Isle of the Dreamer, Chapter 13: The Bone in the Dark

Soren and the others reach the last leg of their journey as they prepare to pass through the most dangerous region of the island – Dormu’s Hollow.

The next three days of their journey were rather uneventful as they crossed the vast plains that were the Amaranch Fields, save for the night that Maya decided to see if the bracelet Soren found in the structure in the thicket would prevent the wearer from being burned. It did not.

At the dawn of the fourth day since they left the thicket – the seventh day of their journey, though it had been extended by one more day than initially projected – as they were packing up their camp, Soren noticed a raven, perched on a lone tree nearby. He finished tying up his bedroll before cautiously approaching it.

The last time he remembered seeing a raven on the island was when he’d just defeated Naga. When he emerged from the ancient temple and it was perched on a tree. Before that, he saw one when he woke up on the shore after his first attempt to escape the island. He peered at it curiously before whispering, “Why do I keep seeing you?”

The raven cocked its head.

“I’ve seen plenty of talking animals on this island, who are you?”

Somehow, Soren felt he could see the raven smiling. Something in its eyes. Its blue, crystalline eyes. How he hadn’t noticed its eyes before, he didn’t know – perhaps it was a different bird. But he had seen eyes like it before. In idols of the gods back in Ingaard, as well as the other cities of Shelez.

He opened his mouth to speak once more, but the bird took off. Soren sighed before returning to the others as they finished breaking camp.

Tomorrow, they would be in Zapad. Tomorrow, Soren would see Tyrell again. But first, they needed to travel through Dormu’s Hollow. The reason so many people took the two-week journey, as opposed to one. Dormu’s Hollow was a system of valleys and caves that cut across the north side of the island, known for killing many travelers. At the time when Arakim wrote his atlas, he was the only known explorer – though there were rumors of another – to pass through the hollow and survive.

Leondrea and Soren, however, were convinced they could make it through the hollow, especially with the help of Skullcrusher – and even more so now that they had Karkog with them.

After a couple hours of travel, they reached the entrance to the hollow. A cave, surrounded by poles that displayed the heads of men and orks alike.

“It’s not too late to turn back, you know,” Maya said as she lightly rubbed her bandaged arm. It took a lot of willpower not to simply scratch it outright. Despite the bracelet offering seemingly no benefit, she continued to wear it nonetheless.

“We’re going,” the Madam affirmed. “We’ve come this far, we’re not turning back now.” She let out a sigh, “We don’t really have the supplies to do so, even if we wanted to.”

“We could always ask the orks for supplies.”

Leondrea shook her head.

***

The darkness in the cave that led into the hollow was thick. It was as though they were traversing their way through a black fog, the light of a torch unable to reach as far as it normally would. Strange sounds echoed from the darkness as they crept through the cavern: a faint clicking noise, an occasional squeak, and the scraping of various materials against stone.

Arakim wrote of the things that lurked in the hollow. Vermin of extraordinary size – rodents, arachnids, and frogs the size of wolves, or larger. Long, segmented creatures with many legs that reached the height of men. And creatures that Arakim called celvir: tall, lanky creatures with teeth the size of a man’s fingers, and hollow, black eyes. It was the celvir who put their victims heads on poles. Soren had heard tales of similar creatures – felreiss – that lived up in Kapfas. They would eat the raw flesh off their victims and could reattach severed limbs – even if those limbs originally belonged to something else. Their only weakness was sunlight, which burned their skin from their bones.

But the most foreboding creature was the hollow’s namesake. Arakim wrote little about it. Nothing of its appearance or behaviors. Only the sound it made. Even the celvir seemed to fear its feral call. Arakim described it as a mixture between the crying of a babe and the sound of a man drowning in his own blood.

After what felt like miles, they finally emerged from the cave into one of the deep valleys that made up the hollow. The sky above was covered in thick clouds that loomed just at the top of the sheer rock walls that lined it. It was near midday, but felt as though it was twilight.

