My Visit to San Sibilia – A Cartographer’s Journal by Campbell McNevin – Day One
What surprisingly good fortune! The last thing I remember from last night, having had perhaps one libation too many, was staggering home in a foul mood after a series of less-than-civil conversations at the Cartographers Guild biennial convention in Paris. Yet here I stand in the light of day, only slightly under the weather, in the strange city of San Sibilia!
San Sibilia is why I became a cartographer in the first place! While puttering about my uncle’s manor in my youth I came upon a map at the bottom of a chest. Labeled as the City of San Sibilia, it seemed that every time I looked at it the streets had shifted. My uncle claimed no knowledge of it, even refused to look at it. Then there was the fire – never quite found out the cause thereof – but I never forgot that map. Now I find myself living in it!
I’ve found lodging in Bislo, the residential district for the city’s many factory workers. Narrow streets, leaning houses, the hustle and bustle of those simply making a living across the river from the cafes of La Bohamin. I don’t know much about Duncan as of yet, he works the night shift and I seemingly stumbled my way here some time before dawn, so we have spoken little. Still, he has offered me a spare room at a reasonable rate, so there I shall remain.
The workers have, overall, made me feel welcome enough, nodding kindly as I walk their streets. The artisans and dilettantes across the river, somewhat less so. I am an unrecognized element among their ranks, and it seems the city’s elite would like to keep their secrets much as the map of my youth did.
I have the clothes on my back, a pocketful of cash, and my cartographer’s kit – I’ve done more with less in my travels, and I certainly intend to exceed that standard here. I stumbled my way to San Sibilia, there’s no telling when I may stumble out again.
I received quite the surprise today, a message from my long-lost friend and former teacher Professor Graves! It was an inspired and inspiring piece of writing, telling me a story of some of her early adventures when she was my age, with plenty of advice on how living in a place was the best way to map it. What’s peculiar – besides the fact that poor Graves has been missing for years after that expedition to the north – was that it was perfectly addressed to Duncan’s dwelling, even mentioning the spare room I have been staying in. Even presuming that Graves has returned since I came to San Sibilia, how did she know where to send the letter?
I made quite the intriguing find this afternoon, while wandering from shop to shop in La Bohamin and sketching the layout of the streets. I happened to spot, in the window of an antique shop, a piece of a map of Paris. I thought little of it, but as I began to make my way back towards the river later in the day I glanced at it again, and while it remained a map of Paris the actual streets displayed had changed! I bought it immediately of course, its similarity to the Sibilian map of my youth was too strong to ignore. I have yet to discern the pattern, as the city is not one I actually ever mapped in detail – does it merely change the ‘view’, does it show Paris at different times, is it actually accurate or does it show a Paris-that-never-quite-was – but it is an amazing artifact of my trade.
Another letter, but this time from a much more local source. A local official – the City’s Minister of Urban Optimization – has written to me to offer me their patronage! A good thing, too, as my pocket of cash was beginning to become more lint than lucre and Duncan was becoming cross.
It was something of a distant missive, not being particularly personal, and I suspect it was written to a formula by a clerk with the bare details of my person added in before sending. Nevertheless, my efforts have been noticed, and my place in the city is now secure, as the Minister apparently wants to update the City’s maps ahead of some new building projects. A new wind is blowing, and I have the chance to let it fill my sails!
I find myself somewhat ill at ease this evening. I spent my morning once again taking notes on La Bohamin, and stopped at a cafe for lunch. This establishment is the kind of place to often host musicians, philosophers, and so on both as entertainment for the patrons of the cafe and as a free space for the exchange of ideas. This afternoon there was a poet – I didn’t catch her name- and the reading she performed was a shocking one about San Sibilia itself. How the city itself is mad, how it’s crumbling away before our eyes, how it will all in the end simply slide into the river and be forgotten. The details were vivid, and it was entirely in the past tense, the ‘speaker’ standing on the banks of the river and reminiscing while watching wreckage bob in the waters. I left quite a bit of my meal on the plate.
I had quite the serendipitous experience today, by chance stumbling – although less literally than I did more than three weeks ago – upon a museum in the back alleys of the Saint Riocha district. It was a history museum, lacking in anything with regards to San Sibilia itself and otherwise still quite barren. The curator, a Professor Imamu, lamented that their fellow San Sibilians simply had little interest in the rest of the world, which made it difficult to acquire items. Luckily for them, I volunteered my services.
The collection I’ve kept with my kit is much depleted, besides my shifting map of Paris – still eluding explanation – and my work of the past week and change, but now Imamu has maps from New York to Gothenburg, from La Paz to Lagos, from Auckland to Ulan Bator to delight visitors. Imamu believes that getting more of a chance to see what other cities look like will encourage the San Sibilians to look outwards. Perhaps this will even make the city easier to find. Best of all, thanks to the contributor plaques for each map, every visitor will know that it was I who lit the way!
