Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: How to Run

"Fun cannot be planned. It can only be allowed."
                                                                   Alexis Smolensk, How To Run.

Readers of this blog will probably notice that I make frequent reference to someone named Alexis, whose blog; Tao of D&D has certainly inspired and influenced my sensibilities as a DM.

Alexis Smolensk is an earnest proponent of the notion that D&D (and by extension, traditional RPGs) can actually be good if only the participants are willing to put care, effort and energy into the pursuit.

To this end, he wrote a book called How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games

This work is available at lulu. I recently got around to buying and reading it for myself.

This work can not be judged by its minimal cover. The extremely uncomfortable-looking chair and the table notably devoid of players seem barren and forbidding. Yet perhaps this image is an intentional distillation of the book's main message: Dungeon Mastering done properly requires rigorous effort, most of which is done when the players are not around. The back cover seems to extend this metaphor.

I have to rank this book highly because there is simply no comparable work out there.
 While there is plenty of good advice on Alexis' Blog, he has definitely held back some pearls of wisdom for this book. So don't think one is a substitute for the other.

Official rulebooks tend to have very scant advice on how to actually Run Game. Knowing the rules is not the same as knowing how to apply them. Rarely is there practical advice for designing or preparing a game. Advice for dealing with players is shallow at best.
How to Run fills this void.

While the advice could be applied to any traditional RPG, or even game design in general, Alexis frames his arguments in terms of D&D, and he proudly uses the term Dungeon Master as opposed to any softer or more generic terms for the same thing.

How to Run is divided into four parts:
The first offers general advice which seems to be  intended as a sort of First Aid to correct faltering DMs, and give readers an idea of the player-DM dynamic Alexis is going for: one which emphasizes impartiality and player agency.
The second part focuses on managing one's self as a DM; with a focus on self control, dealing with stress and learning how to not give too much away,
The third part is concerned with handling players, working from the philosophy that the DM is providing a sort of service to the players, and not the other way around.
The fourth part deals with design and planning of the game and world.
There are 15 chapters in all. Each ends with a bulleted summary which ties the information up neatly.

I do have one gripe with this work: At times, the advice given is very general and abstract, and I find it difficult to concretely apply. There is certainly a good deal of easily applicable advice. But in some cases, a few more examples or anecdotes would not have gone amiss.
One reason for this occasional generality might lay in the Bibliography, which makes no reference to any D&D sourcebook or even works on game-design. It isn't Appendix N by a long shot. Rather, it includes titles such as:

Conceptual Models: Core to Good Designs
Consumer Behavior and Algorithm Design
Situational Awareness for Emergency Response
The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments

Alexis has taken his own advice and read broadly; applying outside knowledge to the development of a Good game. This synthesis from wider, real-world sources probably accounts for the confusing abstractions which pop up in How to Run.
This does little to reduce the value of Alexis' unprecedented and insightful work.

Personally, I got a lot out of How to Run.
But should you buy a copy? I don't know. How much do you care about your quality as a Dungeon Master?
Are you willing to pay 20-some dollars and read 300-odd pages of text without pictures or charts? Is it worth the effort to improve your game? If you think not, this may explain a few things about the games you run.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Random Dungeons

I left my last post on a note about randomly-generated dungeons.
Now, random dungeons have a tendency to be incoherent; dungeons for their own sake without much internal logic. But the upside is that they (theoretically) don't require a lot of investment of time or creative energy.
As much as I would like to be running a serious campaign and developing my own setting, the truth is that it is difficult to get a handful of busy 20-somethings to meet on a regular basis.
So suddenly, running one-shots and short adventures with B/X rules and random dungeons has a certain appeal.

My previous experience with random mapping involved using the random tables in the AD&D DMG. Except the book doesn't make explicitly clear how the tables work, and it takes a fair bit of designer discretion to make them work.

Incidentally, the AD&D DMG is my favorite D&D book. Loaded with evocative details and rather little clear direction on how to use them.

So I went looking online for tools to produce random dungeons. Shout out to Dungeoneering Dad for doing a lot of the legwork.

These tools draw a dungeon map and populate them with monsters, treasure and traps:

I ran a game for myself to test these dungeons out. Also, to teach myself how to run B/X smoothly.
I admit that even I felt a little weird sitting down to play D&D with myself. And yet, it helped to smooth out the kinks in how I run Basic before inflicting it on my players.

What I found was that even randomly generated dungeons take some tuning and preparation to run well.
Donjon produces dungeons for the later editions, and also for AD&D, which is closest in overall balance to Basic. I like what Donjon does. But:

A lot of the traps are sure to kill low level adventurers. In playtest, they killed much more often than monsters. They'll have you going through thieves like potato chips and Mountain Dew. I could tolerate an occasional trap of certain doom, but I think Donjon overdoes it.
If I were to play it as generated, I would atleast devise a means to grant XP for traps. Like if a party inentionally avoids or succesfully disarms a trap, they get XP as if the trap were a monster of the HD that the trap would kill with an average damage roll.
For example a falling block that does 6d6 damage does an average 21 damage, which would equate to the average HP of a 4 HD monster. So noticing and circumventing the trap grants XP as a defeating a 4HD monster.  I will try it this way in further playtest.

Donjon also gives a lot of details- from dungeon dressing to a wandering monster table. But it behooves the DM to look through these details and determine what they actually mean before you have to describe them to the players!
For instance; if one of the wandering monsters is a six dwarves wandering senselessly, the DM suddenly has to invent a backstory for this dwarf. Or if a room has an X marked on the west wall, the DM will have to note why somebody made the mark in anticipation of when the players choose to obsess over what is actually a random bit of dungeon dressing. Some traps are listed without describing what exactly the trigger is or where the danger-zone is. Some bits of dressing like large Idols with ruby eyes will certainly be construed as treasure, so it's better to determine what they are worth and how hard it will be to pry them out before the players ask about it.

Also, the monsters listed in B/X are pretty basic. Most generators will pull out monsters which aren't listed and will need either adaptation or replacement.

Moving on to mythweavers. Mythweavers makes dungeons for 3rd edition and will require conversion. You'll need the 3rd ed. DMG and MM for this. This one is kinder with the traps. It also pays out much larger sums of gold and even magic items. So characters in a mythweaver dungeon will go up much faster.
Mythweaver lacks a few of the nice feature which donjon has; like  a wandering monster table or showing the dungeon entrance or offering various file formats to save the dungeon in.  It just createsa a little more work
Mythweaver is also very weird about its dungeon dressing, offering a list of unrelated items if any. It seems to me that it would generally be more useful just to know the function of a room and some reference to its state of repair, along with any natural or geomorphic features.
All in all, donjon is to be preferred for Basic D&D adventures.

