Friday, March 4, 2011

Getting the Most Educational Bang for Your RPG Buck

Yesterday my oldest daughter ran a game with some friends of hers at our homeschool co-op. By all accounts the game itself went well. The session started out bumpy because of the sheer volume of kids, the fact that most of them had never played an RPG before, and it was only her second time GMing (first time without me helping her out). At the beginning some of the kids, discouraged by the complexity of the character sheets, gave up and walked away. That left her with a manageable group of four which later grew to five. Once the game began, it went smoothly.

I am impressed with her planning. She decided in advance that the best way to introduce the game was by jumping straight to the action. She didn’t want the session to get bogged down by character creation or equipment acquisition, both of which are time consuming exercises. Therefore she had to prepare pre-generated characters, or “pre-gens,” complete with everything the characters would need to start adventuring. Doing this requires a fairly deep understanding of the rules, or absent that, knowledge about what to look for and where to find it in the rules. She has an incomplete knowledge of the rules, and until the other night, she hadn't spent any time delving into the books.

As I’ve said before, we play Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG (PFRPG or PF). This is an excellent system that I’m really enjoying, but the rule set is daunting to someone so young who has no experience with previous systems or with role-playing games in general. The Core Rulebook is a dense 576 page hardback, and often the answers you're looking for require you to integrate information gathered from multiple sections throughout the book. For example, you may want to know what weapons a cleric should start with. For that, you'll need to look at the rules about starting wealth by class (so you know what the cleric can afford). Then you go to the information about the cleric class, where you learn that clerics can only use simple weapons. What's a simple weapon? For that information, go to the Equipment: Weapons section, and choose from the list of simple weapons. Later, when you're choosing the cleric's spell domain, you may notice that a cleric of the chosen domain can use a short bow. But wait a second...isn't the bow a martial weapon, not a simple one? So which is it: can he use the bow or can't he? To resolve this you need to remember that specific rules override general rules, except where noted otherwise. This specific-overrides-general rule is somewhere in the Getting Started section, and some judgment on the GM's part is required to recognize which rule is the more specific one and which is the more general. And this example isn't even anywhere close to being one of the more difficult rules.

Navigating this complex rules landscape develops a set of skills that you just can't get from other games, at least not in such concentration. I'm talking about research, information integration, interpretation, and prioritization, to name a few. I can't think of any other activity that a child would willingly and proactively engage in to get this kind of intensive experience.

I read the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1st edition) when I was twelve years old. Years later I sat in a statistics course in college and the professor started talking about normal distributions, and all I could do was smile. The bell curve was an old friend of mine by then, because my old DM's Guide had long ago introduced me to normal distributions, means, and probabilities, all in the introduction section on page 10. And the beauty is that nobody told me to read the DM's Guide: it's just something I wanted to do, in my own spare time, so I could play the game I loved most.

So you can imagine how excited and proud I was to come home the other night to find my girl, with all the Pathfinder books spread out on the bed around her, preparing to run her upcoming game. She started talking to me excitedly about weapon proficiencies by cleric domain, and I answered some questions she had about spell acquisition. She had also saved a fair amount of time for herself by utilizing a web site that sped up the process of character generation (see the sample character sheet pictured), but when she noticed some stats were low, she dug deeper into the rules to understand what the program was doing.

All this in addition to the prep work she had already done to create the adventure itself, including multiple maps and encounters. What else can I say? The way I see it, all players reap rich educational rewards, but letting your kid be the GM/referee is where you get the most educational bang for your RPG buck.


  1. This comment has nothing to do with the post, my apologies. Just signing in to say that my husband and I were at the VA Homeschoolers conference today and loved your session. I'm all inspired to create multiple games to cover all my kids' educational needs, while my husband keeps pointing to the "HIGH PREP TIME" bullet. We'll meet in the middle somewhere. :)

    -- Sara and Darren Jones

  2. Sara, that's great! So glad you enjoyed it, and I know you'll be able to find that middle ground.

  3. Hello! I'm Garrett, 11 years old. I'm homeschooled and I love RPGs (Though I've never played a complete game).
    I wanted to know if you've thought of putting this on a webstite. Like a website where people get together and play. Most of my freinds aren't really into this stuff. And they don't make comic stores with the back rooms just for playing, like when my Dad was a teen.
    Just wanted to know.

