Oak Island, The Mary Celeste, Jack The Ripper, And How They Built The Pyramids

Man, I love a good ancient mystery! I’m talking about historical documentaries or really well researched books where somebody that’s done their homework has put in the time to nail down every facet of an explanation for really plaguing mysteries. I adore that kind of thing.

So I thought I’d recommend a few books for you, if that’s one of your things too. These are worth the time. No tinfoil hat conspiracies or aliens. Nothing weird or forcing you to make a fuzzy stretch, or even those incredibly irritating explanations that seem to answer the main points of a mystery but gloss over something pivotal. I wouldn’t recommend these to you if I didn’t feel these honestly put some of the biggest mysteries entirely to bed! I think they largely do.

First up: Oak Island

There’s an island off the Nova Scotia coast that bears a long-told story of buried treasure (or at least something precious) in a booby trapped money pit. They say that anyone over the couple of hundred years that’s dug for this treasure has dealt with flooded tunnels, mystery upon mystery, and even several deaths. There’s a History Channel show, The Curse Of Oak Island that is like mind-expanding crack to me. I pester my wife during its seasons every Tuesday, “Liiiiiisa….it’s Tuesday niiiiight…..you know what THAT means!” Seriously. Crack. It’s maddening how the clues they did up there point one way, then the other, and nothing ever resolves. But something fascinating happened on that island.

When I found Oak Island And Its Lost Treasure by Graham Harris and Les MacPhie, I was practically sold on their explanation. And I’ve read about this money pit since I was maybe twelve. I won’t spoil any of mysteries, by the way. But here’s a couple of folks that have done solid research, and step by step explain what has been found on the island, dispel the noise of the legends, and present a beefy case for where that treasure could have come from, who brought it, why they buried it, and why and how it was booby trapped, and why it may have stayed there. The show is in season 9 as I write this, and I worry that there seems to be evidence of a longer usage for the wharves and roads than this theory suggests, but I still feel it’s the best explanation I’ve seen to date.

Next up: The Mary Celeste

From the Amazon book description for Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew (by Brian Hicks):

On December 4th, 1872, a 100-foot brigantine was discovered drifting through the North Atlantic without a soul on board. Not a sign of struggle, not a shred of damage, no ransacked cargo—and not a trace of the captain, his wife and daughter, or the crew. What happened on board the ghost ship Mary Celeste has baffled and tantalized the world for 130 years. In his stunning new book, award-winning journalist Brian Hicks plumbs the depths of this fabled nautical mystery and finally uncovers the truth.

I’d say that’s about right. And honestly, though like Oak Island I’ve read about the Mary Celeste since I was a little guy, it’s a bit annoying looking back at how some of the Mary Celeste story is typically presented. If what Hicks suggests in this book was actually what happened, then a perfectly believable and mundane thing occurred that got swallowed up in people’s agendas and aspirations, ultimately packing on legends till it was unrecognizable. It’s embarrassing how quickly we get to talking about UFO’s and black holes and magnetic or gravitational anomalies when people need to sell books or get you to click on something. Yet when someone like Hicks puts in the time and lays out the case, it’s very much like finding out how the magician did their trick. I can’t really see any flaws in what this book lays out, and I consider this mystery solved.

Next up: Who Was Jack The Ripper?

I’m useless at solving murder mysteries. I’ve been to several dinner theater dealie-o’s, where the murderer is among you and a play happens over the course of the evening, of which you’re a part. Not once have I gotten the murderer correct. And one time he was even sitting at our table! But Jack The Ripper – that’s one of the big mysteries. That’s one almost everyone has heard of. And I’ve read countless attempts to crack this one, watched dozens of documentaries, even took the Jack The Ripper tour in London. My take is that Christer Holmgren and Nicolas Krizan are bloodhounds of the first degree and have soundly tracked down the killer. The book is called Cutting Point.

