Lucian Of Samosota’s True History…I can’t believe I waited this long to read this incredible story! I’ve read it twice now, and I’ll probably read it again. You just need to know about this if you are at all into astounding works of the imagination or gonzo science fantasy. For my part, I’m endlessly fascinated by the creative process, particularly when great creators stretch themselves to build what Stephen King has called a “gosh-a-mighty steam shovel of the imagination” – a paraphrase from an old introduction to the Dark Tower.
You may know we recently interviewed Daniel Sell of the Melsonian Arts Council, writer and designer behind the Troika roleplaying game. His mind is wired like this too, and in Troika, you might encounter among the crystal spheres a ‘Befouler Of Ponds’ worshipper of the toad church, a gremlin catcher, or a thinking engine with detachable hands that can pilot a golden planar barge.
We’ve also hosted Jeff Grubb, creator of D&D’s Spelljammer, which is another mind-expanding launch into the sort of audacious, rulebreaking idea-festival I’m talking about. Spelljammer was recently revived by Wizards Of The Coast but was first born in the early, heady days of TSR. Check that link to read up on where Jeff dreamed up some of that and how it all came about. I’m just smiling thinking about all that.
But where did science fiction…or science fantasy to be more accurate…come from in the first place? Who was the first guy to put something down that we might recognize as bearing the tropes of space travel, cosmic battles, extraterrestrials, and even robots? And if we can know that, can we also ask what the heck he was thinking that led him down that creative trail?
It was Lucian. Crazy Lucian. He did all of that, and he did it in the 2nd century AD while there was still a Roman Empire.
And what he wrote, in that one cosmos-spanning epic, could seamlessly melt into a Spelljammer or Troika game session or sci fi anime even today. It’s the sort of story where you find a ponderous idea in every paragraph, an impressionist painting in words but with a compelling odyssey. It’s called the True History.
You could almost forget he was joking around when he wrote it. Here’s what he said about you, his future reader:
“It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn; and I think they will consider the present work something of the kind. They will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humor of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way, but also because everything in my story is a more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables.
“I would cite them by name, were it not that you yourself will recognise them from your reading. One of them is Ctesias, son of Ctesiochus, of Cnidos, who wrote a great deal about India and its characteristics that he had never seen himself nor heard from anyone else with a reputation for truthfulness. Iambulus also wrote much that was strange about the countries in the great sea: he made up a falsehood that is patent to everybody, but wrote a story that is not uninteresting for all that. Many others, with the same intent, have written about imaginary travels and journeys of theirs, telling of huge beasts, cruel men and strange ways of living.
“Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic license, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. I think I can escape the censure of the world by my own admission that I am not telling a word of truth. Be it understood, then, that I am writing about things which I have neither seen nor had to do with nor learned from others–which, in fact, do not exist at all and, in the nature of things, cannot exist.” -Lucian in his Introduction to the True History
Bear with me here for a synopsis, though it’s a rollercoaster ride like you can’t imagine.
Lucian and his companions set sail through the Pillars Of Hercules, encountering every manner of wonder along the way. Blown off course to an island with a river of wine, they encounter (and barely escape) chimera ladies who are part woman/part grapevine and who transform hapless sailors into vines alongside them should they get overly intimate.
No sooner than leaving that island, a rogue whirlwind whisks them up to the moon where they have arrived in the middle of an interplanetary war between the king of the moon and the king of the sun, fighting over colonization of the planet, Venus. We see hybrid lifeforms and spaceships, giant spiders spinning webs across planets, and entire fleets mobilized in a vivacious, colorful battle that is absolutely mesmerizing. For about 3 pages before he moves on to something else.
The solar fleet wins the battle by blocking out the light of the sun from the moon, winning their surrender. In the truce, mutual colonization is allowed with a tribute to be paid.
After a short tour of the planets and civilization out there, the sailors return to the sea on earth and quickly are swallowed by a 200 mile long whale. I want to make sure you caught that – this isn’t a Jonah and the whale story; it’s 200 miles long and has entire societies living inside it.
Of course, they wage another war, this one of conquest, and eventually have to escape the enormous whale by killing it. In the sea and among the islands (or sailing through the air), they meet everything from giant talking vegetables to talking trees to floating islands to a giant gulf in the ocean itself.
In the climax of the True History, the sailors make it to the Greek/Roman idea of heaven. It’s an island where the heroes of myth and the great philosophers and poets reside. He asks Homer all manner of questions and learns his own future. Of course there is another battle here, this one with zombies.
Not kidding here…zombies. The undead rise from their pits and wage war with the great heroes. It’s just a page or two; blink and you miss it. But it’s there.
And I need to prepare you for the ending. Remember, Lucian was joking. He was messing around, satirizing people who exaggerated their travel tales, and going as boldly and absurdly as his mind could take him.
Salt Mystic is our rapidly growing western science fiction setting, upon which we’re building everything from novels to games and merchandise. You can learn more about that here. Key to this innovative new way of exploring immersive storytelling is the idea of worldbuilding through a collision of art and fiction. Sometimes the art comes first, then a story is built around it. Sometimes, a story idea percolates and only starts popping after an image is crafted for it.
However it happens, we’re building out locations and settings, characters and background lore, all through experiments and inspirations that often get shared for free on social media and here on the Grailrunner site. The hope is that those of us out there who dream of adventure and exploration, of new worlds and intriguing concepts, we’ll all find a home here! And that you’ll buy books and stuff.
Definitely buy the books and stuff.
The Story Arcade is also a place for people playing the Salt Mystic tabletop wargame to find interesting settings for the battlefields they play upon. That’s where this week’s addition was born, actually.
What was the inspiration for this?
Writing this article here, I was reminded of a really well designed dungeon adventure that appeared in a Wizards Of The Coast compilation titled Ghosts Of Saltmarsh.
Spoiler alert – there is a point in this adventure where the very dungeon setting itself (a ship) starts sinking and flooding. The dungeon destroys itself, and you have to get your characters out or drown. And to me, that’s incandescent genius! I became enamored with the idea of a battlefield setting for the Salt Mystic game where the battlefield floods or sinks or catches fire or otherwise starts snuffing out characters not fast enough to survive.
