Let’s Catch Up With Stephen Gibson: Creator Of Grimslingers!

We’re continuing our Inspirational Creator Series of interviews this week, checking in with Stephen Gibson – artist, writer, game designer, and creator of the Grimslingers line of tabletop games. He’s had some exciting personal developments since we last spoke in 2020, and remains one of the most popular interviews we’ve hosted here on Grailrunner. Click here to read that original interview.

He had been Art Director at Arcane Wonders at the time, designing a supporting app for Grimslingers and trying to find time to catch some sleep. His art has popped up recently on book covers, and he’s even been featured in the art magazine, ImagineFX. In 2022, he made a big switch to Sumo Digital in Newcastle in England and added another member to his growing family!

Fascinating dude, great guy, and incredibly talented. What else could a Grailrunner ask for in finding inspiration?!

Stephen, apart from the occasional “wassup”, we last chatted in October of 2020, before zombie movies came to life with a global pandemic. You were one of the first interviews in a series we did on inspirational creators, and yours in particular remains the most popular of all that we did. Apparently, Henrietta the magic hen is quite the ambassador for you!

It has been a lifetime! I’m flattered at the reception and find it hilarious (but not all that surprising) that Henrietta has stolen the hearts of your readers. She’s also one of the illustrations I spent the least amount of time on. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

At the time, you were deep in playtesting on Grimslingers 2, and had featured a detailed map and some app screenshots in various places on social media. Then I suspect life happened and you needed to focus on your work as Art Director at Arcane Wonders among other things. Were you or your family impacted seriously by COVID? I hope everyone is well.

Life indeed happened, as it does to us all. I had my third child, among other big life changes and yeah, COVID!!! I spent most of Covid gaining weight and wishing I had the energy to work on Grimslingers 2.

To prepare for this chat, I dug back through your (sparse) posts, and you seemed super passionate about an Arcane Wonders release called Freedom Five. It sounded like a tremendous amount of work – how was that experience?

Art wise, Freedom Five was a lot of fun because I was able to work with some extraordinarily talented artists. I’m particularly proud of the comic book panel style card art we had for ability cards. Each ability card really sold the story of the ability on it.
The campaign was a whirlwind that seemed doomed a little ways in but we were able to turn it around and I’m immensely proud of my hand in that (which meant a few sleepless nights re-working the entire campaign page).


It was a tremendous amount of work (and still is, it still hasn’t shipped to backers). We were very ambitious, but the project also got hit hard by the pandemic. We funded right before poop hit the fan and the world plummeted into chaos, and that meant all of our numbers, estimates and expectations for producing this game got thrown out the window.

I was incredibly jealous of the cover image you did for Cold As Hell, the book by Rhett Bruno and Jaime Castle. I saw your mysterious post about it around May of 2021, then stumbled randomly across it on the Barnes & Noble shelf this past summer. Looks amazing. (Offer stands for you to do a piece for Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic setting any time you like.)

“Shot dead in a gunfight many years ago, now he’s stuck in purgatory, serving the whims of the White Throne to avoid falling to Hell. Not quite undead, though not alive either, the best he can hope for is to work off his penance and fade away.”  – that’s from the Amazon description. I see why you were attracted to the project.

The author approached me to see if he could use some of my Grimslinger art for his cover (Pocket Watch Will to be exact). That was a first for me, haha. Instead we worked out producing a new piece of art and I think that was for the best! I’m quite fond of that cover, it certainly evokes a mood!

You’ve described your workflow as being heavy on photobashing and digital painting in Photoshop. Describe your desk setup – an old post showed a Wacom tablet among other things. How do you set up for work?

My “Grimslingers” style is photobashing, but I’m just as comfortable doing cartoons or comic-esque stuff. Right now I actually don’t have a desk or even a computer, I sold it on to move to the UK and start a new job! HOWEVER, I used to have a Wacom Cintiq 24HD Pro, an ultra-wide primary monitor and a beefy PC to boot. I also use a Logi Ergo M575 trackball mouse. It allows me to use the mouse without needing a ton of space to move it around, that way I can switch between pen, keyboard and mouse without too much movement (why do much movement when little movement good?).

You mentioned on Artstation you’d used Unreal Engine 5 for the first time in kitbashing some Victorian environmental pieces for TacticStudios. What did you think?

I think every artist should had some 3D software in their repertoire. Unreal is fantastic for kitbashing and I wish I had more time to spend with it! It’s one of my main goals as an artist, to develop my 3D bashing and sculpting skills more. For me, that’s the next step in my evolution.

Congratulations on being featured in the December 2022 issue of ImagineFX. Best quote ever, regarding your approach to art: “…splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.”

You also said something near and dear to the mission of Grailrunner Publishing: “The world needs more passion projects and less corporate-controlled products.” Tell me what you mean by that and why it’s important. 

Getting featured along other incredibly talented artists in ImagineFX was a big moment for me as an artist! Certainly a highlight of my journey thus far! My quote partly had to do with my frustration with truly unique and visionary ideas being disregarded because their considered more of a gamble – which they are! I totally get why business entities take the approach that they do in train to “paint by numbers” games and play things safe. But playing it safe doesn’t move our industry forward. It’s the risk takers that got us where we are now, and it’s the risk takers that will push us forward.


In my opinion, a game like Grimslingers wouldn’t have ever happened if I had to pitch it to publishers, it’s just far too wild and to weird a mix of genres and styles. There are some visionary and forward thinking publishers out there (more in the board game world compared to the video game world) and I truly do appreciate them. Cheers to the risk-takers! It’s a difficult and dangerous task, but the soul of our industry lives with them

One more question before we get to Grimslingers – you’ve settled in now at Sumo Digital in Newcastle. Tell us why this move, what’s exciting about it, and what sorts of things you’ll be working on.

Covid shook my confidence in the board game industry, and life rocked my personal finances (to the extent that I wasn’t able to keep up with my bills). As a father of three, I’m not at a point in my life anymore where I’m willing to ride out risky situations for too long. After college I had signed up for a job alert service to which I never unsubscribed. One day, I got a job alert for a position at Digital Extremes (a studio in my town that happens to make the ultra-successful looter shooter, Warframe!) The job description fit me perfectly and was the push I needed to help me feel like I could exist in the video game industry. I updated my resume, my portfolio, I started learning new software (like UE5). I interviewed with several studios (and yes, I did get the interview with Digital Extremes!).


I lacked experience in the video games industry so I knew (or I thought I knew) that I’d never find a job as an Art Director, so I was applying to concept artist positions. I interviewed with Ubisoft for the Splinter Cell remake, TacticStudios for an unannounced project, Digital Extremes for Warframe and Atomhawk for Character Concept Artist. They were all very promising and I had a few interviews with each, but Atomhawk seemed the most exciting to me, and they seemed the most excited about me. Unfortunately the job fell through because of some changes to their projects. What I didn’t know at the time was that Atomhawk is part of a larger group, Sumo Digital, and one of their recruiters reached out to me, apologized the opportunity fell through but if I was interested in relocating to the UK, there might be something for me. I thought it was a joke but turns out it wasn’t! Not only that, it was for an Art Director role – a job listing I had seen but didn’t apply to because it was asking for far more experience than I had (let that be a lesson to you all!).


There’s more to the story but the heart of it is this: Changing your life is difficult and scary, but it can be done. Work hard, play nice with others, put yourself out there, it’ll work out. Good things are waiting for those who put in the effort to achieve them.

Speaking of Grimslingers, what can you tell us about what’s coming up (and generally when we can expect to see it)?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any Grimslingers news at this time…but one day, echoing through the winds, you’ll begin to hear the faint whispers of news from far away lands, tickling your ear tubes with the promise of more Grimslingers!

What is it about the stories of the Forgotten West, magic-toting grimslingers, Icarus and his mysterious missions, that inspires you? Why so much passion into this setting?

The answer is simple I think: it’s me. It’s all just an expression and wild re-interpretation of my personality and life experiences. A collection of things I love and adore and a world in which I make no compromises and have no limits.

And if you could launch some grimslingers out into the world on your own missions, what would you have them do exactly?

Definitely go get me some pizza, this covid weight isn’t going to maintain itself!!!

Stephen, anything else you’d care to let us know or places you’d like folks to keep an eye on for your doings?

In a few years’ time, games I’ll have art directed at Sumo Digital hitting the market. I hope you all love what you see and will be able to spot my unique flare to approaching art!

