Monday, June 30, 2014

One World, Four Systems

In addition to running the Bawal Bayan campaign with my middle school students, reimagined from I1 - Dwellers of the Forbidden City and using Dagger for Kids as a rules system, I also maintain two other long-term role-playing campaigns:

The Homeguard is a Mentzer-era BECMI D&D campaign for my elementary-aged kids and their friends.  Thus far we've explored:

B1 - In Search of the Unknown 
B2 - The Keep on the Borderlands
H1 - Keep on the Shadowfell (adapted from 4th edition)
N2 - The Forest Oracle (more on this one later)
and we are about to embark upon B5 - Horror on the Hill (shh, if you know about the last encounter then don't give it away)

Olde School Wizardry is a campaign for men-with-beards (tangible or metaphysical) using a home-brew rules set and stemming from the question, 
"What if an adventuring party was composed completely of first level magic users?"  Meeting about twice a month, we're now in our third year of play.

Since I have a little more schedule flexibility until summer school starts up, I decided to try something new as a supplement to my regular Olde School Wizardry game.  I wondered: 

"What would happen if I introduced a series of one-shot scenarios, each using a different role-playing rules system, but continue playing in the same game world?"  

The goal is to deepen the campaign world by exploring areas and themes that aren't usually part of the main storyline developed by the action of the players (like TV spin-offs).

Ever since my friend Bob first explained it to me years ago, I've firmly believed that a particular game's mechanics inform the style of play at the table (I think he used Call of Cthulhu and a super heroes game in his example).  For example, Dungeons and Dragons, as I've recently discussed, has at least three separate subsystems for avoiding physical harm!  That suggests that, at its thematic core, D&D is a game about assessing risk and avoiding / enduring danger in order to win a reward, and it will tend to shift play that direction -- not deterministically, but as a sort of prevailing wind that runs through the game.  

Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering articulates the same concept and is well worth the read if you are even remotely interested in game design.

In my case, set in the fantasy world's premier institute of higher learning, Olde School Wizardry is about the cooperative use of very limited abilities to solve (or avoid) thorny problems in creative ways.  The meta-magic mechanics of OSW inform the action at the table by creating a sort of organic crunch that encourages players to propose, hypothesize, and deliberate before taking action, and strongly encourages well-planned cooperation between players.  Some themes we explore include:
  • the irony of organizational inefficiency
  • individual vs corporate responsibility
  • the illogic of prejudice
  • the irrationality of honor in a pragmatic world 
  • colonialization

For our one-shots I'd like to briefly turn the camera to other parts of the world:

The heroic [pseudo-Homeric] classical past using Marvel Super Heroes re-skinned
  • larger than life characters
  • risk-taking and endurance
  • decisive individual action / courage
  • freedom vs predetermination
  • myth-making

The organized crime subculture using Gangbusters re-skinned (crossbows replace tommyguns, but its basically the same)
  • honor and dishonor
  • loyalty and betrayal
  • greed
  • the power of individual initiative

The action of a Norman-invasion/Game of Thrones style medieval political drama using King Arthur Pendragon
  • transcendence through honor
  • honor vs pragmatism
  • the arbitrariness of fate
  • mortality

Chances are that I won't get to all of these this summer, but I'm confident that my Olde School Wizardry campaign world will grow much deeper by exploring these marginal storylines via our one-shots.  I encourage any GMs out there [Heath, I'm looking at you], to consider running a quick scenario in your regular campaign world, but using different characters and a different rules set: maybe a Dark Heresy campaign gets spiced up via some World of Darkness style intrigue between Sanctioned Psychers, or Basic D&D / a free retro-clone gets put to work for a single session to explore a rescue mission in the underhive.  It could be awesome.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What's the (Hit) Point?

Aren't Hit Points, Armor Class, and Saving Throws all measures of the same thing in the mechanics of classic era dungeon exploration games and their contemporary offspring?
image accessed here
Continuing for just a bit on my theme of minimalism (inspired by my upcoming sessions of Dagger for Kids with middle school students), cutting ability scores out of the game left me wondering about what else could (or should) go while still preserving the essence of the game.

