Posts Tagged ‘kids



30
Mar
11

GeekDad: Getting Past Rules When DMing for Kids

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 kidsshadowfirebird 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.

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21
Mar
11

D&D Kids Articles at WotC

On the official Dungeons & Dragons website, Wizards of the Coast is publishing a series of articles by Uri Kurlianchik, whose day job is teaching D&D to kids at Israeli schools and community centers. I’ve long heard that there is a thriving afterschool-D&D scene, and these articles are the most in-depth glimpses from that scene that I’ve seen in English. (Due to my low Intelligence score, I am unable to read any other languages.)

Character Generation talks about getting started when playing with kids. Interesting quote:

I recommend using this stage to give each player’s character a pet. Kids love pets. You should love them too because they create more opportunities for roleplaying, can save the group when the situation seems desperate, and add flavor and a chance for some goofy jokes to your game (passive-aggressive cat anyone?).

D&D Kids: Combat Encounters talks about battles, a subject near and dear to the hearts of the kids in our afterschool program as well. Interesting quote:

Younger kids (ages 7-8) often get very involved in fast-paced and exciting games. This is a good thing, but it is important to ensure they don’t get carried away and lose sight of reality. I recently joined the respectable club of people who had a shoe thrown in their face. The target wasn’t me, per se, but rather an evil wizard who taunted one of the heroes. However, it was not the wizard who took a purple shoeprint to the face, but me. So be careful—always be watchful for kids who get overly excited, and make sure to curb their enthusiasm. You should also be vigilant for friction between kids in and out of game. Disagreements in-game can lead to bad blood in real life. Bad blood leads to arguments, which can lead to physical violence. Strangle this demon in the cradle by spilling cold water on young minds that get too hot.

D&D Kids: Rewards talks about the fun stuff about D&D – what the author sees as the carrot. Interesting quote:

For me, it is fascinating to see how a group of young children deal with the responsibility of managing nations and shaping the fates of thousands. Some kids really enjoy it. One group in particular has designed a new religion, wrote a bible for it, trained evangelists to spread it across the land, and eventually raised a fundamentalist oligarchy of some 15,000 humans, elves, and dwarves with towns named after heroes. This religion now has a Facebook group and a fair amount of likes. Also, it makes the Spanish Inquisition look cute in comparison….

D&D Kids: Punishment talks about negative reinforcements as a tool in teaching D&D, and has raised some internet kerfuffle. Interesting quote:

Some kids are not serious. Some kids don’t come to play, but rather to socialize. Some kids do want to play, but their heads are up in the clouds. Some, likeBatman’s Joker, are a force of pure chaos. As a DM, it’s your duty to deal with them lest they deal with you (and your game!). The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Without a very good reason, don’t remove more than 50 XP at once—you want to warn the players, not cripple their characters. Severe transgressions, such as reading your DM notes, damage to people and property, or highly inappropriate remarks should be punished harshly. In rare cases, even the extreme measure of removing levels can be used, although this will often be a prelude to kicking the offender out of the group.

I hope to find time to say more about these articles soon; for now I’ll just point you to them as a very interesting parallel to the classes James & I are doing for kids the same age and at least theoretically using the same system (although both we and Uri diverge from canonical 4E in many places).

19
Mar
11

spells for the after school class

Explanation: Tavis and I are running an after school Dungeons & Dragons program for some elementary school kids.  Most of our prep consists of wishing we’d done more prep while on the subway to class.  But I made up this list of spells for the Magic-User.

Every morning, Magic-Users can cast different spells! Roll the d12 a number of times equal to your level, and look on the chart for the spell matching that number. If you roll a spell once, you can only cast it one time a day. If you rolled a spell more than once, you can cast it that number of times per day. So, if you rolled Fire Ball twice, you could cast it twice in one day, but not three times.

