Want To Meet A Futurist? Let’s Talk To Karl Schroeder!

Karl Schroeder’s latest novel, Stealing Worlds

Welcome back to our ongoing Inspirational Creator series. We kicked the series off with Jeff Grubb, longtime fantasy writer for D&D among others, which you can read here. We continued with Stephen Gibson, artist and game designer, and creator of the weird western tabletop game, Grimslingers which you can read here.

This week, we’re chatting about the future (and Mennonites) with Canadian science fiction writer and futurist, Karl Schroeder. You’re going to like how his mind works, this is a fellow who can dream big.

1.    My dad described once how he used to jump a fence in his Brooklyn neighborhood and stare at the sky from the roof of his school, dreaming of places he’d go. That sends my mind reeling. Paint us a picture of you as a boy – what got you thinking about the future?

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s—200 miles north of Minot, North Dakota. In one of my book bios, I wrote “Karl used to walk outside and stare up at the sky, wondering what he might be able to see if those pesky Northern Lights weren’t in the way.” But seriously, my dad, who’d wired his Mennonite village for electricity when he was a teenager back in the 1940s , had made a career in electronics, and Brandon is a university town. Dad and I watched the moon landings together, and Mom, who was a science fiction reader as well as a published author herself, introduced me to the YA adventures of Andre Norton. Norton’s books are perfect YA gold, and they got me hooked on SF.

I started work on my first novel when I was sixteen, and finished it when I was seventeen. I didn’t publish that—or the next eight I wrote—but I kept on going. It only took me twenty years to become an overnight success.

2.    So moving to Toronto around the birth of the internet seems to have helped you hit your stride. What impacted you the most about that writer’s circle you helped form and lead, The Cecil Street Irregulars?

Our approach at Cecil Street was pretty no-nonsense—an attitude we inherited from Judy Merril, who inspired the creation of the group. The Irregulars have always been highly regular, meeting once per week for several decades. You were expected to produce. You were expected to read submitted manuscripts, and give a thorough and useful critique. So with a membership that fluctuated between six and ten, we managed to have at least one story to workshop every week. Often we had three or four. The work was constant, and that’s what made it effective.

We were also peers. Judy helped start the workshop, but she didn’t stick around to be a guru. She said you can’t become a good writer by studying under an established one—you just become a mediocre copy of that person. Artists need to develop their own unique identity, and you can only do that by studying with people, rather than under them.

3.    Hemingway used to say of writing, “Just write one true sentence.” Harlan Ellison said, “Write about people; that’s all there is to write about.” Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” What’s the Schroeder one-liner on how to write impactfully?

I’d say, “Be prepared to reinvent your process every time.” Every story is different, and I’ve found it much more useful to approach each project with a quiver full of techniques, tricks, and methods, rather than the preconception that I know what I’m doing. Beware of ever saying, “I know how to do this!” You know how to write your last successful story; you don’t know how to write the next one. The process of exploration might take you to first-person narrative, present-tense, a 7-point plot outline, free verse, cut-ups, collaboration, pantsing or a detailed outline. I try things, back up, throw out entire drafts; I wrote something like seven versions of the first 100 pages of Lady of Mazes before I was happy with it and kept going. I don’t have a philosophy or follow any particular theory—I have a toolkit of philosophies and theories and try things until one works. Because no single theory or approach is ever going to exhaust all the possibilities of storytelling.

4.    You have to strike an interesting balance between thinking meaningfully about realistic futures and making entertainment that will sell. Tough line to walk. What’s your creative process?

My original touchstone for writing science fiction (which is primarily what I do) was that the wonderful and possible is always cooler than the merely wonderful. So, I’ve always tried to achieve the same effects as fantasy but using hardnosed science. You can see that most clearly in my novel Ventus, which reads like a high fantasy adventure for the first couple of hundred pages, then slowly mutates into hard science fiction as you learn that the “magic” had a physical basis all along. Reality’s a better source to mine for the fantastical than the imaginary, believe it or not. So, in the Virga series, I was able to create a fantasy-like world of steampunk nautical pirate adventures, complete with broadsides, sword fights, betrayal and treasure hunts—but because the stories are set in a world without gravity, they’re completely fresh. There’s nothing like Virga out there, and it’s because I used the (potentially) real to reinvent something normally considered fantasy.

