No Thank You, Bullywugs

For the past year, I’ve been trying different RPGs with my oldest son. Lately, one he really likes is No Thank You Evil! by Monte Cook Games. After we’d played through all of the adventures included in the box set, I ran for him the next adventure I had on hand, Frogs of the Feywild.

Frogs of the Feywild played into some fairy tale tropes, so the adventure seemed like a good fit to play for young kids. Of course, the adventure is written for 5e, so I had to do an on the fly conversion into the Cypher System that forms the core of No Thank You Evil! Besides that, the adventure consists mostly of combat encounters; this was the first adventure I published for sale, and combat was what I was most comfortable designing for at the time. I decided to alter some of the combats, both to better fit the No Thank You Evil! aesthetic, and because I felt better about presenting an adventure with more nonviolent options throughout.

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Note: I’m spoiling the whole plot of Frogs of the Feywild, you are warned.

No Thank You Evil! takes place in the world of Storia, with thematic regions that the protagonists can access from their homes. ‘Into the Closet’ is the vaguely Narnia-esque land of fairy tales and fantasy; ‘Under the Bed’ is the spooky realm of ghost stories; ‘Behind the Bookshelf’ is a diverse land for historical or mythological adventures; and ‘Out the Window’ leads to distant sci-fi worlds and high seas adventures. With the strong Feywild connection, Frogs of the Feywild seemed to fit best within ‘Into the Closet.’ I decided to nix the entire plot hook involving the dastardly Prince Jermyn, and instead used something direct for young kids: a wedding invitation! This got the characters to the venue quickly and also provided an excuse for them to have access to a map of the gardens. I noted that the wedding was for Princess Tania, but made no mention of her suitor.

The opening of the adventure remained fairly unchanged: the characters witnessed Bullywugs chasing guests out of the garden where the wedding was taking place. I decided the difficulty level for checks against these Bullywugs should be fairly low, a 2 or 3 at most. A ‘Smarts’ check allowed the characters to recall what they knew about Bullywugs; namely, that they could sometimes act like bullys, but like all bullys, were cowards at heart. (Is that too Dad of me? Oh well.) The wizard was able to use an illusion to scare off most of the Bullywugs with ease. Since my son still seemed to want to fight, I decided that the leader of the Bullywugs at the gate was unfazed an stayed to fight (in 5e, this was a Bullywug Croaker who also does not flee). However, this Bullywug did surrender when disarmed.

Gale the Gardener remained unchanged, giving the characters information about the current goings on and explaining the challenge of the Chaotic Maze. This challenge worked well; my son initially tried to just navigate it normally, regardless of the warning, but kept getting popped out. He figured that the Bullywugs had probably gotten through by jumping (they are frogs, after all), so he made some springs to jump over himself; I ruled that the magic vines were suitable for this task. As long as a character comes up with a way to get through, the difficulty should still be low at this point, 2 or 3.

In the section of the ruined party, my son got excited and grabbed a bunch of stuffed animals to play the lingering party guests. This led to a new NPC, Madame Elephante (a stuffed elephant), who was able to give more information about Tania and the events of the morning. I added a detail of a bright light and a swirling cloud emerging from the fountain when Tania dropped in the Golden Ball that summoned the Bullywugs. These two phenomena settled in either of the terraces, giving a clear choice for the two paths forward. My son chose the Summer Terrace to proceed.

rpg print out maps and materials with crayon colored on
The adventure got an art upgrade too!

Now, the Południca in the next section is sort of a wicked character from folklore, and here I decided to soften the encounter somewhat. I described how the terrace felt incredibly hot, like the hottest summer day, and how the characters felt overcome with sleepiness. This sort of mirrors the Południca from folklore, which personified sunstroke in the fields. Once the characters had their nap (they failed the 3 difficulty) and found the giggling Lady Midday, she told them how she and her sister, Lady Snow, were accidentally pulled into the garden from the Land of Faerie (rather than the Feywild), and how they’d very much like to go back. No combat, just an environmental challenge and some flavor. She was able to come along to the next stop, but then went off to find her sister. If the characters were to choose the other path, the Snegurochka could be played fairly similar.