Special request – if there’s an illustration of Red, the salty panda pirate out there, I think we need to see that.

Thanks very much, Stephen. And best of luck in the new company and new continent!

Thank YOU for the opportunity 🙂 and kind words!

Till next time, guys.

Let’s Talk To A Fantasy Cartographer! Meet Francesca Baerald.

Welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirational Creator Series where we dig in with some of the most fascinating creators around and ask what sorts of things inspire them, hear about their creative process, and generally just admire people who have very, very cool jobs.

Previous interviews have included a mind-blowing artist and game designer who created the Grimslingers tabletop series of games, a science fiction writer who’s also a professional futurist, a martial arts video game designer who’s studied his craft for over 3 decades but is also a Diagnostic Pathologist, and the influential and intriguing writer who created D&D’s Spelljammer.

This week, we’ll meet a fantasy cartographer, painter and illustrator who’s produced mesmerizing works for clients like Wizards Of The Coast, Games Workshop, publishers Random House and Simon & Schuster, and game producers Blizzard and Square Enix! Her name is Francesca Baerald, and you need to hear from her not just because she’s kind and inspiring and incredibly responsive to her many fans, but because she makes imaginary lands come to glorious, color-filled life with her bare hands.

We’ll be featuring some of her work throughout the interview, so take a look as we chat.

Francesca, welcome!

The breadth of your experience is incredible, representing some of the biggest and most exciting names in gaming and speculative fiction right now. Congratulations on that, and thanks for making time to give us a glimpse into what you do and what inspires you!

Thank you so much! Games were the first thing that started my passion for the job I do today, so as you can imagine it’s incredible for me to have the chance to contribute with my art to games such as D&D, Warcraft, Diablo and books like Game of Thrones.

A year or so ago, I saw a job posting for “Vice President Of Dungeons & Dragons” and thought that was the coolest job title possible. That was obviously before I gave thought to a “Fantasy Cartographer”. As an artist and mapper of imaginary worlds, tell us what you do and why you do it.

Vice President of D&D, that would be so cool (no pressure!). I love my job as a fantasy cartographer. My mother always said that I have too much creativity and this job gives me the opportunity to be creative at my fullest. It’s fantastic to contribute to developing worlds, inventing places and stories. I believe that the role of the cartographer is fundamental in making a fictional setting look real and plausible. I really enjoy immersing myself in new unexpected worlds and do my best to make them real.

You graduated from the International School Of Comics (I believe in Florence), which sounds like a blast. I’m imagining a bunch of wide-eyed artists sketching on iPads at the bases of gorgeous fountains). Sheesh…I had to study calculus and field equations. Tell us about that.  

I graduated in Reggio Emilia, which is not Florence, but nevertheless is a very nice city. Here in Italy you can find inspiration in every corner. Ancient history is on each building and statue. But we also have lovely landscapes to get inspiration from. And the beauty of it is that everything is a stone throw away.

Attending an illustration course was the best choice I’ve ever made. At the time I was working at a warehouse, I knew nothing about drawing. But learning how to draw has always been a dream of mine, so I quit my job and went on this adventure. During the three years of study I encountered many challenges but also a lot of eye-opening experiences.

So, a thrilled, exhausted Francesca graduated from illustration school and headed off to seek her fortune – I believe your first paying art gig was for an Italian RPG. How did you approach that job and what was that experience like?

When I started the illustration course, transforming my passion for drawing into my daily job never crossed my mind. I was just dying to learn how to draw and express myself. At the end of the course I understood that perhaps I could try to make my way as an artist. So I started to attend Italian conventions, trying to get some commissions (I didn’t even think about international clients at the time). I showed my portfolio to so many publishers! But they were quite skeptical in hiring an artist that used traditional media and with little work experience. I then began submitting my work to online job requests and contests. It took time, but little by little I began to work with more companies.

I started my career as a fantasy illustrator, not a cartographer. I always loved drawing maps in my spare time and once I decided to share one of my maps online. One of my connections noticed it and introduced me to an Italian publisher that was looking for a cartographer. That was my first map commissioned for a published project.

I believe you prefer traditional materials for your artwork versus strictly digital: watercolors, ink, acrylics, and oil. What do you like about that?

As I mentioned, at first publishers here in Italy were very cautious in hiring a traditional artist. But I’m a passionate person that has a strong physical bond with art and creativity. Believe me, when I was looking for work at the beginning and with no job on the horizon, I started to learn digital painting. But I really couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t happy while drawing on a PC monitor. Digital and traditional tools are both great. Digital simply doesn’t work for me. I knew that if I had to make this my daily job, it would have to be with traditional media. The feeling of shaping something with my hands, touching it and loving it even with its faults and mistakes is unique.

Pick just one of your absolute favorite art pieces you’ve done (apart from maps, we’ll get to that), and tell us what makes you pick that one?

I think that I have a special connection with my painting “The Butterfly Effect”. It’s a self-portrait in some way and it’s the first time that I believe I “exposed” myself with one of my works. I often try to remind what my father taught me: life is special, even in difficult times. And that even a little change can have an effect on life in the long term.

And so we come to fantasy and science fiction maps! What a marvelous job you have. It’s unique and very much in demand. What attracted you to mapmaking?

Playing games while growing up really intensified my love for drawing little maps, dungeons and labyrinths. Diablo in particular and its dungeons were of great inspiration. How I loved exploring! I ventured through every corner of almost all the many games I’ve played… and I know level designers have fun hiding easter-eggs in secret places! After the course I didn’t know that cartography could be a daily job for me. My hope was to find commissions as a fantasy artist and illustrator for games. The opportunity of making a map came by chance and then everything changed. I love painting illustrations and creating maps at the same level. I’m grateful that I can do both today.

Can you describe your process for making fantasy maps?

Essentially I “live” my maps. When I start a new map the goal for me is to make those places real in my mind. So I begin by carefully reading the art brief I receive and finding out as much info as possible on the setting. Depending on the kind of map, I take inspiration from publications and nature (inspiration can come from anything) and do my best to mix everything with my personal vision and experience. I start with a first sketch to nail down my ideas. Then I move on with a more detailed drawing and submit it to the client. Once all the feedback changes are done, I start inking and in the end coloring the map.

Anything you’re working on now is super-secret, but what can you tell us about any projects coming out soon?

Because of NDAs, what artists show you today is probably from a couple of years back! However I’m happy to tell you about a map I’m particularly excited about. And that’s the map I made for the Collector’s Edition of Diablo IV. There are many other exciting new works of mine that will be published later this year, but I can’t talk about them yet. It will be an amazing 2023!

Diablo IV: Collector’s Edition featuring cloth map of Sanctuary by Francesca Baerald

Where can we find more about what you’re up to?

I share all the news about my work on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you’d like to keep updated and see some of my work in progress, you can find me there. I’ve also just finished updating my Artstation page.

Anything else you’d like to let us know?

I’ve seen the world of fantasy cartography expanding a lot in the last few years. This makes me really happy. I’d like to take the opportunity to say to new cartographers to thrive to become the better expression of themselves, to be unique! Because in an increasingly automated world we need to be reminded of our faulty humanity (in a positive way!).

Francesca, it’s been amazing! Thanks so much for making time for us and for the inspiration to get out and make something new. Best of luck to you in the new year!

Till next time, guys.

Highlight From A Storybook Puzzle Box

There is a book called Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box.

It contains 140 pieces of short fiction, each less than a page in length. These are presented in 14 chapters, each of which ends with a continuing narrative that frames, discusses, and eventually resolves a single over-arching riddle that is tied to and fulfills the stories told.

And it’s very much a crazy, psychedelic flower.

You can blast through at your leisure with no regard for the arc or riddle and just appreciate stories “inspired by the mind-bending fantasy of Jorge Luis Borges and the wide-eyed awe of Arthur Clarke”. Planet-sized DNA machines, cities made of code, daring battles with intelligent bacteria, mysterious space ships, undersea empires, and a singularity in a bubble all await you. By chapter 8, you’ll have met the key players in the big arc the stories are tying together, though the bigger picture really starts unfolding from chapter 10 on. (That’s the flower analogy)

Or you can capture notes about the three mysterious ladies in the chapter epilogues along the way and try your hand at solving the riddle. Things they say, and the shocking interactions between them tell you all you need to know to figure out who they are. That’s the riddle – who are they? (Don’t peek at the Epilogue!)

