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.

Salt Mystic Update: Groundbreaking Developments Coming In Volume Two!

Salt Mystic is our signature property here at Grailrunner, a science fiction setting with a western flair that aspires to break your mind with its innovation and immersion. No modern politics or agenda, just intrigue, action, dialogue that pops, and crazy-cool technology, and at heart inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation series, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. Click the title banner below if you’re new to this and want to learn more:

First, a little history. You see there was this book…

The kickoff novel introducing the Salt Mystic universe is called Tearing Down The Statues, and was published in 2015.

This one goes for blood, diving straight into the heart of the rise of this generation’s guardian. Maybe. Hard to say. Anyway, it’s the core story around which much of the rest of all this is orbiting. I tell the tale of where this came from here if you’re interested.

…which led to a game…

We published a terrain-based trading card wargame in 2021 set in the Salt Mystic universe, both advancing the story and providing incredibly immersive ways of exploring it.

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) were also made available, sold individually but collectively referred to as Volume One.

…then the merch.
We found people liked the iconic Skull & Carbines logo and slapped it on a laptop decal and coffee mug. The gunslinger logo is a new one, just added to a white t-shirt. A Canadian artist named David Paul concocted the basis for that image. We’re looking into custom gaming mats with narrative-based terrain printed on them. But anyway, that all started with the publication of the game.

Bringing it all to life!

And we’ve just gone live this past month with a place we call The Story Arcade, where you can download (for free) unique one-page pdf’s with original art and short fiction set in the Salt Mystic universe.

This is where you can dip into elements of the grand narrative, and get previews of locations and characters that will appear in upcoming novels and game elements.

And all that took an incredible amount of work. Exciting, life-changing, adrenalin-fueled work requiring new skills and unholy amounts of frustration, but we can handle it!

So what’s coming in Volume Two?

Ahhh, glad you asked. One question that comes up a lot is why aren’t there airplanes or spaceships in Salt Mystic. To be honest, keeping the action on the ground was a design decision back when I wrote the first novel, to keep the action tight and different.

But it’s time.

In the Story Arcade (lore card 008), you’ll meet a fellow named Lamberghast Mazewater.

Mazewater is the subject of an upcoming novel (I’m only three chapters in, give me a break!). He hails from a place called The Jagganatheum (lore card 006) and is known as ‘master of airships’. He’s a War Marshal, expert sniper, and telepathically commands a golem glider that circles overhead till he needs to take flight.

His card mechanics will entail airships only he or his designates can fly, as well as incredible speed and unpredictable movements. Mazewater is why we will have aerial dogfights in Salt Mystic games.

We also get asked about the Salt Mystic’s mysterious calculus of history, the weird runes and manipulation she used to predict events and harness the forces that drive people.

Shiloh Taprobane will appear in the upcoming Mazewater novel, but she’ll have her own Lore Card in the next couple of months. Shiloh has mastered the Salt Mystic’s calculus and the mystifying ways of the extinct order of The Malthus who could tear down nations with ideas.

Her card mechanics will involve secret pacts and corruptions of her opponent’s forces, driving unpredictability and madness on the battlefield. She’s why we will learn just how those rune manipulations work and what they can do.

Maybe the fan-favorite and most unique element in Salt Mystic is the system of oriel gateways to pockets of artificial space, built in the old Republic and so many abandoned. Behind those gates could be treasure or doom.

Born Ash Madra (see Lore Card 012), our final new War Marshal calls himself FireSermon. He’s the son of the devious and mysterious engineer that managed to pull of the most amazing stunt of his time and created the nation-state called The Seven Oriels. Many of those secrets went to the grave with him, but Ash knows a few tricks of his own with oriel gates.

His card mechanics will center around innovative use of Inflation Engines, Dirt Wraiths, and Wraithbusters.

And finally, a seemingly very popular request is to have characters that can play on multiple factions. So far in Volume One, there have been special faction icons on the character cards allowing their use only with their assigned War Marshal. But…

Auroch:

That’s Auroch in Lore Card 017, a wandering gunslinger and treasure hunter. He’ll appear in a game scenario for Volume One later this year. I particularly like him because he’s got an on-and-off romance going with one of my faves, a lady called The Wake who works for Karak on the Mountains faction. And because he talks to his rifle, and it talks back.

