This week, in Adventure Games Camp, I GMed over 20 hours of Dagger for Kids, running groups of four to six middle schoolers (each complete novices to tabletop RPGs) in eight separate sessions.
Even as a veteran Game Master, this was a great workout for my skills and here are some basics tools and practices that I found to be critical in order to make it work smoothly:
- Players pick a miniature to represent their character before taking any other steps.
- as kids looked over the selection of models it communicated the swords-and-sorcery genre of the game without the need for any exposition;
- it allowed us to immediately identify which of the four character class templates that student would be playing [knight, elf, dwarf, or wizard];
- it engaged the kids creatively in thinking about the capabilities and potential adventures of their chosen explorer while simultaneously creating psychological distance from the in-game character.
|Thirty-six 48mm minis for about $6|
- Use pre-generated, pre-printed, rules-lite character sheets.
- Include a section for character portrait or symbol on each character sheet, but don't require its use.
- Spend minimal time on the rules before beginning play.
- Use a broad theme and an engaging graphic to create setting.
While giving this bit of exposition (four times in two days!) I would lay out the Bawal Bayan poster map in front of the players for them to study. The rim's-edge, isometric view of the adventure area (an idea I totally cribbed from I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City) basically allowed the players to preview the "dungeon" and start making choices right away.
Since I started using this map back in the spring, I've kicked myself for all those years in which I held back on the visual information, insisting that players discover things as they go. What was the best part of playing Ravenloft when we were kids? The isometric map by David C. Sutherland III of course!
|Castle Ravenloft from the classic 1983 AD&D module|
The shame was that the DM got to keep that crazy map largely to himself. If I got to do it over again, I'd find some way to justify in-game (however hackneyed) of putting that map directly in the hands of the players. What could be more engaging?!
- Deal with starting equipment and encumbrance by using an intuitive, minimalist approach.
- Start the action with a meaningful in-character choice.
This got the kids working as a team and making meaningful decisions right away.
- Use dice to represent options, track voting and to break tie votes.
An illustration: Finding themselves in a fun-house dungeon under The Sphynx, Student Ernie [not his actual name], argued loudly and passionately that the group should once more activate the rotating room (inspired in no small part by the now defunct Time Shaft from Kings Dominion) to reveal a new passageway and press on to explore farther instead of returning to the surface. When the team finally consented to this course, and the spinning room revealed an empty tunnel with a right-hand turn at the end, Ernie immediately (and loudly) began advocating a return to the surface.
|Rockin out in Kings Domion's Timeshaft c.1979 !!|
Given how firmly their opinions are held and how fast they change (often switching sides two or more times mid-argument), middle school kids sometimes lose track of what the options being discussed actually are. I found that, after letting them go for a few minutes, restating each broad position while placing a die on the table to represent that choice somehow helped them reach decisions more readily.
"Who wants to go left?" [placing a die on the table and turning it to show the number of votes for that choice].
"Who wants to go right?" [same process with a second die].
- Encourage the players to avoid splitting the party.
|sweet Bullywug pic from TSR's Fiend Folio|
- Forbid player-vs-player combat.
- Throw them a basic (but avoidable) combat encounter early on.
- Print rules for searching and listening directly on the character sheet.
- Be blunt about the fact that undue delays or more than two or three search checks in the same area will introduce the possibility of a wandering monster.
- Be liberal and flexible with spell effects, rewarding almost any innovation.
"Can I set fire to the bushes with my Magic Missile?"
"I know he doesn't have any hit points left, but if I cast Cure Wounds on him will it still work?"
"Can I get all of them with my Sleep Spell?"
"Will my Cure Wounds spell work on poison?"
The answer to every one of these questions was, "You can try it out if you want to," but the ruling in every case was affirmative.
- On return trips, fast forward through safe / known areas to start characters on the edge of danger / the unknown.
"The white apes have been driven away from the north rim and controlled brush fires have been used to wipe out most of the giant ants. Another group raided the tree-platforms in The Century Tree, defeating those little, green-skinned creatures. The surviving "gremlins" have withdrawn far up into the very top of the tree and the explorers have taken over their village to use as a safe place to rest and re-equip. Ropes have been lowered to the floor of the crater from there. Do you want to start at the foot of The Century Tree?"
- Use graphics whenever possible.
- Keep a folder of stock encounter areas (mini-dungeons) that can be dropped in anywhere.
As an adult with thirty years of RPG gaming behind me?
My materials this week consisted of one index card upon which I had listed common wandering monsters (I never referred to it) and half-a-dozen manila folders upon which I had sketched 12-room mini-dungeons, adding a few notes in the margins.
In over 20 hours of play I reached for these exactly twice! These tools are no substitute for intuition and experience, but are nice to fall back upon in the rare, "dry" moment.
- Maintain continuity to render a dynamic setting.
Likewise, as I ran eight separate sessions this week, every group's actions added another layer to the setting. The pygmies were content to let subsequent travelers pass after a somewhat grisly exchange of goods. The tasloi "gremlins" were cowed and withdrew into hiding after the death of their shaman, opening up The Century Tree as a the new, preferred way to enter the crater. Likewise, the desecration of the Yuan-Ti's rite in The Temple Plaza saw them withdraw to plot terrible vengeance upon the next group of explorers to dare The Forbidden City.
Some of the players recognized this and went out of their way to find or acknowledge the marks made by their peers in earlier sessions. One young man borrowed a film reference and started calling these situations "cameos". Nice.
I knew my players would talk between sessions, describing excitedly to other groups what new areas they explored, where the traps were, and what kind of creature ate them. A couple clever young fellows even visited this site to read up on Bawal Bayan and see what sort of info they could gather that might help them find more loot [shout out to M, J, & T]. Rather than resist the metagame, I chose to ride the wave and make the setting respond to the movements and choices of the players. This both breathes more life into The Forbidden City and provides me with more raw material as I run encounters.
So, looking back over the list, I'd have to say that there's nothing particularly innovative here, and these practices aren't necessarily transferable to other campaigns, systems, and age-groups of players, but neither does this advice appear in those ubiquitous pages "Advice for New GMs" found in just about every copy of every role-playing rules set on the planet.