The wheels turn slowly, my friends. But they do turn. We’re making glacial headway on the tabletop game we’ve been talking about for a couple of years now – but in recent days, some exciting things have been happening!
If you’re a visitor, welcome! I’ve got a gift for you. Download the basic ruleset for an introduction and overview, to get some cool ideas on how this bad-boy will start cranking once it’s up and running to tell some gosh-a-mighty, romping, stomping tales of science fictiony goodness.
Proofs of the deluxe version of the Core Rules And Sourcebook have come in, and we weren’t happy with the color and print quality. The cover looked great, but some of the textured pages were a bit muddy. We’re also including two starter decks and some papercraft terrain you can pull out and play with immediately – those need to pop in clarity and brightness more than we were seeing with the proofs. So we’ve beefed up to a higher print quality standard and are waiting on the second round of proofs on that.
The game is played with tremendous flexibility, including different War Marshal decks you can begin with, and customize from there. Those guys needed their own tuck boxes. We approved the first design, and the proof arrives any day. This guy here:
We also got a head start on the quarterly (hopefully quarterly!) digital magazine which will serve as sounding board and announcement central for upcoming products (like the terrain tile deck we started working on and can hopefully be ready before year-end). Here’s a draft for the potential cover of issue one – let us know what you think!
I started writing the feature story for the first ish, with a scheme of introducing some of the key characters and framing out a narrative scenario you could immediately set up and play after you read it…to see how you’d handle the situation. Could be in two-player mode or solo. We’ve gotten some great feedback on the playtesting for solo play, which we refer to as Wolfpack Mode. It seems even after quarantines have mostly lifted, people are super interested in solo play these days. That’s great, and hopefully we can make that as shifting and challenging as the regular one-on-one version.
Man, I wish this was a full time gig and we could just sit around writing stories and dreaming up worlds for a living! But bills to pay, and kids to raise, my friends. If you’d like to volunteer to help out, or submit any stories or art for consideration, feel free to reach out either here or emailing me directly (brian (at) grailrunner.com). We’d love to grow the family.
I hope you’re doing well, guys. Shoot me any questions or suggestions you have. Happy to connect. Till next time,
My dad told me once that if I ever see a book I think I might like in a bookstore, but that I’m waffling on, that I should probably just get it. That I’ll regret it otherwise and will be miserable. Generally, that’s about right. But I have a different point to make just now, about inspiration (with a little nostalgia to fire the magic). Hear me out on this.
There’s a cluttered, winding bookshop in Kansas City called Prospero’s…a place of winding stairs, creaking wooden floors chocked in every nook with old books on three floors. Here, this place:
I was sitting in a small cranny perusing science fiction paperbacks from the 70’s and came across this little book from Arthur Clarke:
I shouldn’t have cared. I mean, there’s probably no writer who’s influenced me…who’s meant more to me…than Arthur Clarke. I adored this man. A marvel of imagination and curiosity! Seriously, he was incandescent. I wanted to hitch a ride on some kind of ship and just go hang out with him on Sri Lanka back in the day. But this was clearly a book aimed at young readers, with simple style and dated back to 1960. I flipped through it a few times, considered it too simple and not what I was looking for, with obsolete science and no fiction.
So I put it back on the shelf.
I went back to it before leaving, having found nothing else I wanted. Flipped through the faded pages again. There was a line at the register upstairs. I could hear the voices upstairs and the creaking floor, the busy commerce. I didn’t feel like waiting, so I left the book there on the shelf.
But it got me thinking about sparkling oceans and shining futures of busy aquanauts living under the sea. It reminded me of one of his great novels, The Deep Range where a broken astronaut finds redemption in a beautiful life harvesting bounty from the ocean, wrangling whales, and adventuring in his submersible. It reminded me of his other novel, Dolphin Island wherein a future lab is learning to speak the language of dolphins. It got me thinking about the beautiful people at Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, FL where I stopped in recently to tell them I was a LinkedIn groupie from Kansas City eagerly following their critical work growing and replanting new coral to preserve our reefs for future generations…
…which led me to a fantastic documentary series on Discovery+ now called Oceans, where more beautiful people are studying the coral and other sea life to find the keys of preserving them. That’s one that’s worth your time, without all the preaching and guilt Attenborough throws at you these days, and a focus on the beauty and WHY we should care about this sort of thing. Then in one episode of that series, they pay a visit to an undersea habitat from the 1960’s where Jacques Cousteau apparently had people living on the seafloor.
What? Living on the seafloor? (That’s what I was thinking when I saw that one.)
And here’s the documentary that led me to, an Academy Award winner from 1964 called World Without Sun. Sure enough, there’s Jacques Cousteau, the guy who basically invented scuba diving, leading a group of dudes who inhabited an undersea complex for a month. I know it’s dated, but you really should skim through the documentary at that link. I mean, they’re darting down in a submersible to a garage, popping up into a little habitat where they’re having breakfast, hanging out, and freaking smoking pipes. One dude after breakfast just hops down quickly into a small pool in the floor and is immediately on the seafloor at 30 feet with no scuba gear….just to cool off and see what the fish were up to!
Seriously now, my head is just swimming with images of shining future sea-cities and seafloor complexes. I included glimpses of such things in last year’s short fiction collection, Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box but I’m firing up on all cylinders now at the possibilities. I even found a new spot to go kayaking from this, a little cove at Black Hoof Lake where I found a gorgeous cluster of mossy plants and waterlillies alive with little fish pecking off their lunches. It’s the kind of thing that Arthur Clarke always does to me – sends my imagination reeling into what could be. His head was full of stars, and it’s contagious.
And I didn’t even buy that old book.
I wonder if I had, would it have come off as just stale and naïve, as simplistic cartoon descriptions of obvious and outdated science? Would I still have this electric sense of possibilities of the future of the ocean if I was making my way through a youth-oriented science book from 1960? Likely not.
