Sorcerer + Kids = "YAAAAY!"

Started by Christopher Kubasik, July 25, 2009, 11:41:02 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Christopher Kubasik

I spent this past week in New Hampshire with my family.  Spotty Internet, no tv, a lovely lake, and lots of family gathered up in one house.

My sister had told her children that "Uncle Christopher used to play Dungeons & Dragons" and when I arrived from Los Angeles they wanted to know more about this.

The three of them are Ben, Alexandra and Graham.  Ben and Alexandra are twins, age ten.  Graham is 8.  Not unexpectedly, Graham spends a lot of energy trying to keep up with his older siblings.  There's an age/gender dynamic, where Graham tries to buddy up to Ben to exclude Alexandra from certain activities, Alex simply is bored with a lot of the boy stuff, and Ben is often more comfortable with both Alex and Graham. 

You should know that these kids are crazy-avid readers (Graham has already read the first Harry Potter book - to keep up with his older siblings, of course; Alexander has been burning through the Sister's Grimm series this week, one per day, with me heading out to the nearby Borders each morning to pick up the next volume).  They love fantasy movies from Nanny McPherson to The Lord of the Rings.  (Note: Gollum is considered Really Scary by the kids; Graham hasn't scene much of the second two movies because of him, and Alexander and Ben are much more comfortable with The Fellowship of the Rings, in which he barely appears.)  Ben and Graham can recite the Star Wars movies by heart.  They often break into a cappella versions of John Williams soundtracks while traveling in cars.  Ben and Graham are currently obsessed with a cool game called HeroScape (a kind of Advanced Squad Leader for fantasy/sf obsessed little boys).

I had played The Pool with Ben and Alexandra back in December.  (Graham had started the game, but got bored and left after a short while.)  I wasn't particularly pleased with the results, but the kids loved it enough that they asked me about playing again when I got in my sister's car when they all came to pick me up at Logan Airport. 

To sum up The Pool game, the narration rights got all tangled: whenever Ben or Alexandra got a Monologue of Victory they ran off on a verbal tear with sorts of future results of countless scenes way beyond the scope of the conflict.  Eventually they started narrating outcomes before we even rolled dice; they'd just start talking – and then keep talking.  I simply got tired of trying to rein in their enthusiasm. 

I knew I probably wanted to try another game with them, but still wasn't certain.  (On the plane ride east I had worked up some notes for a Sorcerer setting called Goblin Lords for them: the idea is that kids get "creatures" that can do cool things when they behave badly, and the creatures only get them into more trouble.  I was thinking about Where the Wild Things Are, Clifford the Big Red Dog, The Iron Giant,,  Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (where Micky Mouse floods the castle with the walking brooms), and Disney's Mary Poppins and Pinocchio.  (I have to admit, I was really intrigued with the notion that Disney's Mary Poppins was a Demon summoned by Jane and Michael.)

When the three of them asked me about Dungeons & Dragons I said, "Well, it's like that game we played back at Christmas.  Except you play a dwarf or an elf or something like that and you gear up go into a dungeon, a kind of maze of tunnels under the ground filled with monsters and treasure."  Their eyes kind of lit up and for a moment I thought I'd dig up the original D&D rules online, track down a range of polyhedral dice and just go old school - which I thought they would like and which would be easy to run.

But after that instant passed Ben shouted, "I'm going to be a Troll with an AXE!"  And Graham declared, "I'm going to be a demon!  With BLACK ARMOR!"

And I thought, "Okay. I might need a system that's more flexible to pull this off."

I'll admit, I wavered.  After my experience with The Pool I wanted something a little more controlled for conflict resolution.  OD&D seemed a good fit... until I remembered that so much of the fun of that game is the tug of war over the fiction between the GM and the Players:
Player: I poke my sword into the hole and check for traps.
(GM makes roll...)
GM: Okay. You find a little latch inside.
Player: Okay.  I'm going to bend the tip of a spike, tie a rope around the other end, and push it down and try to hook the latch...

This goes on a lot.  I feared that the imaginative logic of children might grind against the imaginative logic of adults.  The fun is not just making up more and more fantastical stuff, but negotiating toward a reality that "might" really work because puzzle solving and problem solving requires boundaries.  I was pretty sure I would fail to come up with a bunch of puzzles in the short time I had (or on the fly) to engage them at this level with boundaries they could trust.

