Meaningful Experience

Posted: July 22, 2012 in Articles, Game Mechanics

Many years ago, I wrote an article about making giving Experience Rewards to characters more meaningful to the character development process. I recently found the article in my archives and thought I would post it here for all to enjoy.

Meaningful Experience

by Jim “The Game Knight” Dickinson

Your party wades through the first two ranks of goblins, slashing and hacking away with glee, before the goblins come to their senses and flee for their lives. The GM awards you experience points for winning the combat so you add the number to your character sheet. Your character is now more experienced than he was before the fight, right?

…but what did he learn? What do the “experience points” represent in the game? And how does your character benefit from them?

Well, most of the answers to these questions point to game mechanics. The rules say that PCs get experience points for doing various things, and sometimes bonuses are thrown in as a reward to players for role-playing well. The points are somehow converted into “levels” or “character points” that increase the character’s abilities or reduce their flaws. Well, from a mechanical standpoint, those are probably pretty acceptable ways of “simulating” what happens when a PC becomes more experienced.

But that isn’t how things work with real human beings. We gain experiences throughout our lives that we draw upon later to help us make better choices, become more proficient, or come to new, intuitive conclusions. In short, Experience is the Great Teacher, and we are her students if we find value and meaning in her lessons. So I would like to introduce an idea to you that I think will make your role-playing “experience” more meaningful to you and your players.

The Experience Journal

Players should have a small notebook to use for their journal. There are lots of options from 3-ring binders with loose-leaf paper, spiral notebooks, or even fancier tablets of stationery that suits the game or character. So long as each player has a notebook and pencil or pen you will be able to implement this idea in your game.

After, or even during, each game session the players should make notes of anything they feel was a significant experience during that session. The GM then reviews their journals and awards points based on the written experiences.

In the e-world in which we live, websites make great journals, and email cannot be overlooked. Players could easily submit emails to the GM for evaluation.

Tracking Experiences

Recording Important Experiences

So what makes an experience important or significant? Well this is very subjective, so it could really be ANYTHING that the player can justify as a meaningful experience. The GM should consider the fact that players may perceive situations throughout the session differently, and this will often be reflected in their notes. There will be obvious experiences that the GM can expect players to jot down, but there will also be some that the GM hadn’t foreseen. The GM shouldn’t rule out the more subtle experiences either, but judge each noted experience on its own merit. If the GM is convinced that the player has found something meaningful there, it should be worth at least a minimum number of points. However, if the player is trying to scam for points, that is another matter entirely. Again, just because it isn’t an obvious experience that the GM would expect to see doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any merit.

Obvious experiences worthy of recording in the journal might be: encountering an important NPC, solving a mystery, discovering uncharted territory, etc. But there are so many other experiences that can be meaningful to the character, some of which are very specific and unique to each PC.

For example, each PC may have an opportunity to arm wrestle the same NPC. This NPC is brawny and mean, and bears a tattoo on his arm that each PC notices as they wrestle with him. Even if everyone loses to him, one player recognizes the tattoo as the symbol of a certain group of cultists from a far away region. Because that single PC made the connection, and discovered that there was at least one cultist in the local area, the encounter took on special meaning for that PC alone. Perhaps if this PC shares this information with the others, they may find the experience meaningful as well.

Types of Experience

There are at least three basic categories, or types, of experience that can be gained: knowledge, training, and insight. Players and GMs should keep these types in mind when reviewing the game session to identify notable experiences.


Experiences that give the PC new knowledge, valuable information, advice or wisdom would fall under this category. This kind of experience can come from studying books, observation, conversation, or instruction. The impact and practicality of the knowledge determines its value. Knowing the name of the blacksmith might not be worth anything, but knowing the true name of a demon might come in handy in a pinch. Training

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way you boost your swordplay skills! Practicing can also come in the form of actual application of the skill or knowledge. More often than not, the actual performance, where real or serious consequences are at stake, will be more valuable than in a drill. But both experiences lead to the same end, and are both forms of training. One is a rehearsal, and one is “on the job”.


Some of the most profound experiences are gained through our own cognitive powers. When we put A and B together to get C, powerful, and sometimes life-changing, things can result. New martial art styles are formed from marriages of older, traditional styles. Even so, often insight alone is not enough. Insight can often lead to incorrect conclusions, so often Knowledge AND Training are needed as well. An experienced inventor once said that the invention process was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” But a GM must acknowledge an epiphany that a player has. Those are GREAT experiences of profound significance. Lessons, Knowledge, and Morals

One of the most important parts of the whole exercise of recording experiences in a journal is to have the player demonstrate that the PC learned something from that experience. There must be something gained for the experience to be useful and a benefit to the PC. The experience could be a miserable failure, but if the PC found a moral to the story, or learned something important, then the failure wasn’t in vain. Some would refer to this as learning from the “school of hard knocks”. Not every failure will teach the PC something, but the ones that do can be used to improve and succeed in the future.

This has actually been the basis for entire plot lines in stories and movies. The protagonist fights and loses time and again until he learns what he needs to succeed. This process can take time, but leads to a satisfying climax in the story, because there is a triumph over failure. Sly and Jean-Claude have made a mint on plots like this.

Another interesting aspect of this is that the role-playing experience may become intrinsically more valuable for the player as she takes the opportunity to occasionally learn a “real-life lesson” from an experience in the game. The GM should be sure to reward these kinds of journal entries generously.