At the very least, they could now see more than ten feet away from them. But that perhaps only made things worse as they watched the giant tarantulas and scorpions creeping along the wall. Giant rats spat at them, their saliva sounding as though it was sizzling on the ground. Likely the only thing that kept the creatures away was the foreboding dire wolf that walked alongside the group. Soren saw none of the hundred-legged creatures Arakim wrote about, or the celvir, or Dormu itself -as far as he could tell.

Statues lined the sides of the pass, their figures carved with intricate detail. Like soldiers, standing at attention. They almost appeared to be people, turned to stone by some magical force. At once point, Soren thought he saw a statue turn its head to look at them out of the corner of his eye. When he investigated the statue, he saw its head facing forward, just as all the rest.

Just a trick of the light.

“I’ve heard of creatures which can turn men to stone,” Leondrea commented, breaking the solemn silence they’d walked in for the past few hours.

“I wouldn’t believe such legends,” Soren replied with a hoarse whisper.

“And why is that?”

Soren shrugged as he scanned their surroundings. Something felt off. It was too quiet, and the various creatures around them were slowly creeping away. “I’ve never seen something with magic that powerful. To be able to change the material something is made of.”

“And why is that so hard to believe? We just watched a god die no more than a fortnight ago.”

Soren took in a sharp breath and listened for a moment. There was no sounds. No quiet clicking, no squeaking, nothing. “If whatever that was truly died, it was no god.”

Leondrea opened her mouth to speak again, but Soren cut her off.

“Quiet!”

The group stood, listening for a moment. There was no cry, so it couldn’t have been Dormu.

A light slapping noise echoed through the pass.

The group shuffled over to the wall and crouched low – Skullcrusher couldn’t do much to hide. Just as they finished hiding, a creature, at least double Soren’s height, rounded the corner up ahead. One leg matched its body – a long, spindly leg with far too many joints that ended in a point – the other appeared to have once belonged to a frog. That was what had been making the slapping noise. It would have been taller if not for the frog leg. One of its long arms reached down to the ground, ending in a clawed hand, where each of its four fingers circled around its odd wrist. Its other arm appeared to have once been the tail of a particularly large rat. Its perfectly round head held a gaping mouth, filled with sharp teeth, and its eye sockets appeared completely empty. Its gaze seemed to lock on Skullcrusher and its lips curled outward, taking two rows of teeth with it. Another row sat behind them in a twisted smile. The celvir were certainly much more twisted than the tales Soren had heard of the felreiss.

Leondrea tried to jump out of their hiding place. Soren held her back and placed his other hand on Maya’s head.

“Wait for it to get close.” He nodded at Karkog, who nodded back.

As the celvir crept closer, Soren began climbing the wall next to them. It was certainly much easier than it would have been without his sandals. He kept behind a fold in the wall until he was satisfied he was too high for the celvir to notice him.

Skullcrusher whimpered slightly as the creature grew closer.

Soren kicked off the cliff face and flipped through the air to land on the opposite wall. He scrambled to hide behind a fold in the wall, sending several small rocks tumbling down.

The celvir was distracted for only a moment before its attention returned to Skullcrusher. Soren had never seen such a patient hunter, walking so slowly. Perhaps it wanted to strike fear into its prey. Maybe it simply couldn’t run properly.

Soren slowly lowered himself down the rock face until he felt he could jump down safely once it got close enough. He looked to Karkog to ensure he was watching. Then he focused on the celvir. It grew closer. And closer.

Soren nodded to Karkog before jumping from the cliff face.

Karkog grunted hoarsely and sprang into action.

In his descent, Soren swung Delmore’s sword in a wide arc. Trying to sever its head would be impractical, but cutting into it would likely do some damage. He missed, instead hitting the rat tail arm, which fell off with ease.

Karkog targeted the long and spindly leg. His axe swung, and collided with the thing’s leg. They heard a crunch as the leg shattered, sending splinters flying through the air. Its skin was like bone.

The Madam barked an order and Skullcrusher sprang into action. He leapt at the celvir, pinning it the ground. But not before it could cry for help.

