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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Eye of Ilgerish

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

The kids found this one in the same wizard's laboratory where they found Fibon's Skull and Nephrym's Claw. Okay, okay, so magic treasures were a tad abundant that day. Maybe I was feeling generous. The dangers of that dungeon offered commensurate risk, though, and none of the artifacts can be used without a price. The Eye of Ilgerish is no exception.

The Eye is literally an over-sized, bloodshot eyeball with a red cornea. It's actually about the size of a baseball. Despite its rigid appearance, it's not hard like marble, but it's not exactly squishy either. Whoever Ilgerish was, she was made of tougher stuff than the flesh of mere mortals. The eye is rather slippery, and must be handled with care to avoid dropping it. The reason it's slippery is that the eye must be kept in a saline solution, else it becomes agitated and ineffective. Agitating the Eye is a bad idea, as we shall see.

The sclera (the white part) goes all the way around, and there's a hole in the back that you can look through. Using the Eye in this way is like using a Gem of Seeing. Now, I know what you're probably thinking: the Gem of Seeing is considered a major wondrous item and has no business in the hands of low level characters. I agree, which is why I've limited its power and made consequences for its use.

In terms of limits, the big one is time. The Gem of Seeing can be used in 5 minute increments for up to 30 minutes per day. The Eye of Ilgerish , by contrast, can only be used as long as the player using it can keep her own eyes open without blinking, and that only three times per day. The GM times the player with a stopwatch and divides the number of seconds by 6 to arrive at the maximum number of rounds the Eye can be used in that instance. Beyond that number of rounds, the Eye's magical effects become somewhat distorted and unreliable. Double that duration and the user can't see anything at all through it. Additionally, even before the normal duration passes, the range conveyed upon a mortal user of the Eye is only 60', as compared to the 120' conveyed by a true Gem of Seeing. Finally, the eye is so slippery that it must be handled with two hands. To use it one-handed, the character must succeed on a DC 20 sleight of hand skill check. Using the Eye is a standard action.

Now, on to the consequences! First, a little background. Ilgerish is a powerful demonic being of the Abyss who once ran amok in the characters' world's distant past. When her earthly manifestation was destroyed, some of her physical parts remained behind to wreak havoc among mortals. The Eye is one such part. In her native form (still alive and well in the Abyss), Ilgerish still has all of her eyes, and one of them is the analog for the Eye in the characters' possession. Ilgerish spends most of her time (99%) in a deep sleep, weaving nightmares where dwell in perpetual terror the souls of those who were foolish enough to worship her in life. When she wakes, she searches for means to escape her prison and return to the world of men and women where she can find new souls on which to feed.

The connection between her Eye of the physical world and her abyssal eye is the key to understanding the risks associated with using this device. If the characters attempt to use the Eye when Ilgerish happens to be awake (1% chance), they will see whatever she is seeing from her lair in the Abyss. Such sights are sufficient to drive mortals mad, and a Will save (DC 20) is required to stave off fear lasting 2d4 rounds, followed by confusion lasting a number of hours equal to 20 minus the adjusted Will save roll attempt (e.g., you have Will +4, roll a 13, so fail your save and you're confused for three hours). In the case of a failed save, holding onto the Eye is impossible, and the Eye is dropped. The Eye won't break, but this has implications for anyone foolish enough to pick it back up now that Ilgerish is awake.

If the Eye has been dropped, Ilgerish is now not only awake, but also alert to those around the Eye. She will attempt Dominate Person on anyone who picks up the Eye within an hour of it being dropped (after that, the connection has faded and she's asleep again). The DC for the Will save to resist domination is 22 (treating Ilgerish as 20th level sorcerer with 25 charisma). The dominated person will be instructed by Ilgerish to make his or her way to a place where a proper summons can be performed to release the demon back into the world. She is patient, though, so if it looks like the victim can't complete the task right away, Ilgerish will attempt to achieve the same end by use of Geas-Quest. All this can be avoided if the Eye does not come in contact with the skin, and as long as the handler does not look into the eye (either side).

Irritating the eye by using it past its duration (discussed above) increases the chance of awakening the demon to 10% at first, and up to 50% if double the duration.

Need I mention that mentioning Ilgerish's name in the Eye's presence is a terrible idea?

