Friday, May 30, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session VII

Last time, the explorers narrowly avoided a deadly ambush set by the vengeful mongrelmen ... isn't that what things were like back when you were in middle school?

With Gilmie the dwarf at the lead, the group reviewed their options.  They could try and cross the Crevasse that bisected the crater holding Bawal Bayan (I'm such a sucker for rope bridges), but they were nervous about an ambush or faulty cables ... and to be fair, they'd seen eight other explorers tumble to their deaths at an earlier crossing!  They pondered entering the Labyrinth, a sprawling district of walled compounds and tumbled ruins along the crater's south face, but seemed pretty certain that they'd lose their way.  Finally, and to my surprise, the group decided to execute a reverse march, leave the Forbidden City, and return to The Stockade for resupply, reinforcements, and rest.  In retrospect, with one dwarf injured and bereft of gear, the party reduced to four members, and the group down to one spell remaining, this was by far the most rational choice.

A wandering monster check came up affirmative, and as they retraced their steps I trotted out something new:

"As you cross the broken ground near the Labyrinth, you notice some strange cone-shaped heaps of broken masonry and stones.  It's like someone has come through this area and carefully made piles of loose debris; each about the height of a man."

"I bet they are from those ... those big wasps we saw, like, like maybe they are nests or something like mud daubers make them."

"Frogs make little things out of mud."

"Alright, you think you may be on to something. What do you do?"

"I don't know."

"I run past them."

"I'll watch while you guys go."

"An elf should go, they're fast."

"As you pass the second cone it moves -- it pivots and you see that it's actually the shell of some type of large insect.  It isn't behaving aggressively at the moment; it may not have noticed you yet."

Inspired by caddisfly larvae I figured that robber flies and similar dungeon critters must come from somewhere, right?  Running, archery, and more running soon followed as the explorers prudently avoided an extended battle and used their greater mobility to outdistance these curious creatures, suffering only one minor wound in the process.

Storm clouds had begun to build and the first fat raindrops were slapping down when the four bedraggled adventurers returned to The Wall.  I had envisioned a dramatic race against the elements as the mongrelmen ambushers, placed under enchanted slumber in the cliffs above, began to stir, but instead the students adopted a more cautious pace and it was nearly their undoing.  Repeated listening and searching just confirmed what they already knew and gave the brutes lurking behind cover time to wake.  Soon stones and arrows were whistling down.  A heavy rock bashed in Gilmie's helm and he dropped in his tracks, but an elf dared enemy missile-fire to cast Cure Light Wounds within the same round and get the dwarf staggering forward again.  They dashed down The Black Canyon, checking their flight only once (to increase their intervals when crossing the dreaded rope bridge) before polling across the pool and retreating up the jungle trail to The Stockade.

File:Aztalan State Park stockade.jpg
cc photo by James Steakley
A knight and an elf eagerly joined the explorers as they rested, and the replenished group made plans for another assault upon the mysteries of Bawal Bayan.  This time, spurred on by a rumor of a giant golden egg hidden in The Mound, they intended to follow the Rim Trail along the north side of the crater and to seek a way to climb down from there.  Pausing at whiles to listen, the explorers were made anxious by the clicking, scratching, and tearing sounds that floated through the jungle.  Soon, however, these and the strange defoliated trees they spotted were forgotten when they spied the pale, dingy fur of a carnivorous white ape some distance away.

"Ooh, those guys are tough!"

"Dude, they tore my arm off!"

"Something is strange about this ape, though.  It's moving, but it's feet don't seem to be touching the jungle floor.  Also there's a cloud of flies and gnats hovering above it."
"I think it's dead."

"Maybe it's ants."

"Those are some mean ants."

"What do you want to do?"

"We'll follow the ape."

"Okay, it leads you past more trees that have had their bark stripped off and eventually you come into a clearing of raised, dirt mounds.  You finally get a good look at what's going on ... there's an ant carrying the dead ape back to its nest."

"Wait, one ant?"

