Want To Meet A Futurist? Let’s Talk To Karl Schroeder!

Karl Schroeder’s latest novel, Stealing Worlds

Welcome back to our ongoing Inspirational Creator series. We kicked the series off with Jeff Grubb, longtime fantasy writer for D&D among others, which you can read here. We continued with Stephen Gibson, artist and game designer, and creator of the weird western tabletop game, Grimslingers which you can read here.

This week, we’re chatting about the future (and Mennonites) with Canadian science fiction writer and futurist, Karl Schroeder. You’re going to like how his mind works, this is a fellow who can dream big.

1.    My dad described once how he used to jump a fence in his Brooklyn neighborhood and stare at the sky from the roof of his school, dreaming of places he’d go. That sends my mind reeling. Paint us a picture of you as a boy – what got you thinking about the future?

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s—200 miles north of Minot, North Dakota. In one of my book bios, I wrote “Karl used to walk outside and stare up at the sky, wondering what he might be able to see if those pesky Northern Lights weren’t in the way.” But seriously, my dad, who’d wired his Mennonite village for electricity when he was a teenager back in the 1940s , had made a career in electronics, and Brandon is a university town. Dad and I watched the moon landings together, and Mom, who was a science fiction reader as well as a published author herself, introduced me to the YA adventures of Andre Norton. Norton’s books are perfect YA gold, and they got me hooked on SF.

I started work on my first novel when I was sixteen, and finished it when I was seventeen. I didn’t publish that—or the next eight I wrote—but I kept on going. It only took me twenty years to become an overnight success.

2.    So moving to Toronto around the birth of the internet seems to have helped you hit your stride. What impacted you the most about that writer’s circle you helped form and lead, The Cecil Street Irregulars?

Our approach at Cecil Street was pretty no-nonsense—an attitude we inherited from Judy Merril, who inspired the creation of the group. The Irregulars have always been highly regular, meeting once per week for several decades. You were expected to produce. You were expected to read submitted manuscripts, and give a thorough and useful critique. So with a membership that fluctuated between six and ten, we managed to have at least one story to workshop every week. Often we had three or four. The work was constant, and that’s what made it effective.

We were also peers. Judy helped start the workshop, but she didn’t stick around to be a guru. She said you can’t become a good writer by studying under an established one—you just become a mediocre copy of that person. Artists need to develop their own unique identity, and you can only do that by studying with people, rather than under them.

3.    Hemingway used to say of writing, “Just write one true sentence.” Harlan Ellison said, “Write about people; that’s all there is to write about.” Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” What’s the Schroeder one-liner on how to write impactfully?

I’d say, “Be prepared to reinvent your process every time.” Every story is different, and I’ve found it much more useful to approach each project with a quiver full of techniques, tricks, and methods, rather than the preconception that I know what I’m doing. Beware of ever saying, “I know how to do this!” You know how to write your last successful story; you don’t know how to write the next one. The process of exploration might take you to first-person narrative, present-tense, a 7-point plot outline, free verse, cut-ups, collaboration, pantsing or a detailed outline. I try things, back up, throw out entire drafts; I wrote something like seven versions of the first 100 pages of Lady of Mazes before I was happy with it and kept going. I don’t have a philosophy or follow any particular theory—I have a toolkit of philosophies and theories and try things until one works. Because no single theory or approach is ever going to exhaust all the possibilities of storytelling.

4.    You have to strike an interesting balance between thinking meaningfully about realistic futures and making entertainment that will sell. Tough line to walk. What’s your creative process?

My original touchstone for writing science fiction (which is primarily what I do) was that the wonderful and possible is always cooler than the merely wonderful. So, I’ve always tried to achieve the same effects as fantasy but using hardnosed science. You can see that most clearly in my novel Ventus, which reads like a high fantasy adventure for the first couple of hundred pages, then slowly mutates into hard science fiction as you learn that the “magic” had a physical basis all along. Reality’s a better source to mine for the fantastical than the imaginary, believe it or not. So, in the Virga series, I was able to create a fantasy-like world of steampunk nautical pirate adventures, complete with broadsides, sword fights, betrayal and treasure hunts—but because the stories are set in a world without gravity, they’re completely fresh. There’s nothing like Virga out there, and it’s because I used the (potentially) real to reinvent something normally considered fantasy.

