What Made for a Successful D&D Birthday Party

Strangely less popular among nine-year-old boys than the unicorn.

This past weekend James and I ran a D&D birthday party for seven boys, all eight or nine years old. We had two and  a half hours allotted, so here’s how we broke it out:

1) Kids arrived and settled in. They all knew one another from school (third grade). Most were new to D&D, although one was in our afterschool class last semester, one is new to it this semester, and one was my son who I have not stuffed quite as full of D&D lore as James believes because the fanatic pursuit of Pokemon lore he shares with the birthday boy competes for brain-space.

2) Kids chose which color dice they want and which miniature will be their hero, both of which they got to keep as “goodie bags” from the party. We didn’t have them do any further character creation (all heroes had the same stats behind the screen) except for name. Lots of the kids who hadn’t played before had problems coming up with a name, so I asked if they wanted to roll for one. I didn’t actually have a table, I just used the time they were rolling the dice to think them up.

3) The scenario was that the heroes set forth from their stronghold to explore the surrounding wilderness in search of magical items to claim and Pokemon to capture. We had the kids construct the wilderness using Heroscape hexes, and the stronghold using wooden Kapla blocks.

4) While eating pizza, kids chose which one of the magic items their hero wanted to start with. James and I designed 14 these to define roles without having to explain classes (although many kids decided “my guy is a mage” or whatever anyways, either through previous exposure to D&D or videogames with class archetypes), and to do the D&D thing of having pre-defined powers that let you do a particular awesome thing and then find ways to try to apply it to whatever situation you wind up in. This worked really well with kids at this age and experience level; some examples were the Sword of Sharpness and the Wand of Wonder. Not every item got used in play but it really helped establish the tone of the game and made the kids feel that their heroes were chock-full of awesome.

5) The kids divided up into teams – one rides the unicorns that the stronghold has in its stables, the other group flies out on its griffons. They got to keep the miniatures for these too, and I used blu-tak to glom their hero miniature onto their steed’s base. James predicted that nine-year-old boys would shun the unicorns, which was a problem because this was meant to be the way we split them into manageable groups for each of us to DM. We gave the birthday boy the choice of which team he wanted to captain, and when he chose griffons that further stacked the deck in their favor. But in the end, we had four unicorn-riders and only three griffon aeronauts. James and I had decided that we’d try to counterbalance the unicorn’s potential pink-factor by saying that they were more reliable than the risky, hard-to-control griffons (as his PC had experienced first-hand in Delta’s superb Corsairs of Medero scenario at Recess). I don’t know if this was what made the difference, but I had a ton of fun roleplaying the balky griffons.

7) James and I then each ran a hexcrawl for our respective teams. We chose this because coming up with a more planned scenario would have required coordination, whereas a  purely procedural move to a hex,encounter roll, reaction roll, combat or negotiation, morale, etc. was something we could each wing. I got lucky with my first wandering monster – a griffon, which I decided was a riderless mount like one of my group’s. They used their horn of plenty to produce some horse meat with which to befriend this new griffon, and I had a great time roleplaying the reaction of the existing griffons to the interloper and to this bountiful cascade of meat. Some of the riders failed their control rolls, so one hero was wrestling for control of the meat-spewing horn with his mount while another was carried along on a dive after the steaks falling into the sea. The thing that really paid off in this encounter was that I decided that the newcomer’s saddlebags held maps to the likely locations of two of the magic items, the horn of the valkyries (which I’ll post about separately) and the cloak of shadows (which was being worn by a hobbit thief, who coughed it up after one of the kids successfully had his griffon swallow said halfling).  Choosing between which of these to go after, and then being able to count hexes to the location and plot a course, fortuitiously gave direction to the hexcrawl. Without this, James felt like his group was a little more aimless, so having or finding a partial treasure-map is definitely something to do for next time.

8) Cake, ice cream, and singing “Happy Birthday”. I was glad the parents remembered this part! Maybe our party services should include D&D themed cakes so that we don’t forget the traditionals. I was glad to see the kids were having so much fun they weren’t asking “when will we have the cake?” every five minutes like at many birthday parties I’ve taken my son to, but I would have caught hell from him if we left and then he realized there hadn’t been any.

9) Properly hopped up on sugar, the two teams return to their stronghold and find it’s been taken over by intruders! As they were eating their cupcakes, we set up the miniatures for this. A silver dragon and the skeletons he’d created by sowing his teeth into a field crouched on top of the block-castle, and fielded an army of lizard-men who were advancing on the siege organized by the gargoyles who’d been left in charge of the stronghold and the dragon-hunting Lord who had been befriended during another random encounter (which I used to foreshadow this encounter; he reported that the silver dragon was not sleeping in its lair like it should be, bum bum ba BUM!) . The kids knocked down these miniatures, and their own block-castle, by firing discs at it using crossbows and catapults. James and I were kept busy going “arrr!” and narrating the battle reports while sliding the disks back at the kids (having more ammunition would have been good!). This made for a dramatic climax story-wise, and as actual play it was really nice to let the kids do all the yelling, throwing stuff, and bashing miniatures that we spend so much effort in the afterschool class trying to prevent.

