The great blog on raising the next generation of nerds, GeekDad, has a post of mine today with advice on “How To Introduce a Kid to D&D Before He Goes Into Surgery“. That title is appropriate enough because it evokes the circumstances I had in mind when I gave this advice, but for a role-playing-savvy audience it might more specifically be called How To Move Past the Rules As Quickly as Possible and Break Through to Improv Psychodrama.
To unpack that from back to front, the reason I felt it was appropriate to reach for psychodrama was the circumstances. Here’s a kid who’s about to undergo a life-changing, potentially lethal experience, and what he wants to do beforehand is to play D&D for the first time. I’m never going to deny the life-affirming virtues of a simple, procedural, rules-bound dungeon crawl; but it seems to me like what this 11-year-old is reaching for is a chance not only to get outside himself into a world of fantasy, but to confront some particular fears and deal with issues of life and death, risk and survival while he’s there.
D&D is for sure a good vehicle for exploring this material, but I felt that it would emerge most strongly & truly by getting outside the confines of a pre-planned adventure and into player-driven improv. There’s a description of a psychologist using play therapy in the urban fantasy novel Minions of the Moon that really stuck with me – the idea that I retained being that when you set out a bunch of action figures and just start playing within this imaginary framework, if the kids’ alter ego reaches the treasure chest they’ve been seeking and you ask “what’s inside the chest?” the answer is going to be the thing that’s really on my mind.
The reason I talk mostly about getting past the rules, but not what to do once you’re into the improv, is that I was originally writing this advice for Edward Einhorn. When the father of the 11-year-old in question approached Edward about DMing this D&D game, I was the guy he thought to ask because I’d recently interviewed Edward about his excellent theatrical adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. That conversation became a lengthy discussion about role-playing games and how they relate to & differ from other kinds of performance art, so he knew that I knew D&D. For the same reason I knew that doing improv and letting narrative emerge from the kids playing their characters was going to be second nature for him. What seemed important to get across was that getting some level of familiarity with the rules should be seen as a necessary pre-condition to gaining the kids’ trust in the imaginary framework, without letting them become an end in themselves.
Finally, let’s talk about why I think it’s important in general to move past the rules. In the comments to the Boing Boing post about my previous post about gaming for kids, shadowfirebird said “How was this D&D? It was certainly role-playing, and I heartily approve. But.”
My experience has been that there’s basically no way to teach kids the full corpus of D&D rules (of any edition) in the time and attention span you’ve got available. It’s something they have to learn for themselves, by poring endlessly over arcane tomes and hashing out the implicatios through many hours of play. What you need to do is get them to hear the music, the sound of valkryies’ horns and axes clanging on shields, so that they’ll be inspired to invest that effort. Going as light on the rules as possible at first helps get kids hooked; once they’re D&D geeks there’ll be time enough for the geeky pleasures of rules-mastery.
I’m hoping with all my being that the kid Edward is going to be running this game for will pull through the surgery just fine and have a long, healthy life ahead of him to devote to rules-mastery or whatever else brings him joy.