That’s our tagline, right? What it means in practice is that Grailrunners are constantly on the prowl for innovative ways to deliver bold, unique ideas in storytelling. We publish games, novels, and free flash fiction to make that happen. Our Salt Mystic setting is an exploration of immersive storytelling that amazes me sometimes in what comes of it.
But art though…nothing inspires like art.
It can be a dopamine shot straight to your cortex, in a glance sending a dreamer off into countless scenes of wonder and palaces of memory. An elementary school teacher of mine once hung a poster of a sailing ship with balloons for sails on the wall, and I remember to this day decades later the feeling of staring at it and marveling over the implications. Who was on that ship? Where were they going? Do they clash with cannon fire in the clouds? That’s powerful stuff, and I remember that picture as clearly now as ever.
One of the original aspirations we had here at Grailrunner was to be able to deliver fantasy and science fiction artwork tied to the fictional settings we’re building. It’s a big deal, and core to who we want to be. Custom art is expensive though, and you have to grow your business to a point where revenue can cover commission fees. Just putting the Sourcebook And Core Rules together last year drove home for me at least just how many art pieces and illustrations are needed to convey the big, wild setting we’re building here. It’s supposed to be boldly different, so you have to show that. You need cool pictures!
Developing my own art to support this has been (and remains) a powerful journey of transformation. Occasionally when I feel like smashing the screen because an art piece I’m working on looks like trash no matter what I try with it, I’ll scroll back through my Artstation profile to see at least some level of improvement! (It comforts me to mock my younger self). Still, that’s what the Salt Mystic world is to me – a beautiful collision of ideas and stories, myth and imagery – growing into a place as real as the park down the street.
Which brings us to an exciting announcement, and hopefully only first in a series:
Grailrunner Publishing introduces the first art print set in our proprietary and exclusive Salt Mystic universe!
A dream on invisible sails…
By Brian Bennudriti
A vortex glider gently cruises high in the clouds above an ancient city in the provinces. No wings. No engines. As silent as the wind itself, riding a web of invisible vortices, the vortex glider is a majestic and gorgeous sight sure to catch the eyes of any dreamer who spots them.
Vortex engines are an important technology in the Salt Mystic setting, enabling everything from vehicles that crawl up vertical walls to half-mile high sea vessels balanced on whirlwinds, from massive airships as big as a small town to artificial guided tornadoes.
Our next Salt Mystic novel and game volume will include a wily character named Mazewater and his fantastic innovation in vortex technology: using programmable matter and ionizing fields to generate thousands of vortices, combined to pull and push gliders through the air like dragonflies.
This image depicts such a glider, its long slender spikes of computronium and morphium framing gossamer sails. Far below, a watch tower stands guard over the sleepy, ancient border town in the valley.
While there is an important connection to the growing narrative of the happenings in the western provinces of the Salt Mystic’s world, it’s also just a beautiful image that I find relaxing to look at. And even though the warm lights emanating from the vessel’s side were a bit of an afterthought for me, they honestly make the mood for me now. It just makes me want to climb inside and see what it’s like to fly that thing.
Why hang a generic photo of flowers or a cartoonish painting of Paris when you can celebrate your inner nerd with a unique conversation starter like this?
And that’s what I wanted to let you know about today. It’s pretty thrilling, if I’m being honest, and a mind-blowing realization of something we’ve dreamed about since we started putting this Grailrunner thing together. I’m hoping you love it and have a vision for fantasy and science fiction themed art being as viable as dogs playing poker for your living room or wherever you goof off.
Let us know what you think, and what sorts of prints you might be interested in seeing here. And till next time,
I’m a visual thinker, big time. If you’re explaining something to me, I’m probably picturing what you’re talking about so I can follow what you’re saying and make something useful of it. If the picture starts to fade on me, then you may as well be speaking jibberish. That’s why rapid prototyping concept art is such a gamechanger for me, at least, in storytelling and game design. And it can do much more than prototype, as long as you’re not afraid to spit and polish.
