Building A Cinematic Experience On The Tabletop

A few years ago, I staged a narrative wargame called The Black Ruins Massacre on the tabletop down in my basement as an experiment in storytelling. The idea was not only to stretch my skillset by building out the models and terrain, painting everything, and generally going as cinematic as possible (I even set up a tabletop fog machine at one point), but to apply the ruleset as a storytelling engine.

I wrote that all that up here (people seem to like these writeups):

When the COVID-19 quarantine started, I worked up a beast of a follow-up I called The Battle Of Four Armies. I’d done a labyrinth on the table, and a temple, and was thinking this time I’d go all-out and add in another element to push myself: a compatible sister game with its own set of rules. (I knew Warmachine, but I had to pick up a Hordes starter set and learn its rules as well to even make all this work.) Both these fantastic games are from the good folks at Privateer Press. Make sure you support them by the way, they’ve got something special going on with those clean, popping rulesets.

I had an idea of more narrative immersion, maybe adding some solo roleplay or something, but it never happened. So this became more of an intellectual challenge – like a game of chess that goes on for months. And wow! It was an experience…over two years long getting me through COVID and teaching me a lot about escapism and challenging myself in wargaming.

And it was a blast!

The Battle Of Four Armies:

  • A different army was deployed at each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west
  • The lightning-charged knights of Cygnar (led by Major Beth Maddox) to the north opposite wicked, spooky Cryx (led by Bane Witch Agathia) – both from Warmachine
  • The brute beasts of the Trollbloods (led by Ragnor Skysplitter) on the west opposite the cruel pain servants of The Skorne Empire (led by Lord Tyrant Zaadesh) – both from Hordes

The battle was staged inside the black walls of an open temple, with stone stairs at each cardinal direction to allow the combatants to get up and down from the wall rim. A black stone ziggurat adorned with eerie statues lay in the center. Deep below that ziggurat, a terrible and forbidden machine from an earlier, forgotten age had been buried with its last engineer. These armies wanted that machine, whatever it did.

Watch a short video tour of the tabletop here:

So what happened?

Man, the craziest, most unexpected things! I struggled mightily on keeping the two different rulesets in mind, so the narrative suffered a bit. Plenty of real-world distractions kept me away from it all too much as well. Still, the craziest things!

Zaadesh and Major Beth basically bashed their infantries into each other on the ground like a slaughterhouse while an epic clash happened up on the wall:

Skorne’s Zaadesh (closest to camera, in red on the wall) sent a charging rhino-beast up on the wall smack into Maddox’s gun-toting warjack, Firefly (in blue at top-right corner). Whoever won this smash-up had a chance to come around behind their enemy’s leader. Major Beth is in blue on the ground at the base of the stairs.

That particular clash was a fun one. Zaadesh had the idea that his rhino-beast (Titan Gladiator) would bash his guy out of the way, then jump off the wall (because he’s terribly slow) and charge into Major Beth from behind. It seemed more and more necessary to do something desperate as Maddox’s blue infantry wiped Skorne’s red army off the table. The damage the Titan would take in the fall though, and that he took in this fight, caused Zaadesh a bit of worry about the plan. He held off for months on that one, as COVID wore on…

So after giving Firefly a beating, the red Titan picked him up and threw him off the wall, then jumped down onto him anyway. It was glorious. Zaadesh figured the jig was up anyway, as he lost more and more men. It was a gamble that didn’t really work, but felt amazing. (I tweaked the rules a bit on this, because I really, really wanted to throw someone off that wall!)

But things were far too over for Skorne elsewhere on the battlefield. Just beside where the Titan had fallen, his fellows were taking a true beating and never really picked up any momentum.

Meanwhile to the south and west, Cryx and the Trollbloods charged each other on the ground in a bloody, bloody skirmish (three images above). I was surprised how tough the Bane Witch’s armored undead warriors were in the face of some mighty blows from the leather-clad blue trolls.

The Bane Witch herself (on the ground just to the left of the stairs in the lower part of the image below) snuck behind a set of ruins to take potshots at any enemies on the wall. That’s her two beastly warjacks, Slayer and Ripper in the lower left of the image on the wall, charging towards Ragnor Skysplitter, also on the wall and at the top of his own set of stairs. Her idea was for those two to get to Ragnor and hurt him, then sneak into range from the ground and cast her malicious spells for the kill. Typical for a bane witch.

