In the morning, I played with four male 7th-graders. I described the setting in just a few words and stated one of the key points of the game upfront: that Knights, as representatives of the King, are empowered to act according to their own discretion toward the well-being of the kingdom (this I later restated multiple times, both in-character through Arthur and Merlin and in OOC table chatter, to hammer the point home). They had no problem with that.
To ease character creation, I presented them with some blank character sheets I had laid out, with headers listed exactly in the order we were to fill the blanks in, plus room aplenty to draw one's coat of arms and a big list of sample knightly names on the side. They came up with all manners of questions such as "Can I draw background elements as well [in my coat of arms, besides the heraldic animal]?" — which was good, because through asking and answering we were establishing some (working) basic group dynamics already.
As we got to the opening scene (which involved the traditional Pentecostal feast, of course, and then a messenger literally flying into the middle of the Round Table with a plea for help), it took them a minute or two to overcome the initial embarrassment and seize initiative from me, but then they immediately and instinctively acquired basic fluency and we were playing for real. As they left Camelot, I handed them some Resource dice with only a partial explanation of what those are for, but explicitly pointing out the dice-pool was a collective responsibility of them all until they eventually parted ways or returned. Then I threw a simple travel encounter at them (one of my own devising):
A monstrous river troll guards a bridge, demanding a toll from those wishing to cross.I think I maybe had to point out to them that they could take whatever course of action they could think of, that they have to decide on a course of action and then announce it to me as final, and that they didn't have to all agree but disagreement could be handled through them parting ways (and splitting their Resource dice). They almost surprised me by: (1)paying lots of attention to their fictional positioning, (2)asking very pertinent questions to further clarify their positioning and (3)going for a pretty elaborate plan. I.e.: since the river was running through a woodland, they decided to fell some trees and have another bridge built. Then, as I described the monster attacking the very first pillar of the would-be new bridge trying to demolish it, showing some quick wit they chose to run and cross the old bridge. The ensuing race and pursuit gave me a chance to demonstrate the conflict resolution rules, which they promptly understood (it's obvious they all had some gaming background from videogames and one of them from game-books as well). I even integrated extra success spending, which was the one rule I had planned to leave out, because it was actually the right tool for the job as a player wanted the monster dealt with for good.
The main adventure I had picked for them was:
Maid Liones refuses to wed the Red Knight, and thus the Knight sieges her castle, keeping her prisoner within her own home.**Thus, I described the besieged castle and the military camp surrounding it and, to be sure they understood violence was not their only option, I had an herald of the Red Knight come and greet them. They actually pleased me in two, conflicting ways:
- they listened to both sides in the conflict, learning their motives, before debating what to do
- but still, before having met with maid Liones, one of them (the one with the Courtier quality), acting on the impulse of the moment, already promised the Red Knight to write some love poetry to the maid in his stead (this being another instance of them paying attention to positioning, as "love letters" and "poetry" were some of the examples I had used earlier on while trying to explain the rather esoteric meaning of "Courtier" to them).
Finally, much to my delight, they coalesced into two opposite factions —not hostile to each other, but rather agreeing to disagree and to pursue directly opposing goals. Three of them joined forces in trying to make the maid fall in love with her suitor: the courtly knight wrote passionate verses that a second knight delivered (and actively convinced maid Liones to read, lest she discard the still sealed missive), while a third knight (being a holy Pilgrim as his distinctive trait) prayed for the success of this endeavor. Meanwhile, the fourth of them was instead attempting to make the Red Knight fall out of love with the fair lady, by making her look grotesquely ugly through skillful application of make-up in preparation of appearing before him. In the end, as the whim of the dice dictated, it was the coalition of three to have it their way; there were no hard feelings from the fourth player.
The gratitude of the Red Knight making the newly joined couple eligible for a pledge of fealty to King Arthur, this was indeed a good time to tell the kids about the map and permanently investing Resource dice. As expected, they greatly enjoyed the idea of establishing their own castles and drawing those on the map: in fact, compared to adults I previously played the game with, they placed their dice much more liberally, bringing back to Camelot only a scant few. What I had not considered was the logistics of drawing on the map to become a challenge in itself! After spending an inordinate amount of time drawing a single castle, though, the kids agreed to mark places with circles and names only, and play went on.
