Thursday, April 28, 2011

Character Sketch Exercise

On a whim this morning I assigned my kids an RPG-based writing exercise. The conversation went like this:

Me (getting ready to leave for work): "Hey kids, I have a writing assignment for you."

Them: [Groans] "Ugh."

Them: "Uh, is it D&D related?"

Me: "Yep!"

Them: "Yay! Alright!" and "What is it?" (now with enthusiasm)

That's good, right? The RPG is working its magic. So here's the assignment I gave them: they have to write a one- or two-page story about what Raze, the man with the eye patch, did after he finished making the deal with Elerisa and left the museum. Since they weren't with him after he left, they get to make it all up. What I've challenged them to do is to show me what kind of person he is through his actions, rather than telling me what kind of person he is. Show, don't tell. This is advice I received from my friend Adam, whose wife Kristi - another player in the older Pathfinder game I run - is an author. I think it is a splendid idea and will help further develop my kids' writing skills. What I'm leading them into is writing character sketches (or portraits), but I don't need them to know that. As far as they're concerned, they're just writing stories.

And writing adventure stories is fun.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When the Party Isn't Much of a Party

My youngest daughter, whom we shall call Fiona (her character's name), is just seven years old. That's pretty young to be playing Pathfinder RPG, a game which is ostensibly for adults, or at least for teens. So the rules and the content are difficult enough, but her biggest challenge may be her fellow players.

On Saturday, Fiona became frustrated because she couldn't get the other kids to listen to her ideas. Her 12-year-old sister Elerisa, trying her best to not be bossy, still managed to dominate the game. To her credit, Elerisa was taking a democratic approach, listing out the options and taking a show of hands. But they were her options, and the options offered up by the other kids, not Fiona's ideas.

It came to a head when the kids traversed a long, narrow corridor with spikes protruding from the ceiling above them. Halfway down the passage the character taking the lead snapped the trip line that triggered the trap. The kids had just a moment to decide: run forward, or run back the way they came. Fiona felt strongly they should run forward and said so, then raised her voice as everyone else started shouting which way they wanted to go. They started arguing amongst themselves, just for a second, but that was too long for young Fiona, in whose powerful imagination that ceiling was coming down and time was of the essence. So she reached out onto the table, scooped up all the miniatures representing the party, made her hilarious, trademark sheep-in-distress sound, and moved the party forward.

The other players cried foul, and rightfully so. Then silence reigned at the table while everyone waited for me to pass judgment. At that moment, I didn't totally understand what was going on. Just like the players, I get caught up in the game. Only later was I able to piece it all together with the help of my wife. Right then, though, all I knew was that I didn't want to embarrass her in front of everyone. Also, although her behavior needed to be corrected, it wasn't fair to the others to take the time to do it in the middle of all their excitement. I also recognized that Fiona was at her breaking point and it wasn't going to get any better. So I quietly told her to leave the table. I figured I'd catch up with her a few minutes later to straighten things out, then let her rejoin the game.

It didn't work out that way, but it did get better. My wife talked to her, and we worked out a plan with Fiona to help her deal with future issues. She will try to remember to be more assertive with me and let me know when she doesn't feel like she's being allowed to fully participate in the game. For my part I'll keep a better eye on her, try to see the game through her eyes and make sure her voice is heard. She has also identified several non-lethal spells she can use against the other players' characters if she needs to get their attention. Nothing harmful, but definitely inconvenient.

We also had a chat at dinner with her sisters about their behavior and ways they can be more inclusive. We'll see whether that sticks.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

With a Little Help from My Friends

Sometimes the best game adventure ideas come from your friends.

I pride myself on having lots of good adventure ideas, but sometimes my brain gets stuck in neutral and nothing comes out. Recently I've spent most of my creative energy making a series of adventures for the campaign I run for my friends, with little left over for my kids. I've rationalized this in my head by calling it "advanced planning" and "play testing" for the kids, since they'll eventually go through the same dungeons the adults are going through now. The truth, though, is that the kids' game had been a bit lackluster of late due to my lack of attention to it.

