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.
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.)
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.