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!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Character Generation

In the past months, several good people and one person whom I don’t know, but who conceivably also be a good person, asked to see the original D&D kids that were posted on the Wizards website during the Jurassic era. I could simply re-post these articles, but I decided to do more: I will update them. It’s been some years since I wrote my first article on the subject. In retrospect, some of the advice there was less than perfect. In Geekspiel, I have gained a level in life, so there’s no reason for the articles not to advance as well.

So, without further ado, the first article in the series...

Character Generation

Hello boys and girls (not to mention parents, teachers, and librarians)!

D&D is a great activity for kids. It encourages creativity and teamwork, develops the imagination, and encourages self-expression. It can be used to teach history, folklore, mythology, and even religion. You can examine moral and ethical dilemmas through D&D.  Ordinarily tedious subjects become much more exciting when "experienced" via roleplaying since the students become involved on a much more personal level. Hell, D&D even helps with math (quick, what’s your attack bonus with this power?).

But most important of all… D&D is fun!

What’s not so fun, at least for inexperienced Dungeon Masters, is the transition from playing with your adult friends to playing with kids. On top of the usual challenges that arise from working with kids—challenges that any schoolteacher would love to tell you about at incredible length—one also constantly gets burned by bumping into rules and concepts that can be too complex or boring for young children. And oh boy, did I get burned in my first year!

But as Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve learned from my mistakes and developed techniques to make the transition from playing with bearded dudes to mischievous students as smooth as possible.

And I’m here to share these techniques with you—along with actual anecdotes and drawings from some of the kids I’ve taught.

One of the least fun aspects of playing with kids is character creation, or, to be more precise, character comprehension. I've yet to see a beginner group which understood how defenses are calculated and used in a reasonable amount of time. Same goes for ability scores vs. modifiers, skill mechanics and so forth. It’s not that kids can’t comprehend those rules. It’s just that they’re far too eager to start killing monsters and gaining superpowers to concentrate on dry mechanics.

The below tips will help you get through the process without tying your nerves in a bundle. In fact, you might even enjoy it while learning a thing or two about gaming from the unfortified minds of children....

Class, Race, and Abilities

Race and class is the first, and most important, choice a new player has to make. I suggest to write down all classes and races on a whiteboard before the game starts and then briefly go over each race and class.  Once each kid chose his race/class combination, explain their character traits in the shortest and clearest terms while avoiding technicalities as much as possible.

For example, “Eladrin are fairies who look like elves and can teleport once per encounter” is a sufficient description. Longer descriptions means chatter in the ranks, which in turn means time wasted on discipline and bored or angry kids.

Distribute ability scores using set numbers. I usually use the rather high set of 16/14/13/12/11/10 for increased character survivability. Heavens forbid you should use random dice rolls (unless you like the sound  of crying children) or point allocation (unless you wants to create ten characters all by yourself). Make sure you state what abilities are important to what classes are you might end up with kids playing very intelligent fighters with asthma, or wizards who only got into the academy because they were good at football.

Be prepared for the fact that some kids won’t want to be like “everyone else” and will ask to play non-standard races and classes. Kids with access to the Monster Manual will always ask to play Orcus. Kids without the Monster Manual will often invent absurdly overpowered god-like races and ask to play them.

To deal with this problem, I recommend arguing with the kids for a while and then “surrendering” and allowing them to play some “special” races such as shadar-kai or minotaurs (as per the Racial Traits appendix in the back of the Monster Manual). Another approach, one that entails much more work on the part of the DM, is asking kids to draw and describe the character they want to play and then to design—with or without them—appropriate statistics for their creations. You’ll be surprised at just how creative and original (and occasionally random) kids will be!

In any case, start playing as soon as possible and start with a bang! Kids get bored very quickly and once you’ve lost them, it’s very difficult to get them back on track. Long and flowery descriptions will be interrupted within seconds... but more on this later. For now, let’s proceed to character features.

