The Stories Make A Riddle

puzzle box-teal

Anybody that’s managed the exhaustive and maddening feat of completing a novel can relate to the weirdness that sets in as things wrap up. A core part of who you are, paper people you lovingly crafted and hid little bits of yourself into are being tortured and dropping like flies. Loose ends you thought were pretty awesome back in the day two years ago jump up out of their hidey holes during your re-read and mock you for forgetting they existed. Cool, shiny objects you’ve been chasing the last couple of months turn out to completely contradict the thing you were planning on having happen.

And so on…

Maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re the reader that catches those sorts of things when they’re not completely patched up and you savor your find. That’s cool too, you’ll still relate I bet. You’ve wrapped things up and felt a little whisper suggesting you stretch things out a bit, like kids in a pool begging their mom standing there waving her car keys:

“Just a little while longer. Pleeeeease?”

Anyway, this thing has taken longer than I’d anticipated. Like they always do. For almost three years, I’ve been at this collection of short stories, bundled with chapter endings that collectively unroll clues behind a connecting riddle. Sure, I’ve been working on other stuff, wasting too much time goofing off with fascinating time sinks like Warmachine, One Deck Dungeon, and Grimslingers. If you’re not clear on what these are, it’s probably best if you just leave it lying there. Or risk your soul (at least your free time!).

So I’m at 58,000 words roughly. All the stories are locked in place.  Fourteen chapters total. I’ve got four more chapter endings to write, each of which are maybe around 1,200 words apiece. It’s easier now that everything connects; and I know how the larger story ends. I know what happens to everyone. It’s no longer tempting to shove explanations into people’s dialogue, which is a soul-deadening outcome if I’ve not managed to mercilessly extinguish all the times I wound up doing exactly that.

I’ve been incredibly careful to ensure the riddle at the heart of this set of tales has enough clues for someone who’s paying attention to actually solve, but not have it be obvious. I also have in mind the notion that anyone choosing to read through a second time once they know the riddle’s solution would be rewarded in a meaningful way. And I want that solution to be important. I’m intrigued by tapping into the power of how fiction works in our minds to take a targeted shot at making an impact on the reader’s life.

No pressure, right?

So the idea, much like you do with your life, is to turn and shake the daily grind till the time to finish this project falls out of its pockets. Time…a quirky and unpredictable beast, that one.

Wish me luck. See you on the other side.





Introducing: The Tomb Trappers

Trap on door

If you’ve ever been entertained by tales of a daring adventurer dodging terrible traps and solving rune-based puzzles to avoid being impaled by spring-loaded spears, then you’ve probably wondered at some point…

Just who designed and installed all these traps, anyway?!

In the Salt Mystic worlds, there is an entire class of devious engineer called the Tomb Trapper. You can always recognize them by the worn leather trapmaster bag they carry.

Tomb Trapper Laughing

You don’t buy a trapmaster bag; and anyone caught having stolen one is quickly found in glowing ash piles once word gets out. Inside that bag are wonders, no doubt: computronium sensors and morphium canisters that spring to programmable shapes, intelligent stonewisps downloadable into the very masonry of an ancient wall capable of generating riddles…

But the true genius of a Tomb Trapper lies in what they learned deep in the labyrinth city below the Yagrada River. That’s where the Tomb Trapper guild once kept a gloriously malicious school of trapmasters, and its deadly proving ground.


Anyone carrying that bag studied under the most twisted minds who’ve ever built explosive-dusted halls or wound rune-covered clocks or poured oil into flaming statues. They were a wicked, but torturous geniuses, those shadow-haunting monks of the labyrinth city. Anyone carrying that bag not only studied under such people, but also won the labyrinth they built.

To be clear, one didn’t win the labyrinth by escaping or just by sealing away all of your opponents also seeking to graduate. Yes, you had to do those things. It just wasn’t enough. You had to trap one of the guild monks as well.

In fact, that’s the irony of the dead labyrinth city now that it’s abandoned and full of cobwebs and echoes.

They had some excellent students.

Tomb Trapper Cypress

(c) Brian Bennudriti

Tales from the Salt Mystic universe

Learn more about Salt Mystic here.

The Questforged

Questforged with blue background

Here at Grailrunner, we aim in our worldbuilding for the SALT MYSTIC universe to frame a place where almost any type of story can be told. In fact, the notion led us to the concept of the oriel as an artificial pocket space manufactured for explorers to populate or for shelving away mighty battles, where even ancient civilizations could be flourishing because their oriel’s time moves differently to ours.