Awarding Experience

After players submit their journals, the GM should carefully weigh the value of the recorded experiences. Some experiences may need to be combined with others to make them worth any points at all, while other will be highly valuable on their own. Others still may need to be broken apart and scored individually. The GM should dialogue with the player during this process to make sure there is a clear understanding of what the player wrote.

GMs should be careful about correcting inaccuracies. Probably more often than not, the character’s perception is more important than the facts. These perceptions might lead to wonderful, or at least interesting, character developments and subplots in the future. However, if the player simply misremembered some details while writing, the player will probably be grateful for the correction. Also, because of these kinds of details, it is probably best to keep journal entries just between the GM and the player. If a player chooses to share their PCs experiences with the others (as addressed below), that is fine, but until then it is best to keep the PCs’ experiences confidential.

The GM should deal as diplomatically as possible with players who try to milk the game session for more experience than is deserved. A note about learning that Ale costs 2 dinars more at the Bronze Griffin than at the Lame Centaur, is clearly an attempt at bilking an extra experience point out of the GM (unless this knowledge is somehow vital to solving a mystery somewhere, but I doubt it).

Depending on the player, I would probably chuckle a little, offer a “nice try” and just mark a “0” next to the note. If the player got real serious about the entry, but was unable to convince me to change my mind, I would suspect that the player is frustrated with not getting as many points as others, or maybe he is just having a hard time identifying more relevant things to write. In that case, I would probably just take them aside and help them find a few other experiences that they could jot down. If they really needed some motivation, I might give them something for their journal that I anticipated being useful in a future session. Again, it depends on the players.

One thing you can count on, though, is that the GM will get to know the players and their characters very well, and very quickly. New plot ideas will sprout from ideas that the players have written, and the characters will become much more interesting each game session.

There should be space in the journal (margins are great) for the GM to record the number of experience points earned. There should be enough space for the player to note when those points are spent as well.

Using Your Experiences

Character Improvement

Well it’s time to decide how a character can have “something to show” for his experiences beyond a good campfire story to tell before bedtime. The least complicated, and perhaps the most logical, way to apply the points from these earned experiences would be to pool the added points with all the other unspent experience and follow the character improvement rules of the game as it was done before the journal. So in point-based systems, the experience points usually add to skills or attributes directly, and in level-based games, experience points total up to certain levels.

However, a different approach for point-based systems might be to allow experience points from journal entries to only improve aspects of the character that would logically improve from that specific experience. The player would work with the GM when they want to “cash in” points to improve a skill or trait, or remove or reduce a flaw. The GM would have to agree to the improvement to the character, and the points would be recorded as spent in the journal.

Applying past experiences

Players may find a valuable tool in their journals as they use it to recall details from past game sessions, or apply previous lessons learned to new situations. Journals are a great place to record notes about who owned that sword before it was stolen, which companies owns which freighters, and what everyone’s’ crests and logos look like.

Sharing Experiences

Players may also find value and strength in an exchange of experiences with others in the group. Churches often have meetings where members are encouraged to share their own conversions. Sales meetings are often full of motivating testimonials, too. How do you think Amway has lasted so long? Here are a few ideas how players can share their experiences in a game.

Sharing experiences doesn’t have to be a formal thing. It can take a few minutes, or consume long dialogues full of details. More often then not, they will happen by themselves as characters encounter others during the game. But you can also stage moments in the game where past adventure stories are solicited by NPCs, or by new characters to the party. Nights by the camp fire, or on the starship during long trips, or while on a stakeout. These times can be one on one, or in front of crowds of people. PCs might even have to testify in court and tell the story from their own point of view, maybe even under adversarial questioning. It would be interesting if those points of view differed between PCs, wouldn’t it?


Players can simply have their characters reminisce over past dungeons, battles, solved puzzles, thwarted or tripped traps, incredible feats, lucky escapes, or whatever! Many RPG players do that already (“Remember when I rolled that Natural 20 and cut that guy’s head clean off right in the middle of his gloat about how he was going to stomp us into pea soup?”) so why not just have them do it in character, telling the story from the PC’s point of view? This would be a great way to fill time before or after a game session, or to introduce them to a new player or character joining the group.

Flashbacks, Recaps, and Reviews

One trick I often used in my own games was to have one of the players that was there for the last session recap what happened the week before. This was mostly for anyone who missed the last game, but I also did this to refresh the story in everyone’s mind before we continued on. Most players liked having their turn with the review, because they often made a game out of pointing out how heroic their own characters were during that session. A few times the player would get raspberries from the others if he stretched the truth too far, but overall, everyone like it. It set the mood for the game.

I have also had NPCs ask the characters questions about their past adventures, to give players a chance to boast a little. Sometimes I did this on the sly in the hopes that during the telling, the player would remember a loose end, or an important clue from a past game.

I have also used flashbacks to help players make logical connections to things happening in the game that the player would make. For example, let’s say the party of adventurers meets a knight who bears a crest that one of the players should recognize. The crest is important to the story, because it is going to hint at whether the party can trust this Knight or not. I tell one of the PCs, “You’ve seen that crest somewhere before…where was it?…Oh yeah, in Kranston during the Winter Festival of Crowns.” I then let the player make the connection on his own. Naturally the rest of the players, if they were not there, will want to know what the connection is. The player might normally answer, “Oh yeah, we can trust him.” But if he has a journal to look back in, he may be able to recount a much more interesting story about how someone bearing that crest came to his aid when thugs in the shady part of town surrounded him.

