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,

Exploring Fantasy Lands: A Builder’s Field Report

In my day job, I study and coach the imaginative process. In that case, it’s people in factories trying to solve tricky problems that have them stuck, in some cases for many years. Many times, the reason they’re stuck is because of how they’re thinking about the problem. That isn’t my point today; I’m just letting you know that I think a lot about super-charging imaginations – what makes our creativity go off-road and jump out of ruts and tropes into new lands. It’s pretty fascinating, actually.

Take, for example, the massive city-state called The Jagganatheum:

A single edifice sprawling as large as a city, teeming with millions, and buzzing with the incandescent dreams of building an infinite republic. One building spanning as far as anyone could see, strapped to a mountain. It was gorgeous then in the heyday of Naraia, gleaming white and gold with banners flying from soaring towers. And they had to come together in a way never before imagined just to build such a complex, which was entirely the point. Once it fell out of use hundreds of years later, all manner of unrooted and shiftless people moved in and shabbily built upon its framework. Entire towns have grown up inside its rambling and incoherent architecture now. It’s a dangerous place of wild people and best left to them.

Let me tell you what that’s about and take you there. It really gets to the heart of how imaginations work and how they can change our lives.

If you’re new to Grailrunner, our thing here is inspiration, specifically using science fiction and fantasy novels and tabletop games to explore immersive storytelling. Our signature IP is a world setting and sandbox called Salt Mystic. You can find more here. We’re building out the next volume of characters and locations, and I’m working feverishly on a novel to accompany a major development in the tabletop game.

To begin, all I had in this case was a name (The Jagganatheum) and the vague idea of a giant city sprawling across a mountainside that was cobbled together. In fact, the city was just one enormous, hideous building, ages old, and so patched together and crumbling. The name came from the original form of ‘juggernaut’, extended from referring to Vishnu to include gigantic carts pulled in worship through the streets. It meant ‘big’ to me, so I liked it for the purpose. I always loved the image my dad used to describe of himself growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950’s where he’d shimmy up to the rooftop of his school and stare at the sky, dreaming. I was going to steal that too.

That’s where this guy came from:

Envisioning this big, sprawling, wild place and this nameless dreamer growing up in it, I had to ask why he was such a dreamer looking at the sky? What did he hope to find there? Why did he want to leave? This guy, eventually Lamberghast Mazewater, came of those questions and will ultimately be a war marshal in the service of both The Jagganatheum and beautiful Vimana Station (if he survives these crazy vortex glider experiments!).

All this leads me to the first finding about exploring imagined lands, and we’ll let an old inventor introduce it:

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” -Thomas Edison

Finding #1: Gather inspirations and ask questions about them

By just following the questions and the possibilities, without worrying over plot or key events I needed for the story, and especially without considering ‘sizzle reels‘, the notebook started filling up with great locations inside the city that I’d like to visit and both mighty and intimate things that had happened there. My point with this is that I’ve found it so much more enjoyable to just garden these imaginary settings, to let them breathe and grow wild before I have to prune for the tale I’m telling. I wanted these Jagganatheum streets and alleys to be there, for real, waiting on whoever I was to send scampering into them.

How about we let a fantasy novelist and screenwriter introduce this one, as he compares this sort of writing to gardening:

“They don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.” -George R. R. Martin

Finding #2: Avoid using plot points as mileposts

A few months ago, I caught a terrible head cold and fell asleep with a fever after spending time sketching out this place. I’ll never forget the dream that came about that night. It was incredible. I saw the high ceilings of a train station (looking a lot like Milan’s Central Station) with a mishmash of sculptures and friezes, with all manner of exotic people buzzing about. I saw a red armored ceremonial guard, with intricate filigree on their shoulder boards and chest plates. I was taking this train inside The Jagganatheum’s central complex to its far reaches, which echoed a developing plot point that was still (at the time) only just coming into view.

When I woke up, I rushed to write it all down, because I hadn’t thought of them using trains to get around the city. I hadn’t thought of any sort of guards, and didn’t know at the time what they’d be guarding. And being so focused on the exterior views of this mighty, mad place, I hadn’t considered at all what the interiors would look like. Of course, they’d have old statues and dented inscriptions going back to the city’s founding! It made sense; I just hadn’t gotten there.

Which means it’s time again for one of the most quoted, quotable quotes we go to on this site:

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” -Louis Pasteur

Finding #3: Set your mind thinking about the land you wish to explore and build, then do something else. Even sleep.