When you’ve got that kind of span, any sort of monster might arise. Right?

One thing that always struck me as genius about King Kong or Frankenstein was how sad you felt for them. The big ape splattered there on the New York street hadn’t asked to be hauled off on a boat; and he had the heart of a hero. But splat. The reassembled corpse was just trying to make his way and be cool with everyone. But torches.

That line of thought took us recently to a new entry in the Salt Mystic rogue’s gallery: the Questforged.

Here’s a quick piece of flash fiction introducing these poor guys. Let us know what you think.

Banner file


Of course we did.

You don’t devise rifles that launch ball lightning and arm-mounted electrostatic chainsaws and fail to have the vision to surgically attach them to vat-grown mutants. Most of the Questforged elect to be sawed in half and hardwired directly into ramships or vortex wall climbers. Honestly, they’re a terror to see. And crazy.

That’s actually not what’s interesting about them, though.

The neurology is based on mass shooters and serial killers, especially wartime basket cases. Technically, they’re just mad all the time and looking for dopamine in the worst way. There’s a terrible truth with these fellows, though, relating to how we manage them.

Sana is a hallucinogenic algae wine grown in magnificent terrace gardens in the mountain cities. It’s pumped directly into their bloodstream, along with liquid computer bots that create manufactured realities for them.

And that’s the heartbreaking story of the Questforged. The people who control these terrible beast-men do so with fairy tales and fantasies about false terrors. They have no cause anchored to the real world, but instead chase stories fed to them by their generals. They are killing imaginary beasts and paper villains.

Not that you’d know the difference.

Questforged-up close


Web site header

(c) Grailrunner Publishing


The SALT MYSTIC tabletop game has arrived! Here’s the backstory…

storyteller with box

Well, finally! We at last have something to show you for all the efforts and learning, the mistakes and horrible designs, and the stunted experiments in game mechanics. You guys have been very cool about this little diversion of ours, so thanks for all the input and playtesting, the patience, and interest.

Here’s how this whole thing went down:

Nov 2017: Dude, I just wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons with my family for my birthday! I told you about it here. We popped into a gaming store (the Geekery!) to pick up some miniatures since I hadn’t done anything like that in decades. I saw some guys playing the tabletop wargame, Warmachine, and I was hooked.

I started learning to make terrain and assemble and paint miniatures. Learned the rules. Discovered Warhammer40K and Malifaux, a couple of other wargames. Then I picked up Magic: The Gathering and nagged the kids and wife into some after-dinner games. It’s like your mind explodes open when you go deep on this sort of pastime, seriously. I had no idea.

Feb 2018: By February, I was tooling on this notion of what I’m calling an Immersive Storytelling Engine, which is a mechanism for engaging people in different ways with an ongoing, overarching storyline. I captured a game on the tabletop at home with some high res pictures and told you about it here.



It was frustrating to try and move the ball down the field on this with my own work given how crappy my art skills are. I knew I needed dynamic visuals, so I started playing around with some amazing software that makes it easier:

  • Photoshop for image manipulation and some high level digital painting. is a favorite stop for stock images to begin with (and thank you, Aaron Nace of Phlearn on Youtube!)
  • Blender for 3D models, lighting effects, and scenery and backgrounds I couldn’t find or massage from existing stock photographs. Turbosquid is a favorite stop for royalty-free models to begin with (and thank you, BlenderGuru on Youtube!)
  • Daz Studio for 3D models of characters (and thank you, Black Sun Comics on Youtube!)
  • Substance Painter for unique textures and materials with which to paint all this.

Nov 2018: I tried a deeper storytelling experiment, which I told you about here. It was called THE BLACK RUINS MASSACRE. The idea was to let the mechanics of a tabletop game decide the narrative. Turned out great, you should go read those four posts. Also got the chance to photograph the fog machine tower on the table:

tower and fog

Feb 2019: By this time, I was stretching my artistic muscles a bit and shared some early images from the SALT MYSTIC world from my 2015 book, TEARING DOWN THE STATUES. While not amazing like the pictures in my head, I felt like this was making it possible to go deep on the idea of expanding the characters, technology, philosophy, and core concepts of that world in an engaging way.

Apr 2019: So this project began…the SALT MYSTIC tabletop wargame intended as a mechanism for telling stories as I had with the Black Ruins Massacre. It had some Malifaux in it, some Magic: The Gathering, some Warmachine…a little Star Wars…a lot of Dune…and some things I picked up in the ‘Tabletop Gaming’ magazine. I announced the project here. Mostly, I tried to avoid the stories and exact characters of the book and focused on enlarging everything, establishing a framework capable of supporting any type of story I might want to tell.