I thought I’d highlight one of the pivotal introductions for you today and add a little art to flesh it out. Enjoy:

Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box Story Chapter 8, Story 7:

“We Need A Prophecy”

“It’s a shame”, Solis said as he watched the last space ship decompress in a cloud of ice crystals and wreckage outside the view port. “I knew the supply corps guy on that ship. We could have had more booze.”

Lieutenant Yama was too fat to squeeze in beside him and watch, but probably wouldn’t have tried anyway. There were two bottles left here, and quite likely only two people left alive in a fleet battle of over a million souls. All the ships were dark now, peppering the neon blue and lime green of the living planet below them. The tiny life-launch they crouched inside was good for only another few hours at best. The battle was over, sure, but who would tell anybody about it?

So he farted.

“Hey!” Solis shouted and punched his arm.

“We need a prophecy.” Yama mumbled, slurring his words. His eyes were pink, but not just from the liquor.

Solis took a sip and squatted uncomfortably, “Yeah?”

He nodded, pursing his lips, “A real cryptic thingie, with a chosen one and some random fancy words in it. Hard to understand, you get me?”

“And why’s that? Who’d read it?”

“All sorts of people. We won’t say it’s from us, man. Will be the last words of…say…a mysterious kid possessed by the umm…ascended collective intelligence of the umm…previous universe. Before the big bang. How’s that?”

Solis stared back, unimpressed, “Why?”

Yama frowned and jammed his hand into a satchel for a pen, “So somebody someday will think they’re the chosen one…and people will follow them and do good things.”

“You think somebody will do that? Because we write something curious and leave it out here floating in the wrecks?”

Yama stuck his tongue out to the side as he thought through his alcohol stupor and tore off a piece of his uniform for a parchment, “Good things, Solis. Big…good…things. We need people who will do good things. And never this here, what we did.”

Solis nodded and glanced back to the debris outside.

“Never this again.”

An 11th Century Philosophers’ Game For Meditating On The Universe

Back in 2017, I wrote an article about Herman Hesse’s fascinating Glass Bead Game. The idea of two people at a table moving shiny glass beads around on a complex game board filled with mysterious glyphs, pondering incredible connections between disparate concepts still intrigues me terribly. I imagine a near-impossible breadth of knowledge needed to master this imaginary game, and its best players discovering hidden patterns behind reality and history as they ply their ingenious strategies.

Awesome.

Still, that’s fake. No such thing. Not really. But I wanted to bring something to your attention that has been around since the 11th century and that you can still buy on Etsy or whatever that isn’t fake at all. And if you squint real hard and just go with it, you’ll see something equally fascinating: an engine to tune your mind to the workings of the cosmos (sort of).

Anyway, I’m going deep right now into Medieval cosmology. Don’t ask. I don’t always pick these intellectual bunny trails; sometimes they pick me. Has to do with D&D’s Spelljammer, the Troika roleplaying game, and something I’m going to write up here in the future on Grailrunner. Will be great; I promise. Still cooking.

But this though:

That’s a vellum manuscript dating back to 1000AD, a copy of a work titled De Arithmetica by a philosopher named Anicius Boethius who actually wrote the work in the 6th century. He’s more famous for a conversation with philosophy in woman form called “On The Consolation Of Philosophy”, which is a bit of a mood piece about the fickle nature of fate and how you should deal with that. Not my topic today. Let’s talk about that book in the picture.

“Wait a second. You’re a blog about nerd stuff and science fiction. Why are you on about this right now?”

I hear you. Hold on to that. We bring you inspiration, and wonderful little nuggets that you can file away for your own creations. Edison said “All you need to invent is an imagination and a pile of junk.” And so we proceed…

“So what’s the big deal about Boethius?”

Boethius is important because he served as a bridge between ancient philosophy and the Middle Ages. He didn’t just translate Aristotle, but also commented on the works and added newer insights. He brought ideas from Neoplatonists like Porphyry into wider recognition and helped people make sense of them. In De Arithmetica, he translated De institutione arithmetica libri duo by Nichomachus of Gerasa, who was writing around 100 AD. You see what I mean about this guy being an important bridge of older thinkers, yes?

Philosophy is about pondering things, seeing the beautiful and intricate architecture behind things in flashes of insights and through establishing connections where others can’t see them. Boethius saw the foundation of philosophy as a bedrock he called “the quadrivium”, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Fundamentally and at their innermost core, he might tell you, these four things merge.

“I thought we were talking about a game?”

Yes, we are. Here’s a wikipedia article about Rithmomachia, also called The Philosophers’ Game or The War Of The Numbers. The game is based on the study of numerical proportions and harmonies that Boethius studied and wrote about, much of which you could find perusing through that book up there. In fact, historian David Sepkowski said of Rithmomachia that between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries,

“Rithmomachia served as a practical exemplar for teaching the contemplative values of Boethian mathematical philosophy, which emphasized the natural harmony and perfection of number and proportion, that it was used both as a mnemonic drill for the study of Boethian number theory and, more importantly, as a vehicle for moral education, by reminding players of the mathematical harmony of creation”.

“What?”

Here, check this out to see what he’s talking talking about, then I’ll tell you what it’s like playing this game:

  • Arithmetical proportions: Say I give you the numbers 3 and 15. You can find the missing number between them that would form an arithmetical proportion by summing the first and last numbers of the sequence (3 and 15 for a sum of 18), then dividing by 2. So in this example: 3, 9, 15.
  • Geometrical proportions: Say instead I give you the numbers 2 and 72. You can find the missing number between these that would form a geometrical proportion by multiplying the first and last numbers of the sequence (2 x 72 = 144) then finding the square root of that. So in this example: 2, 12, 72.
  • Harmonic proportions: Say now, finally, I give you the numbers 12 and 20. You can find the missing number between these that would form the harmonic proportion by multiplying the first and last numbers of the sequence and also by 2 (12 x 20 x 2= 480) then dividing that by the sum of the same two numbers I gave you (12 + 20 = 32). So in this example, 480 / 32 = 15 and the sequence is 12, 15, 20.

To the minds of the Greeks, all the way up for centuries after Boethius wrote about this, number sequences like this have a magic to them, because they’re tuned to reality itself. Nature and the cosmos, the very music in the air, the movement of the moon and the stars, all tied in to these perfect, intellectually satisfying numerical relationships. Measure anything in the stars or on the water or in the music from a harp and you’ll find these sequences, they would tell you.

Make fun of that if you want, or look down on it as caveman thinking, but I felt the same kind of magic in school when I studied this little wonder:

That’s Einstein’s field equations, tying together everything that ever was. It’s one of the most verified things in Physics. Explains how the world goes round, why things fall, and the future of the universe. Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. That’s the way the monks felt playing Rithmomachia, clashing their little game pieces together looking for ways to feel these proportions. Not to just learn them.

To feel them.

If you’re at all interested in learning more about this wonderful game, seeing its rules clearly delineated for you, and seeing some nice illustrations of game play maneuvers, then head to Amazon and read Rithmomachia by Seth Nemec.

He does an amazing job walking you through why the number sequences mattered to those to whom this game was more than a pastime and a learning mechanism, but rather a way of worshipping and meditating on the very fabric of the cosmos. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it’s free.

I’ve read it four times myself over the years just because he makes the game seem like an awful lot of fun, and somehow important. It makes me want to hop in the minds of those monks and feel the way they felt playing it, and to see that crazy board and its pieces on a big old oak table read to go.

In fact, it was the idea of a philosophers’ game with real-world implications that inspired a story collected in Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box. That one’s called The Berserker’s Game, and a far bit darker than Rithmomachia. Read it here if you like.

Overview of Rithmomachia

Quick summary of the game though, so I can tell you whether I beat my son on Christmas Eve or not (and some insights we had playing it):

Game pieces: Game pieces are either circles, triangles, or squares, all with numbers on them. The two game piece sets aren’t the same, nor are they symmetrical, though the White player’s pieces are based on even numbers and Black’s pieces on odd numbers. The numbers themselves, their placement in the starting setup, and the movement rulesets are all based on Boethius’s proportions. Precisely defined stacks, one stack per opponent and called ‘pyramids’ are provided for as well.

The board: The board is an 8 x 16 squares grid, basically two chess boards set end to end.

