding view over parks and the distant mountains. My brother took me into those mountains the following day, to Navacerrada, where a ski resort looks down over a reservoir. We followed a river valley up to the remnants of the snowline, where the path got slippery underfoot. Huge vultures wheeled around us, riding the air currents with hardly a beat of their wings.

In between the days out, tapas and live music I tried to plan my next stop. I was dismayed to see that a train journey to Seville would be expensive and take up most of a day. Much better to take a bus for €5 to a city just south of Madrid.


Perched on a rock and surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river gorge, Toledo is spectacular. The city is famous – as anyone who’s seen the film Highlander will know – for its steel making, and the souvenir shops are packed with swords. I dragged myself up the slope alongside its 16th century walls towards a hostel with a sunny roof terrace. I visited the complex of the Santa Fe convent, a series of buildings which was variously used as a Moorish palace, Castillian castle, base for a knightly order, nunnery, girls’ school and now eclectic modern art gallery. The following day I took a bus to a viewpoint on the far side of the gorge, walked back across a Roman bridge and took in the synagogue, alcázar (castle) and cathedral. The latter was one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever been in; a highlight was its three metre high gold and silver monstrance.

Now to my first “accident”: sitting down to a meal of pasta and tomato soup (I’d misread the tin) at the hostel I heard drumming. I was aware that February was carnival month in much of Andalucía and thought my arrival might have coincided with a rehearsal. I was wrong: the main parade was that evening and it wound through the city streets and down, down, down to the river. I felt like the happiest tourist alive as I followed the dancers, musicians, fishermen and weeping clowns/kings/queens. The noise was sometimes deafening and the sense of community contagious. Only the pigeons, startled off distant balconies, seemed perturbed.

Accident the First- being swept up in Toledo's carnival. Great for your correspondent, less so for the local columbidae.


A dramatic bus ride through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada took me to Granada, medieval seat of the Nasrid dynasty. I had come to see the Alhambra: essentially a city on a hill of its own consisting of palaces, castles and gardens with some of the best preserved buildings of their kind in the world. I spent a lot of time gazing at views of and from it, and had booked a four hour guided tour well in advance. Wandering the labyrinth of beautifully plastered rooms and courtyards was very special. My guide pointed to some interesting features of Islamic architecture: fountains, for example, are always small to provide a peaceful murmur of water, unlike the thundering status symbols of European aristocracy. Islamic buildings are usually plain and unadorned on the exterior so, when the Christians conquered the Alhambra, they slapped their own richly decorated palace in the middle of it. When Sultan Boabdil, weakened by infighting in his own court, surrendered Granada the centuries of Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula were over. This was in 1492, the same year Columbus set sail on his fateful voyage across the Atlantic.


The warm weather of coastal Málaga was a relief after the time spent in the mountains, and helped me get over a cold. The city’s reputation as a mere party destination for British sunseekers is undeserved – though there’s certainly a large amount of Sangria available. I explored its waterfront and Roman and medieval buildings, many of which are clustered around a steep, pine-covered hill which affords brilliant panoramas of the city. The cathedral (affectionately known as the “One-armed Lady” since the second of its two towers was never finished) was lit up beautifully every evening by the setting sun. From Málaga I did a day trip to the Nerja caves, a huge network of chambers with artwork dating back 42 000 years. Tourists cannot visit these light-sensitive paintings but it’s still worth seeing the extraordinary speleothems (the general term for cave mineral formations) which include a 32-metre high column. There was plenty of information about the area on a “nature walk” above the caves, which I extended towards a beach for a freezing cold 30-second swim.