Doing all of this was enough fun for me that I’ve set up a company, Adventuring Parties LLC, to offer birthday parties, bachelor parties, events, etc. Its website is active now although still a little skeletal – click the link to check it out, or just email tavis@adventuringparties.com if you are in the NYC area and have an event you want us to do, or if you’re a Dungeon Master elsewhere and would like referrals to do parties in your area.


36 Responses to “What Made for a Successful D&D Birthday Party”

  1. 1 mikemonaco
    February 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    This is seriously awesome. Introducing new players to the game, check. Normalizing this foolishness to non-players, check. Minis, check. Where were you guys when I was in third grade?!?

    The small business sideline is an awesome idea too. Best of luck!

  2. February 11, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Good thinking on all points. :D
    –It sound like everyone had a very good time. :)

    I wish you well on the side-business. :)

  3. February 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Fascinating read… My boy is .5 years old, but maybe in a few years I’ll give this kind of thing a swing. It’s interesting comparing your report with Paladin in Citadel’s recent post. I hope you get a chance to run more birthday parties. I’m looking forward to reading about them.

  4. February 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks, everyone!

    Paladin in Citadel did some awesome things I wish I’d thought of, like the item cards, and some things I did think of and then learned didn’t work, like Tower of the Stargazer. We did a picnic where we played Borshak’s Lair, a Dungeoneer adventure with old-school player-skill puzzles, with the sixth-grade kids. So there was a dark pit. One of them cleverly sent a pet down it to discover it teleports you to an airless box with no visible means of escape and the skeletons of those who perished there before. Immediately everyone is pushing past one another to be the first to jump into the teleport pit of death, perhaps because they thought the skeletons were the kind you fight. Kids like battles!

  5. February 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    That is just frickin’ awesome. I’ve been introducing D&D to my 5 and 3 year old boys (mostly the 5-year-old with the 3-year-old tagging along). I’m going to save this post since we have already done some roleplaying at previous superhero and pirate birthday parties and I can totally see him asking for ma D&D party when he turns 6. When we play “D&D” right now, we use the “everybody has the same stats” approach, mostly since they don’t have the attention span to go through chargen just yet. Works great.

  6. 6 Naked Samurai
    February 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    So there was a dark pit. One of them cleverly sent a pet down it to discover it teleports you to an airless box with no visible means of escape and the skeletons of those who perished there before. Immediately everyone is pushing past one another to be the first to jump into the teleport pit of death, perhaps because they thought the skeletons were the kind you fight. Kids like battles!

    Ha! Ha! Kids are idiots!

  7. 7 Charlatan
    February 11, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    How did they get out of the pit after they fought the skeletons?

    Don’t be coy, we all know you let them fight the skeletons.

  8. February 12, 2011 at 7:21 am

    Great recap. You definitely chose a better approach than I, although I had the good fortune of having 12 year olds, rather than 9 year olds. It was a little easier to get our party attendees to sit still for more than 10 minutes to play through a pre-packaged adventure!

  9. February 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Once again I find that I have the EXACT same interests as 8 year olds…

  10. February 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    @Risus, I think you could do this very well for superheroes with Heroclix (or for pirates with that game where you punch out and build ships from like bubble gum packs). I’ll be interested to hear how it goes with 6 year olds- I’d recommend having lots of side activities like drawing your superhero’s fortress going on in parallel, to allow for moving around a lot with a short attention span. This worked welll for us even with older kids they bounced back and forth from castle and landscape building, and kids from one DM’s group would come over and report on the natural 20 they just rolled etc.

    @Naked: I like battles too, which is why my old-school characters die all the time!

    @Charlatan: One kid stayed fixated on the checkerboard floor at the entrance, which in the adventure as written is just a red herring. He kept trying to figure that out while no one else was interested in figuring out the cube they’d trapped themselves in, so when floor kid was like “ah I know you have to step on the tiles in this order” I said yeah you got it, and elsewhere in the dungeon the cube opens up! No skeletons were battled, and now when I tell kids about corpses I’m careful to say “dead bodies that are too beat up to come back to life and attack you.”

