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,

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.

Athanasius Kircher And Machines Of Inspiration

I get it, man. You can’t get excited about Athanasius Kircher and talk to anybody about him because of the reaction.

“Who?”

Right. Well, he was awesome. If I described him as a Jesuit scholar who lived in the 1600’s, your eyes might roll back into your head before I really got started. But if you imagined him as he was, it might change your life. Here was an insanely curious and wild mind, delighting in machines and ideas and excitedly walking people through his museum of curiosities (talking statues, moving figurines, a room that rained, that sort of thing) delighting people and scaring the bejeesus out of them. He particularly reveled in shocking his visitors with devices and marvels till they accused him of consorting with demons, then opening the compartments and hidden panels to patiently explain the mechanics of it all.

“See, no witchcraft. Just machines. Cool, right?”

Let me back up, explain what I’m on about with this guy, then land on turning on one of his marvels for ourselves. My point here, as always with this site and anything we do at Grailrunner, is inspiration. And this guy had it in bucketloads.

Years ago, I became enamored of the old time philosophers like John Wilkins and Gottfried Leibniz inventing entirely artificial languages to construct perfect ones, with crystalline precision and not linked to particular cultures. (I included one called ‘Mast’ for Recorders in Tearing Down The Statues in remembrance of that particular bunny trail). Somehow in all that, I came across Athanasius Kircher’s work, Polygraphia Nova. This little gem was intended to solve the problem many emperors had of the various languages their subjects spoke, though that isn’t exactly my point today. I remember thinking this Jesuit monk or whatever just seemed outlandishly intelligent and curious about everything, but I dropped his trail for years.

Ahh, but recently, I came across this nugget here (which you need to order now and read for yourself).

If you are at all attracted to the old-time book illustrations where maps and Egyptian symbology and impossible contraptions come alive in fascinating engravings, this one’s for you. That was one of Kircher’s master strokes – as Jesuit priests from all around the world sent him writings and curiosities, like he was a Grand Central Station hub for the information of the day, he captured so much of that with a team of incredibly talented illustrators and a willing publisher. And man, oh man, did he experiment and play with those ideas to draw them to their extremes.

One invention that particularly caught my attention here was the Arca Musarithmica, which was billed as a mechanical composing tool to be used by anyone without musical talent but who needed a piece of music suited for textual phrases in any language. Say, for example, a priest in South America speaking some Quiche Mayan who needed a hymn but couldn’t write music. Here was a mechanical means of doing so.

Now how in the world, I thought to myself, would a machine do that?! Don’t bother with Google here, because I lost hours chasing terrible explanations written by people who can’t water down their music theory enough for laymen to make any sense. Seriously, it was frustrating reading one article after another showing the same images but explaining things differently, and nowhere was anyone reproducing the actual device symbology clearly enough for me to puzzle it out for myself.

Then I found this genius piece, written by Phil Legard.

I saved it as a pdf in fear that the Internet gods would one day allow this masterpiece article to vanish from history. Clear, lucid, well-illustrated, with examples and comprehensive reproductions of the components. Dude should get some credit for this particular public service, so follow the link versus the download if you can. It’s a bit old now, but worth your time.

Here’s what the ‘device’ looked like:

Courtesy of Magdalene College

In reality, it’s a box with a bunch of wooden slats inside that you pull out based on the syllable count of your text and the mood of the music you’re looking for. Phil walks the reader through a clear example, but I’ll do it here too to give you a flavor of the process:

  1. Choose your meter based on the syllable count and rhythm you want (remember meter from school – like iambic pentameter and whatnot?) Let’s use the Grailrunner tagline: “Dreams are engines. Be fuel.” That’s six syllables, so it easily corresponds to Euripedean meter with its six syllables per line across four lines. You’ve got three other choices of meter here, which the box explains.
  2. Pull those Euripedean slats out of the box though:

3. First line’s the one on the left, so it’s showing several choices of melodies for me to pick from. Each block of four rows of numbers corresponding to note sequences (which I’ll explain that conversion shortly) from four different voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). That’s why there are four per block. You pick one. I’ll go with the bottom one:

Here are four note sequences for four different instruments.

4. Just knowing the notes isn’t enough – you have to know how long to hold them. Loads of options at the bottom of that same first slat. Phil and I choose this one: 1/4, 1/8, 1/4, 1/4, 1/2, 1/2 because Kircher’s pupil chose it when he gave his example back in the 1600’s. Whatever. I don’t know enough about music to say if it’s a good choice, and that’s Kircher’s point anyway.

5. Notice at the top of that slat it shows which ‘tonus’ you can pick from. That’s the mood of the piece you’re composing, about which any knucklehead should be able to form an opinion. We can pick from 1, 2, 3, or 4 from the table below:

Mood selections Kircher provided, called ‘toni’

Phil and I chose the second one, ‘happy, strolling, dancing’, though ‘warlike, rousing, glorious’ would be pretty awesome as well. So we pick out the corresponding slat for that tonus (bottom of the slat where it says ‘Tonus II’). That’s our map to convert those numbers to actual musical notes.