Advising, Advocating, or Persuading

Players can use their past experiences to sway audiences, or to convince others in one way or another. Players who dig into past journal experiences to gather details that are used in their speeches or the GM should reward dialogues with a better chance at success. Any time players try to bring more details into their games, the quality of the game is bound to improve.

Blue Booking

I honestly cannot remember when I first heard about Blue Booking, but it was in an article or book I was reading that probably had to do with a Champions group that had a GM who rewarded players for writing additional stories between game sessions. He provided them with blue composition notebooks from the University Bookstore to write what their PCs were doing between game sessions. This evolved into a very regular tradition that came to be known as Blue-Booking because of the blue notebooks they used. I remember reading that these players enjoyed the stories that were happening on the sidelines as much or more as the ones happening during their games. On a few occasions, their game sessions were spent just writing in their books and trading their books around the table.

I have had players do things like this as well, and for most it was a great deal of fun for them. Players would write up stories (sometimes in narratives, sometimes in first-person like a diary) that explored their character’s aspects that were not usually brought up during the game. They referred to the more mundane sides, the darker sides, the fearful sides. They talked about what the PC did on his own time, whether it was dating, stalking the streets alone looking for crime, or doing research for a new spell. They would write their stories, taking as much creative license as they dared (I reserved full editing powers), and would stop at the point where they needed or wanted my input or response.

It was a great way for me to let characters shine in their own spotlights as the center of the story. It was a way for me to introduce clues to the mysteries in future scenarios I would run. It was a way for me to get to know their characters better. But it was also a way for me to lead into new stories! These players had great imaginations, and they would often take their stories places I had not thought to go. What great ideas I got from them!

Blue-Booking was the true inspiration for the Experience Journal. Here are some ways to use players’ writings to award experience.

Gaining experience through player writings

Players should have the opportunity to gain experience points by writing narratives about other experiences their PCs have. Again, these stories will often have interactions in them that are more difficult to pull off in a live session. Romances, for example, just don’t get role-played in a typical gaming group, especially if the group is made up of all same-sex players and GM. But a player can write about their character’s romance with the NPC on the side.

Between game sessions

GMs should give their players a chance to learn something between game sessions. Players can be assigned to write some of the things their characters will be doing “on their own time” before the next adventure, and the GM can respond at the next game sessions with the results of their efforts. Sometimes, these private dialogues between GM and player, right in their journal, can be a fascinating addition to the game. Each player feels special in their own way, and can often “bring something new to the table” each session.

Entries like this can be as simple as:

Player: Breggor is going to hang out in the tavern and try to pick-pocket some easy marks. He needs a few more gold to buy more supplies for the next trip the party will take.

And the GM might reply:

GM: You find a few easy marks with little trouble. One is a drunk merchant bragging about a big sale he made to the Barony of DuMount. He was in the bar to celebrate his great profit. You filched 50 gold from him before he started to get suspicious about his lighter purse. Another mark is a woman wearing a cloak of foreign design. Her accent was thick, and she had a real hard time communicating with anyone. She seemed lost and confused, but carried a fair chunk of change. She provided you with about 10 gems of decent value. You will need to have them looked at before you can tell how much they are really worth.

The GM could also give the PC some experience points for this entry, since the character did succeed at getting some practice in on his picking pockets. But perhaps even more valuable will be the hints the GM left for the player. If the GM chooses to use them, he could weave the foreign woman into the story somehow. Maybe she is now too poor to return home (!) and asks to travel with the characters instead. Maybe she is actually a skilled fortuneteller who offers to tell the PCs fortune to earn the money she needs to return home. Everyone takes his or her turn, perhaps with the thief being reluctant. Maybe she will learn that he was the thief. Maybe she won’t. But the GM can play it up and make the thief sweat a little! Other possibility might present itself when the thief tries to sell the gems…

Maybe the PCs will learn later about something going on in the Barony the thief heard about from the merchant. Maybe the thief will be able to “remember” other things the merchant said later, as he was cleaning him out. Maybe he will remember that the reason he made so much money was that…

Well, I think you get the idea.


Flashbacks almost always come up in the middle of a game session. The players will encounter something that one of the players has encountered before, and that character will usually benefit in some way from that past knowledge. Flashbacks are often just “informational background knowledge”, but they can also be used as the focus for that particular scenario.

To take an example from a recent Star Trek Voyager episode, Seven starts off with a flashback to a part of her past none of us has ever heard about before. She is still a Borg, and she and 3 others are stranded on a planet. They are damaged and have lost their link to the collective. The flashback is referred to often during the episode as we learn, right along with Seven, a dark aspect of her past. The flashback is the focus of the story, and the other Borg from her flashback are encountered again in that episode as well. It makes for an exciting and dynamic story.

So how would you use this in a game? Well, most commonly the GM will mention, maybe even just in passing, some past experience that the PC had that helps him at that moment. The GM and player can make a note of it, and the player then writes a short story about how she knew those facts. Here is an example:

GM: Running down the street, you are looking for a place to hide. Most of the doors are locked, and the ones that aren’t look like really bad places to hide.

Player 1: OK, We keep looking around hoping to find someplace fast before the guards turn down the street and see us.

Player 2: I’ll start looking a bit further down. Maybe there is a second story window we can climb to?