  4. Hi, Garrett. There is actually something called "play by post," which is a way to play RPGs online. It works like a message board where the game is a thread and the GM and players post messages to that thread. Many of the people who play by post are grown-ups, though, so I would strongly recommend that you speak with your parents and let them help you with your research on this so you can find an age-appropriate game that's right for you.

    Next, talk to the owners of your local game shops with your parents. They do still play games there, just like in the old days…but they don't hide in back rooms anymore! There is a comic book store right down the street from me, and if I hadn't asked the owner, I wouldn't have learned that they play RPGs starting at 2 PM every Sunday, right there in the front of the store. And there's another shop downtown where they play games pretty much daily, though sometimes it's Magic: The Gathering or Warhammer, instead of traditional RPGs.

    I remember how hard it can be at your age to find people who play, and to convince people who don't play to try it out for the first time. Be patient and keep your eyes open. Sometimes the people you least expect are anxious for a chance to try it out. I have to say, looking back, it was always the girls who got left out. I don't think anyone ever asked any of them to play. It turns out my wife had the D&D boxed set when she was young, but nobody ever asked her to play. Show them the dice and I bet you'll generate some interest.

    If the friends you have now aren't into it, maybe you can make some new friends. Don't let your old friendships fall by the wayside, though. And if your old friends see that you're having a great time playing RPGs with other kids, some of them may be more willing to give it a shot.

    I hope this helps.

  5. Thx for the reply :)
    I'm making an RPG and can't think of a way to tell time. Is there a special time system in D&D? If so, can you tell me about it?
    thx again,

  6. In d20 system games like D&D and Pathfinder, combat rounds are 6 seconds apiece, while normal movement/exploration actions are measured in minutes.* It doesn't matter what time of day you set as the starting point, as long as you keep track of how much in-game time elapses.

    I keep a journal. It looks something like this:

    7 AM wake up, breakfast, etc.
    7:30 party sets out on path heading north.
    [I describe surroundings, and for each hour of travel, I roll a d10. There is a 1 in 10 chance each hour of random encounter. Some places have greater chances. I make charts ahead of time to roll to see what the encounters are, and I try to have them make sense for the setting]
    12:00 PM lunch.
    3:00 Ranger finds dragon tracks. Party turns northwest to avoid.
    4:00 Party lost, can't find path.
    4:30 Combat: 3 velociraptors.
    [I don't keep combat in the same journal. I manage combat with Excel spreadsheets. In 32 years of playing, I've never seen combat go longer than 8 rounds, which comes out to 48 seconds, less than a minute. Therefore there is no need to closely track this time]
    7:00 camp. Heal spells, memorize new spells.
    2:00 AM Ambush! The hydra.

    That's for overland adventures. In the dungeon, we play out the rooms, then I think back about how long they were in there. Did they spend a lot of time searching for secret doors and traps? Did they have a conversation? Then I just try to put a realistic number to it. If it seemed like 20 minutes to me, that's what I write down. I also talk it over with my players. I'll say something like, "That room seemed like it took you guys about half an hour. Do you agree?" Then I'll listen to them and together we work out how much time expired.

    It's not easy. When traveling, time moves faster in the game world than in the real world. During dungeon exploration, it varies. During combat, game time is very slow compared to real time. An eight round (48 seconds) combat sequence with lots of participants can take over two hours to play! Conversations are the easiest: however long it takes you to role-play a conversation, that's how long the conversation takes in the game world.

    * Your dad will remember it differently. When the game first came out, a combat round was 1 minute, not six seconds. And a "turn" was 10 minutes of exploration time.

  7. Just for your information, the time system changed from minutes to seconds when D&D 3.0 came out in 2000.