Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Progress Report

This week we pass out interim progress reports to our students, so it makes a natural point at which to take a look at my various campaigns and projects to see where they stand.

  • Homeguard B/X D&D has stalled a bit for the moment as we shuffle the kids through the usual host of fall activities. Will my elementary aged players ever come up with a scheme for dealing with their first dragon? Grade = C

  • My Adventure Games class is progressing much more slowly than anticipated. I thought we'd spend a week on Risk to give kids something to sink their teeth into while I started training my neophyte GMs, but the lessons on probability and rational decision making have taken way more time and hand holding then expected. When I finally got my squad of would-be GMs together the kids balked at reading the rules doc (which boils down to about six pages including charts and artwork). They were interested, and even started filling out character sheets, but weren't willing to read.

Student: "What should my armor class be?"

Me: "What does it say on the character creation page?"

Student: "How many spells do I get?"

Me: "What does it say on the page about wizards?"

Student: "How many dice do I roll for ability scores? We just rolled 3 six siders."

Me: "What does it say on the page about character creation?"

Student: "What bonus do I get for a 16?"

Me: "What does the chart on the character creation page say?"

Hmm ... This is not encouraging for kids tapped to be my leaders. Grade = D

  • My Olde School Wizardry homebrew all wizard campaign is chugging along with about two sessions a month (now somewhere in our third year I believe). We added a new player recently, helping make up for the loss of Brown (nothing but love for the Brown). Grade = B
  • My after school games club is running strong. Today I had 34 kids grades 6-10 hang out for an hour and a half of good clean Nerdery. I ran d&d 5th ed, a student ran Arkham High, a second student ran Dagger for Kids RPG, and yet another student ran a monster anime homebrew RPG called "Laurel" while Settlers of Catan, Munchkin, and The Adventurers: Pyramid of Horus were played at other tables. Grade = A

So that's where things stand at the moment. Hopefully I can increase face time with my five junior GMs (four of whom have RPG experience) and give that part of my program a shot in the arm.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver - Thoughts after my 3rd session

Yesterday I ran my third by-the-book session D&D "5th edition" for five of my middle school students (all of whom had some game experience -- mostly console).

The scene opened with our small band of swords-for-hire (they established pretty quickly that they are NOT heroes) huddled in the woods east of the village of Phandalin, licking their wounds after picking a fight with the Redbrands, a local gang of ruffians.

Despite one character having been K.O.ed the prior session, I watched warily as hit dice and a healing spell quickly brought the party up to full fighting strength.  I enjoy the resource-management of classic dungeon crawls and wondered if the rapid recovery of the new rules set would undermine that aspect of the game.  I wondered if there were any real consequences from one set-piece battle to the next or if that tactical approach was gone for good.

The players debated whether to return to The Sleeping Giant taphouse to confront the brigands again or to get out of town while they still could.  In the end, however, one of them noticed the ruined manor house just outside of the village and they abruptly decided to go check it out in hopes of finding some treasure.  I hadn't mentioned the manor ... they just got it in their heads that it would be cool.

Again I was struck by how my players seemed naturally drawn "off script" -- something I'm fine with, but how will DMs new to the game handle it with advice on that front largely absent from the new Starter Set?

As they cut branches to hide their (stolen) ox cart, I had the players roll a DC 20 Perception check, and sure enough, the fighter of noble birth noticed a draft coming from the well-hidden secret tunnel that led to the dungeon below the manor.  The players were adamant that someone stay behind to guard the hidden cart and watch the tunnel mouth, and, in a bizarre tactical choice, both the elven wizard and dwarven cleric were nominated.  Led by a halfling, the human stumbled off into the dark tunnel ... and right into an encounter with a nasty monster!