There are also a lot of map generators, which draw dungeons, but do not stock them. All in all it seems like preparing and tuning a stocked random dungeon isn't much less work than stocking it yourself, If you stock you own dungeon,I think you are more likely to be fluent in int when it comes time to run.
Here is a map generator- it also does nice looking caves

But these are particularly cool. I used this and randomly populated it using the guidelines in the Basic book, with some help from Tricks, Empty Rooms, & Basic Trap Design by Courtney Campbell
It took a while because the geomorphs are so complex. I am a little concerned that it will be difficult to describe the cogent information about the shape and layout of some of the spaces- difficulties which you would not have in the series-of-disjointed-rectangular-room style of dungeon.
based on:

I hope it works out. Now If only I can manage to get some people together.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

exploring Basic D&D

A lot of my sensibilities as a D&D player are influenced by the OSR. Most of my favorite writers and thinkers about rpgs are somehow connected to the old school rennaisance.

The games I have played however, have mostly been 3rd edition, with a healthy smattering of the White Wolf  World of Darkness system. My only real experience playing an "Old school" style game was a brief flirtation with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I had some problems with LotFP though. Characters seemed to die too easily. Players didn't have time to get used to their characters. Those who had invented detailed backstories for these ill-fated characters found themselves shortchanged on their efforts. As a DM, I had been hoping for a certain threat of lethality, and the tension that comes from it. But the lethality lent more of a slasher-flick absurdity than actual drama. And whats worse, I found that the constant character deaths were holding up  the campaign. Characters were simply not living long enough to witness the wonders I had invented.

Part of the the problem was that I had designed the adventure with 3E sensibilities, with the power creep of 3E in mind. Flame Princess appears to run on a d20-like system as far as combat is concerned, so it seemed like an easy transfer. But rather than adjusting my style to the new system, I just changed the campaign back to 3rd. The increases survivability allowed us to play in the manner to which we had become accustomed.

I had basically given up on Basic D&D. But I still read OSR blogs. Including Monster&Manuals, which is where I found this:

These are play reports and commentary of a few trial B/X games, and then an extended campaign where some of the characters get as high as Second Level.
The odd thing is how genuinely interesting these reports are. They are exciting to read, and that's about the last thing you would expect.

I had been made to understand throughout my roleplaying career that Old School D&D didn't really allow for roleplaying. Supposedly, back in the day, D&D was basically played like a board game, and only later more nuanced systems really had the potential for drama and characterization.

Yet in these play logs, there are well-defined characters, ethical conundrums, drama, and lots of tension. It shows the value and potential of Old School play, and it is pretty inspiring.
The rules used were the Basic/Expert rules with very minimal houseruling. These rules were edited by Tom Moldvay and David Cook, and published in 1981. There are two books in the set, Basic and Expert. Basic has rules and tables for characters up through the third lever. Higher levels are described in the blue-covered Expert book. These are the rules usually taken as the basis of the OSR and the various "retro-clones" such as Lamentations.,204,203,200_.jpg

Some of the key factors I noticed that are different from most D&D games I've played:

>Play began at the threshold of the dungeon. It is understood that the party members already know eachother and are going to cooperate. This saves a lot of bullshit. Shopping and resting are not played out, but simply announced.

>Overland travel was simply announced as a given. But B/X does have rules for it: It amounts to a possibility of a random encounter while moving from one hex to another. This basically extends the length of the gauntlet the party must run.

>Play moves very quickly. The group seems to get through a lot of encounters in a short amount of play time.

>XP is based on treasure acquired: counted when it leaves the dungeon. Monsters are also worth XP, but the risk of combat is not necessarily worth the meager reward.

>A single good hit from an enemy or a trap can mean certain death - especially at low levels. Teamwork and caution are a necessity. This DM gave experience not only for defeating enemies, but also for causing the enemy to flee or talking their way out of a fight.

> Morale and reaction checks are absent in recent editions. But they are key to encounters in basic.

>Resources are very limited. HP and spells evaporate quickly, and there's no telling what's in the next room. The party has to decide just how far to push their luck.

>Dungeons are not cleared; they are raided. The idea is to grab treasure and get out without anybody dying.

>This DM used dungeons made by an online random generators. One called Wizardawn, which seems to be defunct, and another called donjon. There are several tool like this online. While I am usually of the mind that a dungeon should have an underlying logic to it, the upshot of using randomly generated dungeons is that the DM doesn't have to worry about his creativity or ego being on the line and can simply focus on running game.

>There's no (intended) continuity or narrative at stake, so the campaign can be as log or as short as is convenient.

Consider my interest in Old School D&D rekindled. It comes at the right time, and the exploration offers plenty of fodder for armchair demiurge. more to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wuts an Ar Pee Gee?

Long due salutations. I am keenly aware that Armchair Demiurge has not been nearly as active as it one was.
But recently, I've been in the middle of buying a home, moving, quitting my job and searching for new employment. It doesn't take many words to say all that, but it has been an ordeal. As a result, I haven't had much time to spare for gaming. Hopefully, this entry will signal a return to form.

Game books seem to be obliged to have some blurb at at the beginning which explain what a roleplaying game is. This is strange. Monopoly doesn't bother to explain what a board game is. Yet as fundamental as roleplaying is, we feel some need to explain ourselves.

Anyways, If I were to create my own system (which is the ultimate purpose of this blog) and write a book for it, this is how I would explain roleplaying games and how they are different:

Most people who pick up this book will already be familiar with traditional "pen and paper" roleplaying games and how they work. However, authors are nonetheless obligated to explain roleplaying games, on the off chance that a reader is unfamilar with the concept, or perhaps learning about traditional roleplaying for the first time.

Traditional roleplaying games have an ancestor in miniatures-wargaming. Their most prominent descendents are certain genres of videogames which emphasize adventures, tactical combat or narrative. These electronic derivatives are also called RPGs.  Yet traditional RPGs have a potential and an appeal which war-gaming and videogames cannot really duplicate. The appeal of traditional RPGs can perhaps be explained by telling how they developed.

Before electronic gaming, people played tactical war games with tin soldiers and rules for how to move the miniature troops and resolve combat between opposing forces. In the late 1960s in Wisconsin, a few men created rules for medieval-fantasy wargames so that they could play out battles in the style of the fantasy authors who they admired. A few years later, in the early 1970s, the same group of men had the idea that instead of controlling whole armies and large groups of soldiers, they would control only one or two or three combatants.

When they made this switch, the war-game took a strange turn. They played a scenario where their combatants were to storm a fictional castle which had been invented and mapped out soley for the game. The players found they could be very specific and creative about what they wanted their characters to "do" in the scenario. The tin soldiers took on aspects of character. The players named them. The players described what the characters would say, and they spoke as their characters. They used funny voices and it was loads of fun. The lives of these fictional characters were short and violent. Allies and enemies appeared and reappeared. There was a sense of drama and narrative about these small-scale wargames which had not previously been a factor.  The game had become about playing the role of a character and spontaneously creating a narrative with the cooperation of the other players.

