Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Creating Memorable NPCs

Over on Reddit I saw a link to this article by Charlie Jane Anders.  Her article targets writers, and she offers ten tips for writing unforgettable supporting characters.  Non-player characters in role-playing games fill a similar niche to a work of fiction's supporting characters, so these ten tips should be applicable to creating NPCs as well.  I've been trying to get better at creating NPCs that stand out in the players' minds, with mixed results.  I like that this article gives me something tangible to focus on.

I have had a few successes in the past, but mostly my NPCs come out a little flat.  One in particular, though, stands out.  Rixin the pixie is the one NPC whose fate my adult gamer friends actually cared about.  In fact, when one of the PCs died, we decided to bring Rixin into the party so one of the players could run him as his own character.  

By blind luck, when creating Rixin I seem to have followed nine of the ten steps the article prescribes.  Take from that what you will.  I know I'm looking forward to trying it on purpose.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Little Furry Critters

I made a big breakthrough this weekend with my youngest daughter, Nora.

Older than she looks, but still young (8)
Since introducing her to RPGs almost two years ago, I've been challenged to make adventures that appeal to both her and her older sisters.  Livie and Sophie thrive on the danger of combat, but Nora shies away when the ride threatens to get rough.  On good days, her halfling druid hides until she is critically needed, or until her animal companion Pinky the riding dog is in dire jeopardy.  On other days, Nora declines to play altogether.  This puts me in a pickle because on the one hand we consider these sessions to be valuable to her education, but on the other they're supposed to be fun.  I don't want to make her play if she's not going to have fun doing it, and if she's miserable, she isn't going to learn anything anyway, except perhaps how miserable playing RPGs can be.  That would be a shame.

I thought about this all weekend as game day approached.  I decided that the session would be required for Nora, but I was determined to make her want to play rather than force her to play.  Then, once I got her to the table, I would aim to make it as fun for her as I could.  So the first thing I did was set up the table the night before, then pulled her aside to ask her where she would like to sit.  I told her I was giving her first choice of seating.  She did not waste the opportunity.  She looked over the map, pointed at the only two rooms drawn on it, and asked, "Which way is it going to go?"  

I told her where I anticipated most of the action would go down, and she chose accordingly, putting herself front and center.  Apparently this made a big impression because she mentioned it to my wife the next morning.  So far, so good. 

Getting her buy-in was all I had planned on doing, but then Sunday morning it finally hit me:

Little furry critters.

The section of the dungeon they are in is populated by Ratfolk.  Their goal is to try to capture the characters and sacrifice them to their "god," a gruesome creature made of worms and mud (this is the final boss for the level).  The Ratfolk ride around on oversized rats and use them to do all their grunt work.  This much I had already planned.   

The new thought was this:  what if the rats don't want to serve the Ratfolk?

You see, Nora is reading Redwall by Brian Jacques.  She also has watched the entire animated TV series several times.  Something about it obviously appeals to her.  Having read the novel myself some years ago, and having some familiarity with the TV series, I get the gist of what it's all about.  It's anthropomorphized woodland critters going on heroic quests to protect the ones they love, usually against cruel woodland critters with dreams of conquest.*  

So Redwall is about little creatures with big hearts, while Nora's a little kid with a big heart who plays a druid who can talk to animals.  How perfect is that?

I didn't have enough time before the game to really nail down all the particulars, but I did just well enough that the session really lit her up, and I was able to sew the seeds for an ongoing influence of little furry critters in our game.  Here's how it went down.

The characters came across a room of junk where the rats store, well, junk.  They saw two rats who were terrified of the party.  Fiona (that's Nora's druid) quickly jumped in and cast a spell to speak with the animals.  The rats said they were frightened, but once Fiona had put their minds at ease, they cautioned the characters to avoid the "Cult of Oogma."  When pressed, the rats said that the cult consisted of Ratfolk.  Later on, while the other characters were trying to get over a river, Fiona spoke some more to the rats and learned that the underground city that she and her companions are seeking is "just beyond the waterfall."

"Oh!  Where's the waterfall?" she asked, excited.  

"Follow the river," they replied.

Fiona dashed from the room to find the others and tell them about this important discovery.  In real life, Nora was standing up shouting, positively elated.  We had to calm her down a bit, but I was taken aback.  This was the most emotion she had ever shown in the game, save once when Pinky almost bought the farm.  I had struck gold.


Now, how to keep her interested?  That's what I've been thinking about all day, and I think I finally have the answer.  

What I plan to do is to create a set of events running in parallel to the player characters' main adventure.  These events will involve a cast of furry little critters that Fiona will get to know in her travels.  They will have their own quests, unrelated to the main thread, but they will come into contact with the party from time to time.  Information, goods, and services can be exchanged between the critters and the PCs.  Along the way Nora will periodically get caught up on what's going on in the little creatures' story, and she'll be in a position to help them out from time to time and impact the outcomes of their quests.  In turn, the information she obtains from her tiny friends will be important for the overall quest she shares with her sisters.  It's a win-win scenario.