GM: Suddenly a voice calls to you from across the cobbled street. “Joryn? Is that you?” It is a somewhat homely woman you [speaking to Player 2] recognize from your past. She waves you both in and behind the door. A few seconds later and the guards jog past as this woman flirts and waves at them. They ignore her and continue their search for you. After they are gone, she lets you two come out. As you start to leave, she grabs Joryn and plants a big kiss on him, and then waves goodbye.

Player 1: Joryn, who was that woman?

Player 2 looks confused.

GM: Joryn, that’s a flashback story you can write and tell us later.

Player 2: OK, I’ll do that. [Grinning] For now, Brash, all I will say is that her name is Aneeda. As in, “Aneeda nother drink if she’s gonna kiss me again!”

Already the player must have an idea what he will write about. He rolls with the story, and they move on, now having evaded the guard that was chasing them.


Once when I was running an email game, I needed another week or so to plan out the next part of the story I was running. All the characters were together in a foreign land and did not know what was going to happen next. They had no idea what to expect. I told them that after they turned in for the night, they all had interesting and/or disturbing dreams. In the morning, around their campfire breakfast, they could share their dreams with everyone else. It bought me the time I needed, but even better, it made for a really fun exchange of dreams. Some were wild, some funny, some scary and foreboding. But each player was allowed to express their own dreams as they wished.

As the GM, I found a plot hook in one of them, and planned to make some version of that player’s dream come true. But with most of them, it was just an interesting exercise in writing and storytelling.

Subplot activities

Sometimes these journal entries can turn into ongoing subplots. That’s great! Reward the player with experience points every now and again for all the writing, and be sure to have the players share some of the better (and probably less private) stories.

The most important point is to enjoy your games. Never make the Experience Journal a labor for your players. Give them the incentive to put in the extra effort, though, and you will be happy with the results. Players will be more invested in their characters, and in the game, and you will have a great deal of material to unfold future stories from. So, enjoy! And make your gaming experience more meaningful!

We played OSH again last night, and the kids had a great time. We continued the story that left off last time with our adventurers having just fought off bat riders that attacked them from a nearby volcano.

After a short rest the group traveled to the base of the volcano where they found a large cave entrance. Just inside the cave they found what appeared to be a long line of various monsters. At the front of the line there appeared to be another monster that was a guard of some kind, with a clipboard, taking monster names and letting a few in at a time through a chained entrance. They decided that this was probably not a good way to enter the volcano.

So they climbed up the side of the mountain to another cave farther up where the bats from the encounter had fled to after the fight. They entered into this cave and found that it opened quickly into a large cavern with stalactites and stalagmites and a natural bridge of sorts leading to a tunnel across the cavern. Along the ceiling were large rings where the bats were gathered.

Sansalar’s new bat friend told her that he was going to head up there and hang out with his friends for a while, so he took off. Just after he took off, 4 Boglins (Bat Riders) appeared across the bridge and announced their presence by firing arrows across the cavern that all went wild (they were two arenas away).

The battle was on, and Dwarvie yelled “Charge!” and charged onto the bridge. The battle moved quickly and two Boglins were dispatched from the bridge and fell to the cavern floor or impaled on a stalagmite. The two remaining decided it was time to run and sound the alarm. To help cover their retreat, a new monster showed up. The caretaker of the bat cave, Llort, arrived. His green, warty skin, large nose, tiny head, and orangutan-like upper body and arms indicated they he often traveled the cavern using the many rings throughout. That’s right, his name is troll spelled backwards, and yes…he is known as Llort of the Rings.

Once everyone recovered from the horrible puns, they engaged the irritating regenerating Llort and were only able to kill one Boglin that was running away. The Llort eventually took to the rings (after being pushed off the bridge by Dwarvie), and tried to dodge arrows while he loosened and dropped stalactites on the party. Eventually, they stuck him enough times to drop him and he fell to his squishy doom onto one of the stalagmites below.

By then, however, the cave swarmed with more boglins, led by one that looked to be in charge. He was announced to be the Boglin Chef, and everyone figured this was just a boglinish way of saying Chief. Well, he was actually an Assistant Chef, but he still looked pretty important. His armor did look a little odd, like cookie sheet breastplate, a colander helmet, and of course, a Military Fork.

The party was overwhelmed and captured, but they were able to take a couple boglins, and the Chef, out beforehand. They were hauled further into the volcano and through a large room that was set up with tables and food in bins. Two conveyor belts cranked large disks of meat over the hot volcanic lava and placed on large loaves of bread that were sliced in half.

Davon did a forehead slap and said, “I fought my butt off to get into here, and it’s just a restaurant?!?!?!”

They were brought before the General Mangler, and he accused them of working as raiders for the competition. Apparently, a rival of Monster Burger has been blockading supply chains and employing raiders to interfere with delivery bats and their routes.

They offered to help stop the raiders if the Mangler would spare their lives and not make them into side dishes. He told his boglins to put them in the cooler for a while so he can consider their offer.

We’ll see how things go next time!

The Rise of the DM – Chapter 1

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Game Recap, New DM

My son, Davon, showed a little bit of interest in running his own game, and to learn what it means to be a DM. I think that is fantastic, because being a DM means you will always have a game to play. I know lots of people that only ever want to play the game, and some of them are very good players, but they just have no ambition to ever be a DM.

