With adults, I might have let the players try whatever crazy plan they came up with and let the dice land as they may. No matter how badly it went, I'm sure we would have had fun. For kids on their first adventure, though, I wanted their first battle to go more smoothly. The rules of any game define what sorts of strategies have any hope of working, and since this was their first battle they were going in blind. I coached them on which of their ideas stood some chance of working.
They tried surrounding the goblins, and they did a decent job of it. They made relatively quick work of the creatures and only suffered some minor injuries. When they opened the door to the dungeon, they found only a shallow pit littered with copies of the map that had brought them there: The blind dwarf had been in league with the goblins, selling the maps to foolhardy adventurers who the goblin then ambushed. The innkeeper had gotten greedy though, and drugged the dwarf's drink so he could rob him in his sleep. This meant that the dwarf never had a chance to alert his goblin partners to the sale, which is why the goblins weren't ready for the heroes.
Realizing they'd been had, the heroes stormed back to the inn, only to find it on fire. The goblin leader had been hunting in the woods with a group of his best warriors when the heroes destroyed the goblin camp. Thinking the dwarf had double-crossed him, he'd gone to the inn for revenge. Now the heroes had to rescue the innkeeper and his innocent wife and kids.
The heroes tried to talk the goblin leader out of the inn, but failed. Frustrated, they stormed the building instead. After a hard-fought skirmish, they prevailed and rescued the innkeeper and his family.
I made an improvised choice at that point that sent a shock through the game. After killing all the other goblins, the heroes surrounded the leader. Down to only a few hit points, the goblin leader threw down his weapons and surrendered. It seemed only natural, but I had no idea how the players would react.
Half of the players refused to slaughter an unarmed foe who'd given up. The others didn't trust him a bit and wanted to kill him on the spot. After a heated discussion, the first group stood strong for the goblin leader, protecting him with their own bodies. They extracted an oath from him that he would never harm any of them, then sent him packing.
Despite the vast amount of rules I'd asked the kids to assimilate and put to use during the game, when it came down to it, they ignored all that and got straight down to roleplaying. They cared about their characters and the fictional world around them, and they had their heroes act and speak as they thought they should, even when this put them in conflict with each other.
Not once during the entire argument did they ask for dice or a ruling. They knew instinctively that they had to make this decision themselves, and nothing on their character sheets would help them. And they did a bang-up job of it.
For a week or two after that, I wondered if the argument would sour the kids on the game - if they'd carry over the heat from the game into their lives. Instead, they only had one question. When can we play again?
Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.