I also feared that the fights the mostly consisted of "roll d20, roll d20, roll d20" whittling-the-HPs-down wouldn't appeal to me much.

I was still considering Sorcerer of course.  But what of Demons?  What of their Needs and Lore and Humanity and all of it?  I feared I'd end up sending my niece and nephew screaming from the room by asking more of them than I should by some accident prompt of the rules.

On the other hand, I was really curious to see how the conflict rules would work with children.  ("See! Even children can do it!")  And if I made the game a Sorcerer & Sword game, which is lighter on the souls of the PCs.  I decided I would make sure not to suggest anything to the kids when they created the characters, allowing them to set their boundaries of comfort. I would follow their lead.  Demons would be Demons Xtra-Lite ™ - they might cause trouble for the PCs, but depravity, human sacrifices and the lot were off the table.

I settled on a definition of Humanity: Taking Care of Your People.

This seemed, actually, to really nail the Robert E. Howard take on humanity in his Conan stories.  (I'm thinking immediately of passages from The Tower of the Elephant, Red Nails, and other stories where Conan finds himself feeling a kinship to both creatures and other people he's only recently met – which always marks where the thematic touchstone is exposed.  Like the Conan stories, the question "Who are your people?" is implied in the definition.  I thought this might lead to interesting questions for the kids, but it also allowed a concrete, no quibbles definition if that's what they wanted.)

edited by me to fix italics format at the author's request - RE
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

We got together for character creation last Friday.  Alex created her character: An Elf named Honeydew. 

I asked them to describe their characters as best they could, and then asked questions off the character sheet.  I didn't have them assign numbers to the Scores, but went off on my own to do that with the descriptions they gave me.  (Ben later made a correction on his sheet, moving a point from Stamina into Lore.)

I re-phrased Kickers as "What happens?" as in, "What happens that starts off your character's story?"  We went back and forth on this for about 30 seconds, but there was an "Ah-ha!" moment pretty early on.

I asked them to describe the Telltale and the Price for each character.  Ben, clever boy that he is, said to his siblings, "Hey, wait.  If we make a thing that makes us bad at something, he's going put that in the story."  And I said, "Right.  But you're telling me what sort of thing you WANT me to put in the story."  He paused.  Then smiled.  Then said with a big grin, "My character gets a minus one die when interacting with SPIDERS!"

Graham started describing how his Demon can breath fire on arrows and shoot them into people to burn them up. We really hadn't touched on Demons yet, but I figured, "Here we go."  I described that his character, Assassin, had found a creature of fire that he somehow put inside of him, and that the creature let him breath fire on his weapons.  He said, "No, no... I can do it."  And I said, "No, no... a creature does it. And you get to tell me how you got that creature." 

So, he described how after he killed the demon that tried to betray his people, he ate the demon's corpse and ate the creature the traitor had inside him.  So, to be clear: GRAHAM came up with the notion of cannibalism.  And I had nothing to do with steering him into that direction at all.  I was just a guy sitting there going... "Wow. Huh.  Didn't see that coming."  In general, everything you see in the characters below were crated 99.99987.493% by little kids.  Other than prompting with questions, I just sat there writing things down.

Once Graham had a cool creature that gave him powers, Ben and Alexandra wanted one as well.  Ben chose a snake, Alexandra a kitten.  (Powers described below.)  None of the kids really wanted their Demons to do a lot, and in general, they treated them more like pets that they liked and wanted to keep safe rather than creatures to send into battle.  So, their Powers are low, but I bumped them up with Stamina to help the PC in fights if the Ben, Alexandra or Graham wished.  (Here's an example of something I did add to the fiction: I noticed that Alexandra's character, Honeydew, had worked at her parent's inn all of her life and knew a lot about being a merchant, but really wanted to be an adventurer.  So I guessed I was going to give her a higher Will than Stamina.  So I suggested that her kitten, Ruffles, could make her move faster (Boost Stamina) allowing her to hit targets faster and dodge attacks.  She liked this idea, so I added it to Ruffle's notes.)

