Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Newbie DM Sound Off

Though my Strategy Games Class is on ice for now, here are some notes from three brand new DMs reflecting on their first few sessions running a stripped-down version of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition:

Carl: "I think the best part about being a DM is how you have to creatively develop a plot and dialog for your dungeon.  Being a DM isn't the easiest though.  You usually have to deal with player complaints.  Also, it isn't the easiest to come up with concepts for rooms and how they influence other rooms."

Dallas: "The best part of being a DM was that you got to create a story while someone changes it with you.  I find the hardest part of being a DM is trying to keep [players] engaged and focused on the campaign."

Eric: "The best part of DMing is the amount of creativity you can put into the rooms.  It's actually quite difficult to try to stay quite balanced while having fun too, because you want all the players active."

Pretty cool insights.  Later I'll share some reflections from the players' side of things as well.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Martians Attack Fredericksburg!

Martian Tripods Travel 140 Million Miles ... Only to get Bogged Down in Route 3 Traffic
My friend, Steve Johnson (easily the smartest human I know), when not teaching physics, chemistry, French, history, working on his science fiction novel, or serving with his local church really enjoys games -- the more zany and over-the-top the better!

He's a seasoned convention gamer and is very comfortable hacking rules and adapting on-the-fly, so I was delighted when he recently invited me to join him at Saint Michael the Archangel to play All Quiet on the Martian Front ... which is exactly what it sounds like ... a War of the Worlds-WWI mashup.

However, it wouldn't be a Steve Johnson game if there wasn't a twist.  Here's how he made a good idea even better:
  • he kicked the timeline ahead to present day and used micro-armor scale tanks, humvees, etc. to represent elements of our local National Guard unit
  • he used an eight-foot, Google Earth-style, vinyl satellite map of the Fredericksburg area for the battlefield ... many of the six players could find their own houses! 
  • he superimposed hexes to make movement fast and easy
  • he boiled the Martian Front rules down to a 4x6 reference card (one per player)
  • he pre-marked select locations on the map (Walmart, Gander Mountain, SSG Tactical (gun shop) to show where civilian defenders would spawn to take up arms against the alien invaders ... and yes, there were pickup trucks that "Bubba" and friends could use to race toward the alien attackers
  • he made just enough flame templates for when things caught on fire ... such as when a Martian rolled a natural 20 with its heat ray or when a desperate national guardsman drove a fuel tanker truck straight into the leg of a tripod ... and let me tell you ... a lot of things caught on fire!

The entire game ran about four hours (including pizza) and in the end all of the "Central Park" shopping district and the Route 3 corridor were destroyed while historic downtown was virtually untouched.  All of the regular Martian bots, loboto-trons, and tripods were dispatched, but nobody could dent the huge "Dominator" Tripod who scattered the remaining defenders and stalked off alone toward Quantico Marine Corps Base.

I'd love to get a similar, banner-sized map of Spotsylvania County to use with my students in our after school club ... we could stage a zombie invasion or some-such.

Monday, August 17, 2015


I recently got an email from my school leadership (whom I respect very much, not least of all for encouraging me to try new things in my classroom).

It seems that, following this spring's rounds of standardized testing, a decision has been made to take an "all hands" approach to improving and supporting growth in the area of literacy.

That means that my Strategy Games Class has been cancelled (along with an extension art class, a teen living class, a creative writing class, a drama class, an all-female exercise and health class, and a handful of other enrichment courses designed to engage those students who didn't necessarily require additional reading or math intervention to perform on grade level ... so I'm in good company here).

Let me be clear please: our school still teaches art, music, PE, tech ed, etc. ... we are simply removing the additional elective spot offered to some students and instead creating structure around daily reading for all students.

I get it.

This is what is best for the majority of our students.

I've had the amazing and rare privilege of introducing a couple hundred young people to tabletop role-playing during the regular school day, and I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity.

In literature, film (even corny ones), and games, Camelot is always this anachronistic idealization about how things could be.  But of course it wouldn't be Camelot if it didn't come to an end eventually -- if it wasn't "too good to last" in a less than perfect world.

So ...