In the last few months, AI art generators have taken off like a rocket and are rapidly improving in functionality, customization, and capabilities. Stable Diffusion, Codeway’s Wonder, and Artbreeder are my favorites right now, depending on the functionality I’m looking for. Midjourney and Dall-E have stolen all the oxygen out of the room as far as the media running with this narrative, but for fantasy / speculative fiction concept art they don’t offer the styles and datasets I need.
At Grailrunner, we’ve recently incorporated AI-aided art into our workflow for marketing images, for the website graphics, and to some extent in our products. I’m sorry if you’re an artist who feels threatened by this marketplace shift, but it really is a technology that is unlikely to go away or accept a lot of regulation. At this point, with millions of images generated per day across multiple apps, it feels more like an unstoppable tsunami you should probably figure out how to surf.
We just added another Lore Card to the Story Arcade here on the site and thought it would be fun to show a behind-the-scenes on the work, mainly to show how we’re using this fantastic new tool in what we do here.
Photobashing is a technique where artists merge & blend photographs or 3D assets together while painting and compositing them into one finished piece. This is used by concept artists to speed up their workflow and achieve a realistic style. –Concept Art Empire
Stephen Gibson, Art Director and designer of Grimslingers makes an interesting comment about this: “My current style for Grimslingers is photo/3D bashing. I collect images to splice together and keep painting over it, splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.” -Interview, Nov 2022 ImagineFX
Funny, huh? Anyway, photobashing is a big part of my concept art journey. I started off trying to paint everything myself and realized that’s not where my talent lies. Things accelerate and honestly look a lot better if I pull together stock images or 3d assets from places like Turbosquid, Shutterstock, Archive3d.net, Free3d.com, Nasa (nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models), Sketchfab and Daz Studio into Blender and work out compositions there. A lot of museums are starting to upload their collections as 3d models as well, typically for free!
Pulling assets together
Blender is still my go-to tool for compositing 3d assets into something useful because you can manage the placement and lighting and mess around with textures in Substance Painter. Incredible flexibility, but it’s time consuming. It’s also a place to build up assets that are unique to a world I’m creating (and so won’t be available anywhere. Then Photoshop. Always Photoshop. Nothing is done till it’s been through Photoshop. It’s a thing.
This is an example of what I’m talking about. The ball lightning carbine is a distinctive weapon, strapped to the arm of practically any adventurer in Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe. I made this thing in Blender with some parts from various models (a motorcycle, crutch, and I forget what all). The frame of it and the leather straps were just cylinders that I squashed and pulled into place, then added textures. Now I’ve got this thing in a hundred styles and orientations.
1. For our new Lore Card, it started with an idea: a dramatic aerial view of a carbine gunslinger on a mountaintop with a wide valley below him. Sometimes the story comes first, but in this case only the mental image. I’d write the story behind that guy after I saw him.
2. With Stable Diffusion, I experimented with a series of prompts suggesting the aerial view, the mountain top and valley, and the “fantasy gunslinger”. It took patience, not going to lie about that. And I cycled through several artists incorporated in the prompts to try different styles as well (you can mix artists too!).
3. Once I got something that looked like it would work for me, it needed some basic touch-up painting and color & tone adjustments in Photoshop. There was also an annoying misshapen character standing there (instead of my gunslinger that I asked for!) that had to be just erased. Photoshop has vastly improved capabilities now for easily removing stuff.
4. I still needed that gunslinger though, and went back into the cycle loop trying various iterations and prompts to get a guy in the right posture and wearing the long, gunslinger coat I was looking for.
This is the character I eventually went with. They can turn out with three arms and nightmarish faces, the fingers often run together and look like tendrils. Seriously, the output isn’t always mind-blowing, but here at least I saw the outline I wanted and general textures.
A bonus was the weird almost rectangular thing he had on his left arm, which if I squinted looked to me like our carbine without any extra editing.
5. I cut him out of his background and placed him on the mountaintop, gave him a little shadow, and darkened him to almost a silhouette. I was close, but it was bugging me that he was up on the high plateau without a clear story of how he got there.
6. I already had an asset for an airship from a previous work that I repurposed here. There’s a fantastic feature in Photoshop for automatically adjusting color grading and tone to match another image, so much of the hard work was done for me with that option. I just needed to trim it up a bit and place it in context.