And I suppose that’s the magic of a delicious sauce of nostalgia and imagination. Arthur Clarke and Jacques Cousteau. Weird how those two wound up swimming around in my head today.
Hope that made you smile a bit. Till next time, guys.
“Edgar Rice Burroughs was, and is, the most influential writer, bar none, of our century.” –Ray Bradbury
If we could just stop letting cultural baggage ruin our science fiction, we’d have a lot more fun. And we could go back to being inspired by it, and building a better world and whatnot.
Unfortunately, we’re all activists now, and we get offended quite easily. We focus on a scavenger hunt to dredge all the things from older fiction and movies that are unacceptable now, but which were commonplace in the times in which those things were written – and we lose sight of ourselves in the process. We emphasize the divisions rather than the commonalities. Which brings me to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, featuring John Carter Of Mars.
Let’s say it’s February 1912 and you stroll up to a magazine rack at a busy street corner somewhere, like this one…
…and pick up the latest All-Story Magazine. This one here:
There’s a quirky story in there called Under The Moons Of Mars by some guy named Norman Bean (a pseudonym; it’s said he typed ‘normal bean’ – as in ‘not insane’, but his typesetter messed it up). I don’t know how it wouldn’t command your attention if you were at all an explorer, a dreamer, an adventurer at heart born in the wrong time and place for your imaginings. It’s white-hot lightning on paper, and it changed the world. I like to think you’d have sensed that might happen after reading those six installments, finishing in the July issue.
Let’s just ignore the 2012 Disney film supposedly based on the first novel because it’s terrible. I’m sorry if you loved it. That’s just my opinion based on how convoluted and boring it was – not because it doesn’t follow the books. Though it doesn’t really. I’m talking about that mesmerizing set of pulp novels that came from the same mind that created Tarzan: Lord Of The Apes. These John Carter Of Mars books brought us airships and space princesses, swashbuckling space action, telepathy and psychic powers, evil green aliens and more. It’s crazy, reading them now, just how many people who came later were inspired by things they found in these books…people and tropes you’ve heard of but didn’t know their origin. I’m talking about even things like exotic sci-fi character names and settings like dried-up seabeds, dying cities with lost technology. He dreamed those things up and blazed an incandescent trail others followed – others like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore, James Cameron, J. Michael Straczynski, and George Lucas. And others, man! Plenty of others.
“I knew nothing about the technique of story writing…I had never met an editor, or an author or a publisher. I had no idea of how to submit a story or what I could expect in payment. Had I known anything about it at all I would never have thought of submitting half a novel; but that is what I did.
Thomas Newell Metcalf, who was then editor of The All-Story magazine, published by Munsey, wrote me that he liked the first half of a story I had sent him, and if the second half was as good he thought he might use it. Had he not given me this encouragement, I would never have finished the story, and my writing career would have been at an end, since l was not writing because of any urge to write, nor for any particular love of writing. l was writing because I had a wife and two babies, a combination which does not work well without money.
I finished the second half of the story, and got $400 for the manuscript, which at that time included all serial rights. The check was the first big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.
My first story was entitled, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. Metcalf changed it to Under the Moons of Mars. It was later published in book form as A Princess of Mars.”
It may be in this cynical, political age that images like the ones below hang some people up. “There’s just another invincible white dude swinging a sword, treating his woman like property and being racist!” But that isn’t it at all. John Carter just tries to do the right thing – nothing is handed to him. He had a hard life and knows how to handle himself. Good things happen to him in the end because he never gives up, no matter how frightened he gets. He just follows a code of conduct and sticks to his word. We’re not allowed heroes as much these days – isn’t it okay to have a strong male lead who tries to do good things?
And Dejah Thoris, the original space princess, isn’t dumb or a piece of wallpaper. She’s noble and brilliant, a strong inspiration to her people and considered the finest of her race. There’s no need to try and make her a scientist or technological genius in a misguided attempt to update her character – the woman is nobility itself, and she shines like it. It’s okay for a woman to fall in love with a brave man who’s trying to help her. That doesn’t demean her or make less of her.
The John Carter Of Mars books are worthy of your time. They’re incredible inspirations and true works of genius. Why not pick up the first three books in the compilation by Gallery / Saga Press here on Amazon. My suggestion is just keep an open mind, remember that what you’re reading came long before almost any science fiction with which you’re familiar, and consider just what an outlandishly brilliant masterpiece these stories are considering so little came to pave the way beforehand.
Let us know what you think – we’d love to geek out with you on this.
I know, man. Anybody trying to figure out what Grailrunner Publishing is all about must get dizzy skimming through these eclectic articles ranging from wargames to popular fiction and movie reviews, and begging for graphic design advice. But check out the nametag – we simply seek to inspire.
Dreams are engines. Be fuel.
That’s the point of us…giving people building blocks and inspiration to escape everyday life and politics and digital propaganda and to just be happy and dream. So today it’s a psychological model analyzing how they make certain products addictive. Crazy, right? Our hope is you dig this book and its HOOKed model, see how it might help you design something you’re building or thinking about, and that you thrive in that. But use your new powers for good, not evil. Cool?
For us, we’re putting out science fiction books and a tabletop wargame line with a branded merchandise line. It will help to have something concrete to think about as we learn this model from Nir Eyal, as described in Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. What this model offers is a way of thinking about WHY we engage with products at all, what triggers us throughout our day or week to go back to those products, and why we keep going back…or frightfully, why we might NOT return to those products.
1 & 2: Internal & External Triggers
Check out the diagram at the top of this article. It’s a loop – hopefully you see that. Starts at 1, with an internal trigger. One clear example Eyal gives is a fitness app where the designers latched onto that awkward moment when you might step into a gym or workout room and not really know what to do…which machine to go to. If you’re uncomfortable enough, you might even connect that ‘dumb’ or ‘confused’ feeling with the act of going to the gym and just stop going. That’s an internal trigger – the feeling of wanting to know what to do.
