Archive for March, 2011


GeekDad: Getting Past Rules When DMing for Kids

The great blog on raising the next generation of nerds, GeekDad, has a post of mine today with advice on “How To Introduce a Kid to D&D Before He Goes Into Surgery“. That title is appropriate enough because it evokes the circumstances I had in mind when I gave this advice, but for a role-playing-savvy audience it might more specifically be called How To Move Past the Rules As Quickly as Possible and Break Through to Improv Psychodrama.

To unpack that from back to front, the reason I felt it was appropriate to reach for psychodrama was the circumstances. Here’s a kid who’s about to undergo a life-changing, potentially lethal experience, and what he wants to do beforehand is to play D&D for the first time. I’m never going to deny the life-affirming virtues of a simple, procedural, rules-bound dungeon crawl; but it seems to me like what this 11-year-old is reaching for is a chance not only to get outside himself into a world of fantasy, but to confront some particular fears and deal with issues of life and death, risk and survival while he’s there.

D&D is for sure a good vehicle for exploring this material, but I felt that it would emerge most strongly & truly by getting outside the confines of a pre-planned adventure and into player-driven improv. There’s a description of a psychologist using play therapy in the urban fantasy novel Minions of the Moon that really stuck with me – the idea that I retained being that when you set out a bunch of action figures and just start playing within this imaginary framework, if the kids’ alter ego reaches the treasure chest they’ve been seeking and you ask “what’s inside the chest?” the answer is going to be the thing that’s really on my mind.

The reason I talk mostly about getting past the rules, but not what to do once you’re into the improv, is that I was originally writing this advice for Edward Einhorn. When the father of the 11-year-old in question approached Edward about DMing this D&D game, I was the guy he thought to ask because I’d recently interviewed Edward about his excellent theatrical adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. That conversation became a lengthy discussion about role-playing games and how they relate to & differ from other kinds of performance art, so he knew that I knew D&D. For the same reason I knew that doing improv and letting narrative emerge from the kids playing their characters was going to be second nature for him. What seemed important to get across was that getting some level of familiarity with the rules should be seen as a necessary pre-condition to gaining the kids’ trust in the imaginary framework, without letting them become an end in themselves.

Finally, let’s talk about why I think it’s important in general to move past the rules. In the comments to the Boing Boing post about my previous post about gaming for kidsshadowfirebird said “How was this D&D? It was certainly role-playing, and I heartily approve. But.”

My experience has been that there’s basically no way to teach kids the full corpus of D&D rules (of any edition) in the time and attention span you’ve got available. It’s something they have to learn for themselves, by poring endlessly over arcane tomes and hashing out the implicatios through many hours of play. What you need to do is get them to hear the music, the sound of valkryies’ horns and axes clanging on shields, so that they’ll be inspired to invest that effort. Going as light on the rules as possible at first helps get kids hooked; once they’re D&D geeks there’ll be time enough for the geeky pleasures of rules-mastery.

I’m hoping with all my being that the kid Edward is going to be running this game for will pull through the surgery just fine and have a long, healthy life ahead of him to devote to rules-mastery or whatever else brings him joy.


the Doom Quest of Nightfang

The latest issue (#11) of Fight On! contains Doom Quest, a micro version of Rune Quest by Friend-of-the-Mule Scott LeMien.  (Scott resisted my suggestion to name it Quest Quest, but otherwise it’s a great little game.)

In case, like me, you are too poor to spring for every OSR magazine, let me sing the praises of Doom Quest a little bit.

Scott’s a fanatic for the whole microlite tradition of game design, where you squeeze one hundred pages of rules and advice into a concentrated, one-page version.  Doom Quest sets out to do that for Rune Quest, and succeeds beautifully.  I used Doom Quest to run a published RQ adventure without understanding the first thing goldang thing about Rune Quest.  It was beautiful and flawless.  If you’re a Rune Quest maniac, but your gaming group is afraid of investing the time to learn a complex new system, Doom Quest is your new best friend.

But speaking as someone who doesn’t know Rune Quest, I was astonished at how elegantly Doom Quest operates.  This past summer, when some of the New York Red Box began dallying with RQ, Scott came away raving about the combat mechanics–and his approach to combat in Doom Quest is exceedingly impressive.