I was a bit leery of the critter's 45 hit points, two attacks per round, and special attack (which I believe dealt 3d6 damage) but kept my resolve to let things play out by-the-book:

Following the voice in his head, the noble fighter peered around a stone column and was slashed deeply across the face with a claw attack.  The rustic fighter dashed over to defend his friend, but couldn't land a hit and watched as the thing's nasty gaze-attack dropped his comrade in his tracks.  The halfling, who had been scouting off to one side, slipped in to make a sneak attack from around the column, but also failed to land a telling blow and was also felled with a single attack.  Having heard the cries, the dwarf barreled into range on round three and unleashed what to me looked like a hideously over-powered 4d6 attack spell on the beastie, followed a second later by a critical from the remaining fighter's greatsword which severed one of the thing's arms Beowulf-style.  The monster, spraying gore, broke from combat and fled.

Imagine that!  Far from a mere tabletop tribute to video game button-mashing, we had a genuine combat in which tactics (particularly the party's poor ones) mattered and in which two of the five PCs were taken out in the first encounter!  No hand holding here!

We ended the session with the Redbrands, roused from their secret hideout by the sounds of combat, raising the hew and cry and closing in on the party.

I was surprised to see how what had initially looked to me like grossly inflated hit points and healing rates worked in a neat symmetry with truly nasty opponents and high damage totals.  It all works very nicely and has a very exciting feel -- this is indeed D&D as I remember it -- though I will say that it feels like the new level one is the equivalent of the old level five.  

Among the best things that the new rules offer are the death saves.  I grew up with 0 hit points = dead = bored and switched over w/ the DM's Guide to -10 hit points = dead with the character losing a hit point each round they were at or below zero.  The new death save sub-system suits me much better, mainly because it gives the dying character something really interesting to do each round.

My players are hooked and I'm eager to see how this plays out ... My only misgiving at this point is the time and complexity of character generation when it comes time to back-fill for the inevitable casualties.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Buffy and 16 Monsters


Sometimes, on a whim, my daughters and I take a break from our normal dungeon-crawling fare and we'll play a one-shot or mini-campaign in a system other than our beloved BECMI  D&D.We've played Marvel Superheroes (Advanced) and Gangbusters (TSR 1982), but a favorite that they ask me to dust off from time to time is Arkham High ...

Yes ... it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer set in a modern day version of H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Massachusetts!
I wish that I could claim this idea as my own, but I ripped it off from my buddy, the brilliant Steve Johnson -- one of the best "keep-it-light & keep-it-moving" style GMs I've ever known -- and his Darkwood High campaign of 10 years ago.

My girls are still too young to watch the show, which my wife and I loved back in our pre-kid days, but they have no trouble wrapping their heads around the basic conceit.

  • My eight-year-old easily adopts the persona of the much-put upon and constantly misunderstood Slayer, Sage Pearson, "the one girl in all the world who alone will wield the strength and skill to stand against the vampires ... "

  • Meanwhile, my ten-year-old steps into the role of the Slayer's best friend, a rollerskate-wearing, library-prowling "brain" who, despite her young age (she's already skipped three grades) does the research that helps Sage put the smack down on such baddies as Keziah Mason, Brown Jenkin, heyenoid Sons of Yeenoghu, and of course vampires!

We used a stripped-down Marvel Superheroes rules base, converting d100 to d20 rolls and doing away with the Universal Chart.  Even with recording all the degrees of success beside each of the seven attributes, character sheets still fit on one side of a 3x5 card.

This weekend the girls request to play Arkham High caught me by surprise and I didn't have anything much prepared ... so after a moment's deliberation I grabbed my pdf copy of 1983 D&D module UK2 The Sentinel.

Even as the quality of published adventure modules began to falter (*cough* Castle Caldwell *cough*), over on the other side of the pond some really interesting products were being produced by Graeme Morris and TSR's UK team.

The Sentinel isn't the best of that short-lived line of published adventures, but it had enough for me to riff off of:

  •  mysterious graffiti goes from being village walls to instead appearing on lockers around Arkham High
  • Slayer Sage Pearson, who was expelled from her last school for burning down the gym (full of vampires) comes under suspicion
  • graffiti, rather than being in some magical tongue, ends up being in ancient Phoenician ... directing the Slayer's attention toward the Esoteric Order of Dagon ...
... and so it goes.  I'm honestly not sure how I'll recast the hill fort or ruined monastery.  Will the Scooby Gang take Sargent's taxi over to Innsmouth to check things out?  I don't know, and frankly I'm completely okay with winging it.

