Let’s Talk To Jeff Grubb!

Writer and Game Designer, Jeff Grubb

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

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

And he does Tai Chi too! Who knew?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

New shirts, dude. New shirts.

Our new shirt designs went live tonight! Take a look and let us know what you think here.

One particular design I’m personally REALLY into is the ‘Dreams are engines’ shirt. It’s the whole point behind Grailrunner. It’s what we do here.

Let me admit something to you. Every morning, within a couple of minutes of opening my eyes, I reach over and grab my phone. It’s not that I’m so busy or important that urgent messages are waiting…more like a ridiculous and quite useless craving for trivia or entertainment or anecdotes or memes to mention later. Useless.

And one reason that’s a problem is the negativity and spin all those apps and feeds bring me. It’s like downloading bricks and mortar into my head every day to build walls between people. Useless.

So that particular image…this one here…is important for a few reasons. Anybody who’s spent time with us knows our Salt Mystic line hosts lost, forgotten worlds tucked away in artificial spaces accessible through sparkling gateways. That’s one thing. But we’ve been plastering that message of positivity and inspiration for years now. I look at this picture here of an explorer, a wanderer, sneaking in places he’s maybe not supposed to be, and dreaming of something miraculous just up those stairs.

Wow, that’s totally me.

Anyway, go buy a shirt. Look good and be cool.

Madessa: Surveyor & Cartographer For The Oriel Webway

Madessa stepping into an unknown oriel world

Occasionally, we include flash fiction from the Grailrunner archives here. Today, the spotlight is on a character named Madessa, who features prominently in the Salt Mystic core rulebook. Enjoy!

She’d answered him twice already, but the guard just kept squinting at Madessa suspiciously with his helmeted head cocked to the side, “You’re with the what’now?!”

For the third time, “The Reignition Society…Sisters And Brothers For The Free And Open Mapping Of The Oriel Webway. And I made a promise.”

He prodded her again to keep her hands in the air, “Where I can see them! We’ll see which bin the Castellan wants to toss you into, clownface girl!”

They stood in the ponderous shadows of a rising stone temple swarming with workers, amid smiling and bustling crowds of villagers pushing carts. The carts bore stone and mortar and gilding plates,and produce and dried meats for those on the towers. They were building a soaring marvel where a poorer temple had once stood and burned down a generation ago. It was a celebration of unity and the most exciting thing that would happen to many of them.

The Castellan apparently not being available, the guard tried sounding official again, “What’s an oriel? You keep saying that!”

Madessa glanced down the dusty road at larger silhouettes on the horizon, grinning so slightly at what looked to be an elephant with a passenger basket and cargo hanging off its sides, “An oriel is a pocket of artificial space, created thousands of years ago. You live in one. All this. It branches off from the real world, where I’m from.”

She looked at his puzzled, hideous face and smiled, “I map them.”

“You’re a cracked egg, is what you are! Who created all that then?!”

“They called it ‘The Infinite Republic’. Countless worlds just outside our space inside their bubbles and sometimes forgetting that’s so. The Society wants to rebuild some of that. Just the good bits. I’m for real, dude. Surveyor and cartographer. I just came to get the skinny on this rebuilding operation you’re up to here. This will make a great navigation point. I’m gonna need some of that gold though.”

The guard glanced at the cart, laden with donated bracelets, necklaces, armlets and earrings for the casting pit. He spat at her, laughing viciously.

“I made a promise”, she said as she lowered one hand and pointed with the other. Following her pointing finger, the guard saw the laden elephant charging wildly. It was headed directly towards them.

Panicked, he looked back at her to see what power she had over this.“What promise?!”

“I promised the people on that elephant some of this gold.” Madessa snatched a handful of gold and slipped into the crowed just as the chaos set in. The Society had wonderful aspirations.

They just didn’t have any money.

(c) Brian Bennudriti

If you could use some Star Trek optimism right now…

I love reading introductions by people like Harlan Ellison and Stephen King almost as much as their books. There are cool insights into how they think in there, what pisses them off, and the sorts of trouble they maybe got up to when they were normal people. Not sure which intro of Ellison’s it was, but I recall that he got sideways with Gene Roddenberry once when the draft script of ‘City On The Edge Of Forever’ had crew members doing drugs or something…being regular folks, basically, with problems and shortfalls and whatnot.

Not my point, but stick with me here.