I mentioned this to my buddy Adam who plays a "treasure hunting" rogue in the game I'm running for the grown-ups. I told him they were in a city built over the ruins of an older city, but I hadn't been able to lure the kids into delving into it. He offered up some suggestions which were pure gold, and which I have already pilfered wholesale. He's the one who said maybe once upon a time there was a queen who was rumored to have the most beautiful jewels and gems in the world. He also suggested adding a mob-like boss who would blackmail the characters so they would seek the jewels for him. I added the detail about the demi-god's carcass, and suddenly the kids and I are back in business with an adventure they are quite excited about.

Thanks, Adam!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Bad People

Got about four hours of gaming in today with the kids. The boy and girl next door came over and joined us. We had a great time, with the exception of one little episode which I'll blog about later (along with the fallout from that).

Tonight I want to share this little gem (see the picture on the right). The little yellow pieces of clay are gricks: man-sized worm-like creatures with toothy maws and nasty tentacles. They're coming out of that well in the bottom of the picture. The one on the left is swallowing a dark creeper, specifically a dark creeper who had attacked the party earlier in another room of the dungeon and then run away when his allies were killed. Here he is getting his just desserts.

Some background on this adventure, in case it comes in handy in later posts: the kids are exploring the ancient ruins of a city buried beneath the living city of Port Manteau. The ancient city, which was once called Micqui (the Nahuatl word for corpse), was itself built within the carcass of a dead demigod. This monster was shaped like a colossal tortoise, with four heads of different beasts (crow, jackal, tiger, and - get this - mudskipper) pointing out in the four cardinal directions. The ancient city is made of the beast's bones, and the outer shell is still completely intact. The kids are in search of a legendary treasure belonging to Queen Esseniri, the last known sovereign of doomed Micqui.

It's a bit more complicated than that, actually. Some of you may recall a previous session where the characters got into a scuffle with a shopkeeper, and it ended badly for the shopkeeper. After the adventurers made good their escape, the city guards were able to revive the shopkeeper, who was then able to give an accurate description of his attackers. They have been on the lam ever since. Elerisa made her way to the city museum which was housing an exhibit called "The Lost Princess of NimoriƩl." Obviously this would draw her attention seeing as how she is the lost princess of antiquity, so they were waiting for her when she arrived. Except it wasn't the authorities who caught up with her: it was a slimy underworld boss, with a patch on one eye, going by the name "Raze." He had men with him, enough to prevent her from giving him trouble. He told her about the legendary city buried beneath their feet, and the queen's treasure. Then he made a deal with her: he would use his contacts to have the charges against them dropped, if they found the treasure and provided him with a map of how to get there. They may keep anything they find along the way, but they are not permitted to keep any of the queen's treasure.

The kids are already plotting ways to double-cross the guy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tip for Making an Ethics Challenge

Homeschools are great for teaching virtues. Parents who spend their days with their children can actively shape their character without worrying about what sorts of conflicting messages they're receiving while away at school all day. Role-playing games are one tool parents can use to challenge their students to think about questions of morality. With games, kids can practice applying their virtues in make-believe situations. But how do you create these ethical challenges?

One easy way I've discovered is to eliminate "black and white" situations. In traditional fantasy RPGs, "monster" races are almost always considered evil, while "hero" races (like elves, halflings, and dwarves) are almost always considered good. The evil goblins have raided the local villages, and the heroes track them to their lair, slay the evil critters, and seize the treasure. So far so good, no shades of gray (unless the party of adventurers tries to keep the loot that rightfully belongs to the villagers). But what if it wasn't so cut and dry?

What if goblins aren't automatically evil as a race? Many would be rotten to the core, sure, but maybe that's partially a product of their environment. What if it turns out that the land where the villages stand once belonged to the goblins, but they were forced off of it by the king's men? What if this is just the tail end of a back-and-forth feud going back so many generations that nobody remembers who started it? Violently invading the goblin lair and walking out with treasure takes on a whole new complexion in that light. This is why the saying goes that the scariest thing in a dungeon is a party of adventurers!

A scenario like the one above might be a little tough for kids to sort out, but you get the idea. When you introduce a little gray area into the world of make-believe, your kids will have to come to grips with questions of right and wrong.