I'm down but not out.
I still have a few irons in the fire, including the following:
  • I'm completing a draft of Olde School Wizardry, my very own tabletop role-playing game
  • I'm entering my 7th year of running Olde School Wizardry for an awesome group of adult players, and we're just starting our third chapter of the campaign
  • I'm still running "Homeguard!" a weekly D&D campaign with my daughters (and their friends)
  • I'll be running a weekly, 90 min, after school Strategy Games Club for 6th-8th graders
  • I'll run annual Adventure Games Summer Camps, introducing middle schoolers to RPGs and board games 
By necessity though, since the experiment that launched this blog 160-some posts ago is over (at least for the time being), I'll be shifting my focus to the projects above.  Hope you come along for the journey.
artwork by David T. Wenzel

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why RPGs Work So Well for Students

Recently, gearing up for the coming school year, I read Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley's Reaching Boys Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work -- and Why (Jossey-Bass 2010).

Reichert and Hawley surveyed more than 1,500 boys and 1,000 teachers across four continents, posing two challenges:

For teachers: "YOUR TASK: to narrate clearly and objectively an instructional activity that is especially, perhaps unusually effective in heightening boys' learning."

For students: "In the box below, tell us a story of a class experience that stands out as being especially memorable for you."

What they found will come as no surprise to any life-long gamer:

"In no other area of this study was there a stronger concordance between boys and teachers than in their agreement about the power of games to bring new energy and interest to the classroom." 
(Reichert and Hawley 58)

And for gamers who, like me, have been bitten by the role-playing bug, this next quote will certainly ring true:

"Many teachers found that requiring boys to take a role -- whether an impersonation or as part of a purely physical process -- was transitive to a deeper, surer understanding of the material under study.  In many cases too, the requirement to perform before others contributed to the student's sense of responsibility for the ultimate mastery of an assigned task." (Reichert and Hawley 85)

One possible implication?

If you place a student in the role of a wizard who must solve a two-step equation to unlock the sealed door before the ghouls can eat the explorers then he is far more likely to learn and retain the mathematical concepts.

"Teachers in boys' schools are quick to assert that boys together are quick and often eager to suspend belief and imaginatively assume roles ... The boys in this study strongly affirmed the pleasure -- and the resulting learning -- of being asked to get out of their familiar skin." (Reichert and Hawley 101)

Students adopting other roles intuitively and with ease.  My experience introducing a few hundred kids to tabletop role-playing has certainly affirmed this.  I never recall having to explain what was meant by "playing a character" ... suggesting that all of the "What is Role-playing?" introductions written in the vast majority of published rules amount to wasted ink.  Kids already know, and they like it.

Here's a cool quote for the OSR (Old School Renaissance) crowd:

"Across disciplines, teachers noted the energizing effects of setting boys to tasks for which successful resolution was perhaps possible but by no means certain--or easy." (Reichert and Hawley 111)

In other words, the possibility of dismal failure is part of what makes an activity engaging.  If the characters will automatically move through three, pre-planned encounters followed by a carefully balanced boss-fight, though it is a trope common to console gaming, that's actually less energizing to many young people then the possibility of getting squashed by a trap two rooms into the dungeon.

MMORPGs tap into this very nicely -- follow the quest if you want, but you never know when "KilB1zz666" is going to come dashing in and shoot your character in the head / knock down your building project for no particular reason.  In that format the other players take the role occupied by wandering monsters in D&D.

Finally, the themes found in most role-playing games (monsters, madness, mutations, etc) align beautifully with what interests young brains.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, teachers in all disciplines noted--and to an extent were willing to indulge--their boys' fascination with (sometimes literally) volatile material ... [this] suggests the transivity of providing students with a safe brush with danger." (Reichert and Hawley 172)

So games, in particular role-playing games, have a direct line to student engagement, interest, and learning.

This shifts the question to:

"How can I effectively incorporate RPGs and role-playing elements into regular instruction to enhance student learning?" 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Homeguard B/X Group: Against the Cult of the Reptile God

Unlike most "old school" Dungeons & Dragons players, I'm no great fan of classic TSR adventure (T1) The Village of Hommlet.  I know it introduced a generation of gamers to "town-based" adventures just as (B2) The Keep on the Borderlands was my gateway to dungeon exploration, but I think (N1) Against the Cult of the Reptile God provides a better (though not flawless) introduction to role-playing beyond crypts, mines, and the like.