Our next session, coming up this Sunday, should see this strategy blossom.  The characters really screwed up last time, and they're all down to their last few hit points and floating down a river toward a waterfall.  No big deal, the Ratfolk have nets just beyond the edge to catch them with.  In fact, their whole strategy is to fire arrows from the banks, thereby herding their victims toward the nets.  Players will always surprise me, so I suppose they could get out of this mess, but this time their situation is rather dire. I predict they will be captured.  Well, not all of them...Norma the dwarf and two NPCs took different routes and are safe for the moment, though separated from each other.

While captured in the nets, Fiona will meet Slave Abigail (Abigail, Abby, Redwall Abbey...see what I did there?), a rat who plans to lead the resistance against the Ratfolk.  The rats are being forced by their masters to drag the party to a holding area.  Abigail will whisper to them, "Please free us!  We wish to be slaves no longer.  You must slay Oogma!"  She will then begin gnawing at their ropes, but will be interrupted by a Ratfolk sentry before she can finish the job.  As she leaves she risks one final message: "Wait for my signal!"

The idea here is for the party to rest overnight in captivity and heal up, so they'll be ready to face Oogma.

When/if Norma and the others reunite and show up, and when the party breaks their binds, Abigail will give her signal ("Rise, my brothers and sisters!  Rise against our oppressors!  Free the topsiders!" or something like that), and chaos will reign supreme.  The characters should emerge victorious, as they are wont to do.

The next time they see Abigail, she will have a new title:  Seeker Abigail.  She will be questing for the Lost MacGuffin of Chikkitok. artifact that a certain weasel by the name of Dweezil, with designs against Abby's people, will also be interested to acquire.

* Ironically, Jacques - like nearly every other author who writes about anthropomorphized woodland creatures - portrays mice as the innocent, virtuous protagonists, and rats as the wicked antagonists.  The truth, as I have learned through my hobby of captive snake husbandry, is quite the opposite.  Rats are highly intelligent and fairly gentle creatures.  Mice are just plain mean and kill each other for sport in the brief time it takes to get them home from the pet store.  

Monday, March 26, 2012


Here's some more information about the organizational changes I mentioned last entry.

Prior to these changes, I was using a combination of computer laptop (MacBook Pro) and Paizo's Pathfinder GM Screen.   Paizo's screen is pretty good, but I looked elsewhere for four reasons:

  1. I would prefer to have information specific to my game on the panels.
  2. The style of the Pathfinder Iconics (the heroes you see depicted on the players' side of the screen) does not match the look and feel I am trying to achieve in my world.
  3. I wanted a shorter screen so it would be easier for me to see my kids.
  4. We play two systems besides Pathfinder:  Savage Worlds, and AD&D (1st edition).

As for the Mac, I tried running my games from it, but I always ended up with too much stuff open.  A browser window with a dozen tabs, an Excel spreadsheet for combat tracking, another for NPC stats,* and Evernote for story elements.  I was all over the place, and while some people thrive in these conditions, I do not.

To remedy the situation I hopped on Amazon and ordered the Savage Worlds customizable GM screen.  This screen is nothing but clear plastic sleeves on both sides of three connected black panels.  I can decide what information to put into the sleeves, and I can swap out inserts for different games or systems.   The orientation is "landscape," so the screen is shorter and I can see my players.

The question then became what to display on the inserts.  The players' side was easy:  for each panel I put the name of the city, a name for the adventure, and a thematic picture pilfered off the Internet, printed on gold-colored card stock as shown in the picture.

What the players see.

The GM's side was tougher.  In the end, I decided that I wanted a few things:

  • Pathfinder's grappling flow chart.  Grappling is complicated; the flow chart helps.
  • A symbolic map of the larger, turtle-carcass dungeon.  I want to know where things are relative to each other.
  • Stats for NPCs the characters are likely to encounter in a given session.
  • A brief description of the more commonly occurring conditions.
  • My custom confusion effects table (confusion happens a lot in my world, I have learned).

Some of these are a work in progress (for instance, I want the encounter stat blocks to be flexible enough for me to include traps).  Here are pics of what I used this past weekend:

NPC stat blocks.  Six blocks on one insert,
takes up the whole panel.

Pathfinder grapple rules on the left,
symbolic map** of subterranean, inverted,
four-animal-headed turtle-carcass city on the right.

Conditions, confusion effects, and
a quick reminder of the oracle's prophecy.

From there it was just a matter of printing them out on card stock (because the plastic sleeves are tight), sliding the inserts into the sleeves, and draping the tent cards over the top.  Behind the screen I had nothing but dice, a pad of graph paper to take notes, and my dungeon map for the section they're in.  I kept my laptop on a chair next to me and only used it to look up spells.

From a game management standpoint, this setup worked well for me.  Combat moved quickly, and I felt uncluttered.  I was able to focus better on what was going on in the game, and I found myself improvising more than usual.  We played for four and a half hours and covered a lot of ground.