When explaining hit points to tabletop newbies (quite a few kids already know the term from console and online gaming) I generally tell students, "It's your health.  It tells you how much damage you can take before your character is killed."  This is right in line with how we played back in the 80s and matches how Tom Moldvay explains things in Basic D&D: "Hit points represent the number of "points" of damage a character or monster can take during battle before dying.  Any creature reduced to 0 hit points (or less) is dead" (Moldvay Pg. B6).

J. Eric Holmes's earlier discussion in his own beginners book is more terse, but covers the same ground. After telling us how to roll for hit points, he explains, "This represents the amount of damage the character can take ... If his hit score falls to zero he is dead." (Holmes Pg.7).

The outlier is the 1979 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (no apostrophe).  In it, Gary Gygax insists that it is "unreasonable" and "preposterous" to interpret the gains in hit points made as a character increases in level merely as an increased ability to sustain physical injury, insisting instead that a proportion of hit points reflect increased skill in combat, sixth sense, sheer luck, and "the fantastic provisions of magical protections."  He manages to express the same idea somewhat more succinctly (and this time without any reference to Grigori Rasputin) in the AD&D Players Handbook.
Okay, fine.  So if we harken to the creator of the game, we accept that only part of a character's hit point total represent "meat", then the remainder are essentially his or her ability to get out of the way of danger.  Got it.  But what about armor class?
Armor class, in role-playing, is inherited from the Chainmail Rules for Medieval Miniatures (1975) and wargaming practice and rules going back into the foggy depths of time.

At the most basic, armor class reflects a unit's (or character's) ability to escape harm, mainly through the use of protective equipment.  Dexterity modifiers to armor class muddle this somewhat, because they are obviously indicating that armor class can also be reflective of a character's ability (or inability) to avoid injury by getting out of the way.

How about saving throws? (You can see where this is going, right?)

Here's a link to more than you probably want to know about the history of saving throws.

Whether you break them down into five categories as in AD&D, or three as in 3rd Edition and Dungeon Crawl Classics, or a single category as in Swords & Wizardry, we see again that saving throws are a measure of a character's ability to evade or, at the worst, endure sources of harm.

Question: So why are there three separate mechanics to tell us if a character escapes harm or not?  

Question:  Within any one of those three sub-systems, what is the purpose (if any) to the level of granularity represented?
Why aren't Dexterity bonuses added to hit points (evasion) vs armor class?

Why are there saves against breath weapons and ghoul-paralysis, but not against falling or the acidic touch of some oozes?

If we accept Gary's conceit that hit points are both physical and metaphysical, would the game change significantly if we just dumped saving throws completely?

How might that work?

  • Death Ray / Poison: drop save or die and let them do 2d6 to 10D6 damage depending on potency
  • Magic Wands: each wand gets assigned its own Hit Dice, rolled whenever a charge is expended in an attack. If the total rolled exceeds the (healthy) total of the victim's hit points then the harm is done, if not then the effect is successfully resisted. E.g. a 3 HD Wand of Illumination allows the wielder to throw 3D6 with each charge and will almost always be able to blind a goblin, but will seldom work on an ogre.
  • Paralysis or Turn to Stone: Roll XD6 when the attack is made, where X = the hit dice of the monster.  As with wands, if the total rolled exceeds the (healthy) hit point total of the victim then the effect takes hold, otherwise it is resisted and no harm is done.
  • Dragon Breath: Save for half damage is gone.  Roll XD6 for damage where X = the hit dice of the monster
  • Rods, Staves, or Spells work as with magic wands. This also allows spells to scale up easily.  A 10th level magic user's Charm Person spell becomes much more fierce than that of a level one newbie.

Could similar changes likewise fold armor class into hit points?  Maybe a suit of plate and mail adds 20 hit points to the wearer or an ablative effect so that the first 10 points of any blow are absorbed.

Could a single-stat game maintain the spirit of classic editions of D&D and other fantasy-genre games sufficiently to preserve the feel of those styles of play without the complexity, or is complexity itself a goal of the game?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pondering Minimalism

What's the very minimum you must have for the game to still be The Game?

