Sunday, July 7, 2019

Medusa in the backpack, and other stories about teens and role-playing games

Almost exactly a year ago, a high school invited me to their ESL summer camp for teens. I visited with my friend Danielle Bellone, we told some stories in English, and since we had a free afternoon, I decided to introduce the kids to role-playing games. Several hours and three dungeon crawls later, they were hooked. This year the organizers invited me back, by popular demand, to run some more role-playing adventures.
I love my job.

Buy it here
There were 26 teens at the camp, so we divided them into 5 and 6 person groups, and I got a three-hour session with each. Since this time I was DMing alone, I decided to bring some adventures that are perfect for beginners and also make good stories: The first volume of the Uncaged Anthology came out earlier this year, and is quickly gaining much deserved popularity. It turns old Dungeons & Dragons tropes inside out, giving voice to classic monsters, and making players reevaluate their beliefs and convictions. It's an awesome collection of short adventures, I highly recommend it!
I brought pre-made character sheets the players could pick from; my own party helped me by rolling up eight first level characters. We covered the basics (Human Cleric, Wood Elf Ranger, Half-Elf Sorcerer, Elf Rogue, Minotaur Fighter, Half-Orc Barbarian, Halfling Bard, Dragonborn Paladin). Each group selected their characters a little differently, which made for good diversity. I also brought gift D20s for everyone, so that they could continue playing on their own if they wanted.

Here are the highlights:
(SPOILERS! Also, long post, scroll to the end for TL;DR)

Team One (5 girls, all beginners both in English and in RPGs). We played From the Forest They Fled by Alison Huang. In this adventure, the party gets hired to find out why animals have been fleeing a forest. They fight some plant creatures, and eventually encounter a Dryad who is setting fire to the trees. Turns out the forest should burn down every decade or so to help new seeds germinate, but people have been controlling the forest fires, so the trees asked the Dryad for help. The party had to come up with a solution that would work both for the forest and for the people living in it. After some discussion, they decided to convince all 150 villagers to move somewhere else, promising to take care of them - and the adventure suddenly turned into a refugee saga. They were sent away from various towns and villages, until I decided to link up with another adventure, and had them arrive to Canticle Bay, from Cry of the Sea by Alicia Furness. Here, they made a deal with the mayor, who promised to take care of the refugees in exchange for the party's help. The girls worked out a second compromise between the Sirens of the bay and the human fishermen - they designated sea sanctuaries, and convinced the Sirens to teach the humans sustainable fishing methods. It was a beautiful and diplomatic solution, and I was very proud of the players.

Team Two (6 guys). We played Maid from Waterdeep by Bianca Bickford. A mute girl hired the party to look for a missing woman. She couldn't write (in my version of the adventure, anyway), so we spent some time vigorously playing charades until the party got the full story from her, which was a lot of fun. She turned out to be a former mermaid, who rescued a female Bard from a sinking ship. A rich man, who was also on the ship, got angry at her for not rescuing him first, and kidnapped the Bard in revenge. The party went looking for him, chased a servant of his across the roofs of the city, and eventually found the house where he was holed up. Fighting their way though skeletons, zombies, and a Cloaker (when in doubt, add a Cloaker), they had some amazing moments of teamwork, and defeated the rich man / witch man in a heroic fight. The crowning moment of said fight was the Storm Cleric riding on the shoulders of the Minotaur Fighter, yelling "yee-haw" and shooting crossbow bolts (until he got smacked in the face by the door frame, but still). Teamwork won the day.

