Saturday, March 26, 2011

VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference

I spoke today at the VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference, and I think it went rather well. The room was full, and the audience was great. Many of them were familiar with RPGs, and that made for a lively discussion. One guy in particular at the back of the room had some excellent input about the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box, specifically that it provides a quick and fairly easy way for people new to the hobby to get started.

I showed a minute or two of some video I took of one of my first gaming sessions that involved my kids and the next door neighbors. Some folks wanted to see a bit more. If I can figure out how to split the video up into smaller chunks, I'll post a bit of it on YouTube and then provide a link to it here (the problem I'm having is that the programs I'm trying to import it into to do the editing say I don't have enough disk space. The video is 33 hi-def minutes). So we'll see.

Thanks to everyone who attended and made it such a special session. I really enjoyed it, and I hope at least a few people walked away inspired to give role-playing games a go in their own households.

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.