They lay out an entirely believable case, even going as far as explaining why the victims were killed where they were. They name him, and even better than that. I’m talking about details like several murderers happening along his regular walking route to work at the times when he would be doing so, and the occupation he held so any blood would be ignored. And a murder that happened off that route, but at a day when he’d likely be visiting family who lived near the scene of that crime. They explain why he’d be doing this sort of thing. Then to drive this all home more than maybe anything else…and this one is worth the price of the book to me…they find him in the newspaper. Their guy got dragged into an inquest and testified. We have his words. He was seen beside one of the bodies by a police officer.

Guys, I was blown away by the research and the coherent theory here. If you’re into Jack The Ripper lore and haven’t tried this one yet, you’re missing out in a big way. Agree or disagree, I suppose, but I’m sold.

Last up: How Did They Build The Pyramids?

The Great Pyramid is gorgeous. They all are, I suppose. They’re the ultimate mysteries, silently keeping their wondrous secrets in the desert for 4,600 years. Those people were farmers! There weren’t any stone buildings. There never had been. Yet somehow, they organized an entire supply chain for copper tools and varied building materials, highly skilled architects capable of planning two decades out, organizational and logistics structures to staff, feed, and direct incredible manpower, and made it all work. And like maybe thousands of people before me, I’ve got to ask…how did they build the pyramids?

I read The Secret of the Great Pyramid: How One Man’s Obsession Led to the Solution of Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Mystery by Bob Brier and Jean-Pierre Houdin and was left feeling like this question has been put to rest.

I know. I know. How many people have said that! But I promised you a set of books with solid research, no handwaving, no wild speculation. Houdin was the driver, and he spent a decade chasing an idea his dad provided that turned the ramp idea on its head and landed on entirely coherent explanations with technology available and even illustrated in hieroglyphics as in use at the time. This book lays out in detail where the tools and different types of stone came from and why they say that. It explains where the tools came from, and flavors what it would have been like to be part of the teams responsible for getting the requisite copper. It not only names the architect of the Great Pyramid (Khufu’s brother), but gets inside his head throughout the likely 20 years it took to get this masterpiece built…why he made certain decisions, how far in advance he’d have to have done the math, what he’d be worried about, and why he built three burial chambers for his brother.

I especially enjoyed the early bits where they lay out how they even arrived at the idea of a pyramid-shaped burial chamber with the bodies entombed in the pyramids themselves and not underground. Entirely logical progression, presented in clear and believable style.

You can watch a quick documentary here that covers the same info as the book (and see in motion some of their fantastic graphics to better illustrate how this all may have been done) here.

So there you go, guys! Four great reads. Four mysteries that may have been solved. Let me know if you come across any others that you feel fit the mold of actually putting a true and great mystery to rest. That kind of thing is gold to me.

Till next time.

Launching an indie wargame, and we need your help!

I very much enjoy bringing new things into the world. Or at least trying to do so. It’s hard enough to pour your passion into something, to pick up the new skills it needs along the way and to put the time in. The time is a real tough one – because life and family and bills to pay. Right? But the hardest and most soul-breaking part is when you’re done, it sits in your hands in all its wonder, and nobody in the whole world knows it exists. I’ll come back to that. I need you. If you’re anything at all like me, or if you at least understand me, I need you.

Stick with me till the end here.

When I was a kid, my parents had a hardback set of books called Childcraft. They were encyclopedias for kids, and I was especially enamored with holidays and customs and tales from other countries. My parents worked a lot, and there weren’t any kids on my street. I was also a bit of a loner, and it was a way to travel and see the world. I moved on to the regular encyclopedia set, flipping its pages and dreaming. The mythology and great paintings articles were favorite stops of mine. But being such an easy target, science fiction hit me early on like a freight train – here are a few flashes I recall just to make my point:

  • Smacking my dad’s arm when Darth Vader was deciding to save Luke in Episode IV of Star Wars, almost crying when he threw the Emperor down that pit
  • Straining extra hard wrestling with my brother when he held me down because Cassiopeia from Battlestar Galactica was watching in the form of a cutout from a coloring book hanging from my ceiling
  • Riding my bike downhill with a purpose, escaping mutated apocalyptic screamers from A Boy And His Dog
  • Bashing my pillows as hard as I could with one of those plastic lightsabers that made a humming noise when you swung them quickly
  • Staring dumbfounded at the television after the Borg kidnapped Captain Jean Luc Picard in Best Of Both Worlds episode one, from Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Finding Sri Lanka on a globe and asking how much it would cost to travel there so I could meet Arthur Clarke and ask him all my science questions

I’ve had a kaleidoscope of a life since then, earning degrees in Physics and Business, helping build nuclear reactors in the Navy and running parts of businesses, coordinating mergers and acquisitions, and consulting. Seriously, I’ve done all kinds of stuff. But in all that, in anything I’ve ever tackled, the core drive is always to somehow recapture the way those things felt. Just pure wonder. Inspiration.