June 2019: Here, I was reaching out for people to help playtest the original game rules and concept cards. My idea was a bit ridiculous – I was hoping people would actually print out the cards and terrain and rulebook as pdf’s and give this a shot. Actually, loads of people responded and said they would do exactly that.

Unfortunately, I heard back from very few people on the hardcopy stuff. Kind of felt bad for the people who did because I was actively updating the art and card text, so the items they printed were in flux. But then, one crazy Scotsman chimed in and said he’d play it like crazy if he could do it ‘on-line with me mates’. He led me to Tabletop Simulator on Steam.


It wasn’t hard at all, actually, to upload the cards and terrain. They give you a template; and you just place your cards directly onto it in Photoshop, then click a few times. This was really helpful, believe it or not. You can reach a lot more avid gamers this way, most of whom are just interested in stealing some of your assets for whatever they’re doing.

But at least they stop by and give feedback after a few tries!

Sept 2019: It was September when something big happened…the first in-game story happened on its own. I wrote about it here. Basically, two brothers told as very young men that only one of them would receive an incredible prize. Only one of them. That drove the rivalry, which led to the accelerated game mechanic when they’re both on the table, sacrificing a player per minute until the brothers meet in battle.

Kind of a small thing in the overall scheme, given that I was interested in using the entire system for a big narrative. Still, the interplay of two particular cards being played driving both a story related to their backstories as well as a shifted game mechanic was hard to resist.


Just to give a sense of how the development process went, here’s another example.

The experience with the two brothers (above) got me thinking about an implied backstory in the SALT MYSTIC world…the desperate people manufacturing weaponry and vehicles to respond to innovations on the battlefield. The idea here: someone developed a ghost ship capable of phasing through the ground and essentially popping up from nowhere (like a submarine only on the land). It was devastating and unstoppable until someone devised the countermeasure: a tank that disrupts the ghost ship’s space and destroys it (if they can find it, of course).

dirt ships

Jan 2020:  After researching a few Kickstarter suppliers, I came across an outfit called MakePlayingCards. Customer Service is responsive; and their print quality and materials are excellent. Templates are clear and easy to use, like this one for the double-deck tray box.


I went with this style box, to have two opposing factions in one package as a starter set. The bad news is the freaking box is $20 all on its own. Based on that, plus the two decks and a rule book, the price was going to be out of hand for single purchases. Anybody running a shop could buy a handful and keep their costs down; but I definitely still need to work out some more affordable options.

Up next is to set up the marketplace and make the game available as both a starter set and individual decks with their own customized tuck boxes.

Stay in touch, guys! We’re going to finish this up, then get out a short story collection and horror novel this year. That’s the plan. Then the sequel SALT MYSTIC book can start, supplemented with an expansion of this game entailing an excursion into the massive Augur Temple and its mysterious terraces of artificial space pockets.

It’s going to be fun!

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.



Ever Wonder What Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ Is About?

steel man

An eerily detailed statue of a metal man shining on the street of a bustling future city, the neon lights and hovercars reflecting across its corroding surface. His face seems to be screaming, his eyes wide in horror. It’s frightening if you stand directly in front, so most people passing by step to the side or lean on its back to take pictures of themselves.

They pretend to kiss its lips and scratch their names upon it. They call it filthy names. And they mock it as a joke. It’s funny and somehow comforting to do so because when you’re near the metal man, there is always a certain feeling you may or not be able to ignore. There’s the sense, somehow, that he’s trying to warn you of something.

You’ll talk to people who swear that’s not a statue at all. They tell the same story because they’ve sensed it there in the plaza with the pigeons fluttering about, as the metal man looked on. They’ll tell you this was a traveler, a mortal man. But this was a man with powerful psychic abilities like no one in history. This traveler had the power to move through time and space with no vessel.

He pushed himself once, to his limits, to go far into the future and maybe see what becomes of us all. Maybe he expected great towers or shining cities or paradises with rockets.

But what he found was apocalypse: smoke and craters and rotting corpses. The cities lay in ruins.

In his horror and disappointment, this traveler returned in tears to warn the people of what he’d seen. But of course, things went terribly wrong with him. Space and time are vast and largely unknown; and there are costs to breaking their rules. An inexplicable field through which he sailed transmuted the very cells of his body into metal, imprisoning and paralyzing him. And here he stands, helpless to pass on a warning anyone will believe.

