Archive for September, 2010


Red Box Armory: Bolas

Git along little birdies!

Bolas are an exotic weapon from faraway lands. They consist of a cord or chain with weights at the ends, meant to wrap around a target’s legs to entangle them.

When attacking, treat bolas as a thrown weapon with the same range increments as flaming oil or holy water. A successful hit inflicts no damage but binds the target’s legs together. An entangled target can only move 3’/round and must save vs. paralysis each round or fall prone. Removing the bolas takes a full round of action and requires at least one free hand. (If a character is in no position to unwrap the bolas manually, he may attempt to snap the cord or chain with an Open Doors check.)

As a rule, only classes that can use all weapons, such as fighters, halflings, dwarves and thieves, may use bolas, and even then they require some training in their use.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 1)

This afternoon Tavis and I played a home-brewed version of D&D with ten 8 year old children at an afterschool program in Manhattan.  Let me front-load with the cute stuff:

  • Two of my five players were girls.  One of them, Joan, ended by saying, “That was AWESOME.  That was, by far, the best game I have EVER played.”  We loaned her a copy of the new 4e Starter Set to read this week – God knows what she’ll make of it.  So at the end of the session, a copy of D&D ended in the hands of an enthusiastic new (and female) player, which is what this is all about.  I am awesome (Tavis is more awesome, but gets second billing on this).
  • Joan initially was disappointed that there were no “normal girl” miniatures, but at the end of the session said, “I wish I could keep this, I LOVE her” in regard to her black-leather-clad dual-wielding female Doomguard.
  • “Okay, as you’re travelling along the old bridge road, you see a strange little lizard man, about 3 feet high.  He is astride a giant weasel, and looks to be having a nap in the saddle.  What do you do?”  “Kill it!  “Um, kill it.”  “Ooh, ooh, I attack it and then kill it!”  “Let’s just kill it!”  “Okay . . . Roger, what do you want to do?”  “I guess . . . I chop off its head, and then kill it.”
  • In the process of killing it: “I chop out its eyes!”  “Whoa cool!!  It can’t see!!”  “Nice one!”  “Yesssss!”  (twenty minutes later) “In the dungeon, you find Sir Justin.  The monsters have chopped out his eyes, leaving him blind.”  “That’s horrible!!”
  • All of these kids were 8 years old.  They showed strong ability to do D&D-type reasoning: “It sounds like this route is very direct, but dangerous.  Let’s try an indirect route and get there a different way. . . . Let’s stick together so the monsters don’t get us . . . This key probably unlocks a dungeon cell, let’s take it along with us. . . . This monster invited us to dinner: it must mean he’s planning to eat us!”  So all of these signals from the DM are immediately understood correctly.  I delivered these signals in a slightly exaggerated fashion, but the children had no problems understanding the big idea and how stuff fit together entirely on their own.
  • RaQuel said, “My second sword is also a cell phone.”

The idea is that we’d get a whole bunch of kids at the elementary school to role-play, using the Dungeons & Dragons brand as a bait-and-switch.  The idea would be to teach newcomers that these types of games exist, and Dungeons & Dragons is a fun thing to do.  And for kids who are already D&D players (there are a few in this bunch), we’d show them how to do things in a more Old Skool kind of way–which is to say, just imagining stuff and having fun, without worrying about “builds,” rules, feats, and other stand-ins for status-mongering.

Some of these kids are new.  Several of them that I was playing with had no prior role-playing experience, and were very frightened and worried about trying something totally brand new.  So I did a lot of work reassuring them that, “This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine.”  We would play as a team (“Yes!!  I’m so glad we don’t have to compete!”) and while unexpected things might happen, you’re never out of the game.

Tavis home-brewed some super-simplified version of 4e which was still too complicated for me to understand, much less teach.  My bunch played pretty fast and loose: roll + stat bonus = hope for the best.  Basically, my version of it was a D&D 4e Skill Check type system, just without skills, and 5 kids managed to accomplish 5 encounters (with 2 combats) in just over 40 minutes.

Maybe some day soon I will post up the little adventure I drafted, if I can figure out how to do it.


Afterschool D&D Mad Libs: Monsters and Dungeons


Sadly, I don't think they'll let me smoke a pipe during class, but I'm totally going to sit on a big d6.


