Showing posts with label Gaming with Kids. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gaming with Kids. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Do D&D's New Young Adventurer's Guides have "All the Information (Young Players) Need to Start"?

TL;DR -- Not all the information you need, but a vital contribution to the hobby.

When I read that Wizards of the Coast was going to be releasing three volumes designed to introduce younger gamers to the Dungeons and Dragons hobby with their "A Young Adventurer's Guide" series by Jim Zub, Stacy King, and Andrew Wheeler, I was overjoyed. I immediately saw that the volumes thematically matched the three central Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks. Warriors & Weapons and the as yet unreleased Wizards & Spells were the Player's Handbook equivalent, Monsters & Creatures the Monster Manual, and Dungeons & Tombs fit the Dungeon Master's Guide slot. I was so excited that I preordered them in February and eagerly awaited the opportunity to hand my eleven year old daughters their individual copies of the volumes.

My expectation was that these volumes would be simplified versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, written in a manner to be more accessible to younger audiences as the "kid friendly" equivalents of the core rulebooks. This expectation was reinforced by the marketing copy describing the books and recent reporting about the intent of the volumes.

The description of Weapons & Warriors states, "This guide includes detailed illustrations of the weapons, armor, clothing, and other equipment that fighters use, and offers the tools young, aspiring adventurers need for learning how to build their own characters, including sample profiles, a flowchart to help you decide what type of warrior to be, and brainstorming challenges to start you thinking like an adventurer whether on your own or in the midst of an exciting quest with friends and fellow players."

Add to that description, the copy from the back of the volume which states, "Warriors & Weapons provides would-be adventurers with all the information you need to start building your own characters and putting together your adventuring party" (Emphasis mine).

In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Jim Zub described the inspiration for the books by stating:

When I was at the Wizards of the Coast office in late 2017 consulting on the adventure material that would become Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, we talked a lot about how I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 8 years old and the elements of D&D and roleplaying that ignited my imagination at that crucial age. That discussion would come up again a few months later when the crew at Wizards introduced me to Aaron Wehner, an editor from Ten Speed Press, and plans started to develop around the kind of book that could engage new players without overwhelming them with rules or game-specific terminologies.

As experienced Dungeon Masters or players, it’s easy to forget how intimidating tabletop RPGs can be for people who haven’t ever played them before. These guides lay out the major concepts (class, race, equipment, creatures) in a way anyone can understand while encouraging them to create their own stories. Readers can use the material in these books to brainstorm a character and imagine their role in an adventuring party. They’re meant to get new players excited about the possibilities, so they’re ready to head to the gaming table and learn how those initial ideas can really flourish with a roll of the dice.
These comments, and my experience with the excellent new Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, had me convinced that these would be the modern age equivalent of the Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer Basic Set, or D&D Player's Essentials books for a new generation of players.

I was wrong.

I was wrong, but I wasn't misled. I missed a lot of clues as I set my expectations of what these books would be. I missed phrases like, "the kind of book that could engage new players without overwhelming them with rules or game-specific terminologies" and "brainstorming challenges to start you thinking like an adventurer."

These books were never intended to be "kid friendly" replacements for the rulebooks. Instead, they were meant to be something that filled the gap between books like Dungeonology, the 123's of D&D, A Practical Guide to Monsters, the Monster Slayers series by Lukas Ritter, and the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit.

The Young Adventurer's Guides do not have "all the information you need to start building your own characters," but they do contain valuable information that new players need. I remember the first D&D gaming session I ran for my daughters and their friends at a sleepover earlier this year. The session went great, BUT the first couple of hours were spent discussing basic information like what Rangers and Clerics were. As I stated in my post discussing that first session, "Everyone knew what a wizard was, but the audience was very unfamiliar with most traditional fantasy classes." That is exactly the gap that these books were designed to fill and they do that job very effectively. The Warriors & Weapons book gives a good overview of a number of D&D races and classes and has a useful flowchart to help young players decide what kinds of characters they want to play. The expectation is that the Dungeon Master will know the rules and guide the neophyte through character creation, or even use the descriptions the new player gives to design a character for them. Heck, the book even includes discussion of various backgrounds. None of the mechanics, but descriptions of what they are and what the benefits of each are in non-mechanical terms.

You will still need access to some form of the rules, but thankfully there are scads of low cost and high quality options. First and foremost, there are the FREE Basic Rules available on the Wizards of the Coast website. These are all you need for years of fun. Sure, there are more options if you own the physical rule books, but the Basic Rules are more than enough to start with and the price is right. You can also go with the D&D Essentials Kit from Target. Don't get the Starter Kit, though that's fine, take the time to find this gem.

If you are gaming with younger players, the players for whom these new books are designed as a bridge to the full game, then let me recommend the two Monster Slayers adventures designed by Susan J. Morris. Monster Slayers: The Heroes of Hesiod and Monster Slayers: Champions of the Elements are excellent starting points for players.

