We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development—or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.
The Next Generation: No, I’m not talking about a new edition of the game.
I’m talking about playing D&D with my son.
I started playing D&D in 1979, a few months before my 11th birthday. I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings years earlier, at about the time that the horrendous animated versions were on TV and in the movie theaters. I have a photo of a momentous occasion: the year my older brother got the original D&D boxed set for Christmas (1977). I was a lot more interested in it than he was, but I could not figure out how this was a game. So my friends and I used the monster descriptions in the book to give us new opponents as we pretended to be two of the other four wizards in Middle-Earth, running around my back yard.
A couple years later, I got the original D&D Basic Set (the one with module B1: In Search of the Unknown), and I was hooked. And now here I am.
My own son has it easy. At nine years old, he’s got a house full of D&D books, some 2,700 prepainted plastic D&D Miniatures to play with, and cool Fantastic Locations maps to play on. He’s got Mirrorstone books like Knights of the Silver Dragon and Dragonlance: The New Adventures to immerse him in the worlds of D&D. And he’s got a father who’s only too happy to teach him how to play, to be his Dungeon Master, and—this is the part I just figured out—to let his imagination run wild.
The Siren Song
How did it start? Well, my son was three when we moved to the Seattle area and I started working at Wizards of the Coast. He doesn’t remember life before I was a D&D designer, so it’s always been part of his world. At times when I hosted weekly or monthly games at our house, he was always interested in what was going on (especially when we were using his Lego as miniatures), lurking at the boundary of the dining room table to absorb what he could.
I have brought home thousands of Pokémon, DuelMasters, Harry Potter, G.I. Joe, and Neopets cards for him, and he’s played all those TCGs to varying extents. But if I had to name the most effective acquisition product, I’d have to say D&D Miniatures.
It’s still a subject of some debate in my house whether those 2,700 miniatures belong to me or to him. I insist they’re mine, but that he can use them whenever he wants. He still wants some to call his own. I tried to offload some of my extra commons onto him, but no—he wants rares. They’re clearly cooler.
About three times a week, he’ll ask me if I brought anything cool home from work—by which he primarily means miniatures. Every couple of months, I’ll come home with a case or two of our latest miniatures set, and we open them together. He looks for the coolest of the cool, and assembles little bands of these highlights, immediately starting them adventuring and battling together.
And then there was World of Warcraft. I got the game for Christmas of 2004 (when he was not quite 8). He sat on my lap as I was creating my first character, and he insisted that I make a female night elf warrior. Why? Because he’d seen a picture on the Neopets website of someone at the Neopets Halloween party dressed up as a female night elf warrior. I’m serious—that’s why I played a female night elf. There is absolutely no other reason. Why are you laughing?
The Real Thing
As you might imagine, it was a pretty big deal when I finally agreed that he was old enough to learn how to play the game. For a while, I had a crazy idea in my head that, since I started playing when I was almost 11, we should wait until he was 10ish. That was clearly never going to happen. He was 8, and he was ready.
The first thing we needed to do was find an appropriate character sheet. He insisted that he needed to be able to draw his character on the front of the sheet. (Drawing is a big thing.) Huh. You know, most of the character sheets I remember from earlier editions of the game had a space for a character illustration (or insignia) on the front page, but none of our current official sheets do. Sorry, WotC, but we had to find a fan-created sheet to fit the bill.
Once we had the character sheet, Xuamniah (zoo-AHM-nee-ah) was born: a female elf druid who just hit 5th level last week. She’s gone through three animal companions (based on my son’s whims, not deaths): a wolf, a Medium viper, and now Aipydoodle, a Medium ape.
Xuamniah has three intrepid adventuring companions. Zook Beren, a gnome sorcerer, is my character. I always play as well as DMing, in order to have enough characters that everyone stays alive. Yannah, an elf swashbuckler, is my wife’s newly-created character. (My wife has played D&D with me a lot in the past, but now she’s almost always on Mom duty when I’m playing. So a chance to play while being on Mom duty is actually a nice opportunity.) And Jaxs, a half-orc barbarian, belongs to another kid on our cul-de-sac.
A session of D&D at our house usually means that I spend a half-hour pulling out minis that will make good encounters for our (usually three) characters, coming up with the most threadbare of plots (three crucians have been kidnapped—my son likes the crucian mini—and you need to rescue them), slapping down a map sheet from a Fantastic Locations product or a D&D Miniatures starter set, and sitting down to play through maybe three encounters before attentions wander or neighbors need to go home or dads/DMs get tired and want to lie down on the couch.
Something amazing happened a couple of weeks ago, though. We were playing on the Dragon Shrine map from the War Drums starter set. I don’t remember what we fought there—probably orcs or skeletons. But we finished the encounter, and my son took over. He decided that he was going to search around one of the statues, that he was going to get hit by a trap (an arrow shooting out), and that he’d find a treasure there.
Hey, wait a minute. I thought I was the DM!
That was my first reaction. But I bit my tongue. I rolled damage for the trap, and I let him have his treasure. (I’m pretty sure I determined what it was. When I tried later to let him decide what the treasure was, he wanted nine beads of force, which is a little pricey for a 4th-level character.)
He never enjoyed the game more.
I learned the most important lesson about D&D that day. I remembered that this is a game about imagination, about coming together to tell a story as a group. And the fact is, the players have as much right to tell that story as the DM does—after all, they’re the protagonists!
It’s awfully easy, as DM, to fall into the trap of railroading your PCs along the plot that you have in mind, as though you were writing a novel rather than running an adventure. (Although, now that I’ve written a novel, I’ve gained some appreciation for the ways that even protagonists that you create can sometimes do unexpected things...) I like to think I’m pretty good at avoiding that trap.
I’ve played fast and loose with some of the D&D rules in order to accommodate my son’s imagination. After he watched Fern Gully, he decided he wanted Xuamniah to be a faerie rather than an elf. OK, I let him change the race on his character sheet. No need to change anything else. There’s the whole animal companion thing, including a Medium ape (because he wanted to use the taer mini, rather than a dire ape).
But as I think about it, some of the most rewarding games of D&D that I’ve played have involved letting go of another degree of control as DM, being willing to improvise a little more. There was the time the PCs got an NPC reincarnated, someone asked if he came back as male or female, and I suddenly got the idea that he’d come back female and pregnant, thus fulfilling a bit of the prophecy the PCs were trying to unravel. Then there was the time, in the same campaign, where a PC actually decided to taste some of the blood that flowed through the evil temple (hey, she was a weasel hengeyokai!). I decided off the cuff that she got a +1 Con bonus—it was divine blood—and a nasty side effect to be determined later.
And there was the time I let my son narrate a little bit of his character’s destiny...
And there you have it... relinquishing a bit of control can go a long way with the next generation of players. Have any tales about teaching your own kids the game (or being taught by your folks... or for that matter, your kids)? Of a time when you loosened the reins as a DM, and came away with an unexpectedly great gaming session? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
James Wyatt wrote articles for Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine before joining the Wizards of the Coast staff in January 2000. Game design is career Number Five, after stints as a childcare worker, ordained minister, technical writer, and web designer. He currently resides in Washington state.