Dungeons & Dragons & Lego - Part I
Summer is here and for many it means a long or even very long holiday. That is the case for our kids and since we obviously cannot go away for nine weeks, we have been looking for activities to keep them busy with. Some are things they can do by themselves and others we do with them. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I had planned to introduce them to tabletop roleplaying and I am happy to report that, indeed, I am running a game as Dungeon Master (DM) for the first time in a great number of years!
I had been dropping hints and poking them for a few weeks to see if they would actually be interested. I guess we need a bit of context so that you do not go assuming this is a recipe of some kind or that I pretend to hold the secret on how to get your kids or friends to join in on your tabletop roleplaying hobby. All kids are different and no one family is the same. What follows is a telling of how I went about it. Maybe reading this will give you ideas on how to introduce beginners to RPGs or get you interested in the hobby!
My kids have always had a healthy dose of imagination, like most. They have also always enjoyed playing outside more than anything else. Small playgrounds are scattered over all neighbourhoods in The Netherlands and they are used by children of all ages. I saw with my own eyes how closely we, as a species, are related to monkeys by watching my daughter and son do the craziest stunts with ease while climbing the various contraptions found on said playgrounds. Whenever we’d get home from a visit or grocery shopping, the first thing they would ask was if they could go play outside. To this day, they prefer that to TV or video games.
Now, do not go thinking that we never have screen time problems like everyone else. We do and we deal with it in a way that makes sense to us and our kids. It will keep on changing with time, there’s no doubt about it. There’s nothing wrong with that but I do believe that a healthy dose of make-believe play in the first ten years of their lives has laid a good foundation for their development. It has enabled them to create their own entertainment at will. We still have a couple of basketfuls of costumes of all sorts that get used once in a while and Halloween is definitely a highlight for them as they can carry on dressing up and pretending to be their favourite hero of the day.
Alongside other activities such as building Lego, drawing, arts and crafts, music and just spending lots of time outside, this type of play has provided them with a library of experiences and skills that allows them to be very creative. Even as they get older, I see them adding story elements to all their gaming activities. Somehow, they end up using their imagination as a natural and unlimited resource for play. It is fuelled by what movies and shows they watch, the books they read and, of course, the video games they play.
From page and screen to pen and paper
Games like the Legend of Zelda and other story driven experiences have given them their first introduction to storytelling based play that is presented within a defined setting and plot with rules that determine what actions you can take.
From there, the move to something like a pen and paper RPG was fairly natural. Since they are both avid readers, I bought a couple of Fighting Fantasy books to see if that would be a good way to introduce concepts of character statistics and the idea of resolving the outcome of a situation by rolling dice and doing a bit of math. They had some fun with it but definitely were not ready to fall in love with these books the way I did. They enjoyed reading them as long as I was involved. This led me to think that playing some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) would be more suited to their style of play.
So, I wrote up a little invitation to play which I handed to them on Father’s Day along with a cup filled with dice. I purposely did not label it as a tabletop game, nor did I mention D&D. I didn’t want them to have any idea of what it was: no labels, no preconceptions. I only mentioned dice, storytelling & Lego. They got very excited and my son, who is 9, immediately asked if we were playing that same night! As the invitation and his big sister pointed out, it would all start in July, once school was out for summer.
It seemed like a long time away for the two of them so I agreed to start character creation soon, one at a time. To that effect, I handed them a list of races and classes and told them to pick two of each. This gave them something to think about until the holidays started.
Making their characters was done in two or three sittings, about half an hour or forty-five minutes each. Once they wrote down what race and class they wanted to play, I explained to them the principle of attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma). They loved the idea of some ability scores being low to make their characters more interesting and the fact that their specialization made them weaker in areas other party members could compensate for. My son, who is 2 and half years the youngest, loves math so he enjoyed all the bits that involved attributes and modifiers but found it difficult to bother about the character’s background story, ideals and flaws.
Therefore, I kept it very simple and by just talking about it in non-game terms we created a simple profile that fit the image he had in mind for his half-orc barbarian Thokk the 1/2 Beast. My daughter’s approach to character creation was very different, she mostly focused on Hearthstone Eagletail’s backstory and looks. Being a huge fan of the Harry Potter books she started reading at age 7, she was keen on using magic. Her male high elf wizard took a little while to craft as we had to dig out spells to add to her spell books.
For both kids, I soon realized that the intricacies of the rules were quickly overwhelming so I kept it as simple as possible, using a very handy step-by-step character creation guide. I figured that whatever we skipped we could get back to once we were in the thick of things, playing the game if the need arose.
Filling in their equipment list did interest them as much as I had expected. The official character sheets quickly proved ill-suited for younger players with large handwriting so I designed a new set of sheets. They are tailored to their specific needs and I shuffled things around a bit so that the information they would need most often appeared on the first page.
Since there would only be the two of real player characters, I created additional ones to join their party which would complement theirs nicely in terms of competence. My decision for this was two-fold. It allowed me to run adventure modules without having to modify them extensively and it gave me the opportunity to do what the kids were looking forward to the most: going on an adventure with their dad! They had not been intimidated by this whole affair because they knew I was going to be there with them, playing a character in the same way they were going to.
