Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Visit to the Mule

Last weekend I had the chance to head up to the city with one of my players and visit some of the folks behind The Mule Abides blog, Tavis and Charlatan.  A pair of kiddos came with, so we ended up with a group of 3 kids and 4 adults (plus the DM) for a nice 3-4 hour game.  It was a chance to see a bit how Tavis's approach to the Saltbox works, play some ACKS (Adventurer Conquer King), use an alternate type of 0-level funnel, and then get in some general RPG discussion.

As is the case with most games with kids, it ended with death and violence in the classic tradition; by borrowing tactics from cartoons.  After being marooned on an island by a dislikable captain, the party excavated an entrance to some caves beneath the island.  Confronted by a long, slime-filled tunnel deeper in the cave complex, the adult players puzzled over how to safely navigate the treacherous length of cave - walk carefully and probe with poles, tie ropes and rappel down?  Cutting the proverbial Gordian knot, two of the kids quickly fashioned a toboggan out of wooden planks and went zooming down the tunnel through the slime, hooting and hollering.   It seemed like so much fun at the time, but then there was the giant slug, and the guys that slipped and slid down the tunnel after them, and then the screaming and the dying.  (In other words, a successful D&D game).

Other observations:

Gaming with Kids
I've run a bunch of mixed games with kids and dads, and we've used two approaches - running a kid's game that happened to have dads in attendance, or running a regular game that happened to have kids.  The difference is focus.  For the kid's game approach, the dads are like silent partners; the dads can offer suggestions on strategy, but the kids make all the major decisions and have to discuss amongst themselves (come what may).  That approach tends to keep the kids really engaged.

However, sitting amongst the players in a mixed group of kids and dads in a regular game session, I noticed that the conversation has a tendency to go beyond what 9 and 10 year olds can process; it's a good practice to slow down at key decision points, explain the issues simply, and make sure the kids get a chance to offer their opinions and vote.  It seems like common sense that you should expend some effort making sure everyone is engaged, but it's easy to get out of the habit without an occasional reminder.

The ACKS Funnel
We were heartily encouraged to have retainers; to that end, a number of stat lines were generated up front (3d6 in order, yeah baby!) and the best chosen as the PC; retainers were selected from amongst the other rolled stats and paid like mercenaries (zero level men).  The party easily had 30+ guys - plenty of fodder, and replacement guys that could receive a promotion if a PC died.  Not all 30 guys went into the dungeon.

Playing ACKS
When ACKS is released, folks will notice there's almost no learning curve.  AC and to-hit rolls are calculated slightly differently, but it's otherwise all very familiar.  Proficiencies - a basic skill system - were unobtrusive and didn't change the table experience - we were still pushing, pulling, prodding and cajoling in an old school way (nary a spot check or diplomacy roll in sight).

One thing I found interesting - Individual Initiative!  Okay, I know this has been an optional rule in many variants (and LOTFP used a version of it), but I've used the Moldvay BX style of Initiative by Side for as long as I can remember, with different combat actions happening in sequence - movement, missile, magic and melee, and then the other side goes.

Initiative by Side lends itself to detailed group strategies; the players are forced to coordinate their tactics closely as actions happen in sequence.  I found Individual Initiative to be much more chaotic; it could also have been because this was a one-shot (more like a convention game, since we weren't Tavis's regular group).  Do other folks have similar observations - group initiative leads to more strategic coordination across the party, whereas individual initiative creates a more free form, chaotic muddle during the battle?  The experiences were very different and I can see pros and cons to each - group initiative is explicitly a game mechanic, individual initiative throws more "fog of war" and "din of battle" into the mix.

The other big difference is zero hit points and dying. It's been a hot topic for me lately in the home game as we're switching from using the death at -10 hp AD&D rule to the Swords & Wizardry approach.  ACKS has a much different death at zero rule; it's interesting enough that its worth its own post.

The other thing I'll save for another post is the idea of using Troupe-Style Play in D&D; the campaign roles and domain rules in ACKs make you want to try out the mid-range and high level stuff sooner than waiting 2-3 years to get there organically, so I think it's worth considering if there are sensible ways to structure a campaign to support multiple ranges of character levels.