Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Forbidden City (with teens): Session VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you want to split up?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Ugly things."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go attack it!"

"I run."

"I run too."

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

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

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

"Go and try to save her."

"I don't have any spells left."

"She's dead."

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

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

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

"You can just fight with your staff."

"Yeah, but it might break."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I just keep paddling forward."


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

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

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

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

"Can I find a tunnel or something?"

"I'm going to cast a spell."

"Okay, which one?" [hint]

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

"Sleep, Cure Light Wounds, and Light."

"Wait, what does Sleep do?"

A quick flurry of reading follows.

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

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

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