A buddy of mine told me once the hardest part for him in quitting smoking wasn’t the nicotine or taste, it was the social aspect of going out to the smoke pad at the top of the hour and networking with people…hearing all the gossip from all levels of the company. For him, the internal trigger was the top of the hour and that itch to talk to some people.
When I think about the Salt Mystic wargame we’ve been designing for a few years now, the internal trigger we’re targeting is the desire to escape into a science fiction world…the itch to laugh and talk trash with friends over a tabletop without complicated rules and lore getting in the way. More simply – the desire to dream up a story.
The external trigger piece Eyal identifies, labeled as 2 in the diagram, is how the user actually gets to the product. With the fitness app, maybe it notes your GPS location as being in a gym and flags you with a suggestion. Maybe your GPS watch notes that you haven’t moved in a while and flags you to do so, or connects you with friends through a Garmin app who encourage you to go for a run because it’s been a while. The point to remember here is the product is trying to establish a link between that internal itch the potential user feels to do something, tied to a core drive or interest, and an access point to the product.
In our case, we have no intention of building a digital tool to intrude on your life. That actually drives me crazy when my iPhone puts up those irritating red notifications on various apps. It stresses me out, so all that noise is turned off and I’ll look at the phone when I feel like it. However we’ve been spending time thinking about how to connect a desire to escape from the daily grind and dip into fun sci-fi weirdness to our Salt Mystic offerings versus all your other options. We feel like unique and striking aesthetics, memorable and relatable characters, and certain easily understood anchor points in the main storyline will help. I’m specifically thinking about the difference in lore between what you might see with Magic: The Gathering and Warmachine (complicated, confusing, not terribly relatable) and the wild success of Game Workshop’s Warhammer 40k Black Library where every single book begins with the one-page synopsis explaining the world of 40k, the Emperor Of Mankind, and the key point all of this pivots around. It gives you an easy anchor to orient yourself in the world of the game.
In fact, this very point decided it for us that there HAD to be a sourcebook and not just a rulebook to illustrate the key building blocks of the Salt Mystic world. That stuff was designed to be memorable and different, immediately recognizable as a science fiction backdrop with a western feel. We also leveraged this idea of an external trigger to decide there HAD to be a digital version of Salt Mystic available in Steam’s Tabletop Simulator, to make the game as accessible as possible. External triggers in Steam, social media, or on sites like Drivethru RPG when you’re trolling for something to do with your friends would hopefully catch you with the aesthetics and cool technology, if not the description of the game mechanics.
I’m talking high level now about just getting someone to play the game, though there are applications within the game mechanics where we’ve also considered this point Eyal makes in step 3 – taking the simplest possible action expecting a reward. As an explanation of what this is driving at, consider the fitness app example we talked about before. The simplest action the user might take is to just click on the recommended workout the app suggested, much like you might click on a recommended video in Youtube. Doesn’t take a lot of thought or consideration, and there isn’t much at stake here given that you either ignore the workout suggestion or skip to another video. Still, it’s a simple action the user can take in hopes of getting something in return.
What are they hoping to get in return?
It’s to scratch the itch from step 1 of this model: the internal trigger. But it can’t be annoying with tons of setup and fiddly bits and long complicated rulebooks, twenty different tie-in stories you need to know, and a bookshelf full of expensive codex books needed to really play properly. A simple action, man….trying to scratch the itch.
4: Variable Reward
I’m fascinated right now with a show called Gold Rush: Whitewater that does an amazing job illustrating Eyal’s overall point behind step 4 – the variable reward. Think of the creepy old lady at the casino tied up to a slot machine looking for that adrenalin rush of the blinky lights and tink-tink of the coins dropping. Think of an exciting poker game where sometimes you draw a great hand and run the table, and sometimes it’s just a losing hand. In the Gold Rush show, those poor guys have terrible days where they get absolutely nothing done but jerry-rig some redneck equipment they should have planned and purchased beforehand, and some days they draw gold out of the water like it’s M&M’s. It’s a dopamine rush, hoping to see what comes up.
Social media has entirely nailed this, haven’t they? You troll through a feed on your favorite app, and you might be bored for a few posts, but quickly scroll to something striking that the almighty algorithm has decided you’ll love. They’re lighting off your dopamine every time you see something interesting or sexy or funny or that scares you or that pisses you off. It’s a variable reward because you never know what you’re going to get.
In the game environment, we knew we needed to have the players draw their characters rather than set them up like traditional wargames for this very reason. Drawing a card each hand is exciting. It’s variable. Sometimes you draw well. Often you don’t. And it matters to some extent how well you play, but there’s also a luck component. In that event, you’d better think on your feet! We went nuts with this variable reward element in designing the solo version of the game and the solo dungeon crawler we included in the Sourcebook.
This step 5 in Eyal’s model is the buildup of something the user can own that gets them to be invested, to add some switching costs so they’ll feel kind of bad if they leave. In the fitness app example, maybe you’ve added your workout data or your run times and pulse information. If you stop using that app, it’s gone and you’re starting over. With a game like Gloomhaven, you’re working through a campaign so there’s loot and additional abilities you’re picking up along the way that make it crazy to stop. Gamification researcher and speaker, Yu Kai Chou identifies something called “The Ikea Effect” whereby you value something because you’ve spent time on it. Gabe Zichermann identifies “The Endowment Effect” whereby you value something simply because it’s been given to YOU and no one else.
Quick anecdote on that Zichermann example:
Took my wife and kids to a Medieval Times restaurant and show once (reluctantly) and noticed how genius it was at the jousting tournament for them to randomly group the crowd into two sides and assign us our knights – one guy was blue and one green, or something like that. They called our knight “our guy” constantly. Some random dude whose face I couldn’t even see was assigned to me. And within moments, we were cheering like crazy for him to win. Because he was ours. That’s the Endowment Effect.