This Thursday is the first class of my D&D afterschool program, so I wanted to get feedback on some of the materials I’ve developed for it.

First, though, some background. On the plane to Gen Con this year, my seatmate was Itamar of Hamis`hakia, The Hebrew Gaming Podcast.

Note 1: It’s awesome who you meet flying to from NYC Indianapolis on that particular day, for example people for whom this is the second leg of the flight from Israel!

Note 2: Itamar was telling me about a blog post he read about a D&D game at an art studio party, and I was like “hey, that was me!” Amazing that such a small world is nevertheless to be found all over the globe.

Anyway, I seized the opportunity to pick Itamar’s brain about gaming in Israel and particularly the afterschool RPG scene I’d heard about. For more information, he later pointed me other places he’s talked about it: this thread at Gamegrene, where he posts as zipdrive, and episodes 204 & 205 of the Fear the Boot podcast.

One of the things he said really struck in my mind: that although it was cool that the afterschool programs exposed lots of kids to RPGs, as a rule those kids didn’t continue to play as adults. Some of this was the usual “when I became a man, I put away childish things, fearing they would prevent me from getting laid.” Some was due to those kids going on to serve in the RPG-suspicious Israel Defense Forces, which made for an interesting digression. But the part that concerned me was that, by packaging the D&D experience into something that your parents signed you up for and you passively enjoyed at the feet of an adult dungeon master sitting on a giant dice, Itamar felt the afterschool programs stood in the way of kids learning to do it for themselves.

The sense I got was that it wasn’t in the program’s economic self-interests to teach kids that they didn’t need a class to have fun rolling dice and making stuff up. Also, since personnel is usually the biggest expense, the programs tend to have lots of kids per grown-up and it’s easiest to use the existing structure of the game to keep them all under control: wait until your turn in the initiative order comes up, then tell me who you’re attacking.

I like attacking things as much as the next guy, and I’m certainly approaching this afterschool class as an opportunity to get paid for the actual activity of roleplaying rather than for writing things that people don’t really need to do that activity. But I want to teach the kids how they can use the D&D structures, like turn-taking and cooperative problem-solving, for themselves – to help their gaming experiences when they don’t have adult supervision be less about social dominance struggles and a horrific degeneration into the worst moments of social breakdown.

I welcome input on how to approach that part of things. But this post is specifically about some tools I made to help kids get started creating their own  super-awesome-let’s-pretend time.

Imagine each of these printed on a single piece of paper, laid out with bigger blanks and space for drawing:

Draw a map of your dungeon. Write a name for each room on the map.

This dungeon is called ______.

The dungeon looks _____ and _______.

Heroes might hear _____ from the _____ or smell ____ from the _____.

Heroes might go in here to _____ or in search of ___.

Which rooms are dangerous? ____ Why? ____

Where are the treasures? _____

A Strength roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Constitution roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Dexterity roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

An Intelligence roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Wisdom roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Charisma roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

Easy = 8 or better; Medium = 11 or better; Hard = 14 or better.

The next is for monsters to populate dungeons with:

Draw a picture of your monster.

This monster is called ___.

It calls itself ___.

This monster is here to ___ the ___.

It is afraid of ___ and ___.

It loves ___ and ___.

How could this monster help the heroes? ___

How could this monster get the heroes into trouble? ___

Choose your monster’s scores by circling one in each row:

Low: 6 Middle: 4 High: 2
Defense: 10 12 14
Attack: +1 +3 +5
Damage: 2 dice + 2 2 dice 2 dice +2
Range: One hero in arm’s reach One hero in sight Every hero in sight

Hit points:___

To figure out a monster’s hit points, add the columns you chose. For example, a giant is so big that it’s easy to hit (low defense = 10) and clumsy (low attack, +1). It’s very strong (high damage, 2 dice +2) but its club can only hit a hero who’s right up close (low range). So it has 20 hit points: each low score adds 6, plus one high score adds 2.

Let me know what you think of these, esp. if you have kids at home to serve as a captive audience for playtesting!

EDIT 1: I should have thanked James for setting aside time to help run the first class! I am much more confident in the outcome knowing that he’ll have my back.

EDIT 2: Tony Dowler’s Microdungeons totally exemplify the scale and tone of the dungeon maps I’m thinking of for these mad libs; I’ll be handing them out to the kids like candy.