Now, all this being said, I haven't actually been playing the Eye of Ilgerish this way in the homeschool campaign. Basically it's just been a slippery Gem of Seeing that has to be kept in saline or it stops working. No check for awakenings and all the weirdness that follows. I don't want to give them any nightmares. The girls have, however, clued in to the fact that it's more than just a device, that it's somebody's eye (I didn't have to say a thing: it's an eye, and that's enough to arouse their suspicion. Their instincts in this regard have been pretty good), so they've only used it sparsely. As the kids get older, I can bring some of the more interesting dimensions of this magic device to bear on our game. In the meantime, we've been using it as a means to quasi-explain the alternate reality the kids' characters find themselves in when my oldest daughter GMs. We know that the Eye has something to do with the alternate game, but we don't know exactly how that works.

Perhaps it is not for mere mortals to understand such things!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Teaching the Rules

One thing I'm working on with the girls right now is a unit on the D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder RPG rules. We're covering the d20 system in depth, everything from character creation and combat rules to encounter creation and spell use. We're working off an activity sheet I created with 60 questions, some of which are fairly complicated (e.g., fill out a character record for a 3rd level half-orc rogue with the following feats and skills...). It's an open-book activity, so they learn not only what the rules are, but also how to find and interpret them.

Why am I doing this? I've noticed my girls have embraced the art of role playing without really paying too much attention to the rules. Sure, they pick up some of the rules as they go, but only enough that they can play with me as GM or co-GM. They still don't understand a lot of what I'm doing behind the GM screen, or how I adjudicate the rules. They still seem lost when looking for basic information on their character sheets. My oldest ran a game with me and her sisters, but it was obvious she had little understanding of the mechanics of the game. Now she has expressed an interest in running Pathfinder with a group of homeschoolers during weekly game days this winter. The group will consist almost exclusively of new gamers, so my kids will need to teach the new players. To teach the material, they must be conversant with it, hence this exercise.

This goes back to the complexity of 3.5/Pathfinder, and whether it's a reasonable expectation that children under the age of 12 can be expected to master this rule set. I think they can if they want it badly enough, and in our case they seem to. Despite there being simpler games out there (and even in my house) for them to play, they're insisting on using Pathfinder. More power to them, I say, but it's going to be a big challenge for them. I'd like to prepare them for that.

I'm not sure if anyone else has ever done this, making the rules part of the subject matter. It makes me just a bit uncomfortable, because I don't really want RPGs to be what the kids learn, I want them to be what the kids learn from. So I'm trying to view this as an investment in both time and effort that will ultimately free them to get more out of the games they play. As long as I don't overwhelm them with it, I should be able to avoid making it too much like work instead of fun. Hope I'm right!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Magic Items Index

The following is a list of magic items I've created or modified for our homeschool adventures. Not all of them are in the characters' possession yet. The links take you to my blog entries about those items. This list will grow as I write about more magic items, and I'll keep a link to it over on the right side for easy access. More of a convenience for me, really, than for my single-digit legion of followers.

As a brief look through these items will reveal, the themes here are (1) there's no such thing as a free lunch, and (2) magic is always better when it's about more than just mathematical effects.

Nephrym's Claw - A dark and hungry god's lost talon offers the characters a price. And here's the story about how it was used for the first time.

Skull of Fibon - The last remains of an ancient sage who is bound to tell truths or lies according to a famous mathematical sequence.

Broach of Courage - Faint of heart? Fear not! This manly broach gives you the courage you lack, though you may become unpopular.

Cloak of Elvenkind - Grants you near-perfect invisibility while sucking the life out of you.

Ring of Protection - Goes further than any previous ring to actually protect you from harm, whether you like it or not.

Eye of Ilgerish - Lets you see things as they truly are, but sometimes that's a scary thing.

Bag of Holding - A great way to carry around a heavy load without throwing out your back...but wait: whose stuff is this?

The New Ring of Protection

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

It looks like re-imagining magic items is going to be a fairly regular feature of this blog. Today I'm tackling one of the most common magic items in the game of D&D: the Ring of Protection.