What I’m saying is Star Trek at its core was supposed to be a super optimistic picture of what could be. The troubles they have in those stories aren’t meant to be of their own doing. Roddenberry was saying we’d get past all that noise. Our troubles would be external to ourselves: things we run into out there in the great beyond. That’s why they didn’t want Ellison monkeying around with troubled people and vices. It’s a beautiful picture, actually, and one that inspires a host of people to do amazing, paradigm-shattering things out in the real world today.

Somewhere though, Star Trek lost its mojo. My opinion – don’t tweetblast me! I’m not seeing much these days in science fiction that inspires anybody to do anything but rage against things. To be honest, I think there’s a place for raging, but there’s as much of a place (if not more) for painting relatable portraits of what we could aspire to be. In our mad rush and culture war to help everyone see themselves as they are in their fiction, we’ve left behind the idea of giving people aspirations of who they might one day be.

I wrote a letter to Arthur Clarke once, when I was a little dude. I asked him what a tesseract was and told him I loved his stories. The reason I thought I’d ask him that is the guy inspired me. He just made me want to hop into the pages and marvel at the machines and dreams in his pages alongside his characters. We never mailed it, unfortunately. I don’t think my dad felt the need to pay postage to Sri Lanka.

Seriously, read Fountains Of Paradise for an elevator to space, or The Deep Range for guys in mini-submersibles herding whales, or Rendezvous With Rama to discover a marvelous and maddeningly well-designed alien artifact, or City And The Stars for people who can just opt out of thousands of years at a time. It goes on, man. It goes on. The guy makes me just shake my head and chuckle at his wild ability to make me want to be there…to see those things…to build those things!

So as I’ve sat over the last few years writing short pieces for a collection, there were so many times in an airport, on a train, in the car, or staring out a rain-fogged window that I intentionally summoned those same emotions to inject into the stories. I wanted to inspire myself with what might be. Sure, I built terrors too! I killed a lot of people and made a mess of the future. But I kept dreamers and wonder-workers and brave souls who genuinely aspired to forge better things…to overcome all that sought to swallow them and seduce them.

We went live just in the past couple of weeks. I’d be incredibly honored if you clicked over and took a look. It’s a collection of flash fiction and short stories, compiled such that the chapter endings include vignettes that collectively pose a riddle. The whole work is a puzzle to solve. Hopefully, it’s one that brings a smile to your face when it’s worked out (or if you cheat and read ahead!).

Take care, my friends. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

You Need To Hear From This Guy. Seriously.

DocBrock

Just how many people do you know who’ve studied pathology and martial arts? And taught themselves to write music and create video games? And have enough energy to power an Iron-Man suit? Let me introduce you to a guy I got to know during the quarantine. This is worth your time, seriously. You’ll learn something and will probably want to go play his game afterwards.

Anyway, if you’ve spent any time around here at Grailrunner, you know we intentionally dig for things that are interesting, off the beaten path, often with a futuristic slant. Go watch Youtube’s original docu-series ‘The Age Of AI‘ to see our tribe. Go read something by Barrington Bayley or Jorge Luis Borges or Arthur Clarke to see our warchiefs.

And give this short interview a read too. Here’s another one of us. His name is Brock Joseph Oliverio, though we’ll call him Doc Brock because that packs a punch. And ‘packing a punch’ is something he knows well. We sat down to ask about what led him to such an interesting life, where martial arts is going, and an exciting video game with a unique and futuristic twist you need to hear him describe.

We’re months into a global pandemic, so of course you have to tell us your background and how this COVID thing has impacted your day job.

Indeed. So I am a unique sort of practical scientist.  I was a Biology and Chemistry double major in college completing both in 4 years with a steep focus in molecular and cellular phenomena in the former and quantum mechanics in the latter.  I also have an M.D. with broad training in psychiatry, surgery, pharmacology, and epidemiology, but I ended up specializing in microscopic medicine known to the public as Diagnostic Pathology.

I didn’t go on to research, though.  I actually practiced medicine for a little over a decade where I acted as a cellular and molecular physician diagnosing people’s ailments, such as cancer and infection.  My performance led to leadership roles in hospital administration including becoming President of the Medical Staff, then Laboratory Medical Director, and finally Chief of all of Diagnostic & Rehabilitative Services where I oversee 105 employees aimed at providing diagnostic and therapeutic tests for patients.