And then I got a design degree in 2011. It’s in Strategic Foresight, so I’m a card-carrying futurist, but design thinking was an important part of the program. I’ve applied design principles to my writing ever since. This has opened up new possibilities because now I know how to play with constraint as a creative tool. For example, for my novel Lockstep I set myself a design constraint: have a Star Trek or Star Wars-like space opera milieu where the characters can fly to another star system, have adventures for a month, and fly back to find that only a month has passed back home, without using faster than light travel, wormholes, or any other hand-waving magical technology. Of course such a requirement looks impossible, but that’s where design comes in. I managed to solve the impossible problem not by trying to address it head-on—if you do that with an impossible problem such as how to go faster than light, you end up with an impossible solution, like an FTL drive that violates physical laws—I did it by reframing the problem into one with a possible solution. In this case, if you look at the constraint, it’s really not about how to go faster than light, but rather how to have a society like the ones in faster-than-light space operas. And that’s a completely different kind of problem. The solution to it is the lockstep, a system of synchronized hibernation beds that keeps everybody on the same schedule. The whole civilization sleeps for 30 years, wakes for a month, then sleeps for 30 years. Weird, but it turns out that the experience of someone living in the lockstep is the same as if they lived in a Star Wars universe with FTL. So, problem solved—by design rather than science-y handwaving.

As to “creative process,” as I said in the last response, I have no process. I have a suite of processes, because each project will have its own best approach.

5.    What are some ideas or concepts or people that are particularly inspiring to you right now, and why is that?

Answering this one’s fraught with danger, because I’m likely to sound ridiculous. I get most of my ideas from philosophy, mostly ontology, which I project back into technology, setting etc. So if I said I’m really really excited by the idea of acausal constraint, would that make sense? Basically, I don’t start with technology—I don’t play the “what if you had a raygun that dissolved people’s underwear?” kind of speculation; and I don’t start with science as such, usually. I rarely do the kind of “what if a buried tectonic plate suddenly scraped its way to the surface and formed a new continent in the Pacific Ocean?” science thing. I’m interested in the implications of scientific discoveries, so right now for instance I’m puzzling through the meaning of the Bell Inequality, which demands that at least one of the following be true: superluminal communication (and maybe that’s what entanglement is), superdeterminism (which would mean that nothing could possibly be other than it is), or the third option: that realism is false. This last seems likely—so we apparently live in a world where there are real things, but no Reality that’s the sum of all those things. And I’m trying to figure out how to write about that. I think I can do it, but again, not by approaching the idea directly. (And of course the real challenge is to make it exciting, and a story about real people and real consequences. Another design constraint.)

6.    There’s been a bit of turmoil in 2020 as relating to politics, violence, the pandemic, and economic disruptions. Are we going to make it? Why or why not?

Depends on the “we” you’re talking about. I’m Canadian, and Canada is doing pretty well at the moment. Globally, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the past twenty years, so the experience of most of the human species has been quite positive for the last generation or so.

That said, the planet is facing unprecedented crises. The one that matters most is climate change, but even it is a solvable problem if you think in design terms. The problem is not in fact how to “solve” climate change; we know how, we know all the solutions. The issue is how to get them implemented. And that’s a governance issue. So governance, particularly on the global level, is what we need to focus on. So there, the design problem becomes, “how do we turn governance into a solvable problem?” Answering this question provides a great opportunity for new science fiction—and real-world activism.

In other words, if you frame climate change as a problem, you will look for particular kinds of “solutions”—which don’t exist or can’t be implemented because of how you’ve framed the issue. But, for instance, climate change has given us the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century: renewable energy and the smart grid. If you want to become a billionaire and save the world right now, you can do it by going all-in on solar, wind, and storage. That’s not a problem, that’s an opening for new wealth creation; and that wealth creation enables a kind of governance because it creates new power blocs and new interests.

My latest novel, Stealing Worlds, is all about this process of reframing, and the power of it. We’re in a dire situation, but it is also humanity’s moment of greatest opportunity.

