Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mini Adventure -- Moon Hunter

I ran this sci-fi investigation scenario twice in the past year. Once with grown-ups and once with teens. The latter solved it in about three hours. The former are still in the dark. Alas, good role-playing often stands in the way of good police work.

PC Info

Earth 2084 is a feudal, space-faring society that has constructed scientific and mining colonies on numerous planets in the solar system, including on Saturn’s moon, Ganymede. Our story takes place on Lunar Mining Colony 5296c, a joint venture by Baron Freidrich von Siemens and industrialist Zheng Xiu Wong. Last week, the Baron received the below message from his vassal on the mining colony, knight-engineer Jonathan Ronalds:

your grace several dead chinese dont care send help jr

As you are the Baron’s nearest retainers, presently wrapping up a mission on Saturn, you’re sent to investigate the old knight’s cryptic message.

DM Info

Lunar Mining Colony 5296c is home to about 300 people including workers, administration, server providers and licensed merchants. It transports ores to earth using an innovative magnetic rail that functions as an orbital slingshot. The rail is powered by a unique energy source patented by Golden Tiger ltd., a company controlled by Mr. Wong. The rail works for 30 minutes every Monday.


  • Hun Wei Bin, Mr. Wong’s son-in-law, is the manager of the operation. Wong is also in charge of counter-espionage, a role he fulfills too enthusiastically.
  • Ser Manuel Gershwin and his six sworn guns are in charge of discipline and security. Manuel is chivalrous, gallant, ultra-conservative and dumb as a rock.
  • Doctor Nori Hakamada doubles as chief physician and science officer, a position maintained as a rubber stamp against EK (European Kingdom) regulations. She intelligent, aloof and
  • Workers mostly include low-risk prisoners from Earth, serfs of von Siemens and a small number of German and Chinese specialists.


  • Jenny (last name unknown), drifter (month ago)
  • Michael Philips, quality assurance (two weeks ago)
  • Ahmad Toshiba, cargo operator (week ago)
  • No one died three weeks ago due to slingshot malfunction that took a week to fix.

The Problem

Every time the mysterious energy source is tapped, it summons an alien hunter (I used gibbering mouther) somewhere within 100 meters of the rail. The thing kills humans and removes their tongues and eyes for some perverse inexplicable reason. All victims are partially sunken in hard rock and present signs of irrational behavior prior to death such as punching random objects, undressing or writing nonsense on the floor. While their eyes and tongues have been roughly removed, the cause of death is electrocution.
Both Hun and Nori suspect there’s something alien at work. Both agreed last week to keep their mouths shut and sabotage future investigations. Hun wants to impress his father-in-law to get a better job, and a string of murders is hardly a point in his favor. Nori has great scientific curiosity and little regard to the lives of criminals and drifters. 
 Manuel blames Muslim terrorists because so far no evidence has been uncovered to suggest anything else.


  • Videos from the attacks are missing and records of operations have been deleted as well. Only Hun, Nori and Manuel have access to videos.
  • Nori is researching a “new micro-organism” which is really a trace amount of the gibbering mouther.
  • Cargo operators all agree that odd gibbering sounds are heard when the railing is on, however, Hun suggested this is the result of drugs and threatened to fire them if they mentioned this again.
  • If pressed, Hun will confess that the energy source is a previously unknown element uncovered by his father-in-law on the fringes of the solar system.


  • During the investigation, Hun will send some of his goons to fake an alien attack when the rail is off. While the eyes and tongue will be removed, the cause of death would be a blunt instrument blow to the back of the head.
  • If the ploy doesn’t work, Nori will try to poison the PCs by offering the cook narcotics in return for spiking the PCs’ food. The cook will then die of an "accidental" overdose.
  • If is doesn’t work as well, Hun will invite PCs to a meeting on the surface of the moon, where several of his trusted goons will attack them.


  • If faced with arrest, Hun will surrender and hope his connections will save him.
  • If faced with arrest, Nori will kill herself, leaving behind a haiku:
Research of cosmos
Demanded great sacrifice
I depart wiser

Thursday, May 8, 2014

90 minute challenge strikes back!

Since my main projects are a bit stuck at the moment, I thought I'd use the break to share a few short adventures with you. Most of these are former 90 minute challenges (pro tip: it's never 90 minutes...) while others are single session stories (pro tip: it's never a single session). Some of these I already ran. Others never left the drawing table.
I'll be presenting these adventures in very general lines and without concrete mechanics. Hopefully, due to these little games' small scope, you won't have troubles completing them on your own. Anyhow, here's what to expect in the following months:
  • A near future investigation of a series of ghastly death on Titan.
  • A Gothic tale about a mysterious malaise afflicting three young ladies.
  • A biblical quest in the service of the Bible's coolest lady -- the Judge Deborah.
  • An encounter with a powerful guard golem following poorly worded orders.
  • A romantic adventure involving jinns and magic in a vast Arab bazaar.
  • A bloody escape from a hospital ran by a sect of murdering psychopaths.
  • A problem book causing all sorts of supernatural problems to an isolated desert tribe.
Now, for most 90 minute challenges, I use a very basic mechanic that works as follows: write down four things you're good at (your traits). These are both your abilities and your hit points. Tests are d6-based with difficulties ranging from 4 to 6. If the test is relevant to any of your abilities, you may re-roll once per encounter. Each time you fail in a high stake test, you lose one trait of your choice. This is the entire system. There isn't much you can do with it, but then again, given a 90 minute time frame, you don't want to be wasting any more time on character generation and rules exposition than you have to.

Werebook by the magnificent Hugo Solis!
While I drum up the first of these adventures, feel free to depress your players with last year's A Tree in the Forest. As always, if you think this has a happy ending, well, you probably just don't know me very well.
Also, if you didn't yet give it a look. We published a beta adventure for our RATS! game. It's got gorgeous art from Stav & Yan, awesome maps from Aviv and a whole lot of ratty goodness. Theoretically speaking, it could have a happy ending, but I wouldn't be counting on it...

That's it for now.

Stay awesome, my friends.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Studies in Underage Vampirism #3

A group of kids wakes up in a bloody cellar. They don't remember anything from the last 24 hours. They don't know it yet, but their young lives are already over. They are vampires.

Two years ago, I wrote about a vampire game I ran with kids who proved to be mature and intelligent enough to deal with the harsh theme. Alas, the challenges of life prevented me from finishing the tale. I say alas, because this means that you’ll never find out how it ended. That being said, you know what they say about happy endings and paying attention, so there’s that. Oh, and the Giovanni were involved, so there’s that too.

However, I will tell you what happened with my short vampire game this year. It’s quite the opposite of last year’s game and in my opinion and much better example of roleplaying.

It started just like the previous game, with the exception of having less violence and more digging. Thus, to save time, I’ll skip to the point where the PCs won the right to exist and received their first real mission – to find and destroy a vampire hunter active in a nearby city.

First of all, the starved kids had to feed. Most kids found victims easily enough; some with glee that had cost them Humanity points, others with a heavy heart and with some degree of compassion. It can be taken as a supreme testimony of their high-mindedness that they chose to spend XP to return their Humanity to high levels instead of gaining cool new powers. This is in sharp contrast to last year’s group, which chose to accept its damnation with murderous joy that led to a self-destructive orgy of death and destruction. And Giovanni. Lots and lots of Giovanni.

Art by Carlos
One of the kids came upon two young siblings sitting on a bench and going over board games and D&D books they got for their birthday. At this point, something broke and he decided that he didn’t want to be a vampire anymore. To this end, he separated from the main group and, using a combination of tear-jacking theatrics and the Presence discipline, got the aptly named Fosters family to adopt him. Once he got a room in their basement, he went out of his way to be a good boy, have the kids’ mother call him “son,” and spare the family his monstrous nature. He even went so far as to design a secret exist so that his new family wouldn’t know that he went out seeking human blood at nights.

At the other end of the spectrum was a boy who, while not succumbing to the Beast, nevertheless came to terms with it. He dug himself a little warren in an abandoned park and bit people freely (though still taking care not to kill anyone) before fleeing with Celerity. It was this kid who became the leader of the group, while the Foster orphan took the role of the wise loner to whom the group occasionally came for advice.

Preying and constructing shelters has taken an entire session because I insisted on roleplaying each feeding encounter. I am sick and tired of vampires being superheroes in gothic colors and I’ll be damned if I contribute to this trend. In my game, the Embrace is a curse and I made sure the kids experienced every iota of their damnation.