They had invented a new kind of game and published the rules for it. But oddly, the term "roleplaying game" would not be invented for another few years yet to come. The concept proliferated. The game which the gentlemen in Wisconsin published emphasized roleplaying in medieval fantasy settings. But people quickly developed games which featured all sorts of milieus; from futuristic science fiction to gritty pulp and horror and contemporary settings. The medium of roleplaying begged to be tweaked to suit the fancies of the players. The open-endedness of the medium was the main source of its appeal.

As home computers became more powerful in the late 1970s and 1980s and the video-game was invented, game makers set to imitating pen-and-paper RPGs in a digital format. The numerically-based rules of the standard RPG were easily translated into digital programs. These games still bear the marks of their ancestry. Any electronic game which utilizes notions of hit-points, character class, character level, or uses numerical values to describe the power of a character or object is showing its roots. The electronic RPGs allowed the users to play roles within a fictional scenario and to explore and interact with a game-world. They were very successful at this. Yet electronic games are limited by their programming: They lacked the true open-ended freedom of analog RPGs. Videogames are limited by their programming. A player in an electronic RPG can only interact with the game world in the ways which the game designer has anticipated and allowed for: Certain characters are unkillable because they will be important later. Some objects are visible, but are merely part of the background and cannot be interacted with. Mountains are visible in the distance, but cannot be visited. There are dialog options, but only a limited selection. Videogames are largely judged by the extent to which they offer broad or interesting new options in their gameplay. But ultimately they can offer only so much freedom and room for creativity. Certainly in the future, as programming and atifical intelligence become more advanced and video games will be able to offer truly open-ended scenarios. Until then, only traditional RPGs have a mechanism which makes them truly open-ended.

Traditional roleplaying games are played by groups of people, usually sitting at a table or possibly chatting over an internet connection. Typically, most of the players in the group control a character in the scenario. But one player will be responsible for describing the world and all the people and things in the scenario. This player is usually called a Game Master, referee, or story teller. This special player serves as the eyes and ears for the characters which the other players control. The other players ask questions and tell the Game Master what they wish their characters to do. The Game Master then describes the consequences of the players actions. This process continues and the game progresses. If a player wants their character to do something unexpected, like put an innocuous object to some ingenious use, turn against an important quest-giver, or write and deliver an impromptu speech in hope of rallying the local populous, then it is the Game Master's responsibility to invent some reasonable means of determining whether the character succeeded, and what the results of their actions will be.

At first glance it may seem that the Game Master has too much control over the game. But it is important to note that the Game Master is not the opponent of the other players. The Game Master's responsibility is to present interesting, reasonable challenges and to serve as a sort of referee; ensuring that the rules of the game are practiced consistently and fairly. A good Game Master knows that there is no game at all if the rest of the players cannot trust the Game Master.  This is the mechanism by which traditional RPGs allow for novelty and creativity within the game.

btw, when I find myself having to explain traditional rpgs to people in person, I use a much shorter and more informal version of this speech. Usually, I gauge whether the other person is more likely to know about tin-soldier wargames or be familiar with videogames, and I use a similar explanation-from-historical-context from whichever side the subject is more familiar with. I am generally satisfied with the results as it doesn't take more than a few sentences to describe and heads off any social awkwardness. But I haven't had any enthusiastic questioning and interest either.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Erol Otus Coloring book

Erol Otus was an artist who did a lot of the art for Old School D&D materials.
I'd guess that his gnarly, creepy style was probably half the reason people thought D&D was satanic.

His cover-art tended to have surreal, glaring colors. But most of the drawings are black and white, begging for coloring. Except who would dare to sully a vintage game supplement? (seriously, half of the old D&D books I've gotten from used book stores have atleast some of the illustrations colored in)

So here are some uncolored scans , straight from the internet.
I present the Erol Otus Coloring book!

 Does anybody know what monster this is? It looks like a pumped-up carrion crawler.


 Pow! Bam! Biff! Ker-Sploosh!


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Recent Lessons

The Dungeon Purgatory campaign may soon be ending. I am moving to another city, so I won't be around to insist that we stick with it. We are also getting to miss the narrative consistency of a more traditional campaign. So Dungeon Purgatory is prolly not long for this world.

anyways, here are some lessons I've learned from running my last few sessions

1. Randomness on the DMing/encounter generation side of the screen does not necessarily equate to randomness on the player/experience side of the screen. Rather, the players can be given a sense of disorder or mystery from events which are actually carefully planned on the DM side. But if the DM expects off-the-cuff randomness to perform well and hopes to surprise himself, he is likely to be disappointed, and what the players experience will probably be meaningless and boring.

2. If you want a monster to stick around and cause trouble for a while, don't make it easy for the PCs to push it off a cliff or into a pool of lava or something. At least not until that is exactly what they are supposed to do.

3. Dungeons are like fun-houses. The aptness of Alexis-senpai's comparison is more apparent to me now. Except I would say it's more like an amusement park haunted-house ride. \

Things need to be obvious. The monsters are supposed to pop out on their creaky hydraulics. If there's a mystery or a secret, it needs to be apparent that there is a problem to be solved. It's ok to hand-hold in dungeons.
Yeah, I am usually for lots of freedom and player-driven action. But dungeons really aren't the place for that. Open ended adventure requires an open environment. Once we are in a dungeon the game is not about getting into character or storytelling. It is about killing stuff and getting treasure until the course is cleared.

4.That said, whether an area is visually mapped or merely described to players has a huge effect on how they are prompted to explore and interact with the environment.
I had a certain area mapped very neatly, but lost it before game. I felt this loss very keenly as I had to describe verbally what I had expected to present visually.

A map encourages players to be more proactive in their exploration. What they already see is clearly marked and the "blank" areas of the map show where there is more exploration to be done.

But when players are dependent on a description farted out of my hazy and disorganized imagination, they really lack prompting. If something is not specifically mentioned in plain language, it may as well not exist. On the other hand, something mentioned as mere window-dressing may utterly fascinate or boggle the players. The tale of the Gazebo comes to mind.

Does it see us?
This distinction between visual representation and descriptive representation may seem obvious. But I am still learning it. In the future, I will make a conscious decision about how I intend to present an environment. This distinction also pretty much dictates what sort of preparation will be necessary.
5. Mixing monsters is cool. Encounters with multiple distinct monster types are a good way to make a combat more interesting. Having more than two factions involved simultaneously in one encounter can be very unpredictable for players. Especially when one faction is an unknown quantity. It gives players the opportunity to make quick decisions and feel particularly clever when things work out well for them. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Killing Gently

Though my rate of posting has slowed significantly, the Dungeon Purgatory campaign is still going, and the party has come once again to one of my areas. I am playing my cards close to my chest at the moment, but I will share reflections on this level later.

