Thursday, October 30, 2014

Post-Reading Generation?

Tuesday I had about 25 students at my after school Strategy Games Club and we hosted the following games:

  • Shadows Over Camelot
  • Risk: Godstorm
  • Arkham High (a d20-ed FASERIP Homebrew Cthulhu-Buffy Mashup!)
  • D&D 5th ed.
  • Smallworld

Two of my awesome high school volunteers ran Shadows and Risk, while one of my most talented 8th graders continued her Arkham scenario.  The young fellow who volunteered to manage the game of Smallworld assured me (twice) that he knew the rules and was ready and able to manage things.

So with that settled, I dug in with my D&D group.  We completed character generation and we started an in-depth conversation about tactics.  By looking back at recent battles with bandits, a nothic, an owlbear, and a mob of savage orcs we explored these concepts:

  • Concentration of fire: how coordinating attacks can whittle down even the big nasties
  • Tactical retreat & planning for the worst: why fleeing blindly into a dungeon is seldom healthy
  • The benefits of armor: why the guys in steel armor should almost always be up front

About that time one of my Smallworld players wandered by and I excused myself to see what was going on ... hmm ... board off the table, little cardboard bits scattered randomly, players avoiding eye-contact ... this didn't look good.

Turns out that by "knew the rules" the young GM meant something more like "played the game before and liked it but have no actual idea of how it works".  No big crisis there, it just meant pulling in with the guys and working through a few turns until they got the hang of the rules (which they did).  

What was unsettling for me, however, was that Smallworld is a pretty straightforward little game (no more complex than basic Risk) and it comes with a lovely, concise, and clearly written instruction booklet.  The players were also furnished with handy illustrated reference sheets to make things even easier.  These were really bright, enthusiastic, and motivated players too ... so what was the problem?

Simply put -- reading.  

Eight pages of brightly illustrated instructions were too much for their concept of what a game should be.  This is a Minecraft generation -- in their experience, you learn to play by playing (attempting things in order to learn what is possible and what isn't) not by first internalizing fundamental concepts then playing. 

This echoes the experience I had recently in my Adventure Games class.  I hand-picked four or five of my most experienced gamers and worked on grooming them to run role-playing groups in the classroom.  Knowing that a chunky manual simply wasn't going to fly, I distilled the basics of D&D 5th edition style play down to an illustrated 20-page pamphlet (about half of which was spell lists, Artificer device lists, and six character class templates).  Faced by one page of reading for character generation (I ran this by my eight and ten-year-olds to make sure that I wasn't being too cryptic) ... exactly none of the students followed the (numbered) steps.  The disconnect?  They weren't willing to commit to the required reading.

This Minecraft, modern-gamer, "figure it out as we go" approach certainly has its merits, but I suspect that it bodes ill for the growth of traditional tabletop role-playing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ringing the Doorbell

Having survived the Night of the Owlbear, the party pressed on to Wyvern Tor in search of some orcs that needed slaying.

Things went pretty smoothly at first -- the sharp-eyed hill dwarf led the way up into the highlands, the party soon noticed smoke from the orc lair, they went into sneaky mode and spotted an orc lookout.  The group tiptoed around to set up a crossfire and managed to drop the sentry with ranged attacks and then ... used Thaumaturgy to loudly announce the group's presence ... ?

Granted, a loud challenge surely wasn't what I expected ... or what the orcs expected ... or apparently what most of the rest of the party expected either, but the cleric seemed certain that this was the way to go!

Perhaps a bit stunned by the quick shift in plans, the halfling thief and leather-clad human archer waited just outside the orc lair while another rogue lingered half way along the ravine.  The cleric and wizard crouched a considerable distance off, sheltered behind the next ridge.  And then folks just sort of waited around to see what would happen next.  Hmm.

Alerted, given ample time to prepare, and challenged loudly, the orcs promptly roused their champion and sent him out to confront the intruders!

Yeah ... ouch.  Leather-clad archer going one-on-one in melee with this guy?  Not so much.  There was some running, a brief attempt to rally and a piece-meal counter-attack which largely involved taking the brute on individually (with predictable results).  Eventually the spellcasters wore the creature down with ranged attacks and it retreated to the orc lair, but not before the orcs had plenty of time to scramble out of the gully and start mopping up the remaining party members.