But time was running out for her because Major Beth had taken out Zaadesh far more quickly than anticipated and was redirecting her infantry into this part of the field. A couple of Trollbloods got some shots in at the Bane Witch, but she made short work of them from her hidey hole behind the ruins.

Ragnor sent his own leather-clad warbeasts along the wall to protect himself and stay in a strategic position to cast spells at Major Beth’s troops should they get that far before he did away with the Bane Witch.

From her hiding place, Agathia took one unsuccessful shot after another with her eldritch spells, but nothing seemed to land. It was a fortunate day for Ragnor Skysplitter, as his trolls seemed invincible.

And as one after another of the Bane Witch’s undead warriors fell to the Trolls, Ragnor turned some of his ground troops around to prepare for Major Beth’s assault. It was going to be tight, and he needed to take out that filthy witch fast if he was to avoid an assault on two fronts.

And a well-directed spear was the final blow for the evermore desperate Bane Witch, as she died with a curse on her lips while her undead soldiers drifted away in wicked green smoke.

It was the final clash: trolls and lightning-charged knights racing towards one another on a December evening.

Major Beth stayed safely out of range while her hammer-wielder, Ironclad faced two trolls alone. Her two other warjacks ganged up on the spearthrower troll, Impaler.

The trolls had very much met their betters, and each of them fell in violent slugfests that were almost brutal to watch. Ragnor tried to help from the wall with his spellcasting, but his attempts amounted to nothing. Much like with the Bane Witch’s feeble spells there at the end, magic wasn’t going to carry the day here.

Only steel, apparently.

And eventually, it came down to Ragnor alone, staring down much of Major Beth’s mighty army:

Ragnor may have been desperate, but he wasn’t planning to surrender. Not after all this time. His powerful Shockwave spell was going to buy him time to move away from his attackers and…just perhaps..to keep moving back and do enough damage to thin them.

Each time he landed the spell, an area impact knocked down everyone close enough. And they were crowded together naturally as they tried to funnel up the stairs to where he was standing.

But inch by inch, Major Beth’s knights closed in. If Ragnor was going to have any chance at all for a showdown with her, he’d have to pick off some of his attackers more successfully than this. Ultimately, three got to the wall and engage with him in hand to hand combat. Major Beth and Firefly were firing from the ground. It was terrible to see, and Ragnor stood bravely in the hail of incoming fire. In the end, he could barely see through the blood and sweat in his eyes.

This is how he’d want you to remember him…going down fighting. Ironclad and Firefly made their way up the stairs and behind him. Major Beth kept up her hail of fire from the ground. And the two remaining Cygnar knights pounded Ragnor mercilessly. Until he fell.

Major Beth’s Cygnar was victorious. And she’d see to the dismantling and destruction of whatever was buried beneath that mysterious ziggurat. Till next time, though.

Because she’s made enemies here on this field.

So that’s how it all ended. A long one, and an exciting one with twists and turns. Hope you enjoyed the recap. It really served the purpose: a challenge and a stretch, and something to get me through the quarantines. Truly, a great game!

Next up is The Battle Of Monument Falls: a frozen landscape with iced falls and snow, the terraced hillsides of a long-abandoned mine, and a strange bridge adorned with two eerie statues that has an enigmatic story attached to it. Lord Exhumator Scaverous will lead Cryx’s expanded army against Skorne and Lord Tyrant Zaadesh (who seeks vindication as well as advantage) and will bring a new unit of Immortals to fight alongside him.

We will see…

Till next time…

Hacking Salt Mystic’s Tomb Trappers: Let’s Get Crazy!

If you’ve never played Salt Mystic before, take a quick diversion here and see what the fuss is all about. You can pick up the free basic rules there or take the deep dive with the Sourcebook And Core Rules. Simply said, it’s a terrain-based wargame played on a tabletop with cards, dice, and some basic elements representing terrain. It’s a little more “beer and pizza” than most wargames out there, and is quick to pick up and just start bashing each other for a Friday night’s delight.

One type of card (and a core piece of the lore) is called the “Tomb Trapper”. Take a look at the respective entry from the Sourcebook below.

