Thursday, July 30, 2015

Managing NPCs

NPC interaction is a cornerstone of Olde School Wizardry, my home brew RPG -- much more so than combat, exploration, or crawling through subterranean vaults.

In fact, after about six and a half years of play we've built up a stable of nearly 200 non-player characters.  There are dastardly spies, incompetent wizards, scheming artificers, and stalwart clansmen ... a masked vampire, mercenaries, and vindictive professors.

A good NPC requires a few things:

  • a face -- I use black and white photos for most of mine
  • a goal ("kill all wizards," "rescue my wife from the camps," "become ArchChancellor")
  • a secret -- he's plotting to ruin Sir Kahn's reputation, she's actually a flame elemental
  • a voice -- an accent, a distinctive speech pattern, or a catch phrase
  • stats -- only as many as matter ... most of my NPCs have 0-3 mechanical notes

However, managing all of these personas consistently (and distinctively) requires some effort!

One thing I do to keep it all straight (and just as importantly to help my players keep all these characters sorted out) is to create a simple 3x5, index card for each.

Photo and name go on the front for my players -- a clothespin or clip help these stand up for a table display -- while notes on accent, goals, alignment, and any stats I've generated go on the back for my reference.

Have you ever managed a large stable of recurring NPCs?
What tricks did you use to keep all the details sorted out?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Artifacts of Play

The dungeon maps that my eldest drew in games camp last week are sitting in my game room right now.  They are on big chart paper, about a yard long each and they have a cool, herky-jerky, frenetic quality to them.  Scaled for the chessmen that she used for miniatures (knights = fighters, bishops = MUs, etc.), they are delightfully unselfconscious in the style of kid-DMs everywhere.

Still, they pose a problem:

What do we DO with them now?

They are artifacts, but the story has moved on.

I cannot offer her advice, because it's not a problem I've ever really solved for myself.

I still have some hand drawn encounter maps from my early 1990s AD&D campaign.  I think they show BLAM, Arnold, Namor, Jessie and the rest of the gang squaring off against Ogremoch or some other critter in the megadungeon that grew below The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.

He's really not all that impressive, is he?
Scrawled dutifully on graph paper, they are really just a collection of hastily-noted circles and lines with notes on declining hit point totals marching along beside and the occasional spiky-edged blast marking the detonation of yet another fireball.

Digging back deeper still I may even have some maps from the late 80s ... and certainly character sheets going back to the days when all I had were my brother's Moldvay Basic box, the AD&D Monster Manual, and a single, small, lumpy, brown d20 which we passed back and forth ... come to think of it ... that d20 looks more than a bit like Ogremoch.
There it is, looking rather like a malted milkball, set beside a nickel for scale.

Many players have had their parents answer the question for them ... it's a wonder that there is even room in our landfills for all the collections of vintage D&D books, GI Joe comics (issue #2!), and similar treasures that have been cleared away while Bilbo was off on his adventure (to this day I'm grateful that my parents never did this to me).

Still ... what to DO with this old stuff -- the relics of games gone by ... stories that even my players probably don't recall.  I guess they are kind of like an old photo album (remember those?).  You just drag it out every once and a while, look at, and tuck it away again.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Adventure Games Camp: All Wrapped Up

This past week we successfully finished up another summer enrichment camp, involving a two-week total of 26 kids from 6th graders to college freshmen.

About a third of the students had participated in prior years, and I had several younger siblings of camp alumni as well, so I'm confident that the kids are enjoying what we are serving up!

Here are a few of this year's highlights:

  • we introduced six kids to table top role-playing for the first time -- I love watching them count the sides on a D20
  • I got to demo Olde School Wizardry, my home brew, all-wizard RPG
  • we ran approximately 96 separate games at 3-4 different tables, sharing something new with just about every participant from our selection of 20 games
  • we completed a highly competitive, multi-day tournament
  • my oldest daughter (now in middle school) chose to get up early and come along each day of the two weeks, completely of her own volition!
I'll take just a moment to gush about that last point ...

In addition to rolling out of bed at 6 AM, she also decided that she wanted to earn points for her team by running games for other kids (an option I offered to all camp participants).  She brought her prized 1983 Mentzer Basic D&D box along and started off with The Heart of the Minotaur, a cool one page dungeon by Joe Sarnowski.

She went on to run Citadel of Evil from Robertson Games (free at Drive Thru RPG) and "Rank Amateurs" from an old issue of Dungeon magazine.  

After some initial success and growing confidence the first week, I casually mentioned to her the concept of a "mega dungeon" during our commute and the hook was set!

She filled the next several evenings and mornings with scribbled notes and page-flipping as she pulled familiar, published dungeons from various places along with unstocked maps and proceeded to stack them, jotting in connections and making substitutions as she went.

The excellent Goblin Gully by Dyson Logos (who cranks out a staggering amount of great materials for table top RPGs) made a fine transition from the surface world and then debauched into first level one, then level two of the Shrine of Cretia from the TSR module X3 Curse of Xanathon, then down, down, and down further still.  

By the end of the week her complex spiraled down 13 levels, each progressing in difficulty and reward (as I heard her tell her players each session)!