After feeding and finding safe havens for the night, the group finally went on a mission to hunt the Hunter. After long time spent wandering the streets and eavesdropping on police stations, insane asylums and a nearby army base, the group decided to use Animalism to get as many urban animals as possible to report on any unusual human behavior. After a while, a rat returned with news. A dirty, disheveled homeless man was seen carrying a shiny sword that shone like the sun.

At the same time, the Foster orphan decided to invest all XP he got into Science in order to find a cure for cancer. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but one has to appreciate the intention. Breaking into labs at night to conduct his research, he also started looking for a cure for the vampiric condition. And, if you think THIS has a happy ending, you REALLY haven’t been paying attention.

Art by Pierre-Etienne Travers

The rest of the group banded together to deal with the hunter and win their rightful place in Camarilla society. While en route to the spot where the Hunter was last seen, one of the kids had a pang of conscious and decided that he wanted to make it up to one of his previous victims – a young pregnant woman whom he attacked the night before, causing minor injuries. He knocked on her door, offering his services as a guardian or healer. His offers of help were met with shouts of “Help! Help! This is the crazy kid that attacked me last night! Somebody call the police!”

He ran away… right into the blade of the Hunter. The old adage proved to be true once again – No good deed goes unpunished.

A bloody battle ensued in which the group won, though not without losing much blood and resources. Even a crazy, hungry Hunter is still a threat to be reckoned with.

I am sorry to say, that while it was my intention to finish the story arc with this climatic encounter, the group insisted on pursuing their quests further. The Foster orphan tragically misunderstood Golconda as a geographical location in India and decided he wants to get his new family fly him there. The rest of the group wanted to investigate further into Hunter activity and find out where these strange men get their powers from.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Girls at the Table

Back in the day, the below article caused an immense scandal that got my previous articles removed from the Wizards website and led to me being called some very unflattering, but decidedly creative, names on various forums and blogs. I now understand it's a very touchy subject to many gamers on the other side of the ocean, but back then, I was ignorant of the fact that I just lit the fuse of a bomb I was sitting on.

Back then, writing this article was an innocent mistake. Today, however, it's conscious stupidity.

So why am I doing this. Well, mostly because a friend asked me to. However, I could easily say no. This friend lives far away and was unlikely to come all the way here and kick my ass. Why then?

You know what, let's expand this to a more general question. Why do I seem like a decent fellow most of the time, and yet from time to time make posts that get everyone riled up.

Around here, we joke about everything. There are no taboos. There are no sacred cows here, because we ate them all. For example, I have a friend who is a black Ukranian. I mean, the guy talks like a Ukranian, drinks like a Ukranian, fights like a Ukranian, but he's got black skin because his mom's family is originally from Sierra Leone. So one day, we were practicing for a LARP event and some dude passed by and asked if he could join us. The dude had fun and then he asked, “what do you get if you join the Community?” Someone pointed at my friend and said, "why, a complimentary slave!" Everyone had a jolly good laugh.

Israeli girls (at least the ones I know) tell jokes like, "it's not rape if you yell surprise!" or "what do you mean 'thank you?!' undress" all the time. They frown on vulnerable femininity and this is one of the ways they show it. Maybe. I don't know. I'm not a sociologist. Maybe military service does that to people, maybe we're callous because we're living in a bubble. I'm not sure. My point is that among friends, such jokes are perfectly fine. No one gets mad, nothing is triggered, no harm is done. We're all about shocking the bourgeois with our crassness. We’re badass. We make respectable people blush and frown. We real cool we. That’s how we roll in the shire.
Just like that....
So, not knowing any better, I used to write online just like I would talk while goofing around with my buddies. I never imagined anyone would take these things seriously. I mean, who, in his right mind, would even consider blaming a woman for being beaten, this is just absurd. No one would think we were really selling the best swordsman in our company. You can't own a person in this day and age, right? Clearly, it's a fine piece of black humor. Literally black humor.

Now I know. Now I pick my words more carefully. But online, the past doesn't fade into oblivion. It's always there, and you have to come to terms with it to move on. I did post this article and it's there. Might as well keep it in plain sight.

Many of my personal views differ form the overseas community's, if only because I'm a Soviet-born Israeli who grew in the shadow of Communist terror, never-ending wars and the evils of fanaticism, religious and otherwise. It really takes a lot to shock me or my fellow dice rollers. I know my work in the army led to people getting killed, several of my players actually killed people, or had friends killed in war or terror. But this is all in the game. Play or get played. You feeling me?

I am very opinionated, but I rarely voice my political views online these days. Social networking is for fun and gaming, and I want to leave it like that. I mostly just goof around, because in my “me” time, I really don't want to deal with all the crap of my world. And yeah, I can joke about it. Why not? Joking is coping, isn't it?

The ironic part is that at the time the shit hit the fan with the Wizards scandal two years ago, my flag group had three girls and one guy. I went to a demonstration against female segregation by the Haredim. I went to an Arab village to try to get folks there interested in gaming (funny story that...). I'm really quite liberal on most issues. I just suck at slacktivism and consider that entertainment and politics have nothing to do with each other. I talk and laugh about what's fun and do what's right.

So, back to the original question. Why am I posting this? Because fuck you, that's why!

(Did you expect anything else)

So, without further ado, my last disastrous expedition into Wizardstan...

Once upon a time...

Girls at the Table!

The first and most apparent difference between male and female players is what they enjoy in the game. From what I observed, boys or girls enjoy more or less the same things in D&D, but for different reasons; boys usually prefer “crunch” (often literally) while girls usually prefer “fluff” (also often literally.)


Male players seem to have two main motivations; winning and goofing around. These two are practically contradictory and often lead to friction and conflict.

D&D is Sport

Best Example: Oi! Stop talking about football, we have a dragon to kill! Buy provisions and LET’S DO IT!
Worst Example: Our mission is to kill the dragon? Okay, I kill the dragon. What do I get?

Those who live by this code feel that D&D, unlike what the rules say, has winners and losers; the one with the most XP a the winner. The one who successfully completed the most quests is a winner. The one who has the most money and the best items is a winner.
The one wastes times doing things that don’t grant XP or treasure is a loser.
An interesting side effect of viewing D&D as sport is how alignments are perceived; most players, upon meeting a new NPC, ask whether he’s good or evil. The more competitive players, on the other hand, ask whether the NPC is with them or against them – abstract concepts of good and evil are of little interest to a soldier on a mission. Who’s a foe and who’s an ally, however, is of top importance.
While turning D&D into a contest makes DMing easier and the general atmosphere at the table more serious and businesslike, it also makes DMing less interesting; instead of telling an interactive story with your group, you take on the role of a military commander who sends the PCs to missions which they either accomplish or die trying. Their odds of surprising you are very small, unless you actively put them in situations in which they have to make decisions based on morality and not gain. Even then, however, they are likely to simply ask you what would you prefer they did... sporty players are nothing if not helpful.

D&D is Playground

Best Example: I wonder who lives inside this city with walls of night and towers of unfulfilled dreams... let’s go there and find out!
Worst Example: Wow! A new sword? Awesome! I stab Ron in the head to see what it does.

Should you ever spot me fervently banging my head against the whiteboard, you’ll know someone just kicked the anthill that is my adventure too hard. This sort of players views D&D as a playground where they are the heroes and everyone else are ants or toys, to be played with or destroyed, according to the player’s disposition.
In the best case, such players use the game as a journey into their own subconscious, a therapy of sorts. This is fascinating to observe and makes for excellent sandbox games. Some of their actions might be irresponsible and throw the campaign into disarray, forcing you to improvise and make adjustments to your plans, but at least you know you’re building a good thing there. At worst, they use it to break stuff (and your spirit) to either compensate for powerlessness in real life or for sheer sadistic glee.

Good cop, bad cop?