Anyway, the idea Eyal is presenting in this final step is pretty key. If the user isn’t invested, they’ll move on to other channels whereby they can scratch their itches. And that’s the reason we study this kind of thing. And to be honest, we’re still stuck on this point with our work. This is an opening for us in Salt Mystic – we know that. Maybe campaign books make sense, where you take your characters through scripted adventures and level up along the way. Maybe a sideboard mechanic makes sense, where a mystery deck is laid out alongside the battlefield with which you can level up. Maybe you have secret packages inside the War Marshal decks you only open up after you achieve certain milestones.
I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of ways to take that one. What do you think?
Anyway, that’s the model and some thoughts on application. Hopefully you find it interesting enough to go pick up Eyal’s book and read it for yourself. Fascinating stuff. If not, then just go watch Gold Rush: Whitewater. That’s entertainment.
Ugh. Bad news. The artist I was trying to snag for the packaging for the upcoming Salt Mystic tabletop game is swamped. If you’re not up to date on what I’m talking about – catch up here. Everybody’s got a day job, and his is art director at a game publisher. I only found out he was taking occasional freelance work in the last few weeks and tried to pounce, with no dice. I’m a little bummed about that because he’s amazing, and his style would be perfect for the tuck boxes the game’s card decks will come in.
We agreed another time maybe. If things work out well, we can possibly bring him in for some premium cards in volume two or something. Stay tuned, I guess?
But now I need packaging designs for two card deck boxes that sizzle and pop, that highlight what the game is about and communicate its unique lore or technology and how it differs from Star Wars or Warhammer 40k or whatever. Needs to be clear about being science fiction, but feel kind of like a cowboy image…striking and adventurous, but at a glance clear what sort of game we’re talking about.
No pressure at all.
And the image needs to fit in this template:
If you download the Basic Rules and take a peek at pages four and five, those two dudes are the point of these decks: War Marshals. Tough guys, to be sure…devious and fast with their ball lightning carbines….but also tactical and strategic geniuses at commanding their factions. The two tuck boxes need to highlight their respective War Marshal very prominently. Then I’ll need space on one side for introductory game wording, some exciting blurb about the lore, and a little copyright and legal stuff.
Saw this packaging for an upcoming game based on The Witcher that really impressed me:
I suppose the thing that struck me most about it was I have had box designs for Magic: The Gathering decks in mind – with shades of blue and green and glowing eyes, hovering magical glyphs and whatnot. But none of that makes sense here, not from the aesthetics or elements of the Salt Mystic worldbuilding, not from the standpoint of looking different on the shelf, and also just to distance from other card games.
But these Witcher: Old World graphics pop big time for me. I like the coloring, the dramatic lighting and smoke, the sense of danger and action. It’s eye-catching and intriguing. So I took a stab at something like I thought my ideal artist might have come up with (the guy who’s too busy), and with this box in mind. That’s the image at the top of this article. Now I’m just kind of staring at it, letting it soak in to see whether I like it. I’d need to fade the edges and fade to black more at the bottom of the box, as well as include a dramatically dark field for the back of the box for the wording and logos.
So I would I rather be writing? Because that’s what started all this?
Yes, I would rather be writing. But none of this world will exist without the visuals and an exciting way to engage with the stories happening in it. Gotta do it, man. Gotta do it.
Looking for thoughts on packaging here – what do you think?
I know I’ve told this story before, but just hear me out for a second, okay? I’m excited and you need to just be cool about this.
How did all this start?
A few years ago, my birthday was coming up. I told my kids and my wife they had to suck it up and play Dungeons & Dragons with me. And though I had no idea really how to play exactly, and didn’t have any materials to play it with, I was gonna figure that out as I went. Sounded fun to me.
Not so much for them.
I picked up a starter set and forced my wife, Lisa into the local gaming store to get some miniatures or whatever to try and keep everyone’s attention. I had some grand notions of the last Kraken egg and a countryside inn with mechanical walls closing in on us, some puzzles and whatnot. Was going to be amazing (which it, in fact, was though that’s a different story).
But I saw some guys playing something in back of the store – luscious green grassy hills modeled on a tabletop with steampunky robots charging across a hill in full-on battles. Some dudes were intently staring at the setup and commenting on spells and strategy. Dude at the register described their wargame as “like playing really complicated chess with robots” or something like that.
And as is typical of me, I dove deep into how to make my own terrain with foam and flocking, how to model lakes with resin, found Luke from Geek Gaming on Youtube (who’s hilarious), and generally found out about a ginormous world of wargaming with Games Workshop, Privateer Press, and Wyrd among countless others. And around that same time, I had this weird yet amazing dream of a months-long ongoing wargame set up on an antique gaming table downstairs in a mansion’s lower level, where I stepped down into a luxurious Victorian era game parlor. Basically, I was inspired. And that usually triggers me to do something creative with the new building blocks I’m piling up.
Didn’t Thomas Edison say all you need in order to invent is an imagination and a pile of junk?
Oh, Brian. What did you do?
Well, to begin with, I spent too much money buying cool stuff. Expensive hobby, that one. And I spent an inordinate amount of time scraping mold bits and learning you have to wash the miniatures before trying to glue them together…and I found that I not only suck at painting things, I don’t enjoy painting things. Also, the rules are too long and complex and hard to remember. And honestly, apart from just thinking somebody’s robots or whatever looked cool, it’s a bit fluffy to pick a side in all these battles.
It also struck me that the long, winding stories of many of these wargames on the market are hard to relate to. They seem cool in concept, but as you dig in and try to understand whether it would be fun or exciting to live in that world, at least for me the answer was often – no freaking way. Sounded miserable. I’m more into escapism than that.
And it struck me that trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Keyforge, Doomtown and others make rules so easy to remember because they’re largely printed right there on the cards…unique and every-changing as you draw them in the game. I don’t care for the ongoing storylines of any of those properties either, mind you, as they’re just as dense and noisy in many cases as the wargames. But there was something about the idea of cards here…
So I built a game of my own.
