School of Adventure – character building

At the start of the School of Adventure club, I did my best to simplify the character creation process. It is still complicated, especially making characters for six beginner players at once. I think I’ve learned some lessons.

There’s an appetite for RPGs in primary schools

The school agreed readily to my pitch. I sent over a few lines about how educational tabletop roleplaying games are and how I had adapted the game for the age group, but I didn’t have to do any further persuading. I think it helped that the office manager had had a university friend who was a gamer, and I got support from the librarian when we got talking about my kids going to her creative writing club. But for whatever reason the school was very receptive.

With a flyer emailed out by the school, a follow-up via some parent phone chat groups, and a bit of word-of-mouth from my son, I got 11 paying customers (plus my own kids) out of no more than 150 eligible pupils, which I think is a good ratio. Apparently it is one of the biggest starts they’ve seen for a parent-run activity.

Choice cards work

I distilled my selection of five class, six race and nine background options onto summary cards. The kids passed them around, looked at them and discussed before choosing. That worked pretty well. Illustrations on some of the cards helped.

I found the popular races were Elf then Orc, with a couple of Humans. No takers for any short races.

The popular classes were Rogue then Cleric then Wizard, with a Barbarian and a Fighter. There are four rogues in one party of seven and I suggested one or two should change but they’re all sticking to it. I couldn’t even persuade the one who wanted from the start to be able to do ice magic to pick wizard—he just used his elf cantrip for Ray of Frost.

Favourite background was Outlander followed by Noble, Acolyte and Sage, and an Urchin and an Entertainer. Folk Hero, Soldier and Guild Artisan were clearly all too mundane.

What do we learn from this? Simple choices from short lists of options, clearly presented, work fine. My kids wanted their characters to be impressive and exciting, and many of them sneaky.

Choosing details is tricky

The finer points were a bit less smooth. Everyone needs to choose class skill proficiencies, and weapons. Most choose armour, and at least one class option like spells, domain, fighting style or expertise. Many characters had race or background free-choice languages.

I had printed out class choice sheets to guide them through, but they were not quite enough. I had listed class skills, but there were lots of questions and confusions about what the skill names meant.

I had included on the sheets the Equipment menus from the PHB class descriptions, but for Fighter and Barbarian these have entries like ‘any martial weapon’, so I had printed a simplified copy of the main weapon lists. In one group the cleric players also got hold of this, and the main thing that stood out as differentiating the weapons was damage, so they chose high-damage weapons off this list (rather than the one-handed options from the Cleric class rules) and I didn’t like to say no too much. Actually, I’m looking forward to the Orc Tempest Cleric dishing out some righteous 2d6+3 maul damage, so we’re failing forward.

But I think in future I’ll provide simpler, clearer, more complete choice sheets, and be very clear that they are to be gone through in order. If I have to omit some options I consider less usable, so be it. I may even ignore languages.

Oh, and ability scores. I looked between sessions at everyone’s class, weapon, skill and personality choices and figured out what scores I thought would suit them (PHB array for equality between players). Then I filled out the numbers for them and next session handed over the completed sheets with the option to change things if they thought different. No-one wanted to change any so I feel that was a good way to do it.

Personality

Packets of printed cards for Traits, Ideals, Bonds and FlawsI also created cards for choosing Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws. I liked this framework when I saw it in the 5e PHB but, having created a character or two with my own kids at home, we were finding the 6-8 options tied to each background a bit restrictive. So I picked a largish selection of options from across all the backgrounds and made them freely available, putting them on choice cards with snappy titles as well as sentences in character voice. I also found common threads across some of the backgrounds, especially in Bonds, so I amalgamated and generalised some of the options, with prompts to come up with specifics for a Bond like ‘Roots’.

Most of the players were pretty enthused about this, and chose multiple options in each category – we’ll have to see how this comes through in play.

There was a very wide spread of personality traits, with independence and self-will being the most popular, and steeliness, boastfulness, joking, bluntness, determination and action-orientation also getting more than one pick. Also a couple who wanted to be peacemakers.

Self-interest was the most popular Ideal, followed by creativity, and a couple for mutual tolerance and freedom. Other than that there was again a wide spread.

The most popular Bonds were commitments to other PCs, either selected individuals or the group as a whole. Also several chose to have a rival or a nemesis, though I don’t think anyone came up with specific details straight away. We’ll work on that soon.

I’ll talk about Flaws below.