First, a recap for the uninitiated. As written in the rules of various editions of the game, the Ring of Protection, when worn, simply makes the wearer harder to hit. The ring's effects are expressed in purely mathematical terms: a Ring of Protection +1 adds 1 to the wearer's armor class (or subtracts 1 in the older systems, where lower is better), a Ring of Protection +3 adds 3 to armor class, etc. This is a useful item for characters to give themselves a fighting chance against creatures with powerful natural defenses, such as dragons. Put on a ring, and your opponents have to roll a higher number to hit you. It's effective, but there's not a whole lot of mystique going on here. Nothing that feels, well, magical about it.

Imagine this, then: you're in a dark dungeon corridor when you and your party come across a pit. Peering down into it you cannot see the bottom. It's certain death if you fall, but it's only 9' across, so you can probably jump across it, no problem. Everyone else goes ahead of you and makes it to the other side with no fatalities, although Lyra the Diminutive falls short and barely manages to catch herself on the far side. You get ready to make the leap, back up a bit, and brace yourself to sprint. You try to clear your mind and concentrate. Visualize the jump, you can do it, on three, one...two...thr--

"Wait!" cries a tiny voice that only you can hear, and you feel an acute squeeze from your magic ring.

Hmm, that's odd, you think, but you disregard it and prepare to jump.

"Whoa, slow down there!" it says again. "Shouldn't we think this through? That suuuure looks dangerous. Maybe there's a way around."

"No, there's no other way!" you cry, and you take off at a sprint toward the pit. No sooner do you start, though, than the ring becomes impossibly heavy and drags you to the floor, preventing you from attempting the leap. Your companions look at you like you've lost your mind.

Meanwhile, in the real world, here's what happened: The GM determined that the DC for the character's jump would be 10, and the character's Acrobatics skill bonus is 5, so on a d20 the player would need to roll a 5 or above to succeed in the jump. That's a 16:20 probability, or 80% chance to succeed. By the same token, it's a 20% chance of failure. The GM rolled d% prior to the skill check (or d20), and since the roll was 20% or less (i.e., equal to or less than the failure probability), the ring decided the jump would be too dangerous and tried to prevent the action.

At this point it was a battle of wills between the character and the ring. The character needed to make a Will save against a DC equal to 10 plus the ring's bonus (a +4 ring is more stubborn than a +1 ring) to override the ring's will. He's low level and not very wise, so he only has a +2 Will save bonus. He needed to roll an 8 or higher, but he only rolled a 6, so the ring won and dragged him down. His only recourse if he wants to jump now is to remove the ring.

Alternatively, if the character's charisma modifier plus half his level is higher than his Will save bonus, he can apply that instead to override the ring. Think of it as applying his charm and confidence to put the ring at ease.

I'm still working out the mechanic for creature encounters. The probability that the ring will try to "save" its wearer from the encounter will probably be tied in to the creature's Intimidate skill bonus. With older systems you could probably tie it to the difference between the character's and creature's hit die. If the character does override the ring's will, the ring will provide the normal AC bonus.

To keep this item fun and not too much of a hassle, the GM can limit the number of times per day the ring is able to protest, and perhaps only use it at his or her discretion to maximize fun at just the right (or wrong) moments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Syllabus Structure

I've been doing some research in preparation for the VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference and Resource Fair. Along the way I've learned about a variety of ways that role playing games are being used in the classroom. What I find interesting is the varying degrees to which teachers structure the use of RPGs and integrate them into their syllabi.

Some teachers take what I would call a highly structured approach, planning out a set of lessons in advance and using elements of the RPG in a calculated way to deliver those lessons. I imagine that in most non-homeschool settings, a highly structured approach would be a necessity. Teaching professionals typically have to submit lesson plans and syllabi for approval, explaining what they're going to teach and how they're going to teach it. How they plan to utilize RPGs will be covered in detail in those plans, so the RPG ends up being tightly interwoven with the syllabus from the start. Some teachers like this one even go so far as to use the trappings of RPGs to create the syllabus itself. This last approach is an intriguing idea and one I bet the kids latch onto, but it definitely requires foresight and skillful planning to execute. At least it looks that way to me, someone for whom organization does not come easily.