Moves: Everything can move orthogonally or diagonally, but circles move 1 space at a time, triangles 2 spaces at a time, and squares move three spaces at a time. Piece moves can’t come up short – you move exactly 1, 2, or 3 spaces when you move. Pyramids may move in the manner corresponding to their component parts, as long as the requisite shape is represented somewhere in the pyramid (meaning it can’t move a single space any longer if it’s lost all its circles, for example).

*

Attacks: Four basic attacks exist (but the attacking piece does NOT move into their victim’s space as it does in chess or checkers, you just call it and take the piece):

1. Siege is surrounding a target piece on four sides, either orthogonally or diagonally (board edge counts). Surround them and call it, taking the piece.

2. Encounter is when an attacking piece COULD legally move into the space where an opponent’s piece (of equal numerical value) is located. Just call it and take the piece.

3. Eruption is when you multiply the attacking piece’s number by the spaces between it and the target piece to obtain the target’s number. Say your 8 is 2 spaces from your opponent’s 16 (which in this game means side by side because the squares they’re on count in this calculation). Since 8 x 2 = 16, and that’s the target’s number, you call it and take the piece. Division okay too.

4. Deceit is when you surround a target pieces on 2 sides, and the two attacking pieces sum to the target piece’s number.

*

Victory conditions: A number of victory conditions are provided across two categories – those defined based on pieces captured and those defined based on numerical progressions formed with remaining pieces on the board. Simplest possible is Victory Of Goods, meaning pick an overall score (say 100) and the first player to capture pieces summing to that number wins.

“So you’ve played this? What’s that like?”

I built a Rithmomachia board based on Nemec’s book a few years ago when I first encountered the game, just to see how the rules played out, and what differences I experienced in game play between the opposing sides, given the asymmetry of their assigned numbers. It’s been in my closet a while now though. My son is in college, majoring in computer science and math, and I knew he’d be into this when he was back home for Christmas (2022 as I write this). It’s right down his alley now, and he’s devious and sly enough to uncover slick strategies in any new game.

And he’s not afraid to get mean when necessary.

Some interesting insights based on our game play:

  • Eruption is awesome. It’s just awesome. It was our signature move, because of the level of aggression and devastation you can wreak with it. Planning Eruption attacks feels like planning moves for Bishops, Rooks, and the Queen in chess, only slightly more difficult due to running all the permutations through your head.
  • I see now why the checkerboard needs to be as long as it is – Eruption needs spaces on the board to provide for more multiples and make the math behind the attack useful in going after larger numbers. If you’re only multiplying by 1 or 2 each time, that isn’t much to work with.
  • The rules allow you to take multiple pieces in one attack as long as conditions are met for the respective pieces, so we really focused on trying to make that happen. It felt a lot like chess in that respect, with long turns of staring at the board. (We had very little luck in this though.)
  • The fact that you don’t move the attacking piece into the captured piece’s position flavors the entire game very, very differently to chess or checkers. It’s much more cerebral, constantly checking different combinations and possibilities mentally. Since you can’t move and attack in the same turn, this forces you to spend some turns moving just to change up the board configuration.
  • We stuck to very basic attacks and lower numbers. Yet there are numbers on the board like 289 and 361. You’re dividing a lot, trying to seize one of these big pieces, but you can see pretty quickly that won’t be easy at all to just go for the one big kill shot, due to their placement in the startup configuration. We really should have moved more pieces versus the constant attacks, to change up the dynamics of the board

And the single biggest observation that became apparent within the first few moves was surprising to me. I hadn’t expected a game designed by monks for monks, engineered at its core for instruction and meditation on the harmony of the cosmos would be a poker face game of deceit.

“What do you mean?”

So many of the attacks work both ways. Since you can’t move and attack in the same turn, when you move into position for your planned attack, in many cases, the other guy can do it to you instead. That was especially true for us because of our fascination with the Eruption attack. It meant you had to keep a straight face, look elsewhere on the board, even say deceitful things to distract your opponent from what you’re scheming.

Our game deteriorated quickly into a broadsides shootout between our two pyramids and with a few surrounding pieces, blasting away with Eruption attacks since we kept getting confused about what was concealed in the stacks. It was a way of trying to surprise the other guy.

I just hadn’t expected a monk’s game to require so much deception and stealth. Crazy.

“Well, who won?”

I got a lucky strike in, which sent me over the goal for a win. Honestly, it’s just a lot to keep in your head with many, many possible sneak attacks. You start to feel a little paranoid about that.

But overall, I did start to get a feeling for the numerical patterns, the weight of the larger numbers, the reasoning behind their placement and the logic of the startup configuration. It’s a fascinating game, and easy to see why people who felt these patterns were the language of God would see wonder in the board and its pieces.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to tell you about this week. Great game, and Nemec’s book is worth a read.

What do you think?

Till next time,

Firebeetle In The Stygian Library: Experiments In Solo RPG Storytelling

Adventures are a hunger, fundamental to who we are. But what makes them work?

Literally everything we try at Grailrunner is about pushing boundaries in imagination. Often, that takes the form of contorting tabletop game mechanics for experiments in immersive storytelling. Then we give that stuff away for free in case it’s entertaining, though we’ve learned bits and pieces along the way about what makes adventures work…and what is missing when they don’t.

Which is the point.

For example, we built wargame terrain and a narrative scenario to play out a story using the game mechanics of Privateer Press’s popular Warmachine. It was a thrilling ride we called…

The Black Ruins Massacre

Turned out amazing – go follow these links to see what I mean:

One of the more popular things we’ve ever done here on the site was to write up an illustrated recap of a solo Dungeons & Dragons adventure in Wizards Of The Coast’s Tales Of The Yawning Portal. I routinely use a ridiculous D&D character named Firebeetle to try out different roleplaying game rulesets, and in that case, I put him through a harrowing ordeal called Clueless In The Sunless Citadel. Click these guys here to see what that was all about, and download the free pdf. Only takes about a half hour or so to read, but it’s fun.

Clueless In The Sunless Citadel

So anyway, I was in a big old used bookstore called McKay’s in Nashville, TN a few weeks ago. I strolled to the RPG section with no particular goal in mind and found an odd, strangely electrifying, though ultimately unsatisfying hardback called Maze Of The Blue Medusa. I knew as soon as I read the back, felt the weight and texture of it in my hands, as soon as I flipped through a few pages, that this was something special.

Maze Of The Blue Medusa

(I understand there is some controversy around one of the creators behind this book, so I’ll stick to the work itself in my comments.)

The book describes a system-neutral dungeon complete with a detailed map, illustrations, a bestiary and associated encounter dice tables, and intricately detailed descriptions of every one of its over 300 rooms. In every room, something weird is happening, something grotesque and surreal is creeping about, and crumbs of an over-arching story are dropped.

However, unlike so many mega-dungeon books with their Tolkein tropes and endless loot crates and traps, this whopper is written like an art project, with text that reads like it’s for shrewd adults capable of seeing irony and social commentary in its encounters.

I excitedly cracked it open when I got the chance to run young Firebeetle through his paces inside the Maze.

And I wasn’t into it.

It just didn’t click for me. The adventure escaped me, and it was just going through motions with no point. I couldn’t find a story hook that mattered. Each room seemed weird and vaguely interesting, but nothing popped or sparkled for me. The encounters were tedious and amounted to nothing. Here’s a Youtube video of some dudes in an actual play session of Maze Of The Blue Medusa – watch that for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll see what I mean.

Even with a great GM and some funny players, this wasn’t an adventure so much as a haughty stroll through the bohemian part of town where I don’t really fit in. I wanted the awe and danger of exploration inside the covers of a book and found only a meaningless series of weird things. Maybe that was my fault, but the mechanisms available just didn’t work the way I wanted.

That was on my mind when I heard of a little book by Emmy Allen called The Stygian Library, I thought maybe I had found redemption.

The Stygian Library

Pick up the older version of this booklet free here. It’s available in a remastered version here.

The Stygian Library bills itself as a dungeon for bibliophiles, promising a procedurally generated fantasy library you can explore in ever deeper levels. That sounded amazing, requiring you to map your way (though you can run blindly and get lost). Much like Blue Medusa, this wasn’t written with solo play in mind, but with enough dice tables and imagination, I figured I could rewire it.

Emmy delivers a wild bestiary including golems made of paper, animated books that follow you around, mysterious creeping librarians working on enigmatic calculations, even a half-man, half octopus that eats brains. Nice.

You roll for the levels you’re entering, details about them at first glance and also if you search around, as well as random events and, when prompted, encounters of a friendly or a violent flavor depending on your choices so far.