White Box Archaeology: An Especially Deadly Assortment

Purple Worm

It looks like these fellows may be out of their league.

The word “level” gets bandied around a lot in D&D. One use involves deliberate parallelism: character levels and dungeon levels. It’s expected that the monsters on any given level will be a fair match for PCs of the same character level. So when your third-level PCs hit the third level of the dungeon, they’ll encounter 3 hit die monsters that’ll give them a good workout without demolishing them.

And yet this isn’t actually the case.

Part of the challenge of old-school D&D lies in the subversion of this expectation. Sometimes you’ll tackle unexpectedly weak opponents that’ll drain your resources without giving you much reward. And more importantly, sometimes you’ll run into enemies much stronger than you are. At this point, you’d better be ready to get lucky, use up precious one-shot magic items, run away or die.

The Moldvay Red Box deals with this in a relatively tame fashion (p.B29):

“A monster’s level is only a guide, and a monster could be found anywhere in a dungeon, whatever the level. However, as a general rule, it is useful to limit monsters to 2 dungeon levels higher or lower than their hit dice. When monsters are encountered on dungeon levels less than the monster’s level, there should be fewer monsters than normal. And when monsters are met on dungeon levels greater than the monsters’ level, there should be more monsters than normal. EXAMPLE: A 4th level monster might be found anywhere in dungeon levels 2 through 6, but it is not likely to be found on the 1st or 7th levels except one at a time (on the 1st level) or in large numbers (on the 7th level or below).

OD&D is more precise, presenting a matrix for determining which level’s random encounter table you should use. For example, on the second dungeon level, you’d roll 1d6. Roll a 1, it’s a first-level monster. Roll a 2, it’s a second-level monster. Roll a 3 or a 4, it’s a third-level monster. Roll a 5, it’s a fourth-level monster. And if you roll a 6, it’s a fifth-level monster.

And then you get the Monster & Treasure Assortment, at which point all bets are off.

This handy old supplement provides lists of 100 monster encounters at each level from One through Nine, making it quick and easy to fill in a dungeon level. And there’s a broad spread of nastiness available at each level, with some monsters being much stronger than you’d expect to find. Let’s see what over-the-top possibilities can be found here:

Level One: 1 carrion crawler, 1 gelatinous cube, 1 giant black widow spider, 1-2 third-level M-Us, 1-2 third-level clerics, 1-2 third-level thieves, 1 fourth-level fighter

Level Two: 1 wyvern, 1 werebear, 1 owlbear, 1 wraith, 1-4 giant draco lizards, 1 sixth-level M-U

Level Three: 1 troll, 2-5 fifth-level priests, 1-2 seventh-level priests

Level Four: 1 wyvern, 1-2 stone giants, 1-2 werebears, 1-2 trolls, 1-3 seventh-level priests, 1-2 eighth-level fighters

Level Five: 1 eight-HD green dragon, 1 black pudding, 1-3 seventh-level thieves, 1-2 eighth-level clerics, 1 ninth-level thief, 1-4 ninth-level M-Us, 1 eleventh-level M-U

Level Six: 1 seven-HD black dragon, 1 seven-HD blue dragon, 1 Type I demon, 1-4 hill giants, 1-3 frost giants, 1-2 fire giants, 1 nine-headed hydra, 1 black pudding, 1-2 ninth-level fighters, 1-3 tenth-level M-Us

Level Seven: 1 Type III demon, 1 Type II demon, 1-2 frost giants

Level Eight: 1 ten-HD red dragon, 1 Type V demon, 1 Type IV demon, 1 thirteen-headed hydra, 1 purple worm, 1-3 tenth-level thieves, 1 twelfth-level thief, 1-3 tenth-level M-Us, 1 twelfth-level M-U

Level Nine: 1 eleventh-level gold dragon, 1-2 ten-HD red dragons, 1-2 cloud giants, 1 twelve-headed hydra, 1-2 purple worms, 1 giant slug, 1-2 eleventh-level fighters, 1 thirteenth-level M-U

As you can see, there are some freakishly powerful adversaries to be found in the Monster & Treasure Assortment. There are three distinct 6-hit die entries on Level Two. Level Four gives us 9-hit die stone giants, and Level 5 gives us the 10-hit die black pudding, our first dragon, up to four ninth-level Magic-Users and one shockingly puissant eleventh-level M-U!