Generally, I haven’t solved how to convert that to a Salt Mystic terrain book yet. Maybe one day. But one of the ideas that didn’t pan out as I thought about it was a high canyon where the battle was to be fought on crumbling rock walls. I imagined a giant stone golem at the base throwing boulders up at the armies and snatching random people away. It sounded cool, but game rules and art to make that work just didn’t click for me.
This image is what came of all that. I had the picture of a carbine gunslinger nervously clinging to a high rock wall with a derelict in the mist behind him, precariously perched in an inaccessible place.
What was the process to create the image?
Like most of the imagery I produce, this is a photobash of several elements composited together in Photoshop and painted over. The carbine weapon strapped to his hip is something I generated in Blender, but re-textured recently. The climber is a composite of two AI-generated elements and a handful of stock images, run through a filter in Photoshop and color and light graded to match. The background is a composite of two AI-generated landscapes from two different pieces of software, and I used two overlays from Nucly for lighting effects.
What about the story?
I rewrote that three times, trying to give it a western feel. The idea is a dude from a rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere deciding that the fear of climbing up there is not as strong as his need to really live, to maybe make a name for himself. Or maybe to solve the mystery of what’s inside that derelict.
In the story, he says “to live is to burn”. I totally stole that from Harlan Ellison, who said he stole it from an Egyptian papyrus. Whoever said it first, it’s awesome.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the new Lore Card. Shoot me a comment or note if you’d care to chat it up about Salt Mystic or where we’re going with all this.
If you’ve never heard of the Troika! roleplaying game, I have a real Scooby snack for you today! As part of our Inspirational Creator Series of interviews, we’ve met with artists, writers, and game designers who break exciting new ground in innovation and imagination.
Today, we’re thrilled to bring you some insights and musings from Daniel Sell, who is not only Director of the Melsonian Arts Council game publishing company, but is also one of its most talented and mind-expanding creators! Just to whet your appetite a bit on that, let’s quote their mission statement:
The Melsonian Arts Council exists to publish table top adventure and role-playing game books unlike anything the medium has on offer. To that end we help artists and writers on the bloodied edge of their craft produce beautiful books while helping readers discover this wide, bright world of independent games they never thought possible.
Come on! That’s awesome, right?! Anyway, welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirational Creator Series!
Daniel, you’ve said that you run the Melsonian Arts Council as a way to write games without having anyone tell you what to do while you do it. That’s quotable, just so you know, and maybe tells us a bit about your personality. The fresh and innovative approach you and your team are taking with works like Acid Death Fantasy, The Big Squirm, and Troika! are an inspiring breath of clean air in an industry that gets a little hung up on armored dwarves, dragons, and license restrictions.
Thanks for making time for us!
I’m always happy to talk about myself.
Q. Beyond the obvious fact that you have to make games people will buy, what sorts of projects inspire you the most? Is it the game mechanics, the subject matter, the twist on expectations…what makes you smile when you think about spending that kind of effort and time on making a new game?
The thing that sets me on fire is a project that is relentlessly sincere. A major problem with roleplaying game books is that they’re almost always products before they’re anything else, which sends sincerity right out the window. I want books to rip off the mask of best practices and boring choices and let us see what you really wanted to make.
Q. You’ve talked before about things like D&D’s Planescape boxed set as an inspiration for you, imagining a multiverse that maybe lost some of its magic when you were older. Tell us about what sorts of games, books, or films made that magic for you back in the day and what they did right.
0e and 1e D&D were pretty solidly magic, 2e had a spark of it. Really, lots of games from the 80s and early 90s had a lot of magic to them. They were wild, silly, huge, beautiful and diverse, there were multiple large companies with money making bold choices and beautiful books. Palladium are still at it, and I have an unironic admiration for Uncle Kev and his Glitter Boys et al. (Meet them here) As for books and films, I don’t have much nostalgia for what I consumed back then, it was too hard to find good things before the internet. I still have and love my collection of Fighting Fantasy books, which are almost all immensely bold and idiosyncratic adventures that I love immensely. Something about dungeon merchants and weird things waiting for you to find them just gets me going.
Q. It’s one thing to have cool ideas about games, but quite another to design and publish Ennie award winning works for yourself at your own publishing house. How’d that happen?
I’m not sure. I started publishing when I saw a guide on a blog explaining the method by which one could assemble a zine at home by hand and I thought that looked fun. All I needed was a zine, so I wrote one. I took an adventure I had run in my home game, tidied it up, and published it as The Undercroft #1. Then I had to do a second one. A big part of the joy of RPG writing is the necessary collaboration that is involved, so I started asking around and working with people I knew and respected in the scene. Over the ten issue run I oversaw I met people who had ideas too big to go in a zine so I decided to make a book instead. Like with every other step, I asked around, talked to people doing the thing I wanted to do, and then did that. From there the world opens up a lot, with crowdfunding and trade publishers and shipping and so on. It continues to open up.
Q. In ‘Letters Of JRR Tolkien’, the professor is quoted as saying:
“Part of the attraction of Lord Of The Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.”
French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé said, “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”
You said in Troika! “Players travel by eldritch portal and non-Euclidean labyrinth and golden-sailed barge between the uncountable crystal spheres strung delicately across the hump-backed sky.”
What’s that all about?
This is true. Part of the impetus to writing Troika! was a disappointment with Planescape. Growing up I had an incomplete smattering of the core books, leaving massive holes in the thing. They suggested infinite worlds of exciting and absurd wonder in little paragraphs here and there between DiTerlizzi artworks. As an adult I bought more books and it turned out that Tolkien was right, the distant towers were made of cardboard. So I now only fill in the bits I want to fill in, and feel I can fill in while maintaining the tension of a world greater than we can take in with one sweep of the head. I never want to lose that sense of discovery again.
Q. What’s a hump-backed sky though?
The humpbacked sky is an English translation of a French translation of a Greek translation of the term that usually gets translated as “vault of the heavens”. I prefer humpbacked sky because it is more literal and also less easily skipped over, forcing you to think about it rather than going “yea yea vault of the whatever”. So it is the undulating heavens between the spheres.
Q. Troika! offers a marvelous parade of character types players can become or encounter. But we need to talk about the rhinoman. Tell me about the rhinoman.