At this point, I decided to simply skip the fight at the fountain with the Wodnik Watercrafter. This was actually for time reasons, more than anything: I was making dinner at the same time, and wanted to wrap the adventure before we ate. I do think the Wodnik would be a fun character to describe, turning into water as he does, but since there is another combat immediately following, I’d probably tilt this more towards non-combat like with the Południca. Maybe the Wodnik could play tricks on the characters, without actually fighting? The Wodnik would have had a medium difficulty of 3, maybe even 4.

The final battle with Dragomir and Tania I played as written, with one important difference. The original was a trick battle, where Tania’s antagonism towards the PCs was disguised as part of Dragomir’s action in order to throw off the characters a bit. In this version, I specifically called out the fact that whenever Tania spoke, that made the effect that made the characters want to run away (higher difficulty here, at least 4). My son had been wondering why Tania had dropped that Golden Ball into the fountain to begin with, so this caused him to flat out ask her: what’s going on? At this point, I immediately stopped the battle and gave Tania’s exposition which would normally come after Dragomir was defeated. In this version, though, Dragomir was always the intended groom, and it was always a misunderstanding that made the guests flee the Bullywugs, and the Bullywugs in turn act rudely towards the guests. Dragomir and his soldiers all apologized for their part in it, and Tania had the characters assist in a magic spell to send the fey magic back. Afterwards, the wedding proceeded as planned, with a heart shaped cake (my son’s idea 🙂).

This conversion is all completely unofficial, given the terms of DMs Guild’s licensing agreements; however, I do like how the story turned out with the ad hoc changes. As I mentioned, Frogs of the Feywild was the first adventure I wrote for sale, and since then I’ve developed more of a personal design philosophy which I’ve added in after the fact here. If you’re looking for a fun RPG to play with kids, I can’t recommend No Thank You Evil! enough, and if you want to try my adventure (with the above notes), since you’ve made it through the article, help yourself to a discount code to get it on DMs Guild.

Have you changed adventures to run with younger kids? Leave a comment below!


Social Sciences at Strixhaven

This is expanded from a Twitter thread I wrote a while back. See the original (link)

Even though I don’t play much Magic: the Gathering, I was excited by the release of their Strixhaven setting and its a D&D crossover book. Between graduate school and my work in instructional design, I’ve never strayed far from academics in my life. Even my favorite TV show was set in a community college! #SixSeasonsAndAMovie So, an official educational setting for my ttrpg hobby was a natural fit. I immediately knew I would set my next big project there.

Wizard students amid a pile of books, from the cover of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos
Time to get academic in this roleplaying game. ‘Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos’

The idea for a pub crawl came up early in my brainstorming. Once I’d settled on that, it was obvious I would need at least five pubs to correspond to the five Strixhaven colleges, which are tied to the subjects of classes you’d take in the real world. Between working in education, being a parent, and playing a lot of ttrpgs, I spend a lot of time thinking about the educational value of roleplaying games. Somewhere along the line I thought, why not look at how rpgs interact with each subject area, and use that as the basis for the pubs and their puzzles?

RPGs’ relation to some subjects is fairly obvious: for instance, handling all of the stat bonuses, adding dice rolls, and judging probability on the fly is good practice for math skills. RPGs also seem to be beneficial for developing language skills based on the number of nerds who got their first introduction to words like alacrity, expeditious, and simulacrum, Baudrillard notwithstanding.