Other teachers may use no structure at all: unschoolers, for example, may simply hand a few rulebooks to their kids and let the magic happen all by itself (I read one example where a child taught himself to read from the D&D Monster Manual). There is something to say for this: just learning and playing RPGs involves a whole slew of useful skills without any need for parental involvement. Game rulebooks demand a level of reading comprehension that children will rise to meet. The rules themselves can be fairly complicated to say the least, and game mechanics often rely on frequent use of math and on understanding of concepts such as probability. Games typically involve creative problem solving, and teamwork is almost always rewarded. All these things your kids can learn without you, just by playing RPGs.

I admit I have no facts to back this up, but I suspect that most homeschool teachers who use RPGs in their curricula are somewhere in the middle. I've been struggling with what level of structure to bring to my own RPG homeschooling effort, and since this year marks the first time I've tried such a thing, I haven't quite settled into a comfort zone yet. I'm still trying things out to see what works for me and my kids. I would love to take the highly structured approach, but as I've already said, I'm not by nature a well-organized person. I'd be hard-pressed to create an RPG syllabus, let alone stick to one over an extended period. At the same time, I'm not willing to just completely let go and allow games to do all the teaching for me. There are opportunities to add to what the RPGs teach by themselves that I would be loath to pass up. I'm still deciding the best way to do it, even though RPGs have already become part of our homeschool curriculum.

The direction I'm going in right now uses the RPG as a supplement to the core curriculum. My goal is to use games as a way to reinforce and give context to the core material. For example, my wife gives the kids a set of vocabulary words each week. The kids do all the standard things with the words, learning their spellings and meanings, writing sentences with them, and taking quizzes and tests. Meanwhile my wife will be sharing the list with me, and I'll try to bake it into our game sessions, preferably the same week (are you reading this, hon? Need that list!). This is an easy way to use the RPG as a learning reinforcement tool. This same approach can be used for other subjects. Since my wife is teaching my oldest daughter geometry this year, for example, I'll be creating timely traps and puzzles based on what she's learned to give her a chance to use her new knowledge to shine. I've already experimented with this idea during one adventure that had a heptagon theme: the whole adventure took place in a seven-sided ziggurat, and featured a final puzzle that hinged on the heptagonal shape of the room and the imaginary heptagram formed from the trajectories of weapons flying at right angles from magic gates in the walls.

That's one of the ways we're using RPGs in our curriculum, and it requires just a little bit of planning, and a little bit of coordination with my wife, week by week. Basically I just look ahead one or two weeks and see how I can fit the things she's teaching them with what I'm planning at the game level. By "game level," I mean the adventures themselves. I believe that a key to success in our household is fun; if the kids aren't having fun, this tool loses much of its power. Therefore my biggest focus when preparing is in making the adventures themselves fun. So rather than thinking in terms of the lessons and trying to build adventures around them (an approach I will take with history), I instead start by creating entertaining adventures and then integrate the lessons into them. This is just my own personal approach and I'm sure it could be done just as well the other way by the right person.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Time Saver

One of my biggest gripes with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG is how terribly complicated they are. The pain is greatest when I'm generating NPCs for the characters to interact with, especially multi-class characters or pretty much anything that casts spells. Throw in skills and feats (which, I've found, NPCs must have in order to be on anything approaching an even playing field with the PCs), and you're talking about an hour-long exercise, half an hour at a bare minimum. This is ridiculous when you consider that in a classic "sandbox" adventure, the players may not even come into contact with the NPC. And what's the life expectancy of such an NPC if they do? Maybe they kill the NPC, and all that work was for one encounter lasting twenty minutes. Is it worth it? What if I need a dozen NPCs all at once? It's pretty much impossible for a guy like me to be a good parent, hold down a job, and prepare the kinds of adventures - complete with many NPCs - that make the game exciting.

No worries, it's Dingle's Games to the rescue! I just discovered this awesome tool online: the Dingle's Games Pathfinder NPC Generator (he's also got one for D&D 3.5). This thing is awesome. It only takes about 1 minute - 5 minutes if you want to really dive into the details - to create an NPC complete with abilities, skills, feats, weapons, armor class, hit points, attack details, special powers, etc. The tool spits out an NPC that has all the stats you need to run it in your game as-is.

About the only downside I can see so far is that it is not yet complete. Some of the prestige classes such as Dragon Disciple, for example, have not yet been incorporated into the tool, but the developer seems to be working on it and making pretty good progress. I suppose there's also a potential area of improvement with the feats. In both games, many feats have complex prerequisites, and the tool has a rules engine built-in to check the validity of your feat selections on the server side. Obviously it would be ideal to restrict a user's selections on the front end, but this is a minor quibble and one that impacts newbies more than people who have a long familiarity with feats. That it checks at all is a huge win.

