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.

1. Definitions: (a)"Contributors" means the copyright and/or trademark owners who have contributed Open Game Content; (b)"Derivative Material" means copyrighted material including derivative works and translations (including into other computer languages), potation, modification, correction, addition, extension, upgrade, improvement, compilation, abridgment or other form in which an existing work may be recast, transformed or adapted; (c) "Distribute" means to reproduce, license, rent, lease, sell, broadcast, publicly display, transmit or otherwise distribute; (d)"Open Game Content" means the game mechanic and includes the methods, procedures, processes and routines to the extent such content does not embody the Product Identity and is an enhancement over the prior art and any additional content clearly identified as Open Game Content by the Contributor, and means any work covered by this License, including translations and derivative works under copyright law, but specifically excludes Product Identity. (e) "Product Identity" means product and product line names, logos and identifying marks including trade dress; artifacts; creatures characters; stories, storylines, plots, thematic elements, dialogue, incidents, language, artwork, symbols, designs, depictions, likenesses, formats, poses, concepts, themes and graphic, photographic and other visual or audio representations; names and descriptions of characters, spells, enchantments, personalities, teams, personas, likenesses and special abilities; places, locations, environments, creatures, equipment, magical or supernatural abilities or effects, logos, symbols, or graphic designs; and any other trademark or registered trademark clearly identified as Product identity by the owner of the Product Identity, and which specifically excludes the Open Game Content; (f) "Trademark" means the logos, names, mark, sign, motto, designs that are used by a Contributor to identify itself or its products or the associated products contributed to the Open Game License by the Contributor (g) "Use", "Used" or "Using" means to use, Distribute, copy, edit, format, modify, translate and otherwise create Derivative Material of Open Game Content. (h) "You" or "Your" means the licensee in terms of this agreement.

2. The License: This License applies to any Open Game Content that contains a notice indicating that the Open Game Content may only be Used under and in terms of this License. You must affix such a notice to any Open Game Content that you Use. No terms may be added to or subtracted from this License except as described by the License itself. No other terms or conditions may be applied to any Open Game Content distributed using this License.

3.Offer and Acceptance: By Using the Open Game Content You indicate Your acceptance of the terms of this License.

4. Grant and Consideration: In consideration for agreeing to use this License, the Contributors grant You a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license with the exact terms of this License to Use, the Open Game Content.

5.Representation of Authority to Contribute: If You are contributing original material as Open Game Content, You represent that Your Contributions are Your original creation and/or You have sufficient rights to grant the rights conveyed by this License.

6.Notice of License Copyright: You must update the COPYRIGHT NOTICE portion of this License to include the exact text of the COPYRIGHT NOTICE of any Open Game Content You are copying, modifying or distributing, and You must add the title, the copyright date, and the copyright holder's name to the COPYRIGHT NOTICE of any original Open Game Content you Distribute.

7. Use of Product Identity: You agree not to Use any Product Identity, including as an indication as to compatibility, except as expressly licensed in another, independent Agreement with the owner of each element of that Product Identity. You agree not to indicate compatibility or co-adaptability with any Trademark or Registered Trademark in conjunction with a work containing Open Game Content except as expressly licensed in another, independent Agreement with the owner of such Trademark or Registered Trademark. The use of any Product Identity in Open Game Content does not constitute a challenge to the ownership of that Product Identity. The owner of any Product Identity used in Open Game Content shall retain all rights, title and interest in and to that Product Identity.

8. Identification: If you distribute Open Game Content You must clearly indicate which portions of the work that you are distributing are Open Game Content.

9. Updating the License: Wizards or its designated Agents may publish updated versions of this License. You may use any authorized version of this License to copy, modify and distribute any Open Game Content originally distributed under any version of this License.

10 Copy of this License: You MUST include a copy of this License with every copy of the Open Game Content You Distribute.

11. Use of Contributor Credits: You may not market or advertise the Open Game Content using the name of any Contributor unless You have written permission from the Contributor to do so.

12 Inability to Comply: If it is impossible for You to comply with any of the terms of this License with respect to some or all of the Open Game Content due to statute, judicial order, or governmental regulation then You may not Use any Open Game Material so affected.

13 Termination: This License will terminate automatically if You fail to comply with all terms herein and fail to cure such breach within 30 days of becoming aware of the breach. All sublicenses shall survive the termination of this License.

14 Reformation: If any provision of this License is held to be unenforceable, such provision shall be reformed only to the extent necessary to make it enforceable.

Open Game License v 1.0 Copyright 2000, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

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!