Losing myself in Hera’s Shangri-La in Second Life

Shangri-La, August 2021 – click any image for full size
In Second Life did Hera (Zee9)
A tropical paradise decree.
Where a hidden Gorgon statue sits
In a cavern that torches dimly lit
   And a ship awaits upon the sea.

– with apologies to the estate of Samuel Taylor Coleridge!

Hera (Zee9) is a region creator whose imagination is in many ways unparalleled in Second Life; over the years she has consistently produced immersive environments built around themes that have richly and deservedly captured the hearts and minds of all who have visited them.

Perhaps best known for her ever-evolving Drune builds, many of which I’ve covered in these pages, she had also been the creator of places such as the medieval-like Golgothica and the captivating Venesha. Now, after what she describes as a “hectic and unpleasant four months”, she has opened another build for people to enjoy – and it is another marvel.

Shangri-La, August 2021

Shangri-La, modelled in part on an earlier Drune Raider design, was originally going to be a private place Hera could retreat to and spend time; however, she has generously opted to open it to the public as a place to be enjoyed and explored.

I actually first got to hear about it as she and I shared a brief conversation – as we have on occasion recently, the result of bumping into one another a couple of times quite by chance – just ahead of the weekend, and she kindly offered to provide me with a tour. Sadly, circumstances dictated that I was unable to take the offer then, so Hera dropped the LM to me, and as soon as my schedule allowed, I jumped over to pay a visit.

Quite how you might describe Shangri-La is a matter of personal choice. There is a marvellous fusion of Asian elements that reaches from India through to Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia. At the same time, the very name of the setting – Shangri-La offers echoes of Shangdu, Kublai Khan’s “upper capital”, as well as echoing Hilton’s mystical place within the Kunlun Mountains, whilst climbing the steps and walking around the temple-like structures in places brings with it a faint sense of Mayan history out of South America.

It was the Shangri-La / Shangdu “connection” that brought to my mind Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – hence the opening lines to this piece, based as they are on his work – a poem about a fantastical palace, formed within the imagination; a place of dance, music, pleasure. But where Coleridge’s palace was the product of an opium-addled mind, Hera’s the result of her richness of creativity and imagination – although like Coleridge’s poem, there is a hidden edge to the setting, but where he writes of demon lovers and cries for war, the “shadow” here is much more classical, folding a touch of Grecian mythology into the build, as hinted at in my re-working of the poem’s lines.

Shangri-La, August 2021

From the moment of arrival, it is clear this is place welcoming to those wishing to escape: blankets and cushions are spread cardinal-like around the landing point, with more to be found on the various terraces, along with curtain-draped pergolas, whilst the tree tops and the surrounding beach offer yet more places to sit and relax.

For the explorers, there are halls large and small awaiting discovery – including the lower cavern / hall and its waiting statue, whilst the upper reaches of the main structure bring forth thoughts of  Angkor Wat, thanks to the great carved faces mounted on the stone walls. These also highlight another unique aspect of Hera’s region builds: rather than relying purely on commercial kits and building obtain through the Marketplace or in-world, Hera is truly the architect of her settings, designing and creating many of the meshes she uses.

Shangri-La, August 2021

To the south, the temple stretches out over the sea to grasp a rocky outcrop. The back of this stone arm sits a simply gorgeous bar, its roof open to the sky, its narrow length split into three cosy areas whilst a canopied balcony at its far end offers a further retreat.

Whilst in places completely modern in design (the bar and the central lighting), it nevertheless sits perfectly within the “ancient” walls, a place crying out to become a gathering point for like minds and imaginations, masterfully completed by the Vallejo-like paintings Hera has created for the walls, paintings that for me again added a twist of South America to the setting, given their apparent inspiration.

Shangri-La, August 2021

A ship – one of Lia Woodget’s marvellous Blackpsot builds – anchored off the northern coast adds a different sense of era to the setting, its presence suggesting the island has just been the subject of discovery by 18th century explorers from the west. Thus, between bar and ship, Shangri-La encompasses  a sense of existing outside the normal passage of time, much like its namesake.