7.    What are you working on these days and what’s the best way for people to connect with you?

You can find Stealing Worlds, Lockstep, The Million and other recent books on Amazon or in your local bookstore; if you want to read a free excerpt from Stealing Worlds, visit https://www.torforgeblog.com/2019/04/20/excerpt-stealing-worlds-by-karl-schroeder/.  

I’m doing some foresight work that I can’t talk about, but it’s fun, and I’ve got several short stories coming out this fall. Meanwhile I’m reimagining what a Solar System-level civilization would look like; planning new adventures in my Lockstep/Million universe; outlining an entirely new kind of time travel story as well as a new take on secret societies; and I’m daydreaming about solar airships under the midnight sun. I’m having fun, and coming up with new ideas far faster than I can write them down.

Karl, you’ve been amazing and fascinating! It means a lot to us to hear about your early days, your process, and what it’s like to make a living dreaming. Very cool.

Best of luck with the upcoming work! We’d be honored to bring you back again sometime. You’re the very picture of our tagline here at Grailrunner.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Let’s Talk To Stephen Gibson: Creator Of Grimslingers

We’re excited to continue our Inspirational Creator series with an incredibly talented artist, writer, and game designer (among a ridiculous number of others things) who doesn’t seem to ever need to sleep. Stephen Gibson.

If you’re at all into deep immersion board games with visually striking art, especially for solo adventures, Gibson’s your man. He’s published his own lines, notably a series titled Grimslingers (sometimes with help from Greenbrier Games) and is helping spearhead the great work done at Arcane Wonders. Stephen chose a few pieces of art to share here with this interview, which we’ll include along the way.

Stephen, the internet has decided you’re one of the most responsive, welcoming game designers out there. And one of the most talented artists! Thanks for making time for us. Striking a balance between immersion in a created world but also making an entertaining game is a tough line to walk. You keep nailing it. Welcome!

1. Grimslingers is a western fantasy themed card game that hits you like a ton of bricks with its striking and distinctive art. Tell us your background – how did you wind up being an artist? Were you a doodler in school?

I was a doodler! Math class was actually just doodle class for me, haha. 
I’ve always enjoyed drawing but I never thought it was something I would ever do professionally. I was just never that good! I went to college for 3D Animation, Art and Design, ended up focusing on low-poly modelling and texturing for mobile games but somehow got hired as a concept artist out of college. That job went south real fast, so I started trying to make my own mobile game which eventually, and weirdly enough, turned into Grimslingers. I just kept teaching myself whatever I needed to know to produce the game and that sparked a whole new career – years later I’m now the Art Director for Arcane Wonders!

2. What is your typical workflow? What software do you use?

My workflow depends on what I’m actually doing, since I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades in my job. I produce videos, animations, 3D renders, illustrations, graphic design, ads, etc. I’m all over the place! But those talents give me a unique position in the industry to do some special things. 

In regards to doing illustrations like you see in Grimslingers, for that, I do “photobashing” as my technique. Which is generally collecting various photos to merge together and paint over so it all works together. I come up with the concept in my head, find the right photos, cut them together, fix the colors, then paint over it and then just continue to refine and add details until it feels right. The last bit I do on the image is usually adding atmosphere, additional ambient light and rim lighting to really push the image to be as bold as I can. 

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3. The weird western genre is due for its own Star Wars-sized blockbuster. Cast a movie for Grimslingers – who needs to star in that?

Wow, what a great idea and I hope that happens someday! I feel like anyone I would recommend would be way too old by the time I manage to pull off getting a Grimslingers movie made.  Anyone who’s already been in some of the best cowboy flicks and shows out there I think would be a great fit for Grimslingers, and then just throw in Christopher Walken for good measure.

4. A good thought there with Walken. I’m hearing cowbells for some reason (an old Saturday Night Live joke, maybe just let that one pass). Without naming them specifically, who was one person that most impacted your life in a positive way and why?

Hmm, well, that’s a tough one. No single person stands out the most, I think there’s a rich cornucopia of influences in my life that helped me get to where I am and be who I am today. I bet that’s true for a lot of us.