Repercussions of Violence

What happens when you shoot everything that moves in real life or a CRPG? You die. No matter how tough you are, the cops, the National Guard, the USAF, The Justice League of America... someone will eventually stop your rampage. The problem with young players is that killing their characters can be traumatic and cause them to leave gaming for good. Nevertheless, you don’t want to encourage this sort of gaming, so here are a few tricks that can be used to counter it without resorting to PC-killing.
Imprisonment: the players attacked a night watch patrol and got TPK’d? No problem. They wake up bound and disarmed (erase all equipment from their character sheets). The enormity of their actions is made clear to them by an authoritative and stern judge. Although he could easily have them executed, the judge says, he nevertheless believes there is goodness in the PCs and sentences them to a long prison term instead. Some XP is lost because the PCs don’t get to practice in prison, contacts and patrons disavow them and the players walk away with a valuable lesson – you’re part of the world, not its center.
Conversely, you can give them a chance to break away and learn what it feels like to live on the lam; no more shopping in the market and no more quests from the King – you’re outlaws now and every visit to a town or a castle can be your last.
If the players messed with criminal elements instead of the authorities, you can have them shipped to a faraway slave camp from which they have to escape or die of overwork or starvation – this is more exciting for the players and more torturous for their characters.
Atonement: If you feel that prison is a little too harsh for your group, you can replace it with a fun adventure they have to complete to make up for their crimes. Feel free to use magic to compel the PCs to complete this quest... and then donate all recovered treasure to charity.
Manhunt: Having a powerful enemy is less fun than it sounds. A short while after the PCs kill an NPC for no good reason, they discover that he had some absurdly powerful friends, friends that the PCs have no chance of defeating. Soon they encounter those people and barely escape with their lives. Now the campaign has a new focus – somehow calling off the hit, possibly by making amends and changing their evil ways.
Common Sense: Ask the attacking player why he does what he does. If he says “because” or “I feel like it” tell him there is no such thing as “because” in your group.
You don’t allow players to play evil characters and so every act of violence must be explained in-play. If they fail to provide an adequate explanation, don’t allow the action. After all, you don’t stab the teachers in the hallway for fun, why would your Lawful Good Paladin do it? Feel free to confront them with the harsh realities of violence.
Yes, you will be seen patronizing, preachy and a right proper killjoy, but maybe, if you roll your Diplomacy high enough, you’ll get your message across.

In any case, it’s a good idea to take the time to instruct players about what role playing is and how it’s different from FPS in advance; we’re telling a story, not pointlessly roll dice.

Israel is, of course, full of Jewish mothers...


Girls mostly play to express themselves in artistic ways and to see others doing it. They are not nearly as confrontational as boys and give their positions much more easily. Those who are confrontational tend to be extreme individualists always voicing a dissenting opinion. More often than not, they are a voice of reason in a cacophony of silliness.

D&D is Drama

Best Example: I’m so sorry we weren’t here to protect your home, honored treant, join us and we’ll be your new family.
Worst Example: Wait! You didn’t let me finish describing how my character is dressed this morning.

A nine year old girl who came to see what D&D is all about asked me if her character can be a vegetarian, to which I replied “of course” and rewarded her 200 XP because she was the only one who bothered with non-combat aspects of her character. As I reviewed the character sheets that evening, I noticed she wrote in the character class “vegetarian ranger.” Practically every decision she made during this campaign was affected by her character’s vegetarianism and love of nature. This included not only her selection of friends and enemies, but also character appearance, choice of items and making a point of petting an animal or planting a tree at least once per session.
Dramatic players care about how their characters look like and how they are perceived by seemingly inconsequential NPCs. In a way, they are much more immersed in the game than the sportsmen, who view it as, well... a game, or the hooligans, who view it as GTA: Nentir Vale.
Crunch is of secondary importance to them; if you want to capture a dramatic player’s heart, it’s much more important to act the witch as stooped and cackling, to describe the dragon’s magnificence with epic prose and grandiose tones. A dramatic player cares less about the powers and bonuses granted by the treasure and more about its luster and beauty.
The negative aspect of the dramatic player is her exaggerated attention to detail which sometimes borders on narcissism and is likely to bore other players, who view a five-minute long description of how the group’s wizard is dressed or an equally long chat with a random eladrin traveler as a waste of time. Worse, if you go along with it, some players will feel the dramatic player is enjoying a special treatment as she’s getting much more air time than anyone else. This sort of narcissism is more often seen in male players than female players, which is not surprising, given that the original Narcissus was a guy.

D&D is Spectacle

Best Example: Could you please describe how the eladrin priestess looks like again? I want my drawing to be accurate.
Worst Example: ...

Another thing which girls sometimes do and which some boys find annoying is taking the role of the observer. Boys also sometimes behave like this, but it’s mostly because they are busy making detailed travel journals or comics of the game, not because they don’t feel like acting. A girl, on the other hand, would often sit back during the game and just observe the occurrences without taking any actions except during combat or when directly addressed by an NPC. She’s not being distracted; she’s perfectly focused on the game, probably more than this very active fellow who just cast flames of phlegethos on the troll who was killed five rounds ago because he didn’t hear you saying the troll is toast. She doesn’t feel the need to intervene in the story just yet.
My advice is: don’t force observers to act. There’s nothing wrong with observing; being quiet is certainly better than talking all the time. Trust me – when the time comes, she will act, sometimes surprising everyone with the decisiveness and cleverness of that one action.
Some time ago, a girl whose actions could be summed as “I follow the group” for half a session just happened to be the one to discover that the gigantic garbage pile the group was climbing could be used to empower the robotic PCs, a discovery that saved the day. She only did one thing in the entire session, but this one thing happened to be the most important thing in the whole game.

Heading towards war...

Bows and Fairies

We talked about why boys and girls play; now let’s talk a little about what they play.
My personal experience shows that girls are not less violent than boys; they are less wantonly violent. They don’t mind using force to achieve their goals or defend their honor, but they don’t like taking reckless risks solely for the sake of awesome.
I recollect a session in which a group came upon an infernal anaconda. A minotaur PC threw down his great axe, stripped to his breeches and declared that he’s going to wrestle with the anaconda one-on-one and strangle it to death with his bare hands. Why? Because this it totally badass!
This is not something I imagine a female player is likely to do. In fact, nearly all females playing for the first time, both young and old, created characters that specialized in ranged attacks, most often rangers and druids. Those who didn’t start the game as ranged strikers did so because of peer pressure from boys who really needed a leader in the group. Now, did you notice how leaders in D&D never really lead, but only serve the group? A girl forced to play a so-called “leader” is much less likely to stay in the game than a girl given a character with which she can express herself and act as an individual and not part of a well oiled monster-killing, XP-making warmachine.
Therefore, if you’re running an introductory game and want to appeal to girls, make sure to have a suitable character handy.
Girls seem to like fey and sylvan races and prefer their characters tall and slander. They like nature-based, ranged and quick classes and value Dexterity more than Strength or Constitution.
Taking all this into account, I think the character statistically most likely to be attractive to girls is an eladrin or elf ranger or seeker. The character least likely to appeal to girls would be a four-hundred-pound mentally-retarded half-orc warlord armed with a dinosaur femur and no back story whatsoever. (Side note: this is awesome, gotta play one like this next week!)
If you have a group with one girl and half a dozen boys, as if often the case, expect a fair (or not very fair...) amount of badgering and attempts to coerce the young lady into playing male style – either a team player who never asks questions or a jolly psychopath who goes around wrecking the campaign world. Some intervention is advised, at least at first. While I usually support absolute impartiality in DMs and consider railroading a crime worse than ethnic genocide or misspelling the word rogue, in this case, if you don’t intervene you’ll lose an almost certainly good player. I say, “almost certainly good,” because girls who bother coming to introductory sessions are usually independent thinkers and keen enthusiasts of the genre and often grow into very imaginative and dedicated players. Besides, we have a stereotype to kill, right?
Last but not least is a minor difference that should nevertheless be taken into account; contrary to the prevalent stereotype, girls are much less concerned with shopping for shopping’s sake than boys. An all-male group will never leave the marketplace of their own accord. They will spend the whole session buying trash they don’t need, animals that won’t help and stealing shiny nonsense that could easily get them hanged. Girls, in my experience, don’t do that. They only buy items that they actually need or that are necessary to advance in their quest. For example, a girl with a masterwork sword will buy an enchanted sword. She won’t buy seven other mundane melee weapons, a trained but sarcastic parrot and a souvenir glass bubble with miniature Waterdeep inside.
Of course, all of the above is a generalization. Last year, I had a girl who played a dragonborn barbarian and slew everything that stood in her path. However, she did have an elf ranger best friend, so there’s that. I guess my point is that anecdotal evidence can only go so far. Don’t assume that just because most girls prefer something, your players would do the same.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Cracking of the Whip 2.0

This article was very controversial back in the day. It started a stimulating discussion on the Wizards boards, a much longer trolling match on the forum that will not be named and even got a mention in io9. Some of the criticism aimed at me was correct. For example, positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than punishment and removing XP is not effective at all. Other criticism I reject to this very day -- if you're not a trained psychologist, you shouldn't try to treat kids with mental problems, no amount of nice will cure schizophrenia.

Now, the below article has been changed to reflect the constructive feedback I received from my readers, as well as other lessons I have picked up on my own in the last two years. I'm not disowning the original article or its implied positions. Rather, I am changing my opinions upon the introduction of new facts.