Team Three (5 guys). They were the most prepared and the most experienced of them all. They had been playing regularly since last year, they knew the lingo, and they were more than ready to clear some dungeons, kill some monsters, and grab some loot. I picked Lost Gods by Natalie Wallace for them, because that adventure starts out as a classic dungeon crawl - and then takes an unexpected turn. The party is hired by a slowly dying city to find their disappeared goddess. They descend into a cave system looking for her, and encounter all kinds of ghosts and specters. The party methodically worked their way through the dungeon, investigating every room, killing every monster, collecting all the loot. Before the last room, where they though the boss monster might be, they took a rest, sharpened their weapons, prepared their spells - they were all locked and loaded for an epic boss fight. Except, when they walked in... a Medusa looked at them from a mirror, and said "Don't come in, I don't want to hurt you!" There was an awesome moment of stunned silence, as gears turned in the players' heads. "Wait, what?" After some hesitation, they began talking to the monster, who told them her story, how she had been turned into a monster by a cruel god, and how she just wants to find a home where she can't hurt people, but she can't sneak out of the city alone.
The party, surprised that they had to plan a prison break instead of a boss fight, eventually decided that they would help her. The brainstorming session that followed was as epic as any fight, until they settled on a plan: the Bard and the Sorcerer went back to the people of the city, and told them that he goddess had sent a message, and wants them to celebrate. Then they threw an epic concert on the main square, drawing all the attention while the rest of the party sneaked out of the city with the Medusa, and went to find her a safe, quiet cave up in the mountains. The next day the Bard and the Sorcerer told the people that their goddess wants them to move to a better place, and pointed them to some more fertile lands. Away from the mountains.
I loved this adventure because it made the players reevaluate their mentality about what a role-playing adventure can be. They were surprised at first that the monster wasn't evil, but once they got over that, they did some stellar teamwork and planning, and made mutually beneficial and very emphatic decisions. They showed compassion and creativity, and it was beautiful to DM them through that.

Pic from here
Team Four (5 girls). Cheerful, talkative, excited group of players. I decided on From the Forest again, because I wanted to see if there would be any difference between two girl teams in terms of solutions and outcomes. There was! They were taken by surprise by the first forest fight, but after that they immediately started brainstorming about how they could capture a creature instead of killing it, or even make friends with one. Since I am a big supporter of non-violent solutions and the Rule of Cool, I allowed them some rolls, and they successfully befriended two Vine Blights along the way. Next followed some charades, in which they gathered information from the non-verbal plant creatures, and found out about the Dryad. They even had a working theory, they thought the Dryad was trying to take over the forest for her monsters, and planned to offer her a nature reserve where she could keep them, Jurassic World style. When they actually met the Dryad (all prepared to negotiate), and found out the truth about the trees, they put their minds to coming up with another solution. The result was pretty spectacular: They negotiated a deal between the Dryad and the people, in which the humans were allowed to cut down enough trees around their village to protect themselves from the fire (promising they would replant, and also leave the Ash Gums alone), and sell the wood so they could have money until the forest regenerates. In return, they promised not to stop the forest fires. It was an elaborate and well thought out deal, and I was very proud of the girls.

Team Five (5 guys, 1 girl). Saved the most chaotic one for last :) They had been waiting all week to get their turn, and jumped in with both feet, picking their characters and preparing for great adventures. I picked Lost Gods, because it worked so well with the previous enthusiastic party. Once again, the differences between two groups of players were both significant and kind of awesome. This party got a little bit more lost in the dungeon, but they did manage to kill off all the ghosts and monsters they encountered. They were also taken aback by the Medusa's confession and friendly nature, but after some consideration, they, too, decided to help her - in their own special way. They stuffed the Medusa in a giant backpack, and had the Minotaur member of the party simply carry her out of the cave. When they encountered the people of the city, they claimed that they did not find the goddess, but they would keep looking - and which point the grateful civilians invited them for dinner. So, Medusa in the backpack, they went and had a nice dinner at the mayor's house... then they waited until everyone was asleep, looted the mayor's office, and sneaked out of the place. Sadly, they Stealth was not exactly the best, so they woke half the city up before they made it to the city wall. In a moment of desperation, the Minotaur threw the bag up on the wall, followed by the (disgruntled) Elf Ranger, and then the party bluffed their way through the crowd, telling the civilians that the Ranger had betrayed them and looted the mayor, and they were going to go catch him. Long story short, they all made it out of the city, went to find a cave for Medusa, cleared it of monsters, and helped her move in.
It was not the most convenient of all solutions, and the party was definitely bringing the Chaotic, but it was, honestly, tons of fun. And some good teamwork.

TL;DR: Conclusions
People still tend to believe that role-playing is some weird, nerdy hobby played by weird, nerdy people (or, you know, Satanists). They are wrong. Tabletop role-playing is essentially communal storytelling which inspires people to work together, create stories, and have lots of fun. In addition, this camp was for ESL students (several of whom were beginners), so I got to watch them speak English enthusiastically, learn new expressions, and forget that they were learning a language while also fighting monsters. All of their solutions were genius, creative, and emphatic, and they instinctively found compromises and mutually beneficial arrangements between people of different backgrounds. Not a single one of the five parties resorted to violence instead of diplomacy. They played well, had fun, and as a DM, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely. I am proud of my players, and I hope I will get to meet them again next year!

No comments:

Post a Comment