I can’t take credit for the rhinoman. I took it from a picture in The Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson, a Fighting Fantasy book I read a lot as a child. The image is so bluntly weird and has haunted me ever since. So I thought everyone else should experience it as I did.
Q. I need to geek out a second. You’ve mentioned M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series as one of your inspirations. I sometimes think I’m close to getting him to agreeing to an interview because those stories have been lifechanging for me personally. What’s your take on that collection?
I love them. I came to them late, after Troika was already written, but they solidified an idea I was unable to grab. The Viriconium stories create their own canon, in a way. The first book is quite a normal fantasy adventure, then it just gets weirder and weirder. The future books use the original books words to summon up complex allusions that only make sense in the context of a Viriconium book. Intensely self referential, like a Gene Wolfe novel but spread over a shorter distance. It’s how I approach the weird of the world now, in layers that people can uncover. Impenetrable non sequiturs is easy, and boring. I want to know that there is a trail back to meaning somewhere, even if it’s hard to find. Just knowing is enough.
Q. Can you describe your process for creating – whether the writing or the game mechanics?
It depends if I’m laying down new work or working on a draft. If it’s new then I wake up and sit in front of a notebook for 4 hours and see what comes out. If it’s a draft I do it in front of a markup word processor because I can’t be trusted with distractions. When writing I limit my reference books since they can become distracting in their own right. I have a book of the names of Catholic saints, a few different books about interesting words, and one or two books of poetry, scripture or product images. The large books are used like divination, when I’m stuck I’ll pick one up and open it at random to see what comes out and use that. The fun part is making that oracle weave in to what you’re doing neatly. I find that process creates a kind of verisimilitude that can’t come from sitting down and making stuff up out of thin air. Going back to Planescape, one of my issues with it is the apparent ease with which they can describe an infinite realm with infinite variety. With this cut-up method we get a taste of real culture, that fractal variance of real life. It’s impossible to make from just one head.
Q. You’ve launched the hardboiled RPG adventure, The Big Squirm quite recently. Anything new you’re working on now is super-secret, but what CAN you tell us about any projects coming out soon?
We’re very busy. I have a few books of my own coming soon; Slate & Chalcedony is a deceptively normal adventure to beat up a wizard in a wizard tower which goes back to my horror roots; Get It At Sutler’s is a (huge) tool for letting your players work a job at a fish market where they can meet people and experience the city of Troika like a native; and I’ll probably have a layer of a Troikan mega dungeon out before that. Otherwise we have another Troika adventure by Andrew Walter, a D&D campaign boxset sequel to Crypts of Indormancy, 2nd editions of Fever Swamp and Fungi of the Far Realms, a Troika based superhero RPG by Christian Kessler, a Dickension burglar RPG by Luke Gearing, and some others I’m probably forgetting. Busy year.
Q. What kind of pitches are you looking for from aspiring writers, artists, or designers right now?
We’re looking for books now. We have a project which we hope to get people involved in creating short adventures set in the city of Troika. Link here for the full brief.
Q. Where can we find more about what you and the Melsonian Arts Council are up to?
www.melsonia.com is the best place to find new things, but we also maintain a stubborn presence on social media for anyone who likes that sort of thing.
Times are tough and getting tougher for everyone, the RPG industry feels overwhelmingly tight and the only people who survive are the rich and the stubborn. Be stubborn and make games, please.
Daniel, I can’t stress enough how much your approach and your philosophy towards inspiration and the creative process send us over the moon! Thanks so much for the breakthrough work you and your team are doing at Melsonian Arts Council, and especially for the long nights and brain-wracking I’m sure it took to deliver something as mind-bending as Troika! You’re bringing new and good things into the world – we need many more people like you!
Thanks again for making time for us. Best of luck with the blizzard of new products coming. Have a great year!
Grailrunner Publishing is excited to announce the second art print we’re making available at our online store, introducing a thrilling new setting within our ever-growing Salt Mystic universe! Welcome to Crystal Spheres Oriel.
Outside the Central Remnants and far beyond the eastern Shifting Wilds where computronium-infused dunes and caverns have gone mad…where only the bravest few have travelled and returned with impossible stories of spaceships and cities among the asteroids…lies the ruined spaceport leading to Crystal Spheres Oriel.
You may have seen glimpses before:
To celebrate this new addition to our setting, we’re offering a new art print in the online Grailrunner Store, a stunning 18″x24″ poster format print of an ion sailship opening a new asteroid mine. Click the image to learn more!
We sincerely hope you will join us in celebrating this opening of a new world of possibilities for storytelling!
In honor of a Dungeons & Dragons movie being released that isn’t terrible (Honor Among Thieves – not perfect, overall fun, go see it to encourage more of that), we thought we would point out some free stuff that you can go grab for your own tabletop adventuring. Enjoy!
What was Dungeon Magazine?
TSR was the original home of Dungeons & Dragons, and throughout their history they maintained two periodicals appropriately named respectively Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine. The Dungeon variety especially warms my heart because it’s practically entirely free on the internet now, and because of the liveliness of its Letters section where some of the most creative and insightful people who ever braved a dungeon debated and tossed ideas about. It ran from 1986 to the end of its print run in 2007 and ceasing altogether in 2013.
I’ve written before here about the important explorations and inspirational content of letters columns. In that case it was the early pioneers of science and speculative fiction in periodicals like Amazing Stories and Planet Stories where those dudes not only helped shape the genre itself, but went on to change the world later in life. And they were largely driven by the ideas and fascinations they found in those magazines. With Dungeon Magazine, it feels much the same to me perusing those missives for recommended modules, suggestions on how to improve storytelling and engagement, and especially to hear what elements attracted them (and which didn’t).
What kind of things did Dungeon Magazine include?
Anybody at all could submit their own adventure modules, in essentially whatever D&D setting they liked. Even Spelljammer makes its appearances, which if you’ve been around here at Grailrunner for any length of time you’ll know is dear to our hearts! Go see this if you don’t know what I mean. Seriously, just grab an adventure that hooks you, clarify any stats you need to for whichever version of the game you’re playing, and go to town!
How did you pick these as the top ten?