My recommendation, if you are gaming with 10 to 11 year-olds, is the following. Download the Basic Rules for yourself (the adult), and download the two Monster Slayers adventures. You don't need to read the Basic Rules to run the adventures, so just run those for the kids. After the kids have their first taste of role playing, buy them copies of Warriors & Weapons and Monsters & Creatures. While they read those volumes, take the time to read the Basic Rules and buy the Essentials Kit. A couple of weeks later, you and your kids will be wholehearted gamers with all the knowledge of the genre and rules you will ever need.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Game a Day, for a Week?! What is this Madness?! #RPGaDAY Day 6

While all of the #RPGaDAY prompts are thought provoking, most of them fall into the realm of "realistic." Today's prompt is the rare exception. Autocratik's question of the day is, "You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do." First, that's a wonderful fantasy. I wish I had the time to game every day for a week, RPG game that is. I'm pretty sure that I could find a way to fit in a game a day if I really tried. It's just that the gaming would include things like Solitaire/Patience and a couple of quick Dice based games from Reiner Knizia's essential book of dice games. As for role playing games, that would be impossible...or would it?

I'd have the friends/family I gamed with rotate the GM role when it's needed.

Here's what I imagine I'd be playing during this mythical week of a game a day.

1) The Prince Valiant Role Playing Game.

Have 10 minutes and a small pile of quarters? Then you can learn to play this game and get playing.

The Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game is a fantastic starter RPG and it's one that I'd like to play a little bit more. The "Pokemon Emergency" box set comes with a complete mini-campaign.

3) Chill

Quick and easy, this game can be played straight out of the box and the very simple introductory adventure allows for a lot of role playing while also making it easy for the novice game master to run.

4) Home by Jim Pinto

The rule book is 32 short pages, all it requires is a deck of regular playing cards, and it's the first in Jim Pinto's very thematic and dramatic Protocol series of games. I'd love to play a few of these with my group, and a game fest like this would be the perfect opportunity. Oh, and I'd have the US version published with the Spanish cover.

5) Arena of Khazan by Ken St. Andre

C'mon, there is no way I'm getting a group of gamers over every day to play and Ken St. Andre's Arena of Khazan is one of the best, and most replayable, solo dungeons ever written.

6) DC Heroes by Mayfair Games

In order to expedite play, and get straight to the action, I'd use the "Exposed" starter adventure included in the 2nd edition boxed set. It's a commentary on reality tv culture, in the case of the adventure of Geraldo Rivera, but it is surprisingly topical. It's also funny, has a great mix of heroes, and ends up with a smashingly fun free for all.

7) Tails of Equestria 

A family friendly role playing game designed by the creator of the Mordheim skirmish miniature game? Yes please! This game is wonderfully easy to pick up and play and has a core mechanic that inspires creative thinking. It's also a great first game to GM.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Adventure for Savage Worlds

Cthulhu Claus image by Jody Lindke

I originally posted this adventure on my Savage Worlds Character a Day blog...a blog with a far too ambitious name.

The adventure takes place in the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil setting and requires either that rulebook or the Super Powers Companion.

Operation Toybreaker -- A Christmas Themed Necessary Evil Savage Tale


The V'sori have successfully conquered the Earth. Very few are powerful enough to oppose their occupying forces to free humanity. Many of the world's villains have been gathered by Dr. Destruction to resist the occupation and inspire others to join the fight against the alien overlords.

Up until last year, most people had completely lost hope and have become "good citizens" of the V'sori empire. Few noticed that their neighbors were disappearing, while the numbers of drones grew. Few realized that the Earth wasn't merely being conquered, its residents were being "altered." No one was fighting back. It's hard to be inspired by news of Dr. Destruction's recent terrorist assault against the local television network.

That all changed last year on Christmas morning. Children across the world received Christmas presents for the first time since the V'sori invasion. The V'sori had come to expect a few underground Christmas celebrants, but they were not prepared when all the world's children received that included cards reading "Merry Christmas to All! S. Claus."

As news spread of the magical gift giving -- gift giving that had evaded V'sori surveillance, many of the people of the world began to experience a new emotion. They began to Hope. Here was someone, or potentially someone, who could evade/outsmart the V'sori who hadn't historically been bent on global domination.

The V'sori had to stop this S. Claus at all costs. And so began Operation Toybreaker. If the V'sori could capture this Claus, and transform him into a Super Drone, they could ensure that the toys delivered from here on out contained appropriate "citizen conditioning messages." They could take this figure of hope and transform him into a figure of domination.

Two weeks ago, while battling Omegans at a site where the frozen bodies of WWII heroes had been located, V'sori radar picked up an odd signature -- it appeared to be a flying reindeer. They followed the signature to its final destination and the location of Santa's Village had become revealed. It took the V'sori seven days to overcome Santa's defenses and capture this bastion of hope. It took another five days to convert all of his remaining elves into drones and to reprogram Santa's Toy Soldier Defense Androids. It will take two days for the V'sori to convert Santa into a complicit drone.

