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.