Monday, December 27, 2010

We Make Change

In the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game (PFRPG), the monetary denominations work as follows:
  • 10 copper pieces to a silver piece
  • 10 silver pieces to a gold piece
  • 10 gold pieces to a platinum piece

Never mind for a moment that platinum coins were never used in the real world as currency. What's important here is that it's very easy in the game world to find yourself over-encumbered with thousands of copper pieces in a setting where the price of nearly everything useful is expressed in gold pieces. That's the situation Norma and Willa the dwarfs had found themselves in.

When we played today (for the first time in over two months, and boy were they excited!), the party split up into two groups. One group went to buy weapons, while the two dwarfs went after clothing and survival gear. So we would run one group for about half an hour, then switch focus to the other group, and then back again. At one point I had been with the dwarfs for a little while, talking over prices of some items a peddler was trying to sell them, and they were asking questions like, "How many copper pieces is that?" I wasn't giving answers, of course; they should tell me. They'll learn more that way. Then I had an idea.

"Tell you what," I said. "Why don't you visit a banker, and convert your coins and gems to whatever denominations you like."

Norma, played by my daughter, asked for me to tell her how much of each she could get.

"I can't help you. I've got to run the next round of their weapon shop fight," I replied, gesturing toward the other three players. "But you're welcome to figure it all out on the white board if you like. When you're done, we can buy the survival gear together."

Norma gave me the briefest of looks to convey her irritation, then said, "C'mon, Willa," and took her friend into the other room. As I was running the fight that nearly killed the other players, I glanced periodically at the two of them in the other room, working out their wealth and how they wanted to carry it around. Fifteen minutes later they were ready to shop. Not the hardest math in the world, but useful for keeping their skills sharp over the holiday break.

As they carry their wealth to other civilizations, the exchange rates are going to become more complicated. I'll need to come up with names for the coins, like "Sernese Crowns" and "Nimorean Dachyas," as opposed to gold pieces from one place or another. The coins will be different sizes and weights. And as the kids get older, we can make the value of gold itself vary from place to place, or over time.

There are plenty of economic lessons to be learned using RPGs.

Shopping Spree?

An elf princess walks into a shady weapons shop and says (among other things), "I have a magic bow!" A fight ensues with the shopkeeper and his twin sons, Junior and Junior II. It almost results in a TPK (Total Party Kill) when old Pops McBane (the shopkeeper), takes ol' Bessie (his greatsword)down from the wall.

After the dust cleared, a witness strolled in, saw the bodies, and fled to alert the town guards. The halfling druid, who spent much of the episode trying not to get involved, became a reluctant hero by summoning a fire elemental to cover their retreat. Now the adventurers are fugitives from justice.

Discretion does not appear to be Elerisa Celerna's strong suit.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Games and Education

As my presentation at the VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference and Resource Fair approaches, I am trying to look outside my own personal experiences to learn what other educators are doing with role-playing games in the classroom. Although I have a long familiarity with RPGs, I am still a neophyte when it comes to using them as educational tools. It turns out that educators are doing a lot of cool things out there, and I want to be able to share some of those things at the conference and point homeschoolers to these resources when they consider bringing RPGs to their students.

As an example, David Millians has a blog called Games & Education with some useful resources. In a recent entry, he posted some old brochures that he produced back in the '90's. Although some of the games mentioned in the brochures are no longer published, the brochures themselves offer insights about the educational benefits of games in general (not just RPGs) and how to get the most out of them in the classroom setting. He talks about things like setting goals, how much time to set aside for gaming activities, and follow-up exercises to enhance learning.

Good stuff.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Top Ten Favorite RPG Monsters

The list below represents my favorite monsters to use in RPG games, not including ones I've made up. I'm really thinking about this list in terms of the way I'd run the monsters in a game of adult players, rather than with kids in a homeschool setting. But since gaming with the kids has slowed down the past two months, I'll just run with the list from the perspective of my grown-up games, since that's where my head has been at lately. Perhaps I'll revisit this topic later from the homeschool angle.

Most of the following is Open Game Content according to the Open Game License. The Mind Flayer is listed by Wizards of the Coast as "Product Identity," which means I can't go into too much detail here. I paid $30 for the 3.5e Monster Manual just to get this one monster, so I hope they don't mind the mention.

These are in no particular order:

Froghemoth - I love aberrations in general, probably my favorite monster type. This example is a doozy, lying in ambush in dank swamps, and able to swallow prey whole. Nom nom nom!

Doppelganger - Tough to use these effectively, but if you can pull it off, it's well worth the effort. Wait until the players trust an NPC. Then a doppleganger comes along, offs the NPC when no one else is around, and takes his place. Before you know it there's a predator in the characters' midst, "questing" with them, biding its time.

Demons - There's something about the unpredictability of these guys, coupled with their irresistible might, that I find frightening. That, and the chaotic realm from which they come is so fascinating and endlessly malleable.

Favorite "demon lord": Demogorgon (pictured).

Goblins - Not just vile and distasteful like orcs, but wicked and mischievous too. I really like Pathfinder's take on them.

Lich - What's not to like about a lich? If you're going to go undead, you may as well go all the way. I like these because you can really sink your teeth into their back stories.

Basidirond - Just a friendly little carnivorous plant that sprays you with hallucinogenic spores when you come into proximity with it. While you squirm on the ground trying to escape the quicksand that's all in your head, they move in for the kill. Better yet, someone else does (maybe some undead, used in conjunction with the basidirond as part of a trap).

Mimic - Up until a few days ago I hated these. I let the stupid illustration of the treasure chest with the teeth (in 1e it was a chest with a fist) color my thinking. I have recently read some good ideas for how to use these on message boards I frequent. Now I'm troubled that I was so short-sighted about how useful these monsters can be in a campaign setting, and how many ways there are to play them.

Drider - Evil elves crossed with spiders. 'Nuff said.

Shoggoth - Appeals to the H. P. Lovecraft fan in me. This monstrosity has it all: resists all sorts of special attacks, can emit a maddening cacophony, and simply has to occupy the space where you are to completely engulf you.

Mind flayer - Humanoids with octopi heads, these guys are brainiacs who won't hesitate to enslave you and blast you with psychic energy if you fall out of line. Best of all: they work across RPG genres, fantasy and sci-fi.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Spicing Up the Bag of Holding

The following is Open Game Content according to the Open Game License.

Another classic magic item that's been around in D&D for awhile is the bag of holding. Similar to Mary Poppins' bottomless bag, the bag of holding is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Characters can stow their possessions in it without the weight of the bag changing. This means you don't have to hire a bunch of untrustworthy scoundrels to help you cart all that treasure you pillaged from monsters found in the dungeon. Just throw it in the bag and off you go on your next adventure.

In reading Pathfinder's description of this item (see link above), we learn that the bag's contents are actually kept in a "nondimensional" space, whatever that means. I'm inclined to think of this space as a place, regardless of it being "nondimensional." Perhaps it is in a tiny corner of some alternate reality or some kind of astral plane, who knows.

Contemplating this magic item, it occurred to me that it has wonderful potential to serve as both a puzzle and a plot device. The premise is simple: the characters find a bag of holding, and someone else - or something else - is out there with another bag of holding which opens into the same nondimensional space. Think of the possibilities! First, the characters discover all kinds of interesting stuff in the bag. Understanding the bag's potential, they start adding their own money/food/equipment into the bag. This works out just fine for a time, but eventually they go to retrieve an item, and lo and behold, it's gone. Or they notice something in the bag that they're reasonably sure wasn't in there before. All this because some other being is putting stuff in and taking stuff out of his/her/its own bag of holding.

It's only a matter of time before a character reaches into the bag only to have her hand grasped by...

...a claw!