I took this idiot inside.

Firebeetle

Firebeetle was a name I was given for my very first D&D character back in the day. I recreate him in any game system I’m testing out because he amuses me.

He’s an aimless adventurer, in it for the thrill, always ready to take up a quest or try a mysterious corridor, picking up random things along the way and relying on his luck to seem him through. He’s not really charming, but thinks he is. Loves the ladies. Gets into trouble practically at every destination.

Firebeetle has a tendency to stumble into dimensional portals (as I try new game systems), finding himself in underground dungeons in the Middle Ages (D&D), Viking-era Iceland in an impossible city made of clusters of hot air balloons (Ironsworn RPG system), or in the far future on a dying space station (Starforged RPG system).

He just kind of goes with it. And it all works out in the end.

Neither Blue Medusa, D&D, Ironsworn, nor Starforged were delivering on the premise I was searching for: the awe and danger of exploration inside the covers of a book. Maybe Emmy’s Stygian Library would be the trick. I love libraries.

I put this ridiculous booklet together during conference calls in the COVID-19 quarantine, and I treated it as the opening sequence before entering the Stygian Library. It was going to be called Five Days In Boghallow, a fighting romp with a funny undead sidekick. Literally the only reason I’m including a link here is to give you a feel for this character. He’s such an idiot.

Anyway, I’ll give you the airplane view of what went down inside the Stygian Library and make my point for the day:

On what happened inside the Library…(keep in mind, virtually all of this was determined by dice rolls and game mechanics)

Bereft, the undead knight and Firebeetle entered the Library from the pit into which they’d fallen. They were amused by a couple of animated books that followed them around like cats, though the creepy librarians kept appearing to whisk the books away into the shadows. Something they read inside the cover of one of the books gave them a quest to find some machinery in the deep levels of the endless Library. They encountered bees made of paper (swatted them away) and a golem (ignored it) and paid visits to a planetarium, a pile of treasure, the master catalog of contents, and a hall of taxidermy before managing to be entirely lost and stranded inside an ever-shifting labyrinthine library.

Ahh, I thought. Here’s where things pick up for young Firebeetle. He’s stuck now. Looking for some machines or something.

They kept pressing on, ever deeper, picking up all manner of treasures and vaguely defined books that seemed promising. ‘Let’s see Firebeetle’s careless attitude work his way out of this mess’, I said to myself.

Then inside a giant paper beehive, a bird-like bandersnatch started pecking at Firebeetle’s sword to steal it (because it was shiny). Stupid bird-thing. When they finally killed it, the fact that they were killers turned the Library into a deadlier place. This would pick things up then, as the Library beasties got nastier and the hapless adventurers grew more desperate to find a way out.

In an enormous statuary, Bereft and Firebeetle were accosted by a floating skull, attended by floating teeth that were enthralled with its every word. It grew increasingly insulting, commenting on their appearance and bumbling like they were museum curiosities, before it began to smash itself into Firebeetle muttering something like, “See, students, how a skull may stomp a bug without the need of feet!”.

They ultimately shattered the pompous skull, scattered its minions, and dealt handily with some phantoms the encountered as well. And they did, believe it or not, wind up in the chamber they sought with its outlandish calculation engines, where the hooded Librarians worked their mysterious mathematics.

And would you believe it…and I honestly didn’t make this up at all…the dice rolls delivered Firebeetle an intangibility potion. It’s the one thing that would get him back to an escape from the Library, with treasure and books in hand. I mean…I tried to put the guy in danger and make a madcap adventure of the whole thing, and his ridiculous luck somehow just pulled him out of it.

The Stygian Library was amusing, even interesting and novel, definitely worth your attention if any of this sounded like your cup of tea, but overall it failed to deliver the spice I was seeking: the awe and danger of exploration, except in the covers of a book.

So what am I saying then?

Here’s my point. And I learned this through all these experiments with different game systems through comparison with the one I’m testing now – Forbidden Lands by Free League Publishing. The difference has been night and day. And I believe I know why.

Solo RPG game play is absolutely possible. It’s enjoyable and surprising, stretching your imagination and your sense of fun. It may even rewire your personality as you rip and stretch aspects of yourself that don’t see enough light of day. It takes a few things though, which I’ve found in Forbidden Lands more so than with these other systems, including The Stygian Library:

In my day job when we deal with companies making big changes, we use something called The Airplane Model to define the major elements that make things happen, that drives people to do things. I’m applying this to manufacturing adventure. Hear me out:

Adventures work when:

  • (Vision) …there is a meaningful purpose to what the characters are doing – a destination and a clear, important goal that you find interesting. The Forbidden Lands ruleset offers a Legend Generator that covers this well. I believe I was missing this in many of my random exploration experiments.
  • (Sense Of Belonging) …the characters matter to you, fleshed out with formative events that made them who they are. I trusted the Formative Events dice tables in the Forbidden Lands to build a person for me, a hunter named Colter, and he’s starting to feel like someone I’ve known a very long time.
  • (Sense Of Contributing) …the decisions that your characters make have consequences. I felt in the Maze Of The Blue Medusa and to some extent in The Stygian Library that the random conflicts and odd bits of treasure were irrelevant. Curating good dice tables, like the Action and Theme oracles in Ironsworn and others is fantastic for surprises and a sense of wonder and discovery, but what you do has to mean something or there’s no weight to what’s happening
  • (Sense Of Progression) …there is a clear, definable sense that progress is being made against the purpose. Ironsworn, Starforged, and The Stygian Library all three provide an abstract Progress Tracker intended to keep score of how things are going in the story versus goals, but I found that unrelatable in solo play. Boring and meaningless, even. I’ve found I start to give up on the adventure entirely if there isn’t any meaningful progress or sense that things are moving along. In the case of Forbidden Lands, a deliciously detailed map is provided which is incredibly satisfying.
  • (Sense Of Urgency) …time is ticking, and there is a real possibility of dying or losing something precious. Particularly in D&D 5th Edition, I feel like it’s kind of hard to die. One thing I’m seeing in the Forbidden Lands ruleset is that the stats are unforgiving, and there are lots of things able to kill my character. It forces me to make Colter plan more, and think creatively about his decisions since he could die so readily.

And that’s what I wanted to say about all this. It’s been interesting, testing all these systems out and trying to use them to breathe life into a story I can experience.

The awe and danger of exploration, except in the covers of a book. Possible?

What do you think?

Till next time,

Unexplained Mysteries And How To Build Them

About this time last year, I wrote an article here on Grailrunner suggesting some books that pragmatically answer some great unexplained mysteries:

  1. What is the buried treasure at Oak Island, impossibly protected by ingenious traps and evading 200 years of treasure hunters?
  2. What really happened to the Mary Celeste, the ghost ship whose crew and passengers vanished into thin air?
  3. How did the ancient Egyptians really build the pyramids with technology available to them, sturdy enough to still be standing today?
  4. What was the identity of serial killer, Jack The Ripper?

You can read the article here. Some really great books I recommend in there.

Back in 2017, I completed a study of myth development about things like those in that list above, and suggested five principles that kick into gear when there are viable kernels on which to build and the timing is right. Read that one here.

The principles of mystery development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

The unsexy truth that I found in those rabbit holes is that much of what we may consider today the great unexplained mysteries of history often have super mundane, everyday, plain-jane answers that aren’t as thrilling as just keeping the mystery itself. We would actually prefer to be fascinated and fooled than be reminded that people are fallible and sometimes irrational, that we have cognitive blind spots that make us miss things, and that there isn’t as much magic in the world as we’d like.

James Randi said once that “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.”

So anyway, I thought today I’d tell you who killed JFK, whether there’s a grand conspiracy to start World War Three, whether there’s any truth behind the mysterious Philadelphia Experiment, and what’s really behind the Bermuda Triangle.

Hang on…

  1. Who killed JFK?

So I’m reading the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination Of John F. Kennedy. Every page of it. And when it’s particularly interesting, I’m reading the transcripts of the interviews. Every word of them.

There’s very likely no chance you’ve watched as many documentaries as I have about this assassination. I’m voracious about that, for whatever reason. And for years I’ve been entirely convinced that’s it’s ridiculous to believe anything other than a widespread conspiracy involving at least an unholy entanglement of the CIA and mafia, likely at the lower operational levels rather than a coup led from the top. I couldn’t necessarily buy that what Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex” decided to revolt and take out Kennedy to protect the world from communism in misguided patriotism, but I could possibly chew and swallow that operatives who blurred lines between organized crime and field agents might have taken things into their own hands, gone too far, and any signs of a coverup were after the fact, to disguise and clean up a big, wild mess that was never intended.