The next day, after writing down all the info and creating the paragraph bios, I checked with them about the Score Descriptors.  Most of them were self-evident, but I really wasn't sure about Will for any of them.  I ran several options by each one of them, and wrote down the one they picked.  I also asked them about their Demon's Needs and Desires.

The children named their PCs.  All other names came from me.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Graham's Character: "ASSASSIN"
Takes Care of His People: 5

Telltale: Fire for Eyes
Stamina: 5 (big and vigorous]
Will: 2 (vow) (to bring his father back to life)
Lore: 3 (demon born)
Past:  5 (Assassin)
Price: -1 Social Interactions (mumbles to self, shakes head)
What Happens?: Hears of a diamond that can bring people back from dead
Destiny: Warlord

"Assassin" once was called Jalotz.  He was a demon of Underworld – a land of fire and ash.  His father, Az'Kar, ruled the Underworld.  Az'Kar's Captain, Far'zakara, betrayed and killed Az'Kar – placing the blame on other demons.  Far'zakara seized the throne and ordered Jackotz to kill all the other demon's of the Underworld.  Tazaraka refused the horrific order, and instead killed Far'zakara to save the other demons.  He murdered his father's killer and ate the demon's corpse, stealing from the traitor the fire monster Bendayor and binding the creature within his own body.  But no other demons ever knew of Far'zakara's treachery – not how he killed Az'Kara nor how he ordered the death of all other demons.  The other demons of the underworld stripped Jalotz of his name, calling him only "Assassin," and exiled him from the Underworld.

Bound Creature: BENDAYOR 
a creature of powerful fire

Abilities: Bendayor allows Assassin to breath a powerful and dangerous attack upon his enemies.  He can also breath fire upon his weapons (sword, arrows, whatever) which causes the weapon to burn with intense fire and do extraordinary damage when used upon his enemies.

Type: Parasite
Telltale: Fire in the host's eyes

Need: Attention
Desire: Burn Things

Stamina: 3
Will: 4
Lore: 3
Power: 4

* Fire Breath (Ranged, Special-damage Lethal)
* Enflame Weapons (Special-damage Lethal)

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Takes Care of His People: 5

Telltale: A glowing, green and poisonous tattoo wound around his arm
Stamina: 4 (big and vigorous)
Will: 4 (Vow) (to bring treasure back to people)
Lore: 2 (naïve)
Past: 5 (warrior, bandit)
Price: -1 interacting with spiders
Kicker: has heard tale of a great treasure waiting to be plundered

Earthcracker is a troll from a tribe of trolls living in the Haunted Forest that have been warring with tribes of giant spiders for generations.  When Earthcracker was just coming of age the spiders, called the Gargantas, raided the troll tribes and stole all their treasure.  Earthcracker, eager to make a name for himself greater than anyone else in his tribe, set out to the spider lairs to see if he could find the treasures.  Deep in their caves he was beset by the spiders, which terrified him as they chased him down dark corridors. As he fled he came across a group of strange eggs – glowing with green light.  Inside were serpents – creatures used by the spiders for their magical powers.  He bound one of the serpents to himself – a creature named Karintar with poisonous fangs and a horrific bite.  He used Karintar to defeat the spiders who chased him. He searched the tunnels and found that both the spider tribes and the treasure were gone.  He returned home with this news.  The troll king, Kracken, declared that a group of trolls would head off to a knights castle and steal treasure from it.  The troop of trolls attacked the castle – only to find it better defended than they had expected.  Their ranks broke and trolls fled.  Many died.  Earthcracker soon found himself alone and lost far from the Haunted Forest.  He became a bandit, searching for a treasure large enough to bring back to his people and restore their power and glory.