This is going to be a massive time saver for me, because now I can focus on creating exciting adventures without getting bogged down by all the little details of people and monsters within them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Refining the Cloak of Elvenkind

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

In the hands of a crafty gamer, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' first edition version of the Cloak of Elvenkind was so powerful that it was a game changer. Back in high school a good friend of mine played a ranger to whom I awarded the Cloak, and it was as if I had doubled his character's level overnight. Suddenly adventure modules designed for multiple-player parties of 8th-level powers were being absolutely devoured by a lone, 4th-level ranger. This was because the adventures, as written, just didn't take into account that a solitary character, unencumbered by visible and relatively unstealthy companions, would be content to simply slink through, moving slowly and quietly, ignoring as many combat encounters as possible. I had to get downright sneaky, and I manufactured often bogus countermeasures to make the game a challenge for him, and the truth is I didn't do a very good job of that. In fact, I was so thick-headed that it was some time before I even realized that it was the Cloak that had so unsettled everything. By contrast my friend, a very quick study, instantly understood the potential and capitalized on it to maximum benefit.

As a result, I have kind of a love-hate relationship with the Cloak of Elvenkind. Yes, I came to regret giving it to that character, mostly because I felt stupid that I hadn't thought through the impacts the item would have on my campaign. I could have found a way to destroy it or take it away, but my friend was so happy and identified so closely with the Cloak that either of those actions would have made me an instant jerk. I didn't want to be that kind of DM. And at the end of the day, I had to admit the Cloak was an exceptionally cool magic item. I still think it is, really, and therein lies the problem: I would like to be able to hand out one of these things again one day, but how do I do so without unbalancing my game?

Option one is to play it by the new rules: Pathfinder RPG (and D&D 3.5 before it) define the Cloak as one that just gives a +5 bonus to Stealth roles. I suppose that makes some sense, but where's the magic in that? I have to agree with James Maliszewski in his blog entry that there's something magical missing when an item is reduced to a simple mechanical benefit. Besides, characters these days can get +5 to Stealth in their sleep. I may not want the Cloak to be unbalancing, but I do want it to be powerful. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

It's Mother Nature to the rescue! Check out this video, at the 4:22 mark. The video shows an octopus engaging in camouflage (actually, the video shows the octopus leaving its camouflage), and the camouflage is so complete that it seems almost magical. A friend of mine showed this to me, and as soon as he did, I realized that I had the answer, an answer consistent with my core philosophy for magic items in my game: all magic items are cursed.

I'm betting something like the following has been done before, but I'm too lazy to look.

The Cloak of Elvenkind

From here on out in my games, Cloaks of Elvenkind will not be made of fabric: they will be living organisms. Parasites, in fact, found only in the deepest recesses of the Sylvesse, the primeval forest wherein dwell the mysterious elves of Nimoriél. In ages past these parasites could be harvested, grown, and shaped to fit as cloaks through arcane arts known only to the elves of Nimoriél, arts that may well be forgotten now that that fabled city's few surviving inhabitants have succumbed to a cruel dementia of unknown source. The Cloaks were made long before that tragic descent into madness - but during desperate times nonetheless - to aid Nimoriél's brave defenders as they ventured out into the wider world to root out an insidious, rising threat.

The parasites, whom I shall now name flej by randomly picking some consonant and vowel sounds out of mid-air*, slowly feed on the dreams or energy of the wearer: dreams if the wearer is asleep, energy if the wearer is awake (all effects, positive and negative, of wearing the Cloak, only occur while the hood is drawn over the wearer's head). I'll cover the energy drain first. For every minute the Cloak is worn while the wearer is awake, there is a cumulative 1% chance that the wearer will be affected by energy drain (according to the Pathfinder rules on energy drain). So after 10 minutes, there is a 10% chance that the character will gain a negative level, to use the parlance of 3.x rules. The GM will roll d% every minute. A full night's sleep (without using the Cloak) resets the base percentage to 1%. Clearly this is a magic item whose power you want to use only sparingly to mitigate risk.