In my case, it was fortunate to have such an unsettled mind from the fever, but I often use this trick going kayaking or running. I’ll use it before a long plane trip. Just a framing of the problem, its borders and boundaries, then let the engines run behind the scenes.

What’s come of all this is a fully realized and fascinating city that has started to feel like a place I can travel to. It’s mapped out in broad strokes, but the specifics are waiting for me to visit as the needs arise. I swear, when I sit to write on this book, I’m anxious to get Lamberghast moving just so I can see more of this fascinating place.

That’s what I wanted to offer you today, just a few findings from the field as this book and game volume come together. I hope in some small way, I’ve struck a spark with you. We’ll keep you posted as this wonderful thing builds itself!

Till next time,

What Is Your Player Type? And Why It Matters.

I went to my favorite bookstore this weekend, looking for something to cheer me up. It was Prospero’s in Kansas City, which I’ve written up here on Grailrunner before. It’s funny, when I’m looking for something to read, it’s really a feeling I’m searching for. I like to explore new worlds, to find out what’s around the next turn in the road. I love to come back from an adventure with stories to tell. It’s how I’m wired, and that bleeds into the sorts of books I was hoping to find.

It struck me in those quiet, cluttered aisles with the sound of drizzling rain outside that there’s something fundamental here about readers and writers that’s worth talking about. It relates to an important question about what sorts of books or games we buy and which ones we don’t, and most importantly, what fed those decisions?

Here’s what I bought. Let’s talk about why.

I was there maybe an hour, and scanned a lot of old science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. Anything that looked like a Lord Of The Rings knockoff or with complicated blurbs on the back covers that looked like huge investments in mindshare, I passed right over. Seriously, if even the summary names three alien races and struggles to focus in on what makes the book different or interesting, I couldn’t be bothered. Too much going on in my life to devote the limited reading hours to something that won’t leave me pondering or inspired or with a piece of juicy recommendation for someone.

But these three made it though. I was happy to find them. And I don’t really even like Crowley. Why these?

Hold that thought. Have you heard of Bartle’s player types? It’s this:

Dr. Richard Bartle identified four main types of personalities relating to how we approach playing games. He fleshed this out in a 1996 paper called Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs, then more fully in a book called Designing Virtual Worlds. There’s a simple quiz you can try to determine your own player type, though you likely already know after reading the summaries above.

I’m an Explorer. Big time. Here’s what the quiz result told me:

Explorers delight in having the game expose its internal machinations to them. They try progressively esoteric actions in wild, out-of-the-way places, looking for interesting features (ie. bugs) and figuring out how things work. Scoring points may be necessary to enter some next phase of exploration, but it’s tedious, and anyone with half a brain can do it. Killing is quicker, and might be a constructive exercise in its own right, but it causes too much hassle in the long run if the deceased return to seek retribution. Socializing can be informative as a source of new ideas to try out, but most of what people say is irrelevant or old hat. The real fun comes only from discovery, and making the most complete set of maps in existence.

Recently, I went deep into a Google and Reddit search looking for the tabletop game with the best, most innovative exploration mechanics. I didn’t think about why I was looking for that, I was just enamored with the idea of an adventure in a box with worlds to explore. (The consensus was Free League’s Forbidden Lands, by the way, if you want to know what came from that.) I’m also testing out Shawn Tomkin’s new Starforged solo RPG rules for the same reason.

Why? Because I like not knowing what’s out there and venturing beyond the safe spaces to find out.

So it stands to reason that if I enjoy those sorts of experiences, then a book that proposes an exploration would intrigue me. Titles that mention fantasy cities or intriguing space stations or derelicts, those that mentioned gateways or mysterious towers, or portals to other worlds…those wound up in my hands for consideration.

Great Work Of Time

John Crowley wrote a masterwork called Little, Big. You should read it, though it’s a bit hard to follow in my opinion. I got so irritated with his Aegypt that I sold it back (and I never do that!). Incomprehensible book, at least to me. Yet I picked this Great Work Of Time up twice before deciding to buy it – because it pitches ‘an ingenious time travel tale’ through ‘the wide-eyed and wondrous possibilities of the present to a strange and haunting future of magi and angels’. My point is I bought it because it promises me an exploration of time like Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad Of The Time Streams. I’m an explorer, and this promised me something to grant me that feeling of awe seeing new things.

