School of Adventure—Year Three

And so the students at the School of Adventure have completed Year 3, and my older kids have now left the school where the club takes place.  

Back to the dungeon

I decided to go back to the dungeon format for the Year 3 test, with monsters, tricks, traps and puzzles. It seemed to be fairly successful in Year 1, and I only had one non-club week between the Year 2 adventure and the Year 3. So I knocked up a quick start on a dungeon map. (I say quick; creating it in Roll20 is much slower than drawing on paper, so I suppose I mean I spent some time on it but the result was relatively limited.)

I didn’t have any high concept or overall plan for this. Needing a quick setup I sketched out three ways to turn from the dungeon entrance, put an encounter at the end of each, and then joined the encounter areas up to each other with linking corridors round the back. I figured that would keep them entertained for a couple of sessions and give them the feeling of open exploration, and I could extend the map between times.

My between-times extension was always just one step ahead, so the adventure structure became linear in the second half. More or less—I set up the exit they were looking for part way along, but unreachable when they first went past it. They had to get to the end of the dungeon to find a way to use the exit, then figure out that they could now go back and do so.

Talk or fight?

I’m still trying to get a handle on how far to simply do a fight club in a fantasy setting, and how much roleplay and plot to include. Both groups, and I think all the players in both groups, seem to quite enjoy a good scrap. As long as I can keep spicing up the routine with a new attack form or a new tactic from the monsters, I think fights will be reliably entertaining.

So for this adventure, I packed in plenty of combat. Both groups fought a squad of bugbears, a giant octopus and an outpouring of giant centipedes. The necromancer-with-zombies encounter had entertained the Tuesday group last adventure, so I gave it to the Monday group this time, with the Tuesday group facing a Spectator instead. The Monday group’s finale was animated statues and the Tuesday group got some different animated objects, and a surprise fight on the way out as well because they played faster and needed the last session filling.  

But one of my players did ask after one session for another go at a talking scene, so I put one in. It seemed to fizzle out rather; I think largely because of the online setup in which dialogue is stilted by people sometimes muting their mics and so on. But the same group (Tuesday) managed to find some roleplay in what I had imagined would be a basic fight. The Spectator showed a flicker of personality by telling the party that it was ordered to guard a treasure, and this was enough for a couple of the players to latch onto. They decided it would be wrong to ‘kill’ the Spectator (I reminded them that in the School of Adventure nobody actually dies, but it still felt wrong, I think because it had showed no ill-will towards them). And so they engaged themselves in the project of neutralising the Spectator and taking the treasure without ‘killing’ it. It really added an extra dimension to the encounter.

Dungeon fun

I also did several hidden traps and secret doors, and some other physical obstacles to progress. This kind of malarkey is a bit new to the players I suppose, so I’m putting in some classics I feel they should become familiar with, like moving wall panels and concealed pit traps. Also some more odd puzzle locks, which I may be a little obsessed with. And I did a bit of a theme across several rooms where everything below the normal floor level is flooded with water, or potentially so. More than once as an obstacle to go through, but one time as a facilitator of movement. Some monsters in the water too. I quite enjoyed it—don’t know if the players saw it as a theme, but definitely they recognised that once there had been a monster in the water there might be more monsters in later water and that was entertaining.

Upping the pace

Having found in the first half of term that things went slowly online and we only got through three actual encounters in six weeks, things were much faster in this adventure. Each group did about one combat encounter per week, plus the obstacles and traps. The Tuesday group even got their talking scene, as well as fitting in one more fight than the others. Since I had briefed them to do it all in one game day, they had to make full use of short rests, hit dice, arcane recovery and cantrips to get through.

I think what was mainly going on is that they have got the hang of the technology for online play and also the mechanics of the game. Now, when I ask for a hit roll at +4, it mostly happens. It is self-reinforcing as well because with everyone’s turns going more quickly, each person’s turns come round again faster and they stay more engaged between times.