"Well, yes. It's about the size of a pit bull.  Ants, as you know, are very, very strong for their size.  As you watch, it tries to get the ape down its hole, but the body won't fit.  Another ant appears from below and snips off the ape's arm with its mandibles and then they turn it just right and it slips out of sight."

"Let's get out of here."

"Maybe we should go out into the jungle and try to circle around them."

"Let's go back to The Stockade."

"When you turn back ... well, you know how ants travel, right?  So you've been traveling along their trail and ... well, I'll let you figure it out.  There are ants coming from both ways.  Plenty of them."

"We should run."

"I'm gonna shoot."

"Ooh, we could light a torch and wave it.  I bet they are afraid of fire."

"No, we should just go."

"I throw my javelin at one."

Battle ensued.  A lucky hit early on left a crippled ant spraying a noxious chemical.  The students didn't take the hint and high-tail it right away, so they were there to see the other ants get a whiff and explode into frantic activity!  Suddenly the source of the clicking and scratching in the treetops was revealed as giant ants rushed to defend their nest while still more came barreling down the trail from either direction.  Thick carapaces turned arrows easily and to their chagrin the explorers learned that, even if a bite didn't draw blood, powerful mandibles clamped on a breastplate or pauldron meant that an elf or dwarf could be lifted and carried away toward the seething ant mound!  A check to open stuck doors was required to pry oneself free, though comrades could help somewhat by spearing the creature.  The one-armed elf's femoral artery was cut and he succumbed, only to be revived an instant later, still in the clutches of his attacker.  The knight ran, having never drawn his sword and one poor, badly pinched elf found himself being dragged up the side of the anthill.

"I cast Sleep."

"You should save it."

"I'm about to die!"

The spell caused a few of the giant insects to pause, but only for an instant until the potent pheromones triggered their response again.  This was just long enough, however, for the desperate elf, abandoned to his doom by his fellows, to make a lucky roll and tear himself free.  There was nervous laughter as the last of the group came dashing back to the safety of The Stockade.

As we wrapped up the class the explorers decided once more to dare The Black Canyon route and, on their way back into the crater, they noticed a growing host of Yellow Musk Zombies tangled among the vines near the rope bridge ... the corpses of adventurers who died nearby during earlier expeditions!

I think we will have enough time left for only two or perhaps three more sessions as Field Day, End-of-Year Assemblies, Talent Show and other end-of-school zaniness close in.  I'll be sad to see our journeys in Bawal Bayan come to a close, but I've certainly learned quite a bit along the way!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session VI

A whole-class discussion preceded the kickoff of our 6th session of Dagger tabletop role-playing.  I polled the students to see who was really eager to get back into the action at the table (actually a pair of science tables shoved together).  In addition to all six current participants, seven other students (all males) were very eager to get back into the game.  Thirteen out of 23 isn't too bad, especially when it comes to trying to engender interest in an activity in middle school, but I was disappointed by the gender disparity.  What will it take to get more of my girls involved?  Could the obstacle be ...
  • The rules set? -- it's incredibly simple by tabletop role-playing standards, but is still abstract and fiddly compared to many more conventional activities.  Could it be leaving them cold?
  • The setting and theme? -- action exploration with plenty of combat and running away.  Perhaps this isn't their genre ... though I noticed one of the young ladies who wasn't as keen to jump back in was reading a book about being chased through the woods by zombies ... so ... dunno
  • The nature of role-play? -- you sit around a table talking about ideas and bouncing ideas off of each other.  Leaders and followers emerge.  Stupid plans put forward by assertive voices often win over clever plans from quieter ones.  Could the social dynamic be putting them off?  I've read research suggesting that many girls clam up in science and math class not because they don't know the material, but because they don't want to risk being embarrassed in front of others (just in case their wrong).  Mixed-gender groups may amplify this effect.  Of course there are findings pointing other directions too (here is a good place to start if you are interested in reading more).
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We also talked as a class about reflective writing and when new players should be brought into the game.  They agreed that if a player's character survives a session, he or she should have the option to continue next time versus having to step aside for someone else.

