Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

That’s Not D&D

Robert Amador just commented here suggesting that I check out the Hero Kids role playing game and it reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s “DMing for your toddler” and just how inherently wrong it is. Go look at it. Read it. I hope you are just frothing with nerd rage at the mere hint of that article.

Listen, if you are going to “DM” for anyone… especially a young child, it doesn’t matter what sort of game you think you’re running, you are standing in the shadow of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. You know… the one with the demon-thing on the cover, clutching the scantily clad woman. As someone responsible for initiating someone into the hobby, there are just a few things you are responsible to get across.

  1. Magic, violence, the occult, and various forms of burglary are not something you can dabble in without consequences. The uncanny nature of the source material is what makes it so attractive to children– they wouldn’t want to play if they didn’t think it weren’t somehow taboo. If you reduce this to a mere “game” and eliminate the very premise of consequences… then you’ve changed something deep and mysterious into a toy. Kids are not stupid and they know the difference.
  2. The rules and the dice are largely just props. Not even the Dungeon Master is liable to understand them. This is tolerated in the genre because choice, consequences, and stakes are what are truly essential to the form. The rules, to the extent that they are comprehensible and actually applied, are there primarily to settle disputes over which player characters are dead and which ones aren’t.
  3. The unfinished nature of the game is also inherent to the form. As the game master needs the players assistance in creating a believable game world, so too do the developers and designers need the game master to step in and complete the game. Next to the nearly infinite nature of the default mode of play, this is one of the most compelling features of the game.
  4. Whatever you think of the first three points is irrelevant if you reduce the game to a tactical combat scenario. Grappling with unwieldiness of risk, infinite play, incompleteness, and situations that can’t begin to be covered by any sort of rule set are what the game is about, even if you are looking to provide a different spin on those individual points somehow. It’s really not about rolling d20 to hit. The game is about whether you go through the swamp or over the mountains. It’s about whether you track the dragon to his lair or not. It’s about whether or not you open the box and what sort of dumb story you make up to try to talk your way past the goblin guards. It’s about the crazy plan you come up with when death seems certain. It’s about the idea that suddenly strikes the players when they are aggravated by an obstacle that seems impassable.

Real, unadulterated D&D is something that every child has a right to experience. I would go so far as to say that it is essential that they have a safe place to experiment with the concepts of right, wrong, death, loss, failure, and missed opportunities. What is heroism without risk? What is good without choice? Kid activities and fairy stories have dealt with these things head on for centuries. This recent process of sanitation and this general obsession with being “safe” is ultimately going to produce moral midgets without any concept of character or honor. Yes… you got that right… your kiddie D&D is dangerous because it isn’t metal enough.

So you can keep your 3.5 derived watered down D&D. You can have your glossy, super fine, homogenized substitute. At my house, my kids get the real thing. Just like… they only see the original theatrical releases of the old Star Wars Trilogy. Just like… they are taught that “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia. Just like… we carefully hide the fact that multi-movie epics have been made of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Because we don’t have time for cheap knockoffs, ill-considered changes, and bizarre adaptions that completely violate the thematic undertones that made these things so phenomenally powerful in the first place.


12 responses to “That’s Not D&D

  1. Alex December 12, 2013 at 11:14 am

    It would be nice to have D&D with less scantily-clad/naked ladies, though. Still, there are plenty of clones, and even editions that meet this criteria. Pretty sure the only one in B/X is the mermaid and there are none in the Cyclopedia (not that I would ever recommend the Cyclopedia on its other merits ;D ).

    • Alex December 12, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Also, in regards to Doctorow’s post, I think that getting a kid interested in gaming is more important than immediately imposing an orthodoxy upon them (I mean, she was 4 years old). As for Hero Kids, though, that looks awful.

      • jeffro December 12, 2013 at 11:34 am

        Oh, sure. I had NO IDEA that my son would really get into Commands & Colors: Ancients or Ogre: Designers Edition. I had no idea that my daughter would invest so much in being a game designer. We try all kinds of things all the time and they aren’t shy about expressing an interest in what they think is truly awesome.