When visiting, I do strongly recommend using the shared EEP settings for the region (admittedly, I’ve post-processed the images here to give a slightly different look to the setting, as I wanted to offer a sense of age to them that might be in keeping with that of the region, and without falling back on purely monochrome / sepia finishes).

Also, do make sure to have Advanced Lighting Model (Preferences Graphics make sure the ALM setting is enabled) as well as local sounds enabled. And as a final side notes, please be aware that while the building set upon its own in the south-west corner of the region might appear to a continuance of the main structures, it is actually a private residence and not part of the public spaces.

Captivating, photogenic and laden with tales awaiting telling, Shangri-La is exactly what its name and About Land description state: a tropical paradise and retreat.

Shangri-La, August 2021

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A return to downtown Drune in Second Life

Drune Sleazy Street, June 2021

About a week ago, I bumped into Hera (zee9), creator of the ever-popular Drune series of region designs  and during the course of our conversation, she mentioned that while the last (at that time) iteration of the city – Drune Diesel (see: Drune’s diesel-deco delight in Second Life) – had now gone, she was nevertheless working on a smaller-scale redux of the more dystopian versions of the city.

The result is Drune Sleazy Street, and at the weekend, Hera extended an invitation to visit and explore.

Drune Sleazy Street, June 2021

As the name might suggest, the new build only replicates the main street of the dystopian Drune. Given the design is sitting within a Homestead, it’s a little hard to reproduce all of the city; but what Hera has produced is nonetheless engaging and rich in detail, both echoing the older Drune builds and offering some touches of its own.

Drune Sleazy Street, June 2021

Awash with the neon that always gives Drune a pulse of life, the street is home to the passage of hover vehicles along the main carriageways, the adult-themed emporiums and the eateries, all overseen by hovering bots, quietly parked police spinners, and elevated walkways.

Among the buildings that line the street are two clubs, one with the familiar Alien-esque theme, the other offering a more grunge feel (and called appropriately enough, Biohazard). Also awaiting discovery is opulent delight of the Shanghai Dragon. While for those who seek it, an elevator will lift them up to the Exotic lounge.

Drune Sleazy Street, June 2021

But rather than being written about, Drune Sleazy Street – like the various iterations of the full-scale Drune – is a place that should be seen and savoured while it lasts and which will appeal to anyone with a love of sci-fi (the Blade Runner references are clear in the design, and really don’t need mentioning alongside those of the Alien franchise). As such, I’ll just leave images here as encouragement (I hope!) for you to hop over and take a look for yourself.

My thanks to Hera for the invitation to visit!

Drune Sleazy Street, June 2021

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Drune’s diesel-deco delight in Second Life

Drune Diesel, March 2021 – click any image for full size

I’ve been a fan of the region designs by Hera (zee9) ever since I visited 2019XS before it morphed into what has been perhaps her most poplar series of region builds, the Drune series. I’ve not written about every single iteration, but they have been something of a theme in this blog down the years for their marvellous cyberpunk vibes edged with a touch of bohemian dystopia.

However, with Drune Diesel, I  think Hera has created one of the most engaging, intriguing and layered region designs it has been my pleasure to visit – and one I really do urge folk to hop over and witness for themselves, particularly if, like me, you are a film and cultural buff. Rather than keeping to the broadly cyberpunk theme of previous design, with this iteration, Hera has turned towards the oft-overlooked dieselpunk genre.

Drune Diesel, March 2021

I was sent the LM for the region by my ever-vigilant region sleuth, Shawn Shakespeare, and it arrived somewhat serendipitously. Earlier in March I had visited Isabel Hermano’s art exhibition at the Janus II Gallery entitled Living in a Steampunk World (see here for more). Whilst steampunk oriented, two pieces within it – Radio City Music Hall, and The Sisters – incorporated very distinct deco and dieselpunk vibes and seeing these pictures set me to wondering if anyone in SL had actually stepped away from the more common steampunk and cyberpunk themes to present something more rooted in dieselpunk – and then just a few days later, Shawn drops Hera’s LM on me!

For other unfamiliar with the genre, dieselpunk (and it’s sub-genre of decopunk) is based on the aesthetics popular in the interwar period of the 1920s/30s and extending through to the end of World War II, with some exponents also including the early 1950s.  It is broadly defined as the era in which the diesel engine replaced the steam engine as the focus of technology. Within it, decopunk centres the aesthetic of art deco and streamline moderne art styles particularly prevalent to design and architecture in the same overall period.