Never split the party

This is a time-honoured RPG maxim, and was borne out for the Monday group. I had set up the dungeon in an old-school most-rooms-have-enough-monsters-for-the-whole-party way. All the kids have a slight tendency to move their characters individually, sometimes further than is wise. But one of the players in the Monday group in particular decided that they wanted to bag loot for themselves by going ahead of the others to see what they could find. They even did this towards the end of a fight that the group was still engaged in. There was a solo monster which I described as significantly wounded, and so Lone Wolf said on their turn “I think the rest of you can handle it from here; I’m going down that other corridor to find some treasure.” So of course they ran into four bugbears, who had heard them coming and prepared an ambush. Bugbears hit pretty hard for low-level monsters, and Lone Wolf is one of the squishiest characters in their party, and was already wounded, so they were immediately knocked out. I mean, it turned an encounter that the Tuesday group made short work of into a real nail-biter for Lone Wolf and their comrades, so in a way it was good. But also I guess Lone Wolf the player may have learned that Lone Wolfery is not smart play.

Player service

There’s a player I find I say ‘no’ to a lot. I mean, I don’t say flat out no too much, but they come up with lots of crazy schemes and I tend to bring them back down to earth with the practicalities of our imaginary world, and the limits of their authorship within the creative structure. Hang on, that sounds unclear and a touch pretentious; I mean that the player will say “I’ll do this and then the other character will do this, and this will unexpectedly happen and then we’ll go on like so and it will be fantastic!” and I need to remind them that they only control their character, and there are limits on their character’s capabilities, and they have to go step by step and I’ll tell them the results of each action, and generally they are not writing a story by themselves.

Anyway, so I often feel like I’m saying ‘no’ to this player. But they made it really clear over a period of weeks that their big dream was to ride a flying creature to save the day. And I managed to make the finale of that group’s adventure that they found a statue of a winged horse, that came to life and moved, and they found a way to get control of it and to pilot it to get the whole group out of the dungeon to mission success. Yay! I actually love it when players say out loud what they want and I can give them the chance for it to happen.

What next?

So we’re now in the summer holidays, which in the UK is the end of the school year. The Monday group by the end of term was just Year 5 players, who will be back at the same school for Year 6 in September. So I will hopefully be able to continue the School of Adventure as an after-school club for them (either on-site or on-line; I’ll have to see). There was one Year 5 player in the Tuesday group (plus another year 5 who didn’t join this term for practical reasons) so I might see if they would like to join the other Y5s on the same afternoon.

The rest of the Tuesday group was Y6s, and they’re all off to secondary school. I’ve been assuming that this means the end of School of Adventure for them, but one of them is my own older kid, and I’ve had information from their school that there aren’t after-school activities because of COVID-19 and the students are encouraged to go straight home. So I begin to wonder whether there might be an appetite for further online play in the back-home kind of time slot…

And I did find that Y5s are able to get into the game, so if the primary school is hosting clubs onsite I can advertise for next year’s Y5s to come in. I think probably only if I can do it face-to-face though; of the two new players who wanted to start during my online play phase, only one successfully got started and that was the one with the older sibling who already played Dungeons & Dragons on Roll20 and could coach the younger sibling through it. The other player was trying to get into it helped by me remotely and their non-gamer parents, and they logged on for a trial session but didn’t really play and didn’t come back.

So, we will see…

School of Adventure—Year Two

We have now finished Year Two at the School of Adventure. The club has been conducted entirely online in April and May as the players have not been attending real-life school and aren’t allowed to meet up to play.

Keeping it simple

The (real-life) Year 6s are leaving at the end of the term, and obviously I want them to end with a story completion, so I needed either to string one adventure out to cover the whole term, or to make sure I fit one full adventure in each half of the term. Partly to allow the players to experience a little more advancement, and partly because I wasn’t sure at the beginning whether I would have the same set of players for the whole term, I decided to do half-term adventures. For this reason, and because we tend to get a bit less play done per week because it goes more slowly online, I had to strip down the adventure complexity even more than before. I ended up with just three encounters in the adventure: a warm-up fight on the inward trail, a roleplaying encounter to find out how to complete the quest, and a guardian blocking the way to the prize.

