Recently my son and his friends sat down to play Dungeons & Dragons. This isn’t a new thing–they’ve played before. And these aren’t new friends–these kids have known each other since elementary school. They joined Cub Scouts together, and, when they were old enough, decided against joining one of the larger troops in the area and asked me to help them form their own troop.
They also, in the past, have asked me to be their Dungeon Master.
This time my son came home from school with several pages of notes about an idea for an adventure. While he reads obsessively, he doesn’t write much. With his dysgraphia, he finds writing exhausting and troublesome. He prefers to type his written assignments.
Instead of asking why he’d made an exception or in what class he managed to fill three or more pages, front and back, with adventure notes, I asked him to tell me about it.
A panicked man bursting into a tavern, a burned down village, a cry for help; all homebrew staples that are the springboard for new worlds.
“And at the beginning, I have this really cruel idea,” he laughed. (Not quite the evil DM laugh, but he’s getting there.)
“These goblins are going to sneak into the party’s camp undetected, and I have this chart they will roll on to tell them if any of their stuff got stolen.”
Ahhh, old school bliss. Gygax would be proud. But I felt I needed to impart some DM wisdom.
“That sounds fun, but be careful about assuming what your players can and can’t do. They might see the goblins no matter what you try. Unless you just declare they’re undetectable, and then your players might feel like they’re being railroaded.”
“I know,” he said, only partly on the verge of a Napoleon Dynamite-esque Gosh.
When he and his friends wanted to play before, I was their guide. I had all the books, the dice, and the decades of experience. Computer programs to make their character creation easier and sheets cleaner. Minis to add dimension to their paper heroes. This time, everything was on the table for them to use as they saw fit.
The first time we played a game together, they had an odd party balance. A slew of rangers and fighters and paladins. At low level, they needed a healer at their disposal, so I made an NPC. He was an elderly cleric who drank prune juice and banged on the doors of their rooms at 5 AM so they could get their adventure started. His exploits are the stuff of legend.
And legends they’ll likely remain.
My son’s game went exceptionally well. They picked up the same characters that they’d been using: a Druid/Ranger, a Kobold Fighter, a Dwarven Ranger, and an Elven Paladin. This party was the result of a storyline spun around a couple of modules that, at one time, resulted in a TPK and an occupied kingdom that their new characters valiantly returned to free. After their successful takedown of a snake cult-worshipped proto-god, they sailed off into the great unknown.
Fitting, I think, that the great unknown ended up being their first solo adventure.
The only small hitch was my son had planned goblins as the adversaries and a troll as a boss encounter. The seasoned adventurers were making short work of them.
So, in the spirit of D&D, there were suddenly more goblins. And more. They waded through hundreds that night, laughing and shouting with each roll, and when they finally fought their way to the troll king, he’d taken advantage of the 3.5 monster scaling rules and was a beast to be reckoned with (especially after I dropped in to explain regeneration and nonlethal damage…) Then there was the time I was asked to explain just exactly what Flame Strike would do to a crowd of wee-goblins and the table erupted in cheers.
Like on our scouting expeditions, I watched from a distance. I answered a few rules questions and occasionally wandered into the dining room for the latest goblin body count. Every so often I’d hear my son plucking away at his mandolin (he decided to ignore my advice on DMs not playing their own character–his Gnoll Bard) bolstering his allies with riffs from Queen.
As I sat watching television with my arm around my wife, I listened more to my son telling his story in the next room than whatever channel we happened to be on. She laughed. I checked the TV to see if I’d missed something.
My wife, who’s played more D&D with me at the head of the table than anyone, said, “He’s using your lines.”