Jessica Hilltout traveled around Africa with deflated soccer balls and watched as children managed to find use for them
photos copyright Jessica Hilltout / The Amen Project

I started role-playing in 1981 with Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Rulebook.  It's elegant, simple, flexible and continues to rise in my estimation despite, and admittedly in some cases because of, its unique quirks.  I'm really glad that Daniel Proctor chose to emulate Moldvay's edition of D&D when writing Labyrinth Lord, making that iteration of the rules widely available once more.  When I'm playing with my kids at home, I'll often grab Proctor's book if I need to check a spell range or morale rating.  I was even happier when Drive Thru RPG made pdf scans of Moldvay Basic available for about five bucks!  If you've never read it, or your copy disappeared in a yard sale years ago, then check out Blackwarden's fine blog devoted to his own rereading of that presentation of the rules.

That being said, Dagger for Kids (Jimm Johnson and John Adams), with its simplistic, minimalist approach to role-playing rules, got me to pause and question some of my long-held assumptions.

An actual ball is a luxury for most African children
photos copyright Jessica Hilltout / The Amen Project
Whether I was playing D&D, 2nd edition Gamma WorldStar FrontiersMarvel SuperheroesPendragonGURPS, West End's Star WarsTMNT and Other Strangeness or Robotech by Palladium, ShadowrunCall of Cthulhu, White Wolf's Vampire the Masquerade or Werewolf the Apocalypse, or Earthdawn, we always began with generating ability scores / attributes.  Maybe we rolled for them; maybe we used a point-buy system, but those stats were always the first introduction to the character we were about to play.  They always came with modifiers or certain dice pools and gave us a quick shorthand for what this imaginary life we were about to explore both was and was not.

Dagger for Kids, however, in a quest for bare-bones simplicity, dispenses with attributes altogether.  

No Strength, Dex, 3d6 ... none of it. 

Instead you fast forward to picking a class, rolling hit points, jotting down your AC and saving throw (one) and playing the game.

African children make balls out of bark, rags and other found items
photos copyright Jessica Hilltout / The Amen Project
The weird thing, as you know if you've been following the exploits of my middle schoolers here, is that it works.
Actual game play is a tiny bit faster (dice rolls are unmodified), but the activity, choices, tensions, risks, and excitement at the table aren't markedly different than any other session of D&D I've played over the last 30+ years, including the three or four sessions of third edition that I've GMed, or Gamma World, Earthdawn, or Shadowrun: Bug City for that matter.

I think I prefer stats (they help me visualize the character as well as informing in-game choices via slight modifications to the game mechanics), but they really aren't critical to creating the experience at the table that I associate with role-playing.

photo accessed at
So what is critical to creeping through unexplored dungeons, listening carefully at doors, evading traps, solving riddles, outsmarting monsters and trying to survive long enough to haul the loot back to the surface world and the fields men know?  How minimalist can you become before losing the spirit of the game?  Or, put other-way-around, what is essential to creating that very basic, tactical-but-invested, high-tension, high-engagement style of imaginative recreation?
Jessica Hilltout

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Little Progress

Just a quick post today to share some progress on the (cheap!) miniatures I'm preparing for my middle school Summer Enrichment class.

I've primed the "elven" archers and started on faces (the tricky bit) but didn't have any flesh-colored paint left.  Turns out that my gray-brown butternut with a dab of white and a dab of yellow made for a serviceable skin tone.  I'm a big fan of blacklining as it covers for a shaky hand and is a shortcut I prefer over mixing several different shades of the same color.  The result is not nearly as beautiful as the careful gradation that some painters labor to produce, but is workable (and a heck of a lot faster).

Here are those spearmen from last post that I've converted into wizards.  The plastic was surprisingly durable and I had to do a fair amount of hacking with snips to get the shield-arm off.  Poses are a bit odd, but I'm pretty certain that nobody will have any trouble recognizing these fellows as wizards.  I'll go with some color highlights on belts and maybe tunics or staves, but the predominant color on these chaps will remain black since in two of my three current role-playing campaigns wizards are recognized by their distinctive black cloaks (as much as for anything in the hat department).

I likely won't get another crack at painting until Sunday.  Class starts July 14 and I'll have to remain fairly focused if I want to reach my goal of getting at least 36 minis ready by then.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chop Them Off At The Knees!

I'm starting to put together some materials (on the cheap) for my two four-day Summer Adventure Games Camps with middle school students.

I want models that reflect the four basic character class in Dagger for Kids: knights, elves, dwarves, and wizards.  Starting with my bag o' 36 inexpensive knights, making a dwarf-mod was easy.  All I had to do was chop them off at the knees (and then re-glue onto the bases).