So next time, as we complete character generation (all five guys were eager to keep playing but less enthusiastic about rolling up new characters), we'll go back and talk about some basic tactics.

 Maybe some discussion on force concentration, planning a route of retreat, using terrain to your advantage, or at least the value of putting your high armor class tanks up front (rather than leather-clad rogues and ranged fighters) will grant their next batch of characters a bit more longevity.  On the plus-side, there weren't any friendly-fire casualties this time!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Night of the Owlbear

My middle school adventurers are a day or two outside Phandulin on the Triboar Trail, headed east to kill orcs because ... you know ... orcs.

Sticking to my resolve to set aside my "old school" bias, trust the designers, and learn D&D "5th ed." through running things by the book, I dutifully make wandering monster checks and ... rolled a nocturnal encounter with an owlbear -- about the nastiest critter on the chart!

That looked like a pretty tough first encounter if I read the new stat blocks correctly, but I figured "What the heck, this could work."

I telescoped the encounter with fleeing woodland creatures (giving clues to the approach and direction of the danger) and eventually a distinctive hunting call that one character recognized from the fireside tales of his elders (there's always a chance).

So far, so good -- then the human fighter decided to dash away at full speed into the blind night while the dwarven cleric packed his things hurriedly and set off alone in another direction.  The elven thief headed in yet a third direction and, not wanting to be left behind with only the wizard, the halfling also staggered off blindly into the soggy, overcast night.

"Yes," I thought, "I see another session of character creation on the horizon."

More by luck then by planning, the wood elf thief succeeded in leading the approaching beast into the camp where hilarity promptly ensued.  The dwarf doubled back and his misdirected spell blasted the halfling, dropping him at the feet of the owlbear.  The human fighter staggered back in out of the night and was promptly felled by a beak-claw combo ... then, almost as if there were no other choice, the wizard prepared to direct a Sleep spell upon his own party members ... again ... wait ... yes, that's right, we had managed a frame-by-frame replay of the last fight (with the Nothic), down to the same party "tactics" (scatter blindly), the same character classes (played by the same players), being dropped to zero hit points in the same order ...

This time there was one difference however:  The elven thief stood back and sniped away at the creature while his friends got mauled, placing himself just far enough back that he wouldn't be caught by the friendly fire of the Sleep spell.  A couple bum rounds on the owlbear's part, a clerical guiding bolt or two, and the remaining characters managed to bring the monster crashing down despite its roughly 50 hit points.

Hearty cheers around the table.  That extra few steps away from the party's wizard had made all the difference -- could they be learning?  I even began to wonder what they would do if a gang of brigands showed up next session.  Past experience says that we'd have to head right back to character generation.

Quote of the Day: "Mr. Perdue!  I realized that Lord of the Rings is basically D&D.  Like when they are on the bridge and the wizard steps out and says, 'You shall not pass!' and the monster rolls to hit and the GM says, 'Make a saving throw or you fall,' and he fails and his friends are like, 'Can we help him' and the GM says, 'Okay, but you need to roll at least a 20.' "

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It Must Be a SIGN ...

I'm running Lost Mine of Phandelver with my middle schoolers, now starting with a fresh batch of characters following a recent Total Party Kill.  Beginning our action, where else, in one of the village's two taverns, the first player promptly declared that he was, "looking for quests.  I mean ... talking to people to see if anybody needs help or anything."


This video-game-speak set my weathered old teeth on edge, but I get that this is just the language of modern gaming and earlier RPG designers would have used it if they had thought of it first (though it does smack of pre-determined narrative ... grrr).

The very first local spoken to shared a rumor about orcs that needed some good slaying out at Wyvern Tor and, despite the halfling player's compulsive need to search everything in the inn ("to find some secret stuff") the members of the five-man party were soon on their way to the Town Hall to sign up for the bounty ...

... but then something utterly unexpected happened: they encountered a SIGN.  Not a mystical omen, you understand, but an actual written placard placed just outside Town Hall.

