Unexplained Mysteries And How To Build Them

About this time last year, I wrote an article here on Grailrunner suggesting some books that pragmatically answer some great unexplained mysteries:

  1. What is the buried treasure at Oak Island, impossibly protected by ingenious traps and evading 200 years of treasure hunters?
  2. What really happened to the Mary Celeste, the ghost ship whose crew and passengers vanished into thin air?
  3. How did the ancient Egyptians really build the pyramids with technology available to them, sturdy enough to still be standing today?
  4. What was the identity of serial killer, Jack The Ripper?

You can read the article here. Some really great books I recommend in there.

Back in 2017, I completed a study of myth development about things like those in that list above, and suggested five principles that kick into gear when there are viable kernels on which to build and the timing is right. Read that one here.

The principles of mystery development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

The unsexy truth that I found in those rabbit holes is that much of what we may consider today the great unexplained mysteries of history often have super mundane, everyday, plain-jane answers that aren’t as thrilling as just keeping the mystery itself. We would actually prefer to be fascinated and fooled than be reminded that people are fallible and sometimes irrational, that we have cognitive blind spots that make us miss things, and that there isn’t as much magic in the world as we’d like.

James Randi said once that “Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.”

So anyway, I thought today I’d tell you who killed JFK, whether there’s a grand conspiracy to start World War Three, whether there’s any truth behind the mysterious Philadelphia Experiment, and what’s really behind the Bermuda Triangle.

Hang on…

  1. Who killed JFK?

So I’m reading the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination Of John F. Kennedy. Every page of it. And when it’s particularly interesting, I’m reading the transcripts of the interviews. Every word of them.

There’s very likely no chance you’ve watched as many documentaries as I have about this assassination. I’m voracious about that, for whatever reason. And for years I’ve been entirely convinced that’s it’s ridiculous to believe anything other than a widespread conspiracy involving at least an unholy entanglement of the CIA and mafia, likely at the lower operational levels rather than a coup led from the top. I couldn’t necessarily buy that what Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex” decided to revolt and take out Kennedy to protect the world from communism in misguided patriotism, but I could possibly chew and swallow that operatives who blurred lines between organized crime and field agents might have taken things into their own hands, gone too far, and any signs of a coverup were after the fact, to disguise and clean up a big, wild mess that was never intended.

That doesn’t sound too hard to believe, in my opinion. And over the years as I read things like Legacy Of Ashes about the ruined legacy of the CIA and the wild mustangs doing what they do in government agencies, it made more sense to me that this sort of scenario was possible. And I still suppose it is possible.

But one thing has struck me like a ton of bricks in reading the actual words of the Warren Commission Report for myself is how unforgivably dishonest those documentaries often are. I’ll be all pissed off when I hear about some black-bordered advertisement in the Dallas newspaper that morning sounding threatening to the President, and how mysterious it was, only to find the Warren Commission knew exactly who placed the ad, why, why the border was black, whose name was on the ad and why, and even what they paid for it. You can read in detail how pissed off Jack Ruby was about that very ad, about there being a Jewish sounding name on it, and see his own words on what was going through his mind. It wasn’t mysterious at all; he totally explained why he was angry and it’s corroborated by other people.

I was baffled at why I’ve never been told there were multiple people who testified in detail that they saw Oswald in the window, which way he was looking, the expression on his face, and even one guy at a lower window who got cement dust in his hair after the shots were fired. All corroborated, and delineated in detail word for word with who said these things.

My point here is if you’re into this particular mystery, you’re being lied to and manipulated more than you might think by people trying to sell you books or films. Big time. Maybe Oswald did it after all, as boring and unbelievable as that may be.

2. Was there a conspiracy for 3 world wars?

Google “3 world wars” and see what you find about an explosive letter Freemason Albert Pike wrote to Giuseppe Mazzini in 1871 regarding a conspiracy involving three world wars that were planned in an attempt to take over the world. The letter was reportedly on display in the British Museum Library in London until 1977 though they “mysteriously” deny its existence now.

The first war was to topple the Czars and create a communist state. The second war was to leverage that to balance the Christian world while Palestinian conflicts are generated to set the stage for more unrest. The third war will be to ensure the Arab World and the Israeli state destroy each other and to exhaust the world while chaos agents are unleashed to smash it all down. Then the real power figures behind all this will step in and run the world.

Several years ago, I read a scathing article that absolutely dismantles this whole narrative and all the nonsense inside it. Go read this one. Obviously there could be a huge global plot involving the Bilderberg conferences and the Council On Foreign Relations and whatnot, but to me the much more obvious answer here is people like to be shocked. And this is shocking.

Another lesson in this example is just how lazy people can get in quoting things without doing their own research. That’s plastered all over this one too. If you want to see the sort of thing I mean, take a look at a book called The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to S. Mark by John Burgon. It’s really illuminating to see an utter annihilation of sloppy journalism like that, and it’s a lesson particularly suited for the times in which we live.

3. Was the Philadelphia Experiment real?

The story goes that a destroyer escort named the USS Eldridge vanished in a flash of light in October 1943 from the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia as part of some misguided and disastrous experiments by the Navy to render ships invisible. Incredible details have been tied to the tale, with an eyewitness named Carl Allen ‘reluctantly’ offering exactly what he saw, and describing the terrible fusions of tortured sailors reappearing half-buried in the ship’s very steel.

Nonsense. Total nonsense. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole to go down though, and endlessly fascinating if you only pursue the conspiracy links and believe what you’re told. Lots of salacious details about Einstein’s mystery work that made the experiment possible, and musings about the teleportation that happened and what came of the doomed sailors. At least a couple of movies too.