 

Roll Spell What Does the Spell Do?
1 Animate Dead You create a number of zombies equal to your level, who obey your orders.
2 Anti-Magic Shell For 1 hour a shimmering aura around you blocks all magic, including yours.
3 Charm Person Unless the target resists with Will, he or she becomes your friend for 1 day.
4 Contact Weirdo Ask an angel, demon, or space alien several yes-or-no questions ( # = level ).
5 Disintegrate Point at a target. Unless it resists with Fortitude, it is destroyed completely.
6 Fire Ball Everyone within 20 feet of the target must roll Reflex or take 5d6 damage.
7 Haste For 1 fight, you and your friends move double-fast and attack twice a turn.
8 Hold Portal Magically seals a doorway, trapdoor, etc. For 10 minutes, no one can open it.
9 Locate Object Name an object: this spell will point you in the right direction to find it.
10 Phantasmal Force You create an illusion that lasts for 10 minutes. Enemies resist with Will.
11 Polymorph Self You can take the shape of any animal for up to 1 hour, but you cannot talk.
12 Wall of Ice Your breath becomes a huge icy surface – a wall, a bridge, a dome . . .

 

Magic-User Research

Each time you gain a level, you can spend one thousand gold coins to research a new spell! The spell can be anything you want. This new spell takes the place of another one on the list. You can choose what spell it replaces. (Example: I don’t like Hold Portal, so my new spell replaces it.) If you don’t have one thousand gold coins, you’ll have to find more treasure or persuade people to fund your work.

Here are ideas for research. Ancient books mention these spells, but I don’t know what they do!

  • Turn to Slime
  • Perfume of Trickery
  • Zolobachai’s All-Powerful Laxative
  • Contagious Dancing
  • Maldoor’s Lesser Apocalypse
  • Hazart’s Infinite Sandwich
  • Speak with Ghost Sharks
  • Levitate Head
  • Turn Light to Amber
  • Summon Monkey Butler
  • Xindi’s Cupcake of Insanity



Commentary: random selection isn’t just done for its own sake, but rather to force the children (especially little boys fixated on killing things) to think laterally.  The best part of playing a Magic-User in a “real” game is the Eureka! moment when you figure a great use for a seemingly lame spell.  The kids, in particular, are in love with Wall of Ice.  At one point in Tavis’s game, they proposed using Wall of Ice to create an airtight bubble to survive an ICBM flight outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

04
Mar
11

Illusionism and Wandering Monsters

Proof that riding griffons is old-school, from the back cover of G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King

At the D&D birthday party James and I ran earlier this month, while the kids in my group were flying around on their stronghold’s stable of griffons, they rolled a wandering monster check that proved to be another griffon. I decided that this one had been the mount of an adventurer like themselves; bloodstains on its empty saddle indicated that its former rider had met a bad end. In the griffon’s saddlebags, they found a map showing the location of two treasures, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. After some excited discussion, they decided to set off after the horn.

As they flew their griffons up the hill where the map said the horn of the valkries was hidden, the players rolled another wandering monster. (A result of 1 meant it was on the OD&D encounter tables, whereas a 6 would have meant the Pokemon encounter charts my son drew up for the campaign we play together & which we also used for this birthday party). This chart yielded a group of 20 elves, which I described as using ropes to climb up the hill. A reaction roll said that the elves were unfriendly, so when the birthday boy decided to fly closer and see what the elves were up to he was met by a volley of long-range arrow fire. Three of these arrows struck and left him near death, so he flew back to his comrades to be healed. The players decided that the elves were out to get the horn of the valkyries, but that rather than tangling with them directly, the best revenge would be to beat them to the treasure.

Hearing the player’s interpretation of events, I decided to “make it so”. Adopting their take on what a wandering monster meant gave me the chance to add time pressure and a rival for their search (which itself arose from a wandering monster). I think it’s often going to be the case that going with the players’ ideas will yield better results than your own.

Basically, everyone at the table is working to interpret the events that are generated through play and fold them into an integrated narrative.  The DM sees this as “how do I take the few bits of information handed to me by these random events and turn them into an interesting & challenging situation?”. The players see it as “how do we unravel the clues handed to us by the DM and figure out what’s really going on?”. Since these are functionally identical, the side with the most brains working on the problem is usually going to reach the best solution.