I had to learn digital art including modeling, kitbashing, texturing, and lighting and composition. I had to learn Photoshop, Indesign, Substance Painter, and Blender. I had to learn about graphic design principles. I had to figure out Tabletop Simulator on Steam and how to draw interest from people in play-testing a made-up game either virtually or for those few blessed souls willing to print and play from your website. I had to beg my wife and son to play games on the living room table, and to be patient when some weird rules conflict happened that made nonsense occur. I had to interview people who’ve done this sort of thing, including artists and game designers and writers. I had to study countless exotic rulebooks and Youtube tutorials on existing games to see what works and what doesn’t, and spend time in gaming stores talking to people about what would be cool and seeing what looks great on the shelves and on the tabletops…especially to see what draws people into this sort of entertainment.
And it’s just about done, guys. We have a barcode now. Awesome.
A barcode on the completed cover always makes me feel like it’s getting real. Something huge is happening. The ISBN is official, ready on the Salt Mystic: Sourcebook And Core Rules. Fully formatted versions for both print and ebook are uploaded and under review for final processing. The website is laid out for the game, clear and with visuals that pop…even a viewer to scroll through the available cards. A free ebook for the core rules is prepared with an eye-popping cover. The aesthetics are turning out to be coherent and theme-appropriate, engaging. Some great feedback on that so far. And the cards are almost ready in final form.
I’m reaching out to one particular artist whose work blows me away to see if he’ll design the tuck boxes for the two decks we’re launching with Volume One. Cross your fingers – he’s great! That will pop like nothing I could hope to do. We’ll see how that goes.
So please just keep an eye out here and send positive thoughts our way. We could use the attention and interest. Any questions you have, or suggestions, let me know.
You can’t possibly hate ants as much as I do. One time I remember my mother-in-law ordered enough mulch to cover her entire property on the hottest day of the summer, and she got me to agree to spread it for her (solo). Then she took off with my wife and kids to go shopping. I had plucked a clump of weeds and was still holding it as I said goodbye while they were driving away, and my arm lit up in pain like it was in flames. Looking down in a panic, my entire arm was swarming with black, pissed off ants. Not gonna lie, it hurt a little bit.
Anyway, there’s an excellent creepy and innovative movie from the 70’s you need to see, should this have escaped your attention till now. It’s called Phase IV. If you like weird ambience in your science fiction, a creepy foreboding, and a threat that’s a little different from your typical madman, alien, or undead beastie, this one’s for you. Here, we have a temporary research facility set up in the Arizona scrublands to investigate some intelligent ants. The guy in charge is a bit unstable, and that escalates quickly. The other guy is our everyman, who wants to apply game theory to try and communicate with the buggies. A girl joins the cast when her farm is toasted in the escalation.
So maybe I do hate ants, but this movie utterly fascinates me.
The bugs build towers, observing the observers. That’s how things really get started here. And that is just a bizarrely entrancing idea. You’ll get your fill of some memorable scenes: a nightmarish swollen arm, reflective towers slowly heating the research dome, and some spooky visual communication from the ants (a circle with a dot inside…what could THAT mean?). In fact, that visual communication was the only thing from the entire movie that I recalled from when I was a kid and it came on the television one Sunday afternoon. It’s that creepy.
You’re unlikely to guess the ending. I didn’t. It makes some sense after you think about it. I won’t spoil that, but you should absolutely give this movie a try should your personal aesthetic be able to cope with a slower pace and less gruesome violence.
What made me think of this flick is I recently finished reading Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert for the second time. You know Frank Herbert from the excellent Dune series. He wrote more than that though. People really should dig a little deeper into that dude. He was incredible. So let’s talk about Hellstrom’s Hive.
Herbert unleashed this odd little masterpiece in 1973 in Galaxy magazine under the title, “Project 40”. Here’s how it begins:
Words of the brood mother, Trova Hellstrom. I welcome the day when I will go into the vats and become one with all our people. (Dated October 26, 1896)
One thing I love about the Dune novels is the chapter-opening quotes from Paul or whoever that side-swipe you with these fascinating insights or inspiring ideas but are really just infusing flavor and context. I really look forward to those. Hellstrom’s Hive offers quite a bit of this, much of it from something called ‘The Hive Manual’ and also from the originator of this new organizing principle for social order, Trova…grandmother to Nils Hellstrom who currently runs the show.
Here’s part of the wikipedia description so you get the gist of what’s happening here:
Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist, is a successful film maker and influential scientific advisor with strong political ties. Living and working with a small staff on a farm in rural Oregon, he attracts the attention of an unnamed government organisation when documents are discovered that hint of cult-like activities and a secret weapon project.
It is revealed that the farm is situated above a vast system of tunnels and caves, hosting a hive-like subterranean society of nearly 50,000 specialized workers. Hellstrom, thanks to advanced bioengineering, has been the appointed hive leader for more than 100 years. He is completely convinced of the superiority of the hive and its abandonment of conventional morals and ethics: sexuality or violence, indeed, any individual action, is rated strictly whether it strengthens or weakens the hive as a whole.
You’re catching this, right? Fifty thousand people are living like ants underground, many of them mute and neutered, being bred for specialist skills like engineering or subterfuge or building. They operate in many ways on countless pheremones and are incredibly sensitive to mood and emotions. If the hive has a disruptive element in it, the disruption swells. And they can’t afford too much disruption, because the hive feels pressure already to swarm. I mean…is it not just fun and naughty and weird to even just discuss all this? Everybody’s naked and smelling each other. They keep stumps of people just for reproduction. They recycle bodies to lump in with the food supply. It’s really well thought-out and internally consistent.