Then read “Anatomy Of A Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later” in the Journal Of Scientific Exploration, Vol 8, No. 1, pages 47-71 from 1994. No link on this one – I have a hard copy only, but it’s available behind some paywalls. You can see the gist of it here though. Nothing sexy happened at all – just a nutjob spilling weird stories that sounded fascinating and that could sell books, and people did. One twist here is some corroboration that’s often offered with this tale being that two officers at the Office Of Naval Research had copies made of the annotated book where the tale generated. Conspiracists will offer that these officers wouldn’t go to the expense of copying this book if it was nothing but a lunatic spouting nonsense.

But I was a Naval officer, and I love reading stuff like that.

4. Is the Bermuda Triangle real?

For me, the issue of the Bermuda Triangle falls squarely into this pattern I’m describing of a viable kernel of truth at the right time upon which sexy, exciting fables start to mount and pick up steam. It fits the five principles I mentioned earlier quite well, and it hinges on what happened to Flight 19.

Flight 19 was a 1945 training mission comprised of five Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared off the coast of Florida, at the cost of 27 lives in total (including the PBM Mariner launched to search for the bombers that’s believed to have gone down in flames). This was the tragedy that started the myth in earnest, and it’s the one that formed the original kernel upon which other disasters or incidents (like Kenneth Arnold’s reported UFO’s in 1947 and Charles Mantell’s crash in 1948) were combined into what we know today as a place of UFO’s, mysterious vortices, or rogue waves that maliciously and enigmatically cause unexplained disappearances. If we figure out what happened to Flight 19, then the kernel goes away and it’s much harder to see a definitive pattern tied to this triangle apart from incidents anywhere else on the sea.

So what happened to Flight 19?

I imagine any conspiracist describing Flight 19 to us would emphasize how the instructor had a premonition of some kind that day, because he tried to avoid the training mission entirely. His request for another instructor to take the flight was denied. They might also emphasize how all the compasses of all the planes failed to work, and even the timepieces weren’t functioning. They’ll tell you the sea didn’t even look right. Then everyone just disappeared off the face of the earth and were never heard from again.

But read The Real Story Of Flight 19 by Steve MacGregor and see if there’s a more likely scenario of human failure and fallibility. Consider the possibility that the instructor didn’t have a premonition, but wasn’t feeling well.

I won’t steal any of MacGregor’s thunder and spell out his reasoning, but it’s a story of a mishap on a bad day and not one of aliens. And that’s illustrative of my entire point here with the kernels of truth being targets for agendas and those fascinated with being titillated.

*

We want sexy, so we find it. Even where it isn’t.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to talk about today. What do you think about some of these mysteries – did I cover your favorite? Apologies if I dumped cold water on something that inspires you. Wasn’t my intention at all.

And I’ll keep watching those JFK documentaries anyway.

Till next time,

A Terrifying New Threat Enters The Salt Mystic Universe!

Occasionally as we build out the Salt Mystic universe, some spooky new threats pop into existence that surprise even us. Right now, I’m 23k words into a standalone novel set in this world that will shake it like an earthquake, introducing new weaponry and technology, several exciting new locations, and a host of new terrors!

Enter the Day Giant.

If you’re new here, let me back up a bit. The Salt Mystic setting is an experiment in immersive storytelling that fuses art, fiction, and games into a unique and thrilling experience. Right now, it’s a novel that introduces the main narrative, a terrain-based trading card wargame that expands and breathes life into that narrative, a growing line of branded merchandise (including our first art print!) and freely downloadable illustrated flash fiction called Lore Cards.

Click the wings to learn more:

We’ve been hard at work dropping new Lore Cards over the past few weeks, so make sure you stop by every once in a while to see what’s new. The Story Arcade is what we call the repository of cards, and it’s a place to get inspired for your own games of Salt Mystic or to fuel elements in the Roleplaying Game system of your choice.

Click the medallion to see all the current Lore Cards:

Although Salt Mystic is at heart a western-inspired science fiction setting, with a theme of exploring lost and hidden worlds, I feel like no adventure stories are complete without a terror that sticks in your mind and creeps around there. In the Work In Progress novel, to be called Mazewater: Master Of Airships, you’ll be introduced to a scrappy, gangly fellow named Lamberghast Mazewater, who faces such a threat with a quivering voice, a shaking hand, and armed with only his big heart. More to come on that as it develops.

The artwork

The art for the new Lore Card was produced combining elements from two AI art generators, then painting over them and completing the composition and adjustments in Photoshop. This approach is a real game changer for small indie publishing companies like us! Sometimes, the image comes first and then the story. It was the reverse this time – I knew the giant’s general appearance and that I wanted a gunslinger facing off with him. That’s all I knew though.

The giant: It took many, many iterations with Codeway’s Wonder app using text prompts like “enormous thin giant in rags with oxygen mask and exoskeleton” till I got something vaguely like what I had in my head. The color was wrong, as was the perspective, the tone, and it had bits and bobs all over it that were unwanted. I cut it out, trimmed the odd bits, then altered the perspective so his top half was smaller.

The canyon: The canyon was another round of iterations, in both Stable Diffusion and Wonder, till I got a mashup composition of rocks and lighting that generally gave me something to trigger the eyes to see the giant as huge. I wanted light coming from behind it, so I juiced that with a Color Dodge and soft brush.

The gunslinger: The gunslinger was a third round of iterations, in Wonder. The text prompts were things like “fantasy gunfighter in long coat holding his arm out”. This one had bits and bobs coming off it as well, and the coloring was terrible. He also had weird holes and discolorations all over him, which I had to correct.

The weapon: The ball lightning carbine is a long-standing custom item I use all the time. I built and textured it in Blender. This time, I cut out parts of it to show it partially concealed by his sleeve and brightened the barrel’s tip (with the Dodge tool) to show it glowing from the heat inside the barrel.

There’s a company called Nucly that offers various overlays for Photoshop – I included a ‘god ray’ overlay and morphed it to emit from the gunslinger’s weapon. That looked cool already, but something unanticipated happened once I started making adjustments.

