Monday, April 28, 2014

Playing D&D with a 12 year-old: Part 2

So I'm babysitting again. The kid's in bed and we just wrapped up a 2-hour D&D session. A report is in order.

This is the folder she made for her character sheet and handouts. The best.

So, last session Isabelle the Sorceress of the Black Hills got caught sneaking around in the caves of some barracuda-men when they apprehended her familiar pixie, Tito.

This session began with a parlay. She told the leader of the barracuda-men that she had been sent under duress by the Kenku to distract them while they hatched some sinister further south along the island. She was banking on them hating the kenku as much as the kenku hated them - and she was right. The leader screams out "KEENKUUUUUUU!" and quickly assembles a party to apprehend them. BUT, he also ties up Isabelle and leaves her behind under watch by two guards. Tito remains caught up in a net.

Isabelle tries to get her captors to sample the fluid in the vial she's carrying (a deadly poison, meant to sabotage their sacred pool). They think about it, but hesitate (she couldn't come up with a good enough bluff). So they hold on to the vial. Then she threatens them with dark magic, but these aren't so easily impressed and ask for a display of her power. All she has left is her magic shield. They sample it by punching her in the stomach, and she fails her con roll and doubles over. (I forgot to give her a substantial bonus for this roll due to the shield. My bad. Oh well.) So she waits for a while, and then starts telling kenku jokes. This gets them. She gets them riled up on kenku-hate, and proposes they go out and prank some stinkin' crow-mask-wearers. They're like YEAAAHHHHHH and bring her along, though her arms are still bound.

Along the way they ask her what kind of prank they're going to pull. She says she's not sure. Barracuda-men aren't very intelligent, and can't think of anything either. So they stop to think about it for a minute. They sit down on a rock near the edge of a cliff (they've been following the shoreline south) to work out a game plan.

While the barracuda-folk argue, Isabelle hears a rustling in the nearby brush. Looking over, she sees a single kenku peering out at her. He's a younger fellow, looks to be adolescent, with long, lanky limbs. (This encounter was planned. I'll discuss it later.)

This was fun. The kid at this point turns sideways and shows me how she signs for him to come over.

He points out the two guards, and draws a finger across his throat.

She nods vigorously.

At this point, the guards as Isabelle what she's doing. She says she's doing a funny dance for Tito, or he might get agitated and break out into fairy-hives. They want nothing to do with that noise and carry on their conversation.

She looks back. The kenku is forming letters with his hands.

D - I - S - T - R - A - C - T

(We were still doing this all in pantomime, by the way.)

Isabelle turns to her captors and starts cracking kenku jokes again. They're eating it up, and laughing riotously until one of their throats gets sliced open. Before the other can react, he's pushed off the cliff into the water. (He can swim, but he's less likely to be able to climb 50 feet back up.) The kenku cuts Isabelle's bonds and introduces himself as Uzen. 

Uzen says he's been separated from a landing party that stopped for supplies and got lost. This happens a lot to kenku, he explains, owing to an ancient curse on their tribe. Isabelle asks him to come along and help him poison the barracuda-men's pool. He hates those guys and is super into this plan.

The kid asks, "can I get the poison back?"



"Roll this die."


"On a 4-6, the guy who fell in the water had it."




2. Celebration. She grabs the vial and makes tracks back to the barracuda cave.

They sneak in and poison the pool. Then they get out of there. The kid feels a little bad. They get out and Uzen starts hooing and bragging and celebrating. She tells him to shut it before I roll wandering monsters. 

Then Isabelle notices the kenku ships are gone. She asks Uzen where they are.

"Oh, they left. I think the plan was to ditch you here. Anyway, they're probably lost by now. Who knows when they'll be back."

Together they head towards a town on the south side of the island, coming across some stray brown robes and a narrowly avoiding a run-in with the returning barracuda-men.

They arrive at the gates of a town called Olmen. Isabelle suspects these people might not like the oh-so-sketchy kenku and tells Uzen to wear the robes over his head as a disguise. He looks like this.

The perfect disguise.

So of course the town guard are like "that is most clearly a kenku why are you travelling with this sketchball." They demand a steep entry fee. Having no coin to spare, the party gets in on a promise to serve the Warlord of the town in exchange for a night's rest in the stables.

The next morning, the oddball group is brought before the Warlord. Isabelle introduces herself, and tells him of her quest to save her parents' souls from the sorcerer Mortimer. The Warlord remarks that a mysterious sorcerer has taken up with Ulmen's ancestral enemies, the people of Gem. Perhaps it is Mortimer. Drawing the girl's attention to a map of the island, he shows how it is bisected by a great canyon. The fertile and fielded eastern half is ruled by Olmen; the hilly and mineral-rich west, by Gem. The only bridge between the two sides is heavily guarded by troops from both towns. Gem has been bullying Olmen lately, refusing to pay for grain and pumping up the price of weapons. Yet their guard on the bridge has also been relaxed of late. The Warlord hopes to tip the scales by seizing a Gemish fort just beyond the bridge. This would secure the bridge and increase his prestige, and also allow him to charge heavier fees for hunting rights in the east. He wants Isabelle and her ragtag friends to fight for him, and offers them food, drink, and access to the (rather modestly stocked) armoury.

Isabelle accepts, although she has her doubts as to whether this shady spellcaster is the one she's looking for. 