Herbert was inspired by a super strange quasi-documentary about insects and survival called The Hellstrom Chronicle. I watched that one once, on Youtube or something. It amazes me what people will produce, and what I will sometimes watch. You probably shouldn’t spend your time on that one. Maybe just skip to the book Herbert wrote after watching it. He told Tim O’Reilly in an interview that his notion with this novel, in thinking about the worst type of civilization imaginable, that it would be a peculiar type of tension to twist things around and make outside civilization the villain. So here, we have the secret group named only The Agency and their shenanigans trying to spy on and ultimately invade Hellstrom’s hive.
So anyway, that’s what I wanted to toss your way today…a buggy grouping of interesting worthies to enlighten and amuse you. If you wind up partaking in either (or if you fondly recall one of them), let me know. I feel like my taste in entertainment sometimes drifts a bit into the esoteric. Just me?
But sometimes I need to vent. And I need to warn you away from some potentially very irritating literary experiences. Since this is all subjective, you probably love at least one of these books and think I’m a Neanderthal for feeling otherwise. That’s cool, man. That’s cool. But these suck. Really.
Let me tell you how the highlighted suck gallery went for me, in reverse order of my irritation level.
5. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.
I periodically dip into heavier literature (and outside of science fiction or fantasy, my usual haunts) to sharpen my writing, to expose myself to the towering figures of literature and scientifically dissect what makes those books tick. It’s a great exercise, as it has been with Moby Dick, with Hemingway (all of it, man…I’ve read all of it), Dickens and Faulkner. I picked Dostoevsky as an experiment because of how highly Harlan Ellison spoke of him. This one, I went with because it seemed to offer me some nuanced character studies, piledriving into a supposedly blowout climactic event (patricide by four brothers) that resulted from those character traits, and the fallout of that event. Now, it strikes me that this setup, should that be the case as I’ve outlined in the preceding description, then I could learn quite a bit about crafting plots driven by character flaws or quirks, and possibly about how to foreshadow and set ominous thundercloud mood to lead to the blowout.
That was the thought, at least. But what a cheese fart this one was! Sorry if you’re a professor who’s dedicated your life to it or whatever. But this book is super tedious, flat and uninspiring.
I admired the early chapters, with alternating introductions of the individuals and clear characterization. But it went on and on. It just went on and on and on, with nothing seeming to have any consequence. The big event wasn’t clearly foreshadowed (at least for me). There was no ominous mood as I’d expected. Not even the supposed angelic and innocent brother meant a thing in the world to me. I hated all of them. It was a chore to keep going, till I eventually wondered if they’d ever get around to knocking the old man off. So I bailed.
4. Lord Tyger by Philip Jose Farmer
If I told you there’s a book, written by the guy who dreamed up the masterwork Riverworld series, that conducts a thought experiment speculating what would actually happen should someone be raised by gorillas like Tarzan in the jungle….would you think that sounds awesome?
The idea is a British millionaire hires a couple of dwarves to raise a British aristocratic boy in the jungle like Tarzan, simulating some of the key events of Burroughs’ Tarzan books because of his love for them. And things go differently than he’d planned.
It struck me as a fascinating idea for a book, and I had some wild ideas of what might play out like the books and what would obviously go south. More curiosity than anything, I tried it. To be honest, I didn’t bail and actually finished the book. It was painful, but I made it through. What kept me going was the same curiosity of what would be done with the idea, and definitely NOT any skilled storytelling or characterization.
The lead character is overly obsessed with his penis, and it gets really monotonous and cartoon-like how many times we have to see that play out. I get it, monkeys touch themselves and maybe sleep around. I get it. But can’t we move on to something else?! It drives the plot sometimes. It’s entirely ridiculous sometimes. And it keeps coming up (no pun intended). Nobody is interesting, nothing makes sense, and I yawned through the climax. Avoid this one.
3. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Not sure why, but I have a deep fascination with the psychology that led up to World War One, that kept it escalating and stagnating, and that resulted from its fallout in the couple of decades afterwards. It’s incredibly rich, picking all that apart – at large scales, understanding trends and behaviors of large groups, and also at small scales reading the biographies and journals of key figures that fought in the war. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann struck me as a great option because it’s so highly praised, and supposedly was going to offer me a hotbed of the different moods and psychologies of people of that time, but in the setting of a health salon high in the mountains.
Reading this book feels very much like talking to a sickly aunt who won’t stop going on about the parts of her that hurt. And her cough, do I think that’s serious. And her swollen toe, should she get that looked at. And she’s so tired…
The lead figure isn’t sickly, but visits his cousin who is recuperating at a sanitarium in the Alps. And he meets people and stays, and he has breakfast and he has lunch. And he has dinner. And he tells you in detail what he ate. And no one is interesting, at least in the first fourth of the book I managed to read. You can see how little patience I have for stories that lead nowhere, for characterizations without some sizzle, and for aimlessness. This book seemed to go absolutely nowhere, and at the very point I threw it physically to the floor was at least the fifth time he was explaining what they were serving for the next meal. Avoid this one.
2. Settling The World by M. John Harrison
Nobody loves Harrison’s Viriconium series like I do! His mother wouldn’t love it like I do. It’s genius. Read that one. Please, God, read that one instead of Settling The World. In Viriconium, you get a true masterwork of mood-setting, of fascinating ideas to inspire, of interesting people, of a world you’d care to visit, and of the most maddeningly genius wording and phrasing you’ll encounter. Anybody who writes should treat Viriconium like nitroglycerine. A true brilliant white-hot piece of literature.
Much of everything else he’s written comes off as comparatively weak and confusing to me. Light is an exception, but its sequels are muddled streams of consciousness. Settling The World is a set of speculative fiction short stories. I don’t even know how to summarize it, because I can’t tell at all what’s happening in some of these tales. It’s seriously bad. Pages in, I had to ask myself if there was anything at all that was clear to me. I read a summary of a story I’d finished on the internet to see what it was about. Isn’t that funny? There are people in this world that can read jumbles of words like some of the tales in this collection and tell you what happened, even though you read the same story and saw none of that. And I saw none of the brilliant word-slinging which draws me so much to Viriconium and Light. With those books, there are moments when I’ve had to set the book down and just marvel and ponder at what I’d just read…descriptions and phrasing that pop with a life of their own and send your mind reeling.