And then I got a design degree in 2011. It’s in Strategic Foresight, so I’m a card-carrying futurist, but design thinking was an important part of the program. I’ve applied design principles to my writing ever since. This has opened up new possibilities because now I know how to play with constraint as a creative tool. For example, for my novel Lockstep I set myself a design constraint: have a Star Trek or Star Wars-like space opera milieu where the characters can fly to another star system, have adventures for a month, and fly back to find that only a month has passed back home, without using faster than light travel, wormholes, or any other hand-waving magical technology. Of course such a requirement looks impossible, but that’s where design comes in. I managed to solve the impossible problem not by trying to address it head-on—if you do that with an impossible problem such as how to go faster than light, you end up with an impossible solution, like an FTL drive that violates physical laws—I did it by reframing the problem into one with a possible solution. In this case, if you look at the constraint, it’s really not about how to go faster than light, but rather how to have a society like the ones in faster-than-light space operas. And that’s a completely different kind of problem. The solution to it is the lockstep, a system of synchronized hibernation beds that keeps everybody on the same schedule. The whole civilization sleeps for 30 years, wakes for a month, then sleeps for 30 years. Weird, but it turns out that the experience of someone living in the lockstep is the same as if they lived in a Star Wars universe with FTL. So, problem solved—by design rather than science-y handwaving.

As to “creative process,” as I said in the last response, I have no process. I have a suite of processes, because each project will have its own best approach.

5.    What are some ideas or concepts or people that are particularly inspiring to you right now, and why is that?

Answering this one’s fraught with danger, because I’m likely to sound ridiculous. I get most of my ideas from philosophy, mostly ontology, which I project back into technology, setting etc. So if I said I’m really really excited by the idea of acausal constraint, would that make sense? Basically, I don’t start with technology—I don’t play the “what if you had a raygun that dissolved people’s underwear?” kind of speculation; and I don’t start with science as such, usually. I rarely do the kind of “what if a buried tectonic plate suddenly scraped its way to the surface and formed a new continent in the Pacific Ocean?” science thing. I’m interested in the implications of scientific discoveries, so right now for instance I’m puzzling through the meaning of the Bell Inequality, which demands that at least one of the following be true: superluminal communication (and maybe that’s what entanglement is), superdeterminism (which would mean that nothing could possibly be other than it is), or the third option: that realism is false. This last seems likely—so we apparently live in a world where there are real things, but no Reality that’s the sum of all those things. And I’m trying to figure out how to write about that. I think I can do it, but again, not by approaching the idea directly. (And of course the real challenge is to make it exciting, and a story about real people and real consequences. Another design constraint.)

6.    There’s been a bit of turmoil in 2020 as relating to politics, violence, the pandemic, and economic disruptions. Are we going to make it? Why or why not?

Depends on the “we” you’re talking about. I’m Canadian, and Canada is doing pretty well at the moment. Globally, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the past twenty years, so the experience of most of the human species has been quite positive for the last generation or so.

That said, the planet is facing unprecedented crises. The one that matters most is climate change, but even it is a solvable problem if you think in design terms. The problem is not in fact how to “solve” climate change; we know how, we know all the solutions. The issue is how to get them implemented. And that’s a governance issue. So governance, particularly on the global level, is what we need to focus on. So there, the design problem becomes, “how do we turn governance into a solvable problem?” Answering this question provides a great opportunity for new science fiction—and real-world activism.

In other words, if you frame climate change as a problem, you will look for particular kinds of “solutions”—which don’t exist or can’t be implemented because of how you’ve framed the issue. But, for instance, climate change has given us the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century: renewable energy and the smart grid. If you want to become a billionaire and save the world right now, you can do it by going all-in on solar, wind, and storage. That’s not a problem, that’s an opening for new wealth creation; and that wealth creation enables a kind of governance because it creates new power blocs and new interests.

My latest novel, Stealing Worlds, is all about this process of reframing, and the power of it. We’re in a dire situation, but it is also humanity’s moment of greatest opportunity.

