Posts Tagged ‘afterschool


Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.


my son the convention DM

This is Javi wearing his Halloween costume: a green slime in disguise. He will not be wearing it while DMing, as the mask makes it hard to see the numbers on the dice.

In the early years of being a parent, people would talk about how the first year of a child’s life was the best time of all. I believe that this nonsense is part of the directed forgetting we evolved so that humans will have multiple kids and ensure the survival of the species. If we really remembered what it was like to change our shirts six times a day because spit-up leaked through the cloth forever worn over our shoulders, and be woken up at each of the hours of the morning that go wee, wee, wee all the way home, procreation would come to an abrupt halt after we’d done it once.

The thing that kept me going through the various torments of early childhood was the knowledge that the best times were yet to come. Not wanting to be the kind of parent who already has their kid’s college picked out or expects them to follow precisely in their footsteps, I didn’t have specific moments in mind. However, this is definitely one of them: my nine-year-old will be DMing his first convention game next weekend at Anonycon in Stamford, CT. Here is the description we came up with for his event:

D&D Classic – The Dungeons of Ramburgh (D&D 4e)
By Javi Allison. The people of Ramburgh are being tormented by undead monsters from the desert. Will your heroes find fame and fortune in the streets of the city and the dungeons beyond, or will your corpse soon join the ranks of those shuffling toward Ramburgh? This adventure was developed and playtested in the D&D afterschool program at Hunter College Elementary School. Javi is one of the program’s most talented DMs, and will have adult help managing the rules (4E Essentials), but grownups should still expect a different kind of D&D: fresher, funnier, weirder! Paragon-tier pregens will be provided, or you can bring your favorite 11th level characters from LFR or your home game. (Reminder, LFR Characters cannot receive XP, GP or items from this adventure … but players can still have fun. ;-))

The reminder was thoughtfully added by the convention organizers, who put together a great event every year. I’m looking forward to it!


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.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.


Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve just finished working on a grant for my day job which would create a program for training emergency medicine physicians to do clinical research. One thing this means is I’ll have more time for posting. Another is that my head is full of phrases from the bureaucratese you use to communicate with the National Institutes of Health.

NIH policy says that any time you want them to give you money for a research training program, you have to demonstrate that it will include instruction in the responsible conduct of research. This means that one of the things you’re required to teach is ethics, or why you shouldn’t intentionally infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal disease.

Last night, as we were preparing for the third Dungeons & Dragons afterschool class, James and I decided that it was time for some instruction in the ethics of roleplaying games. We decided to go about it by breaking up the kids into discussion groups before we get down to playing.

The first thing we’ll do is to have the kids talk about a time that their character made a mistake, and what happened as a result. After everyone’s answered, we’ll ask: Did you have fun when that happened?

If the consensus is yes, making mistakes is as fun as succeeding because it makes exciting and unexpected things happen, we’ll move on to the message: Since making mistakes is part of the fun, you don’t have to listen when someone else tells you what your character should do. There’s no right way that they know and you don’t; it’s all about making your own decisions and enjoying the consequences.

For the second discussion, we’ll switch from talking about the game to talking about real life. Here’s a list of things that have happened to everyone; talk about one time it happened to you.

  • You were excluded; other people went off and did something in secret, intentionally keeping you out of it.
  • You made a mistake and other people yelled at you and tried to make you feel stupid.
  • You were put down; someone acted like they were better, smarter, more powerful than you.
  • You were robbed; someone cheated you out of something you had, or the share you deserved.
  • You were attacked; someone used words or violence to try to hurt you.

The message here is that it feels bad when these things happen in real life. D&D is not real life, but it still feels bad when someone treats you badly. Playing a role-playing game is a way to have fun with your friends; treating one another badly makes it less fun for everyone.

The last idea I’ve had is that I don’t have a lot of control over who these kids are. Everything that some young boys do is going to become an acting-out of their pecking order and its internal struggles for dominance over one another. Some boys are going to be attracted to D&D because quantifying the abilities of their alter ego gives them a tool in this struggle: I’m better than you because my character can beat up your character, thanks to this 18 ability score I “rolled” or the optimized choices I made.

What I do have some control over is what characters the kids play. The world of D&D is a dangerous place; in order to survive long enough to become a hero, your character had to become a trustworthy team player. Trying to enforce pro-social behavior will drive me nuts; encouraging the roleplaying of a pro-social character is what the game is all about.


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.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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