Over the past year or so, I've gotten the chance to spend an increasing amount of time with my girfriend's two boys (age 6 and 10). It's been a great way to reconnect to things that had fallen the wayside in my life - hanging out in parks, playing with figurines, watching cartoons. There's a freedom and spontaneity in childhood that, despite my commitment to keeping it fun in my adult life, I realize that I hadn't quite managed to hang on to.
It's been especially rewarding to discover stuff with the kids - to get into choice cartoons while watching them together (Adventure Time, Amazing World of Gumball, Regular Show), to get into cardboard crafting or drawing elaborate labyrinths together, or turn the kids on to stuff that I'm into - like stopping by Maker Faire and watching the oldest learn how to solder, teaching him how to ride a bike... It's in those moments, when they're essentially so ready to sponge-up whatever is going on around them, that kids are so rewarding to be around.
Last weekend, we decided to go camping with another couple and their three kids. We drove down to northern Vermont with the intention to go and check out Bread & Puppet. And I figured I'd bring Dungeons & Dragons along for the ride.
Over the course of the prior few months, we'd had some talks about Dungeons & Dragons - mainly with my friend's oldest (11 years old). They'd tried to get into it in the past but it hadn't quite worked out though the kid was still into it. I brought up the idea to my friends' kids in passing and briefly described what it was like. Same with my girlfriend's oldest - though it seemed a bit abstract when I mentioned it and he quickly moved the conversation away towards video games with similar themes (ex: Minecraft).
In preparation for the trip, I had ordered some classic D&D 1st edition books - the Player's Guide, Dungeon Master's Guide and Gary Gygax' eponymous 1st ed adventure: the Temple of Elemental Evil. I also generated 7 characters with various racial-class combinations. All first level.
In the car ride over, my friend and I were driving one car with two of the boys. They were playing around with Pokeymon cards in the back seat. At one point, we stopped over to get a coffee and I took out the character sheets and asked if they wanted to look through the characters and to pick one for themselves.They were intrigued and inquisitive, looking at them very closely and asking questions about the stats, the equipment, the capacities of their characters. We had a great animated conversation for a good while and I got the sense that the oldest (my friend's 11 year old) was especially curious. After about a half hour, we put the character sheets away and kept on driving.
Once we got to the campground, my friend's son immediately asked if we could play D&D. After running some errands into town and setting up the tents, we pulled out the characters and adventure. We asked the other kids if they wanted to play and they gathered around to pick a character, with my adult friend picking one up as well.I first attempted to set the scene by having them all be the foster kids of a wise old sage who then tasked them to investigate the goings on in the village of Hommlett.
Those first few moments were the most difficult. My friend's boy, especially, was excited but was also not taking it very seriously, making wize-cracks about the game, the adventure, the names... I had to pause a few times to address what he was saying and eventually we were able to start the adventure and I moved us fairly quickly to a first encounter on the road with some half-orc bandits. Quickly, arrows flew through the air and I asked them to roll some dice. Which the kids loved. They immediately got the concept that they only controlled their own actions and that the dice determined the outcome while I determined the story.
That first encounter clinched it - They were able to 'see' the action and to have immediate effect on the game. Right away, the kids came up with some very creative solutions to the game - "I throw my lit lamp in the forest" to draw out the brigand, "I set a rope trap while we camp for the night". After the brigand's defeats, I made sure to use strong descriptions for the throw-away loot they found: a wickedly-curved horn bow, a sharp bone dagger with a small skull in the hilt, a rough-stone circle pendant around a leather cord. The pendant, especially, began hugely significant to our group and I rolled with it for the rest of the scenario. It wasn't a magical item, but I made sure to feed off of their excitement by having an NPC later mention that it looked like it was orcish worksmanship...
Over the course of our weekend camping, we played about 5 or so of these 30-45 minute scenarios. They were a great way to keep the kids occupied in the morning when other campers were still asleep, as a post-dinner activity before it got dark enough to light a fire. Outside of the scenarios, the kids would often talk amongst themselves about the items they'd found, the NPCs they'd encountered. They created amongst themselves a "D&D club".
Into our second or third scenario, I again had created a situation initially meant as a throw-away device which ended up taking unexpected significance to the kids. I'd given one of the players a horse, so of course, during the journey, as a a result of an argument, she and one of the boys decided to speed ahead to Hommlett ahead of the others. As an attempt to get them all back together without needing to run two games in parallel with kids getting impatient for their turn, I introduced the players who got to the village first, on the horse, to "Barnaby", an old farmer with a limp who needed help with his fields. My partner's son was very curious about Barnaby from the get-go and it was great to see his relationship to this spontaneous NPC evolve. At first, he was mainly interested in "how much" XP he'd get for helping Barnaby, or if Barnaby could pay him to do the work he was asking help with. I addressed this in character and it was great to see the boy begin to respond to the increased characterization, eventually a sense of responsibility over Barnaby. During the rest of the game, Barnaby kept coming back up. Could he accompany them on their adventure? How much money would they give to Barnaby, etc... What was Barnaby's life like, what did money represent to him, what would it be like if he were given a platinum piece, since he only makes a few coper pieces per day. Fascinating questions with undertones of ethics and wealth distribution...
The question of ethics in the game was a thorny one at times. On a few occasions, some of the kids were surprisingly self-interested (by loot, mainly) and very quick to move to a place where they'd potentially betray each other for the items they'd acquired. In that sense, my friend's son had chosen a halfling thief and totally got in character. This led to some conflicts amongst the kids outside of game time and some of them would sometimes get upset. A few times, I had to remind them to "play their alignment" (they were all assigned good-aligned characters) in order to diffuse the out-of-game tension that was sometimes brewing. A few times, I felt I had to mention that I was mainly interested in running a "good" campaign and that if people wanted to steal from each other that I wouldn't really be into DMing the game. In the end though, NPC characters like Barnaby, and the players' increasing investment in his well being, did a lot more to improve the heroics of the game than anything else.
After the first scenario which ended with the party defeating the brigands, the kids had a lot of questions for me about the kinds of items they were likely to find, what they could do... A lot of their framing of the game was initially informed by the computer games they'd played: "what bosses would they encounter", could they "craft" items out of the things they'd found: ie: a sword out of two daggers. Could they do certain things. It was great to explain the workings of the game and let them in on the infinite possibilities of a game that isn't bound by the choices of a computer-game experience.
Our last night at the campground, we played a quick scenario (again, about 40 minutes), that had them rooting through an old keep and eventually stumbling on a bunch of bandits. There was an epic battle and the party came out on top - despite some close calls. During it all, the kids were jumping around excitedly, looking at the outcome of every die roll - groaning and acclaiming the various results with just as much investment as veteran gamers!
Since then, my partner's oldest has asked if we'll play again and based on how it went, I certainly want to keep it up! What with the release of the D&D 5th edition, I've wondered if pen-and-paper RPGs have what it takes to capture the interest of kids who've cut their teeth on visually impressive computer gaming. From the attention and involvement this group of players demonstrated over the weekend, I daresay yes!