Returning to the six explorers at the foot of The Fool's Stair (a long, dangerous slide of scree that leads into the crater) I mentioned that they might want to consider returning to the explorers' The Stockade to replenish hit points, regain spells, and drop off treasure (which frees up one of the six inventory slots on their character sheet).  They agreed readily.

"Do you want to climb up via The Fool's Stair or make your way back through The Black Canyon (a tunnel that forms the best-known entrance to the ruined expanse of The Forbidden City)?"

"We could just climb up.  I climbed half way up already."

"I feel like it's a very stupid idea though."

"We should just go back through The Black Canyon".

"Do you want to split up?"

"Nope, cause you're gonna die when you're alone."

When they started to hesitate I set two six-sided dice on the map to help us record votes.

"Black Canyon?  Okay, that's one, two ..."

This process has helped them reach a quick consensus on four or five occasions now.  This time they decided to retrace their steps to The Wall (a barrier of rock and broken masonry), scramble back over it, and exit the crater via the canyon.  Next followed a pause of several minutes as the players collectively lost all interest in the scenario and focused instead on choosing their dice for the session.

"Where's my special 20-sided dice?  I've used that one every time -- it's good luck.  I killed like six of those things in a row."

Sometimes I forget how integral fiddling with all those brightly colored, alien dice are to the feel of the game.  Once that was settled we got back to the business of exploring.

"Last time you chased those creatures back ... What did you all decide to call them anyway?"


"Ugly things."

"Yeah, watch our backs. Somebody's got to watch out backs ... They're like ninjas."

This was interesting because, back in sessions two and three, the students identified the tasloi as "gremlins", but now they were referring to the mongrelmen the same way. So rather than becoming more specific over time, their taxonomy was becoming less clear cut.  The marching order was quickly established, the reluctant knight taking up the rear.

"Show me the exact route you are going to take to get back out of the crater."

I was surprised when the veteran dwarf, newly dubbed "Gilmie", traced out a path that not only hugged the foot of the western cliff face, but which also took the group directly past the twin mouths of The Caves (which, in an earlier episode, were discovered to house the mongrelman tribe). Since the explorers had but recently alerted the mongrelmen, I decided that the creatures would have sufficient time to bring their huge champion up from the depths of their lair.

Learning the Dungeon - Lesson: The Dungeon is dynamic (not static).

The ambush was sprung when the explorers reached the midpoint between the cave mouths, "The Big One" lunging out while his smaller brethren fired blowguns. The adventurers decided as one man to make a dash for The Wall, with the huge beast in pursuit! ... and then I rolled a 1 and a 2 for its attacks ...

"Okay, it lunges for the knight, but its crooked feet slip on the broken pottery and gravel underfoot and it slides to the ground!"

"Go attack it!"

"I run."

"I run too."

The wizard expended his last spell (magic missile of course) and two explorers paused to shoot arrows. Finally the creature overtook the knight.

"It crushes her to the ground, grinding her helmet down into the rock and dust with its huge paws."

"I like how it just got quiet all of a sudden."

"Go and try to save her."

"I don't have any spells left."

"She's dead."

The explorers finally reached The Wall, where they were brought to bay, but luck was with them and at last they felled the huge mongrelman champion with arrows.  As the dust settled, the party surveyed the carnage from their perch atop The Wall.

"Can you pick up my dagger?" the wizard quipped (he threw it during the earlier dash).

"Just leave it, because I don't want to get attacked again."

"You can just fight with your staff."

"Yeah, but it might break."

Eventually the wizard climbed down and retraced his steps, heading back toward The Caves to retrieve his lost dagger.  Gilmie loosed an arrow at a lurking mongrelman, who ducked behind cover, and the wizard dashed farther into danger.  Just as the wizard bent to lift his prize, however, a blowgun dart found his throat and he collapsed in a heap.  Licking their wounds, the explorers hastened back through the canyon, across the pool, and up the jungle trail to the safety of The Stockade.