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.
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.
Starting today, the free ebook available right here on the Grailrunner site will include:
Two full color Volume One starter decks, available in print & fold format
Dice cards and a measuring ruler
A fully realized narrative scenario complete with short fiction and table setup guidance
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 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 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.
A few years ago, I staged a narrative wargame called The Black Ruins Massacre on the tabletop down in my basement as an experiment in storytelling. The idea was not only to stretch my skillset by building out the models and terrain, painting everything, and generally going as cinematic as possible (I even set up a tabletop fog machine at one point), but to apply the ruleset as a storytelling engine.
I wrote that all that up here (people seem to like these writeups):
When the COVID-19 quarantine started, I worked up a beast of a follow-up I called The Battle Of Four Armies. I’d done a labyrinth on the table, and a temple, and was thinking this time I’d go all-out and add in another element to push myself: a compatible sister game with its own set of rules. (I knew Warmachine, but I had to pick up a Hordes starter set and learn its rules as well to even make all this work.) Both these fantastic games are from the good folks at Privateer Press. Make sure you support them by the way, they’ve got something special going on with those clean, popping rulesets.
I had an idea of more narrative immersion, maybe adding some solo roleplay or something, but it never happened. So this became more of an intellectual challenge – like a game of chess that goes on for months. And wow! It was an experience…over two years long getting me through COVID and teaching me a lot about escapism and challenging myself in wargaming.
And it was a blast!
TheBattle Of Four Armies:
A different army was deployed at each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west
The lightning-charged knights of Cygnar (led by Major Beth Maddox) to the north opposite wicked, spooky Cryx (led by Bane Witch Agathia) – both from Warmachine
The brute beasts of the Trollbloods (led by Ragnor Skysplitter) on the west opposite the cruel pain servants of The Skorne Empire (led by Lord Tyrant Zaadesh) – both from Hordes
The battle was staged inside the black walls of an open temple, with stone stairs at each cardinal direction to allow the combatants to get up and down from the wall rim. A black stone ziggurat adorned with eerie statues lay in the center. Deep below that ziggurat, a terrible and forbidden machine from an earlier, forgotten age had been buried with its last engineer. These armies wanted that machine, whatever it did.
Watch a short video tour of the tabletop here:
So what happened?
Man, the craziest, most unexpected things! I struggled mightily on keeping the two different rulesets in mind, so the narrative suffered a bit. Plenty of real-world distractions kept me away from it all too much as well. Still, the craziest things!
Zaadesh and Major Beth basically bashed their infantries into each other on the ground like a slaughterhouse while an epic clash happened up on the wall:
Skorne’s Zaadesh (closest to camera, in red on the wall) sent a charging rhino-beast up on the wall smack into Maddox’s gun-toting warjack, Firefly (in blue at top-right corner). Whoever won this smash-up had a chance to come around behind their enemy’s leader. Major Beth is in blue on the ground at the base of the stairs.
That particular clash was a fun one. Zaadesh had the idea that his rhino-beast (Titan Gladiator) would bash his guy out of the way, then jump off the wall (because he’s terribly slow) and charge into Major Beth from behind. It seemed more and more necessary to do something desperate as Maddox’s blue infantry wiped Skorne’s red army off the table. The damage the Titan would take in the fall though, and that he took in this fight, caused Zaadesh a bit of worry about the plan. He held off for months on that one, as COVID wore on…
So after giving Firefly a beating, the red Titan picked him up and threw him off the wall, then jumped down onto him anyway. It was glorious. Zaadesh figured the jig was up anyway, as he lost more and more men. It was a gamble that didn’t really work, but felt amazing. (I tweaked the rules a bit on this, because I really, really wanted to throw someone off that wall!)
But things were far too over for Skorne elsewhere on the battlefield. Just beside where the Titan had fallen, his fellows were taking a true beating and never really picked up any momentum.
Meanwhile to the south and west, Cryx and the Trollbloods charged each other on the ground in a bloody, bloody skirmish (three images above). I was surprised how tough the Bane Witch’s armored undead warriors were in the face of some mighty blows from the leather-clad blue trolls.