Meanwhile ... while working on a GM supplement for my Adventure Games class, I've decided to initially limit my bare-bones, D&D "5th edition"-compatible monster list to just 16 Monster types.

This will reduce my workload, prevent neophyte GMs from becoming quite so overwhelmed when stocking their dungeons, and support a specific theme and flavor when it comes to exploring and expanding Sheberoth The Cavern Endless as a setting.

I can't remember where I first saw this meme -- maybe Grognardia, maybe Jeff's Gameblog ... dunno ... anyway ... 
Here's my list:

BULLYWUG (rank and file)
DUNGEON EEL (levitating electric morays)
GARGOYLE (to teach them when to run vs fighting)
GHOUL (many, many, many ghouls ... oh, and there are no clerics in this setting)
GIANT SPIDER (just to suggest what other giant sized fauna they can create)
GOBLIN (reskinned toward a jungle variant)
HYDRALISK  (right out of Starcraft, but doubled in size)
OWLBEAR (because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't)
STIRGE (every setting since that adventure seed in Mentzer Expert)
VERMINITE (toned down Skaven rat-dudes)
YUAN TI (pinnacle baddies)

It's cool to reflect on what that says about the campaign setting: a savage lost-world feel in which the PCs are often outgunned and negotiation is only occasionally an option.

Friday, September 19, 2014

I Advance the Master Plan (by a Few Inches)

Today marked my fifth Adventure Games middle school enrichment class and, bearing in mind that I'm one of the few humans on the planet fortunate enough to be getting paid to teach kids to play games in public school, I'm moving forward in small, deliberate steps.

As badly as I want to, rather than toss the kids right at "5th Edition", Pathfinder, or some other similarly complex system, right now I'm building a low, solid base of activity by teaching the kids to play Risk ...

Understand me here, we aren't just learning the rules of the game -- no, no, no -- we start way back with a lesson on probability (experimental and theoretical), dice, and statistical averages.  The kids toss foam dice around, predict and test averages, and compare what the math says to their actual outcomes.

Sidenote: It's really hard to convince the students that the chance of rolling at least one six on 2d6 isn't 1-in-6 or even 2-in-6!

From there we have moved on to studying the game board:

  • "What continent is missing?"  
  • "What is a territory anyway?"
  • "Which continent gives the greatest bonus?"
  • "Which continent has the most territories?"
  • "What is the ratio of territories to bonus for each continent? -- i.e. the relative value of each continent's territories?"
  • "How many routes of access are there to each continent?"
  • "What is the ratio of access routes to territories for each continent -- i.e. it's relative vulnerability?"

The point of all of this is to teach the kids to play rationally and well.  I'm standing on a belief that if they understand the math and probability behind the game mechanics that, rather than seeming like an arbitrary mess, they will grok the game on a deeper level and have greater leverage over the outcomes (vs just tossing dice and hoping for the best).  

If they can understand it and have hope of manipulating the outcomes, then I think the game will hold their interest much longer than it otherwise would ... long enough for me to pull a cadre of Trainee GMs aside and start prepping them to run RPGs for their peers ... my Master Plan takes shape.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

D&D 11th ed.

By my count, the latest D&D release "Fifth Edition", is the 11th version of D&D.  Now that's really only counting what I think of as versions (significant revisions, changes to game mechanics, and reorganization of the rules), not just "editions" in the sense that the rest of the world uses the word (which is to say merely editing and rearranging things a bit).  If we went with the latter I guess we'd have to include the retro-red starter set for "4th edition" that weird black-box starter set and probably a few others besides ...

Anyway, this week I finished my second session of "Fifth Edition", played almost entirely by-the-book (only change I'm aware of is that I use d20s and d6s exclusively) and I'm starting to have a few thoughts.