Clearly this isn’t the modern 4e “fair and balanced” monster table. The old-school dungeon is much wilder and less predictable. When you delve into such a dungeon, watch your back and be ready to run!


Lend a Kid Your Red Box Essentials Starter Set


Mike Phelan, says here you get a Starter Set. Jim Romero, please step inside the bus to be smitten by the cudgel of a blazing-eyed zealot in platemail armor.


By now, most of us have had a similar experience with the 4E Essentials Starter Set. It goes like this:

Attracted by the Elmore cover art and 1983 retro-clone layout of its red box set, or by the trumpets and war-drums announcing that the D&D Bus was rolling down your street, you ran right out and bought one.

Like John Aegard posted at storygames, you were then “struck by how hard it was aimed at the patient zero kid who is going to be learning the game as they’re introducing it to their friends. The ‘player’s book’ is a numbered adventure. When the player completes it, they have a completed character and a bit of a feel for what D&D is about.”

You were filled with admiration for this tool for introducing new players to the game who might have   just picked it up on the shelves of a Target store.

However, you then realized that you were not a new player. While making a character by stepping through an introductory adventure is awesome for first-timers, you weren’t going to want to do it more than once or twice. Maybe you went out and bought Heroes of the Fallen Lands: Create and Play Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards so you could do like the subtitle says, and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms in order to Create and Play Druids, Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks. Or maybe you didn’t. Either way, your new red-box Starter Set is likely collecting dust.

Why not put it in the hands of a new player? Here are some ways you can do that:

  • I’m going to be teaching an afterschool D&D class for eight kids age 8-13, starting next Thursday (9/23). During the class I’ll be adopting the Starter Set approach of building characters and learning mechanics through play, and it’d be great to have some to lend to the kids to read and try out on their own outside of class.
  • The Game Loft is a a volunteer-run community center located in the heart of Belfast, Maine that runs after-school program organized around a community of interest based on games. I’m betting they would love to have your unused Starter Sets.
  • Many public libraries have games programs that would be glad for donations. Wizards launched a library program called Afternoon Adventure with DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, which inspired the Terra Libris effort at the Escapist (the RPG advocacy site, not the online magazine). Sadly Jamie Albrecht’s program at the Homewood Library seems to have run into problems, but there are likely many more successful library RPG programs out there that I don’t know about.

I can return Starter Sets loaned to me at the end of the semester; if you’re not a NYC local, I’ll put my address in the comments. (Otherwise I can pick ’em up at the White Sandbox game on Saturday, or otherwise arrange a handoff). Contact the Game Loft to inquire about donations at the link above, or visit your local library’s homepage.


The New Red Box: Philly

Just in case you thought it was that other red box we're talking about here

I’m glad to share the news that the Red Box family of gaming groups is gaining a new member, Red Box Philly. Let’s welcome the new meatshield, I mean cherished offspring, by joining the site as a show of support, and also rooting through our collective store of hard-won experience points to see what we can pass on to help Philly level up!

I’ll brainstorm some categories of things I’d want to know if I were trying to seed a new Red Box in untilled soil; although we can give advice here, there are also related threads at nerdNYC and the NY Red Box to take advantage of the different functionality of a forum.

  • What is the best way to attract players? It seems to me that having a regular weekly night to start with might be a good idea, because you can list that in player-finders that assume regularly-scheduled games rather than just-in-time ones. Pen & Paper is the player finder that comes to mind; what others work for people?
  • What are the pros and cons of coat-tailing an existing gaming group? I know that NY Red Box owes much to nerdNYC for creating a thriving community of gamers that we can recruit from, and I think I’ve heard that the Vancouver Gaming Guild also helped lay the groundwork for Red Box Vancouver. So my inclination would be to start out by offering to do New City Red Box events within the existing structure of whatever local community exists, especially the D&D Meetup group and the D&D Encounters program at a local game store (I’d even go so far as to create an Encounters game if none exists yet). However, I know that NY Red Box also benefited a lot from the attitude we inherited from the nerdNYC community, which is different from the prevalent approach I’ve seen in our D&D Meetup group, and different again from the likely style of friends you talk into playing despite not being hardcore gamers. I’ve found it possible to bridge these groups and would consider it more important to have many players to seduce away from their old style & towards the enlightened wisdom of old-school Red Box than only one or two right-thinking stalwarts, but it bears thinking about.
  • What is the hook that people keep coming back for? Curiosity about old-school play may lead some to check it out, but let’s face that it can be an acquired taste to roll up a character who only lives long enough for ten minutes of play time and one insanely ill-advised act of  sociopathy ending in a Save-or-Die effect. I suspect that the real selling point is a drop-in, low-commitment game like Encounters, Living Forgotten Realms, or the Pathfinder Society, but unlike them in that your character’s actions have an immediate, visible, and lasting impact on the story of the campaign.