Until then, I've been immersing myself in the Dune universe lately. Even going so far as to listen to the prequels co-authored by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. They are not nearly as esoteric or perceptive as the writings of Frank Herbert, but are sufficiently interesting for describing the underpinnings of the universe.


Dune is one of those science-fantasy settings where it is the future, in space, but people are still fighting with swords for some reason, which is cool.
Dune's justification for swords-in-the-future is the Holtzmann-Effect shield. The Holtzmann shield is a energy barrier which deflects any object which enters the field at a certain velocity. A person with a shield equipped is invulnerable to any projectile or explosive force. A shield can be personal, or large enough to cover a city.
The only way to penetrate a shield is by moving into it at a sufficiently slow speed. This necessitates a particularly disciplined form of melee combat. And as shields are ubiquitous, military tactics are based around the necessity of close combat.

Shields- as depicted in the 1984 movie. When CG was new.

Holtzmann shields do have some serious limitations however: For one, they attract and enrage the giant worms of Arrakis. So using one in the open desert is practically suicide.
For another, if one is shot with a laser, the interaction creates a detonation equivalent to a nuclear blast. So beware of suicide troops with lasguns. Depending on who you are fighting, that could be a thing.

There have been several attempts to make a Dune rpg. The ones I've perused don't seem too promising. But the schools and disciplines of the Dune universe seem well suited to the Class and Level model.

Thank you, internet.

I got to wonder about Dune Larping. The action in a Dune novel is mostly talking, or intense chemical-aided introspection, punctuated by spying  and the occasional assassination attempt or duel. It seems like it would lend itself well to live-action gaming, so I did a quick search to see if anybody else has wondered about this.


A few have, and fewer still have attempted it.  One of these bold souls wondered aloud how the particular character of holtzmann-shield fighting could be simulated.
I've done some fencing and boffer and SCA combat here and there, so I thought about it.

In shield-fighting, only an attack which enters slowly can penetrate the shield. This is the trick, because in conventional melee combat, the faster hand has the advantage. It seems that this sort of combat would emphasize subtlety, deception and precise control. And that is what we would need to simulate to get the "feel" of shield-fighting.

I noticed that impact or mass-weapons don't play into shield combat. It's all rapiers, bodkins, crysknives, poison needles and hidden blades. These weapons can be manipulated with special finesse, and don't need to be moving fast to deal their damage. Hacking and smashing weapons such as maces, axes and broadswords pretty much need to be moving fast for their mass to play into the damage, as such they don't get used in shield fighting. I don't know much interest Frank Herbert had in martial arts, but he seemed to have realized this distinction when he was building his world.

What occurred to me was a form of boffer-fighitng or fencing where the object is to touch the opponent so that they feel it, but in such a way that it doesn't hurt or even sting a little bit. Every other aspect of the sword-play would be full speed. But being required to pull one's blows would, I think, simulate the challenge of slow-blade shield fighting.

I am actually pretty tickled by this notion. It's a bizarre form of counting coup. Some time when it's not blazing hot out, I will have to get some people together so we can figure out how this works in practice. Things like what kind of weapons to use, what protective gear, if any. Is grappling allowed or not? how to properly gauge a "hit" and so on.
I think there could be a lot of appeal in a martial game where the object is to not hurt your opponent, just show that you could have if you'd wanted to.
anyone seen this episode? it seems relevant.
Hopefully I will have some results to report on this experiment sooner rather than later. I am pretty excited about it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Something for Everybody

A friend in the Dungeon Purgatory campaign ran in one of his levels last friday.

I would call the session a success, and it had a very basic lesson to teach.

In the little scenario, there was something for everybody to do.
Or nearly so. The character-players had plenty of action. The rogue had a heist to perform in the background. Only the fighter, who suspected a trap was really left out in the cold.

This is a basic idea. Its so obvious, it is in certain editions of the DMG. I guess I am just getting back  to basic lessons after taking such a long break from game.

I mean, I wouldn't  make Something for Everybody the primary principle of my process. But for set-piece encounters or important areas, I will try to keep it in mind.

One thing I noticed about the recent session, was that we split the party without fretting about it. Keeping the party together is like the first rule of dungeon survival.
But somehow, in this scenario, we sensed that we had license to do so. I think it was when the party had found an are which was not technically a "dungeon," And he took a moment to describe several objects, people and simultaneous events at the same time, which was likely to pique and divide our interests at the same time.

Simple stuff.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Underloft-grid-map lessons learned

After a hiatus out of respect for Med-faire season, we resumed the Dungeon Purgatory campaign.

Over the last two sessions, we returned to and completed one of my levels.

The Underloft.
The Underloft may be thought of as the flooded-basement of the castle complex. A vast, subterranean space, wet, cold, dark and dripping.
Something like this image of Dwarrowdelf from LotR, except flooded.

I liked the idea of the Underloft. it was very archetypal. I thought the atmosphere would translate easily, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the Zelda-Grid style map.

The players recently made their second expedition to the Underloft, in search of a key which would grant access to new areas.
And I swear, it was the most boring couple of sessions I have run in recent memory.

One of the problems was misuse of a random encounter table. As the party progressed from gridsquare to gridsquare, I would roll away on a d20 encounter table to see what appeared in adjacent grids.
This gave me a lot of nonsense and things that Either I didn't feel like running, or else some nonsense encounter.
Fortunately, the table producd a merchant with a boat for sale. So the PCs could traverse the waters without suffering hypothermia.
Then it so happened to yield the Boss with the McGuffin they were looking for.

I went in thinking that adherence to a random table would produce an organic experience that would surprise everybody. What I got was either nonsense, or unappealing. Really, it would have been better if I had simply plotted to a certain extent.

We are using a spell failure table for this campaign. Spells require a spellcraft check with a difficulty based on the spell level. This makes it possible to fumble spells. Fumbled spells call for a roll on a  d100 table listing various effect, some benign, some terrible.
Somebody failed a spell, and as a result evaporated all water in a 1 mile radius.
This Dried up the whole level. The party was able to walk to the exit.
Near the exit, they stumbled upon the same merchant. How the merchant got there before them was not explored. But the only reason for it was my use of the random encounter table.

I think it would have been better to track the significant objects over time according to the reasonable natures of the object, rather than relying on the random encounter table. It would have created a greater sense of depth to the level. Even if this would have been imperceptible to the players, I would have felt better about it. Adherence to a random table for generating encounters off-the cuff was a bad idea. I use random tables when populating areas beforehand, but I don't obey them if I don't feel like the result is appropriate. Why did I have this temporary lapse? Must have been too long since I last DMed.

Next time will be better.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

myth building- apocalypses.

And I pray, oh my god do I pray
I pray every single day
For a revolution
                     - 4 non blondes

This post is an observation about mythologies, which I expect to be useful for contriving mythologies for a gameworld.