Andalucía Day was fast approaching and I asked Pedro, the receptionist, if this would affect long distance public transport. “I don’t know,” he said, like everybody else, “But you know you should go to my home town. You will see something very folk, it’s not for the tourists. Do the pilgrimage to Santa Fe, it’s maybe one hour. There will be music. I have to work”. Unsure of what I was letting myself in for I took a train into the Sierra del Gibralmora. Santa Fe turned out to be a sharp rocky outcrop above the town of Pizarra and the four-hour round trip had great views back to the coast. I returned to find the streets of the town had been closed to vehicles and there were horses everywhere. People drinking beer on horseback, chatting on horseback, watching the musicians and Flamenco dancers on horseback. I, meanwhile, was making an ass of myself trying to order street food in my faltering Spanish – it was clear there weren’t many tourists around. I returned to the hostel, grinning at my accidental good fortune, and showed Pedro my videos. “Hey,” he cried, “That’s my house!”

Accident the Second - an unexpected trip to Santa Fe where your correspondent found himself lacking the apparently obligatory horse.


I only had a day in the fourth largest city in Spain so I spent most of it exploring on foot. It was nice to stand by the river and imagine Columbus setting sail all those years ago. The city is home to the third-largest cathedral in Christendom which, unfortunately, seemed to have the third-largest queue as well, and it was the same with the alcázar. I don’t feel I did Sevilla justice, but I did have some very nice empanadas. It was time to chill for a few days in a laid-back coastal town.


Cádiz is situated on an island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus just on the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians were the first people to spot its potential as a trade post in the 7th Century BC and they walled off the isthmus to create a fortress. The 16th Century Puertas de Tierra still divide the old city from the new; another notable feature is the large number of sea-facing merchant watchtowers dotted around. I climbed a tower, went to the cathedral and had a great time in the extensive fish market, where I bought a big bag of prawns for €4 (they were no longer wriggling, unlike the crabs). Cádiz’s place in history was further cemented when it became the de facto capital of Spain during the Peninsula War. It was here that the liberal constitution of 1812 was proclaimed, and this left-wing attitude has been proudly maintained ever since. It is most evident today, I’m told, in its riotous annual carnival, which I had just missed.

Or so I thought.

I began to suspect something was up when I saw a group of middle-aged men in silly costumes waving inflatable guitars at each other on the Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, crowds had started to gather at the steps of various buildings around town, which served as stages. These were filled up apparently at random by groups of performers in even sillier costumes – the group of large rubber ducks was a personal favourite. The acts divided roughly into two types. The first I would describe as “street pantomime”: two people – friends or a husband-and-wife team – would regale passers by with stories, jokes and songs with the help of kazoos and wooden sticks. Afterwards they would give out badges in exchange for coins and spend the coins on beer and sherry (“Please fund our alcoholism,” read one sign, in English). The second type would be a group of ten or more singers with guitars, drums, cymbals and seriously good four-part harmonies. The words were entirely lost on me which was a shame as the crowd were laughing and joining in with everything, especially the drinking. I’m pretty sure, however, that the nun was inviting the fireman in through her window for some distinctly un-nunnish activities.

Accident the Third - because why have one accidental carnival stop when you could have three?


My last stop was another former Moorish stronghold with remains of walls dotted around. My first view of the cathedral and alcázar was from the far side of the Guadalquivir river, where there are historical bridges and watermills. The alcázar here was actually built by Christian kings after they conquered the city in 1236. More recently some exquisite Roman mosaics were moved here, but the gardens with their rows of fountains were the highlight for me. I went to the Museum of the Sephardic Jews in an old town house, which was very moving. Many converts to Christianity continued to practise Judaism in secret – an activity the 15th century Inquisition sought to stamp out. Just across the road was a synagogue, forgotten after its conversion to a church but now restored. The city’s famous Mezquita is another example of a religious building changing over time: it’s a cathedral built to completely cover and encapsulate an earlier mosque. The first thing you see on entering is some of the 800 or so columns supporting arches stretching away into the gloom. I finished up with a tour of the churches to the east of the old city, then it was time for a bus back to Madrid and a flight home.