So, without further ado -- the cracking of the whip!

The whip is of course metaphorical, unless held in the hands of a balor, in which case – run for your lives! But let’s get serious. Actually, seriousness is the issue. Some kids are not serious. Some kids don’t come to play, but to socialize. Some kids want to play but their heads are out there in the clouds. Some, like the Joker of Batman, are a force of chaos. As a DM, it is your duty to deal with them lest they deal with you (and your game!)

The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Personally, I'm not fond of this method for two reasons. First -- I like keeping the real world and the game world separate to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Secondly -- if someone doesn't care about the game, they won't care about the xp either. In any case, don’t remove a lot of xp at once; you want to warn the players, not to cripple their characters.

There is another technique, developed by my esteemed colleague Nitzan Rimon. It is based on rewarding bonus XP to anyone except the troublemakers. For example, if some kids are regularly late for sessions, wait until they arrive and demonstratively reward those who did come on time while stressing that those who were late get nothing. This technique is the most effective against kids whose misbehavior stems from malice or disrespect rather than absentmindedness or immaturity. It seems the former are more worried about other succeeding than about themselves failing.

My personal approach is different and has changed much since the first version of this article was published on the Wizards website nearly three years go.

During my years of work, I have encountered several types of troublemakers which I will describe, in the best D&D tradition, as class cliches. While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you identify and solve the problem in some cases. After each title you’ll notice a number of stars. This is to show how severe the issue is. One star is a minor disturbance hardly worthy of your attention. Five stars will kill the game dead.

All the below quotes are sadly true.

The Astronaut *
“I attack with elven accuracy.”
. . . right after being explained it’s not an attack (for the fifth time)
The Crime: The kid is just plain oblivious. He has no idea what’s happening in the game right now, what are his character’s capabilities or even what the most basic gaming terms mean. Like the hapless hero of Memento, his memory seems to be restarted every few minutes.

The Verdict: Just be patient and helpful. The guy is honestly trying to participate, but ideas keep buzzing between his ears. It’s not his fault, he’s not doing it to get you mad, he just can’t concentrate. Repeat yourself firmly and clearly enough times and eventually it will trickle down. Don't be afraid to suggest courses of action such as "you can shoot him, or hide behind a tree." Yes, it will make you sound like a live action Zork, but trust me, it's better than to wait for him to go over every single word on his character sheet until he accidentally says something which could constitute a legitimate action.

The Crybaby *
“But I don’t want to play a goblin!”
. . .after being given a list of twenty races, one of which is the goblin

The Crime: For the love of Pelor, how much can one complain! This kid always looks on the verge of tears or a tantrum. Any minor mishap – a botched roll, an item which differs from his dream artifact, an encounter with an NPC who is not Orcus – and tears glitter on the child’s cheeks even as his knuckles go white with fury.

The Verdict: Nothing. Yes, he’s annoying, but unless he’s interfering with the game there is really nothing you can do to appease him. Crying is a mode of extortion and as soon as you start making concessions there will be no end to it. I usually suggest the kid goes outside and washes his face, more for civility’s sake than anything else.

The Cheater *
“18! Yes!! What? Oh, these didn’t count!”
. . .after rolling a d20 for seven times

The Crime: Dice rolling is a serious business . . . too serious to be left for chance. The mild cheater keeps coming up with creative excuses why bad rolls don’t count (“the die touched the book, it’s not fair!”). The devious cheater is just plain dishonest.

The Verdict: Kids love to tell on each other, so the chances of cheating to go unnoticed are very small. The mild cheater usually won’t go out of his way to argue his case unless he is a crybaby (see above) or an antagonist (see below), in which case his cheating is the least of your troubles. The devious cheater should be fined harshly enough to teach him that crime doesn’t pay. Say, every roll you catch him fixing counts as a double 1. Ouch.

The Serial Character Changer **
“Can I play a Yuan-Ti, I want to play a Yuan-Ti, I hate my elf. I want him to die! I kill myself! Do I keep my XP and equipment.”
. . . after opening the Monster Manual on a random page

The Crime: A shrimp in an all-you-can-eat buffet has a longer life span than this kid’s PCs. The guy wants a new character every god damn session. Every time he says it’s the last time, then he gets back home, opens the PHB or Dragon magazine or watches a film, or looks out of the window, and changes his mind again.

The Verdict: First try diplomacy to convince the kid how cool his PC is. Then explain that his magic items and experience points will be lost with this transformation. Most will give up at this point. You can also tell them that they're going to waste an entire session just generating a new character, alone, while everyone else is progressing in the adventure. If even this doesn't stop them, just play along. It's a lost cause anyhow.

The Hyperactive **

“I’m Batman!”
. . . While running around, occasionally bumping into objects and people.


The Crime: Like a man possessed, the hyperactive kid is all over the place jumping, dancing, singing, talking on unrelated subjects, drawing on the table or chewing the carpet. When it’s not his turn, he insures it’s nobody’s turn.

The Verdict: It is important to distinguish between attention grabbers and genuinely hyperactive children. The attention grabber will relax if ignored for enough time and occasionally kicked out of the game for ten minutes or so. The kid who is genuinely hyperactive needs stuff to do or he goes bananas. Just give him missions (collect dropped dice, draw stuff on the board, help arrange chairs) and it should pacify him.

The Joker ****
“Want to hear me singing while balancing six dice on my nose?”
. . . in the middle of a villain’s dramatic monologue

The Crime: The same as the hyperactive kid’s, only with malice. The joker doesn’t do what he does because he’s restless, but because he wants to get cheap laughs out of the group and feel in the center of attention. Chances are, he's in your game because it's a room with people, not because he cares about the game.

The Verdict: Deprive him of this attention. Explain to the other kids that he’s ruining everybody’s game and that by playing along, they’re only encouraging him and ruining the adventure for themselves. Kick him out of the class often and allow him to return only if he returns to the class in a somber and serious manner. If this doesn’t help, apply Batman’s method of dealing with Jokers.

The Chaotic-Stupid ****
“So… this is the great God-Emperor everyone’s talking about? I pee on his shoes and fart in his nose.”
. . . while the party is negotiating with a 30th level demigod

The Crime: Possibly the most problematic of the archetypes, the chaotic-stupid player doesn’t misbehave in the classroom. Instead, he plays in a manner which, if DMed realistically, would result in him getting killed every session, along with the entire group.

The Verdict: Divine intervention. While I'm usually mortally opposed to removing player agency, in this case, it's perfectly legitimate to demand a dramatic explanation from the player. "You're setting the queen on fire: why? Why is a proud and serious paladin willing to die in infamy for one lame joke? Give me an explanation that makes sense from the character's perspective, or do something less stupid."
Usually the player will give up at this point. A stupid joke frankly isn't worth the effort of going into character motivation and background story. However, if the player is willing to come up with a reasonable explanation, don't hesitate to kill his PC. Forget everything I said earlier about young children and character death. Obviously, it doesn't apply to this player.

The Antagonist *****

“Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!”
. . . after being told to stop tearing tiles of the wall

The Crime: Antagonist meet DM. DM meet suffering. The antagonist is your enemy, plain and simple. He came to destroy the gaming experience for everyone via whatever means possible. Mild disciplinary measures such as kicking him out of the class for a short time or taking away xp and gold are useless. Taking him outside for a talk is also unlikely to cool his battle spirit. Some kids just want to watch the world burn.

The Verdict: In rare instances, the antagonist’s energy can be redirected into wanting to be the best PC in the game. He’ll still be a douche, a colossal douche actually, but at least he’ll be the douche who shushes everyone, helps you with the chairs (in return for XP) and screams at anyone standing in his way to more XP and treasure. Don't expect him to play nice though -- after all, adventurers are called murder hobos for a reason.

Sadly, few antagonists can be saved, so for them I recommend the harshest verdict of all – banishment from the realm!

Beyond Salvation
Kicking someone out of your game for good is a radical action and should not be taken lightly. However, a quote from the Boondock Saints comes to mind when musing on this subject, namely “destroy that which is evil so that which is good may flourish.” Some kids have real issues and need help, but not at the expense of those kids who came to play and have fun. The worst offenders are often the most charismatic kids and their presence is not good for the group as they turn otherwise good kids into their evil minions.

I’m not talking here about minor disturbances. You can’t expect 9 year olds to have the Queen’s manners, besides, I’m sure even the Queen also sometimes interrupts her DM in the heat of combat. I’m talking about true troublemakers. I’m talking about the kids who harass or bully others, who disrupt the campaign, who treat the game like their sister’s Barbie doll, who ruin the mood with juvenile pranks or scream obscenities, who listen to music or play loud games on their smartphones, who spew blatant racism or hate speech that makes others uncomfortable, who consciously challenge your authority for the hell of it and go berserk when replied in kind.