I've already written some about apocalypses, especially concerning millenarianism in American culture.
But millenarianism isn't restricted to one time or place, or even one form of ideology. Belief in the "end times" is generally associated with religious outlooks. But it seems that even political or ethnic ideologies have some notion of this. That would account for pretty much all ideologies.

Ideologies form their own views on history, that is, they customize a mythology. This mythological history would naturally interpret past events. And it would also develop conjectures about the future and the direction history is going in.

Basically, no matter what your outlook, whether you are Jew, Gentile, Hopi, Sioux, Republican, Anarchist, Burner, Evangelist, Progressive, Positivist, Luddite or Flower-Child, you probably have some notion that something is going to happen. And probably soon.

People imagine this thing differently. They have different words for it: apocalypse, rapture, the technological singularity, when the Shit Hits the Fan, The Transcendental Object at the End of Time, The Age of Aquarius, The Revolution. Ragnarok.
And then there's the one where the internet stops working and we all don football pads and grab our ARs and kill eachother for the last bottle of coke. Plot twist: the last coke will be warm and taste awful.

It seems to me that all these various apocalypses hold Anxiety as their common origin.
It is uncertainty or a perceived threat which causes people to make these guesses that something serious is going to happen.
The nature of the anxiety reflects on the principle concerns of the rest of the mythology.
For instance:
Who will be saved, who will be damned.
Environmental concerns or concerns over limited resources.
Concerns about group-identity or social position.
Civil liberties or political power.

The term "Apocalypse" has come to mean the end of the world as we know it. But in the original sense, it meant a revelation. Apocalyptic literature was a genre of religious writing in which people wrote about the bizarre visions they had while fasting or in trance. In this state, they believed that God was revealing things to them. So in a more basic sense, an apocalypse is how-things-are-going-to-turn-out.

In this view, when the apocalypse happens, questions are answered, things turn out, and the anxiety is resolved. That is why people are fascinated by the idea. It is appealing in a sense.

People take for granted that a mythology will have a creation story. But don't forget that they almost always have some future which they expect as well.


There's hardly anything actually useful in this post. Just musing on worldbuilding for general purposes.

I left the last post on a bit of a question mark.

In short, I made distinction between the domains of craft, science and technology on one hand, and ineffable magic on the other. In game terms, One field is more or less understood and under the control of the character. The powers of the other field are unpredictable, and they strike like the inspiration of a muse.

This left me in a bit of a muddle as a Game Master, since it is difficult to create a system to regulate divine inspiration or a character's affinity for the eternal tao.
The other field is easy to regulate: a character knows this much science and has such and such resources. A character has the mental endurance to memorize and cast so many spells a day. It's straightforward and rational.

The first thing that occurred was simple DM fiat. But nobody wants the unbridled whim of the DM as their character's main source of power.

Also, I was writing like I was imagining the source of magic-magic as the one ultimate reality of the universe. God in short. The sort of polytheistic set up common in science-fantasy settings were not really being considered.

In standard D&D, clerical magic is channeled to Clerics from their deity as sheer spells per day.
I figured his could be interpreted either as technology- where the deities are super-powerful wizards who distribute their extra-planar energies to their acolytes. Or it could function as magic-magic, where the deities embody more abstract principles which a devotee "tunes in" to. So I left it undefined.
One of these models could suit your campaign world better than the other, depending on the statement you are trying to make.
Heck, you could have both; creating a distinction between "true" and "false" gods of which the players may not even be aware.

Then my buddy came over, the same one who go me thinking about the proper distinction between technology-magic and magic-magic.
Somehow, we got to talking about ritual magic, basically that practiced by priests and magicians in our own history. Imagine a pagan priest attempting to invoke the power of Athena or Mars or somebody like that. They invent a ritual which involves the trappings associated with the given deity in an attempt to attract their power. This is something like sympathetic magic, which operates on the theory that like is affected by like.
Thing is, even with such a ritual, the practitioners are never really sure whether it worked or not.
If the desired result appears, then maybe it is due to the god's intervention or maybe not. It is with this uncertainty, that priest-craft becomes a mystical , mysterious, ineffable process; the success of which possibly attributable to the skill of the priest or the whim of the god or both.

At this point, I noticed that Priestcraft is like hunting or fishing in this regard; you could be doing everything right, but still not get what you want. Possibly simply because of forces beyond your understanding or control.
It doesn't necessarily have to be understood by the players, so long as the DM understand the whys and wherefores.

I argued that the theory of the existence of gods and the ritual associations used to influence them were a sort of cultural technology- a sort of rational formula based on a given understanding of the cosmos. But I also agreed that because the "science" of it was so vague, that this was kind of a moot point and the whole pursuit is in the realm of the mystical.
If there is am unproven hypothesis with only limited evidence to support it, acting on that hypothesis would be rather like relying on magic, wouldn't it?

I realize, I already proposed a reasonably good system for distribution of clerical magic where anybody can do cleric stuff regardless of class. Mechanically, it's built on the framework of standard D&D. Needs Playtesting.

Friday, May 29, 2015


After you read enough weird shit, The fantasy and science fiction genres begin to lose their distinction and merge into a unified field. This is what I was trying to get at with the Fukkin' Fairies post.

What brings this to mind?
I randomly read The Magician's Nephew last weekend. The last time I read it, I was in the single-digits of age. Even then I knew that Narnia was about allegory, but I still missed a lot.

Incidentally, I find myself being much more sympathetic to Lewis's heavy-handed allegory than I used to be. It's really not as toxic as I have believed it to be. The thing about allegory is that is only works if the reader already knows the subject which is being referenced. On the other hand, a reader who is unaware will be largely unharmed by the author's agenda. So I suppose Narnia is safe to give your children after all. Besides, Lewis' blockheaded Toryism is way more offensive than any of his religious notions. 

