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.

Friday, May 1, 2015

D&D fanstuff that doesn't suck

Even with a game which is generated by its own players, there is still a difference between playing the game and fanboying over it.
Just like the sessions and games tat actually get played, a lot of the fanstuff is just crap.

Here are some of the exceptions I've found. Hopefully, they'll help my work-week readers finish off the week.

From Brad Neely, the Inventor of the China, IL mythos. He gives us an odd mix of religion, politics, Tolkien mythology , D&D and smut.I love his stuff.

Also, his take on bible history has had some influence on this blog.

"Tonight" by Cosbysweater. Maybe this song overstates the escapist and cathartic capacities of the average D&D session. But it sure makes me believe.

It annoys me when people reference D&D to be funny, when it's clear they have never even played. This is not the case here.
BTW, this isn't really SFW. Maybe if you have headphones or turn the volume way down.

Really, why don't more female DMs insist on being called Dungeon Mistress?

This last one isn't SFW either. Beware of liberal European sensibilities!