To be the DM means that you are the fuel to the game. A DM is proactive, and players are generally reactive. Personally, I think a table full of players that also love to be DMs would make for the best game ever.

So Davon, to cut his teeth on DMing, has agreed to run the “Sample Dungeon” from the DM’s Guide, Kobold Hall. Awesome.

I am playing a Knight named Ederon Bladelaw, and two other kids are playing as well. Mikki is playing a Sun Cleric and Tiny is playing a Battle Mage named Jeleneth. All the characters are made with the DDI Character Builder using basic Essentials rules. Mikki decided her cleric would also be named the same as all of her other characters (who are usually elf/ranger-types), Sansalar (I originally created her character in the CB with the name of Luuci Brightwalker, but that’s just how I roll).

Our party agreed to help someone that has been missing some incoming shipments of thinks like dragon hide for making armor and such. He offered us 100 gold if we could come back with evidence that we had made the roads safe. Maybe we will get even more if we can recover any of his shipments. We’ll see.

We set off and found our way to a ruined keep and into a dungeon below. They call it Kobold Hall because the kobolds have taken it over. So we have a pretty good idea what we will find here.

Sure enough, we have been through three rooms now, and each had kobolds in them. Go figure. 🙂

The most fun part of this game is, of course, sitting across the table from the new DM, remembering what it was like when I started my first games just a year or so younger than he is. In those days, I also ran the sample module, where PCs come down steps to a long hall, and are met by a loud Magic Mouth spell warning them of dangers ahead, and to turn back.

Davon also wants to play his own character while DMing, against my recommendation that he just work on DMing. But I am amused by this whole “I could play this whole game solo” idea that might spark something in the future, as I watch him take his turn with his character and then the monsters as well.

He is still very enthusiastic about his character, like he gets with his DDO character, or his Pirates character, or his Runescape character, or his other D&D character in my game. This is the rudimentary aspect of role-playing wherein you can watch your character grow in experience, choose new powers and abilities, etc.

I am waiting to see the moment when he begins to see the game world the same way, as his character…the stage upon which all things exist and move at his will. A world that grows with experience, and he can choose new challenges and encounters for the players.

I wonder if there will ever be a “me vs. you” phase where he will attempt to conceive of challenges and enemies that are bigger and badder than what the players have, and how he will evolve over time.

For now, I will sit back, and enjoy the ride.  🙂

The players have all been asking for another round of Old School Hack, so tonight we gathered at the table and we played again.


Dwarvie the Shortbearded Facesmasher is the only PC that survived a walk through the Gauntlet, and she came out of it with a huge red gem the size of a dragon’s eye.

Sansalar the Cranky Elf Wanderer was true to her names-sake after her trip through the gauntlet and being ejected magically sans all her belongings. ALL of them.

The greedy thief, who also failed the Gauntlet, so grief-stricken over all the stolen property that was also stripped from  him as he was ejected from the Gauntlet, threw himself from a wooden bridge over a canyon near the entrance to the dungeon.

So our story tonight begins as Sansalar, now clothed in rags taken from a dead Orc, and Dwarvie started to head back toward town. Dwarvie stared into the gem because she saw something moving…

…it was a landscape, dark and red, with a volcano pouring out a river of lava. As she stared she felt the air around them warm up, almost like they were there…and then suddenly, they were. As quickly as their scenery had just changed on them, a goblin arrived, breathing hard, and asking if they had seen a short man running this way. Neither of them had, of course, so they decided to set out to explore the volcano to see if he ran into the cave at the base of the mountain.

In the lava river that flowed by, they saw (everyone at the table said it before I could) a lava shark! It looked Hungry.

As they approached the volcano, they could see a black billowing cloud coming out the top and swirling down toward them. The cloud got closer and they could tell it was not a cloud at all, but (again, everyone beat me to to it) giant bats! And they have little dark dervish riders on them, like little ninjas! They swooped down and swooshed and swirled around them, calling to each other to “take them out and get all their goods for the master.”

Dwarvie called out, “Come on Team, let’s get them!”

When a 4 year old playing a dwarf shouts the rallying cry at the table…that gets an awesome point!

The fight was an interesting one, with the the PCs all grabbing rocks and pitching them at the dark dervishes, knocking a couple off their mounts. These guys were carrying bows, so that did well to arm the Elf that had lost all her possessions in the Gauntlet.

Two riders swooped down to have their bats grab at Sansalar and Dwarfie, and pull them up into the “flying” arena. Sansalar got her shot off and missed just before she was grabbed and lifted into the sky. Dwarfie was missed, but then hit her target so hard that she also dazed the bat that came down for a rough landing right near her…which of course just begged for her to check out bat riding as a new sport. In shock at the weight and enthusiasm of his new rider, the bat labored back  up into the air after a successful Cunning roll.

Can you imagine a bat-riding, spikey-armored dwarf twirling her warhammer like Thor and flying right into the rest of the swarm of bat riders? Yeah, there will be trouble for the dark dervishes!

Meanwhile the Elf tries to make friends with the bat that has grabbed her. She has the Animal Friend talent, so this sounded pretty awesome, and she strikes up a conversation with the bat via high-pitched shrieks back and forth. After brief introductions, the conversation boils down to “Do you have better food than he does?” <long pause, knowing that her sole possessions now included a dervish bow and orc rags> “Uh, no, sorry.” “You may be nice and all, but he has the food.” So Sansalar shrugs as she is carried higher into the air.