    @Paladin, this one was more successful than the one I did for sixth-graders (in the “D&D party, kids’ birthday subtype” post) – that one was still a hit with the kids, but this one went better because I had more experience with the party format but also because the kids had less experience with D&D. The older guys already knew the 4E rules so I felt like I had to engage with adding attack bonuses and all that, whereas it was more fun to just say ‘you hit if you roll an 8 or better’ (which is what 4E boils down to anyway once you play the solo character optimization game of meeting expectations for your level – not fun for a party).

    @mordicai, capturing Pokemons while riding unicorns is really fun! I find the creative limitations of roleplaying a creature that can only say it’s own name in different intonations very inspirational.


  11. 11 Jessica
    February 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    This is awesome. I am nowhere near NYC, but am possibly helping out with a girl scout troop. I see no reason why I couldn’t do a similar thing with a bunch of girls.

  12. 12 Necheshyra
    February 12, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    I love this junior game idea. I have yet to relate the awesomeness of traditional RPG to my daughter and nephews (10-14). I think I will make a similar game for my next bday party and see what my guests (parent & kid teams?) think.

  13. 13 Jason
    February 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Was it DnD 3.5 or 4.0?

  14. 14 Jason
    February 12, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Was it based on DnD 3.5 or 4.0?

  15. February 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    @Jessica, we had three girls in our afterschool class last semester who thought D&D was the greatest game ever. If there was a Girl Scout D&D badge, my mission in life would be complete.

    @Nechesyra, that sounds great! You might have the parents and kids on different teams if you go that way – I’ve seen that kids sometimes have trouble asking for the spotlight if their parents are there too, and that adults might find it easier to be playful and silly (essential D&D ingredients) in their own grownup context. Then both teams could reunite for a final battle and talk about their groups’ experiences afterwards.

    @Jason, this party was like D&D 0.0 – I used the random encounter tables, reaction rolls, and morale checks from Original D&D (1974) but left out many of its rules like classes, levels, AC, or hit points. For things like the Horn of Plenty, its ‘rules’ were just an index card that said you can use this to make any kind of food or drink, eating its food can heal you, feeding a monster can make it your friend, but monsters may be attracted to the delicious smell of the horn.

    We use 4E in the afterschool class because some of the older kids are already playing it in their own groups, but there’s some tension between their desire to show off their mastery of the full-on PHB I, II, & III ruleset, the new kids who just want start playing without having to read the manual, and my idea that Essentials will be simpler to teach. We’re finding that what works best is to say yes to everything – you can have a detailed character sheet, or you can just say that you have the Shoggy power that makes a mystic violet disintegrating mist – while adding our own stuff to the mix that provides shared structure, like a great spell James made available called “contact weirdo” that lets the group ask five questions of your choice of an angel, a demon, or a space alien.

  16. 16 jeremiah
    February 13, 2011 at 3:59 am

    please do a small montage video of this. i would love to see how this is done. i’ve never played DnD before but I’ve always wanted to. turns out the hardest part for me has been finding people who want to play. but since i have children, i have a captive audience. we can teach each other.

  17. 17 grys
    February 14, 2011 at 12:25 am

    My kids (4 – 3 boys & a girl) all started with Talisman around the age of 3-8 (the age diff) & proceeded to Heroquest very quickly. In the end I wrote simplistic adventures & used the Heroscape minatures (& others) & photocopied & laminated the Heroscape board for random tile laying. We played those game on & off for several years until pc games, girl friends & boyfriends took over.

    I will always remember one of the boys being turned to gold (Midas like) through greed – & then being dragged around by the rest of the troop as a potential trade in for items etc. In the end he was used for everything from a battering ram to an ornament. I kept him in that state for almost two weeks (until I judged that he had learnt his lesson about greed).

    These days we still occassionaly drag out the Talisman or Decent or Pulp Adventures – & the kids (mostly in their 20’s now) still ask me to script a D&D like adventure for them…

  18. February 14, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Awesome work. Love your mindful adjustment of the system to your audience.

  19. 19 RyanB
    February 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    SO awesome – wow! Great ideas all around, and capitalization to boot.

  20. 21 Alison
    May 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    I was thinking of doing something like this for my son’s 10th b-day. We’ve been playing D%D as a family for 4 years now. I think it’s time to introduce D&D to my son’s friends. They all love video games, Star Wars and Legos. It’s a natural progression to role gaming. I think I might do more live action though, something more like LARP. I’m definately using some of your ideas. I love the consistant stats and the single magic item per player.

  21. May 23, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    i think to make the birthday game/activity more attractive, i’m suggest hire or ask your cheerful familiy member as a MC (master of ceremonies) that can communicate with child
    thank you

  22. 23 TRacy
    January 1, 2015 at 12:20 am

    I love to do this as a adult party

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    September 29, 2018 at 10:53 pm

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2011

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