Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Making Spellcasters More Effective at Low Levels

We continued our exploration of Hero Kids this week with a Thursday Game Night adventure I whipped up because the Little Guy wanted some action in a forest. My wife is playing a healer and the Little Guy is running a warrior. As we’re playing I’m appreciating how Hero Kids handles magic. Each spellcasting character has a magic-based attack they can use each round against a target within range. Each also has a special ability related to magic, such as the healer’s ability to brew replacement healing potions. I’m sure at some point we’ll transition to more involved roleplaying games, possibly even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, my personal favorite. Yet I’ve never been a fan of “Vancian” magic, in which spellcasters memorize a set of spells and, once used, can’t access them again until they find time to rest and study (with a similar prepare, use, and lose structure for clerics). Sure, I cut my teeth on B/X D&D and thus for many years just accepted the system as standard; spellcasters have a limited number of spells prepared from their spellbook, and they’re gone after cast until the character rests and memorizes them again. So I started thinking about an alternate magic system in my quest to make Basic D&D easier on beginning characters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Thoughts on Playing Hero Kids

The Little Guy finally pestered me into running a roleplaying game for him the other night. He’s six-and-a-half years old, doing well in first grade, and has already sampled other games from Daddy’s varied adventure gaming hobbies, including miniature wargames and board games. I’ve had Hero Kids waiting in the wings for a few years, yet I just haven’t felt like the Little Guy was ready for something a bit more free-form than some of our other gaming fare. I ordered a print copy of the rulebook and printed out character cards, stand-up figures, and the Basement O Rats scenario back in August in case we had free time at a convention to run it; we didn’t, but it meant I was somewhat prepared when the Little Guy quite suddenly insisted we play it after dinner one night.

So Dad sat down with the Little Guy; Mom was a good sport and agreed to play so we wouldn’t have an awkwardly solitaire game session and to demonstrate the idea of an adventuring party helping each other overcome challenges. They chose characters from those I’d printed to cardstock. I took about 20 minutes to outline the various elements of their characters and answer questions, then we dove into the game. I ran the Basement O Rats scenario complete with printed map boards and cardstock character and monster stand-up figures. Using the recommended number of adversaries for two players (a helpful, balancing innovation) they explored the caves beneath the tavern, vanquished the rats, and rescued Roger, all within about 45 minutes (including a few quick asides to look up and clarify minor rules questions). The Little Guy enjoyed it so much he wanted me to run another scenario immediately....

I examined Hero Kids when I first got it and, from a basic reading, was impressed with the resources it offered: intuitive mechanics using six-sided dice; clear character sheets; lots of advice for running a roleplaying game for kids (or even newcomers); a setting focusing on the role of kids rather than typical fantasy heroes; and map “boards” and pieces for scenarios to help transition from more traditional games. After actually playing it, I realized most of my earlier impressions were spot-on, though, of course, actual play reveals some nuances:

Duration: Kids have limited attention spans, especially in this age of instant gratification from electronic devices. The concepts and mechanics behind Hero Kids took only a few minutes to introduce to new players, while the scenario itself ran in less than an hour. This was the perfect length of time to maintain interest while still offering a significant taste of the game play. Occasionally the Little Guy’s attention wandered off a little, but it was more a lack of patience with other players’ turns and the presence of natural distractions such as errant toys at the dinner table that tempted him.

Party Teamwork: The Little Guy played a warrior while Mom ran a healer; the combination, and their coordination during combat, helped illustrate how different party members could contribute to success. At times the Little Guy wanted to go off on his own, deny assistance to his Mom’s character, or even attack her (“Can I attack other players’ characters?” he asked...something I expect every gamer asks at some point). At each turn we gently demonstrated how party members depended on each other – offering coordinate attacks or healing each other at key moments – or how, sometimes, his own insistence didn’t matter, such as when his warrior scaled a wall with the healer’s help, then he didn’t offer the healer assistance...not that she needed it with a successful skill roll.

Skill Tests: I really liked the die pool system, especially for non-combat skill tests. In a fight players roll the appropriate die pool and compare the highest result against the opponent’s roll; for skills they compare a roll against a difficulty number (4, 5, or 6) for success. Each combat skill (melee, ranged, and magic) also serves as a skill (strength, dexterity, magic), and each player also gets a few non-combat skills like tracking or lore. Although the scenario depended on lots of combat, it also offered some purely skill-based challenges, like climbing a cave wall or figuring out which tunnel led to the rats. It offered a nice balance between hack-and-slash and problem solving.