The fact that no fewer than two bolts have been installed on every door in Duncan’s home – up to four on the front door and six on the back – is tonight more comforting than the usual eccentric quirk or frustrating obstacle. I decided to go for a walk through a public park after dinner instead of my usual route home, and the simplest way to sum it up is to claim it as a harrowing experience.
At first it was like any other walk I’ve taken in the city, taken at my leisure as I sketch maps and take notes as I make progress. The trees moving in the wind soon lent the twilight a strange aspect, casting shapes on the road and the grass that were in equal measure almost familiar and subtly wrong. When I looked behind me, the path I’d taken no longer seemed to match the memory I had of walking it, taking unfamiliar twists and turns. I heard whispers on the breeze that seemed to have the voice of Graves, of Duncan, of Imamu, of others I’ve met within the city and without, though I could not make out the words. I sped up and soon left the park behind, sketching all the while. Most disturbing, my sketch was completely illegible – there is the street going to one park entrance, the street leading away from the exit I took, and a scrawl of pencil scratchings whirling in between.
I think I shall stick to the streets from now on.
Yesterday’s strange events seem like a faded dream already. Today has been perfectly normal, with the exception of my name appearing on the local broadsheets. I knew it was coming, but it is still gratifying to see: I am mentioned as part of the Minister’s ongoing efforts to organize and begin new building projects to revitalize portions of the city. The fact that I am a visitor to San Sibilia is noted, along with a few anecdotes of my travels through the city, and the overall tone of the article seems approving of the Minister’s efforts. Hopefully this will make the work somewhat easier – I had some trouble earlier in the week trying to map the Market of Gears and its many offshoot alleys and cul-de-sacs, as it was curiously easy to get turned around. Too many moving carts and stalls opening and closing willy nilly I suspect. Maybe now an off-hours mapping can be scheduled.
Bislo has by and large been a quiet region of the city to call home – always busy, often loud in a literal sense, true, but in terms of events there has been little worthy of note. Today has been an exception. There was an actual parade through the streets with raucous singing, banners of all colors, a truly stunning amount of drinking. The thing was, I was hard-pressed to find out exactly what the parade was for. Duncan slept through the entire thing, and when I descended to street level most seemed more concerned with getting me to join in the festivities than answering my questions. The clearest response that I got was something along the lines of ‘a celebration of the beginning and the end and the seamless joining of the two’.
The local constables showed up not long after, and almost instantly the parade just… melted away down every narrow street it could find, simply avoiding the officers and leaving them to grumble their way back across the river.
I had perhaps the most awkward cup of coffee in my life today. The Minister asked me to meet him for a discussion about my efforts at one of La Bohamin’s cafes. Having never met the man who has become my patron in person before, I was quite eager to do so. However, despite only being across the table from each other, on a bright and sunny day, it was more distant than the original letter and appreciably more gloomy.
At no point do I recall the Minister actually talking to me. My greeting was met with a nod, orders were placed, drinks were received, and the Minister simply began talking about things. There was pushback about the building projects – “San Sibilia has never much cared for change” – and some question as to the veracity of my work. He didn’t accuse me of error or any such thing, merely commented then “The maps have not taken quite as well as we’d hoped. It will be necessary for them to be re-done to see if repeated efforts fair better.” At the end he simply finished his cup, nodded to himself, and left without another word, leaving me only with the vague sensation of needing to get back to work.
The work has been less enjoyable since my meeting with the Minister, and I am beginning to outright dislike the Market of Gears, so I sought to find something to take my mind off things by visiting an out-of-the-way bookstore I had found. I had not been there for more than a few minutes when I was accosted by a San Sibilian who claimed I was an ‘outsider trying to fit our city into your pieces of paper without a thought to the consequences’.
I admit, I allowed myself to be drawn into an argument, contesting his claims by pointing out that the Minister had hired me, to no avail. The increasing volume soon drew the attention of other patrons of the bookstore. It wasn’t long before I realized that the various aisles around me where beginning to be blocked off by these other patrons. The bookstore seemed to become darker and more foreboding the more of them there were and as they muttered to one another. When I heard one of them say “like that Graves woman” I immediately ran for the door. None followed me, and in the bright day outside I tried to convince myself that I had misheard. I have not quite succeeded.
The broadsheets continue their optimistic coverage of the Minister’s project and my own work, yet increasingly I get the feeling that the people – or perhaps the city itself – does not want San Sibilia to be changed, or even mapped in the first place. It was because of these worries that sleep has become elusive, and I have taken to wandering at odd hours. This past midnight, I met her.