So the impact of COVID-19 on my day job has been one of training and problem solving.  I am consistently tapped by employees and leaders across my organization for knowledge and solutions on how to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 virus due to my unique background.  I was even  one of the first laboratory leaders in my region to bring in the detection system for the virus.

So how did a guy studying pathology in West Virginia wind up pursuing martial arts?

It’s actually the other way around!  When I was 5 years old, my father came to me as I was punching and kicking bad guys (i.e. pillows) and said, “Would you like to try martial arts?”  For some odd reason, I said yes not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, but I just remember thinking that I had discovered something that I always knew about myself.  Now, I just knew what it was called.

My first class was a disaster!  I was so young and it was so intimidating being around a classroom full of not just much older kids but adults!  The school was just being formed and was in an old, dusty building in the wharf district of the small college town we lived in.  I had trouble staying on the practice floor because of my age-appropriate social anxiety, running back to my father in the observation area before the class was even finished.

When the next class came up, my father asked if I would like to try again.  I said yes and never looked back.  I’m 42 now and have been training ever since.  It’s a way of life for me, but it also answers the fundamental question of why I got into it in the first place: how do you deal with another being on a physical level.

The pursuit of that question led me to want to know everything about the human body.  With my aptitude and interest in science, medical school and then pathology were perfect, natural fits, and the discipline and focus I learned from martial arts gave me the ability to complete them.

What’s the future of martial arts? Where is it headed?

The future of martial arts is actually one of originality.  Human beings have gradually commercialized martial arts by breaking them up into styles for easy consumption.  These styles were more about what you don’t do than what you do do.

For example, I was classically trained in kung fu.  I was taught amazing strikes, but any type of ground work or grappling was not only avoided but sometimes shunned or even looked down upon in my circles.  As such, those fighting situations were ignored, and I had no way of dealing with someone who got past my strikes.

This, of course, was no big deal because I did not practice with anyone who did grappling.  I only practiced within my kung fu class, and everyone did exactly what I did.  I never had to deal with externalities not contained within my system of fighting.

Enter the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  On November 12, 1993 modern martial arts was put to the ultimate scientific test when each style would start to be put up against the other.  As we went from UFC 1 to 2 to 20 and beyond a pattern emerged: Brazilian jiu-jitsu was dominant.

Many thought this was the deciding experiment that finally proved which style was the best, but it turned out that it was just the martial arts community composed mainly of strikers having the same realization as I did regarding the gap in our training.

You’ll notice that as UFC went on, all of the strikers began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu and all of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters began training striking!  As such, the martial arts styles that were once one and united have begun their slow trek back to originality.

I think the future of martial arts is a continuation of this phenomenon. From my perspective, I have found that the principles of fighting that apply when you are standing up apply when you are on the ground as well.  Also, the human body can only move in so many ways.  For example, an elbow only bends so far and a shoulder only raises so high.  As such, there are only so many fighting movements possible and these movements have been possible since we became bipedal.  Physics sure haven’t changed either!  So the future of martial arts is getting back to basics before things were separated and approaching the problem of dealing with another being on a physical level by bringing ALL of our assets to bear in the physical universe we occupy.

Without naming them specifically, who was one person that most impacted your life in a positive way and why?

Hands down that would be my father.  He is and always has been my number 1 fan.  Growing up he provided unlimited encouragement and guidance in my life’s pursuits and showed me the proper attitude to have in life by example.  I can say without a doubt that without him I would not be where I am today.

Sell us on Future Fighter. Why is it amazing?

Knight

Because you can finally do everything you’ve wanted to do in a fighting game but couldn’t.  Future Fighter is a translation of my real-world martial arts and sparring experiences into the game world.  As such, you have more control over your character and more accurate representations of true fighting movements than you have had before.  Because the developer, martial artist, science expert and motion capture actor all share the same organic cephalic neural network, there is nothing lost in translation either.  When you play Future Fighter, you face the mind of a martial artist in a sci-fi universe.

What’s involved in making and marketing a video game as unique as this?

Discipline.  As you can imagine, I have a busy day job, so every nanosecond spent outside of that day job has to be effectively utilized and organized to make game development possible.  That same discipline has to be put into getting the word out about the game so other people can discover it and play it.  Overall, it means being systematic in my daily approach to both development and to updating all of my networks, customers and fans with the latest news and progress.

