Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Student Share Their Dungeon Survival Strategies

When I started playing Dagger with my middle school study hall / enrichment class, we began with 23 students, all of them completely new to tabletop role-playing.  As the first few sessions moved forward, characters began to fall victim to the hazards of the dungeon: this one dissolved by acid, that one shot by arrows, this one suffocated by a killer flower, that one tumbling down a chasm.

[from http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/]

As the casualties piled up, students who found themselves out of the action were instructed to choose from among several reflective writing assignments.  One of the options was to share tips for surviving in a dungeon-adventure environment with future players.

Their advice ranged from the very basic ...

"Our strategy for Dagger was to stay in a group rather than splitting up, this allowed us to have less death, less rapidly."

... to the considerably more sophisticated.

"Character [class] choice becomes a big deal as you progress and you get into a smaller group. Different characters give different abilities and attacking styles. It’s good for there to be an even amount of each character [class] so you don’t run out as quickly. Elves and Wizards allow for ranged attacks, which can come in good and handy to weaken enemies allowing tank-like characters to push in and apply the finishing blow."

I notice here the assumption that there will be a thinning of the ranks during play (Dungeon-Darwinism?). No sign of any notion that, "We're all gonna make it." It's also amusing to see the students reflecting about the risk of "running out" of a certain character class ... I can picture a knight calling back down the column: "Oi, we found some writing up here. Do we have any wizards left or have we run out again?"

"The formation we ran allows for the ranged attackers to stay behind and shoot past us and take less damage. When attacking with a ranged attack, be wary of surroundings and other teammates."

Here I see that some of the lessons about marching order weren't lost on them ...

"Don’t waste spells right away, because they might be needed later on in the adventure."

In Dagger, first level wizards get two spells per day (elves get one). The basic rules offer four first level spells to choose from: Cure Light Wounds, Light, Sleep, and Magic Missile. I don't make the kids prepare spells in advance (I really like that level of strategic thinking, but the added complexity won't pay off at this stage). Even offered the chance to cut a swath through ranks of mongrelmen with Sleep ... they always go with Magic Missile! Just too funny.
image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oWAb5NVALw 

"Search and listen for sounds and watch your back. Try and finish off enemies and get experience points. Leveling up allows you to gain more health points along with a new spell depending on the character type."

Clearly one of D&D's bigger contributions to the pop lexicon is the idea of "leveling up". Even my non-gamers understood the concept intuitively, and set themselves in pursuit of it. As I think I've mentioned before, I award experience for defeating monsters immediately after the killing stroke is dealt and only to the character who gets the final hit in. The main reason I do this is to avoid post-game record keeping. The immediate gratification of adding experience points also seems to spur the students on and conform to genre expectations established by console gaming. It both encourages and discourages risk-taking (they'll tend to stay in combat that extra round in hopes of getting the final hit, but may be a little less likely to initiate combat since there is no promise of a return). Since experience isn't divided among survivors, but doled out immediately, it can have the side effect of slowing advancement. I award experience points for treasure only to the individual character who returns it to The Stockade.
[image from gamingmatter.com]

"Secret doors may not always be useful and could get you killed, but its always a smart choice to search them with a small group. If treasure is found don’t share it. These tips and tricks will help you strive for success when playing a role-playing game."

That really captures two of the big thematic tensions of the dungeon (especially when gaming with people who you may not know all that well)?
"The Unknown = danger + opportunity" and "We may be rivals, but I need your help."