These are all cases I had to deal with in the past. In some instances I won, in some instances I lost. But this is my job. You’re doing it for fun. You don’t have to take it. Perhaps through supreme effort you could make a decent player out of the bully or the rebel without a cause, but by then you would have lost your game.

Lastly, expecting a child suffering from mental illness to behave normally makes about as much sense as expecting a child with a broken foot to run. It's objectively beyond his control and no amount of yelling or sweet talking will change this. My personal policy is to refer him to a proper specialist, not to play doctor with potentially disastrous consequences.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


XP is more than just the award for killing monsters and solving puzzles. It can also be a method to inspire good behavior and discourage disruptive gaming. It’s also a method of controlling the pace of the game — from astronomical rise from peasant to god in ten sessions, to a slow and bloody grind toward recognition taking hundreds of sessions.

Give XP per encounter or per session, but don’t bother calculating it based on each monster killed or each successful use of a non-combat ability. In my opinion, the progression offered in the core rules is too slow for impatient young gamers. Personally, I don't use XP at all, instead just rising the group a level when I feel they deserve it with the aim or raising about one level per month. However, many people do use XP with kids and I certainly see the value in it.

A trick I used to employ all the time was to ask the group whether anyone thinks he deserves extra XP for this session. Usually, you will get replies like “Me! I caused a lot of damage!” or “Me! I used a daily power!” or “Me! My rolls were really high!” Occasionally, however, a kid will point out genuinely impressive achievements you may have overlooked, such as good roleplaying, solving a puzzle, keeping a lavishly illustrated journal, performing some impressive battle stunt, and so forth. Don’t give in to extortion—only reward the kind of activity you want to encourage! Explain that rolling a high score or spotting an enemy is plain luck. Extra XP is for achievements of the player, not the character.

I also like to reward out-of-game activities, such as tidying up the class after the game or shushing kids who interrupt the game. Some consider it abuse of power. I consider power pointless unless abused.

He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins
Magic items are awesome! If you don’t accept this paradigm, it’s not clear what you’re doing playing D&D. Yes, with the money they make, kids can buy any item in the book (assuming that’s permitted), but collecting loot is just so much more exciting!

On the other hand, remaining empty handed or worse — with grandma’s knitted sweater — after everybody else got a cool toy can be quite upsetting. As with  XP, I suggest twisting the rules a bit, at least with younger players. Not getting an item, or getting what is perceived to be an inferior item after an encounter might well lead to tears. And we don’t want that, now do we?

So tailor the treasure for the group. Let the fighter get armor, let the rogue get a dagger, let the warlock get a wand, and so forth. Non-battlefield items, such as a ring of protection or a bag of holding, are for some reason less popular among kids than armor, arms, and implements. On the other hand, cool but useless things such as weird idols, esoteric tomes, and so forth are quite popular if presented in the right way. As a rule, younger kids, those who haven’t yet acquired the art of Munchkinism, prefer items that are different and cool to those that are effective.

Insist on fair distribution. I like this method: First, write all the items won in the encounter on the board. Make sure to have at least as many items as players, even if some of the items are ogre cooking manuals or boxes of old shoestrings. Next, have the players roll d20s to determine the choice order of the items. The player with the highest roll gets the first choice, and so on, until all of the items have been distributed. Do not use initiative because the low-Dexterity folks will (rightly) complain about this discrimination. Besides, it’s not a grabbing contest, but a fair distribution of goods. Unconscious or even slain characters should also get their pick!

The Big Money
Don’t neglect coins. Kids love coins. Even small amounts make them happy, which isn’t surprising, given that their pocket money is often only a few dollars. For this reason, a few coins, while nothing, but annoying paperwork for adult players, is cause for celebration among kids... at least until they learn that decent magic items cost thousands of gold coins.

A technique I use to maximize the “yay!” effect is to grant insignificant rewards for the first few sessions, and then suddenly drop a thousand or so gold on the group. A fair word of warning though: Put on your earmuffs before announcing this treasure.

Just like with treasure, encourage fair distribution of coins. Heroes who hoard thousands of coins while their friends have to beg for scraps in the market have a tendency to draw deadly friendly fire in combat... or during dinner.

Little Friends with Teeth
Kids will attempt to convince or tame any living creature they meet to become their pets. Rangers and druids will go as far as to directly address nature itself to send them an ally. This is how much they like non-humanoid companions!

Starting pets should be limited to rather weak creatures: ravens, squirrels, and dogs that can distract foes and spy ahead are good choices. Wolves, leopards, and eagles who can actually assist in combat are pushing it, but still acceptable.

This is good for starters, but kids given a taste of fantasy want more, and this is exactly what you’re going to give them. Not surprisingly, the most popular pets are dragons. Kids don’t really care about the dragon’s color, age, or abilities; they just want to have a dragon (the popularity of How to Train Your Dragon certainly didn’t hurt)! The story is similar in many groups; every time an NPC mentions a dragon, the kids immediately decide they want to go to its lair and tame it to be their pet, usually with disastrous results. Eventually, when they do find a dragon egg about to hatch, or a friendly young dragon looking for adventure, they are jovial.

Griffons, hippogriffs, and other flying beasts are also extremely popular. Next come horses, dogs, snakes, and other real world animals; strangely enough, they seem to be more popular than mythological monsters among most groups. Other groups, when told the town offers an excellent selection of horses and mules, will ask if I can offer them something “more interesting” like giant ants, raptors or purple worms. Try to spy a little before choosing the right pet reward for your players.

Some kids like to own servants, mostly healers and gladiators. Slavery is a touchy subject best avoided with younger gamers; this reward should be used with discretion, possibly only as a prelude to a discussion on the nature of slavery.

To summarize, this is the order of pet awesomeness*:

Flying Animals
Large animals
Small animals
Servants and followers

*in some cases....

The Power and the Glory
After dozens of bloody battles, the players stand victorious over the smoldering ruins of the tyrant’s citadel. The people, now free of his oppression, look up to their heroes to lead them to a brighter future. But are they ready to lead?

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....

Another group convinced all the slaves they freed in a series of bold assaults against an orc fortress to join them in forming a militaristic community in the forests. Each player has his fighting unit and spends some time each session describing how he trains and stations his troops.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Dragon! It’s a Successful Hero!
So we’ve discussed XP, gold, treasure, influence, and companions. Now let’s talk about the coolest reward of them all: transhumanism! Under this bombastic term I include all rewards that grant powers or features to the character, be they powers that stem from the gratitude of demon princes or superpowers induced by the bites of radioactive mosquitoes.

Depending on the source of the power, it can be the same special ability given to each member of the group (“you have rescued the snow witch; grateful, she grants you powers over cold and snow”), powers tailored for each player’s gaming style (“you have survived my labyrinth, now let each be rewarded according to his exploits”), or utterly random (“everyone who eats a fruit of the eldritch tree gains a different aspect of a beast”). Mechanics-wise, transhumanist powers perform the function as magic items with the obvious exception of not being a tradable commodity.

Below are some suggestions of transhumanist rewards:

Divine Boons
These are the rewards most often given by supernatural beings such as nature spirits, ghosts, minor deities, demons, and so forth. Unable to give the characters any physical rewards, they instead sacrifice a small portion of their essence to bestow some aspect of divinity on the heroes who risked their lives to help them.

These rewards are usually the same for each player and relate to the domain of the rewarding being. For example, a water spirit will give the power to breathe underwater at will and command water as a daily power, while a devil may negotiate with his masters to organize a one time “get out of hell free card” which gives each hero a single automatic resurrection. Or, for example:

Purification of Flames (Level 4)
Having cleared the fire spirit’s shrine of the undead blight that corrupted it, you were granted powers that will help them clear the land of undead more efficiently.
Property: When you take necrotic damage, you gain combat advantage against the attacker and a +2 bonus to all defenses until the end of your next turn.
Power (Daily * Fire): Minor Action. The next time you hit a target that has dealt necrotic damage to you this encounter, that attack deals extra 2d6 fire damage.

Superpowers and Mutations
Superpowers can be granted by grateful wizards, true deities, magic accidents, or through interaction with artifacts or suspicious matters. The difference between a superpower and a mutation is that the former is an additional power the character can use—such as flight, regeneration, X-ray vision, and so forth—while the latter is actually a major change in the body of the hero, such as growing an additional pair of hands, skin transformation into tough bark, or getting a toothy maw that deals melee and poison damage.

