by Daniel Fidelman
Surprisingly enough, one of the most epic and memorable battles I had a chance to run, was a battle of wits and historical knowledge. On one side sat about fifteen kids, classified as gifted and aged ten to twelve, armed only with an internet connection and the best spends that their TimeWatch character sheet could offer. Their characters were standing at the great hall of the palace in Khanbaliq, the early predecessor to modern Beijing, and their opponents were the various members of the great Khan’s court. It was a formal reception, where the courtiers tried to assess the new arrivals, supposedly ambassadors from distant lands, yet unsullied by the Mongol conquest, but actually – Agents of the TimeWatch.
But perhaps some cultural context may help here. Surprisingly enough, there are few hundreds of Israeli role-players that work as either full-time or part-time Tabletop RPG Gamemasters for elementary school kids. Those activities are almost always paid by the parents, as RPGs are widely considered to be an educational tool developing teamwork, self-expression and imagination, and take place in various schools and day-care centres.
For better and for worse, this model has some implications for our playing culture. The advantages of this phenomena include the instant recognisability of Role Playing Games in most middle-class settings and the general benevolent attitude of the society to such games, as well as a certain pool from where future adult role-players are drawn (The numbers are hard to get due the fierce competition between the companies involved, but I would estimate that at least 5,000 Israeli kids are playing a Fantasy d20 Roleplaying game on a weekly basis with a professional Gamemaster).
The widespread criticism, at the other hand, is that such a monetization of Gamemastering sometimes encourages the creation of huge player groups – in extreme cases containing as many as twenty players per one Gamemaster, but often ranging from eight to twelve. Consequently, managing and entertaining such is group is a task that requires high performative and group management skills from the Gamemasters, that in turn may accustom potential young role-players to see role-playing as a service offered to their parents by trained professionals rather than a sustainable adult hobby they can try for themselves. It also may accustom them to a very simplistic version of roleplaying, where personal quests and initiatives are nearly unmanageable and where roleplaying scenes depend mainly on the theatrical skills of the Gamemaster. That factor, together with the game sessions being only ninety minutes long – lends itself to a huge reliance on battles, and violent solutions in general.
Thus, young players in such organized settings are often considered combat oriented and bloodthirsty to the extreme, tending to bypass role-playing and plan-making to get to the part which gives them the most amount of agency – rolling dice in order to kill monsters. I believe that the TimeWatch game mentioned here provided me with some insight towards fixing that problem.
So, info dumps aside, we are now flashing back to the recent past. It was the summer of 2015, and I was sent by my manager at the Cortex company to provide six roleplaying courses for a few weeks long summer camp for gifted children. Usually I try to avoid running games for more than twelve kids, but the format of the camp demanded me to accommodate groups of 15-20.
After submitting descriptions for the Harry Potter and the Hobbit games, as well as a GMing 101 course and a Nilfgaard military academy LARP for the older kids, I’ve stopped to consider my one remaining slot on the schedule. “You are a history teacher. Why wouldn’t you run a history game?” asked Shacked, my manager “We are supposed to be educational, after all”.
The Jurassic Editon of TimeWatch has just landed on my Hard Drive few weeks before, so the decision was made, and I’ve submitted “TimeWatch in the Court of Kublai Khan” for the summer camp’s program.
“TimeWatch recruits people from all over the history. Who do you want to be?”
Character generation is not a procedure you can easily perform with fifteen kids, most of them are unfamiliar with points distribution systems. So, in the purpose of this mission I’ve created six pre-made versions of the character sheet, using Character Competencies as the basis – The players picked their choice between Analysts, Diplomats, Gadgeteers, Marksmen, Spies and Officers, then distributed few more points between the General abilities and picked a couple of investigative ones. Investigative abilities were binary – you either had it or hadn’t, while the abilities you had allowed you to make investigative spends at their behalf, A system close enough to that presented at Gumshoe One-2-One.
Then came the personalization part. “Now tell me where have you came from exactly”, I’ve asked them. “What have you done in your career before getting picked up by the Watch?”
Some kids had an immediate answer. Others seemed lost. Incidentally, we were situated in a computer class, and I decided to use it. “You can turn the computers on and use the Internet. Write me a short biography of your character. He would get cool powers based on the quantity and quality of the knowledge you would gather”.
