Playing The Red Box: Confessions of a First Time DM (GeekDad Weekly Rewind)

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Enter the dungeon. (Photo: Chuck Lawton)

It was midday when the adventurers, sharing their company on the road to Fallcrest, came upon a merchant wagon besieged by goblins. A dark rider could be seen off in the distance, observing the events from afar, or maybe even controlling them. Fighting the goblins was easy enough, even for a party as green as this. And while it may have been the first time they’ve fought together, as heroes they come to the aid of those in need. And in this case, just in time. But it was not without loss; the merchant, Traevus, was desperate for an item stolen from his wagon, and it was clear this was not some idle trinket that was taken. So it was up to this band of adventurers to embark on the unknown, discover the truth and defeat evil.

This was how I adapted the solo adventure from the Dungeons and Dragons Red Box to a campaign that my friends were about to embark on. But the road from casual gamer to D&D enthusiast wasn’t as easy as simply reading through the Dungeon Masters guide and having a go at it. I had help. And I needed it. Not only am I new to Dungeons and Dragons, I also elected to be our DM. And I wanted the experience to be a positive one for everyone involved.

With that in mind, I’m sharing my experiences with our readers at GeekDad, because as widespread and entrenched D&D is in geek culture, there are plenty of people out there like me: gamers who want to start playing D&D but are just as overwhelmed in how to start. This series, then, can be read as an introduction to the game, but from the point of view of someone discovering it for the first time. I’m sure to make mistakes in how I run my game, just as you might. And that perspective may be valuable to you as you begin to run your own games. And I welcome comments from everyone to help me and our readers understand the complexities of D&D, both as a player and a DM, better.

So first, a little background. I have a core group of family and friends who meet once a week to play table top games. This is relatively new to me, as prior to a few years ago, I wouldn’t have considered myself a gamer. I played Magic the Gathering back when the 5th edition was released but not much else — and not very frequently — until I was introduced to the Settlers of Catan in 2009. Since then, I’ve expanded into a few other games including Carcassonne, Forbidden Island and Pandemic, among others. The latter introduced my group to playing cooperative games and when the Dungeons and Dragons board game series came out, including Castle Ravenloft and Warth of Ashardalon, we jumped at the chance to test the waters in a D&D world.

And we liked it. Castle Ravenloft introduced us to the core game mechanics present in D&D fourth edition and served as a primer that eased us in. We each got a chance to be both player and DM by exploring, attacking, and activating our monsters. And while the D&D board game series makes it easy to have a D&D-like experience in a short amount of time, we did find ourselves wanting a bit more — more story, broader exploration, greater abilities and a bit of persistance from session to session. And a relatively new product was designed to deliver just that.

The Red Box (Image: wizards.com)

In September of last year, Wizards of the Coast released a retooled version of the venerable introduction to the full Dungeons and Dragons experience, the red box. Officially called, the Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Roll Playing Game Starter Set, the red box features a players handbook, dungeon masters book, fold-out battle map, player and monster tokens, power and item cards and a full set of dice, all for the low entry price of $14 retail.

But before we embarked on our campaign, I felt I needed to know more. Reading through the player’s and DM guides did a great job of introducing the basic game mechanics. But as DM, I had a lot of questions. I picked up the Dungeon Master Kit Essentials guide and began to devour the information there. And my brother-in-law who had been part of our gaming group, and the only member to have played D&D in his youth, picked up the Players Guide to refresh player mechanics. He helped our players through character creation while he coached me on some of my questions about running a game. My fellow GeekDad writers helped out with answering questions as well.

And I should note, having these resources are invaluable. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t difficult, per se. For the most part, you’re rolling dice and comparing one form of character stats to a monster’s stats or difficulty value to determine the outcome. Everything in the game can come down to a check of some sort. Want to hack at a monster? Make an attack roll and compare it to the monster’s armor class. If you’re equal or higher, the attack is a success. Want to climb a tree, conceal yourself and attack without being noticed? Sure! Just roll an athletics check and a stealth check and if both are a success, you’re in! The challenge I faced, or at least the one I built up for myself, is understanding enough of the rules to know how to issue checks to my players based on whatever actions they decided to come up with, all while keeping the game moving and my players from getting board. The amount of options seemed overwhelming at first.

Back in the game, after speaking with the merchant, the party tracked the mysterious rider to an ancient temple. Two entrances were before them. Each player had selected one of the player figures from the D&D board games and I had a fairly good arsenal of monster figures behind my DM screen ready to unleash. I had ran a combat encounter against the goblins back at Traevus’ wagon, so the players had some understanding of how combat was ran. If they chose the right entrance, a few powerful goblins lay in wait to challenge them. If they chose the left entrance, a room full of kobold tunnelers were ready to fight or alert a white dragon. I had prepared for both encounters but it was up to the party to choose.

To be continued in part two…

[This article, by Chuck Lawton, was originally published on Wednesday. Please leave any comments you may have on the original.]

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