super awesome lets pretend time (pt 1)

This afternoon Tavis and I played a home-brewed version of D&D with ten 8 year old children at an afterschool program in Manhattan.  Let me front-load with the cute stuff:

  • Two of my five players were girls.  One of them, Joan, ended by saying, “That was AWESOME.  That was, by far, the best game I have EVER played.”  We loaned her a copy of the new 4e Starter Set to read this week – God knows what she’ll make of it.  So at the end of the session, a copy of D&D ended in the hands of an enthusiastic new (and female) player, which is what this is all about.  I am awesome (Tavis is more awesome, but gets second billing on this).
  • Joan initially was disappointed that there were no “normal girl” miniatures, but at the end of the session said, “I wish I could keep this, I LOVE her” in regard to her black-leather-clad dual-wielding female Doomguard.
  • “Okay, as you’re travelling along the old bridge road, you see a strange little lizard man, about 3 feet high.  He is astride a giant weasel, and looks to be having a nap in the saddle.  What do you do?”  “Kill it!  “Um, kill it.”  “Ooh, ooh, I attack it and then kill it!”  “Let’s just kill it!”  “Okay . . . Roger, what do you want to do?”  “I guess . . . I chop off its head, and then kill it.”
  • In the process of killing it: “I chop out its eyes!”  “Whoa cool!!  It can’t see!!”  “Nice one!”  “Yesssss!”  (twenty minutes later) “In the dungeon, you find Sir Justin.  The monsters have chopped out his eyes, leaving him blind.”  “That’s horrible!!”
  • All of these kids were 8 years old.  They showed strong ability to do D&D-type reasoning: “It sounds like this route is very direct, but dangerous.  Let’s try an indirect route and get there a different way. . . . Let’s stick together so the monsters don’t get us . . . This key probably unlocks a dungeon cell, let’s take it along with us. . . . This monster invited us to dinner: it must mean he’s planning to eat us!”  So all of these signals from the DM are immediately understood correctly.  I delivered these signals in a slightly exaggerated fashion, but the children had no problems understanding the big idea and how stuff fit together entirely on their own.
  • RaQuel said, “My second sword is also a cell phone.”

The idea is that we’d get a whole bunch of kids at the elementary school to role-play, using the Dungeons & Dragons brand as a bait-and-switch.  The idea would be to teach newcomers that these types of games exist, and Dungeons & Dragons is a fun thing to do.  And for kids who are already D&D players (there are a few in this bunch), we’d show them how to do things in a more Old Skool kind of way–which is to say, just imagining stuff and having fun, without worrying about “builds,” rules, feats, and other stand-ins for status-mongering.

Some of these kids are new.  Several of them that I was playing with had no prior role-playing experience, and were very frightened and worried about trying something totally brand new.  So I did a lot of work reassuring them that, “This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine.”  We would play as a team (“Yes!!  I’m so glad we don’t have to compete!”) and while unexpected things might happen, you’re never out of the game.

Tavis home-brewed some super-simplified version of 4e which was still too complicated for me to understand, much less teach.  My bunch played pretty fast and loose: roll + stat bonus = hope for the best.  Basically, my version of it was a D&D 4e Skill Check type system, just without skills, and 5 kids managed to accomplish 5 encounters (with 2 combats) in just over 40 minutes.

Maybe some day soon I will post up the little adventure I drafted, if I can figure out how to do it.

30 Responses to “super awesome lets pretend time (pt 1)”

  1. 1 Jack Colby
    September 24, 2010 at 4:53 am

    5 encounters in 40 minutes… when we played 4E we were getting about one battle per hour or three. Nice to know the kids got a sense of it moving along at a good clip.

    Sounds like your version of D&D is better for teaching new players than what WotC is selling. I think the simplified skill check style system is the way to go. Good job!

  2. 2 biopunk
    September 24, 2010 at 6:24 am


    I love the concept of ‘consequences’ that make a child go: “Wait a minute, we could get eaten here…”

    Best wishes for you guys and your future adventurers!

  3. September 24, 2010 at 7:38 am

    That is great. And great also to have understanding parents & school who don’t freak out at play magic, violence and monsters.

  4. September 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    @Jack Colby,

    Jack, our method of doing an encounter went kind of like this:

    DUNGEON MASTER: “(Presents obstacle)”
    DUNGEON MASTER: “Whoa, let’s talk in the initiative order.”
    DUNGEON MASTER: “Okay, ___________, roll this round dice and add your ________ score. You want to get higher than an (8, 11, 14). Okay, you (succeeded / failed). What does that look like?”

