Small players, big stories

One of the great things about role-playing is the chance to do the impossible, to be a hero. To have your character matter to a world in a way that few people, perhaps no people, will ever matter in the real world. You could be the one to throw the ring into Mount Doom, blow up the Death Star or pull the sword from the stone. That’s what we think of when we think about fictional heroes.

When children think about heroes they think about it the same way. Lately my kids have been watching two cartoons, Troll Hunters and the Deep. In Troll Hunters if Jim and his friends lose, it’s the end of the world as we know it. In the Deep, if the Nekton family fail then it’s the end of the world as we know it. Dangermouse, another family favourite, saves the world, galaxy or universe pretty much every episode.

Kids get this kind of drama every time they sit down to watch a cartoon or see a movie. And they like it. Even classic children’s stories do this. Most of the Narnia books feature an evil that could destroy the entire kingdom. Harry Potter has Voldemort to deal with.

Most kids don’t do subtle, nuanced and understated. So don’t be shy of giving children a high stakes game to play.

How do you make the stakes high? There are a couple of ways to do this.

1. Introduce a problem that threatens everything

If you’re playing an adventure in space with your kids, go for the alien invasion. Or the sun going supernova. And make clear that it’s down to them to stop it. Them, their space ship, their ingenuity. Make sure their characters are up to the job. No six year old dreams of being a raw recruit in the space rangers with a lot to learn, they want to be the best space ranger in the galaxy, with the best ship and the best robot sidekick. Say yes.

It helps to create a tangible object to represent everything. The shield generator that holds back the aliens and must be defended, the observatory where they will be first to see that the sun has exploded. This is the thing in the story that will represent everything in the world. Film directors do this all the time. Learn from them.

Does saving the galaxy every week get old? Well not if you’re five years old it doesn’t.

2. Introduce a problem that threatens everything in the story

This sounds similar, but it’s slightly different. A lot of Doctor Who or Star Trek episodes work like this. Our heroes discover an interesting, exciting place. In Doctor Who it’s often a planet or a space station. In Star Trek an alien life form. In magical kingdom stories it might be a hidden kingdom or a mystical temple. For pirates a hidden island, or an amazing ship.

And then a threat comes along that threatens to obliterate the interesting, exciting place. Not damage it a bit, or make it slightly less amazing, but obliterate it, totally.

Why do this? Well saving a village is cool. But if you know there’s a whole kingdom out there it can feel like your adventure was small. A small adventure. A child sized adventure.

And children don’t play role-playing games to be children. They play games to be awesome. To do grown up sized things that even a grown up would think of as heroic. Unless they ask to play a child, don’t assume that they want to, or that that’s what they’re doing. They’re playing a full grown adult, doing what your child considers to be heroic, grown up things.

But what about development?

If you’re used to role-playing games you’ll be familiar with the idea of leveling up. The idea that over time your character gets tougher and the challenges get tougher. And so you progress from farm hand to fighter to knight to slayer of dragons and defeater of dark lords.

This takes a while. It requires an ability to think about long term time horizons and retain details of a plot over a period of time. To plot out the development of a character in a way that makes sense.

Kids aren’t great at that stuff. This is why they’ll happily watch cartoons where every week the stakes are a variation on save the world. It’s why they never wonder why characters in cartoons don’t learn from their mistakes, but rather retain their character flaws week after week.

If you’re dead set on that kind of progression try and do it quickly. While the timeline isn’t completely clear Luke Skywalker goes from farm hand to blowing up the Death Star in about a week. At least in Episode IV he doesn’t have to train, he is the best star pilot in the galaxy, even if he’s never been in a spaceship before he meets up with Han Solo.

And what about next week?

Grown ups might get a bit jaded if they’re asked to save the world every week. They start looking for games where the stakes are emotional or personal, rather than physical. They start wanting games where they can build a character’s history and skills. Where they can take pleasure in having followed every step on the path from farm hand to defeater of dark lords, or the slow unravelling of a global conspiracy.

Most kids don’t crave those things. They want to be heroes and save the world. Let them.

Review : D&D for Kids

So yesterday I did something I think I’ve never done before, I ran a game of Dungeons and Dragons*. The players were my kids (aged nearly 7 and nearly 9) a friend of mine, and his kids (aged 14 and 10). So, how did we do?