Bound Creature: KARINTAR
a small serpent

Type: Demon-Beast
Telltale: A wisp of greenish mist off the creature's skin as it moves

Need: Nature and nature settings
Desire: To be around action

Stamina: 4
Will: 5
Lore: 1
Power: 5

* Poisonous Bite: (Special Damage Lethal)

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

Alexandra's Character: HONEYDEW
Takes Care of Her People: 5

Telltale: a strange scar from a cat's scratch along her arm
Stamina: 3 (just healthy)
Will: 5 (zest for life)
Lore: 2 (elven born)
Past: 5 (merchant)
Price: -1 in fights
Kicker: she finds out her mother was murdered

Honeydew is an elf from a tribe living in a beautiful meadow in homes carved into rolling hills.  She was the cook at the inn run by her mother and father, Willowshine and Dapplebrook.  When her mother died she took over running the business as her father took over running the kitchen.  As good as she was in her trade, she didn't like staying at home and wanted a life of adventure and war.  One day she saw some baby kittens and chased them – leaving behind her responsibilities at the inn.  She lost sight of all the kittens but one – Ruffles, a little kitten of orange and black fur with strange, knowing eyes.  When she grabbed for the kitten it scratched her, leaving her with a peculiar mark on her arm she carries to this day.  She wrestled with the creature, getting it to finally surrender.  It is now her pet and offers her several astounding abilities: Not only can Ruffles make a nasty scratch with a poisonous effect, and not only does she have a harsh bite, but she can also make Honeydew move fast when in battle, making it easier for her to hit people she's fighting and dodge blows coming her way.

Bound Creature: RUFFLES
a small kitten

Type: Old God
Telltale: It's strange patchwork of orange and black fur; it's strange, knowing eyes

Abilities: Ruffles has a nasty natural bite and scratch, but her scratch can also poison people with terrible damage.  She can also make Honeydew move very fast, making Honeydew harder to hit in a fight and able to striker at her enemies more quickly, causing more damage.

Need: To chase and be chased
Desire: To destroy the other Animal Gods of the land

Stamina: 5
Will: 6
Lore: 2
Power: 6

* Poisonous Scratch: (Special Damage Lethal)
* Boost (Stamina)

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield



Quick question: Some of those Needs and Desires seem a little off from the way one normally formulates them.  Specifically, some of the Needs seem too broad and some of the Desires seem too narrow.  Were you deliberately being a little flexible with them because of the kid nature of the game?


Ron Edwards

The Needs are fine. Two of the Desires are a little more focused than the by-the-rules rules. (I have a terrible time explaining to people that Desires are not supposed to be customized and specified.) However, the fundamental content of the corresponding Desires (destruction, and either worship or power) seems to be present, so I think it's not a big deal.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Hi Christopher,

Quote(I have to admit, I was really intrigued with the notion that Disney's Mary Poppins was a Demon summoned by Jane and Michael.)

Fits way too well, doesn't it? This sort of thing seems almost redundant.

Anyway, I've often wondered how Sorcerer would go with kids. I was in a game store recently, describing the game to an adult, and a kid about ten (charmingly) butted in ... and within moments, understood and paraphrased the point of play far better than I was probably capable of doing, finishing with "So it can go a good way and a bad way, no matter whether you get what you want." I looked at the adult in the conversation and said, shrugging: "Exactly what he said."

I really like the logic you applied in arriving at the various scores for the characters, and I also found their characters' back-stories to be quite good: full of potential, enough to play from almost directly, and yet not too enmeshed in story-before.

Best, Ron

Christopher Kubasik

Notes on the Game Prep

I appreciate all the positive responses I've gotten, but I want to be clear that this was a very compressed play.  That is, everyone had a good time – particularly my niece and nephews.  But we only had one week to play. 

This meant minimal prep time for me after the characters had been made.  And because of the limited frame of time to play, I specifically made the prep very limited in scope.  Usually I'll encourage Players to dig into their character's background and come up with a goodly number of NPCs.  Did someone mention that his PC's daughter is in the care of the PC's sister?  Okay.  Who is the sister?  Is she married?  Okay, her husband is an NPC, too.  Does she have other kids?  Okay. Those kids are NPCs, too.  Where does she work?  Anyone of note there?  And so on.  We might end up with a half dozen to a dozen NPC names that the Players write down on the Lore/Kicker/Price/Cover grid on the character sheet.

It's not that I expect I'll use all these characters or that they'll all come into play.  In fact, that's the point – I don't know who will be used or not used (or, more specifically, who the Players will end up being the most interested in).  But I like having a big web of relationships to look at while I'm prepping.  I'll take that week between the character session and the first session of play, creating more NPCs, mulling possible connections and motivations.  Maybe the sister's husband is a member of the Kicker that is part of the PC's Kicker.  Things like that. 

