D&D with the kids: First notes (sessions 0-4).

by waxbanks

At the turn of the year I finally worked up the courage/energy to run a D&D game for my son and four (soon to be five) of his friends, all 10-11 years old, and we’ve been playing every Sunday since 3 January. I’ve wanted to run a game of old-school 80s D&D since the actual 80s, when it was the new school; normally the phrase ‘a dream come true’ is mere figure of speech, but here it’s literally true.

We’re using the Basic/Expert rules from 1981, in the form of the ‘retroclone’ Old-School Essentials.

I gave them randomly rolled-up 1st-level characters, they concocted a ‘We meet at a tavern’ scenario (the bard was performing, the elves were passing through, the thief was drinking her sorrows away with her small but vicious dog, the cleric was outside talking to his pet rock Josh), and we were off to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

Prior to our game, two in the group had no D&D experience but had played Skyrim or World of Warcraft, one (soon two) played a lot of 5e at Pandemonium in Central Square, and two had a couple sessions of table time under their belts.

I won’t run through the campaign in detail — perhaps another time — but I do want to share a couple of observations, by no means original.

  • The old-school saving throws are unintuitive at first, but they work. I’ve read enough about them — including the underrated AD&D 2e corebooks, which explain how the saving throw sieve works — that I figured I’d have no problem. But if you’re just starting, how do you adjudicate a trap that fires a magic beam down a dungeon hallway? What if it’s a paralyzing beam? What if it’s a spray of magic? ‘Use the first saving throw that applies’ still means a judgment call of sorts. (The answer in the first instance is ‘Save vs Wands’ by the way.) How do you save against a falling boulder? Finicky questions, but knowable — and they drive you toward a certain fiction-first intution about the gameworld. After a while the saving throws make perfect sense, and the wisdom/utility of class-based (vs 5th edition’s ability-based) saving throws becomes clear.
  • OLD-SCHOOL ESSENTIALS is the final form of Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert D&D. Aaron Allston’s beloved Rules Cyclopedia stretches the D&D rules across 36 levels and provides domain-rulership and mass-combat systems, as well as additional classes, monsters, treasures…but you don’t need that stuff for 90% of campaigns, and there are better tools available for free online if you do. Plus its layout is catastrophically bad in keeping with the house style. Gavin Norman’s OSE retroclone collects the original Moldvay/Cook rules, organizes them intuitively with a delightfully accessible layout, and judiciously includes the most common houserule (ascending Armour Class) as a built-in option. It is the perfect re-presentation of the original ruleset, nothing added. (Which, to be clear, means pure vanilla flavour; look elsewhere for magical evocation.)
  • You need (magic) items. I’ve learned this in the breach. In searching the dungeon, the kids have mostly found trinkets, coin, small-bore treasures — but they need useful items, not necessarily magical. The trick is to fire up their lateral problem-solving skills without simply erasing the dungeon’s challenges. Flash powder, spoons that refill magically with food, a wig, a blanket that smells of refuse, a coin that always matches the call, a leash that lets you hear a cat’s thoughts — these low-level items encourage low-stakes usage. The kids have found a ring that causes the wearer’s eyeball to pop out and roll around while retaining the power of sight, a perfect example of the kind. Disgusting, handy, and potentially extremely risky to the user. (I need to remind the kids that they have it.)
  • You need spells. Low-level PCs in B/X have only minimal access to magic — a spell a day, plus the houseruled cantrips I’m allowing. But a low-level party really benefits from the survivability boost that a single sleep spell grants. Alas, the kids blew theirs to give the dog a nap after a nasty fight.
  • Arguing is the best/worst part. In the first session the kids spent more than a half-hour joking, arguing, debating, improvising in character, and generally just being smart creative little fools while standing at a trapped door they weren’t sure how to get through. The consensus is that it was the best part of the adventure so far; I certainly thought so. This is why 1-on-1 D&D (which my son and I have played, at Thunderdelve) can’t come close to competing with a decent-sized party and a DM willing to let them faff about. That said, our one experienced player has been losing his mind over the mix of hesitation and impulsivity which is the group’s overall vibe. That’s the main downside of a big, relatively inexperienced party: an unstable power-balance between puzzlers, instigators, et al. We’re working it out quite sensitively, because it’s a bunch of kids from Cambridge+environs and that’s what the children of the bourgeoisie do. But it’s important to stay aware of the group dynamics and vary the approach at times. Sometimes you play tight changes, sometimes you play free, sometimes just keep a groove going. Kids like structure and they like freedom.

I’m loving this game, and while the prep makes me mildly anxious — what if I fail, and ruin my beloved son’s life? — and the play is totally exhausting, it’s been a highlight of my week, every week.

There will be more to say when there’s time to say it.