My players are 6th grade and younger, so I played up the deadpan tones of various charmed cultists even while emphasizing their friendly invitations, quickly putting the players on their guard and giving the whole thing a 1950s-why-are-they-all-staring-at-us-Sci-fi-feel.  Soon, without much evidence, the players developed a theory that something was wrong with either the town's drinking water, the ale in the Golden Grain Inn, or both!  When the halfling decided to go snooping about a bit on his own things took a sudden turn and a running battle against cultists and their reptilian allies began.  In the confusion another party-member was kidnapped and the focus shifted to trying to rescue her before she could be converted to the forces of eeeeevil.
Roll for surprise!
Because I've mashed up 5th edition D&D's Hoard of the Dragon Queen with other adventures for my Homeguard! campaign, some of the ranking cultists, such as "Abramo" the obligatory evil cleric, were recast to have a more dragon-culty spin to them.  I also created a tie-in by giving Abramo a schticky Eastern European accent and hinting, following his capture, that he was originally from Barovia and had helped lure the characters there to shake them off the trail of the dragon cult and in the belief that the adventurers would be destroyed by the vampire lord of Barovia.

The Jim Holloway art in N1 fits the action in major scenes, matching the text closely.  This gives Reptile God greater coherence than many prepackaged modules. 
Abramo defeated and the old hermit on the edge of town turning out to be none other than Leodin, an ally first met in (B5) Horror on the Hill, the adventure forked.  
Would the players: 

A. choose to trek into the Rushmore Marshes to discover the source of the magic that held so many townsfolk enthralled


B. follow the treasure smuggled out of Orlane to where the dragon cultists were trying to amass a large enough hoard to summon Tiamat the Dragon Queen back to their world?

As I've said before, pool tables are ideal for gaming: miniatures are protected by the felt, you end up with fewer dropped dice, and if your players are hobbit-sized there's plenty of seating!

The gang chose the first option, and by the end of five sessions they had pounded through the upper marsh dungeon.  In the future I expect they'll want to try out the other plot trail and I'll roll them into Castle Naerytar, skipping the "On the Road" (where I already inserted The Great Escape scenario) and the dull "Roadhouse" portions of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Weaving together these two adventures (though 32 years and five editions of D&D separate them) has been quite a lot of fun!

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Quest for Student Growth

Question: How can I increase student growth for 8th graders in my upcoming, nine-week long, elective Strategy Games Classes?

Out for our anniversary recently, my wife and I were talking about my Strategy Games Classes.  She's a teacher too and is both very clever and very practical so she makes a great sounding board as I look for ways to improve the upcoming year's classes.

I realize that, by the grace of God, I've been afforded a very rare opportunity: I get to teach what I know best, it's something I love, it actually interests students, and it has tremendous potential intellectual benefits for young people!

What's more, I have wonderful leaders within my school building who let me experiment and try things that are outside of the norm.  It also helps that my role is to provide enrichment for 26-35 students at a time while kids who need intensive math and reading interventions are receiving help in those areas in much smaller classes.

Image result for charting growth

Still, we operate under a mandate to show quantifiable student growth within the 9-week period (about 17 classes on average) implementing some kind of pre-assessment and some form of post assessment that demonstrate change over time.

Troll Bridge - pencils by Gido
by Gido at deviant art

While at times this is a bit like paying a toll to the troll, I get it -- being able to show quantitatively that a course is actually helping young people grow is very reasonable and appropriate and isn't anything I would expect from any other educator or class -- I'm a tax payer too after all!

Tabletop role-playing, specifically Basic Dungeons & Dragons was incredibly important in my own growth (though I moved on to Star Frontiers, Gamma World, AD&D, Robotech, Marvel Superheroes, TMNT, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, GURPs, Vampire, Werewolf, Pendragon and others in due course).

Here are some of the ways that RPGs helped me grow:

  • helped me further develop number sense and drove home arithmetic in an engaging way (especially my multiplication tables)
  • got me working with percentages and thinking about probability
  • improved my working literacy well above grade level while working with informational text -- my vocabulary expanded like nuts (which is what reading Gygax will do for you)
  • helped me with both geography and spatial relationships as I used maps and created my own maps and map keys
  • expanded my tastes in fiction
  • got me interpreting and later developing my own charts and graphic organizers
  • encouraged my interest in artwork
  • helped me develop social and leadership skills, especially as I managed the game for players older than I was
  • encouraged asymmetrical and abstract thinking along with problem-solving
  • got me thinking about plot, rising action, foreshadowing and irony by both reading th work of industry professionals and by composing my own material (the very best way to learn of course) 