As it collided with the ground the creature let out a sharp screech. Skullcrusher ripped its head off, flinging it across the stone ground. Yet it moved still.

Their ears ringing, Karkog and Soren continued hacking at the creature until it could move no more. Celvir’s vital organs were highly decentralized. The only way to kill one would be to destroy its entire body completely.

“We will need to move quickly,” Soren said as he rushed to gather its parts together, “More may be on the way soon.”

As they laid the last of its parts on top of its torso, a second screech sounded from elsewhere in the hollow.

Soren rifled through his backpack, fishing out a fireball and setting it on the pile. “Be ready to run.” As he lit the fuse, he started running, the rest along with him.

An explosion rang out behind them as they ran as fast as they could, turning this way and that, having no time to stop and look at the map Arakim provided. There was no way to know if they were heading toward the exit, only that the screeching of the other celvir was getting quieter.

They were getting further from danger, and that was all that mattered.

As the screeching stopped, their running slowed. Eventually, they stopped, each of them slumping over to catch their breath. Only Karkog remained alert.

They rested for a minute before Karkog interrupted.

“Danger.”

Soren looked up to see what Karkog was looking at. The celvir had found them.

A New Project: Untitled Game

Xavier describes his creative process in making a (currently untitled, text-based) game and discusses other topics such as programming, game development, and linguistics.

I’ve begun work on yet another project, because I have difficulty focusing on only one project at a time (or, rather, I have difficulty focusing on one project for an extended period of time, resulting in me rotating which project I’m working on).

The project itself is a currently untitled and I’m not sure what the main story will consist of (though I have a general idea), but I know a few things about it:

  1. It will be created using a game engine (story-making tool?) called Twine. That means that it’s going to be a text-based game, kind of like those old choose-your-own-adventure books.
  2. The game will take place in Kithria, the world I have created for low-fantasy stories, games, and whatnot.
  3. Like most of my other works, it will explore various social themes, including (but probably not limited to) racism and sexism.

Below are some of my thoughts so far as I’ve been working on the game.

Working with Game Engines

Disclaimer: I am aware HTML is technically a markup language and not a programming language, thus why, when I’m referring to both, I use the term ‘computer language’.

HTML is relatively simple as a baseline. Before I started working on this game, I had a little experience with HTML during my time as a CS major and the web developer for the Daily Egyptian. I could take a template that already existed and mess around with it to make the website I wanted. As well, I could make a (admittedly garbage looking) webpage from scratch fairly easily. What I could not do was create a beautiful webpage from scratch. And I still can’t. But Twine is based in HTML, so it should help me learn, maybe. Right?

Wrong!

I learned a similar thing when I first started working on Project Divus, in which I played around with Unity a bit. For those who don’t know, Unity is a game engine that is based in the programming language, C#. Making a game using Unity, however, requires more knowledge on how Unity works than how C# works. This is because Unity has its own classes, methods, and functions built in that the programmer needs to know how to call properly. Unless you’re adding completely unheard of functionality, the chances of you needing to know C# seem to be pretty slim, and knowing C# won’t make you proficient in using Unity.

This also applies to Twine. The only actual HTML I have used in the 6+ hours I’ve spent working on this game (at the time of writing) is to make a table so my buttons don’t look weird. Other than that, it’s all been calls to macros built into Twine or SugarCube (a sort of secondary engine built on Twine), none of which are accessible in basic HTML. Both pieces of the engine (Twine and SugarCube) have their own documentation, just like basically every computer language (Unity also has such documentation).

This all comes down to one main idea: engines themselves are, in effect, child languages of whatever language they’re based on. This is perhaps why creating an engine is so difficult and time consuming – in fact, many developers forgo it because creating a proper engine can take years for a relatively simple game – because you are trying to build a new language.

As well, this goes to show that just because someone is proficient in a given computer language doesn’t mean they’re proficient in engines based on it and vice-versa. Although, knowing a single language from a family of languages makes it far easier to understand other languages; e.g. object-oriented languages, such as Java or C#; or Romantic languages, such as Spanish, French, or Latin. Obviously knowing one language won’t make you fluent in the others, but I know of plenty of university students who have been able to decipher Latin documents because they know Spanish.