The lighting: I superimposed a grunge texture over the entire image in Screen mode, which roughed up the look of it in a way I really liked. However, I noticed the Color Dodge blur coming from behind the giant as well as the charge firing out his weapon reacted with the grunge overlay for even cooler lighting effects than I’d planned. I really liked how that turned out, honestly.

Color grading: I tried various warming and cooling filters over the entire image, and tried adjusting its color grading to various images whose color schemes I liked. This warming filter (an evening sun shade of orange) won me over because of what it did to the canyon rock.

Here’s the final image, which will also eventually appear (in altered form) on an upcoming Volume Two game card next year (click on the image to see the Lore Card and read the associated story):

I hope you like the art and the story, guys. Let me know what you think! Till next time,

Announcing: Exclusive Fantasy Art Print From Grailrunner Publishing!

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

That’s our tagline, right? What it means in practice is that Grailrunners are constantly on the prowl for innovative ways to deliver bold, unique ideas in storytelling. We publish games, novels, and free flash fiction to make that happen. Our Salt Mystic setting is an exploration of immersive storytelling that amazes me sometimes in what comes of it.

But art though…nothing inspires like art.

It can be a dopamine shot straight to your cortex, in a glance sending a dreamer off into countless scenes of wonder and palaces of memory. An elementary school teacher of mine once hung a poster of a sailing ship with balloons for sails on the wall, and I remember to this day decades later the feeling of staring at it and marveling over the implications. Who was on that ship? Where were they going? Do they clash with cannon fire in the clouds? That’s powerful stuff, and I remember that picture as clearly now as ever.

One of the original aspirations we had here at Grailrunner was to be able to deliver fantasy and science fiction artwork tied to the fictional settings we’re building. It’s a big deal, and core to who we want to be. Custom art is expensive though, and you have to grow your business to a point where revenue can cover commission fees. Just putting the Sourcebook And Core Rules together last year drove home for me at least just how many art pieces and illustrations are needed to convey the big, wild setting we’re building here. It’s supposed to be boldly different, so you have to show that. You need cool pictures!

Developing my own art to support this has been (and remains) a powerful journey of transformation. Occasionally when I feel like smashing the screen because an art piece I’m working on looks like trash no matter what I try with it, I’ll scroll back through my Artstation profile to see at least some level of improvement! (It comforts me to mock my younger self). Still, that’s what the Salt Mystic world is to me – a beautiful collision of ideas and stories, myth and imagery – growing into a place as real as the park down the street.

Which brings us to an exciting announcement, and hopefully only first in a series:

Grailrunner Publishing introduces the first art print set in our proprietary and exclusive Salt Mystic universe!

A dream on invisible sails…

By Brian Bennudriti

A vortex glider gently cruises high in the clouds above an ancient city in the provinces. No wings. No engines. As silent as the wind itself, riding a web of invisible vortices, the vortex glider is a majestic and gorgeous sight sure to catch the eyes of any dreamer who spots them.

Available in two formats:

18″ x 24″ poster

8″ x 10″ or 16″ x 20″ canvas

Vortex engines are an important technology in the Salt Mystic setting, enabling everything from vehicles that crawl up vertical walls to half-mile high sea vessels balanced on whirlwinds, from massive airships as big as a small town to artificial guided tornadoes.

Our next Salt Mystic novel and game volume will include a wily character named Mazewater and his fantastic innovation in vortex technology: using programmable matter and ionizing fields to generate thousands of vortices, combined to pull and push gliders through the air like dragonflies.

This image depicts such a glider, its long slender spikes of computronium and morphium framing gossamer sails. Far below, a watch tower stands guard over the sleepy, ancient border town in the valley.

While there is an important connection to the growing narrative of the happenings in the western provinces of the Salt Mystic’s world, it’s also just a beautiful image that I find relaxing to look at. And even though the warm lights emanating from the vessel’s side were a bit of an afterthought for me, they honestly make the mood for me now. It just makes me want to climb inside and see what it’s like to fly that thing.

Why hang a generic photo of flowers or a cartoonish painting of Paris when you can celebrate your inner nerd with a unique conversation starter like this?

And that’s what I wanted to let you know about today. It’s pretty thrilling, if I’m being honest, and a mind-blowing realization of something we’ve dreamed about since we started putting this Grailrunner thing together. I’m hoping you love it and have a vision for fantasy and science fiction themed art being as viable as dogs playing poker for your living room or wherever you goof off.

Let us know what you think, and what sorts of prints you might be interested in seeing here. And till next time,

Let’s Talk About Dueling With Ball Lightning

Writers are weird little machines, man. When our brains should be resting or thinking about bills or whether the lawn needs mowing, they often run off the rails behind the scenes trying to answer questions: questions like what would it be like to duel someone with ball lightning.

All the way back in the nineties when I first started conjuring images that would become Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe, certain concepts came out of the dreamspace whole, all on their own and fully formed (all page references relate to the Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules):

  1. A mountainside carved with the statue of a bearded man, whose outstretched hand cradled a mighty waterfall (page 46)
  2. A vehicle with articulated legs and a swivel chair that climbs vertical walls (page 40)
  3. A ramming war vehicle that moves in all four directions (page 41)
  4. People who are modified for perfect memories and powers of observation with forehead tattoos (page 28)

But one of my favorite images was two dudes dressed like cowboys in long coats, staring each other down with a weird weapon strapped to their arms like shields. I knew from the beginning the weapon fired ball lightning because I was fascinated by ball lightning, ever since it was featured in an old episode of Arthur Clarke’s Mysterious World. (Great show). I also knew the weapon doubled as a shield, meaning you could block incoming fire. That meant a trade-off – when you’re blocking, you’re not firing. When you’re firing, you’re exposed. I liked that. I called it the ‘ball lightning carbine’.