The Adventure:

Dr. Destruction has intercepted a broadcast outlining the V'sori's capture of S. Claus and their plans to convert him into a Drone. Dr. Destruction desperately wants to use Omegans to rescue the figure of hope as Santa would make an amazing gun runner for the Omegan underground, but he knows that Omegans are unlikely to rescue this saccharine sweet icon without some deception.

His plan is simple. Convey to an Omegan cell that the V'sori have captured the worlds "Last Figure of Hope" a person capable of supplying the criminal underground with a steady supply of weapons. The person has technology that can evade V'sori communications satellites and can make large simultaneous deliveries.

(At this point, most players will get what's going on, but their villain PCs should remain clueless).

The villains are sent to rescue this individual who is being held in a specially built temporary prison facility on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. Once at the location the PCs will face 2 encounters.

The first encounter is an outdoor battle against the converted remnants of Claus's cohorts. The PCs should face 1 Toy Soldier and 2 Elves per PC.

After the PCs finish this battle, they will wander through what remains of Santa's Village. Don't hold back on the description. There should be dead elves everywhere, as well as dead snowmen, and the carcasses of Santa's Reindeer. Play up the V'sori cruelty. Feel free to have another small skirmish here, or roleplay moments where the PCs find Santa's list only to find out that they were indeed supposed to receive that Atari 2600 for their 10th birthday...or some other humorous moment.

Upon completing the visit to Santa's village the PCs will approach a specially designed prison containing 1 K'tharen Warrior per 2 PCs and 2 Drones per PC, as well as the unconscious body of Claus. Claus's body is encased in a DuraSilicon Container (Toughness 15) where robotic devices are slowly converting him into a Super Drone.

Once the PCs arrive at the prison, they will have 15 rounds to defeat everyone and free Claus before he is converted. Use the Toughness statistics in the initial Jail Break for the Claus prison, but modify the map to contain only one cell.

If the PCs rescue Claus, they save Christmas and have recruited the world's most efficient weapons smuggler to the resistance.

Mind-Controlled Elf

Race: Elf

Agility: d8 Smarts: d6 Spirit: d6

Strength: d6 Vigor: d6 (d12+2 on drugs)

Pace: 8 (d10 to run) Parry: 5

Toughness: 6 (11 on drugs) (2)

Charisma: 0


Fighting d6 Repair d10 Notice d8 Stealth d8 Shooting d8

Throwing d6


+2 to ranged attack if Elf does not move.


If the elves have eaten their cookies or egg-nog, they fight fearlessly (+2 vs. fear checks) and feel no pain (+2 to recover from shaken, and can take two wounds instead of one before going down). Because of the unsafe levels of drugs in the cookies, the elves must make vigor checks at -6 when the drugs wear off 1d4 minutes after consuming. They take 6 levels of fatigue (death) on a failed roll.


Gay Apparel Kevlar Vest (+4 armor vs. bullets, negates 4 AP, covers torso)
Candy Cane-shaped Vibro-Knife Damage: Str+d6 Heavy Weapon, AP 2

Pop-Gun (Disguised .50 Cal Rifle) Range: 30/60/120 Damage: 2d10
RoF: 1, Ammo: 7 (Hero-killer Rounds), AP 2

3 Presents (Disguised Grenades) Range: 5/10/20
Damage: 3d6 Medium Burst Template

Notes: The V’sori have given the elves Christmas Cookies and Egg-Nog laced with vigor-enhancing combat drugs, un-safe levels of pain killers and other mind-altering substances. Since they V’sori don’t care if the elves die, they have put near-lethal dosages into the cookies, and instructed the elves to eat the cookies if they are attacked.

Life-Sized Toy Soldier

Race: Robot

Agility: d4 Smarts: d4 Spirit: d4

Strength: d10 Vigor: d10

Pace: 4 Parry: 5 Toughness: 13 (6, Heavy Armor)

Charisma: 0


Fighting d6 Notice d4 Shooting d6

Size +2

Toy soldiers are very large, about 7 feet tall.


These toy soldiers are robots and therefore get +2 to recover from shaken, immune to disease and poison. Arrows, bullets and other piercing attacks do half damage, and they do not suffer from called shots. Constructs do not heal wounds normally, and cannot recover wounds from the Healing skill or power. Repair is used instead. Each Repair roll requires tools and spare parts (-2 modifier without tools, another -2 without spare parts) and 1d6 hours work.


As robots, these soldiers are immune to fear effects.


These toy soldiers have infrared sensors that can see in the dark.


Plasma Rifle (A Toy Soldier’s Fusion Reactor regenerates 1 shot every 2 turns)

Range: 12/24/48 Damage: 3d10 RoF: 1, Ammo: 12, Heavy Weapon, AP 2

Vibro-Bayonet Damage: Str+d10 Heavy Weapon, AP 2

Notes: Made of heavy iron plating, these robot soldiers are super-tough, but very slow-moving. They are powered by large internal fusion reactors, which also power their plasma rifles.

