Interview: Mark Hoge, Founder and Director of Renaissance Adventures

Do you remember your childhood? Did it include learning to play Dungeons & Dragons or some other tabletop RPG or CCG? Were you one of the fortunate kids who had an opportunity to go to a camp and learn how to play and run RPGs? How about learning how to LARP? As kids, we “Live Action Role Play” a ton, but usually not in the SCA/D&D sense with foam swords going on adventures and learning how to work cooperatively towards a common goal… Though I gamed as a kid, this kind of structured camp experience was never on my radar. I’ve heard tales of some places in Europe where you could go to gaming camp, but not here in the USA.

Mark Hoge, the founder and director of Renaissance Adventures based in Boulder, Colorado, has been working to change that for nearly two decades. And he has been kind enough to answer a few questions about his company, working with the education community, and the Kickstarter wrapping up in a couple of weeks to get the word out about Adventure Quest – a rule set he’s developed that covers both tabletop and LARP gaming!

Renaissance AdventuresQ: Could you introduce yourself to our audience? Maybe share a bit about Renaissance Adventures, how it got started, and how it’s going so far? What sparked your quest to help kids nearly 20 years ago?

I’ve been a fan of roleplaying games since the late 70’s when I was introduced to D&D at age 15. As a teen, RPGs gave me a creative and social outlet I couldn’t find anywhere else. Throughout my twenties, I played various RPGs as a hobby. During that time I spent almost all of my summers working with children at summer camps, and apprenticing with really inspiring teachers. When I discovered LARPs in the late eighties, I recognized the potential for LARPs as an experiential learning tool for kids and teens. During 1990-1994, while directing summer camps for a non-profit arts foundation in Connecticut, I experimented with a simple Native American themed LARP and foam spears, daggers, and arrows. The impact on those kids made it clear to me that a well run LARP or RPG can challenge kids in diverse ways – physically, intellectually, socially, and with moral and ethical dilemmas. LARPs, run in a certain style, can support kids in their self-confidence, critical thinking skills, cooperation and communication skills, while the kids are having a blast! So, when I moved back to Boulder Colorado in 1995 I started Renaissance Adventures, and its been my full-time occupation ever since.

Q: As a Colorado Native, I’m very happy that your company is based here in Boulder. Was it difficult to get buy-in from the community when you started in 1995? Or was Boulder open to the ideas and goals your company engenders?

The Boulder community has been very receptive and supportive. Within one month of starting one after-school kids LARP program in a friend’s backyard, I was running several after school programs each week at a private elementary school. Within four months of launching, I had my first four weeks of summer camp in Boulder – with one questing group of 5 kids for each week. When fall came, my after-school schedule booked solid, Monday through Friday, and I had kids wanting quests during every school holiday. My second year, still with myself as the only staff person, gave me an adequate income to live off of. And by my fourth summer I was running a business with a gross annual income of $125,000. To be clear, most of that money went to other staff, site rentals, props, costumes, and swasher swords, not to me! But it was evident that my unique business model was a success, and the schools and families in the community were enthusiastic.

Q: How does your traditional tabletop and live action role-playing game Adventure Quest encourage cooperative, problem-solving play? What sorts of adventures do your young players embark upon in your programs?

I think most any RPG or LARP can encourage cooperative, problem-solving play. However, it does depend on the style of leadership, and the goals of the leader. We run our LARPs very similarly to how tabletop RPGs are run – one Quest Leader (“QL”) facilitates the adventure for a group of 4-6 players. The QL playacts all the creatures and monsters that the group encounter, sometimes with the help of one or more Teen Leaders. The players, or Questers as we call them, work together to solve the mysteries of the quest. A fair-minded and compassionate Quest Leader can support an environment of cooperation and experiential learning, while giving the Questers an exciting, challenging and fun adventure. Our LARP quests are scaled differently for the different ages we work with – ages six to sixteen. In general, we design our adventures to have high motivation and diverse challenges. We like “shades of grey”, as far as villains go. The Ridgeback Dwarves may portray the goblins of the Amber Forest as vicious cruel murderers, yet when the Questers investigate they discover that the goblins are simply protecting their harvesting ground from the dwarves’ wood-cutting forays. Understanding the motivations of the NPC’s allows the Questers to think outside the box and come up with unique and creative solutions to the dilemmas they face in the quest. This translates into skills the kids can use in real-life challenges outside of the game.

RA-aboutQ: Your game encourages both the traditional tabletop and LARP styles of play. Does it work better for one than the other? How do you incorporate both into a single set of rules?

We’ve done extensive playtesting and game design on the Adventure Quest LARP since 1995, with thousands of players and hundreds of adult leaders giving feedback to help make it excellent. It’s both a skill-based and a path-based system, and the unique fantasy setting allows for almost unlimited player races. We are almost finished with our first product to publish and distribute – the AQ LARP game book. The tabletop style of playing AQ is a different story. In 2009 we started work on translating the LARP into a tabletop RPG, and playtesting that. Although ultimately, we plan on having a separate game book for the AQ Tabletop RPG, at this time we have been playtesting with a brief simple translation guide of how to use the LARP gamebook in the tabletop play. Adventure Quest offers seamless transitions between LARPing and Tabletop. If you are playing a tabletop game at home, and get inspired to play out a battle with foam swashers in the backyard – go for it! If you are out camping and LARPing in the wilderness and get caught in a rain storm – then head for the tents and pull out the dice to continue the quest! Our LARP is tried and true, but the Tabletop is still being tweaked.