So in summary, this is a type of character you can have on your tabletop in the game who uses the goodies in that satchel to build amazing traps that lock down your opponent’s characters and give you an edge. That little dial apparatus in the sourcebook entry’s image is a key tool – set the proper code and programmable matter oozes out and builds the desired trap mechanics.

I wish I could pick one of those up somewhere, would love to see it work (and have a few people in mind for it)!

Anyway, one comment we’ve gotten from folks is they want more options in traps and flexibility in using Tomb Trappers on the tabletop. The cards come with default traps designed to be tough without being impossible and easy to set up & execute using only a small number of dice. This is simulating a situation where the trapped character card is locked down in place and struggling to free themselves. With some skill and/or luck, they just might do that!

Here’s Fargo, Tomb Trapper for the Mountains faction:

Once deployed, and once per turn, Fargo can sacrifice movement and lay a trap on the battlefield.

Trap: stack 5 dice in a tower. Any Character coming within a 9 inch radius of trap has no movement or combat actions until they free themselves.

Clearing trap: Remove any die from tower except top die without toppling tower. Two attempts per turn.

And here’s wily Cypress, from the Salt Flats:

Once deployed, and once per turn, Cypress can sacrifice movement and lay a trap on the battlefield.


Trap: Place 4 dice in square with corners touching to form die-sized hole. Any Character coming within a 9 inch radius of trap has no movement or combat
actions until they free themselves.


Clearing trap: Bounce fifth die off table and into hole. Two attempts per turn.

But hey, let’s hack this! Let’s break out of the default traps and deployment mechanic to bring a new level of play to the table.

Pre-staged and hidden traps

The whole point of the Salt Mystic game is to tell an engaging story. There’s always a narrative framing the battle, and the challenges and dynamics of interaction between the terrain and the people IS the engine driving everything. So let’s make the terrain more interesting using the Tomb Trappers.

Imagine a grid on the tabletop running 1 – 12 horizontally and 1 – 12 vertically:

We’ll read rows, then columns when referencing these, and we’re picking 12 so that two 6-sided dice can reference them in a solo game. In this example, a player has chosen three locations for hidden traps during setup, prior to gameplay. The locations are written down and concealed so no one can change their minds later.

The key difference between this deployment mechanic and the default one obviously is that the opposing player can’t know where the traps are and thereby avoid them. Anybody moving is in jeopardy of getting trapped. Just call out the trap when you’ve lured your opponent into the right spot and grin deviously as they struggle to free themselves!

Considerations:

-Agree up front on how many traps are allowed, and whether sacrificing a card from the starting battle deck is necessary for each trap.

-The Wolfpack Mode for solo Salt Mystic game play requires a roll of two 6-sided dice each turn for the phantom player anyway. To simulate the phantom player having pre-staged traps, check for a trap each time that initial roll contains a “1”. Roll against the grid to determine the location and compare it to where your characters are located.

Example:

The phantom player’s Wolfpack turn roll was 1 and 5. That roll was required anyway, since that’s how the phantom player’s deployments and moves are determined in the Wolfpack rule set. Since there was a 1 on at least one of the dice however, additional rolls are needed to check for traps. First roll: 4 + 7 = 12, Second roll: 3 + 6 = 9. We reference rows, then columns, so there is a trap at row 12, column 9. Any friendly characters in that grid square are trapped. Trap locations change each turn (how devious!).

Alternate traps

You can really let your imagination run wild on this one! Basically, anything your wicked little mind can conjure here is fair game. Consider the spirit of the traps though:

  • Traps should be difficult, but not impossible
  • Easy to set up & execute using only a small number of dice or other readily available supplies
  • Should require a little luck, a little skill

Design a trap by answering three questions:

  1. What triggers your trap? Example: approach within 9 inches, etc
  2. How should the trap be set up on the tabletop?
  3. How does the opposing player clear the trap?

Feel free to enhance the narrative a bit by outlining a little more detail to the hideous nature of your invention: (programmable matter collapses into quicksand, massive pincers the size of a horse spring from the ground, the ground tilts into a spiked pit, and on it goes…)

Let’s try it. Here’s what happens should the opposing player enter the respective grid cell per hack number one above – and up springs a cloud of geometrically poisonous vapor contained in a thin film that pops if he moves.

Considerations:

-Agree up front on the deployment mechanic as described either in the default card text or in hack number one above

-In the case where you’ve designed multiple custom traps, agree up front on how to select which trap has been sprung

So let us know what you think. Loads of potential here with the Tomb Trappers.