The Bane Witch herself (on the ground just to the left of the stairs in the lower part of the image below) snuck behind a set of ruins to take potshots at any enemies on the wall. That’s her two beastly warjacks, Slayer and Ripper in the lower left of the image on the wall, charging towards Ragnor Skysplitter, also on the wall and at the top of his own set of stairs. Her idea was for those two to get to Ragnor and hurt him, then sneak into range from the ground and cast her malicious spells for the kill. Typical for a bane witch.
But time was running out for her because Major Beth had taken out Zaadesh far more quickly than anticipated and was redirecting her infantry into this part of the field. A couple of Trollbloods got some shots in at the Bane Witch, but she made short work of them from her hidey hole behind the ruins.
Ragnor sent his own leather-clad warbeasts along the wall to protect himself and stay in a strategic position to cast spells at Major Beth’s troops should they get that far before he did away with the Bane Witch.
From her hiding place, Agathia took one unsuccessful shot after another with her eldritch spells, but nothing seemed to land. It was a fortunate day for Ragnor Skysplitter, as his trolls seemed invincible.
And as one after another of the Bane Witch’s undead warriors fell to the Trolls, Ragnor turned some of his ground troops around to prepare for Major Beth’s assault. It was going to be tight, and he needed to take out that filthy witch fast if he was to avoid an assault on two fronts.
And a well-directed spear was the final blow for the evermore desperate Bane Witch, as she died with a curse on her lips while her undead soldiers drifted away in wicked green smoke.
It was the final clash: trolls and lightning-charged knights racing towards one another on a December evening.
Major Beth stayed safely out of range while her hammer-wielder, Ironclad faced two trolls alone. Her two other warjacks ganged up on the spearthrower troll, Impaler.
The trolls had very much met their betters, and each of them fell in violent slugfests that were almost brutal to watch. Ragnor tried to help from the wall with his spellcasting, but his attempts amounted to nothing. Much like with the Bane Witch’s feeble spells there at the end, magic wasn’t going to carry the day here.
Only steel, apparently.
And eventually, it came down to Ragnor alone, staring down much of Major Beth’s mighty army:
Ragnor may have been desperate, but he wasn’t planning to surrender. Not after all this time. His powerful Shockwave spell was going to buy him time to move away from his attackers and…just perhaps..to keep moving back and do enough damage to thin them.
Each time he landed the spell, an area impact knocked down everyone close enough. And they were crowded together naturally as they tried to funnel up the stairs to where he was standing.
But inch by inch, Major Beth’s knights closed in. If Ragnor was going to have any chance at all for a showdown with her, he’d have to pick off some of his attackers more successfully than this. Ultimately, three got to the wall and engage with him in hand to hand combat. Major Beth and Firefly were firing from the ground. It was terrible to see, and Ragnor stood bravely in the hail of incoming fire. In the end, he could barely see through the blood and sweat in his eyes.
This is how he’d want you to remember him…going down fighting. Ironclad and Firefly made their way up the stairs and behind him. Major Beth kept up her hail of fire from the ground. And the two remaining Cygnar knights pounded Ragnor mercilessly. Until he fell.
Major Beth’s Cygnar was victorious. And she’d see to the dismantling and destruction of whatever was buried beneath that mysterious ziggurat. Till next time, though.
Because she’s made enemies here on this field.
So that’s how it all ended. A long one, and an exciting one with twists and turns. Hope you enjoyed the recap. It really served the purpose: a challenge and a stretch, and something to get me through the quarantines. Truly, a great game!
Next up is The Battle Of Monument Falls: a frozen landscape with iced falls and snow, the terraced hillsides of a long-abandoned mine, and a strange bridge adorned with two eerie statues that has an enigmatic story attached to it. Lord Exhumator Scaverous will lead Cryx’s expanded army against Skorne and Lord Tyrant Zaadesh (who seeks vindication as well as advantage) and will bring a new unit of Immortals to fight alongside him.
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!
-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.
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!).
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:
What triggers your trap? Example: approach within 9 inches, etc
How should the trap be set up on the tabletop?