Lack of Character Advancement: The Hero Kids rules don’t offer any mechanics for character advancement, though it’s easy enough to allow each player to assign an extra die to their character after several hard-won adventures. Yet the lack of an advancement system removes the emphasis on killing monsters and taking their treasure for personal gain and instead focuses on fulfilling the story elements. Rather than delving into the tavern basement seeking hoarded rat treasure, the heroes explore the tunnels and vanquish rats with the goal of rescuing their friend. While it might seem good to offer some motivation in the form of personal advancement (gold, experience points), it’s refreshing not to place emphasis on greed and killing.

Maps and Pieces: I’m undecided about using the maps and cardboard stand-up figures. They’re useful for transitioning players from traditional boards and pieces to a roleplaying game setting. They’re absolutely necessary for introductory Hero Kids games. They help everyone visualize what the environment looks like, where heroes and adversaries stand, and how everyone moves relative to other elements. Yet the reliance on physical components hinders the gamemaster’s ability to simply whip up a new scenario on the spot (at least without having a stock of ready-made maps and cardstock figures), as demonstrated by the Little Guy’s insistence I run another session right away. I started mentally fumbling around for ideas, all of which required me to look up some potential adversaries, jot down some scenario notes, draft gridded maps on a large enough scale to use figures, and then find or print said figures. I think for at least the next few game sessions I’ll have to either devise my own maps and use figures I have or rely on printing materials from the Hero Kids scenarios I have in PDF. That said, the game could easily transition to a more freeform system, even one with a purely verbal description.

When the Little Guy expressed an urge for me to run more Hero Kids, he demonstrated that he doesn’t quite understand the amount of preparation that goes into running a scenario. His tastes tend to run toward whatever electronic media he’s devouring at the moment. He’s looked at Daddy’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook but really wanted to try the Hercules & Xena game he spotted. He’s asked me to run a Star Wars roleplaying game session, though he prefers the prequels to Daddy’s cherished original trilogy. I think we’ll do more Hero Kids before we decide what direction to take next. He’ll be seven years old soon, a good age to continue our exploration of adventure gaming and expand it with some roleplaying game scenarios.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Considering Appendix N

Occasionally people discuss the merits and importance of the Dungeon Masters Guide’s infamous “Appendix N” and its corollary in the Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the “Inspirational Source Material” list (henceforth referred to as the “ISM”). Are they “required reading” for Dungeons & Dragons? Do some titles and authors deserve to be on the list? People’s taste in fiction varies widely, even within a specific genre; not everyone enjoys the literary aspects that inspired roleplaying games. Like many elements of D&D and the Old School Renaissance (along with adventure gaming and other geeky pursuits in general) it generates a good number of heated arguments fueled by strong feelings and the usual irrational contrariness that seems to typify most online debates and, disturbingly, more real-world discussions. Various people online have attempted and encouraged others to read every book listed in these resources; occasional debates flog their relevance and the merits of individual titles and authors. I find the occasional focus on these resources surprising given the size of both Appendix N and the ISM relative to their sourcebooks: one of the many appendices in the Dungeon Masters Guide, Appendix N takes up about a quarter of a page (still not even half a page if you include Gygax’s comments on works that inspired D&D) in a 240-page rulebook; the ISM offers a somewhat more substantial list that covers an entire page in the Basic D&D rulebook, just one out of 64 pages...a somewhat more significant contribution than Appendix N, but still relatively small. I find both resources more useful as inspiration than instruction, a suggested reading list for those who also dabble in fantasy literature who might appreciate these titles both for ideas to integrate into a fantasy roleplaying game and the pure literary enjoyment they provide.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Star Wars Fleet Game

The Little Guy and I attended a wargaming convention in Williamsburg this past weekend, where he won a copy of Star Wars: Armada in the charity teacup raffle. We weren’t home long before the box was open, he was checking out the pre-painted ships, I was reading rules, and we both started popping out and organizing perforated cardstock game components. We gave it a try on my old three-foot-square felt starfield I painted years ago for West End Games demos and had a blast. It’s the kind of game West End could never have produced, though it did consider publishing a Star Wars tactical fleet-level game.