To capitalize on that last one, and roll these together, I think that what I’d do if I were in Red Box Philly’s shoes would be to run games in the campaign wherever I could find players – at cons, at gamedays, at D&D Meetups or game stores on the same nights as Encounters, at friends’ houses, whatever. Each time, I’d capture people’s emails, and after the session I’d make a session summary on the forum, a wiki page for each character, magic item, place, and proper noun like Glantri and Black Peaks do. Then I’d email all the players:

Hey, thanks for playing! A recap of the events from last session is here on the forums; become a member so you can comment and help plan the next adventure. I made a Wiki page for your character so you can drop in and play anytime, even if you don’t have your character sheet with you. You’re always welcome to join in; you can use the forums and wiki to keep up on what’s happened while you’re away. If you earned any treasure, you should visit the carousing thread; it’s kind of a play-by-post minigame where you can earn experience points by having your character lavishly spend their gold on wine, women, and song, or whatever other special interest they may have…

As soon as possible, I’d encourage other players to run their own games; lots of people want to DM, and as we’ve seen with Red Box NY’s Sudden Summer Gaming, one of the great things our kind of group can do is to provide a pool of free-associating players who can come together to do stuff without being locked down by it. I suspect these should not be campaigns yet; you’ll know when something that started as a pickup game has developed enough momentum to become a campaign, and you want to select for DMs who have fun playing in other games and being loose with their ideas rather than making people commit to their grand pre-existing vision for how their game will be.

What else have we learned about how to make a Red Box group successful?


A Walkthrough for B2: Keep on the Borderlands

Go N. Hail castle. Go N. Get mission. Go S. Go S.

As readers of the New York Red Box and Red Box Vancouver forums know, I’ve been working on a piece for the online magazine The Escapist‘s Issue 271: The Red Box Diaries, “How a decades-long love affair with Dungeons & Dragons is reshaping the industry.”

My just-released article is called “Imagine Your Perfect Arcade Game“. The title refers to one of the key metaphors I use to talk about what makes Basic D&D and the way we play it unique, shamelessly lifted from cr0m’s blog post Running a Red Sandbox: “Red Box is an arcade game, not a video game.

In my enthusiasm for the subject, I ran well over my word count. Heroic editor Greg Tito just emailed me to say:

I cut it down a little bit more to get it under 2000 words. Unfortunately, the anti-walkthrough was a casualty, even though I thought it was hilarious it just didn’t illustrate more than what you are already saying with less words in other places.

As an appetizer, then, here is that excised tidbit: an illustration of what it would look like if you tried to write a video-game style walkthrough for the original Red Box’s starter adventure Keep on the Borderlands, meant to illustrate how radically different its improvisational approach is from the kind of RPGs most gamers know from computer games or even most modern tabletop ones.

Enter the lowest cave to the north. There is a 33% chance six kobold guards are here. If so, your DM may roll dice to see how they react to your arrival. If they want to be your friends, just play it by ear; maybe you can guess what explanation the DM has dreamed up to make sense out of this turn of events. Don’t let the conversation go on too long or you could be interrupted by a random wandering monster! If there are goblins, and they decide to fight, according to the rules your best weapon is flaming lantern oil. However, since one of the DM’s jobs is to model the physics of the imaginary world, you should first make sure no house rules have been introduced to reflect the danger inherent in tossing Molotov cocktails around a cave the size of a schoolbus.  If you can kill one of the goblins, and the DM is using the optional rules for morale, a lucky roll may cause the rest to run away from you. If not, you might need to roll up a new character. Try to get more than one hit point this time!

Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2010
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