Setup and character generation

To start with my plan was to buy the D&D Starter Set and use that. But I was a bit disappointed with the starter set. It contains some basic rules, and a series of adventures. The basic rules are clear enough, but there are no rules for character generation, so you’re stuck with the five pre-generated characters supplied. Not necessarily a problem, but my kids were raised on Amazing Tales and wanted to make their own characters.

So, it was time to borrow a copy of the players handbook. I had a quick skim, printed out some blank character sheets and off we went.

Now, D&D is comprehensive. There are rules for all kinds of stuff and the books are organised around subjects rather than processes. So first you get all the information about races, then about classes, then about backgrounds and so on. This means character generation requires you to work your way around the entire 300 page book. This isn’t kid friendly, it isn’t grown up friendly. It’s veteran player friendly. I’ve played enough DnD and more than enough RPGs that I found it pretty straightforward, although I’m not going to swear I didn’t make any mistakes. But if you were provided with this book cold, and told to make a character, well, it’d take a while and it probably wouldn’t be fun.

What the book needs is some thought about utility and layout. Some diagrams might help. A checklist. A decision to put all the first level stuff together and leave the advanced rules for later. As it is the players handbook is a book for people who know what they’re doing. Which is a a problem, because the starter set won’t get you to the point where you can use it.

Still, we made some characters. My son chose for a human fighter, my daughter an elven druid. From the pregens our guests selected an elven mage, a human fighter and a halfling rogue. This left the party pretty well balanced, and if we’re honest, rather cliched.

The Adventure

OK. We’re going to start with the adventure in the starter set. Except, no, we’re not. It kicks off with a simple encounter and then launches into a dungeon that is too big to work through in a single session. If I had one objective for the day’s play it was to start and finish a story. So, the Mine of Phandelver (awful title) has been put aside for another day. Instead I chose to go with my take on Matthew Colville’s first dungeon.

At this point, a brief aside about Matthew’s videos. They’re awesome. They fix all the problems about the game not being friendly for first time players. As he puts it, most people learned to play DnD from their big brother and he wants to be everyone’s big brother – or something like that. (Note, to cover what I did you need to watch the intro and first three videos).

I made some tweaks of my own to the adventure. I wrote some rumours to help explain why the goblins were there. The rumours were

  • The goblin war in the far north is over, the dwarf king has smashed the goblin horde
  • The goblin war in the far north is anything but over, the goblins have looted a great temple
  • The local ravens talk
  • The hills to the north are haunted by dead heroes
  • Strange lights have been seen burning in the hills

And most of these are true. The goblins the players will meet were present for the looting of the temple and the subsequent defeat by the dwarf king. They’ve fled south with some of their loot (a dragon egg) and are now planning a ritual to corrupt the dragon egg, dreams of dragon fueled goblin glory filling their tiny brains.

They’ve also set a bonfire atop the hill to try and call any other remnants of the goblin army to them. This helps explain any wandering monsters the players meet.  I suspect I was the only person at the table who cared about this, but I like my worlds to make sense and it adds a vague sense of peril and threat. So there we go.

Apart from that – I ran the game exactly as written.

How’d it go?

It went very well. The initial soft start with the players arriving at an inn and ordering dinner took maybe 20 minutes and got everyone into character. I almost always start campaigns with adults in this way, put the characters together and give them nothing to do but talk to each other. Works wonders. And between Barrel the halfling and Becca the surly teenage waitress much fun was had. Until the plot walked in.

News of a damsel in distress saw Barrel and the two fighters – Krim and Doug, dash outside in search of adventure. And here something interesting happened. It was dark outside, they didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t even know who or what had been kidnapped. So we spent five minutes role-playing as they blundered about in the dark in no danger whatsoever – and everyone had fun. It also meant it was fair later on to penalise players who found themselves in the dark without a light source.

Meanwhile back at the inn Galadriel the mage and Tora the druid spoke to the witness, found out what was going on, got some directions and then went outside. There they collected their companions – who couldn’t even see in the dark, the poor things, and went off to the smithy.

Not long afterwards our heroes were heading into the woods hot on the trail of the goblin kidnappers. Tora the druid led the way, a mix of good rolls and the right skills showing off her natural woodcraft. Late at night, they elected to make camp.

With some prompting from Barrel they set a watch. And because I was concerned the fighters were a bit bored I decided to throw in some monsters. In this case a wolf pack, who, I decided would investigate the party but run at the first sign of resistance.

