Friday, July 18, 2014

20 Hours of Dagger

This week, in Adventure Games Camp, I GMed over 20 hours of Dagger for Kids, running groups of four to six middle schoolers (each complete novices to tabletop RPGs) in  eight separate sessions.

Even as a veteran Game Master, this was a great workout for my skills and here are some basics tools and practices that I found to be critical in order to make it work smoothly:

  • Players pick a miniature to represent their character before taking any other steps.  
This immediately accomplished at least three things: 

  1. as kids looked over the selection of models it communicated the swords-and-sorcery genre of the game without the need for any exposition; 
  2. it allowed us to immediately identify which of the four character class templates that student would be playing [knight, elf, dwarf, or wizard]; 
  3. Toysmith Guardian Knights Action Figure, 36-Piece
    Thirty-six 48mm minis for about $6
    on amazon
  4. it engaged the kids creatively in thinking about the capabilities and potential adventures of their chosen explorer while simultaneously creating psychological distance from the in-game character.

  • Use pre-generated, pre-printed, rules-lite character sheets.  
Dagger for Kids is so free of crunch that each character essentially has only three stats: Armor Class, Hit Points, and Saving Throw.  Each of these stats, along with starting equipment, was predetermined (and pre-printed) based the character class each student chose.  What we lost in customization, we more than made up for in actual game play.  We were up and running in about four minutes.

  • Include a section for character portrait or symbol on each character sheet, but don't require its use.  
Some kids eagerly dove into using this space, others doodled in it during play, and still others never touched it.  This little feature helped some students remain focused, helped others get excited and better visualize their characters, and helped me sort 16 character sheets more rapidly.

  • Spend minimal time on the rules before beginning play.  
I mean minimal.  In fact, my introduction to the rules went something like this, "Your Armor Class is how difficult it is to hit your character hard enough to hurt him.  Your Hit Points are your life or health.  When they are all gone your character may die." Done.  I' saved other things, like saving throws, listening, and opening stuck doors for when those situations arose during play.  I didn't explain that high rolls on a d20 are better than low rolls, they just seemed to get it intuitively.

  • Use a broad theme and an engaging graphic to create setting.  
"You guys are explorers who have cut your way through the jungle to Bawal Bayan, The Forbidden City.  Situated down in crater are the ruins of an ancient, lost city.  There is an incredible amount of treasure hidden down there somewhere, but it is also incredibly dangerous because of traps and the strange creatures that haunt the ruins.  Your goal is to find a way down into the city, find as much treasure as you can, and return to The Stockade, your basecamp.  Only treasure that you bring back to the basecamp counts."  

While giving this bit of exposition (four times in two days!) I would lay out the Bawal Bayan poster map in front of the players for them to study.  The rim's-edge, isometric view of the adventure area (an idea I totally cribbed from I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City) basically allowed the players to preview the "dungeon" and start making choices right away.  

Since I started using this map back in the spring, I've kicked myself for all those years in which I held back on the visual information, insisting that players discover things as they go.  What was the best part of playing Ravenloft when we were kids?  The isometric map by David C. Sutherland III of course!  

Castle Ravenloft from the classic 1983 AD&D module
The shame was that the DM got to keep that crazy map largely to himself.  If I got to do it over again, I'd find some way to justify in-game (however hackneyed) of putting that map directly in the hands of the players.  What could be more engaging?!

  • Deal with starting equipment and encumbrance by using an intuitive, minimalist approach.
Each character sheet had six blanks for equipment.  Most of these were pre-filled based on character class (e.g. "plate armor, shield, sword, torch" for a knight).  Kids could fill empty blanks with anything they might reasonably get from The Stockade.

  • Start the action with a meaningful in-character choice.
"Last year, before the monsoon rains began, several groups were able to get in and out of the crater through The Black Canyon.  It was very dangerous and was defended by monsters.  There's The Fool's Stair, a steep slope that you could try to descend, but there are frequent avalanches there.  Or you could try to climb down The Century Tree.  Nobody has done it yet, but it might be possible.  Finally, some people have said that there is a secret way down behind The Waterfall, but that may just be a rumor.  Which way do you want to try?"  
This got the kids working as a team and making meaningful decisions right away.

  • Use dice to represent options, track voting and to break tie votes.
It is surprisingly difficult for middle school students to arrive at consensus.  

An illustration: Finding themselves in a fun-house dungeon under The Sphynx, Student Ernie [not his actual name], argued loudly and passionately that the group should once more activate the rotating room (inspired in no small part by the now defunct Time Shaft from Kings Dominion) to reveal a new passageway and press on to explore farther instead of returning to the surface.  When the team finally consented to this course, and the spinning room revealed an empty tunnel with a right-hand turn at the end, Ernie immediately (and loudly) began advocating a return to the surface.

Rockin out in Kings Domion's Timeshaft c.1979 !!

Given how firmly their opinions are held and how fast they change (often switching sides two or more times mid-argument), middle school kids sometimes lose track of what the options being discussed actually are.  I found that, after letting them go for a few minutes, restating each broad position while placing a die on the table to represent that choice somehow helped them reach decisions more readily.  
"Who wants to go left?" [placing a die on the table and turning it to show the number of votes for that choice].  
"Who wants to go right?" [same process with a second die].