I’m not sure how to wrap this up. It was a brilliant three weeks and I’d recommend it to anyone. The bigger cities could easily be done as a weekend getaway or, for a longer tour, Andalucía could be combined with Portugal, Valencia and Barcelona or even Morocco (an hour away by boat). There may be a few errors in the dates and facts in my account so please let me know if you spot any. Regarding my three accidents, I suppose I was simply in the right place at the right time. If that doesn’t encourage you to put a bag on your back and go somewhere new I don’t know what will. Thanks for reading.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this article and want to read more travel writing by Exilian members, please check out the forum's Travel Writing Index, which includes a range of members' travels and thoughts on places from Tunis to Tbilisi and more besides!

Posted on March 18, 2023, 01:07:36 PM by Jubal
Thinking Chimerically

Thinking Chimerically
By Jubal

The Chimera of Arezzo, an ancient art piece. By Saiko, via Wikimedia Commons.
What makes a chimera a chimera? Whilst of course there’s the ‘original model’ with its goat, dragon, and lion heads and snake tail, the term has a more general usage for animals made of bits of other animals. These include the gryphon, the hippocampus, the hippogriff, the owlbear (in its post-Gygaxian/modern incarnations), the wolpertinger, the jackalope, a lot of grotesques in medieval margin images, and so on. We’ve even had the spectacle of a real creature being declared chimerical: the first Europeans to see platypuses assumed they were sewn together fakes, and indeed some aboriginal tales posit them as the offspring of a duck and a rakali, giving them a chimerical ancestry.

We keep coming up with and using chimeras. The gryphon may be ancient, after all, but the owlbear is only about half a century old. The inherent way that animal parts can be recombined is something we will doubtless keep playing with – but what works, and how we can put together a chimera, isn’t something entirely without logic or rules. Those rules depend on what we’re trying to achieve with our chimerical being, and how we feel and think about the particular animals and animal parts being used. For the time being, we’ll start with a basic definition of a chimera as having the characteristics that it has parts that are recognisably from multiple animals, and that it also bears some attribute or connection to those animals.

Within that, I think there are two main purposes of a chimera: a chimera as confusion and a chimera as magnification of the animal’s attributes. The chimera as confusion is exemplified by the original chimera. The purpose of the chimera is that it is wrong: it is unnatural and strange that these familiar images have been reassembled into something unfamiliar. Medieval grotesques also fall into this category, with human faces and dragon’s tails and legs poking out of all sorts of places that, well, they just shouldn’t be.

However, here’s where things can fast get out of control, because creating something that just looks wrong is actually kind of easy: if we create a creature with sixteen limbs alternating octopus tentacles and spider legs, give it an array of eight eyes, the beak of a rooster and a big ol’ fish fin, we definitely have something that is weird as hell but not really something that fulfils a chimera’s function. It’s just too weird, and whilst it might be horrifying, that’s because of the inherent horrors of what we’ve created more than because the bits don’t belong together. Another way of putting this is that a messy chimera can easily just become an alien, where the whole thing is weird rather than having the specific wrongness of relatively familiar elements mismatched together. Insectoid and invertebrate elements transposed into vertebrates, too, are such a staple of horror as a genre that it’s (in my view probably unfortunately) relatively difficult to use them in a chimera-like situation.

So we get the twist in the chimera’s tale: it relies on a weirdness that needs a certain level of familiarity to make it work. The specific horror or discomfort of the chimera is that it takes elements we know and understand, and put them in a combination or situation that breaks that image. In this sense, the especially incongruous goat head might be the most important part of a classical chimera. It’s the familiarity of that image – or that of the human parts in medieval human-dragon grotesques – that combined with the multi-part nature of the creature creates the effect. Especially aspects like its multiplicity of heads manage to provide a clear mix-and-match nature and a clear wrongness while maintaining the clarity of which parts come from where rather than making a simply alien being.

They greymarne - very much not the gryphon you know and love. Author's own work.
There’s another way to use chimerical creatures, though. Rather than focusing on the mismatched elements of them, we can equally use animal parts about which we have similar feelings and emotions to create symbols that exemplify both things. The gryphon is a great classical example of this – we have similar feelings about eagles and lions, both proud. I think that’s how the owlbear – originally an explanation for a weird plastic toy with a long beak and a tail someone found in a shop in the 70s – developed so neatly into the owl plus bear combination that we more commonly see today. Both owls and bears have associations of night, danger, sleeping, predation, but we also have rather warm feelings towards both creatures.