Nothing in Game Development is Simple

I already knew this was the case. Most people who have tried game development already know this to be the case (probably). Those who don’t know this to be the case would be anyone who has never tried to develop a game or watched someone develop a game (or who has used a very simple drag-and-drop engine, which generally aren’t powerful and are less of making a game and more making a level in a game unless you really know what you’re doing and you put a lot of time and effort in, but I digress). Making what you think could be the simplest addition to a game takes a long time. I mentioned before that I have spent 6+ hours working on this game in the past two days. All that time was spent on character creation (which I’ll discuss later), and that part isn’t even done.

On top of that: if you’re not careful, a single wrong word can spend hours to fix (especially if you, say, wrote a line of code that you knew you would be using again and just copied and pasted it to the new location only to later realize it was wrong). On the bright side, none of the bugs I accidentally included in my code took hours to fix. They each took half an hour, and there were approximately a lot of them. Most of that time, of course, is finding out what you did wrong; often, once you’ve found the problem it’s fairly simple (though it’s usually either changing a single character or sifting through the whole document to find every mistake). I once had a project to create a parser for a programming language in one of my CS classes; it took me 2 hours to figure out how to fix it (with the help of my manager at the DE of the time) and all I had to do was change a 0 to a 1.

So, yeah, programming ain’t a walk in the park. But you probably already knew that.

Trying to Make Things Interesting

I mentioned, like, a bunch of lines ago that I spent over 6 hours over the course of the last 2 days working on character creation for this game. That’s because I’m trying to make things interesting. You see, appearance (and gender) in this game is more than an aesthetic choice. My plan is to make it where characters in the game will make judgement calls based on what you look like. If you’re a Shelezar but look like a Mikri and the character happens to be racist against Mikri, they’ll treat you as such. If you’re a woman and you’re interacting with a character that thinks women are lesser than men, they’ll treat you as such. The flipside is also true: if you look like a Kapfian, military personnel may favor you because Kaps are known for their combat prowess. If you’re a woman, members of certain cultures will favor you because that’s their culture. And setting up the appearance mechanics – the part where the player determines the character’s appearance on top of the part where the game goes through and sees what people group they might be confused with – took me most of those 6 hours. That means that I definitely need to make that appearance mechanic matter. Because you shouldn’t devote time to something that won’t matter. It’s bold because it’s a life lesson.

The main issue I need to find out now (before I move on from character creation; that’s right, it’s not done yet) is whether I want to follow through on another idea I had: basing the game mechanics on Lady Luck’s Chosen Few. Right now, the mechanics I have set up for the game are fairly simple and much more reminiscent of standard TTRPG mechanics: a number is generated and modified by four attributes the PC has (in this case Endurance, Strength, Agility, and Wit) and the result of an action that has multiple (more than one) pass-fail states is determined based on the final number. It’s simple and it’s easy. Making a game based on LLCF mechanics will be far more complicated. That being said, trying to work those mechanics into a text-based game like this will be a lot easier than trying to work them into a more standard video-game. So, I still need to make a decision on that.

Conclusion

So far, I’d say I’m happy with this project. Despite the pitfalls I’ve run into, it’s going pretty well and I’m making some decent headway. Admittedly, I should maybe not be putting another project on my plate, but I’ve decided to disregard that fact in an effort to add one more thing to have consistent updates that I can share publicly, alongside Isle of the Dreamer. So I’m making this now.

Creating Kithria: Freedom of Creativity

Xavier explores the process of creating a world, Kithria, and addresses the issue of assuming inclusion or exclusion in fantasy tropes.

World building is a long and arduous process. Depending on how its gone about and how much detail is desired, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few decades. I started world building as a hobby when I was around 10 years old.

I was sitting around, in Junior High, with my rudimentary understanding of how the world works, and thought, “Hey, maybe I can make my own world.” And that was when my creation of The Void Jumper’s Continuum began (as described here). Since then, I have experienced multiple renditions and restructures of the VJC, and attempted creating many more worlds alongside it – mainly to use in tabletop roleplaying.