This kind of personalized, almost system agnostic phase of character creation took about half an hour. The pupils worked on the computers while I checked their work, directed them to interesting persons and concepts, and distributed cherries per their choices, either drawing from my memories of those mentioned in the TimeWatch or the Night’s Black Agent books, or making up some appropriate ones by myself, in consultation with the kids.
Kid: “Can I be an ancient Greek gadgeteer?”
Me: “Sure thing, google up Archimedes. You can be an apprentice of him”
Kid: “What can I get then?”
Me: “It depends. What kind of work have you did for him”?
Kid: [Reads Wikipedia article] “The Heat Ray sound really neat”
Me: “Well, the you have a set of hand mirrors and lenses, that allows you to set things on fire from afar given some time”.
Another kid, that managed to acquire much more Mongol lore than I’ve thought possible in twenty minutes on the Hebrew version of Wikipedia said that he wants to be a Prince of a razed city in Rus, secretly bent on revenge.
“Well,” I said “then you have probably researched the Mongol tactics and culture very well during your TimeWatch period, so you have a dedicated Academic ability for that.”
Most of the rest of that first session spent planning. Their mission was to infiltrate the court to find what have mobilized the great Mongol march that destroyed Europe in early 14th century and they needed a good cover story for about fifteen new people showing up at Khanbaliq. I’ve divided them to groups of four, gave each group the map of the Mongol empire and gave ten minutes to think about cover stories, then vote.
Quickly enough, they decided to be a delegation from a faraway country, ambassadors bearing gifts of respect and submission to the great overlord. Then they spent the next few minutes arguing which country should they represent, and just when I was about to put it to a simple majority vote, an eleven years old girl intervened:
“We should come as three different delegation, from three different countries. We should pretend we do not know each other, thus allowing us to make different allies among the opposing factions at the court”
Wow, that’s so crazy and brilliant, I’ve thought, let’s totally go for it.
Then an opposition raised: “But why should three previously unknown delegations arrive at the same day? That would be really suspicious”
He had a point too, but I really liked the first idea, so I’ve decided to quell the dissent: “Usually you are right, but today this is a gathering for the Naadam festival, so there are a lot of new folks around here”
Thus, it has come to pass, that the delegation from Java, Ophir and Ireland entered magnificent Khanbaliq in very much the same hour.
Enter the Matrix
That much was originally planned. Beside my work as a Gamemaster, I am an active educator and work to professionally combine those activities. So far, the activity was a classic operation of Education by Roleplaying as I understand it. The following part, on the other hand, was pretty much improvised, and in a very Gumshoe way, as I understand the term.
I had ten more minutes left to the end of the class, and decided to end on an upbeat note. Thus, after using Authority on some guards to get an audience, and witnessing some rough Mongolian justice delivered, the delegation finally found themselves before the solemn eyes of the Khagan.
Me: “He is looking at you with a keen interest. Now it’s the time to properly present yourself, and the gifts” – Then I point at the boy sitting to the right – “You should begin, what gift have you brought for him? You can make anything up. The resources of TimeWatch are unlimited”
“A really big Diamond” he says.
“The Khan is visibly impressed, he reaches his hand, and his Heshig bodyguard takes the diamond from your hand and places it in his”
Then, wishing to show the impact his action made, I drew a vertical line on the whiteboard. “After the last execution for theft, you have caught the Khan in a rather foul mood. A – 10 mood. Your diamond raised his mood by five points. Let’s raise it to – 5”
The entire class cheered, and I’ve explained the implications, making them up as I spoke. “Right now, the Khan is quite inclined to threw all of you from the city. If you shall raise his mood to a 10, he shall allow you to stay. If you should get him to a 15, you would get an invitation to stay in the palace, if it would be 20 – you would also get a personal guide to the palace – a high ranking courtier of your choice. Each of you have a one point to say, a one gift to deliver, a one chance to make a first impression”.
Then I’ve landed the treacherous blow.
“A man rises from the cushions beneath the throne. Although drabbed in Mongol cloak, he is clearly European.
Ireland, you say? I’ve heard of Ireland. An island so poor and forlorn, that even the pathetic English can accomplish holding it under their thumb. Where from, I would wonder, can the Irish get such diamonds? My liege, I assure you that this man is lying. He can be from no Ireland. But he surely can be a spy
The Khan’s face darkens. He sets the diamond back to the Heshigi’s hands.