The archers in the pack have me covered on elves (the only default missile troops) who are conveniently already dressed in mail armor, but wizards are going to be a bit of a problem.  I grabbed some spearmen and started with hats!  Next step was to chop down those shield arms and then mount a simple cloak.  I plan to take some more shots once I've got them primed.

In an earlier post I mentioned the idea of fighting a naval action in the hallways and commons of the high school that will be hosting our summer camps using some cheap model ships.  I found these ships online (after a bit of hunting) for around eight bucks a piece!  They are about seven inches bow to stern.  I'm thinking maybe we should use jumbo marshmallows for cannon fire.

I'll try to post some more shots as I make progress.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To Mini ... Or Not to Mini?

Are miniatures a crutch that impedes the growth of a vivid imagination, or a tool that helps kids (who are used to their entertainment and games having potent, interactive visual components) access an otherwise esoteric medium?

When I started role-playing in 1981 we didn't use miniatures, but this illustration from the Tom Moldvay Basic D&D boxed set always itched at the edge of my brain:
Nothing in the picture, and little in the text, really suggested what one was supposed to do with the miniatures ... but they were clearly part of the cool, exotic paraphernalia that marked D&D as fundamentally different from any other leisure activity that we'd ever encountered.

By 1984 I had started GMing games for the kids in the nearby subdivision ... something that I'd continue for about the next decade ... and along with more books and rules (starting with Monster Manual of course) I began acquiring a few lead miniatures from Heritage's Dungeon Dwellers line.

David Campbell has a keen site here that lists much of the line
Honestly, some of those old sculpts were laughable by modern standards -- you couldn't always tell what any given model was ... my paint job did nothing to enhance this ... and being made of soft lead, sometimes simply falling over on the table was enough to break bits off.  Even then, I didn't actually use the miniatures while role-playing.  Instead they remained display pieces.  We tracked marching order and sketched out tactical combat maps (when that was even necessary) the same way we always had ... on notebook or graph paper.

Miniatures looked massively cool, especially in my mind-blowing first issues of Dragon Magazine, the main obstacles to their actual utility at the table were twofold:

1. "That doesn't look like my character." The poorly painted lead blobs just didn't capture the broody-cool heroics of Alain Blademaster, Nameor the Sorcerer, Bluewater, Utusi, Zolan, or Blam!

2. "You are attacked by big, orange, hairy goblins," ... "Those are just bugbears." ... "Okay, you are attacked by a bunch of bugbears.  It looks like, maybe twenty or so, and they have crossbows.  Roll for initiative."
Where, on lawnmower money, was a guy supposed to get 20 bugbear models (let alone with crossbows)?  What about the 30 gnolls for the next encounter?  On the other hand, if the miniatures were intended to merely serve as examples of the creatures encountered, well David Trampier's illustrations could communicate the threat much better than my inch-tall paint-coated blob.
Tramp bugbear puts the smackdown on Fabio the fighter-boy, from Monster Manual of course!
When playing D&D with my own kids, however, miniatures (and dungeon tiles) have always helped them and their friends (mostly in the single-digit age bracket) pay attention to the game.

As I ponder returning to my Bawal Bayan campaign this summer, I've decided to try and use miniatures to represent player characters with the goal of letting each student take their mini home at the end of class (along with a d20 and a copy of the Dagger for Kids rules).  The goal won't be play utility as much as a token reminder of the game ... and perhaps an invitation to pick the hobby back up someday.

Even if I went for the new, cheaper generation of polymer minis (see Bones by Reaper Miniatures), I'd easily exceed my class budget trying to buy enough for the kids to walk away with some kewlness.  Instead, I'm going to try and go cheap with these:

Thirty-six plastic knights, sculpted in reasonable detail, for about seven bucks!  You can find them here if you want to build an army on the cheap.  I'm going to try my hand at painting these and will post the results.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Return to the Forbidden City!

My school district has some pretty amazing and committed people working in it and, thanks to their willingness to do more for kids, we'll be offering several optional Summer Enrichment Camps for students this July.  The course catalog includes classes on animation, dissection, cake decoration and ... you guessed it ... Adventure Games!

