I’ve spent the autumn running the School of Adventure’s Year Four mission online. With about half my original players now off at different secondary schools, I’m down to a core of kids who are now all in the top year of the same real-life primary school and I think pretty much all friends in school time. So I’m just running one group, on Tuesday afternoons; they’re joining online from their homes because the school isn’t hosting this kind of club on site for COVID safety reasons.
Next-level online gaming
I think the kids are learning the communication channels faster than I am. I’m still using Roll20 for the virtual tabletop and Skype for video chat. But, whereas I keep the tabletop on my screen and just use Skype as voice chat on my headset, the kids have been exploring the Skype functionality to maximise their socialising during the sessions. It started as playing with the video filters and sharing memes in the Skype chat screen feed. This I found a relief because it diverted their babble from the Roll20 text chat and meant that I could see the dice rolls without scrolling back up all the time
But then someone figured out that they could set up separate chats and groups with selected other people, and now I have no idea what they’re doing. Although manageable, it is a noticeable drawback I think. First, they get so involved in their private chitchat that they sometimes take a minute to catch up with their turn, and I can’t through my headset tell the difference between a pause to think and disengagement. Second, I’ve mostly lost the feedback of having them react in the Roll20 chat to the narrative I’m telling them. And third, by chatting in subgroups that not all the players are in, the group cohesion is starting to break down.
The Year 4 adventure
So, for context, I’ve assigned as their Year Four test mission for the School of Adventure an escort duty for a consignment of valuable goods through some long-range tunnels underground. The goods are trundling along by wagon pulled by giant beetles and driven by a couple of NPCs, and the PCs are choosing the route, fighting off bandits and overcoming physical obstacles.
It is a bit linear (especially after the initial route choice) and risks being ho-hum, but I’m getting a bit of spice by having a rival team from another House at the same school on the same route at the same time. The rival team is ahead on the trail, and setting up some obstacles and traps behind themselves. It is a little bit Wacky Races and the players are reacting to it with gratifying levels of anger and resentment directed at the NPCs. I’m hoping to bring this to a head later, so I’ll come back to it in a future post.
But also there are the regular hazards of the Underdark tunnels. I offered the group a choice of ways: slow but safe-ish via the Winding Tunnel, potentially-quick but risky via the Creaking Rocks, or quick-ish but danger filled via the Nether Depths.
There was a lively debate and they chose the Nether Depths over the Creaking Rocks (no takers for slow but safe). They are therefore currently fighting off an ambush by Deep Elf bandits. (Deep Elves are Drow from the DnD monster repertoire, but I’ve re-skinned them a little to omit the ‘dark complexion equals evil’ trope.)
Player vs Player
And this is the setting for a sudden outbreak of hostility between the Player Characters (PCs). Apparently, during the session before last, three of the players set up a private chat and decided to turn on the other three. One of the other three also for some reason of their own decided to try to join the enemy in search of solo profit. So at the end of that session, in the middle of the bandit fight, one PC knelt in front of the enemy and laid down their weapon, and another took a swing at one of their supposed comrades. It being time to stop for the day anyway, I called a halt mid-combat and had a think.
I started the next session with a short monologue from me about the unwritten rules of playing together and helping each other have fun, and then went ‘around the table’ asking each player to give me a behind-the-scenes insight into the conspiracy and how they felt about the infighting. All three of the conspirators were enjoying their mayhem. The surrender monkey was still intent on their join-the-enemy plan. And, slightly to my surprise, the direct target of the attack seemed fine to play it out in character. The sixth player didn’t respond in the voice chat so I mentally noted them as a query and said my final point, which was that they were fighting a deadly enemy, the combat hung in the balance and it was time to work together or perish.
And, well… they’re not really working together
Between the talk about PvP at the beginning of the session, the slow pace of combat with six kids playing, and the short sessions of the club, we only progressed the fight by a couple of rounds. Although some of the PCs attacked the enemy I don’t think any of them hit. Most of them are manoeuvring for advantage over each other still.
The enemy, on the other hand, has attacked with purpose and efficiency. The bandit leader targeted characters who were already wounded and dropped a PC in each of the two rounds. Two of the remaining PCs are suffering partial effects from the sleep venom of the enemy support archers and another is wounded to below 30% health
I think there’s a real chance of a serious defeat: a TPK (total party kill) or surviving characters fleeing and leaving their casualties in enemy hands. In normal circumstances I’d feel bad about doing this to kids who are looking for a good time just bashing up monsters, but in this case with the PvP discussion we had, I feel that most of them have chosen it as a story that they’re willing to tell.
I contacted the kids’ parents as I was first writing this, and I heard via them that a couple of the players were not delighted with how things were going; also several more of the parents didn’t like the dynamic of some of their kids against the others. They talked between themselves and agreed to ask me to apply a No Player vs Player rule. So we’ll see how that goes.