I’m very accustomed to D&D combat: I roll a d20 and a d6, and use the results as a cue for my imagination: “Hmm, I rolled a good strike but lousy damage.  The monster must have left itself wide open to the attack, but I couldn’t quite get a good footing, so my sword-thrust was weaker than expected.”  In Doom Quest, you don’t have to engage in some kind of oracular justification of weird random results: a surprisingly thorough outcome is generated entirely by the dice.  “I rolled a 7, and you rolled a 18, so therefore I blocked your blow, but my sword is badly notched . . . and then I rolled a 13, so I strike you in the leg, hamstringing you, so you fall to the ground, and you’ll be dead in 10 minutes.”  There’s a full table of embarrassing fumbles too, although my favorite outcome comes when you take massive head or torso wounds: given the gore inherent in the system already, the laconic “Horrible death!” makes me shudder because of what it doesn’t describe.

Doom Quest’s combat system takes a simple 1d20 input from each player, and spits out a vivid, plausible, and sometimes very distressing story of men maiming each other with steel.  If you’re bored with the Rock’em Sock’em Robots quality of D&D combat, but are too much of a neckbeard to play 4e, Doom Quest presents a cruel arena built from the bones of Rune Quest.  The rules are worth stealing.

The rest of Doom Quest is less crunchy, but well considered.  The version of the game I played had rules for building customized weapons, thieving skills, and hirelings.  The magic rules are a little anemic for reasons of space, but presumably if you’re reading Doom Quest you’re comfortable making up new spells.

In our game, I ran Scott’s Rune-Priest, his two zealots, and a child squire through Paul Jaquays’s small masterpiece, The Hellpits of Nightfang.  Some weird-ass mutated snakes set upon the crusaders as they descended a dried-up creekbed into the caverns.  The group managed to kill most of the snakes – but not before one of the beasts propelled itself like a javelin through the thigh of the child squire.  (Uncharacteristically, Scott did not then slaughter the child and bathe in its blood.)

Helping the squire along as best they could, the group explored a sinkhole and tried to loot some corpses, before they remembered they were on a holy quest to kill Nightfang the Vampire.  Venturing into the caverns, the Rune-Priest slaughtered Doomlost, Nightfang’s wolf sidekick, with a single well-placed javelin.  As the Rune-Priest and Nightfang fought a pitched hand-to-hand battle–leading to grotesque mutilations–the two zealots bravely tried to hold back a small army of Skeletons.  Even as the Rune-Priest drove Nightfang to retreat, a sinister Ghost took possession of the Rune-Priest and forced him to commit suicide by plunging into an frigid subterranean lake.  The zealots tried to rescue him, but the Skeletons provided stiff resistance, and ultimately cut the men down as they were just a few feet from escaping.

The only survivor was the lamed child, carrying news of unholy carnage back to his village, telling the tale of the Doom Quest.


Dwarven Forge Saves the Gary Con Terrain Challenge

When I go to conventions, I love to DM; it’s a great way to meet new people.  At Gary Con III, I’ll be spending just about all my time running an event called the Gary Con Terrain Challenge #1: Treasure Beneath the Brown Hills, about which the program book says:

Who will retrieve the most gold from the Temple of the Elder Elemental God and make it out alive? Terrain Challenge #1 is the first annual D&D competition using the fantastic miniatures terrain contributed to GaryCon by Pana. This year’s adventure imagines a roleplaying spin-off of Gary Gygax’s classic 1971 Chainmail scenario, Battle for the Brown Hills. Third level characters will be provided; all ages welcome.

Unfortunately, as the event drew near, the happy expansion of Pana’s family interfered with the creation of the terrain around which this event was supposed to be based. As a parent I fully understand & support spending more time with a newborn than with dollhouses for boys,  but this did leave me wondering how I was going to make the show go on.