We're running out of time, so she RPs a friendly meal with Uzen, and takes some time to get to know him better. Among her interests are getting him to take off that mask, but it quickly becomes apparent that any discussion regarding the mask is taboo.

The evening ends with the kid chatting my ear off with her plans about how she's going to take over this fortress with a minimum of violence while I try to get her to go get her PJs on and go to sleep.


Playing with this kid is really fascinating. It presents a lot of unique challenges and interesting surprises.

First, there's the matter of Uzen, who I sort of railroaded in.* Actually, let's talk about railroading in general. I've done a lot of things in this game that feel uncomfortably close to railroading - so far it's been like, "ok, you want this. That brings you here, where you run into these guys, who take you here, and ask you to do X, so you do, and then you meet a guy and go to this place, where another dude tells you that you should do Y. Do you do Y? Cool." So, I don't know, is that what a railroad is? Some people will probably say yes. Other people will probably say no, or insult me and tell me to get off the internet, or talk about something else entirely. So I don't know.

Point being I decided before this session that the first time I would roll a random encounter outside the barracuda caves, it would be Uzen. He didn't have to join Isabelle, but I wanted to give her the option. My reasoning for this was actually to prevent railroading and leave more room for decision-making and emergent situations. It works like this:

In an RPG, your ability to exercise agency is proportional to the amount of fictional power you have. Eg. a bound and imprisoned character has very few possible courses of action available to them, unless they have a way of breaking out of their bounds. This principle became especially pronounced when Isabelle was literally bound and imprisoned, and doing her any favours felt like fudging, which I abhor. Her getting out means nothing if she didn't orchestrate her escape.

(Like, the pranking ploy felt weak but she rolled well. I don't think I should have let her roll. Oopsie.)

Uzen was intended as a way of giving her access to more moving parts. He didn't have to help her out. He wouldn't have if she hadn't asked him, he would have quietly shuffled back into the woods. He was a quantum ogre, but hopefully he'll have been the only one.

Another thought I'm having is that D&D is actually designed for an incremental increase in agency. A first-level character has few ways to alter the world around them: A fighter can't kill many dudes; a thief can't pick many locks; a wizard can't blow many things up. You can't take over the town because most of the guards are loyal to the current leader and can kill you in an instant. Not so much when the party's level 5. As characters gain levels they also become more capable of asserting their agency. At lower levels you often have to stay on the rails because they're the safest way through the world.

So yeah, Uzen's an extension of these ideas. Tito too - he can cast charm person once a day. But I figured it wouldn't hurt to give her a little more firepower.

Another cool thing about the kid is she's not so into violence. A lot of my players seem to love it when I get into really gnarly descriptions of how they eviscerate their foes when they hit 0 HP. It's trying to come up with a hundred grisly deaths and feels pointless. The kid winced at the description of cutting the barracuda's throat. It wasn't a victory to her, but a necessary evil.

Which brings me to my biggest concern with this game: Death.

In a solo game, dying means game over. Your character is done, roll a new one. This strikes me as a huge shame is this style of play offers a rare opportunity to really explore a character's goals and motivations. Isabelle is all about saving her parents. I don't need to tempt her with riches or power, she handed me the very point of this campaign. The campaign is Isabelle.

So if Isabelle dies, the campaign dies.

I don't want to shortchange her. I don't want to balance every encounter, and I don't want to fudge dice when she makes bad decisions. If Isabelle saves her parents, it'll be because she earned it.

The kid knows 0 hp = death. She avoids combat like the plague. Even with Uzen she'd rather hide than fight. I love that.

But D&D can be cruel. Surprise attack and missed traps happen and bad decisions do get made. These things can off even the most prepared character mercilessly quickly. And the kid's still learning the ropes. So forgive me if I want to soften the blow a little. Here's my thinking:

I have a rule in my DCC game: hitting 0 HP means the enemy gets to do whatever they want to you. Disarm you, knock you out, capture you, sacrifice you to their dark god, turn you into a newt, etc. Or kill you, if that's what they want. 0 HP doesn't necessarily mean death - but it does mean total loss of agency, at least for a while.

I'll be adopting that rule in this game, with the following addition:

3 strikes and you're out.

What this means is the first two time you hit 0 HP, you will not die. You'll be abducted, or frozen for 1000 years (with all the terrible changes that entails), or transported halfway across the world. There will be major fictional setbacks, but the campaign will not end.

After that, anything goes. 0 HP means the enemy gets what they want. If that's your death, then that's what happens.

The kid will be aware of this. We'll tally strikes on her character sheets. And if she hits two, she'll know the next time means business.

I'm out of steam. That's me for the night. Thanks for reading.

*It has come to my attention that there's a controversy going on in RPG world as to what a sandbox is and what a plot is and what a railroad is. Kindly leave me the fuck out of that.


  1. If you haven't already, you might also consider taking a look at Black Streams--it's specifically designed to increase survivability for single-player old school D&D games. And the price is right. ;)

    1. Someone recommended these rules to me on G+ as well. I read them over and to be honest I'm pretty ambivalent.

      The intention seems to make solo PCs more heroic and harder to take out. But the PC's fragility is one of the major reasons the kid is playing with so much caution. She's thinking a lot more laterally than most players I've encountered, and I would hate to do anything to discourage that.