New things. New worlds.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

-Louis Pasteur

And thanks, Louis, because this quote is the whole point of me. I believe if you look to be inspired, you will probably find inspiration. I believe if you learn the nuances of a thing, whether it’s art or haiku or telling stories in film…or whether it’s searching for patterns in nature and the universe…you pick up the rhythms of what makes those pieces and parts fit together. And you come alive. A pen & ink artist studying music will find patterns and growth that makes them sharper and more imaginative.

In 1997, I was serving on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. I had brought along the first three Dune books, a stack of VHS tapes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and a pretty bad case of homesickness to sit and watch westerns with my dad and brother. Something about that mix, and the exotic surroundings of Oman and Dubai, the wandering in the souq marketplaces and especially a night sleeping in the desert in Muscat fired my imagination. It was all just a simmering gumbo of scenes and marvelous machines and larger-than-life characters though, until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

I know. Anybody younger than me could be rolling their eyes at this one. They’ve maybe heard about it and never felt something like that. It was awful. Let’s just say a very thunderous realization hit me in the days that followed, as I watched the footage of firefighters running up the stairs into those burning buildings and those on the streets rushing to aid…as I heard the voices of those on flight 93 about to charge the hijackers.

It struck me that this was a nightmare, true, but how much more terrifying would it have been were it not for those brave souls who stepped up when it mattered! Running up the stairs into a burning building…who on earth could have more character than such a person?

“Because the life’s blood of a nation is the character of its people, and because the neglect of souls is the needle that poisons it, I have left you wonders in the Record. The fault and the regret are yours if they must arise.”

-The Salt Mystic

I don’t know why it took me till 2015 to publish the novel that came of those feelings and concepts. It did though. I had to live more, and to learn more. Writing a novel is a life-changing thing. And it meant a lot to me. I needed to get it right.

Here in the last two years, especially with pandemic quarantines and all the change that’s come about in our hostile interactions with one another, I’m haunted by the question I was asking back then. And I’m anxiously going back to the original fire behind all of it – what binds us together and lasts over the long term? What can bring us back to where we’re listening to each other, and being people again?

It’s mythic storytelling and inspiration. I’m convinced of it.

Not social justice engineering or reams of fan fiction, not propaganda or unimaginative clones and faded tropes. Pure adrenalin myths for the modern day. Just like Frank Baum wanted. Just like George Lucas wanted. I’m just arriving at the same conclusion. And I believe something wonderful is happening in tabletop gaming, not only in the last few years but especially fueled by the COVID restrictions. Tabletop gaming is coming into its own, fresh with depth and rich lore, with incredibly innovative ways for people to interact with the stories.

I see tabletop gaming, including but not limited to roleplaying as a new frontier for mythic storytelling. Much like science fiction stories in the old pulps and animated films once drew scorn as fit for juveniles and now are taught in universities, I see the tales & captured magic of tabletop games of the 21st century fertile for what comes next for us in how we express ourselves. Cinematic experiences in a box like Tainted Grail: Fall Of Avalon from Awaken Realms or Grimslingers by Stephen Gibson or Cthulhu: Death May Die by Rob Daviau and Eric Lang, among countless others are raising the bar for the rest of us.

So I need your help.

I’ve spent the last few years breathing as much life as I am able into a tabletop gaming experience. It’s called Salt Mystic, designed to be an Immersive Storytelling Engine fit for practically anyone with an imagination. Read about it here. Download the rules for free, and dip into the art if you like. The point is to provide an exciting game, easy to learn, no baggage or continuity required, no extensive hobbytime or painting abilities needed…but one that takes place in a rich, immersive, fascinating world with fully realized history and intrigue, adventure and exotic places to visit, peopled with living, breathing souls. Playing the game itself feels like playing a streamlined Warhammer 40k with Magic: The Gathering cards, or so I’m told.