Personal preferences abound here – I like a strong narrative element with some kind of twist or innovation, particularly interesting elements to interact with or strong NPC characterization. Locations with some solid, novel development are intriguing to me. Twists on established lore are a plus! I can’t imagine I would ever just play one of these as written, so the inspiration for me was to steal cool ideas for my own adventures, as any good dungeon master should. Extra attention was given to dungeons mentioned more than once in the letters column.
In this adventure, you and your companions have sailed to the trading port of Sandbar to find the elven crafts and wine of which you’ve heard such stories. Unfortunately, the port is in ashes when you arrive, still hot and smoking from the marauding attacks of a “tall black warship of alien design”, that had laid waste to the town in “a hail of destructive magic and incendiary missiles”. The magic-using baron in charge of the town asks for your help bringing these marauders to justice, as through divination he’s learned they are a few miles away in port for repairs.
What’s great about it?
Although the module explains in detail who the attackers are, why they did it, along with everything you need to know about the captain and crew, the mystery and intrigue of their identities and motives fascinates me imagining myself as player. I especially like the blend of nautical adventure and spellcasting, and the stages of this adventure highlight that. The story advances to a climactic boarding of the warship, which seals the deal for me, particularly with the line among the instructions to the Dungeon Master (which I don’t really think is a spoiler here): “If the PCs can somehow manage to capture the Dama Rosa intact, they will have acquired a priceless treasure.”
Now that’s an idea!
#9 Palace In The Sky by Martin & John Szinger in Dungeon 16
Livestock and people have gone missing in the night near the city you’re visiting, leaving traces of the footprints of giants. Strangely though, the footprints begin and end abruptly defying all logic. A fortnight ago, an elven hero tried to bring the mystery to light but died soon afterwards. His enigmatic message sent by pigeon read only “Seek the palace in the sky.”
What’s great about it?
A cloud island to explore with its landing dock, and areas of the cloud called “insubstantial cloudstuff” where you might fall entirely through should you misstep. A detailed cloud castle and dungeon peopled with marauding giants. You have to navigate all that, but the module warns in the beginning that it “isn’t a simple hack-and-slay expedition. It also involves diplomacy and wit; if the PCs attack everything in sight, they may be destroyed.”
I’m a bit of a sucker for airships and floating adventures. This one had me at “palace in the sky”.
You’re in the mighty city of Beryl, founded a thousand years ago with its great university, and now a hub of human and elven commerce. The arch-chancellor of the university recently died, and the city is rumbling with rumors and intrigue from the politics of naming his replacement. The half-elf chancellor of the College Of Antiquity reveals to you an ancient mystery signaled by a hidden map and scraps of phrases concealed in the padding of an old shield hanging on his wall. Perhaps you and your companions can follow the clues and discover what happened to elven king Thiondar so many years ago in a mysterious valley…
What’s great about it?
Many of the encounters can be deadly, and to simply bash your way through will get you killed. I really like that about this one. Some wit, a willingness to retreat, and finding clever things to do is the best way to approach the adventure. I especially appreciate the lore-heavy narrative elements hinted at in the beginning, then strung along as you follow the clues. That valley has some terrible and mighty magic and beasts awaiting you. Tread carefully…
You are travelling alone in the frozen wilderness, looking for some kind of shelter from an oncoming winter storm. It’s going to be a bad one. When you stumble into an open glade and smell wood smoke, you think you’ve found a welcome place to hide out till the storm passes, a fortified trading post in the middle of nowhere called Jacob’s Well. There are a few other guests there, and as you will learn, one of them has brought a deadly affliction inside the fort that may consume you all…
What’s great about it?
It’s rare for an adventure module to be intentionally designed for a single player and a Dungeon Master, but this contributes to the intentional paranoia and claustrophobia engineered into this dark, creepy ride. It’s basically the movie, Aliens, set in a D&D wilderness. There’s advice in here on how to build a sense of dread and for jump-scares. Definitely a great adaptation of the movie trope to the game.
You and your companions have arrived in the run-down port city called The Styes. Once a metropolis and marvelous ocean gateway, with dancing statues and impossible towers, constructed of marble on a man-made island, The Styes now lies practically in ruin. What’s left of the place is gripped in the fear of murders committed by a mystery figure they’ve dubbed The Lantern Man. In the hushed whispers among the alleyways, there are rumors of a Kraken and weird dreams centered on the weed-choked sea. Hopefully, you’ll survive long enough to puzzle out what nightmares are at work in this ruined place…
What’s great about it?
This is basically Cthulhu for D&D. That should be enough to say. Krakens can’t miss with me. Put a Kraken in the story, and I’m in. Add creepy murders, rumors of an underwater city, and a conspiracy of silence with the looming atmosphere of dread…this one is a slam dunk if any of that sounds cool to you.
#5 The Ghost Of Mistmoor by Leonard Wilson in Dungeon 35
You and your companions arrive at the lonely village of Mistmoor, drenched from weeks of rain in this part of the countryside hunting for dragons. A local family fell into ruin years before, and its current young scion is embroiled in debts for some indiscretions with a duke’s daughter. He’s desperately in need of unlocking the mystery of his inheritance, which vanished into history in a terrible tragic series of murders and suicide in the family manor. Let’s hope terrifying spectres and encounters in the middle of the night don’t spook you too much, because you’re going inside, where nightmares and abominations await you…
What’s great about it?
The encounters with various ghosts are well structured, triggered with the timing and mechanics. I like the backstories and defined nature of the ghosts especially, and the encounters are well integrated with the architecture. There is a genius mechanism here provided for the Dungeon Master to create a sense of dread and wild shock that I really don’t want to spoil. Check out pages 55 and 56 to see what I mean. It’s a great, fun spook-fest with plenty of atmosphere and would make for a great time at the table.
#4 Kingdom Of The Ghouls by Wolfgang Bauer in Dungeon 70
You and your companions are following rumors of the taking of mountain strongholds by terrifying creatures who have risen from beneath the earth. Hushed whispers from the few survivors tell of a mighty empire growing in The Underdark caverns, with vile beginnings from a spell gone bad years before that summoned a powerful ghoul named Doresain who stepped from the eldritch portal to either eat or convert the mages to his will. They’re coming to the surface now, to grow their dominions and to destroy anything in their way. You’ll need to be brave and bring torches. You’re going underground!
