Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Year on the Isle of Dread

Each Tuesday this past school year, while I ran Dwimmermount (using D&D 5th ed. rules), my older daughter led a table of classmates through an exploration of The Isle of Dread.

Over 35 years of D&D, I’ve run more groups through this timeworn, old classic than any other published module except Keep on the Borderlands and The Forest Oracle, so I know the content well and enjoyed talking to her before each session and listening to her post-session debriefs.

What surprised me over the last 10 months (and 32 sessions) was how easily The Isle of Dread expands, lending itself to new adventures.  Sure you've quested after the legendary black pearl, encountered dinosaurs, befriended cat people, raided the pirates' hideout, and explored the lost temple, but did you know about these adventures:
  • "The Night Beast" begins to plague the isolated village of Mantru and the residents are afraid to venture far beyond their stockade.  It's up to the explorers to track the creature down and perhaps discover what its morlock masters really intend.
  • Black Tom Mudeye's treasure map (lifted from the One Page Dungeon contest) was recovered from a pirate's chest after the explorers crossed swords with him.  It leads past a variety of strange and dangerous locales to a hidden hoard.
  • It turns out that Cannibal Island (one of the locations on Black Tom's map) is actually inhabited by a tribe of tropical, pacifist halflings (inspired by the Pygmies from Smallworld: Be Not Afraid).  But when slave raiders begin taking the little people captive, the explorers step in.  Little do they imagine that the pyramid temple of  King Fingonata that dominates the isle is actually the dorsal spike of a slumbering shark-scorpion-squid-colossus, and when Fingonata smells blood, he begins to wake!
  • Sea zombies, revenants from Black Tom's old crew, begin to unerringly stalk the explorers--they can't rest until the pirate gold is theirs again!
  • Once the cannibal cultists of the original adventure's Taboo Island are routed, the cthonic cobra-people they once held in check begin slithering to the surface
  • When the explorers opt not to try and bring a dino back alive, a rival party makes its own bungling attempts, stealing a T-rex egg.  The angry momma will pop up over the next 10 episodes at the worst possible times!
  • Zoinks!  The party's magic-user has gotten sick with some exotic disease that's beginning to turn her into a troglodyte! (this also explains where all the trogs on the north end of the island came from--they are survivors of shipwrecks marooned on The Isle of Dread)  Chief Atlanta of Tanaroa knows that the seed pod of the watuchi vine can cure the suffering spellcaster, but those only grow on Hippogriff Isle to the west.  How will the explorers bypass the ancient, overgrown stone golems guarding that island from all intrusion and climb to the heights where the watuchi flower and grow?
  • Escorting missionaries and supplies to Mantru, the explorers probably should have been a lot more careful with that box of potions ... but when they dropped it, the potions mixed and now the party has been shrunk to the size of ants!  They must scavenge and improvise what gear they can before searching out the camel-cricket sage who can tell them how to break the spell ... but what price will she demand?
  • The cat-people of the southern plains have always been territorial, but now they've shifted their hunting grounds south to the Great Wall at Tanaroa and they've begun treating expeditions into the interior as trespassers.  Why and what's to be done about it (hint: spider-dudes)?
  • Through a speak with animals spell, the great roc of the eastern cliffs explains that its nesting site has been raided by nocturnal creatures who are unusually adept at hiding among the crags.  Will the explorers help?
  • The Bone-Giver neanderthal tribe is friendly, but ravaging hydras have kept them pinned in their caves.  Will the explorers honor the old alliance and come to the rescue?
  • What?  Those kopru were just lackadaisical sentries ... it turns out that there is an entire empire of the beasties slumbering dormant in a vast, subterranean city below the island.
  • Warriors serving The Sea King, a four-armed sea-devil of immense size, have captured a mermaid princess and her finmaids.  Using magic to breathe in the deeps, the characters strike out across the ocean floor to rescue her in this adaptation of Citadel of Evil.
  • Furious at having his watery fane defiled, The Sea King assembles a sea-devil army and strikes out for Tanaroa, intent on exterminating the landlings once and for all.  The explorers must work with Chief Atlanta to organize a defense before the enemy army wades out of the deeps!