What impressed me with this re-reading was the origin of Jadis, more commonly called The White Witch.
when a seven foot tall woman invites you to get in her sleigh and eat her Turkish Delight, I think it would just be rude to refuse.
I don't feel like giving a synopsis of Magician's Nephew. Suffice to say that the story offers us concepts including: travel between "worlds", god-queens, super-weapons, bio-stasis, the creation and destruction of whole universes. Stuff like that.
In the book, this is described as "magic." But it sounds to me like Clive Staples was writing sci-fi all along. 
Sci-Fi is just Fantasy with a better vocabulary for describing the weird shit going on. This is the conclusion I was lead to.
But I got to talking with a friend and he reminded me that it is not quite that simple.
It's not fair to lump Magic and Science into a unified field.
True, both are methods for getting us otherworldly connections, terrible-weapons, super-natural beings and life-warping plot devices.
But authors (or game masters) will choose to frame their scenarios with one or the other, and the choice has deep ramifications on the story.
Technology and science are understandable and controllable. They represent a measure of confidence in the people who use and develop it. Hard science fiction is frequently concerned with the effects which technology can have on a society, or the consequences of its use. Some point of morality may even be involved. But ultimately, technology is the mode authors use when they are making humanist or rational statements
Magic, on the other hand, works even if nobody understands how. It is a matter of the unknowable or of the mysterious.  Is ineffable. In fantasy fiction, it can become a metaphor for spirituality or the characters relationship to the immanent Tao or something like.
Since D&D tends to treat most all magic as some form of technology or craft, it has not helped in maintaining this distinction. Even the Angels and Demons of standard D&D have hit points and habitats.
In cases of magic as magic, not as technology, magic comes across as a sort of ephemeral inspiration, or something like a poetry of the soul. 
Magic comes across this way in a certain vein of fantasy story. The Shapechanger's Wife comes to mind.
Also, the magician Schmendrick in the Last Unicorn; who relates to magic like Moses relates to Jehovah- sometimes it works, sometimes not so much.
Heck, even in Lord of the Rings, all the "magic" is a reflection of spiritual reality of the setting. Like Lewis, Tolkien's religiosity played deeply into his worldbuilding. But Tolkien is far more graceful about it IMHO.
If you want to know what I mean, find a copy of The Silmarillion and read the first chapter. Aloud. Bonus points for reading it to people who are high.
Oddly, Magic or technology can both be plot devices for making moral points. Sorcerous power or dangerous technology serve equally well for making moral lessons about Faustian Bargaining or whatever.
Back to the case of CS Lewis and Narnia, he chooses to describe all the fantastic elements of the Chronicles in terms of Magic. By doing so, he is directing the reader to consider the ineffable, the divine.
If the powers of Aslan or the Witch were framed in terms of technology or some attainable knowledge, our relationship to these characters would be very different: They would not be Gods, but rather wizards. If they were simple wizards, the characters and readers would view their powers as something attainable or imitable. As is, they represent opposite ends of a moral spectrum- objects of devotion, rather than emulation.
What's the point of this distinction as related to gaming?
I wanted to pursue the notion of magic and technology as a unified field, because in this wise, I can create a game mechanic whereby the power-levels of a technologist or a sorcerer could be compared or balanced as needed.
Basically, because I'd want a 5th level electrician to be even with the 5th level theosophist.
On the other hand, understanding the distinction between technology and magic is important for designing setting. So if a wizard gets his power from craft, where does the cleric get his power?
From the DM, I suppose.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


It's been slow again.
I've been doing a little work on my d6 system, and also on scenario which came to me when I was watching Breaking Bad and re-reading Wuthering Heights, and they merged in my D&D mind.
But other than that, "real" life is interfering with or gaming.
Real life needs to be put in its place and stop getting so uppity.

Since people are proving difficult to get together, I've been considering some of the one-shot adventures and more brief experiments I've been wanting to run.

I've talked about it before; the infamous Christian RPG - the righteous alternative to that devil-summoning D&D.
I am trying to figure out who I can get and when. I intend to play it straight, but am sure that it would devolve into a bizarre psycho-drama.

But there's no denying, DragonRaid is a quality product. I genuinely want to try the elegantly simple system.
You can find DR on Amazon or Ebay. While most RPGs these day want to charge about $50 for a third of the core ruleset, The DR boxset comes with Rules, an Adventure masters guide, setting info for the players, three adventure modules, a set of dice, a cassette-tape which talks players through character creation and the basics, battlegrids, monster tokens and...

My favorite: card-stock standees to represent the player-characters.

Are they not darling?

I simply adore these precious, non-threatening-looking adventurers, with their Flower-child / SCAdian / bible-pageant aesthetic. I dunno, I just think they'd be cool to hang out with.

Just wanted to share.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fukken Fairies

I have bemoaned the lack of the fantastic in fantasy settings before- a certain lack of subtlety which makes it all kind of obvious and trite. For instance, toward the end of my Druids post, or Fantasy Saturation. I'm looking into ways to implement the weird, while maintaining a consistent internal logic in the gameworld. It doesn't have to make sense to the players, but it needs to make sense to the one running the game.

The best resources for a DM are books which have ostensibly nothing to do with gaming.

I picked up a copy of "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries." It is a sort of ethnographic account of folk beliefs concerning the unseen realm as understood by Celts. And damn, it is a thick book; a veritable corpus of belief.

Among these folk-beliefs is a certainty of the existence of the Gentry; a race of otherworldy nobility and warriors who abduct folk, body-and-soul and make them one of their number, or sometimes talk to lone travelers in remote glens or forest and impart cryptic warnings. That warning is usually something along the lines of "go home now and get there before dark."
There is little or no distinction between these "fairies" and the spirits of the dead. It is believed that those who die untimely deaths go to join the host of the Gentry. The have little interestit seems in old people or squares. It seems that to be "taken" by the gentry is synonymous with disappearing or dying unexpectedly.

Imagine living with an engrained, indubitable belief that the Gentry exist, but you can't see them most of the time. And the Gentry are only one order of the many unseen races. How creepy, Talk about an enchanted worldview.

This is all very odd to post-modern people like us because we are so materially focused. So we use this matter as fodder for our fiction. Modern pop mythology has transfigured the Gentry into the elves- an understandably xenophobic people who live in treehouses- A much easier notion to grok. And these mannikins are what we get handed to play D&D with.

A particularly interesting aspect of the Celtic folk beliefs (from the adventure-designer's perspective) is the variety of ways in which the fairies appear. Sightings happen only at specific times or places. They may go unseen, but may be heard or felt. It is often understood that they are all around, but are accustomed to being unseen. Though sometimes, they appear as specters, with a sense of urgency.
It is often possible to pass seamlessly into unfamiliar territory or to visit fairy-castles without even being aware that one has left the mundane world. Passage might happen only in the company of a certain person or creature, or while in the possession of some token.
The appearance of otherworldly creatures often depends on the disposition of the viewer: for instance, they might be viewable from one angle or position, but not another. The viewer might be enchanted, or have their vision altered in some ways which makes the invisible visible. When in trance or very ill; what we might interpret as a state of altered consciousness, people often report having visions of the fairy-world.

Component 2:
And then there's this: Carl Sagan explains the 4th dimension.

It seems that the Flatlander in this thought experiment is having nothing other than a super-normal experience; a voice from within, a touch from an invisible being, and a trip to an unseen dimension.

And these notions are starting to gel.
Also, Carl needs a better knife for his apple.

Monday, May 11, 2015

the oddity of order

Finally managed to get the guys together for our Star-Wars mini-campaign.

In this scenario, the players are Stormtroopers who find themselves on a certain moon of Endor. While scouting for rebel spies in the forests, they fall foul of the local wildlife.