VJC was much easier than any other world I have tried to create, of course, on account of I have had to do very little other than take our own real world, take aspects of various mythologies around the world, make a few twists and turns here and there, add my own unique pieces (such as the Zedekiah, which I may explain in a different post), and call it my own. Making those other worlds was much more difficult.

My most recent rendition of this would be the world of Kithria, the setting for both my web novel, Isle of the Dreamer, and the default setting intended for Lady Luck’s Chosen Few. Kithria itself began as a world I created for D&D to be used in the web-series D&DE (RIP). I created it as best I could to incorporate the standard D&D races and monsters into its lore and history, and to have as unique of cultures as possible while sticking to that. In that state, I was pretty happy with it. But then I came up with the idea for Lady Luck’s Chosen Few.

I wrote up a few basic rules, got some groundwork laid, and then it just kind of sat there. It was probably in a working state at that point (at least as much as it is now), with one exception. You see, LLCF is designed to be played as a story, not as a game. To simply plop characters down in Fantasy Land and go at it didn’t seem practical in my mind, but at the same time I had no world to really use. Every world I had made in the past was for a system intended for high-fantasy: Pathfinder, D&D, Open Legend, etc. While they certainly could have been used for Mid to Low Fantasy, that wasn’t the purpose of the system and anytime I tried, it simply went off the rails when my players all decided to be magic-users.

Then, D&DE got cancelled – it was a disappointing process as I watched delay after delay come about, extending it further and further. It was only when I gave up on that project, however, that I finally gained some direction with LLCF. You see, my issue there was that I felt I had to start from scratch. I had to build my own low-fantasy world from the ground up, something I had tried to do a million times before, but always seemed to fail at for the aforementioned reasons. Now, I had a chance. And what better way to do it than with the world I just created. The world that was originally designed to be low-fantasy, made with the pressure of being in public domain, subject to the scrutiny of, like, 10 people (but possibly the entire internet)?

Now, it should be important to at least give a brief overview of Kithria’s original creation. I’m going to skip the original brainstorming, though, and go straight to the point where D&DE started becoming a reality. At that point, there were four human races (five if you include orks), three elven races, and two dwarven races. At that point, I had little intention to include any more races, trying to limit it. On top of that, my original intention was that magic would be rare. That was the plan. But, best-laid plans. Players threw fits and I felt a need to include more. I added, for that reason as well as others, two races of halfling, three of gnome, all the goblinoids, an additional elven race, half-orks, half-elves, the Touched (my own spin on Tieflings), dragonborn (as a human race in the lore), and kobolds.

Most of it, I was content with, but the only added part I was particularly happy with were the gnomes (who had been given reason to their pranking antics and were perhaps the most horrifying creature in the world – I say were because, when I created the LLCF version, I also added the Haklos, an original race of mine that is wholly alien).

All I had to do to create the world I wanted for LLCF was gut the world, getting rid of everything that didn’t have a reason. For once, I didn’t feel obligated to include things because they were part of the default. I didn’t feel like I needed to include certain things and omitting them had to have a specific reason. I felt I could work from the opposite direction: only including things because I had a specific reason. And because I felt I could omit things, I felt my world-building benefited.

No longer did I feel bound to include standard fantasy races, and I felt like those that I did include, I could do what I wanted with. I removed goblinoids, dwarves, halflings, dragonborn, and kobolds entirely; I made my elves a bit more mysterious and a lot more powerful – and a lot less numerous; and I made humans a far more diverse race, with 8 different human ethnicities (9 if you include orks) rather than the original 4 human races (6 if you included the orks and the Touched). For those who aren’t certain of the difference, I am assigning the terms as follows (using real-world examples): race would refer to European, Asian, African, or American; ethnicity would refer to German, English, Spanish, Italian, etc.