Enter Dwarven Forge to the rescue! Founder and chief sculptor Stefan Pokorny graciously had me over to his new studio in Brooklyn, where we used his personal collection to put together a layout to suit my needs. As I’d described it at the Gary Con forums, the idea for the scenario is as follows:

I started by thinking about the great Gygax modules and what elements of them we could pay tribute to. The idea of which monsters would make cool miniatures was in the back of my mind, as was choosing a module that wasn’t totally over-familiar. What this made me think of was Battle for the Brown Hills, a Chainmail scenario that Gary wrote in the pre-D&D days & Paul Stormberg ran at the last Gary Con. Although it’s a large-scale wargame battle, it has some very evocative elements that feel like a roleplaying game waiting to happen. The thing that caught my imagination is that the side that stomped my orcs spent a lot of time moving a wagon train behind those hills, which I believe held the army’s payroll. My idea is that this heavy wagon breaks through the ceiling of a dungeon in the hills. The human mercenaries are all topside, looking through this sudden sinkhole at a fortune in spilled gold…

Here’s a tableside perspective on the terrain Stefan helped me assemble:

And here’s the top-down view that I took to be sure I could re-assemble this in Lake Geneva, using the two Room and Passage sets and two Cavern Sets that Dwarven Forge president Jeff Martin arranged to have shipped to me at the convention (plus a couple of special pieces on loan from Stefan that I’ll be bringing in my luggage):

Because the event is short – two hours, including character generation – I think we’re going to start with the PCs having rappelled down to that central elevated structure, where the fallen treasure wagon has landed. The action of the game will involve them loading themselves up with as much gold as they want to risk carrying, searching for an exit from the dungeon, and trying to make it out alive!

Thanks to the generous support of Dwarven Forge, I will be running this event not only at Gary Con but also at this year’s Arneson Memorial Gameday in NYC (about which more soon) and probably at an upcoming Recess as well. I’m really looking forward to having the chance to play with so much awesome dungeon goodness!


D&D Kids Articles at WotC

On the official Dungeons & Dragons website, Wizards of the Coast is publishing a series of articles by Uri Kurlianchik, whose day job is teaching D&D to kids at Israeli schools and community centers. I’ve long heard that there is a thriving afterschool-D&D scene, and these articles are the most in-depth glimpses from that scene that I’ve seen in English. (Due to my low Intelligence score, I am unable to read any other languages.)

Character Generation talks about getting started when playing with kids. Interesting quote:

I recommend using this stage to give each player’s character a pet. Kids love pets. You should love them too because they create more opportunities for roleplaying, can save the group when the situation seems desperate, and add flavor and a chance for some goofy jokes to your game (passive-aggressive cat anyone?).

D&D Kids: Combat Encounters talks about battles, a subject near and dear to the hearts of the kids in our afterschool program as well. Interesting quote:

Younger kids (ages 7-8) often get very involved in fast-paced and exciting games. This is a good thing, but it is important to ensure they don’t get carried away and lose sight of reality. I recently joined the respectable club of people who had a shoe thrown in their face. The target wasn’t me, per se, but rather an evil wizard who taunted one of the heroes. However, it was not the wizard who took a purple shoeprint to the face, but me. So be careful—always be watchful for kids who get overly excited, and make sure to curb their enthusiasm. You should also be vigilant for friction between kids in and out of game. Disagreements in-game can lead to bad blood in real life. Bad blood leads to arguments, which can lead to physical violence. Strangle this demon in the cradle by spilling cold water on young minds that get too hot.

D&D Kids: Rewards talks about the fun stuff about D&D – what the author sees as the carrot. Interesting quote:

For me, it is fascinating to see how a group of young children deal with the responsibility of managing nations and shaping the fates of thousands. Some kids really enjoy it. One group in particular has designed a new religion, wrote a bible for it, trained evangelists to spread it across the land, and eventually raised a fundamentalist oligarchy of some 15,000 humans, elves, and dwarves with towns named after heroes. This religion now has a Facebook group and a fair amount of likes. Also, it makes the Spanish Inquisition look cute in comparison….