Racial and Class Traits

Write down or dictate racial and class traits and then briefly explain what each trait does. There aren’t  many traits, so this shouldn’t take too much time. When decisions are called for, advise or at least clearly state the advantages of each option—don’t just throw a bunch of unfamiliar terms at the kids, because they’ll go into one ear and right out of the other.

For example, here’s how I would explain the warlock class traits:

Warlock’s Curse: Explain this power first because it’s both the most important of the Warlock’s powers and because it’s necessary to understand it for the boons granted by the Eldritch Pact.

At the beginning of your turn you can curse an enemy. Cursed enemies take more damage from your attacks. Also, you gain different rewards for defeating them, depending on your pact.
Eldritch Pact: You choose where you are getting your powers from.

Fey Pact: Your powers come from nature. Fey creatures transport you a short distance every time you kill an enemy you’ve cursed.

Infernal Pact: Your powers come from the underworld (you might explicitly state from Hades, Valhalla or even Hell depending on the player’s age and circumstances—you obviously wouldn’t want their parents uncomfortable with the game or any of its concepts, after all). You receive a small amount of hit points every time you kill an enemy you’ve cursed.

Star Pact: Your powers come from space aliens (it’s a deviation from the Player’s Handbook, but kids get excited about this...). Every time you kill an enemy you’ve cursed, the aliens reveal to you a bit of the future, giving you a small bonus to your next roll.Prime Shot: You may skip this one as kids are unlikely to use it. If you do use it, just read it from the book as is, because its description is already short and simple enough.

Shadow Walk: Only one in ten kids will use this feature during the game. So it might be more trouble than it’s worth. That said: "If you move three or more squares, you’ll be concealed in the shadows until your next turn. But remember—being concealed means you’re harder to see and attack, not invisible!"


The skill names are fairly descriptive, so letting kids choose for themselves shouldn’t be a problem. The below skills should probably be clarified prior to skill selection to avoid future arguments and disappointments:

Arcana: Knowledge of magic and magical beings. It does not confer any magical powers.

Dungeoneering: Survival and navigation in underground environment. It does not confer any architectural, digging, or trap-making or detecting powers.

Heal: Treating sickness and stopping deadly bleeding. It does not confer the ability to return lost hit points to characters.

I recommend that you start using skills as soon as possible for one simple reason: kids love to roll dice. Often they’ll roll as soon as their turn is announced without even bothering to tell you what they're doing. Heck, even when it’s not their turn they’ll still constantly roll dice, joyfully announcing each time they get a 20 while ruefully lamenting their 1’s.

Make sure to use as many skill checks as possible to satisfy their roll-lust. When using skill challenges, don’t just state how many successes must be achieved in each skill. Instead, start a class debate and give each kid a chance to convince you how a particular skill can help. Skill challenges should give everyone a chance to shine. Encourage creativity, but don’t automatically go with any mad scheme that lets a character use an unrelated skill he happens to have a high bonus in.

For example, one kid asked to use History in a skill challenge to get out of a deep well, arguing that he might know something about the well that will help the group to get out. I commended his originality. Another kid asked me if he could use Diplomacy to try to convince the well to spit him out...

Attack Powers

I found the best way to deal with powers is to wait until the kids start a combat encounter before introducing attack powers. Suddenly, choosing powers is no longer about going over tedious lists and listening to boring information they only partially understand. It’s a matter of life and death!

At the beginning of each kid’s turn, open the book to the appropriate page, very briefly explain the advantages and disadvantages of each at-will power and then let the player choose the one he would like to use right now. As the going gets tougher, the same should be done with encounter powers and daily powers.

For example, when a kid playing a fighter is choosing his first daily power, ask him whether he would rather cause triple damage with one blow (brute strike), double damage and heal himself (comeback strike) or double damage now and a little more with all subsequent attacks (villain’s menace). When he chooses his power, describe it as a sudden explosion of wrath and desperate heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, something which marks his transformation from a mere soldier to a hero destined for greater things. This is not just another attack roll. This is a dramatic, life-altering moment!

