Friday, December 16, 2016

Goobles and Goblins - A Gaming for Kids Review of an RPG Heartbreaker

Like many gamers and gaming fans, I have increasing become a consumer of streaming live play and game review channels. Among my favorite channels is the Saving Throw Show channel on Twitch. I started following the channel because I'm a fan of Tom Lommel's Dungeon Bastard series and both Lommel and Amy Vorpahl make appearances in Saving Throw Show content. Eventually, I became a Patreon backer of the channel and following this year's Extra Live 24 hour gaming marathon have become a more active participant in chats during the live streaming of events.

One of the things I like about Saving Throw Show is that it puts a spotlight on a couple of the overlooked aspects of Hollywood culture, its nerdiness and its rigorous work ethic. That's right, I've just described an industry that most people think of as filled with popular rich people who have too much spare time as an industry that is actually filled with extremely hard-working nerds. Because the real secret of Hollywood is that its engines are fueled by the work and imaginations of some very hard-working people who have a love of Dungeons & Dragons, Comic Books, and Pop Culture.  The Saving Throw Show is populated with a lot of these wonderful people and is a product of their hard work and this work includes streaming live play rpg sessions, interviews with game designers like John Wick, how to play videos, music videos, and comedy sketches. Watching content from the Saving Throw Show is a lot of fun and I imagine reflects what a lot of our gaming groups would be doing if we had the technical know how and courage to create content that others could review/criticize.

Recently, I was thinking about the theoretical section of my Ph.D. prospectus (read...procrastinating) and decided to watch their "Couple's Therapy" show on Twitch to pass the time. "Couple's Therapy" is a let's play show featuring Jordan and Meghan Caves-Callarman who are two Saving Throw Show regulars. During the episode, Jordan mentioned that he had created a Kid Friendly role playing game entitled Goobles and Goblins. So I logged onto Amazon and quickly ordered a copy of the game for analysis and am now ready to give you a quick review of the game.

TL:DR so far? You should watch Saving Throw Show and it introduced me to a new Kid Friendly RPG.

What is Goobles & Goblins?


Goobles & Goblins is an entry level role playing game designed to be played with younger players and to introduce those younger players to the larger hobby of role playing games. The game was created by Jordan Callarman (now Jordan Caves-Callarman) and its print version was funded through a small Kickstarter campaign back in 2015. The project had 84 backers and is in a similar Kickstarter success category as Jody and my Cthulhu Claus project was in 2012. The game was once supported by a webpage at, but the site has since expired (hence no link).

Adventures in Goobles & Goblins take place in the magic filled Land of Glythe, but most of the details about the Land of Glythe have to be extracted from the text via complex hermeneutics. What information about Glythe there is within the pages of Goobles & Goblins is pretty wonderful, but it is as sparse as information about Fillory in the first episode of The Magicians. Jordan manages to drop little gems (the official currency of Glythe) to spark the imagination, but also leaves readers wanting a lot more.

How Does Goobles & Goblins Play?


Jordan discusses Goobles & Goblins at WonderCon. Image from WonderCon.

Goobles & Goblins features a very simple game engine, so simple that if I go into too much detail here it would serve as a replacement for buying the book. I want Jordan to sell copies, so I'll only touch upon the minimum necessary. Like most role playing games, Goobles & Goblins uses numerical characteristics to represent the effectiveness of characters with regard to specific tasks. In Goobles & Goblins these characteristics are Smarts, Speed, Strength, and Hits. These characteristics are rated on a scale of 1 to 3 (with Hits having possibly more points) based upon the adventuring degree the character attained from one of Lord Maxwell Armstrong's Academy of the Combative Arts, the Underground Rogue's Guild, or the Endless Tower. 

These characteristics are used as modifiers to opposed rolls where the player and GM roll a die and compare final results of die + modifier. It's a simple system that is very good for the age range it is aimed at. I will have some comments below about how I think this could improved in an introductory game, one of Jordan's stated goals is to have resolution of actions be fast and fun and opposed rolls can slow things down.

Key Innovation in Goobles & Goblins.