D&D Kids: Punishment talks about negative reinforcements as a tool in teaching D&D, and has raised some internet kerfuffle. Interesting quote:

Some kids are not serious. Some kids don’t come to play, but rather to socialize. Some kids do want to play, but their heads are up in the clouds. Some, likeBatman’s Joker, are a force of pure chaos. As a DM, it’s your duty to deal with them lest they deal with you (and your game!). The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Without a very good reason, don’t remove more than 50 XP at once—you want to warn the players, not cripple their characters. Severe transgressions, such as reading your DM notes, damage to people and property, or highly inappropriate remarks should be punished harshly. In rare cases, even the extreme measure of removing levels can be used, although this will often be a prelude to kicking the offender out of the group.

I hope to find time to say more about these articles soon; for now I’ll just point you to them as a very interesting parallel to the classes James & I are doing for kids the same age and at least theoretically using the same system (although both we and Uri diverge from canonical 4E in many places).


spells for the after school class

Explanation: Tavis and I are running an after school Dungeons & Dragons program for some elementary school kids.  Most of our prep consists of wishing we’d done more prep while on the subway to class.  But I made up this list of spells for the Magic-User.

Every morning, Magic-Users can cast different spells! Roll the d12 a number of times equal to your level, and look on the chart for the spell matching that number. If you roll a spell once, you can only cast it one time a day. If you rolled a spell more than once, you can cast it that number of times per day. So, if you rolled Fire Ball twice, you could cast it twice in one day, but not three times.


Roll Spell What Does the Spell Do?
1 Animate Dead You create a number of zombies equal to your level, who obey your orders.
2 Anti-Magic Shell For 1 hour a shimmering aura around you blocks all magic, including yours.
3 Charm Person Unless the target resists with Will, he or she becomes your friend for 1 day.
4 Contact Weirdo Ask an angel, demon, or space alien several yes-or-no questions ( # = level ).
5 Disintegrate Point at a target. Unless it resists with Fortitude, it is destroyed completely.
6 Fire Ball Everyone within 20 feet of the target must roll Reflex or take 5d6 damage.
7 Haste For 1 fight, you and your friends move double-fast and attack twice a turn.
8 Hold Portal Magically seals a doorway, trapdoor, etc. For 10 minutes, no one can open it.
9 Locate Object Name an object: this spell will point you in the right direction to find it.
10 Phantasmal Force You create an illusion that lasts for 10 minutes. Enemies resist with Will.
11 Polymorph Self You can take the shape of any animal for up to 1 hour, but you cannot talk.
12 Wall of Ice Your breath becomes a huge icy surface – a wall, a bridge, a dome . . .


Magic-User Research

Each time you gain a level, you can spend one thousand gold coins to research a new spell! The spell can be anything you want. This new spell takes the place of another one on the list. You can choose what spell it replaces. (Example: I don’t like Hold Portal, so my new spell replaces it.) If you don’t have one thousand gold coins, you’ll have to find more treasure or persuade people to fund your work.

Here are ideas for research. Ancient books mention these spells, but I don’t know what they do!

  • Turn to Slime
  • Perfume of Trickery
  • Zolobachai’s All-Powerful Laxative
  • Contagious Dancing
  • Maldoor’s Lesser Apocalypse
  • Hazart’s Infinite Sandwich
  • Speak with Ghost Sharks
  • Levitate Head
  • Turn Light to Amber
  • Summon Monkey Butler
  • Xindi’s Cupcake of Insanity

Commentary: random selection isn’t just done for its own sake, but rather to force the children (especially little boys fixated on killing things) to think laterally.  The best part of playing a Magic-User in a “real” game is the Eureka! moment when you figure a great use for a seemingly lame spell.  The kids, in particular, are in love with Wall of Ice.  At one point in Tavis’s game, they proposed using Wall of Ice to create an airtight bubble to survive an ICBM flight outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.


Rolling Up Lots of Buccaneers

My at-sea encounter tables have a subtable for the types of men aboard that ship on the horizon, but much to my shame I did not pre-gen any ships (and crews) for my first play-test. Definitely a mistake: Rolling up 1-6 ships and their officer corps (they’ll generally all have at least two Fighters of level 2+, and some possible mages and clerics thrown in) is not like rolling up a pod of whales. I decided to remedy this in advance of my next go-round.