Drune Diesel, March 2021

Within Drune’s familiar city setting, compete with its tall buildings, canyon-like streets and split-level roadways, Hera has created a setting that encapsulates the heart of dieselpunk/decopunk to present something that will be instantly recognisable to those who have visited Drune’s earlier iterations – but which is also utterly unique. It’s a place where the richness of detail, large and small, is truly staggering and the cultural and film references sublime in their placement and presentation.

The initial sense of familiarity comes not only from the lie of the city and its streets, but also in the display of lighting and signage that adorns the sides of building and lines the railings of overpasses. But whereas past iterations this lighting and signage has been a mix of bright neons, flickering LED screens and brash  images, now we have a richer mix: spotlights illuminating billboards, softer-toned neons, traditional banners, and fluorescent lighting that follows the lines and curves of building façades or sits within parking metres and so on.

Drune Diesel, March 2021

Another change is with the cars on the roads. While many of these (again in keeping with past iterations of Drune) may well hover, they are not the seek Blade Runner-esque designs visitors may recall. Instead, they are entirely of the era, encompassing bulky Cadillac-like beasts to smaller open-topped Mercedes and pencil-like single seaters.  They are held aloft over tracks that line each side of the road by great round conduction coils that replace their wheels and which are presumably powered by the diesel engines sitting under their hoods. They share the roads with cars that retain their wheels, perhaps because their owners cannot afford the hover update or perhaps simply because they want to be fashionably different.

A number of the buildings include interiors that have been made over to match the theme.  The Black Pussy nightclub goes full-on deco in its interior styling that could have you out on the dance floor like the most carefree flapper, whilst the Cortez Hotel’s lobby has  more grandiose deco setting, complete with stained glass windows and vaulted ceiling (as a set of four themed bedrooms). Those seeking a meal can always drop into the Shanghai Dragon, a restaurant that is truly delightful in its own suggestions oriental decadence.

Drune Diesel, March 2021

The cultural and film references I mentioned are to be found everywhere. Some are mentioned in the note card offered at the airship landing point, others are awaiting discovery as you explore. Some are large and obvious, some either small and/or not quite so direct. Many reference the era represented by the the setting, others draw on references that may not at first appear to be connected, but on examination are not so anachronistic as they might first appear.

Take the P51D fighter sitting on the airstrip below the city, for example. Loaded for a ground attack role and bearing D-Day markings, it hardly looks dieselpunk in nature. However, it immediately brings to mind Kerry Conran’s 2004 box-office-flop-turned-cult-classic, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie), one of the first attempts to encapsulate diselpunk in modern film after game designer Lewis Pollak coined the term in 2001.

Drune Diesel, March 2021

Similarly, the city’s movie theatre boasts showings Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino and released at the start of the dieselpunk era, together with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), arguably the first film to depict dieselpunk long before the term was ever coined. Indeed, Drune Diesel reflects something of Metropolis: whilst the workers are all down on the lower levels of the city, living in basic conditions and with the muck and sweat and fumes of the city, the elite live up in the towers, where halls are lined with marble and grand statues hold aloft light fittings or strike heroic poses.

Other references are more subtle but are bound to bring a smile to the lips when recognised, from the SS Venture alongside the wharf and being prepared for the voyage that will see her bring home King Kong (1933), to the U-boat sitting in its pen and carrying something of an Indiana Jones vibe. One of my favourites is the billboard reference to Karel Čapek’s 1921 film Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Not only does it fit the period, it is the film that first brought us the term “robot” (although those in the film were closer androids than robots); it has also been cleverly paired with an indirect reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy through its tag-line – even if the Sirius Cybernetics Corp might want to have a few words about it!

Drune Diesel, March 2021

As indicated in the introductory notes, the city also contains references to the BBC Television series Peaky Blinders, the fictionalised tale of one of England’s most notorious crime gangs that was based in the city of Birmingham. These range the The Garrison pub, inspired by the pub seen in the series and rumoured to have been used by the real Peaky Blinders, to the wharfside chalk advert featuring a racing horse and the words “Shelby, est. 1920”, a reference to both the family leading the fictional Peaky Blinders and to the illegal bookmaking both the fictional and real gangs ran. There’s even billboard advertising  Cadbury’s products providing further references to the Midlands origins of the gang.