There is, of course, more to the story that only a very few of the most psychic-sensitives can tell you there in the plaza in the shadow of the silent metal man.

He’s gone entirely insane.

His thoughts are growing louder, more incoherent. He’s screaming inside there, with his terrible and mighty mind. The apocalypse he saw, that no one would believe even if they could sense his warning of it…this apocalypse that laid ruin to the world…

He’s going to cause it.


I’m supposing you’ve heard the Black Sabbath song, ‘Iron Man’. You should google it if not. Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics that told the story above. I fleshed it out a bit; but the skeleton of it all is there.

Here, read this. That’s an article laying out the inside story. Apparently, Tony Iommi banged out a riff on his guitar. Ozzy loved it and said it sounded “like an iron bloke walking around’. Geezer’s job was bass guitar and lyrics, so he knocked out something that struck his fancy. And here we are with one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

I just found this out recently. Thought it was awesome. Sometimes, you find amazing stories buried in something very, very familiar. There are science fiction lovers out there everywhere, involved in all sorts of things…dreamers, of our tribe.

And they’re making cool things for us.



Without Being Overly Negative, Why Does Science Fiction Suck Right Now?


Yeah, it’s politics and money. I get it.

Come on, guys! Doctor Who used to be fascinating and hilarious. I’ve laughed out loud at stuff Tom Baker or Matt Smith said. I’ve sat back after episodes like “Blink” and marveled at the well-designed symphony of story and concepts. That’s just good TV. I miss that. These days, Doctor Who is a string of nonsense action shots spiced with “guns are evil” and a parade of “women of history” that is honestly just too in-your-face with the politics for me. I’d hoped with Season 12’s “Spyfall” opener, maybe things might be different because the dude playing The Master now is pretty good…also hints of a larger narrative than the monster-a-week they went with in Season 11. No luck, though. Ep 2 was a boring train wreck that trashed the intriguing characterization of Michelle Gomez’s Master from earlier seasons.

I’m not jumping on the Disney ‘Star Wars’ hate wagon, though I do hate it. That’s not really my point here. My point is an evening with my Dad back in 1983.

The first ‘Star Wars’ came out when I was 6. It’s all anyone talked about; and it inspired me big time. I remember after ‘Empire’ speculating along with everyone else what would become of Han Solo frozen in carbonite. I remember seeing this cover in a book store somewhere and getting incredibly pumped because here was something outside the movies I could interact with.


Then Dad took me to the opening of ‘Return Of The Jedi’. I smacked his arm excitedly when the camera zoomed in on Darth Vader’s helmet with the Emperor’s lightning showering around them. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted that bad guy to help his son so bad, to turn back and be a good guy, that I was practically crying. That’s a great moment for me, in my mind, and illustrative of the power of good fiction, well executed.

I hated the prequels too, honestly, though I chuckled with some delight when Anakin screamed “Noooooooo” after learning of Padme’s death. A little girl beside me was dumbstruck and asked me during the movie why I was laughing. I just told her, “I’ve been waiting a very long time to see that.”

It isn’t just the ridiculous McGuffin-driven storytelling or vapid, meaningless action sequences or grammar school characterization. I just miss heart. I miss there being heart in the story.

‘The Mandalorian’ at least gets that very right. The dude in the helmet has a soft spot for Baby Yoda, probably because he was orphaned as well. Tough guy, softie at heart. Very dangerous when baby is threatened. That’s some heart, man. Give those people more money to make this kind of thing. We need it.

So I thought I’d offer some unsolicited advice to Hollywood and anyone else looking to bring some new science fiction into the world:

  1. Leave your blatant politics at home, please. Your objective as mythmaker should be to make something timeless. Politics bleeds that, so stop it. You’re also alienating half your potential fan base.
  2. Focus. Trim. Be concise. Narrow your plot’s conceit so it can be summarized in a sentence or two. Stop masquerading nonsense action shots from video games as if there is meaning there. If I could delete an entire section of your movie and have the same ending, you missed the boat.
  3. Twist something other than just a character’s gender or skin color. We’re not stupid; and we’ve heard every story there is. You’ll have to do more than tweak superficial window dressing to seize attention.
  4. Please, for the love of God, make character motivations clear and make them believable. Palpatine’s plan in ‘Rise Of Skywalker’ was for Rey to kill him? Really?
  5. Find heart. Please. Please. Please. Go back and watch the introduction of Wolverine and Rogue in the early X-Men flicks. Watch the scene in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies when the New Yorkers hid the mask-less Peter after saving them. Go listen to Spock, McCoy, and Kirk joshing with each other on the bridge of the Enterprise. Drill your character roster down to 2 or 3 people that have a true relationship that matters and with which we can relate. Please get back to that.