If you use it to stay hidden while you sleep, there are several effects. For starters, you do not dream (more precisely, you do have dreams, but the flej eats them), and you wake up feeling fatigued (because you tire as you subconsciously fight to retain them). If you use the Cloak while awake the next day, your base percentage chance of being drained of an energy level starts at 10%. Consecutive nights of this make you exhausted, and the base rate climbs to 20%. Additionally, each time you sleep while using the Cloak, there is a cumulative 5% chance of descending into the flej's dreams. Should this occur, characters must make a DC 15 Will save (as against enchantments) or never again rise to consciousness. Need I point out that the dreams of the flej are nightmarish to their hosts? There is no way to reset this cumulative percentage, by the way, because you and the flej get more and more in tune with each others' sleep patterns.

Also, if you fall asleep wearing the Cloak but you don't don the hood, don't worry: the flej will attempt to pull itself over your head! Isn't that thoughtful of it? I'll leave it for another day to work out the mechanics for that, but my instincts say it's a better than even chance it will succeed.

Now, to the benefits. The flej is an excellent (and magical) mimic and is not limited to appearances from its native habitat, so no arguments over what constitutes "natural" need apply. The camouflage when the wearer isn't moving will be absolute, as though the wearer is invisible. If the character is moving, stealth checks will be at +10 as long as the character moves at 1/2 her normal rate. Maybe an extra bonus will be awarded to the player if they call out that they're timing their movements with any other movements going on in the area, such as lighting effects (see an earlier portion of the octopus video described above). Also, if a character survives a night in the creature's dreams, she'll be granted a limited ability to draw on the fractured memories of previous wearers. I see this last benefit playing out as a way for the GM to get things moving with a bit of suddenly remembered arcane knowledge that the player wasn't even aware she had.

Naturally I wouldn't spell out all these pros and cons to the player prior to her character donning the Cloak's hood for the first time. Vague descriptions of how draining it feels to wear it, accompanied by frequent, conspicuous rolls of a d20 behind my GM screen, should be sufficient to warn a player of the danger once use of the item commences.

And of course, Cloaks of Elvenkind will be exceedingly rare. Nobody knows how many Cloaks were made, or how many survive, but I'll never let them run rampant and unchecked in my world again.

* The 'j' in "flej" is a soft j sound, as in déjà vu.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Fine Art of Bombast

"[P]seudo-intellectual verbiage is the mark of someone overcompensating for the vapidity of his thought."

- James Maliszewski, from his blog, Grognardia, in a bit of self-deprecating humor.

Page 55 of Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder Game Mastery Guide is a full page of words that every GM should know. It's a pretty good list chock-full of juicy words, many of which you may or may not ever use outside the context of an RPG. Words like geophagy, defenestrate, and ichor. Last week I asked the kids to each pick two words from the list, write them down, look up their meanings, and write some sentences demonstrating understanding of the words. Just a little homework for them between sessions. They picked their words, and one of them chose "bombast." We made a slight modification to change her word to "bombastic."

She can tell you the definition, but she gets stuck trying to write the sentences. It seems she doesn't fully understand the meaning. So my wife and I started looking for examples from her books, movies, TV shows, etc. Well, right off the bat we learned that there's not as much bombast going on in children's entertainment as we had thought. At least no clear-cut cases that demonstrate bombast without it getting all tangled up with something else. Frasier Crane is a great example, of course, but our kids don't watch Frasier. Therefore I decided to take it upon myself to provide an example using the Savage Worlds game we're starting.

The assignment: the girls must read the following introductory passage that I wrote for our game. I'm also going to read it aloud to them in as pretentious a tone of voice as I can muster. Then, I'll ask my daughter if she can think of a word that describes the narrator's tone. Finally, all the girls will rewrite the passage in their own words, with instructions to avoid obfuscatory language.