7.    What are you working on these days and what’s the best way for people to connect with you?

You can find Stealing Worlds, Lockstep, The Million and other recent books on Amazon or in your local bookstore; if you want to read a free excerpt from Stealing Worlds, visit https://www.torforgeblog.com/2019/04/20/excerpt-stealing-worlds-by-karl-schroeder/.  

I’m doing some foresight work that I can’t talk about, but it’s fun, and I’ve got several short stories coming out this fall. Meanwhile I’m reimagining what a Solar System-level civilization would look like; planning new adventures in my Lockstep/Million universe; outlining an entirely new kind of time travel story as well as a new take on secret societies; and I’m daydreaming about solar airships under the midnight sun. I’m having fun, and coming up with new ideas far faster than I can write them down.

Karl, you’ve been amazing and fascinating! It means a lot to us to hear about your early days, your process, and what it’s like to make a living dreaming. Very cool.

Best of luck with the upcoming work! We’d be honored to bring you back again sometime. You’re the very picture of our tagline here at Grailrunner.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Let’s Talk To Stephen Gibson: Creator Of Grimslingers

We’re excited to continue our Inspirational Creator series with an incredibly talented artist, writer, and game designer (among a ridiculous number of others things) who doesn’t seem to ever need to sleep. Stephen Gibson.

If you’re at all into deep immersion board games with visually striking art, especially for solo adventures, Gibson’s your man. He’s published his own lines, notably a series titled Grimslingers (sometimes with help from Greenbrier Games) and is helping spearhead the great work done at Arcane Wonders. Stephen chose a few pieces of art to share here with this interview, which we’ll include along the way.

Stephen, the internet has decided you’re one of the most responsive, welcoming game designers out there. And one of the most talented artists! Thanks for making time for us. Striking a balance between immersion in a created world but also making an entertaining game is a tough line to walk. You keep nailing it. Welcome!

1. Grimslingers is a western fantasy themed card game that hits you like a ton of bricks with its striking and distinctive art. Tell us your background – how did you wind up being an artist? Were you a doodler in school?

I was a doodler! Math class was actually just doodle class for me, haha. 
I’ve always enjoyed drawing but I never thought it was something I would ever do professionally. I was just never that good! I went to college for 3D Animation, Art and Design, ended up focusing on low-poly modelling and texturing for mobile games but somehow got hired as a concept artist out of college. That job went south real fast, so I started trying to make my own mobile game which eventually, and weirdly enough, turned into Grimslingers. I just kept teaching myself whatever I needed to know to produce the game and that sparked a whole new career – years later I’m now the Art Director for Arcane Wonders!

2. What is your typical workflow? What software do you use?

My workflow depends on what I’m actually doing, since I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades in my job. I produce videos, animations, 3D renders, illustrations, graphic design, ads, etc. I’m all over the place! But those talents give me a unique position in the industry to do some special things. 

In regards to doing illustrations like you see in Grimslingers, for that, I do “photobashing” as my technique. Which is generally collecting various photos to merge together and paint over so it all works together. I come up with the concept in my head, find the right photos, cut them together, fix the colors, then paint over it and then just continue to refine and add details until it feels right. The last bit I do on the image is usually adding atmosphere, additional ambient light and rim lighting to really push the image to be as bold as I can. 

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3. The weird western genre is due for its own Star Wars-sized blockbuster. Cast a movie for Grimslingers – who needs to star in that?

Wow, what a great idea and I hope that happens someday! I feel like anyone I would recommend would be way too old by the time I manage to pull off getting a Grimslingers movie made.  Anyone who’s already been in some of the best cowboy flicks and shows out there I think would be a great fit for Grimslingers, and then just throw in Christopher Walken for good measure.

4. A good thought there with Walken. I’m hearing cowbells for some reason (an old Saturday Night Live joke, maybe just let that one pass). Without naming them specifically, who was one person that most impacted your life in a positive way and why?

Hmm, well, that’s a tough one. No single person stands out the most, I think there’s a rich cornucopia of influences in my life that helped me get to where I am and be who I am today. I bet that’s true for a lot of us.

