Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It Must Be a SIGN ...

I'm running Lost Mine of Phandelver with my middle schoolers, now starting with a fresh batch of characters following a recent Total Party Kill.  Beginning our action, where else, in one of the village's two taverns, the first player promptly declared that he was, "looking for quests.  I mean ... talking to people to see if anybody needs help or anything."


This video-game-speak set my weathered old teeth on edge, but I get that this is just the language of modern gaming and earlier RPG designers would have used it if they had thought of it first (though it does smack of pre-determined narrative ... grrr).

The very first local spoken to shared a rumor about orcs that needed some good slaying out at Wyvern Tor and, despite the halfling player's compulsive need to search everything in the inn ("to find some secret stuff") the members of the five-man party were soon on their way to the Town Hall to sign up for the bounty ...

... but then something utterly unexpected happened: they encountered a SIGN.  Not a mystical omen, you understand, but an actual written placard placed just outside Town Hall.

We determined that each of the five characters was at least passingly literate, so I read the text of the sign to the group.  It was some pretty bland stuff about orcs causing trouble at Wyvern Tor, a bounty being offered, and instructions to inquire within.  I also mentioned that the sign was marked with the town seal and (here it comes ...) "an indecipherable signature."

"Wait, what's it say?"

I read the text of the sign again, again mentioning seal and signature.

"What's the signature say?"

"It's indecipherable -- it's too messy to read."

"Well, can I read it?  You said I could read."


"Um, okay.  If you make a DC 25 Intelligence check then you can make it out."

I should note here that the highest INT bonus among the group was a +2, so a 22 was the best possible result.  A fact that I pointed out.


Kid rolls a 15.

"That's pretty good, but you can't quite make it out."

"Wait, I want to try!"

"Yeah, can I help him?"

"Help him ... read the indecipherable signature?"


"Okay.  He can have advantage on his roll."

Kid rolls 2d20 and takes a 19, the better of the two rolls.

"That was close, but you can't really make it out."

Two other players chime in: "I want to try!"

[Blink] "Okay ..."

Skip ahead five minutes ... and they are still rolling ... 

"Ooh, that time I got a 16!  Is that high enough?"

"Is it a 25?  The nope, not high enough."

Finally, one lad out of the five, after trying in vain to explain to his fellows that no possible combination of dice rolls would allow them to read the indecipherable signature, resorted to snatching the dice off of the table and hiding them between his knees, "No!  No you are idiots!  No more for you!"

At long last we determined that at least one member of the party knew roughly which direction Wyvern Tor lay and so they promptly set out ... never having actually gone into Town Hall to get details about the job, the orc threat, or the bounty.

Final Score:  Sign 1 -- Adventurers 0

After play wrapped up, on their way out of the library, one of the kids said, "I think we just don't like to be told that we can't do something."  

I'm sure he's right and it's probably why the characters of middle schoolers die like so many lemmings: flinging themselves into volcanic vents, taking on monsters that are obviously too tough to handle, drinking mysterious potions without hesitation, and making absurd attempts at climbing sheer surfaces over lethal drops.  This is probably also why alignment doesn't work very well for middle schoolers ... or bonds ... or any of the fancy storytelling bits that seek to add depth through constraint.

All constraints are interpreted as challenges to be overcome, no matter the consequences!

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