The Salt Mystic Sourcebook & Core Rules is available on DrivethruRPG here. I would very much appreciate your help getting the word out about this. Anyone you know who’s interested in wargaming, or in lore-based tabletop gaming, just shoot them a quick note about what we’re up to. If you’re into what I’m saying, give me a try!

I’d appreciate it. And thanks for letting me go long on this one. You’re awesome.

Till next time.

Did You Catch The Mystery In This Pulp Cover?

It’s there. And I didn’t catch it till I read the amazing story inside. We’re highlighting some old pulp stories that particularly stand out, and this one called The Ultimate Salient by Nelson S. Bond was a worldshaker to me. It has really been striking, the sheer quality of some of the diamonds among the rough you’ll find in the old science fiction and fantasy pulps of the 30’s and 40’s. I’d like to share this one with you, and talk about that mystery in the cover.

Welcome to the Pulp Gems series.

Follow this link here to the entire issue of Planet Stories, Fall 1940. Or download just the Bond story we’re highlighting here in pdf format:

“Brian O’Shea, man of the future, here is your story. Read it carefully, soldier yet unborn, for upon it – and upon you – will one day rest the fate of all Mankind.”

That’s the opening blurb, then a strange visitor stops by the house of our first-person narrator framing the story. He needs a writer. That’s the purpose of the visit. He needs a writer to save the world. You’ve heard of telepathy, where two minds communicate with one another. In this case, it’s quite different, and is a case of “telaesthesia”, whereby this visitor, a psychologist, has caught the thoughts and impressions of a future soldier not yet even born who will fight in the battle-wrecked wastelands of 1963 America. Brian O’Shea will be his name. He’s nobody, or at least he will be nobody. But he may turn out to be the most important man alive.

1963. Louisville has fallen. The Germans have Fort Knox; the government has fled. The Army Of The Democracies is in utter rout. They’ve seized the Mississippi and cut off all contact between the eastern and western armies. The Japanese control California and Nevada. The Russian Navy holds the Great Lakes. All is lost. America has fallen.

But O’Shea hasn’t given up hope despite the tide of war, and hears of a mighty weapon and a scientist who shelters it. He takes the mission: find this weapon. Determine if it can be used to end all of this. And at last report, the scientist was in Louisville…the last place in America anyone needed to be going right now.

I don’t want to spoil too much of this page-turner for you. You really should take an hour or so and read this. I wrote in Love Letter To The Repairer Of Reputations of a bit of unintentional magic that happened when Robert Chambers wrote his King In Yellow stories in 1895. Chambers was just speculating about the future from his vantage, but as we read the tales now and see a weird Studio Ghibli vibe and World War One era costumes and mannerisms in what’s presented as a modern day America, it gives off a mystical and fascinating feeling. It’s alternate history, though that wasn’t his intention. The reason I bring that up is here in today’s story, The Ultimate Salient, Nelson S. Bond has created the same sort of magic. He was just speculating about the World War (the second, in his case) dragging on even after Hitler was killed (assassinated in this timeline). And we have a dark, apocalyptic vision of that America. And we have the hope of this terrible weapon a scientist has created. This was written in 1940, by the way, so forget 1945’s atomic bombs. Here, we have a bio-weapon, and one that will threaten all life on earth.

The mystery on the cover relates to the very ending of the story. I can’t really give that away, you know? O’Shea is going to need information, or it’s all over for humanity. He needs it, and given the telaesthesia only works one way, a story needed to be written to capture that information in a way it might make it to O’Shea. Something striking and likely to be appreciated for years to come. Something like a science fiction story that bears his very name on the cover.

And not just his name. A scrap more of precious information that can save everything…

Let me know what you think, guys. I was so impressed I picked up a collection of tales by Bond. I’d never heard of him before, and I’m glad I came across this one. Till next time.