All this growth didn't take place overnight of course, instead unfolding over the course of years.
My personal timeline went something like this:
    Image result for half orc assassin
  • play for an hour and a half (in a group of 3), only understanding half of what was going on
  • play again for a little while, with some of the basic concepts starting to click
  • not role-play for 3 and a half years, but cultivate memories of monster-haunted passageways
  • play AD&D in someone else's campaign for maybe 45 minutes (I was "Kratz," the half-orc henchman)
  • self-teach using Moldvay Basic D&D (with me as DM ) first running games for my older brother and a friend, then for three neighborhood friends, then for an ever-expanding circle of friends from school, first integrating the AD&D Monster Manual, then Players Handbook, then the unequaled Dungeon Masters Guide into my Basic D&D game.
  • ... and continue onward for 30 years

The main thing was that, by the time I picked up the Moldvay box, the game was a PULL factor -- nobody had to push me into staring at those charts or squinting away at column after column of that little sans-serif print -- I wanted to learn more!

I don't think I'll be able to recreate that entire explosion of growth for my students in 17 sessions ... but perhaps I can set the hook and create the internal PULL that results in the students voluntarily driving their learning.


1. How far can I realistically get with my students in nine weeks?

2. How can I measure that progress in a meaningful way?

3. To what extent is growth of this kind like gardening rather than an assembly line?  

In other words, can our system (and the organization's need for data) allow for the TIME that growth takes?  

After all, if you had assessed me only nine weeks into my journey you wouldn't conclude that I had learned very much!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Listening in B/X: Hidden Target Numbers

Players, especially younger players, love to roll dice.  This kinesthetic aspect of tabletop role-playing is certainly part of the magic of it -- we don't just stare at each other and talk, but there are these periodic bursts of meaningful, focused physicality.  In fact, my middle school players tend to roll dice so obsessively that I've replaced many of my six-siders with foam dice (borrowed from the Math Department) just to keep the racket and ricochets down a bit.  More than miniatures, maps, or modules, the dice are the totem of the game.
(for those uninitiated, that's Hanna-Barbera's "Ricochet Rabbit") 

In Basic D&D, searching and listening are critical activities, and the odds of characters finding hidden treasure, secret doors, or gathering clues about the number and variety of lurking monsters prior to an encounter with them can depend heavily on these in-character activities.

Of course the usual system for determining if a thief's Listen check is successful or if a magic-user notices a revolving wall panel is to roll a six-sider, a result of 1 (or possibly 1-2) being successful, higher results being failures.

The problem with this is that if the player rolls a failure, then she knows it and has out-of-character incentive to have her character spend extra time checking an area for things she might have missed the first time when normally she might pass that area by (meta-gaming).

The simple fix is to have the DM roll the check behind a screen or out of the players' line of sight, but that robs the players of the chance to chuck small pieces of plastic around.

A solution we use when playing B/X is hidden target numbers.  I do almost all of my dice-rolling in the open, but when players want to listen or search I throw a hidden D6.  The players then get to roll their own dice in an effort to match the (still hidden) number I rolled.  For those pesky elves, thieves, and dwarves (who succeed on a 1-2 in the rules) I just treat the target number and anything one point lower as a success.
From the artists at (and on sale there)

It's not a perfect solution ... clever players now watch to see if their roles generate a range of numbers and may spend extra time in a location until the dice produce a spread of results that they like, but at least it keeps the dice (and agency) in their hands while maintaining a sense of the unknown.

I'd be interested in hearing other ways that people have solved this dilemma at their tables.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Dungeon of Terror - Finis

"Oh gracious!  I wish I was still a dinosaur with a backpack."

... that's what my youngest said upon finding the heavy gold bars hidden behind a secret compartment.  We were finishing the Dungeon of Terror portion of TSR module B9, Castle Caldwell and Beyond.

art by Cory Trego-Erdner
A little earlier, finding that they were trapped in the dungeon beneath the abandoned manor house (the entryway having magically vanished) the kids studied their map and deduced where a secret room might be.  Star the Elf drank her polymorph potion (recovered from an earlier adventure, turned into a Bulette, and dug right through the wall, confirming their suspicions and revealing what just might be a way out.

By the time the aforementioned gold bars were discovered, however, the potion's effects had worn off, leaving Star and friends to lug the newly gold around by hand.

