RPG Town: layout

I love the retro look in games, that 16-bit pixel-art style that has, thankfully, become common once again in indie titles. A Link to the Past is my favorite Zelda game, and I’ve been playing Stardew Valley far too long over the past few months. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I truly enjoy this style.

One of the main draws of retro graphics is the way an area can be laid out using a tilemap. There are far too many tilemap tutorials out there, and this won’t be one of them. Instead, I’d just like to share a little thing I started recently. I call it RPG Town.

The town

RPG Town is a little village that would be at home in any RPG, action-adventure, or roguelike game that uses a 16-bit graphical style. It’s definitely a pixel-art place, and I’m using a free sprite set I found linked on the excellent OpenGameArt.org to visualize it.

The backstory, such as it is, is deliberately vague. RPG Town can be a home base for a player character, or a little stop along the way, or just anything. It’s home to a couple dozen people, and it’s got that typical over-urbanism common to video game settlements. No real farms here, but you can imagine they’re right off the map. It’s also a coastal place, situated on the mouth of a small river. Thus, fishing is likely a big deal there. There’s an offshore island not too far away; it’s claimed by RPG Town, but the people don’t really use it for much. (Maybe it holds the ruins of a lighthouse, or something more sinister.) Other than that, it’s just your average, quaint little town, set amid fertile plains and dense woodlands, ready for an adventure to come its way.

The making of

Really, RPG Town is an excuse for me to play with Tiled. I’ve never used it for much, but I want to. It’s a wonderful program, great for creating tilemaps of any kind, but especially those for retro-style games. Plus, it’s free, and it runs everywhere, so you don’t have to worry about any of that. Get it. It’s more than worth your time.

Anyway, after starting a new map and setting up the tile set I’m using. My first step was to configure the terrain. The Tiled manual talks about doing this; it’s a huge help, if your tile set is made for it.

Once I had the preliminaries out of the way, it was time to start making a map. So that’s what I did. First, I filled my whole canvas (128×64, by the way, with the tiles 16 pixels square) with a plain grass tile, then “carved out” the water areas. I had already decided RPG Town’s location, so all I had to do was draw the water. Tiled took care of the tile transitions seamlessly, and I ended up with this:


Tilemaps are best built in layers, from the base (the terrain) up to the more complex parts like houses or signs. Following that philosophy, next come the roads. RPG Town isn’t a big port, but it’s a port, so it’s only natural that it would be a stopping point for a road or two. Those I made as wide cobblestone paths, meeting in the middle in a tiny town square. There are also a few branching side streets, and some stuff that won’t quite make sense yet. Oh, and I added a spot of sandy beach, because who doesn’t like that?


Now that I know where all the roads are running to, it’s time to give the people of RPG Town some places to live and work. I’m not ready to actually plop down buildings yet, so I’ve limited myself at this early stage to simply staking them out. On this last picture, you can see the outlines of where buildings would go. Later on, I’ll build them, but this is enough for now.


To be continued?

I’ll keep playing with RPG Town in my spare time. If I do anything interesting with it, I’ll post about it. One day, there might even be a few virtual people living there.

Building aliens: sentience and sapience

Creating aliens is fun and all, but why do we do it? Mostly, it’s because those aliens are going to have some role in our stories. And what kind of organism plays the biggest role? For most, that would be the intelligent kind.

Sentient aliens are the ultimate goal, thanks to a lifetime of science fiction. Yes, the discovery tomorrow of indisputably alien bacteria on Mars would change the entire world, but we’re all waiting for the Vulcans, the Mandalorians, the asari, or whatever our favorite almost-human race might be.

Mind over matter

It’s hard to say how plausible sentience is. We’ve only got one example of a fully intelligent species: us. Quite a few animals, however, show sophisticated behavior, including dolphins, chimps, octopuses, and so on. Some are so intelligent (relative to the “average” member of the animal kingdom) that authors will draw a line between sentience (in the sense of feeling and experiencing sensation) and sapience (the higher intelligence that humans alone possess). For aliens, where even defining intelligence might be nearly impossible at the start, we’ll keep the two concepts merged.