5. So you’re into graphic design, illustration, storytelling, game design, videos, t-shirts? Do you just not sleep? No seriously, which channel of expression gives you the most satisfaction? Why’s that?

Game Design and Writing are the most satisfying to me, everything else is just a means to an end. You see a lot of artists who simply do art because they love to do art. I’m not really like that. Art can, at times, be incredibly frustrating. But I need to do that illustration, or that graphic design, etc, to allow my game, or my story, to live. Also, I need moneys so I do the arts.

6. What’s the future of tabletop gaming? Where is it headed?

Great question! It’s something we discuss often at Arcane Wonders. I think we’re going to see way more established IPs (intellectual properties) flooding the board game world, more than they already are. I think we’re going to see a lot more apps integrated into board games, and at the very least being used to teach us rules. 

I think we’re going to see less of a tolerance for poor rulebooks and poorly made games. There’s just too much coming out now that you can’t survive with a lackluster game. Five years ago you probably could have on Kickstarter.

7. You’ve been up to something lately. Tell us what you’re working on.

Grimslingers 2 is the next big thing in my personal life! It’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned from the first Grimslingers and [The Northern Territories] expansion, as well as working on dozens and dozens of other games over the years now. Playtesting has gone amazingly well and I think I’m creating something truly special here; mechanically, visually and thematically. 

My work at Arcane Wonders is always filled with some cool new exciting games like our recent Hello Neighbor: The Secret Neighbor Party Game – a social deduction game based on the popular video game. We’ve also got Freedom Five launching Oct 20th, which is us getting to create a new game in the Defenders of the Realm series by Richard Launius and using the popular IP established in the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game.

Freedom Five has taken a good year to make (and there’s still plenty to do), requiring me to hire and coordinate with several amazing artists from around the world to ensure the game is a visual masterpiece that belongs on any shelf!

8. Grailrunner is relentlessly about finding and sharing things that inspire people to be optimistic about possibilities and the future. What’s a piece of literature or film or work of art that really sends your mind soaring, and why?

Take a stroll through Artstation’s “trending” and try not to be gobsmacked at the amazing talent and creativity that exists today!

9. What should we click on right now to learn more about you?

My personal facebook profile? Haha, in all seriousness I haven’t tried too hard to be well found on the internet! I never felt a huge need. You can always keep up with what Arcane Wonders is up to, of which I am obviously intimately involved with, at www.facebook.com/ArcaneWonders.

To keep up with Grimslingers, www.facebook.com/Grimslingers

And to take a gander at some of my portfolio which I rarely update, I’ve got this horrible web address for you:  https://stephensgibson.wixsite.com/ssgibson
Life is hectic, it’s hard to keep everything updated online.

Thanks again, for taking time to have a chat with us. It means a lot. Best of luck with the new stuff coming out!

Let’s Talk To Jeff Grubb!

Writer and Game Designer, Jeff Grubb

Psst! Hey, you don’t know anybody that’s written for Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Warcraft, Star Wars, and Superman…do you? I mean, who’s got that big an imagination? Is he at least funny?

I’m messing with you because you probably know Jeff Grubb already, from something that caught your eye along the way. Here’s somebody who’s spitballed ideas with some of the original D&D guys back in the day (“Hey, guys…what about D&D in space?”), helped forge some of the most influential and popular RPG settings, and though he had intended to be a Structural Engineer wound up being one of the most prolific and sought-after writers and creators in multiple genres, formats, and worlds.

And he does Tai Chi too! Who knew?!

Anyway, he was kind enough to spend a little time with Grailrunner recently, and we’re thrilled to share his thoughts and ruminations here.

Jeff, I very much appreciate your taking time on this. It means a lot. 
It’s weird, but I independently ran into you twice (metaphorically). Was looking for a great Magic: The Gathering novel, and one big consensus on-line was Brothers’ War. Got my copy, loved it. There are Youtube bootleg audiobooks too, in case you didn’t know that. Entirely unrelated to that, I was out for a run listening to Youtube and came across a podcast with some guys going on about spaceships in space, which was a completely different rabbit hole, called Spelljammer. And there you were, both times. Apparently, my brain likes the way you think. We’re excited to have your thoughts here. 