What’s great about it?
A region of deep caverns, of strange races, ancient civilizations, and lost magic. This one’s a keeper for atmosphere and for something different than your ordinary imperiled village or stone dungeon. I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but there are intentional opportunities among the encounters underground to ally with enemies of the wicked ghouls and form an army of your own. And I’m not sure you can make it out of there alive without an army! I consider the different locations provided, the details and architecture defined in this module, and the robust characterizations and NPCs herein as a master class in a good adventure module. You really should give this one a try!
You and your companions have been hired by the Silvery Moon Vault Of Sages, to find the ruins of an old library and recover any magical tomes therein. Once a temple that fell in a terrifying schism years before overrun by a horde of undead, the library is believed to contain powerful books worth your risking your life there. And that’s very much what you’re doing. Zombies and snakes, giant snakes and centipedes, trapped spellbooks, and crawling claws are waiting in the shadows, though a much more sinister and bewildering threat than any of those beckons as well…a threat from the architecture of the ruined library itself!
What’s great about it?
This is a spoiler big-time, so if you’d care to remain surprised about it, skip this paragraph entirely. It’s pretty awesome, even as a Dungeon Master honestly, though a player could really his mind blown trying to puzzle this one out. Each room is an 80′ x 80′ square with a 20′ foot ceiling, and a starting configuration is provided for the DM. However, at regular intervals, the rooms shift. Mechanics for how to determine the room moves are provided, based on a D4 roll, and it’s silent to the players. They’re faced with trying to find a particular the pages of a particular book to gain control of this madness, which is complicated by the fact that certain creatures from the Nine Hells are bound into the pages of certain books to protect them. Honestly, this mechanic of room shifts is just amazing innovation! I give it third place just from the audacity and novelty of it.
You and your companions have been hired by a down-on-his luck former trade captain whose flagship vessel, the mighty Emperor Of The Waves, which was lost in a storm (and actually turned into a temple by cultic orcs). Its loss ruined him, and he’s desperately hoping you can investigate and regain some of the magical items that were lost with the ship. It may be his only chance to regain his glory, a glory you might be able to share if you’re successful. You’ll be exploring ruined upper decks, slowly descending into the depths of the mighty ship in a nautical dungeon crawl where the compartments are flooded with seawater and infested with the undead. Yet time will become you biggest threat of them all.
What’s great about it?
Again – spoiler on this one. If you’d like to be surprised, you probably shouldn’t be reading some of this. This one’s an easy entry for my top 3 just because I’m enamored with the idea of a dungeon destroying itself slowly as the players race to escape. And once the players are down in the holds, deep in the dark lower levels where there is only cold seawater, choking weeds, and zombies, you realize the ship is sinking. One by one, the compartments flood leaving the players to desperately cast about for a way out. And that’s when the giant squid appears. Come on! That’s genius!
#1 Maure Castle by Robert Kuntz and Gary Gygax in Dungeon 112
Before you lies the enormous, deadly, bewildering Maure Castle. The promises of treasure lie within, but generations of treasure seekers and adventurers have stood where you’re standing and thought what you’re thinking. It’s a maddening, twisting beast of a castle full of images that come to life, attacking fish, an iron golem, cultic demon worshippers, and a lunatic mage. Yet it’s in the lowest levels of this mighty, megaplex of a castle where it is said dark secrets of power lie in the shadows, and where a resurrected demon-handed man searches for them. It’s best you find them first…
What’s great about it?
This one would be number one for the sheer history of it – the origins of Maure Castle lie in a pre-commercial campaign Kuntz and Gygax worked on before Dungeons & Dragons existed, and formed the seed for what became the Greyhawk setting. And Gygax – he’s devious and clever with traps and overall audacity in trying to kill the players. He must have been working overtime with this one. It’s just stuffed with weird encounters and lore and has enough to keep adventurers busy and scheming for session after session. In fact, the adventure takes up the entire issue!
That’s what I wanted to bring you today! It was a lot of fun digging through these, and I’m glad to have this list and the respective links in one place for my own reference. There are some amazing ideas in here! I can’t promise that I’ve reviewed every dungeon in this wonderful lost magazine, but these gems stood out for me on first pass.
I hope you enjoyed this, and that you get inspired for whatever creation you might be working on.
Oh, my…the bunny trails we do chase here at Grailrunner for your entertainment!
I’ve got a crazy one for you today: a 14th century copy of an 11th century book called The Experimentarius by Bernardus Silvestris of Tours that he had virtually nothing to do with, that is nowhere titled like that, that played a desperate role in a terrifying city siege, and that has a funky set of cogged wheels embedded in its cover.
Welcome to the Inspirations From History series!
I’ll define my terms shortly and explain all this, and provide you some fascinating links, but let me tell you how I came across this intriguing bit of historical curiosity. I was writing this article here about a 13th century geomantic machine and saw something in the footnotes of a 2003 study by Emilie Savage-Smith and Marion B. Smith (follow the link for a download option). I’m a sucker for little nuggets in footnotes buried in dense books. If you’ve never read Jorge Luis Borges, he does that in some of his fiction.
Anyway, here’s what I read:
“The Oxford, Bodleian Library, Western Manuscripts, MS Digby 46, a fourteenth-century copy of The Experimentarius, has set into the inside front cover of the volume two interlocking wooden cogged wheels with twenty eight and thirteen teeth, by which one can find a random number, rather than by counting random points.”
And I thought…huh? Why in the world would I need a random number reading a book? What’s it for? And how cool does it look? And can you play Dungeons & Dragons with it?
Once I started chasing details on this little marvel, I realized quickly the scarcity of information available about it. I did however find a deep dive article written by Dr. Charles Burnett in 1977, who’s still teaching at the Warburg Institute in London (but who hasn’t unfortunately responded to an interview request). He specializes in the transmission of texts, techniques and artifacts from the Arab world to the West, especially in the Middle Ages.
Here’s a link to the article I’m talking about, titled What Is The Experimentarius? It’s behind a paywall unless you have some connection to a recognized university, but it really offers a wealth of history and analysis on the book in question and is the source of much of what I say here.
Who was Bernardus Silvestris?