An hour is a short session, and character creation takes time

With my optimistic head on, I had kind of hoped to get character creation done in the first session, maybe two. But we only get about an hour of the actual activity in the after-school slot and, even with a simplified process, creating six characters for new players took over two hours. One set of players had a bit more initial familiarity with adventure games of various sorts and stayed fairly focused on the technical questions like skills and weapons; they had their characters mostly done in two sessions, and used the third session for description and appearance, and a roleplaying scene gathering intelligence about the first dungeon. The other group had some players who were more confused or put off by the nuts and bolts, and they took most of two sessions over that, and personality went into Week 3, leaving only a short time for the intelligence-gathering roleplay. But they loved the personality choosing and got into the rapidplay dialogue, and we finished that phase of the club on a high.

Kids ask a lot of questions

I know, right? But *really* a lot. Plenty of grown-up clarifying details to gladden my nerdy little heart, but also lots of out-there hypotheticals born of wild imagination. I think, especially when they are getting into a new activity, they want to find the boundaries of what is possible and what is expected in this framework.

And they shout out their ideas as soon as they have them, they comment unreservedly on each other’s choices, and while you’re engaged with one others are getting bored and starting to do their own thing—if possible, under the tables. It’s a chaotic kind of fun. I salute the professionals who handle groups four or five times this size all day long.

Kids have their own ideas and want to make their characters special

If, like me back in the day, you learnt the game from the rulebooks, you might for your early character building have mostly stuck to the options offered in the rulebooks. But teaching the game to the kids orally I found them running ahead of me and going way off-piste with all sorts of ideas for making their characters awesome. One player had written out their character concept of “enchantments and ice; shooting, sneaking, speed” before I had finished saying it was time to choose a race. I had a player demanding a baby bronze dragon as a pet, and another wanting to be a vampire. Between them they’ve got red skin, black skin, blue skin, red hair, blue hair, orange hair, red eyes, white eyes, stormy grey, and an eyepatch.

I love it. I’ve said yes to all the cosmetic stuff. The baby bronze dragon is firmly offstage but might make an appearance as an NPC in a few levels’ time. I have vetoed all undead powers, but that one character still insistently self-identifies as a vampire, which is fine by me as a personality schtick.

Which leads me to…

Ten-year-olds are edgy

Kid's drawing of Dan Dreadman, alias The Dreaded Shadow, looking menacing with twin swords in back sheathsWell, edgy perhaps isn’t quite the right word. A few *are* genuinely keen to explore dark sides to their characters and stories: one novice player interrupted my introduction with “Ooh, is there dark magic? Hey, can I be *evil*?!” and eyes wide with glee (and yes, it was the vampire). But I think, more than that, they are keen to make their characters hard and strong, without being perfect in a people-pleasing or conventional way. So across the thirteen characters in the two groups, there are six Rogues. There are characters called The Dreaded Shadow and The Icicle. Personality traits like “I never show fear” are popular, but the part of the characterisation framework that really got them going was the Flaws. One player chose seven. Even the kid who was so disdainful of characterisation at the start that they put Personality: Doesn’t Care and Ideal: Jelly was sufficiently intrigued by Flaws that they chose two from the cards I handed out. And the popular flaws are not overt vulnerabilities, but rough edges like holding grudges, judgementality, or not admitting being wrong. Even the liabilities are active and heroic, like risk-taking and things they can’t resist doing.

Friendships are important

Kids really want to play with their friends. It is clear that deciding to sign up for the club happened mainly in groups of friends who talked about it together. I initially worked with the parents to sign each child up to the day that best fitted their weekly schedule. But as soon as the kids found out their allocated days and started comparing notes I got I think three requests to transfer into a group with more of their classmates. The one kid who comes on a different day from their buddies several times wandered over to them in the rendezvous area, and had to be sent back to the other club they’re signed up for that day.

Also, players in both groups spontaneously chose each other’s characters as their Bonds, and again within those classroom/playground pre-existing friendship groups. I hope that friendships will strengthen across the classes, year groups and genders through the club, but at the moment, the social aspect with their existing friends is really strong.

(Please note that copyright in the hand-drawn illustration belongs to the artist, one of the club players, and I am using it with permission. The photo is mine.)

Have you had experience yourself with running games for kids? Playing games as a kid run by an adult? Tell us about it in the comments.