1. What first got you into the Avalon Hill wargames and gave you the fever? I mean, you were supposed to be a Civil Engineer. Look what you’ve gotten yourself into!

My first wargame was Panzer Blitz, which was one of Avalon Hill’s “bookcase games”. It came in a sleeve with the combat tables on it, and had plastic trays for all the pieces, and had geomorphic game boards. Even before that, though, I played a lot of Risk, and owned the American Heritage Games (Dogfight, Broadside, Battle-Cry, and Hit the Beach). I was always a
history buff, and that got me into wargames. After Panzer Blitz, I got into a lot of the wargames of the day, and had a subscription to Strategy & Tactics magazine, which sent out a new wargame every other month.
But wargaming got me into D&D, through the Purdue Wargaming club, which at the time I joined (’75), was split between boardgamers (the designer of Squad Leader was local), tank miniaturists, and this new kinda game involving roleplaying. So it was a pretty steady downslope
into RPGs.

2. We talk a lot about inspiration and the creative process at Grailrunner. Your first gaming universe (as far as I know) was called Toril. What themes or ideas inspired you for that work? I’m specifically interested in your earliest influences and sparkly things that drove you to get started down the path you’ve taken.

My first D&D campaign was Toril (originally Toricandra – I liked C.S.Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy). The world was created in the fall of ’75, when D&D was three books in a wood-grained box and the Greyhawk supplement, and was born of a very boring math class. I starting laying out a dungeon design on orange ten-squares-to-the-inch graph paper. It quickly became a “superdungeon” with a separate typewritten key saying what every room contained, and the rooms were randomly generated. It was also a nexus dungeon, which was to say that it had many entrances across the planet. Some were ruins, some were cities, and had names like American Pie, Simon Tower, and Emerson (on Lake Palmer). Yeah, my musical tastes influenced it. The outside world evolved from those dungeon entrances (because in those days, it was safer on the first level of a dungeon than depending on the random monster roles in the wilderness).

I quickly became the “Friday Night Moderator” for the group – Dan Lawrence (Telengard) had a classroom dungeon (40+ people at a time) on Saturday night, and a friend named Steve Savoldi had Sunday afternoon. Mine was the “couples’ dungeon” because you could bring your girlfriend to the group and she would not feel out of place.

I gave the name Toril to Faerun’s home planet, with Ed Greenwood’s blessing. My gods went over to help out on Dragonlance (and Krynn the homeworld, was named after my sister-in-law, Corrine). Various monsters found homes elsewhere. So I looted the cool stuff my home campaign for future work.

3. “I look at the night sky and I think…there’s gotta be something out there worth stealing.” -Lorebook Of The Void, Aug 1989.

That’s Spelljammer in a sentence. Absolute work of genius, and still going strong even now on Youtube and with unofficial conversions to 5th Edition. Flesh out the beginning of Spelljammer for us – was all that as fun as it sounded? How did it go down?

Spelljammer started with an image – a knight standing on a ship’s deck in deep space. I was working at TSR full-time as a game designer, and our boss, Jim (Gamma World) Ward took us out to a local bar for brainstorming. The waitstaff, listening in on our discussion decided from our discussion that we had to be a movie crew preparing for a new picture, and that Warren (Deus Ex) Spector was really Stephen Spielberg.

Spelljammer was pitched as both being a connective campaign (way to get between campaign settings) and a setting in its own right. One of the keys was the ship designs. I would ask artist Jim Holloway for a particular type of ship (“One that looks like a hammerhead shark”), he would come up with sketches, Dave (DSL) LaForce  and I would figure out how the deck plans would work. The idea of ships having a “gravity plane” comes very much out of my engineering background and since they have gravity, they have atmospheres.

Much of my “Grubbian Physics” as one reviewer called it, comes out of discarded science of the past. The Crystal Spheres were from old medieval texts on the sun and planets orbiting around the Earth on predetermined tracts. Phlogiston comes out of an enlightenment theory about how things burned – supposedly material had an inherent “burningness” which was called Phlogiston. The French scientists thought that burning was simply rapid oxidation, but they were mocked about that (though they were right).