We hand-waived a "several day" period of rest and recovery, bringing the four survivors up to full hit points and allowing them to reequip themselves with any normal gear they chose to bring along.  One enterprising elf dropped off some jewelry he had recovered, netting himself a quick 320 experience points [1d20 x 20].  Taking a length of rope along, they headed back along the trail to Bawal Bayan in hopes of scoring a big haul this time.
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A serious debate began about how to best enter the crater.  Should they go back through The Black Canyon for a third foray, or try to repel down The Fool's Stair

"Now I feel like they are all going to be waiting for us at The Wall."

"I only have one arm!  How am I going to climb down?"

"They could be setting a fort there waiting for us."

In the end they decided to go with the familiar route through the canyon despite the risk of ambush.  Readers will recall from sessions one and two that, in addition to a quicksand-filled side-cavern, The Black Canyon consists of a broad pool, a scramble up to a vine-clad shelf, and a rope bridge stretched over a crevasse.  Since some time had passed, I decided to make a quick roll for each area entered to see if any creatures had moved back in to reoccupy the area.  I didn't work from a chart of course (Dagger doesn't really have charts for this sort of fiddly operation) and I wouldn't have taken the time to look it up anyway; I just figured something like 20 = ambush, 19-17 = creatures nearby, 16-13 = some signs or tracks, <13 = all clear.  The result of 19 meant that there were suspicious ripples as they pushed their reed boat into the pool and poled off from shore.  The crocodile lurking nearby became testy when no bound captive was thrown into the water (that's the tasloi's habit when their raiding parties return this way) and decided to give the little boat a bump.
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"Roll a saving throw to stay in the boat as it suddenly rocks!"

An elf and a dwarf tumbled overboard.  The one-armed elf sprang to the stern and thrust at the croc while the other two explorers attempted saving throws to get back into the little craft without capsizing it.  His wild swing caused him to lose his balance and going over the side just as the other elf climbed back aboard. 

"I just keep paddling forward."


"I'm a dwarf, I can't help you!"

A tense round passed as the crocodile picked a victim (chosen randomly among those in the water, dice rolled in the open of course) and chomped a dwarf, rolling her a time or two before she could struggle free with half of her hit points lost.  Somehow the one-armed elf managed to tread water long enough to cast a line around the stern of the little boat and he hung on and let the others tow him to the far shore.  The wounded dwarf, faced with the prospect of having to make a saving throw each round she tried to tread water with the weight of all her gear, opted to cut the bindings of her harness and let her armor and equipment sink.  The croc, still interested in being fed, made a half-hearted foray out of the water in pursuit, but the group fired an arrow or two and fled, leaving it to sulk in its pool.

Passing through the rest of The Black Canyon without incident, the party limped to the outside face of The Wall searching carefully for signs of ambush.  A lucky roll by a quick-eyed elf probably saved the whole group when he spotted mongrelmen lurking, not behind the barricade as expected, but up at the rim of the crater, ready to roll boulders down upon the explorers!

"I look for a place to hide.  Some cover."

"Can I find a tunnel or something?"

"I'm going to cast a spell."

"Okay, which one?" [hint]

"Um, Magic Missile I guess. What are the other ones?"

"Sleep, Cure Light Wounds, and Light."

"Wait, what does Sleep do?"

A quick flurry of reading follows.

"Yeah, I cast Sleep."
from Where the Wild Things Are, 1963 Sendak

One perfect die-roll later, and the entire strength of the ambush lay slumbering peacefully in the rocks above.  The explorers toyed with the idea of trying to climb up and eliminate them, but perhaps not liking their odds of making the climb without mishap, they decided instead to hurry onward into the waiting ruins of the Forbidden City.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session V

With the five students whose characters had perished last time in Bawal Bayan under the claws of the mongrelmen paired up and working on their choice of reflective writing assignments, and the player of our lucky dwarf survivor eager to serve as trail guide, we quickly filled up the table with five more players.  Three of the students (boys) had spent some time with console gaming, while the two girls had not, and none had any experience of paper-and-pencil tabletop outside of the three large group sessions (23 kids) that I had offered in the prior week.