Skill, of course, is a big factor, too.  I unwittingly started my game development journey as a musician in high school when I taught myself to play the piano after being inspired by the “Ending (Boss)” theme from Star Fox.  Then, once I learned how to hook up my synthesizer to a computer in college, it was all over.  I started writing songs and making sound effects for a friend’s video game in medical school who then asked me to be on his game design team.  Another member of that team and I went on to form our first video game development company.

As a two-man crew, I had to start filling in the gaps for necessary skills that the company needed.  It started with web programming and then game programming.  My team member decided to become a full-time dad, but I decided I would continue my game development career with a solo project called Future Fighter.  I picked up visual effects, motion capture, 3D art, and animation to round out my skill set.

In fact, when you play Future Fighter or interact with me online, the only content that you interact with that is not a Doc Brock original are the 3D models.  Could I do those?  Yes.  Would I ever get as good as these amazing 3D modelers that you see in Hollywood.  No.  So I pay these good people to use their 3D models and then bring them to life in Future Fighter with motion capture and my own personal visual effects tweaks to match the vision in my head of that universe.

Pick one character from the game and introduce us.

That would have to be my digital doppelganger, Omega.

Omega is a curiosity in the Future Fighter verse.  He seemingly has technology and abilities that no one can really explain.  Personally unknown to the two main factions, the Priests and the Elites, Omega just does not fit into the current structure of humanity that our future heads to.  As such, he becomes a real problem for both sides exposing a deep, dark secret about the true nature of power and freedom in the universe.

His fighting style literally is my fighting style.  I have motion captured the moves that I use every week in my sparring sessions and given them to him.  Also, the Shadow AI that controls him in game approaches you the same way I approach my opponents every week in my sparring matches.  Tactically and technically, he is me.

It’s fun and exciting to hear your enthusiasm about the kind of stories we publish at Grailrunner. What attracts you to science fiction?

The possibilities!  We all know eventually we are going to get there: teleportation, flying cars, a world without cancer, etc.  The problem isn’t our lack of abilities.  It’s our fear-based brains.  Fear holds us back from trying new things because we’re afraid of the deleterious consequences.  As a result, progress is slow — machinatiously slow.  (There was not a good adjective to describe how slow I think the progress is, so I made one up.)

Science fiction gives us the ability to see the world that will be — without the limits of our fear or our finite lifetimes.  In doing so, it helps us find out who we are and who we want to be.  What could be better than that?

Where can we learn more about what you’re up to?

Docbrockgames.com is the place you want to be.  It has all of my updates and gives you options for your favorite delivery method: social media, blog, email list and even a forum!

Anything else you’d like to tell us about?

Yes.  I’d like to tell you what a treat it has been getting to know you and participating in this interview.  Reading the excellent sci-fi published by your website is inspiring and imaginative.  I look forward to sharing it across all of my networks so that others can enjoy it, too.

 

Scorpion Void

dna-1903875_1280

(Periodically, we include short fiction here relating to some of our intellectual properties from the developing books and games. Please enjoy this one!)

The Bioverse was the sum total output of trillions of biological nanobots and sensors inside the bodies of all humanity, projected graphically and acoustically around a one-seater deck that looked like a flight simulator but was so much more. This is a story of its golden age, of an intelligent and wildly mutating plague and the daredevil CounterBiotics pilots banded together against it in this manufactured universe of information.

Blind to whose bodies they sailed, mercilessly raiding clusters of increasingly deadly and sophisticated microbes, the CounterBiotics pilots were the final hope in a desperate time…

I was there that day, at Scorpion Void…the day we saw its face. I still see it in quiet, lonely evenings when I’m locking up, and something flitters just in the corner of my eyes. It’s outside the windows, even on the second floor where I keep my bedroom. It’s at the foot of my bed as I drag up the blanket. It’s behind my eyelids.

The Void.

I was there, and I can tell you what I saw. But you won’t get it unless you know what we expected, what was supposed to be there. You need to feel the thunder in your bones like we did, because we used to laugh back then. We were cocky and funny, with nicknames. We thought we were chasing cancers and novel viruses, unrelated super-bacteria immune to medicines. Until Scorpion Void, the plague had a thousand names, and it was an undirected force of nature subject to our phage torpedoes and morphosomes. It was a day when we lost our ignorance and our innocence.