I honestly have enough grief in my life than to read stories that I have to research afterwards to understand what happened and come off as bland as these. I set it as number two because I know what Harrison can accomplish and he fell short here.
1. War In Heaven by Charles Williams
This one made the top of the list because it presented itself as a story about the Holy Grail. I’m literally ALWAYS in for a story about the grail. I mean, this is “grailrunner”. That’s kind of…for a reason, you know? Here, we have the description from Amazon:
“Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, War in Heaven is an eerily disturbing book, one that graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”
Williams was one of the Inklings, that little Oxford literary club that gave us J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Chronicles Of Narnia). If this guy hung around with those two, who could produce towering mythic works such as those, then he would potentially speak and think along the same mythic lines. I’ve written here about the power of mythic storytelling. That can change your life! And here, I’m told he’s going to potentially apply such mythic storytelling techniques to the eternal grail myth, in a contemporary setting. What on earth is NOT to like about that?!
Unfortunately, this reads like a boring, slice-of-life trip to the general store to buy a pound of flour. Even a dead body found in the opening pages is portrayed with the weight and significance of a paperweight. I got possibly a fourth of the way in before bailing. Where was my updating of mythic figures like Arthur or Merlin? Where was my ominous doomsaying warning of consequences? Where was that curious, inspirational sense of questing and seeking perfection in body and spirit that I get from classic Eschenbach or De Troyes? Where was the mystery from those original grail tales, that leave you breathlessly marveling over what the bleeding lance means, and who the maidens are in the processional carrying the mystical platter?
Nope. Just nope. Maybe it got better. I’ll never know. Pass on this one.
And that’s the roundup for this little venting session. I hope it wasn’t overly negative. I finished Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, all four parts, for those who’d asked what I thought. Definitely worth the experience, though not one of my favorites. There’s a distinct sense of importance as you read those books, like the early seasons of Game Of Thrones, wherein every word people speak seems to have weight and grant some vague insights. Events here make far more sense after the fact, in reflection, and often what you thought happened actually played out differently than you’d thought. Yeah, there’s a place to spend your money.
Anyway, let me know what you think. And if I poo-poo’ed on one of your faves, maybe drop me a note on what you liked about these books I consider stinkers. Maybe I could feel differently and try again if you make sense.
If you’re a science fiction & fantasy person, you’ve maybe heard of Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun. It’s a four-part series, tracking the story of a dude from a guild of torturers in a future world, but one degraded into a fantasy-style medieval setting. Armor and swords and whatnot. The reason I bring it up is kind of interesting.
Give me a second here. There’s a larger point about why we stop reading books after a page or two, and why we keep going.
Anyway, people in the know brag about this series like it’s Tolkien or the Bible or Dickens. They go on and on, writers whom I respect very much and who should know dregs from riches. If they say it’s worth the read, even though it’s dense and uses esoteric words that look made-up but are actually in the dictionary (when you bother to look and don’t just skim past hoping they’ll make sense in context), you figure you should give it a shot. Well I did. Four times.
Four separate times, I tried to start reading the first book, Shadow Of The Torturer. “It’s mind-blowing”, they said. “A masterpiece”. I had not found it to be so. In fact, I tried some other Gene Wolfe books (in the library so I wasn’t blowing money on things I expected to hate) trying to see the big deal. I couldn’t do those either. So I figured this dude just isn’t the beans for my java and moved on.
Let me put just a little flesh on the bone before we move on here: The opening scene seemed to me to have some typical fantasy-trope band of misfits at a gate of some kind, whispering about how to get inside. Or something. The word choices were exotic, the descriptions dense, and I hate plain-vanilla bands of misfits doing fantasy thieving stuff. It’s. Been. Done. I honestly never got anywhere with that first book because it seemed like tired content, done in an unnecessarily obtuse style.
I listen to a lot of disparate things when I go running at the lake. Seriously, it’s all over the place. Here’s a good one, if you’re into Harlan Ellison, a collection of all his Sci Fi Buzz appearances called ‘Harlan Ellison’s Watching‘. It’s great to hear him rant or get excited about something, then have the ability to fast forward with a Google search to see what became of it.
But I came across these two intelligent, informed gentlemen, discussing at length one of my favorites…a set of pieces collectively called Viriconium by M. John Harrison.
I’d never heard of ‘Books Of Some Substance’, nor have I listened to anything from a doom metal band from Arkansas (and likely never will), but Viriconium‘s one of the great ones. That’s a life changer, at least for me. It gets in my head. I can’t read it without it changing how I think, how I choose my words. Harrison’s a genius at mood-setting, at impressionistic fiction, at sending your mind off to flights of fancy. Maybe not of telling a story – he’s not great at that. But otherwise, a true work of art there. These two gents had a fascinating chat about Viriconium, so I heard them out on that count. And towards the end, when these two had completely won me over with a rich, insightful conversation that encourages you to think maybe they’re not all Snapchat-addicted neanderthals out there, the doom metal guy mentioned Book Of The New Sun.
Well crap. He said if you really like Viriconium, you’ll like that one too. He said it’s set in the far future where the old technology is literally a toe-scratch below the dust and shards of decaying cities. He said it was amazing.
So I took a fifth go at Gene Wolfe’s supposed masterpiece. I kept an open mind, telling myself this isn’t a piece of Dungeons & Dragons fan fiction or a bajillionth clone of Tolkien, that the exotic words can be skipped or considered in context without constant jaunts to the dictionary, that this very intelligent, insightful doom metal person who held a series I cherish in such high regard was telling me to give it a chance because it holds some of the magic that Harrison’s work does. He earned my trust, so I dug in with as open a mind as possible.