Anyway, I’m trying. ‘The Witcher’ was worth the time, though a bit muddled in timelines. ‘Messiah’ on Netflix seemed to have a great start till the last episode when it sort of fizzled. Just to spoil that for you, it’s much more interesting and makes more sense if you watch that thinking the guy is the Antichrist.

So go forth and help spread the word to anyone writing for Hollywood. Less noise, less clutter, less politics.

Can we have heart again?

A Cthulhu Christmas, And You’re Welcome


Since Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker is a waste of your time; and since Witcher on Netflix is awesome, but a bit confusing as far as timelines, I thought I’d point you to something fantastic to help pass a little holiday time.

Back in High School, a buddy of mine invited me over to his place with some other folks for a game night. He said we were going to play ‘Call of Cthulhu’, which I knew very little about. I’d had an old collection of Lovecraft stories sitting around for a very long time; but the wordiness of it all, and the slow boil nature wore me down a bit. At least Poe got straight to the blood and guts, right? That’s how I felt then, at least.

However, my buddy turned out to be an excellent game master. The other folks who came got into the spirit of the whole thing. Honestly, it’s been decades since that night; but I remember well a few off-road moments from that night:

There was this mysterious book that drove you insane if you read any of it. I had the idea of ripping off a page and carrying it with us for when people needed to be removed as obstacles. One non-player character wouldn’t let us in somewhere, I recall, shutting the door slot in our face after telling us to bugger off. We knocked until the guy came back to yell at us, then shoved the page in his face. Happily, that worked. Funny, yeah? I also recall setting up a howitzer in the front lawn of a haunted house to await the coming of the undead. Nice.

I unfortunately also remember well how my buddy tried warning me not to have my character go down some stairs. He described the sound of machinery, a grunting sound…I kept going because I was trying to impress his girlfriend and to be funny. He killed me. I think my head got chopped by some kind of trap. His girlfriend was adamant that my friend change his mind; but that was the end for me. However, Cthulhu secured a couch in my happy place.

You should read Tabletop Gaming, by the way. Fantastic magazine. Available electronically. Anyway, that’s where I came across the fact that a company called Chaosium, who publishes Call Of Cthulhu, is putting out solo adventures. Intrigued me. It intrigued me, in fact, because I’ve got teenage kids and a job and a wife with crap to do at the house that steals my free time. The idea of busting out a little RPG-style trip to creep through 1920’s Boston alleyways looking for dark mysteries or taking some potshots at sleeping Old Ones or whatever, well that’s just gravy to someone with as little free time as I have.

Anybody remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? Amazing. These Chaosium solo adventures are basically that, with numbered paragraphs and directions on where to turn based on your choices, but also with a character sheet and dice rolls. The Chaosium rules are super easy and streamlined as well, so not a lot of schlepping through complicated rulebooks or codexes or whatever. Took me about five minutes to have the character written up and to get the skinny on how the rules worked.

Head here for a free one. It’s called ‘Alone Against The Flames’. This one holds your hand so there’s a very smooth ride. Rules are linked here, though you only barely need them, at least for this adventure. Get your blank character sheet here.

I thought I was being pretty conservative; but I’ve died twice now. So I’m not the guy to drop you any hints on how to avoid getting burned as sacrifice for whatever these people are worshiping in this rinky dink little town where you’re going to get stuck. I try not to cheat on these sorts of things. I get that I’m a dork for saying this, but I put a dice roll app on my phone so I could play this on plane trips. That worked pretty well too.

One bonus on the Chaosium materials is they sponsor a place on DriveThru RPG called the Miskatonic Repository. That’s for self-published materials in this same universe, so you can have a go at selling your own stuff there if you like. Or pick up some snazzy ideas for your own campaigns if that’s more your thing.

If you take a look, let me know what you think. If I stay in this much longer, I’ll probably take a shot writing my own solo adventure set in the Salt Mystic universe. I understand Twine is a decent open-source app for writing this sort of thing, and offers a test print version when complete so you could put together something ready to publish. If any of you have tried that, let me know. I’m curious how hard that is.