Monday, November 15, 2010


Sorry for the lack of posts lately, everyone. You see, it's that extra special time of year in our household that we call "Birthday Season." We had three kids' birthdays in a six-week span, and four sets of grandparents each of which took the kids out - one at a time - to celebrate. It's a very nice thing that they do and the kids love the one-on-one time with their grandparents, but the end result is that our normal activities fall by the wayside.

Long story short: we haven't played RPGs in quite some time. I'm thinking we'll get maybe one or two sessions in before the new year, then things will pick up steam again in January.

In the meantime, I've been developing and running a set of adventures for some of my grown-up friends from work. My plan is to reuse the adventures for the kids, with minor tweaks. Hopefully this will give me a chance to iron out the kinks.

Take care!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Introducing the Insurgents

I've been doing some light research on science fiction themes with added focus on technologies that scientists today are already working on the foundations of. One that has really grabbed my attention is this concept of uplift. To quote the Wikipedia article:
In science fiction, uplift is the development or transformation of animals into an intelligent race by other, superior beings.
An example of uplift would be genetically altering chimps so that they are as intelligent as humans. I don't know about you, gentle reader, but I find the possibility of this type of tampering to be unsettling. I'm not going to go so far as to say it's ethically indefensible, but it just feels very wrong to me.

It also opens up all kinds of crazy possibilities in our science fantasy role playing game. For example, yesterday I was thinking ahead to our next session. The kids have spent a considerable sum on rent and deposits, and soon they're going to start literally eating up all their funds. They're going to need jobs. What kind of jobs should they find? Far be it for me to railroad them into specific careers, so I did a quick Google search on "NYC help wanted." I wanted to find lots of options for them to choose from. Whatever I found I would modify to fit into the distant future setting. UPS needs a driver helper, ergo an interplanetary shipping agency on the planet Sxibi does too. There were also quite a few ads for entry level jobs with the National Guard, and that gave me all kinds of ideas about a planetary defense force that has its hands full with local, subterranean insurgents. That's when the uplift idea struck me.

The planet Sxibi is one huge megalopolis, miles high and deeper still, but it wasn't always so. It used to be a vibrant, natural world, teeming with life. Sapient life forms were beginning to evolve, being perhaps only a few million years off, when the galaxy's wider civilization intruded. Sxibi was chosen as the galactic capitol for its central location and vast natural resources. The city was built with arcological principles in mind, blending architectures to meet the needs of the 1+ trillion populace with ecologically beneficial elements to provide a semblance of balance and prevent the wholesale destruction of the planet's native life forms. To some extent the architects were successful, though many wild indigenous species were driven to extinction. Those few to survive did so on the city's outer fringes, which in most cases meant far underground where the bottommost levels abutted the magma layer. Most of these extremophiles were simple organisms, but one turned out to be fairly intelligent.

I had this idea of a subterranean species living on the fringe, intelligent but not truly sapient, not like us. An ideological human scientist, angry at the "civilized" races' treatment of this native Sxibian species, uplifts them to give them true sapience. They are naturally a hive mind species, like bees or ants, so the uplift gives the collective, not individuals, sentience. It doesn't take long for the hive to realize the predicament it's been put in, and it begins attacks to undermine the massive civilization above. These are the first salvos in a war that will culminate in the extinction of the hive mind species, or the reclamation of its planet...and perhaps conquests beyond?

My initial thoughts included presenting knowledge of the attacks to the characters through the filter of the city's massive propaganda machinery. The spin from media outlets, exacerbated by word of mouth of the frightened masses, would frame the attacks in the worst possible light: as terrorist acts perpetrated by insurgents. No mention would be made of the fact that the species responsible for the acts was indigenous to the planet and striking out in what it perceived as self-defense. These kinds of facts can always come out later and muddy the picture for the players, forcing them to wrestle with ethical gray areas. I'm looking forward to that.

But I had more immediate concerns. What does the species look like? I had been thinking of some kind of arachnid species, something terrifying and alien in the way that our own terrestrial spiders are. The more I thought about it, though, the more it smacked of Starship Troopers. So I sent an instant message to my friend David Burgess. David is a gamer who can always be counted on for thought-provoking ideas. It was like he already knew what I was thinking, because right away he started asking me what the indigenous species was like. I said I didn't know and needed some ideas. Over the next few minutes he gave me two great words to latch onto: moss, and hive mind. I've already given away that I took the hive mind idea and ran with it.

The moss idea turned out to be pretty good too. I don't know what my buddy had in mind, but the moss made me think of kudzu and extremophiles and zombies and golems, almost all at once. Here's how I see it working: the moss - which isn't really a plant, of course - is a chemosynthetic organism, deep indigo in color with a velvety texture, that spreads through reproduction using spores. The moss slowly covers organic or inorganic material. It can then consume that material's nutrients, or it can put the material to more sinister use. For example, the moss can grow over a deserted battle robot, then "drive" that robot, becoming a fearsome, moss-covered war machine serving the hive mind. Or it can convert its slain foes to moss zombies. Alternatively it can attack living tissue with its spores, attempting to invade a host organism and kill it to take over its form. The moss growth is slow, though, so while this can be a painful attack leading to a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention to arrest the spread of the moss' growth, it is not acutely effective. In other words, the moss isn't able to mobilize zombie followers during the same battle in which it kills its victims to create the zombies. It takes hours, let's say, maybe even a full day. Of course, breathing the spores is not wise and may hasten onset of symptoms.

The moss also has the ability to form phosphorescent patterns over its surface. This it can use to attempt to confuse its victims, as well as to imitate light patterns and effectively camouflage it under certain conditions.

This is very cool and all and gives me plenty of material to work with for multiple adventures. I'll be able to weave this into the backdrop of the characters' daily lives fairly easily, even unobtrusively, starting slowly with minor news items in the media and progressing to word of mouth. And terrorism can strike anywhere, so if things get too slow, the moss can always be counted on to pick things up no matter where the characters find themselves. Since context can have a huge impact on how events are perceived, anything can happen with the moss and how the characters react to it (immediately or ongoing), so I can't even be accused of railroading.

The moss idea is not, however, particularly original. Hive minds have been present in science fiction and gaming for ages. David pointed out the Thorian in Mass Effect as obviously similar, along with the buggers in Ender's Game. In fact, I've read Ender's Game to my kids, so they are already familiar with the concept of the hive mind. Meanwhile the mental picture I have of the Prometheus-esque NPC, the fanatical environmentalist who uplifts the moss hive mind, looks suspiciously like Dr. Peters
from the movie 12 Monkeys (whether he continues to maintain a passing resemblance to his original human appearance after the hive mind fuses him into the collective, and the extent to which either it controls him or he exerts his influence over it, are matters for speculation and outside the scope of this discussion. All I know is that I have a rather amiable BBEG - with the 'E' as in "evil" being somewhat ambiguous and debatable - with whom reasoning is completely out of the question).

Originality was never my goal, however; I don't intend to publish this campaign setting. I was just looking for something wicked cool that I could use in lots of interesting ways that would allow me to introduce some challenging ideas with lots of murky gray areas. I think I've found it.

Any suggestions on what to name the moss species?

Monday, October 18, 2010


I actually got asked about this so I thought I'd cover it in the blog. My daughter was planning to run a game at the campsite this past weekend, but she and the other kids were having so much fun doing all the normal campfire kinds of things that they just never got around to it.

Which means she has an adventure ready to go sometime soon with her homeschool friends.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Perfect Business Model

This weekend we learned about the most successful business venture in galactic history. Here's how it happened.

On our way to the campground, we decided to play a little of our Savage Worlds game in the car. We didn't really get started until we were across town, and then we had to stop as we neared the park so I could pay attention to the navigation, so that gave us about an hour to play. All three of my daughters played (my youngest is an elfin princess named Aurora, joining our Savage Worlds game for the first time), and my wife even joined in, playing her robot character "Robot" while driving.