Deep near the center of the galaxy, where glowing nebulae give birth to a profusion of brilliant, sparkling suns set amid shimmering curtains of stellar dust, a single planet revolves around the massive black hole comprising the galactic core. This planet is Sxibi, the heart and soul of the Great Alliance, and a shiny bastion of civilization’s wondrous triumph against the cold emptiness separating over a billion inhabited worlds. Here, among her beaming, pristine spires and the floating domes of her uninterrupted, globe-spanning metropolis, gather the greatest scholars, artists, philosophers, and scientists of the age, from every discipline and every species spanning the far reaches of space. Here, within her massive halls and over her glittering vistas are debates heard and ideas conceived that shape the lives of beings everywhere for millennia to come. Here, in its chamber beneath her pearly, glowing skies sits the Rryach, an eldrich super-being formed for the sole purpose of attempting to bring order from the chaos of more than a thousand million senators. And here, beneath her perfect veneer, dwelling in the deep shadows of her majestic architectures stretching higher into the sky than most can ever hope to see, are Sxibi’s teaming masses, numbering in the trillions, bustling about and eking out their meager livings by serving the needs of the rich and powerful, always alert for any opportunity to break out of the cold, subterranean depths and into the dazzling light of the upper echelons of Sxibian society.

FYI, "Sxibi" is pronounced "SH - bee," the first syllable being a schwa. It's just a little nonsense word that my middle daughter says, and it sounds funny when she does. And yeah, I know the passage isn't really the best example, but it is pretty bombastic compared to what they're used to.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Big Game

Our friends have gone home and the dust has settled, and I can finally report on how our Pathfinder RPG session went.

Marra, played by a seven-year-old girl, seemed to have a great time. She was thoughtful, attentive, and enthusiastic. She understood everything that was going on and seemed to have a fairly solid grasp of the mechanics of the game, given her age and that it was her first RPG experience. She has a tendency to roll high on a d20; I don't think she missed or failed a roll for any skill check all night. Marra is welcome at our table any time.

Her parents had interesting playing styles (the wife was a first-timer) which brought something new to our table, and they seemed to have a good time, but I don't think it was necessarily the game. Whether they'll join us for future sessions will depend in large part, I suspect, on how badly Marra wants to return. They are always welcome, of course. Regardless, we will see them again because they are such dear friends, but I suspect we're more likely to engage in a rousing game of Qwirkle than D&D or any of its offshoots when next we meet.

My wife played her half-orc monk true to character, which made for an interesting dynamic between her and my oldest daughter during the opening scene at the Mean Bean, a coffee house. Now, I hate to be the kind of dad who throws his kids under the bus, but they don't read this blog, and what I'm about to say is relevant to the topic of using RPG's in homeschool and teaching to virtues, so here it goes: my kids were in rare form last night, and not in a good way.

Elerisa can be a bit of a control freak, and it was annoying the other players at the table. My wife and I both found ourselves correcting her as she tried to tell her sisters - especially Fiona, our youngest - what to do. At one point when Fiona said what she was going to do, Elerisa basically told her something to the effect of that's stupid, don't do that, do this instead. Elerisa wanted something and my wife wasn't letting her character just have her way, because questioning Elerisa's actions was the right thing for the half-orc to do under the circumstances. Elerisa became obnoxious and badgered my wife as she tried to get her way and it became a parenting situation. We prevented it from getting too ugly, but I was embarrassed and I think my wife was too.

My oldest was not the only offender. Fiona became a wall flower and decided she was too embarrassed to play with first-timers (her explanation to me later), even though Marra is her best friend. With all the commotion and with her tiny, increasingly bashful voice vanishing beneath the threshold of normal human hearing, it was hard to figure out what she was trying to do in game (which, as it turns out, was to run into the Mean Bean's kitchen to hide from the fight that was breaking out, and to look for marshmallows to throw into the fray). Meanwhile Norma, my "middlest" child, couldn't be troubled to pay attention to the game and spent much of the evening on the floor of the dining room with her feet sticking up in the air. She said she was restless, a claim that was supported by her constantly asking me for an update with regards to the time. This from a child who is always asking when our next game is going to be.

So I'm left wondering what the lessons learned are, and I think my wife has hit the nail on the head. Sadly, I won't be able to articulate it as succinctly as she did, but I'll valiantly make the attempt. She is a fan of Cesar Milan, a.k.a. The Dog Whisperer. From Cesar's show we learn that dogs feed on the energy of the people and animals around them. When there is a lot of nervous excitement, dogs will get riled up. Is there a reason to think it wouldn't be any different with kids? She points out that I put a lot of stress on myself in the last few weeks to prepare for this game. I wanted my friends' first gaming experience to be a positive one, and I think Elerisa wanted the same thing. It was our big chance to show our stuff, to share this awesome experience we've been having, and there was excitement in the air. My wife says I was handled the GM duties calmly and smoothly, but I can tell you I broke out in a sweat almost right away, so chances are there was at least some aura of anxiety about me, however subtle or subconsciously detectable. Clearly Elerisa didn't handle it well at all, and that's something we're addressing with her. There are behaviors to address with the other two as well, and we're doing that.