Aldair, Master Of Ships

Honestly, this book sold itself with the cover and title alone. Here’s the line on the back that really sealed the deal though: “For Aldair has been forced into the role of a future Magellan, who must travel down the coasts of unmapped continents, facing monsters, winged wizards and great dangers, to find a knowledge older than the history of his entire race.” As I experienced the marketing for this 1977 book of which I was blissfully unaware beforehand, I imagined scenes of wonder and adventure on a sailing ship, with strange coastlines up ahead, and this Aldair person (whoever he was) squinting his eyes in the sea wind at something on the horizon…

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!

I’ve tried reading these Stainless Steel Rat books before and felt the whole thing was too dated and silly. It’s a con man going on space adventures, apparently. I generally don’t like heist stories or conmen characters who cheat and lie. My preference for a protagonist is somebody decent, imperfect, scared in the face of terrible things, but doing what they need to do anyway. So why pick up this one? Truthfully, what sealed the deal for me was the cover art’s slick spaceship and a blurb on the back with comparisons to James Bond and Flash Gordon. I was intrigued with the idea of a recurring adventurer character with his own spaceship touring the wonders of the galaxy, free of bureaucracy and politics and financial burdens. Pure escapist adventure on a spaceship. If this one was selling that, then I’d try again.

*

So that’s what I wanted to talk about today. If you’re writing or designing games or art, it’s worth giving this a thought. There are a lot more Socializers out there than the other types, but maybe your creations can offer something for all four types. At least recognize your own type, and make sure you leverage that to the fullest in whatever you create.

Gotta go now. It’s sunny outside, and I’m taking the kayak to a different part of the lake under a little footbridge to a cove I’ve not been into before. Who knows what sorts of things I’ll find over there…

Till next time,

Solo Tabletop Wargaming: Fear The Wolfpack Rules!

Tabletop wargames are a social function. I get you. Beer, dice, pizza, and screaming in some cases. In others, lots of dudes in black t-shirts staring ponderously at a bunch of terrain and models with a measuring tape in hand and money at stake. And that’s cool.

Yet in the last couple of years as COVID-19 was a mess and we were all stuck in quarantines, solo gaming became much more of a thing for many of us. It so happened that we here at Grailrunner Publishing were already hip-deep in designing and playtesting a terrain-based trading card wargame ourselves when all that was going down. And it begged the question, for me at least:

Is a solo tabletop wargame possible?

I was personally entirely underwater with work from my day job and compiling art and copy for the rulebook in evenings when this question came up with the Sourcebook entirely written and the rules close to final form.

So I cheated, because I didn’t think so. And I built a simple ruleset for a solo dungeon crawler I called:

The idea, as always with what we do here at Grailrunner, was to inspire adventures and imaginative journeys through immersive storytelling. I was thrilled as it came together: a short solo delving game you played with the same cards and dice as the core game that aspired to make a puzzle of each turn but still tell an engaging story:

Deep underneath a massive stone temple lies the culmination of the Salt Mystic’s philosophy known for two millennia as “The Augur”. A shared hallucination maintained by an elite group of Recorders capable of recalling entire lifetimes of people throughout history, the Augur for centuries served as oracle and guide for the Infinite Republic up until the War Of The Rupture. It’s still down there in its circle. And it has powerful secrets. Perhaps no one knows how many subterranean levels there are to the temple, with grand corridors and massive oak doors – behind each of them an oriel, an artificial pocket of space leading to practically anything you can imagine. Entire civilizations are tucked away inside those rooms, all of it neatly housed inside the Temple. Raiders constantly invade these halls, plundering the secrets of the temple for lore to raise themselves a twisted Guardian. It is a miracle itself how the Augur has manipulated the nations into providing generation after generation of Protectors: those charged to patrol these halls against these would-be pirates. -From the Salt Mystic Sourcebook And Core Rules

But anyway, I was cheating. I could imagine the playtesters on Tabletop Simulator, the guys that help out with our art and composition and rules design brainstorming just frowning at me, cocking their respective heads to one side and saying,

“Not what we asked for though.”

So last year I went back to my thinking place and scoured the internet for easy, streamlined AI rules & algorithms from games on the market – some fairly obscure but showing up in Reddit discussions as great for solo play. I messed around for hours and hours on the table, tearing any ideas to shreds that were complicated or that slowed down gameplay and pleaded for feedback and playtesting. Not everyone is kind, but feedback abounds.

And what came of all that was a terrifying set of clear, intuitive rules that anyone wanting to play a tabletop wargame solo can use to torture and challenge themselves. We called it Wolfpack Mode.