Mutations might traumatize some kids because, for all their usefulness, mutations are still a deformation of the body and make particularly sensitive kids uncomfortable—sometimes to the point of not wanting to play the character any more. Use them with discretion.

I like to accompany mutations with random tables on which the players roll their mutations. For example:

Plant Mutations:
Roll (1d10)    
1     Vine Tendrils
2     Bark Armor
3     Sticky Sap
4     Poison Spores
5     Grappling Root
6     Camouflage Leaves
7     Defensive Barbs
8     Dazzling Flowers
9     Wood Sturdiness
10     Re-roll twice

Vines Tendrils (Level 6)
Thick vines grow from your body. Through extreme excretion of will you can make them move and even fight.
Property: You gain a +5 item bonus to Stealth and Athletics (Climb) checks in wooded areas.
Level 16: This bonus increases to +10.
Power (Encounter): Standard Action. You can target up to three creatures within a close burst 1. The attack is made with your highest physical ability score vs. AC. A hit deals 1d6 + ability score modifier damage, and the target is restrained until the beginning of your next turn.

Being well known in the realm has its advantages; merely saying “boo” sends fearsome warriors fleeing, the most outlandish claims are accepted without question due to your unblemished reputation, and—after saving the land from the Great Wyrm—every shopkeeper automatically offers you a 50% discount. Good (or bad!) reputation is as much a power as shooting lasers from your eyes.

This reward should be granted to heroes who actually deserve it, tailored for their achievement.

Celebrated Detective (Level 3)
Your unblemished reputation in fighting crime and exposing injustice makes you a force to be reckoned with on the streets.
Property: You gain a +5 item bonus to Streetwise and Intimidate checks in urban areas.
Power (Encounter): Minor Action. The next time the target makes a Bluff, Insight, Stealth, Streetwise or Thievery check against you, the target rolls twice and uses the lower of the two rolls.

Cybernetic enhancements from aliens that have crashed on the planet, magic creatures that bond with the heroes, special tricks taught by grateful grongards, wandering souls looking for a home in return for their wisdom and magic might... the possibilities for transhumanist rewards are limitless!

Enhanced Vision (Level 6)
Your eyes have been replaced with highly advanced prosthetics that offer you excellent vision and area scanning abilities.
Property: You gain darkvsion.
Power (Encounter): Standard Action. You can see invisible creatures until the end of your turn.

In addition, I also recommend reading the “Echoes of Power” section of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (p.211). It contains many excellent transhumanist powers as well as tips on using them as rewards.

Apotheosis of the Gamer

Oftentimes, a kid will spend most of the session leafing through the Monster Manual, stopping at random pages and asking, “Can I play this?” When the question is asked about a purple worm, a gelatinous cube, or an oversized beetle, one is almost tempted to say “sure” and watch him handle playing a character slightly more intelligent than the chair he is currently sitting on. This was a joke — don’t do it unless you’re doing a wacky session.

When the question is asked about a centaur or a young dragon, you can either bum him out by saying “no” or motivate him by saying, “Sure, but you must earn it first.” Eventually, though, you will have to live up to your promise — and why not? An Angel of Valor (MM p.16), for example, is roughly equal in power to an 11th level character. Why not let the player’s old paladin undergo an apotheosis and become an angel as he reaches paragon tier? Or, if this seems too farfetched, why not let the old grognard rest his blade and let the angel who watched over him for so many years take his place?

Character apotheosis will create several problems for you—the foremost of which are player envy and character progression. The former cannot be simply dealt with by allowing all players to undergo apotheosis (don’t use this word, by the way; no one knows what it means). Kids are perfectly capable of repeatedly declining an offered advantage while saying it’s not fair someone else has it. To cope, try to occasionally hint at the shortcomings of the kid’s monstrous character. For example, “No, you can’t stealthy approach the giants—you’re basically a huge torch hurling through the night sky like a roaring jet—there is no way anyone will fail to notice you!” Just don’t overdo it or else you’ll get the reverse problem: the angel envying the mortals....

Regarding level progression, this is really less work than it looks. Often, you’ll be able to use an existing class or paragon path as a basis for your table. For example, the angelic theme is already covered by the Angelic Avenger (PHB p.72). Up through 12th level you’re good—just use the path as is (although the 20th level power, angel ascendant is inappropriate, since the angel can already fly). What’s next?

The angel has the soldier role, which is the monsters’ version of the defender. That, combined with its religious background, makes the paladin the best power donor to an angel. When adapting powers, keep the following in mind: First, the paladin uses mostly radiant damage, while angels fight with fire and lightning. Secondly, the paladin is a healer, while the angel is a pure destroyer. For example, entangling smite can be used as is. Radiant charge should probably be changed into fiery charge and deal fire damage. Renewing smite, with its healing theme, is simply not appropriate for this destructive character.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


In the previous installment, we talked about character generation. Now we’re going to talk about something much more fun: encounters!

Running encounters with kids should be a very lively experience, more of an interactive story than a war game. Numbers and crunch (except for the crunch of broken bones!) interest your crowd much less than cool stunts and awesome power displays. They’re playing for the juicy descriptions, the life-and-death drama, the unpredictable twists, and — of course — the rewards!

This article provides tips and ideas for DMs wishing to run smooth, fun encounters with young players. As always, keep in mind that the guidelines presented below are just that: guidelines. They are aimed at the “average” player. But, the “average” player does not exist. Nothing stated here is universal. Nothing. So even more than with adult gamers, your highest commandment is:

1. Know Thy Players!
Before we continue to the specifics, there are two issues I would like to stress. The first one might sound banal, but it is of the uttermost importance, so please pay attention:

2. Know The Rules of the Game!
A low-level character in D&D doesn’t have access to that many powers. There is no excuse for you to be taken by surprise by anything the kids (or your NPCs) do. Nothing is more ruinous to creating a good atmosphere than a DM ponderously flipping through the Player’s Handbook. An occasional glance into a book, especially one that the players don’t have access to, only increases the kids’ curiosity about their foes and enhances your aura of mystery and authority. A long rules consultation kills it dead.

If you’re caught flatfooted — then make stuff up! It’s better to inflict a few extra points of damage on a hero or a monster, than to have even a single boring minute during combat. It’s D&D, not rocket science; fun is your top priority, adherence to the rules is secondary!

The second issue involves kids losing track of reality. Hardly as scary as Patricia Pulling and her ilk try to portray it, this is nevertheless something you should be aware. Thus:
3. Thou Shalt Let None Escape Reality!
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. A couple of years ago, I 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 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 may even lead to physical violence. Strangle this demon in the cradle by spilling cold water on young minds that get too hot.
Reminding the kids that it's "only a game" can feel somewhat blasphemous, but trust me, it's better than the alternative.

4. Thou Shalt Maintain the Peace Around the Table!
Some quick guidelines:
  • Insist on fair treasure distribution (see below).
  • Don’t allow the heroes to attack each other without a very good IC reason. I found that if you demand kids to give a reasonable explanation for their actions, they will rather forgo the action than waste the brain power trying to come up with a well-structured argument. If, on the other hand, they do come up with a good argument, perhaps the IC fighting is justified.
  • If a player is going against the group try to talk sense into him before letting the others gang up on him.
If a hero accidentally hits another hero in combat stress that it’s an accident. Kids often feel like attacking the characters of other kids because of some unrelated argument between them in real life. Explain to them that while they might have some cause for quarrel, their characters are best buddies who saved each other’s lives many times over. There is no reason in the world for them to fight and, come to think of it, no reason for the kids to fight either. Personally, I'm not above asking a kid, "yeah? and how many siblings did you kill today because they replaced your saves with their saves in Assassin's Creed?"

In any case, don't tell kids, "you can't do that" or "this fails" without even rolling dice. This kill suspension of disbelief and testifies to a general lack of creativity.

Now, having removed these fundamentals out of the way, let’s get down to some of the subtler commandments.

5. Thou Shalt Be Concise and Unbridled!
Dungeons & Dragons is a mostly verbal game, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that words and body language have a great effect. However, few kids have the patience to listen to long and flowery descriptions of strange creatures or exotic locales.

Kids do love seeing pictures of fantastic creatures, and some DMs come to games armed with a folder full of lovely, full-color illustrations. Personally, I use this option very rarely. D&D is a game of the imagination, and showing pictures deprives kids of the chance to see these monsters in their mind’s eye.