While I was writing this, we talked about maybe hacking the core rules a bit and staging an unbalanced scenario where one character (any card with an Expertise stat) goes up against an opponent at slightly reduced strength (10 less cards in the starting battle deck) – trying to escape a building entirely loaded with traps (at least 6). Objective would be to get to a specific spot on the table without dying. Seems like it would be a hoot if the opposing player is required to deploy all their Vehicles and Vehicle Attachments out in the open so the lone wolf can try and take them.

Here’s the art and flash fiction that inspired that:

A carbine gunslinger on the run. A Dirt Wraith rises, ghost-like through the very walls. Its quantum foam bubbles sizzle as loud as a waterfall. They knew he was here all along. She lied. And that will cost her. They’ll have traps all in the building, every corridor. Watchmen are patrolling the streets below. If there’s a Dirt Wraith, then maybe they’ll have something deadly down there he can seize and turn against them. Time is short, and they are many. He’ll have to be fast and unpredictable.

What would you do?

Till next time, guys. We’re always looking for feedback and ideas. Shoot them our way. And Merry Christmas!

The first ‘generation ship’ science fiction story

A “generation ship” is one of those mind-bending ideas you see in good science fiction, the kind that maybe wear thin when they’ve been around a while but were white-hot paradigm busting inspirations when they first came about. In the hands of a good writer, they can still be amazing. The idea is a starship traveling to an inhabitable planet thousands of years from Earth, so generations live and die throughout the journey. Awesome.

And I get it. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky probably invented the idea. Which isn’t really cool to dwell on because he invented everything (like space elevators and airlocks, multi-stage booster rockets and closed-loop biological systems to feed passengers). So let’s leave that for now. I’m talking about the very first generation ship story in science fiction, where the concept was front and center and entirely the point of the story. Who wrote that? Was it good?

Welcome back to the Pulp Gem series.

Follow this link to download the entire Oct 1940 issue of Amazing Stories for free, the issue where you’ll find this tiny masterpiece. And a mighty thank-you to the folks at Comic Book Plus for providing these public domain works of art at no cost. Go do something nice for those guys and donate or something. At least comment somewhere.

Or just download a pdf of the story we’re talking about here:

It’s called Journey That Lasted 600 Years, written by Don Wilcox. The first generation ship science fiction story. And it’s fantastic.

Let’s keep in mind when this was written, the innocent and wide-eyed optimism of 1940 America…the exploding interest in space and technology, and the down-home focus on heart and warmth in storytelling. These things are timeless to me, and incredibly inspiring. But if they feel old or naïve to you, then this one might not be for you.

The idea is a guy named Grimstone has volunteered to go into hibernation for 100 years at a time to shepherd a handful of couples who will repopulate the species on a faraway planet 600 years hence upon their destination. Generations will come and go throughout the journey on the Starship Flashaway, but Grimstone will awake for short bursts to keep the flame of civilization alive. That bit reminded me just a hair of Asimov’s conceit in the Foundation series wherein a group of people sustain the wisdom and culture like smoking kindling while everything else falls to crap in deteriorating barbarism. In this case, he’s just supposed to remind them of what was good about America, what was right and true, and help ensure they stayed on course both literally and figuratively.

And things go wonky. Almost immediately. Like before they even leave Earth.

And if you ever read (or watched) H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, you remember how the time traveler would push his little lever and blast into the future in bursts, step out and take a look around a bit, then blast ahead again. Right? That’s generally the flow of Wilcox’s story, and it keeps things moving and fresh, driving your curiosity to see how things that seem pretty dire are going to clean up or deteriorate when he steps back into the hibernation chamber. It’s a wonderful narrative structure to tell this fast-moving and fun tale. I read it on a plane in less than a half hour, and I mused over its genius looking out over the clouds.

He missed out on true love back on Earth…one reason why he left, in fact. But it’s a heartwarming twist how Wilcox resolves that little problem for Grimstone. Just smile and go with it, man.

As for the generations, they’re a mess. Increasingly, a mess. But the fire of civilization will hopefully live on as one crisis after another befalls the hapless Flashaway. Hopefully, they make it. Surely you’d like to know.

Well go read it then! And let me know what you think.

Till next time.

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.