By having a lot of fictional "clay" to work with (both in prep and during play) I know we all have enough to riff off of to let the branching choices of the characters intriguing, while still keeping the tale looping back within the webs of relationships that the Players have already set in motion during their own character creation.  As the Players have their characters decide to risk Humanity or try to salvage it, to have them burn off alliances or make new friends, there is enough fictional clay on hand to play with.  (And, again, the Players might never even find out about the sister's husband by the time the Kickers are resolved.   But that isn't my concern.  My concern is having enough fictional material to play with.)

Since I was using Sorcerer & Sword as my foundation, this made perfect sense anyway.   The game's structure is: 1) create a setting in broad brushstrokes; 2) let the Players create their Id-Unleashed power fantasy bad-asses; 3) create the backstory and situation elements from the Kickers and other PC details.  (We pretty much skipped step 1 when Graham and Ben declared the characters they wanted to create.  My job at the point was to think, "Okay... we've got demons, we got trolls... and here we go!")

My point in discussing all this is that even in Sorcerer & Sword you'd still have a broader and somewhat more complicated prep than I created for this game.  Half the NPCs Ben, Alexandra and Graham had created were dead before the Kickers started.  And I didn't want to give them the chance to start wandering down unexpected paths that would wind and twist and prevent us from wrapping up the Kickers by the week's end.  I wanted a slight, focused adventure.  Something with lots of combat – because honestly, I knew the kids wanted to kick some ass with their characters and I wanted to deliver that.

The Need to Learn the Rules

In line with all this I decided the PCs demons would not be the focus of too many scenes.  This was in part a time pressure element, but it was also a matter of the Players' comfort with the rules. 

One of the things I've observed over the years – both in my own play as a Player and in the play of other Players – is that Players are rightly suspicious of being shoved out into an RPG adventure without a baseline understanding of the risks and rewards of the mechanics.  Or, rather, if you want Players to take big chances and make interesting choices, this impulse is best supported when the Players have at least a baseline understanding of the risks and the rewards.  Until that happens, Players tend to make safe choices, avoid risks and kill their more interesting impulses.  The reason for this is completely rational: If I could accidently lose my guy on die roll I didn't even know I'd be making, and I don't even know when or how to roll a die, or when the odds or in or against my favor, why the heck would I risk doing anything?

My niece and nephews had never played the game before.  More importantly, I had no idea how well (or not well!) the brains of a trio of 10 and 8 year-olds would grasp the mechanics.  I didn't want to push them into situations where they ended up doing a lot of conflict with their demons when they really didn't know what they were getting into.  Because they liked their demons and would start shutting down if the Demons were at risk and they didn't understand the implications – or worse, threw fit because I accidently sand-bagged them with a result based off the dice when they, again, didn't understand the risks going in.

The reason all this matters is that when people start ducking risks and creative choices early in play, it's hard for them to learn how to open up later on.  So I wanted to build the risk elements as the game went on.  And this meant focusing more on getting them to use the mechanics, interacting with the Demons as helpers so they could see their value, showing them how Humanity worked, and so on.

So, that was my thinking as I began working on the prep.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Quote from: Christopher Kubasik on July 25, 2009, 11:41:02 AMI had worked up some notes for a Sorcerer setting called Goblin Lords for them: the idea is that kids get "creatures" that can do cool things when they behave badly, and the creatures only get them into more trouble.  I was thinking about Where the Wild Things Are, Clifford the Big Red Dog, The Iron Giant,,  Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (where Micky Mouse floods the castle with the walking brooms), and Disney's Mary Poppins and Pinocchio.  (I have to admit, I was really intrigued with the notion that Disney's Mary Poppins was a Demon summoned by Jane and Michael.)
Your Goblin Lords concept is pretty sweet. Any additional details about the setting that you can share with us?
Marv (Finarvyn)
Sorcerer * Dresden Files RPG * Amber Diceless
Forge Member since 2004
OD&D Player since 1975


Yes, please.  This was such an entertaining write-up that I've been looking forward to hearing about how the first session went! 

Story Now!!!