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.
-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!
I know, man. Anybody trying to figure out what Grailrunner Publishing is all about must get dizzy skimming through these eclectic articles ranging from wargames to popular fiction and movie reviews, and begging for graphic design advice. But check out the nametag – we simply seek to inspire.
Dreams are engines. Be fuel.
That’s the point of us…giving people building blocks and inspiration to escape everyday life and politics and digital propaganda and to just be happy and dream. So today it’s a psychological model analyzing how they make certain products addictive. Crazy, right? Our hope is you dig this book and its HOOKed model, see how it might help you design something you’re building or thinking about, and that you thrive in that. But use your new powers for good, not evil. Cool?
For us, we’re putting out science fiction books and a tabletop wargame line with a branded merchandise line. It will help to have something concrete to think about as we learn this model from Nir Eyal, as described in Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. What this model offers is a way of thinking about WHY we engage with products at all, what triggers us throughout our day or week to go back to those products, and why we keep going back…or frightfully, why we might NOT return to those products.
1 & 2: Internal & External Triggers
Check out the diagram at the top of this article. It’s a loop – hopefully you see that. Starts at 1, with an internal trigger. One clear example Eyal gives is a fitness app where the designers latched onto that awkward moment when you might step into a gym or workout room and not really know what to do…which machine to go to. If you’re uncomfortable enough, you might even connect that ‘dumb’ or ‘confused’ feeling with the act of going to the gym and just stop going. That’s an internal trigger – the feeling of wanting to know what to do.
A buddy of mine told me once the hardest part for him in quitting smoking wasn’t the nicotine or taste, it was the social aspect of going out to the smoke pad at the top of the hour and networking with people…hearing all the gossip from all levels of the company. For him, the internal trigger was the top of the hour and that itch to talk to some people.
When I think about the Salt Mystic wargame we’ve been designing for a few years now, the internal trigger we’re targeting is the desire to escape into a science fiction world…the itch to laugh and talk trash with friends over a tabletop without complicated rules and lore getting in the way. More simply – the desire to dream up a story.
The external trigger piece Eyal identifies, labeled as 2 in the diagram, is how the user actually gets to the product. With the fitness app, maybe it notes your GPS location as being in a gym and flags you with a suggestion. Maybe your GPS watch notes that you haven’t moved in a while and flags you to do so, or connects you with friends through a Garmin app who encourage you to go for a run because it’s been a while. The point to remember here is the product is trying to establish a link between that internal itch the potential user feels to do something, tied to a core drive or interest, and an access point to the product.
In our case, we have no intention of building a digital tool to intrude on your life. That actually drives me crazy when my iPhone puts up those irritating red notifications on various apps. It stresses me out, so all that noise is turned off and I’ll look at the phone when I feel like it. However we’ve been spending time thinking about how to connect a desire to escape from the daily grind and dip into fun sci-fi weirdness to our Salt Mystic offerings versus all your other options. We feel like unique and striking aesthetics, memorable and relatable characters, and certain easily understood anchor points in the main storyline will help. I’m specifically thinking about the difference in lore between what you might see with Magic: The Gathering and Warmachine (complicated, confusing, not terribly relatable) and the wild success of Game Workshop’s Warhammer 40k Black Library where every single book begins with the one-page synopsis explaining the world of 40k, the Emperor Of Mankind, and the key point all of this pivots around. It gives you an easy anchor to orient yourself in the world of the game.
In fact, this very point decided it for us that there HAD to be a sourcebook and not just a rulebook to illustrate the key building blocks of the Salt Mystic world. That stuff was designed to be memorable and different, immediately recognizable as a science fiction backdrop with a western feel. We also leveraged this idea of an external trigger to decide there HAD to be a digital version of Salt Mystic available in Steam’s Tabletop Simulator, to make the game as accessible as possible. External triggers in Steam, social media, or on sites like Drivethru RPG when you’re trolling for something to do with your friends would hopefully catch you with the aesthetics and cool technology, if not the description of the game mechanics.