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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shadow of the Demon Lord is Frighteningly Good [The Review]

Over the past couple of months, and I apologize for the slow blog pace, I've written a couple of articles that have referred to Robert J Schwalb's new role playing game Shadow of the Demon Lord. In the first article, I discussed how it was ironic that Robert's parents were so afraid of D&D's satanic material that he was "forced" to play Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. This is essentially the same as being upset that your kid is listening to Def Leppard and pointing the kid to Venom as a replacement. As was discussed in the comments to that, the whole "satanic panic" phenomenon was overblown, but I still find it funny that Rob fled Glasya to the open arms of Slaanesh.

This journey into the darker artistic and game mechanic influences of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are readily apparent in Shadow of the Demon Lord. The baseline setting of Rob's game is one of a world that is desperately in need of heroes, any heroes. When the world is about to be destroyed by a malevolent cosmic force, even blackguards, madmen, and murderers can be the world's saviors. The game is as grim and dark as any Games Workshop setting, but there is something that sets Shadow apart from other games in the GrimDark tradition. Where other games in this genre are nihilistic, where even the heroes are often corrupt and doomed to fail, Shadow's setting holds within it the glimmer of hope. It is just possible that these heroes, flawed as they may be, might save the world from the cosmic destroyer that has descended upon the world.

As grim as Shadow of the Demon Lord appears to be, it is at its core a heroic role playing game.

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a game where the spark of hope might bring light to the world. It is entirely possible that the heroes will fail, but it is also possible that they will succeed in saving it. Even if they don't end up making the world a better place.

It is this basic heroic theme, and game mechanics that support heroic play, that are why I think that Shadow of the Demon Lord is one of the best role playing games to come out in years and that it is one of the best introductory roleplaying games for young gamers ever to be published. In future posts, I hope to write about several campaign setting ideas I have for this rules set. Before that happens though, I'd like to discuss how Shadow of the Demon Lord's mechanics encourage a heroic style of play and how these mechanics set it apart from other role playing games on the market.

Attribute Scores are Low, but Meaningful

At first glance, the attributes that Shadow of the Demon Lord uses to describe player character capabilities appear to be identical to those of a typical d20 game and one might be forgiven for assuming that they represent scores from 3 (poor) to 18 (excellent). Such an assumption would be wrong. In Shadow of the Demon Lord, any attribute above 10 provides a modifier to die rolls equal to the attribute score -10. So a character with a Strength of 13 in Shadow of the Demon Lord has a +3 modifier, the equivalent modifier of a 16 in 3rd Edition D&D.  Beyond that, a character with a 13 Strength in Shadow of the Demon Lord can lift 250lbs with little effort and 500lbs if the character makes a successful "challenge roll." Player characters will rarely see attributes higher than 15 in the game, but since this provides a +5 modifier to any affiliated roll that is a significant bonus indeed.

Challenge Rolls Never Explode to High Values

One of the key mechanics to Shadow of the Demon Lord is the "Challenge Roll." Any time a Game Master believes that there is a "significant" possibility that the average person would fail at a task, the Game Master asks the player to make a successful challenge roll. For example, if a character wants to climb a wall the Game Master might ask the player to make a Strength or Agility Challenge Roll to see if the character was successful. All Challenge Rolls are made against a Difficulty of 10. That's right, every task has a base chance of success of 55% for a character with an attribute of 10. This default "ease" of success reflects the default heroism of the campaign and the fact that the player characters are something special. The roll against this value can be modified with bonuses and penalties or by boons and banes. Bonuses and penalties are directly added or subtracted from the roll and are typically determined by a character's attributes. On the rare occasion that there is a penalty, it is usually no more than -2 to a roll. The only times you usually see a penalty worse than -2 is due to a character's attribute score or because the penalty is affecting the Health score (Hit Points in other games). Circumstances don't tend to apply penalties to rolls, rather they tend to apply "banes." A bane is a variable roll which results in a negative number from -1 to -6 being applied to a roll (more on this in a moment).  The point here is that the base chance of success is 55% and rarely gets worse than 25% for non-combat actions.

Boons and Banes

In the discussion of Challenge Rolls, I briefly mentioned that the largest modifiers to success or failure are due to mechanics called "boons" and "banes." Quite simply, these are the bread and butter of the benefit/penalty effects of the game. Straight bonuses and penalties are typically the result of a character's attributes, but boons and banes are the product of circumstances. Is a wall slippery? Add one or two banes to the roll. What is a bane? A bane is a 1d6 roll that provides a penalty to a Challenge Roll from -1 to -6. This makes it sound as if a 2 bane penalty could be pretty severe, which would detract from my assertion that this is a heroic game, but it isn't as severe as it might seem at first glance. A 2 bane Challenge Roll rolls a d20 + Attribute Bonus against a Difficulty of 10 as normal, but applies a penalty of -1 to -6 based on the highest result of 2 six sided die. So for example, if a character was climbing a slippery wall and had a Strength of 13 that character would roll d20 + 3 as normal. To determine the effect that the banes have, the player would then roll 2d6. Let's say the player rolled a 2 and a 3. This would mean that the total penalty to the roll would be -3 and not -5 as one might imagine. The most a character will be penalized by banes in Shadow of the Demon Lord is -6. The inverse is true of boons. The highest benefit any number of boons can provide you is +6. This provides a nice range of possibilities, and a real possibility of failure, without every leaving the realm of "heroic."