Bernardus Silvestris was a 12th century philosopher (and scientist, I guess, though that whole thing back then was a bit of a blur) who wrote an influential poem called Cosmographia that supposedly inspired people to feel good about exploring metaphysics and science with allegories. Anyway, Dr. Burnett effectively swats away any notion that Silvestris wrote any substantial portions of the book we’re discussing today, so let’s not dwell on him. We’ll have to find peace with the idea that the author is unknown.
What’s this book about?
We’ll also have to recognize that big portions of the book in question are a bit irrelevant for our purposes here today, as its varied copies in various museums around the world bear somewhat different content and don’t all matter for those weird wheels or their function. No, the main event here is a subset of the book that Dr. Burnett prefers to name Sortes Regis Amalrici, meaning “The Lots Of King Amalric”.
Why that name?
Sortes literature was a long-standing means of using various mechanisms to produce random numbers (like dice or random pokes in sand), forcing some pseudoscientific-looking ritual involving bouncing around tables, and ultimately selecting from a wide set of verses an oracle answer to whatever question a seeker was asking.
So it’s a 14th century copy of a 12th century book for telling the future?
Yes it is. And I became terribly interested in understanding what manner of questions and concerns these seekers would have to ask such a book, given their belief that this secret tome had unlocked a means of resonating with the very day and time of their consultation, and the crystal spheres inside which they lived, to reveal the secrets of the universe.
So I used Google Translate to convert the functional tables from Latin in Burnett’s article to experience how this all worked. I included that and the instructions on the book’s usage in a spreadsheet, which I’m including at this link here.
Where can I see the original parchment pages of this book?
You can go to the Bodleian Library site here or to the British Library site here to take a luxurious look if you (like me) see the joy of perusing high resolution images of super old parchment documents and the little doodling pics in the margins like these:
Here is a reproduction of tables 1 through 4, which are the ones I translated in the Excel document linked above:
Don’t make me read all that, how did this book work?
Determine a random number, either through geomantic points or a dial like the one on our cover in question. Spin it or close your eyes and start turning, then peek to see what you got.
If the random number exceeds 7 (say 10), find the theme of the question on table 1 (say “about war”) and count that as 7. Move up the table till you hit your number (in this case, move 3 up to “about wishes”). Then follow table 1 instructions (“western face of the tower of Jupiter”) -> table 2 instructions (“13th day of the Moon”) -> table 3 instructions (“18th moon”) -> table 4 Judge (“Alchozean”)
Each Judge has verses, and you add 9 (a constant) to your random number to select the relevant verse which is your oracle. (So in this case, verse 19).
If the random number is exactly seven, then follow the tables as above but begin directly from the theme of the question (“about war”). The oracle will be the verse for the respective Judge numbered 7 + 9 = 16.
If the random number is less than 7 (say 5), then count the theme of the question as the random number (so 5 in this example) then go down the table till you reach 7 (“southern face of the tower of Mars”).
Let’s keep in mind here that the point of all that jumping around and Middle Ages tech-speak is to make this seem like science. It’s possible seekers could only finish their consultations in many cases on the actual days listed in these tables, which would really make it all seem super serious.
Where the heck are the Judge verses?! I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons with this thing!
I hear you, and that’s totally what I was going to do. I wanted to see if I could use an ancient fortune-telling book to act as dungeon master for a solo roleplaying game. Would have been awesome. However, Burnett didn’t include the Judge verses in his appendices, and the Latin font in the originals I could find was incomprehensible to me. I couldn’t even make out what letters they were. Was hoping Burnett would provide originals so I could translate them, but no luck.
Well, what kinds of questions did people ask with this book?
Ahhh…that was super interesting to me. Take a look at Table 1 to see what issues concerned these folks. Some of these are very telling of the times (“about prison”, “about hope”, “about a dream”, “about a foreigner”) but practically all of them are common to all of us and incredibly easy to understand why they concerned the book’s users a thousand years ago.
One curiosity here: number 25’s original Latin is clear on the parchment and reads “egro” which translates as “in the desert”. I strained to see why anybody had questions relating to the desert (though my imagination wandered) till I realized they probably slipped and meant “agro” which means “the field”, or crops probably. Yeah, that’s more likely by a mile.
What was that bit you said earlier about a terrifying city siege?
I’ll leave you with this story, this glimpse of what the Sortes Regis Amalrici and these weird little tables meant to some extremely frightened people in a terrible time. It’s an excerpt from a book written in the late 1200’s by Rolandino Patavino, a notary who worked in the Italian city of Padua.
The background is that Padua was on the rise and set to be as big a deal as Venice back in the day before Italy was a thing. Twenty years before, the Holy Roman Empire had taken and held Padua up until 1256 when some exiles (supported by the Pope) took it back. That lasted a year until the villain and tyrant of the story (named Ezzelino) laid siege to Padua to return it to the hands of the Holy Roman Empire.
Here’s what Patavino recounted of those days trapped and surrounded by a returning conqueror and likely wondering whether they would all be slaughtered or would starve to death inside the city walls:
“Some of the prisoners anxiously searched through the lots to find when the army was to arrive. And one of the points of a certain art…is to say that Padua could not be captured in these times. Another one of the prisoners favored this, saying, “Examine the book carefully.”
That’s our book he’s talking about. They were desperately flipping through those very pages to find hope of salvation. And it was right.
That’s what I wanted to bring you this time. I hope you found it diverting like I did. Let me know what you think. And till next time,
I know. I know. AI for artists and writers and pretty much every creator these days seems big and scary and threatening. I’m not ignoring that, I promise. For people who make their living off bringing new things into the world, the shocking advance in the quality and capabilities of AI tools in the last few short months can be terrifying.
However, Grailrunner’s position on AI chat and art generation tools is that we are seeing the beginnings of an unstoppable wave of technology that isn’t going away. It isn’t. In fact, more is coming, and the world of creators is turning upside down rapidly. Let’s find a way to strike the balance and live together. Astounding things are becoming possible.
For instance, today I thought I’d bring you a short overview of how to quickly and painlessly generate elements for use in roleplaying games. I was just messing around, and startled myself with the quality of what I was producing.