And honestly, it’s pretty good. They weren’t D&D-style thieves at all, but apprentice torturers. That scene was short and not at all what I thought it had been. They were young trainees basically, and this was going to have elements of coming-of-age tales. It’s super easy for me to connect with coming-of-age tales, especially when they hint up front at the great heights to which this person will reach (as this book does). I like to examine their choices, to question whether I’d make them as well, to see where external factors advanced their cause and when they seized their own fortunes alone. I saw this after a few chapters, beyond where I’d stopped those previous times.
The word choices remain exotic and annoying, but they add flavor and atmosphere, which was his point I imagine. I understand there will be an element of the unreliable narrator as I proceed, so I’m on the lookout for nonsense he pitches at me. We’ll see how that goes.
My point today is just to hand you a few links you might find interesting, and to suggest that our preconceived notions of what a book is about can throw us off the rails, that our impatience and lack of attention span can cheat us of some great tales, and that when you find reviewers or podcasters or other folks whose opinions you trust, maybe listen to them with an open mind.
If you’re into Gene Wolfe’s works, shoot me a note and let me know what you think. I’m anxious that this series will fail me at some point, but so far so good.
Many of you have asked what’s going on with the deckbuilding wargame we’ve been working on at Grailrunner. Thanks for the interest, guys – it’s hard to make a splash. We’re glad to hear somebody out there is pumped to see the final product. If this is news to you, take a quick detour here to see what that’s about.
After completing rounds of playtesting in print & play format, then on Tabletop Simulator in Steam, we went live with the volume 1 deck at MPC last year. The product at that link is a gorgeous, premium stock starter box complete with two full faction decks. It was an experiment in the economics and setup of products like this for us, and we also wanted feedback on the art and presentation. Now we’re in round 2 of revising the product based on that feedback. The original version will remain available for now.
Which brings us to the point of today’s ramblings. Omer Tunc is his name. And if that’s new to you, then follow this link immediately! He’s an incredibly talented and kind freelance illustrator and artist living in Izmir, Turkey. Should you need any fantasy or science fiction artwork commissioned, here’s one of the great ones! I’ll tell you how it went with me.
The world and lore behind Salt Mystic is intentionally unique, with distinctive technology designed to stand out from blaster pistols, massive Warhammer 40k armor, screaming robed Jedi, and generic spaceships as you might find overflowing the racks at Barnes & Noble. It’s the opposite of trying to look like we belong there alongside them – we believe in what we’re doing as something NEW coming into the world. We’ve jokingly called the aesthetic “computronium and leather: science fiction with a western feel”. Anyway, that means we need art, and striking impressive art at that! You can’t work with stock images when the things you’re dreaming up don’t look remotely like what you find on Shutterstock or Adobe Stock.
We realized we needed a premium rulebook and source book for the expansive lore and background material, swimming with beautiful art to immerse players in this world. The little accordion-style brochure in the starter box tells you how to play, but it doesn’t make you feel the heat of the arsenal ships burning. You can’t hear the sizzling of a gunslinger firing up his ball lightning carbine behind you. We wanted that. And that’s been the time spent in quarantine, which is a story for another day. Seriously, this is going to be a gosh-a-mighty steam shovel to the imagination (I stole that phrase from Stephen King!).
So I trolled around endlessly on Instagram and Artstation, looking for works that had the majestic backgrounds, striking poses and interesting coloring…contacted several of them to gauge interest and pricing…and generally made a nuisance of myself as I learned the economics and logistics of commissioning art like this. And believe me – there’s not a big budget here to work with. Like almost none. But let’s work a miracle, yeah?!
I narrowed the field to Omer and a couple of others, and believe me – the final decision was easy! Most folks I contacted (via their contact links) are less than $1k, generally around $550 to $750 (USD). That’s for full rights to a single work. You can trim the price down if you’re just looking for single-use print rights. Also can negotiate a bit, which you absolutely should. But my point with Omer isn’t pricing. It’s talent and professionalism.
Here was the briefing I provided (along with some reference images):
Game is a science fiction theme, with a western feel. Single character on cover image should be wearing a cowboy-style, frayed leather coat and facing away. No cowboy hats though. The mood I’m trying to convey here is a rugged adventurer exploring something, but ready to fight.
Character must be wearing a weapon unique to the source material (I can provide source images for reference from multiple angles). It’s an illuminated metal gun worn on the forearm like a shield would be.
Somewhere on image must be a blue-green glowing gateway and stairsteps (like a subway entrance stepping down into the ground, only sparkling and glowing). Again, I can provide source images for reference.
Book is 8 inches tall by 10 inches wide. Will be approximately 100 pages (not final yet). I’m looking for a striking image for the front cover, but the general color and feel should stretch to the back. There can’t be detail on the back because of the back cover text. I’m thinking some hazy majestic mountain scene with big statues, but again I’m super flexible on the background.
We went back and forth just a little, but I got a black and white sketch in my email the very next day. It was better than anything I could have done on my best day. It was amazing, apart from the giant statue referenced in item 4 above, which I suggested in my response looked a bit too much like something from Lord Of The Rings.
I commented as such, and (like a big dummy) suggested “more of a conqueror from long ago”, thinking in the subject material’s imagined timeline and not actual historical conquerors. That’s my bad – I confused the issue with that bone-headed comment, and got back a giant Roman soldier in the distance.
But again, it was the very next day that I got the second version. Cheese and crackers! This guy is fast.
Generally, the emailing was quick. A couple more reference images, and we got on the same page about the statues in the distance – very much what I had in mind!
All along, Omer was patient and responsive with minor edit requests. Gave me exactly what I asked for, rapidly. Even when I was vague (“some kind of machinery on the gateway masonry, so it doesn’t look too fantasy”). Once we agreed on the design (which one of the above would YOU go with?), I got the full color version in my email.
And it was gorgeous. We’ll save the final for another day. But you’ll love it.
Most artists I contacted use Paypal for payment, but apparently it isn’t available in Izmir, Turkey. Wire transfer was easy enough though. Totally painless process, I mean.