My son Daniel just turned eight years old, and I’m happy to say he has the spark of a gamer in him. He loves video games, especially Mario, Angry Birds, and Skylanders. On the tabeltop, he really likes Battleship and Zombie Dice. He also gets a kick out of things like BeyBlade and Ninjago and other things where you fling plastic toys at each other. So I knew that he’d eventually be a shoe-in for RPGs.
Getting him to play tabletop RPGs has been tricky, though. I had limited success with Newbie DM’s excellent RPGKids last year, but he got bored when he wasn’t in combat we only played a couple adventures. I’ve also tried to get him interested in tabletop miniatures games, but the ones he’s curious about — WarMachine and Malifaux, the ones he sees me playing — are still a little too over his head.
Yesterday, though, I saw a chance to act. He’s older now; he comes with me to the FLGS and he asks about the games I play; the streamlined D&D Next rules made them seem like a good choice for introducing him to a “real” RPG; and, I had the day off for Independence Day. So I took the attack of opportunity on the situation and sat him down for an introductory session.
Introducing … Dwarfio
First, character creation. I guessed (correctly) that he’d want to play a fighter — he likes swinging toy swords at his sister — but he was annoyed at the pre-generated PC because he wanted to play a human. He didn’t say it out loud, but I suspect it’s because he wanted to play Finn the Human, because he loves Adventure Time. He begrudgingly accepted the dwarf after I noted that the dwarf had a really big axe, though, and he named the fighter Dwarfio (naming is not my son’s strong suit).
So that he wasn’t adventuring alone, I decided to run an NPC, and chose the dwarf cleric. I figured he’d need a cleric, along, and besides, then they could be brothers! That scratched his Adventure Time itch a little bit. I named the cleric Morgan.
Not wanting to throw the entire Caves of Chaos at him, I decided to isolate just the Goblin cave from the module and build a little story around it. So I began by explaining the back story: Dwarfio and Morgan were members of a small mining clan, whose mines were being raided by goblins every night. The clan leaders had tasked the brothers with going to the goblin’s cave to convince the humanoids to stop attacking, by any means necessary. The game had begun!
At this point, my son interrupted. “Where’s the map and the figures?”
Oh, right. Last year when we’d played RPGKids, we’d used a Battlemat and miniatures. “Um, there aren’t any,” I answered warily. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to this.
“How are we going to play the game?” he asked.
I took a half-second to decide whether or not to drop the phrase “Theatre of the Mind” on him. I decided against it. “We’re going to tell a story together,” I said instead, “And imagine it in our heads.”
“But how will I know where I am and what to attack?”
“It works like this. Imagine you’re in front of a door, okay? A big wood one, iron nails holding it together. Can you see the door?”
He looked at me a little funny. “Yeah … I guess.”
“Good. Now, you hear a girl’s voice, calling for help from the other side. If you were Dwarfio, what would you do?”
Another funny look. “I’d open the door.”
“What? Okay, um … I break the door open?”
Now we were getting somewhere. “Okay, good. So, you want to break the door down. First — ”
“What do I see?”
“You don’t see anything yet. This is where the dice come in. You want to kick to door down, but you’ve got to roll a die to see if you can. Grab the round one there — that’s a d20.”
He grabs a d12. “No, the rounder one.” He grabs the d20. “Good. Now, roll it.”
“What do I need?”
“Just roll it.” Thankfully, he rolls a 16. “Good. That’s high enough to break the door open … ”
The Curtain Pulls Back
Behind the door was an orc menacing a human woman, and I used the scenario to let him practice a few rounds of fighting. Combat was something he could get into, so he quickly forgot about the missing miniatures and commenced to swinging his axe. He missed his first swing, but was happy to do damage anyways (thank you, Reaper!).
When the orc hit him back, he got a little wide-eyed; my son does not like to have characters die (he never lets a Skylander drop to zero health before replacing them). I assured him he’d be okay and told him to swing again. He missed again. Stupid dice. Reaper was less satisfying this time, but he was still into the game.
On the third round, I asked, “Okay, so you want to attack again?”
“Um, no,” he said. I could tell he was annoyed at missing.
“So what do you want to do?”
“I want to … I want to … ” He got a gleam in his eye and — I kid you not — held up a finger in an a-ha! gesture. “I want to kick him between the legs!”
He loves Adventure Time, but I was pretty sure this was a move straight out of Regular Show. I had a bad parent moment.
But then I realized what he was doing. He was no longer just swinging an axe. He was storytelling. For better or worse, his low blow idea was the start of him actually thinking about the game and imagining what he wanted to do. And he had this really big grin on his face.
So, I let him do it. I used it as an opportunity to introduce him to opposed roles (his attack vs. the orc’s DEX) and when he succeeded, I had the orc roll a CON check for the pain. The orc failed, so I mimicked a painful crotch shot (he was giggling madly by now) and used it to introduce the idea of Disadvantage to him.
By the end of the next round, when he flattened the orc with his greataxe, he was understanding the rules of the game. He was also having a good time. On to the goblin caves we went!
D&D Next: Simple Solutions
Over the next hour we adventured through a the goblin cave. We did some Stealth checks, fought some combats, and even got to rest and heal once. The relative simplicity of the playtest core rules meant that I could keep up with some of his more wild ideas just by distilling them down to checks, opposed checks, and attacks. He really grew to love his Greataxe (2d6 +7 damage meant he was cutting any goblin he encountered down in one blow) and as long as I kept the descriptions vivid for him, he had zero problems following the game without a map.
I’m not sure how I would have taught him how to play 4E or 3E. I think that the character sheets, the combat rules, the grid reliance, all of it would have slowed down his learning. In addition, he’s been recently preliminarily diagnosed with ADD, so attention span can be an issue. But with the playtest rules, even in their unfinished form, he was able to get into the Theatre of the Mind and chop some goblins within about 15 minutes of starting!
I know that these rules are in preliminary form and that they’ll get more complicated as new iterations come out. But now that he understands this most basic core of concepts, I’m thinking he’ll be able to keep up with more complicated rules as they’re introduced.
And he does want to play again. After an hour he got distracted by typical Fourth of July pursuits, but there was some talk of inviting friends of his over and forming a party! Assuming their moms are okay with the kids playing D&D, of course. Then Dwarfio and Morgan can form a proper party and have a proper adventure. Both the dad and the DM in me would relish the chance to shepherd a whole party of new gamers into the tradition of D&D.
In the meantime, our little band of brothers needs to find some time this weekend to finish convincing the goblins to stop attacking the dwarf mines. Maybe I’ll even convince him to try diplomacy … at least at first.