So, what did Doug, who was on watch, do when he realised there was a single wolf staring at him? He tried to befriend it. Not the brightest move perhaps, but this is what role-playing games are about, you can try stuff like this. Had he rolled well, the wolves might have decided to move on peaceably. He didn’t roll well. He reached out to pet the wolf, and the wolf nearly bit his hand off.

Woken by his cries Krim ran the wolf through and the rest of the pack fled. Now the party had the idea. The woods were dark, scary and no place to hang around in.

In the morning the party approached the tomb where the goblins had made their lair. Tora was told to climb a tree to spy out the approach, and rolled a natural 20 on her perception check. So she spotted the tomb, the guards and the patrol. They ambushed the patrol (but alerted the guards) and then approached the tomb.

From here things unfolded pretty much as you’d expect. The party stormed the first room successfully, then tried to storm the second room and learned all about traps. When they made it to the second room they fought the bugbear. Doug learned about critical hits, dishing out 21 points of damage with a single blow, and then they learned about how mean bugbears are when it a) didn’t die b) cracked him back for 13 points. At which point we learned about death saves and medicine rolls.

A note on character death – DnD is a lot less lethal at 1st level than it used to be, but it’s still deadly. My kids are used to Amazing Tales where character death is impossible, but they’d realised DnD was different and asked about it up front. This led me to checking up on some optional rules for hero points that are buried in the DMs guide (p 264). If you’re playing with kids use these rules. I dished out poker chips so everyone had a physical reminder of them. In the end no-one spent them, but I didn’t feel like I had to fudge anything when the bugbear hit Doug because the worst possible result was that he’d end up paying out three hero points and not dying. Those rules are three paragraphs that absolutely should have been in the starter set.

The last bit of the scenario revolves around a riddle. I dropped enough hints that this was a riddle and should be solved and Barrel and Galadriel got on it. At this point the players of Doug, Krim and Tora wandered off to mess about elsewhere in the house. Which is another thing about gaming with kids, at this point we’d been going for 2 and a half hours, so a bit of running around and jumping about was definitely in order.

Still, with the riddle solved everyone came back for the final encounter in the tomb and the party learned that it’s a bad idea to loot graves. Or at least, it’s a bad idea to listen to the halfling when he says it’s totally fine to loot graves.

And that was it. The little girl was rescued, the goblins defeated and the knights tomb opened (and then closed again). As an added bonus the party have a dragon egg, I haven’t decided what to do with this yet, but I was determined to have both a dungeon and an (embryonic) dragon in their first game. It’ll probably hatch at an inconvenient moment.

Oh, and everyone leveled up. Which I think is a pretty essential way to end a first session. Well, leveling up and lasagna. And cake. And ice-cream. Fortunately we had all those things.

How did it go?

Well everyone had a good time and we’re going to do it again. So that Phandelver set of scenarios is going to get a workout after all, they look good for a first campaign. But if I was given a chance to rethink the starter set I would…

  • Add some rules on character generation. The promise of role-playing is that you can be anyone you want to be – not pick from five pre-generated characters.
  • Add the rules on hero points
  • Change the name – seriously, Phandelver?
  • Improve the artwork –  given WoTC’s resources and catalogue of great art there’s just not enough and not enough variety in the starter set. They use the same image on the box cover, and the cover of both booklets. Even my six year old felt this was weak sauce. More artwork would also have let them include some of the (rightly praised) ethnically diverse artwork from the players handbook.
  • Added a second set of dice –  there are enough times you need to roll two or more of the same type that they should have been more than one set.
  • Explained things like combat with some diagrams, checklists, flowcharts or the like. Just because rule-books were solid text in the 1970’s doesn’t mean they should be today.
  • Write a scenario that can be closed in a single session of 2-4 hours and include designers notes . It’s not just that Matthew’s scenario is good, it’s that he explains how all the bits fit together to make it tick. Invaluable advice for people new to GMing, or in my case new to running DnD.

So DnD for kids? With an experienced adult player and a mix of age ranges at the table it was doable. If your 12 year old decides they want to run DnD themselves, and they don’t know anyone else who’s playing point them to Matthew’s videos, or better yet, point them to a simpler system (maybe Savage Worlds?).

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a game for kids in the 4 to 7 age range, and you can wait a little bit longer. Amazing Tales will be out by Christmas. Promise.




* To be clear. I’ve run a lot of roleplaying games. I’ve nearly published one. And I’ve run a lot of Dungeon Crawl Classics, which is pretty close to DnD. Still, DnD is it’s own thing.