I asked them to each pick their "best" fellow knight, which they did with honesty and careful deliberation, and we improved Fame scores accordingly. Having had no real fights in the adventure meant no Might gains — a fact which I actually avoided highlighting except for a quick passing remark, out of my personal fondness of them looking for nonviolent (and less obvious) solutions, but which couldn't escape their notice. Since there was one wounded knight, he had to roll for surviving the winter: he was successful, and the roll felt like a very tense moment for everybody at the table (including myself, as I had no clue what would be of that player's enjoyment otherwise). Rolling for winter in Camelot, I had to remove maybe 4 which rolled 1s out of a dozen, which the the kids felt (if I could properly read their facial expressions) was a pretty harsh outcome of a terribly harsh rule — good, that, as it raised excitement by instilling a sense of urgency and of the importance of their knightly mission.
All of the above took, I think, about an hour and a half, and of course taxed the kids' attention span to its limit, but they were all so excited about the game to be effectively tireless. Now that I called for a break and we all went for a snack, finally lack of focus came forward. With one more hour to go before the kids' allowed time-slot was over, I announced I was going to run another adventure in case anybody was interested, and all the four of them enthusiastically came back for more. Still, it took some time and lots of random chatter before we were again able to focus on play. Such chatter was somewhat useful, though, as I learned a lot about their individual tastes in videogames, other geeky pastimes and general degree of media literacy (I was, for example, quite surprised to discover one of them played such a complicated computer game as Skyrim). More importantly, I learned how eager they were to test their knights' swords in a fight.
Also before we resumed playing, the kids came up with explicit requests for their next adventure. One of them (who, at this point, stood out as being a little obsessed with magic and alchemy) wished to go on a quest for the Philosopher's Stone (a Harry Potter reference to him, as I soon discovered, but one that he unilaterally decided to port whole-cloth into our Arthurian world); another one, probably more familiar with the Round Table mythos, contended they should go on a quest for the Holy Grail instead. I considered whether to grant their wishes… As the reader may have noticed already, I tend to approach running Fables of Camelot more or less as it was "Dogs in the Vineyard lite": I'm interested in how players react to problematic situations which have no obvious "right answer", human and social conflicts usually (no matter how craftily disguised with fantastic elements). This means I care a lot for which adventure seeds I choose. I had no "Philosopher's Stone" adventure seed in my lists, nor time to devise it, and as to the Grail Quest here's my tried-and-tested take on it:
In the chapel of a miraculous castle, inhabited by a wise king, is the Holy Cup, which no man has ever looked upon and survived. It is the will of God, they say, that only a flawless knight can have it.…which I've had a great time playing with adults, multiple times, but in the moment I deemed too subtle for my excited audience of 7th-graders. Thus, I decided to negotiate with them a customized application of the game rules: I told them that quests for magical items wouldn't make good adventures in the format we were playing, but that they could instead invest their end-of-adventure dice towards completion of those individual quests, adding such things as the repositories of the magic items to the kingdom map. It was fine with them.
In addition to the above, I ran with their suggestions and immediately worked their setting ideas into the general backdrop of the game. Thus, before going into the introduction scene proper, I narrated (in just a couple sentences) how Arthur had, of late, become obsessed with the Holy Grail and sent many a valiant knight on a fruitless quest for it, weakening the borders of the realm against pirates and marauders. I added that one of the knights had been spending the last months as a close consultant to Merlin the wizard, perusing ancient tomes in search of the whereabouts of the fabled Philosopher's Stone, which would greatly empower Camelot if found. As for the actual adventure, considering the biggest player-level issue still on the table I chose one about fighting:
Peasants wish to skirmish with Saxons. The local priest attempts to prevent needless bloodletting.**For greater immediacy I replaced "Saxons" with awesome Viking raiders, having the polar bear as their heraldic animal — my reasoning being that no Italian 12yrs-old knows about Saxons, but all of them have heard of Vikings. The vignette I used to introduce the adventure was that of a hunt, during which an alarm horn was heard: from a high place, the knights could witness a veritable army of Vikings arriving with their longships and setting camp on a distant shore, next to a coastal village. As a surrogate for a travel encounter, I instead told them that one longship had landed much closer to them and a scouting unit of about 20 raiders was coming right their way.