History and the social sciences are a bit less straightforward, but this is the area closest to my heart, since I majored in history. D&D developed from historical wargames, and it’s true that there is a learning there, like the difference between a glaive and a halberd. The quasi-medieval flavor of the game can definitely foster an interest in the past, but a lot of the facts you could pick up from the game are superficial at best and inaccurate at worst (look up banded mail for a benign example). To better understand how RPGs might relate to social science education, I want to discuss the question: what *is* the purpose of studying history and the social sciences? This has no easy answer, and there is no single consensus by scholars, but I’ve developed my own ideas that I think are often reflected by a good number of them.

A wizard historian surrounded by floating books with an unhinged look on his face.
Please, sit back while I expound my many theories! ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ art by Svetlin Velinov via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

The adage that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” implies that history is useful for its predictive power, but I know of few historians who would actually make this argument. Knowledge of the past certainly gives us insight into why things are happening today, and it can give us good ideas on some possible futures, but it is a fallacy to think that a historian is therefore better equipped to predict the future than anyone else. We can’t be like Maxwell’s demon, able to tell the state of future objects because we know their trajectories in the past. Too much of history is contingent on factors beyond what we could model. The most compelling argument we can make about the analytical value of history is that it can help foster critical thinking, a valuable tool for navigating the present, but still limited in knowing the future.

At its best, I think that history, and the social sciences writ large, give us an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. Just, seeing that people think differently in different times, different places, and different contexts, and that’s okay! This can help us learn how to interact with people who are not like us; incredibly important in an ever more global society. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Robert Darnton, that “nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today – allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” 

I think there is a benefit to studying the past for its own sake, just because it is interesting, but if I were to justify the place of history and social sciences as a curriculum requirement, I would defer to the appreciation of otherness. In an RPG, we can go further than observing or even immersing in otherness, we can embody it! Now, there is a danger here in thinking that because we read about otherness we understand what it is like to be other, but keeping this in mind I believe the benefits to empathy outweigh the risks.

Lorehold campus, an ancient ruin emerging from a desert canyon.
History is worth studying for its own sake, if only for all the cool ancient ruins. ‘Lorehold Campus’ by Titus Lunter, via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

As I mentioned on Twitter, the ultimate design accommodates both the wargaming-style traditional military history as well as a more empathic approach based on cultural understanding. I hope it is a good summation of ways we can approach history and social studies through the lens of roleplaying. In future posts, I’ll visit the other subject areas of Strixhaven and how they fit into the design: mathematics, language, science, and art.

Did RPGs spur interest in any particular region or time period for you? If you’re a social studies educator, how would you use (or how have you used) roleplay in the curriculum? Leave a comment below and please subscribe for more updates on Revue 


RPGs with Kids: The Knight Story

As a dad who enjoys playing ttrpgs, I’ve always hoped to one day play rpg games with my kids, but never quite knew where to start, especially since many published games have suggested ages of 4 or 5. However, I thought there could be ways to start to introduce the concepts before sitting down to a formal game.

So, a couple of months before my older son’s 4th birthday, I started telling him a story. And I started asking him what the characters should do, and what comes next. After a few minutes of the story, when I’d normally end the story as it was time for bed, I instead told him that we’d have to find out what happened the next time. After a few nights of this, my son wasn’t just asking for a story at bedtime, he started asking, “Could we tell part of the knight story?”

Eventually, I also had the idea to draw pictures of some of the characters. I folded up a piece of paper into eight rectangles, and I started drawing. First of course was brave Sir Knight, aka “Sir Knight was on his Pite,” the hero of our story. Then I drew more characters, including some characters we hadn’t met yet. I didn’t fill up all of the rectangles at first, but drew more over the next day or two as I thought of more to add, and my son added a character we hadn’t met yet as well, and elephant named Blowey. The unmet characters added some extra excitement, especially as we got closer to meeting the whole roster.