They started where we left off, having just been through customs. Robot had an "accident" and needed paper towels to clean up the oil she spilled on herself. Lucia was jonesing for some java. So they decided that they wanted to hit a convenience store right there at the spaceport before they did anything else. One at a time they told me what they wanted. Lucia wanted a triple grande espresso latte with whipped cream and caramel. I have no idea what that is or if such a drink truly exists, but it sounds to me like an expensive Starbucks drink. Starbucks is the kind of place my wife goes to, so I consulted with her and we arrived at $5.50 as a realistic price, especially taking into account premium spaceport prices. Remember: I'm aiming for real world prices. Next, Ramoka was looking for Shenarian coffee or tea. Nothing beats the flavors of your homeworld, right? I figured 50-50 chance they had it, used my dice rolling program on the iPhone, and determined that no, they did not carry those. But they did have Shenarie Blast!™ soda, made with real gooberry extract, for $1.75. Meanwhile Aurora took a more pragmatic approach and purchased two oranges and three bananas for $2.50. Finally, Robot simply used some of the store's napkins to clean herself with, then purchased some new XV-15 grade motor oil for $3.95. A quick scan of the characters' retinas (and Robot's bar code?) and the deductions were made from their bank accounts. We only had one pencil in the car, so I took care of the paperwork for simplicity.

After that little excursion the girls got down to business: they needed a place to live. After a quick debate over whether to choose an apartment, a condo, or a hotel, they settled on apartment and needed to know where to find one available. We figured there's probably "an app for that," and $0.99 later Robot had the equivalent of the iPhone Around Me app running on her system (by the way, Robot took advantage of the spaceport's free wi-fi to download the app, but in subsequent games she's going to need to subscribe to a data plan). Robot found some apartments for rent in a pretty broad price range. They settled on a place called "Sunny Gables" which was on the edge of a shopping district called Nipon Square one level above them but still subterranean. Sunny Gables had apartments starting at $800 per month.

To get there they had a choice between ground transportation and air transport. Air transport amounted to air taxis, whereas ground transport was analogous to our modern subway systems. The subway is always cheaper, of course, so that's the way they went. I came up with a system of 10¢ per stop, 50¢ per vertical change of level. The trip to Nipon Square's East Gate Station was $2.20 apiece. There was one changeover, and the vertical train was a fun little roller coaster of a ride for the players to imagine. When they got off the transport, that's when it happened.

The advertisers had East Gate Station covered like a blanket. This involved a barrage of holographic advertisements targeted specifically to the characters based on retina scans being taken right there at the station. Naturally I lifted this idea wholesale from the iris identification mall scene in the movie Minority Report. Lucia was shown a young woman with circles around her tired eyes, dragging through her day, and a voice asked, "Has the caffeine worn off yet, Lucia? Well, when it does, remember Nipon Coffee House!" Ramoka, seven feet high and covered in purple fur, was told of a sumptuous grooming spa (and she later decided it would be a good idea to go there to make sure she hadn't recently picked up any "space fleas"). Aurora was shown scenes of a lively elfin farmer's market just a few blocks away.

Then Robot got scanned. "Need new parts?" asked the voice. "Find everything you need, at RadioShack®!"

That's right: tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years into our future, RadioShack® is still there. Thriving, even, and with the same tried-and-true business model: small stores inside of shopping malls; young, moderately aggressive yet aloof sales guys who seem busy, but it's not exactly clear what they're actually doing; and an inventory of obscure, niche, home electronics products that 99% of the population will never need. A recipe for long-term success if ever there was one, and I mean really long term.

So that was the big joke that just kind of came to me on the fly. My wife laughed out loud, but it pretty much sailed right over the kids' heads, so I had to explain it to them. They didn't see the humor. Oh well.

The kids went on to discover that Nipon Square was not square at all. Rather, it was a gigantic underground dome, with a sky-like ceiling and a blindingly-bright glowing orb floating unsuspended high overhead, simulating the sun. The space above them was filled with sky cars circling in well-ordered traffic patterns, the main points of entry and exit easily identified. Built into the perimeter of the dome were residential and parking properties. Beneath the imitation sky, at dome-ground level, breathed a lively, glistening city within a city, with many mid-sized buildings sporting all kinds of interesting architectures reflecting the influences of many species. It was a very clean looking place, and in the center, an enticing amusement park. A hundred thousand people called Nipon Square home, and many more visited there daily. It had everything, being one of those places you could live your whole life in and never need to leave.

Sunny Gables apartments was built into the east wall of the dome. The rental office manager was a disgusting, oozing blob with open sores and bubbling eyeballs whose vocalizations consisted of squirting noises reminiscent of unpleasant experiences in the necessarium. Fortunately he had a "translator" panel installed (a clear panel, floating above his head, displaying his words in the common language) so he could do business with the party. Through him they learned they would need to cough up the first and last month's rent, plus an additional $200 deposit if they wanted a furnished apartment. They took the deal and split the cost four ways, but first, the credit check. None had bad credit, per se, but the problem was that most of them didn't have any credit at all. Fortunately Aurora was a princess, so she did, in fact, have truly excellent credit. Thus they were approved for the contract (one year), their retinas scanned again (to be used as keys), and they checked into their two bed, one bath apartment on the 20th floor, overlooking Nipon Square.

Next up: who knows? It's totally up to them!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I think I'm going to use our Savage Worlds game set on the planet Sxibi as a means to teach the kids about finances. They arrived on the planet with $1,000 each (and yes, we're calling the currency "dollars"), and I can tell already that they consider this a hefty sum. Well, I can assure you that's one misconception that's not going to last.

The Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition comes with price lists for all kinds of things, but I think instead I'll be using Google Internet searches for prices. That's right: I'm going to be using real world prices for everything from housing, meals, and clothing, to transportation, entertainment, and arms. Even though the game setting is the distant future where vastly superior technologies are commonplace, just about everything on Sxibi will be analogous to things familiar to those of us stuck here in the ultra-primitive 21st century.

For example, suppose the kids want a ray gun. I'm picturing a Star Wars blaster, which is effectively a hand gun. It seems to take stormtroopers out with a single shot, so let's assume it's analogous to a fairly powerful revolver like, say, a .44 magnum. A fairly simple search informs me that prices for a .44 range from $150 to $500+, and $400 seems to get you a decent one. Please note that I know next to nothing about hand guns. I don't need to. I'm assuming that guns are like everything else in that you "takes your chances" when you skimp and buy the cheapest model. So the price of a blaster on Sxibi is the same, when purchased through legal means. Items purchased on the Black Market will be more expensive due to risk markup (for the curious, this markup will be 2d6 x 10%, i.e., 20% to 120%, with a mean of 70%). If the kids buy the cheaper model, then they risk finding themselves in a firefight with a jammed weapon.

They're in an industrial area at the moment, miles beneath the surface. Real estate prices will be fairly low compared to elsewhere on the planet. I live in the Richmond, VA area, and the cost of living here is what I'll use as a baseline. When they get around to looking for a place to live, I'll use local prices from Richmond's industrial areas. As the characters move around in wealthier circles, I'll apply a cost of living index. Thus if they find themselves near the planet surface where the dollar doesn't go as far, I might consider using Manhattan, NYC's relative cost of living as a way to inflate the prices, especially around housing.

The reason I'm doing all this is so that the players will be forced to see the value of the dollar, find ways to generate income and improve their standard of living, and learn about budgeting. A thousand dollars isn't going to last very long at all. If they hit the stores first and aren't careful with their money they won't even be able to scrape enough bread together to cover the first and last month's rent deposit on their apartments, when they finally get around to finding a place to stay. Heaven help them if they try going the hotel route.

