Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Letter From Paul (gamer, not saint)

It's been a while since I actually talked about gaming with children, this blog's original intention. Last month, I have received a letter from a reader named Paul. This letter was full of fascinating insights into gaming within the family (something I'd never done), a very useful general use Q&A and some surprisingly poignant and precise (as well as fun and flattering) comments on the scandal yours truly was involved in last year.

With Paul's permission, I'm now sharing this very interesting and useful essay with you :)

Oh, and Paul -- thanks! :)

Hi Uri,

Where were you when I needed you?  Oh well . . . better late than never.  Actually, you have already answered most of my questions.  I may sound like a sycophant stalker when I tell you that I have just finished reading all of your articles and your entire blog archive.  So why have I done so much research and then written this epic email?  Probably for the same reasons you have – because the kids deserve the effort.  Because it’s fun.  Please allow me to explain:

Three years ago I decided to introduce D&D to my kids and my wife.  I hadn’t played in twenty years so it was a daunting surprise when I began reading through the Player’s Handbook 4th Edition.  I wanted to ensure my kids didn’t get bored while I studied the rules, so I closed the book and just made-up the rules.  We needed a map or a grid and we had nothing of the kind, so I designated our lounge room rug (6’ by 4’) as the entire underground network of dungeons.  We needed miniatures or figurines so I asked each member of my family to go to their bedrooms and return with something that could represent their character.  We all laughed as we surveyed the collection which consisted of a clay brontosaurus, a smiling Buddha and some sort of Decepticon Transformer.  At one point, my youngest son’s character got trapped in a cage.  He (6 years old at the time) ran to the laundry and returned with a washing basket.  He placed it over his dinosaur and exclaimed, “He’s trapped!”

As I said, this was three years ago and just reminiscing is bringing back fond memories.  I was delighted that the television was turned off and my family was embracing the opportunity to be creative together, so I decided to make this a regular event.  I bought the core 4E books, studied what I felt was the necessary minimum, and printed some 1” square maps.  Then I journeyed to ‘The Shadowfell’ with my youngest son (Puck the Elven Fighter), my teenage son (Cralu the Human Rogue) and Tamara (Zoe the Halfling Ranger); all represented this time by coloured tokens borrowed from Chinese Checkers. 

We’ve come a long way since then.  We have a wet-erase mat, dungeon tiles, lots of miniatures and a DDI account.  The party are now Level 17 PC’s and I’ve led them through many of the ‘Wizards of the Coast’ published adventures, from H1: Keep on the Shadowfell to P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens and now P2: The Demon Queen’s Enclave. 

However, there were many ‘bumps’ along the way.  We got some of the rules wrong – confusion with opportunity attacks, bursts and blasts, stacked temporary hit points - and other rules that have since been cleared up in updates/errata.  But it was arguments at the table that brought our gaming to an end last year. I found myself constantly putting out fires that were fuelled by negativity, jealousy, selfishness, interruptions, usurping and exploitation.  (Wow!  It sounds like a Rupert Murdoch newspaper.)  It just wasn’t fun anymore.  Yep, I got burned too.

In fairness, I have been DM for a group consisting of a genius (my youngest son – now nine years), an actor who will probably accept an academy award before he turns twenty (my teenage son – now 18 years) and an Early Years Childcare worker who, although very responsible, is indeed sillier than Lewis Carroll and Dr Seuss combined (Tamara – my wife).  Although that may sound like the perfect mix for an adventure in Willy Wonka’s factory, it also perfectly polarizes personalities and penalises popular play - paralysing persona. My teenage son moved out of home so we put the game on ice and focused on schoolwork, homework, bookwork, housework and all the other boring elements in life that concatenate with ‘work’. 

Earlier this year, Tamara and I realised just how much we missed D&D.  We also realised that we had never played with other adults.  We wondered - considering we are self taught - if we were even playing the game correctly.  (In hindsight that thought is most existential.)  So we started looking for a game to join.  We were surprised and delighted at how easy that task proved to be.  Indeed, we were welcomed to a table and complimented on our role playing.  The DM said it was refreshing to invite players who knew the rules and I personally found it equally refreshing to be a PC/hero after two years as DM.

However, arguments were occurring at the table, not with Tam or I, but between the other players.  One player left the game permanently.  He was so disgusted that he decided to stop gaming all together.  That was a shame because he was instrumental in our initiation to the campaign and we really liked his playing style.  I won’t bore you with further negativity about that scenario; suffice to say that although we persisted with that campaign, the ‘fun’ had clearly left the building.  The grownups at the table were behaving like children.  Correction – children behave better.