For a more-or-less completely fleshed out pirate/buccaneer officer, doughty enough to have survived all the way to level 2 (or more!), I went with the following:

  • Average hit points (4.5) per die, rounded up.
  • Chain, sword, crossbow unless magic is indicated
  • The Marsh/Cook rules for magic items (5% chance per level on swords, armor, miscellaneous weapons, potions, scrolls, miscellaneous magic, and rods/wands; results that cannot be used by a Fighter become no result)
  • Dexterity assumed to be 9-12, Strength and Constitution 8-18

The STR and CON range was a bit of a problem- I didn’t want to deal with totaling three dice and re-rolling totals below 8 for the dozens of fighters I was sketching out; I also didn’t want to change the relative probability of results of 8 and over (not too much, anyway). Time for a weird table:

Fiddly NPC Ability Scores Ranging 8-18
1d20 1d12
1-13 1-3: 9; 4-6: 10; 7-9: 11; 10-12: 12
14-18 1-6: 13; 7-10: 14; 11-12: 15
19 1-8: 16; 9-12: 17
20 1-10: 8; 11-12: 18

This gave me some variety in hit points from the CON bonuses, and some potential surprises in melee from STR.

If I cared less for the actual score than for the bonus, I would have disregarded the d12 roll in all cases but a 20, and rolled a d6 (1-5: -1; 6: +3).


How “Dungeons & Dragons” changed my life

Ethan Gilsdorf, riding the subway in chainmail. Photo by Peter Tannenbaum for Slate.

I got to know Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, via a comment here at the Mule and thus had the pleasure of talking with him this weekend as he was working on a piece on Dungeons & Dragons nostalgia that appeared in Salon today. Ethan’s essay is chock-full of good stuff:

“D&D is intrinsically nostalgic,” Tavis Allison told me in a recent e-mail. Allison, 40, is a fundraiser for a hospital in New York City and an avid D&Der who also moderated a panel discussion called “Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art” at a New York City gallery this fall. “The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past, and part of the appeal of fantasy in general is this longing for a past that never was. Can you be nostalgic for something you never had?”

This insight about old D&D art belongs to Doug Kovacs and probably also Grognardia, so I can identify it as “good stuff” without praising myself. I was pleased to see that several other ideas I got from the old-school revolution and passed on to Ethan also made it into his top-notch essay. A related one that didn’t was some nostalgia paradoxes in my gaming nowadays:

  • The White Sandbox campaign is a re-creation of the earliest days of D&D – we’ve put a lot of work into doing things as they might have been done between 1974 and 1979. This period is beyond nostalgic for me; when I started playing in 1980 I wasn’t even aware of this era of the past.
  • The open-table gaming I’ve been doing through and thanks to New York Red Box is the best I’ve ever experienced. It’s not better than the way I played back in the day because I’m using a different RPG system now – it’s better because I’m being more faithful to what original D&D was telling me all along.
  • In the afternoon class and birthday parties, James and I are playing old-style D&D with kids who’ve never played before. This doesn’t rule out the idea that we’re just doing it to re-live our own childhoods, but can we say that this is a nostalgic-for-the-neverwas experience for the kids who are telling us “this is the greatest game ever”?

Saltbox Test Run

Today several New York Red Boxers took the plunge, and play-tested some of my saltbox rules. We rolled up some mid-level characters (30k xp), and set out to sea.

What Worked?

  • Encounters: I feel pretty good about my encounter tables, and my random encounter mechanics (between random encounters and the day’s event at sea being an encounter, about 1/4 chance of at least one sea-beastie).
  • Clerics: It is a wilderness crawl, so some spells that are marginalized in dungeons get a chance to perform – the party cleric cast Speak with Animal on a shark, Growth of Animals on same (arguably to his detriment) and Speak with Plants (requiring me to role-play Strangle Weed)
  • Inferred Wind: Between reaction rolls for the weather and Marsh/Cook for the wind effect, I just let the result of those rolls and player intent imply the wind direction. It felt a little fake at times, but it sped things up considerably
  • Evasion Roll-Offs: I liked it being a bit more interactive, even if a strategic (and expertly placed!) fireball rendered it moot.
  • The Players: They threw themselves into it, and were willing to talk through the rough spots in rules far more than I could reasonably have expected.

What Failed?

