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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: The Next Generation

by Ken Newquist / September 4, 2016
A large keep stands atop a hill, the sun setting in the background.
The iconic Kendell Keep from B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Credit: Wizards of the Coast / TSR.

The next generation of Blackrazor Guilders have strapped on their fathers' swords, sat down at the gaming table, and begun slinging dice. We have three kids (two boys, one girl) in the immediate group who want to play, and we have two of my son's friends (both boys) who are also eager to start casting spells and slaying monsters.

They aren't the first ones -- Lance, a long-time Blackrazor -- introduced his son Zach to the game early on, and he's played a notable part in several of our adventures. Zach's a lot older than the rest of the kids in the group, and it's only been the last year or so when the younger kids started expressing a serious interest in role-playing games.

I took my first steps toward gaming with the kids last summer while on vacation. I ran the first encounter from the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition adventure The Lost Mine of Phandelver with two of my son's friends while our families were on vacation. I made pre-generated characters for them, put together my ultimate Basic boxed set, and taught them the basic rules.

Over the last year, two of the boys rolled up their first characters and we spent a chunk of this summer's vacation running them through another adventure. Closer to home we've kicked of a "D&D Kids" campaign using the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands module. Those sessions see dads and kids playing alongside one another as they explore the Caves of Chaos.

These sessions taught me a few things.

Lessons Learned

Character creation is harder with no context. I've been playing role-playing games for 35+ years and played numerous editions of D&D and its cousins. To me everything in the book makes sense, but to new players and their parents, it can be confusing. What's the difference between your class giving you a weapon proficiency and buying that weapon? What's the difference between class, race, and background, and why do all three give me variations on the same things (skills, proficiencies, starting gear)?

I'd say it takes the kids about two hours to get through character creation the first time -- with help from an adult who is familiar with the system. It's closer to an hour the second time around, once they've got the basic concepts down. Either way you either need to plan for a character creation session (with no actual gaming) or have everyone create their characters ahead of time.

Attention spans are limited. Like most gaming groups, our Sunday games typically go for about 4 hours, starting at 5 p.m. and ending around 9 p.m.. The kids don't have that kind of attention span; they're usually good for 60-90 minutes before they need a break. When I played with my son's friends we split up the sessions over multiple days - e.g. play for an hour on Saturday, then another on Sunday. For our regular "D&D Kids" games, we schedule a standard 4 hour block. The kids game for an hour, then take a 45 minute break to go play a non-D&D game. Then they're back for another hour, then get another break. After that we typically call it a night.

My hope is that the game time will grow longer -- 2 hours would be nice -- as the kids learn the game. Until that happens, I plan my kid sessions like I do my lunchtime ones: short, sweet, and punctuated by memorable encounters.

As for what the dads do during the downtime, well, that's why we playtested Eclipse Phase - we need a fast, self-contained game we can quickly jump into while the kids are off playing.

Pre-gens are the key to your first game. Some parents want to start with character creation, but character creation is mystifying when you don't understand the game. I started the kids with pre-generated characters - a cleric, a wizard, and a fighter - and ran them two adventures. With that experience under their belt they understood the basic mechanics and started having opinions on the kinds of characters they wanted to play. The key thing with the pre-gens is to have a number of options (Wizards of the Coast's website has a ton) that tie into genre archetypes. Don't stop at just the pre-gen'd character sheets though. Create cheatsheets for any class abilities or spells so that the kids have the quick reference right in front of them, and you don't loose time (and valuable attention spans) on looking up rules.

Role-playing games aren't intuitive to non-gamers. You know that time you tried to explain role-playing games to non-gamers? You might have settled on a metaphor like "cops and robbers with rules" or "improv with dice", and people may have kinda-sorta understood what you meant. It's far, far more challenging when you take that same person and walk them through character creation, campaign planning, and the rules of the game. It clicks once they actually play a game (or see their kids play a game) but until then there can be a lot of misconceptions (e.g. the kids will roll up new characters for every session). If I were to do it all over again, I'd find a good example of play via one of the video streams available online, and send that to parents.

The stigma is gone. When I was a kid, parents wouldn't let their children play D&D because of fears it was "Satanic" or might promote witchcraft. I haven't encountered any of that sort of pushback from my friends, regardless of whether they are gamers. Indeed, I think parents are thrilled to see kids playing a game that relies so heavily on their imagination ... and not on a joystick or game controller. Admittedly, my evidence is all anecdotal but I've seen nothing but genuine interest from the non-gamers I've spoken to about playing D&D with the kids.

At the Caves of Chaos

Our "D&D Kids" sessions are currently monthly. As with our other campaigns, I've setup a wiki page for The Borderlands. There's not a lot of content there beyond the opening sagas, mostly because the kids haven't made it to the iconic keep yet (and thus, haven't started encountering the campaign's major NPCs). Check out the Griffin's Crier for more updates as the campaign progresses.