It was a vague, exciting idea till I got to write the first action scene using the ball lightning carbine in the 2015 novel, Tearing Down The Statues. It’s in Chapter 4, called “A Cannon Off The Rails”. I remember the thrill of writing it, because of a particular line of dialogue I worried over including:

Several gunfighters had surrounded a dangerous character named Cyprian, which I signaled with all my might to be a terrible idea. That was entirely my point, that this was their very bad idea.

“You want to see something amazing?”

That’s what Cyprian said, grinning, with his head lowered in the shadows, right before he turned into an avenging fury and wreaked all manner of havoc on those poor guys. I mean, I chuckled after getting that chapter wrapped up. It had been a long time since the picture drifted in like soap bubble, so it was fun to see it in words at least.

The carbine duel became for me a primary mechanic for action in the setting, as well as for the cards in the Salt Mystic tabletop game. In fact, I’m going with it for our primary (hopefully iconic) aesthetic for the random adventurer out poking in the wilds through abandoned oriel gates or mad War Marshals who’ve seen terrible things.

What’s got me thinking about this is I had a fascinating conversation recently with a tornado that looks like a human being who calls himself Doc Brock on this very topic. Incidentally, I interviewed him back in 2020 – you should go read that. Although he’s the designer and creator of a fighting game (Future Fighter), he’s also a musician and pathologist. Most importantly for our topic today, he’s studied martial arts for over 35 years and has a process-oriented mind to break down a topic he’s asked about.

I wanted to know what he’d do with a carbine strapped to his arm.

“When you’re talking about million degree plasma, it takes martial arts out of the equation”, Brock explained. “The main consideration is to avoid getting hit. If you get hit at all, the fight is over.” (I’m paraphrasing his comments).

This was interesting to me because I was thinking about Kung Fu movies, where the guys are sizing each other up considering different fighting styles before rushing in to whirl about like mad in a complicated, blurry flash. In my mind, you could either hang back and focus on accuracy (like they say Wyatt Earp used to do, steady and aiming and using the opponent’s panic to your advantage) or rush in close and combine gunfire with hand-to-hand combat moves (like smashing a dude’s face with the carbine itself).

“You’d have to consider your opponent’s size and weight. A bigger guy, say 6 feet, 250 pounds, can’t move around quickly and is a big target. With him, you might try and lead him in the direction you want him to go. Maybe a shot to one side to get him to move into the line of your next shot. Either way, always aim for the chest though. Always.”

He agreed that it’s a terrible idea for someone in a carbine duel to drop to the ground for any reason, “It takes an incredible amount of time and energy in a fight to get off the ground, and when you’re down there, you’re completely vulnerable. That’s something you should never do.”

After asking me how long the charge lasts on the carbine, he made another strategic point, “It seems to me the key is to drain your opponent’s weapon. Once they’re out of ammo, this fight is over. No one is surviving a shot from one of these.”

And that comment caught my attention, because I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to how many shots one of these could get off (I said roughly 30 to avoid sounding like a writer who hasn’t considered his own creations). It struck me that some carbines (like Cyprian in the novel and Waymaker, a card in the Salt Mystic game) have modified carbines with dual breakers that fire twice. That creates some new tension and a trade-off, now that it’s clear such a modification would drain the charge twice as quickly. I liked the story possibilities there!

“What’s the range on these plasma balls?”

And he got me again, because the only thing that came into my head was “2 inches”, that being the scale distance range in the tabletop game.

Which led us to talking about wiffle balls.

I suggested to Brock that the only reason these spheres have velocity is due to the electromagnetic rails inside the housing which capture the ball lightning once it’s generated by the breaker and slings it outward when the palm trigger is clutched. I used the analogy of a wiffle ball, those plastic, perforated balls that go quickly about six feet when you throw them before the air catches them and they slow to a crawl and drop.

My thought was the ball lightning would move at a blinding speed for a few feet, then slow and eventually just hover like soap bubbles should they fail to strike a target.

“That paints a whole different battlefield if they hover like that. I can imagine a mine field around these guys as they fight.”

And that’s a picture somebody needs to write or paint. I mean, that’s awesome. I may take that one on at some point.

Overall, it was really fascinating to chat with somebody willing to break down what a carbine duel would look like, what a person trained in martial arts would think about facing somebody packing one of these. I wish I’d taken better notes – he was full of suggestions, even directing me to a particular episode of a TV show called Farscape with a similar weapon (cool, but ugh since I thought this was unique).

It also makes much more sense now why so many of these guys are wearing the long cowboy coats – it’s disorienting in the panicked gunfight how large someone is and where their body actually is.

Anyway, what do you think a carbine duel would look like? What approach would you take if there’s a guy staring you down and packing one of these? I’d like to know…

But till next time,

AI Art Generators & Photoshop For Concept Art

I’m a visual thinker, big time. If you’re explaining something to me, I’m probably picturing what you’re talking about so I can follow what you’re saying and make something useful of it. If the picture starts to fade on me, then you may as well be speaking jibberish. That’s why rapid prototyping concept art is such a gamechanger for me, at least, in storytelling and game design. And it can do much more than prototype, as long as you’re not afraid to spit and polish.

In the last few months, AI art generators have taken off like a rocket and are rapidly improving in functionality, customization, and capabilities. Stable Diffusion, Codeway’s Wonder, and Artbreeder are my favorites right now, depending on the functionality I’m looking for. Midjourney and Dall-E have stolen all the oxygen out of the room as far as the media running with this narrative, but for fantasy / speculative fiction concept art they don’t offer the styles and datasets I need.

At Grailrunner, we’ve recently incorporated AI-aided art into our workflow for marketing images, for the website graphics, and to some extent in our products. I’m sorry if you’re an artist who feels threatened by this marketplace shift, but it really is a technology that is unlikely to go away or accept a lot of regulation. At this point, with millions of images generated per day across multiple apps, it feels more like an unstoppable tsunami you should probably figure out how to surf.