The great outdoors

I thought I would try a change of scene for the next adventure, so I sent the characters to a large woodland. It did succeed in varying the narrative but, because of the simplification and pacing, I couldn’t really encourage too much interaction with the scenery or wandering off into the trees. So I nudged the players to choose among paths, and narrated their journey along them until they reached the next encounter. Effectively, it was a dungeon with green walls. But with a few opportunities to find tracks, and by directing my narrative about navigation to the right players, I think I was somewhat able to make those players who had built outdoorsy characters feel like they were the experts in the environment.

Going beyond combat

I still feel like I ought to have more character-driven story going on, and more challenges that aren’t fights. I originally thought I would put in some encounters with non-player rivals from the same school year who were doing their tests in the same wood at the same time, and see if I could set up some Draco Malfoy kind of dynamics but, being so tight for time, in the end I dropped them.

I did set up a non-combat scene for the middle encounter. The characters would come to a village and be invited to participate in a festival that was going on. Depending on how they participated and who they befriended, they could pick up more or fewer helpful clues to the final stage of their adventure. (The phrase they had been given defining the object of their quest was rather cryptic, so they needed clues to find a route to success.)

I feel like this was a nice idea, but one group tried to attack the villagers (I happened to have said that some of the inhabitants of this village were pixies, so I had them put the aggressive characters to sleep with their magic) and the other group, though they engaged peacefully with the scene, seemed to find it a bit flat. So maybe with these tween video-gamers I need to introduce the talking bits in smaller doses? Maybe I just need to get better at my end of the scenes.

There was also the overall challenge of the cryptic mission. The players were told they had to find the Evening Jewel, somewhere in the wood. As it turned out, one group brought back a flower that blooms on midsummer nights, and the other gathered water from a waterfall that catches the setting sun in a spectacular way. I hope this added a slight extra dimension to a basic find-the-item mission.

Building tension

Where I do think I’m hitting about the right note is in the level of excitement and the feeling of danger. There’s a gratifying amount of ‘uh-oh’ and suchlike in the text chat, without characters fleeing or players leaving the session, when I foreshadow or reveal monsters. And there seems to be a real feeling of triumph when the player characters win.

I used some more interesting and scarier monsters this time, as the characters are no longer level-one-fragile and the players have all shown themselves comfortable with fight scenes and monsters. Giant spiders, zombies and basilisks. I correctly anticipated arachnophobia might be an issue so I prepared a reserve encounter for the spiders scene, using giant toads instead. I was aiming in all cases for some special abilities to relieve the routine of hit-damage-miss-hit-damage. This was fairly successful—a giant spider trapped one character with a flung web, and a toad seized a member of the other group in its jaws, but was killed before it could swallow them. The zombies made good use of their hard-to-kill feature, and the basilisk petrified two characters, setting up a nice little epilogue where their remaining companions got to choose between reviving their friends or gaining the object of their quest. (Of course I let them have the quest trophy as well once they chose their friends—I’m not a monster.)

Online play

It took a few sessions for the online play to settle down. It is particularly difficult to coach kids in new technology when you can only communicate with them over the technology itself, and you can’t see what they see. And, to be honest, when some of the tech is as new to you as it is to them. But now that everyone can remember their login process from week to week, and has found the mute button for the voice call, it has settled down. I’ve lost one additional player who doesn’t find online play as appealing as in-person, as well as the one who doesn’t have enough gadgets in the house to play while their parents both work, but there’s still a good core to both groups.