We'll see if it stands the test of time.

* Don't get me started on all the combat tracking and NPC generation products out there.  First, the dearth of good RPG software for Macs out there is a real sore point.  And second, most of the products I have tried tend to break down under the strain of my free-wheeling GM style and my custom, homemade monsters.

...and by homemade monsters, I don't mean starting with something known and adding a template.  If that was all I needed, Hero Lab would be all I need.  But I mean starting from scratch with a brand new monster.

** The map style, with images just grabbed from the Internet and assembled to graphically represent denizens, locations, terrains, etc., is an approach I got from Zak Smith (adults 18+ years only).   Zak has more bright ideas in a day than I have in a year, it seems.  I think some of my confusion effects may be lifted from his blog too.

GM Tent Cards

Just a quick shout out to Hit on Crit for their idea for tent cards.   I made my own custom tent cards this weekend and put them into use in our game.  The combat has never moved so quickly.  The kids got it right away and were consistently ready to act when their turns came up.

Looks chaotic, but worked like a champ.
Click to biggify.

I made some other organizational adjustments this session that I'll cover in more detail soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What a wonderful moment!

"What a wonderful moment!"

Those were the exact words shouted by a girl (a neighbor, age 9) who joined us today for our Pathfinder session.  Here's what happened.

Her druid, Wren, was standing on a ledge 20' above a churning subterranean stream.  It was 20' across to the far ledge, which was also 10' below her position.  Norma the dwarf had already jumped over and secured a rope to a column on the far side, then scooted through a door while ratfolk cultists rained tiny crossbow bolts down on her.  Wren wanted to follow, so she removed her belt and tried to use the rope like a zip line.  She rolled an acrobatics check but came up short.

Splash!  And into the drink she went.

After that, she had a series of skill rolls to make.  First, a Swim roll to see if she could get her head above water and control her direction.  She succeeded.  Next, the current was dragging her into a whirlpool, which she understandably wanted to avoid.  Her choices were swim into the whirlpool ("Nope!" she said), try to swim directly upstream away from the whirlpool, or swim along with the current while trying to bear to the left of the hazard to bypass it and get further downstream.  She chose the third option, rolled the die, and succeeded again.*

With each roll her excitement was mounting.  The stream rounded a u-turn bend, and soon Norma, high atop a different ledge overlooking the water, saw the druid floating downstream toward her.  Thinking quickly, Norma withdrew four spare pairs of trousers from her pack, and tied them together.  I made her roll a DC 17 dexterity check to see if she could finish in time.  I set that level because her plan seemed ludicrous to me, but it was such a colorful idea I didn't want it to be impossible.  Her dexterity only affords her a +2 bonus, so Sophie would need to roll a 15 or higher on a d20.  She rolled a natural 19, went prone, and dangled her make-shift "rope" over the ledge.

Wren's player was jumping up and down.  "We did it!"

"You're not out of the water yet!" I countered.

Realization dawned.  "Oh!" she cried, grabbing her d20.  "I reach for the pants!  What do I need?"

"A fifteen,"  I replied.  "And don't forget to add +1 for your swim bonus."

"Ok," she said, her excitement peaking.  She rolled...

...and got a natural 14, which meant she succeeded with her bonus.  "You did it!" I said.  "You successfully grab the pants!  Norma can pull you up out of the water."

The girl's fists were clenched, her knuckles white, her eyes about as wide open as they could get.  There was a weird pause, like she was gonna pop.

"WHAT...A WONDERFUL MOMENT!" she cried, jumping up into the air.  Then it was fist bumping and high-fives all around the table.  "That was amazing!"

This pic was taken a few minutes later.
The action described took place near the top center of the image.

Not five minutes later she jumped back into the water on purpose.  Think she's hooked?

* Failure to avoid the whirlpool would not have meant death.  I had a whole little spelunking/climbing kind of area planned for anyone who accidentally got flushed down the whirlpool.  Of course, the cave fisher down there could have been a challenge.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Matter of Perspective

You enter a large, irregularly shaped cavern with peculiar walls made of something like petrified wood.  There are seven large holes high in the walls and ceiling, maybe 7' in diameter, randomly arranged.  On the floor in the center of the room there's an iron spike about about 5' long.  If you listen closely you can barely make out deep, hushed voices, too muffled to make out the words.

Suddenly, a gigantic hand reaches in through one of the holes and starts groping about blindly.  You dive out of the way to try to avoid it.  If you succeed, the hand eventually finds the iron spike, picks it up, and pulls it through the hole.

A second hand enters from behind you.  This time you stab at it in self-defense, and it quickly withdraws.  You think you hear someone huge in the distance let out a muted "Ow!"

Or maybe you aren't quick enough, and the hand grabs you and roughly pulls you through the hole and into an enormous chamber, where an armored giant and his friends examine you curiously.