We determined that each of the five characters was at least passingly literate, so I read the text of the sign to the group.  It was some pretty bland stuff about orcs causing trouble at Wyvern Tor, a bounty being offered, and instructions to inquire within.  I also mentioned that the sign was marked with the town seal and (here it comes ...) "an indecipherable signature."

"Wait, what's it say?"

I read the text of the sign again, again mentioning seal and signature.

"What's the signature say?"

"It's indecipherable -- it's too messy to read."

"Well, can I read it?  You said I could read."


"Um, okay.  If you make a DC 25 Intelligence check then you can make it out."

I should note here that the highest INT bonus among the group was a +2, so a 22 was the best possible result.  A fact that I pointed out.


Kid rolls a 15.

"That's pretty good, but you can't quite make it out."

"Wait, I want to try!"

"Yeah, can I help him?"

"Help him ... read the indecipherable signature?"


"Okay.  He can have advantage on his roll."

Kid rolls 2d20 and takes a 19, the better of the two rolls.

"That was close, but you can't really make it out."

Two other players chime in: "I want to try!"

[Blink] "Okay ..."

Skip ahead five minutes ... and they are still rolling ... 

"Ooh, that time I got a 16!  Is that high enough?"

"Is it a 25?  The nope, not high enough."

Finally, one lad out of the five, after trying in vain to explain to his fellows that no possible combination of dice rolls would allow them to read the indecipherable signature, resorted to snatching the dice off of the table and hiding them between his knees, "No!  No you are idiots!  No more for you!"

At long last we determined that at least one member of the party knew roughly which direction Wyvern Tor lay and so they promptly set out ... never having actually gone into Town Hall to get details about the job, the orc threat, or the bounty.

Final Score:  Sign 1 -- Adventurers 0

After play wrapped up, on their way out of the library, one of the kids said, "I think we just don't like to be told that we can't do something."  

I'm sure he's right and it's probably why the characters of middle schoolers die like so many lemmings: flinging themselves into volcanic vents, taking on monsters that are obviously too tough to handle, drinking mysterious potions without hesitation, and making absurd attempts at climbing sheer surfaces over lethal drops.  This is probably also why alignment doesn't work very well for middle schoolers ... or bonds ... or any of the fancy storytelling bits that seek to add depth through constraint.

All constraints are interpreted as challenges to be overcome, no matter the consequences!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Experience Points: Two Methods

When I decided that I wanted to teach some role-playing basics as part of my Adventure Games Class, I chose to create a simplified homebrew that has D&D (specifically 5th edition) in its gaming DNA.

One thing I decided to bring over intact from the new boxed set was the rapid low level advancement system. However, while rewriting the rules and pairing them down to a kid-friendly digest, I offered my neophyte GMs two different ways to calculate earned experience:


Experience points (XP) are awarded for treasure successfully recovered at the end of the adventure, for traps dealt with, and for creatures slain or neutralized through trickery or negotiation.

There are two methods for calculating XP earned.  
The GM should announce to players which method is being used at the start of the session:

  • PARTY XP: At the end of a session, total the XP for all creatures neutralized, traps survived or detected and bypassed, and treasure recovered.  Divide by the number of surviving characters and award each character an equal share, dropping any fraction.

  • INDIVIDUAL XP: Throughout the session, immediately award XP to the character who deals the killing blow to any hostile creature (killing non-hostile creatures grants no XP).  Throughout the session immediately award XP to the first character to detect and bypass or trigger and survive any trap (bypassing known traps grants no XP).  At the end of the session, for each recovered treasure, award XP only to the character carrying it.

1. I think that these two methods could mean the difference between this adventuring crew ...

  ... and this one ... 

2. Party XP means that the surviving explorers will progress at the same rate, but with the Individual XP method that's highly unlikely.

3. With Party XP, hanging back and letting others take the risks (e.g. NPC meat-shields) is a great strategy, but with Individual XP that just means falling behind.

... and finally ...

4. The Satipo-factor "Throw me the idol. No time to argue! Throw me idol, I'll throw you the whip!"

Hopefully we'll get far enough by the end of the year for me to develop some impressions on how each system actually works!