  • Encourage the players to avoid splitting the party.
Just break the scene and go metagame, explaining that there will be longer wait times as you GM the other half of the group.  Add mention of the fact that the setting is really challenging and that one or two characters on their own stand little chance of survival.  If they still insist, let them go.  Don't stack the deck against them, but pull no punches.  If they wander into the middle of the Bullywug territory and you know the tribe has about 60 members, go ahead and roll that d20 to see how many the lone character stumbles upon.
sweet Bullywug pic from TSR's Fiend Folio
  • Forbid player-vs-player combat.
Generally speaking, middle schoolers take everything personally.  Any inconvenience may be taken as a personal affront, and any rule may be interpreted as a commentary on their moral character and judgement!  With that being said, the kind of degenerative grudges that can quickly develop when there is in-character fighting within a group have no place in a classroom.  I just break scene, put on my dictator hat, and say, "No.  You can't fight another player character in-game."

  • Throw them a basic (but avoidable) combat encounter early on.
Whether a carnivorous ape, a giant ant, or a crocodile, some type of critter (usually a lone specimen) needs to appear in the first ten minutes of play to help establish the tone, provide an opportunity for a small victory, and give the group practice making high-stakes choices early on.  With a high lethality, Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired setting, all combat encounters should be preceded by at least one sign that a potentially deadly confrontation is about to take place.  If the characters run, they escape unharmed.  If they hesitate or weigh the risks and decide on confrontation then let the dice fall where they may.

  • Print rules for searching and listening directly on the character sheet.
Go ahead and put any frequently used subsystems right on the character sheet.  Little touches like that really smooth out the play experience and protect immersion.

  • Be blunt about the fact that undue delays or more than two or three search checks in the same area will introduce the possibility of a wandering monster.
It's okay to get a bit meta-game to reinforce the idea that this is an adventure game.  By role-playing we are helping young people practice exercising reasonable caution balanced with calculated risk ... the kind of thinking that they will need when they start driving for instance.

  • Be liberal and flexible with spell effects, rewarding almost any innovation.

"Can I set fire to the bushes with my Magic Missile?"
"I know he doesn't have any hit points left, but if I cast Cure Wounds on him will it still work?"
"Can I get all of them with my Sleep Spell?"
"Will my Cure Wounds spell work on poison?"
The answer to every one of these questions was, "You can try it out if you want to," but the ruling in every case was affirmative.

  • On return trips, fast forward through safe / known areas to start characters on the edge of danger / the unknown. 

"The white apes have been driven away from the north rim and controlled brush fires have been used to wipe out most of the giant ants.  Another group raided the tree-platforms in The Century Tree, defeating those little, green-skinned creatures.  The surviving "gremlins" have withdrawn far up into the very top of the tree and the explorers have taken over their village to use as a safe place to rest and re-equip.  Ropes have been lowered to the floor of the crater from there.  Do you want to start at the foot of The Century Tree?"

  • Use graphics whenever possible.
I'm a pretty fast sketch artist and I can generate a rough image of whatever I want in under a minute, adding details as the players debate or take action (this also gives kids awaiting their turn something to watch).  Nevertheless, I'm not above using graphics I find online, pictures in books, or artwork prepared in advance to help with engagement and immersion.  Whenever a new picture is generated the kids tend to lean in close and get really excited ... triggering a new sketch becomes a pavlovian reward for exploring deeper into the unknown.

  • Keep a folder of stock encounter areas (mini-dungeons) that can be dropped in anywhere.
If I had created Bawal Bayan as a kid, I would have gone through sheet after sheet of notebook paper, carefully numbering and stocking each of the twenty-odd encounter areas of the Forbidden City.  Most areas would have had maps of their own, with twenty or so numbered areas, resulting in something like 400 encounters, spread over about 30 pages of notes.  Then I would build a custom wandering monsters table, perhaps several, designed to showcase certain creatures and establish the regional theme of the adventure.  Many contented hours would be passed on this work before I was ready to unleash my creation upon my hapless friends.

As an adult with thirty years of RPG gaming behind me? 


My materials this week consisted of one index card upon which I had listed common wandering monsters (I never referred to it) and half-a-dozen manila folders upon which I had sketched 12-room mini-dungeons, adding a few notes in the margins.  

In over 20 hours of play I reached for these exactly twice!  These tools are no substitute for intuition and experience, but are nice to fall back upon in the rare, "dry" moment.

  • Maintain continuity to render a dynamic setting.
My summer camp explorers kept finding signs (and remains) left behind by my school year groups.  Bawal Bayan didn't "reset" for this group -- the rogue wizard was still dead, the once-neutral mongrelmen were still hostile (owing their treatment by earlier groups back in the spring), and the massive carcass of the ankheg still dominated the side chamber of The Black Canyon.  

Likewise, as I ran eight separate sessions this week, every group's actions added another layer to the setting.  The pygmies were content to let subsequent travelers pass after a somewhat grisly exchange of goods.  The tasloi "gremlins" were cowed and withdrew into hiding after the death of their shaman, opening up The Century Tree as a the new, preferred way to enter the crater.  Likewise, the desecration of the Yuan-Ti's rite in The Temple Plaza saw them withdraw to plot terrible vengeance upon the next group of explorers to dare The Forbidden City.

Some of the players recognized this and went out of their way to find or acknowledge the marks made by their peers in earlier sessions.  One young man borrowed a film reference and started calling these situations "cameos".  Nice.

I knew my players would talk between sessions, describing excitedly to other groups what new areas they explored, where the traps were, and what kind of creature ate them.  A couple clever young fellows even visited this site to read up on Bawal Bayan and see what sort of info they could gather that might help them find more loot [shout out to M, J, & T].  Rather than resist the metagame, I chose to ride the wave and make the setting respond to the movements and choices of the players.  This both breathes more life into The Forbidden City and provides me with more raw material as I run encounters.

So, looking back over the list, I'd have to say that there's nothing particularly innovative here, and these practices aren't necessarily transferable to other campaigns, systems, and age-groups of players, but neither does this advice appear in those ubiquitous pages "Advice for New GMs" found in just about every copy of every role-playing rules set on the planet.

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