A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #5: An Overview of the Class

croppedYet another article on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 50 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

Although I have not racked up the number of articles I initially thought I would when I started this series of posts, I have been racking up plenty of experience. Nothing like two years of experience to give someone a better idea of how to run an afterschool program for middle schoolers to play tabletop roleplaying games.

Part of what has made me hesitate to write more on this topic, is the sheer volume of what I could potentially write. I could elaborate on questions and comments as they arise though, which can seed ideas for future posts.

So I suppose I should just start with an overview of the class and how it works.

The class meets twice a week after school. Each class is two hours long. (In spring 2014 it had grown to three hours long, but budget cuts forced us to scale back. We return to three hours in spring 2015.)

The first few things one notices upon visiting the class is that it is LOUD! On a typical day now, there are 30-35 kids at 6 tables playing simultaneously. I am the only adult in the room, and it is quite harrowing to have, constantly, 1-3 kids desperately asking me a questions.

When a student comes for the first time (usually introduced to me by their friend who already is in the class), I pair him or her with a veteran student to make their first character. I have one binder labeled “Classes” — it has pictures of all 31 iconics paired with a one-sentence blurb, and all the pictures are held in transparent plastic sleeves for durability and ease of viewing. A second binder is labeled “Races” and has selected pages from the Advanced Race Guide. I also give them a free printout of the Beginner Box Hero’s Handbook and a flyer that gives an overview of the class and Pathfinder RPG, points people to the class website, and asks parents to fill out their contact information.

Students earn XP — not their characters. Everyone starts at Level 1 and has 100 XP, which lets them make a Level 1 Pathfinder character. At Level 2, they can make a Level 2 character, and if that character dies they can replace it with another Level 2 character. Hence, XP serves as the prime mechanism to keep the class together and the kids behaved. Kids earn XP by making characters, playing in adventures, and they can earn bonus XP helping me with the class or GMing their own games. They get penalties for using a computer or their smartphone without permission, or for not cleaning up. I formalize all the rules for XP in the Guild Charter.

The kids tend to improvise and come up with their own wacky ideas.

I try not to discourage this or hamper their creativity, but just letting them do whatever they want can lead to abuse of GM fiat or player boredom. So I do my best to tutor young GMs to improve their skills, and I work with them between classes to put more thought and planning into their adventures and flag monster abilities for them that will come up. I do my best, though, to work with those few who are most committed to learn and providing a good experience by giving them prewritten Pathfinder modules to run in the class and working with them closely.

We have special events as well, most notably the Guild Tournament that happens at the end of each semester, in which students pair up to create Level 4 characters to battle each other in an arena I provide. If they win, they advance to the next round, where their characters are two levels higher. Each successive victory earns a larger reward of XP. This fall, for the first time, I held an Arena Design Contest, and the last two arenas designed by the kids themselves plus my changes.

Starting early in 2014, I used Pathfinder’s kingdom-building rules from Ultimate Campaign to place all the adventures that take place in the class in the fictional nation of “Gildhaven.” The various leadership roles are assumed by members of the class. The High Council gets word of problems that need solving, and assigns adventurers to go on missions or does some of the more-dangerous missions themselves. They also make decisions on constructing buildings, founding new settlements, expanding the nation’s territory, sending diplomatic envoys, and forming armies. In October, I had the kids form political parties and run for the positions on the High Council. The kids were very interested because I introduced the threat of war with a neighbor, and had a disease affect the whole class (everyone had to roll Fortitude saving throws) that the High Council had to solve. The older kids formed the Elder Party, and the seventh graders clustered around the Cthulhu Political Party and had to fend off accusations that they would summon a CR 30 creature to swallow Gildhaven. The Council has since raised an army, and are now in touch with a suspicious nation to the  south, friendly orcs (and trading partners) in a mountain range to the north, and the exotic and prosperous nation Cheliax farther north still. Kids have started using their gold to construct their own homes and even their own businesses, and placed them on the kingdom map.

I now require most new students to go through the task of making their character sheets on paper along with a veteran buddy, so that they can get an overview of the game, get a sense of how the numbers interact and how to find things on their character sheet. But after that first sheet I port everything over to Hero Lab at home.

Each kid has a folder that I keep in portable metal hanging-file cabinets that they put everything in — their character sheet(s), any adventure(s) they are running, and a Ziploc bag that has their character pawn, a pawn base, and an initiative card (a folded, lengthwise-cut index card with the kid’s name that the GMs place on top of the GM screen to track initiative). I make sure to take home character sheets that have significant changes

I provide supplies for the class, which includes Chessex battle mats, wet-erase markers, pawns and pawn bases, and multiple printed spiral-bound printouts of the Core Rulebook and Bestiary, with single copies of the vast majority of other books in the Pathfinder core-rule and bestiary lines. I’ve required that kids bring their own dice to reduce the amount of dice left lying around for others to clean up. I also have printed Beginner Box Hero’s Handbooks and Game Master’s Guides to give kids to learn the game.