Madessa:

Madessa has appeared in a lot of our art, and in Lore Cards 001 and 013. She introduces herself as ‘surveyor and cartographer for the Reignition Society: sisters and brothers for the free and open mapping of the oriel webway’, right before stealing somebody’s maps or some coins to pay her way. She’s awesome because I love the idea of exploring all those oriel worlds where people have forgotten they live in an artificial world.

Grebel:

Grebel is a key character in Tearing Down The Statues and played a major role in events after The War Of The Rupture. He’s also a genius with guided tornadoes and ephemeral torpedoes, able to do things on the battlefield he shouldn’t be able to do. Honestly, when I wrote him, I had Morgan Freeman’s face and voice in mind, but we can’t afford him so the imagery we went with will have to do.

And that’s the roundup!

This preview article has to be just a teaser because of how much work is left to do. If you’re a freelance artist and interested in commissions, reply here with a link to your work. Not a lot of the guys we’re contacting are responding, so we’re doing a lot of the art in-house, which is slow.

I hope you enjoyed the peeks and appreciate the direction we’re going in. It’s super exciting to help build this world out and tell incredible stories both in art and print, and to immerse into them on a gaming table.

Let us know what you think. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Guys, Exciting Announcement….The Salt Mystic Lore Cards Are Here!!

This is huge for us, so I hope you’re feeling it after reading this. Give me just a couple of minutes here, and then let us know what you think.

What’s this announcement about?

Our signature IP here at Grailrunner Publishing is a science fiction universe called Salt Mystic, comprised of books, games, and branded merchandise. The spin we’re offering here is to innovate, to do something new not tied to or ripping off the big franchises like Star Wars or Warhammer 40K. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point of Grailrunner (check out who we are), blazing new trails…

Well what’s Salt Mystic about?

Imagine roving gunslingers adventuring in artificial pockets of space, remnants of a world-spanning civilization now shattered and warring with fantastic weaponry and vehicles, and legends of a fable cunningly engineered to possess the right person at the right time…

Anyway, go here and read more about that.

So what’s the announcement?

The first novel came out in 2015, the wargame in 2021. Along that journey, we’ve been looking for an engaging way to share the blend of art and storytelling we envision with Salt Mystic. It’s the 21st century, with busy people and tons of things competing for attention. We need escapism, free of politics and agendas, free of controversy and messages, and something that’s just inspiring.

Social media has done a lot for us, and we started sharing short fiction a few years ago, tied to original art pieces that illustrate parts of the Salt Mystic lore or characters. It’s been incredible, how an art piece that started with fiddling around in Photoshop blossoms into a realized piece of fiction, or how the flash of a story idea manifests into an original work of art. And it’s amazing, the way people respond to really short fiction and images like they have! It seems there’s an appetite for something different that’s easy to engage with and doesn’t require familiarity with decades of backstory.

I sometimes check in with Stephen Gibson, creator of Grimslingers and art director for Arcane Games, and he said once that if he didn’t do art, his imagined world wouldn’t exist. That comment has stuck with me, and in a lot of ways informs what’s happening here.

So we’ve created a place to go, free of charge and available to anyone who clicks to do so, for touring the unique fusion of art and short fiction that makes up the Salt Mystic universe. It’s called The Story Arcade, and it’s where you’ll find the ever-developing gallery of Salt Mystic Lore Cards. Click the image to take a look.

What is a Lore Card?

It’s just a pdf one-pager, containing an original work of art and a related short piece of fiction set in the Salt Mystic universe. The idea is you can read this and appreciate the point of it and the imagery in less than five minutes.

A Salt Mystic Lore Card contains the sequence number and title of the story/image at the top, an original art piece (usually at the top or top-left of the card), and a short fiction piece illustrating the image never extending beyond the one page.

No familiarity is needed in the backstory, nor is it necessary to read more than the one Lore Card to understand what’s happening. They’re all stand-alone, by design.

Why are you giving these away for free?

For now, it’s more interesting to provide a way to help grow this original setting and its bleeding-edge technology & concepts for a wider audience than push more products on you. Go buy the Sourcebook or a shirt or a book if you’d care to support us.

I’m an artist or a writer myself, can I submit for consideration on a Lore Card?

Sounds awesome, thanks for asking. Submission guidelines are here.

You know, it does sound exciting. What do I do now?

