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.
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.