Thursday, July 29, 2010

To Use the Claw, or Not to Use the Claw?

The topic of today's entry is about how one of the players used Nephrym's Claw, and how I kept it from being too dark for the kids. But first, a little bit of business to make reading and writing this blog easier.

You may have noticed that I refer to my kids as 'O', 'S', and 'N'. Obviously I wish to keep my kids' names anonymous for their protection. I'm not sure whether this is absolutely necessary in the case of this blog, but when it comes to the Internet, I would rather not take unnecessary risks. Using single letters, however, just doesn't look right to me. When I read back over my entries, I keep seeing the single letters as typos. I considered just making up fake names for the players, but I've come to a different decision. From now on I'm just going to refer to the names of the characters, not the players. You'll just have to use context clues to differentiate between when I'm talking about the players or when I'm talking about their characters.

Back to the story. Norma and Willa, being dwarfs who are good at this sort of thing, noticed that a 10' x 10' bit of the floor they were standing on was a trap. They announced it to the party and everyone started removing themselves from the area. We rolled initiative to determine turns. Fiona the halfling stepped off the way she came, as did Bubda the Beat-boxing Bard. Elerisa, however, had already gotten past the trap and was standing on the bottom step of a spiral stone staircase. For her turn she moved further up the stairs. The third step was the trigger, the section of floor gave way beneath the dwarfs, and they went down a steep slide that dumped them into a pit filled with giant centipedes. This made for a nice little sequence with a cinematic feel, with the hapless dwarfs tumbling away into the darkness, then a split-second of weightlessness followed by a "squish!" as they were dumped into the pit of writhing bugs. When I showed them the picture of the giant centipedes in the Bestiary, all five kids yelled, "Ewww!"

The two dwarfs spied a hole in the wall across the pit through which they could escape, but as they were wading through the centipedes to get there, Willa, who was already a bit low on hit points, took some serious damage and failed a saving throw against poison. Her character went to below zero hit points, which pretty much means you're unconscious and going to die unless somebody does something to help you.

Norma got across and dragged her friend to safety. The escape hole involved some spelunking which she handled fine, even dragging the body of her fallen colleague. The hole led to a corridor that sloped down even deeper into the temple and which came to a dead end. Norma searched for secret doors and found one that opened up behind the bookshelf of the the wizard's laboratory where they had earlier found Fibon's skull. This time she searched the room more completely, hoping to find some healing potion. Instead she found Nephrym's Claw and a tiny Quasit Demon who was still in the room (trapped in a heptagram, long story) who told her how the Claw worked, daring her to use it.

Norma deliberated for several minutes. She's got a firm grasp on mathematics and knew she could survive a cut from the Claw, but it was the permanent hit point loss that made the decision difficult, plus the fact that she didn't know what else might still be out there to deal her more damage and put her below zero HP. To make matters worse, the episode with Fibon's skull was still fresh in her mind, and she wasn't sure who she could trust. Perhaps the demon was lying? Meanwhile, her friend with the unconscious character was urging her to do it, or else she would die.

Ultimately she took the plunge (as did the Claw) and harmed herself for the good of her friend.

Now, when Norma first entered the room and started searching, I considered not mentioning the Claw and just throwing some healing potion in there. I ignored the whim, though, and went with the Claw. In my mind's eye I picture a character struggling in vain to control the depth of the cut to limit damage, but the talon's dark hunger is just too powerful. The Claw violently jabs itself in deeper into the flesh than the character intends. This is the gory detail I decided to leave out. Instead, I described it in purely mathematical terms. Norma announced she was using the device, I rolled damage, and announced the effect on her hit points. She used the blood from the Claw to revive her friend and restore her to almost her maximum hit points, and off they went to catch back up with the others. Everyone was happy.

...except for the diminutive, ageless demon, screaming his evil little head off, demanding to be released, but left to remain - maybe forever - in a small heptagram painted on the floor of an abandoned wizard's lab deep beneath a forgotten, underground temple.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Skull of Fibon

The kids discovered an old wizard's laboratory deep in the bowels of the temple, and one of the things they found there was a talking skull. For the skull I used a voice similar to Tommy Chong's, but not quite so druggy. Now, the back story on the skull is that in life it belonged to a world-renowned sage known as Fibon the Wise. Fibon was killed by a wicked necromancer, and his soul was trapped in the skull, no longer living, but unable to move on.