Crayon drawings of fantasy characters
Clockwise from top left: Sir Knight (was on his Pite), the Wizard of Odd (and his cat), Blowey the Elephant, Zeti the goblin, Ladders the dragon, Princess Elma, Mr. Nettlebottom, Sir Bams-a-lot

The “Knight Story” eventually reached a satisfactory conclusion as Sir Knight completed his quest, though of course left open for Sir Knight and his friends to have more adventures. And indeed, after a few “one shot” stories, Mr. Nettlebottom started his own adventure, and my son eagerly asks to continue the “Knight Story, I mean, Elf Story.”

Since I began the “Knight Story,” I’ve discovered the StoryGuider ttrpg, which takes some of the stuff I’d been doing and adds some more structure. Before our next story (my son has requested Princess Elma get her own story next) I want to try to ask some of these questions ahead of time. I love how we’ve been telling the story so far, but I want to make sure I remember to give my son plenty of inflection points to make decisions so I don’t end up hogging the story telling! You can find some StoryGuider products here:

I wanted to chronicle the rough course of the Knight Story, mainly so I can remember some of the finer points, because my son has a much better memory for it than me. As an example, I once mentioned that Mr. Nettlebottom was good with animals, and days later my son suggested that he solve a task by working with animals, because he’s good with them, just like I said! So, without further ado…

The Knight Story

The quest started when Sir Knight met a wizard who wore grey robes with a gold sun on them, and she told him where he could find a treasure. He took the treasure back to his castle but went to look for the wizard again, and she was gone. He wanted the wise wizard to tell him where he could find some friends. He did meet an elf named Mr. Nettlebottom, who thought that the best place to look for a wizard would be the nearby mountain.

At the base of the mountain, they saw a red dragon flying around the summit. They climbed up the mountain to look for the wizard, even though they were scared of the dragon. There was no wizard, but the dragon was friendly,her name was Ladders, because she always carried two ladders. Mr. Nettlebottom thought to try the swamp next, and Ladders flew them there.

In the swamp, the met Zeti, the goblin with the triangle face, who brought them to his hovel and made a meal with something for everyone to eat: sandwiches (I think?) for Sir Night and Mr. Nettlebottom, swamp grass for Ladders, and an old boot for Zeti. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom briefly became lost in the swamp, but found their way back to the hovel, and found a talking frog, who was actually Princess Elma. A kiss turned her back. She had been transformed by the Wizard of Odd (not the wizard with the grey robe), but the Wizard of Odd was sorry, it had only been an accident.

They found a mine, and en elephant named Blowey who was able to climb walls. She helped them down by climbing straight along the mine shaft. In an ornately decorated room, they met Sir Bams-a-lot. He’d seen the wizard go through a door, but couldn’t find the door again because it blended in with the walls.However, they found a doorknob with a triangle-shaped lock on it. They fought a series of dragons in the mines, recovering keys of varied shapes, but finally discovered that the triangle key was held by the biggest, meanest, orange dragon who had triangle claws and triangle teeth and triangle horns. The dragon loved triangle things, so he grabbed Zeti (who had a triangle face) and flew off.

They followed the orange dragon to his lair in the desert but were stopped by a gate they couldn’t get past. They went back to the Wizard of Odd’s house, and Mr. Nettlebottom found Odd’s cat in the basement under an invisible couch. They returned, and the cat was able to slip under the gate to pull a lever, opening the way. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom padded Sir Knight’s armor so they could enter the dragon’s lair stealthily, then the two snuck up on the dragon and tickled him while the other companions grabbed Zeti and the triengle key.

They returned to the mine, unlocked the door, and after going through a long tunnel, they found themselves in a valley open to the sun. There they found the wizard in the grey robe, whose name was Magic. Sir Knight asked where he could find some friends, and she pointed out that he’d just made seven of them! (yes, yes, the real treasure was the friends he made along the way… fyi, the quest to find friends was my son’s idea) She cast a spell to return them all to Sir Knight’s castle, where his new friends were able to hang out in all the extra rooms whenever they wanted. Magic the wizard walked off, but she told Sir Knight she would see him again some day.