With the poor audio quality that we encountered early on, I ended up conducting a couple of sessions purely by text chat. This was a challenge. Typing isn’t fast enough to keep the game going (I mean, I suppose a pro stenographer might do it, but not me). I resorted to pre-scripting as much of my descriptions and narration as possible so I could paste them in a paragraph at a time. This enabled me to get a bit more polished in my prose, but left too many dead moments as I found and transferred the relevant text, or typed something unscripted. Now that muting kills most of the background noise and frees bandwidth for the speaker, I am voice narrating most of the action and using the text chat less and less again. The main remaining issue is that some of the players multi-task the game with other activities while they wait for their turn to come around, and so need to be alerted and caught up each turn.

One minor but really nice plus point about playing online is that Roll20 has an ‘aura’ feature which will show a circle of a certain size, attached to something and moving with it. This was perfect for showing exactly who was and wasn’t close enough to the basilisk to be subject to its petrifying gaze attack.

So, as I write this up I’m a week into the Year Three adventure, still online, and feeling like the club is hitting its stride. I’ll update at the end of term, if not before.

School of Adventure—moving online

As the end of term (and the climax of the first-year test dungeon adventure) approached, the COVID-19 coronavirus came to London. I spent a bit of time worrying about how I would notify parents if I or anyone in the family started showing symptoms and we had to self-isolate so that at short notice I couldn’t run the club. But, when they announced that the school was going to close to most students, that ceased to be the issue; to let the kids complete their first adventure and give value to my customers, I needed to play online.

This was not something I’d ever done before. I’m not much of an early adopter. But I was aware that there were online play channels and I’d been bookmarking discussions of them for a while, so I hit the research. Fantasy Grounds: seemed like everyone had to pay and I didn’t want to ask the parents to do that. MapTool: I hear this is good, but from the first screen it wasn’t really obvious how to start creating a usable map or a game. There were tutorial videos but they started with how to plan out an adventure, and I needed to cut straight to the action, so I have shelved that for the time being.

Roll20 then: you can use it for free and when I set up an account they gave tutorials for creating a map and character sheets. Perfect. The mapping was fairly simple, since both groups were by this point already in the last room of the dungeon. Character sheets are also straightforward if you’re using core 5e characters. I can recommend the ‘charactermancer’ function, using custom options for non-SRD content. In the event I forked out for a subscription so that players on mobile devices could browse in free. I look forward to playing with the dynamic lighting, but didn’t get that far through the tutorial before this session so it will have to be next adventure.

I had heard that the problem with Roll20 was the audio/video quality, and I wasn’t sure that all the parents would be willing or able to use Roll20 anyway, so I decided to set up a separate video call on another service. The app of the moment, Zoom, wouldn’t do group calls longer than 40 minutes on its free tier, and Discord seemed like unknown territory to most of the parents when I asked about their preferred channels, so we used Skype.

There were some teething troubles. In both sessions it took some people a while to get connected, so there was a fair bit of faffing around to begin with. In the Monday group I made a serious rookie error by not realising that I had enabled ‘fog of war’, which prevented any of the players seeing any of the map. But anyway, we had video chat, and the Roll20 text chat and dice roller, so we played it out ‘theatre of the mind’. The Tuesday group was technically better as I figured out overnight how to show them the map so Roll20 worked as intended there. There was one player who didn’t get into the Skype call so that was a good thing.

The main downside to the move online was that one of the players didn’t have access at the right time to the IT to join it, which is a real shame because they’re keen to play. Seems like they are not going to join us until school re-opens, so we’re hoping that is not too long.

One upside may be that a couple of other kids I know who attend other schools may join us. So we’re pushing on through the adverse circumstances and looking forward to Year 2.

Report cards and home activities

The first online session was supposed to be the second-last club of term. But because it wrapped up the first year of the story and at the term break we are losing some players and gaining others, I decided we ought to wait until after the holidays to hold another live session. To deliver something in that last week of term, I created report cards for the teams and individual characters. I had fun with layouts and fonts, and especially writing in-character as the schoolteacher. I sent them round a couple of days ago and I have had one reply from a parent who said they liked it, but nothing from the others, so I’m a bit worried now about how they came across. I’ll have to seek more feedback before deciding whether to repeat the process.