Again I needed to re-evaluate my needs and desires in the world of RPG’s.  What is it that I really enjoy about D&D?  That’s easy – it’s the storytelling, the creativity, the challenge, the puzzles, the teamwork, the fantasy, the combat, the dice rolling, the spontaneity and the anticipation.  Mostly though, it’s the look on the faces of the players around the table when . . . well when anything happens.  When Dark Vision reveals a lurking dragon, or a Wizard teleports a stupid Ogre off a bridge, or the DM rewards a PC with a magic weapon, or the entire party completely missed the objective and got arrested by the village militia.  It’s the facial expressions and the sounds of ‘oooh’ and ‘aaahh’ that fulfil my senses; much like watching a movie thriller. 

I also realised that I missed playing with my youngest son.  Did I mention he’s a genius?  D&D has been excellent for him.  He knows every stat of every monster in the manual.  I’ve even asked him to DM a campaign known as “The Sceptre Tower of SpellGard”, and at only nine years old he did a remarkable job.  (I think he likes rats just as much as you do.)  His mental arithmetic is . . . intimidating to say the least.  Best of all, his smile and his laugh are infectious, contagious and frequent.

The solution is obvious.  My wife, my son and I need to host a game that caters to kids. We could invite parents and their kids to our house.  Perfect! 

Hang on! That will require some research and careful planning.  Although I have been DM for my own kids, and I know their personalities very well, there were many problems that caused arguments at our table.  It could be worse with strangers and their kids.  Therefore, many questions need to be answered before we jump in the deep end:

What is the minimum age that I should accept at the table?
Should I use a scripted/published adventure or write my own?
Character generation and levelling up could be very complicated. How do I simplify it?
How do I maintain balance (and interest) between role-play and combat?
Sandbox or railroad?
Should I handle rewards differently?
How do I police behaviour and discipline?
Do I omit religion?
How much gore and violence (if any) can or can’t be included?
Will there be tears and permanent emotional scars if a PC dies?
I assume girls will respond differently to boys.  So what can I expect and how do I cater? 

As I said, you have already answered most of my questions.  When I Googled “D&D for kids.”  I found your July post on the Wizards community forum and I was immediately attracted to the words, “author of the D&D Kids tutorial series.”

Then I found the famous article that apparently ‘broke the internet’ titled, “D&D Kids: Girls at the Table”.  You said in your (un)disclaimer, “my aim as I embarked on this monumental project was to help DMs avoid some of the pitfalls into which I had stumbled in the beginning of my career”.  Eureka! I have found the mother-load. You are speaking directly to me.  I have much to say abut this article but my spider senses tell me that you may be sick of talking about it, so I’ll say only this: Boys and Girls respond differently because they are different.  Knowledge is to be shared.  Those with experience teaching boys and girls have acquired knowledge regarding the differences and should pass this knowledge onto other teachers for their mutual benefit.  I thank you Uri Kurlianchik for passing this valuable knowledge onto me. 

Yes, I also read the comments from people such as Kynn (or Caoimhe), and I was saddened by the smear campaign.  I shall offer a unique perspective to this, because the whole saga makes me contemplate the Super Heroes’ Curse.  Huh? The what now? Well, have you seen the Will Smith movie - ‘Hancock’?  Or perhaps you’ve watched Pixar’s - ‘The Incredibles’?  The concept at the beginning of both movies is the same – the super heroes are criticized and even sued by the public for leaving a mess and damaging public property each time they rescue someone.  The super heroes become disillusioned and depressed with their own lives.  What the hell am I talking about?  My point is you were only trying to help by passing on your knowledge and experience.  Although there will always be people who criticize and cut down the tall poppies, I’m glad that you continue to do what you do.  You summed it up nicely on Saturday, November 12, 2011 when you said, “I rule. You don't.”  (I also like that you don’t take it all too seriously and your quirky sense of humour shines through at all times.  Hopefully you can hear in my tone and by my ‘super hero curse’ analogy and other absurd parallels that I am also talking somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)

I continued to read all of your articles as listed on and you continued to answer most of my questions. (I’m writing this next section to ‘think out loud’, and also to provide mutual confidence.)

How much gore and violence (if any) can or can’t be included?