I know it is heresy to say it in certain circles, but older editions (and their contemporary retro-clone rules sets) have a number of problems.  This isn't an exhaustive list, but just a few things that come to mind:

  • Descending Armor Class can be a bit counter-intuitive / adds an extra step
  • Low level characters are incredibly fragile
  • 5 minute in-game workday for spell casters: casts one spell, leave dungeon, return next day ...
  • Fighters are essential, but boring one-trick-ponies: This round, roll 1d20 to hit. Next round roll 1d20 to hit.  Repeat ad nauseum.
  • Treasure drives advancement 

  1. most hoards are boring piles of coins 
  2. the amounts of treasure acquired rapidly outgrow the equipment list 
  3. treasure-driven advancement drives a mercenary treasure hunter game rather than a heroic fantasy game ... which is perfectly fine in itself, but ignores half of the appendix N source material and much more of the fantasy genre that has emerged since 1974

Newer versions of D&D, particularly starting with the 2000 release, have done quite a bit to address these particular problems with the game, while the old school crowd has found increasing inventive ways to either embrace the "flaws" or deal with them within the older game structures (prime example being Dungeon Crawl Classics and the character funnel -- it embraces new character mortality and tosses every player a handful of characters on the assumption that only one or two will live).

Reading the newest D&D Starter Set, playing a couple sessions, and reading it again got me thinking about how most of those issues have been addressed in one way or another.  Spell casters have cantrips now so their never "out" of minor spells, fighters have spell-like feats and actions that give them a bit more to do, advancement has been divorced from treasure acquisition (for better or worse), and new characters are much harder to kill.

Actual play, however, got me to think about a handful of other hurdles that the new DM needs to face -- ones that the new D&D Starter Set is largely silent on.

My four middle school players decided that they would rather pull a con and sell the goods from the wagon they were hired to escort rather than protect them and take them to their intended destination.  After arriving in what the module writers assumed would be the friendly "home base" town, my players were much more inclined to look for opportunities to loot the place than to pursue "side missions".
  • This set (and its predecessors) doesn't talk much about player agency and how the novice DM should handle (or support) players who don't want their characters to be heroes, but reavers instead.
In an early dust up with the Red Brands (a brigand gang), one PC was cut down and was very nearly killed (which I'm perfectly okay with).
  • The Starter Set comes with five fairly complex pre-generated characters.  If this fellow had failed his third death check, no real advice is given for managing a player who wants to remain involved in the game.  I would have come up with something, but there really wasn't any guidance on that point for the novice DM.
Despite the start of sports and annual, back-to-school colds, all four of my players were able to return for session two, but the odds that all four will be there each time are pretty slim.
  • The new rules don't give the new DM any advice on what to do when a player unexpectedly misses a session.

With all the guidance given, especially in products designed to be an entry point into the hobby, it's funny what the writers of role-playing games are silent about.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Baby's First Dragon

My Homeguard B/X campaigners have been chopping away all summer at the classic (and deeply flawed) Horror on the Hill. After pounding hobgoblins (and a couple trolls) over and over, rescuing a dwarf from the clutches of a goblin king pretty clearly inspired by The Hobbit, and discovering the location of the mystical fountain, the kids became restless and decided that if the rumors they had heard back at the fort of a dragon sleeping under the hill were true, then a critter that size would need a pretty big hole ... In fact, it meant that there must be a backdoor (again, The Hobbit).

There is of course, and bypassing all the messiness of a labyrinth on level three and more danger and attrition on level four to go instead directly to the biggest possible treasure just makes sound tactical dungeon-sense ... so it should come as no surprise to readers of classic era products that the module's writer doesn't really emphasize this option ... it just isn't part of the plot train he intends the players to ride.

When the kids got serious about finding the back door I secretly cheered their good tactical sense, but was determined to make them work for it! There was a week of surveying to crisscross the entire eponymous hill, wandering monsters, food and climbing supplies to purchase, frequent danger from boiling geysers, and no guarantee of success. When they finally discovered the door they were stymied for a while by the illusion that cloaked it, but elated when they at long last set foot in the hidden tunnel.