The players again spent quite a long time debating their strategy. That they were going to fight was a given to them, as was the fact that four Knights of the Round could take on twenty Viking pirates, just not head-on: their doubts only concerned the effectiveness of various tactical options, and that's what they debated. Two of them were actually impatient to just charge into the fray, and I expected them to split; but as I, acting like a discussion moderator, recapped their individual courses of action, it became obvious that they were all in fact going to cooperate closely. They devised a trap, complete with bait, drove the Viking raiding party right into it, and then attacked from multiple sides to mow down any remaining foes. A couple unanticipated things happened in the immediate aftermath of such a battle.
First, the magic-obsessed player's knight having been wounded, he came up with the idea of using some "healing magic" he had received from Merlin back in Camelot in order to be healed right then and not wait for the winter. I pondered this a little and then I announced it was OK that he dealt with the wound there and then — not bothering to explain how this was not to his advantage game-mechanics-wise, as he was obviously dead-set on it already. The dice turned out in his favor.
Second, based on the logistics of their trap I announced they had taken many Vikings for prisoners, not realizing myself the consequences this was to carry. It happened in fact that one of the kids announced, like it was the only natural thing to do and a perfectly innocent one as well, that he was going to torture the prisoners for information! To which, all unquestioningly agreed. I was absolutely horrified! In my inner monologue, I cursed three generations of Hollywood movies for indoctrinating children about "righteous" violence, rule of the fittest and teaching them prisoners are for torturing. I kept my opinions to myself, though. My way out of this was instead through portrayal of NPCs: at the mere mention of the threat of torture, I announced, the prisoners spilled all their beans — and there wasn't much to learn, anyway: ultimately, those guys were just pirates who'd heard that King Arthur had gone mad and his kingdom was growing weaker.
Thus, the knights got to the coastal village, where they found untrained commoners intent in reforging their tools into weapons and a very concerned parish priest. Surveying the Viking camp from the bell-tower of the village church, again they debated their tactical options for quite a long time, intent on what amounted to winning a war with no reinforcements — the four of them against an army. The magic-happy player had to be moderated a little at this point since, in his growing excitement, he was derailing the planning into tangential chatter (and drawing me into it, actually). The choice which they later favored was actually made in a heartbeat, as one of them said: "let's randomly pick one of us to fight their leader", and instantly got everybody to dice off for it. But it took much more debating before this course of action was confirmed as final. I clarified that getting the Viking leader to accept the challenge was not a given, but rather an exceptional exploit in itself. As the one knight randomly chosen for the duel was, amusingly enough, the one who'd sided against the Red Knight in their previous adventure, the other three of them deliberately reenacted the same course of action: one wrote a letter of challenge, one materially delivered it, while the third one prayed for their success. It was nice and satisfactory to see plot formulas already brewing and being reincorporated over just two units of play. The challenge was accepted, the 1-vs-1 duel fought, and as Sir Leon the Lion triumphed over the fearsome, grizzled Viking boss all of the raiders retired, sailing back home. I specifically told Leon's player he held his opponent's life in his palm, and he - taking my clue - happily spared the Viking.
When the village priest offered a meager reward (1 Resource die), the players elected to reject it, as they had identified the village as poor and needy. They took my suggestion to draw the village on the map, then, naming it and leaving that one die with it. Two of the knights then went on their individual quests, and both a Bank of the Philosopher's Stone (an addition to Castle Camelot) and a Grail Grotto were added to the map. Concerning the Grail, I allowed myself to give out one last piece of advice:
What if you found the place where the Holy Grail was hidden, but there's a plaque there which says: "Only the flawless knight can take me"? And you don't dare take the Grail yourself, but you become its guardian?And so it was. Finally, the kids made quite a show of happiness as the Might scores on their character sheets increased.
CONTINUED IN PART 2
* = 1001 Nights was also scheduled but sadly Matteo, who was supposed to run it, got a fever and dropped out at the very last minute (when it was too late already to call in a replacement).
** = Adventure/encounter "core" from the Finnish rulebook, courtesy of Eero Tuovinen (and possibly authored by Sami Koponen).