5. So you’re into graphic design, illustration, storytelling, game design, videos, t-shirts? Do you just not sleep? No seriously, which channel of expression gives you the most satisfaction? Why’s that?

Game Design and Writing are the most satisfying to me, everything else is just a means to an end. You see a lot of artists who simply do art because they love to do art. I’m not really like that. Art can, at times, be incredibly frustrating. But I need to do that illustration, or that graphic design, etc, to allow my game, or my story, to live. Also, I need moneys so I do the arts.

6. What’s the future of tabletop gaming? Where is it headed?

Great question! It’s something we discuss often at Arcane Wonders. I think we’re going to see way more established IPs (intellectual properties) flooding the board game world, more than they already are. I think we’re going to see a lot more apps integrated into board games, and at the very least being used to teach us rules. 

I think we’re going to see less of a tolerance for poor rulebooks and poorly made games. There’s just too much coming out now that you can’t survive with a lackluster game. Five years ago you probably could have on Kickstarter.

7. You’ve been up to something lately. Tell us what you’re working on.

Grimslingers 2 is the next big thing in my personal life! It’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned from the first Grimslingers and [The Northern Territories] expansion, as well as working on dozens and dozens of other games over the years now. Playtesting has gone amazingly well and I think I’m creating something truly special here; mechanically, visually and thematically. 

My work at Arcane Wonders is always filled with some cool new exciting games like our recent Hello Neighbor: The Secret Neighbor Party Game – a social deduction game based on the popular video game. We’ve also got Freedom Five launching Oct 20th, which is us getting to create a new game in the Defenders of the Realm series by Richard Launius and using the popular IP established in the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game.

Freedom Five has taken a good year to make (and there’s still plenty to do), requiring me to hire and coordinate with several amazing artists from around the world to ensure the game is a visual masterpiece that belongs on any shelf!

8. Grailrunner is relentlessly about finding and sharing things that inspire people to be optimistic about possibilities and the future. What’s a piece of literature or film or work of art that really sends your mind soaring, and why?

Take a stroll through Artstation’s “trending” and try not to be gobsmacked at the amazing talent and creativity that exists today!

9. What should we click on right now to learn more about you?

My personal facebook profile? Haha, in all seriousness I haven’t tried too hard to be well found on the internet! I never felt a huge need. You can always keep up with what Arcane Wonders is up to, of which I am obviously intimately involved with, at www.facebook.com/ArcaneWonders.

To keep up with Grimslingers, www.facebook.com/Grimslingers

And to take a gander at some of my portfolio which I rarely update, I’ve got this horrible web address for you:  https://stephensgibson.wixsite.com/ssgibson
Life is hectic, it’s hard to keep everything updated online.

Thanks again, for taking time to have a chat with us. It means a lot. Best of luck with the new stuff coming out!

Let’s Talk To Jeff Grubb!

Writer and Game Designer, Jeff Grubb

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

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

And he does Tai Chi too! Who knew?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, guys.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

New shirts, dude. New shirts.

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, that’s totally me.

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

Madessa: Surveyor & Cartographer For The Oriel Webway

Madessa stepping into an unknown oriel world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They just didn’t have any money.

(c) Brian Bennudriti

If you could use some Star Trek optimism right now…

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

Not my point, but stick with me here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care, my friends. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

You Need To Hear From This Guy. Seriously.

DocBrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sell us on Future Fighter. Why is it amazing?

Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick one character from the game and introduce us.

That would have to be my digital doppelganger, Omega.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to tell us about?

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

 

Scorpion Void

dna-1903875_1280

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

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

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

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

The Void.

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

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

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

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

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

You know you can find it again.

(c) Grailrunner Publishing

A tale of the Bioverse.

 

 

Clueless In The Sunless Citadel

map and firebeetle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

surrender

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

Maybe you can tell me.

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

Till next time!

 

Solo dungeon crawling in the quarantine: The Sunless Citadel

Sunless citadel image

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

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

Portal

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

Isolated storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t even cheat. Much.

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

Sunless citadel map

Principles:

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

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

And also those weird noises coming from the lower levels…

Be safe, guys. Till next time.