I also offered some game-related activities that the kids could do at home between sessions if they wanted. Things that might be fun and maybe educational, like writing backstories and learning to recognise the dice and their shapes. Hopefully in a time when we’re mostly confined to our homes these might be helpful diversions.

How about you? Playing online? Share your experiences in the comments.

School of Adventure—First-year gameplay

I have now completed the first adventure with each of my two School of Adventure club groups. My intention was just to give them something very simple. With hindsight it could have been simpler, but it was fun enough.

Outline

I started with a five-room dungeon model: entrance guardian; puzzle or roleplaying challenge; trick or setback; climax; payoff. I planned out an entrance room with a guardian to fight—to relieve the extreme simplicity of this and serve the many rogues in the two parties I provided terrain that they might use to scout out the guardian, flank it and make sneak attacks, or even stealth past altogether. Then a room with a number of doors with similar puzzle locks—the player characters (PCs) would have to identify the right door for their quest and fit numbered tokens into a mathematical puzzle to open the door. Beyond this a setback in the form of trick terrain that would leave them back at the beginning. And, after retracing their steps and getting beyond the trap, a final room where the strongest guardian yet would bar their access to the object of their quest.

(I’m being vague here partly in case I want to run a form of the same dungeon again and future players might read it, and partly because I initially didn’t plan in much detail, knowing that the short sessions and newbie players would ensure slow progress and I would only need to detail about a room or two ahead of the group)

Guardian

The entrance guardian went pretty much according to plan. The rogues in both groups used the opportunities in the terrain while the warriors and clerics took the direct route. Both groups tried talking to the guardian, but I had it give a flat ‘you shall not pass’ to all enquiries. (Immediate nerdparent joy as some of the players recognised the Gandalf line.) Neither group took long to begin an assault, and the guardian went down quickly to their attacks—it was only a Challenge 1 creature and it was out-numbered 6-1 or 7-1. The group got started rolling checks and attacks, and using their class strengths: the rogues sneak attacked, the barbarian pounded, the fighter stood firm, the casters cast. The players started to show their styles: most of them were task-focused and tactical; a few were a bit shy and uncertain; one, playing a rogue called Kuswo, immediately showed up as the group maverick, Black bat, apparently infant, held in hands for 4 frames, saying: I am the darkness; Oh, you want cuddles? OK, I give cuddles; but I am still the darkness.befriending a local bat (20 on Handle Animal, I figured this was worth a nuzzle) and attempting to set it on the guardian (not a chance—bat went to roost in a quiet corner).

Puzzle

At this point in creating the adventure, I started to over-elaborate. Where my plan said that next came the puzzle room, I decided that the tokens with which to solve the puzzle would be scattered through a maze. And that this maze would have guards here and there, to give opportunities for negotiation, combat or stealth. And that to get to the maze the PCs would have to climb a steep wall. So the actual puzzle, which was supposed to be room 2 of 5, was already room 4, with room 3 (the maze) being large and complex.

I mean, it worked out OK. Both teams tackled the climb fine with the better climbers going first and lowering ropes for the others. There was one character (Bolok, a rogue more analytical than action-oriented, stats-wise) who tried climbing the wall without a rope and fell from twenty feet up. I rolled max damage for the fall (having decided to do without a DM screen) and that was Bolok at zero hit points. Help was at hand in the form of the party cleric, but it cost the party half their magic healing.

In the guarded maze, the two teams for the first time diverged significantly in approach. The Monday group took out one guard with attacks, and slipped past a sleeping one, but then started talking to the next guards they met. One was persuaded to let them pass for a few coins, and another was convinced with the cunning application of an Illusory Script spell that they had documented official authorisation to go anywhere and take anything they liked. I had slightly warned the wizard, Sukini, against prepping Illusory Script for a dungeon bash, but it was such a clever application, and the player was so pleased at proving me wrong, that (thanks also to a good Persuasion roll) I let it work like a charm. The duped guard went with them around the maze and vouched for them, so they finished the rest of that area without combat.