Later, perhaps in the same dungeon, perhaps not, and after much exploration and general adventuring, you come to a room with an irregularly shaped stump placed in the center.  The stump has seven holes in it, 6" in diameter each.  An inscription on the boulder instructs only the bravest of adventurers to choose a hole and reach into it to find an amazing treasure.  You decide to give it a try.

You reach in and pull out a tiny adventurer.

Flash!  Aaaaaah!  Inspires every one of us!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Organic Curriculum

In talking again with my wife about this post, she thinks I'm giving short shrift to the role of RPGs in our homeschool environment.

She doesn't see our gaming as a supplement to the core curriculum that she focuses on.  Instead, she sees it as a curriculum in its own right, and one that develops organically, without a whole lot of structure.  The way she described it reminded me of unschooling.

It's definitely a different way of looking at it than how I have been presenting it in this blog.  I have talked about RPGs supplementing the curriculum, or even being "part of" the curriculum, but she sees it as a second curriculum, and one that isn't as tightly controlled as the more traditional schooling she provides in the classroom setting.

That's a more accurate way of describing what we're doing, I think.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Another Music Puzzle

The characters will arrive at the edge of a huge pit.  They must get to the far side to retrieve another instrument for their quest.  Eight stone discs, big enough to stand on, float magically in open space over the pit.  Each disc has a number associated with it from one to eight as indicated by diamond-shaped markings.  The markings are configured like the symbols on playing cards, while the discs are arranged in a pattern relative to each other as shown in the diagram to the right.

The characters will be able to hear a simple, repeating melody playing overhead.  The melody will correspond to the root notes of a standard jazz progression:

I  vi  ii  V  I   (1, 6, 2, 5, 1, or  C, A, D, G, C)

This is the order that the characters will have to tread the discs in order to get to the other side.  Stepping on any of the discs out of order will dump the character into the pit below.  The minimum weight to activate a disc is 50 lbs, so the players won't be able to easily test them. The distances between the discs will be such that the PCs can jump from side to side (e.g., from  #3 to #2), or from one row to the next (e.g., from #2 to #4), or even diagonally to the next row (e.g., from #2 to #7), but they won't be able to skip rows (e.g., from #2 to #8).

You may have noticed that they will not be able to make it back to disc 1 from disc 5.  The players will need to make the connection that #8 can serve as a substitute to #1, just as the 8th note of a major scale is the same note as the 1st note in the scale, just an octave higher.  So the true pattern is 1, 6, 2, 5, 8.

This will not be an easy puzzle for them.  The pit won't be save or die, of course, but I will put something creepy down in the bottom - and a way to get back up on the near side - to add to the excitement.

Spreading the Learning

Last week I posted a link to my blog on /r/rpg over on Reddit, and a user asked me some great questions:

How do you keep your embedded curriculum relevant to each of your children's lessons? I don't have much understanding of how homeschooling works, but I'm interested to see how you can avoid having the eldest child solve all of the simpler problems aimed at the younger two.

I gave an answer over there, and considered just linking to that and calling it a day.  Then I decided that I'd like to answer it again here.  I've given it some more thought, and I talked to my wife and got her thoughts on the subject too, which I'll share.

1. Keeping game content relevant to my children's lessons

This is how I interpreted MrWiggles2's first question.  The underlying assumption in the question is that my kids' curriculum and the content in our RPG games are tightly coupled.  This was actually something I blogged about trying to do early on when I first started integrating RPGs with the kids' homeschool education.  The idea was that my wife and I would look at what the kids would be learning in the coming months, and then I would take that and weave it into my game planning and preparation.  It was a lofty goal.

Sadly, it didn't happen that way in my house, for several reasons:
  • Gymnastics and a few other things don't leave us sufficient time to play RPGs often enough for this level of planning to be possible.
  • Making dungeons is a creative release for me, and the dungeons I create kind of go where they want to go.  

There, I said it.  My creativity is a beast, and I selfishly give it free reign.  Looking at subject matter and trying to make a dungeon around it feels forced to me.  The dungeon I'm making now, by contrast, has things in it that are good educational content, but I chose that content based on ideas that came to me when designing the dungeon.  

And the time thing really is a big deal.  By the time we got around to actually playing something that I had planned specifically to coincide with their lessons, the lessons would be long behind us.

I'm not saying that you can't tightly weave targeted subject matter into your games.  I'm just saying that's not how it's happening at our table.  

My wife's take on content:  she has observed our kids recognizing in their core curriculum things they have already learned in the game.  This is a happy accident, but it has happened on multiple occasions.  One prime example is the Skull of Fibon.  Just recently they learned about the Fibonacci sequence at co-op, but my kids already had it down cold.  Just one way the RPG complements the core curriculum.

2. Keeping older kids from solving all the problems

In my answer on the Reddit thread, I acknowledged that I hadn't actually thought about this before.  Since then, looking back on our games, I realized that the reason it hasn't been much of a problem for us so far is because I haven't hit the kids with a whole bunch of puzzles yet.  On the few occasions when they faced puzzle-like obstacles, everyone freely offered ideas and there was at least a modest degree of listening and cooperation.  In truth, though, young Nora has been dominated a bit by the oder two, so her ideas seldom make it to the forefront.