A sentient alien species remains a member of its home biosphere. We’ll always be evolved from our primate ancestors, no matter what the future holds. It’ll be the same for them. Their species will have its own evolutionary history, with all that entails. (Hint: I’ve spent quite a few posts rambling on about exactly that.) The outcome, however, seems the same: an intelligent, tool-using, society-forming, environment-altering race.

We don’t know much about how higher sentience comes about. We don’t even know what it means to have consciousness! Let’s ignore that minor quibble, though, and toss out some ideas. Clearly, intelligence requires a brain. Even plants have defensive mechanisms activated when they feel pain, but it takes true brainpower to understand what happens when inflicting pain upon another. Sentience, in this case, can be equated with the powers of reasoning, or an ability to follow logical deduction. (Although that opens the door to claiming that half of humanity is not sentient. Reading some Internet comments, I’m not sure I would disagree.)

Other factors go into making an intelligent alien race, too. Fortunately, most of them default to being slightly altered expressions of human nature. Sentient aliens usually speak, for example, except in some of the more “out there” fiction. Even in works like Solaris, however, they still communicate, though maybe not always through direct speech. Now, we know language can evolve—I’m writing in one of them, aren’t I?—but it was long thought that humans were the unique bearers of the trait. Sure, we had things like birdsong and mimicry, but we’re the only ones who actually talk, right? Attempts at teaching language to “lesser” animals have varied in their efficacy, but recent research points to dolphins having at least a rudimentary capacity for speech. That’s good news for aliens, as it’s a step towards disproving the notion that language is distinctly human.

What else do humans do? They form societies. Other animals do, too, from schools of fish to beehives and anthills, but we’ve taken it to new extremes. Sentient aliens probably would do the same. They may not follow our exact trajectory, from primitive scavengers to hunter-gatherers to agrarian city-states to empires and republics, but they would create their own societies, their own cultures. The shapes these would take depend heavily on the species’ “upbringing”. We’re naturally sociable. Our closest animal kin show highly developed social behaviors—Jane Goodall, among others, has made a living off researching exactly that. An alien race, on the other hand, might develop from something else; imagine, for instance, what a society derived from carnivorous, multiple-mating, jungle-dwelling ancestors would look like.

Likewise, the technological advancement won’t be the same for aliens as it was for us. Some of that could be due to basic science. An aquatic species is going to have an awful time crafting metal tools. Beings living on a higher-gravity world, apart from being generally shorter and stouter, might take much longer to reach space, simply because of the higher escape velocity. A species whose planet never experienced an equivalent to the Carboniferous period could be forced far sooner into developing “green” energy.

Differences in advancement can also stem from psychological factors. Humans are altruistic, but not to a fault. We’re basically in the middle of a spectrum. Another race might be more suited to self-sacrifice (and thus potentially more amenable to socialist or communist forms of organization) or far less (therefore more likely to engage in cutthroat capitalism). Racial, sexual, and other distinctions may play a larger or smaller role in their development, and they can also drive an interest in genetics and similar fields.

Even their history has an effect on their general level of technology. How much different, for instance, would our world be if a few centuries of general stagnation in Europe—the Dark Ages—never occurred? What would the effects of “early” gunpowder be? Aliens can be a great place to practice your what-ifs.

The garden of your mind

We are sentient. We are sapient. No matter how you define the terms, no other species on Earth can fit both of them at the same time. That’s what makes us unique. It’s what makes us human.

An alien species might feel the same way. Intelligence looks exceedingly rare, so it’s stretching the bounds of plausibility that a planet could hold two advanced lifeforms at the same time. On the other hand, science fiction is often about looking at just those situations that sit beyond what we know to be possible.

One or many, though, aliens will always be alien to us. They won’t think just like us, any more than they’ll look just like us. Their minds, their desires and cares and instincts and feelings, will be different. For some authors, that’s a chance to explore the human condition. By making aliens reflections of some part of ourselves, they can use them to make a point about us. Avatar, for example, puts its aliens, the Na’vi, in essentially the same role as the “noble savages” of so many old tales. Star Trek has Klingons to explore a warrior culture, Vulcans for cold, unassailable logic, and hundreds of others used for one-off morality plays.