That's right, yours truly will be introducing groups of 12 to 20 sixth through eighth graders to some basics in (non electronic) games.

Right now I'm planning to teach them how to play the following:

  • Smallworld
  • Settlers of Catan
  • Castle Panic
  • Robo Rally
  • Carcassonne

  • Risk
  • The Adventurers: Pyramid of Horus
  • Cadwallon: City of Thieves
  • Red November
  • Wiz-War
  • Citadels (Fantasy Flight cardgame)

... and of course this creates another opportunity to introduce teens to tabletop role-playing.  I plan once more to wield Dagger for Kids, chiefly because of its accessibility, but also because I can afford to send kids home with their own copy of the rules at the end of class along with their very first d20 and maybe a cheap mini or two.
I'll likely use Bawal Bayan and the nearby seas and islands as my default mini-sandbox setting, and hope to have at least a few kids running adventures for each other by the end of the program.

I'm again going with a high fantasy pseudo-Renaissance-European-colonials-explore-darkest-Hepmonaland theme and will use it to create continuity through the various games we play (though some will have to be re-skinned of course).

I've ordered a half-dozen cheap model ships and plan to have a bit of naval action take place in the cafeteria (Plukish pirate / slavers vs the Bhatvian Overmarshal's fleet perhaps?).  I'm thinking three kids per ship: captain gives orders, helmsmen moves the ship, lieutenant fires the guns (thrown marshmallows?).

Are there any games conspicuous because of their absence from my list?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Seizing the Initiative (or Not)

In Dagger for Kids by Brave Halfling Publishing, a rules lite game designed to help introduce the fine art of tabletop role-playing to young people, we adopted a funny little initiative rule that I probably never would have considered otherwise, entrenched as I am in my Moldvay Basic / AD&D mash-up way of thinking:

When there is a combat in Dagger, the player characters always go first.

Obviously the intent of this rule is to reduce complexity for young players ... die rolls are mainly about answering the questions "Did I hit it?" and "Did I kill it?" ... but how would stripping out party initiative, individual initiative, or weapon speed factors (heh) impact actual game play?
Won't the players take advantage of the knowledge that, "we always go first" to unfair tactical advantage?

Turns out, not-so-much.  

Consider the actual results of our gameplay: By the end of the third session, out of 23 starting characters, only six remained alive.  This wasn't due so much to hideous tactical blunders (though there were several), or a sadistic "killer dungeon" (there were never more than five attacks per round directed their way, and that from a bunch of 4 hp tasloi), but rather from the mere fact that an AC of 14 and 5 hit points in an environment where are dice rolls aren't fudged won't get you too far unless you quickly learn to mitigate your risks.

In practice, at our table, the "player characters go first" rule was also mitigated by common sense of course.  If monsters have set an ambush and searching fails to reveal them, then naturally the critters will get the first attack.  Certain monsters (like the camouflage, jack-in-the-box that is the giant caddisfly larva) may have first attack as a special ability if anyone blunders too near its protective case.

copyright © 2013, Stephen Belcher Photography Ltd
By the time we had played six or seven sessions, especially when considering the focus of the action, the involvement of the players, and the outcomes of encounters, things at the table were basically indistinguishable from any other session of D&D I've played, Moldvay 81 through 3rd edition.  I'd found that setting aside all the (perfectly reasonable) complexity of Dexterity modifiers and surprise rounds and letting player characters go first as a default doesn't really make that much of a difference and speeds game play considerably.  

I'm thinking that this may become my new default ... at least when gaming with younger players.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Missing Stuff is Boring (and other deep thoughts)

When I was playing Dagger for Kids with my middle school class, during the second session, I noticed that in combats lasting more than three rounds player interest tended to wane, particularly if a player missed with two consecutive attack rolls.
I think this may be a side effect of console game play.  In a fine game like Starcraft your units would do a lot of damage, or a little, but at least in terms of the visual display the bullets, acid spray, laser fire or what have you, one always "hit".  The variables were range, attack speed, and "how much damage did my unit hit for?"

How very different from playing tag with the mail-clad minotaur in the Caves of Chaos, where the trick was trying to endure his onslaught for enough turns to land some solid blows.  Maybe we just had a lot more free time back then?  Or perhaps just fewer choices when it came to interactive entertainment.