  • Separation:  you can't solve a problem for your little sister if your character isn't there with her.
  • Conditions:  E.g., blindness, unconsciousness, etc.  You can't solve the puzzle if your character can't see the pieces.  And you can't share your ideas with each other if you've been silenced by a spell.
  • Class-based puzzles:  Make puzzles where it only makes sense for one of the characters to have the knowledge to solve it.  For example, it's a plant-based puzzle, so the druid has to solve it.  The trick is to make it so it doesn't feel forced.  Easier said than done, I know.
  • Just go ahead and force it:  The DM just decides who he/she wants to solve the problem.  "I want Nora to try to solve this one."

My wife's take on evenly dividing the puzzle-solving load:  surprisingly, this wasn't a big deal for her.  She's fine with whoever solves it.  As long as everyone is paying attention, there will be benefits for all.

Finally, I just want to reiterate something I said on the thread:  I don't get bogged down in what the best way is to maximize the academic benefit.  I focus on having fun and letting any learning happen naturally. 

That's how we roll.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Music Dungeon

Look closely, these are not pictures of rooms.
But use them as rooms I shall.
As I mentioned last time, the skeletal remains of Ayotl's songbird head will house a music-themed dungeon.  In addition to a few monster encounters, this dungeon will consist of a series of puzzles based on music theory. Here's how it will work.

On their way in, the characters will pass under an arch bearing the inscription:  "The Way of a Warrior is to establish Harmony."*  This is a clue to solving the dungeon's final mystery, as we shall see.

The characters will then face six puzzles.  These won't be traps, per se, though some of them could be potentially dangerous.  These puzzles must be solved in order to obtain six wondrous musical instruments.

As each musical instrument is obtained, a theme comprised of low, thrumming tones will gradually build.  This will be accomplished through the Garage Band music-mixing software on my Mac, playing in continuous loop (the software gives me the ability to toggle tracks on and off).  For each instrument the characters find, I add a note to the theme.  Not loud enough to distract the players from the game, but enough so they'll know it's there.  Together the notes form a chord, but soon the players will realize that the chord is not harmonious and with each tone added is getting less so.  I will take this opportunity to explain to the kids the difference between harmony and discord, and how discord can be used to heighten tension.

The sixth item releases a demon, whose name is Mißklang or Zwietracht (German for discord), who attacks the characters.  The musical instruments the kids collected have to be placed in niches around the demon's chamber, and they have to be placed in a particular order to change the theme from discord to harmony.  The demon cannot otherwise be killed, but as harmonious notes replace the obnoxious ones, the demon weakens and is shown to be transforming into something less demonic.  Eventually, when the right combination is found, he is revealed to be a handsome prince (because it's girls playing the game, after all).  The prince rewards them by providing the first part of the key to the Black Tower of Despair.

For what it's worth, the back story on the prince is that he was cursed by his sister, the queen Esseniri whose tomb they seek, when he betrayed her in an effort to save their people from her tyranny.

So, a few days ago in the comments I promised sample puzzles.  I've already given the big puzzle for this music dungeon above, and now here is one of the six puzzles they'll have to solve to get the music instruments:

Sample Puzzle
Lava separates the party from the target musical instrument.    Three large tuning forks stand in the lava in a line leading to the instrument.  An inscription on the wall in front of the lava shows 12 figures:  7 white, and 5 black, all in a line, configured like the white and black keys of a piano.  Three are standing, the rest are seated.  The three correspond to a major chord (the second is four positions - or semitones - from the first, and the third one is three positions from the second.  These correspond to the first, third, and fifth notes of a major scale).  If someone sings a note (or if the bard plays a note on his guitar), one of the tuning forks will vibrate, making the lava ripple away from it for as long as the note is held.  If the kids make a three-part harmony (which I know for a fact my three kids can), then all three forks will vibrate and a path will be cleared through the lava to the instrument for as long as they can maintain the chord.  

Do you have ideas for other musical puzzles?
This puzzle is the most well-developed one I have.  I have two more in the works, but I'll need six in all, because that's how many notes I want the theme to have.

Any suggestions for more music puzzles?

* "The Way of the Warrior is to establish Harmony." - Morihei Ueshiba

Sunday, March 18, 2012

City in a Carcass

In my last post I talked about my goals for a big dungeon adventure I'm making for the kids.  Today I'm going to describe the background of this adventure, and then dive into the overall structure.  That will set up the context for next time when I talk about some of the puzzles in one particular section of the dungeon.

I've already given a little bit of the background for this adventure here.  Some details have changed since then.  First, the carcass of the turtle-shaped demigod is upside down, which is the position the creature came to rest in when it met its doom (incidentally, it was slain by another demigod who figures prominently in part two of the adventure path, which takes place in Nimoriél...but that's a story for another day).  Second, the animal heads have changed.  They are now bird, spider, mole, and ardvaark, for reasons we shall soon see.