I have come up with rules for “Dungeon Defense,” which uses the basic concept of tower-defense games and combines them with the Pathfinder RPG rules. They form teams of four and take turns raiding a dungeon that the opposing team creates and populates. In doing so, I have tried to channel the spirit of competition in the class into situations where teamwork is required.

The response of the kids to the class has been phenomenal, and for nearly all of them I think it’s the high point of their day. When our class was three hours, a good core of students would stay the entire time to play the game or peruse the game books.

In January 2013, we faced the threat of cancellation. But the kids and their parents rallied and made sure that the class was continued. Since then, the class has grown steadily in size and popularity, from an average of 10 kids attending on any given day to now 32.

Playing games with their friends and being powerful heroes in a perilous world after school twice a week? The kids wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Stay tuned and follow my “Grandmaster’s Guide” articles! I will post on whatever inspires me, which will range from general topics (e.g., middle-school students vs. high-school students) to lessons I learned from specific experiences (such as that First Day!). It amuses me, reading my original postings on the Paizo thread that gave birth to this series of articles, that I had a VERY different idea of how the class would play out, from what eventually would evolve out of the unpredictable insanity that would follow.

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D&D 5th Edition offering its basic rules for free

dd-basicLead designer of D&D 5E, Mike Mearls, has made the announcement at the Wizards website.

I think this is great. I am guessing it would be pretty rules-light and deliver on the designers’ promise of players being able to scale the system’s complexity.

The Pathfinder Reference Document is also available online for free, but it’s not in an easily-printable format and it’s meant to be more of a reference and not an introduction to the game.

This, combined with the power of D&D’s brand, D&D’s own Starter Set, and with Pathfinder’s excellent Beginner Box, should together help expand the reach of the hobby and thus the player base for both D&D and PF.

With anecdotal and trade industry evidence showing that tabletop gaming is on the rise, these are exciting times to be in.

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A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #4: It’s Good to Be Grandmaster

room-102-2
Yet another article on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 32 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

Not every post on my website need have a specific pedagogical aim. Today I will just report on the progress of the class so far.

This spring is the fourth semester of the “Tabletop RPG Club,” and we seem to be transitioning into a phase of Increased Awesomeness.

The size of the class has grown steadily every semester. While in my previous posts I reported that our group was 27 students strong, perhaps two-thirds (18) of that group honestly were consistently attending and playing. I can now report that of the 32 current students I now report, 31 are consistently attending and playing.

Most importantly, perhaps, there are about 10 kids I can count on to GM, and to GM well.

Who would have thought that a ragtag group of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds could attain the capacity to lead a group of their peers expeditiously and enthusiastically, a league of little leaders? I’m so proud of my Little Monsters.

I was told by the director of our Afterschool Program that the usual pattern goes like this: 6th-grade students enroll in the afterschool upon starting at King, to discover their interests and to make friends. By the spring semester, a number of them stop coming because they are involved in other extracurricular activities such as sports teams, or have found circles of friends.

That dropoff has been very slight in The Guild, however. Of the 12 or so sixth-graders who regularly attended last year, 9 of them are still attending regularly into their fourth semester. And we now have about 20 sixth-graders who are attending.

This semester, there actually has been a steady inflow of students — one or two per week — who are trying out The Guild for the first time. The vast majority have stayed. I am guessing that the word-of-mouth has increased as the group has gotten larger, and also after a profile (with photographs!) appeared in the middle-school newspaper a month ago.

In a great new development, we now have our first two girls. (Yes, all the previous attendees had been boys.) These two individuals are quite nonplussed by the preponderance of boys, and one of them is actually one of my students who is acting out the most behavior-wise (being physical with the other students in a horse-play kind of way). She fits right in!

One of the other new developments this spring is that, for the first time, I have integrated all the adventures into a distinct, explicit geographical place: we are creating our own campaign setting out of a mish-mash of adventures published by Paizo, the company behind Pathfinder RPG. On top of that, we are using the rules from Ultimate Campaign to create a government for our kingdom of “Gildhaven” — these students meet weekly (a meeting over which I preside while wearing a red Ruler’s robe) to enact policies, expand territory, impose taxes (much to the protest of the other Guild members!), and authorize new construction.

And so it’s good be a Grandmaster. The downside is that my workload has increased. I have thirty students who each have characters that need updating every week, and whom I am tutoring in the art of being game masters.

As you can probably guess, there are many tales to tell in our guild-slash-kingdom. Stay tuned and I will do my best to oblige.

