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The Dad DM

Gaming with the Next Generation

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children

Let’s Get Motivated

I ran a game for my kids and wife last night. I started running Dungeons & Dragons for them about two years ago. I started them a couple of years earlier on a great game, specifically for gaming parents to share with their kids, called RPGKids (available at drivethrurpg). But when the eldest hit 11 and the youngest 10, I decided that it was time to transition them to the game that I cut my teeth on: D&D.

I never got into 4th edition. I’m not here to judge one edition over another, but I wasn’t a fan and I already invested a LOT into earlier editions, so I’ll leave it at that. I was running a 3.5 game at the time, and felt that it was a little too complex for “just starting out,” so I decided the run good old red-box Basic. Between the first and second sessions, however, the 5th Edition Starter Set came out, the basic rules were posted to the Wizards of the Coast website, and the game was switched over to 5th… which really is a great edition for younger players.

Of course, none of that is really important to the subject of this post, it’s mainly background, but it does demonstrate that I felt like I was moving the girls to a new “tier” or role-playing… stepping away from the A-B-C quests of their infancy and opening up a new world of infinite choices and adventure opportunities. They were both in double digits now, and a magical switch had been flipped inside of them. They would be self-motivated and their new characters would have goals and desires of their own. In other words… I was na├»ve and (for me) strangely-optimistic.

Here’s the thing though, and my advice to gaming parents trying to get their kids into the hobby: you evolved as a role-player; you’re just too old to remember it. When I started the campaign for the girls, I had five separate plot threads interwoven into a tapestry of adventures just waiting to draw the players in, and my plan was to grow the plots of the threads that grabbed their interest. But here’s the burn: they weren’t ready for the sandbox method. They needed the adventure hook to be fed to them.

For the first few adventures, I tried to drops hints. The main adventure was always right in front of them, but there were always threads hinting at where they could go next. But those threads weren’t followed… at the beginning of the next adventure, the druid, ranger, and elf fighter would be sitting at their stone circle waiting for the next cry for help. Admittedly, my wife could have helped lead them down those threads, but we had sort of agreed that we’d let the kids make the choices, because the game was for them.

So a couple of months ago, I stole some NPCs and the core storyline from “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” and introduced them to an NPC that would pull them into the plot. It worked wonders… the long-form adventure is keeping them on track and interested. I ran the game for them last night and got the first hint that their evolution as players had begun. My oldest daughter asked for more non-combat encounters… more opportunities to role play and “talk.” That’s a good sign, but I also have to maintain the balance with my younger daughter, who is still in the “see monster, kill monster” phase. I’m sure I’ll talk about that balance in a later post.

So, in a nutshell, I recommend keeping things simple and straightforward for your kids… or even for adult gamers that are just getting into the game. Remember that you probably started the same way, it’s just been a while. I learned this lesson the hard way, but I’ve also seen my kids begin to grow as gamers, and that’s easily worth the mistakes that I made starting out. Of course, my kids don’t realize that I feel like I made any mistakes… so I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about it.

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Surprise and Consent

This past weekend, I decided to show my players that I still had a few surprises in me. I love it when my players, many of whom I’ve gamed with for years, can’t predict my next move and are shocked by the results. The lesson I learned, however, is that sometimes unpredictability comes with a cost. Fortunately, this time, that cost turned out to be more perceived than real.

Several months ago, I ran a scenario involving the defense and siege of a keep guarding the only keep across a raging river. While the heroes were preparing to defend against a human army, a small force of demons attacked the keep and the surrounding encampment instead. One of the heroes, a sorcerer using the Wizards of the Coast Unearthed Arcana “Favored Soul” rules, cast the ice storm spell to take out a large cluster of Manes demons. What the player didn’t realize, and the character definitely didn’t realize, is that the radius of the spell included a single “square” of one of the tents in the encampment… a space containing a normal human conscript.

The Manes were annihilated, but so, unfortunately, was the soldier… who was hit with over double his hit point maximum with a single hit. The favored soul is an elven subrace unique to my game world, essentially a halfling-elf. This race is among the most innocent in the world, and even the elders of the race never truly “grow up.” Needless to say, the collateral damage weighed heavily on the character’s heart, and her guilt hung with her throughout that session and the one that followed.

Fast forward several months, when I decided it would be fun for the soldier (who had been Soldier #7 on my list, so the Players decided his name was “Septimus”) to rise again as a revenant with a mad-on for the death of the favored soul. You see, the PCs had recently angered the goddess of vengeance, and I loved the poetic irony of a revenant hunting the most innocent character in the party… the one person who would never even consider the death of an innocent person.

The surprise attack in the middle of a separate, unrelated combat went off without a hitch. The players were caught completely off guard, and the chaos that ensued was majestic. After the game, the players commented on how memorable the surprise was. It was a comment made during the fight, though, that didn’t really hit me until after the session, on the drive home. The player of the favored soul had off-handedly said “so much anxiety!” during the battle as she role-played her character struggling with renewed guilt and unable to take any actual action in combat (the player’s role-playing decision).

The thing is, I know the player, and she and I share a common characteristic: anxiety attacks. We both suffer from elevated anxiety and struggle with it. On the drive home, I remembered her comment and I began to worry… had I pushed the PLAYER too far. I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of player anxiety. I contacted her after I got home, and she told me not to worry… she was talking about the player’s anxiety, and she loved the role-playing opportunity.

But it got me thinking: the players put a lot of trust in the DM. In return, the DM has the responsibility to be the steward of that trust. As a DM, you need to understand your players’ expectations, and not just what they want out of the game, but also what they don’t want. If a DM wants to run darker storylines, especially hard issues like racism, murder, rape, and torture, the DM has a responsibility to make sure that the players are comfortable with exploring those issues. If they’re not, the DM should either adjust for that or suggest they find another game. Characters are fictional. Players are not.

I probably should have talked to that one player before the game, since her character was at the center of the plot, to make sure that burying her character in guilt was something she’d be comfortable playing… because that kind of thing can go to dark places. Fortunately, it worked out this time. But I will certainly be talking to my players about this in the future and asking them to (PRIVATELY) let me know if there are any subjects that they would prefer not to explore in my game. My enjoyment of the game is based on their enjoyment of it. Their enjoyment is paramount.

As a father, when I run for my 13 and 11 year-old daughters, I avoid these kinds of dark story lines on principal. These are my children… I try to keep things light and “high adventure.” With adults, it’s safer to go to darker places… but never without the consent of the players. I’ve always felt that way, but it took a “close call” to really drive the point home. As always, these posts are my opinion — just how I feel — but I’ve got to say, this just makes sense to me. Sometimes it’s worth giving up a little of the surprise to ensure that you have the consent.

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