Others use aliens to give a sense of otherworldliness, or to show how small, unimportant, or deluded we humans can be. Aliens might be a billion years older than us, these stories state. They’d be to us what we are to trilobites or coelacanths…or the dinosaurs. Or if you want to take the view of Clarke and others, a sufficiently advanced alien would seem magical, if not divine.

Whatever your sentient aliens do, whatever purpose they serve, they’ll have thoughts. What will they think about?

Borrowing and loanwords

Languages can be a bit…too willing to share. Pretty much every natural language in existence has borrowed something from its neighbors. Some (like English) have gone farther than others (like Icelandic), but you can’t find a single example out there that doesn’t have some borrowing somewhere.

For the conlang creator, this presents a problem. Conlangs, by definition, have no natural neighbors. They have no history. They’re, well, constructed. This means they can’t undergo the same processes of borrowing that a natural language does. For some (particularly auxlangs), that’s a feature, not a bug. But those of us making naturalistic conlangs often want to simulate borrowing. To do that, we have to understand what it is, why it happens, and what it can do for us.

On loan

Most commonly, borrowing is in the form of loanwords, which are exactly what they sound like. Languages can borrow words for all sorts of reasons, and they can then proceed to do terrible things to them. Witness the large number of French loans in English, and the horrified shudders of French speakers when we pronounce them in our Anglicized fashion. Look at how terms from more exotic languages come into English, from chop suey to squaw to Iraqi. Nothing is really safe.

Pronunciations change, because the “borrowing” language might not have the same sounds or allow the same syllables. Meanings can subtly shift in a new direction, as cultural forces act on the word. Grammar puts its own constraints on loanwords, too; languages with case and gender will have to fit new words into these categories, while those without might borrow without understanding those distinctions.

But let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why words get borrowed in the first place. There are a few obvious cases. One, if the borrowing language doesn’t already have a word representing a concept, but a neighbor does, then it doesn’t take a psychic to see what’s going to happen. That’s how a lot of agricultural and zoological terms came about, especially for plants and animals of the Americas and Australia. It’s also how many of Arabic scientific words came into English, such as alcohol and algebra.

Another way loanwords can come about is through sheer force. The classic example is the Norman Conquest, when Anglo-Saxon fell from grace, replaced in prestigious circles by Norman French. Another “conquest” case is Quechua, in the Andes, where Spanish took the place of much of the native vocabulary. And then there’s Japanese, which borrowed a whole system of writing from China, complete with instructions on how to read it; just about every Chinese character got reinterpreted in Japanese, but their original—yet horribly mangled—Chinese pronunciations stuck around.

Third, a relative difference in status, where a foreign language is seen as more “learned” than one’s own, can drive borrowing. That’s one reason why we have so many Latin and Greek loans in English, especially “higher” English. Educated speakers of centuries past looked to those languages for guidance. When they couldn’t find the right word in their native tongue, the first place they’d look was the classics.

Taking more

Words are the most commonly borrowed item in language, but they’re not the only thing that can be taken, and they’re not always taken in isolation. English pronouns, for example, are a curious mix of native terms passed down with only minor changes all the way from Proto-Germanic and beyond—I and me aren’t that much different from their equivalents in most other European languages. But in the third person, the he, she, they, and it, things get weird. Specifically, the plural pronouns they, them, and their are, in fact, borrowed. Imposed, if you prefer, as they seem to be a result of the Viking invasions of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Other bits of grammar can be lifted, but the more complicated they are, the less likely it’s going to happen. There aren’t a lot of examples of languages borrowing case systems. (Getting rid of one already present, however, is a plausible development for a language suddenly spoken by a large number of foreigners, but that’s a different post.) Borrowing of pronoun systems is attested. So is heavy borrowing of numeral words; this one is particularly common among indigenous languages that never needed words for “thousand” and “million” before Westerners arrived on the scene.

As I said above, Japanese went so far as to import a script. So did Korean, Vietnamese, and quite a few other languages in the region. They all took from the same source, Chinese, because of the much higher status they perceived it to have. Others around there instead borrowed from Sanskrit. On our side of the world, you have things like the Cherokee syllabary, although it’s not a “proper” borrowing, as the meanings of symbols weren’t preserved.