    Usually by the time all 5 kids did their rolls, it was enough to overcome the obstacle and then some. The combats didn’t use a grid-map, and I gave some of the monsters more hit points so that everyone would have a chance to attack.

    This really wasn’t D&D 4e by any stretch of the imagination, but it was easy enough for 8 year olds to do. The main “mechanics” was me making sure that every kid had a chance to contribute, and keeping an eye on the social situation and each kid’s emotional vibe to make sure I catered to them a little.

    Tavis’s group included more of the kids who “knew” D&D already, and I think they would have had little patience for my off-brand nonsense.

  5. September 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I also asked the players in my group to narrate failure: “OK, we know your rogue is an incredibly skillful acrobat, but something went wrong. What was it?” Often they got further into this than I might: “OK, I’m going to make a Con check to see if I recover from the fumes that made me miss my jump check last round.”

    I did indeed have some tension between my desire to create super-awesome-let’s-pretend and the existing knowledge of the mechanics in my group. I wanted to say “you can be as metal as you want, but it’s not allowed to be [more metal than you]. (Link not safe for work or kids!) Sometimes the rules were my friends in this: yes, you can be a swarm of giant butterflies, that’s awesome! But you still only get one standard action in a turn; you don’t get to do one thing with each butterfly, because the fundamental resource we’re conserving is how much spotlight you get.

    Next time I think I’ll introduce some mechanics-rules as a carrot – maybe class features, which the experienced kids were wanting – and some social-rules as a stick. James, I heard you telling kids that when it’s someone’s turn, others shouldn’t interrupt, and I certainly spent a lot of time (maybe not enough) saying “don’t tell other people what to do when it’s their action”. The kids need to internalize this lesson if it’s going to improve their social dynamic when there aren’t adults around to nag them about it. Maybe we should recite this at the beginning of class like a mantra!

  6. September 24, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Fantastic! I love reading posts like this, as I hope to introduce my own boys to the game as soon as they can read.

  7. 7 Ed
    September 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    You guys rock!I’m surprised you had some kids that were experienced players at that age.

  8. September 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Ed, they were the now-6th graders from the [birthday party] I donated to my school auction. They got started because one of them saw a 3E Starter Set on the shelves of a Waldenbooks and got an uncle to buy it for him. My son is also experienced, but that’s from handing down rather than teaching himself.

  9. September 24, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    That does indeed sound super awesome.

  10. September 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Congrats guys! Looks like everything went off extra swimmingly.

    “My second sword is also a cell phone.”

    This is a great title for a kiddie-rpg blog or an awesome piece of outsider art.

  11. September 24, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    That line is even better if you know the girl in question! I think this is an important insight into gender differences in the fantasy content of fantasy role-playing games…

    It went off extra-swimmingly only in that we had prepared for a scenario in which James hid behind me as all hell broke loose. At one point one of my kids asked: “Are you sweating?” Not as in, like, “are you nervous”, but “do my eyes deceive me that big drops of perspiration are rolling down your forehead?”

    Another interesting statistic: 20% of our students are African-American. (One of the many virtues of small sample sizes are that they make stats easy).

  12. September 24, 2010 at 7:32 pm


    “It went off extra-swimmingly only in that we had prepared for a scenario in which James hid behind me as all hell broke loose.”

    And lo, it did come to pass!

  13. September 24, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Moral of the story: let us ransack the Citadel of Defenseless Babies pronto, because after just a few years they’re going to be a handful.

  14. 14 Naked
    September 24, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    1. Does anyone else sweat like a pig when they DM? Or was it just this one time?

    2. Interesting about the African American ratios. Completely anecdotal, of course, but I am less surprised about young girls wanting to play than black kids and I can’t say why. I have no idea if there is a real reason not a lot of black kids played in our generation, but like you’ll see most anyone with skateboards nowadays (even outside NYC), those straits of social restriction seem to have loosened.

    I’m reminded of telling a Lebanese friend who grew up in Saudi Arabia but a bit here and a bit there that I started playing D&D again and he had no frame of reference other than the usual ‘you’re a nerd’ giggles. He fits the profile of one who used to play, as does his best friend, a black guy from Detroit (all about 35), who likewise has utterly no experience with the games. Otherwise their interests track very closely with mine.