This second expedition into the crater and the ruined city was composed of two dwarves, two elves, a knight, and a wizard.  Most of the students decided to try a different character class this time compared to when we played whole-class, and I'd be really curious to see what influenced their decision making.  What had they learned?  Or was this simply the tug of novelty on the teen brain?

I let them roll for three rumors: 

  • "Some of the native porters and guides are secretly serpent cultists and are waiting for the right moment to betray expedition members and attack!"

  • "The Black Canyon isn't the only way down into the Forbidden City. Other more secret routes exist."


  • "There is a cave hidden behind the waterfall on the eastern side of the crater."
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Before getting underway at the table, I did a little Q&A with the player of our veteran dwarf to encourage him to articulate what he had learned, to see how his choices had influenced outcomes (cause and effect thinking), and to begin helping the newer players to Learn The Dungeon.

"So how did you guys get trapped last time?"

"We just went in the cave and the ceiling was low. We picked the cave with the blood trail because there were those things watching us from the other cave."

"Did they stay in the other cave?"

"No, they came behind us."

"And that's how you got trapped, right."


"How'd you get out?"

"I had to fight my way out.  I just got lucky; I kept rolling 17s."

"Yes, you had to cut your way out.  So what did you learn from that?"

"To always watch your surroundings -- to watch your back."

"What did you figure out about marching order?"

"You can't all just stand in a straight line; you have to position yourselves.  [Student] told us to do it and it started working!"

The trip back through the Black Canyon encounter area, crossing the crocodile pool by boat, and the climb up to the ambush ledge via the trailing vines was handled in brief narrative and was uneventful save for an elf noticing that the deadly yellow flowers had begun blooming in profusion where some of the slain explorers had fallen earlier.  Indeed, a little more cautious poking around revealed that the corpse of a dead elf had been drawn up into the mass of vines and was beginning to show signs of budding [foreshadowing!].  The kids of course remembered the Yellow Musk Zombies from their very first encounter, but decided not to risk tangling with the killer vines for now and hurried onward.

The Wall was scaled with relative ease, albeit a great deal of caution, and with the map of Bawal Bayan spread before them, the students got down to the business of choosing their next destination.

"We should stay away from The Fool's Stair.  The name kind of gives it away.  You can tell something bad will happen there -- maybe you'll fall or there are monsters who push you off."

"Yeah, like that other bridge."

"The wizard should go ALL the way in the back."

"Why you gotta be like that?  I see how it is."

"You have a low AC, you gonna get tore up."

"I think we should stay away from the Caves because of what happened to you all last time."

With both dwarves and the knight arrayed at the front, elves at the flanks, and the wizard ALL the way at the rear, the expedition decided to investigate the Plaza of the Sun.  The students seemed unnerved by how quiet things were at first, though they did notice tufts of pale hair and many strange tracks that looked a bit like the palms of large hands.  They entered one of the low, flat-roofed buildings bordering the plaza and began to search the rubble, but didn't find much of interest save a corroded ring of copper.  The students did remember to have someone watch the rear while they investigated, but soon one of the dwarves grew jumpy:

"I make a bunch of noise.  I bang on my shield with my axe and yell a bunch."

"Okay.  The sound echoes around the inside of the crater and birds take flight in several places.  You hear a sort of barking noise from somewhere far off and some rocks sliding and falling from closer by."

"I shouldn't have done that."

"From somewhere past the plaza there is a bellow and hooting sound -- kind of a 'Wuh-wa-wa-WAH!!' "

"I climb a tree."

"You see something coming this way fast; it's pale in color and pretty big.  When it comes to piles of rubble it just leaps over them."

"I run into a house."

"Yeah, I run into the house too."

"I go find a different house to hide in."

"What?  You're the knight!"

"We can't all just run and hide!"

"I'll stay at the door and fight it."

"We're splitting up -- we're all gonna get killed!"