Drune is also a setting that encompasses so much more as well. There is a very Gotham-esque vibe in places that goes far beyond the Batmobile awaiting discovery, whilst the streets and atmosphere lend themselves to thoughts of a dieselpunk Philip Marlowe trudging the glistening footpaths (It was raining in the City — a hard rain — almost hard enough to wash the slime from the streets. But it never does.), and more besides.

Drune Diesel, March 2021 – a touch of Angel Heart, as well?

This is a place that deserves time to appreciate all of the detail that has gone into it, from the way the building rise from worn brickwork to fine, faced stone with carved motifs and proud banners to the crafted rotary engines that pump clean air into their refined interiors from their tops and cough it used and dirty, onto the streets below. Much of this detailing, all created by Hera, both adds depth to the setting and offers up more in the way of cultural references, particularly for central Europe in the inter-war period.

Magnificent, engaging and deserving to be witnessed, Drune Diesel is simply superb – when visiting, do make sure you are running with Advanced Lighting Model active (Shadows not required).

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The haunting beauty of Golgothica in Second Life

Golgothica, February 2021
Golgothica’s story has yet to be written … The detailed, rich mysterious, Gothic landscape will hopefully inspire those who come here to discover with others what it’s story is and why things are as they are. It is an open book, the first chapter is a simple description of the place and the locations. But who lives here, what they do, and why, is in the creative minds of those who come to dwell here?

So reads, in part the introduction to Golgothica, the latest region-wide setting that has sprung forth from the eye and imagination of Hera (Zee9). Sharing the same Full region as the latest iteration of her famous Drune cyberpunk environment (which sits high in the sky overhead), Golgothica is – and I say this without any hyperbole – a simply magnificent build.

Golgothica, February 2021

Located on the ground level of the region and reached via the main landing point that also offers a way to the current iteration of Drune, the setting is presented as a medieval style coastal town or village, with a small wharf, numerous houses and places of commerce, a church that at first glance appears to perhaps be under repair, and with outlying farmlands, woods and roads that cross the countryside while the high walls and towers of what might at first be taken as a mighty castle rise to the west, dominating the skyline.

Golgothica, February 2021

It all looks typically Middle Ages on being seen for the first time – it is only as visitors explore, that the darker side of the place, caught in the growing shadows of twilight, starts to reveal itself. The local inn, for example, carries the name The Slaughtered Lamb and has hanging over its door the image of a severed wolf’s head on a pike; thus neither name nor sign are particularly welcoming – although inside, all is undoubtedly cosy.

And what is one to make of the Romany camp  at the edge of town, the caravans carefully arranged around a stone pentagram lain within the ground, or the riverside statue seeming to celebrate the blood lust of werewolves? What sinister rites might be performed out at the henge where fires burn – one within the rune-inscribed round stone at the centre of the henge, and the other at the feet of the great wicker man watching over the ancient stones, apparently awaiting someone to occupy its woven form…

A walk in the opposite direction to the henge raises further questions: what has happened to the local church?  A visit to it will reveal that rather than being in a state of repair, it has in fact been left to ruin, with nature slowly claiming it as a place of her own, all former signs of devotion long removed saved a single statue – and even that is far from saintly.

Across the waters of the local stream, the woodlands add to the mystery, strange lights illuminating the tree trunks, casting haunting light across glades that offer the unexpected, from statutes to shrines that hint towards unnatural acts.

Golgothica, February 2021

Then, beyond this all sits the castle that is in fact a monastery – at least according to the map that can be obtained at the main landing point, or which is automatically delivered as visitors land aboard the vessel moored at the village quayside, and which marks the start of all journeys through the setting. With its foreboding walls and towers and great gates, it has all the look of a fortification designed to keep people out, rather than welcoming them in for worship, whilst the shape of the many watchtowers that line its walls imply something of a far eastern influence.