The initial idea was to make a sort of StarWars Survival-Horror, where we get to learn how really terrifying Ewoks are. I was going a sort of Apocalypse Now/Deliverance/Fantasy Fuckin' Viet Nam thing.
In practice, however, the ewoks are getting slaughtered. They can hardly even touch the player characters in their trooper armor (which is actually effective in the SWRPG) Also, the trooper's energy weapons tend to simply mow down ewoks.
"When the only damage is from friendly fire..."
Who would have thought? Certainly not George Lucas.
The golden moment of this game thus far was when one player observed that everything cute was trying to kill them. I looked at the bestiary I had prepared with the help of wookiepedia, and realized that this was essentially true. I literally ROFLed.
Nonetheless, I am having a very different sort of experience running this game as opposed to the typical D&D setup:
For one, The PCs are in the military. They take orders. Within reason, this allows me more direct influence over them, as compared to the footloose eternal-European-vacation setup of the average D&D adventurers. I feel very odd actually using this influence, but am finding it almost necessary. It has been suggested that I show less restraint with this power.
Also, they have technology. Helmet-Radios, computer networks.
I even let them have a probe droid to follow them around. I figured it wasn't star-wars unless you had a droid sidekick for comic relief.
Basically, this gives the players access to information which simply would not be available in a medieval fantasy setting. Heck, I even mentioned the unofficial wiki page maintained by Imperial troopers. I retconned the internet into StarWars. I am surprised they have not used this to completely defuse the situation.
As a result, if they want to know something, they don't have to trek overland for however many days to find some sort of sage. They can just radio in. And this keeps them out of all sorts of trouble.
All in all, there is an unusual amount of order and stability and predictability in this scenario. But the players have seen the movie and know the other shoe is about to drop. 
Meanwhile, the 2d10 thing is still working pretty well.

Friday, May 8, 2015


It seems like we are always rolling for "skill checks"
We play 3E still, and practically everything apart from hitting in combat or making a "saving throw" is codified as a mechanic under the skill list.

Here's a list furnished by the SRD site. It features the skillset relevant to a medieval fantasy setting (no computers or astro-navigation or anything like that.) and includes some skills not even listed in the core books, like the psi stuff.

Covering so many facets of gameplay and conceivable actions as "skills" is part of the attempt to unify gameplay under a single mechanic: All of these things can are intended to be checked with a roll on a d20.
But the success/failure result this offers doesn't give a lot of information to help interpret what actually resulted. So players and DMs frequently interpret the severity of a success or failure by the distance of the result from the difficulty class.
The Difficulty Class is another squidgy issue. The rules for determining it vary from skill to skill; meaning that for practical purposes, the system is hardly unified at all.
Also, a characters bonus to a skill check can be improved with level- creating an arms race of difficulty class. DMs get infected with the notion that skill checks must always present a chance of failure, regardless of the characters objective skill level.
So a Rogue of the 15th level, with a +25 to open lock will find himself confronted with DC 40 locks. As a result, his success rate will be about the same as when he was level 2 with a +9, dealing with DC 20 locks.

Characters are thought to have a certain number of "skill points" to spend on ranks in whatever skills. But the distribution of these skillpoints is always carefully min-maxed to the greatest efficiency, and some skills clearly outweigh others. Survival is a broad skill, for a variety of applications- used for navigation on foot, foraging, protecting oneself from the elements, the generalized act of "hunting," even cooking sometimes. Compare this to Use Rope- which in real life is generally considered an aspect of survival training.
It is far from elegant.

But we need mechanics for these things.
- especially the more numinous things like diplomacy or knowledge.
The players simply are not their characters, so they can not really be expected to speak or know or perceive as their characters might. a mechanic is necessary to separate the player from the character.

Also, traps are a thing where the player is definitely separated form the character..
Sometimes, DMs toy with the notion of having players roleplay the spotting and disarming of a trap as opposed to rolling for it. In practice, this is a mess.
I, for one, simply lack the descriptive powers to make it as if the player were really there, examining the suspicious seems in the wall in person.
As soon as you try something like this, the player gets a clear notion that they are "supposed" to do something; that there is some magic word that will please the DM and resolve the issue.

DM: You notice a metal wire, stretched taut across the hall at about knee-level.
Player: Uh, I cut the wire?
DM: Sorry! that wire was the only thing holding the crushing block-trap up. Cutting it has released the crushing weigh. Saving throw time!
Player: What the hell?
DM: Hey, why do you think the wire was so easy to spot?
(fisticuffs ensue)

Once again, some sort of dice mechanic is best for this sort of situation.

My goal here is to create some elegant solutions for the operations which are lumped under skills

One obvious measure is to collapse some skills into eachother- move silently and hide should just be "stealth" for instance. Or get rid of "use rope" since you will generally be using rope in the context of sailing or climbing or crafting traps or some other already defined skill.

5E introduces "tool proficiencies." This is odd- since a given tool is only an aspect of any craft. plumbers and automotive techs both use wrenches, but that doesn't mean they can do eachother's jobs. Use Rope is just a weird tool proficiency.

Another obvious step is to get rid of the "Professions."
According to the rules, professions allow characters to make some income at a regular job. It also assumes that the character has a collection of skills which allow them to do the job.
But this isn't how stuff works. A job does not grant a person "skills," Rather, a persons' skills qualify them for the job.
A job like being a fantasy adventurer.

AD&D allowed for proficiencies- some of which were broad ranges of skills-like boating for instance, while others were oddly specific-like ventriloquism.
There is a certain appeal in skill blankets. It seems reasonable and logical. but it doesn't account for the weird and unrelated stuff.

Another mechanic used in AD&D was the simple skill check.
The attempt to climb a tree or spot an elf in the brush; the things that technically anybody could do with or without training- were not tied to a skill, but the relevant ability score. This was simple, and didn't require any additional paperwork.
But it doesn't account for the possibility that someone might train themselves in these fields- to actually become better at climbing or swimming or looking at distant horizons.

Investment of time and training-
That's the issue of economy here. With the limited time and resources a character had before the start of game, How much skill and knowledge were they able to develop? That is the absolute that we will butt up against when determining a character's capabilities.

Presumably, we are going to attempt some sort of balance- so the players will be on equal footing with eachother, So they should have the same amount of skills to invest.

Come to think of it, isn't something basic like combat ability or magical power a skill that takes time and effort to learn?


Monday, May 4, 2015

Playing Outside??

Last Friday, as we settled into another session of Dungeon Purgatory. I noticed that the weather was nice and it was still bright out, and would be for quite a while.

I suggested that we move the game outside, and we migrated.
It didn't work out like I imagined.

A tremendous pack of children was playing in the street and in the front yard of our host's house.
Little kids are creepy and have no sense of boundaries.
Also, a few players just got distracted and were jumping on the trampoline. There was horseplay. I got hit in the head with koosh-balls like twice.