It's nuts how easily The Isle of Dread just kept triggering new adventure hooks.
My daughter will likely run something in a different location starting in September (there's been talk of sketching her own megadungeon), but I'm confident that if she wanted to return to the Isle for another 30 sessions that there would be plenty of adventure waiting. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Racing Goats of the Cramanthain!

This week I wrapped up my annual, two week Adventure Games Camp, hosted by my district at a local high school.  Some highlights:
  • 28 middle school students joined in the fun (some attending both sessions and a number of them coming back from prior years)
  • We gamed from 8:15-2:45 each day, breaking only for a quick 30 min lunch
  • We offered about 30 different board, card, and role-playing games and just about everybody learned something completely new
  • 4 program alumni (high school and college students) took time out of their summer to come back and help teach games
  • eight separate ventures into Dwimmermount were attempted ... much was learned, but only a handful of characters lived to tell their tales
  • Despite the launch of Pokemon-Go we still managed to keep kids engaged with the games and with each other
  • the tournament was capped off by The Great Goat Race -- each team, representing one of the competing highland Cramanthain clans (Murtog, Magai, Meblung, etc.), selected their courser

These beauties have been fitted with their clan caparisons (which would be in tartan if I had the time to do it properly) and are ready for the truck ride to the big race!

The actual race was a physical / dexterity game in which we laid out a course (a circuit of about 250-300 feet).  The steps were simple:

  • team member 1 stands behind her/his goat and throws the Frisbee/disc
  • team member 2 stands behind her/his goat and throws the beanbag in an effort to land it atop their disc
  • team member 3 moves the goat as follows: 
1. miss/hit another goat or player = no movement
2. bag made contact with own disc = 1 stride forward
3. bag hit and remains on another team's disc = 2 strides
3. bag hit and remains in contact with own disc = advance goat to touch own disc

Ah ... but the strategy and sneakiness involved!  If I throw my bag to knock the disc away from other bags then I can potentially cancel another team's advance.  Likewise, sometimes it pays to toss my bag backward at a closer opponent's disc and try for two strides rather than chance a longer toss at my own disc.  Add to that the basic trade-off of whether to risk a long throw with the disc (and a possible miss, meaning a turn spent at a standstill) or a wimpy, little throw that you are virtually guaranteed to make but which only moves you a short distance forward, and quite a lot of strategy is involved.

So ... a really busy but exhilarating couple of weeks.

My biggest "ah-ha" for this year was about how well station teaching can work with middle schoolers given the right conditions.  For me, the right conditions included:

  • students who were already interested in the topic at hand
  • a crack team of leader-facilitators to monitor and assist at each station
  • small class size (16 vs 28)
  • freedom to move at the students' pace rather than the pace dictated by a curriculum guide

I wonder if I'll be able to apply that success back in the general educational setting absent those advantages.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Echoes of Dwimmermount

Tuesday afternoon I got to run a session of Olde School Wizardry as part of our Strategy Games Summer Camp.  
I explained to the players that their four neophyte wizards were members of a research team (employed by the Estates Arcanum) sent through a magical portal to explore an ancient fortress called "Dwimmermount."  It was hoped that the characters might gather information about the wizard "Turms Termax" and his pursuit of immortality, rumors of which had spread across worlds.

The catch: Dwimmermount lay in another world, and while Divination revealed that the spellcasters' own magic would still function, the fundamental principles of native Tellurian magic were different and unknown.

I had the characters enter on level four and begin their exploration near the shrine of Saint Tennen and the mysterious blue curtain.

Over the next couple hours the young wizards explored a half-dozen rooms, often splitting up and constantly casting spells as they went until they began to lose hit points and experience side effects from "spellburn."  Here are a few highlights:

  • they Created a magic ladder of braided paper to help them investigate a glowing orb mounted in the ceiling
  • When assailed by an animated, iron statue they managed to temporarily Transmute the iron into a flock of goats (one of whom was promptly named "Gerald")
  • successful negotiation led to an alliance with a trio of strange little men whom the group dubbed "gnomes"
  • realizing that they had neglected to bring candles, a small cloud was magically Created and then Enchanted to glow ... moving the cloud with the party remained a problem however
  • a decision to stop and rest without posting a watch led to a character having both his feet dissolved to mid-shin by an ooze
  • aggressive overcasting and poor luck on a side effects roll left one character turned to stone until such a time as she should strike the focus of her latest spell (a nearby block of wood)
... basically it fit with all the mad cap action I've come to expect from both middle schoolers and the open-ended magic system of Olde School Wizardry.