Caught against the setting Sun in the default environment for the setting, this great complex is no home to the chanting of your usual monks, Gregorian or Buddhist, however; although it is clearly the seat of some form of learning, given the Maester’s library on the upper level of the southern keep-like structure.

Golgothica, February 2021

Instead, this appears to be a place where deities of a more forbidden kind are paid homage, as can be witnessed by the Bosch-like murals in the sleeping cells of those who reside here and through the design of the main chapel. And what of the dungeons lying below that chapel, what do they say of those who might occupy them – and the fate that might awaited them?

Two interlinked elements are always apparently within Hera’s builds that makes them ideal for visitors and role-players alike. The first is narrative: all of Hera’s builds from the 2019-XS pre-Drune, through Drune (covered numerous times in these pages) to the likes of Venesha and on to Golgothica carry within them threads of narrative and imagine just waiting for those coming into the region to pick them up and follow them or weave them together.

Gologothica, February 2021

The second is attention to detail that both helps to strengthen these threads and gives the more casual visitor touches to be appreciated. Take, for example the beehives behind the mead house; a small detail they might be – but an important one. After all, what is mead without honey, other than water with some added fruit for taste? Add to this the fact that the major structures within Hera’s builds are of her own design, thus making each setting genuinely unique in form and character.

I have yet to be disappointed in any of Hera’s designs; they never fail to to engage, surprise and enamour. However, with Golgothica I cannot help but feel she has created something very special, perhaps her most engaging, immersive design to date. I’ve no idea how long Hera intends to keep Golgothica open – I suppose that very much depends on her creative spark – but it is quite genuinely not a setting to be missed. or avoided.

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Venesha: an enchanted twist of Venice in Second Life

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

Update: Venesha has closed. SLurls have therefore been removed from this article.

Once upon a time there was a place called Venexia. A full region, it offered a taste of Venice in something of a Gothic twist, largely built with role-play in mind – although it was a highly photogenic region – it was open to Second Life users between 2011 and 2015, when it and it’s “companion” region – as in, designed by the same people – closed (see: The passing of places in Second Life, June 2015).

In 2018, the spirit of Venexia returned when Zee9, one of the original region’s designers, created a Homestead region based on Venexia that she called Venesha. Referring to it as a “stripped down” version of Venexia, Zee9 nevertheless imbued much of what had made Venexia special within the mesh and prims of Venesha.

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

To be honest, I’ve no idea how long that iteration of Venesha remained in Second Life – I stopped by in something like August or September 2018, IIRC, but never wrote about it – and by the start of 2019, Zee9 had moved on to her futuristic 2019-XS city design, itself a recasting of her Drune build (which it was also to morph into over time (see Time at 2019-XS in Second Life, January 2019 and Drune IV: an Aftermath in Second Life, August 2019).

Now, with Venesha, the enchanted isle, Zee9 has brought all the magic of Venexia back to Second Life – and more. Once again occupying a Full region, Venesha, the enchanted isle has given Zee9 to completed rebuild the original and enhance it to offer a setting that is utterly captivating and rich in nuance and style.

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

Situated as a sky build in order to make use of the better performance people can oft experience with the viewer (no pesky Linden Water to render, which can affect viewer performance, particularly for those running EEP-capable viewers),  Venesha offers an enticing mix of classic Venice with canals, gondolas (some of which act as site-to-site teleports within the build), humpbacked bridges, waterfront houses, narrow terraces, inner courtyards and one broad square that takes its lead from the famous Piazza San Marco.

But mixed with this is much more – the aforementioned Gothic element for example, together with something of a steampunkian edge, like the clockwork elevator that will take you up the inside of the clock tower, and the street lamps that look like they might be gas-powered. The docks, meanwhile are strong Renaissance period in styles (and shipping). Meanwhile, the taverns and tea houses look as if they’d fit into any period from the Renaissance through to the present day, whilst the preferred (but not enforced) dress-code is Victorian / Edwardian.