  • Char Gen: I wanted there to be some economy of sailor-type abilities and potential boat-funding cash to affect how the party set out to sea. The generation was really slow, and the players were entirely uninterested in hiring onto a boat for a lay in the profits.
  • Encountered Ship Generation: There were many things I over-prepared for, why oh why didn’t I have a handful of encountered ships all rolled up? I had three different undead ships, I couldn’t work up a few pirates?
  • Harpoons: Necessary to emulate whaling, their relationship to “normal” weapons was a bit too obscure. I had intended them to have broad impact on a small but vitally-important niche, but their limitations as weapons frustrated people. I should have explained this better.
  • Navigation: The 72 and 6 miles hexes make calculation easier… until ships are damaged, wind is weak, and evasion wackiness is in effect.

What was Iffy?

  • Every day is determined by four random rolls, and it took some effort to shape them into a coherent description of the day’s events.
  • Mapping- The player map was (to my mind) suitably un-detailed, but the lack of hexes meant a little too-much of the DM just explaining things.  Probably not worth the mystery.
  • Frequently encounters (like sharks) are both low-reward and mechanically awkward (fighting a water-bound beastie from on-deck).  A sea serpent can rear up to attack characters on deck, but a lot of stuff is perhaps too-easily ignored.  Then again, people fly right over random encounters on land, so why worry?

The Encounters

  • A school of mako sharks, one of which was grown into a 8HD monstrosity while being spoken to by the party cleric
  • A longship crewed by buccaneers, who were roasted by a fireball and finished off with missile weapons. The mast was burnt down, but the deck was only charred and the ship salvaged.
  • A morass of strangle weed, which the party convinced to disgorge both their ship and a couple of items from my Salvage subtable (a barrel of harpoon heads, and a denuded fruit tree).
  • A SEA DRAGON of sub-adult size (7HD). The players handled this encounter very well, negotiating with the dragon and extracting valuable information, as well as agreeing with it to trade some jewels for a magic potion.
  • The SAME SEA DRAGON, who the party betrayed as part of a scheme to gain access to it hoard. This went fairly poorly for them, striking a goblin harpooneer down, and rendering helpless all but one party member.

James, a while back, had the brilliant notion that a sea dragon’s breath weapon is a spew of noxious, fertilized sea dragon larvae. I took this to mean that anyone struck down by the weapon must not only be healed, but cured of disease to avoid “hatching” into a sea dragon newt in 1d4 days. The party’s plan was almost brilliant: They used their massive haul from the sale of the longship (and the buccaneers’ treasure) to buy the inn in which they were to meet the dragon, and stuff it with barrels of whale oil that they intended to ignite. Unfortunately, the dragon rolled up charm person and find traps, which colluded to dampen the effectiveness of their timing (although it also meant some of the dragon’s spells were exhausted). They incinerated the inn, killed 9 hireling fighters, and made enemies both in town and in the dragon’s lair. They did manage to chase the thing off, but not before suffering heavy casualties. That sea dragon breath weapon is nasty!

Here’s one of my daily 2d6 rolls at sea:

Events at Sea (Daily, 2d6)

2 Outbreak!: Roll on Diseases at Sea Subtable
3 Batten the Hatches!: Roll surprise: 1-2: Sudden encounter with a storm, 3-6: Change course for day or encounter storm
4 Land Ho? 1d6, 1: kelp/sargasso forest, 2-3: reefs/shoals/rocks, 4-5: wrecked ship adrift, 6: uncharted island/islet
5 Albatross: Is it wounded? An omen? Crew morale check at  -1
6 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
7 Avast!: Ocean Encounter, roll for type
8 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
9 Ships Ahoy!: Ships sighted on horizon; roll on Men Subtable
10 Sea-Legs: 1 of the ship’s marines becomes effective as a sailor
11 The Corpusants! The Corpusants!: A thunderstorm far off the starboard, and St. Elmo’s Fire on the masts at dawn; crew morale check at +1
12 Fruits of the Sea: Salvageable wreckage, roll Salvage Type subtable

Illusionism and Wandering Monsters

Proof that riding griffons is old-school, from the back cover of G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King

At the D&D birthday party James and I ran earlier this month, while the kids in my group were flying around on their stronghold’s stable of griffons, they rolled a wandering monster check that proved to be another griffon. I decided that this one had been the mount of an adventurer like themselves; bloodstains on its empty saddle indicated that its former rider had met a bad end. In the griffon’s saddlebags, they found a map showing the location of two treasures, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. After some excited discussion, they decided to set off after the horn.