And while we’re talking about combat, make sure to explain to kids that adventuring is a very dangerous career and some characters will die in the course of their campaign. Not necessarily because they did something wrong, but because they were in the wrong place in the wrong time. C'est la vie. When a character does get killed, present it as an exciting opportunity to experience new classes and races, not as a failure. I also like to reward players whose characters nobly sacrificed themselves for the common good or had their character die in a dramatic and impressive way. While often contributing to cinematic and memorable combat encounters, this system should be used with discretion as it tends to encourage bleak fatalism which is not appropriate to some groups.

Particularly young children (7-8) are likely to become quite sad or mad by casual character death. It’s best to have their characters simply faint... but more on that next week.


My advice is: don’t. The amount of time it takes kids to go over the feat list and the amount of questions that will be asked makes the whole process more headache than it’s worth. One can go perfectly well through 1st level without a feat, while skills and powers offer enough options for customization to make each character unique.

If you must use feats, it's best you hand out two feats upon reaching 2nd level. To speed and simplify the feat-choosing process, I recommend preparing abridged lists suited for each child’s character class, race, abilities, and style of play. This way you will downsize the choice from more than eighty feats to less than twenty feats. It’s also possible to hand out feats according to personal achievements and style of play (think of the old show Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light). Older kids (9+) might resent this loss of freedom of choice, however, and should be given in the very least 2-3 options.


First, while this might seem obvious to you, nevertheless make sure to explain to kids that the game takes place in a medieval (though magical) setting and that the items they carry should fit the technological level of the period. If you don’t, half the kids will start the game with M-16’s while the other half will have Generation Seven mobile phones.

There are two basic strategies to equipment selection which I found to be the most fun and efficient.

Rags to Riches: Have the group start playing equipped with nothing but knives and clubs, but be generous with treasure in the first few encounters. While the players won’t get their dream-choice of equipment, every piece will feel special because it will be associated with victory and hard-work.

A more extreme version of this strategy is to have the characters begin in a state of extreme poverty, possibly even hunger. I usually use one of the below hooks:

A) The characters are prisoners who have to escape a strange prison with nothing but the clothes on their backs and no memory of how they got there.

B) The characters start play as destitute poor, given a shot at greatness by a kindly patron, a damsel in distress, or a chance to overthrow some conspiracy against the city that only they are aware of.

Twenty Questions: Choose equipment for the kids after a series of questions designed to determine which items will be the best suited for their needs. For example, the following could be used to help a kid playing a fighter choose the weapon that will best suit his style of play:

What do you prefer: a one-handed weapon which leaves a free hand to carry a shield, or a two-handed weapon which deals more damage but leaves you vulnerable to attacks?


Cool. What do you care about more: precision or damage?


Is damage the most important thing for you, or do you also want to reach further enemies with your weapon?

Damage! I want to smash enemies into little pieces!

Alright... then you should take a greataxe. That is the perfect weapon for a savage like you!

The same can be applied to armor (“speed or safety?”). Adventuring gear and other basic equipment, such as spellbooks for wizards or thieves’ tools for rogues should simply be dictated to the players without too much discussion; no one ever says no to free stuff.

I like to offer kids a chance to make up wacky items in addition to their standard gear. A fiddle to hypnotize snakes, a fake city guard badge, and a bag with the hero’s first poop that will kill everyone if opened have been some nice inventions on the part of the kids. (Well, maybe not that last one. But you’ve got to admit it’s quite funny.)

Note that given free reign, some kids will fill the inventory, write over the edges of the page, and then turn it over and write on the back of the page as well. Limit "free items" to a handful and go over the list carefully, or else you might be surprised to discover one kid has a lightsaber while another has a five-mile-high ladder.