Then a realization began to settle in ... If the backdoor was real, does that mean that the dragon is real too? Were they really ready to dare the darkness to find out?

Our latest session then was something new for my elementary-aged players ... A council meeting to plan just what to do about their discovery.

"We should warn all the people of the fort to start evacuating."
"All the women and kids."
"What if it isn't a dragon but it's some other big monster?"
"We need to do some research and find out its weak spot!"
"If we get a whole bunch of elves together and they all learn magic missile maybe we can kill it."
"I'm going to run. I want to be far away when it attacks. In some other town."
"But what if it comes there?"
"I'm going to retire."
"But we don't even know if there is a dragon!"
"Okay, I'll fight it, but I'm going to be WAY in the back."
Finally it was decided that Mitchell the Thief, using the party's very last dose of invisibility potion, would dare the tunnel to see what lay below.

The table was so tense that there was nervous squealing and laughter as the thief padded down into the dark, keeping one hand on the wall and not daring a light until he could hear the sound of breathing. Darn if his player didn't roll a perfect 1% on the Move Silently roll ... At last, a tiny ray of light from a shuttered lantern revealed a floor carpeted with gold and a set of wicked six-inch claws sprouting from a blood red foot!
One player shrieked loud enough to wake my wife while another, though she's never seen the movies, groaned in classic Indiana Jones style:

"RED!? Why does our very first dragon have to be RED?!"

Red dragons, even young ones, as anyone can tell you, are the fiercest and most terrible of their wicked kind. How will the kids deal with (or escape) so terrible a foe?

You never forget your first dragon of course, so it is bound to be memorable no matter the outcome.

What was your first encounter with a dragon like?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Beyond The Lost City

The last grading period of last school year and for two weeks of summer classes I leaned very heavily on two classic D&D modules for inspiration: I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City (David Cook) and B4 The Lost City (Tom Moldvay).

        Dmb4 the lost city.jpg

Each underwent significant changes as I rolled them together into "Bawal Bayan" and placed the sunken ziggurat not in a desert, but right in the middle of I1's crater, surrounded by jungle and haunted by bullywugs, mongrelmen and yuan-ti servants of Zargon.

This year, though I'm still a couple weeks away from the role-playing component of my Adventure Games class, I want to built on the Bawal Bayan setting while still adding new content so that I don't begin to get stale.

I realized that the Forbidden City could use a vast subterranean layer that could spark a new season of adventures ... so, after I spent a weekend grinding through a sharpie or two, I present you with "Sheberoth: The Cavern Endless"

Yes, it's another poster sized isometric-view map to share with players.

  • It connects directly with Bawal Bayan via the ruined ziggurat (which extends underground to the upper right of the Sheberoth map)
  • It is partially lit by the crevasse that bisects the upper city, and includes a nice waterfall that descends from the bullywug lake above
  • The pillars in the lower right corner mark the descent to where I can drop in 3rd edition module The Sunken Citadel
  • The sprawling fungal forest in the upper right can nicely contain N2 The Forest Oracle (re-skinned for the down-deep)
  • The map is studded with tons of compelling place names like the "Mouth of Cho" (offering descent to greater depths), the "Plain of Knives", "The Great Library" (domed structure center-right), and the "Daughter of Yig" (the massive serpent skeleton seen to the right) that will encourage exploration.
  • I can plug The Keep on the Borderlands in with ease, re-skinned with degenerate, albino protagonists who believe the upper world has been destroyed huddled atop the Fane of Zargon, watching warily for movement from the many tunnel mouths of the nearby Canyon of Whispers.
  • "The Coffers of Gome" are a vast, disordered heap of huge, stone cubes ... I have no idea what that's about ... but it feels a bit like this ...
  • "Sheberoth" is fun to say ... I was thinking about Shelob, Shibboleth (from the Bible story -- Ephraimites can't say it), Xibalba (from Maya mythology), Hoth (coolest name for a planet ever), and a few other things besides.
Anyway, I'm excited to see what this setting offers up when my middle schoolers start to explore it.  I have a few sketchy ideas, but I fully expect to be as surprised as they are.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

There's Probably a Dragon

So now I'm gaming up to three hours a day in school -- that's awesome -- but one downside of school starting back up is that there won't be much time for my own kids and their friends to get together for our Home Guard B/X D&D campaign.  We'll be lucky to get one game in a month.