That doesn’t sound too hard to believe, in my opinion. And over the years as I read things like Legacy Of Ashes about the ruined legacy of the CIA and the wild mustangs doing what they do in government agencies, it made more sense to me that this sort of scenario was possible. And I still suppose it is possible.

But one thing has struck me like a ton of bricks in reading the actual words of the Warren Commission Report for myself is how unforgivably dishonest those documentaries often are. I’ll be all pissed off when I hear about some black-bordered advertisement in the Dallas newspaper that morning sounding threatening to the President, and how mysterious it was, only to find the Warren Commission knew exactly who placed the ad, why, why the border was black, whose name was on the ad and why, and even what they paid for it. You can read in detail how pissed off Jack Ruby was about that very ad, about there being a Jewish sounding name on it, and see his own words on what was going through his mind. It wasn’t mysterious at all; he totally explained why he was angry and it’s corroborated by other people.

I was baffled at why I’ve never been told there were multiple people who testified in detail that they saw Oswald in the window, which way he was looking, the expression on his face, and even one guy at a lower window who got cement dust in his hair after the shots were fired. All corroborated, and delineated in detail word for word with who said these things.

My point here is if you’re into this particular mystery, you’re being lied to and manipulated more than you might think by people trying to sell you books or films. Big time. Maybe Oswald did it after all, as boring and unbelievable as that may be.

2. Was there a conspiracy for 3 world wars?

Google “3 world wars” and see what you find about an explosive letter Freemason Albert Pike wrote to Giuseppe Mazzini in 1871 regarding a conspiracy involving three world wars that were planned in an attempt to take over the world. The letter was reportedly on display in the British Museum Library in London until 1977 though they “mysteriously” deny its existence now.

The first war was to topple the Czars and create a communist state. The second war was to leverage that to balance the Christian world while Palestinian conflicts are generated to set the stage for more unrest. The third war will be to ensure the Arab World and the Israeli state destroy each other and to exhaust the world while chaos agents are unleashed to smash it all down. Then the real power figures behind all this will step in and run the world.

Several years ago, I read a scathing article that absolutely dismantles this whole narrative and all the nonsense inside it. Go read this one. Obviously there could be a huge global plot involving the Bilderberg conferences and the Council On Foreign Relations and whatnot, but to me the much more obvious answer here is people like to be shocked. And this is shocking.

Another lesson in this example is just how lazy people can get in quoting things without doing their own research. That’s plastered all over this one too. If you want to see the sort of thing I mean, take a look at a book called The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to S. Mark by John Burgon. It’s really illuminating to see an utter annihilation of sloppy journalism like that, and it’s a lesson particularly suited for the times in which we live.

3. Was the Philadelphia Experiment real?

The story goes that a destroyer escort named the USS Eldridge vanished in a flash of light in October 1943 from the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia as part of some misguided and disastrous experiments by the Navy to render ships invisible. Incredible details have been tied to the tale, with an eyewitness named Carl Allen ‘reluctantly’ offering exactly what he saw, and describing the terrible fusions of tortured sailors reappearing half-buried in the ship’s very steel.

Nonsense. Total nonsense. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole to go down though, and endlessly fascinating if you only pursue the conspiracy links and believe what you’re told. Lots of salacious details about Einstein’s mystery work that made the experiment possible, and musings about the teleportation that happened and what came of the doomed sailors. At least a couple of movies too.

Then read “Anatomy Of A Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later” in the Journal Of Scientific Exploration, Vol 8, No. 1, pages 47-71 from 1994. No link on this one – I have a hard copy only, but it’s available behind some paywalls. You can see the gist of it here though. Nothing sexy happened at all – just a nutjob spilling weird stories that sounded fascinating and that could sell books, and people did. One twist here is some corroboration that’s often offered with this tale being that two officers at the Office Of Naval Research had copies made of the annotated book where the tale generated. Conspiracists will offer that these officers wouldn’t go to the expense of copying this book if it was nothing but a lunatic spouting nonsense.

But I was a Naval officer, and I love reading stuff like that.

4. Is the Bermuda Triangle real?

For me, the issue of the Bermuda Triangle falls squarely into this pattern I’m describing of a viable kernel of truth at the right time upon which sexy, exciting fables start to mount and pick up steam. It fits the five principles I mentioned earlier quite well, and it hinges on what happened to Flight 19.

Flight 19 was a 1945 training mission comprised of five Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared off the coast of Florida, at the cost of 27 lives in total (including the PBM Mariner launched to search for the bombers that’s believed to have gone down in flames). This was the tragedy that started the myth in earnest, and it’s the one that formed the original kernel upon which other disasters or incidents (like Kenneth Arnold’s reported UFO’s in 1947 and Charles Mantell’s crash in 1948) were combined into what we know today as a place of UFO’s, mysterious vortices, or rogue waves that maliciously and enigmatically cause unexplained disappearances. If we figure out what happened to Flight 19, then the kernel goes away and it’s much harder to see a definitive pattern tied to this triangle apart from incidents anywhere else on the sea.

So what happened to Flight 19?

I imagine any conspiracist describing Flight 19 to us would emphasize how the instructor had a premonition of some kind that day, because he tried to avoid the training mission entirely. His request for another instructor to take the flight was denied. They might also emphasize how all the compasses of all the planes failed to work, and even the timepieces weren’t functioning. They’ll tell you the sea didn’t even look right. Then everyone just disappeared off the face of the earth and were never heard from again.

But read The Real Story Of Flight 19 by Steve MacGregor and see if there’s a more likely scenario of human failure and fallibility. Consider the possibility that the instructor didn’t have a premonition, but wasn’t feeling well.

I won’t steal any of MacGregor’s thunder and spell out his reasoning, but it’s a story of a mishap on a bad day and not one of aliens. And that’s illustrative of my entire point here with the kernels of truth being targets for agendas and those fascinated with being titillated.

If you’d like a more thorough analysis of Flight 19, with some insights on the likely people dynamics, maybe what the pilots were thinking at the time, which is fascinating to me, take a look at Quasar’s They Flew Into Oblivion. It’s another great read.

*

But we want sexy, so we find it. Even where it isn’t.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to talk about today. What do you think about some of these mysteries – did I cover your favorite? Apologies if I dumped cold water on something that inspires you. Wasn’t my intention at all.

And I’ll keep watching those JFK documentaries anyway.

Till next time,

A Terrifying New Threat Enters The Salt Mystic Universe!

Occasionally as we build out the Salt Mystic universe, some spooky new threats pop into existence that surprise even us. Right now, I’m 23k words into a standalone novel set in this world that will shake it like an earthquake, introducing new weaponry and technology, several exciting new locations, and a host of new terrors!

Enter the Day Giant.

If you’re new here, let me back up a bit. The Salt Mystic setting is an experiment in immersive storytelling that fuses art, fiction, and games into a unique and thrilling experience. Right now, it’s a novel that introduces the main narrative, a terrain-based trading card wargame that expands and breathes life into that narrative, a growing line of branded merchandise (including our first art print!) and freely downloadable illustrated flash fiction called Lore Cards.

Click the wings to learn more:

We’ve been hard at work dropping new Lore Cards over the past few weeks, so make sure you stop by every once in a while to see what’s new. The Story Arcade is what we call the repository of cards, and it’s a place to get inspired for your own games of Salt Mystic or to fuel elements in the Roleplaying Game system of your choice.

Click the medallion to see all the current Lore Cards:

Although Salt Mystic is at heart a western-inspired science fiction setting, with a theme of exploring lost and hidden worlds, I feel like no adventure stories are complete without a terror that sticks in your mind and creeps around there. In the Work In Progress novel, to be called Mazewater: Master Of Airships, you’ll be introduced to a scrappy, gangly fellow named Lamberghast Mazewater, who faces such a threat with a quivering voice, a shaking hand, and armed with only his big heart. More to come on that as it develops.

The artwork

The art for the new Lore Card was produced combining elements from two AI art generators, then painting over them and completing the composition and adjustments in Photoshop. This approach is a real game changer for small indie publishing companies like us! Sometimes, the image comes first and then the story. It was the reverse this time – I knew the giant’s general appearance and that I wanted a gunslinger facing off with him. That’s all I knew though.