Lastly, while not equipment in the strictest sense of the word, I recommend using this stage to give each player’s character a pet. Kids love pets. You should love them too because they create more opportunities for roleplaying, can save the group when the situation seems desperate, and add flavor and a chance for some goofy jokes to your game (passive-aggressive cat anyone?).


Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game. Storytelling and moral choices have equal, if not greater, importance to killing monsters and gaining levels. To help the kids start on the right trek, I like to conclude character creation with a process I call “prologue” (or “intro” for the video game generation).

Explain that class is not really a job or a personality, but rather a set of game abilities. For example, a fighter is simply someone who knows how to use weapons and armor and to roll with the blows. Some fighters are righteous champions in the service of a king, while others are heartless killers who live in the wilderness and prey on the weak. Still others are soldiers, mercenaries, fencing instructors, or even gardeners who were forced to learn how to fight by the circumstances of their lives. And the same could be said about warlocks or any other class in the Player’s Handbook.

Ask each kid to describe who his or her character is in a few words. These are the characters’ personal concepts. Encourage kids to create interesting concepts by awarding skills or minor special abilities to cool characters. For example, one kid’s rogue was a professional flea tamer in the circus; I gave him the power to make his enemies’ lives very itchy. Another kid played a paladin, a sole survivor of an epic battle now looking for a noble death; I “awarded” him by having death constantly elude him....

After everyone has chosen their concept, write them all on the board and proceed to the next stage: party concept.

Ask the group to make suggestions as to why they are together (a rebel cell fighting against a tyrant, an elite military unit, citizens concerned about the ecology, etc...) after collecting five or six ideas, write them on the board and have the group vote on their favorite concept.

This serves two purposes; first, it gives kids a sense of purpose, and helps them make sensible decisions during their adventuring career with the concept as their moral compass and modus operandi. Second, it helps you choose a setting and a gaming style more suited for the group's particular interests and needs.

For example, one group decided that they were spirits returned from the afterlife to take horrible vengeance on the aristocrats who used and then murdered them most foully. Obviously they were looking for dark and violent adventures. The extensive hit lists I was handed next session reaffirmed this belief and helped me design appropriate encounters for them.

A different group of kids decided that a mighty wizard named Warboss (yes, Warboss) chose them to save the ecology of their dying world. This group was more interested in narrative and role-playing. They enjoyed visiting fantastic places, piecing back the horrible history of their world and reclaiming whatever artifacts or knowledge was needed to cause a desert to bloom. So I brought a large map of the Tyr region (from Dark Sun), spread it on the table and told them what wild rumors they’ve heard about each location. Then I handed them the map and said, “This is your world. It is dying. What can you do to save it?”

And One Last Thing...

A dry-erase board. This schoolroom cliché is so incredibly helpful in DMing for children that it can almost be considered a necessity. Unless you’re running an atmospheric game beside a bonfire or something of that sort, make sure to have a whiteboard and markers in different colors handy. It will make explaining everything much easier, combat sequences much more orderly then with miniatures (they’re just too tempting to leave alone) and instills a more serious and school-like atmosphere among the kids.

Next Installment: Encounters or, “No, You Can’t Kill Orcus Either!”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunshine as a story of Humanist Martyrdom


"if you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it."

“Sunshine” is the most powerful antireligious films I’ve ever seen. While films like “The Devils” or “The Baby of Macon” do an excellent job at demonstrating the evil of religious institutes and religion as a political tool, Sunshine demonstrates the evil of unscientific beliefs in general. For me, it is a far more poignant and relevant criticism since willful ignorance is not the domain of churches alone.

Sunshine is a reverse deluge story. The deluge in Genesis teaches us the impotence of Man in the face of God and equates virtue with submission. But Sunshine makes an opposite declaration. It boldly informs God, “Should you decide to destroy us again, you will be the one destroyed.” It shows that the splendor once held by religion and mysticism is now taken by reason and that virtue now lies in Faustian struggle, not in meek acceptance.