We just added another Lore Card to the Story Arcade here on the site and thought it would be fun to show a behind-the-scenes on the work, mainly to show how we’re using this fantastic new tool in what we do here.

What’s photobashing?

Photobashing is a technique where artists merge & blend photographs or 3D assets together while painting and compositing them into one finished piece. This is used by concept artists to speed up their workflow and achieve a realistic style.Concept Art Empire

Stephen Gibson, Art Director and designer of Grimslingers makes an interesting comment about this: “My current style for Grimslingers is photo/3D bashing. I collect images to splice together and keep painting over it, splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.” -Interview, Nov 2022 ImagineFX

Funny, huh? Anyway, photobashing is a big part of my concept art journey. I started off trying to paint everything myself and realized that’s not where my talent lies. Things accelerate and honestly look a lot better if I pull together stock images or 3d assets from places like Turbosquid, Shutterstock, Archive3d.net, Free3d.com, Nasa (nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models), Sketchfab and Daz Studio into Blender and work out compositions there. A lot of museums are starting to upload their collections as 3d models as well, typically for free!

Pulling assets together

Blender is still my go-to tool for compositing 3d assets into something useful because you can manage the placement and lighting and mess around with textures in Substance Painter. Incredible flexibility, but it’s time consuming. It’s also a place to build up assets that are unique to a world I’m creating (and so won’t be available anywhere. Then Photoshop. Always Photoshop. Nothing is done till it’s been through Photoshop. It’s a thing.

This is an example of what I’m talking about. The ball lightning carbine is a distinctive weapon, strapped to the arm of practically any adventurer in Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe. I made this thing in Blender with some parts from various models (a motorcycle, crutch, and I forget what all). The frame of it and the leather straps were just cylinders that I squashed and pulled into place, then added textures. Now I’ve got this thing in a hundred styles and orientations.

1. For our new Lore Card, it started with an idea: a dramatic aerial view of a carbine gunslinger on a mountaintop with a wide valley below him. Sometimes the story comes first, but in this case only the mental image. I’d write the story behind that guy after I saw him.

2. With Stable Diffusion, I experimented with a series of prompts suggesting the aerial view, the mountain top and valley, and the “fantasy gunslinger”. It took patience, not going to lie about that. And I cycled through several artists incorporated in the prompts to try different styles as well (you can mix artists too!).

3. Once I got something that looked like it would work for me, it needed some basic touch-up painting and color & tone adjustments in Photoshop. There was also an annoying misshapen character standing there (instead of my gunslinger that I asked for!) that had to be just erased. Photoshop has vastly improved capabilities now for easily removing stuff.

4. I still needed that gunslinger though, and went back into the cycle loop trying various iterations and prompts to get a guy in the right posture and wearing the long, gunslinger coat I was looking for.

This is the character I eventually went with. They can turn out with three arms and nightmarish faces, the fingers often run together and look like tendrils. Seriously, the output isn’t always mind-blowing, but here at least I saw the outline I wanted and general textures.

A bonus was the weird almost rectangular thing he had on his left arm, which if I squinted looked to me like our carbine without any extra editing.

5. I cut him out of his background and placed him on the mountaintop, gave him a little shadow, and darkened him to almost a silhouette. I was close, but it was bugging me that he was up on the high plateau without a clear story of how he got there.

6. I already had an asset for an airship from a previous work that I repurposed here. There’s a fantastic feature in Photoshop for automatically adjusting color grading and tone to match another image, so much of the hard work was done for me with that option. I just needed to trim it up a bit and place it in context.

You can read the accompanying story here on the new Lore Card. Here’s the final piece:

Let me know what you think, and if you have your own art journey going on. I hope you liked the peek behind the scenes.

Till next time,

Harlan Ellison Needs You: October 21, 2022

If you’ve been with us more than a few times here at Grailrunner, you know we have the highest respect and admiration for the works of speculative fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. If you feel the same way, or if you just appreciate when someone out there is trying very hard to do the right thing and facing mighty headwinds in doing so, then read on please.

You might have heard of J. Michael Straczynski. I came across him during his run on Amazing Spider Man, which was fantastic. It was only later I came to realize he was also the engine behind and the showrunner for Babylon 5. Apart from his own world-shaking contributions, he was also a dear friend of Ellison, dating back to a trembling phone call Straczynski made as a young writer when he was struggling to sell his own work (“Stop writing crap!” was Harlan’s advice, by the way).

It saddens me terribly that Ellison’s home, called The Lost Aztec Temple Of Mars and nestled high in the hills above Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles sits withering and aging with its vast treasures and wonders molding away in drawers and cabinets unseen. Ellison did a series of Youtube videos years ago where he’d occasionally walk through is home and show off his collections, introducing SyFy movies or whatever he was doing. I’d have loved to walk with him through there and hear the ridiculous adventures he had gathering those things.

A museum! Please!

So J. Michael Straczynski agrees and has been (thankfully!) tasked (by Harlan, who passed away in 2018) with converting the house into a museum open to the public. It’s more effort than you’d think, and I wanted to draw your attention to an auction that’s been made necessary to push the work along.

Heritage’s Harlan Ellison Auction, Original Art From Some of the Author’s Most Famous Works and the World’s Most (In)famous ‘Star Trek’ Photo

Proceeds from the all-star October event will help turn the writer’s Los Angeles home into a ‘memorial library’

Follow this link to the auction press release. Any work of art sold in this auction will be replaced with an exact replica, according to Straczynski. And the house needs work to make the conversion. This sadly needs to happen, and they need help making it so.

Recently on Facebook, buried in some comments somewhere, I came across Straczynski explaining himself when some troll accused him of squandering Ellison’s treasures for money. I’m going to reproduce his response in full below, so hopefully we can all understand how important it is that he get help doing this to preserve Ellison’s legacy.