        From a parenting standpoint, you expose them to the classics, challenge them, equip them… and keep the garbage out of the way so that they can focus. That isn’t orthodoxy. There just isn’t time for mediocrity when you get down to it.

      • Alex December 12, 2013 at 11:46 am

        I agree entirely, and may have simply misinterpreted the initial thrust of that first paragraph.

        I definitely think that with any form of gaming, kids will naturally branch out from easier to more complex gaming. Those easier games don’t have be pandering, though.

  2. David Larkins December 12, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Couple years back, I posted an early memory of D&D; I’ll share it here:

    The setting is my elementary school playground. I am in fifth grade, either 10 or 11 years old. I’m about a year out from buying the Mentzer Red Box, but I’m already extremely interested in this whole Dungeons & Dragons thing. Imagine my excitement, then, when this particular recess I am privy to tales related from an acquaintance whose older brother actually plays D&D.

    I remember quite distinctly the fiendish glint in my schoolyard chum’s eyes as he described one particularly gruesome trap: “There was this giant statue carved out of black stone. The statue was kneeling down and its hands were held in front of it like stairs.” He demonstrated the statue’s pose before continuing. “Its eyes were two giant rubies. My brother’s character was a thief, so he climbed up the statue’s hands and pried the rubies out.” He paused for effect as my friends and I held our collective breath. “Then the statue came alive and grabbed the thief and ripped his skin off!”

    “COOL!” we all intoned.

    As I summed up at the end of the post: “…to a young boy on the cusp of adolescence it was a sign of D&D’s ‘mature’ nature; clearly this was not a game for little kids, and that made it all the more desirable!”

  3. Alan December 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    That is a pitch perfect parody of the more reactionary parts of the hobby! The obsession with telling other people to stop having fun, the willingness to crap all over father-daughter bonding experience, the confusing of personal preference with universal rules, the arrogance to tell a stranger how to raise their children, the refusal to accept that language changes, and the hilarious idea that this is worth any sort of “rage” over. Great stuff! I look forward to more of your humor pieces in the future!

    • jeffro December 12, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      Cory Doctorow can bond with his daughter all he wants to and he can be a parenting hero as far as I am concerned. I’m still feel free to take 700 words to explain on my own blog why what he was doing wasn’t really “Dungeon Mastering” and what specifically his daughter will miss out on if she grows up in an impoverished household where the only form of the game she is exposed to is derivative of 3.5 and Pathfinder. That’s just tragic to contemplate! Someone send that family a copy of Moldvay Basic quick!

  4. violetrook December 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Jeffro, I’m kind of curious, were you raised by gamers or did you come to gaming on your own?

    I think I have a different perspective on this because I was raised by two old school gamers who primarily trained me to understand how gaming worked with board games when I was young (I don’t mean Candy Land, I mean the original Arkham Horror and various Avalon Hill games). I cut my teeth on tactical combat games with stuffed toys (aka the official “Fuzzy Heroes” events at GenCon) and played my first D&D game at a convention.

    The first time I played in a dungeon with my family it was a dungeon that was older than me and had a page long kill-log of adventurers it had done away with (and was run using the original white box rules). Half our party was killed by giant centipedes and there was little role playing because that was the style of white box games (much more tactical).

    I feel kind of like you’re fixating on your image of “old” D&D when the game (and gaming in general) has been so much more than that.

    • jeffro December 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      Oh, I’m definitely a first generation gamer that had to claw my way into the hobby with broken, incomplete, or otherwise overwhelming rule sets quietly taunting me with their awesomeness for years….

      One of my earliest gaming experiences was crying when I could not figure out the rules to Car Wars and nobody wanted to help me. My friends all depended on me to be the “alpha gamer”, but I largely failed them.

  5. Karl Gallagher December 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Heh. I ran three kids through a Tunnels & Trolls campaign for the old school feel. The next RPG will probably be stripped down GURPS 4e, or Cortex (to sucker their mother in with the fun of funny-shaped dice).

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