The core idea came from a German submarine warfare tactic devised by Hermann Bauer and perfected by Karl Donitz, used to great effect in World War Two. On my tabletop, tailored for a fast game of Salt Mystic, it blossomed into an escalating nightmare of a challenge that just keeps turning up the heat till you crush your phantom opponent or curl into a fetal position crying on the floor begging it to stop.

The Sourcebook And Core Rules is a one-stop shop with everything needed to play a basic game. Two complete battle decks (Karak: Hammer Of The Red Witch and Segmond: The Loreblade) are also available, sold individually but collectively referred to as Volume One.

But I thought as a gift I’d share the pages that describe the Wolfpack Mode, in case you’d like to give Salt Mystic a try or reskin the rules for whatever your wargame of choice is.

Let me know what you think. Feedback has been great, if not outright conspiracy theories that I’m trying to drive players insane with fears that wargame cards and stalking them.

Anyway, till next time.

Disney’s Kenobi: A Case Study In Sizzle Reel Blindness

Although movie and television show reviews are some of the most popular things we do here on Grailrunner, I don’t personally like to write them. The main reason for that is we try and stay positive and encouraging here, optimistic about the future and the importance of good escapism. Any time you put up something focused on opinion, you’re risking alienating half the folks reading it.

And although there’s plenty to like about Kenobi on Disney+, I’ve found a particular disease in it that is unfortunately common in Hollywood productions today, and thought I’d focus there…a short-sighted lapse in logic in key moments of the show driven by the desire to get to specific plot points or hyped scenes.

Let’s call it ‘sizzle reel blindness’. Hear me out – I’ll define my terms and make the point without griping about anything.

Here’s wikipedia’s brief if you’re unclear what show I’m talking about:

Obi-Wan Kenobi is an American television miniseries created for the streaming service Disney+. It is part of the Star Wars franchise and stars Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, reprising his role from the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Set ten years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), the series follows Kenobi as he sets out to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) from the Galactic Empire, leading to a confrontation with his former apprentice Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen).

A ‘sizzle reel’ refers to short promotional videos used by marketing folks, usually to promote an upcoming movie or show. Any sort of movie trailer needs to focus on big, eye-popping moments to get people talking and build up anticipation, to get reactions one way or the other, and to break the attention barrier.

When I first heard the announcement for Kenobi, the dialogue and scenario of his situation as laid out in previous films came to mind:

Yoda, speaking of infant Luke: “To Tattooine, to his family send him.” Obi Wan in response: “I will take the child and watch over him.” –Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

“Master Kenobi, in your solitude on Tattoine, training I have for you…an old friend has learned the path to immortality, one who has returned from the netherworld of the Force. Your old master.” -Yoda to Obi Wan in Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

“General Kenobi, years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.” – Princess Leia in Episode IV: A New Hope

“When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” -Darth Vader to Obi Wan in Episode IV: A New Hope

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” -Obi Wan to Darth Vader in Episode IV: A New Hope

So based on dialogue like this, I envisioned a mystical setup for the show, where Obi Wan is floating in mid-air meditating and digging deeper into the Force, all the while spying on young Luke and his antics, presumably getting himself into all sorts of trouble. If Kenobi had to intervene at all, it would be from the shadows and behind the scenes, since Luke as a young man only knew vague stories of ‘Ben Kenobi’ as a magician who lived among the dunes. I mean, that’s what was said – I’m not making these things up. To make anything other than this happen will require ‘mind wipes’ or ‘time alterations’ if not flagrant, careless continuity revisions in my opinion.

But this whole show seems designed as a spectacle to get Obi Wan and Vader into a light saber duel, even though that doesn’t make sense given the contexts above. It would just be cool to see, so screw it. Let’s build a show around it. That’s my point, ‘sizzle reel blindness’.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW….

Leia and Bail: Then out of the gate, Bail Organa drags Obi Wan into a rescue mission to save young Leia. How in the world does that make sense? Why would Organa jeopardize Obi Wan and Luke so callously when so much was at stake that Vader not discover he has children? Later in Episode 5 of the show, why is Organa again jeopardizing everything sending a careless message to Obi Wan, going so far as to mention Tattooine and ‘the boy’? You can say it’s because he’s a worried father, but the guy is a seasoned senator, key figure in The Clone Wars, and fought alongside the bravest, most pivotal characters in the galaxy. It’s weak, man. Weak. I think it’s because Disney wanted a strong female protagonist, despite the fact that didn’t make sense as a concept. Sizzle reel blindness.