The giant: It took many, many iterations with Codeway’s Wonder app using text prompts like “enormous thin giant in rags with oxygen mask and exoskeleton” till I got something vaguely like what I had in my head. The color was wrong, as was the perspective, the tone, and it had bits and bobs all over it that were unwanted. I cut it out, trimmed the odd bits, then altered the perspective so his top half was smaller.

The canyon: The canyon was another round of iterations, in both Stable Diffusion and Wonder, till I got a mashup composition of rocks and lighting that generally gave me something to trigger the eyes to see the giant as huge. I wanted light coming from behind it, so I juiced that with a Color Dodge and soft brush.

The gunslinger: The gunslinger was a third round of iterations, in Wonder. The text prompts were things like “fantasy gunfighter in long coat holding his arm out”. This one had bits and bobs coming off it as well, and the coloring was terrible. He also had weird holes and discolorations all over him, which I had to correct.

The weapon: The ball lightning carbine is a long-standing custom item I use all the time. I built and textured it in Blender. This time, I cut out parts of it to show it partially concealed by his sleeve and brightened the barrel’s tip (with the Dodge tool) to show it glowing from the heat inside the barrel.

There’s a company called Nucly that offers various overlays for Photoshop – I included a ‘god ray’ overlay and morphed it to emit from the gunslinger’s weapon. That looked cool already, but something unanticipated happened once I started making adjustments.

The lighting: I superimposed a grunge texture over the entire image in Screen mode, which roughed up the look of it in a way I really liked. However, I noticed the Color Dodge blur coming from behind the giant as well as the charge firing out his weapon reacted with the grunge overlay for even cooler lighting effects than I’d planned. I really liked how that turned out, honestly.

Color grading: I tried various warming and cooling filters over the entire image, and tried adjusting its color grading to various images whose color schemes I liked. This warming filter (an evening sun shade of orange) won me over because of what it did to the canyon rock.

Here’s the final image, which will also eventually appear (in altered form) on an upcoming Volume Two game card next year (click on the image to see the Lore Card and read the associated story):

I hope you like the art and the story, guys. Let me know what you think! Till next time,

Announcing: Exclusive Fantasy Art Print From Grailrunner Publishing!

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

That’s our tagline, right? What it means in practice is that Grailrunners are constantly on the prowl for innovative ways to deliver bold, unique ideas in storytelling. We publish games, novels, and free flash fiction to make that happen. Our Salt Mystic setting is an exploration of immersive storytelling that amazes me sometimes in what comes of it.

But art though…nothing inspires like art.

It can be a dopamine shot straight to your cortex, in a glance sending a dreamer off into countless scenes of wonder and palaces of memory. An elementary school teacher of mine once hung a poster of a sailing ship with balloons for sails on the wall, and I remember to this day decades later the feeling of staring at it and marveling over the implications. Who was on that ship? Where were they going? Do they clash with cannon fire in the clouds? That’s powerful stuff, and I remember that picture as clearly now as ever.

One of the original aspirations we had here at Grailrunner was to be able to deliver fantasy and science fiction artwork tied to the fictional settings we’re building. It’s a big deal, and core to who we want to be. Custom art is expensive though, and you have to grow your business to a point where revenue can cover commission fees. Just putting the Sourcebook And Core Rules together last year drove home for me at least just how many art pieces and illustrations are needed to convey the big, wild setting we’re building here. It’s supposed to be boldly different, so you have to show that. You need cool pictures!

Developing my own art to support this has been (and remains) a powerful journey of transformation. Occasionally when I feel like smashing the screen because an art piece I’m working on looks like trash no matter what I try with it, I’ll scroll back through my Artstation profile to see at least some level of improvement! (It comforts me to mock my younger self). Still, that’s what the Salt Mystic world is to me – a beautiful collision of ideas and stories, myth and imagery – growing into a place as real as the park down the street.

Which brings us to an exciting announcement, and hopefully only first in a series:

Grailrunner Publishing introduces the first art print set in our proprietary and exclusive Salt Mystic universe!

A dream on invisible sails…

By Brian Bennudriti

A vortex glider gently cruises high in the clouds above an ancient city in the provinces. No wings. No engines. As silent as the wind itself, riding a web of invisible vortices, the vortex glider is a majestic and gorgeous sight sure to catch the eyes of any dreamer who spots them.

Available in two formats:

18″ x 24″ poster

8″ x 10″ or 16″ x 20″ canvas

Vortex engines are an important technology in the Salt Mystic setting, enabling everything from vehicles that crawl up vertical walls to half-mile high sea vessels balanced on whirlwinds, from massive airships as big as a small town to artificial guided tornadoes.

Our next Salt Mystic novel and game volume will include a wily character named Mazewater and his fantastic innovation in vortex technology: using programmable matter and ionizing fields to generate thousands of vortices, combined to pull and push gliders through the air like dragonflies.

This image depicts such a glider, its long slender spikes of computronium and morphium framing gossamer sails. Far below, a watch tower stands guard over the sleepy, ancient border town in the valley.

While there is an important connection to the growing narrative of the happenings in the western provinces of the Salt Mystic’s world, it’s also just a beautiful image that I find relaxing to look at. And even though the warm lights emanating from the vessel’s side were a bit of an afterthought for me, they honestly make the mood for me now. It just makes me want to climb inside and see what it’s like to fly that thing.

Why hang a generic photo of flowers or a cartoonish painting of Paris when you can celebrate your inner nerd with a unique conversation starter like this?

And that’s what I wanted to let you know about today. It’s pretty thrilling, if I’m being honest, and a mind-blowing realization of something we’ve dreamed about since we started putting this Grailrunner thing together. I’m hoping you love it and have a vision for fantasy and science fiction themed art being as viable as dogs playing poker for your living room or wherever you goof off.

Let us know what you think, and what sorts of prints you might be interested in seeing here. And till next time,

Let’s Talk About Dueling With Ball Lightning

Writers are weird little machines, man. When our brains should be resting or thinking about bills or whether the lawn needs mowing, they often run off the rails behind the scenes trying to answer questions: questions like what would it be like to duel someone with ball lightning.

All the way back in the nineties when I first started conjuring images that would become Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe, certain concepts came out of the dreamspace whole, all on their own and fully formed (all page references relate to the Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules):

  1. A mountainside carved with the statue of a bearded man, whose outstretched hand cradled a mighty waterfall (page 46)
  2. A vehicle with articulated legs and a swivel chair that climbs vertical walls (page 40)
  3. A ramming war vehicle that moves in all four directions (page 41)
  4. People who are modified for perfect memories and powers of observation with forehead tattoos (page 28)

But one of my favorite images was two dudes dressed like cowboys in long coats, staring each other down with a weird weapon strapped to their arms like shields. I knew from the beginning the weapon fired ball lightning because I was fascinated by ball lightning, ever since it was featured in an old episode of Arthur Clarke’s Mysterious World. (Great show). I also knew the weapon doubled as a shield, meaning you could block incoming fire. That meant a trade-off – when you’re blocking, you’re not firing. When you’re firing, you’re exposed. I liked that. I called it the ‘ball lightning carbine’.

It was a vague, exciting idea till I got to write the first action scene using the ball lightning carbine in the 2015 novel, Tearing Down The Statues. It’s in Chapter 4, called “A Cannon Off The Rails”. I remember the thrill of writing it, because of a particular line of dialogue I worried over including:

Several gunfighters had surrounded a dangerous character named Cyprian, which I signaled with all my might to be a terrible idea. That was entirely my point, that this was their very bad idea.

“You want to see something amazing?”

That’s what Cyprian said, grinning, with his head lowered in the shadows, right before he turned into an avenging fury and wreaked all manner of havoc on those poor guys. I mean, I chuckled after getting that chapter wrapped up. It had been a long time since the picture drifted in like soap bubble, so it was fun to see it in words at least.

The carbine duel became for me a primary mechanic for action in the setting, as well as for the cards in the Salt Mystic tabletop game. In fact, I’m going with it for our primary (hopefully iconic) aesthetic for the random adventurer out poking in the wilds through abandoned oriel gates or mad War Marshals who’ve seen terrible things.