Remember, I'm totally winging this, so I don't have any adventures planned that I'm going to guide them to. With some players this approach would be an unmitigated disaster, but with the way these kids have been rolling, I think it suits them just fine. They don't want to be told what to do. They like being in the driver's seat. Let their struggle to survive in the big city drive the game. I'll sit back and let them tell me where and how they're looking for adventure. Eventually something cool is bound to happen, and I'll be ready.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gaming at the Campsite

We're going on a camping trip next weekend with our homeschooling friends. Some of the people who will be camping with us are readers of this blog. If you're one of them, Liv wants you to know she's going to be running a Pathfinder RPG game for the other kids, and asks that you help her build some hype by letting them know about it. She's creating an adventure and bringing pre-generated characters so players can step right in and start playing. No experience will be necessary to play.

She spent a few hours today with the boy next door and my copy of the Pathfinder Bestiary dreaming up encounters for the game. It promises to be exciting.

By the way, I'm thinking that boy is going to look back on this in twenty years and realize that he didn't know how good he had it. A girl, creating RPG adventures with him. Exceedingly rare, or at least it used to be. That didn't happen back in the day!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Savage Worlds

Today we finally started our Savage Worlds game. Just as I do with our Pathfinder game, I'm running a custom campaign of my own design using the Savage Worlds system. You should take that term "design" with a grain of salt, because I'm making up everything - and I mean everything - as I go along. There is no design, in other words. The setting is in the far-flung future, on a planet called Sxibi (pronounced SHI - bee, which rhymes with Libby). Sxibi is an all-city planet, based loosely on Asimov's Trantor, which revolves in orbit around the black hole at the galactic core. It's sky is lit by the glow of dozens of sparkling suns illuminating a local nebula's gas clouds, but most residents never get to enjoy this sight. Sxibi is home to over a trillion souls from all species and walks of life from around the galaxy, and when you have that many people, the vast majority of them live by necessity miles beneath the surface, or at least nowhere near the uppermost levels. Only the wealthy get to play up top.

We only had three players today: my youngest daughter opted out, and of the neighbors next door only the boy was free. My oldest daughter played Lucia G. Cithog, a mostly human scientific experiment who escaped from the lab and is on the run. She's a goth chick whose hair changes color to match her mood, and who doesn't get excited about anything and can't be bothered to care. My girl says she took this approach because of the problems we were having in the Pathfinder game. By getting into character and role-playing the apathetic goth girl, she won't feel tempted to try to be bossy and run the show. She will "go with the flow." She told me this tonight at lights out. I thought it was a thoughtful approach on her part and I thanked her for her initiative. It's funny: while we were playing this afternoon I thought she was having a miserable time. She was kind of moping and seemed rather disinterested. I asked her what was wrong and if she was feeling ok. She replied that she hadn't had her morning coffee yet. I was too dense to catch what she meant, and thought she was talking about real life. A few minutes later I asked again if she was sure she was ok. This time, for a split second, she smiled energetically, all teeth and energy, nodding her head, then went back to deadpan and said, "I'm in character." I'm liking where this is going and how she's creatively tackling the teamwork problem.

My next oldest girl plays a character named Ramoka, from the planet Sherarie. Her species is completely a product of her own imagination. She is seven feet tall and covered head to toe in purplish fur that glows in the dark. She has long, pointy ears, and her six arms end in hands with sticky claws. She is an excellent climber and archer. We didn't actually get much play in today (we had some final character sheet prep-work to complete, and the kid next door hadn't even started a character yet), so we haven't had a chance to see what Ramoka's personality will be.

The boy next door created a Japanese half-human, half-"acid dragon" character named Kai Z. Suzuki. I'm guessing the encounter with the black dragon during our last Pathfinder session made a big impression on him. Anyway, we decided that his dragon wings give him an edge, so this gave us our first chance to create our own Edge (Savage Worlds doesn't have flying or wings listed as Edges). His character is still maturing, so he does not yet have a breath weapon, and his scales are not yet armor grade. While dreaming up all his features, out loud, he got really excited when he decided that the last time a half-dragon sheds before death, his scales will be made of pure platinum. Pretty cool stuff going on in that kid's head. I added my own herpetological twist by rolling 2d20 and determining that he would be shedding in the next six days, which means his eyes are somewhat opaque and milky blue as he nears ecdysis. Anyway, Kai comes from the medieval era of our own planet, and aliens went back in time and abducted him for experiments or slavery or something, brought him forward into our game's epoch, and now he has escaped. There seems to be no shortage of folks evading the authorities in this game.

They also made friends with an obese NPC named Tox Cudann. Points to the first reader who can tell me where I got his name. He's an obese pilot with the MacGyver Edge (too cool that they made an Edge called MacGyver...and yes, it's exactly what it sounds like). They'll be seeing more of him, though they got separated in Customs (see below).

My wife said go ahead and create a character for her, too. She asked to be a robot, one who is street smart and can obtain all kinds of information from the nets, kind of like R2D2. For her Hindrance she chose Quirk: her character is liable to break into song and dance at inconvenient times. She also has wheels instead of legs, which will make mobility interesting. Sadly, she didn't get a chance to play because she was cooking dinner.

The characters got to know each other as passengers on the space flight bound for Sxibi, right as the ship was popping out of hyperspace. We had a little discussion about the nature of general relativity and how the perception of time varies with different frames of reference. I babbled some nonsense about how the technology of the future seamlessly blended light speed, time travel, and "between space" to permit intragalactic travel without all the heartache of your loved ones aging and dying while you're away. The characters watched out through their portholes as the ship descended first into Sxibi's atmosphere, then into a massive tunnel miles wide that burrowed straight into the city's metallic exoskeleton. There the ship merged with Sxibi's internal traffic, millions of ships gliding through the world-spanning tube, with many lanes vertical and horizontal alike. Think of it like our interstate highways, but in three dimensions, and they're wrapped inside a series of interconnected buildings on a massive scale. Their ship descended into a sub system further down via another tunnel, decelerating as it went, and soon they were below ground level, though there was no way to determine that visually. Eventually the ship eased onto a landing pad, the passengers disembarked, and the characters found themselves in Customs.

While wasting away in the horrendously long Customs line, they learned that everything was going to be tied to their retinal patterns. Money, access, advertisements, you name it, kind of like in the movie Minority Report. Everyone who comes to Sxibi gets their eyes scanned at point of entry. So along comes this squirrely guy while they're waiting - literally a diminutive squirrel-like humanoid - who approaches them in line and sells them lenses to change their retinal patterns. Eventually they neared the front of the line. A robot was scanning everyone's eyes, and from that point forward, that scan would be the basis for all their future transactions. It was then that the players had to make their first decision: should they wear the fake lenses for the initial scan? Or should they get a legitimate first scan and then use the fake lenses as needed down the road? Lucia went ahead and popped in the lenses for her scan. Ramoka and Kai kept their lenses pocketed and had legitimate retinal scans taken. What impacts this decision will have down the road is anybody's guess.

And that's where we stopped play.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Danger Zone

The city of Manteau's inner wall separates the haves from the have-nots, and our brave adventurers wanted to be on the inside. To get past the guards at the busy gates they had to have "privilege papers," which were purchased from bureaucrats for a hefty fee. I came up with this concept on the fly, and to be quite honest I was immediately appalled by it when it came out of my mouth. As far as I know there is no precedent for this in any medieval setting, real or imagined, and it just seems kind of hokey to me. Regardless, we're stuck with it now, and Elerisa and Bubda found their papers had been pick-pocketed by the time they reached the gates anyway (the streets are crowded and there is much jostling). So they bribed their way in.