One other thing that can be taken isn’t so much a part of grammar as it is a way of thinking about it. As part of its mass importation of Latin and Greek, English picked up the Latin style of word formation. Instead of full compounds, which English had inherited from its German forebears, Latin used a more purely agglutinative style, full of prefixes and suffixes that added shades of meaning. It’s from that borrowing that we get con- and pro-, sub- and super-, ex-, de-, and so many more.

Word of warning

It’s easy to go too far, though—some would say English did long ago. So where do we draw the line? That’s hard to say. For some conlangs, borrowings, if they’re used at all, might need to be restricted to the upper echelons of the vocabulary. The technical, scientific terminology common to the whole world can be used without repercussion. Nobody will call out a conlang set in today’s world for borrowing meter and internet and gigabyte. Similarly, place names are fair game. Beyond that, it’s a matter of style and personal preference. If your conlang really needs a lot of loans, go for it.

There’s one more thing to think about. Borrowings get “nativized” over time, to the point where we no longer consider words like whiskey or raccoon to be loans. It’s only those that are relatively new (karaoke) or visibly foreign (rendezvous) that we take to be imports. Even those quixotic attempts to purge the language of its outside influences miss quite a lot here; you wouldn’t find even the hardiest Anglo-Saxon revivalist wanting to change Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but ado is a pre-Norman loanword.

So this gives you an out: some words can be loans, but they were borrowed so long ago that the speakers have all but forgotten where they came from. Any conlang set in Europe, for instance, wouldn’t be wrong in having a lot of Roman-era Latin loans. Asian conlangs would almost be expected to have an ancient crust of Chinese or Sanskrit, or a newer veneer of Arabic.

Whatever you do, it’s an artistic choice. But it’s a choice that can have a profound effect on your conlang’s feel. A few well-placed borrowings give a conlang a sense of belonging to the real world. And if you’re making your own world, then you can create your own networks of linguistic borrowing, based on that world’s history. The principles are the same, even if the names are changed.

Novel Month 2016 – Day 30, late evening

And so it ends. I wanted to put up a bunch of nifty stats and charts and stuff for this, but I had some problems sleeping today, and that threw my schedule all out of whack. So you get a text recap instead.

Today, I finished Chapter 21 and started Chapter 22. We’re now in the run up to the climax for sure. Lots of things are happening, and threads are coming together. If not for those pesky tornadoes last night, I might even be excited.

Now, to the month as a whole. Let me first state that I have enjoyed this month of writing like no other in my life. I’ve done Nanowrimo 6 times now, and I’ve completed at least one half of the challenge in the last 5. (Well, 2013 was a bit…off. The story there ended at about the 49K mark. I’ll still call that a win.) Never had I thought I could write 100,000 words in a month. A few short years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of writing half that.

But now I truly know my limits. 100K is about how much I can write if I considered writing as a full-time job. I won’t call these the best 100,000+ words I’ve ever written, but the point of the challenge, as I understand it, is quantity. Editing and rewriting can come later. Of course, I’ve never been great at that “stream-of-consciousness” writing style. I can’t leave typos and grammatical errors in; I’ll stop to fix them where I notice they’re there. Now I’m confident I can do that while still maintaining an absolutely incredible pace. A Sandersonian pace, if you will. (Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, and one of the most prolific I’ve ever seen. As much as I’ve written this year, I think he’s still outpaced me!)

Nocturne is not yet done. I’d call it a little over 75%. Maybe 80%, if we’re feeling generous. I think it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I could finish the draft before Christmas. Whether fate will conspire to prevent that remains to be seen, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I shouldn’t have to maintain the torrid pace of the past 30 days to complete it in that time, so I’ll also have the chance to focus on other things.

I’ve had fun this November. Maybe more fun than with “The City and the Hill” (2015), Before I Wake (2014), “Out of the Past” (2013), and Heirs of Divinity (2012) put together. Nocturne, or what I have of it so far, will definitely go on the list of my greatest writing accomplishments.