I’m talking high level now about just getting someone to play the game, though there are applications within the game mechanics where we’ve also considered this point Eyal makes in step 3 – taking the simplest possible action expecting a reward. As an explanation of what this is driving at, consider the fitness app example we talked about before. The simplest action the user might take is to just click on the recommended workout the app suggested, much like you might click on a recommended video in Youtube. Doesn’t take a lot of thought or consideration, and there isn’t much at stake here given that you either ignore the workout suggestion or skip to another video. Still, it’s a simple action the user can take in hopes of getting something in return.
What are they hoping to get in return?
It’s to scratch the itch from step 1 of this model: the internal trigger. But it can’t be annoying with tons of setup and fiddly bits and long complicated rulebooks, twenty different tie-in stories you need to know, and a bookshelf full of expensive codex books needed to really play properly. A simple action, man….trying to scratch the itch.
4: Variable Reward
I’m fascinated right now with a show called Gold Rush: Whitewater that does an amazing job illustrating Eyal’s overall point behind step 4 – the variable reward. Think of the creepy old lady at the casino tied up to a slot machine looking for that adrenalin rush of the blinky lights and tink-tink of the coins dropping. Think of an exciting poker game where sometimes you draw a great hand and run the table, and sometimes it’s just a losing hand. In the Gold Rush show, those poor guys have terrible days where they get absolutely nothing done but jerry-rig some redneck equipment they should have planned and purchased beforehand, and some days they draw gold out of the water like it’s M&M’s. It’s a dopamine rush, hoping to see what comes up.
Social media has entirely nailed this, haven’t they? You troll through a feed on your favorite app, and you might be bored for a few posts, but quickly scroll to something striking that the almighty algorithm has decided you’ll love. They’re lighting off your dopamine every time you see something interesting or sexy or funny or that scares you or that pisses you off. It’s a variable reward because you never know what you’re going to get.
In the game environment, we knew we needed to have the players draw their characters rather than set them up like traditional wargames for this very reason. Drawing a card each hand is exciting. It’s variable. Sometimes you draw well. Often you don’t. And it matters to some extent how well you play, but there’s also a luck component. In that event, you’d better think on your feet! We went nuts with this variable reward element in designing the solo version of the game and the solo dungeon crawler we included in the Sourcebook.
This step 5 in Eyal’s model is the buildup of something the user can own that gets them to be invested, to add some switching costs so they’ll feel kind of bad if they leave. In the fitness app example, maybe you’ve added your workout data or your run times and pulse information. If you stop using that app, it’s gone and you’re starting over. With a game like Gloomhaven, you’re working through a campaign so there’s loot and additional abilities you’re picking up along the way that make it crazy to stop. Gamification researcher and speaker, Yu Kai Chou identifies something called “The Ikea Effect” whereby you value something because you’ve spent time on it. Gabe Zichermann identifies “The Endowment Effect” whereby you value something simply because it’s been given to YOU and no one else.
Quick anecdote on that Zichermann example:
Took my wife and kids to a Medieval Times restaurant and show once (reluctantly) and noticed how genius it was at the jousting tournament for them to randomly group the crowd into two sides and assign us our knights – one guy was blue and one green, or something like that. They called our knight “our guy” constantly. Some random dude whose face I couldn’t even see was assigned to me. And within moments, we were cheering like crazy for him to win. Because he was ours. That’s the Endowment Effect.
Anyway, the idea Eyal is presenting in this final step is pretty key. If the user isn’t invested, they’ll move on to other channels whereby they can scratch their itches. And that’s the reason we study this kind of thing. And to be honest, we’re still stuck on this point with our work. This is an opening for us in Salt Mystic – we know that. Maybe campaign books make sense, where you take your characters through scripted adventures and level up along the way. Maybe a sideboard mechanic makes sense, where a mystery deck is laid out alongside the battlefield with which you can level up. Maybe you have secret packages inside the War Marshal decks you only open up after you achieve certain milestones.
I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of ways to take that one. What do you think?
Anyway, that’s the model and some thoughts on application. Hopefully you find it interesting enough to go pick up Eyal’s book and read it for yourself. Fascinating stuff. If not, then just go watch Gold Rush: Whitewater. That’s entertainment.