Professions Matter, not Skills

In a move that runs against the trend of many modern role playing game systems, with the exception of "story games," player characters in Shadow of the Demon Lord do not have clearly delineated skills with a set bonus. What Shadow of the Demon Lord characters do have are "professions." Professions are broadly defined as "occupations, pursuits, and areas of knowledge" that can be used by players to justify gaining benefits (boons) on actions or the ability to succeed at a task automatically if it makes sense. Player characters start with two professions, even before they choose a character class, and how useful they are is limited by the imagination of the players and the restrictiveness of the Game Master. While I cannot see inside the mind of the game designer, the mechanic seems to be a combination of the Professions from Barbarians of Lemuria, Secondary Careers from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and the Areas of Knowledge mechanic from the classic James Bond 007 role playing game by Victory Games.

The use of the profession mechanic gives Game Masters a dial they can use to determine how heroic they want their game to be. Let's say that a player has the "Soldier" profession. In a free-wheeling and highly heroic campaign, a Game Master could allow this profession to add a boon to the following actions: attacks when fighting in coordination with others, detecting ambushes, concealment in an outdoor setting, and a host of others. In a less heroic campaign, the Game Master could allow for only some of those uses or even none. The key to a good game is to be consistent and to encourage your players to use professions in an active manner. A key question which might help determine the utility of the profession might include "what kind of soldier was your character?"

Classes are Like Careers

Robert J. Schwalb acknowledged the influence that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had on him and on the design of Shadow of the Demon Lord. While that influence abounds in the artistic style of the game, there is no place where the influence shows up more than in the game's use of character classes or "paths" as they are called in the game. There are four tiers of character in Shadow of the Demon Lord (Starting, Novice, Expert, and Master). Starting characters have experience in a prior profession, but have yet to choose any heroic paths. Once the characters complete their first adventure they are free to choose their first Novice path from the obligatory Magician, Priest, Rogue, and Warrior archetypes.

At each level, the character will either gain a path benefit or make a new path selection. Additional novice benefits are gained at 2nd, 5th, and 8th level. At 3rd level a character chooses an Expert path. These paths are more narrowly defined than Novice paths and include things like Artificer, Assassin, Berserker, and Paladin. The only prerequisite to choosing an Expert path is that it makes sense for your character. You can be a Warrior Artificer or Warrior Paladin. One of these paths may be more beneficial from a "min/max" perspective, but neither is forbidden. Unlike in Warhammer where you can only leave a career after completing all the advances and are limited to exit careers (unless you pay an experience point penalty), in Shadow of the Demon Lord you are free to choose any combination you like. This also applies at 7th Level when a character chooses a Master path. These paths are more powerful than those prior, and even more narrow. The Master level is also where you find the Bard option in this game.

The Highest Difficulty in Combat is 25

Given how flexible and "recommendation" toned so much of the game is, I found it interesting that the rule for Defense (the game's version of AC) was rigid. The book states, "A creature's Defense cannot exceed 25, even if weapons, armor, and other effects would increase it beyond that number." What this does is set a "cap" on difficulties and highlights the fact that the characters are already amazingly capable. Between the 25 cap and the 10 baseline, you have variation of difficulty but one that fits within a reasonable range. A character with a +1 bonus from Strength and a boon might just be able to hit that Dragon in combat. Given that characters will rarely have an attribute above 15, this highlights the system's intended focus on maximizing boons in play.

Heroes Always Go First

Shadow of the Demon Lord has an interesting initiative system for combat. Players can choose to use "fast" actions or "slow" actions. If the player chooses to use a "fast" action, then his or her characters can either move or use an action/attack. If the player chooses the "slow" option, the character can move and act. The round is divided into the Fast component and the Slow component with player characters acting first in their respective phases. This allows players tactical options while minimizing the number of die rolls needed in the game. Opponents could technically go first in a round, but if they do their actions may be less efficient. The same goes for players. It's an elegant system that highlights the heroic underpinnings of the game.

System Can Be Used for Multiple Genres, But is Generic Not Universal

Shane Hensley is fond of describing his Savage Worlds role playing game with the phrase, "generic, not universal." What Shane means by this is that Savage Worlds can handle any genre you want, but that characters made for a Superhero game won't necessarily be convertible to a Fantasy setting. This is because the "range of probabilities" for both games are the same, but the effects that that range emulates are different. For example, in the core Savage Worlds rulebook a d12+3 Strength can lift a certain amount of weight, but in a Superhero setting that same score can lift more than in another setting. Similarly, the foundational mechanics of Shadow of the Demon Lord are elegant enough to emulate a wide variety of genres. You could use the mechanics, almost unchanged, to run a Superhero game, a Modern Espionage game, or a Martial Arts Chambara/Wuxia action fest. In each setting the characters would have similar statistics, but they would not be transferable because a 14 Strength in an Espionage game isn't the same as a 14 Strength in a Superhero game. Given the underlying base ranges of Difficulty (10 to 25), a Game Master should keep in mind what level of challenge these describe in the milieu being emulated. In a Superhero game, the Hulk holding up the mountain is a level 25 challenge which a Game Master might even limit to certain paths. In an Espionage game, that same level might be what it takes to lift a car off of a person trapped underneath it.