Elerisa, for those more recent readers of this blog, is an elf of royal ancestry, but she is not in direct line to any throne. She is currently way out of her element, though, for not too long ago she was suddenly and quite rudely wrenched from her own era 500 years prior to the events of the game and dumped unceremoniously into an impoverished human village in the present time. She has since learned that the elven people have vanished from the world. She longs to return to "high society" and the comforts of inherited wealth, and rediscover her home in the palace at Nimoriél.

After they got into the city's wealthy uptown districts, the party had to decide what to do next. They had a promise to keep: to take Fibon's skull to his new home at the famous city library and archives. But first, a few details to clean up...literally! They were filthy from all their exploits, so they cleaned up at a bathhouse (and we learned about Roman bathhouses and aqueducts in the process). Then, they didn't want to stand out from the crowd with armor and weapons, so they had to do a little shopping. They learned that prices are steep uptown, but they didn't let that stop them from spending their hard-earned dough. Elerisa in particular was keen to continue shopping, and expressed no interest at all in checking out the "Lost Princess" exhibit at the Manteau Museum of Ancient Elfin Antiquities down the street. After all, who has time to pay attention to fine campaign setting details offered by the GM when there's power shopping to do?

So after a shave, a bath, and a little shopping, they left the first clothing shop and decided it was time to find the library. They got out into the streets, in the middle of a wide avenue, when they heard a massive horn blast from the top of the city keep. The party watched in confusion as the city locals wailed in despair and scrambled for cover. The adventurers followed suit, just as they felt a dark shadow deepen the gloom of the already rainy afternoon. A solitary man froze in the center of the avenue, and the adventurers witnessed a massive black claw reach down and snatch him up. The massive black dragon swooped over them, wings grazing the rooftops, and flew off into the sky with his squirming prey.

Elerisa was appalled at the unfortunate man's fate and heroically drew an arrow, aiming to fell the dragon. With the beast gaining altitude every moment, she had time for just one shot. She let fly her arrow, and its course was true. Sadly it did not penetrate the dragon's thick hide, and the wicked serpent didn't even notice that it had been attacked as it faded into the dreary mist.

Or was that really so sad an outcome? For the man, yes. For Elerisa, a pretty glad ending. Had she rolled a 20 the arrow would have found its mark, and the dragon would have indeed noticed the pesky elven archer shooting irritating darts into its belly. This would not do, and poor Elerisa may have found herself doused in its acidic breath. Such an attack would have had a fair chance of slaying her outright, if she'd failed her reflex saving throw. Even making the save she would have suffered grievous wounds and the loss of some of her recently acquired finery.

Too harsh? Perhaps, if indeed that's the way I would have run it. But maybe not. Maybe it's better to have character death be a somewhat common occurrence in the game. In my adult games I am certainly in favor of life constantly hanging in the balance. Death should be omnipresent, so that there is real suspense when threats are encountered. Some folks might argue that the characters should always survive, because they're the heroes of their own epic stories. I don't see it that way. Characters shouldn't be destined for greatness: it should only seem like they were destined for greatness all along after - and only if - they become great. And when characters are prone to dying, it's more difficult for players to become too emotionally attached to their characters. They are able to keep a clean separation between the game and reality, and I think this would help some players enjoy the game even more. My youngest (age 7), for example, finds some of the encounters frightening and runs away. Maybe if she wasn't too concerned for her character's safety she would be bolder. Maybe. Then again, maybe the first time her character dies will teach her to never take chances again!

These are young children I'm refereeing, and truth be told they were emotionally attached to their characters before they even finished rolling them up. I doubt that the deaths of Elerisa and Fiona could be met without tears. By contrast, Norma has been on death's bed a couple of times and her player really couldn't have cared less (she loves playing, but I honestly don't think she cares what character she plays with). So I feel compelled to be at least somewhat careful with them, aiming for a delicate balance between danger and mercy. I won't be fudging the die rolls, but if characters die, it won't be because I put them up against something they didn't have a good chance of beating.

I thought that with my description of the dragon's huge bulk and the ease with which the monster flew off with a full-grown man, the players would have known better than to tangle with it. But these players are new to the game, and their assumption going in - and I don't think I ever said anything to give them this impression - is that their characters are mighty heroes destined for fame and fortune. So if Dad throws a black dragon in the game, that must mean they can take it on, right? After all, they have magic bows, cool spells, acrobatic skills, and more. In the context of their not having deep experience with the game (and older players to guide them), it's not too unreasonable for them to think this way. So it somehow would have seemed wrong for me to punish that assumption.

I do need to correct the assumption though. I've started with setting expectations: death is a real possibility, I won't fudge the rolls, and sometimes you've got to know when to run and know when to hide. I explained about dragons and what weaponized acid in aerosol form might do to a party of adventurers when delivered from above. On my end I'll be more careful about the encounter selections until the players have a firm grasp on their characters' limitations.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Open Game License

I probably should have taken care of this first thing. All Open Game Content on Homeschool RPG will be clearly marked as such and may only be used under and in terms of this license.


The following text is the property of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and is Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast, Inc ("Wizards"). All Rights Reserved.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Soft Skills

We tried something new this week. I think it has the potential to be a good thing, but it certainly didn't start out that way.

I assigned three special roles to the players: Mapper, Chronicler, and Caller. Mapper and Chronicler are pretty straightforward concepts and were easily understood by the kids, though I did have to give them the definition of "chronicle." The Caller role, by contrast, caused confusion and wreaked havoc in our gaming session.

The Caller, an unofficial role sometimes called Party Leader in past editions of the game, is the primary liaison between the players and the referee. The idea is to limit the chaos of five kids simultaneously trying to relate their characters' actions to me. The natural tendency is for each player to get louder in an effort to be heard over the others. I then quiet them down, but they just start over again from a lower volume point. If I go around the table and get their actions in turn, we find that one player's action is in opposition to what another player was trying to accomplish, leading to heated discussion and increased volume. And I'm not even talking about combat situations or any situation that calls for initiative rolls and taking turns (which goes smoothly). I'm talking about what the characters are doing while hanging out in the city.

Do we go to the bathhouse to clean up before shopping for nice clothes, or after?

Do the dwarf ladies shave their beards at the bathhouse or at the inn?

Do we get a room at a nice inn inside the city's inner wall (where only the wealthy reside), or outside the wall to save some money?

"I go to shave my beard."

"I'm going to the weapon store!"

"I'm looking for a candy shop."

If I allow each player to do what he/she declares, then everyone splits up, and soon the characters have no means by which to find each other in a strange city of over 150,000 souls.

Enter the Caller, whose job it is to facilitate the discussion, find out what everyone wants to do, put a plan together, then communicate the actions of the party to me with statements like, "We head for the gates of the inner wall." When describing this role, I was very careful to explain that the Caller is not the Party Leader. The Caller does not tell the others what to do, or make decisions for the party. The Caller is supposed to get consensus, then relay the group actions to me. That's how it works in theory, anyway.

The reality of the situation at my table was that the Virtues Fairy had to make a visit and take gold pieces from the Mapper, who actively resisted the Caller's efforts at gaining consensus, because in her mind the Caller was being "bossy." I was paying close attention, and although the Caller could have chosen her words better, she was trying to take a "team facilitator" style approach rather than a "boss" approach. The Mapper, however, assumed the worst intentions of the Caller and responded accordingly. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by this development.

The Caller also expressed difficulty with her role in that she was unsure how to present her own ideas without coming across as bossy. In her mind the other players didn't even have any ideas; they were just interrupting her while she tried to illuminate them with her own ideas! "Did you even hear them have any ideas?" she asks me even now as I type this. "Any brilliant sparks?'re not writing this, are you?" The truth was I did not, in fact, hear any strokes of genius from anyone else that day, but that's beside the point. You can see what I'm up against here.