The skull will attempt to answer any question posed to it, for Fibon was known in life for his kindness and desire to share his knowledge with curious minds. In a cruel twist, though, the necromancer placed a curse on the skull that prevents it from always telling the truth. For a given group of people, the skull will alternately tell the truth or lie depending on the Fibonacci Sequence. Thus, when a party meets the skull, it will answer truthfully on the first, second, third, fifth, eighth, and thirteenth questions, etc. All other questions will be answered with a lie. If the skull tells the truth out of sequence, it will begin to crack. After the third such violation, the skull will crumble into dust and the soul will be released. But Fibon's skull has no wish to move on, for it desires to see more, learn more, and know more, as well as to share what it knows with anyone willing to learn. Therefore it will go right on, er, fibbing.

Naturally the kids didn't have this background knowledge. As far as they were concerned it was just a congenial sounding skull in a wizard's laboratory. Right off the bat they got some good information from it, specifically, how to navigate the temple to get to their goal (it told them the route, not how to get past any obstacles or guardians. It would have told them that, too, if they had thought to ask). Anyway, the intel seemed good, so they grabbed the skull (Bubda the Beatboxing Bard carried it) and off they went.

There were some other goodies in the room, such as Nephrym's Claw, but they forgot to search through it. Seriously, how do you not search a wizard's laboratory? Oh well.

The skull had told them to first go up the stairs to the maze, so that's what they did. Turns out the maze was an illusion which they were able to see through because of a magic eyeball they had already found, and in that maze was a gelatinous cube. For those of you who don't know, the gelatinous cube is a big, gooey mass of acid that slides through dungeon corridors consuming everything in its path. Very slowly the cube started to approach them. The cube is slow enough, and the characters, having seen through the illusion, understood the true, wide-open dimensions of the room they were in, so that they could have easily avoided contact with the cube. But no, they're kids, they're first time adventurers, and they have no idea what they're up against. They're understandably curious. So they started asking the skull questions about the cube.

By this time they were up to question number three. "What is that thing?" they asked.

"That? Why, that's a gelatinous cube." (3. true)

"Is it nice?"

"Yes!" (4. false)

"To elves, dwarfs, halflings and humans?"

"Oh, heavens no!" (5. true)

This caused some confusion. Could the skull be trusted? They were not so sure. "Can it speak?" they asked.

"Yes!" (6. false)

This was the lie that caused them the most trouble, for as the gelatinous cube slowly, inexorably drew nearer and nearer, they wasted their time trying to talk to it. O even gamely declared she would speak to it in the elfin tongue, and rolled a d20. It stubbornly refused to answer (it is effectively a mindless predator/scavenger, after all). Soon it was upon them, and O's elf character went down hard to the creature's acidic slam attack. If not for the druid's Cure Light Wounds spell, the elf would have perished. The battle commenced and it took awhile for the idea of running away to finally dawn on them.

I wish I had written down all the questions they asked the skull over the course of the encounter. Instead of tracking each individual question, I just tracked the sequence so I would know what was coming next, the truth or a lie. So I used a little tic sheet that looked like this ('T' for True, 'F' for False):

T T T F T F F T F F F F T F F F F F F F T ...

...and I just answered each question accordingly and marked them off as we went. Things started moving quickly and it got a little chaotic, so unfortunately I can't recall exactly what went on after the sixth question, the one that got them into so much trouble. It seems to me that they wasted number 8, or maybe "wasted" is too harsh. More likely their eighth question just wasn't one that would enlighten them about the nature of the skull or the gelatinous menace. By the time the thirteenth question rolled around they didn't trust the answers anyway. At one point the skull had told them that the cube was its "cousin Vinnie."

The neighbors' kids got called home for the night, but just before they left they threatened to cast the skull into the cube unless it answered their questions truthfully. Then they rattled off a bunch of rapid fire questions and the skull, desperate to avoid dissolving in the hideous goo, slipped up and spoke a truth when it should have lied. "Yes, that was a lie! Aaarrrggghhh!" it cried as a painful crack opened across its cranium.