Here is ChatGPT. If you’ve not played with this incredible mechanism yet, please go do so. Let me show you what it can do (and stay till the end for a freebie!):
I was exploring Free League Publishing’s Coriolis roleplaying game ruleset and wondered if ChatGPT knew those rules and could generate a spaceship for me quickly with the stats and everything. It seemed a bit exotic and unlikely to me, but wow.
Speed: Refers to the ship’s maximum velocity and maneuverability. A score of 7 means the Al-Kahf is a relatively fast and agile ship, able to make quick turns and escape danger.
Handling: Refers to the ship’s ease of control and responsiveness. A score of 6 indicates that the Al-Kahf is easy to control and responds well to inputs from the pilot.
Armor: Refers to the ship’s durability and protection against damage. A score of 5 means that the Al-Kahf has average armor for a light freighter, able to withstand some damage but not designed for heavy combat.
System Strain: Refers to the ship’s ability to handle stress and strain during high-stress situations, such as combat or high-speed travel. A score of 4 means that the Al-Kahf is capable of handling moderate stress, but may struggle during intense situations.
Crew Quarters: Refers to the ship’s accommodation for crew members. A score of 3 means that the Al-Kahf has basic crew quarters, providing a comfortable place to sleep but not much else.
Cargo Hold: Refers to the ship’s storage capacity for goods and supplies. A score of 8 indicates that the Al-Kahf has a large and spacious cargo hold, capable of storing a significant amount of goods and supplies.
Fuel Capacity: Refers to the ship’s ability to store fuel and make long journeys without refueling. A score of 9 means that the Al-Kahf has an impressive fuel capacity, allowing it to make long journeys without worrying about refueling.
I am a huge fan of the way Shawn Tomkin manages dice tables for solo roleplaying in his Ironsworn and Starforged roleplaying games. His philosophy of ‘creative interpretation’ at work when we roll some dice with a particular context in mind is fascinating. Basically, we bring baggage to the dice table result, and the game mechanics bring it all to life in a unique way. I wanted to see if ChatGPT could generate a 100-entry encounter table of monsters, which it did no problem at all. So I pushed a little harder and asked for a 66-entry dice table of different types of space ports. And I got this:
Asteroid mining station
Gas mining platform
Communications relay station
Repair and maintenance station
Luxury space resort
Cargo transfer station
Black market hub
Planetary defense platform
Scientific research facility
Zero-gravity training facility
Space tourism port
Space manufacturing facility
Cryonics storage center
Astrobiology research station
Wormhole research station
Habitat ring station
Interstellar trade hub
Orbital defense platform
Space colony supply depot
34. Colony ship docking facility 35. Refugee processing center 36. Galactic news agency headquarters 37. Mercenary outpost 38. Pirates’ haven 39. Alien embassy 40. Emergency response center 41. Planetary observation post 42. Interstellar prison 43. Military research facility 44. Debris clearing station 45. Terraformed planet terminal 46. Space observatory 47. Space casino 48. Interstellar sports stadium 49. Weapon testing range 50. Hyperspace testing facility 51. Cosmic phenomenon research center 52. Space-time anomalies research station 53. Galactic archives 54. Intergalactic judiciary court 55. Space monastery 56. Zero-gravity art gallery 57. Space academy 58. Celestial navigation training center 59. Smuggler’s warehouse 60. Orbital refinery 61. Astro-mining hub 62. Interstellar advertising platform 63. Space advertising platform 64. Space entertainment center 65. Space hotel 66. Interstellar luxury cruise liner.
Finally, I was curious whether one of the many art generators out there, like Codeway’s Wonder app or Stable Diffusion can generate maps. And the answer is sort of. Here are some results as they were generated by Wonder without any editing whatsoever and based solely on precisely worded text prompts:
Just extrapolating, I requested some isometric maps for some lower level, grittier encounters. Again, these are from Wonder and with absolutely no editing whatsoever:
Come on! That’s incredible, right?!
I’m not ignoring that this is a delicate issue for people who make maps or write encounter tables for a living. But for my part, I see this incredible new technology as pushing me to be better, to be competitive and push the boundaries of my craft so I can stand above works that are jumbles of previous works.
Just ask ChatGPT to tell you a story, and you’ll see what I mean. They’re the most plain vanilla, generic fan fiction you can imagine. It’s terrible, no matter what you do with the prompts. And that’s the point I’m making here. If I worked with isometric maps for a living, I’d probably know these images for being generic and predictable. But I don’t, and I think they’re amazing, practically ready to use in a game with some minor adjustments.
Now for the freebie I promised you (click the image to download this in pdf). I present to you a set of adventure-building dice tables entirely built in ChatGPT:
Anyway, delicate but intriguing topic today. Go explore and let me know what you come up with!
I’ve written before here how much I’m attracted to stories about exploration. It’s my jam. And I went down a bunny trail recently that I think you might find interesting. Welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirations From History series!
It thrills me, the thought of 270 rugged seafarers in the 1500’s betting everything as they set sail in five ships west into the unknown, honestly not entirely sure that there weren’t sea monsters or magnetic islands that would suck the nails right out of their ships. Likely some of them still thought they might sail to an edge, with the sea falling off in cascades into nothing. Yet there were spice islands out there somewhere: cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, growing in exotic pacific islands, where a bag of it brought home would make a fortune and an estate to pass on for generations.
After a failed career and endless quarrels over money with the Portuguese king, Ferdinand Magellan thought he could be the guy to find an unknown route between his home country and these amazing islands. He bet everything. He betrayed his home country and went to Spain, pleading before finally getting the commission. And he didn’t make it home, but his name went down in history as leading the first circumnavigation of the planet. 270 had left, but three years later only 18 of them sailed back into Seville harbor. Half dead and starved, looking like zombies, in the one remaining ship that maybe surprised onlookers that it could still stay afloat.
They made it. First around the world. Awesome.
But Magellan said something before he died, to a writer on board who kept a detailed journal of the day to day events, that fascinated me when I came across it. Remember, the whole point was to find a way to sail from Spain westward, somehow get around or through South America (which seemed insurmountable) to the Pacific Islands and back. That was key. And trade routes were like the nuclear codes of the day – those maps were super secret and locked away because they were the engines of monopoly.
