I was entering junior high when I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. The first edition had been out a couple years. Growing up just 20 miles south of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I’m surprised it took that long to discover the game. Years later, I am still waiting to reach one of my parenting milestones as a Geekdad: completing a D&D campaign with my kids.
Last Christmas, I bought them the Fourth Edition Starter Kit. Attempts to play didn’t take. I found myself longing for an onboarding version of the game that would leverage their interest without the burden of the many nuanced rules. A couple weeks ago, I got a fresh opportunity when the boys found my container of painted miniatures, a byproduct of my childhood exposure to D&D. With renewed hope, I created a scaled-down version of the game.
4E is not loved, but for a new generation learning from scratch, many of the standard complaints (e.g., lack of backward compatibility) can be ignored. However, D&D lost my kids just trying to get started. The storytelling method for generating an initial character was not written well enough to keep my older son engaged (he’s done a couple laps through Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and Percy Jackson series, so his expectations are high) and was too much reading for my younger son. By the time I had separated the cardboard chits, the two of them had moved on.
DnDish is an attempt to gut the game to a bare minimum while still giving the kids exposure to the basic mechanics and culture of D&D. My goal was to get everything down to a single page, but I settled for three once I added worksheets for the characters and dungeon master. When we ran our pilot session with a couple of friends, the kids not only understood and enjoyed the evening, they left asking for more. We’ve now scheduled a weekly game that may have as many as 8 players participating.
There are two indisputable facts about D&D. First, there are a lot of rules. Second, this is a game with a strong collaborative narrative. The changes I made de-emphasized the former in favor of the latter.
Everyone Starts With Nothing
Player characters start out with good health, some clothes, and nothing more. You don’t have money. There are no initial spells you know or weapons you’ve mastered out of the box. Want to learn the incantation to put someone to sleep? Better go find someone to teach you, probably while washing some dishes. (My boys robbed a bank, of course, but negotiated a plan to sneak back in to return the “borrowed” gold after they get some more.) Built-in poverty creates an immediate need to start doing something within the story as part of crafting the character.
No Set Races or Classes
When it comes to kids, it is far easier to let them tell me what they want to be than me telling them what they can be. If they want to, it is possible to be a Dwarf Fighter, but players aren’t limited to a laundry list, either. In our pilot session we started with a Human Ninja, a Skeleton Sorcerer, a Golem Assassin, and a Duck Oracle. Right out of the box, the Golem tried to eat the Duck when they first met. #Winning.
Design a Reason To Restart
My intention was to make this a starter game, one in which death might be common, advanced leveling would become impractical, and what you become is the direct result of your adventuring. Plus, I get to sneak in some math. The leveling scheme is the Fibonnaci sequence, which means you start at Level 0, need just 1 experience point to reach Level 1 but 89 to jump from Level 10 to Level 11. At some point, it is more interesting to retire.
That is, if you make it to retirement. Health is a mere 10 points to start, gaining just one more per level. You start dying below zero and kick the bucket at -10. The most unlucky characters can be on their way to an early grave with two strong hacks.
The player sheets need less room because there are only three abilities comprising the character. Dexterity deals with quickness, control and movement. Intelligence encompasses wisdom, strategy, and efficiency. Strength impacts stability, force and stamina. When it comes right down to it, everything else is window dressing.
Initially, I had the players distribute a stock 10 points among each of the three abilities. The lack of dice-rolling for that important moment, though, didn’t sit right. Now, a player rolls 3d6 and assigns one die value to each ability (minimum 10 points). Greater chance of variation in character while still keeping the decisions simple.
Try, or Try Not
Interacting with the narrative comes down to difficulty and scale. Actions that are easy (e.g., walking under normal circumstances) don’t require a roll to succeed. When the time frame is a day or longer, the only roll that may be needed is Initiative, to see if something interesting is about to happen. Everything else is considered a “Try” and requires a 3d6 roll. All Tries have a matching Resist roll, to keep it from happening. In combat, the attacker tries and the target resists. Gone is Armor Class in favor of a Risk-like dice battle that gives the potential victim an active roll in his fate.
No Special Dice
The signature object in D&D is the twenty-sided die. It was always one of the attractions to the game for me, to the point of paying for a high-quality version of the dice set. However, once the rules start simplifying elsewhere, the six-sided variety works fine. Excising this key tradition was practical: In opening and closing the 4E box so many times, they boys had already lost some parts. We didn’t have a 1d20 in the house, but I was pretty certain we could find Yahtzee.
Guide and Describe the Story
The void caused by the absence of formal structure is filled nicely by narrative. Everything that the D&D rules say you have to do can still be done in DnDish. The difference is that the players have to drive those actions, and the master has to interpret the outcomes. Collaboration replaces the D&D manuals.
I do require the kids playing my game to journal as they go. With each encounter, they jot down notes about what happened, who was encountered, and what was earned. I invite them to sketch the adventure, giving them something to do when the circumstances focus on a couple players. As the master, I do this as well. These journals are what ultimately will reconcile issues of memory and consistency.
This lack of order puts a burden on the storytelling. We haven’t progressed very far yet — and the characters are definitely not in the original story — but I have chosen to model my first campaign after The Hobbit. We’re likely to battle some trolls, goblins, spiders, wolves, and a dragon. We’re likely to befriend some humans, elves, dwarves, eagles, and a man-bear. Until I get more comfortable with the game mechanics, falling back on a familiar tale seems wise.
Already, this project has been successful. I convinced four boys to spend a couple hours rolling dice and telling stories. As the sessions pile up and we close in on the Lonely Mountain, I’m sure we’ll have to work through some hiccups, but I have to believe some groundwork is being laid here for future D&D campaigns.
Download DnDish (PDF) and try it out with your kids. If you have an experience using it, good or bad, please share.
[This article, by Kevin Makice, was originally published on Monday. Please leave any comments you may have on the original.]