Part of the problem is that most of the time she is the only one offering any suggestions that make any sense. She is probably correct in her belief that the game would go faster and the party would experience greater success if they would just do what she says. I can't argue with the truth of this, and so I'm a little bit sympathetic with her plight. It's not how the world works, though. She's not going to be in charge. People are going to have their own opinions about how to do things, and she is going to rub some people the wrong way whether she likes it or not. And the other players aren't going to have fun following her orders. Again, though, not that she was giving orders: she was trying to solicit ideas, even as she made sure to share her own. Yet she has much to learn about the arts of tact and negotiation, to name a few.

Now is the time for her - and her sisters - to learn how to deal with adversity and function in a team environment despite conflicting personalities. If I can help them learn these soft skills through our weekly gaming, I will be doing them a huge service, and the investment in the RPG will be well worth it.

As soon as I figure out how to teach these soft skills, I'll let you know!

Thursday, September 30, 2010


A few sessions ago, something happened to me that's never happened in 30 years of on-again, off-again game mastering: the players decided to completely bypass a dungeon I created for them.

The characters have this 3' long, rainbow colored feather belonging to a Couatl: a giant, intelligent, winged serpent. Couatl are typically good in nature (though not necessarily "friendly") and may be mistaken by primitive cultures as benevolent deities, but I digress. By looking at the feather through the Eye of Ilgerish, the characters noticed a pattern in the barbs. The feather was marked with the name of the Couatl from whom it came: Cualli Amoxti* , whose name is Nahuatl for "Good Book." The significance of this, or where they might find this Cualli Amoxti, remains a mystery. They made this discovery on the same day that a thief named Rixi attempted to steal the feather from them. They also learned that the person who hired her for the job was willing to pay 5,000 gold pieces for the feather, and had some goblins tracking it down for him too. They knew that this being was waiting for the feather a few miles away in an abandoned quarry. At long last they had a lead to help them understand the purpose of the feather which they had won in one of their first adventures, and which the voice of the ancient protector Duranys had called his "token" that would assist them in the discovery of his seven caches.

So I drew up the quarry and the dungeon carved from it, and I infested it with all kinds of goodies, including the bad guy (a hobgoblin, but there's more to him than that), his gang of goblins, a few assorted aberrations, some undead, a few nifty tricks and traps, and assorted clues and red herrings. It took a week to finish. It's not a big dungeon: it is intentionally small. But I customized it for these adventurers. It seemed like a really good fit for them.

But they didn't bite.

Instead they talked to Fibon's Skull, who is a fan of big city libraries and places of learning, and decided to travel to Port Manteau to seek the answers. Sure, I figured the party would eventually get there anyway. In fact, as readers of this blog may recall, I'd planned on it. It seemed like a better base of operations for deep exploration than the small villages we were using, and maybe even a good location for a proper megadungeon. It also fits in with Elerisa's aspirations to get back into "high society." But I wasn't in a rush to get them there because I find cities difficult. So they made the journey and on the way narrowly avoided a big confrontation while camping out in the rain. Now they're inside the city walls, and they suspect the hobgoblin and his crew may be there as well.

I'm left with a dungeon that will in all likelihood never be used, since it has little significance for the adventurers and is now fairly out of the way. In the old days, if such a thing had happened, I would have salvaged the parts. Although players never skipped entire dungeons on me, they did occasionally bypass whole sections of them. In these cases I simply reused the parts they missed in subsequent dungeons. Now, though, I find myself unwilling to do that. I've been sucked into this idea of the true sandbox, in which the game master creates his world, fills its places, and lets come what may. It is like a huge sandbox that the characters can play in, and they get to decide where they go and what they do. If I just move everything around so that they experience a planned series of events in a specific, predetermined order, then it renders their decisions meaningless. Just as you wouldn't want to go through life without self-determination, so would you disdain playing a character whose destiny is preordained. There's no pride of accomplishment in that kind of game. Therefore it's the players' decisions that must drive the story.

And so I'm left to risk all and create the megadungeon beneath the Port City of Manteau, regardless of whether they choose to descend into it or not. Hopefully this time I can make it sufficiently tempting, but just in case I can't, I'm only building a little bit at a time.

* Pronounced cu-ALL- ee ah-MOSH-tee.

Double Digits

I have 10 followers. Time to celebrate?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Creative Writing WIN!

I am really pleased with how adding role-playing games to our homeschooling curriculum is working out.

This week I made a worksheet for the kids to reinforce our brief narration modes discussion that we had during this past weekend's game session. You can see the worksheet in the picture. My eleven-year-old daughter missed one of the connections on the top portion, but then blew me away on the writing portion. I asked for only one paragraph, but when I got home from work last night, the passage below is what she handed in. Except for her character's internal reflections, the game events happened exactly as described here, including the dialog. At her request, spelling errors have been corrected, but I left everything else as is.

After just having devoured their huge feast of Browl [an owlbear they slew, renamed because they're near the Port City of Manteau], the questers put out their fires and divided up into watches. Elerisa bravely took the first watch along with Bubda. Bubda paced back and forth, his short bow at the ready. Elerisa sat against a large rock, watching Bubda's constant march. She started to think how much he reminded her of the elven palace guards back home, marching back and forth with an arrow on the string of their composite long bows ready to strike an enemy intruder through the heart. She longed to be back in her own room at her palace. There she would be in a silky nightgown, a pink robe, and warm fuzzy slippers, not stiff leather and chain mail. Plus she wouldn't be sitting against a hard rock in the rain. She would be sitting in her favorite comfy seat by the fire, next to a window with an excellent view of the palace garden. Then she heard something and snapped back into reality. Her hand instinctively reached for her magic composite long bow.

"Sounds like singing," whispered Bubda.

The tune of the song brought childhood memories rushing back to her. She remembered seeing a play. It had something to do with talking animals and friendly monsters. "Wasn't there like a giant bird or something?" she thought.*

Then she saw the faint outline of a group of things walking along the path far away. A bunch of goblins and their dogs, and a hobgoblin. Bubda pulled back the string of his bow but Elerisa stopped him. "Don't shoot unless we have to," she said. "They may not notice us."

Bubda nodded but kept his bow ready. Elerisa did the same. She pulled back the string, the arrow's metal tip sharpened to a deadly point, ready to pierce the flesh of any goblin that noticed them. Her magic bow pulsed in her grip, wanting to strike the enemy's heart. But she dared not let go for then they would surely see her. Pinky, who was sleeping soundlessly next to Fiona, raised her head and looked curiously at Elerisa. Elerisa saw her and raised a finger to her lips. Pinky involuntarily laid her head back down. Just then one of the goblins' dogs lurched in their direction. Elerisa pulled her arrow even farther back but still did not fire. The goblin pulled the dog away and kept walking. Elerisa and Bubda stood perfectly still for a good five minutes 'til they were sure the goblins were gone. They both let out a sigh of relief.

"That was good thinking," said Bubda. "If we had shot them, we would have gotten into a huge fight, and I don't know how much more damage I can take."

Then they woke Willa and Fiona for the second watch. Elerisa tried to imagine her makeshift tent was her royal bedroom. She tried to pretend her armor was silk and that the patch of grass she lay on was her memory-foam mattress. She pretended what little bit of trees she could see from the gap in the tent was the view of the garden. And she tried to imagine the warmth of the fire and its comforting glow.

"Funny," she thought, looking out at her pretend garden, "I've always wanted to go camping but I never thought it would be like this, and I really didn't think I would rather be at home."

Then she fell asleep.

This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping that RPGs would help facilitate.

* I had sung a verse of the goblins' "Stabby Day" song, to the tune of the Sesame Street theme.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Dragon

I got home on Friday and noticed this picture on the kitchen table. It's drawn by my youngest daughter who just turned seven. I love the fact that the dragon has an Asian feel to it. I think this look is influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Nickelodeon television series (specifically, the Firebending Masters episode). That the dragon lives in a cave at the top of a mountain bears this out. The braziers halfway up the stairs confused me, though, so I asked her what they were for.