Here’s the recount of what Magellan said, as told by Antonio Pigafetta:
“Had it not been for the Captain General, we could not have found the strait, for we all thought and said that it was closed on all sides. But the Captain General who knew where to sail to find a well-hidden strait, which he saw depicted on a map in the treasury of the king of Portugal, which was made by that excellent man, Martin de Boemia, sent two ships, the Santo Antonio and the Conception to discover what was inside the cape of the bay.” -Antonio Pigafetta
Here’s a link to a fantastic book where you can read a riveting account of the whole voyage, called Over The Edge Of The World, by Laurence Bergreen.
Here’s a link to Antonio Pigafetta’s summary journal which he prepared on his return home in some gorgeous illustrated copies which he presented to the kings of Portugal, Spain, and England. (It blows my mind that you can have such a thing on your kindle, but there it is.)
What caught my attention here was that Magellan told Pigafetta he saw a secret map that had the big answer everyone was looking for: the strait that would lead through South America. Just who the heck drew that map, how did they know there was such a strait leading through the landmass that had blocked so many previous voyages, and why was that map just laying there?
Did Magellan really see such a map, or was he just handwaving to calm his crewmen down when the voyage was looking hopeless? “Sure, guys. Of course. I saw a map. The strait’s there, trust me. A great cosmographer drew it, a genius. Martin was amazing. He wouldn’t let us down.”
That is what go me really rolling with this one. What exactly did Magellan see in that treasury? The image of a desperate genius navigator haunted me, snatching leather books off the shelves and tracing a sun-leathered finger across nautical charts till he came across something that set him laughing like a maniac. Whatever he saw convinced him to risk his life and betray his country. It gave him confidence to take almost 300 men around the world. He found it, of course, but he gave up his life before he could go home and brag about it.
So what did he really see?
Click the title page to the left here to download a 1908 biography of this Martin Of Bohemia who supposedly drew the secret map with a strait leading through South America.
I read these three books in the order in which I’m presenting them to you here to try and answer the question for myself of what Magellan saw exactly.
And in reading this biography, I wanted to at least get to know Martin a bit better, learn what sort of person he was, what life experiences he had that led him to be able to produce this map that became a thing of such consequence.
Who exactly was Martin Of Bohemia?
Martin Behaim (6 October 1459 – 29 July 1507), also known as Martin von Behaim and by various forms of Martin of Bohemia, was a German textile merchant and cartographer. He served John II of Portugal as an adviser in matters of navigation and participated in a voyage to West Africa. He is now best known for his Erdapfel, the world’s oldest surviving globe, which he produced for the Imperial City of Nuremberg in 1492.
There are some problems here though, which you find when you dig into the details.
*Martin’s reputation seems impressive, and you’ll learn he served Portugal on a prestigious mathematical committee geared towards innovations in navigation. However, his main credential in being chosen for that committee was that he “studied” under a famous Nuremberg mathematician named Regiomontanus. He did no such thing, and was maybe a neighbor of the guy when Martin was a child.
*He discovered nothing, and perhaps only sailed on one discovery voyage at all. He probably went down the western coast of Africa, but not apparently as captain (as he said) but just on board as a trader. Maybe. But he provided all manner of exaggerations and falsehoods about his discoveries and adventures back home that wound up on his famous globe and in the margin of the Liber Chronicorum chronicle.
*Martin spent some time in the Azores, and seemed incredibly exotic to the folks in Nuremberg when he returned on family estate-related business. Likely his stories of discovery and his talespinning about navigational feats drew much attention, especially that of a member of the town council named George Holzschuher. This was a guy who’d travelled to Egypt and the Holy Land and was fascinated by travel tales.
*Holzschuher was the one who asked Martin to make a fancy globe showing the latest accumulated knowledge of the earth, since Martin was so qualified to consult for such a task. What a treat to have this genius right here in town to lead the effort! What you can still see today in the German National Museum is the result of that effort, and it’s beautiful. You can thank an artist named Georg Glockendon for that. What you can thank Martin for is the inexcusably incorrect geography and braggart fanciful tales also included on it.
*His own brother wrote of him: “…my brother Martin is still at Nuremburg, and in your house, and that his conduct is singular. I am sorry to hear this. Here at Lyon they say things about him which make me ashamed. I should be very glad if we were rid of him altogether.”
*And in another letter, “Martin does nothing in particular, but goes daily into the garden, and only concerns himself with the garden”
*Seven years before Magellan’s expedition is when an account referred to as “Newe Zeytung auss Presilly Landt” told of a newly found cape on the eastern coast of South America that could (possibly) marry up with something on the western coast where Spanish ships already were located. The cape couldn’t be explored, according to the New Zeytung account, because a storm blew them out of the bay and into the sea. The problem with Martin riding that train to put it on his map though, is he died 7 years before that account. He never knew anything about it.
So what does all this mean when we consider what Magellan saw in that treasury?
After my deep dive into all this, I can’t believe Magellan was making anything up given the stakes and his risks. He saw something he interpreted as a strait on a map where he intended to sail. This would be around 1518 or so, which was eleven years after Martin’s death and 26 years after that famous globe was delivered to the Nuremberg town council. Martin’s reputation was pristine as a genius navigator and bringer of the sum total knowledge of geography, though virtually none of that reputation was deserved.
For sure, Martin may have delivered maps to the Portuguese king that wound up in that treasury, but there’s no reason at all they would include any mysterious strait through South America given the enormous gaps on his globe in that part of the world. He knew nothing about any of that. So it basically and most likely just wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. It just had his name on it.
Why would that map have Martin’s name on it?
My belief is somebody sold the Portuguese king a speculative map based on the Newe Zeytung accounts, essentially guessing that whatever the people in that account found must connect to the waterways they already knew of on the western coast. But if you want a king to pay top dollar for your map, it has to have an impressive name attached to it.
Oh, Magellan saw a map. It just wasn’t one drawn by Martin Behaim.
Anyway, I thought this was fascinating as the story went on. I hope you take a look at some of these books I’ve linked. The Age Of Discovery was a thrilling time in human history. It’s worth a look to understand what drove those guys.
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!
Welcome back to Grailrunner’sInspirational 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.
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!
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!