I had anticipated a bit of work on the fly to convert Labyrinth Lord to Olde School Wizardry, but there was almost no combat and none of the four PCs ever attempted a melee attack (not that they carried weapons anyway), meaning that across two hours of play I never really had to address the differences in systems.

If the wizards *had* tried to focus on hand to hand combat for some reason, I would have had to eyeball each monster's AC and decide whether points should be attributed to evasion or armor (armor is ablative in Olde School Wizardry, reducing damage dealt).  I left monster hit points and damage dice alone.  This would mean that B/X D&D goblins and similar low hit dice creatures would be slightly more fragile than their Olde School Wizardry counterparts (not a big issue).  

The only really jarring difference would come when we compared NPC men-at-arms across systems.  A standard fighter in Olde School Wizardry uses his CON stat for hit points and deals 2d6 with a melee weapon, making him roughly the equivalent of a 3rd level fighter in Labyrinth Lord, so had the party left the mountain and decided to tangle with the watchmen of Muntburg, for instance, I would have had to promote the lowest level guards by a couple levels (higher level NPCs would remain unchanged).

It was a successful little outing in any case and has left me pondering whether I want to use Olde School Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord when my weekly after school club returns to Dwimmermount in the fall.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Heap o' Games

Summer Games Camp got underway today!

Here's part of the heap o' games that my students will be choosing from over the next couple weeks (around 27 in all) ... today saw kids learning Small World, Shadows Over Camelot, D&D, Descent, Catan, RoboRally, Citadels, Aye Dark Overlord, Castle Panic, and probably a couple I've forgotten.

We're off to a good start.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Summer Games Camp: Big Map

This week I whipped up a campaign map for our two week summer games camp.  In prior years we've focused the action on the many continental wars between Walvia and Bhatvia or seen rival fleets sail south to dare pirates, storms, and sea monsters along the Blood Coast (where Bawal Bayan lies hidden in the jungle), but this years we'll focus on the far north of the campaign world and remote, rocky highlands of the Cramanthain clanfolk.

Here's the map with an actual
middle schooler for scale!
There, rival clan chiefs will vie with each other to attain the wealth and glory they need to unify their fractious people and throw off the yoke of foreign "Flatlander" nations. 

Victory here will determine which team ultimately wins the tournament for that week but, as in prior years, participation and success in the many "satellite" board, card, and role playing games can earn each team glory or wealth (measured in goats ... the standard currency of the Cramanthain) which they can bring back to the main campaign map to help them raise warbands or influence villages there.

As always, events during the summer camps will directly impact the campaign setting that hosts my long-running Olde School Wizardry RPG ... choices made by the middle schoolers here can change alliances, sweep away or introduce important NPCs, or shift national boundaries.

I have to keep careful records to account for it all, but in the end it gives the campaign setting a vibrant, "living" quality where things interact in ways I couldn't have anticipated and provides a world of greater verisimilitude for my players.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Marshaling the Troops

Monday marks the start of my two-week summer games camp.  It works a bit like a class and a bit like a games convention where there are always 4-5 games running at any given time and students pick where to play to earn points for their team.

My older kid will join me for the first half to run some D&D before heading off on a church mission trip (something you probably won't find in that Jack Chick tract from the 80s).

Since most students don't have any experience playing table-top RPGs, we aim to keep things as simple and intuitive as possible, borrowing from Holmes Basic for some things (e.g. standard hit dice & weapon damage), Mentzer Basic as the core game, and a few elements from later editions (ascending AC and the concept of advantage/disadvantage).

Miniatures help many young players bridge the gap a bit too, so this year I'll set them up with some inexpensive plastic knights based on 1.5" wooden disks for stability.
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No fancy paint jobs ... but then again these minis will probably get knocked around a good bit too.  Chess pieces will stand in for various monsters and mapping will take place on a 3' x 2.5' pad.  

We're looking forward to it and I'll probably post more about this year's events after the dust settles.