To convey more information in less time, pepper your descriptions with a generous helping of physical demonstration. Show them how the zombie drags his rotting corpse toward them. Don’t be shy; groan and moan, stick out your tongue, drag your feet — don’t just describe the zombie, be it! Have your goblins snicker and chafe their hands like the sniveling little wretches they are. Don’t be a dry husk of a teacher, be a carefree storyteller! You’ll know you’re doing your job right when they jump from their seats to describe what their heroes do, demonstrating each brutal slash with their pens and rolled character sheets.

Words and gestures are of major importance — so choose them carefully! If you describe an enemy as scary and powerful, the kids might choose to run away, even if they outnumber him ten to one and have nothing to fear. On one occasion, I had a group of ten 4th-level heroes flee a drunken blacksmith because I became overenthusiastic in describing his bulging muscles, prison tattoos, and pure animal rage. I roared and slurred and punched the table and... I guess I played the role too well. The thug was no threat to the heroes, but an angry adult is a threat to the players. They reacted, quite naturally for people of their age and size, by fleeing — not from the smith, but from the DM.

Describing an enemy as perfectly cool or sardonically amused in the face of danger also has a very demoralizing effect on younger kids. (“Why isn’t he afraid? Perhaps we’re the ones who should be afraid...”) I usually reserve this attitude for master villains or very challenging encounters.

On the other hand, if you describe a famous wizard, or even a deity, as “a fat little man who can’t keep his finger out of his nose,” and demonstrate his manners whimsically, don’t be surprised if the kids treat him as no threat at all. Talking in a hysterical, high-pitched tone or describing a creature as effeminate (as opposed to merely soft-spoken) are also likely to get it discredited as a threat, although the latter will often unnerve older (9-12) players.

The great (and some might argue lamentable) importance that kids ascribe to outward appearance can be used against them. Each race already has stereotypes based on its appearance and the group’s past experiences. For example, a common belief is that dragonborn are big and powerful, while goblins are small and pathetic. In truth, from a mechanical standpoint, the two races are equally powerful; dragonborn are slightly stronger and goblins are slightly more dexterous, but that’s about it. However, in the kids’ minds, dragonborn are almost dragons, while goblins are little more than vermin. An encounter with a 10th-level goblin barbarian whose arms are as thick as some heroes’ thighs will certainly catch them off guard and give them something to talk about in days to come... if they survive.

So, we talked about how to bring monsters into the scene. Now let’s talk about how to take them out of it. 

The short answer is:

6. Thou Shalt Be Gory, Goofy, and Cool!
Gore in children’s games is a controversial subject on which I hold a controversial position.

Kids love gore. They love hearing how their hammers crush their enemies’ skulls, sending brains and bone shards flying in all directions. They love to know their Flames of Phlegethos have reduced their victim to a charred kebab that smells just about ready to serve. And they love to hear how the goblin they just pushed off a cliff is not unlike a watermelon being struck with a hammer while his remains now resemble what remains after you pick up a piece pizza from the floor when it fell down cheese-first. (In other words, be creative!)

Overly-anatomical descriptions make kids uncomfortable. The most universal solution I’ve found is making the violence over the top and very metaphorical — blood shoots as if from a sprinkler, enemies are burned to a crisp or blow up to tiny little bits like New Year’s confetti. While satisfying the kid’s need to feel powerful and destructive, this reduces the violence to a non-threatening caricature.

If you can make the descriptions cool or funny through one-liners or grotesque metaphors — even better! For example, “The peasant sticks his pitchfork into the goblin’s stomach and rolls it in his intestines like someone eating spaghetti,” is at once horrible and funny.

Be especially careful with how you describe the heroes’ actions, particularly when those actions relate to other kids’ heroes. If you describe a hero who, while shooting into melee and accidentally hitting a friend, as doing “eeny, meeny, miny, moe/who am I shooting with this bow?” don’t be surprised if the hero with the arrow sticking from his butt decides to repay in kind — even though it was you and not the player who made fun of the situation.

Knowing how to talk and act is important, but not less important is knowing how to listen. I’m not talking about the sensitive “pour your heart” sort of listening, but the devious “I will use your worst fears against you” sort of listening. Didn’t expect that, huh?

7. Thou Shalt Listen to Thy Players!
Many kids have very active imaginations and can come up with ways of complicating an encounter you’d never have dreamed. They’ll see the most horrible traps in the most innocent locations, treason in the best meaning shopkeeper, and ascribe eldritch powers to the lowliest kobold that would make dragons die of envy. There’s no reason for you not to use those paranoiac suspicions against them. If you hear a particularly good (by “good” I of course mean “horrifying”) idea, discreetly write it down for later use.

Sometimes you can even use it right away. Yes, it’s kind of cheating, but everything is fair in love and war — and D&D is both. For example, I ran an adventure once, in which the heroes had to retrieve a series of colored keys needed to access a laboratory where a shortsighted sorceress had managed to freeze herself while creating a deadly elemental. Except for the puzzle of locating the hidden keys, using them in the right order and then defeating the elemental, I had no further challenges in mind for the adventure. But one kid was full of ideas. “I bet there’s an ice bomb under the pillow! I bet the books come alive and eat anyone who enters the library! I bet the enemy will use both summer and winter powers against us!” Guess what? Their mission suddenly became much more interesting!

Listening is not always used for evil purposes. Kids often talk among themselves about what they want to find and who they want to meet. They will even talk about you (when they think you aren’t listening) and about your strengths and weaknesses. Keep your ears open and designing the right encounters will become much easier.

All right, enough with communication. Let’s talk about action.

8. Thou Shalt Use Initiative!
The issue of who acts first is of prime importance to kids. Many get fiercely competitive over this seemingly trifling issue. Choosing a kid arbitrarily or simply pointing at the one nearest to you will often start a scandal you won’t see the end of. As far as some players are concerned, it’s better to spend ten minutes arguing over who goes first than to wait five minutes for their turn.

My suggestion is therefore to always roll for initiative — and beyond. Roll initiative for who acts first in combat, for who gets to pick the first item from the slain monster, for the order in which the heroes wake up in the morning. Note that in some cases you may want to omit the customary Dexterity bonus to avoid fewer complaints that “it’s not fair, he always gets the loot.”

The Savage Worlds system suggests drawing cards instead of rolling dice. In theory, this sounds like something kids would enjoy better than rolling dice. However, I didn't have a chance to test this hypothesis yet, so take it with a grain of salt.

Kids will still try to come up with various reasons as to why their character should act first. Worse, some will try to bribe or sweet-talk (or bitter-cry) you into giving them the coveted privilege of acting first. However, you will have the dice (or cards) to blame for the order of action. Additionally, you’ll be able to offer them the conciliation that any minute now, their fortunes might turn and they’ll be the first to act.

In any case, initiative is one more excuse to roll dice and, as every gamer knows, rolling the dice is half the fun.

9. Thou Shalt Take Into Account the Age and Experience of Your Players!
Novice players are fiercely individualistic, unimaginably greedy, and absolutely self-centered. This makes novice groups very vulnerable in combat, particularly in their first few encounters. Even an experienced player can often decide that seeing a fellow hero dissolved in acid would be much more “awesome” than rescuing him. When designing your encounters, keep this aspect of young player in mind. I like to call it “Long Swords, Short Attention Span” (LSSAS).

New players stray easily. In the middle of a pitched battle, new players might ignore the murderous vampires and go check a curious looking door, not caring about the half-a-dozen attacks of opportunity this provokes, or the fact that opening the door will probably introduce more monsters to this already challenging encounter. Unless encouraged to fight, they’ll act like a group of hamsters released in a python’s cage and just wander around until they’re eaten.

New players don’t work as a team. Even if they decide to fight, new players do whatever they feel like at the moment, teamwork feeling like surrender; wizards will charge brandishing axes they’re not proficient with, fighters will hide behind counters and shoot crossbows, rogues will try to climb to the ceiling and cut the chandelier just so that it falls on someone. Even worse, some kids just can’t be bothered to change their plans due to an unscheduled ambush. They might simply ignore the arrow that suddenly pierced their left lung and continue walking as if nothing has happened. After all, you told them that if they retrieve the legion’s standard they’d get 300 XP—what do they care about strange green people with bows shooting at them from the bushes?

New players don’t know when they’re conquered. Possibly because they’re used to grownups bailing them out of any serious trouble in real life, young players never retreat or surrender once they decide to start fighting. No matter how badly the battle goes — even if all the heroes are down and the last man standing has to fight with his teeth because both his hands were eaten long ago — they won’t even contemplate giving up. They will bark a quick: “This is Sparta!” and jump back into the fray... achieving the same sort of victory as the original speaker of that line.