In this story, Noah is the villain. He is represented by the insane captain of Icarus I. Repeatedly exclaiming the insignificance of humanity in the cosmos, the mad captain personifies the submission inherent to religion, as well as the deaf violence with which it forces its positions on the unwilling. However, this monster is ultimately defeated by people who believe in Humanity and not God – the roles have finally been reversed.

It is curious to note that in the crystal clear, almost sterile visuals of the film, the captain always appears blurry, fleshy and nightmarish. This visual solution highlights the murkiness of religious thought as opposed to the clarity of reason.

Not one character in Sunshine survives this monumental mission. They are picked one by one by the vastness of space or by the murderous fanatic. However, these deaths are not shown as defeats. They are glorious, an ascension of the spirit against the awesome backdrop of the cosmos. It is not failure, but martyrdom.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Short Life of Masha the Werewolf

The only werewolf NPC I ever featured in a D&D game was named Masha. She started as the kid's enemy, but after several bloody encounters the group and she ended up joining forces to destroy her evil father, a deathless necromancer who was poisoning the land, and free her mother, a vengeful rusalka spirit, who kept the men of the village from fishing. Amusingly, it took them some time to understand that the odd girl who kept avoiding them and the dire wolf that kept attacking them immediately afterward was the same person. In time, The kids got extremely attached to Masha the Wolf. This was a shame because the necromancer's death was hidden in her life (a.k.a "the dragonheart" effect).

In the final session, she and one of the PCs, a paladin named Brian, were killed defending the village from the necromancer's horde and corrupt allies. Brian's death elected no special response except for "heh, n00b" but Masha's death squeezed a tear or two from the young defenders.

In a rare display of genuine human drama, the PCs fixed the village with money from their own pocket (so very rare for young players) and renamed the church "Brian Church" and the main square "Masha Square." They decided that their next quest should be finding the Tree of Life and bringing back their slain friends, but alas, to paraphrase Alice Cooper, school was out for the summer and, for me, it was also out forever.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Zombie Dice and Jewish Holidays

Me: In honor of Passover, we're going to fight zombie Nazis today.
Kid 1: This makes no sense.
Me: Of course it does, Passover is all about fighting zombie Nazis!*
Kid 2: Shut up. I want to kill zombies.

I have recently come into the possession of a box of zombie dice and was eager to give them a nice rotten airing. While this simple little dice game is quite fun in and of itself, I felt it also had some roleplaying potential. Today I was proved right.

I like to do unorthodox, routine-breaking, holiday-themed adventures for Passover. Today I have chosen the classic Passover subject of Nazi Zombies, mostly because I wanted to play with my zombie dice. Because it was a one time affair, I didn’t bother with a complex system or plot.

The three possible outcomes of meeting a zombie...
The kids played Jewish partisans who have received a tip about “mysterious radiation” picked up by Red Army radars. Their NKVD contact informed them that this mysterious radiation was of top interest to Soviet science and the PCs were asked to investigate and to report back ASAP. 

Every kid got five points to distribute among stuff he’s good at, each point being a single re-roll for the session. Unlike last year, this year’s choices were disgustingly practical – mostly firearms and engineering with a sprinkling of martial arts and explosives. I asked if anyone even considered taking Diplomacy, Espionage or something more subtle. One kid answered, “Can we talk the Nazis to death? If not, I really don’t see the point...”

As for weapons, each kid got the following
  • Grenade or landmine
  • Kar98k long rifle or PPSh-41 submachine gun
  • Hunting knife or byonet
  • Survival gear

The rifle could fire wasn't automatic, but was precise and reliable. The submachine gun was full auto but was inacurate and kept jamming. Two kids chose rifles and three kids chose machine guns.

Now as the above picture demonstrates, zombie dice have three possible outcomes: brain (fail), feet (meh), and blast (win). Red dice have more blasts (easy), green dice have more brains (hard) and yellow dice have equal distribution (normal). I used this quality to represent difficulty levels.