As well, I felt the freedom to completely change the geography of the world – something I did incorrectly when I made Kithria before – to be more fitting for these 8 different human ethnicities. Each ethnicity, you see, comes from a different region of the world; originally, each human race was tied to a different continent.

This resulted in another major change: Kithria went from the name of world at large (four continents closely connected together), to the name of the continent, with multiple regions (in a similar vain of the Roman provinces). Kithria went from the four continents of Kapfas, Shelez, Gelth, and Mikron to two continents: Kithria and ‘the Southern Continent’. The former is now made up of 7 regions: the cold highlands of Kapfas, the mountainous lowlands of Barush, the river-crossed Felseth, the forested lands of Gelth, the desert basin of Imin, the lush plains of Biria, and the rocky plains of Shelez; and the latter is made up of one charted region on its northern edge, facing Kithria: Mikron, a region full of lush rainforests and foreboding wildlife.

From these unique regions came unique cultures, shaped by the geographical features of their places of origin. However, I believe I have gone a little off-track, so I’m going end this post here – but my process of creating cultures is where I’ll pick up next time I talk about world building.

Just remember: don’t let the norms of world-building and fantasy limit what you create, or force you to create things that you don’t want to in the first place. Start your world-building not by asking yourself what to omit, but instead by asking yourself what to include. By limiting your options, your world-building will be much better as a result.

So, I guess that’s the main takeaway: sometimes bounds can be limiting, but they can also be more freeing than having none at all.

Lady Luck’s Chosen Few

Another project I’m working on is a tabletop roleplaying game (ttRPG – for those who don’t know what that is, D&D is the most popular ttRPG) called Lady Luck’s Chosen Few. It is intended to be a rules-lite system that is easy to pick up and easy to play. The creation of it began a few months ago after reading a blog post by The Angry GM (post itself here) about disregarding Tabletop conventions (such as ability scores) to create a better system.

In short: the article explains that when sitting down to create a Tabletop RPG, you should not ask yourself, “How am I going to handle ability scores?” but rather answer the question that ability scores were created to answer, “How am I going to resolve situations that characters get themselves in based on chance, where the character’s capabilities are taken into account?” Another way to word this is, “How is action resolution handled?”

From the problem this article presented, the idea evolved into: I want to make a ttRPG that is easy to pick up and play, is more oriented to low-fantasy settings (magic is limited or extremely dangerous and mythical creatures are a rare sight), where death lurks around every corner, combat can be easily resolved in a few minutes (thereby lowering its prevalence in the system), and character creation is based on a character first mentality, rather than stat-based.

After the jump is a brief introduction to the rules so far.

Character Creation
A staple of the game itself is that the player’s characters (PCs) are extraordinary, not because they were born that way, but because they made themselves that way by garnering the attention of some cosmic force which now guides their path. Character creation requires determining 3 simple things: what your character looks like, how they behave, and what the life event was. None of these have to do with rules or game mechanics.
After determining those three things, play can begin. But, obviously, there needs to be some way to define a character’s capabilities through game mechanics, otherwise, everyone’s the same.

Action Resolution
Any action that has a higher than ~20% chance of failure requires the roll of a standard six-sided die. Before the action is rolled, a certain threshold is determined by the Game Master (GM – controls all the NPCs [non-player characters] and the environment). If the player who is controlling the character rolls at or above the pre-defined threshold, their character succeeds in whatever they were trying to do. If they roll below that threshold, they fail. Each roll can be affected by a character’s ‘Aptitudes’, which apply to different situations on a case-by-case basis. Any given aptitude will, at most, affect a player’s roll by 1.
Practically, any injury received counts as a death blow – a roll is made to determine if a character survives that death blow.

Character Capabilities
To represent their connection to some cosmic force, a given character has a stat known as ‘Luck’ (hence, the name of the game). They can use this luck in two ways: spending it (lowering the current value) to increase a roll by however much is being spent, or burning it (lowering the max value to gain an aptitude).
Characters also start with a Wealth stat (that can only be burnt) which is used to determine what equipment they can have.

I will likely put the rules for this system on its own page of this blog as I am able.