Force-squelching flames: There’s a scene, possibly Episode 2 of the show, where Vader drags Obi Wan through flaming ground in a terrible echo of the torture Obi Wan left Anakin to when he abandoned him on Mustafar in Revenge Of The Sith. Clearly, that scene was a sizzle reel moment the producers wanted because of ties to the prequel and it would look cool on the screen. But in that scene, Vader squelches the flames using the Force, a simple flick of his hand. The plot demanded that Obi Wan not be too injured, so the torture had to stop – a little float in the bacta tank needed to get things moving again. The plot demanded that Obi Wan escape, so when Tala reignites the ground with a blaster, Vader stands helplessly watching as his main quarry is rescued. But WHY NOT SQUELCH THE FLAMES AGAIN like he just did moments before? Why not seize Obi Wan’s body with the Force like Vader showed he could do multiple times? Sizzle reel blindness.

The tracking device: I think it’s the end of Episode 3 of the show, where it’s revealed Reva has installed a tracking device in her floating droid, Lola to pursue Obi Wan and young Leia. It would make for a good episode-ending shocker, a quick plot device to show how devious Reva is, and would keep the plot moving. But with a little consideration, this is nonsense. When Reva held that little droid during the previous interrogation scene, they were in one of the most presumably secure and impregnable places in the galaxy with no reason to believe a rescue was underway. She didn’t ‘feel it with the Force’ or ‘intentionally let them escape’. You can say she was just being prepared because Obi Wan is that good, but it’s so weak. Sizzle reel blindness.

The blast door: It’s probably Episode 5 of the show, when Reva and her stormtroopers are blasting the heavy door with everything they have to get inside where Obi Wan is. Cannons and heavy guns, all struggling to significantly damage the door and frustrating Reva. The plot needed to buy time for what was happening inside. She clearly didn’t have any better ideas on how to get through that door. Then a few moments later, simply for shock value and to elevate her character, she pokes her light saber through that same door like it’s made of soft cheese. Seriously, why didn’t she just cut an opening in that thing in the first place then?! Sizzle reel blindness.

Letting Obi Wan go: Same scene, Reva finally gets Obi Wan on his knees and in captivity. Vader’s on his way, after she’s told him she has him. And in front of at least 30 storm troopers, Reva lets Obi Wan go after some secretive whispering. She LET HIM GO, when Vader was coming to take him. And when Vader arrives, not a mention from anyone about the fact that they JUST HAD Obi Wan and SHE let him go? Sizzle reel blindness because they needed Vader pissed off and chasing Obi Wan. Terrible plotting.

I’ll stop because I’m getting too negative here. There are clearly things to like about the show – McGregor as Obi Wan and James Earl Jones as the voice of Vader are killing it. They’re stretching to new ground in use of the Force, showing a powerful Vader. That’s fantastic. Light sabers are always great. It’s really nice to see the same actors from the prequels in their roles, and there’s some solid use of de-aging technology that’s believable. A lot to be proud of here, despite my whining.

But how hard would it really be to stop and think about your script, bounce it against what’s been previously established, and ensure that when the viewer (or by extension since I’m a writer, a reader) makes the honest effort to suspend disbelief, that you don’t betray that trust, that contract between creator and appreciator, that things hold together?

Anyway, I’ll watch whatever they put out with Star Wars in the title. I’m just asking for a little more common sense in the creation.

Thoughts?

A 13th Century Machine For Seeing The Future

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” -Louis Pasteur

That’s a great quote, one of my favorites. And it’s a crucial philosophy for anybody who has to be creative in what they do, which I believe is pretty much everybody. If this isn’t your first time around here, you’ll know Grailrunner’s key driver is inspiration for innovative ideas. Mainly we’re into science fiction and recently, tabletop gaming, but dropping idea-bombs like the one today is gasoline for us.

You never know when you’re going to be able to draw a connection between ideas and make something wonderful happen in what you’re doing, so it’s best to file away all sorts of gems as you come across them and do everything you can to understand what made that idea work, what made it fascinating and useful to whoever dreamed it up.

Which brings us to mysterious brass machine crafted around 1241 AD, marvelously decorated with inlaid silver and gold, emblazoned in gorgeous Arabic script, and stored in the British Museum’s Oriental Antiquities Department:

“I am the possessor of eloquence and the silent speaker,

and through my speech [arise] desires and fears.

The judicious one hides his secret thoughts, but I disclose them,

just as if hearts were created as my parts.

I am the revealer of secrets; in me are marvels

of wisdom and strange and hidden things.