"Ah Ha!" exclaimed the kids triumphantly. "Now we got him!" But one of the kids - I'm not sure which one - said, "Wait a minute...that was weird. What's going on with that?"

We'll see what happens when we resume playing on Monday.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nephrym's Claw

This is going to be an ongoing struggle for me. When I play D&D with adults, I run a much darker game. Maybe too dark for my kids.

For example, the dungeon the kids are in now has this little gem hidden in it:

Nephrym's Claw

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

Nephrym's Claw is a black talon the length of a dagger. It's a poor weapon (-2 attack bonus), but that's not what it's for. The Claw allows you to do damage to yourself (1d6 + your level), during which it takes some of your blood. It transforms your blood into an elixir which you can then use to heal your friends for three times the damage you took. You cannot heal yourself with it, although you can be healed through any normal means...

...but the Claw is hungry, so it keeps one of your hit points permanently for itself. For example, if you had 20 hp and took 10 hp of damage to heal your friends with, and then found some other healing for yourself, the most hit points you could get back is 9 for a total of 19. You can still increase hit points when you gain levels, but you'll never get that one hit point back.

I considered making it take a constitution point instead, and still might, but that's not the point of this blog entry. The question is, is this thing too dark for a kids' campaign? It's my three girls (11, 9, and 6), and the next door neighbors' kids (boy, 9, and girl, 7).

My gut says yes, but I really, really like Nephrym's Claw. So much cooler than saying, "You find a potion of healing and a +1 magic dagger." And don't even get me started on who or what Nephrym might have been. That could go anywhere.

I'm sure I'll waffle on this decision right up until they get to the room it's in. You know, the one that has the talking skull in it.

Teaching Virtues with an RPG

My wife and I encourage our children to lead meaningful lives by "teaching to virtues." What this means is we point to well-defined virtues* as examples to guide their behaviors. Now the truth is that my wife is more focused than me on this, and she's way more consistent about taking advantage of "teachable moments" (to use the terminology of the Virtues Project) to reinforce the virtues. I want to get better, though, or at least not make things worse.

Is there a way to teach the virtues through an RPG?

I think there is, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. An obvious one is that the kids can't start to think of D&D as school or lessons. The moment the game feels like a class to them, that's when the magic ends. The focus must always be first and foremost on having fun. Everything after that is gravy, but if the kids aren't having fun, they won't play, and there go your teachable moments.

So I toyed with the idea of adding something called "virtue points" (VP) to go along experience points (XP). The idea was that whenever one of the player's characters exercised one of the virtues, I would award some VP to the player. I would say something like, "And here's 50 VP for showing gratitude to the spirit Naga." VP would help a character level up just like XP.

The more I thought about it, though, the more the idea rankled with me. For starters, levels in D&D correspond to improvements in battle competence, spell casting, or turning undead, etc. The virtues are not logically tied to these things in any way. Generosity, for example, will not help you draw a weapon faster or develop a whirlwind attack.

More importantly, awarding special points for demonstrating virtues through play is so obviously transparent that kids will see right through it. Worse, it would railroad the kids into certain behavior patterns and discourage them from "letting go" and expressing their creativity through the development of their characters in a natural way. In other words, I would rather learn about who my kids really are by watching how they play their characters than dictate to them how they should play the game.

Still, I'm the parent, and I do want to take advantage of this situation to shape their character. The better way to do it, I think, is through natural in-game consequences.

For example, my oldest daughter, who we shall refer to as 'O' (age 11), has played her character as a person of great generosity, mercy, and self-restraint. The first time I noticed this was really interesting. The party had just rescued a raving lunatic from an oubliette. Once rescued, the man was eager to get away, because he was (1) hungry, (2) unarmed and nearly naked, and (3) alert to the presence of monsters nearby. O gave him a bit of bread, but she did not want to let him leave. She was interested in keeping him around as a guide. He begged and begged, but she did not waver. She considered casting a Sleep spell on him, tying him up, and dragging him behind them as they went through the dungeon. The man became so desperate that he took a swing at her. I rolled an 8 on a d20, a miss. O had this look on her face of mingled confusion and pity, and said, "Ok, you can go." She did not strike back. It was an odd moment.