As far as a setting, we put a city in space with the Rock of Bral (taken from Gi-BRAL-tar), and we created our “great white whale” – the Spelljammer itself. And then there are the Giant Space Hamsters. I asked Jim for a gnome ship that looked like a couple ships banged into each other and fused. He gave me a parts galleon, part side-wheeler. Roger (Dragon Magazine) Moore asked why it had side wheels if it was moving through space. I said that they were hamster wheels and lo, the mighty Space Hamster was born. Roger wrote up about twenty variants for a Monstrous Compendium, and Space Hamsters have since shown up from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect.

4. As an incredibly prolific and influential writer, you’ve played in (and helped build) a lot of very big and important sandboxes. Do you stay in the loop on creations from decades ago and what’s happening with them now? If so, which of your brain-babies do you check on most frequently and why?

I check in on them but I rarely comment. I am on Facebook groups for Spelljammer, Dragonlance, Foggie Realms, and the like, and occasionally answer questions about what we were thinking when we decided X or Y. I am comfortable doing new things as well as the old and familiar.

I don’t feel a need to patrol my old haunts to see how the new tenants have been looking after the place. They are literally (as properties of TSR/WotC/Hasbro) and figuratively (created to be used and developed by players) no longer mine when they go out into the world. I am delighted that people are still playing things I wrote and designed for all these years later. Though as a mental exercise, I have been thinking about how I would re-do the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, but that’s just for my own amusement.

5. Just prepping for this, I saw you list P.G. Wodehouse as a favorite author. If that’s right, you’re even more awesome than I’d thought. How funny was that guy?! But seriously, what’s with all the hard-nosed detective books like Chandler and Hammett? Did you miss your calling?

Interesting that we gather those writers together. Yes, I have of late enjoyed more mystery novels than fantasy books only because I see all the structure of a fantasy novel, which reduces my enjoyment of it. But I think more importantly, I like these writers because of what they do with the language. The characterizations are sharp, their conversations are witty, and their turns of phrase are biting. That said, you should go dig out The Wyvern’s Spur, which was the second novel I wrote with my wife Kate Novak for the Forgotten Realms. It is a paean to Wodehouse, and Giogi Wyvernspur would fit in neatly at the Drone’s Club with Bertie and the rest.

6. Hey, what’s the future of tabletop wargames?

Probably the future is in the ‘net, because the future of everything is in the ‘net. I still have my copy of Panzer Blitz on the shelf (next to my copy of Tractics), but haven’t touched it for decades. My “historical” computer games of choice have been things like Sid Meyer’s Civilization, but that’s just comfort food. I do see a lot of new boardgames, particularly from Sandy Peterson and various Kickstarters, which make use of a lot of available technology to create and promote games. Miniatures gaming, I think, is a fairly healthy niche, primarily due to companies like Games Workshop who are still promoting collecting and painting miniatures. I have yet to find a computer game that captures the feel and flavor of the old miniatures games like DBA and Hordes of the Things.

7. Anything you’re working on these days with Amazon or wherever that you’d like us to know about? Why is that awesome?

I am working for Amazon Game Studios as a Narrative Designer. I am still building worlds. Beyond that, I cannot say what I am currently working on, but it will be awesome.

8. Where can we stay in touch with you on what you’re up to ? 

I can be found at Grubbstreet.blogspot.com, where I do book reviews, play reviews (back in the day when we had live theatre), local politics, and collectable quarters. Occasionally Wolfgang (Kobold Publishing) Baur will haul me out of my well-earned rest to work on something for Midgard or an essay on gaming.

That’s a wrap, guys! Jeff’s fantastic, by the way. You should pick up more of his stuff. Two comments he made are going on the shopping list (in addition to The Wyvern’s Spur):

“If you think Spelljammer was weird, go hunt down an old copy of the original Manual of the Planes.

Lord Toede was my attempt to do a balls-out funny book, two parts Roadrunner cartoon and two parts Black Adder. And I pulled it off. Every so often someone at WotC contacts me about a sequel, I tell them I have an idea for a sequel, and then they shuffle the staff and it gets forgotten about.” (From an interview with Thomas Knight)

Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.