So Merry Christmas to you guys! I wish you an incredible and prosperous new year. Personally, I’d like to finish my second novel, publish the game we’ve been working on, finish the short story collection, and start the sequel to TEARING DOWN THE STATUES. We’ll see how that goes, right?

See you.

Header art by Francois Baranger.

Locked Room Mysteries

Locked room mysteries cover

Oh, just go buy this.

Those people that can engage with their fiction by way of its characters are my tribe. That’s what fiction is for, in fact, and where its life-changing power lies. I can dig in deeply with inspiring ideas and themes too, even if the characters are a little thin. That’s where well crafted science fiction lights me up, in fact. If a lingering image sticks with me, or some slick twist on technology, I’m all good with a book and will likely re-read it just for that experience.

But there’s always got to be a hook. Right? Something that keeps you with it because you have a question or want to see how something turns out. That’s why the pages keep turning.

My dad has always been a fan of murder mysteries – the ‘Who-done-it’ genre. It’s an old tradition going way back; and I’m sure you’ve read plenty of those yourself. No need to get into that here because it’s the original Immersive Storytelling Engine. We know it well.

Recently, my wife and I watched Season One of something on Netflix called “The Sinner“. It’s based on the work of German crime novelist,  Petra Hammesfahr. You should probably go watch that too, actually. The lead detective is a bit broken; and Bill Pullman is fantastic in that role. I’m not usually into his acting; but he’s perfect here. You’ll get why I mention it here is you’re intrigued by this question:

Instead of a ‘who-done-it’, what exactly would a ‘why-done-it’ look like? 

Amazing, actually. Season 1 is a lady carving fruit on a beach with her kid and husband suddenly slashes someone to pieces – the whole season unwinds to spell out why she did that. Season 2 is a kid poisoning the folks you assume are his parents in a hotel room.

Then there’s the little collection that appears in the header above. Here, read this from Amazon:

“The Most Complete Collection of Impossible Crime Stories Ever Assembled, with puzzling mysteries by Stephen King, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. G. Wodehouse, Erle Stanley Gardner, and many, many more

THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES: An empty desert, a lonely ski slope, a gentleman’s study, an elevator car—nowhere is a crime completely impossible.

Edgar Award–winning editor Otto Penzler has collected sixty-eight of the all-time best impossible-crime stories from almost two hundred years of the genre. In addition to the many classic examples of the form—a case of murder in a locked room or otherwise inaccessible place, solved by a brilliant sleuth—this collection expands the definition of the locked room to include tales of unbelievable thefts and incredible disappearances.”

You’ll recognize many of the authors, even if you didn’t know they’d taken a stab at writing a locked-room mystery (“stab”, see what I did there?). Definitely worth your time as a heightened way of engaging with your fiction, at least in these short doses.

So what we have here is the ‘how-done-it’. You’ll not always know the culprit, but you’ll certainly be puzzled at how the murder or theft occurred given the conditions the stories lay out for you.

I’ll tell you this – read enough of these and it starts to feel like reading zen koans or something from Jorge Luis Borges where your whole idea of what is happening has to be turned around to make the pieces fit. You’re intentionally stuck into a paradox, fed biases and tricks that look like clues, and it’s up to you to pull back and ask some fundamental questions.

Seriously, give it a try. Less than $20. Worth it.

Let me know what you think, and also if you know of any other good collections of locked room mysteries. I’d be interested in a novel-length version if you think it’s well written.

See you later, guys.






Clash Of The War Marshals: A Salt Mystic Update

War Marshals

If you don’t know and just stumbled across us, welcome! We’re an indie book publisher forging and playing with what we like to call “Immersive Storytelling Engines”. Sometimes that’s using tabletop games to decide the narratives. Sometimes it’s a collection of short stories that build to a riddle. Here lately, it’s a maddeningly addictive tabletop wargame played with cards that we’re furiously developing. The game is built on our intellectual property from Tearing Down The Statues and its Salt Mystic universe.

We’ve been hitting it hard, completing the card art and incorporating learnings from play testing from the early versions. Thought it was high time for an update and a really enlightening takeaway from all this craziness. Stick with me…

Sept 6: Added card art to ‘A War Recorder Speaks’ . Very cool, because we had to figure out what modifications the Recorder Temple makes to the traditional Recorder forehead tattoo when the Recorder incorporates the hundreds of battles into their Pool to become a War Recorder. We went with stylized cableswords.