I even got to join in the action our last day of camp, taking on the role of a freed prisoner on level 5.

The biggest thrill of all, however, was watching her skills as a DM grow over the two weeks:  
  • Her voice got louder and more confident
  • she came out from behind her screen to stand at the table
  • she unflinchingly directed a table of rowdy boys to settle down so the game could move forward
  • she converted material between editions and sources on the fly
  • she improvised encounters and tactics (switching the theme of the Shrine of Cretia to an orc shrine dedicated to the shuggoth-like "Ja'Crispy," an avatar of slime-lord Jubliex, as she riffed off of a critter in Dyson's adventure)
  • she enforced a no character-vs-character rule to avoid a degenerating game
  • she improvised rules for flaming arrows
  • she made ad hoc rulings on "death checks" to keep players involved
When, on the last day of camp, after the tournament results were announced and the victors cheered while others made their "we would have won if ..." statements, the tables were opened up for "free play" -- one last two-and-a-half hour pulse where the kids could pick the table of their choice without regard for the opportunity costs or tournament standings.  I was gratified but not at all surprised to see her table instantly fill with players eager to delve deeper!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Strategy Games Camp: Wrapping Up Week One

Yesterday marked the end of the first week of this summer's middle school Strategy Games Camp and the conclusion of our four-day tournament.  In the morning the kids mixed it up with a rapid-fire round of shorter games, allowing the winner at each table to earn "boosts" for the morning's big game: a naval engagement spanning the entire cafeteria!

We used these seven-inch model ships for vessels, marshmallows for cannon balls, and the 12-inch floor tiles of the cafeteria floor as a handy battle map.  

Five players mix it up in Wiz-War, competing for the service of a ship's mage who could magically swap the locations of two ships during the upcoming battle, while Beard, a program alumnus, keeps the peace at the table and waits to award the winner his card.

Following a couple quick matches of Red November, in which the "Marklands" team won the right to take some free marshmallow shots, students relaxed with a round of Aye, Dark Overlord, a silly, snarky, free-form game that encourages players to spin the biggest tall-tales they can manage in order to appease their merciless master (here played expertly by Burt, who is an absolute natural at that role).

Over at another table the kids played Pirate's Cove, which is as fast and light as most games by publisher Days of Wonder, competing for a free head-start move during the upcoming naval action.  Obviously it earned its share of smiles.
After customizing their ships with more Hull Points, extra cannons, or better rigging (for greater speed), the naval action was fast and furious, with each of six vessels manned by a captain (in charge of movement) and a first mate (who handled all the cannon fire / marshmallow throwing).  Ships crisscrossed the cafeteria, racing to each of four check points in any order they wanted, picking up extra troops to bring back to the main tournament Risk board.

Pushing into the noon-time hour, the main board became stage to a frantic tug-o-war across nations as each team spent the gold their players had earned via victories throughout the week to purchase additional armies.  In the final three rounds first the Markland team, then the Bhatvian, and finally the Walvian team expanded recklessly, only to spread themselves perilously thin and be pushed back to the verge of extinction (which is basically the way of most Risk games where younger players or extreme excitement are involved).

The Walvian team managed to hold on until the very end and used their position as the very last nation to take its turn to claim a record 31 territories, winning the tournament decisively.

With the pressure of the tournament behind us, after lunch the kids spent their last two hours playing games of their choice and I was again pleased when five students asked to continue with my Olde School Wizardry RPG.  This time we tackled Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lair of the White Salamander from The Adventure Begins anthology.  Though one wizard was turned into a minnow and devoured by a swarm of crabs and another melted and washed away under the strain of his own spell casting, the other three lived, defeating the scenario's boss monster by accidentally Transmuting one of their number into a cyclone and battering their enemies to bits!

A good time was had by all!
I'm looking forward to next week and part 2 of this year's camp. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Olde School Wizardry: Middle School Test Drive

Day number two of this year's (eight-day) Strategy Games Summer Camp presented me with a cool opportunity: the chance to demo my very own home-brew fantasy role-playing game "Olde School Wizardry" to an entirely new audience.

I had six players, grades 6-8, five boys and one girl, with a mix of experienced role-players and complete novices who had never rolled a D20 before.

As each player rolled up a novice wizard, character creation moved pretty quickly.  The players picked from Magical Sciences as diverse as Iron, Cheese, Goblins, and Pebbles, and they divided up their points of "Lore" between various magical Runes ... the verbs that define the action of any given spell.

For a scenario I wanted something quick, but with a bit of memorable panache to it, so I turned to Dungeon Crawl Classics -- DCC is basically a light version of 3rd Edition D&D with some additional gonzo charts thrown in for spell resolution and such.  I've been doing this long enough that honestly I didn't so much as read a single critter stat block, but just skimmed the text ("3 pirates" ... got it; "3 ivory statues that animate when messed with" check.

The basic plot is that there is a submerged wizard tower that can only be reached for a few hours once every so many years ... so the characters have to act fast if they want to loot the place and get back out before sea water drowns the tower again.