We’re asking you to support original content like this. I’m personally frustrated with the state of the major franchises like Star Wars and Doctor Who, Star Trek and Warhammer 40K, how they’re safe and stale…recycling ideas and echoing Twitter talking points. Let’s break new ground, right?! Let’s do something different.

Take a walk through the Story Arcade, and let us know your favorites or what got you thinking. If you want to submit something, do it. If you just want to chat about one, that’s cool too.

This is a bit of a milestone for Grailrunner, at least, an acknowledgement and maybe validation of what we’re trying to do when storytelling in modern times is such a lonely, frustrating effort sometimes.

Anyway, thanks for taking a few moments with us today. We hope you enjoy The Story Arcade.

Till next time,

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Maps In Books And Other Things We Need

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

Boy, was I wrong!

I need your opinion on something, so bear with me. I saw a post the other day that really got me thinking about supplemental materials in immersive storytelling, and now I’m happily hip-deep in Lord Of The Rings lore and can’t get enough. So I’ll want to ask you for your take, but let’s take a look at the post from The Bookish Elf:

I’ve spent a lot of time looking into what makes stories work, what great writers and myth-tellers did with their structure, their connections, how they introduce them, and immersive techniques. And I’m not sure how I missed this, or how I got the opinion that character lists at the front of a novel are for kids or Shakespeare but not for today’s ‘serious writers’. But I did.

I always had this nagging sense that as much as I hated books with too many characters that introduced them poorly, or with poor distinctiveness between them, that I still shouldn’t include character lists up front because no one does that. I’ve quoted George Lucas before with his intentional introductions of the cast in Episode 4: A New Hope because I think it’s genius:

I could not get out of my mind that poetically speaking I really wanted to have this clean line of the robots taking you to Luke, Luke taking you to Ben, Ben taking you to Han, Han taking you to Princess Leia. I wanted each character to take you to the next person.”Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays

Outlandishly successful pulp author, Lester Dent relied on what he called ‘tags’ for character distinctiveness:

It means the character is equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on the scene. A simple example of an external tag for purposes of illustration might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered…” -Lester Dent in 1940 essay, Wave Those Tags

Dent described tags as peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, and so on. I thought about this when I read (or re-read) Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, where the gentlemen all have their own distinctive quirks. I saw it in the Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazkov as each brother was brought onto the stage. My point here is this sort of wordcraft of character introductions and distinctiveness was where my head’s been at forever on this point of supplemental materials.

Then I started reading Games Workshop’s Black Library and experienced The Horus Heresy (or at least seven books in the series, it’s a lot to get through!). I used those character lists constantly, flipping back and forth to see who someone was. I’m not saying their characters aren’t distinctive or introduced properly at all, just that life’s busy and there is a lot competing for my attention. If people read books straight through without interruptions, maybe I’d feel differently about the difficulty of keeping fictional paper-people separate in my head.

But I found those character lists up front to be tremendously helpful, like a guilty pleasure that I appreciated but maybe shouldn’t.

Then I stumbled across a few Lord Of The Rings nerds on Youtube who were spelling out all the connections and backstories in Tolkien’s towering intellectual achievement. Honestly, I’d always viewed those adventures the same way I might a random Dungeons & Dragons adventure – just beasties those hapless folks come across without patterns or histories and a winding, questy adventure tale. I’m into Tolkien’s, The Silmarillion now, and can now say definitively that nothing is random, that everything is connected flawlessly, and everything…absolutely everything…has a backstory.

And a map.

I wrote Tearing Down The Statues and the Salt Mystic Sourcebook and Core Rules without a defining map. I mean, I knew generally where these places were located, and major landmarks and visuals as I told the tales. But the definitive layout, the connections, who and what exactly were located adjacently and through what sort of lands….nada. Hadn’t seen the point of defining it that clearly. I liked the openness of it.

But the deeper I went into Tolkien and his miraculous achievements, laying the template for all worldbuilding to follow, it struck me how important all those connections are. When I sat down to stitch together all the histories and geographical references in the published tales and the game cards, in the character backstories on the art, it opened entirely new tales based on the geographies. Seriously, it feels like a Renaissance with huge new possibilities, just because I’ve defined the map itself. Amazing. That’s as a writer, I can imagine the utility for the reader even more so.