Final Thoughts

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a very well designed game. Whether you want to use it with its core setting, or hack it to fit your own preferences it can provide years of entertainment.

In the coming weeks I plan on posting several short conversions of the game to other genres...yes, more family friendly ones at that.

The list includes:
1) Shadow of the Avatar
2) Shadows over the Galactic Empire
3) Shadow of Professor Destruction
4) Big Shadow over Little China

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Behold! Disney's FrostLanders: A Disney vs. Skylanders Game Inspired by Frostgrave

On July 20th of this year, Osprey Publishing released Frostgrave their most recent set of miniature wargame rules. Starting with Field of Glory in 2008, and continuing with the excellent Bolt Action in 2012 Osprey has published a number of high quality rules for use with miniatures. In 2012, they started a series of paperback digest books that explore a number of interesting wargaming options. This series started with Dux Bellorum and has included a number of excellent games like In Her Majesty's Name and A Fistful of Kung Fu

Like many of Osprey's offerings, Frostgrave has an easy to learn system that is highly flexible and moves quickly. The focus of the rules are on casual fun and not on tournament play. In some ways, this is a similar approach to the one that Games Workshop claims is the basis of their recent decision to abandon Warhammer Fantasy. There is one major difference though. Unlike the new Warhammer: Age of Sigmar game, Frostgrave is firmly entrenched in traditional fantasy tropes. Frostgrave shares some thematic elements with Games Workshop's classic Mordheim game, but is much easier to learn is more focused on story than Mordheim was when it was first released. Frostgrave is so easy to learn that it inspired me to begin creating a derivative game that I can use to play with my 7 year old twin daughters History and Mystery. Inspired by +James August Walls, my game is a mashup of Disney Infinity and Skylanders.

As easy as the rules for Frostgrave are to learn, they do have a couple of "fiddley-bits" that might make things a little complex for playing with my daughters. For example, in the Frostgrave rules as written it is possible to hit an opponent and not injure them and most rolls are contested rolls. I want to move away from having contested rules as much as possible and use a Monte Cook and Numenera inspired mechanic where the players to all the rolling. Additionally, Osprey has not published a fan license that states what we as fans are and are not allowed to do with their rules, so I've decided to use a rules set inspired by the actual Frostgrave rules.

So here are my simple rules.
1) All die rolls are made with a d12.
2) Turns follow the following pattern.
            a) Roll for Initiative.
            b) Hero Phase
            c) Ally Phase
            d) Villain Phase
3) Player Characters are rated in the following areas:
MOVEMENT -- Min (4)/Max(10)
MELEE -- Min(-2)/Max(+4)
RANGED -- Min(-2)/Max(+4)
RESISTANCE -- Min(0)/Max(5)

HEALTH -- Min(8)/Max(20)
4) Villains are rated in the same statistics, but their numbers are 5 higher for all values 
     other than Health and serve as difficulty numbers the players must roll better than.
5) On a player's turn, the player may move and take 1 action. That action may be an
    attack, a power activation, or another movement action.
6) When a player attacks a Villain, the player rolls 1d12 and adds their relevant statistic
    (melee in hand to hand and ranged for ranged attacks). They then add their statistic to
    that value. If that value is greater than the Villain's equivalent statistic, the Villain has
    been hit.
7) On a successful hit, subtract a Villain's Resistance from the total and what remains is
    the amount of Health lost.
8) If a character is "prone" then it takes half of their movement to get up.
9) To activate a power, the player rolls 1d12 and compares it to the activation score of
     the power. If it is higher than the score, the power is activated.
10) When a Villain attacks a Hero or Ally, the Player rolls a Melee or Ranged test. If the
       roll is higher than the Villain's value in that area the attack misses.
11) Villain powers activate in the same manner as Player powers. This is one of the few
      rolls the Game Master will make.
I've only done stats for a couple of characters, but I have a feeling that this will be fun.

All icons used in this post were made by Lorc. Available on

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Using Disney Infinity to Teach Kids to Code

When I was young, my family didn't own any computers. We had an Atari 2600 and a Nintendo NES, but we didn't own any personal computers. Thankfully, I had friends who did. I spent hours playing classic games like Bard's Tale with my friend Sean, and hours playing Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken with my friend Ron.

Who am I kidding? I spent days playing these games, especially Bard's Tale. I still remember the answers to many of the BT riddles and have fond memories of the frustration of encountering our first "spinner."

