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After I decided on Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for my first RPG campaign with my son Marty and his friends (as I wrote about the last time around), I still had a lot of work to do. Although I’d written an adventure for the game, I’d not yet had a chance to play it. There’s a vast difference between writing about something and actually doing it.

This summer, I asked around and tried to figure out what I needed to have to play 4E properly. I got a lot of answers, but they mostly boiled down to the three core books, plus a load of dice, miniatures, and map pieces – or dry-erase battle maps or Gaming Paper.

You can spend hundreds of dollars on various sourcebooks, many of which make excellent additions to the game. This seemed like a bit of overkill for such a young campaign, though, so I instead opted for a subscription to D&D Insider. This online service offers up a searchable database of every official 4E rule in print, access to online versions of the venerable Dragon and Dungeon magazines, software to help with creating characters and adventures, and all sorts of other goodies.

For our group, Marty invited four of his 5th-grade pals over: Hans, Isaiah, Roxanne, and Ryan. Because Hans’s father Andy is an old D&D player, I asked him to join us too. Since I had an adventure at hand that I’d written for Game Trade Magazine“Inn Peril,” a PDF you can find on my website for free – I chose to run that. I decided to start the first session with creating characters, and I’d hoped to get those all finished and launch into adventure’s first encounter.

I suspected that making the characters would take a good while with six players, but really I had no idea. Two and a half hours into the three hours I’d scheduled for the game, we still had a load of work to do on the characters, so I opted to forget about things like feats and equipment for the moment and dive right into actual play. We got through the first encounter and broke for the day just before we were about to enter the first combat. This kept the tension high and made the kids excited to come back for more of the game soon. Not coincidentally, it gave me more time to get everything arranged for the next session.

Two things about the session surprised me. First, the kids were great. At their age, I didn’t expect them to be able to focus on the game for long, but they all stunned me with how dedicated they were to it straight away. I know many adults who wouldn’t have been as patient with me as I fumbled through the rules. Fortunately, Andy was there to help keep us on track during those few moments when things threatened to devolve.

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Honestly, the main reason I hadn’t tried to run a game for Marty and his friends already is that I didn’t know if they were mature enough to manage it. Games should be fun for everyone involved, and if we had to deal with discipline issues rather than playing the game, that would have ruined it for everyone. It’s hard to bring people back to something later if they have a rotten experience the first time out, and I wanted them to like it.

Fortunately, they were fantastic.

Second, although 4E is billed as much easier to learn and play than the last edition, it’s still a terribly complex game. Partly that’s just the nature of roleplaying games. Modeling something as complicated as a fantasy world isn’t simple. That’s why the core rulebooks come to a total of 832 pages.

However, creating characters was more challenging than it needed to be. I spent a lot of time flipping through the rulebook-especially the table of contents and the index-hunting for information. Because I was so familiar with earlier editions of the game, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting the new bits wrong, and figuring out what the right answers to our questions were often proved difficult.

All rulebooks serve two purposes. First, they need to teach you how to play the game. Second, they have to serve as a reference tool once you already know how to play.

The 4E books seem to excel at the second purpose, but they are not particularly good at the first. What I wanted was a step-by-step character creation guide that took me through building a character and explained the rules to me along the way, making sure I didn’t miss anything vital. If it could have come with reference charts that let me compare the impact of available choices in the process, that would have been even better.

Despite the fact the process frustrated me, though, the kids didn’t seem to mind. I had to go over all sorts of details with them, like the benefits that came along with each race, class, and so on, but they just soaked it all up and kept asking for more. Still, standing before them and going over the finer points of just how an elf differs from an eladrin made me feel more like a lecturer than a Dungeon Master. Often I wound up glossing over details or giving them strong recommendations for certain choices I knew would work better for them.

After the session was over, I realized there had to be a better way. I poked around Wizards’ website and found the “Test Drive D&D” page, which features a quick-start rules PDF and a couple of introductory adventures, all for free. None of these, though, address creating a character from scratch. Instead, they give you pre-made characters and set you on your way.

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I started playing around with the Dungeons & Dragons Character Builder software that comes with the DDI subscription. This turned out to be the exact solution I was looking for. It made character creation a snap by leading me through it by the nose and not making it easy for me to proceed until I’d completed any necessary steps first. It automatically added up all of the various modifiers for every skill, and it helped the kids pick their skills, feats, and equipment much faster than we could possibly have managed by hand.

Best of all, when I was finished, I could print out the entire character sheet, along with a set of cards representing every one of the character’s powers. This meant I didn’t have to go rooting through the rulebooks every time one of the kids asked me just how something like a Sly Flourish or an Eldritch Blast worked. You can buy preprinted sets of cards separately, but being able to generate new sets of the proper cards for each character-and only those ones-works seamlessly.

The other wonderful thing about the software is that it showed me that I’d gotten a few things wrong in my rush to get through the character creation session. Having a way to check our work in a flash made me feel a lot more comfortable that we were getting things right. If you’re interested in getting into the game, I can’t recommend DDI highly enough. It’s free to use for characters from 1st through 3rd level, so give it a try.

On that note, if you’re looking for gifts for prospective players this holiday season, grab the Player’s Handbook Special Holiday Bundle. It gives you the Player’s Handbook and the Player’s Handbook 2 slipcased together with a code good for $12 off a year of DDI, which brings it down to under $60. The suggested retail for this package is $34.95, the cost of either one of the books alone.

The character builder kept everyone from being overwhelmed by all the rules by only showing us the small set of them that we needed at the moment. I’d love to see this integrated into a teaching pack or program that took you on a tour of the game and gave you the basics of 1st-level character creation, aimed directly at the uninitiated.

Despite how long it took us to get the characters going, the kids all had a great time. Overlooking the character-creation stutters, I had fun too, and the whole experience made me look forward to getting everyone together for the big fight. Next time I’ll tell you how that turned out.

Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.

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