Erol Otus of course
While I don't think I'll ever be ready to go the way of 4th edition D&D, where I understand that even some "misses" in melee still inflict hit points of damage, this experience with my students caused me to rethink my approach a bit.

By session four with my Bawal Bayan campaign, I began lowering monster armor classes (we used ascending AC).  I found that, in order to sustain student engagement while maintaining the challenge, I was far better off tossing a few more enemies at the kids or giving a big bad an extra die or two of hitpoints while nerfing enemy armor class somewhat so that the students had the sense of accomplishment and progress that came with a well-narrated hit.  Did they still miss stuff?  Sure, but now only about 50-60% of attacks would whiff and, if pacing allowed, I was conscious about trying to narrate parries and glancing blows with whatever skill I could muster.

I'm sure that this is a lesson I'll carry forward as I game with young people -- expectations about entertainment have changed over time and if I hope to win any new fans over to this goofy, niche hobby of ours I'd better be able to move with the times a bit. 

File:Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle 1871.jpg

Friday, June 20, 2014

Answer Me These Questions Three ...

On our last day together I tossed my middle school students a few questions about this "new" tabletop role-playing thing I'd introduced them to.
There are some who call me accessed here
1. "What are some real world lessons that Dagger for Kids can help you learn?"

"I learned that teamwork makes things easier.  Working alone can be done, but when you have people to help you with things it can be accomplished way faster and it will be easier."

"work together"

"aiding others"

"think things through"


"there's strength in numbers"

"critical thinking and planning"

"have more imagination"

"never give up!"

"This was my first time playing the game and I thought it was really fun and the people I played with were funny and helped me sometimes, but I helped them too."

"The key is to be careful and plan your moves."

"Make sure your partners are up to the challenge to help you.  Your partners should always be there no matter what."

"The game taught communication, teamwork, paying attention, and thinking about what you do, because there could be consequences."

public domain with props to

2. "Do you think you'd ever play Dagger for Kids outside of school?"

"I probably wouldn't play out of school because out of school there is more to do, but in school I enjoyed it."

"I don't think I could find people or time."

"Probably not ... most people don't know what it is.  I'd want to though."

"Maybe.  It was interesting to play."

"No, because I'm definitely gonna forget."

"Probably not.  It just feels a little complicated and confusing."

"Maybe.  I have plenty of other stuff to do."

"Probably not.  Not many may be willing to play it."

"Yes, because it's real fun."

"No, because I found it boring."

"Yes, because this game is really fun and suspenseful."

"No, because there are better things to do outside of school, but in school I would play it."

"I probably won't play it outside of school because I don't have anyone who would want to play it."

"I would play outside of school because it's fun & challenging."

"No, because I'm no good with making up things like that."

"Yes, it's an interesting game."

pic from anime vice

3. "Are there any messages you'd like to pass along to the game's designer?"

"This game is fun."

"Good job."

"I think it is a good game already and doesn't need improvements."

"I really like this game & I enjoy playing it."

"It's a really cool game.  I really like it."

"It would be cool if there were more characters to choose from, but I think it's a good game."

"Fun, and lots of it."

"Great game ... it would be better with more character choices."

"Put a dragon in the game (good dragon, not evil) and add some cursed treasure."

"The game is great.  It should become series of video games."

So, taken as a whole, my students really liked tabletop role-playing (the monsters, social aspect, encounter lethality, unique art, and kinesthetic aspect of the dice were all BIG hits) but I doubt that out of 27-odd kids that more than a few will ever go looking to play again.  Maybe they'll run into some gamers in high school or stumble across a game at college and feel confident enough to ask if they can join in.  By and large, however, it's a pretty esoteric activity and, despite the best efforts of Wizards of the Coast, Paizo Publishing, and the smaller guys, one that isn't really that accessible without a welcoming community and individual mentorship (especially compared to the ease of entry offered by online and console gaming).  If the goal of this venture was to groom a new generation of tabletop gamers, then I'd have to say the experiment wasn't that successful ... maybe a few will go on to develop a passion for gaming ... but if the goal was to introduce kids to something new and engaging during their school year then it was certainly a success.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

March of the Bullywugs

I fear we're on the very cusp of batrachian domination. Soon now our amphibian overlords will rise to reassert the millennia-old natural order and put an end to our brief mammalian uprising!