A few days later they ran into the same guy in town. He was feeling better, more himself since being fed and clothed. It turns out he's a bard who was accused by the local lord of "kissing" his wife (have to keep it clean for the kids), but what really happened was she kissed him. The perils of having an 18 charisma, right? But I digress. He thanked the party for their mercy and restraint and volunteered to guide them around town, no charge. O's restraint at the oubliette paid dividends, and I didn't have to clumsily call out the virtues.

Later the party fought some kobolds, and a few surrendered after their buddies abandoned them. Now when I was growing up, my players would have tortured the captives for information and killed them, or perhaps pressed them into service as guides and kill them later. Under no circumstances would they have been allowed to live. Apparently that's not how O rolls, though. The room had five exits, and her only concern was that the kobolds would know which way the party went and blab to the others. So she used ("wasted," my old chums would say) a Sleep spell and the party slipped away through one of the exits while the kobolds snoozed.

They're still in that dungeon. If they get lost, they may run into one of those kobolds again, and maybe he'll give them just the tiniest bit of aid for the mercy she showed them.

I just had another idea. I could keep a tally of the characters' virtuous behaviors and award bonuses to charisma-based rolls for things like diplomacy and bluff** checks. This makes more sense logically because a character who is seen as virtuous will be considered more trustworthy. I'd want to keep it kind of behind the scenes, though, for the same reasons that I wouldn't want to have an explicit VP points system. The way I'd play it is I'd tell them the DC (difficulty class - I'm not going to assume all my readers*** are gamers just yet) is 14 instead of 15 or something, and say something like "you have a reputation for your honesty" and/or "people are hearing about how you treated [fill-in-the-blank NPC] with respect." That way the behavior is reinforced more often than not, but it looks like the luck of the dice when they succeed. And it would still have that element of chance. I'm not sure about this approach yet, though. It probably needs some work.

* I'm all about teaching to the virtues, and the Family Virtues Guide is an invaluable resource, but something about this site just rubs me the wrong way. What it is, I'm not certain. Something about the branding just makes it seem so, I don't know…smug?

** Hmm, bluff: "Great job using your virtues, kids! Now, roll a d20 to see if the NPC believes your lies."

*** lol "ALL" my readers. Plural. Ha!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thoughts on How to Make the Learning Stick

At the beginning of each gaming session I ask the kids a series of questions and give tiny bits of candy (e.g., a single M&M) for correct answers. Last time we did this I asked rules-related questions like which dice to use for attacks and why we roll initiative. While familiarity with the rules does make for a smoother gaming experience, I think there is potential to use this technique for greater good.

Next time I'm going to start with questions about the words we learned last week.

Expanding Our Vocabulary

I imagine this will be a recurring topic on this blog because RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons lend themselves to expanding one's vocabulary. In fact, the Pathfinder RPG's "Game Mastery Guide" dedicates a whole page to wonderfully rich and descriptive words every Gamemaster (GM) should know.

During last week's session, we learned the following words:

  • dexterity
  • constitution
  • charisma / charismatic
  • prestidigitation
  • cache
  • token
  • demesnes
  • stalagmites, stalactites, and columns
  • plebe
  • shaman
  • ziggurat
  • tapestry
  • monologue (and the quasi-words: monologuer and monologuing)
  • heptagon

There were some others I forgot to write down.

There's an interesting thread here on the subject.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

No Need for Speed

The five adventurers were attacked by kobolds almost as soon as they entered the room: four kobold "grunts," and two sergeants riding on dire weasels. The kids rolled initiative to determine the order of combat, and the fight was underway. The battle was pretty much decided in just four rounds and wrapped up in five. This is equivalent to 30 seconds of in-game time.

This sequence took 35 minutes to play.

"This game is slow," said one of the kids, a boy who normally plays video games. He's right, of course: the same sequence would have taken less than a minute to play out in a video game. For a brief moment I thought, that's it, I've lost him. Video games have spoiled him. But that turned out not to be the case. He wasn't complaining, he was just making an observation. This battle took place near the beginning of a marathon six-hour session during which he repeatedly commented about how cool he thought the game was and how much fun he was having.