There were three of us: two Americans and a Frenchmen, not that it matters when you’re inside. The mission was to investigate an anomaly in the data. The Bioverse was blank where it shouldn’t have been, entirely empty. You’re not able to know whose body any part of the data comes from, so the Void could have been in a dancer on a stage or inside someone choking on a hospital bed. Whoever they are, they made it. The crevice and ridge are still there; I’ve been back many times to be certain.

‘My torpedo is infected!’. That’s what I remember the Frenchmen said. It was impossible, of course. We uniquely designed the phages based on what we saw. Nothing remote like this could have adapted to us. Yet there it was, inserting its code directly into our arsenal’s genome.

When I looked into that canyon, that black precipice into nothing at all, I saw the plague. I saw it, lashing and snapping at me. Genes I’d seen all across the Bioverse were nested there in a tumor. It still bore the code from a thousand outbreaks, a sick library of pandemics. Impossible. All of it was impossible. And now, our own weapons were compromised. If we fired, we’d only make copies of our enemy.

I saw the plague’s face that day, friend. And it’s a raging, gambling beast looking to kill us all. There’s one thing about seeing a face though.

You know you can find it again.

(c) Grailrunner Publishing

A tale of the Bioverse.

 

 

Clueless In The Sunless Citadel

map and firebeetle

A couple of weeks ago, to pass the time in quarantine between the escalating parade of conference calls, I pulled my old Dungeons & Dragons starter set off the shelf and cracked open a book I got for Christmas (Tales Of The Yawning Portal) from Wizards Of The Coast. Obviously, most D&D packaged adventures are for groups of people and are designed to be led by a dungeon master. I hammered out a few guidelines for converting them to solo dealie-o’s and wrote about that here.

It was such a surprise how things turned out, and when the characters started to pop for me, I thought it would be fun to write and illustrate a short pdf of how the adventure turned out.  It was a far wilder ride than I’d anticipated, which is a rock solid testament to how powerful the D&D system really is and why it has such a special place in so many hearts.

The kind folks at NaturalCrit have graciously made available a tool able to publish documents that look almost exactly like the Wizards Of The Coast 5th edition D&D materials. It’s here, you should give it a try if you’re into that. It’s what I used to format the document.

There are over 20 custom illustrations inside, mostly done in Daz Studio, Photoshop, and a little Blender.

The adventure I chose was ‘The Sunless Citadel’, so the setting,  three of the characters, and the encounters are all drawn from that book. Not mine, and property of Wizards Of The Coast, completely.

The story though, that was pretty much all the roll of the dice. Sticking to the rules I’d outlined, I only read descriptions of rooms once I’d decided to enter. The dice decided whether something worked or not, and who lived or died. Seriously, things just went nuts with this.

For my very first game of Dungeons & Dragons way back in the day, my buddy was as clueless as I was about how to play and gave me my character’s name: Firebeetle. That’s the elf that led this delve into the Sunless Citadel.

surrender

I hope you like this adventure, as it was a pain and a joy to put together. I wish someone else was writing Firebeetle now, because he cracks me up, and I’d like to know where he goes next.

Maybe you can tell me.

Here’s the link to download Clueless In The Sunless Citadel.

Till next time!

 

Solo dungeon crawling in the quarantine: The Sunless Citadel

Sunless citadel image

Just getting this out of the way now, I don’t really know how to play Dungeons & Dragons correctly. I played a couple of times when I was a kid, and I’ve messed around with my own kids a couple of times. So there – no comments about how a 1st level whatever shouldn’t be able to cast doomahickey.

However, I saw this cover last summer as I was puttering around:

Portal

Guys! Come on. That’s just good art. Intrigued, but no use for the book, I passed it by. It inspired me to shoot for a little more grotesque imagery in the art I was putting together for the Salt Mystic game though. Like this guy:

Isolated storyteller

I listen to a lot of nerds on Youtube when I go running though, and came across a terrifying dungeon the game’s creator, Gary Gygax, concocted back in the day called ‘The Tomb Of Horrors‘. I guess Gary’s idea was to put veterans of his new game in their place and make it pretty much impossible to survive the adventure due to traps and false endings and tricks. Honestly, such a cool guy, that Gary! You should hit up Youtube on that sometime to hear stories of guys who were there at those early cons trying to survive Gary’s machinations.

