Sunday, June 1, 2014

Teaching Dungeons & Dragons Part 1

Even though it's been a couple of years since my last post, I'm very excited to share a workshop I put together for a group of high school students last week. My fiancee, a local high school teacher, was organizing a series of field trips, workshops and other activities for her school, and invited me to do an introductory D&D workshop.

I actually did an "Introduction to Dungeons and Dragons" workshop at her school back in October, so I had a little experience to work from. Four students came to that one, and between three and eight students have been coming weekly to my fiancee's classroom after school to play since then. They tried running their own games a bit, but mostly she's been DM'ing. I started with "The Portal Under the Stars," the 0-level quick adventure in the Dungeon Crawl Classics book, and she's since used "Grimmsgate," "Sailors on the Starless Sea," "Keep on the Borderlands" and the one-page dungeon contest winner "The Burial Mound of Gilliard Wolfclan". I used Labyrinth Lord rules and handed out copies of the rules that I'd had spiral-bound at copy shop.

For last week's workshop, we were expecting significantly more students (15 in the morning session, 10 in the afternoon), few with any idea what they were getting into. Given that, I wanted to be sure to make the workshop a genuine introduction. I run games regularly (I should really post about the Barrowmaze game, which added half a dozen players, moved to a local bar and continues to be a blast), and often include brand-new players. For those games, though, it's not important that the new players get a holistic understanding of the rules. All they need is a basic understanding of how play works- the "tell me what you want to do and we'll roll dice to see if it works" thing- and something fun to hang their hat on.

In addition to that basic concept, which most people pick up in a minute without an explicit explanation anyway, I had a few goals for the workshop:

  1. I wanted students to have fun and not get bored.
  2. I wanted students to play in adventure that incorporated classic D&D tropes.
  3. I wanted students to understand what their characters were capable of, and be excited about them.
  4. I wanted students to interact with NPC's in a meaningful way.
  5. I wanted students to face tough, meaningful decisions, and debate how best to proceed.
  6. I wanted students to get a look at what DM'ing entails, in a way that's accessible and bounded.
  7. Finally, I wanted to give students the tools they'd need to run a basic game without anything or anyone else. 
To meet those goals, I broke the workshop into three sections: 
  1. Character creation
  2. Adventuring
  3. Dungeon creation exercise
Character creation, even in retroclones, can be a genuinely intimidating hurdle for new players get over. I looked through the character creation chapters from a few of my favorite games: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Scarlet Heroes, Spears of the Dawn, and so on, and ended up deciding to create my own super-simple character creation process.

First, I had them roll prime attributes. Since I think prime attribute names can actually be kind of difficult vocabulary words, I created this chart so that students would have some descriptors to work with: 

Strong, Powerful
Agile, Good aim
Slow-thinking, Ignorant
Smart, Fast learner
Fragile, Sickly
Healthy, Tough
No common sense, Materialistic
Sensible, Spiritual
Hard to get along with
Natural Leader

Rather than a +/- 1-3 system, I gave them a +1 for anything 13 and over and a -1 for anything 8 and under.

Next, they chose classes. I created a one-page document for each class (just the standards). The one pages include: 
  • A short (2-4 sentence) description of the class, 
  • Prime Attribute
  • Hit Dice
  • Damage Dice
  • Attack Bonus
  • Special Abilities
  • Saving Throws
  • Class Backgrounds
So one at a time. 
I mostly copied the short descriptions from the core Labyrinth Lord book, though I took a few things from Lamentations of the Flame Princess as well.

I listed the prime attribute just to give players some basis from which to choose a class.

The hit dice are mostly from LL, I believe, though I may have upgraded the thief's. 

In order to simplify equipment buying, I decided to try something I've been wanting to try forever and gave each class a consistent damage die. That way, when it came time to play, we could just hand out a d20 and the class damage die to each player and they'd be all set- no looking up specific weapon damage.

Though I've been playing with descending armor class for a couple years, since we made the switch from LotFP to LL, I decided that it would be easiest for new players to learn an ascending armor class system. To that end, I assigned each class an Attack Bonus, which they would add to their d20 to-hit rolls. 

Special Abilities include spells, turn undead, detect secret doors, thief skills, etc. I decided to go with d6 thief skill rolls, as with the LotFP specialist, to keep things a little simpler and less granular. So as to skip an extra step (and the opportunity for players to power-game) I gave a pre-defined list of skills rather than letting the thief put points into specific skills, using the conversion chart at the back of the LotFP referee book. 

Saving throws were just copied from LL. 

I included a Class Backgrounds table in order to give players something more specifically about their character to get excited about. I mostly just copied the excellent tables from this post: on "The City of Iron," and subbed in a couple of things from the Scarlet Heroes character creation system. I ended up with tables of 1-8 and allowed players to roll randomly or choose, if something caught their eye. There were a lot of "Demon Hunters," not surprisingly! And I really enjoyed explaining to one student that her "Peasant Rebel" thief was basically a populist revolutionary.

I didn't include anything about gaining levels, just to keep it simple. 

Next, I had them choose starting equipment. I kept the choices limited, but tried to allow for some interesting choices. I'm pretty sure I copied part of this from somewhere, but I honestly can't figure out where! If I copied it from you, let me know! Here's the complete starting equipment one-page:
You get 2d6 Gold Pieces and the following automatically:

·      Backpack
·      Dried Rations (3 days worth)
·      Waterskin
·      Tinderbox (with flint and steel)
·      Chalk
·      Torch
·      Dagger*

*Magic-Users and Elves get a spellbook instead. Clerics get a holy symbol.

Next, choose a Weapon and three things from the following equipment list:

·      Leather Armor
·      Shield
·      50’ Rope
·      Grappling Hook
·      5 Iron Spikes and Small Hammer
·      10’ Pole
·      Upgrade Torch to Lantern and Pint of Oil
·      An Extra Weapon
·      Thieves’ Tools
·      Crowbar
·      Sledgehammer
·      Shovel

*Fighters, Dwarves, and Clerics may take Chain Mail Armor instead of the above equipment.
Hand Axe

Bow (with 20 arrows)
Crossbow (with 20 bolts)

Battle Axe
Great Sword

*When rolling damage for two-handed weapons, roll the damage die twice and take the better of the two rolls.

Next, I had them roll one random additional item from a list of 100 things. These ranged from the totally mundane (a spear), to the really very useful (Two men-at-arms sworn to six months service. Armed with chainmail, shield and spear), to the odd (Fancy dancing shoes, a puppet, a jug of pickled eggs). I copied a bunch of this from somewhere a couple years ago. Again, if I copied from you, let me know!

Last, students named their characters and wrote their character name and class on a little namecard,which they put on the table in front of them. We then went around the room and had each student introduce their character by saying the name, class, background, particularly high or low attribute descriptors, and sometimes their signature equipment. For example, a student might say: "I'm Sir Cumferance, a wandering knight. I'm strong and tough, but hard to get along with. I fight with a two-handed sword and I have a chess set."

I'll type up descriptions of the actual adventure and the dungeon creation exercise next, and I'll also upload all the packets I made sometime soon. I hope someone finds this useful! Please feel free to get in touch with questions, suggestions, etc.