    I understand not playing D&D even in ritzy American-type schools in Jeddah or Beirut, but what was going on with our black friends in the late ’70s and ’80s?

  15. September 24, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    @Naked: Ed plays with the Red Box on occasion. My friend Hollis was my very first Dungeon Master back in 1985, and he was black. Julia Ellingboe [http://www.stone-baby.com/wordpress/] is a game designer who is black. When I was living in Philadelphia, a whole bunch of African-Americans (adults and kids) would play Magic: the Gathering (or some other CCG) in the Gallery at 5:00 on Fridays. Generalizing to people I haven’t met, black gamers are totally out there, Ta-Nehisi Coates [www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates] and Vin Diesel being prominent examples.

    I mean, I agree with you that most of the large RPG meet-up’s I’ve seen (DexCon, Recess, D&D Meet-Up) seem very white, but I’m not sure any generalizing is possible.

  16. September 24, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Ta-Nehisi Coates did a post about black nerds that got a lot of responses; can’t fing it now but [this is interesting]. Neutral Ground used to get an impressively diverse crowd, most of them playing Magic. I remember going to my first Gen Con post-Magic and being impressed by what a more representative-looking crowd it brought in, people with baseball caps and all.

  17. 17 Naked
    September 24, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Again, my experiences are both anecdotal — I grew up in a southwestern city without a lot of African Americans — and somewhat stereotypical. No doubt there are many gamers from a lot of different backgrounds, but I don’t think you can escape how most RPGs cater to white(ish) males from a certain Eurocentric educational background and perhaps a certain socio-economic background. This is perhaps native to the game itself, in some ways. I don’t want to blow this up into a treatise — I know I’d fail, if I have a thesis at all — but my concern is rather, what happens when these girls and the rest of these kids grow up and any of these differences, sadly, become more important?

    There’s been plenty of talk of how chainmail bikinis don’t really help girls stick around and maybe having the dark-skinned elves be the nasty and evil drow doesn’t help, either. I’m certainly not imagining things: Tavis himself the group’s diversity, but I think things have changed in a much wider sense the last twenty-five years and your group is emblematic. Hopefully more people can enjoy the open gaming background James has enjoyed.

  18. September 24, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    I agree that things are changing (and also that NYC is different; although the first black person I ever met was at a Champions game at a mini-convention in Stamford, CT, so I’ve seen some diversity even back in the suburban ’80s). Recruiting new players & increasing the diversity of RPGs go hand in hand.

    Perhaps our first generation of trainees will founder in a world of chainmail bikinis and organized play rules-lawyering, but eventually they will win out (if only because all us old grognards will go off to our RPG Retirement Home, likely in Wisconsin).

  19. 19 Naked
    September 24, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I think that’s pretty damn exciting (not us dying).

  20. September 24, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Yes, I also am excited about the RPG Retirement Home.

  21. September 24, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    I dunno, Tavis – you keep mentioning this retirement home idea, like it’s some kind of talisman against old age and death. Death sounds like it would be interesting, not to be dreaded – I finally get to break character.

  22. 22 kiltedyaksman
    September 25, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Sorry if I missed it, but did you indicate why you are teaching them 4E instead of B/X? Just curious about the reasoning.

  23. September 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    @kiltedyaksman, three of the kids in the class are part of the group from the [birthday party] and already play 4E. They are champing at the bit to use all the bells and whistles of their existing 4E characters. I wasn’t sure we’d have enough kids to make the class happen – the school wants at least 5 per class – so I didn’t want to risk turning these kids off by saying “we’re going to be playing Labyrinth Lord, it’s *like* D&D but…”

    Also part of the DIY goal is to be able to join the larger community of D&D players, most of whom are going to be playing 4E. Conceivably this is setting them up for disappointment, since few people in my experience play 4E the way I’m teaching it – although some have said [the designers intended them to]. But I think some people play B/X in a you-can’t-do-that way too; I want to teach them an approach that they can use to have fun themselves & maybe open the eyes of other groups they play with to a wider range of possibilities.

    @James, I think that eagerness to embrace death & roll up a new character is why you and I have such high PC mortality rates.

  24. 24 cr0m
    September 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    @James, there is something beautiful about your love of shiny new PCs translating into a lack of fear about death IRL. Now that is a concrete benefit to roleplaying.

    Thanks for the link to the editorial in the Atlantic. It’s an interesting parallel, and I learned something about fraternal organizations too.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2010

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