Normal PPC posts resume Friday, and you can check out my Patreon for more information on what I’m writing and releasing. Remember to subscribe over there. It helps me out a lot. And finally, thank you for taking this journey with me. It’s been a great one, and I can’t wait till next year.

Final Stats

Previous word count: 100,805
This session’s word count: 2,821
Total word count: 103,626
Daily average: 3,454

Novel Month 2016 – Day 29, evening

Rudolph. Christmas. And thunderstorms. I’ll stop a little short tonight, I think. Still in Chapter 21, but I’m almost done with it. On a more interesting note, check out the total word count. Yep, that’s 100K in a month.

Previous word count: 98,540
This session’s word count: 2,265
Total word count: 100,805
Daily average: 3,476

Novel Month 2016 – Day 28, after midnight

I know, I know. Bear with me. It’s been a long day. First, we had that windstorm that passed through, and it caused a few power flickers. Nothing too bad this afternoon, but enough to convince me of the wisdom of shutting down my desktop until the gusts died down a bit. No problem, right? I’ve got a laptop. Even though I don’t normally write on it anymore, I could still use it this once, couldn’t I?

Nope. I was copying some files around, and I noticed one of them causing an I/O error. Some testing revealed a bad sector on the hard drive. Uh-oh. I got my laptop in July 2007, and it’s performed admirably since then, but it’s long been showing its age. Anyway, I felt I couldn’t risk it, so I waited some more, until I thought it was safe enough to turn the desktop back on. And that’s where we are now.

Call it halfway on Chapter 21. I am. The POVs have met, so I can’t delay the inevitable any longer. I have to start working out an ending. We’ll see if the world continues to work against me doing that.

Previous word count: 96,528
This session’s word count: 2,012
Total word count: 98,540
Daily average: 3,519

Novel Month 2016 – Day 27, early evening

And now the threads are becoming twined. Chapter 20 is done, and Chapter 21 will mark the first time that my 2 POVs actually meet in person. That should be the last bit I need for Act II, unless you’d prefer to call it the start of Act III. Either way, it means we’re getting close to done. Right now, I’m thinking 30 chapters in total, not counting the prologue and (maybe) epilogue. Back to Kellis tomorrow, as she finally gets to talk to the man she’s been hunting since around the 3rd of the month.

Previous word count: 93,410
This session’s word count: 3,118
Total word count: 96,528
Daily average: 3,575

Novel Month 2016 – Day 26, evening

No cute intro today. I’m feeling a little under the weather, and I’m hungry. Chapter 20 is about halfway done; once I finish it (tomorrow, hopefully), that’ll be it for Act II. Then, it’s on to the finale. I think I may be to the point where I’ll just start alternating POVs. We’ll see.

Previous word count: 90,680
This session’s word count: 2,730
Total word count: 93,410
Daily average: 3,593

Novel Month 2016 – Day 25, afternoon

You know the great thing about being poor? Black Friday is just another day. I don’t have to worry about shopping, because I can’t afford even the big deals of the day. So I get to stay at home, watch The Grand Tour, and write.

Chapter 19 is in the books (ha!), and the two threads of the story have essentially converged. Chapter 20 will catch Shade up, and then the final act can begin. I don’t have a clue how I’m going to pull it off, but these things have a way of working themselves out. We’ll see.

Previous word count: 87,068
This session’s word count: 3,612
Total word count: 90,680
Daily average: 3,627

Novel Month 2016 – Day 24, late afternoon

Happy Thanksgiving! (If you’re reading this and you’re not American, then Happy Black Friday Eve!)

I’m thankful for being halfway done with Chapter 19. I went back to Kellis for this one; it seemed like the right choice. Sure, it leaves Shade on a bit of a cliffhanger, but that only builds tension, right? And I’ll find a way to tie this chapter in with the last. After turkey, of course.

Don’t forget to check out “The Last Captain”, my latest short story release on Patreon. It’ll be released at midnight tonight for anyone willing to put up $3 a month.

Previous word count: 84,165
This session’s word count: 2,903
Total word count: 87,068
Daily average: 3,628