Justin Achilli

Month: January, 2012

Preschool Pathfinder

My kid loves games. None too surprising, of course, and when I say that she loves games — she’s three — I really mean that she loves opening the boxes and hammering around with the stuff inside. Unfolding maps, stacking pieces, punching out chits, all the sorts of things that aren’t really playing the game that nonetheless involve or facilitate playing with the game.

Fighting the goblins.

Conceptually, Madeleine certainly understands a lot of things, even if they’re not exactly the rules of a given game. For instance, we recently played Ticket To Ride and she was upset that when my wife played the pieces to claim a route, the color of the trains on the route didn’t match the color of the route itself. Of course, she didn’t know the rules themselves, but she made her own associations among the game components in her mind.

Anyway, I had ordered the Pathfinder Beginner Box because I wanted to take a look at the boxed loot and see firsthand how successful it was as an introductory piece of material. When it arrived, Madeleine, being no stranger to the appearance of games and other boxed goodies, assumed that this was another something for her. She pushed her stepstool over to the kitchen island where I was unboxing the whole thing and jumped right into playing with the pieces. She put together some of the figures on the stands and was already familiar with dice. I don’t know how, exactly, we started actually playing, but when we did, she took right away to the interaction between the players, even though it was only the two of us.

In fact, she liked it so much, she talked about what she had done afterward, and even asked to play again when she woke today and wanted to play again after we got back from the zoo.

The reward for any good dungeon delve is a pile of loot.

Of course, we weren’t playing Pathfinder as its rules define it, but I described a few situations, she told me she wanted to fight the whatevers, and then she rolled the dice. The cause-and-effect sequence took form. Over the course of our play, I observed the following things:

  • I started with the standard exchange of RPG interactions, but then I modified the sequence to fit her interests and attention span. That is, we didn’t really both with AC or movement rates or missed attacks or even hit points, we just rolled dice and knocked over figures. It was the interaction with the pieces and me that held her interest.
  • I varied my tone of voice and the pacing of my descriptions, to which she reacted as cues. She knew that she needed to “hurry up!” while she was fighting, because of the tension of the encounter with the monster. At various points, she jumped up and down, raised her hands in victory cheers, and even placed the new monsters from the observed flow of prior turns. Today, we added background music, but I don’t know if that had any effect on the experience for her.
  • She picked up parlance very quickly, knowing that she was rolling for “damage” and identifying individual monsters. She liked fighting the dragon and the goblins; she didn’t like fighting the spider or the “goop” (ooze).
  • She immediately mapped the relationships of the character types to the prompts for their actions. That is, she knew the fighter fought and the wizard cast spells. After a few turns, when I asked her, “What sort of spell do you want to cast?” I didn’t give her any list or context, and she replied, “Pink.” So I described the wizard’s spell in terms of a pink ray. The next time it came to the wizard’s turn, she replied, “Blue,” “red,” “green,” etc., and every spell effect became shaped like a “ball” that the wizard cast. The fighter always closed to a melee piece placement and the wizard always maintained distance.
  • Importantly, the extrinsic motivator of treasure didn’t supersede the intrinsic motivator of playing the game itself, or at least manipulating the pieces. I placed glass beads at various points on the map and described them as giant diamonds. After she defeated the monster guardians, Madeleine would pick up the character token and the glass bead (as if the character were carrying the treasure) and move them over in front of her. Then she’d move to the next glass bead on the map. At the end of the game, I encouraged her to take the glass beads into her room and keep them as her treasure, where she can see them and count them.

Civilization's victory over the fiendishness of monster-kind.

The result was certainly more toy than game, but the interaction had the key elements of a true game. The only thing missing was meaningful choice, in that there were no real consequences to actions and that Madeleine’s choice for both of her characters was either fighting or casting a spell based on which character we were talking about. Still, she chose which treasure next to pursue and which square on the grid she wanted to occupy to fight the monster, so the rudiments of game play as opposed to toy play were there. Toy play is also consistent to the way her age group participates in expressive activity, so it was encouraging to see that expectation and her formative steps into development beyond those boundaries.

Next time, though, I’m not backing off the TPK.

Give ‘Em a (True) Hand

Something that has surprised me in the ongoing V20 work I’ve been doing is that I’ve taken a new shine to the True Black Hand.

Among the Vampire community, Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand can be an unpopular book. I’ve never been an apologist for it, and I can see what some people don’t like about it. It turns the idea of one of the most distinct Disciplines into something that’s thematically at odds with the rest of Vampire. Some of the powers get a little screwy. It has a few ideas in it that threaten to jump the shark, and the premise of the book itself comes perilously close to doing so, too — it leans on Vampire’s device of secrets within secrets a little too hard. Here’s this ancient weird sect you’ve never heard of before, and they’re pulling the strings of the other groups that you have heard of (so they’re not as cool anymore). A little fast and loose with the baseline Vampire experience, the True Hand is Vampire for people who want something a little weirder.

That said, there’s a lot it does well, and I’m really enjoying rooting around in its vaults again. In particular, here’s a list of what I like about the Tal’Mahe’Ra.

  • Perfect Vampire Tone: I’ve said this on panels and in forum discussions before, but the book absolutely nails the “wheels within wheels” conceit that makes Vampire tick. It’s a sect full of factions, and the sect itself overlaps with some of the other sects, and it even bleeds a bit into the thematics of the other supernatural types. What can you believe or trust? No one knows — and since the unknown is such a vital portion of the horror genre, the True Hand is a great sect for fomenting fear of the unknown by its very existence. It’s especially good for a Storyteller whose players know it all, being well-versed in WoD lore, because all that knowledge works against them in a dramatic way.
  • Exoticism and the Macabre: A slightly Eastern, Gnostic flavor mixed in with cyclopean tombs and the bleak resonance of the First City where vampires held sway. It’s a place where stones as old as Eden make up the halls where monsters plucked from their mother’s bosom as infants have never known anything other than servitude to Kindred — Kindred who claim to be shepherding them and protecting them. Everything they touch is twisted or becomes so, and the lament for what’s lost to their unlifestyle is either immediate and poignant or has never even entered their minds.
  • The Dark Side of Academia: There’s a strong monastic element to the Tal’Mahe’Ra, and it works wonders for Vampire. The idea that there’s such a thing as too much knowledge, that some secrets are better left unearthed, and the perils of what someone might do if only they could find out how — that’s a great motivator, both for or against the troupe’s Kindred. What is the morality of fighting to suppress information?

I’ve been scribbling notes for a True Hand chronicle I want to run, a sort of coterie-against-the-world thing that I don’t think should last too long, but would be an interesting exploration of digging some mysteries up and tirelessly hiding others. Tal’Mahe’Ra agents operating in a domain that doesn’t know they’re there but certainly doesn’t want them. When the whole of the local power structure is against you, but what you’re doing you do to protect it? That’s a theme worth telling a story about, I think

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