Many of the schools I attended, and I attended 12 schools K-12, had computer labs. I spent a fair amount of time in computer labs fiddling around with Oregon Trail and Summer Games. All of this gaming led me to an interest in programming. My Junior and Senior year of High School I had a Zero Period class in computer programming where we learned Basic and used our knowledge to create our own programs. The first year was spent working on projects that the instructor designed, but during the second year students were supposed to design their own projects. My first computer program was a character creator for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but working with my friend Travis we designed character creation programs for Twilight 2000 and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing games. These programming sessions often lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

My senior project was a piece of computer animation that featured a character walking up to a dragon and having the dragon breathe icy breath at the character as it ran away. It was a relatively simple animation in its results, but it took me weeks of one-hour class sessions to program. The dragon graphic was a bit map rendering of the white dragon from the Monster Manual and it took nigh on forever to enter the coordinates in the data file.

My program won second place at a computer programming competition at the University of Nevada. I think my dad still has the plaque I won, but the money I won was spent quickly.

As much as I liked computer programming as a "hobby," I stopped studying it formally after High School. I decided I wanted to be an attorney and began studying Political Science. This happened after my famous 4-year Semester off from Undergraduate education, something I don't recommend to anyone. I still love Political Science, and am working on a Ph.D. in it, but I have zero interest in becoming an attorney. Had I known as a wee lad that my interests would be when I was older, I'd have continued in Political Science and minored in Computer Science. This is especially irksome now that I'm in the Ph.D. program and am having to take time to refresh on my Calculus using MIT's excellent Single Variable Calculus class and the Khan Academy's World of Math refresher. I'm also taking time to learn the R programming language to make myself more marketable.

It's my frustration at never continuing to expand my programming instruction, even on a personal "hobbyist" level other than learning some HTML, that makes me so excited about the fact that Disney is partnering with to use Disney Infinity characters to teach young people how to write computer programs. While I believe that most of the "killer apps" of the future will be designed by creative people who have a broad "Liberal" education, I also believe that the ability to write code will be the future equivalent of being able to type. It's just something you have to be able to do in order to operate in the business environment.

I look forward to working through the code challenges with History and Mystery in the coming months. Maybe we'll even replicate some of those late night programming and playing sessions I loved so much in my youth.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Skylanders vs. Disney Infinity SAVAGE WORLDS Style: A Father After my Own Heart

When I first started this blog it was called Cinerati due to my love of film. I started the blog because a friend had shared an article from the conservative website National Review Online that was criticizing an entry in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill saga. I found the article to be reactionary and not very well versed in the genre the author was criticizing. The article seemed to me to be a typical "Culture War" and "High Art" claptrap that raises my ire. I was especially irked by the phrase, "
these films are but vulgar distortions of Japanese film culture."

Someone on the internet was wrong, and I needed to fire my own salvo off into the battlefield. Never mind that the author of the piece was also arguing something that I agree with, that Akira Kurosawa's films are brilliant. The professor had insulted one of my favorite directors and I was going to the mattresses! Even in those days, I was careful to be polite in my criticisms, but I was enjoined in battle.
Interestingly, I didn't end up writing as many film related posts as I wanted and ended up writing far more posts about other geek related things. There was a short period where there were other authors on the site, but that eventually faded and I was left as the sole author on the site. I wrote about whatever I wanted, and in 2008 what I wanted to write about took a pretty significant shift when my twin daughters were born.

Oh, I still wanted to write about everything I had been writing about, but now I couldn't wait to write about my gaming experiences with my daughters. Given my busy schedule between work and school, I haven't written about gaming with History and Mystery as much as I'd like. Heck, I haven't even gamed with them as much as I'd like. I have played a lot of games with them though and hope to share more of those experiences as time presents itself. I am particularly excited to share our first Heroquest experience and discuss how badly my daughter History wants to play the Indiana Jones Role Playing Game. She wants to play it more than almost any other game I own.

All of this is my way of saying, expect to see more writing about gaming with kids in the coming months/years. I'll be mixing it up with content about gaming in general, including some 5th edition and Savage Worlds modifications.

Why the sudden inspiration you ask? Well...I saw a father running a Savage Worlds skirmish between Skylander and Disney Infinity characters with his kids and that is pretty awesome.

Monday, October 20, 2014

THE LAST PARSEC is Fast, Furious, Fun and...Family Friendly?

I want you to try a little mental experiment for me. I want you to imagine the typical setting for the Savage Worlds role playing game. Have you got it set in your mind? Good. I want you to picture a scale of 1 to 10 and decide how "family friendly" you think the setting is -- and by family friendly I mean "ages 8 and up." Did you come up with somewhere between a 4 and a 6? That's what I initially came up with myself. After all, this is the game that has a number of high concept horror inspired game settings and is from the same minds that created the Horror Western RPG Deadlands.