So today we sat down with the kids and talked about our experience last night and the kinds of virtues and soft skills we're going to work on in the future. Things like diplomacy, tact, compromise, and respect. Staying focused and channeling our energies toward accomplishing shared goals. Confidence and courage to strut our stuff in front of our peers. And finally, for me, finding that inner calm and peace of mind that comes from knowing that everything's going to be alright, and to just let the chips fall where they may.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Introductions Are In Order

I picked up these plastic miniatures for the game this weekend because I had no good ones for the four new players to use. It bothers me that they're not accurate representations of the players' characters. I worry that the players will substitute the appearance of the minis for the images in their imaginations, rather than the reverse. I've always hated minis for this reason, even when they're fairly accurate, but I guess with later editions of D&D, including Pathfinder, they're a useful and (almost) necessary evil. I rarely used them growing up and I guess I got used to doing it that way.

As always, to protect the anonymity of my friends and family (whether or not that's a worthwhile goal), I'll use character names to reference both the characters and their players.

Clockwise from the top: The Unnamed, played by my wife. She has 24 hours to name her half-orc monk character. Obviously her mini is neither half-orc nor a monk, but it is female and big. Next is Erynian ("Wren"), a female elven druid played by a good friend of ours. Gender and race are correct, but the spear is misleading. Marra the halfling ranger is played by Wren's daughter, and represented by a male halfling (didn't see any females). Finally, Isaiah Deluvia, a Saurian wizard played by our friend (Wren's husband / Marra's dad), will be using a human male mini since no Saurian-like minis of any class were available at the store.

Savage Worlds

My copy of Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition came in the mail this week. I've read through the book and I like what I see. I'm going to be using the Savage Worlds (SW) system for teaching history this year, specifically by inserting my kids' characters into actual historical events. I imagine I'll blog more extensively on that in future posts.

I've mentioned before that I have guests coming over this Saturday for a big Pathfinder game, so this weekend might not be the best time to try out SW. Maybe if the kids are up to it on Sunday afternoon we'll run a little play test, but I have a feeling they'll be all RPG'd out by then. Whether it happens this week or next, here's what we've thought up.

When I was first telling Norma about SW, I said it could be used for any setting. I said, "Pick a setting, any setting. If you could role play anything, anywhere, what would it be?"

She said, "I'd like to be shrunk down and play in a dollhouse, with my dolls coming to life." I said that maybe we could do something like that and started thinking about how to set it up.

Back when the girls were younger, I used to make up bedtime stories featuring a character named the Forgetful Fairy. The Forgetful Fairy gets into a lot of trouble due to her notoriously short attention span and short-term memory. Some stories were epic in scope and went on and on for weeks. Nowadays we read chapter books (currently working on The Golden Compass), so it's been a long time since the Forgetful Fairy has made an appearance, though my kids remember her fondly. When thinking about the SW dollhouse idea, I thought it might be interesting to bring the Forgetful Fairy out of retirement.

So here's how it will play out: the characters are kids who are away from home with their parents and stuck in a boring situation, and one of them wishes out loud that they could be back at home playing with their dolls. The Forgetful Fairy magically appears and grants the wish, and all three are shrunk down to doll size and whisked away to the dollhouse where their playthings all come to life. They have a blast playing with their dolls until they start to feel hungry. They call out for the Fairy to return and end the spell, but she's off doing other things and has, of course, completely forgotten about them. The rest of the adventure is a quest to the kitchen where both the food and the telephone can be found. Obstacles to overcome include the stairs, the cat, a faction of dolls that doesn't want them to leave, and possibly a snake (I keep pet ball pythons in real life, but they don't actually roam free in the house). Also, since the telephone is attached to the kitchen wall and the buttons are on the handset, calling their parents may be quite challenging. Allies along the way will include their Polly Pockets and an escaped Hamster.

We'll see what happens.