I’m totally stealing Phil’s example because I don’t have the patience to figure out medieval musical notation on flats and naturals:

There are options to get more complicated with counterpoint and different rhythms for the voices, but let’s stay simple. We actually have all we need:

Wow. I’ve found an app called ‘Playscore 2’ that can read musical notation and play it in Midi voices. I may give that a shot so you can hear my new masterpiece here.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. My point was to introduce you to Kircher, let you get to know how his mind worked, and get you inspired. His expansion of these combinatorial methods into a more ambitious device, one to plan cities and do mathematics and whatnot got me thinking about using Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and the Salt Mystic Sourcebook to generate some interesting backbones for some thrilling tales of wonder. I might give that a go later and come back to you with it.

So that’s it for the day, guys. Hope it was interesting. Let me know what you think. Have a great week!

Arthur Clarke & Jacques Cousteau: Inspiration From A Cluttered Bookstore

My dad told me once that if I ever see a book I think I might like in a bookstore, but that I’m waffling on, that I should probably just get it. That I’ll regret it otherwise and will be miserable. Generally, that’s about right. But I have a different point to make just now, about inspiration (with a little nostalgia to fire the magic). Hear me out on this.

There’s a cluttered, winding bookshop in Kansas City called Prospero’s…a place of winding stairs, creaking wooden floors chocked in every nook with old books on three floors. Here, this place:

I was sitting in a small cranny perusing science fiction paperbacks from the 70’s and came across this little book from Arthur Clarke:

I shouldn’t have cared. I mean, there’s probably no writer who’s influenced me…who’s meant more to me…than Arthur Clarke. I adored this man. A marvel of imagination and curiosity! Seriously, he was incandescent. I wanted to hitch a ride on some kind of ship and just go hang out with him on Sri Lanka back in the day. But this was clearly a book aimed at young readers, with simple style and dated back to 1960. I flipped through it a few times, considered it too simple and not what I was looking for, with obsolete science and no fiction.

So I put it back on the shelf.

I went back to it before leaving, having found nothing else I wanted. Flipped through the faded pages again. There was a line at the register upstairs. I could hear the voices upstairs and the creaking floor, the busy commerce. I didn’t feel like waiting, so I left the book there on the shelf.

But it got me thinking about sparkling oceans and shining futures of busy aquanauts living under the sea. It reminded me of one of his great novels, The Deep Range where a broken astronaut finds redemption in a beautiful life harvesting bounty from the ocean, wrangling whales, and adventuring in his submersible. It reminded me of his other novel, Dolphin Island wherein a future lab is learning to speak the language of dolphins. It got me thinking about the beautiful people at Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, FL where I stopped in recently to tell them I was a LinkedIn groupie from Kansas City eagerly following their critical work growing and replanting new coral to preserve our reefs for future generations…

…which led me to a fantastic documentary series on Discovery+ now called Oceans, where more beautiful people are studying the coral and other sea life to find the keys of preserving them. That’s one that’s worth your time, without all the preaching and guilt Attenborough throws at you these days, and a focus on the beauty and WHY we should care about this sort of thing. Then in one episode of that series, they pay a visit to an undersea habitat from the 1960’s where Jacques Cousteau apparently had people living on the seafloor.

What? Living on the seafloor? (That’s what I was thinking when I saw that one.)

And here’s the documentary that led me to, an Academy Award winner from 1964 called World Without Sun. Sure enough, there’s Jacques Cousteau, the guy who basically invented scuba diving, leading a group of dudes who inhabited an undersea complex for a month. I know it’s dated, but you really should skim through the documentary at that link. I mean, they’re darting down in a submersible to a garage, popping up into a little habitat where they’re having breakfast, hanging out, and freaking smoking pipes. One dude after breakfast just hops down quickly into a small pool in the floor and is immediately on the seafloor at 30 feet with no scuba gear….just to cool off and see what the fish were up to!

Seriously now, my head is just swimming with images of shining future sea-cities and seafloor complexes. I included glimpses of such things in last year’s short fiction collection, Kyot: The Storybook Puzzle Box but I’m firing up on all cylinders now at the possibilities. I even found a new spot to go kayaking from this, a little cove at Black Hoof Lake where I found a gorgeous cluster of mossy plants and waterlillies alive with little fish pecking off their lunches. It’s the kind of thing that Arthur Clarke always does to me – sends my imagination reeling into what could be. His head was full of stars, and it’s contagious.

And I didn’t even buy that old book.

I wonder if I had, would it have come off as just stale and naïve, as simplistic cartoon descriptions of obvious and outdated science? Would I still have this electric sense of possibilities of the future of the ocean if I was making my way through a youth-oriented science book from 1960? Likely not.

And I suppose that’s the magic of a delicious sauce of nostalgia and imagination. Arthur Clarke and Jacques Cousteau. Weird how those two wound up swimming around in my head today.

Hope that made you smile a bit. Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.