Kids of the Tabletop - A family adventure
Summer is over and with it our first family adventure in the Forgotten Realms. As I introduced my kids to tabletop role playing games, I rediscovered the joys and intricacies of DM’ing, or GM’ing, call it what you want. My 9 and 12 year olds have lived through their first exploits as characters that live only on paper and in our small gaming group’s collective imagination.
Was it a resounding success? A flawless exercise in make believe? Did we capture lightning in a bottle? At times, it certainly felt that way while on other instances the magic was missing and we had to work hard to make the most of it. Some gaming sessions were maybe less successful in terms of fun but they provided me with important clues that allowed me to better myself. By that, I mean that I have not only gained confidence but I have improved at DM’ing for my group specifically, for the benefit of all present.
Where to start
Some of you might wonder how I went about it all: choosing a game to play, getting my daughter and son excited about the prospect of something new and running our first game. Over weekly sessions spanning the entire summer vacation, I introduced them to a form of play that has been around for more than 40 years. Yet, it has never felt fresher! Let me take you on the journey of our discovery, maybe it will help you get on with yours or see why role playing games are something you should at least try once. I have also included references and free downloads that will hopefully inspire you to try for yourself!
Old but new
Back in the eighties, I was one of those kids who spent a good amount of time invested in role playing games which was considered weird and futile by most. We were 5 friends, 5 players in total and each one of us ran one or more games so we would constantly be playing multiple campaigns. I started getting interested in RPGs in the sixth grade and this quickly led me to see if my friends had discovered them as well. We eventually started playing The Dark Eye, a German game that had been translated to French and was gaining attention across Europe. By 1987, our collective library had grown into an impressive selection. Our other games of choice were: D&D (red and blue box), AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, Ghostbusters RPG, MERP, Star Wars, Malefices, Feerie, Paranoia, Pendragon and Strombringer.
Of the games I used to run, I still have some boxes and books that survived my multiple relocations since. Fast forward many years and I find myself drawn to this awesome pastime again. Ultimately, I was attracted to one in particular: the very game that triggered the current resurgence of the hobby. My way back into the world of tabletop RPGs came through the release of the new 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. I was drawn to the idea of a streamlined, modern game that focused mostly on the storytelling aspect while expanding on a 40 year legacy. I got my hands on the Starter Set to see what all the fuss was about. I quickly found myself having a great time, not only rediscovering Dungeons & Dragons, but enjoying reading about the game's mechanics and lore. I decided to delve a little deeper.
I carried on, as one should, with the Player’s Handbook and read through it mostly out of curiosity. It wasn’t long before I got the other two core rulebooks: The Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monsters Manual (as a quick side note, I would like to point out that for the uninitiated, the Dungeon Master, often referred to as the game master in other games, is the person who presents the story to the players and plays the part of any characters and places they might encounter, including monsters, traps and other events required to make the story move forward). As a storyteller, I got very interested in how the writers were giving this old game a vibrant feel while staying true to its essence. It felt like I was stepping back into a familiar world but there was so much to discover!
At that time, I had no plans of playing again. I solely got pulled in because the books are a ton of fun to read. My kids were too young to play or be remotely interested in that sort of thing. It wasn’t because of their age although the maturity of their emotional baggage has a lot to do with it. In my opinion, there’s no point in introducing films, books or games to them that they are unable to relate to. All kids are different and they all have varied tastes in entertainment. The idea of playing the game with them only came to me a few months ago. They finally seemed ready for it.
There be dragons
Why did I decide to play with 5th Edition D&D rules? Mainly for two reasons. The first one being that the setting was appealing to me and to the kids’ fantasy literature sensibilities. The world of D&D is one they were going to find easy to identify with. They have both read enough books to know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves and goblins are different from J.K. Rowling’s. It’s all about interpretation and letting your own imagination fill in the gaps or making it look the way you understand it. The second reason I chose this game over others is that the rules of 5th Edition are so fluid and streamlined, they allow you to be as strict or lenient as you wish.