Recently, recognizing that it would probably be our last session of the summer, I grabbed some tape and construction paper to throw together this cliff face, narrow trail, and geyser-field (complete with savage reptile-men), setting it up on the dining room table for my kids to find at breakfast time.

Displaying IMG_20140901_095544.jpg

That simple little visual hook pulled the girls right in.

"No dad, you put Sarah in the back.  She's supposed to be up front, remember?"

Soon enough they were battling monsters, rolling saving throws as the geysers spat scalding water, and (at long last) stumbling upon the secret "back door" that the wizard had used to escape from the third dungeon level under The Hill.  They checked the wizard's lengthy written account again (written in cursive to give them something to decode), confirming that they were very close to where he had reported seeing a huge mound of treasure.

"It's either an illusion, or trapped, or there's a dragon," my oldest declared with a certainty that positively would not be shaken.

"Probably there's a dragon and we'll all get killed because I don't think first and second level characters can handle a dragon."  

"Well, there's Aerick and he's fourth, but everyone else is first and second level."  

"How many hit points does a dragon have?"  

"It's most likely a red dragon because of all the steam and hot stuff.  We definitely couldn't handle a red dragon."

So the session ended with the party lingering just inside the mouth of the broad tunnel, thick, hot, fumes blowing up into their faces from somewhere deep, deep below ... and then on Sunday we went to The Riverside Center to see a five-man production of The Hobbit.

 The kids have now set aside any notion that the rumored treasure might be an illusion, trapped, or merely a lie and the conversation has turned to how one might set about getting hold of a black arrow.

"If we had like fifteen elves and they all had magic missile and they all cast it at the same time would that be enough to kill it?"

Hmm ... perhaps this would be the perfect time to drop a rumor about a certain elf princess ...

B7 Rahasia.jpg

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Momentous Day

Yesterday was a most momentous day:  First I held my first 90-minute Adventure Games Class AND my after school Strategy Games Club reconvened for the new school year!  That's a lot of cool stuff for a day of public school and my head is still spinning a bit.

Some highlights:

  • My opening slide for Adventure Games Class was (and could only have been) this ...

  • My class played "Table and Chair Olympics" to get used to shifting my room from dull old institutional rows to groups and back, both quickly and quietly.
  • We started "Lights Out!" our course pre-assessment, where kids were challenged to use things like a toilet, a box of dry macaroni, and an electric iron to help them meet basic needs during a month-long blackout.
  • 28 young people showed up after school for Strategy Games Club ... and that number will likely grow if prior years are any indication!
  • I got to try out my new D&D 5th edition boxed starter set with a group of four seventh and eighth graders.  We used the pre-generated characters and started off playing Lost Mine of Phandelver ... I've challenged myself to try and run it by-the-book so that I can give the newest edition a fair test drive.
I wonder if this had come out when my oldest was 6 if I would have gone with it instead of B/X?
Probably not, but it is a fine little game so far as I can tell.
  • In our first D&D session, within 2 minutes of hearing the set-up/adventure hook, my players decided that if the dwarf could afford to pay them 10 gold each to transport the supplies that the supplies must be worth a good deal more than that ... so the logical thing to do would be to steal the wagon, sell the supplies, and pocket the profits ... apparently old school gaming is alive and well ...
  • Elsewhere in the room games of Munchkin, Jumanji, Settlers of Catan, Labyrinth Lord/Dagger for Kids, and The Adventurers: Pyramid of Horus were run ... without any rage-quitting.  One of these games probably marked the highlight of some kid's day!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Classroom Activity: Culminating Project

So, if things go according to plan (which they never quite do) ... by the time students in my Adventure Games Class are seven weeks through the marking period they will have done the following:

  • completed a pre-assessment on creative problem solving
  • learned about theoretical vs experimental probability while learning to play RISK
  • learned the rules of a tabletop role-playing game (a homebrew D&D 5th ed. lite)
  • role-played a few sessions with classmates
  • written a short story, told from the point of view of their character
  • explored the concept of point-of-view and bias in narrative (and written an essay about it)
  • practiced reading a map and using a map legend
  • created and stocked their own location-based adventure settings (dungeons)
  • modified an adventure setting to increase its difficulty level
  • run one or more RPG sessions as a GM
  • created a new imaginary creature, complete with game stats
  • modified our existing rules set, adding new character classes, rules for criticals, new skills, etc
At that point it will be time to set them to work on their culminating project for the nine-week class:

Design a new game for a setting or world that you find compelling [super heroes, vampires vs werewolves, alien hunters, stone aged tribal drama, martial arts reptiles, etc]


'Mobile Suit Gundog' ~ Adventure Time genre mashup, art by Larry T Quach

  • students are provided with a list of “inspiration sparkers”
  • students may work collaboratively with permission
  • students will submit game proposal using template provided
  • students will develop systems for describing characters, conflict resolution, and advancement
  • students will develop content describing setting, hazards, and rewards
  • students will play test their game

Here are my thoughts for a project rubric that will be used to guide the students:

Character Attributes
Conflict Resolution
My game uses attributes that reflect or support the theme of the setting.

My game uses either random rolls or player choice to allow creation of a variety of setting-appropriate characters.
My game includes one or more systems for resolving the most common types of conflict faced by characters within the setting.

My system supports the themes of the setting.
My game includes a variety of hazards that support its setting and themes.

The hazards provide challenges that can be overcome or bypassed in multiple ways

Hazards are presented that can challenge both beginning and experienced characters.
My game presents a variety of in-game rewards, some of which have the potential to change or enhance characters’ attributes, conflict resolution, or resources.
My game has a system for changing and / or improving characters over time as a result of their experiences and adventures.

Maybe this will implode, maybe we'll never get this far, but maybe ... just maybe ... some of the kids will cook up something wonderful and strange and new!

... and wouldn't THAT be glorious?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Classroom Activity: Tinkering with the Rules

As has been said many times, one of the great delights of older RPG rules sets is that many of them are general and suggestive rather than specific and prescriptive. They are tool kits with which a group can collectively putter around and build a game that suits them.

(c) Phil & Kaja Foglio
When, in preparation for teaching the basics of a role-playing system to my middle school class, I took a chainsaw to 5th edition D&D, boiling it down to less than 20 pages, many interesting tidbits were hacked off and left behind for the sake of simplicity and clarity.

Once the kids understand the basic concepts, however, I'd like to challenge them to customize the rules set that we will have been using up to that point. That brings us to ...

Unit Four: Activity 2

Using an existing rules framework, students will develop rules for fumbles, criticals, initiative, NPC morale, hirelings, new character classes, etc


Brainstorming whole-class and in small groups around questions like:

  • "What would make this even more cool?"
  • "What do you wish that there were specific rules for?"
  • "What's the best part of the game and how can we enhance it?"
Students record their suggested rules changes and try them out in actual play.

Assessment: Reflective writing

  • "Did your rules change have the effect that you had hoped?"
  • "How did your changes enhance or detract from the game?"
  • "Will you continue to use your additional rules?"
This minor tinkering is really just prep work for their final activity ... which I'll post about next time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Classroom Activity: Design a Monster

If I cover all the ground I hope to with my middle school games class, not only will each student get to play in an RPG a few times, get to evaluate and design a location-based game setting, and get to GM an RPG scenario for a session or two, but by the time we reach our final unit I'd like them to start thinking about game design and the best way to tell the stories that they have inside of them ...

Unit Four: Game Design

Key Objective: Students will identify a setting or genre that interests them and will develop their own unique narrative structure and rules framework for managing storytelling games within that setting.