To avoid embarrassment or TPKs, I recommend having a defeat scenario handy. Typical choices would be getting sold as gladiators (older kids love this one!), imprisoned, or left for dead and being rescued by kindly strangers in need of help.

Because of LSSAS, consider the first few combat encounters as an exercise in tactics and teamwork. Tutor your players; don’t assume strategic thinking will occur naturally to children who were raised on shows were one guy kills hundreds of orcs simply by waving his swords around. A possible tactic is to have the first combat end with the heroes captured by an inferior enemy and imprisoned. While they’re in prison, lecture them on the importance of teamwork and give them a chance to practice those principles by working together to escape captivity and avenge themselves on the enemies that have previously defeated them.

Tools of the Trade
Cool battle tiles and a boxful of miniatures will be extremely well met. However, if you value your little plastic friends, don’t use them regularly in games. Kids are likely to hurl miniatures at each other at some stage, unthinkingly crumple tiles, or possibly fail a Wisdom check and pocket a few minis. Tokens, being much cheaper and less seductive, are my weapons of choice these days.

Don't forget our old friend, the whiteboard. Because few classes are equipped with whiteboards with squares, I recommend using a ruler instead, replacing squares with two-inch increments. Use colorful markers to quickly draw important features on the battlefield. Mark heroes and allies in one color and enemies in another. Some DMs like to write current hp/damage adjacent to the combatant’s icon, but I prefer damage tables because they’re more easily readable.

Here is an example of how an average battle would look like. It’s not pretty, but it’s efficient and very comfortable:

Although this article is about encounter management rather than encounter design, there is a point I feel is worth making. Of course, it will be made in the imperative voice:

10. Thou Shalt Not Neglect the Classics!
You may have played dozens of adventures, killed thousands of monsters, survived hundreds of traps, used all the powers in the book, bought and sold each magic item in the system and can predict how an adventure will end by the first paragraph of the first encounter. The kids are playing for the first time in their life, so don’t ruin it for them with your jaded cynicism. Don’t deprive them of the pleasure of being petrified by a beholder or smashed by a deadfall for the first time. Remember: orcs and goblins are cool, and there’s nothing wrong with a quest to return the farmer’s prized cow that was stolen by goblin bandits or to rescue the mayor’s daughter before she’s sacrificed to Gruumsh. It’s heroic, it’s fantastic, and it’s the stuff that legends are made!

To please your crowd, you don’t need to convert monsters from obscure books from the 70’s or write Shakespearean plots. Going down into the sewers to fight mutant rats led by a deranged wizard, while banal for you, is new and exciting for your young adventurers. You will be amazed how seriously they’ll take this mission!

And a battle with a beholder or a dragon is something kids will remember for months. They’ve read about these creatures in your Monster Manual while you weren’t looking, they’ve heard rumors about them from older siblings, they’ve talked about them in hushed whispers after school... trust me, saying the word “beholder” alone is enough to evoke a response from the group that will leave your ears ringing for an hour.

Same goes for the setting. Don’t start your campaign in a magic gas giant planet of floating sentient islands and gibbering idiot deities; the only thing you’ll achieve is killing the suspension of disbelief and confusing your players. A quaint village with a grumpy dwarf smith, a jolly halfling publican, and a mysterious eladrin witch is a much better adventuring location. Many beginner DMs make the mistake of starting with the epics — bad idea! 1st-level heroes should protect caravans from desert raiders, rescue maidens in distress from kobolds, or uncover evil cultists of Orcus. They don’t decide the fate of the universe or slay gods with super-weapons.

Also, thri-kreen seem to be particularly popular for some reason. Just FYI.
And now, a word of warning:

11. Thou Shalt Not Treat Cities Lightly!
A city offers so much to do. You can try to recruit new NPCs for your group, collect clues, get new quests, buy new items, train for new skills, stir up trouble, join the underground or the police, get a job, marry, start a popular uprising, make enemies, collect bounties, make friends, or get a few cheap laughs from a nasty practical joke….

Another thing they offer is major headaches. Cities present you with a plethora of problems you should be aware of before embarking down this treacherous path. A colleague of mine just wanted to let his players refresh their inventory in a generic town. He ended up with hundreds dead and the national guard patrolling the ruined streets, looking for the instigators (guess who they were?). Was it fun? Sure! Did he have to rewrite his campaign from scratch afterward? Yep!

So why are cities so problematic? First and foremost, cities are horrible time guzzlers. Children like to buy stuff, even stuff they don’t need (unlike us adults, yes?) and a city presents them with an excuse to start going over every item in every book available, plus some items they just made up, and check to see if they’re for sale in the city. And don’t expect them to do this searching during other players’ turns. They’ll wait for their turn to start leafing through books. Getting kids out of a city is almost as difficult as getting them to eat spinach.

Another issue with cities is the fact that they’re full of people and places. You can’t account for them all unless you’ve very thoroughly prepared. You will have to improvise, and improvisation can often have unexpectedly destructive consequences such as the heroes ending up with an overly strong ally (or enemy), or getting arrested and thrown into jail. Even more destructive to the game is making up names and locations and then forgetting half of them by next session. There is nothing more embarrassing than a DM who has to ask the players to tell him about his own setting… except perhaps a DM whose cities and NPCs suddenly change because he didn’t take notes.

A good way to close this month’s article is by discussing the sticky (often literally) issue of character death:

12. Thou Shalt Kill Heroes Discriminately!
Character death is a touchy issue. Some kids could have their hero killed just for kicks. Others try to stay alive, but would die for a worthy cause and won’t start too much of a fuss if they’re felled by a stray arrow. Still others tear their sheet to bits, curse you and your mother, and storm out of the room if their hero is so much as bloodied.

With groups aged 9 or less, I recommend avoiding the death issue altogether. Heroes brought to negative hit points are simply knocked unconscious. TPKs result in the whole group waking up in some damp dungeon stripped of their gold and equipment. Either the guards are conveniently lax in their duties, enabling the intrepid adventurers to escape and reclaim their equipment, or the heroes are given a quest by their captors in return for their freedom.

Of course, a player may occasionally do something incredible stupid, such as giving Orcus a wedgie (true story). On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll have players who nobly sacrifice themselves to further the adventure or save a friend. The former should result in death and penalty (we can’t have players changing heroes like socks, now can we?), the latter should grant a reward for their next hero.

With older players I recommend making combat deadly, as it adds excitement to the action. However, overly sensitive players are still an issue. The solution I found to be the most effective is allowing a slain hero to return as a ghost or a spirit (see below) until the old hero is resurrected or a new hero is generated (player’s choice). Playing a supernatural being is very cool for most kids and takes some of the sting out of death.
Heroic ghosts are disembodied spirits that hang around the group, helping or interfering until their bodies are resurrected. They are not the malevolent ghosts from the Monster Manual, nor loveable Caspers, but a method for the player to exorcise his will without a hero. Because of this, unless your campaign setting has a spirit world with other spirits the dead hero can interact with, ghosts are characterized only by their powers.

Telekinesis (At Will * Standard Action): You can slowly move an item weighting up to five pounds one square in any direction.

Possession (Encounter * Standard Action* Charisma vs. Will): On a successful hit, the target makes a basic melee attack against one of its adjacent allies of your choice, utters a short phrase of your choice, or is stunned (save ends).

Whisper (Daily * Standard Action): You can speak with a single creature for up to five minutes. You manifest as a whispering voice in his head. This can scare unprepared creatures, dazing them (Charisma vs. Will, save ends).

Spirit Sight (At Will * Minor Action): You see other ghosts and spirits. This does not reveal invisible or otherwise hidden creatures. When interacting with spirit creatures, use the characteristics you had in life. With the exception of spirit sight, ghost powers cannot be used on spirit creatures.

Optional Rule: Last Chance
The dead hero’s soul only has a few hours left in this world before it ascends to the afterlife. This adds an air of hysteria to the game as the surviving heroes frantically look for someone capable of raising their slain friend before he is lost forever. Conversely, it can be used to let loved heroes leave the campaign in a more memorable way, using their last few hours to leave a mark on the world that will ensure their memory will live on. Use the latter only on serious and imaginative players, or all you’ll get is a long string of increasingly destructive practical jokes.

Lastly, although this subject will be discussed at length in a future article, a few words on rewards:

13. Thou Shalt Be Generous with XP!
Time moves much more slowly for kids than it does for adults. Don’t make them wait months before they gain their first level. Grant them at least five times as much XP as you would in a regular campaign. Don’t be an XP-miser, turning your campaign into a pointless monster grinder—instead, allow kids to experience the meteoric rise of their heroes to fame and power!