The goblin has been firing arrows from a bow he picked up from a fallen dark dervish, too, and has been astoundingly accurate, rolling a 10 on his face die with nearly every shot. So in some cases, he not only shot the rider, but winged the bat in the process.

The number of bat riders is dwindling now, but the Goblin now targets the rider of the bat that has the elf. Without a rider, the bat lets go of Sansalar, and she awesomely flips down through the air to land gracefully on the back of another flying bat, and begins shrieking to it as well. This bat however, is completely taken by the elf and they become fast friends.

Dwarfie the Shortbearded Facesmasher lives up to her namesake and barrels through the remaining bat riders like a spinning bowling ball through pins. Lots of face smashing going on. She’s taking them out two at a time while they try to flee in fear. A short bit later, and the skies are clear. The bat carrying Dwarfie has come to its senses and dumped Dwarfie and flown away. Skrii is now Sansalar’s new friend, and the goblin has several new bows and arrows.

The biggest challenge in using the rest of this “old school” game module I wrote over 10 year ago with Old School Hack was two-fold: 1) It’s a typical dungeon crawl, so one of the most fun and dynamic elements of combat, arenas, is difficult to apply, and 2) my players are all 10 and under, and had a huge amount of trouble with the puzzle/riddle in the gauntlet.

In the end, this meant that our 2nd session of Old School Hack was not nearly the success of the first one. But we played it through anyway, and the 4 year old is the only one that passed the puzzle challenge without any trouble. Ah, to be young and innocent! I will post more about the Gauntlet in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that it was a role-playing puzzle to challenge the PCs integrity. No dice rolls needed, just players role-playing. So the novice group of players, in general, blew it.  😉

But the few fights there were to be had were still pretty quick, but it seems the entire scope of possible arenas were limited to “Room” and “Hall”. Boring. There were still some interesting dynamics, from *my* perspective, though. With the Hall being a different arena, ranged attackers were able to stay out there and fire into the Room arena without fearing a melee attack in return. However, the monsters wanted to Move out to that arena, which gave Dwarfie a change to Impede if she wanted to. This makes for a fight that is very different from your normal “trading blows” D&D fight.

If I am understanding the rules correctly, players all basically declare their intent at the beginning of each round, and in my game we use the combat cards with the card holders (those are Awesome, so we use them!), so players put out the card that matches what they want to do, and we begin the round.

So if a player chooses to Attack (which is phase 5), but his intended target chooses to Move (phase 4), then he won’t have a target to attack when 5 rolls around! Likewise if you choose Impede (Phase 3) and no one Moves in 4 for you to impede, then while you are jockeying back and forth trying to keep people from running, they can Attack you in Phase 5, and you get to just grit your teeth back at them. Combat can have some dicey moments based on these kinds of rules.

I am interested in gathering ideas for scenes to use in future fights that have that fantastic dynamic of multiple arenas for players to move around in. Maybe there is room for them on the OSH Bestiary…if not, I will find a place to keep them.

I think it would be good to spend a little time here writing about some of the cool game mechanics that are included in Old School Hack. Initial observations begin with “this ain’t so old school” as you might think. I know Old School. And while there is something to be said about it, I think that in general, old school often means old-fashioned. Some think that is means simple, easy.

My background with RPGs begins in the 70s with Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls as a grade-schooler in Scottsdale, AZ. I was the one who gathered friends and introduced them to the game. I was always the DM. I learned the rules first and taught them to others. These pioneering games were not “easy” because they were foreign. But by most standards, they were pretty simple. There were only a few options, and you just picked between them, and were happy about it. As the industry developed thicker and thicker books hit the shelves that gave you virtually limitless options. And with that came complexity and slower games and combats.

Some people harken back to simpler times, when you could just sit down at the table with some graph paper and pencils, dice, and a single-sided character sheet–and just have some fun. In the quest to provide the ultimate system for your gaming experience, to present the most realistic, or genre-true, game mechanics, we have found ourselves sitting down at the table with stacks of reference books, giving the “walking encyclopedias” and “rules lawyers” a distinct advantage over everyone else, even the DM. I think many a comic strip has illustrated this very issue.

So here I am looking at a simple set of rules. I was able to read in very quickly (literally just minutes), much faster than the original D&D rules when I was a kid–which actually took re-reading several times before starting a game, and referencing often during play because it was so new to me.  Actually the experience of reading the original D&D rules was a lot more like my experience reading D&D4e rules.

So OSH was very easy for my experienced game brain to take in, except for just a couple of the mechanics that I needed to take a little longer to absorb. The easy and familiar included:

  1. Class-based characters, where race *is* a class.
  2. Levels. The game covers Levels 1-4.
  3. Rolling Attributes, but they are only recorded as their “bonus” -2 to +5 by consulting a chart.
  4. Attack rolls, modified by attributes, and Armor Class (AC is target number to beat)
  5. Attribute checks, rolled and modified by the applicable attribute.
  6. Minions as 1-hit foes.
  7. Awesome Points, which are spent by players to get bonuses, avoid damage, etc.

