Sunday, June 29, 2014

Modeling Behavior - old school DnD

As a fairly old-school DnD gamer (I played  bit of original basic DnD in high school, a full 1st edition campaign in college, and then persisted with playing and then DMing a long-running 2nd edition campaign well into the 2000s), I have tried on several occasions to introduce my kids to RPG style gaming.  As 6-year olds, I broke out the dice and ran them through a little mini-adventure that amused them (and me).  But they were not really ready for the full-on character generation, turn-based combat, and movement rules of a "proper DnD campaign".  I have also done years of interactive storytelling  with them, where they have input into the actions and reactions of alter-ego kids who go through a series of adventures when they move to a new house on the edge of a large, strange forest.

But we never really got back to trying DnD again, and I honestly was starting to wonder if the  Minecraft/Teen Fortress 2/HALO progression had moved my 13-year old beyond the sweet spot where he and his friends could maintain interest in sitting around a table with nothing but dice, paper, and imagination to keep the game going.

But I figured I would give it a shot anyway.  A couple of months ago, as school was winding down, I planted the seeds.  I told my son I would be willing to run him and his friends through a one-off adventure to introduce them to the idea of how DnD works.  He remembered what we did before, but I pointed out that there are a lot more rules, etc, that we glossed over when he was in the 1st grade.  So he grabbed a book, read a bit (his eyes widening), and then he started working on his friends.  Two agreed immediately (their parents had both played in the past or were familiar with the game).  Two others said "what's dungeons and dragons?" but were at least interested in the concept.  He invited them over one by one, showed them how to roll up characters, and arranged a weekend when no one was traveling to bring everyone together and see how this would work out.

I decided to set the adventure at the tail end of a LONG-running, deeply political and (at times) cataclysmic DnD campaign I ran for my wife and friends in the Greyhawk setting. While I knew the guys would want danger and swinging swords and epic battles, I also did not want to just drop them in a dungeon and say "start crawling".  For me, an RPG is about story first, and then swinging swords and splattering orcs second. So I came up with a "your trainers send all of your 1st level characters out to investigate something strange happening in a nearby town" hook.  I spent about 5 minutes with each of the players explaining to them where they are from, how they wound up where they are, a brief hint of history and sociopolitical stuff (you are an elf, you will be traveling to human lands, it will be weird for you, etc), formed up the party, and off they went.

To say they bit hard on this would be an understatement.  As they were getting ready to hit the road, I told them their sponsor had given them 100 gp to spend on equipment beyond their weapons and armor they would need for the journey.  Cue an hour of intense discussion about the relative merits of normal rations vs. iron rations, whether 200 feet of rope is enough or whether they should splurge for an extra 50 feet of silk rope, how many extra arrows they could fit in a backpack and whether the bowyer/fletcher non-weapon proficiency would keep them from running out, and whether they would have enough sacks to carry any loot they come across.

I finally managed to get them on the road (my wife played a slightly higher level character in the party, to help push things along), and they arrived in the town for the adventure.  They promptly ignored the large crowd of worried people gathered in the middle of town, and instead just found an inn to go to sleep for the night.  The next morning, they split up, started to investigate things, and soon found the four different possible sources of trouble in and around town.  The game was afoot.

Eight hours of sugar and caffeine-fueled insanity later, they had discovered and conquered an underground area crawling with goblins, rats, lizards, and other nasties as well as inscrutable magical runes, pools, and rooms.  The thief had gone in first on his own to scout, and for some reason he started tapping on and randomly opening doors ("you do realize that no good can come of this, right?"), and had been bitten by and then splattered a giant rat (natural 20) across the wall of a corridor.  For the rest of the adventure, "splattered rat" served as a convenient landmark ("Okay, we go down this hallway, turn left, go past the splattered rat, then look around the corner.  What do we see?").  In the end, they planned and executed an epic fire-bomb attack using flasks of oil, an Enlarge spell, and Produce Flame that won the day.  One of the guys said "in my brain, this is like the most epic movie scene I have ever seen!"  They also managed to do the one thing they were told NOT to do by their sponsor ("Whatever you do, do NOT attack any servants of Iuz you come across!") and they may well have sparked an international incident that could lead to a minor war.  But they came away with a pile of gold, platinum, and gems as well as a number of magic items of various shapes and sizes, so it's all good.

 All in all, it was a blast.  I had fun (although I am beat this's been quite a while since I last DMed, and it takes a lot out of me) and the boys all want to get together again next week to divide loot and figure out what happens next.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Lesson in Extinction

The by-line of the game is: It's a World of (S)Laughter After All!

And that pretty much sets the tone for the game Small World; one simple letter spells the difference between humor and death. 

In this fantastic game, each player (from 2 - 6) controls one randomly-drawn "race" of beings that has one randomly-drawn special ability. Players go head-to-head, conquering open territories and accumulating victory points. The player with the most victory points at the end of the appointed number of turns (5 turns for a 2 player game, 10 for a 3 player game, etc) is the winner. Simple game, simple rules.

The nuances are anything but simple. In fact, they're complex and change a great deal all depending on the race and special ability each player draws. Uniquely, and entirely unlike most strategy games whereby leaving yourself too thin is a sure way to lose, Small World almost encourages players to over-extend their reach. Go ahead and take multiple territories! March your Orc Commandos or Halfling Berserkers into as many open or occupied territories as you wish! Spread out! Conquering empty territories is easy - you just need 2 troops. Conquering enemy territories is easy - you just need one more troop attacking than they have in the territory. 

And then, here's the fun part: make your race go extinct. Overextend your Dragon Master Amazons on purpose, and then flip them over to "put them in decline." You get a new race the next turn...and you still get the victory points from the territories your old race occupies while your new race gobbles up more!

Isaac's Ghouls battle my Sorcerer's and my brother's Halflings
This world gets really crowded, really quickly. Small World.

The basic box gives you 4 different game boards (for the 2, 3, 4, and 5 & 6 player games), a load of races and everything you need to get greedy. A few expansions are available with some new, fun races and special abilities and expanded game boards for an even more crowded little world.

Backstab your buddies. Backstab yourself! This game is no end of fun, especially given all of the possible combinations between races and abilities. Diplomat Skeletons? Been there. Bivouacking Trolls? Done that.

Isaac, my 9 year old, completely understands the game and is quite good at it (we started playing when he was 8). It's still juuust a bit beyond my 6 year olds, but they like to "help" another older player, and they like to laugh at the utterly ridiculous race/ability combos. At 6, they miss some strategic points and honestly don't read quite well enough to read the race and ability cards. A lot of reading in this game.

I highly recommend this game for families, especially with gamer kids starting around 8 years old. It is perfectly absurd, hilarious, a great intro to turn-based strategy games, and a wonderful way to pass an hour to an hour and a half on  rainy day.

The picture above is a wonderful view of the game. Humans in decline as Berserk Halflings rise, Sorcerers in decline just before a new race is picked, and some Ghouls pre-decline. You see a whole list of available races/abilities to the right of the board, from which players pick as they put their current race in decline.