Also modified the mechanics for the two Interrogator characters. These guys are recruited for their serial killer instincts and never relent when they’re pursuing someone. Sadistic freaks, basically, weaponized. We changed the mechanic to add to their movement if you choose to move in the direction of a pre-defined target.

Sept 7: Based on an amazingly insightful piece of feedback about having clear themes, we adjusted the text and mechanics on playing the game’s core ‘A Guardian Arises’ cards. The idea is ANYONE at all can suddenly understand the Salt Mystic’s cunningly engineered folklore and become a guardian. So now one of the game’s characters becomes the guardian, not an anonymous nameless character like we had it. Much cooler.

Also re-balanced the two starter decks in the game based on play-testing. Only 4 vehicles, a handful of vehicle attachments, and loads of balanced characters. The two War Marshals have different mechanics, so we tweaked the two decks to take advantage of that.

And we added card art for Bloodmonkey of the Salt Flats faction, because we’re excited about tattoos on these guys now. Went a little overboard maybe, but my wife likes him.

Sept 8: Added card art to ‘Born Of Nothing’, the Grand Lady Of Camouflage.

Sept 15: Added our first in-game story: two brothers. Helion The Leveler and Stratica The Carbine Fury. One on each army. No attack rolls needed for these guys when they’re solo – they win every combat action unless it’s versus each other. But when both are on the battlefield, both players must sacrifice a character card every minute until the brothers engage in battle.

Also added card art for the Ramships.

Sept 24Overhauled the card art for the Mog vehicles to something better reflecting the mountain city’s steampunk aesthetic.

Also added card art and altered the mechanic a bit for the Dirt Wraith.

Sept 29: Revised card art for The Wake and completely changed her mechanic to make her more interesting and grant a better backstory. Now she’s tied to one of the original architects of the Datastream.

Added card art for the Black Fire Cannon as well. Tweaked the mechanic text a bit to make it more clear what’s happening when you fire that thing.

Oct 21: Tweaked the wording in the game mechanic for tracking range and speed with Mogs when they’re at height. There was some confusion about that in play-testing.

We entirely re-balanced the two starter decks. I’m still not entirely sure that Karak’s game mechanic equals out against Segmond’s.

Added another in-story game. There was going to be a Salt Flats character called Orangebeard; but we dumped that idea. Instead, a character named ‘Fled’ is someone who ran away from the Red Witch before finishing the terrible ‘Blackening’ ritual. He’s attacked automatically by any Red Witch characters within range, regardless of side. But he stole their trance-inducing stingers.

Added card art for the two War Marshals and tweaked the War Marshal sigil to make it more clear who they are in the game. Killing them is the point; and you have to find them in a shuffled deck quickly. It made sense to clear that up somewhat visually.

Nov 4: Overhauled Karak’s once-per-game mechanic to try and balance better against Segmond’s ability to convert loyalties. Now, Karak can call in Red Witch watchers from the shadows and clear the battlefield within a dice-determined range of the table edges. Basically, they haul screaming soldiers into the night, never to be heard from again.

Overhauled the art on the back of the cards.  The carbines and skull theme seems pretty popular and recognizable. We’re likely to go with that.

We added another in-game story, this time with Vehicles. The Dirt Wraith was a twisted use of the Inflation Engine technology, ripping artificial space out of the quantum foam to allow ghost tanks that arise from the very ground. Today, we added card art for the Wraithbuster. Name says it all.

Nov 6: Added card art for ‘Word From The Augur Temple’

Also decided the existing card art for Mudhead and Skullstomper is trash, so we jettisoned that and shoved them back into the queue.

Created new character type, Tomb Trappers. Mountains will have Fargo, and Salt Flats will have Cypress. Created placeholder cards for them and put them in the queue. The idea is these guys are the ones that PUT those Indiana Jones-style traps inside tombs. They’ve been recruited for the war effort, and trap characters during game play.


So that brings us current. And here’s one thing I’m really learning as this train builds up steam:

I feel more than ever that unlocking our imaginations in building something towards a compelling vision is one of the most powerful things we do as humans. Maybe this game goes nowhere and it’s just a fascinating intellectual exercise. Okay. I mean, I’ve had to learn Blender, Photoshop, Daz Studio, and Substance Painter to get this far. I’ve picked up all sorts of nuance in learning game mechanics. I’ve researched existing and obsolete games for this, and even learned to design foldable papercraft terrain. I’m learning about marketing and social media. People have been fantastic with their suggestions and feedback. And it’s incredibly fun to do all this. The game itself is an engine…the vision of what it can be in building the Salt Mystic universe.