As I sat on a bench – safely outside the park – and stared into nothing a woman who looked a little younger than my own age sat down beside me. At her prompting we engaged in small talk, before her questions led me to talk of my work now and in the past. She identified herself as a San Sibilian, saying that she had never left the city in her life but longed to see new places, meet new peoples, and experience new things. I showed her the few maps from my old collection that I had not given to Imamu, and she was absolutely delighted. I left the conversation feeling much better, despite my exhaustion, my passion for my work reignited.
I never did get her name.
While wandering down yet another strange and winding street – this one near the Great Cathedral, thankfully, rather than the Market – I found myself drawn to a small square that served as a crossroads of sorts for a series of alleyways. A young man was there, playing the violin all alone, the empty case on the street next to him testament that none had passed by to throw change his way. I remained, however, because the song he was playing was one from my own homeland.
Listening to the song, I was overcome with a feeling of… isolation, I suppose. The isolated circumstances of the performer only enhanced it, I feel. Who else in this city could have heard this song in their childhood? Who else, upon hearing it, would be reminded of a home left behind, and of the fact that no countrymen of theirs had joined them in this strange city? Perhaps the performer, but I did not ask. I merely tossed a handful of change into the case, answered his nod of thanks with one of my own, and continued on my way.
Although I sleep better, I have continued my late night (or early morning, I suppose) wanderings. I tell myself it is to map parts of the city without being bothered by those who take offense at my efforts, which is somewhat true. I tell myself it is to enjoy the peace and quiet of the city asleep, which is more true. But I think the reason with the most truth to it is the hope that I again find the young woman who was so delighted by my work. Tonight, I was fortunate to again receive some much-needed companionship.
We talked of leaving homes behind to explore the unknown. We talked of leaving our mark on the world. We talked about a passion that could send you through the most inhospitable climes and the most rapturous scenery in the world. We talked of one another, both our regrets and our dreams.
I hope I see Doria again soon.
And how soon I saw her! I awoke this morning to Duncan banging on my room’s door, telling me I had received another letter before he staggered into his own bed. The letter was an invitation from Doria to join her in viewing a production at the theater. My wardrobe is limited, but I did the best I could and went to accept her invitation.
Truly I can remember little of the production now, some tale of the city’s founding that seemed to contradict itself at every turn, because I was more focused on Doria. Our conversations in the dark had hidden how truly beautiful she was from me, but that hardly mattered. Whether it was viewing the performance or our conversations before and after, it was her enthusiasm for new experiences that was truly captivating.
My friends have called me intrepid. My mother, rest her soul, often called me foolish. I may just be both, because despite such a short time of knowing her, Doria has me considering two things. First, I had always felt that I was merely a visitor in San Sibilia; now, for the first time, the prospect of staying for good does not seem so frightful. Second, I have always traveled alone; if Doria were to join me, I do not think I would mind terribly much.
Doria once again invited me out, this time to meet some of her friends. It was… an intriguing rendezvous. Of the group, Doria is the only San Sibilian. The others all hail from lands far away, each one as different as the last, although several are familiar to me. What was particularly curious about the lot is that, whenever our stories (and we told many stories) would and should have had one of cross paths out in the world, the details didn’t quite add up. A fellow cartographer spoke of the last biennial Cartographers Guild convention, but hers was held in Cairo instead of Paris, and the speakers and even the drink options had been different from the ones I had encountered almost two months ago. I am ever more convinced that, wherever San Sibilia stands on a map, it stands in a more peculiar place, temporally speaking, than the rest of the world.
Upon returning home as Duncan was heading out for his next shift, he informed me that I had a pile of mail. Not expecting any correspondence I went to check the pile, only to find that they were all of the letters I had written to the Minister, each marked ‘Return to Sender’. Several of the later letters were marked, in what seemed an angry scrawl instead of a neat stamp, ‘There IS no Minister of Urban Optimization, you daft-’. Well. You get the idea.
I searched for the letters the Minister had sent me. They were gone. I checked the copy of the first broadsheet to feature me, which I had kept: there was no mention of a Minister, only a ‘strange outsider’.
If it is willing to unmake a Minister, I truly think I am wearing out the city’s welcome.
Not everything wants to be mapped. Not everything should be mapped. That’s a belief I would not have tolerated before my visit to San Sibilia, but now I hold it as truth. As strange a place as it was, I think I could have been happy there. I’m not sure any other city will challenge me the way it did, and as worrisome as that challenge sometimes was, I can’t help but feel disappointed.
No drunk stumbling this time, no sudden realization that I was no longer in Paris. Instead I went to sleep after discovering that the Minister was gone, or had never existed, and woke up to find myself in a private room on a train to Naples. There was a ticket in my pocket that I don’t remember buying, the crew did not seem surprised to see me, and I have little choice but to ride the rails until we reach our stop.