Despite the advantages of doing so, there’s part of me that feels like it’s cheating to turn what the players think is going on into what is really happening in the game world.   In thinking about why that’s so, I reached for the concept of  illusionism, which John H. Kim’s RPG Theory Glossary defines as “a term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control.”

Stage illusions are fun because the magician and audience are working together to create a suspension of disbelief

The first part of this definition implies that the player’s decisions don’t matter; the DM has control over the outcome and will make it so no matter what the players do. I’ll talk about this illusion of choice in a separate post. For now it should suffice to point out that using wandering monsters (and related techniques that can make randomness highly consequential) is a way for DMs to relinquish a substantial amount of control over the outcome of the game.

What we’re talking about here is the opposite, an illusion of not being in control. Adopting the player’s ideas of “what’s really going on” to provide meaning for a random event actually gives them a lot of say in what happens next. But this control is covert, to use Ron Edward’s classification of the factors involved in illusionism. The kids at the birthday party weren’t thinking “we’re shaping the story to make these elves our antagonists;” if anything, they were thinking “we’ve cleverly discerned the DM’s secret plan!”

As a DM, I don’t want to dispel the illusion that I have a secret plan, because that would take away the pleasure that players get when they feel they’ve figured it out. But is this deception wrong? Should I work to make explicit what I see as the implicit advantage of wandering monsters: that I get to be just another participant in figuring out the story, not its all-knowing mastermind?

A discussion among the players in my White Sandbox campaign indicates that for adults at least, this is already apparent. In planning what to do next after a session that was strongly shaped by wandering monsters, MikeLyons wrote:

After the defeat of the balrogs and en route to the volcano, the party flew over a group of primitive humans. It was a random encounter, and everyone understandably filed it in the “Useless Information” folder. Often wandering monsters have no narrative import, but perhaps a few do. Granted, I’ve missed several sessions, so I can’t successfully bring together all the occasions that our swords & sorcery adventure has crossed over into the prehistoric adventure genre (I wasn’t even there for the allosaurus that chomped Chrystos’ robo-liger), but perhaps the group has overlooked a clue. What if there’s a nearby gate to the lost world of pterodactyl riders? I’d visit that world through that gate if I could find it.

foner replied:

You make an interesting point. One of the things I love about the sandbox nature of the game is that we have so much control over what happens. If we decide to track down and encounter the primitive humans, they will be important to some degree. Maybe they aren’t right now, but the more we try to figure them out, the more Tavis will be forced to flesh them out. They might not have cosmic significance, but they will be important to our story if we want them to be. (They might still be important even if we choose not to encounter them, but we won’t know that till later, and that’s part of the fun, too.)

I remember reading about a study that was conducted, IIRC, at Cal State North Beach in the ’70s. The investigators had a stage magician visit two different Introduction to Psychology courses (then as now, a fertile source of test subjects). Each class saw the magician do the same mentalist act. The difference was that in the first class, the professor introduced the magician as “a person who is going to demonstrate some abilities that science is working to understand;” in the second class, he was introduced as “a stage magician who will demonstrate tricks that look like extra-sensory perception.” When surveyed afterwards, a surprisingly high percentage of people in both classes believed that the magician had ESP. One of the comments from the second class said “he might think he’s just doing magic tricks, but really there’s no way someone could do that without using ESP.”

People want to believe that illusions could be real; that’s why we go to magic shows. I think the illusion that’s important to us as RPG players is the sense that events in the imagined world have their own independent and pre-existing reality. Even though at one level we know that some of these events are the result of random rolls on a chart, at another level we treat the dice as oracles that reveal this other world. This illusion that both dice rolls and asking “what do I see when I throw a torch into the pit?” are ways of discovering what’s out there in the game-world seems to me vital to what roleplaying is about.

Because I value this illusion that we’re discovering rather than creating so much, I prefer mechanics that leave player control over the narrative covert. When “what’s in the pit?” is determined by throwing dice and looking at a chart, it still feels like it’s an objective fact. I can speculate about the next step, “what does that mean,” as if I were my character. Knowing at some level that the DM might overhear my ideas and make them so doesn’t force me out of that perspective, especially since I won’t know whether my speculation has been adopted as game-reality until I test it; the element of uncertainty is preserved. When “what’s in the pit” is something that I gain the right to narrate through the game mechanics, I briefly lose both the immersion of looking through my character’s eyes and the thrill of discovering what is and isn’t true.