Soon a pair of carnivorous white apes appeared, barreling toward the party.  Would they have stopped their charge short to posture and threaten?  We'll never know because, while the knight looked for a better hiding place, the dwarves made their own charge.  The party seemed likely to make short work of the creatures, who couldn't seem to roll a hit until one ape focused its rage on an elf: 19 to hit for 6  points [we roll attacks and damage together to speed things along].

"Dude, you're dead." 

"I'm dead?  Again?"

"The ape jerks the elf's arm off, casts it away, and begins slamming the ground with his body."

"I cast a healing spell on him."

[Hmm ... time for me to make a quick referee call.  Zero hit points = dead, but the spell is cast right away (same round) ... ]

"Okay, he's alive and his bleeding has stopped, but he's still missing an arm and the ape is still clutching him."

The other elf promptly drops the ape with a roll of 20.

"There are others coming -- they seem even bigger -- at least six feet at the shoulder when on all fours.  They'll be here in two rounds, what do you want to do?"

"Let's climb up on the roof.  They can't reach us up there."

"There's a tree right there -- and they're monkeys -- of course they can climb."

"I grab my bow and shoot at one."

"You only have one arm.  How do you plan to fire a bow?"

"This is like Planet of the Apes."

It was looking like it would be a much more desperate fight, but then the young lady playing the knight chimed in:

"I run out to help them!"   [*cheers around the table*]


Reduced to throwing stones, the one-armed elf spontaneously developed a new battle cry, 


The team was on fire and soon routed the remaining apes.  The threat gone, the wizard noticed a strange, greasy tingling sensation when he stared at the huge sun mosaic in the center of the plaza, but after the one-armed elf tossed a rock at it (nothing happened) and the group went to the trouble to fling one of the bodies of the apes atop the ancient tiles (still nothing) they decided to leave that mystery for another time.

From there, the explorers turned their attention to the Avenue of the Gods where they discovered more signs of the apes amid the rows of tottering columns and totemic statues.  A nest was explored and burned, and a little treasure recovered.  The keen-eyed wizard observed something reflective high above in the eye of one of the imposing statues, but no one dared try to climb up and investigate.

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As class time wound down, I noticed that we had quietly accumulated four or five onlookers who had finished their other work and come to the table to watch the second expedition's progress.  This is a bit of a reversal: rather than fighting to get and hold the attention of these middle school students, they were coming to us!

With just a few minutes remaining, the group picked its way to the foot of The Fool's Stair where something metallic was observed on the treacherous, dusty heap of scree.  As the rest of the group kept a close eye on some lurking mongrelmen and made plans to sally and chase them away, I was surprised when the one-armed elf decided to dare the climb up the shifting stones to investigate.

"Okay, make a saving throw."

"I got an 18."

"Alright, you dance from sliding stone to sliding stone, keeping your balance the whole time."

"What do I find?"

"It looks like these are the crushed and half-buried remains of a failed attempt by some other explorers to reach the floor of the crater.  A knight's bent shield and flattened breastplate, sandwiched between stones, reflected the light and caught your attention from down below."

"Is there a sword I can grab?"

"You know what?  Yeah, yeah there is a short sword there."

"I grab it and slide back down."

So, along with the dangers of splitting the party and the importance of watching your back, my students come to the next lesson: Sometimes boldness is rewarded.  I think they are beginning to Learning the Dungeon. 

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.


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.
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"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.
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"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."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Death by Disposable Dinnerware [a brief detour]

Allow me a brief detour from our normal fare ...

Looks innocuous, doesn't it?  Just a harmless, blue, paper plate.  But we are in birthday season here at the Perdue household, and that means rather than musing on middle school and role-playing (okay, I still mused, just not quite as much), I've been spending the last few days gearing up for another of our themed birthday bashes.

Someone living at my house is a big fan of a certain British Sci-Fi program ... and so ...
BEHOLD! ... the rise of the Cyber-plates!  They'll serve as (inexpensive!) masks for what I'm sure will be a spirited game of freeze-tag.  Those tagged will (obviously) be converted into yet more android undead.