I have my piece of a Parisian map, still shifting every time I look away. I have my work on San Sibilia itself, much of which now seems contradictory and confusing as I look at them. I have, found tucked into my pocket with my ticket, a letter. It talks of leaving San Sibilia behind, of going to university, of becoming a professor and seeing the world. She hopes she gets to meet me again some day.
She signed the letter Doria Graves.
I think I will find it hard to speak of San Sibilia to anyone. My fellow cartographers will no doubt be relieved when we meet at the next convention, but in truth not speaking of it is a relief. How could I explain? It will be harder still to find my back, but perhaps I simply need to wait long enough, and then travel north.
I do hope Profesor Graves will have returned to her home city by the time I find myself back there again.
Written by Peter Eijk, edited by Tyler Crumrine, and claiming inspiration from other games like Adira & Fen Slattery’s The Machine, Jei D. Marcade’s One Day at a Thyme, and Takuma Okada’s Alone Among the Stars, A Visit to San Sibilia sees you cataloguing your experiences during a visit to this city found on no map, both a part of and distinct from our world, a place that never changes and a place that never stays the same. Aside from writing tools of your choice you’ll need a deck of cards (no jokers), and you may want to have a d6 on hand as well.
Character creation is simple – aside from a name you want an adjective and a career of some kind. You can come up with your own, and if not you can use the cards. A 3 and a 6 saw Campbell here becoming an intrepid cartographer, but you may find yourself a brooding sailor, a boisterous merchant, a forgetful alchemist, and so on. These are really just to find something that is interesting to you, and in fact intrepid cartographer was the third result the cards gave me.
Whether it’s your first time ever visiting the city or you are returning to your childhood home, your journal starts the same way: Day 1 involves recording how you reached the city, how you learned of the city in the first place, where you are staying, who you have met so far, and what you brought with you. From there your days in San Sibilia proceed – you can decide how many days pass between entries, or roll that 1d6 like I did. Then you draw two cards for each entry, one of which provides an adjective and one of which provides an event or location. Every value of card has two possible options determined by the color of the card’s suit. A red Queen is joyous while a black one is poetic, a red 4 is a gallery opening and a black 4 is a trip to the market.
Whenever you draw two cards of the same suit or two cards of the same value the city changes. Two clubs mean a new wind is blowing (Day 14). Two cards of the same value see you change the city (Day 21). Two hearts in a row means that someone has a change of heart (Day 54). If you draw two spades then the city moves against you in some way (Day 57). A ripple moves through the city with two diamonds, shifting reality; ironically not a pairing I got for McNevin, considering how much the city shifting was a theme of his journal.
After four such pairings, your stay in San Sibilia comes to an end. You write one last entry in your journal answering questions such as how the city changed you, how you left, what you took with you or left behind, and will you ever return?
Curiously, the exact genre of A Visit to San Sibilia is somewhat dependent on what prompts you draw, particularly the adjectives. I got enough entries that were harrowing, intriguing, shocking, isolated, or sinister to make McNevin’s stay in the city an uneasy one, but the inspired and much-needed encounters with Doria provided a glimmer of hope that hit a wall when the city moved against him. You could end up with quite a whimsical journey that is decidedly less unsettling if you end up with more hopeful, joyous, and jubilant entries, or end your visit with a (positive) change of heart.
There’s only one example entry, which I could personally have used more of, but it’s a good example backed up by the writing in the rest of the game to give an idea of what to do. The prompts are plentiful and varied enough that I never really felt worried about drawing an exact duplicate, and in fact I never did. The prompts for Day One, for when the city changes, and for after you leave San Sibilia were particularly good, presented as they are in the form of a series of questions which you can pick and choose from.
Overall, A Visit to San Sibilia is an open-ended creation that manages to pack a lot of emotional strength between the lines, and it’s a good tool for strengthening the character building, setting embellishment, and creative writing muscles. The potentially shifting genre, as well as the chance for the game to go on for quite some time if you do not draw the four pairs swiftly, make it a bit more challenging; this is a game I think you could get away with drawing for and recording all the prompts for ahead of time to help give you an idea of what kind of story you’re going to be telling.
You can get the PDF version of A Visit to San Sibilia on itch.io for $5, and after a successful itchfunding campaign you can get a print version at FloatingChair.Club for $10. You can find Eijk’s other games on itch.io as well.
So. How did you come to San Sibilia?
Thanks to Eijk for providing us with a community copy of the game to work with and review! Know of a Solo RPG, your own or someone else’s, that you’d like featured in Solitaire Storytelling? Let us know about it!
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