If judged strictly by its coherence, theme, and respect for the players (DM included), Castle Caldwell and Beyond is probably the worst published adventure that I own ... I rank it lower than Castle Greyhawk (which I'll contend actually has some quite clever bits mixed in with level after level of bad puns).

Still, with a bit of work I found this old material quite usable.

First, placing the Dungeon of Terror below the "castle" recently purchased by Clifton Caldwell, I Lovecraft-ed it up a bit ... planting old documents describing how the ancient and decadent Vorloi family had moved to Threshold from more southerly climes.  Without an heir and rapidly dwindling, the patriarchs of the family quietly rededicated the chapel of their villa-style manor house to the veneration of Orcus in hopes that malign spirit would grant them children and extended life.  The Dark Prince of the Undeath was pleased to accommodate them, transforming the last remaining Vorloi into deathless wights and their servants into ghouls.

I replaced berserkers and insane magic users with ghouls and ghasts, and kept the robber flies for flavor.

I changed the password that allowed the party to escape the dungeon from OHWA TAGOO SIAM ("Oh what a goose I am"), which I hated even back in 1985, into a hymn to Orcus inscribed on a ring (without spaces, it still had to be decoded).

The end result was pretty good, my players enjoyed it, and were relieved when their beloved characters finally escaped The Dungeon of Terror (not least of all because I had dropped hints that anyone who spent too long down there began turning into a ghoul).

When the party's cleric reported the ghoulish infestation and presence of a chapel of Orcus to Threshold's Patriarch, the property was promptly seized by the church and placed under ban, leaving poor Clifton Caldwell with nothing to show for his investment.  Not only did he refuse to pay the party for their trouble, but the apoplectic merchant has sworn revenge!

At Dragonsfoot Lord Kilgore sums up our experiences nicely, writing, "The ideas are bland and generic.  The details are garbage.  The writing is excrement.  I've DMed each mini-adventure several times over the past 20 years.  Every single time it has been fun."

Have you ever started with a real lemon of an adventure and turned into something brilliant?
What's your favorite module make-over story?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Summer Camp RISK Conversion

For this year's two-week summer enrichment games camp I turned once again to RISK as a reliable, clear, and rapid paced "tent pole" game around which to build our tournament.

Rather than the traditional board, I used a board that I painted with a custom map to match my Olde School Wizardry RPG campaign world.  Major events and upsets during the tournament could then be used to shape events in my bi-monthly table top role-playing campaign.

I made some rules modifications to this old classic to make it serve our purposes.
  • turn limit -- the game is played for 12 turns.  The nation in control of the most territories at the end of the game wins.
  • abandon territories -- players are not required to leave armies behind either when on the attack or when fortifying.  However, abandoned territories are not considered "under control" when determining continent bonuses at the start of the turn.
  • rivers -- major rivers can only be crossed at the marked bridges / fords or via ports.
  • bridges -- in addition to allowing unhindered troop movement across rivers, intervening bridges also block movement from one port to another.  Bridges can be destroyed or replaced at a cost of three armies provided that the player controls the territories on either side.
  • ports -- all territories marked with ports are considered adjacent unless the route between them is blocked by a bridge.  If both sides of the bridge are held by friendly troops (or another nation who agrees to "let the attack pass") the restriction on port-to-port movement is ignored for that turn.
  • walled cities -- marked on the map, walled cities allow defenders to re-roll one die per attack if they so wish
  • mountains -- impassable except where otherwise marked
Anyone who has ever played RISK knows about "Fortress Australia"
The ports result in a much more interconnected map.

Compare North America's 3 points of entry in classic RISK game, or Australia's much-remarked single point of entry via Siam with the 17 possible places that Walvia (blue) can be assailed from.

This encourages a defensive game and with the addition of stronger defense via the walled cities it means that attacks have to be very large and very deliberate to have hopes of breaking through fortified lines.  The result gives things more if a WWI flavor than a Napoleonic one, and it shifts the recipe for success away from mere dice rolling and to the unrestricted social game.

Players schemed, made deals, and broke bargains in a way that was completely unrestricted by the rules, and it was fun to watch as the action spilled over outside of class time as alliances of convenience were forged in the lunchroom.

I don't know if I'll use the same board for next year's summer games camp or hatch something new, but I'll definitely maintain the practice of having a "main event" game that lends context and continuity to the tournament.