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Stay tuned and follow my “Grandmaster’s Guide” articles! I will post on whatever inspires me, which will range from general topics (e.g., middle-school students vs. high-school students) to lessons I learned from specific experiences (such as that First Day!). It amuses me, reading my original postings on the Paizo thread that gave birth to this series of articles, that I had a VERY different idea of how the class would play out, from what eventually would evolve out of the unpredictable insanity that would follow.

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A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #3: Teaching Kids How to GM

Yet another article on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 27 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

Here I am reproducing the post I created on The Guild’s website, where I give kids tips on how to GM other kids. As you might expect, this is NOT an easy thing to teach, and it requires a lot of learning-by-doing while also dealing with all the dramas and unpredictability of dealing with young people! And, being a guide for the kids themselves, this does not scratch the surface of how older or more experienced people can teach young people how to GM.

But this is a start. So here goes:

surprised-teenI know it can be hard sometimes to GM a game, and I’m older and have a lot more experience. So it is much harder for many of you! Here are my tips for GMing without going insane.

MAIN THING TO REMEMBER:

Almost every single one of these problems is some version of “I’m young and still in middle school and I want attention, no matter how it affects the group!” Meanwhile, everyone else who is more focused on actually adventuring gets bored. My general overarching advice is to neutralize the problem for now and just to keep the adventure moving — the more interested people will immediately take your direction, and the rest will follow behind.

Okay, so here’s what will come up, and how to solve it:

A player is arguing with me about my ruling!

GM Rule #1: Your rulings are final unless the Grandmaster overrules you. If you can’t immediately resolve an argument, say, “My ruling is final, so that we can keep playing. If you still want to raise it, talk to me afterward.”

Too many people are talking at once!

Require that people raise their hands. If several hands are up, say who’s first, then second, then third, etc.

I have a player who wants to do something really stupid (like kill a random NPC for no reason, or eat something they know is poison)!

New players to tabletop RPGs don’t understand that their actions have consequences yet: there is no returning to your last Save Point.

FIRST, give a reason in the adventure why this is stupid (e.g., you’re going to die, or you’re going to get the whole party killed). SECOND, if they still don’t come to their senses, make the consequences happen if it doesn’t ruin everything for everyone. If it ruins things for the group, just FORBID IT. Do not argue about it — just move on (see GM Rule #1).

My players want to fight each other!

Same as before — this ruins things for the group (even if THEY think it’s fun). It creates resentment and let’s two people steal the show while everyone else gets bored. Good news here is that it violates Rule #1 in the Guild Charter: Cite the Guild Charter and move on.

People aren’t paying attention!

First, don’t forget that they DO want to play RPGs and that’s why they’re here. But some people get bored because they’re frustrated things aren’t moving fast enough. Best thing to do is to ignore distractions and move on. The most-focused people will pay attention first — then, when the others see there’s something going on, they’ll follow. (Also, if there hasn’t been a combat in a while, this is a good way to get everyone to pay attention.)

Also, I know that some GMs are very focused on not getting any rules wrong and so will look up rules in the middle of a game. This is important, BUT there is a limit to how much time you should spend on doing this. Sometimes I see groups where players lose focus while the GM is looking up a rule — sometimes it’s better just to make a temporary rule and to move on. Other times, it is very important (decide whether someone dies) and so people won’t mind if you look something up — everyone will understand this. With more experience, you will know when it makes sense to look up something and when it’s not.

Consider using Ronald’s Rules of Rolling© to prevent chaos and cheating at the gaming table. Say “Ronald’s Rules of Rolling© apply” to make them the rules of your game:

1. Only Official Rolls count, and Official Rolls are FINAL and cannot be rerolled.
2. Your roll is not Official unless the GM told you to roll it.
3. If you are taking an action, you must declare clearly and before rolling the die in order for it to be Official. If you roll without saying what you are doing, then you repeat what you did in the last round, even if it’s a bad idea.
4. A die must land on the table (or an object on the table) to be Official.
5. If it falls out of your hand and lands on the table — even accidentally — it is an Official Roll.
6. NO one else can roll for you unless the GM says so.
7. If something interfered with the die (someone’s hand, a book, etc.) — that doesn’t matter: it is an Official Roll.
8. If it is unclear what the die’s result is because it doesn’t land flat, then the GM declares the result or ask for a re-roll.

Also, a tip to GMs: Sometimes ask the whole table to make a roll (like Perception or Initiative). Then go around the table, in order. This makes it easier to get everyone’s roll, and it prevents cheating.

None of this is working!

Get the Grandmaster’s attention and he will solve it.