And that’s the question for you for today – what say you on the inclusion of maps, character lists, maybe even pronunciation guides for character or place names in books you’re reading?

I’m generally curious, and it would help set my direction. Just reply here or on the Facebook Page. You can email me directly if you like, as some of you do (brian at grailrunner.com).

Let me know what you think. Till next time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Pre-staged and hidden traps

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

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

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

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

Considerations:

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

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

Example:

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

Alternate traps

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

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

Design a trap by answering three questions:

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

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

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

Considerations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you do?

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

Launching an indie wargame, and we need your help!

I very much enjoy bringing new things into the world. Or at least trying to do so. It’s hard enough to pour your passion into something, to pick up the new skills it needs along the way and to put the time in. The time is a real tough one – because life and family and bills to pay. Right? But the hardest and most soul-breaking part is when you’re done, it sits in your hands in all its wonder, and nobody in the whole world knows it exists. I’ll come back to that. I need you. If you’re anything at all like me, or if you at least understand me, I need you.

Stick with me till the end here.

When I was a kid, my parents had a hardback set of books called Childcraft. They were encyclopedias for kids, and I was especially enamored with holidays and customs and tales from other countries. My parents worked a lot, and there weren’t any kids on my street. I was also a bit of a loner, and it was a way to travel and see the world. I moved on to the regular encyclopedia set, flipping its pages and dreaming. The mythology and great paintings articles were favorite stops of mine. But being such an easy target, science fiction hit me early on like a freight train – here are a few flashes I recall just to make my point:

  • Smacking my dad’s arm when Darth Vader was deciding to save Luke in Episode IV of Star Wars, almost crying when he threw the Emperor down that pit
  • Straining extra hard wrestling with my brother when he held me down because Cassiopeia from Battlestar Galactica was watching in the form of a cutout from a coloring book hanging from my ceiling
  • Riding my bike downhill with a purpose, escaping mutated apocalyptic screamers from A Boy And His Dog
  • Bashing my pillows as hard as I could with one of those plastic lightsabers that made a humming noise when you swung them quickly
  • Staring dumbfounded at the television after the Borg kidnapped Captain Jean Luc Picard in Best Of Both Worlds episode one, from Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Finding Sri Lanka on a globe and asking how much it would cost to travel there so I could meet Arthur Clarke and ask him all my science questions

I’ve had a kaleidoscope of a life since then, earning degrees in Physics and Business, helping build nuclear reactors in the Navy and running parts of businesses, coordinating mergers and acquisitions, and consulting. Seriously, I’ve done all kinds of stuff. But in all that, in anything I’ve ever tackled, the core drive is always to somehow recapture the way those things felt. Just pure wonder. Inspiration.

New things. New worlds.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

-Louis Pasteur

And thanks, Louis, because this quote is the whole point of me. I believe if you look to be inspired, you will probably find inspiration. I believe if you learn the nuances of a thing, whether it’s art or haiku or telling stories in film…or whether it’s searching for patterns in nature and the universe…you pick up the rhythms of what makes those pieces and parts fit together. And you come alive. A pen & ink artist studying music will find patterns and growth that makes them sharper and more imaginative.

In 1997, I was serving on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. I had brought along the first three Dune books, a stack of VHS tapes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and a pretty bad case of homesickness to sit and watch westerns with my dad and brother. Something about that mix, and the exotic surroundings of Oman and Dubai, the wandering in the souq marketplaces and especially a night sleeping in the desert in Muscat fired my imagination. It was all just a simmering gumbo of scenes and marvelous machines and larger-than-life characters though, until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

I know. Anybody younger than me could be rolling their eyes at this one. They’ve maybe heard about it and never felt something like that. It was awful. Let’s just say a very thunderous realization hit me in the days that followed, as I watched the footage of firefighters running up the stairs into those burning buildings and those on the streets rushing to aid…as I heard the voices of those on flight 93 about to charge the hijackers.

It struck me that this was a nightmare, true, but how much more terrifying would it have been were it not for those brave souls who stepped up when it mattered! Running up the stairs into a burning building…who on earth could have more character than such a person?

“Because the life’s blood of a nation is the character of its people, and because the neglect of souls is the needle that poisons it, I have left you wonders in the Record. The fault and the regret are yours if they must arise.”