But wait, there's more!  Sonic screwdrivers for the guests (they'll need them for part of the scavenger hunt).

  My wife collected some necessary tools for a Pin-the-face-on Cassandra game ... ("moisturize me!")

... And what kids' party would be complete without these beauties?  We'll be putting our own twist on flashlight tag!

All this and a 2/3rds scale tardis too!
We'll get back to Bawal Bayan next time, but meanwhile I couldn't help but share.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session Four [cont.]

The Caves

Having begun to Learn the Dungeon, and now equipped with a better grasp of marching order and the importance of armor class, my six intrepid middle school students were ready for their next lesson in dungeoneering.

As they left the Fallen Colossus behind (unexplored) and crossed the rubble field toward the inviting pair of cave mouths on the western end of the crater wall, one of the three surviving elves spoke up: 

"I'm going to check behind us."

Lesson Time! -- "You see maybe a half-dozen hunched creatures darting through the rubble behind you.  They are less than 100 yards away and are staying behind cover as they follow." [more mongrelmen, but of course I wasn't about to tell them that]

"They are trying to sneak around behind us!"
"We should go attack them."
"I use magic missile!"
"No, don't waste your magic missile, these guys are weak."
"Look, no wait.  Look, the archers should all stay here and we'll run around the sides and get them."

The group adjusted quickly and, executing a successful pincer maneuver, put this second pack of mongrelmen to flight.  After a little debate they then entered the left-hand cave mouth (more mongrelmen were spied in the right-hand one, but to my surprise these were ignored on the grounds that they were easy to beat and would probably just run away).

I hadn't mapped or stocked The Caves and had no notes prepared, but knew that they weren't too expansive and basically formed a figure-eight.  The group assumed their standard marching order as they entered.  A series of simple choices presented themselves: Go straight or take the [trapped] side tunnel?  Continue into the area with the four-foot ceiling or backtrack?

Soon, torchlight reflected the eyes of a throng of strange creatures as the party entered the mongrelman tribal lair and, despite the disadvantage of a low ceiling [-1 to hit for non-dwarves] the explorers decided straightaway to send their knight and both dwarves in for a charge while all three elves took a knee and fired down a broad set of natural steps at targets of opportunity from the second rank.

"We can get them.  These guys are easy."

And then they forgot their Lesson .... nobody remembered to check behind ...

I decided to give them a fair chance.  The flanking pack of mongrelmen was only four strong, but then the dice spoke loud and clear.  Two elves dropped in the same round -- one had his throat bitten out while the other was held down and his head staved in with a sharp rock.  The remaining elf wavered, but chose to fight on.  The flanking mongrelmen were down to two combatants when they pulled him down shrieking, hooked fingers in his eyes.

"Oh my gosh, we're all gonna die."

The heavily armored front line still had a chance, it would take the flanking mongrelmen at least a round to reach them, but their rolls began to falter and the explorers couldn't seem to connect.  Then it all went pear-shaped.  A dwarf dropped, followed shortly by the knight, leaving one lone dwarf.

"You're dead man."
"You should run."
"No, fight it out, look at your armor class."
"No, you're dead."

The dwarf fought on -- he dropped one foe, then another.  The enemy attacks poured in [all rolled openly of course -- I don't have room for a DM screen].  He took a hit ... a point of damage, dropped another ... two more hit points lost ... killed a fourth mongrelman

"I'm scared."
"It's whack -- I'm like, sitting here in the classroom and I'm scared."
"You can like, see it in your head like you are there."

As the huge mongrelman chief awoke in the depths of the cave and came snuffling up the back stair, the lone, surviving dwarf looted a bow from a dead elf and quickly searched the area.  Behind the bars of a primitive bamboo cage lurked a frog-thing [a sneak-peek of the bullywug tribe].  He stood well off and shot it dead before hacking his way into the cell.  