So, if you want to spray your foes with a submachine gun, you roll three dice and examine them from left to right. Because a machine gun is less precise, you roll yellow dice for nearby targets and green dice for distant targets. A jam cancels all the dice to its right and forces you to spend the next round attending to your weapon. A long rifle never jams and uses red and yellow dice instead of yellow and green, but allows only one shot per round.

The Assault
Proving again to be the most pragmatic kids to ever walk God’s green earth, the party crept to the source of the radiation, a ruined barn guarded by four German soldiers, and sent a scout to sniff around before the attack. He returned with news of a strange humming coming from inside the barn and two cars parked in front of it: a shiny black Rolls Royce and a Volkswagen truck riddled with bullet holes... and moaning.

This didn't happen... yet
The kids decided to steer clear of the truck and go straight for the barn. However, first they had to remove the guards. Their tactic was unsophisticated but sound enough. They hurled two grenades and opened automatic fire as soon as the grenades exploded. The attack was successful, but one kid was shot in the stomach and fell to the ground bleeding profusely.

Probably because of their D&D mentality, the kids didn’t feel this event deserved their attention and pressed on, forgetting about their injured comrade (“one bullet is not going to kill you, just use a healing surge next round”).

After a couple of rounds, I took the kid outside and told him that he’s died from his injuries, animated as a zombie and was now hungry for brrrrrainz. The kid kept a perfectly straight face and shambled toward the group, which meanwhile defeated the Nazi guards and approached the barn.

Enjoying his role too much, the kid dropped a grenade near the moaning truck, releasing four more zombies that suddenly attacked the group. At this point I took another kid outside and told him that everything was fine. The group still didn’t decide if they want to shoot him or not.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll tell you how it all ended in two weeks.

Meanwhile, live long and eat brains!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Three Crazy Games

While usually play D&D and VTM with kids, sometimes I like to go a little crazy. In fact, some of the most memorable and fun adventures I ever ran were wacky and absurd games that allowed young gamers to flex their imagination and experience something truly new and exciting.

Of all the slipstream game I ran with kids, these three were the most memorable. SHIPS! and RATS! were awesome too... but you already know that. In fact you may know these as well. They were posted on the WotC website in days long spent...

And yes, I do realize I have a tendency to make all my titles a plural noun followed by an exclamation mark. That’s just how I like my RPGS!

This campaign relies heavily on improvisation and may not be suitable for groups full of rules lawyers. Strange as it may sound, this game of filth and ferrum (F&F?) was especially popular among young girls. Possibly because they weren’t bothered by the freeform gaming style but enjoyed the possibility to design a unique character from an infinite selection of spare parts… even if it was all just recycled trash.

This is how it went: after some cosmic holocaust, nothing but colossal amounts of garbage remained on a planet now devoid of all life. Slowly, various broken appliances connect to form unlikely heroes made from broken toasters (to shoot heat-beams), lawn mowers (to move around and slice enemies), Ipads (to think and sense) and so forth. As the game progresses, the PCs gathered more spare parts, creating truly unique characters.

Players had the option to connect with each other to form a juggernaut, a huge creature controlled by a several players, or stay small and independent. Curiously, all the boys ended up being part of some huge lumbering monstrosity, while girls were willing to sacrifice power in return for maintaining their individual characters.

Typical adventures revolved around fighting other animated garbage over control of power plants and supplies, fending off schizoid juggernauts and technomancers commanding hordes of formatted “zombies.” The most dramatic adventure dealt with a crashed spaceship and its surviving biological crew – a treasure coveted by many. The revelation that followed, although quite clichéd, left quite the impact!

Some day I will turn this into a very cool card-based RPG or board game. Some day...

Art by Mateusz Ozminski

Every adventurer was a kid once. What did he do at this tender age, sat at home all day and did his homework? Hell no! He had wonderful adventures, slew monsters and divided their loot while making sure mommy and daddy didn’t know a thing!