The Tuesday group, by contrast, went at the maze like foxes in a henhouse. Bolok, about half a minute on from his last near-death experience, went off by himself and got into a standoff with a guard. Behind him his team-mates started a really conspicuous fight with another guard, involving clanging swords and a Fire Bolt cantrip, and it was on for young and old. The group ended up split across the maze, with Bolok and Iofur (the barbarian) fighting through three guards and going down to 3hp between them, while the rest of the group found the other guards and fought them all.

Either way I think both groups enjoyed the maze bash. Next they came to the puzzle room itself. I had planned this as a change of pace, and something educational since it was a school club, so it was a fairly cerebral number puzzle. Not that I pitched it too wrong for the kids’ capabilities—both groups solved it in maybe ten-fifteen minutes—but it only interested maybe half the players. Probably less, and some of the others were definitely I-can’t-contribute disengaged once they spotted maths was involved. So I think I’ll use things like that sparingly in future, if at all.

The injured group used the puzzle room as a short rest, but poor Bolok got a 1 on his hit die so he was still only at 2hp, and we were coming up to the big showdowns.

Climax

Showdowns? Any readers still carrying the five-room dungeon plan in their heads by this point will realise that after the puzzle is supposed to come the trick. But I had expanded the puzzle part of the adventure so much that I decided to drop the trick, go straight to the showdown, and build a bit of a twist into the payoff phase.

Now, I had noticed over the weeks that the players from the two different groups were talking to each other between sessions, so whichever group was behind would come into the session with a few hints as to what they were about to face. Given that, and the way I had set up the puzzle room so that each group went through a different door, I decided to give them different big bad guys. The Monday group faced a caster with guard minions*, since they hadn’t had a multi-opponent fight yet, and the Tuesday group got another big solo after the multiple maze guards, but this time with a tiny bit more complexity than the simple tough in the entrance chamber.

*not Minions as in Despicable Me. I found I had to explain this to a couple of the kids when I used the word.

Both of these encounters were a bit overshadowed by being completed online (which I’m going to cover more in my next blog) but once we got more or less round the technical teething troubles they went fine. The Monday group (after some talking, which I had expected them to be more into than they were) proved particularly efficient, giving me a lesson in how squishy casters are and how much damage even low-level spells can do in 5e. I made them work a bit for their full victory by producing a couple of extra minions from up my sleeve, but still. When low-level casters face each other it seems like the quickest on the draw is likely to end the slower with one shot. Any bright ideas on how I can make this more interesting?

The Tuesday group saw through their solo’s concealment pretty soon and it became a slug-fest in which the action economy was always going to favour the party. With two of them injured to begin with and two more getting wounded in the fight there was enough tension to make it fun, and they were stoked when they eventually took down their enemy.

Payoff

And so to the twist at the end. I presented them with the object of their quest, and a bag of gold, on opposite ends of a mechanism so that it was easy to retrieve one prize, but at the expense of losing the other. I had kind of thought that they would spend some time debating which to choose, and/or come up with some clever way to get them both (one party included an elf with the Mage Hand cantrip, which was the method that stood out to me and which I hinted about pretty broadly to that player). But both groups just saw that the way to achieve their goal was to take the quest item and sacrifice the gold, which they both did with little fuss. So, fine. We finished. Well done. In both cases this fell at the end of a session and was so quick it just felt like a little denouement at the end of the climax battle, rather than another build-up that was let down, so the pacing was actually OK I think.

In conclusion…

All in all I think I succeeded in giving the kids an introductory adventure that worked, and they did pretty well at playing their first challenge. Of my thirteen players, ten are keen to carry on next term, which for people trying it out for the first time is an OK ratio I think. What do you think? Have you had similar experiences?

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!