Gems From Planet Stories: Black Priestess Of Varda

If you’re at all a bit tired of politics and agendas driving science fiction today, you might take a dip into the old 30’s and 40’s pulps sometime and take a breath of fresh air. Just set aside any ideas of scientific accuracy – this is all just high octane, adrenalin-infused imagination to keep your engines running clean! I honestly love it. Case in point: Erik Fennel’s Black Priestess Of Varda, from the Winter 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Planet Stories was an American pulp science fiction magazine published by Fiction House, based in New York. It ran between November 1939 to May 1955 for a total of 71 issues. This one’s among my go-to pulp fixes just because its covers almost always deliver – and by that, I mean they’re intriguing and striking and would practically all look great on a T-shirt. If you’re offended by mild sexism even despite a consideration of the times in which the works were published, then this article probably isn’t for you. I’m just in this for the fun of it, and how innovative and free of constraints these writers and artists were. I love the feeling of unbounded optimism and adventure these people brought to the table!

I would also add that, though the covers often show the ladies in these stories as helpless but pretty mops waiting on men to save them, it’s almost never that case in the stories themselves. Herein, you’ll find powerful, intelligent and courageous women. Thought I’d mention that, if it’s a reason you might stay away from these old gems.

For example, my wife and I are finally making our way through all 5 seasons of the HBO show, The Wire. It’s as good as I’ve always been told, and some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen. No doubt in my mind – this should be the standard for how to juggle multiple character arcs and portray in fiction how different agendas among even minor characters can drive the narrative. That isn’t my point today, but there you go.

Anyway, we started season 4 last night. I idly picked up my phone to just troll through some pulp covers for inspiration, thinking I might work up some art for the Salt Mystic marketing over the weekend. And I came across that bad boy at the header of this post. “The Black Priestess Of Varda”. What a nutty title. “Outlawed, sentenced to the vat”…”foul Sasso’s loveliest witch”. Crazy. It sends your mind reeling. At least mine. Totally lost track of the Wire episode and tracked down an electronic copy of the 1947 issue in which Erik Fennel’s story was originally published. The entire issue is linked above, or here it is in a combined pdf:

It’s the rollicking tale of a disfigured scientist, finding himself in a strange world and discovering the black heart of his once love. He finds redemption and a new love, and develops incredible new powers. Yet most of all, he finds the inner strength and courage to fight back against wickedness in all its forms, no matter how beautiful.

I worry that in our collective zeal among modern fiction to present social injustices, to drive activism and try to awaken social action among readers by unrefined and almost silly victimhood portrayed in caricature fashion – bad cops, racists, cruel landlords, selfish politicians, blah blah blah…that we’re losing the ability to make people dream and aspire. People like Erik Fennel, whoever he was, preciously crafted colorful worlds spun with action and heart to get his young readers to dream. That’s why the little guys slapped down their quarters at the newsstand as soon as they could to rush home or to the playground and blast through the latest Planet Stories, or magazines like it. They wanted to dream and feel powerful, to learn what it means to stand up to bullies and terrifying challenges like they were seeing in the real world and that many lost their fathers to. This was a place to see courage and to emulate it. And it was a place to be inspired.

Hey, go read this one or another in Planet Stories. Will take you maybe an hour after you download it. An easy read.

But maybe an important one.

I don’t know, guys. What do you think? Is there enough out there on the racks or Amazon to feed your own imagination? Send me your own thoughts on the most inspiring stuff you’re seeing. I’d appreciate it.

Anyway, till next time.

Designing a tabletop wargame: update!

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,

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Arthur Clarke & Jacques Cousteau: Inspiration From A Cluttered Bookstore

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.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

John Carter Of Mars: The Originals, And Why Have We Forgotten How To Have Fun?

“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:

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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.

Here’s how Burroughs told the story of writing it in the 1929 Washington Post:

“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.

Till next time. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

Addictive Entertainment Products: What Can We Learn?

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.

3: Action

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.

5: Investment

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.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

How would you design a wargame box?

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?

But until next time…

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

There’s Just Something About Getting Your Barcode…

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.

And just take a look at that barcode!

Anyway, till next time. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.