There is one really inspired innovation in Goobles and Goblins and that's its magic system. Many role playing games attempt to either imitate D&D's magic system, create an abstract system like Mage, or to emulate the magic of an existing fantasy world. That's not what Jordan did with Goobles & Goblins magic system. Jordan may not even realize this, but he has invented a magic system that hints at a wonderful and mysterious world of magic and adventure. The magic system of Goobles & Goblins is very simple. Wizards have the ability to summon a fighting companion using a magic artifact called an Animal Totem and they have access to a Magic Bag that contains three different randomly determined magic items each day. Wizards don't have spells. Instead, they are more capable of using the magic items that can be found throughout the world and have access to some additional items from their Magic Bag.

This suggests a couple of things. The first thing this suggests is that the Land of Glythe is in a world where magic was once common place, but where it is now largely relegated to those who possess items of power. For most people these items can be used only a limited number of times, but Wizards are more adept at using these items and might be able to use artifacts for many sessions. Since anyone can use Magic Items, anyone can use the items in the Wizard's Magic Bag, but only the Wizard might be able to use those more than once. There are a host of ideas to explore narratively regarding the Magic Items of Glythe and by having magic be item based Jordan has simultaneously created a system with some game balance elements and added some narrative mystery.


Areas for Improvement


I like Goobles & Goblins and I think it offers a lot of great ideas that can be incorporated into my own gaming with History and Mystery (my 8 year old twins). It does have several areas for improvement though.

First, I'm not fond of opposed rolls in games in general and especially in games with kids. The key to gaming with kids is to make sure that the focus is on the "play" and not on "rolling" and every time someone picks up a die it increases the time that it takes to resolve conflicts. My recommendation is to have the players make all die rolls. The kids should be rolling to hit, to dodge, and to use skills to overcome challenges against a fixed number. This fixed number should be the average roll (rounded down) plus challenge rating for the obstacle. For example, if a Monster has a Strength of 2 then the difficulty number should be the average roll of a die (rounded down) +2. You can round up the base difficulty for elite monsters. This halves the number of rolls being made on the table and gives a sense of agency to the kids playing.

Second, I think that the art needs an upgrade. While I think the art is whimsical and fun, I think that a more polished cartoony style might have increased the sales of the book. I'm not just saying this because I think that my wife Jody's artwork would work well for Glythe (though it would). I'm saying this because Kid Friendly games are becoming more common and that competition is pretty high. It includes games like Hero Kids and No Thank You, Evil! and I think that Goobles & Goblins has a skeleton that could be competitive with those games.

Third, the book needs work on the layout and content. Jordan Callarman gives us glimpses of Glythe, and they are wonderful glimpses, but I want more. I would like to see some more detail in the setting. This is something that could truly make the game competitive in the Kid Friendly market. I know the market isn't fully developed yet, but Goobles & Goblins has potential and "heart" that could secure a segment of the niche. Certainly a larger segment than the 84 people who backed it on Kickstarter. It most certainly deserves more support than that!


A Final Wonderful Touch


Look very carefully at that picture of Jordan at WonderCon promoting the game. It shows me a couple of things. The first is that Jordan is proud, rightly so, of his project. More importantly, look at those pictures behind him. Do you know what those are? Those are Goobles. Those are Goobles created by kids who stopped by Jordan's booth. That shows that Jordan "gets it." He knows what this game is about and he wrote a section of the book that displays this too. His "what is a Gooble" section is a delight and it needs to be expanded upon and moved forward. Goobles need to enter our lexicon. They are the monsters/creatures, friend or foe, who populate the imaginations of children. That's what a Gooble is and they are there for the discovering.

Why "Heartbreaker"?


My post title calls Goobles & Goblins an RPG Heartbreaker. One might wonder why I would use a pejorative to describe a game I think is very good. I'm not using the term Heartbreaker in the dismissive way that so many use the term today when talking about "Fantasy Heartbreakers." I'm using it in the original sense. When Ron Edwards coined the term "Fantasy Heartbreaker" he stated that they were "truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that's evident in both their existence and in their details." The Fantasy Heartbreakers were heartbreaking because we want them to be perfect, but they fall short in some way. For many of the games Edwards was writing about that failing was a lack of real innovation. That's not the case here. There is enough innovation in Goobles & Goblins to provoke a desire to play the game, but there is also "just enough" that it leaves me wanting so much more and I know I'm not going to get that so much more any time soon.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that Jordan does a second edition which streamlines a couple of things, expands upon some others, and goes into great detail about the Land of Glythe with wonderful cartoony art and dynamic layout. The foundation is strong here, just as it was with the Little Brown Books of D&D.

Check out Goobles & Goblins and give it a play at your table.

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