Level One: Delving Into Dungeons & Dragons As A Family

Geek Culture

Image: John Booth

We stood outside the tomb, watching it collapse. Then we got our Experience Points and had pie.

In a moment a quarter-century in the making, I completed my first Dungeons & Dragons quest this month, with my wife and daughter playing their first adventure alongside.

I never got to play D&D for real as a kid. In middle school, my interest was at its peak thanks to TSR’s Endless Quest books like Pillars of Pentegarn and that absolutely terrible Mazes & Monsters movie. (Thankfully, I was too young to realize what a ridiculous pile of anti-gaming propaganda it was, and at any rate, it actually fueled my fire to learn D&D, so BRAINWASH FAIL.) Unfortunately, I only had one friend who shared my curiosity about the game. Over the course of a year or two, we each got a basic set and some modules and books, and while we loved rolling up characters and reading about creatures and cave systems and towns hiding dark secrets, it was tough to actually play with just the two of us. We took turns faking our way through adventures, one of us loosely Dungeon Mastering – in fact, even calling it that is an insult to DMs everywhere – the other running a party of 3 or 4 characters and basically jumping from encounter to encounter and grabbing treasure. Nobody ever died.

Still, my thing for roleplaying games stuck around for years: In addition to my old D&D stash, I owned rulebooks and sourcebooks and modules for Shadowrun, James Bond and Star Wars gaming systems even though I never actually got to play any of them, with the exception of a one-session Shadowrun adventure in college.

This year, though, the D&D itch came back during my trip to PAX East. I met up with my friends Kato and Wendy there, and the three of us spent a good chunk of time hanging out with the other GeekDad writers and Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf. The whole atmosphere really got to me, from the gaming tables and the dice vendors to Wil Wheaton’s keynote to just listening to Natania and Michael and Kato and Wendy talk Dungeons & Dragons. Seriously: I came awfully close to buying a set of dice to replace the ones I’d lost track of decades ago, despite having absolutely no need for them.

Upon returning home, I read Ethan’s book which, coupled with Kato’s offer to make room for me in a game he was running, pretty much made my delve back into D&D inevitable.

The really cool thing is that when I mentioned this to my wife, she threw me for a wonderful loop by saying she’d like to give it a try, too.

So it was that I found myself buying three sets of dice, my first Player’s Handbook, printing out character sheets and puzzling over abilities and powers and traits.

Kato and Wendy are RPG veterans, both with gaming roots going back to their early teenage years, and both have several years of D&D experience. Kato, who blogs about DMing at One Inch Square, ran a few Middle-Earth Role Playing system games as a kid and started sitting behind the D&D screen with the Third Edition.

I don’t have the longview to put D&D‘s seemingly-divisive 4th edition in detailed perspective, but I can say that as a first-timer, I found the d20-based play far easier to digest than the one I remember trying to wrap my junior-high brain around. The power, action and weapon cards Kato provided made for quick learning during combat, and I was also happy to see a hit point system far different than the one I tried to learn when I was younger – one in which, say, the wrong roll of a d4 could off your first-level cleric before you even crossed a tavern’s threshold.

Playing with miniatures also helped the learning curve. As much as I loved drawing maps on graph paper back in middle school, it was really difficult to visualize our combat playing out in those little quarter-inch squares. But with a battle map and walls and pillars laid out on the table, where sixth-grade me would’ve simply settled for saying “I swing my sword,” grown-up me was able to fully consider my character’s abilities and the environment and what moves might work.

Image: John Booth

My wife, having had no prior exposure to the game, was nervous at first, but by the end of our first session, when we got in the car to head home, it was a thrill to hear her say 1) how much fun she’d had, and 2) things like, “You know, I should have used my Elven Accuracy to re-roll one of those attacks.”

Our daughter, at 13, was intrigued and was on the fence about playing – Kato rolled up a character and worked up a background just in case – but while she only sat and watched that first night, as soon as we left, she said something to the effect of “Next time, I’m in.” She joined the party for the remaining two game nights, admirably filling her wizard’s role. Again, those reference cards were invaluable in helping her keep track of spells and powers and abilities, and she took to the game quickly. (She even earned bonus role-playing points for a pure-adrenaline “I kick the body” moment after a really hard-fought encounter.)

It was about far more than the fighting, though. I loved listening to Kato set up our adventure, working in the brief back story I had created for my halfling rogue and fleshing out the stories behind my wife’s elven cleric and my daughter’s wizard and Wendy’s fighter. I loved hearing my wife react in character to a none-too-subtle halfling cough of warning. I loved the moments of silence right after a scene was set, when the four of us needed to figure out what we were going to do next. And I loved the energetic post-session conversations my wife and daughter and I had about the game and our characters and what we could have done, and what we might try the next time around.

The biggest factors for the success of the three-session adventure, of course, were our gaming companions, so if you’ve got friends willing to show you the ropes, by all means take them up on the offer.

Kato not only crafted a great one-shot adventure perfectly suited for our characters’ levels and our gaming experience – our final encounter included a couple pretty close brushes with death, although my inexperience showed in my failure to force a re-roll on a particularly damaging hit – he also ran the game while teaching it and made it a crazy amount of fun.

And Wendy played her half-orc fighter with a great balance of enthusiasm and patience, encouraging us new players and illustrating how to use different actions to achieve specific goals in combat.

I can’t say enough how awesome it was finally playing this game I’d been wanting to give a shot for so long, and having it turn out to be such an incredibly fantastic family experience at the same time.

(Hey, sixth-grade me? If you’re out there — the Second Chance power is important: Don’t forget to use it.)

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