This fall, I started up a D&D 4E campaign for my son Marty and his friends Hans, Isaiah, Roxanne and Ryan. You'd think playing a game with a bunch of 5th-graders would be easy, but when it comes to RPGs, nothing's particularly simple. Sure, a hardcore gamer can pick up and play just about anything, but the amount of information you need to upload into a new player's head just to get them properly started on an RPG is enough to make a T1 connection weep.
Explaining the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom, and an elf and an eladrin to kids that are officially too young to watch a PG-13 movie sometimes seems like you're just splitting arbitrary hairs - to say nothing of armor class, initiative modifier, action points, and the like. The trouble is that most RPGs are exactly about splitting hairs, which means few of those filaments are there at random. You need to get out your finest razor and start slicing. Fortunately, kids are sponges for information, especially when it's presented as something fun and mysterious - and optional. Nothing takes the fun out of something faster than making it required. As long as you can walk away from it any time you like, though, there's no reason to leave the table.
The best part of any game, though, isn't learning the rules or the background or coming up with goofy character names. It's playing it.
With the characters created, armed, and armored, all stocked up and ready to go, we launched into our first adventure. "Inn Peril" is a 1st-level adventure I wrote that appeared in Game Trade Magazine last summer. If you're interested in playing it yourself or just following along, you can find it as a PDF on my website for free. (Spoilers ahead. Potential players be warned.)
The adventure starts out with the heroes spending an evening in an isolated tavern, during which a blind dwarf sells them a map to a nearby dungeon. It's a hoary trope that every D&D player has seen dozens of times, but it comes with a twist, which I'll get to in a moment.
The part I hadn't considered when deciding to use this adventure is that my young players had no idea about this trope or any other. When it came to such things, they were blank slates. I tried explaining the in-joke to them, but no joke survives a proper explanation.
The heroes had to convince the reluctant dwarf to sell them the map. This is a skill challenge, the equivalent of verbal combat. The heroes have to try different things to get the dwarf to see things their way, and as the DM I roll dice to see how it all works out.
I called a time-out to explain all this to the kids, and they picked up on it right away. I let them try saying different things to the dwarf, and when they hit on something - like making an actual threat or request - I stopped them to roll the dice. The dwarf sold the heroes the map, then insisted on toasting their impending adventure. Soon after, he nodded off, and the innkeeper carried him off to bed.
The next morning, the heroes set out for the dungeon. When they got near where the entrance to the dungeon was supposed to be, they heard a bunch of goblins squabbling. I sketched out the clearing in the woods on a stretch of Gaming Paper, positioned a pack of printable miniatures (I used the customizable Disposable Heroes Fantasy from Precis Intermedia) in their proper places, and explained just what the heroes faced: a band of bloodthirsty goblins waiting for someone to come by to be ambushed.
The kids put their heads together and started to come up with a battle plan. This is when things started to fall apart.
Never having played the game before - and only being in 5th grade - the kids went straight for the wackiest ideas. They wanted to teleport in, kill a goblin, then teleport back out again, which their heroes couldn't come close to pulling off. They thought about trying to lure the goblins into the forest one by one, ignoring the fact that the goblins probably would alert their fellows before wandering into the woods. Someone mentioned setting the woods on fire.