Kicking aside a small cairn of stones and peeling back a decaying reed mat, a small cavity [with scorpions] was revealed -- a jar of *something* and a jade necklace waited within.  He flirted briefly with the idea of hiding in the cell and hoping that whatever he heard coming would pass him by, but in the end opted instead to snatch the necklace and dash under the low-hanging ceiling with "The Big One" hot on his heels.

In the end, I ruled that he dwarf's size saved him and allowed him to dash back to The Wall and escape up the cleared Black Canyon, and through the jungle to The Stockade [the fortified base camp].  Once there I allowed him to roll 1d20 x 20 to determine the experience point value of the necklace [180], bringing the lone survivor to an impressive 300 xp [In Dagger you move up to level 2 at 1000xp]

While I had initially planned to run an entirely separate group through Bawal Bayan next class, using fresh explorers from The Stockade, I decided instead to allow the dwarf (who is almost established enough to need a name) to return and act as "trail guide" for five other players next class.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session Four

While the rest of the class got started on several other activities, session four saw the surviving six members of the first expedition to Bawal Bayan entering the crater to begin exploring the ruins of the city.  The party was composed of three elves, a pair of dwarves, and a lone knight.

Before we began, we went around the table and I asked each student to say one thing that they had learned from our first three sessions of Dagger.

"Don't split up."
"I picked up a spear."
"And don't be first in line."
"Yeah, don't be in the front or you'll get killed!"
"But I was in the front on the bridge and I didn't get killed."

"Why do you think your dwarf lived through the bridge ambush when so many other explorers didn't?"

"Cause I just ran across and started killing those goblin-things and didn't fall."

"Okay, but what about your armor class?  It's a 17, right? [Dagger introduces both ascending and descending AC]  So on a 20-sided die, what's the percentage chance of getting hit?"  It took them a while to work out the percentage.

"Yeah, so you should be in the front!"

From this discussion a very basic sense of dungeon crawl tactics began to emerge -- my students were starting to Learn the Dungeon.  Soon we had a marching order settled and we were on our way out of the Black Canyon and into the crater itself.

"I like this better [than playing with the whole class].  You can just describe what you want to do."
"Yeah, it goes a lot faster."
"You have more choices."

Soon they arrived at The Wall, a palisade-topped heap of stones and masonry that constituted the final barrier between the explorers and the floor of the crater.  An elf spied some Mongrelmen as they skulked behind the wall.  In a classic display of middle school diplomacy, the party began showering them with arrows and a magic missile as the dwarves and knight drew weapons and dashed to the foot of the barrier to begin scrambling up.

Despite their fearsome appearance, the mongrelmen fled at once.

"They're running from us."
"Yeah, they're scared of us."

I was curious to see if any of the six players might ponder whether these strange creatures were actually hostile or not, but for them strange = dangerous (which is usually true, so who can blame them?).

Having the panoramic map spread out in front of them with various encounter areas already named made the leap from console gaming to tabletop much easier I think.  In old titles like Monkey Island as well as newer ones, having chunks of the game world pre-named in ways that establish theme or give hints about the contents are an effective shorthand way to trigger choice and immersion.

It also reminds me of the old side-view map from Holmes Basic D&D.  How evocative was THAT when you were eleven?  Stone Mountain for the Win!

The Fallen Colossus

As the explorers set off for the remains of the giant statue I had only the vaguest notion of what they might find and nothing scripted or written down.  I figured that the giant bronze feet would be green with age and hollow.  One foot would be filled with rain water (perhaps with some treasure hidden in the silt at the bottom).  The other wouldn't be, meaning that it must have a drain hole somewhere that would give clever students a hint that there was a secret cavity beneath the fallen statue.

"How are we going to get up in there?"
"It's metal.  I bet it's like, really hot.  You are going to get burned."
"I'm not climbing up there.  I bet it's a trap."
"Let's leave."
"Yeah, let's go somewhere else."

And so, just as quickly, the Colossus was abandoned.  

"Let's head over to the caves instead."
"It will be hot in there."
"No, it will be cooler."

Next up ... The Caves