-The Salt Mystic

I don’t know why it took me till 2015 to publish the novel that came of those feelings and concepts. It did though. I had to live more, and to learn more. Writing a novel is a life-changing thing. And it meant a lot to me. I needed to get it right.

Here in the last two years, especially with pandemic quarantines and all the change that’s come about in our hostile interactions with one another, I’m haunted by the question I was asking back then. And I’m anxiously going back to the original fire behind all of it – what binds us together and lasts over the long term? What can bring us back to where we’re listening to each other, and being people again?

It’s mythic storytelling and inspiration. I’m convinced of it.

Not social justice engineering or reams of fan fiction, not propaganda or unimaginative clones and faded tropes. Pure adrenalin myths for the modern day. Just like Frank Baum wanted. Just like George Lucas wanted. I’m just arriving at the same conclusion. And I believe something wonderful is happening in tabletop gaming, not only in the last few years but especially fueled by the COVID restrictions. Tabletop gaming is coming into its own, fresh with depth and rich lore, with incredibly innovative ways for people to interact with the stories.

I see tabletop gaming, including but not limited to roleplaying as a new frontier for mythic storytelling. Much like science fiction stories in the old pulps and animated films once drew scorn as fit for juveniles and now are taught in universities, I see the tales & captured magic of tabletop games of the 21st century fertile for what comes next for us in how we express ourselves. Cinematic experiences in a box like Tainted Grail: Fall Of Avalon from Awaken Realms or Grimslingers by Stephen Gibson or Cthulhu: Death May Die by Rob Daviau and Eric Lang, among countless others are raising the bar for the rest of us.

So I need your help.

I’ve spent the last few years breathing as much life as I am able into a tabletop gaming experience. It’s called Salt Mystic, designed to be an Immersive Storytelling Engine fit for practically anyone with an imagination. Read about it here. Download the rules for free, and dip into the art if you like. The point is to provide an exciting game, easy to learn, no baggage or continuity required, no extensive hobbytime or painting abilities needed…but one that takes place in a rich, immersive, fascinating world with fully realized history and intrigue, adventure and exotic places to visit, peopled with living, breathing souls. Playing the game itself feels like playing a streamlined Warhammer 40k with Magic: The Gathering cards, or so I’m told.

The Salt Mystic Sourcebook & Core Rules is available on DrivethruRPG here. I would very much appreciate your help getting the word out about this. Anyone you know who’s interested in wargaming, or in lore-based tabletop gaming, just shoot them a quick note about what we’re up to. If you’re into what I’m saying, give me a try!

I’d appreciate it. And thanks for letting me go long on this one. You’re awesome.

Till next time.

Gems From Planet Stories: Black Priestess Of Varda

If you’re at all a bit tired of politics and agendas driving science fiction today, you might take a dip into the old 30’s and 40’s pulps sometime and take a breath of fresh air. Just set aside any ideas of scientific accuracy – this is all just high octane, adrenalin-infused imagination to keep your engines running clean! I honestly love it. Case in point: Erik Fennel’s Black Priestess Of Varda, from the Winter 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Planet Stories was an American pulp science fiction magazine published by Fiction House, based in New York. It ran between November 1939 to May 1955 for a total of 71 issues. This one’s among my go-to pulp fixes just because its covers almost always deliver – and by that, I mean they’re intriguing and striking and would practically all look great on a T-shirt. If you’re offended by mild sexism even despite a consideration of the times in which the works were published, then this article probably isn’t for you. I’m just in this for the fun of it, and how innovative and free of constraints these writers and artists were. I love the feeling of unbounded optimism and adventure these people brought to the table!

I would also add that, though the covers often show the ladies in these stories as helpless but pretty mops waiting on men to save them, it’s almost never that case in the stories themselves. Herein, you’ll find powerful, intelligent and courageous women. Thought I’d mention that, if it’s a reason you might stay away from these old gems.

For example, my wife and I are finally making our way through all 5 seasons of the HBO show, The Wire. It’s as good as I’ve always been told, and some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen. No doubt in my mind – this should be the standard for how to juggle multiple character arcs and portray in fiction how different agendas among even minor characters can drive the narrative. That isn’t my point today, but there you go.