One of the biggest complaints you hear about D&D is how slow it is, especially compared to video games. This session, and how the kids responded, got me wondering about what's going on, and why the slow pace of D&D (or any other RPG for that matter) doesn't appear to be as much of an impediment to having fun as one might think it would be.

For starters, I think kids like the suspense. They sit on the edge of their seats, waiting for their turns to come around, thinking about what they want to do next, and wondering if they're going to succeed at doing something heroic. When a monster takes aim at their characters, the tension gets even more exquisite: will it hit them? How much damage will it do? Will they survive?

Multiply this effect by the amount of time it took them to roll up their characters and you start to see the power of this suspense (for those of you not familiar with D&D, rolling up a character is a non-trivial exercise and often requires a separate session). It's not like a video game where you just get another life and you're back in the same battle 10 seconds later. There are no resets, and the D&D world is internally consistent: if the characters die and the players roll up new ones to return to the same spot, they'll find the remains of their old characters there - assuming the monsters haven't eaten them! By then, maybe the treasure is gone, and maybe the monsters are on high alert for more intruders.

Video games, like so much else today, give you instant gratification. So something that makes you wait for the payload is really going to stand out by contrast. Like Christmas. Having to wait for it is a big part of what makes that day so much more special for the kids.

Another reason the speed isn't a big deal is that the kids are aware of the slowness of the game, and that knowledge adds weight to the decisions they have to make. For example, I'm sure that part of what went through their minds when they came to the four-way intersection (described in my last entry) was worry about choosing the wrong path and getting stuck wandering around that dungeon for hours on end. If we go this way we'll find what we're looking for, but if we go that way we'll get sidetracked. No wonder they were practically at each others' throats trying to decide! (in a fun way)

So I guess what I'm saying is this: the snail's pace of D&D is not its greatest weakness, but rather its greatest strength. Wizards of The Coast (WoTC), who owns the Dungeons and Dragons brand, has with its 4th edition* attempted to grab the attention of a younger crowd by making their game more similar to video games. Most of their changes have to do with balance between character classes and nothing at all to do with the speed of the game, but a few do. Only time will tell if this was a good business decision for them. I'm not so sure it is, because I don't think WoTC has a clear understanding of what it is exactly that makes the game so fun. Besides, they'll never beat video games at their own, er, game.

The more D&D distances itself from video games, the better off it will be.

*I'm actually running the Pathfinder system, from a company called Paizo Publishing. The Pathfinder RPG is more like D&D 3.5 edition than WoTC's 4th edition is. So from a brand perspective, I'm not playing D&D at all: I'm playing Pathfinder. But Pathfinder is basically built on the d20 system which was the foundation for D&D 3e and 3.5. I still say, "Hey kids, let's play D&D." I'm LOVING Pathfinder, by the way.

Monday, July 19, 2010

You're in a Corridor...

"...and you come to a four-way intersection."

I never would have thought that such a simple statement as this could so enthrall an audience of kids raised in the age of video games. But it did. I was running my three kids through a D&D adventure, and they had invited two of their friends over from next door to play their very first role-playing game (RPG), when they came to the intersection. This simple choice created quite a stir. Said the nine-year-old boy from next door, his eyes wide open and his voice full of excitement and anticipation: "This is the cool stuff! This is it! Which way do we go? We don't know which way to go, and we have to decide!"

A few minutes later, after they had decided to go down the left corridor, I described the passage as sloping downward. "Yeah!" he cried, practically jumping out of his seat. "That's the stuff! That's where we'll find the treasure!"

Now that my kids are hooked, they want to get as many of their friends playing the game as possible. They're asking me if they can play D&D during "Game Day" with their homeschooling group. My wife and I are going to look into it and see what the interest level is. I am assuming we're going to see interest from at least a few of them, because D&D is an activity that offers many learning opportunities.

I've decided to start this blog for anyone who has wondered about using D&D in the context of homeschooling, to share my experiences and ideas with anyone who cares to read them. I have many thoughts on the subject that I'll begin to share in future threads, and I bet I can learn a lot from homeschoolers and others who read this blog and post their comments.

Hope to see you around the next bend in the corridor!