Excerpted from a response on ‘Hang With JMS’, the words of J. Michael Straczynski:

“When I approached the folks at Heritage Auctions (who were friends of Harlan) about doing this auction (about which more in a moment), my requirement was that any auctioned art that was visible to the eye in any room had to be replaced with a high-quality, high-resolution replica indistinguishable from the original, in the same original frame. Everything had to look exactly the same after the auction as it did before. This is being done. No matter how familiar you may be with the house, you will not notice any difference.

As to the auction itself: the goal, again, is to transform the house into the Harlan and Susan Ellison Memorial Library. Doing that means (and meant) taking steps to ensure that the house is safe and in proper shape. But there were/are significant problems with the house, which H&S had kind of let slide over the years. Leaks in Harlan’s and Susan’s offices. The heating and aircon systems had to be replaced (a necessity for later tours and academic work, and Sharon continues to work there in the present). Brand new security systems had to be installed because the prior systems had simply been ripped out to make way for work. Since the house is empty most of the time, window and door frames had to be discreetly reinforced and made intruder-proof without doing anything noticeable from inside. The outside perimeter wall was collapsing, and the ground beneath it had to be reinforced to prevent it all from sliding down the hillside.

All of that takes money, and I covered all of it out of pocket with some help from the Ellison tier on Patreon, while we fought the banks for access to the Ellison accounts, which in the end came to only about 200K.

Still ahead of us: making the house safe for visitors (discreet hand-rails on the stairs up to Harlan’s office, for instance, where he and other guests often tripped and fell), landscaping to create an outdoor space for lectures and other events, fixing the exterior of the roof which does not have a to-code surface, just the black tarry like top and flat boards to walk on to keep from going through the roof; it has already started to go soft in places and could eventually collapse (especially given the weight of the Keep, which also needs some repairs).

Restoring the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars just by itself will cost at least $100K, and that figure could double depending on what damage we find on the other side, between the outer and inner walls. Then there are a ton of other maintenance repairs that need to be done.

And all that’s just for the house itself so it can pass muster with the state and local codes for a library like this, and we can’t go for a historic/cultural preservation certificate until we can show them what the final version will look like so they know what they’re preserving. It doesn’t include any of the subsequent steps we will be taking down the road.

Such as: hiring an archivist (we may be able to get one a bit less expensive by going through a university) to catalog and digitize all of Harlan’s papers and correspondence for easy reference both on-premises and online (the manuscripts are already pretty much all done). Replacing the living room carpet and storing the furniture so we can turn it into a display room for Harlan’s manuscripts, art pieces for rotating themed viewings, rare books and other material, and a display for the urns containing Harlan and Susan’s ashes.

I want to wake up the house by installing very small, discreet wireless speakers in various rooms that will, in one room, have him reading his work; in another, speaking at a convention or a party, so the house feels alive; and from upstairs, the sound of typing. Videos (without audio, projected from tiny, invisibly placed projectors rather than installing monitors that would change the look of the room) showing Harlan and Susan will play in the bedroom and the wall leading up to the living room. You will feel his presence, his art and his work on a visceral level, as if he’s just stepped into the other room for a moment.

Finally, there are plans to create scholarships in Harlan and Susan’s name for up-and-coming writers graduating high school.

All of this takes money. Even without all the repair issues mentioned above, those we’ve consulted with who have turned the estates of other writers, artists or politicians into libraries have insisted that you need at least $1M in hand to start the process; double that would be better.

(And please don’t throw Kickstarter at me, I’ve investigated and it’s not viable because nobody can get anything in return, and it wouldn’t provide even a fraction of what’s needed. Everybody always says “Oh, go Kickstarter” which is another way of saying “let somebody else do this” without understanding the limitations.)

So it’s very simple: either we auction a very small part of what’s there, replacing it indistinguishably so the look of the house doesn’t change…or none of this can happen, and Harlan’s wishes are not met.

Pick one.” -J. Michael Straczynski

There it is, guys. Go check out the auction. Go if you can. Get involved. Donate if this matters to you. I appreciate your time on this.

Till next time,

AI Art Tribute To Mervyn Peake: Genius Of Gormenghast.

Here’s a true genius for you, this guy here entertaining these lucky little munchkins. His name was Mervyn Peake. He’d have wanted you to call him an illustrator or a poet, though he wrote two of the most white-hot works of genius ever put to paper in the unique genre of Dickens-esque fantasy fiction: Titus Groan and Gormenghast.

From being a painter & illustrator in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he went on to write poetry and short stories for children as well as adults. In 2008, The London Times named Peake among their list of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’.

As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through one’s fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination before they whip away on the endless current and are lost for ever in oblivion’s black ocean.” -Mervyn Peake

Though born in China in 1911, Peake’s family moved to England when he was 11. He was formally educated, particularly inspired and encouraged by an English teacher named Eric Drake who subsequently started an artist’s colony on the channel Island Of Sark which Peake joined later. Peake first exhibited his oil painting in 1931 with the Royal Academy. At the outbreak of World War Two, he applied to be a war artist and made a shocking, fascinating proposal to the Ministry Of Information of a way to help fight the war with his talent.

The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in Love.” – Mervyn Peake

For the war effort, Peake proposed an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition purported to be by Adolf Hitler himself be published as a propaganda weapon. The catalogue would include paintings showing mutilated, raped or starving victims of war atrocities, as Peake imagined Hitler might have drawn them, but with mundane titles like “Family group”, “Still life” and “Reclining figure”.

A still life from Peake’s proposed catalogue.