But I have spread out the surface of my face out of humility,

and have prepared it as a substitute for earth.”

-Naskh script inlaid in silver on the Geomantic Tablet

Let’s get this out of the way now, and don’t say it to offend anybody who feels otherwise, but there’s no reason at all to believe that patterns or movements in the stars, random dots in sand, or how birds move around brings any insight into the evolution of future events. There’s no known medium or physical law that would fuel something like the supposed axiom fortune tellers often lean on: “As above, so below”.

That doesn’t make it less fascinating to me though, how people throughout the millennia have given it every effort elaborately and exhaustively. And somehow, whether in hexagrams flipping through The I Ching or the dots in the sand of geomancy or other avenues, we find insights into ourselves and human dynamics in the intricate connections, metaphors, rules, and manipulations of fortune telling machinery.

If you find this sort of thing interesting, download this 2003 study by Emilie Savage-Smith and Marion B. Smith updating their earlier work on the same device. They’ve really done some exhaustive and illuminating work, fleshing out what this amazing machine was built for, how it was used, how it’s constructed, and the Islamic divination background from which it came. This is available for free in a few places on the internet, but I’m including it here so it doesn’t get lost.

What is this machine called? Most references to this device call it the ‘geomantic tablet’.

Who built it? A craftsman named Muhammed ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili in 1241 – 1242 (he signed and dated it).

What was it for? This device is a unique machine for conducting geomancy divinations without the use of sand or dirt. Someone wishing to know the outcome of a future event could manipulate four sliders and a number of dials and then, following geomantic principles, get detailed insights into what was likely to happen.

But what’s geomancy? Geomancy is a divination technique usually involving poking random numbers of dots in sand or dirt in 16 rows while concentrating on a question for which the seeker wishes to know. Since the mind is supposed to be absorbed in the question and the mood, it’s important for them to be unaware of how many dots they’re making. Geomantic rules outline how the seeker would count the number of dots in each row and form four standard figures (called “the Mothers”). From those, rules explain how to form four more standard figures (called “the Daughters”), then more manipulations to further derive two more generations of figures and ultimately a final resulting figure.

Does geomancy work? The figures have names and a host of connections that flavor the oracle being provided, which is (to me) where the actual magic happens. Our minds find patterns everywhere; it’s literally how they’re built and how they reform themselves. Complicated jiggery like this makes it seem like science, but in my mind these manipulations and connections draw out our ability to see events and circumstances differently by throwing random noise into the problem solving process. We seize onto bits of noise that seem relevant, our rational processes jump out of the rut we’ve found ourselves in trying to resolve the issue, and we focus instead on puzzling out how this other new bit is related. In doing so, we may have found an answer that our paradigm and assumptions were preventing us from seeing before. So an oracle has spoken.

How did this machine work? The authors do a really nice job of piecing that together, actually. Those four curved sliders in the top-right corner each bear all the standard geomantic figures on them in a non-standard sequence. It’s likely the user would concentrate on their question and randomly pull the slider out to some position without looking, then look at the bottom-most figure visible in the window to see which figure was to be placed as the first “Mother”. And so on till the first four figures were found.

The dials also all held all the standard figures (each one being identical), so they’re just basically registers for the user to display the relevant figure as they use the “Mothers” and the geomantic rules to know which one to turn to. Inscriptions around each knob name and explain the figures.

Each figure is housed in ‘houses’ and brings all the requisite connections to flavor the oracle (The House Of Fathers And Mothers, of Offspring And Children, of Illness And Disease, of Women and Sexual Matters, etc). The elaborate starburst knob at the bottom, with its arcing display window, is for gaining deeper understanding into the result by linking that figure to not only its adjacent figure but to states of the moon (setting, rising, etc), and omens (mixed, tending towards good, increasing good fortune, etc).

Interesting, but how does this help me? Well, back to the point I made at the beginning…or at least Louis Pasteur’s point. There’s something to be said here about problem solving and the idea-creating process, about fascinating lore and beliefs from the 13th century, and maybe all manners of stories to tell about mysterious divination machines and the intrigue that could result. In our Salt Mystic line, there is an enigmatic calculus done with the manipulation of figures that is in many ways based on what geomancy purports to be, though the emphasis is on repeating patterns in human behavior along the lines of Asimov’s psychohistory.

What can you you do with all this? Maybe nothing now, but check out the hard work the Smiths put in here, and file it away. You never know when something might be needed.

So prepare your mind.

Till next time.