Ayotl, in better days
The Micqui built their city in the remains of this beast, and they dominated the people around them for centuries.  Their last sovereign before their empire collapsed was a queen named Esseniri, and it is for her tomb - and the treasure hopefully buried with her - that the characters seek.

Since the turtle is upside down, that means its carapace, or dorsal (back) shell, forms a giant bowl.  Tectonic forces have misshapen it over the ages, but for our purposes thinking of it as a bowl is useful.  An underwater river falls into this bowl and forms Mors Aeterna, the Lake of Eternal Death, which drains out through one of the heads into another river, deeper down.

This configuration also means that the demigod's plastron, or ventral (belly) shell, forms a ceiling high above the lake to enclose the space.  The river which dumps into the lake actually cuts through some of the ancient scutes in the perimeter of his carapace and slips through the crack between plastron and carapace before plummeting to the dark waters below.  For what it's worth, the part of the dungeon the kids are in now is cut into one of these perimeter scutes, and they are nearing the waterfall.  Back when the city was still on the surface, this section served as an observatory that the ancient scholars used to create their calendar.  Over the next week I'm going to be studying Mayan and Aztec calendars for ideas to slip into this particular section.

The vertebrae for the creature's two spines, which run perpendicular to each other and intersect in the middle, are for the most part intact.  Some of these vertebrae poke out of the lake to form islands.  Rising from the largest of these at the junction of the two spines is the Black Tower of Despair, which is impenetrable except via a magical gate which requires a special key to be opened.   The queen's tomb can be found beneath this black tower, and so they will need to find the key to get there.

Each of the four animal skulls - one for each cardinal direction - contains a different dungeon.  Among the treasures in each dungeon will be idols shaped like simplified versions of the animal heads.  Together these idols can be assembled together to form the key that opens the magical gate.

The dungeons will each have a theme corresponding to human senses, as follows:

  • Bird: hearing.  This will be a music-themed dungeon.
  • Spider:  sight.  This will be a dungeon that features the use of light and mirrors.
  • Mole: touch.  The characters will find themselves misled by their other senses.
  • Aardvark: taste.   The characters will find themselves being tasted by the last living tissue of the ancient demigod! (think Millenium Falcon in that living cave)

You may have noticed that I skipped our sense of smell.  That sense is represented by a rivalry between two races who now inhabit this subterranean region.  One race, called the Dark Ones, lives on the edge of the Lake of Eternal Death and fishes its waters.  These creatures do not cast aside their attire when it becomes too old and worn; instead, they simply add new layers over top of the old ones.  For this reason, they reek terribly.  The other race is one I made up myself, and they're called Nifflers.  They have no eyes at all and get by almost exclusively with their sense of smell, so it should be plain to see why they hate the Dark Ones.  The Nifflers inhabit some of the vertebrae islands and patrol the ribs which extend out from the spines and fuse with the carapace to form a network of tunnels beneath the lake.

Both races are hunted by a wyvern who ranges over the lake, and they try to appease him by kidnapping members of the rival race as sacrifices to the wicked beast.

This is the environment the kids are entering now, and they have no idea what they're getting into.  

Next time I'll give an example of a puzzle from the bird/music dungeon.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Start of Something Big

I've started creating a huge dungeon for the kids, and I thought I'd share my process in this space.  It's a fairly ambitious project.  I'm shooting for the stars, and there's no way to describe it all in a single post.  Today I'll cover what my goals are, but first I'll provide a little bit of the dungeon's context within the overall adventure path.

Long time survivors of this blog may recall that I also run a Pathfinder game for my adult friends, and that my homebrew world they run in is pretty much the same one my kids run in.  Sort of.  They can't affect each other's version of the world, and they can't interact with one another.  This means that I'm effectively running the same adventure path twice, first with the adults who started as level 5 adventurers, and then with the kids who started at level 1.   So even if the adult party kills a major villain in, say, the Temple of Klethnu, that villain will still be there waiting for the kids when they arrive at the same temple.  Unless he's busy elsewhere, that is.

First, a definition for the uninitiated.  An "adventure path," in the sense that I'm using the term, is the set of adventures that the characters will engage in over the full span of their career, from whatever level they start at to whenever the characters are retired.  Adventure paths don't necessarily cover the entire PC career, but they do at least encompass a set of adventures that are connected to each other to form some narrative.  This particular adventure path I'm making will be it for these characters.  Once it's over, the kids retire these characters and we play something else.

The overarching structure of the adventure path that I've created/am still creating for my players consists of four parts.  The adults started with part two, the kids with part one.  I started running the setting well before I had an adventure path in mind, though; the adventure path has grown organically from the initial adventures that I created, specifically the "part two" that the adults just finished up after a year of playing in the elven city of Nimoriél.*  But the overall adventure path is a subject for another day.  I mention it today just to give some context for the dungeon I'm making.