Q: The education community seems to have embraced your programs based on the many testimonials on your website. Would you like to see more use of role-playing in schools as another tool in the toolbox?

Absolutely! I believe that interactive storytelling and roleplaying can transform traditional education. One of our long-range goals is to partner with educators and create a product line
of books and trainings that will support teachers in using these tools in the classroom setting.

Q: I love the active aspect of your program, which not only brings in traditional intelligence- and emotional- based challenges, but physical ones as well. That said, has the “foam sword” aspect added any difficulties along the way?

Occasionally we’ve received criticism from the rare parent about the use of “war toys”, and in the last decade some schools have implemented more strict rules about “war toys” not being allowed on school grounds. The game can be run without swashers, by using beanbags and tweaking the game somewhat. However, overall the use of Swashers has been a huge success.

The Swasher swords in the LARP programs are a big draw for our Questers. They love to sword fight! And why is that? Firstly, its fun! Secondly, kids are physically small beings in a world of big people telling them what they can and can’t do. A lot of kids feel disempowered. They lack self-esteem, confidence, and determination, or they overcompensate by becoming a bully. The sword is a “tool of power” that is very attractive, symbolic, and meaningful to the kids. We’ve found that swashers are a useful teaching tool for awakening in the youth a respect for physical and emotional safety, and an awareness and understanding of the bully-victim dynamic. Our Quest Leaders use the LARP and swashers to bring awareness to these dynamics, as well as to issues such as competition. The QL’s guide and rolemodel how to play fair, and how to be assertive while at the same time respectful and compassionate.

Q: Why have you chosen now to use Kickstarter to bring your Adventure Quest rules to the gaming community? Have you been encouraged by the response?

I’m new to the Kickstarter scene, and this is our first Kickstarter campaign. I’m not encouraged by the response, thus far, but then I blame myself for not researching it better and understanding better how to put the word out in a timely way. I think we have a really great presentation on Kickstarter, but we haven’t gotten enough people to actually check it out, watch the videos, and get excited about this unique opportunity. The $2,000 goal is the bare bones goal that we knew we could accomplish, but the reality is we’ve spent thousands on the products, and we’ve probably spent $1250 or $1500 on the whole Kickstarter project, thus far. Our hope is to meet our Stretch Goals, because meeting those would really jumpstart our company goals. Frankly, I’ve learned a lot from this project, and I think that any future Kickstarter campaigns will probably be more effective based on what I’ve learned.

Q: What’s next for Renaissance Adventures after the Kickstarter project completes at the end of January 2013? Where would you like to see the game and your company a year from now?

Renaissance Adventures has three main goals over the next few years, while continuing to run our LARP programs. The first goal is to complete the initial product line of Adventure Quest books in a beautiful artistic package. That includes the world book, a bestiary, the advanced books of the Paragon and the Epic Secret Paths for teens and adults, and it also includes a simplified system that we use with our six to eight year-olds and in our birthday party events. That simplified system also works great in the educational environment, or with non-gamer parents leading quests with their kids.

Our second goal is to license our business model for other people to lead LARP youth programs as a successful business. At this time, even though we don’t yet have the complete package of business support to offer, we do have one licensee in Michigan. There’s an article on that here.

Our third goal is to partner with educators and create a product line of books and trainings for educators.

larping for kidsQ: If there’s one thing you want people to take away from your project, what would it be?

Consider if your passion for roleplaying games can be of service to others.

Here’ a longer answer: we have a unique project that could appeal to very different populations – gamers, parents, educators, and youth program leaders. To the gamers, the message I’d say is, “Check out the third video on our Kickstarter page because that describes the game in more detail, and if it inspires you, give it a try!” To the parents, I’d say, “Roleplay with your kids! Even if its just playacting and storytelling, with no game rules, roleplaying with kids is great for the kids and the parents!” To the educators I’d say, “Consider partnering with us to help create educational tools integrating roleplaying and interactive storytelling into classrooms.” To the youth program leaders I’d say, “Consider if you or a colleague may be interested in a part-time or full-time business leading LARPs with youth. If so, contact us!”

Q: What can folks do to get involved with the Adventure Quest project and Renaissance Adventures?

Playtesting our tabletop system is a great way to get involved. I appreciate feedback and suggestions about the game. The Kickstarter campaign is one way to get involved (do a search for Adventure Quest). Also, our website has a lot of information on what we are offering, RenaissanceAdventures.com. We hire staff in March for our summer programs in Boulder, Longmont, Lyons, and Denver Colorado. If you live in Washington state or Michigan, you could get involved with our colleagues there. And keep in touch! If you have ideas or questions for us, please reach out!

Q: If there’s a question nobody has asked yet that you’d like to answer, what would the question and answer be?

Well, here’s a wish of mine. We’ve been working slowly and steadily for seventeen years, and in the local arena of Colorado we are making a difference. But we haven’t figured out yet how to break out of the local market into the national or global market. I believe we have products and future products that are really exciting and have a lot to offer gamers, parents, educators, and kids, however, we don’t yet have the talent, resources, and vehicle to deliver on a large scale. So, my wish is that our Kickstarter campaign gets a few key individuals excited enough to participate and help us grow and succeed.

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I wish Mark and Renaissance Adventures all the best with their Adventure Quest Kickstarter. As I type this, it’s very close to hitting its first funding goal. Why don’t we help blow that goal out of the water?

For more details about the Kickstarter and Renaissance Adventures…

If you’ve had experience with gaming camps like Renaissance Adventures in Boulder or elsewhere, I’d love to hear about it. Leave us some comments below!

 

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