Playing the game is an opportunity for players to learn the rules as you go along and introduce mechanics. At first, we role-played the introduction to the story and pretty quickly, their respective characters found themselves in a sticky situation. Swords had to be drawn and fire bolts shot! Not that combat is for me the essence of tabletop RPGs but it does offer a great opportunity to teach your party about the basics of the game’s core mechanics: Difficulty Class (DC) Checks. From there, we carried on with the story and, as we went, I continued to teach new rules when the situations required them.
Small party, many hats
Tabletop role playing games are best when played with a larger group, ideally between 4 and 7 players. You can do it with less but it requires fine tuning adventures so that the characters have a decent chance of survival.
So I decided to add two non player characters (NPCs) to their party. I would be playing them as I would as a player while still running the game. The whole system of races and classes in D&D makes for characters that excel in their vocational skills while being below average in others. The more variety of player characters in a party, the better because they have to rely on each other’s strengths to make up for their weaknesses. For kids big and small it’s a great way to learn about co-operation and humility. You can’t be the best at everything and you will need help from one another to succeed.
To my delight, both my 9 and my 12 year old thrived in depicting characters who were far from perfect. In fact, they enjoyed playing off their weaknesses more than their strengths. I saw them flesh out their alter egos in a much more nuanced and fun way than I had ever done as a teenager when I started.
To be honest, I did feel the pressure and wanted to do my best to match their innate ability to play make pretend. Being the DM and having to play two party characters was a lot more work than I had anticipated. I was unable to play and portray them as well as a player would have. When you are the DM, you have to describe the world to the group and play the role of anyone they might encounter or have dealings with. It’s fun but it can be daunting at times. Our gaming sessions were about 2 to maximum 3 hours long and to be frank, it was enough for me as I had to work on both sides!
Playing with beginners was very refreshing because it brought me back to the days I was discovering role playing games with my friends. You learn the game as you play it, together.
With younger kids, it is a different story because you want them to have fun and keep it moving forward. One of our early sessions was too heavy on the narrative and required interacting with NPCs a little too much. I quickly lost their interest and had to work hard to get them through it. The next time we played, the pace was high and the action relentless. A good dungeon crawl was what they needed! This gave us an opportunity to use minifigs and Lego as terrain and props. It proved a resounding success and allowed them to get immersed and invested in the world they were now a part of.
As we played throughout the summer, we familiarized ourselves with the rules and slowly I noticed something quite amazing taking place. The kids started fleshing out their alter-egos in detail, playing them more genuinely every week, talking in character and cracking jokes in game. It was pretty hilarious at times and of course, it felt perfectly normal to them!
Last week, we finished the adventure we started at the beginning of the summer holidays. The last thing my son said as we wrapped up our session was: “Can we play tomorrow?”. You could attribute this to my exceptional skills as a DM and you’d be completely wrong. It’s all them. Role playing games have this great quality: they tap into your creativity and let you run with it!
The kids had already asked me a month ago if we could go and visit their characters’ homes before starting the next adventure. At this point, they’re thrilled to have gotten this far as they are moving up to Level 5, which means improved stats, new abilities and spells. But what really has them going is that we will be finding out where our party members all come from! This is completely their idea and in a way, for the next few weeks at least, we will all be Game Masters and Players at the same time: a truly communal storytelling experience!
One step at a time
There were a lot more highlights and also moments when I had to adjust the play style. For me, there are a few things I now try to keep in mind at all times to make it work best for us:
1. Fun. The main purpose of playing tabletop role playing games - with your kids or your friends - is to have fun, plain and simple. This means you should make sure they ARE having fun because they will go along with anything you throw at them, as long as they are excited about it and can relate to what is happening. I would love to play Ghostbuster RPG or Call of Cthulhu again, but it can’t be with my 9 and 12 year old. Aside from the matter of age appropriateness, there is so much in what makes those games great that would be lost on them, where would the fun lie for them?