School of Adventure – concept

I’ve started running a roleplaying game (RPG) club at my kids’ school. The game I’m using describes itself as “Age 12+”, but the school only goes up to age 11. So I kept the club to the oldest two year groups (Years 5 and 6 in the English system, ages 9 to 11) and I’ve adapted the published game a bit, in an effort to make sure these younger kids could pick it up OK, and to avoid negative reactions from staff or parents.

Setting and non-lethality

I have shifted the campaign concept from the default “your characters have embarked upon a life of adventure, risking their life, limb, mental well-being and possibly immortal soul” to “your characters are students at a School of Adventure, a fairly safe and youth-friendly environment in which they learn the skills for a life of adventure.”

This means I can avoid mentioning adult themes that I would normally include in a medievalesque fantasy world, like alcohol, gambling, sex, crime and punishment. The curriculum structure gives me a relatable excuse to limit the kids’ initial character-building options. And there is a rationale for making combat and other hazards non-lethal—who would send their kid to a school where termly tests were not pass or fail but live or die?

I originally decided on non-lethality a) not to put off sweet gentle kids who don’t like gore and death and b) to avoid some of the ethical questions about the typical barge-in-kill-all-in-sight-grab-the-loot dungeon bash. Also c) to avoid kids being too upset when they invest themselves in their first character and get them killed in the first session or two.

Having gone through character creation (see my next post), I can add that d) character generation takes time and I’d rather not have to repeat it too often.

So, I’ve said that everything in the school’s adventuring exercises is imbued with magic that prevents death or permanent injury. Losing hit points is painful, getting to 0 hit points renders characters unconscious as normal, and failing that third death save means you’re out for the duration and will require revival by the staff, but you will be back for the next adventure. Hmm, what happens if a character is out until revived in an early encounter of a multi-session adventure… maybe staff revival can happen mid-test.

Anyway, so that’s the non-lethality tweak I’ve made, and how the school setting helps justify it. Also, although many of my players are completely new to tabletop RPGs and several of them seem new to the Tolkienesque fantasy genre, I think they are all familiar with the Harry Potter franchise so ‘it’s a bit like Hogwarts’ is a good way into the setting for them. And for me—I have an immediate scheme for building the setting if I know I need a school building, school grounds, subjects, staff, houses and so on.

“Parentage” = race

I could go on about race in RPGs; in fact, I think I’ll make it a blog post of its own some time. For now let me leave aside the fundamental issues and just talk about the omissions and slight tweaks I’ve made to present the game’s core races in the School of Adventure setting.

First, I’m calling the whole thing ‘parentage’ not ‘race’. RPG ‘race’ is quite a different thing to real-world race, so I think it better to use a different word for it. My young players’ formation of understanding about race in the real world is important, and not something I should interfere with by presenting a whole bundle of fantastical and game-related concepts under the same label. 

Second, and for reasons of the game rather than the outside world, I’m not offering all the races in the Player’s Handbook (PHB). I offered six, with no sub-race choices.

I in principle wanted to limit the choices, because I’ve seen new players somewhat bedazzled by the full PHB options. And I had some specific reasons for omitting certain races:

Dragonborn—I had not run a dragonborn or a 5th edition game before, and a player-character (PC) breath weapon seemed like a new complication I should avoid. On reflection, I think I’d have been fine, but six is enough choices so I’ll probably continue to leave them out for now unless I find a player who pushes for it.

Half-Elf—I didn’t want to introduce the idea of biracial parentage to the character-building process. (I’m calling Half-Orc ‘Orc’ for the same reason.) Not that I don’t think biracial or more complex ancestry has a place in D&D generally—far from it. But I can imagine taking forever answering a string of questions in the form “Can I be half-[this] and half-[that]?” and I know I don’t have a better reason for ruling out all these combinations than that the game rules don’t support them and I want a short menu. So I felt it best just not to mention it. Also half-elves are a bit in-betweeny in their features so in my quest for a short menu of choices they’re dispensible.

Tiefling—I don’t want to strongly feature either heavy racial prejudice or fiends/demons/devils in this under-12s campaign, and they’re both inherent to the concept and flavour of Tieflings as written.

“Previous school” = background

With the concept being that the PCs are young teenagers, I felt I should re-write the backgrounds. They are still necessary because they provide up to half a character’s skill proficiencies and they help to differentiate two characters with the same class. (This last function turned out to be important, as I will discuss in my next post). Also I think they are fun and flavourful.

