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.
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.
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.
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…