A single-session scenario I especially like to run is a fantasy version of Home Alone, where resourceful but physically undeveloped PCs have to fend off a goblin warband that entered the house while the PCs’ parents were away adventuring. Just bring some PC strips and a map of a normal house and the rest of the adventure will take care of itself itself!

If some kids are unhappy about not playing their usual PCs this session, you can tell them that these are their PCs twenty years ago and that any reward they now gain for cleverness or courage will be transferred to their regular adult PCs next session.

Below are a few quick PC examples:

11 hp, AC 10, Fort 11, Ref 8, Will 11
STR +1 DEX -2 CON +1 INT -3 WIS +0 CHA +1
Athletics +6, Intimidate +6
Stop Hitting Yourself! (standard; encounter) an adjacent enemy makes basic melee attack against itself. If it hits, add your Charisma modifier to the damage.
Get Lost! (standard; encounter) Charisma vs. Will. an enemy within 10 or less squares moves its full speed away from you and is stunned (save ends)
Equipment: Leather jerkin, club, random object belonging to a different class

Wizard’s Apprentice
7 hp, AC 13, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -3 DEX -2 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA -2
Arcane +10, History +10
I Think I Get It… (full round; daily) you receive a clue from the DM.
Fast Talker (standard; encounter) Charisma vs. Will. Your enemy is stunned for one round (save ends).
Equipment: Hefty tome, magic wand

8 hp, AC 14, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -2 DEX 0 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA +1
Strange stuff +8
This Is Nothing, Now Sir Lancelot… (standard; encounter) an ally restores 1d6+4 hp and punches you in the nose.
The Great Caesar, in 55 BC… (standard; daily)  an ally receives +2 to attack rolls or +4 to damage or skill roll until the end of the encounter. He then asks you to shut up.
Equipment: Storybook, training armor, wooden sword

8 hp, AC 13, Fort 9, Ref 13, Will 11
STR -2 DEX 0 CON -1 INT +3 WIS +1 CHA +1
Stealth +5, Thievery +8
Leave me alone! (minor action; daily) you become invisible until the end of your next round.
I don’t need you! (minor action; encounter) You gain +10 to your next skill check. This check may not be assisted by other party members.
Equipment: Pocket knife, outrageous makeup

Art by  Charlene Chua
One of the most memorable games I ever ran was literally improvised on the spot. On account of a colleague vaporizing (not literally), I had to DM a game for 15 kids (a nightmare into itself) with zero preparation time and no resources except my dice and some 3e D&D books. Now if you remember, the old Monster Manual had an extensive Animals section, which gave me an idea – animals against poachers!

I gave each kid a random animal of CR 2 or 3 and set them on a quest – to defeat the poachers who killed so many of their brothers and sisters. There was even an evil twist – the obese wolf they rescued at the start of the adventure was actually helping the poachers – he led animals to the poachers’ lair to be killed and skinned and in return he got meat (the lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to hunt by himself!) The game was an absolute blast and I’m told that kids talk about it to this day.

The cooperation in that game was also amazing. For example, the snake coiled around the boar’s head and spat at its enemies to blind them before the boar charged. Granted, this isn’t realistic animal behavior, but when was the last time you picked up an axe and went to slay a dragon?

If you’re in a hurry, you may just photocopy some of the animals from the Monster Manual. Suitable animals for this kind of game include:
  • Cacklefiend Hyena (without Acid Bloodspurt)
  • Cave Bear
  • Crushgrip Constrictor
  • Deathrattle Viper
  • Dire Boar
  • Dire Wolf
  • Fey Panther (without fey step)
  • Visejaw Crocodile
With more mature groups you might also use various birds, which are weaker, but make great spies and emissaries. You may want to halve the animals’ hp and decrease their bonuses by -2 to -4 to make them feel less epic and more like normal woodland beasts. Just like with young PCs, if you have time to prepare, I recommend designing PC strips.