Even though purists would say that technically they are NPC’s (Non-Player Characters), it is my intent to play them the same way I would if I were a player. Thus, I created Berndt the dwarf, cleric of Helm, and Trym the halfling rogue. The cleric would help the party with his healing skills (and could serve as a shield if needed) while the rogue would provide the typical skillset of her class that the rest of the party was clearly lacking!
So there I was, about to DM for the first time since I was 17. I felt as nervous as a high schooler before a history test for which he needed another week to study! But even though I didn’t know the rules to this new 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons as well as some other games I had played decades ago, I could talk the talk because I had walked the walk.
The only thing I was really worried about was whether the kids would have fun. Since that had always been the point of the game anyway, I decided to focus on that aspect above all.
The day had come for our first role playing game night. Pop, candy and chips at the ready, we embarked on a new adventure together and to my delight, the kids were even more excited than I was. I worked in an adventure hook that gave them the opportunity to learn about combat mechanics and to meet their two new party members (played by yours truly).
It became apparent fairly quickly that my daughter is very much drawn to the roleplaying aspect of the game, while my son just loves rolling dice and taking action. They both easily understood the concept of speaking “in character” and found themselves immersed in this new world very quickly. Just over two hours was a good length for an introductory session and we played again the next day. The action was intense and the pace was brisk. Everything took place in a theatre of the mind type play which they had no problem with whatsoever. This was mostly, in my opinion, because of their expertise in make believe. When words were not enough, they were keen on physically illustrating how they went about certain actions. As soon as they met new NPC’s they were quick to adopt their character’s persona. Good stuff and a lot of fun for me and them.
At times I struggled a bit with finding the right rule for a specific situation but reminded myself that rules are there to serve the game, not dictate it. I improvised as much as I could and focused on making the fun factor was predominant. We all understood that this was about shared storytelling, not following a rulebook.
The following week, the story required the players to interact with a vast number of characters. There was a lot of investigating and talking that proved not suited for this young gaming group. It was obvious that I was losing their attention as they started petting the cats, walking around the table and not entirely focusing on the matter at hand. I threw in a fight - in the game, not literally with my kids - which kicked things in gear and set us up for the next session. We ended it there, to their disappointment. It was clear that the intrigue of the story was not as compelling to them as the pure adventuring parts. Although I felt like I let them down and failed to make it interesting enough, it ultimately helped me understand what aspects of the game appealed to them and which ones just ruined the experience.
The next day, we played our fourth session and since they were going to explore their first proper dungeon, it was the perfect opportunity to introduce something we all had been very excited about: using Lego for miniatures and terrain. Here’s how I went about it.
Building a dungeon
I am lucky enough that my parents had safe-kept all the Lego my brothers and I amassed over the years. All of their grandchildren had played with it as well and eventually the whole lot came back to me as my older siblings had no interest or space for it. Yay for me and yay for my kids! A few years ago, I sorted all of it by colour and organized it in boxes. Both my children have enjoyed building with Daddy’s old building blocks along their own. Lego is definitely the number one toy in our household. In my opinion, it truly keeps on giving, year after year!
After doing a bit of online research, I defined the scale I had to use and gathered what I needed. I built the first room of the dungeon and put a number of pieces aside. Each time the party would enter a new room, we would take the previous one apart and quickly build what was needed. As you can see in the photos, the floor is the more important part as well as an indication of where the walls run and where the doors, if any, are positioned. As they progress, they keep adding to a flat drawn map that I started for them. This gives them another opportunity to reap the benefits of tabletop roleplaying games: they are learning the basics of cartography!
In combat situations, having that visual representation gave them an incentive for tactics and they thought a lot more about who would be first in line and why. Was it as practical as using miniatures and a battle grid game mat? Probably not but it definitely added to the fun and you can build anything as you need it so it’s very versatile! I came across this great series of blog posts by Tim Emrick about how to create an entire bestiary for your gaming needs. Do visit his blog if you have an interest in Lego, tabletop gaming or both! As you can see from the photos, we are laying out the room to scale (5 feet = 4 studs) but we are not obsessed with everything lining up exactly. It has to be both helpful and fun and in that sense, it felt a lot less rigid than using a grid.
This last session was a blast and because the story was moving forward as we started making our way through the dungeon, the kids, now past the initiation, are slowly making it their own. As for me, I am getting my rusty DM gears going again which is weird but truly wonderful!
Fun above all
Remember that my goal is to have a good time as a family, not tell the most awesomest story ever told. The adventure will be great and memorable if everyone enjoys it and contributes. The best thing about me also playing two of the party’s characters is that it allows me to nudge here and there to help the kids in their decision making or in figuring things out. Think of it as a way of ensuring we keep the game moving forward in the most entertaining way possible fro them. By seeing how I play Berndt and Trym, the kids get hints or ideas on how they can go about their role play. As for me as the Dungeon Master? I’m their dad: if the kids are having fun, I’m having fun. I’ll make mistakes and it’s good for them to see that I am not infallible. So in a way, playing with your young ones is a lot easier than playing with adults but ultimately for me it always comes down to making sure everyone’s having a good time!
If you’re looking to start running a game - again or for the first time - be sure to check this great resource: the Unpossible Journeys website of Erik Schmidt. I came across it a couple of years back when I was getting back into roleplaying games and it is filled with useful information and links to all things tabletop RPGs. Erik constantly updates and adds information so it’s well worth visiting on a regular basis.
Until next time, be well and remember: why you play is more important than what you play!