I think the way that this illusion can become harmful is when the idea of the waiting-to-be-discovered meaning that will make sense of events in the imagined world becomes too closely identified with the idea of the DM’s secret plan. For players, I’ve often seen meta-thinking about “what does the DM expect us to do in this situation?” drive out roleplaying “what does my character want to do next?”; the ability of old-school techniques for randomness and sandbox play to short circuit this meta-approach has been a major draw for me.

For DMs, the idea of the secret plan can be seductive. I know I’m all too susceptible to megalomania; at some point I internalized the feeling that I should indeed be a demiurge capable of creating an infinitely rich world in which every detail is part of the magnificent hidden plan that I alone have created. When I feel guilty about “stealing” the kids’ ideas for what the rand0m-monster elves are doing, it’s because I’m feeling bad about not really being the Wizard of Oz they think they’re outsmarting.

To hell with that! Dressing up in an exotic disguise and calling myself by a grandiose stage name would let me put on a better magic show, just as pretending to be an all-knowing schemer and cultivating a poker face lets me run a better D&D game. But I’d be crazy to think I could really do magic. As a DM my strength comes from recognizing the players’ good ideas when I hear them, and mixing them in with just enough of my own that they can never be sure what’s true until their characters have roleplayed the process of discovery.

11
Feb
11

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.

17
Oct
10

super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.

07
Oct
10

Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve just finished working on a grant for my day job which would create a program for training emergency medicine physicians to do clinical research. One thing this means is I’ll have more time for posting. Another is that my head is full of phrases from the bureaucratese you use to communicate with the National Institutes of Health.

NIH policy says that any time you want them to give you money for a research training program, you have to demonstrate that it will include instruction in the responsible conduct of research. This means that one of the things you’re required to teach is ethics, or why you shouldn’t intentionally infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal disease.

Last night, as we were preparing for the third Dungeons & Dragons afterschool class, James and I decided that it was time for some instruction in the ethics of roleplaying games. We decided to go about it by breaking up the kids into discussion groups before we get down to playing.

The first thing we’ll do is to have the kids talk about a time that their character made a mistake, and what happened as a result. After everyone’s answered, we’ll ask: Did you have fun when that happened?

If the consensus is yes, making mistakes is as fun as succeeding because it makes exciting and unexpected things happen, we’ll move on to the message: Since making mistakes is part of the fun, you don’t have to listen when someone else tells you what your character should do. There’s no right way that they know and you don’t; it’s all about making your own decisions and enjoying the consequences.

For the second discussion, we’ll switch from talking about the game to talking about real life. Here’s a list of things that have happened to everyone; talk about one time it happened to you.

  • You were excluded; other people went off and did something in secret, intentionally keeping you out of it.
  • You made a mistake and other people yelled at you and tried to make you feel stupid.
  • You were put down; someone acted like they were better, smarter, more powerful than you.
  • You were robbed; someone cheated you out of something you had, or the share you deserved.
  • You were attacked; someone used words or violence to try to hurt you.

The message here is that it feels bad when these things happen in real life. D&D is not real life, but it still feels bad when someone treats you badly. Playing a role-playing game is a way to have fun with your friends; treating one another badly makes it less fun for everyone.

The last idea I’ve had is that I don’t have a lot of control over who these kids are. Everything that some young boys do is going to become an acting-out of their pecking order and its internal struggles for dominance over one another. Some boys are going to be attracted to D&D because quantifying the abilities of their alter ego gives them a tool in this struggle: I’m better than you because my character can beat up your character, thanks to this 18 ability score I “rolled” or the optimized choices I made.

What I do have some control over is what characters the kids play. The world of D&D is a dangerous place; in order to survive long enough to become a hero, your character had to become a trustworthy team player. Trying to enforce pro-social behavior will drive me nuts; encouraging the roleplaying of a pro-social character is what the game is all about.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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