To give a good example of just how much this works on feelings, I want to share with you a creature I’ve used in the past, the greymarne, a corruption of Griffinus Marinus (in much the same way that a vormorant is a shortening of Corvus marinus, the sea-crow, this is a sea-gryphon). There is very little mechanical difference between a greymarne and a gryphon – both have bird head, animal body, fly, and so on. But the greymarne has the head of a gull, and that changes everything. The gryphon is a noble steed and soars the peaks: the greymarne squawks in your face and tries to dive-bomb you. The gryphon chases wild ibex in the hills or attacks mighty elephants, while the Greymarne is out to get your lunch and will probably snack on a dead fox if one washes up in its vicinity. Because our feelings about the input animals are so different, two mechanically similar creatures come with wildly different expectation games.

Again, we have an interesting problem that parallels the one we had with our confusions, which is that some combinations that work well don’t function properly as this sort of chimera, either because the respective parts don’t resonate or because, to take a cooking analogy, the combination overpowers the original flavours. Enter Quetzalcoatl, stage left. The winged serpent is a fantastic image and, nominally, chimerical, including bird and serpent parts. But because most people around the world nowadays do not have terribly strong feelings about quetzals, they become a sort of adornment to the core serpent image rather than something we might think of more properly as a chimera. Generally a lot of bird + lizard combinations end up with some issues like this, giving a more dinosaur or lizardman feel than something we perceive as chimerical, perhaps due to our lower familiarity and empathy with a lot of non-mammalian creatures.

So we can move from these thoughts to a couple of core guidelines about using chimeras and, perhaps, creating new ones. There are two major ways to create a chimerical creature, either by trying to create something where the combination of parts turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, or by creating a creature where shared ideas and familiar attributes give a reinforcement to both sets of characteristics. In both of these cases, it tends to make sense to have at least one part of the animal be something that is comparatively familiar and about which the audience already has some fairly heavily embedded ideas. Mammals tend to work especially well for these purposes, because we’re more familiar with them and tend to feel less like they’re alien to us.

To give a couple of examples to end with: let’s first make a wrong chimera. We’ll start with something cute and familiar: a small cat, for example. We then need to focus on giving it some things that are incongruous, but also familiar themselves. A good idea for a secondary head might be that of a rat – we get the incongruity of “hey that has a second head” but we also play with the idea that this creature both represents predator and prey, perhaps even with the ‘prey’ side being the more malevolent one. Add some webbed back feet, like you might find on a duck, and we have a creature of damp ditches or sewers from a fantasy city, gnawing on foul meat and frightening the regular stray cats and dogs with its terrifying multi-headed shadow – and yet at the same time, it’s all almost something you could imagine taking in, giving a bath, and letting settle down for a nap by the fire.

To make a type two chimera, we need two animals that we have similar feelings about, unlike our cat, duck, and rat. Let’s once again start with a mammal, this time a badger. We think of badgers – probably not wholly correctly – as grumpy but loveable, stoic and somehow defensive, tenacious creatures. What else do we give those attributes to? Well, a tortoise or a turtle. We’ll go with a more aquatic style of turtle to emphasise the difference: shell and back legs of a turtle, front legs and snout of a badger. The resulting Bortle (or Machvaku, or Tadger, or Bouldersbane, to come up with some names) is a creature of wild waterways, defending burrows it digs into the riverbanks. Slower moving than a badger on land, it moves more quickly by water, and its powerful bite and sharp claws give it a reasonable means of defence. It could easily be given some magical attributes to set it apart too, perhaps its shell having particular properties or it having some ability to sniff out particular other creatures or items that a story character might need.

So there you have it, some chimerical thinking and a couple of examples of how to apply it in your fantasy setting design and games. What did you think? Let us know below!