"They're for sacrifices," she said. Now, she may have gotten this from the Avatar episode, but that would be a bit of a leap. Spoiler Alert: In that episode, two characters climb the stairs to make an offering of flame to the firebending masters, and find that the masters are, in fact, dragons. If the offering is not accepted, the dragons will eat the characters. So I figured this is the kind of sacrifice she meant. Not so.

"Did you get this from Avatar?" I asked.


"Well then, where did you get it from?"

"If they don't sacrifice to the dragon, the dragon will attack the village," she said.

"And where did you learn that?" I pressed.

"I just made it up."

I intend to probe further to find out if this is supposed to be a human sacrifice. I would love to know where she gets this stuff. I can tell you we haven't had any sacrifices at our game table. I suppose it's not outside the realm of possibility that she got it from Aztec history. While I think that sacrifices of various kinds are consistent with the pulp-fantasy literary roots of the game, they're not the kind of happenings I bring to the kids' game. Nephrym's Claw is as close as I've come to that kind of thing, and I won't be doing it again. The kids themselves appear to have forgotten it exists, and I'm not sure my youngest was even in the room when that whole episode went down.

I'm not sure why I suddenly feel the need to defend RPGs now, but for some reason I do. My kids' sense of the macabre pre-dates their role-playing days. I remember my oldest daughter, back when she was five, playing with her Polly Pockets and Fischer-Price toys, and the victors hung the defeated from the gallows. Very shocking, that, and I suspect we have Disney's Tarzan to blame. That daughter is a loving, empathetic child, albeit one with a dark streak when it comes to the dramatic. Many of her short stories involve people being devoured. So I'm not too worried about the influence of D&D on my kids: there's plenty of darker material out there doing the job already. The best I can do it keep our topics fairly mild and talk about those things they do get from popular culture sources.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Third Person and the Virtues Faerie

Today we played Pathfinder RPG with the two kids next door. My two oldest started going at it almost right away, arguing over who was going second in the marching order, and their friends sighed in frustration at having to wait until the argument was over for the game to continue. So I cut them off and told them that if they were going to argue, then they would have to argue in character, thereby suffering any natural consequences of doing so (like being overheard by monsters). My 9-year-old looked at me, said, "Ok," then turned to her sister and said, "Norma goes second!"

My oldest replied, "Since when do you talk about yourself in the third- wait, which one is it? Second person? Third person?"

"Third," I said.

"Yeah, that," she exclaimed, staring her sister down with a smug expression.

And so their assignment for Monday is to each write a one or two paragraph scene from today's adventure, from the point of view of their own character, but told in the third person narrative mode. After they've done that, I'm going to have them rewrite the scenes from the first person perspective.

Oh, and I almost forgot: my wife listened in on the game today and played an unusual character known as "the Virtues Faerie." Here's how it works: when the players aren't acting virtuously, like when they're fighting with each other to the point of disrupting the game and ruining everyone's fun, then she shows up and uses her magic to punish their misdeeds. She can take XP, gold, supplies, you name it. Anything she wants. Today she made off with 300 gp!

That settled things down quite nicely.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Old School for Homeschool?

This is going to be a long post. By the end of it I'll be making the case for using "Old School" D&D games in the homeschool classroom. If you wish to know how I arrived at that conclusion, then read on. You have been warned.

A few months ago when the kids and I decided we wanted to play D&D, I looked through my old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition books to re-familiarize myself with the rules, and I started poking around game stores again. A few things struck me. First, the 2nd Edition rules were kind of confusing. I'm not sure why I never noticed this before, but I have my theories and it's way too much to go into here. Second, I didn't really like the 2e rules. When I was much younger I thought 2e was an improvement on 1st Edition AD&D, but when I saw how poorly conceived the 2e rules seemed to me now, I started thinking, was the original game really that bad? Is that why I had sold my 1e books? I honestly can't recall. Finally, I learned that not only had a third edition been published and widely adopted (presumably), but a fourth edition was recently published too. I had missed a whole edition! I heard all these great things about both 3e and 4e, and for a brief moment in time I was seduced by the idea that each edition is necessarily an improvement on the last, so 4e must be the best. I was wrong.

I'm not saying 4th edition is bad; I'm just saying it's not for me, and I did not want to introduce my kids to D&D via that game. It looked like a card game, and my experiences playing in a 4e campaign with some adult friends of mine have since confirmed my suspicion.* So 3.5e seemed to be the way to go (I'm not sure what the difference is between editions 3 and 3.5, but people "in the know" seem to make a distinction, and thus so shall I). The problem with this approach was that Wizards of the Coast (WotC), publishers of D&D, had discontinued the 3rd Edition line of products. Did I want to get my kids into a game that was going away, and for which products may be hard to find? What would their friends be playing?

Enter Pathfinder RPG, from Paizo Publishing. A guy at One Eyed Jacques game store in the Carytown district turned me onto it and explained that it was a "continuation" of the 3rd edition game, just under a different name. He explained that a lot of people had chosen to go the Pathfinder route when 4e came out, and that its popularity was rising. To its credit all the rules a GM or player would ever need (not counting monsters) were in one book. I looked through that book and compared it to the 4e books several times and decided I did, in fact, prefer the Pathfinder (ergo D&D 3.5e+) approach, and I made the necessary purchases. I was actually excited by all the rules the D20 system (on which 3.5e and other games are based) had to offer to the game, and I got cracking on learning my way around them all.

I feel that I have a pretty strong grasp on the rules now. My knowledge isn't at all what I would call encyclopedic or even remotely close to that, but I can now find answers to any questions my players or I have pretty quickly, and more importantly, I understand the logic behind them. I see the reasoning behind how these rules came to be. For a brief, shiny moment, I actually approved. And if the rules seemed too unwieldy to keep the game session running smoothly, no problem! I would just do what I always did back in the day when I played 1st Edition: make a snap judgment call as the GM and, if necessary, codify the decision as a house rule.

Well, that hasn't been working out the way I planned. For whatever reason, it is far easier to make a house rule for a situation not covered in the rules than it is to create a house rule that intentionally ignores a written rule of the game. On the surface this makes no sense, but I'm betting that other GMs have had the same experience. Is it just that it's hard to let go of a rule, in the sense that there's some kind of mental block preventing us from straying from a rule when one exists? Maybe that's part of it, because at some level you need to be able to play with other people, and a common understanding of the rule set facilitates that. The default stance should be to stick to the "rules as written" (RAW), or so the reasoning might go, and only eliminate rules when absolutely necessary. But I think there's more to it than this. I suspect that it's in part because of how tightly interwoven the many pieces of the D20 system are. If you throw out this rule, what does that do to this class, or those monsters, or that spell? I'm just scratching the surface here, not going into specific examples, and I'm sure plenty of smarter, more intelligent people than me have debated this very topic ad nauseum. At the end of the day, I'm stuck with this heavy system that doesn't lend itself very well to streamlining. Or maybe I'm just too unimaginative to do it.

So I've made this big investment in materials and my kids have indicated they do not want to learn a new system. Who can blame them? They're still trying to wrap their minds around the colossal rule set we're using now. They like Pathfinder, and they're just now starting to really get it, but they have a long way to go if they want to be able to spread the love to their friends who don't game yet. They're still young, they'll get there. On the plus side, it is cool, in a way, how this amazingly complex system fits together and manages to cover so many possible situations in a logical way. I'm impressed by what the designers have accomplished, and by Pathfinder's interpretation and presentation in particular, but I'm not sure it's an actual improvement on the game of D&D itself as originally designed.