Which brings me to my goals for this dungeon:

  1. Advance the characters from level 3 to level 6;
  2. Incorporate the dungeon seamlessly into the adventure path;
  3. Challenge the players mentally;
  4. Teach the kids about a wide range of subjects without them realizing it.

The first goal is to advance the characters from level 3 (their current level), to level 6, which is the level they will need to achieve in order to be ready to survive the horrors waiting for them in the Nimoriél greater metropolitan area.  Three levels worth of experience points represents many encounters, so the dungeon has to be fairly big.

My second goal is for the dungeon to feel like part of the overall adventure path.  That won't matter until much later, of course, long after they have advanced to Nimoriél and points beyond.  Right now the kids have no clue that this adventure path even exists, but years later I want them to look back on all our sessions with a sense of wonder and realize how they all fit so seamlessly together into one cohesive unit.   That's my pride talking, I admit.  I want them to look back on the adventure path as a whole, and each adventure and dungeon along the way, and reach the inevitable conclusion that their dad was a total bad*ss game master.  And I want them to see how I did it and inspire them to reach for similarly lofty creative goals.

An adjunct to this second goal is that I want the dungeon to tie together with what they've done up until this point.  I want to foster the illusion that I had the whole thing planned before we even began.  Eventually they'll know the truth because I'll share my techniques, but let them wonder for awhile.

My third goal is to make this a mentally challenging dungeon, mainly from a problem-solving perspective.  My kids compete in Future Problem Solvers, and I've noticed that since starting FPS, their problem-solving skills have really sharpened.  I've got to come up with something challenging enough to keep them interested.  So this dungeon will have lots of puzzles, none of which will be solvable by mere skill rolls.  And though it will have no shortage of nasty creepy-crawlies, several of the enemies they face will not be beatable by combat.

I'm feeling even more ambitious than that, though.  What I've done is created a structure for this dungeon such that the whole thing is one big puzzle, with subsections which are also puzzles which themselves contain puzzles.  You'll see how this works when I describe the dungeon structure next time.

(Also, the adventure path itself is a giant puzzle of sorts.  Tiny little seeds will be planted in this dungeon that will be clues for unraveling the biggest of mysteries when the characters have advanced to become legendary heroes and everything they hold dear is on the line.)

My final goal (aside from simply having fun), is to sneak in some educational elements.  As always, I'll take a stealth approach to this:  if the kids are having a blast and don't even realize they're learning, then the mission will be a success.  The following are a few subject areas that I know I'll be addressing:

  • Music theory
  • Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations
  • Astronomy
  • Geometry 
  • Logic
  • Anatomy
  • How to kill vampires

This last skill is of particular importance.  Not all vampires sparkle.

* Spanning just three weeks of in-game time.  In other words, we met once per week and played the setting for one year, but the characters were only in and around the elven city for three weeks.

I mention this to give scale to the adventure path.  Parts two and three are the biggest, and part four is the smallest.  I estimate the whole effort could take three to four years.  This assumes we actually get chances to play.  If you've read this blog at all, you know that's a long shot.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Troll GM is Troll

In a previous post I mentioned Sophie's poker face.  It's really more like a Mona Lisa smile, especially in the eyes.  She has heavy lids, and nice lips with only the faintest hint of a smile.  When she gives me this look, I feel like she's appraising me.  It's the same look she had on her face when she entered the world, and it's as disconcerting now as it was then.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.  This post contains information about the Black Fang adventure that comes with the Pathfinder Beginner Box.

When she was running the "Black Fang" adventure, one of the treasures the party found before I arrived to play was a little wooden toy dragon with ruby eyes.  The rubies were worth something like 50 gold pieces a pop.  A nice little find.  Then the characters went on to die several times.  When they did, Sophie let them come back to life in the dungeon, with a caveat:  she placed them randomly in the dungeon.  She also instituted a teleportation trap.  Her reasoning, we learned later, was that the characters had already cleared the rooms, so she was trying to make the old rooms interesting.  She also wasn't letting the players see the whole map that comes printed on the battle mat that comes in the box.  This made sense, given the teleportation trap, and resulted in that wonderful feeling of being lost.  All of this was her invention, by the way.  Nothing new, of course, but cool that she came up with it on her own.

What the players didn't know was that Sophie had run out of treasures to hand out.

When I joined, we defeated some goblins and found their treasure chest.  Unfortunately for Sophie, the players had already cleared this room once before and taken the treasure, so she had to come up with something new on the fly.  One of the items she put in there was another toy dragon, this time with Saphire eyes.  The girls quickly pointed out that they already had one kind of like it.  "Cool," I said, thinking that since there were two such toys that it must be a clue or puzzle of some sort.  "Maybe there are more."

"Maybe together they form a weapon," suggested Livie, playing a wizard.

I looked over at Sophie, and she was wearing that old, familiar expression on her face.  No help there, but I felt we were on the right track.