Toss in a wild magic candle room, a puzzle with some magic portals, a few light weight traps, a competing crew of adventurers and the inevitable ubber-trapped treasure and you've got a solid little setting to play with.

I was concerned that the complexity level might be a little high, my unique magic system a little fiddly, or the entire game a bit loose and conceptual for concrete-thinking middle schoolers, but it turns out I needn't have worried!

They took to it like fish to water and soon, to my delight, they were shaping spells in incredibly creative ways to solve the problems presented by the dungeon.  Here are some examples from their three-hour session:

  • Q: How to get from the swaying deck of the ship to the top of the partially submerged tower?
  • A: Create a floating causeway of Doors, Enchanted to stick together.
  • Q: How to check for traps and other dangers in the wizard tower?
  • A: Create a squad of over-sized, "Obedient Goblins" with extra hit points and send them into the gloom ahead of the group.
  • Q: How to bridge the gap in the ancient, rotten wooden staircase?
  • A: Restore the Wood to repair the damage.
  • Q: How to find and replace the magical gemstone eyes in the statue to reactivate the magic portal?
  • A: Don't bother!  Just magically reshape the chestnuts carried by the wizard with Plant Science into the exact shape required and bingo!
  • Q: How to cross the flooded chamber writhing with thousands of eyeless, black venom-eels? 
  • A: Destroy Flesh in the chamber, adding the magical Formula specifying "while submerged" to ensure that only eel Flesh got disintegrated.
Not to make any of this sound easy of course!  There were as many blunders and gaffs as there were successes.  At one point a wizard went to great lengths to Create a chunk of Iron to use as an improvised weapon, completely forgetting that he had already picked up a cutlass that was discarded when the goblins ate a gang of pirates.  Exhausting their Quintessence (mana), several wizards pushed ahead with their casting anyway ... substituting their hit points and incurring strange side effects from the resulting "Spell Burn."  One excited fellow just kept Creating Doors over and over, seldom pausing to work out just how having extra Doors laying about would help in the situation.

Some things I learned about my own system from this session:

1. When playing with anyone who can't legally drive, I should use tokens to help them keep track of their Quintessence.  Fortunately I figured this out about 30 seconds into scene one and had tons of tokens on hand.

2. Most middle schoolers are profligate spenders.  Give em 10 Quintessence tokens and they'll bloody well spend ten at the first opportunity.  At one point in our game a young fellow began to work complex magics to reshape and remove the protective Plant wall that had sheltered the explorers during a rest ... never mind that by now three of them had cutlasses which could do the trick without the risk of making their brains catch fire.

3. In Olde School Wizardry each of the six character stats (rolled on a 3-18 scale) really matters and has an important part to play.  My daughter rolled up a character, Cheese wizard Appleroy Orf, who had a dismal Dexterity of 5.  This meant that, round after round, she was always the last to take her action.  But rather than let this be an obstacle to getting things done, she worked out how to specialize in high Quintessence-cost Formulae that none of her companions had the ability to cast.  This means that while she generally couldn't decide what magical verb (Rune) was put into play (Create, Destroy, Transmute, etc.) or even what Magical Science it was linked to, she could get in the last word about how much of a given Science was affected or how long the spell lasted.  In short, everyone had a part and everyone was needed!  

The system worked like a six-person Wonder Twins / Voltron Robot Lion / Power Zord ... just as I had hoped it would.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Return of Summer Games Camp

More evidence that I have the best life ever:

Today kicked off the first day of my annual Summer Adventure Games Enrichment Camp.
It's basically an eight-day-long mini games Con for middle school students.

There were 18 participants in all today for our first six hour session, including rising 6th-8th graders, high school volunteers earning community service hours, and even a couple alumni who have been with me since they were middle schoolers themselves.

Once more I divided the minions into four teams, one for each of four fictional nations populating our oversize, custom Risk board:

Walvia: chivalrous and tradition-bound
Bhatvia: ruthless and scheming
Pluke: inventive and fractious
The Marklands: stalwart and tenacious

A number of games are offered around the room ... maybe Smallworld at one table, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects at another, and Catan at a third, and an RPG at a fourth.

The winner of each game earns a certain amount of points ("gold") that can then be used to purchase additional armies for their nation on the main nation board.  In addition to gold, the prizes at some tables are action cards that provide one-time exceptions to the normal game rules (re-rolls, free armies, etc.).

This meta-game extends each team's strategy ... sometimes a team will choose to "stack the table"at an event to ensure a win, other times they'll recognize that a certain teammate has a knack for a particular game and so they'll jump at the chance to compete if it is offered.

My favorite part is probably all the vigorous alliance making and deal-brokering that takes place away from the main table.  It can get quite cut-throat, albeit in good fun.

Oh, two more things that make the whole thing especially cool ...

First: I'll use the results of our multi-day meta-game to initiate setting changes in my six-year Olde School Wizardry homegrown role-playing campaign ... that's right, I let the kids and their outcomes decide the fate of nations for my adult players!

Second: My oldest daughter is now in middle school and is joining us this year, mixing it up at the game table and scheming away with the rest of my minions.  A proud dad moment indeed!