But as written they assume that the character is an adult, with already some backstory in the adult world. So I converted some of the PHB backgrounds to childhood concepts, such as Acolyte to temple school, Entertainer to school of performing arts, and Guild Artisan to apprenticeship. I left out Charlatan and Criminal because I didn’t want to encourage too much identification with dishonest behaviour in a school club, and a couple of others just to trim out excess choices.

“Course” = class

If you’re at a school for adventure, you’re obviously studying adventurous skills. So I thought that class translated directly into the course you have chosen to study at the school. With a bit of renaming for flavour, I’m using what to me as an old-timer are the four classic options: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard. Plus Barbarian, which I felt might be a fun choice for a kid and should be simple to get into.

If I decide to lengthen the menu, I may consider Druid, Ranger, Paladin, Bard, Monk. I don’t want to use Warlocks in a primary-school club because characters getting magical powers from pacts with dark forces seems to risk alarming the teachers or parents. (Likewise no Oath of Vengeance, no Necromancy specialists, and if I allow the Assassin archetype I’ll rename it Footpad and rely on my 5th-level end point to keep it reasonably light.) And I don’t like either of the PHB Sorcerer options—I can’t be doing with anything as unpredictable as wild magic, and I don’t really want to play into the fantasy genre’s tendency to ascribe life-shaping significance to ‘bloodline’. If I get myself any supplement books with other Sorcerer types in them I may consider adding them.

“Year” = level

I won’t be awarding experience points and trying to engineer pace of advancement that way. I’m just going to say that they start as first-years, with the abilities of first level characters, and level them up as a party after each main adventure, narrating this as them growing up into the next school year and learning a more advanced curriculum.

My original plan was to spend two terms—to the end of the 2019-20 academic year—playing years/levels one to five. But, revising this post for my new site at the end of the first term, having only managed to get through year one, I may have to accept the rate of about one to two School of Adventure years per real school term. Hopefully I can arrange things so that there is the potential to take at least some of the starting characters to year 5 next real year.

“House” = group

My players are familiar with school ‘houses’, so I’m using this as a convenient reason why those characters played by people attending the club on Monday are in one party for their adventure exercises and the Tuesday players’ characters are in another. I’ve said that the team exercises are organised by house, and that all the characters from each day are members of the same house, therefore the same team. It saves coming up with reasons to adventure together and hopefully closes down the permanent party split scenario if any in-character tensions emerge.

So that’s the School of Adventure concept. It’d be great to hear your thoughts on it. I was thinking of writing it up into a transferable and saleable format so let me know if you’d like to see that.

Introducing Oak of Honor Games

I’ve been doing tabletop roleplaying games since I was about ten, back in the 80s, and always as a hobby that I rarely found enough time for. But thanks to a low roll on the Random Career Events Table in 2019 I have a window to turn my hobby into a business, and here we are.

The venture’s name, by the way, is in tribute to a tree that once stood in the neighbourhood where I’m based. I’ll maybe do another blog post about it.

Here’s a brief outline of what I’m starting with:

After-school clubs

I currently* run two afternoons a week at my kids’ school, but I’m open to expand in the local area (London SE23, SE4 and nearby). I deliver a customised version of a well-known and popular tabletop fantasy roleplaying game for the 9-11 age group (Year 5 and Year 6); look on this blog for the tag School of Adventure. I could also run the full game for Year 7 and up.

Running games

I’d be happy to consider running other games for children or adults—get in touch if you’re looking for a group to join, a DM for you and your friends, or an activity for your kids.

Editing and consulting services

I have experience and knowledge of writing, editing, proof-reading, world-building and game design that hopefully I’ll demonstrate on this site and in my products, so I can help you with your own game design, world-building and writing projects. If you would like my input, just get in touch.

Articles and products for gamers

I’m a bit of a history geek, and a little bit of a geography nerd, so I produce resources that help world builders, game masters and players make use of historical and geographical studies for inspiration and guidance. I’ll start with some freebie blog posts and suchlike bits and pieces, and work up more substantial products for sale.

There will also be other kinds of material: advice for game masters and players; drop-in elements like monsters, magic, encounters and adventures; optional rules; and so on.

Get involved in the comments and discussions and let me know what you would like to see me produce – I’ll be happy to work on stuff that I know has an audience.

*I wrote that paragraph before the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown in the UK. As you will see from later blog posts I am continuing the existing two club games online as far as I can, but it doesn’t seem realistic to get any more schools involved until they get back to normal operation. But let me know if there are individual kids who would like to join the virtual club!