Grimm Session One: Trial & Error

An impromptu afternoon visit from my sister, her newest boyfriend (who happens to be a friend of mine as well), and my niece pushed back our Saturday gaming plans, so that KC, Aug, and I didn’t get started until easily 8 o’clock. I love writing the word “o’clock”, it seems so old fashioned. My niece has been practicing ABBA songs on her violin, and in an attempt to offer encouragement – and because it’s pretty damn fun – Aug and I have learned “Mamma Mia” on the ukulele and guitar. After a few rounds of “Mamma Mia” we broke out the songs books and spent the afternoon playing. Goodbyes said, KC dashed over to her place to finish packing for her Florida excursion. I picked her up an hour later, and we three eventually sat at the dining room table to play Grimm. At 8 o’clock. (Love it.)

Having never played any role-playing games before, well, the ones that use dice anyway, KC was a natural. Her character, the Jock (archetype) Muriel Moth, joined Aug’s Nerd (archetype), Bartholomew Chesterfield, nicknamed Chesty La Roo (I don’t know why) for a quick dash to the Winter Festival. Taking a shortcut through the woods, queue eerie music, they followed a flying blue bird bearing a messenger bag through an ancient, abandoned, wrought-iron arch, and along a snow-covered path that twisted through the forest of massive elms and towering, knobby oaks. Just out of sight they heard a rustle and a snap as a passing wolf ate the blue bird. Rushing up the trail, they found a patch of blood, a dozen loose feather, and the torn messenger bag containing a cryptic note that neither understood. Turning to flee, of course they couldn’t, and the followed path back did not lead to the wrought-iron arch but a pack of soldiers tormenting a captured wolf. The same wolf who ate the blue bird? Of course.

Three soldiers held a rope that was run over a large oak limb and securely tied around the wolf’s tail. They pulled and the wolf was dragged toward the tree, his hind legs lifted off the ground. A fourth soldier held a musket and randomly took pot shots at the wolf, who mewed and wince each time the blunderbuss was touched off. Would the kids save the wolf? The other three soldiers’ muskets were stacked against a nearby tree. Or would they let the soldiers shoot the wolf? They decided to watch and do nothing, a choice that they continually made throughout the evening, when presented with other choices. The actual choices, do this or do that, weren’t as interesting as the rational to do nothing. When I asked why, after the dice and pizza had cooled, they said that they didn’t do half of the things they could have done because they were children, and they were trying to do what they thought children would do.

Grimm makes a huge effort to avoid saying “levels”, a fairly ubiquitous term in the role-playing industry. Back in the day, and maybe still, “levels” as over used in D&D. Characters had levels, as did dungeons, spells, random encounter tables, and many monsters. Instead of Grimm characters having levels, they have grades. Characters start at 3rd grade, and in the States, a 3rd grade kid is usually about 8-years-old. When the evil stepmother told the kids to sit down by the fire, they sat down by the fire, “because that is what a third grader would do.” “We don’t know how to shoot a rifle, we’re 8.” “We do what we are told.” I explained later that they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted, and I should have explained that earlier. They became too immersed in their character concepts.

A note on the linear d-6 system: d-sucks. The idea is that kids (and monsters) usually perform to their skill level in a particular ability, although it’s not called a “skill level” it’s called a Trait grade. If a kid has scamper at 4th grade (a Trait grade can be higher or lower than a kid’s overall grade, called his “professional grade”, so even though Grimm avoids the term “levels”, it doesn’t avoid the overuse and subsequent confusion of a single ranking term), where was I, scamper at 4th grade, the kid will usually perform any scamper tests at 4th grade. If the player rolls a 6, he kicks it up a grade, in this case to 5th. Roll a 1 and it drops a grade. Yes, multiple 6’s keep increasing and multiple 1’s keep decreasing. Well, the game has enough fiddly rules to increase one grade (focusing, stepping up, team work, none of which merit explaining), but going beyond one step up is neigh impossible. If a monster, like a wolf, has a scamper of 8th grade, there is no way in hell the kids are going to out run it. This is okay because you can invent some narrative element that keeps the kids from becoming wolf-chow. What really sucks is rolling  a 1, which happens one time out of six. As I expected, there isn’t much that starting kid characters can do, and there is a lot, a lot, that they can fail at.

The best part of the night was seeing KC’s innate gamer emerge and hearing Aug say what kind of game he wanted to play, said in frustration from failing another grade test to learn a spell: “All I want to be is a wizard who can learn and cast cool spells.” Well, hell, why are we playing Grimm? On, and another nice part of Grimm was flooding the table with six-sided dice. Grimm doesn’t need a lot of six-sided dice, but I have a lot of them, so I put them out in a bowl, like a center piece of M&M candies. Don’t eat the green ones.

KC is a good player and could play any game if it excites her imagination.

Aug wants to be a wizard who can learn and cast cool spells.

I want a game that uses fistfuls of six-sided dice. I’m tired of dippy polyhedrals and multi-sided dice.

My thought is to run Dark Ages: Mage, which I have, and substitute d6s for d10s. Make the success number 4, so that half the time the dice comes up a win. Count the successes and compare them to a spell ease factor. I think this is the way Burning Wheel works, but that came is unlearnable from the books – google spell suggests “unbearable” for the red underscored “unlearnable”, funny, and fitting – and only someone who knows how to play can teach it to someone else. And, Burning Wheel has scripted combat, in that you have to record your combat moves on a piece of paper, and every melee is thus blind fighting. I shouldn’t criticize if I haven’t played a game, I know, but . . . scripted combat? (Insert raspberry noise here.) Why not Ars Magica, you ask, ‘cos you know I love Ars Magica. Because in play, Ars Magica has too many bottlenecks, too many times when the game comes to a grinding halt because the players (usually) have to consult the rule book. And the only time you roll multiple dice in during a botch, meaning you’ve already screwed the pooch and are now just trying to figure out how loud it yelps.

Reading the core book last night, while I chopped veggies for the stir fry, Aug decided he’d like to be a pagan wizard, one of the Old Faith mystic fellowship, and the thinks it would be cool being a Baltic pagan. I instantly thought of the Baltic Crusades and the Teutonic Order, I think it was also called the German Order, which I like better. The plan is to start with him as the sole player, a practicing pagan in the path of the Teutonic Crusade. That sounds . . . interesting . . . I could work with that . . .

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