As they flew their griffons up the hill where the map said the horn of the valkries was hidden, the players rolled another wandering monster. (A result of 1 meant it was on the OD&D encounter tables, whereas a 6 would have meant the Pokemon encounter charts my son drew up for the campaign we play together & which we also used for this birthday party). This chart yielded a group of 20 elves, which I described as using ropes to climb up the hill. A reaction roll said that the elves were unfriendly, so when the birthday boy decided to fly closer and see what the elves were up to he was met by a volley of long-range arrow fire. Three of these arrows struck and left him near death, so he flew back to his comrades to be healed. The players decided that the elves were out to get the horn of the valkyries, but that rather than tangling with them directly, the best revenge would be to beat them to the treasure.

Hearing the player’s interpretation of events, I decided to “make it so”. Adopting their take on what a wandering monster meant gave me the chance to add time pressure and a rival for their search (which itself arose from a wandering monster). I think it’s often going to be the case that going with the players’ ideas will yield better results than your own.

Basically, everyone at the table is working to interpret the events that are generated through play and fold them into an integrated narrative.  The DM sees this as “how do I take the few bits of information handed to me by these random events and turn them into an interesting & challenging situation?”. The players see it as “how do we unravel the clues handed to us by the DM and figure out what’s really going on?”. Since these are functionally identical, the side with the most brains working on the problem is usually going to reach the best solution.

Despite the advantages of doing so, there’s part of me that feels like it’s cheating to turn what the players think is going on into what is really happening in the game world.   In thinking about why that’s so, I reached for the concept of  illusionism, which John H. Kim’s RPG Theory Glossary defines as “a term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control.”

Stage illusions are fun because the magician and audience are working together to create a suspension of disbelief

The first part of this definition implies that the player’s decisions don’t matter; the DM has control over the outcome and will make it so no matter what the players do. I’ll talk about this illusion of choice in a separate post. For now it should suffice to point out that using wandering monsters (and related techniques that can make randomness highly consequential) is a way for DMs to relinquish a substantial amount of control over the outcome of the game.

What we’re talking about here is the opposite, an illusion of not being in control. Adopting the player’s ideas of “what’s really going on” to provide meaning for a random event actually gives them a lot of say in what happens next. But this control is covert, to use Ron Edward’s classification of the factors involved in illusionism. The kids at the birthday party weren’t thinking “we’re shaping the story to make these elves our antagonists;” if anything, they were thinking “we’ve cleverly discerned the DM’s secret plan!”

As a DM, I don’t want to dispel the illusion that I have a secret plan, because that would take away the pleasure that players get when they feel they’ve figured it out. But is this deception wrong? Should I work to make explicit what I see as the implicit advantage of wandering monsters: that I get to be just another participant in figuring out the story, not its all-knowing mastermind?

A discussion among the players in my White Sandbox campaign indicates that for adults at least, this is already apparent. In planning what to do next after a session that was strongly shaped by wandering monsters, MikeLyons wrote:

After the defeat of the balrogs and en route to the volcano, the party flew over a group of primitive humans. It was a random encounter, and everyone understandably filed it in the “Useless Information” folder. Often wandering monsters have no narrative import, but perhaps a few do. Granted, I’ve missed several sessions, so I can’t successfully bring together all the occasions that our swords & sorcery adventure has crossed over into the prehistoric adventure genre (I wasn’t even there for the allosaurus that chomped Chrystos’ robo-liger), but perhaps the group has overlooked a clue. What if there’s a nearby gate to the lost world of pterodactyl riders? I’d visit that world through that gate if I could find it.

foner replied:

You make an interesting point. One of the things I love about the sandbox nature of the game is that we have so much control over what happens. If we decide to track down and encounter the primitive humans, they will be important to some degree. Maybe they aren’t right now, but the more we try to figure them out, the more Tavis will be forced to flesh them out. They might not have cosmic significance, but they will be important to our story if we want them to be. (They might still be important even if we choose not to encounter them, but we won’t know that till later, and that’s part of the fun, too.)