My evidence? My yard and the surrounding woods are teeming with frogs ... tiny, tiny little brown frogs in point of fact (spring peepers). At any given moment, if I pause, I can see four or five moving about ... in some patches of yard upwards of fifteen at a glance. My morning run with the dog has taken a comic turn as I jink and dodge in an effort to avoid treading on any of our tiny overlords.

File:Spring peeper (SC woodlot).jpg
photo by Fungus Guy
I have a soft spot for frogs and toads (along with rabbits, snails, moths and tortoises ... really anything God has seen fit to grant even less of an ability to protect itself than I have) and it's amazing how these little guys (each about the size of a pencil eraser) have made it all the way to my yard. The nearest water is about 400 yards away, downhill through the woods. They must have been picked off by the hundred by birds, bugs, snakes, bigger frogs, cars, and temperatures in the 90s. They remind me a bit of explorers of Bawal Bayan.

I don't know about you, but I was totally stoked when, as a kid, I finally mowed enough grass to get my copy of Monster Manual II
photo accessed here
Thumbing through, my first impression as a TSR fanboy was that we were back on track after the weird, eclectic, Euro-departure that was Fiend Folio (in more recent years I've warmed to Russ Nicholson's unsettling art and Fiend Folio remains one of my favorite old school hardcovers). After first impressions began to fade, however, my enthusiasm for Monster Manual II began to subside somewhat. 

"Oh look, more dinosaurs ... I'll never use those ... go T-Rex or don't bother. All the entries are illustrated by TSR workhorse Jim Holloway ... he's great, but where's the variety?  And what's this? A grippli? ... Because if there's one thing D&D desperately needs it's another frog-themed humanoid race ..."

Let's see ... for frog-based monsters we already had:

Bullywugs (D&D cartoon for the win!)
Slaad (carefully color-coded creatures of ... ultimate ... chaos?)
Giant, killer frogs
Blindheim (why?  Just ... why?)
Froghemoth (which was admittedly pretty gonzo-cool)

... Yeah, anyway, the grippli always left me cold (just don't tell our overlords).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Forbidden City: Postmortem (part III)

The final stage of launching a handful of newbie GMs to spread love, loot, and carnage throughout my middle school class was by far the hardest: I had to get out of their way.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, outside circumstances helped me with this, but it was still tricky to sit and wonder if the wheels were going to come off at any moment.  I really do love this odd-ball hobby and I was keen to see other people give it a shot.

It's a quixotic dream of course ... much of what made tabletop role-playing so magical was not the strangeness of Erol Otus's art, the simple clarity of Tom Moldvay's prose, or even the evocative power of David Trampier's Monster Manual work ... those were all great of course ...

... but no, it was the fact that D&D came like a bolt out of the clear blue sky to invade a world where we had only four and a half TV stations, where Fantasy was not really its own genre yet (but just an awkward subset of Science Fiction), and where fantasy artwork was largely limited to Prince Valiant strips that ran in the comics section of the Sunday paper.  
pic from
In the post Avatar, post World of Warcraft world inhabited by my students, tabletop just isn't going to go off like an atom bomb as it did for me.  Still, it can have an impact and maybe even work a little old school magic.

Without being present at their tables, I was largely dependent on the written feedback of my neophyte GMs to know how things were progressing.  Here's some of what they had to say:

"I think having a map on the folder and then sketching a map [for the players] was a good idea because the players didn't get to see what was actually going on in the map."

"The tool I used most was the information card telling the stats of each monster."

"As GM I got to make it up as the game went on."

"The hardest part was getting everyone to stay focused and not have side conversations."

"The most important tool for running the game was the map.  The most important skills for running Dagger are being able to do mental math and being creative."

"I was nervous about [whether] they wouldn't be paying attention since I am not a teacher."

"The monster stats helped a lot.  I used that card all the time."

"I had more fun as I GMed, because I was able to create the game ... the game went faster than I expected."

"The game taught communication, teamwork, paying attention, and thinking about what you do, because there could be consequences."

"The best part was watching when someone died and everyone freaks out."

These comments, and the fact that utter chaos didn't swallow my classroom, provided assurance that my methods were having at least some of the impact I was hoping for.
accessed here ... now you must get the tattoo