Anyway, we started season 4 last night. I idly picked up my phone to just troll through some pulp covers for inspiration, thinking I might work up some art for the Salt Mystic marketing over the weekend. And I came across that bad boy at the header of this post. “The Black Priestess Of Varda”. What a nutty title. “Outlawed, sentenced to the vat”…”foul Sasso’s loveliest witch”. Crazy. It sends your mind reeling. At least mine. Totally lost track of the Wire episode and tracked down an electronic copy of the 1947 issue in which Erik Fennel’s story was originally published. The entire issue is linked above, or here it is in a combined pdf:

It’s the rollicking tale of a disfigured scientist, finding himself in a strange world and discovering the black heart of his once love. He finds redemption and a new love, and develops incredible new powers. Yet most of all, he finds the inner strength and courage to fight back against wickedness in all its forms, no matter how beautiful.

I worry that in our collective zeal among modern fiction to present social injustices, to drive activism and try to awaken social action among readers by unrefined and almost silly victimhood portrayed in caricature fashion – bad cops, racists, cruel landlords, selfish politicians, blah blah blah…that we’re losing the ability to make people dream and aspire. People like Erik Fennel, whoever he was, preciously crafted colorful worlds spun with action and heart to get his young readers to dream. That’s why the little guys slapped down their quarters at the newsstand as soon as they could to rush home or to the playground and blast through the latest Planet Stories, or magazines like it. They wanted to dream and feel powerful, to learn what it means to stand up to bullies and terrifying challenges like they were seeing in the real world and that many lost their fathers to. This was a place to see courage and to emulate it. And it was a place to be inspired.

Hey, go read this one or another in Planet Stories. Will take you maybe an hour after you download it. An easy read.

But maybe an important one.

I don’t know, guys. What do you think? Is there enough out there on the racks or Amazon to feed your own imagination? Send me your own thoughts on the most inspiring stuff you’re seeing. I’d appreciate it.

Anyway, till next time.

Designing a tabletop wargame: update!

The wheels turn slowly, my friends. But they do turn. We’re making glacial headway on the tabletop game we’ve been talking about for a couple of years now – but in recent days, some exciting things have been happening!

If you’re a visitor, welcome! I’ve got a gift for you. Download the basic ruleset for an introduction and overview, to get some cool ideas on how this bad-boy will start cranking once it’s up and running to tell some gosh-a-mighty, romping, stomping tales of science fictiony goodness.

Proofs of the deluxe version of the Core Rules And Sourcebook have come in, and we weren’t happy with the color and print quality. The cover looked great, but some of the textured pages were a bit muddy. We’re also including two starter decks and some papercraft terrain you can pull out and play with immediately – those need to pop in clarity and brightness more than we were seeing with the proofs. So we’ve beefed up to a higher print quality standard and are waiting on the second round of proofs on that.

The game is played with tremendous flexibility, including different War Marshal decks you can begin with, and customize from there. Those guys needed their own tuck boxes. We approved the first design, and the proof arrives any day. This guy here:

We also got a head start on the quarterly (hopefully quarterly!) digital magazine which will serve as sounding board and announcement central for upcoming products (like the terrain tile deck we started working on and can hopefully be ready before year-end). Here’s a draft for the potential cover of issue one – let us know what you think!

I started writing the feature story for the first ish, with a scheme of introducing some of the key characters and framing out a narrative scenario you could immediately set up and play after you read it…to see how you’d handle the situation. Could be in two-player mode or solo. We’ve gotten some great feedback on the playtesting for solo play, which we refer to as Wolfpack Mode. It seems even after quarantines have mostly lifted, people are super interested in solo play these days. That’s great, and hopefully we can make that as shifting and challenging as the regular one-on-one version.

Man, I wish this was a full time gig and we could just sit around writing stories and dreaming up worlds for a living! But bills to pay, and kids to raise, my friends. If you’d like to volunteer to help out, or submit any stories or art for consideration, feel free to reach out either here or emailing me directly (brian (at) grailrunner.com). We’d love to grow the family.

I hope you’re doing well, guys. Shoot me any questions or suggestions you have. Happy to connect. Till next time,

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Arthur Clarke & Jacques Cousteau: Inspiration From A Cluttered Bookstore

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

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

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

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

So I put it back on the shelf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I didn’t even buy that old book.

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

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

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

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

John Carter Of Mars: The Originals, And Why Have We Forgotten How To Have Fun?