To get the ball rolling creatively, I'd like them to design their own creature ...

Activity 1: Create a New Creature 

  • Read existing catalogs of game creatures. Discuss: 
  • "What makes them compelling, surprising, or predictable?"
  • "What kind of story can you see this creature initiating?  
  • "What might it do that causes drama or conflict?"
  • "Identify more than one way that characters in a game could successfully deal with the conflict posed by the creature."
  • Talk about real-world ecology and contrast to fantasy ecology and place-in-story. Discuss the narrative appeal of each.
  • Talk about creature power-level, how to evaluate, and how to represent it in game mechanics

Assessment: by rubric

A rating of "3" would look like this:

3 = My creature and its ecology are described in clear, unique, and vivid terms.  My reader gains a clear understanding of how my creature fits into its environment. My ecology includes one or more story hooks or suggestions for how characters can interact with the creature. My description includes a list of the creature’s attributes.
From here, some kids may want to write short scenarios to showcase their critters, others may want to dive into expanding their creature's ecology, some may want to take time to illustrate their new creation artistically, and still others will be ready to move ahead and start looking at our rules set critically -- what does it simulate in a way they like?  Where does it fall flat?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Classroom Activity: Student GMs

Tomorrow is the first day of school and I'm still busily planning lessons for my brand new Adventure Games class. I've had full support from my administrative team and they've even developed a short affinity survey to gauge the interests of our students and to help the teachers of my grade-level team place our kids in the areas where academic needs and individual interests best align. This kind of thinking is really setting me up to win!

Today I'm thinking about ...

Unit Three: Managing a Game

Key Objective: Students will begin to develop proficiency as the lead narrator of a collaborative storytelling framework

  • Students will consider how to best engage players
  • Students will revise a setting based on player input and self-assessment

Activity 1: Manage (GM) prefabricated / pre-stocked setting for peers

  • GM chooses and manages setting
  • GM provided with a survey
    • Name your players
    • What did you do to help engage each of your players individually?
    • What could you have done to better engage any players who were not engaged?
    • What was the best / most engaging part of the game?
    • What part of managing the game was the hardest?
    • What do you wish you had handled differently?
    • Grade your performance as a GM
    • What tools would make it easier to manage your next game?

  • Players are provided with a survey
    • Who was your GM?
    • How engaging was the game?
    • What was the best part?
    • What did your GM do particularly well?
    • What could your GM improve upon?

  • GMs given reminder cards, summarizing their roles
    • apply rules fairly to all players
    • keep game moving and players on task
    • provide information about the setting
    • make rulings when players attempt things not covered by the rules
    • create interest and excitement
    • insist on good sportsmanship from your players
    • refer difficult situations to teacher

Formative Assessment
  • player survey and GM self-survey

Activity 2: GM manages a setting that he or she has created from scratch (prior Unit)

  • GM develops and stocks own setting (prior Unit)
  • GM manages setting for peers
  • GM provided with self-survey
  • Players are provided with survey
  • GMs given reminder cards, summarizing their roles
  • GM revises setting based on reflection and player feedback
  • GM manages revised setting for a different group of players
  • GM completes second reflection
    • Identify your second round players
    • What specific changes did you implement to improve your setting?
    • What was the best / most engaging part of the game this time?
    • Grade your performance as a GM

Formative Assessment
  • player survey and self-survey
So, as I learned last year, the really, really sweet spot is where I can give my 8th graders enough experience role-playing (as players) and just enough guidance in the form of rules (suggestive, not proscriptive) and imagination-sparking support materials (sketches, partial maps, sample monsters, hazards, and treasures) that they can step out and begin to GM groups of their peers on their own.

What I sketched out above is my effort to intentionally scaffold that development. That being said, while I'd like every student to try running at least one session for peers, I don't have the expectation that every student will feel an affinity for the role of GM. Somewhere around this point I expect my class to fork, branching into two or more different tracks, with some students continuing to refine their skills as GMs while others double back to Unit Two and engage in world-building and still others move ahead to Unit Four to focus on designing completely new games.