The easy and new ideas included:

  1. Different attack rolls for different kinds of monsters
  2. Minions use a different to-hit roll, and another kind of roll when they can gang up.
  3. Attack rolls are made with 2d10 (or 3d10 in some cases, keeping the two highest).
  4. Attack rolls include one die as a “face die” which means you hit them in the face if you roll at 10 on that die.
  5. Turn sequence – 7 phases each round, with initiative being rolled only when necessary.
  6. Damage is either 1 hit or 2. A face hit adds +1
  7. Awesome Points, as experience, which must be spent in order to level up. Spending 12 APs let’s you level, but *all* players must spend 12 because the party must level together. This is my favorite mechanic because it makes teamwork FUN.  🙂

The new idea that needed a little time:

  1. Arenas. I kept seeing that as “areas” in my head. And when I corrected myself, I kept seeing gladiators in my head. I might have liked to call it Zones instead, just to avoid that bit of distraction.Arenas were hard to get until I ran a mock battle in my head. It’s just a way of splitting the field of battle up in to different places. This is a core element of fighting in the game that has a great deal to do with making combats dynamic and interesting…and manageable.

    This is actually an element that could and maybe even *should* be translated into other game systems. It has changed the way I think about combats in general, and when I am thinking up settings for combats, it becomes an important design element.

    Players are encouraged to narrate new arenas as well, adding additional dimension to each fight, and creating a “new place” to take the battles to. Ranged attacks can fire from one arena to adjacent arenas, but melee is confined to one arena at a time. Archers could then move to “high ground” such as “I climb the tree, moving to the treetops arena so that next round I can fire my bow in the arena below.”

    The concept of Arenas would make T&T infinitely more interesting to play. It would improve game play for a lot of systems I think.

    A single-arena combat becomes droll and boring. This is the single biggest drawback to using arenas. Normal dungeon crawls become significantly more uninteresting.

    I am reworking this old adventure I am running for my kids (Bellicose Keep) to give more varied settings and arenas, and thereby making combats to be had there much more interesting. I’ll post more about my changes later. Until then, happy gaming!

First a Little Background

Our first game night together with a new system called Old School Hack was a new experience for the players, and a resounding SUCCESS. This was the first time two players, Mikki and Destiny, had ever really played an RPG. Both have sat in before as observers, though, on previous games. Davon has experience with DnD4e, so this was new for him as well. The only other RPG experience the players have is that Mikki and Davon play DDO (D&D Online), which I don’t really count as role-playing experience.

Rolling Up Characters

We got together at the table and rolled up their characters. There were enough classes and variety to make everyone happy.

Destiny chose the Dwarf. Rolled an amazing 20 in front of me and got +5 Brawn. How perfect! I assisted with the rest of the character as she made all the important decisions about talents and such. I just jotted down a Dawrvish Warhammer and “Spikey Plate Armor and Heavy Shield” to keep the equipment simple and straightforward. We talked about her Name and Concept, and she decided on Dwarvie the Shortbearded Facesmasher. Quaint, no?

Mikki picked an Elf. The roll-up proved to be interesting as she rolled high on Brawn and Awareness and low and Charm. The rest of the character was also kept pretty simple and easygoing, and she chose Animal Friend for her Talent. She decided to go without armor and to just use the name of her Elf in DDO, and after discussion about her stats and class level title, she decided on her concept as well. Sansalar the Cranky Elven Wanderer.

Davon wanted to play a halfling rogue, so looked over both Goblin and Thief classes and chose Thief. Rolled stats were a pretty good fit, and he chose Endless daggers for his talent.  Also going without armor, he added a Rapier and Daggers to his load out, and wrapped up his character as “Chriss Goldfinger the Sneaky, Greedy Rogue”.

The Adventure Begins!

The adventure began in a small town tavern where the PCs had stopped in their travels because it was nearest to a ruined keep that is rumored by legend to bear a valuable treasure that might just contain what they are looking for. Chriss and Sansalar seek magical heirlooms that have been stolen from their family and lost in battle with monsters. Dwarvie just wants to spit in the eye of a dragon, so if there’s a dragon there, she’s good to go.

While relaxing and watching the stage act, an ogre wearing a brand new plumed, wide-brimmed hat entered the tavern and was followed by a small entourage of “snorts” as he called them. The little piggish grunties looked to be a cross of pot-bellied porkers and goblins. Everyone knew the ogre’s name immediately as he always referred to himself in the 3rd person as Trogus. He demanded a keg of ale to drink, some slop for his entourage, and began bragging about his new promotion that he was celebrating.

Lucky for the thief, who was at the bar and nearest the front door, he had a front row seat when Trogus pulled out his coin-pouch and poured out several gold coins and gems. He left a few gold on the counter and put all the rest back into his pouch. It was barely tucked back into the ogre’s belt before Chriss had liberated it and started heading toward the stairs up to the balcony and a quick escape.

But no. Trogus grabbed him by the shoulders, with one hand, while he bent down and breathed a nasty rotting cloud of stench into his face. “You like my new hat?” Trogus asked. Chriss succeeded in a Commitment Check to keep his lunch down.

“Uh..<cough, gag>, yeah. Where’d you get it?” Chriss replied.

“Some squishy man down street not need it no more. Hyuh, huh, haha!”

Trogus looked him over, and still stiff with fear, Chriss realized that Trogus had not noticed he had taken the pouch yet. Whew.

Trogus smiled with deadly breath and said, “I like your boots.” Chriss tried to offer them up hoping to distract him and allow his escape, but Trogus is no fool. Well, he is if that old addage applies, and the pouch as evidence of it, but in this case he pulled up one of his feet to illustrate, “But they no fit Trogus. Trogus feet too big!”