2. Start small and see where it takes you. Unsurprisingly, my kids wanted to be off and going right from the get go. Creating characters was done over a few short sessions (you can read more about it in this article over here) and I mainly focused on attributes and the idea of them being very good at some things and not so good at other things. Equipment was a highlight for them in the creation process, so make sure you spend more time on the bits that interest them most. Whatever was missing or not covered at this point, I either filled in myself or left for later, when that particular information would be needed. The idea is that you get started as soon as possible. This applies to kids but also to adults who have never played before and are taking a leap of faith trying something totally out of their comfort zone. You don’t want to burden them with rules right from the start. Most uninitiated freak out when you show them the core rulebooks! They think you’re going to ask them to memorize three hundred pages of rules before the first session. Using pre-generated characters is also a great way to go, if you want be off to the races right away. Some will like it, while others will prefer to create their own.
3. Home brew or published adventure? Being someone who is constantly creating, I decided to go with published adventure. I enjoy reading what others create and I thought it would be nice to broaden my horizons and see what the Forgotten Realms were like, having played mostly self written campaigns back in the 80s. It’s really up to your preference but having done both, here’s my take on it. Writing your own takes time but you are committing everything to memory while creating it. When you prepare a published module, you have to read it all first and then again to make sure you’ve got everything covered. For me, this is more work but it’s fun to discover adventures that you know nothing about. Both options are good and take equal amounts of time in my opinion.
4. Adapt to your group’s interests and needs. This includes you as a DM. Our first adventure was pretty easy to follow with detailed instructions on how to handle every place and its encounters. The next one is going to be a more open adventure where I will have to add more myself and not just follow the scenario to the letter. I spent some time looking around at what published adventure was best suited for that and I would definitely encourage you to search the Internet or ask your local gaming store for advice on which adventures will fit your needs. Every official D&D module is reviewed in multiple places nowadays so it’s pretty easy to get a good feel for a published adventure.
In case my experiences as a DM coming out of retirement inspire you, I have put together a simple set of directions to help you get started on your own journey. Whether you are looking to play as a family or with your friends, I am hoping this will help you on your way to discovering a unique type of game!
Choosing a game
This is maybe the hardest but there has never been a better time to start playing than now. Dungeons and Dragons is leading the way and is bigger and better than ever but it isn’t your only option. Visit Unpossible Journeys, and in particular this page. It is the best online resource for people wanting to start, with tons of useful information, including an exhaustive list of games and free starter sets.
If you decide to start with D&D, my advice would be get the Starter Set. It’s a lot of value for your money and includes a great adventure to get you on your way! If you want your players to create their own characters rather than use the pre-generated ones, get your hands on a copy of the Player’s Handbook. There’s no real need to worry about the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Monster Manual just yet.
Get your gaming group together
Finding people to play with is usually the biggest hurdle. When those players are your kids, it's easier to plan a weekly or monthly game night. But to get them really interested in RPGs, you might need a hook. Mine was this little invitation which they received with a cup full of dice. It got them very curious and this is how it all started for us. Download this free PDF to use or inspire you to get your new players excited about the prospects of playing something new!
Heroes are born
Character creation can be intimidating for players and daunting for a DM to help with. I’ve broken the process down in simple steps, highlighting what parts I skipped only to get back to during play. This gets you going before the beginners have the time to feel overwhelmed and I think it’s more fun if we all learn the game together. 5th Edition is flexible enough that you can loosely interpret how to deal with a situation until you figure out what the specific rule really is. Please download this free check list to hopefully make the process less intimidating. I have also created character sheets that give more space for kids to write on. Please keep in mind that these are still undergoing revisions. I can get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t as we play.
Miniatures and terrain
While a lot of our game was played in the theatre of the mind, using Lego for miniatures and settings was a big highlight for the kids. To be fair, it was for me as well. It does require extra preparations and after trying out a few things inspired by what others have done in the past, I was able to come up with a system that minimized prep time!
Check out my free reference sheet to get ideas on how to use your old and new Lego as a way to visualize dungeon crawling!
Hopefully, you will find something useful here to help you get started. If you have any comments or feedback, feel free to reach out on social media or use the suggestion box.
Until next time, be well and remember: why you play is more important than what you play!