A little later on we stumbled on the lair of Black Fang himself, a black dragon.  We weren't ready to take on a dragon.  He didn't see us, so we carefully withdrew.  Our plan was to clear out everything else in the dungeon and, hopefully, level up before the big showdown.

We did find another treasure later on, and what do you know?  It had a toy dragon in it.  Sophie's expression remained unchanged.  At this point our own personal maps connected all the rooms together, and the only room left was the dragon's lair.  We did level up and, most importantly in our minds, we had the entire set of toy dragons.  Off we went to face the menace.

It did not go well.  We were already faring poorly in the combat when Livie said, "What about the toys?"

"Of course!  The toys!"

Her wizard then proceeded to waste several rounds using Mage Hand to summon the toys from my possession to hers, then try to assemble the toys in some way, and even point them at the dragon and yell commands to try to activate the figures.

No luck.  They were just toys.  The dragon killed us.

...but Sophie was getting tired of us dying all the time and bailed us out (just an opinion:  this initial adventure should really have at least four characters in play, not just the three that we tried it with).   And so we "defeated" the dragon.

Afterwards I asked Sophie about the toys, and that's when I learned that she had simply made up the second toy and then intentionally added the third toy with the sole purpose of messing with us.  She had heard our musings about their purpose and decided it would be fun to feed into them to give them credence.   She even entertained the possibility of stealing our idea and making the toys special in some way, but figured it would be more fun to have them do nothing at all.

In other words, she trolled us.  Hard.  And her expression hadn't changed one tiny bit the whole time.

I am so proud.

Note:  I tried to photograph her expression this morning to share on this post.  Although I captured the expression, her hair was all mangled and the lighting wasn't doing her any favors.  I figure if I'm going to post pictures of my kids on the web, I at least owe it to them to let them look their best.  Thus, no pic.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

For the Orphans

Story time, from when I joined the Pathfinder game my daughter Sophie was running.

It seems that their characters had already died a few times in the dungeon that comes with the Pathfinder Beginner Box, so they were eager for me to play a cleric who could heal them if they got into hot water again.  So I grabbed the pre-generated cleric character, changed her sex to male, named him "Kyras," and jumped right in.  I immediately made it known that I was a servant of Serenrae, goddess of light and healing, and encouraged their characters to join me in asking for my goddess' blessings for our adventuring party.  They quickly wearied of Kyras's in-your-face evangelism.  Kyras eventually took the hint, and they got on with the adventure.

The best part was after we killed the goblin king and one of his minions.  I said, "I check the goblin king's corpse to see what he had."

Livie said, "Yeah!  Let's steal their stuff!"

"Excuse me?" I responded, admonishing her.  "Shouldn't it go to the orphans?"

Sophie squinted in confusion and silently mouthed the question, Orphans?  She hadn't mentioned any orphans.  Nora was equally perplexed and loudly demanded to know what orphans I was referring to.  But Livie, always a quick study, knew what I was up to and just smacked her forehead with her palm and groaned.

Since Nora was still confused, I elaborated.  "The goblins stole these things from the villagers they killed.  They really belong to the village.  The temple of Serenrae believes the money should be spent to feed and house the village orphans."

Livie's character did not agree.  After all, she was the one putting her life on the line to rid the village of these monstrous threats.  She lobbied for a three-way split.  When the cleric refused to budge, she played her ace.   "Ok," she countered.  "What if I just walk out of here and leave you two here alone, and the villagers all get killed because you can't kill the dragon?  How will your orphans do then, hmm?"

"You have a good point," I admitted, and we agreed to an even split, although Nora's character announced she would be helping the orphans too.  

"I couldn't help but notice you're wearing the ring of protection you found," added Livie slyly, pointing out my hypocrisy.  

"I need to survive," I retorted.  "For the orphans, of course."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Return of the Blog

Hey, I'm back!  It's been too long.

Gymnastics has proven to be an RPG killer in our home, but it looks like we're starting to ramp up again.  This summer should be especially good, since we'll have big chunks of time on the weekends that we don't have now.

In the past few months, I gave my 11-year-old daughter Sophie Paizo's Pathfinder Beginner Box.  I can't say enough nice things about this set.    Since this product has been out for awhile, and since there is no shortage of information on the Internet about its contents, I'm not going to give it a full review here.  Instead, let it suffice to say that Sophie was able to take the box and run a game very easily.  That's saying something for a game as complicated as Pathfinder/ D&D 3.5.

The best part was that I didn't have to help.  The kids wanted to play, but I had plans to be elsewhere.  They were bummed, so on my way out the door I said, "Why not open up your Beginner Box and have at it?"  They got all excited and started their prep.

Four hours later I returned home and they were still playing, with no signs of slowing down.  I joined in by taking on one of the pre-generated characters that come in the box, the cleric (because "Daddy, we need healing!"), and before long we were facing down Black Fang.

Sophie's going to be a great GM.  She is devious and has a great poker face, critical for successful trolling.  More on that next time.