When I came to realize that tomb had been reproduced in the same book that had caught my eye, I added it to the Christmas wish list and lucked out. My wife is pretty cool that way. And it sat looking cool on the shelf until now. Quarantine for COVID19 and, to be honest, no real connections out there that play the game anyway.

I was thinking recently, though, about how to take solo adventures between conference calls. It struck me that without a real clue on the rules and without a dungeon master telling the big story, that this would be hopeless and sad. I tried some random dungeon generators online and found them repetitive and lifeless.

So I cracked open the ‘Tales Of The Yawning Portal’ and read up on the basics of the game from an old starter set laying around. There is a starter adventure in there called ‘The Sunless Citadel”, designed for newbies to level up quickly.

I’ve just finished a wild ride that, if I’m honest, went places I hadn’t expected and took crazy turns…was kind of nerve wracking at times…and ended in an interesting place with popping tension for a follow-up. I might write it up and post it here as a pdf just to make my point that this really wound up looking like something I’d planned when I absolute had not.

(Update: I totally DID make this an illustrated ebook, available for download at the top of this article.)

I didn’t even cheat. Much.

Anyway, the point of this post is really to share some guidelines I came up with to re-engineer a packaged adventure from Wizards Of The Coast intended for group play facilitated by a dungeon master into a solo adventure that’s surprising and interesting.

Sunless citadel map

Principles:

  1. Carefully build the character sheet with all the spells, inventory, and weapons you intend to use without cheating and adding things later when you need them
  2. Since you won’t have companions (at first), think through what challenges you’ll face and add items and skills to deal with them (I figured I’d need to pick locks, so brought along tools for that)
  3. Pick an adventure that has decent maps and plenty of rooms to explore, with a story that adds purpose to what you’re trying to do
  4. Don’t read ahead in the book, only the description for a room or corridor after you’ve decided you’re entering based on the map and the story
  5. Once you’ve entered, deal with whatever you came across without cheating (I accidentally reanimated some skeleton archers and almost got toasted)
  6. If the adventure doesn’t already require it, find a roll table for encounters (on-line or in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and make the occasional surprise roll
  7. Follow whatever side adventures are offered (I wound up making a daring raid into the goblin side of the citadel to recover a little dragon they wanted back) and be willing to deviate from the original plan
  8. If a character offers to join you, let them. You’ll need help when things get rough.
  9. Try and get in your new companions’ heads and determine what they might actually do in these circumstances, then deal with that (one of my guys would more logically say she was joining me but turn her back on me as soon as she could).
  10. Journal out the entire story, including dialogue if you can. Things get muddy and dull unless you can reflect on where you’ve been, what you were thinking, and you lock things down tangibly.
  11. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat. The rolls are the rolls. If the lock won’t open, the attack doesn’t hit, even if you’re killed. Don’t cheat.

So maybe give it a shot yourself, if you’ve never tried. In my case, the final scene was a cliffhanger: I suppose the mission was accomplished, but the little dragon is furious with me, the lead of the kobolds is chaining me up, and my other companion is missing. Plus, there are some pretty ticked-off goblins who are probably coming for all of us.

And also those weird noises coming from the lower levels…

Be safe, guys. Till next time.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Bioverse

Bioverse cockpit

We’re super close to wrapping up a flash fiction collection for publication; and it seemed timely to bring you into the loop a bit on some of the key ideas tying them together. One of the biggest ones had nothing whatsoever to do with COVID19 or any global pandemic because I started writing the dang thing two years ago.

It’s a little creepy now, though.

I was just was thinking along the lines of global outbreaks and mutating diseases…and what fantastic but maybe plausible mechanisms might science fiction offer to do something about them. In the collection, you’ll see much of the world’s population hit very hard with a rogue prion that triggers wild mutations. The resulting cascades of diseases appear with thousands of faces over a hundred years; and humanity forges an incredible approach to face them down.

It’s called the Bioverse. Let’s head inside to see what it’s all about. Here’s a short piece of flash fiction. It’s called THE CHASE. I hope you like it.

Banner file

You can tell yourself the Bioverse is just a visual representation, a rippling and illusory curtain of data. You can steady yourself against the deck’s cockpit and acknowledge that it’s not really sailing anywhere physical. Look around if you like – maybe you’ll catch glimpses of the walls or lighting or soundproofing panels.

More likely, you’ll black out or vomit into your lap. It’s a lot to take in.