I've been reading this blog called Grognardia by this guy James Maliszewski who is a thought-provoking voice for the so-called "Old School" movement. There's no way I could do this movement justice in so small a space, but I'll make the attempt all the same. Old Schoolers are people who strive to bring back the game as it was played - or perhaps as the designers intended it to be played? - back when the game was first published. It is more than simple nostalgia, although there's more than a little bit of that: it is an attempt to understand the literary sources that inspired D&D's creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as well as other early game designers, and bring those influences back into the game. It is people analyzing the original rules and supplements (collectively known as OD&D, or "Original D&D"), divining intent, and in many cases, designing and publishing their own games that evoke the "spirit" of OD&D more than later editions do. The dimensions along which D&D and other RPGs have transformed since 1974 are many and make for very interesting reading. I'm going to look at just one aspect: the "incompleteness" of OD&D, and how this puts the GM and players in the role of game designers, which I think is a good thing. Especially for homeschoolers.

One of the strengths of early versions of the game, in the minds of Old Schoolers, is that the rules were pretty bare bone. You might even call them incomplete. When situations arose that weren't covered by the rules, or where the rules were fuzzy or vague, the GM (sometimes with the help of the players) made up a rule on the fly. These "house rules" often reflected the sensibilities of the participants and how they saw the game, so that each group playing the game was really playing their own unique version of it. This allowed for great creativity, not just in the areas of role-playing, character "story" telling (a bit of a dangerous word to use in Old School circles), and adventure creation, but also in the design of the game itself. In a way, as the participants filled in the blanks in unique ways to make the game playable, they were participating in the design of their very own game. I did quite a lot of this myself back in the day, and it was, in fact fun.

Younger generations don't tend to see it that way. They see missing or "broken" rules that need to be fixed in future editions. Instead of seeing opportunities for their own design ideas to be injected into the game they play, they see ways for GMs to unfairly lord it over players, with a sturdy, comprehensive rule set as the only defense against this injustice. Like true Old Schoolers, I don't believe this was ever a credible threat, as unfair GMs should in theory become unpopular GMs who lose their players. In my own experiences I never suffered the legendary evil GM out to kill the player characters. And as a GM myself (95% of the time that was my job), I know I strove to be as fair as possible, and my players kept coming back for more. But now I'm not only digressing, but also bragging.

Am I an Old Schooler? In my heart I am, but in practice I am not, simply because I haven't made the commitment to playing an Old School style game. I'm playing a game that is far, far removed from the original game. Like others, I started in 1979 playing Dungeons & Dragons, what's sometimes called the "Holmes" boxed set. That is Old School, so I at least was Old School. Around the same time, the "Advanced" rules were being published, ostensibly to address incomplete rules, and like other kids at the time, I figured that meant that the box set I had was the "beginner" version. So I bought the AD&D books (later known as 1st Edition), and that still seems to count as Old School. But somewhere along the line I got lost, sold my 1e books, picked up 2nd Edition, and bought into the whole notion that rules needed to encompass as many different scenarios as possible. Now I see that that actually limits creativity, and worse, it greatly slows down the game. Your OD&D character died? Roll up a new one, takes 5 minutes max. Your 3.5e character died? Ooh, that's a lot of work, let's say he didn't die. Let's say he's in a coma or something. Because creating that character in the first place is 90+ minutes of our lives that we'll never get back.

I haven't even touched on the thematic differences between the old games and the new ones, but let's just say that there are some basic underlying assumptions about what the game of D&D should be about that have drastically changed over the years. For examples, look up the role of "story" in D&D over the years and the gradual reduction of the centrality of the dungeon crawl as an adventure type. I happen to find the earlier conceptions of the game more appealing.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I wish I had discovered the Old School movement back when I was deciding what edition to play with the kids. If I had, we might be playing Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or even Lamentations of the Flame Princess. All Old School games. And my kids and I would have had to figure out for ourselves how to adjudicate the "incomplete" rules for the myriad situations their characters would find themselves in. There would be discussions about fairness and mathematical probabilities, and creative solutions to interesting problems. How do you determine if an armored character can make a leap over a chasm? What is her likelihood for success? How do you make a fair rule to determine success? I ask you, how could this not be good for a young person's mind?

And besides, how can you not like that Labyrinth Lord cover art?

*Yet I continue to play in that 4e campaign. We have fun, so can 4e be fun? Sure. It's just not the same game, and it doesn't seem as fun to me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mixed Company

We've been facing a challenge in our Pathfinder RPG game that I haven't yet decided how best to address. The issue is that we have three groups of players (but only three possible group combinations, not seven), and no consistency around when the groups can play. The groups are as follows:
  • My three kids;
  • Their two friends from next door;
  • My wife and our "friend family" (a couple and their daughter).
The valid group combinations are:
  • My three kids alone (call this Group A);
  • My kids plus their friends (call this Group B);
  • My family plus our friend family (Group C).
The default configuration is Group B because the neighbors are more frequently available than our friend family. That, and my kids - without consulting me - promised their friends they wouldn't play without them. I'm not exactly thrilled about this, but then again, the neighbor's boy is the only player of the five of them who actually understands what's going on in the adventure. He remembers the details, whereas my girls get the big picture but seldom recall the details. Last session, for example, they couldn't remember a word of what the talking skull revealed to them. This kind of thing is important for keeping the momentum at the start of the next session; I don't want to have to repeat everything that was said and done previously. The kids should be able to maintain an awareness of context. So as it regards to the boy, it's nice to have someone so involved in the game. I just wish it was my own child.

We're getting there, I think. It's just slow going. But I digress.

You'll notice that I didn't call out all nine players as a fourth grouping. This is because I don't feel comfortable with the idea of inviting the kids next door over to play when our friend family plays. The get-togethers with our friend family are special. They're about our personal fellowship with them, not about the game. Bringing in the kids from next door creates a dynamic, especially between my own kids, that I think would be disruptive to that fellowship.

So the big questions are:
  1. How to manage / explain the absence of characters played by the absent group(s).
  2. What to do with the characters while they're away.
Last weekend Group B played, whereas the session before that was Group C. The first question that came up was how we accounted for the two characters' absence during the C session, followed by how to have them meet up again. The kids want continuity in the
"story," so it's not as easy as just starting up play as though they were never gone. We ended up losing almost half an hour catching everyone up by relating a little side story of how the "missing" characters wound up back with the group (a task that should take 5 minutes max), then a series of uncoordinated snack and beverage breaks spontaneously broke out. Now we potentially have another Group C session coming up in a few weeks, and based on where the adventure is heading, the transition from group to group will happen underground in the middle of a dungeon.

Do I keep the party together and role play the missing characters as NPCs? I've thought about handling it this way. On the up side, it keeps everyone together and the characters all level up at the same rate. On the downside, it's a pain in the you-know-what for me to manage, and I fear for what happens when someone's character dies when they weren't even playing him.

The way I used to do it back in college was something like this:

Party: "Where is Gark?"
Me: "Hmm, you don't see Gark. Maybe he wandered off."
Party: "Ok, he'll probably catch up to us later."

...and the game moved on. When Gark's player joined us next time, it was as simple as, "Oh, there you are, Gark! What happened?" "I dunno, guess I got lost."

I tried this approach with my kids, and they almost got it. They knew better than to go looking for their friends, but they had trouble moving on with the adventure. "If we leave town to explore, how will they find us?" they asked. My answer: it's not important. They just "caught up," and leave it at that so that the game can move on. You would think this would be an easy thing to explain and grasp, but I've known grown-up players who couldn't handle it. I once had a classmate who missed a session call me up at home in tears, wondering if her character was lost, injured, or worse, and when I assured her that her character was fine and would be found whenever she played again, she needed reassurance that she would still have all her stuff. Yeah, I stopped playing with that crowd.

Not sure where I thought this post was going, but I'm done writing.