What’s got me thinking about this is I had a fascinating conversation recently with a tornado that looks like a human being who calls himself Doc Brock on this very topic. Incidentally, I interviewed him back in 2020 – you should go read that. Although he’s the designer and creator of a fighting game (Future Fighter), he’s also a musician and pathologist. Most importantly for our topic today, he’s studied martial arts for over 35 years and has a process-oriented mind to break down a topic he’s asked about.

I wanted to know what he’d do with a carbine strapped to his arm.

“When you’re talking about million degree plasma, it takes martial arts out of the equation”, Brock explained. “The main consideration is to avoid getting hit. If you get hit at all, the fight is over.” (I’m paraphrasing his comments).

This was interesting to me because I was thinking about Kung Fu movies, where the guys are sizing each other up considering different fighting styles before rushing in to whirl about like mad in a complicated, blurry flash. In my mind, you could either hang back and focus on accuracy (like they say Wyatt Earp used to do, steady and aiming and using the opponent’s panic to your advantage) or rush in close and combine gunfire with hand-to-hand combat moves (like smashing a dude’s face with the carbine itself).

“You’d have to consider your opponent’s size and weight. A bigger guy, say 6 feet, 250 pounds, can’t move around quickly and is a big target. With him, you might try and lead him in the direction you want him to go. Maybe a shot to one side to get him to move into the line of your next shot. Either way, always aim for the chest though. Always.”

He agreed that it’s a terrible idea for someone in a carbine duel to drop to the ground for any reason, “It takes an incredible amount of time and energy in a fight to get off the ground, and when you’re down there, you’re completely vulnerable. That’s something you should never do.”

After asking me how long the charge lasts on the carbine, he made another strategic point, “It seems to me the key is to drain your opponent’s weapon. Once they’re out of ammo, this fight is over. No one is surviving a shot from one of these.”

And that comment caught my attention, because I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to how many shots one of these could get off (I said roughly 30 to avoid sounding like a writer who hasn’t considered his own creations). It struck me that some carbines (like Cyprian in the novel and Waymaker, a card in the Salt Mystic game) have modified carbines with dual breakers that fire twice. That creates some new tension and a trade-off, now that it’s clear such a modification would drain the charge twice as quickly. I liked the story possibilities there!

“What’s the range on these plasma balls?”

And he got me again, because the only thing that came into my head was “2 inches”, that being the scale distance range in the tabletop game.

Which led us to talking about wiffle balls.

I suggested to Brock that the only reason these spheres have velocity is due to the electromagnetic rails inside the housing which capture the ball lightning once it’s generated by the breaker and slings it outward when the palm trigger is clutched. I used the analogy of a wiffle ball, those plastic, perforated balls that go quickly about six feet when you throw them before the air catches them and they slow to a crawl and drop.

My thought was the ball lightning would move at a blinding speed for a few feet, then slow and eventually just hover like soap bubbles should they fail to strike a target.

“That paints a whole different battlefield if they hover like that. I can imagine a mine field around these guys as they fight.”

And that’s a picture somebody needs to write or paint. I mean, that’s awesome. I may take that one on at some point.

Overall, it was really fascinating to chat with somebody willing to break down what a carbine duel would look like, what a person trained in martial arts would think about facing somebody packing one of these. I wish I’d taken better notes – he was full of suggestions, even directing me to a particular episode of a TV show called Farscape with a similar weapon (cool, but ugh since I thought this was unique).

It also makes much more sense now why so many of these guys are wearing the long cowboy coats – it’s disorienting in the panicked gunfight how large someone is and where their body actually is.

Anyway, what do you think a carbine duel would look like? What approach would you take if there’s a guy staring you down and packing one of these? I’d like to know…

But till next time,

AI Art Generators & Photoshop For Concept Art

I’m a visual thinker, big time. If you’re explaining something to me, I’m probably picturing what you’re talking about so I can follow what you’re saying and make something useful of it. If the picture starts to fade on me, then you may as well be speaking jibberish. That’s why rapid prototyping concept art is such a gamechanger for me, at least, in storytelling and game design. And it can do much more than prototype, as long as you’re not afraid to spit and polish.

In the last few months, AI art generators have taken off like a rocket and are rapidly improving in functionality, customization, and capabilities. Stable Diffusion, Codeway’s Wonder, and Artbreeder are my favorites right now, depending on the functionality I’m looking for. Midjourney and Dall-E have stolen all the oxygen out of the room as far as the media running with this narrative, but for fantasy / speculative fiction concept art they don’t offer the styles and datasets I need.

At Grailrunner, we’ve recently incorporated AI-aided art into our workflow for marketing images, for the website graphics, and to some extent in our products. I’m sorry if you’re an artist who feels threatened by this marketplace shift, but it really is a technology that is unlikely to go away or accept a lot of regulation. At this point, with millions of images generated per day across multiple apps, it feels more like an unstoppable tsunami you should probably figure out how to surf.

We just added another Lore Card to the Story Arcade here on the site and thought it would be fun to show a behind-the-scenes on the work, mainly to show how we’re using this fantastic new tool in what we do here.

What’s photobashing?

Photobashing is a technique where artists merge & blend photographs or 3D assets together while painting and compositing them into one finished piece. This is used by concept artists to speed up their workflow and achieve a realistic style.Concept Art Empire

Stephen Gibson, Art Director and designer of Grimslingers makes an interesting comment about this: “My current style for Grimslingers is photo/3D bashing. I collect images to splice together and keep painting over it, splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.” -Interview, Nov 2022 ImagineFX

Funny, huh? Anyway, photobashing is a big part of my concept art journey. I started off trying to paint everything myself and realized that’s not where my talent lies. Things accelerate and honestly look a lot better if I pull together stock images or 3d assets from places like Turbosquid, Shutterstock, Archive3d.net, Free3d.com, Nasa (nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models), Sketchfab and Daz Studio into Blender and work out compositions there. A lot of museums are starting to upload their collections as 3d models as well, typically for free!

Pulling assets together

Blender is still my go-to tool for compositing 3d assets into something useful because you can manage the placement and lighting and mess around with textures in Substance Painter. Incredible flexibility, but it’s time consuming. It’s also a place to build up assets that are unique to a world I’m creating (and so won’t be available anywhere. Then Photoshop. Always Photoshop. Nothing is done till it’s been through Photoshop. It’s a thing.

This is an example of what I’m talking about. The ball lightning carbine is a distinctive weapon, strapped to the arm of practically any adventurer in Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe. I made this thing in Blender with some parts from various models (a motorcycle, crutch, and I forget what all). The frame of it and the leather straps were just cylinders that I squashed and pulled into place, then added textures. Now I’ve got this thing in a hundred styles and orientations.

1. For our new Lore Card, it started with an idea: a dramatic aerial view of a carbine gunslinger on a mountaintop with a wide valley below him. Sometimes the story comes first, but in this case only the mental image. I’d write the story behind that guy after I saw him.

2. With Stable Diffusion, I experimented with a series of prompts suggesting the aerial view, the mountain top and valley, and the “fantasy gunslinger”. It took patience, not going to lie about that. And I cycled through several artists incorporated in the prompts to try different styles as well (you can mix artists too!).

3. Once I got something that looked like it would work for me, it needed some basic touch-up painting and color & tone adjustments in Photoshop. There was also an annoying misshapen character standing there (instead of my gunslinger that I asked for!) that had to be just erased. Photoshop has vastly improved capabilities now for easily removing stuff.

4. I still needed that gunslinger though, and went back into the cycle loop trying various iterations and prompts to get a guy in the right posture and wearing the long, gunslinger coat I was looking for.

This is the character I eventually went with. They can turn out with three arms and nightmarish faces, the fingers often run together and look like tendrils. Seriously, the output isn’t always mind-blowing, but here at least I saw the outline I wanted and general textures.

A bonus was the weird almost rectangular thing he had on his left arm, which if I squinted looked to me like our carbine without any extra editing.

5. I cut him out of his background and placed him on the mountaintop, gave him a little shadow, and darkened him to almost a silhouette. I was close, but it was bugging me that he was up on the high plateau without a clear story of how he got there.

6. I already had an asset for an airship from a previous work that I repurposed here. There’s a fantastic feature in Photoshop for automatically adjusting color grading and tone to match another image, so much of the hard work was done for me with that option. I just needed to trim it up a bit and place it in context.

You can read the accompanying story here on the new Lore Card. Here’s the final piece:

Let me know what you think, and if you have your own art journey going on. I hope you liked the peek behind the scenes.

Till next time,