But that's not really a fair assessment of the Savage Worlds game and the settings it has to offer. While the Deadlands game, and setting, may have been inspired by a painting of an undead Confederate Soldier, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has created a number of settings that are just right for ages 8 and up family fun. Set aside Rippers, Weird Wars, Evernight and Necropolis for a moment. Those would get at least a PG-13 from the MPAA for "thematic elements." We can even set aside Necessary Evil as a "12 and up" Comic's Code Approved version of Supervillains that is just outside the kid friendly zone. Even doing that, we have some great settings available for kids to play with their parents. Slipstream is a perfect combination of Flash Gordon style action and Planetary Romance. Then we have 50 Fathoms a mash up of Pirates of the Caribbean and Pirates of Darkwater that should make any Gen X (or older Gen Y) parent's heart swell with nostalgia. It's clear that Savage Worlds has some settings that are perfect for the family game night.

Add to family friendly settings a rules set that is flexible, promotes storytelling interaction, and is easy to learn and you have one of the best introductory role playing games on the market today.

As a parent of 6 year old twin daughters, I am always on the lookout for games that I can play with them that have enough "genre geekdom" to keep me interested but aren't so grimtastic that the twins have trouble sleeping at night. The two Savage Settings I've already mentioned certainly meet the mark, but it looks like we can add another to the list with Pinnacle's upcoming setting The Last Parsec. The Last Parsec is Pinnacle's latest science fiction setting and it draws from a deep well of science fiction stories to present a straight forward SF setting that doesn't reach to horror for high concept additions. I had a chance for a quick Q & A with Jodi Black of Pinnacle as well as some of the designers of The Last Parsec to see just how well this setting would fit in with my scheduled "dad and the twins Saturday afternoon tabletop session."

When I think about the kinds of settings that Pinnacle and Savage Worlds are famous for, I tend to think of high concept "horror +" games like Deadlands, Necropolis, and Evernight. How is The Last Parsec different?

 I'd say The Last Parsec is more focused on exploration and discovery than on "fighting back the darkness," which is the general theme attached to settings like Deadlands and the Weird Wars line. And even though the setting assumes player characters are affiliated with JumpCorp, within that framework just about any character type can flourish. So games can revolve around exploring the unknown, military action, or even commerce.” – Matt Cutter, author of Eris Beta-V for The Last Parsec

The more I read about The Last Parsec, the more it seems it might be a good fit for family gaming. This seems to me to be especially true in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy environment. GotG fans should be able to find a lot to like in TLP. Was this intentional, or happy coincidence?

“Coincidence, I'm afraid. But I have three kids -- my 10-year-old son cajoled me into taking him to see Guardians of the Galaxy -- and if they were to play in my setting, Eris Beta-V, I'd want my kids to take away the message that it's not productive to judge people on their appearances. JumpCorp can be the bad guys and a seemingly sinister, rediscovered alien species can be good guys.” – Cutter

Shane has stated in the design diary for The Last Parsec that Pirates of Dark Water and the animated Sinbad movie inspired him to create the 50 Fathoms setting. What are some of the "kid friendly" stories that inspired The Last Parsec?

“There's definitely some of Heinlein's Starman Jones in there, where even a simple lass or lad can study hard, take a job with a space corporation, and blast off for the stars.” – Tim Brown, author of Scientorium for The Last Parsec

Shane briefly mentioned John Carter in the design diary for TLP, will there be rules for Planetary Romance in the setting?

“There are rules for romance? Where can I find these?” – Brown

Jodi Black had some words of her own about the setting:

Romance is really about building relationships in game, and most experienced GMs weave interesting tales with the NPCs she offers to the characters. Recurring "romance" themes like the bad guy with a heart of gold, or the good gal with a dark'll find those in The Last Parsec (heck, any setting). But they're secondary to exploration and adventure. 

The GMs in my home group know they need to include some romance to make me happy as a player. Not one-shots so much, but for a memorable campaign that's usually a theme for everyone's characters. And it's not as much about the characters getting married at the end of the story, but of the process: ask him out for coffee, enjoy dinner out together. Actually, dinner out is a dangerous thing in our home games. Usually it get interrupted by an adventure!

Disney's Treasure Planet is one of the Black family favorites. It has aliens, discovery, and reuses the plot from Stevenson's Treasure Island in a new and interesting way. It's a shame the movie didn't do well, because I'd love to see more classic literature imagined as a space adventure...but then again, since those *aren't* in the public eye, any GM worth her salt can use those plots and themes for their kids and it's completely new!

Finally, not to be part of your story naturally...but we're releasing a One-Sheet for The Last Parsec today (hopefully) or tomorrow: Untimely Discovery by John Goff. There's a moral quandary in there that I think would be excellent for a kids game: What would it be like to be arrested for what you thought about? do "bad" kids deserve a second chance? One of the best things about roleplaying is the conversations after, and tying the fantasy into the real world. :)
I'm very excited about this setting and the thought of a game that has echoes of Treasure Planet or even The Black Hole (not mentioned but clearly another inspiration for TLP) gets my endorsement. 

Take a moment to back this great project and join me in the ranks of Savage Fandom. Savage Worlds is fast, furious, fun, and family friendly.