The player who plays a druid literally wandered off into the forest.

I shrugged at this. It looked like I was due to run tonight. but frankly, I wasn't feeling it. So I decided I was alright with this.

but on the party's vague, rambling way to the area where I was to take over, we discovered something about an abandoned house we'd been crashing in.
turns out it had some secret , magically hidden areas. We all decided to make a HQ of it.

Much of the rest of the night was spent quibbling over what to do with our newly adopted property. then game was called.

I got to thinking that we should have used our game time for something more immediate, like fighting some orcs who had a post on a fortified bridge.
Players can make plans about playing house without a DM on hand.
Combat, not so much.

Oh well. next time.

Brewing Mead & Simple Wines

Vital information for almost any fantasy campaign!

The following is for informational purposes only. Please obey all local, state and federal laws. I bear no responsibility or liability for injuries, property damage and so on resulting from the use of this guide.

The Quick & Dirty on Mead & Primitive Wines

Brewing your own Mead and Wine is Stone-Age simple! It is so easy and rewarding, that the practice tends to be addictive.

In a nutshell, the brewing process involves taking a sugary, potable solution, and introducing yeast to it. Yeast is a microscopic fungus which eats sugar, and poops out Ethyl-Alcohol and Carbon-Dioxide gas. The production of alcohol by yeast is called fermentation. This is the same sort of yeast which is put into bread to make it rise.

Ethyl Alcohol is that sort of alcohol which a human can ingest without going blind, as opposed to rubbing alcohol or methanol or denatured alcohol. The production of Ethyl Alcohol is the essential object of brewing. Carbon Dioxide is a harmless gas. In fact, you poop CO2 just like the yeast does, except you poop it out of your mouth and nose every time you exhale.         
Homebrewing can have an interesting effect on your perspective on life and stuff.

When the yeast is happily active in the sugary solution, it will go about eating and pooping and reproducing and dying until the environment is so full of its own excrement (the alcohol) that the yeast all die, and their micro-corpses flocculate to the bottom of the container. Much like humans, but on a very tiny scale. At this point, you separate the yeast-corpses from the alcoholic solution. Then you can imbibe their excrement and get drunk.

Again, homebrewing can give you an interesting perspective on things.

To Make Mead (1 gallon) 

  1. Get about 2 or 3 pounds of honey to make a gallon. Using more will result in sweeter, thicker mead. Using less will make it dryer and lighter on the palate.
  2. Add water. (good water, not city-water if you can help it) Heat it and mix it together until the honey dissolves. Let the mixture steam. Some people like to let it boil, and skim off the scum which rises to the top. I find this destroys some of the flavor of the honey and does nothing to clarify the end-product.
  3. Get a 1-gallon jug. I find that the big, 5-liter jugs of table-wine work well for this. A jug used for fermenting wine in is called a “carboy.” Sanitize the Carboy! Wash it with dish-soap and scald it with hot water. This is important. Sanitize all the stuff your mead touches! The carboys, the funnels, the siphon hose, your own grimy hands, EVERYTHING.
  4. Let the honey mixture cool some; like to about 90 to 100 degrees (Farenheit. the metric system isn’t period.) 
  5. Get some yeast and wake it up. They make fancy yeasts just for brewing. These can be found at brewing-supply shoppes. Lalvin D-47 is an ideal yeast for mead. But seriously, plain bread-yeast from the grocery store works great. Some people complain of a bready taste, but I have never had a problem with this.
  6. To wake up the yeast, pour the dry, inactive yeast into a cup of warm water with some sugar or left-over honey. Stir, and let sit for about 15 minutes. When it gets frothy, that means the yeast is alive and active. This mixture is called “must.” Probably because it smells musty.
  7. Pour the must into the carboy with the honey solution. The yeast is like you or me: it likes warm water, but not too hot. Hence step 4.
  8. At this point, you can put other flavoring agents in with the must and the honey. Some people like to put little bits of diced apple or orange into the carboy to serve as extra nutrition for the yeast. But I find that this makes for a funny taste later. Nobody else seems to mind though.  So mostly, I leave it as-is. But I have had great success adding elderberries, or rose-hips, or a few sticks of cinnamon.
  9. Now add mild water until it all comes to about a gallon. This is not an exact science. Shake it up to mix.
  10. Now you affix a fermentation lock. A fermentation lock is a device which lets the Carbon Dioxide gas escape the carboy, while keeping bugs and germs out. You can buy these at a brew shoppe. But you can also improvise them. A balloon with a tiny, tiny hole poked in it will work, just stretch it over the mouth of the jug…er, the carboy. You can also take a patch of cheesecloth and tie it over the mouth of the carboy. Also, you can make a loop of tubing, and drop some water into the bottom of the coil. Use some tape and cellophane to bung one end of the coil up to the mouth of the carboy. The water-trap will let the CO2 bubble through, and keep bugs and crap out.
  11. Great. Now put this in a place where it can hang out at about room temperature. If it gets to cold, say into the 60s or lower, the yeast will start to hibernate again and you want it to stay awake. If you didn’t mess up, you will see signs of life. The next day, the fermentation lock will be bubbling, or the balloon will be standing upright. Also, any fruit or bits of stuff you put in the mixture may float up and down in the carboy.
  12. Let it sit for two or three weeks. A month tops. Then you are ready to rack the mead. That means filtering the dead yeast and bits of fruit or whatever out of the mixture. You will need a second jug, the same size as the first one, some cheesecloth, and a funnel (Sanitize). If you have a bunch of junk like berries or fragments of cinnamon, use a strainer and pour the mixture through the strainer, down the funnel into the secondary jug. If you don’t have big chunks, just siphon from the carboy into the secondary. Siphon off the top of the liquid, and try to leave behind the gunk at the bottom. That is dead yeast, and it is not the good part. Rinse out the original carboy. Then, stuff a loose wad of cheesecloth into your funnel and carefully pour the mead back through the funnel into the original carboy.
  13. The dead yeast at the bottom is not a good thing. If the mead sits on it too long, it will start to hurt the flavor. Also, imbibing the dead yeast will make you gassy.
  14. What you have is drinkable, but far from ideal. I like to sample a tiny bit to determine if it needs more of something or another; more sugar, more water, more berries. Whatevs.
  15. Let it sit for another few weeks. It is still fermenting, but more slowly. After a few weeks, rack it again. Don't let it sit too long on dead yeast, as explained in step 13.
  16. Now, it is just a matter of time. It’s drinkable now, and probably a good deal better than most meads you can buy at the liquor store. Nonetheless, patience is good for your brew. After a few months, you might consider bottling it.

To make wine, just substitute the original honey mixture with fruit-juice. If you are using fresh-harvested fruit or raw juice, be sure to pasteurize it. You may want to add some sugar or else the result may be way too tart. Everything else is pretty much the same.