Honestly, I can’t wait to get started writing the sequel book in that universe when all this bedrock is in place to draw on. These guys can all come to life in a very different way for me than maybe has ever happened when writing. That’s going to be fun.

I hope you stick with us. The end is in sight for something that can go to print. We’ve narrowed down to MPC as a printer and packager, thinking maybe a side-by-side graphic box makes sense, with each faction’s deck ready to pull from for a starter set. FI_8875

Keep the feedback and suggestions coming.  Head on over to the Artstation account to see some of the art we’re talking about. Here

Be cool. Enjoy your fireplaces. It’s getting freaking cold in Kansas City.






Immersive Storytelling Engines: A Case Study

carbines and skull revised

I read once that part of Hemingway’s genius was how tightly he could pack meaning into a small amount of words. Supposedly he came by that honestly from a background in journalism. Cool. I binged on Hemingway in college and read essentially everything he ever wrote. He’s worth your time if you haven’t made that happen, maybe start with the Nick Adams stories or Old Man And The Sea. 

I’ve written about haiku here before, particularly as a mechanism for tightly packing stories into powerful little wads of meaning, like exercises for fiction writers.

It strikes me that there is a lot of wisdom in packing hints of hidden worlds and  imaginative triggers into small packages to send readers off into flights of fancy. In my day job, we spend a lot of time making people in manufacturing plants think improvements are their ideas so they’ll own them and drive changes. Doesn’t the same thing apply in speculative fiction? I mean, the whole gig here is to get inside someone’s head and try and leave a trace you were there.

So something fantastic happened this week, along these lines.

If you’re tracking us lately, we’re developing a terrain-based card game based on some of the concepts and technology in Tearing Down The Statues. A core concept for me at least is that every card, every character, has a backstory hidden in the art or the card text that paints nuances into the worldbuilding. The mechanics of the game are intended to be an engine for immersive storytelling through expansions, brought to life by the players.

box cover-texturized

Over the weekend, I had a quick flash image pop into my head of a little sand timer placed on the tabletop when a certain card was played. I liked it – in my mind, it seemed both players were suddenly rushing through their turns for some reason. No idea what the timer was for, or why one guy playing some card triggered it. So the week went on, with a vague idea. I had a few cancellations, so some time at home to poke around with this.

I’ve been learning how to better use Daz Studios and Blender; and I’m okay with Photoshop. I figured out how to add realistic tattoos onto figures early this week; and that’s great because tattooing played a big part in the book. It seemed to me a custom tattoo would be very cool – portraying one of the most distinctive pieces of technology we have in our intellectual property: the ball lightning carbine.

ball lightning carbines

So that’s where the dealie-o at the header of this article came from. The skull was from Turbosquid, rendered in Blender and made into an ink drawing in Photoshop with a filter. Still needs work, but it’s shaping up. Anyway, so I had the tattoo. Was just spitballing some tough-guy characters with tattoos when another thought sprouted:

Both players have a card that can trigger that timer, right? So what if the two cards represented brothers? What if they’re absolute terrors on the battlefield when solo, not even needing attack rolls. Then when both brothers are on the field at the same time, they go after each other…that was a real spark for me.  The game mechanic seemed solid; and the characters looked the part of people who would want to slaughter each other. That’s uhhh..what I was going for. But I was still missing the boat.

Sometimes, going for a run clears things up for me. I can set a creative problem or story block in my mind and come back in an hour or so with a solution. In this case, the problem was easy – why are these brothers trying to kill each other? The game manifesto says everybody has a backstory…everything happening is for a reason. There has to be a purpose behind all the battles the game represents. What was their deal?

Then it connected.

salt mystic

Two thousand years ago, the Salt Mystic herself hid cunningly engineered myths in their very stories capable of practically possessing the right person in the right time. Like tripwires, triggered when we make enough of a mess of things that we need a guardian. Millions will follow them, and they’re endowed with almost supernatural leadership and insight. 

The brothers wanted that. I imagined an old hag, years ago when they were very young, sheltering in their parents’ house from the rain. She spoke something terrible to them that shot poison into the family and ripped it apart. And it eventually led to the two of them haunting battlefields, searching for each other to burn his sibling down and take the prize.

She told them one of them would arise as guardian. Only one.

Anyway, here’s how the cards turned out:


Make sure you keep an eye on us as this thing develops. Any feedback is appreciated!

See you next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.