A friend asked me:
I am supposed to DM for D&D for the first time since college (I’ve played RPGs since, but D&D is a thing of the past for me). A boy who has never played really wants to before receiving surgery for a life-threatening illness. Do you know how I can quickly bone up on the new rules and find a premade adventure (preferably free/online) that would be good to play? We just have an evening, him and some friends, mostly around 11 years old.
If you’re in my friend’s situation, I think you need three things.
- A frame story that sets the stage and convinces the kids that what they’re doing is playing D&D
- A mouthpiece character that lets you interact with them within the framework of the game to learn what kind of fantasy they want to explore
- Some devices to hang that fantasy on and launch it in the direction that they unconsciously want it to go
To unpack each of these a little bit, #1 should be a classic D&D scenario. You go into a dungeon, a wind blows out your torches and while you’re in the dark some monsters attack. This frame story could come from an existing introductory adventure like The Wizards’ Amulet, or from your own memories of D&D games and swords & sorcery fiction.
You’ll want to keep this short – it should hit as many of the expected bases as possible (combat, treasure, exploration, encountering mystery, solving problems – that order is roughly how important/easy to set up they are). I’d recommend letting the kids tell you about the rules if they’ve played before, to show off their sense of mastery.
This stage is about establishing trust. You don’t want to lose them by getting the details wrong; you want to retain the authority they vest in you while asking for their assistance as participants in making this shared experience happen. You might say “Hey guys, it’s been a long time since I last ran an expedition into the Caverns of Chaos” (or whatever your old gaming stories might suggest). “I understand the rules have changed since then; can you help me make sure I’ve got it right?”
The one thing you’ll want to bone up on rules-wise is how the rules for monsters work, because when the critters attack you’ll be taking on an adversarial role (in the sense that a black-hat wrestler sneers and postures to give his adversary a chance to look good). In that role, you’ll want to keep the monster’s strengths and weaknesses a secret and be confident that you’re adjudicating its opposition to the heroes fairly. (You can let the kids tell you how their special powers work and the overarching procedures for combat, because that stuff is more of a joint responsibility; most groups assume the monster stuff is the DM’s purview, though.) I’d only choose one big threatening monster, or maybe a horde of weak minions. Complicated combats can take a lot of time with modern D&D rules, but you just want this to be like the scene before the credits in a Bond movie.
[Read the rest of Tavis Allison’s excellent article, published on Wednesday, and please leave any comments you may have on the original.]