Wow. Chriss thought Trogus’ breath was the worst thing he had ever smelled, but then Trogus put his foot in Chriss’ face, and it broke new records. A failed check resulted in lunch and ale all over Trogus’ foot and leg. Crap!

The combat was creative and fun, and the idea of arenas was quickly absorbed and put to good use. A dense arena in the tavern on the main floor, with the bar, tables, and patrons. A tight arena awaited them up the stairs to the balcony. And there was always the open arena outside.

Dwarvie used a Protect to make sure that the Thief would make it up there safely. The elf fired an arrow at Trogus and missed. Chriss ran up the stairs into the tight balcony. All attacks that were aimed at the now-gone thief went to the Dwarf who took it all without even breathing hard. A 14 AC is formidable, even if it is an Ogre attacking. No counter attacks were made since everyone missed the Dwarf.

Sansalar the elf fired again, this time sticking the ogre in the arm. Three Snorts ran up the stairs after the Thief, who decided to make a new arena called “Chandelier”. Beautiful. However, a failed Daring check put the Thief back in the dense main floor arena, breaking a table in the process. However, he was awarded an Awesome Point for using a table to break his fall (but really for thinking up the Chandelier arena).

Trogus decided that the pokey dwarf was not a very smart target after missing her again and getting pricked by her armor (special effect, no damage). Dwarvie attacked back and hurt the Ogre because her warhammer was MADE for tavern brawls! Yeah! Trogus was now down 2 hits.

The Snort minions couldn’t touch the Dwarf this round, but wounded the Elf. The whole minion attack mechanic worked really well, I thought. 🙂 I thought it was interesting how the players basically ignored the minions, though, and kept attacking the ogre, even when the minions were actually wounding the unarmored elf almost every round.

The next round, the elf hit the stairs to the balcony while the Snorts up there climbed and jumped down after the Thief, who was, ironically, already leaping back up from the broken table to catch the bottom of the balcony and swing himself back up to the railing and prepare another jump to the chandelier.

Trogus and the remaining Snorts were unable to attack the Elf because she took off. (I think a Cunning check vs. Awareness would be good to impose on a fleeing character in melee in order to get to the new area unscathed. While an impede would prevent the Elf from fleeing, this would just allow some of these guys a chance to attack before the Elf succeeded in fully moving to the balcony arena. Maybe a failed check delays the move until 7.)

Destiny made a cool move this round by choosing to throw the Ogre through the wall into a new arena called “Kitchen”. Everyone thought the visual of a brawny dwarf picking up an 8 foot tall ogre and launching him through the wall was AWESOME. She got two awesome points for that, especially now that there was an “upside-down, ogre-shaped hole in the wall behind the bar”.

Destiny set Dwarvie up for a Push move the next round, while the Snorts that jumped down from the balcony frustratingly charged back up the stairs again in their wild-thief chase. The Elf on the balcony expected this to happen, so she swung over the balcony and down carefully to a table below. She had taken several hits so far and was just 2 away from getting knocked out or bleeding to death. Chriss, of course, leapt out to the chandelier again, and rolled really badly, but decided to use his innate ability to avoid falling again. Now safely dangling from the chandelier by his knees, he prepared some daggers to start throwing while swinging about.

Trogus tried to come back into the main floor arena through his new doorway he made, but a split-second later, a screaming, self-propelled (spikey) dwarf-bullet shot over the bar and sent them both back through the hole “Terrible” Terry Tate style. They smashed into a stove on the other side with the cook still trying to stir his pot of stew. He screamed and ran off. Everyone laughed and Destiny got another Awesome Point.

The next round Chriss threw a dagger at one of the Snorts, killing him and letting him perform a classic fall off the balcony, full-on spaghetti-western-style. The two remaining tried to jump onto his chandelier, both missed and conked out on the main floor when they hit the ground so ungracefully.

The Elf decided to use her longsword now against the Snorts surrounding her table, and got a face shot hit, splitting one skull in twain. Gross, she said, and had to wipe her blade off before continuing the fight. The Snorts got one more shot in on her, leaving her with no more hits to spare. One more and she was a gonner.

In the kitchen, Trogus won initiative and hit Dwarvie hard. Trogus was actually starting to get really mad about people ruining his celebration so I tossed in a few more AP’s and upped the damage, but Dwarvie’s shield saved the day and soaked it all up but one, which Dwarvie took with a smile. Ha!

Her return blow was not so ineffective as his…and 2 points later, the Ogre was toppled back into some sacks of flour creating a small explosion of white powder. He was done. So the next round the dwarf would check the Ogre to make sure, and see if he had any goods on him.

Two snorts had run into the kitchen to help, and when they saw the cloud of flour over the dead Trogus, they squeeled and ran back out. The remaining Snort joined it (his buddy had already “split” thanks to the Elf) and they ran wee-wee-wee…all the way home. (Sorry couldn’t help it).

Trogus was also carrying a map that Dwarvie found quite interesting…it leads directly to the ruins of Bellicose Keep and…TREASURE! Trogus was apparently just promoted to Chief Treasure Guard, and had this map to remind him where the treasure was so he could keep it safe by protecting the right place (or so the notes Trogus wrote on the map seem to indicate).

One more note worthy of saving till the end:

  • Davon is 10 years old.
  • Mikki is 9.
  • Destiny is 4.

My Star Players!

My kids are AWESOME Players! They are looking forward to the next game.

And so am I. 🙂