“Edgar Rice Burroughs was, and is, the most influential writer, bar none, of our century.”
Ray Bradbury

If we could just stop letting cultural baggage ruin our science fiction, we’d have a lot more fun. And we could go back to being inspired by it, and building a better world and whatnot.

Unfortunately, we’re all activists now, and we get offended quite easily. We focus on a scavenger hunt to dredge all the things from older fiction and movies that are unacceptable now, but which were commonplace in the times in which those things were written – and we lose sight of ourselves in the process. We emphasize the divisions rather than the commonalities. Which brings me to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, featuring John Carter Of Mars.

Let’s say it’s February 1912 and you stroll up to a magazine rack at a busy street corner somewhere, like this one…

…and pick up the latest All-Story Magazine. This one here:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is all-story-magazine-feb-1912.jpg

There’s a quirky story in there called Under The Moons Of Mars by some guy named Norman Bean (a pseudonym; it’s said he typed ‘normal bean’ – as in ‘not insane’, but his typesetter messed it up). I don’t know how it wouldn’t command your attention if you were at all an explorer, a dreamer, an adventurer at heart born in the wrong time and place for your imaginings. It’s white-hot lightning on paper, and it changed the world. I like to think you’d have sensed that might happen after reading those six installments, finishing in the July issue.

Let’s just ignore the 2012 Disney film supposedly based on the first novel because it’s terrible. I’m sorry if you loved it. That’s just my opinion based on how convoluted and boring it was – not because it doesn’t follow the books. Though it doesn’t really. I’m talking about that mesmerizing set of pulp novels that came from the same mind that created Tarzan: Lord Of The Apes. These John Carter Of Mars books brought us airships and space princesses, swashbuckling space action, telepathy and psychic powers, evil green aliens and more. It’s crazy, reading them now, just how many people who came later were inspired by things they found in these books…people and tropes you’ve heard of but didn’t know their origin. I’m talking about even things like exotic sci-fi character names and settings like dried-up seabeds, dying cities with lost technology. He dreamed those things up and blazed an incandescent trail others followed – others like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore, James Cameron, J. Michael Straczynski, and George Lucas. And others, man! Plenty of others.

Here’s how Burroughs told the story of writing it in the 1929 Washington Post:

“I knew nothing about the technique of story writing…I had never met an editor, or an author or a publisher. I had no idea of how to submit a story or what I could expect in payment. Had I known anything about it at all I would never have thought of submitting half a novel; but that is what I did.

Thomas Newell Metcalf, who was then editor of The All-Story magazine, published by Munsey, wrote me that he liked the first half of a story I had sent him, and if the second half was as good he thought he might use it. Had he not given me this encouragement, I would never have finished the story, and my writing career would have been at an end, since l was not writing because of any urge to write, nor for any particular love of writing. l was writing because I had a wife and two babies, a combination which does not work well without money.

I finished the second half of the story, and got $400 for the manuscript, which at that time included all serial rights. The check was the first big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.

My first story was entitled, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. Metcalf changed it to Under the Moons of Mars. It was later published in book form as A Princess of Mars.”

It may be in this cynical, political age that images like the ones below hang some people up. “There’s just another invincible white dude swinging a sword, treating his woman like property and being racist!” But that isn’t it at all. John Carter just tries to do the right thing – nothing is handed to him. He had a hard life and knows how to handle himself. Good things happen to him in the end because he never gives up, no matter how frightened he gets. He just follows a code of conduct and sticks to his word. We’re not allowed heroes as much these days – isn’t it okay to have a strong male lead who tries to do good things?

And Dejah Thoris, the original space princess, isn’t dumb or a piece of wallpaper. She’s noble and brilliant, a strong inspiration to her people and considered the finest of her race. There’s no need to try and make her a scientist or technological genius in a misguided attempt to update her character – the woman is nobility itself, and she shines like it. It’s okay for a woman to fall in love with a brave man who’s trying to help her. That doesn’t demean her or make less of her.

The John Carter Of Mars books are worthy of your time. They’re incredible inspirations and true works of genius. Why not pick up the first three books in the compilation by Gallery / Saga Press here on Amazon. My suggestion is just keep an open mind, remember that what you’re reading came long before almost any science fiction with which you’re familiar, and consider just what an outlandishly brilliant masterpiece these stories are considering so little came to pave the way beforehand.

Let us know what you think – we’d love to geek out with you on this.

Till next time. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.