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Stay tuned and follow my “Grandmaster’s Guide” articles! I will post on whatever inspires me, which will range from general topics (e.g., middle-school students vs. high-school students) to lessons I learned from specific experiences (such as that First Day!). It amuses me, reading my original postings on the Paizo thread that gave birth to this series of articles, that I had a VERY different idea of how the class would play out, from what eventually would evolve out of the unpredictable insanity that would follow.

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A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #2: Why I prefer Pathfinder RPG for teaching RPGs to kids

Yet another article on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 18 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

(Please note that I am only comparing Pathfinder RPG to Basic D&D for teaching RPGs to kids, and have not spent much time with other RPG systems out there.)

Is Pathfinder RPG too complicated for kids?

Too many rules!?

That is a question asked over at the Paizo forums, where a parent who had played tabletop RPGs in the early 1980s had disliked the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) rules because it had many more rules than Basic D&D, which this parent felt got in the way of creativity and roleplaying. This parent wondered whether it made sense to introduce his or her kids to RPGs via the Pathfinder Beginner Box (for which I give a positive review here). After all, didn’t the Pathfinder Beginner Box eventually lead to the full Pathfinder RPG, which traced its lineage back to Advanced D&D and not Basic AD&D?

I thought that my own experience using the Pathfinder Beginner Box for my middle-school kids would be useful in answering this question.

Based on my experience, I have found the Pathfinder Beginner Box not to be too complicated and that it is better for getting young people (at least those between maybe 8 and 15 years old) introduced to RPGs, at least compared to Basic D&D. And I have been able to successfully transition the kids to full Pathfinder RPG.

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Minimum ability scores in Pathfinder? They’re still there… if you look hard enough

A sublimated holdover from "old school play."

A sublimated holdover from “old school play.”

There are no actual minimum ability scores in Pathfinder/D&D 3.x. There is nothing akin to First Edition AD&D’s requirement that you have a Charisma of 17 to become a Paladin, or a Strength of 15, Wisdom of 15, Dexterity of 15, and Constitution of 11 to become a monk.

BUT… minimum ability scores are still there, if you look hard enough. It is still true that you must roll high — from an optimizing standpoint — in order for certain Pathfinder classes to be viable.

The reason boils down to how some some classes rely on a single high ability score (“SAD” – Single Ability Dependent, like Fighters and Wizards), while others rely on more than one (“MAD” – Multiple Ability Dependent, like Paladins and Monks).

So, imagine you roll your scores and get the following array:

16, 13, 12, 12, 10, and 8

Well, you would make a strong fighter — if you chose to be a Human, you could bump your Strength up to 18. However, you would be a far-from-effective Monk — even if you were to assign your 16 roll to Strength, the highest your 1st-level (medium-sized) monk’s Armor Class could be would be a measly 14 (before factoring in feats). As a paladin, you would have either a low Strength stat or a low Charisma (needed for smite evil, channeling energy, and spellcasting).

So… it is still true, even in the player-empowering world of Pathfinder/D&D 3.5, that some classes are hard to “qualify” for, just as in First Edition AD&D. In fact, among the core 11 classes the Paladin and the Monk — the hardest to qualify for in First Edition AD&D — remain the hardest to roll good scores for. You can still play those classes, but you can’t necessarily be a powerful example of that class.

So, to optimizing power gamers at least, Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 still makes certain classes less attainable, while still technically allowing you to choose any class you want… A nice balance, if you ask me.

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A Grandmaster’s Guide to Good Guilding #1: The Sales Pitch

room-102-2This is the first of what likely will be many more posts on my musings while being the adult “Grandmaster” of a successful middle-school Pathfinder RPG club (now 18 students strong!) that the kids and I affectionately call “The Guild.” These posts likely will interest others who are introducing tabletop RPGs to young people. Read, comment, and enjoy!

I was inspired to start writing about my middle-school Pathfinder RPG club by posters at the Paizo forums who wanted to know how I managed to make it succeed. It would seem that a good place to start is how I was able to find the group’s members. But first it behooves me to give a little background as to how I got in this insanely lucky predicament in the first place.

I am a lawyer. My other job is teaching kids to play tabletop roleplaying games.

The kind of law I do does not pay the bills. Literally. I know of others who are buried in law-school debt and who work for nonprofits, but I differ from them in that I work for a civil rights organization that is highly rewarding, but where I often do not get paid at all.

Enter the Berkeley Unified School District. They have an excellent afterschool enrichment program that pays members of the community to engage kids in rewarding activities of all kinds (sports, music, art, etc.). It is funded by a combination of California’s state-afterschool-programs fund and the contribution of parents who participate in the program. Although the program offers a sliding scale for low-income parents, the relatively affluent and liberal community of Berkeley is able to contribute a good deal and is highly supportive of educational programs that foster young people’s inherent leadership ability and imagination.

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