Sunday, June 29, 2014

Modeling Behavior - old school DnD

As a fairly old-school DnD gamer (I played  bit of original basic DnD in high school, a full 1st edition campaign in college, and then persisted with playing and then DMing a long-running 2nd edition campaign well into the 2000s), I have tried on several occasions to introduce my kids to RPG style gaming.  As 6-year olds, I broke out the dice and ran them through a little mini-adventure that amused them (and me).  But they were not really ready for the full-on character generation, turn-based combat, and movement rules of a "proper DnD campaign".  I have also done years of interactive storytelling  with them, where they have input into the actions and reactions of alter-ego kids who go through a series of adventures when they move to a new house on the edge of a large, strange forest.

But we never really got back to trying DnD again, and I honestly was starting to wonder if the  Minecraft/Teen Fortress 2/HALO progression had moved my 13-year old beyond the sweet spot where he and his friends could maintain interest in sitting around a table with nothing but dice, paper, and imagination to keep the game going.

But I figured I would give it a shot anyway.  A couple of months ago, as school was winding down, I planted the seeds.  I told my son I would be willing to run him and his friends through a one-off adventure to introduce them to the idea of how DnD works.  He remembered what we did before, but I pointed out that there are a lot more rules, etc, that we glossed over when he was in the 1st grade.  So he grabbed a book, read a bit (his eyes widening), and then he started working on his friends.  Two agreed immediately (their parents had both played in the past or were familiar with the game).  Two others said "what's dungeons and dragons?" but were at least interested in the concept.  He invited them over one by one, showed them how to roll up characters, and arranged a weekend when no one was traveling to bring everyone together and see how this would work out.

I decided to set the adventure at the tail end of a LONG-running, deeply political and (at times) cataclysmic DnD campaign I ran for my wife and friends in the Greyhawk setting. While I knew the guys would want danger and swinging swords and epic battles, I also did not want to just drop them in a dungeon and say "start crawling".  For me, an RPG is about story first, and then swinging swords and splattering orcs second. So I came up with a "your trainers send all of your 1st level characters out to investigate something strange happening in a nearby town" hook.  I spent about 5 minutes with each of the players explaining to them where they are from, how they wound up where they are, a brief hint of history and sociopolitical stuff (you are an elf, you will be traveling to human lands, it will be weird for you, etc), formed up the party, and off they went.

To say they bit hard on this would be an understatement.  As they were getting ready to hit the road, I told them their sponsor had given them 100 gp to spend on equipment beyond their weapons and armor they would need for the journey.  Cue an hour of intense discussion about the relative merits of normal rations vs. iron rations, whether 200 feet of rope is enough or whether they should splurge for an extra 50 feet of silk rope, how many extra arrows they could fit in a backpack and whether the bowyer/fletcher non-weapon proficiency would keep them from running out, and whether they would have enough sacks to carry any loot they come across.

I finally managed to get them on the road (my wife played a slightly higher level character in the party, to help push things along), and they arrived in the town for the adventure.  They promptly ignored the large crowd of worried people gathered in the middle of town, and instead just found an inn to go to sleep for the night.  The next morning, they split up, started to investigate things, and soon found the four different possible sources of trouble in and around town.  The game was afoot.

Eight hours of sugar and caffeine-fueled insanity later, they had discovered and conquered an underground area crawling with goblins, rats, lizards, and other nasties as well as inscrutable magical runes, pools, and rooms.  The thief had gone in first on his own to scout, and for some reason he started tapping on and randomly opening doors ("you do realize that no good can come of this, right?"), and had been bitten by and then splattered a giant rat (natural 20) across the wall of a corridor.  For the rest of the adventure, "splattered rat" served as a convenient landmark ("Okay, we go down this hallway, turn left, go past the splattered rat, then look around the corner.  What do we see?").  In the end, they planned and executed an epic fire-bomb attack using flasks of oil, an Enlarge spell, and Produce Flame that won the day.  One of the guys said "in my brain, this is like the most epic movie scene I have ever seen!"  They also managed to do the one thing they were told NOT to do by their sponsor ("Whatever you do, do NOT attack any servants of Iuz you come across!") and they may well have sparked an international incident that could lead to a minor war.  But they came away with a pile of gold, platinum, and gems as well as a number of magic items of various shapes and sizes, so it's all good.

 All in all, it was a blast.  I had fun (although I am beat this's been quite a while since I last DMed, and it takes a lot out of me) and the boys all want to get together again next week to divide loot and figure out what happens next.



  1. Awesome write up! I really hope my kids take to it the same way yours did. Man, I remember those conversations; "dude, we're so gonna need more than 50' of rope, and I hate iron rations."

    I'm doing a write up soon on a nice little D6 RPG called Hero Kids, from a little Indy shop online. Designed to introduce 5-10 year olds on RPGs. My kids love it, so the seeds have been planted.

    What edition did you play? A couple of us are playing Pathfinder, which is, I think, DnD 4th in all but name.

  2. We played 2nd edition because I did not want to relearn rules and slow down the process. So they had to figure out how a THACO works. But we also have a few home-grown rules about death, magical healing, etc, that make Raise Dead less part of the game and total party kills a little less likely. The main point here (beyond fun) was to show them early that story-driven plots lines can be a lot more fun/intense than munchkin-driven fighting for fighting just for the sake of fighting and looting.

    We have the 4th edition books, and if they want to keep playing long term, we might switch over to that. But for now, 2nd seems to work.

  3. Ah, the joy of THAC0. Math!!

    I love that you focus on storytelling. In my mind, that's what truly sets a good DM apart from normal DMs, and what potentially sets D&D and Pathfinder apart from so many other RPGs. They have the possibility of become little participatory myths, like the tales of old. Like you did with your kids and that interactive ongoing story. That's really good stuff, man.

  4. Yeah, what gets me going when DMing is when the story and the characters take on a life of their own. Sometimes you don't even have to roll dice to figure out what happens next. "Okay, that succeeds because, dammit, it's too awesome NOT to work." The group of 13-year-olds I DMed on Saturday really got into that as well. When I can set up a scenario and then THEY pick up the dialogue, interact AS their characters, and plan what happens next, it's truly priceless. Fighting and looting are accents on that, and fun accents at that. But giving players a venue for exploring new facets of their personalities (and in some cases, facets they never knew they had) is where I've always felt RPGs go places that few (if any) others games really ever go.

    At the end of our little adventure, I pointed out to them that they did the one thing their sponsor said they should not do, and told them they would have to think about if and how they would tell their sponsor about this little problem. They thought for a moment about what that might mean and it became clear that there were...ahem...divergent opinions among the group on what they should do about it when next we play. That, as much as anything else, was a great payoff for 8 hours of insanity-driven RPG fun. "Check it out: your actions have consequences, and now you will have to deal with them."

  5. I love that so much, man. Nice work.

    The group we have playing Pathfinder now...we had to create very complex backstories for our characters. It really makes the experience that much better when my character has deep-seeded emotional baggage as a filter for current events. How fun. So my demeanor and decisions are not so much "dark and brooding" as they are "confused and angry," which makes for making some...divergent and interesting decisions. It's fun to play a role and try to act outside yourself. Make a story.