There is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or a woman for their world. For the world of their center where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.” –Mervyn Peake

Between 1943 and 1948, Peake completed Titus Groan and Gormenghast as well as some of his most notable illustrations for books by other authors, including Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By the late 1950’s he’d had at least two nervous breakdowns and was showing signs of dementia. It’s a terrible loss and shame what is so clear in the third book of the Gormenghast series, Titus Alone just comparing the writing. A fourth book in the series was left unfinished when Peake became too ill to write, though his widow’s manuscript supposedly found in the family attic formed the basis of a book of that title published in 2011.

I am the wilderness lost in man.” –Mervyn Peake

Grailrunner launched the Past Masters series of articles recently with a combined celebration of John Berkey, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby. The idea with the series is to use AI art generators, properly coaxed with the prompts and data set options, cycled till the styles look about right and simulate works by these artists – not to pretend these works in any way approach their talent. Rather, it’s just to make us pause, take a look at what made these geniuses unique, and imagine what it would be like to see new works by them now.

Enjoy some simulated pen & ink and wash illustrations generated by the Wonder AI art generator from Codeway. Prompts included “Steerpike in the kitchens”, “Gormenghast”, “ugly man telling stories”, “grotesque man screaming”, and “fantasy explorer in an airship”:

I hope you enjoyed these and are inspired in some way to find out more about Mervyn Peake. He’s worth your time.

In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.” –Mervyn Peake

Till next time,

New Works By Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and John Berkey! Almost.

Sorry for the headline. In this article you’ll see some new pieces that look (to me at least) like they came from the hands of three masters of their craft. They’ve all passed away, and that is a true poverty. Each of them were geniuses in their areas and made a mark like most of us could only dream of.

I get that AI art generators bring up all sorts of heavy topics like intellectual property questions and threats of eliminating artist and graphic design jobs. I definitely don’t want to talk about any of that right now. This rapidly emerging technology isn’t going away, and is getting crisper and more impressive with each passing week. It isn’t a bus, it’s a loaded freight train with jetpacks mounted on it.

So let’s talk instead about the fact that we live in a time when you can instantaneously view an infinite number of new works of art that can mimic the style of existing masters like the three we’ll highlight here though the men themselves are long since passed away. And though I see how some might perceive this sort of thing differently, to me this is honoring them. We’re not going to package these up and sell them, or try to market these in any way.

We’re going to tour a gallery and appreciate how awesome these three folks were.

Who was John Berkey?

John Berkey (August 13, 1932 – April 29, 2008) was an American artist known for his space and science fiction themed works. Some of Berkey’s best-known work includes much of the original poster art for the Star Wars trilogy, the poster for the 1976 remake of King Kong and also the “Old Elvis Stamp”. Berkey produced a large body of space fantasy artwork, producing utopian scenes of bubble-shaped, yacht-like spaceships. His distinctive painterly style has been evaluated as “at once realistic, yet impressionistic and abstract”. He has been described as “one of the giants in the history of science fiction art”. (Wikipedia)

The following images were generated using Codeway’s Wonder AI app, with various prompts relating to “space ships”, selecting an “oil painting” style:

Who was Will Eisner?

William Erwin Eisner (March 6, 1917 – January 3, 2005) was an American cartoonist, writer, and entrepreneur. He was one of the earliest cartoonists to work in the American comic book industry, and his series The Spirit (1940–1952) was noted for its experiments in content and form. In 1978, he popularized the term “graphic novel” with the publication of his book A Contract with God. He was an early contributor to formal comics studies with his book Comics and Sequential Art (1985). The Eisner Award was named in his honor and is given to recognize achievements each year in the comics medium. (Wikipedia)

The following images were generated using Codeway’s Wonder AI app, with various prompts relating to “ugly man telling stories” or “man in street”, selecting a “pen & ink” style:

Who was Jack Kirby?

Jack Kirby (August 28, 1917 – February 6, 1994) was an American comic book artist, writer and editor, widely regarded as one of the medium’s major innovators and one of its most prolific and influential creators. In 1940, he and writer-editor Joe Simon created the highly successful superhero character Captain America for Timely Comics, predecessor of Marvel Comics. During the 1940s, Kirby regularly teamed with Simon, creating numerous characters for that company and for National Comics, later to become DC Comics. The Jack Kirby Awards and Jack Kirby Hall of Fame were named in his honor, and he is known as “The King” among comics fans for his many influential contributions to the medium. (Wikipedia)

The following images were generated using Codeway’s Wonder AI app, with various prompts relating to “giant machine”, selecting a “pen & ink” style:

Other AI art generators you might consider playing with:

Artbreeder is a web-based generator, which in my opinion specializes in landscapes and faces.

Stable diffusion hosted here is also excellent, though it seems to produce much better results if you specify a particular artist or multiple artists for it to mimic the styles. You don’t have to, but it helps.

Craiyon is another web-based generator, and is a stripped-down version of Dall-e, which hit the headlines recently and made quite a splash. This is a free version, and resolutions are low. Still, it’s great for writing prompts.

There are many others, but I wanted to bring you these three gentlemen today, and some suggestions for your own experimentation. If you don’t know much about any of these guys, please take a few minutes and enrich your life a bit. They were amazing, talented people who brought us many gifts.

And I’m thrilled to have technology that can bring us closer to them like this.

Enjoy.

Building Out The Lore: The Wisptaken

Here at Grailrunner, we’re building out the lore of a unique western-flavored science fantasy setting called Salt Mystic. We have been for a while now. It’s a novel (with another in the works), a tabletop game, a series of short fiction, and a line of merchandise. It’s also an experiment in the creative process, and a fascinating thing to be a part of.

One of the characters in the first two decks we built for the tabletop game, a weird eye-rolling dude named “Murmur” struck us as funny at the time. The thought was to have a guy whose armor was haunted by software, and he listens to it. That meant he can’t be surprised, so the bonus you normally got of coming up behind him was short-circuited, though his expertise with his own weapon was randomly determined by a die roll.

Because he was crazy. Get it?