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

If all this sounds a bit of a hodge-podge, rest assured, it isn’t. Thanks to the architecture of the region, everything naturally flows together from waterfront to streets, to island gardens, going by way of theatre, churches, clubs, taverns. Rather, Venesha the enchanted isle is a genuinely immersive setting that suggests a place cut-off from time, and where role-play opportunities abound throughout. Those with a Gothic / supernatural bent will find places like the Tomb Garden and the great basilica to their liking; the interior of the latter is certainly not what you might expect from a house of God – but who said churches have to be places of worship in one particular direction?  Across the region, the dungeons may similar offer opportunities for some role-play scenarios, whilst the island gardens and the library sit as quieter retreats.

Those with an interest in magic can always enrol in the local magic school, tucked away behind the Basilica and occupying a little island of its own. For the adventurous there is the ride to the top of the clock tower and a zip line ride down to a nearby tower, where a treat of wine and cheese awaits those who dare – just down drink too much, as the way back t the ground is via a pair of ladders!

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

As noted above, some of the gondolas found along the canals offer the means to teleport around Venesha, but I really recommend talking your time and walking around; there a lots of little corners and terraces that might be missed otherwise, as well as one or two secrets. Can you find the hidden entrance to the catacombs, for example?

Currently there are no plans to re-introduce formalised role-play into Venesha, Zee9 preferring to leave things open to visitors who wish to do so to engage in free-form RP. She does note, however, that any of the old Venexia RP groups that might still be active are welcome to hop over and try the region on for size.

Venesha, the enchanted isle, August 2020

Zee9 describes Venesha as her best build to date – and while I have always enjoyed her region designs, I’m not going to dispute her on that point: Venesha is fabulously designed and executed, and perfectly recaptures everything that made Venexia so popular. The default environment settings are recommended for maximum enjoyment, but with care, others also work well with the design.

Drune IV: an Aftermath in Second Life

Drune IV: Aftermath – August 2019 – click any image for full size

In January 2019 we visited 2019-XS by zee9. At the time, I noted:

The region has an adult edge to the role-play, and is intended as an extension to her previous (and now departed) build Drune. I’ve not seen that design, but will say that while compact, 2019-XS has a certain ambience that is hard to define, but has seen me make three visits to it in order to fully appreciate the ambience and setting.

Well, we’ve recently had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Drune design, as zee9 2019-XS has been remodelled into the fourth chapter in the series, Drune IV: Aftermath.

Drune IV: Aftermath – August 2019

Maintaining much of the look and feel of 2019-XS (and previous Drune builds) in terms of general layout, Drune IV Aftermath presents an environment in which it is clear that, as the region name suggests, some form of cataclysm has befallen the city.

The once pristine roads, neon-lit by business signs, cleaned by robots and home to electric vehicles, now lie broken and slowly being overcome by plant life. Power cables hang and lie in disarray, and the once bright buildings are slowly being overcome by vines and creepers.

Drune IV: Aftermath – August 2019

Exactly what has come to pass is hard to say: is the disaster man-made or natural? Did the city bring it upon itself, or has some external factor played a role? These are the questions that roll through the mind in exploring the elevated walkways, the roads and the alleyways.

But it is clear that human life has not entirely abandoned the city. Some of the street lights still work, and free-standing floodlights illuminate stairways and other areas, drawing their power from generators that must have some form of fuel supply or means to be recharged, even as more light is shed from many of the windows peppering the tall towers.

Drune IV: Aftermath – August 2019

More signs of habitation can be found along the shadowed streets, where makeshift stalls have been set-up by people trying to eke out a living. Some of these are lit by neon signs, again suggesting an operating power source, while others rely on lamps suspended from the beams of the elevated road sections.

The lifestyle of those who remain has perhaps taken a turn towards post-apocalyptic hedonism, going  by some of the market stalls, while a nightclub similar to that found within 2019-XS appears to still be in use. It sits at street level almost in reflection of another dance space sitting atop the tallest of the city’s towers. Elsewhere, follow the faint sounds of a piano playing and you may eventually be led to the entrance of what might once have been a plush club, but which now sits behind broken doors, squatting in its own gathering mould.

Drune IV: Aftermath – August 2019

The region used to be open to free-form role-play, and while I’ve no idea if this is still the case but the region certainly still captures elements of a range of sci-fi / cyberpunk films, including the likes of Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Strange Days and even, despite its presentation of nature victorious, the Fifth Element. And even without the role-play, Drune remains an engaging visit.

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