I remember reading about a study that was conducted, IIRC, at Cal State North Beach in the ’70s. The investigators had a stage magician visit two different Introduction to Psychology courses (then as now, a fertile source of test subjects). Each class saw the magician do the same mentalist act. The difference was that in the first class, the professor introduced the magician as “a person who is going to demonstrate some abilities that science is working to understand;” in the second class, he was introduced as “a stage magician who will demonstrate tricks that look like extra-sensory perception.” When surveyed afterwards, a surprisingly high percentage of people in both classes believed that the magician had ESP. One of the comments from the second class said “he might think he’s just doing magic tricks, but really there’s no way someone could do that without using ESP.”

People want to believe that illusions could be real; that’s why we go to magic shows. I think the illusion that’s important to us as RPG players is the sense that events in the imagined world have their own independent and pre-existing reality. Even though at one level we know that some of these events are the result of random rolls on a chart, at another level we treat the dice as oracles that reveal this other world. This illusion that both dice rolls and asking “what do I see when I throw a torch into the pit?” are ways of discovering what’s out there in the game-world seems to me vital to what roleplaying is about.

Because I value this illusion that we’re discovering rather than creating so much, I prefer mechanics that leave player control over the narrative covert. When “what’s in the pit?” is determined by throwing dice and looking at a chart, it still feels like it’s an objective fact. I can speculate about the next step, “what does that mean,” as if I were my character. Knowing at some level that the DM might overhear my ideas and make them so doesn’t force me out of that perspective, especially since I won’t know whether my speculation has been adopted as game-reality until I test it; the element of uncertainty is preserved. When “what’s in the pit” is something that I gain the right to narrate through the game mechanics, I briefly lose both the immersion of looking through my character’s eyes and the thrill of discovering what is and isn’t true.

I think the way that this illusion can become harmful is when the idea of the waiting-to-be-discovered meaning that will make sense of events in the imagined world becomes too closely identified with the idea of the DM’s secret plan. For players, I’ve often seen meta-thinking about “what does the DM expect us to do in this situation?” drive out roleplaying “what does my character want to do next?”; the ability of old-school techniques for randomness and sandbox play to short circuit this meta-approach has been a major draw for me.

For DMs, the idea of the secret plan can be seductive. I know I’m all too susceptible to megalomania; at some point I internalized the feeling that I should indeed be a demiurge capable of creating an infinitely rich world in which every detail is part of the magnificent hidden plan that I alone have created. When I feel guilty about “stealing” the kids’ ideas for what the rand0m-monster elves are doing, it’s because I’m feeling bad about not really being the Wizard of Oz they think they’re outsmarting.

To hell with that! Dressing up in an exotic disguise and calling myself by a grandiose stage name would let me put on a better magic show, just as pretending to be an all-knowing schemer and cultivating a poker face lets me run a better D&D game. But I’d be crazy to think I could really do magic. As a DM my strength comes from recognizing the players’ good ideas when I hear them, and mixing them in with just enough of my own that they can never be sure what’s true until their characters have roleplayed the process of discovery.


Quick and Dirty Weather Tables

Sometimes you want to know what the weather is like in-game, whether solely for flavor or because it’s relevant to the party’s hex-crawl. Can they see their enemies amid the downpour? Will muddy ground impede their movement? Did they bring cold-weather gear? Could they get caught in a flash flood?

For a long time, I’ve been rolling a couple of six-siders to figure out what the weather’s like. Now I’ve formalized my system in order to pass the savings on to you, the consumer.

* * *


Modifiers: -1 to -3 in winter, +1 to +3 in summer

0-: Freezing
1: Cold
2-3: Cool
4-5: Warm
6+: Hot

* * *


Modifiers: -1 in dry season, +1 to +3 in wet season

0-1: Clear skies
2-3: Cloudy
4: Light (drizzle / flurry / haze)
5: Moderate (rain / snow / fog)
6-8: Heavy (thunderstorm / blizzard)
9: To The Max (hurricane / tornadoes)

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2011

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