The aggregate input of quintillions of nano-scale machines and sensors embedded in practically every human alive throughout the globe has been rendered in this artificial universe for specially trained CounterBiotics agents like you to sail its front lines. New viruses and exotic bacteria are evolving at rates never before seen, in seconds rather than days. Rogue proteins and phages stalk the world, triggering DNA mutations that launch into the wide world in a matter of hours. It’s a devastatingly dangerous time.

And it’s a very good thing you’re here to do something about it.

Those images are data. You’re rocketing through actual people out there, who might be at the grocery looking through apples or coughing their last breath in a hospital bed. You’ll never know who they are; that’s hidden from you. In fact, you’ll hop seamlessly from one person to another like crossing an undefended border. It’s the chase that matters. Only the chase.

Imagine a ski-slope shaped chart, a pareto. The highest bars on the left are the people with some nasty disease that we’ve set in our sights…something that steals away pregnant mothers and single dads and wide-eyed little kids who can’t understand what’s happening to them. Imagine these diseases, these plagues, as hungry prowling beasts drooling in the shadows. They’re scary, aren’t they?

But we’ve built this miracle place. And we’ve tasked you to chase these beasts from their highest concentrations down to the last gene somewhere that’s coded for it. And we’ve tasked you to be merciless and slay them all, right where they hide.

It’s the chase that matters, my friend. Only the chase.

 

(C) Brian Bennudriti

Grailrunner Publishing

Nonlinear adventures: the mind-twister for Coronavirus lock-down

ball-420359

I hope everyone is staying as safe and locked down as possible till the COVID19 issues are a distant memory. The hope is that in no time at all, we’ll be looking back proudly at how well we weathered this whole thing and how we pulled together as families and neighbors.

Meanwhile, it’s a great time for projects, right?

When I was a little nerd, I was a huge fan of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-style books branded ‘Endless Quest’ that let you dive into Dungeons & Dragons worlds and set your own course. Battles and mysteries and spooky beasts…I was really into that. Here’s one I used to read:choose own adventure

Around Christmas, I poked around in a few Cthulhu solo adventures, which brought those old books back to mind. I still have a few on the shelf; but they don’t really have the same oomph from back in the day for me. So I wondered is it time to try and write one?

Well, no it’s not. Obviously. I have a short story collection to finish, a novel that’s 3/4th complete and in ramp-up mode, a wargame and merchandising to finalize and market, and a sequel to write. It’s obviously NOT time to start another project.

But still…

My house is chaos sometimes. My wife often asks from across the house, “What’cha doin’?” Two teenagers need a lot of attention. And they eat a lot. And two dogs need stroking and wrestling. So now as we’re cooped up together in the house, it’s kind of nice to slip down to the basement to the little cafe table beside the wargame stuff, leave the lights a little dim, and bust out some words on something completely different from what I’ve been thinking about for years now.

And that’s where this nonlinear thing comes in.

So Twine. Check these guys out here. This is software for writing branching narratives that leave decision-making up to the reader. You can install it as an app or build it from your browser. I’m seeing that it’s a lot easier to learn than I’d thought. Here’s an example I pulled from a kind soul named Sara Stern:

SaraSternTwine1

The post-it note thingies are individual web pages where your text lies, accessible via links the reader is clicking as they make their choices. All you do is put a “[[ ]]” around your choice options; and it creates the new pages for you. Seriously, super easy. Tutorials on this abound. Twine 2.0 is my preferred brew, the default Harlowe format. You can add images, even background images, and sound and video if you want. Though you probably shouldn’t do those last things.

The tricky thing here, as I’m learning, isn’t the technical piece of engineering an html file for posting which contains your adventure. No, not even a little bit.

The tricky thing is chasing a particular decision out and building your beautiful, intricate plot development out along the resulting bunny trail, then realizing that maybe they didn’t pick that option.

Ichiwawa!

Anyway, there will be a new Salt Mystic adventure out hopefully in a couple of weeks…the first non-linear story. Here’s the branding we’re going with:

Salt Mystic Interactive Adventure

It’s called AT THE MOUTH OF THE ROTTING GIANT. You’ll be crouching and scraping your way inside the corpse of a long-dead fallen giant to speak with an ancient piece of artificial intelligence. And you’ll be armed.

You’ll need to be.

See you soon, guys. Stay safe!

(c) Grailrunner Publishing