One of my favourite movies from the late 80’s is ‘Parenthood’ with Steve Martin.  So many good lines – even from Keanu Reeves, “you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”  Anyway, before I start quoting all my favourite lines, the scene that’s relevant for this topic is when Steve Martin’s character Gil Buchman has to dress as a cowboy for his son’s birthday party because ‘Cowboy Dan’, the hired balloon-animal clown, didn’t arrive: 

The kids aren’t fooled, “You´re Kevin´s father.  You´re not Cowboy Dan.”

“That´s right” says Gil in a southern drawl, “They call me Cowboy in ‘guil-ty’.  I saw Cowboy Dan.  I didn't like the look on his face. It was like this, so l killed him.”  The kids look a little pleased so Gil continues, “I blew a hole in him this big.”  The kids don’t seem overly impressed so he embellishes, “Actually it was about this big.” Some applause.  “You know, when I think about it, that hole was about this big.”  The group, (mostly boys) cheer loudly and Kevin is delighted with his Dad. Gil continues, “And his guts were spilled out all over the floor.  As I was walkin´ away, I slip around on his guts.  A couple of other people came by and started slippin´ on his guts too.  After I blow a hole in somebody and slip around on their guts...afterwards, I always like to make balloon animals.”  Gil begins to twist balloons into a shape that resembles no living animal on earth, and the kids look disappointed – until Gil announces, “Your lower intestines!”  The kids laugh and shout and applaud.

The kids know that it’s all pretend.  They’re smart enough to separate fantasy from reality and they will never act out the fantasy in real life.  They don’t want to hurt anyone.

I like your universal solution of making the violence over the top or funny and very metaphorical; just like Gil Buchman did.  I shall honour your sixth commandment, “Thou Shalt Be Gory, Goofy, and Cool!” because I want my son and his friends to smile; just like Kevin did.  You’re right - it is a controversial position and I will certainly be mindful and respectful of parent’s wishes.  The last thing I want is traumatised kids.  If parents ask me to never mention blood, then I’ll call it ‘goo’ or ‘slime’ or ‘pus’; Nickelodeon-esque.  That reminds me, I downloaded some amazing poster-size maps created by a brilliant cartographer/Photoshop expert, and for every map that displays blood spatter, he has another version with luminescent green goo to accommodate and appease parents.

I assume girls will respond differently to boys.  So what can I expect and how do I cater? 

In my youngest sons’ early years, we offered him toys from both gender stereotypes. For example: cars, trains, tools and footballs were made available, but so too were dolls, perambulators and tea sets.  He always opted for the ‘boys toys’ and our friend’s daughter always opted for the ‘girls toys’.  It would not have been a problem if my son had chosen to play with the dolls, but he just didn’t want to.

My wife found it very interesting when you profiled that girls “like nature-based, ranged and quick classes, and value Dexterity more than any other ability.”  You said, “Girls I played with preferred short and stocky characters to lithe and elegant ones. Given free reign, most started the game as dwarves, mulls, halflings or simply short humans. I think the character statistically most likely to be attractive to girls is a female eladrin ranger. Describe her as a friend of nature and a protector of the forest, not as a hunter or avenger.”  Interesting because the two characters Tamara has developed, up to level 17, are a female Halfling Ranger and a female Gnome Bard. Furthermore, I personally think Tamara plays the game better than anyone else at the grownups table.

I don’t want to lose good players so I will do as you suggested and intervene a little at first. I think I will role-play the NPC’s to pay attention to the pets.  That might encourage the girls to respond imaginatively.  I’m also thinking maps and puzzle stimuli.  I love puzzles.

A few apologies:

If you have read this far, I apologise for keeping you away from your family and I thank you for your persistence. 

I apologise for mentioning “Wizards of the Coast” as that must leave a sour taste in your ears. ;-)  Seriously though, I can’t believe they have removed your articles.  I was looking for Mavet Rav because that article has a legendary reputation. 

I apologise on behalf of the rude people who say your classes looks like a jungle.  They mean to insult you, but I’m pleased you are complimented because I agree - a jungle is such a nicer place than a prison.  With that you remind me of Robin Williams as Professor John Keating in “Dead Poet’s Society.”  Carpe Diem.

I look forward to putting into practise all you have taught me.  I look forward to “resting safely, knowing that I served as a fine guide for a bunch of warlike young tourists making their first steps in a fantastic world we built together.”

Who am I?  I am a teacher.  I teach software at Sydney University.  Pleased to meet you,

Sydney, Australia.

1 comment: