I run a D&D campaign for my children and my nephews, using the BECMI rules. Our goal is to go from level one to epic level and to explore, as much as we can, the D&D multiverse- Planescape style.
In the movie The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, there is a scene where an exasperated DM complains about the group of players in his D&D campaign. “If I don’t keep them focused on the story, they’re going to run around looting, killing and impregnating my entire world.”
Yeah, I hear you buddy, I hear you. All I’ve had is grief since my two nephews Zak (aged 13) and Jeremy (aged 10) joined my campaign. From pre-schooler to high-schooler, they have grown up playing video games. They’ve never once played any other games, not even Hungry Hippos.
Playing in my campaign was their first D&D experience and, like being hit by a fire ball cast by a twentieth level magic user, they were blown away. A game that is powered, not by electricity or data, but by the player’s imagination- how neat is that? A game where the player’s choices and actions, both intentional and whimsical, are constantly altering the world they play in- how cool is that? When playing Skyrim on a gaming console, you have two options when encountering a sabretooth cat: attack or flee. Encounter a sabretooth cat in D&D and you have a multitude of options- whatever you can imagine. Say you want your human fighter or dwarf to build a spiked pit to trap the sabretooth cat? Go for it! You’ll never get to do it on the Xbox.
Zak was overjoyed. Having played a game that allowed his thief, named Hudson, to do anything Zak desires, why would my nephew want to go back to playing his Xbox, where the actions and reactions of his Khajiit assassin are restricted by the limited codes programmed into the Skyrim game?
Poor Jeremy remained silent throughout his first D&D game, contemplating on why his cleric is only allowed to handle blunt weapons while everyone else had bladed weapons.
Because of my nephews leap from video games to table top role-playing games, the first game of D&D with my nephews was a catastrophe, so catastrophic, that even the Prince of Demons would have raised his wineglass to toast the hedonistic gameplay of my players. Just how bad was it? Please, judge for yourself by comparing my DM notes to how the players played the game.
WHAT THE DM DID
I’ve been told, the few times I have tried to DM a game with adults and failed, that I run a narrative-driven game. This would explain why the Event Based Adventure is my go to scenario when designing an adventure for my players. I’m a sucker for dramatic storytelling.
The adventure hook I will use to entice my young players is treasures galore. Gold coins and magic items, up for grabs, for those willing to risk their lives on a dungeon crawl through Mincemeat Dungeon.
When writing my DM notes, I think of several encounters that will push the momentum of the story forward:
- An NPC adventuring party, all of them level 1, will warn the player characters to be alert, be afraid, the Brotherhood of Blades is coming. Should a player ask who or what is the Brotherhood of Blades, the magic-user of the NPC group will take an info dump on the player’s ears, explaining that the Brotherhood is a gang of 3rd level fighters who hunt down newbie adventurers, kill them then loot the corpses.
- You know you’ve reached the Dragon Down tavern when you see, above the entrance, a sign of a falling dragon with a lance stabbed in its chest. Should the players choose to enter, they will encounter at the bar a sleazy Mexican stereotype calling himself Watto. He offers swords, shields and other adventuring things at discount prices. So . . . hmm? Traveling adventurers being killed by thugs with blades; cut-priced adventuring gear for sale in a tavern? If this seems fishy to the players, they’ll be right. Watto is in league with the Brotherhood of Blades. No NPCs have made a connection between the two and no NPC ever will. Only my players have the privilege of making the connection as they’re the stars of my campaign.
- Not far from the Mincemeat Dungeon, a newbie NPC adventuring party is ambushed by the Brotherhood of Blades. Luckily for the newbies, the player characters are passing by just as the carnage is about to begin. Protected by Mithril chainmail, armed with a scimitar that can both cut and freeze, and able to summon a ferocious panther, my players will be fearless, gladly picking a fight with these bullies to prove they are the bigger bully.
- Having rescued the NPCs from the Brotherhood of Blades, rumours will quickly spread about Drizzt’s magic items being in the possession of the player characters. The agents of the Lords’ Alliance, whom have been searching for their fallen comrade’s cool tools, will zero in on the players . . . but that’s a story for another game session.
I read and re-read my notes. It made me so happy I read them again. All the requirements for a solid game were there in my notes: combat encounter, roleplaying encounter, problem solving encounter. I even tailored each encounter to fit the unique talents of each player character, so that by the end of the game session, my players will feel like the superstars of their own fantasy movie.
WHAT THE PLAYERS DO
Looking back on it now, it was stupid of me to start the game session with a roleplay encounter. A party of NPC newbie adventurers warn the player characters to run away, far away or else they will be killed by the Brotherhood of Blades. My players, drawing on the back of their character sheets with a crayon, ignore my campy performance as I roleplay the NPCs.
“We keep walking,” says Mandy, (aged 9) still doodling on her character sheet.
What is wrong with my players? How could they not be concerned? If adventurers like themselves are being murdered on the highways, then so could they. Maybe I failed to get the point across, so I have the magic-user in the NPC adventuring party repeat the warning about the Brotherhood in a more urgent tone.
“We don’t care; we keep walking,” Zak interrupts me, never once looking up from his drawing.
The encounter ends before it begins. I continue narrating everything that the player characters can see, smell and hear. I describe the warmth of the midday sun, the tweeting of birds, fluffy white clouds drifting through the sky, the peasants tending to their wheat fields.
Zak sits up straight, grinning as he picks up his d20. “I’m gonna shoot arrows at the peasants.”
All the other players drop their crayons. Did someone say combat?
“Make an attack roll,” I say with a sigh.
Zak did just that, his thief Hudson firing off a few “intent to kill” shots. Luckily, for the peasants, Zak rolled under 8 on his d20. The arrows hit everything else but their intended targets. I have the peasants run off screaming- only having 4 hit points, what else is a normal human to do?
Ignoring my first event-based encounter, my players have failed to launch their own Hero’s Journey, thus failing to become the stars of their own fantasy saga. So I executed the second event-based encounter, hoping to push my players towards the railway tracks so they can climb aboard the plot driven Choo Choo Train. Just like the Spice in the Dune novels: the story must flow.
As the player characters ramble down the road, I have them pass the Dragon Down tavern. Of course, the players want to go inside. Who wouldn’t want to go into a tavern? That’s why they’re so popular in D&D. Even my players, who are children and not even close to the legal age to consume alcohol, are mesmerized by a tavern.
I describe the common room, the barmaid who is pouring ale into mugs, the few people sitting at tables-
“Sleep spell!” shouts Mandy.
I hide behind my DM screen so my kids and my nephews can’t see me cringe. Why, oh why, do I always forget Mandy’s Sleep spell? I despise that Sleep spell. With no saving throw to save them, all the NPCs in the common room fall into a deep, magical sleep. With a smug look aimed at me, Mandy and Zak have their elf and thief grab all of Watto’s swords, shields and adventuring stuff then leave the tavern. They even steal Watto’s donkey that was parked out in the stables.
Another failed event-based encounter. Looks like my players won’t be boarding that plot driven Choo Choo train after all.
After an hour of having the player characters drifting up and down the highway between wheat fields, I asked the players what will they do; where will they go? I point out where the player characters are currently located on my map. All of my players lean towards the middle of the table to study the map. They all agree to visit the nearest farming village.
Tsk, seriously? I shake my head in disbelief. Never mind that Hudson the thief has been trying to kill the peasants in every wheat field he has passed this morning. Never mind that in the upper left-hand corner of my map, I have drawn the entrance to the Mincemeat dungeon with a creepy forest surrounding it and “Here be monsters” written with a red crayon. Never mind any of that, as my players don’t see any problems with walking into a village after they’ve tried to kill the villagers working in their fields.
The front gate, the only entrance into the village, is closed and barred. All along the top of the rampart, the peasants take up a defensive position, their bows and arrows good to go. Yeah, take that you munchkin murder hobos! See how you like being shot at. I ask everyone to roll initiative.
Zak glances over his character sheet, to see which of his thief’s special abilities will aid him in this encounter. “Oh cool. I can climb walls. Can I run round the rampart until I reach the back of the village then climb over the wall?”
“Yes you can,” I say failing to hide the dismay in my voice.
“Wait, Dad! Dad!” shouts Mandy. “I wanna distract the peasants- the ones above the gate shooting arrows at us- so they don’t see Hudson run off.”
“Okay. How will you do that?” I said, dreading the answer.
“I’m gonna have my elf unbuckle her leather armour, pull off her undergarments and run around naked doing cartwheels and backflips.”
Zak and Mandy give each other a high five.
Dan (aged 11) gawks at his sister and his cousin in open-mouthed horror as arrows strike and break against the Mithril chainmail that his orc wears.
Jeremy deflects the incoming arrows with his shield. He still can’t get over the fact that a cleric is forbidden in the game to carry a sword. What a bullshit rule.
I tell Zak to roll his percentile dice as Hudson has only a 25% chance to Move Silently- ah stuff it. Why bother rolling; my game is ruined anyway. I allow Zak’s thief to succeed his Move Silently check- no roll required -just to see what he will do. While Selena the elf is in the nude going all Cirque Du Soleil at the front gate of the village, Hudson the thief sneaks round to the back and climbs up and over the village wall.
“You’re now in the village,” I tell my nephew.
“What’s the biggest building?” says Zak.
“Um . . . that would be the Baron’s manor,” I say.
“Ah sweet. I’m gonna climb the wall and get in through an open window.”
Hudson the thief does exactly that. Sneaking into the bed chamber of the Lord and Lady Carrington, Zak grins as Hudson helps himself to a jewellery box sitting on the dresser.
Why- oh why -do I even bother using the event-based encounters written in my DM notes? The plot turning points I had engineered into each encounter have nothing to turn. There is no plot; there is no point to anything that Zak and Mandy do in my game. Everything they do, they do for their own self-gratification. Besides, that’s the least of my problem. My Adventure Hook has failed to hook my players. I gave them an opportunity to score Drizzt’s iconic magic items for themselves, thinking they would flaunt their new magic goodies, but they never used the damn things. The plot turning point to activate the next phase of my campaign’s story relied on my players wielding Drizzt’s signature magic tricks in a fight, so the Lords’ Alliance could hunt down the player characters to reclaim their fallen comrade’s magic items.
This is all Mandy’s fault. Her elf Selena carried the panther figurine that summons the astral panther Guenhwyvar. But that wasn’t good enough for my daughter. She said “hell no” to summoning a panther. She wanted the figurine to summon a kitten. I explained to my daughter that if you took away his feline sidekick, Drizzt would stop being Drizzt and become just another drow. The Ranger and the Panther, they’re D&D lore; you can’t mess with that. Mandy demanded that I change D&D lore so she could summon a kitten. I said no. Mandy screams, throws here dice and character sheet onto the floor.
“Fine, have a kitten,” I said, giving in to my daughter to end her tantrum. If I didn’t, we would never get to finish our game.
Yeah, thank Mandy for bringing into existence a new Forgotten Realms in which the defender of the Northern kingdoms- the lone hero that stands between the defenceless and the brutal orc king Obould and his hoard of orc minions -is the mighty Drizzt who has accomplished legendary status with a kitten by his side.
A drow ranger and his kitten companion is the least of my worries. I’ve got player characters whose bad behaviour would land them in jail or the electric chair should they exist in the real world.
A village, a town, a kingdom, thousands of imaginary lives could either be killed or saved by an imaginary hero, depending on the real whims of a real player.
As the DM, it is disenchanting when my DM notes- which I spent hours, planning and writing -are made irrelevant by my players’ actions. Sure, each game session never goes as planned. Sure, my players do anything they can imagine. Sure, everything my players imagine involves looting, killing and impregnating my entire world. But, honestly, it’s fine. I’m fine. It’s all good. The beauty of a game like D&D, which is powered by creativity and not by computer code and pixels, is that I can have my campaign world and all the NPC who populate it respond to my players’ aggression anyway I can imagine.
Try doing that on an Xbox.
To be continued…