But we published a short story called The Weakness Of Demons that took the idea of these leftover software imps from thousands of years before to another level…a malicious, deadly level. You should go read that one. It’s one of my personal favorites. The idea was getting creepier.

Anyway, these imps were unleashed in an era of the Salt Mystic’s history called The Merchant Wars:

“It was a time of devastating economic and psychological warfare where propaganda was brought
to its highest effectiveness. Every book, every newscast, even the music to which their children
danced, was carefully engineered to manipulate belief patterns. Spies were embedded in all
levels of society in every nation, double and triple-crossing one another for advantage. Many
of the cruelly manipulative stonewisps, artificial intelligence chaos agents haunting statues and
masonry elements, date to this period.
” –Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules p. 14

And creepier still.

Then it struck me today as I finished a ridiculously long business trip and series of conference calls, dropping exhausted to a hotel bed, that some poor shmuck out in the wastelands just trapping beavers or hunting or whatever could come across a stonewisp abandoned in a piece of rubble or a broken machine lying about. And I wondered what that might lead to.

So allow me to introduce you to the newest addition to the Salt Mystic lore: The Wisptaken:

They call them ‘Wisptaken’ because of the terror of it. Anything as unholy and sad and deserving of justice as these tortured souls merits a quick death if you can deliver it. So few can deliver it though, and fall prey in the software-haunted wastelands to one or the other of their wicked judgements: a seducing taunt to join the masquerade or a burning from the carbine on their forearms.

The Wisptaken are as fast and deadly with a gun as they are convincing in their malicious, cunning lies. That’s the trick of it. That’s why they stay in the fog of legends and out of the clarifying light of civilization. If you encounter one of these nightmares in the backcountry or in the ruins between the provinces, it’s probably better to just make a desperate run.

But don’t speak to it. Never speak to it. If you do, there’s no telling what terrible things it will convince you to do.

The stonewisps were artificial intelligence imps embedded in building materials dating back thousands of years to the Merchant Wars when runaway spycraft and intrigue were tearing the world into pieces. Masters of propaganda and brainwashing tactics, manipulation and cult methods, stonewisps were planted in those days for the sole purpose of recruiting terror. It speaks to their mastery that so many were dumped into the wastelands rather than destroyed.

But they are machines. Code. They fulfill their designs. One could almost forgive them for it.

But when a ruined, broken person finally yields to the vile whispering of a stonewisp, one who’s chosen to inhabit their helmet or their armor, even their gun, that person is truly lost. No one could predict the mischief and spoil such a fusion of human and software could bring about.

No, don’t speak to it. Whatever you do.

Pity it. And run.

Announcing A Massive Freebie From Grailrunner!

Ahhh…free stuff. Who doesn’t love it?

One thing we’ve heard loud and clear from you is that you feel it’s hard for someone to first get into the Salt Mystic universe without having the Sourcebook And Core Rules. You’ve got your battle deck, your own copy of the book, and you’re ready to smash some tornadoes together. Your head’s swimming with images of gunslingers dueling with ball lightning and abandoned sparkling oriel gateways leading to treasures and ruin.

Yet there’s a lot of gaming options out there (and so very little spare time!), you struggle to get someone to buy any of that for themselves, so there’s no one to play the game with.

We hear you. And we’re fixing it.

All you need is a printer!

Starting today, the free ebook available right here on the Grailrunner site will include:

  1. Two full color Volume One starter decks, available in print & fold format
  2. Dice cards and a measuring ruler
  3. A fully realized narrative scenario complete with short fiction and table setup guidance
  4. An assortment of sample terrain elements, including one customized for the included scenario

The included adventure scenario is particularly dear to my heart, because we mostly stick to flash fiction at Grailrunner. We’ve always kind of thought people like their non-mainstream stories super short, high impact, lots of shock and cool ideas, with great eye-catching illustrations. Like we’ve attempted with the Lore Cards. The novels will be great when they come, but that moves incredibly slowly for me at least.

Yet you asked for more now. Thank you!

The bonus game scenario is titled “Towerlock”. We wanted to elaborate on a fan favorite character, the devilish all-seeing wildcat who calls herself “The Wake”, bringing her to life in a way that might surprise anyone that has gotten to know her so far. Or thinks they have.

The accompanying tale exists to help you visualize the unique battlefield conditions that will exist in the game scenario. The pressure cooker conversation between The Wake and this mysterious adventurer with whom she apparently has history is your chance to ask yourself just what you’d do to either attack or defend the summit of that mountain. You know your assets, your liabilities. Then…what would you do? Play and find out.

Towerlock: An abandoned oriel terminus has been discovered on the summit of a towering granite butte in the desert country in Jasphouse Province. A single oriel gateway leads to artificial pockets of space left over from The Infinite Republic, and could contain treasures and technologies beyond belief. Yet a terminus might contain as many as twenty such gates. No one nation can be allowed to control that sort of thing.

Karak and a vanguard watch from Alson in the Mountains got to the summit first and established an operation financed by an enigmatic partnership known only as Towerlock. He will need to plan his defenses carefully and consider all possible avenues for assaults and seiges.

Segmond and a vanguard watch from Tanith in the Salt Flats has arrived to take the summit back. He’ll need to analyze the defenses being set up, consider all intelligence he can gather, and prepare as devious or as bloody an assault as he can muster to have any chance at success.

Wonders beyond imagination could be ripe for the taking. But the fight will take place on a sheer vertical wall, and anyone who’s defeated falls like rain. Good luck. Draw well.

What’s your strategy?

Anyway, that’s what we wanted to let you know today. It’s a big deal to us, and will hopefully open the door to more folks dipping into this fascinating, experimental world that’s so unbelievably building itself.

Make sure you’re signed up for notifications for new articles here on the site; we plan to post a sample chapter from the upcoming novel, Mazewater: Master Of Airships.

Till next time,