Is it true, he asks, or can you say defend yourself versus the allegations of our loyal son Marco?”
The I reached once more for the whiteboard and set the Khan’s attitude to a -12, before adding another parameter: Marco Polo = -15.
I stared at the kid, and asked, in the off-character, helpful moderator voice: “So, do you have something to answer?”. He looked unsure and I’ve added. “You do have History (Past) as an investigative ability. You can probably spend a point to find some fact that can help you”
He did, so I gave him some geography facts. “You know, Ireland is located at the western edge of the world. Colombus is not yet born, so who knows what kind of wonders may the Irish fishermen find sometimes behind the horizon. They sure have a load of legends about it. Also, there are real diamonds in Africa, supposedly where the Ophirian delegation are from”.
He used the American lead immediately, spinning a tale a land of wonders and riches that the Irish has found recently and exploiting to the fullest.
The Khagan’s attitude rose to – 2, while Marco’s plunged to -22, Since as they were about to discover shortly, his Overt Motivation was to “Ensure that he is the best and most interesting source of stories about the Westlands”. Than a tall, yet unnamed Mongolian raised to ask the Irish delegation about the methods they use to produce such diamonds and I’ve added a new Dramatic Person to the growing complexity of the whiteboard – “Treasurer. Attitude: +6. Overt Motivation: A Keen newly found interest in the assumed riches of the west”
End of class. Dismissed. If you want, you can research stuff at home.
They did, and the next session was a grand-bataille. Each investigative spend served to give them some potentially relevant ammunition of social understanding and historical knowledge. Each remark, each gift, each question served to unveil yet another aspect of the Mongolian court, change the attitude of most participating NPCs to each of the two delegations involved, to create new enemies and new allies. Each word had a weight of its own, a chain of implications clearly visible at the whiteboard.
The Crusader Kings grand strategy game surely served as one inspiration for the social web that emerged on the whiteboard, together with the point based attitude system (Which may have been also influenced by Bioware type CRPGs). The investigative spends helped this web of intrigue become real, sustentative and mechanically related to the characters, a part of the crunch, the gamey part of the RPG, rather than the fluff you need to bypass to get to the action.
What happened here was a complete opposite. I had some fights planned later in this scenario, and was clearly surprised when all of them were cunningly bypassed by the players, that used the Overt and Covert motivations discovered by their social spends to surround themselves with a thick armor of temporary allies. The whiteboard web had officially become the board on which the game was played, a tactical map to be explored and changed by the players, and I’ve discovered that when people’s attitudes toward their characters were stated in front of the players, it seemed they are trying to avoid offending anyone, including the real baddies (A rogue prince of the Genghis dynasty, some Hashishin and a bunch of Sophosaurs).
Around here, the common perception is that early role-players, especially in a paid entertainment based role-playing environment, would usually choose the way of more violence, preferring to hack and slash their way through various plot devices and holders of information. What I’ve learned from my Kublai Khan experience is that maybe, what kids are really looking for is a meaningful engagement with mechanics. When their character sheets are full with damage dealing abilities and the mechanic representations of the fiction they encounter would usually be monster statistics, they would rightfully assume that the game is about dealing damage. If, at the other hand, the mechanical representations are dealing with meaningful knowledge and human relationships, they can engage learning, planning and roleplaying with about the same gusto. The Gumshoe way of putting information pieces in the mechanic core of the game serves to promote engagement with, and manipulation of, knowledge.
The version of TimeWatch that I used in educational settings (after Kublai Khan I had a French Revolution and a Galileo’s Trial scenarios) was much less zany than TimeWatch as presented. I’ve found that my aspiration to show a historical situation, limited the kinds of crazy stuff that may influence it. But it needn’t be the case in your game. Maybe you would like to go further than me and immediately show on whiteboard the temporal implications of every major player action, without the need to go forth in time to check it. This open sharing of information may indeed harm some sense of mystery and surprise and thus immersion, but at the other hand can serve to emphasize themes and stakes. And what emphasizes better the sheer epic scale of a time travel plot than to see possible futures flower and whither with your every step.