The Road to Phandalin
My boys want to learn to play D&D. What’s a good dad supposed to do? The smart ones tell them to go play “Skyrim”. The dumb awesome ones say, “Hey, I used to play D&D. This will be easy. I’ll teach you.” Guess which one I am.
After buying the Starter Box Set, I quickly realized that I needed to relearn the game too. Almost all of the game mechanics are different from what I knew. Here is my review of the 5th Edition Starter Set. Fortunately, the Starter Set is designed to be played right out of the box. Almost.
But before you can play you have to have players. First, we started with some of the friends around the neighborhood. But when the other boy named his character Sir Shitty McPisspants Farts-A-Lot, and the two girls spent the entire time on their phones I knew this wouldn’t work out.
So, much to the chagrin of our wives, the semi-regular game night that we shared with another family just became a regular game night. With two hours added on to the front to play D&D. Worse yet, neither wife has any desire to play. So, they sit together and knit and make fun of us dorks, whilst we slayeth thy nefarious dragon and saveth thy kingdom.
Our gaming group consists of me, my son, Andrew, and three dudes named Jim. Yeah this won’t be confusing at all. Actually, we call my youngest son James. The other dad is called Jim and his son is Jack. Andrew and Jack are 12, James is 10.
Andrew really wants to be the Dungeon Master, because he likes to be in charge. I want him to be the DM because I know how obsessive I can be when I run a campaign. More on this in the weeks to come. But I tell him that he needs to learn how to play a character first before he can run a whole game. He begrudgingly agrees to this.
We are using the pre-generated characters that came with the game. Andrew picked the Lawful Neutral human fighter whose back story made him a penniless Noble, born to lead and command respect. I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. James, the youngest, picked the Chaotic Good elven wizard because he loves Sorcerer Mickey and “Chaos is cool”. Warning lights are flashing. Jack picked the Neutral halfling thief because it seemed cooler than the cleric. And Jim got stuck with the Lawful Good dwarven cleric because someone has to keep these guys alive.
Now these characters all come with prewritten characteristics, traits and flaws. They’re good characters but none of my players felt any connection to them. They didn’t get a chance to roll their stats and they didn’t get to pick their own backstory, so they really had no idea who these characters were. To their credit, they all took the time to read and understand who they were playing and at various times even roleplayed aspects of their backstory, thus improving the main story. I was impressed. These kids put more effort into roleplaying than many adults.
Enough of this blather. Let’s play. The adventure starts with the players on the road having been hired by a dwarf named Gundren Rockseeker to take a cart from Neverwinter to Phandalin. These are a city and village in the official D&D world called the “Forgotten Realms”. More on this later. Gundren has gone on ahead with some other guy, Sildar Hallwinter, for plot purposes.
Many, many people have complained, ad nauseum, about this intro. Some complain about how unoriginal and boring it is (completely valid point). But most complain about how “railroad” it is. A railroad adventure is one that can only follow one track and has no options for the players to explore. Basically, these players feel that, as a roleplayer, they have the right and the freedom to do whatever they want, even completely ignoring the adventure, regardless of the enjoyment of the other players. You can click here (coming soon) for my thoughts on the sandbox vs. railroad argument. But here is my short answer. Get over it.
Every adventure is a railroad to some degree. Yes, good adventures and good DMs give many options and choices to the players. But sometimes, especially for novice players, it is best to just start the adventure. And this module is designed for novice players. Later, this adventure does offer many divergent paths for players to take. But for now, just play.
If you want to start with a small element of roleplay, add that while on the road to Phandalin you camp for the night and have all the players introduce their characters then. My players basically just stated their names and read the backgrounds of the back of the character sheet. Including parts that read “don’t share this with the other players”. This is fine. They will get better. Have an uneventful ride to the ambush site.
If your party is more experienced and you’re starting a new campaign, then start the adventure in Neverwinter. “Your character sits in a dockside tavern, a stranger to all. You each sit alone mulling over your life, thinking back on the events that led to you sitting alone in this particular tavern on this particular night. Suddenly the door is kicked open by an unusually jubilant dwarf, who announces, “A round of drinks for everyone!” The dwarf then produces the largest ruby you’ve ever seen and slams it on the bar as payment.
The dwarf is followed by a stern human male with an enormous broadsword. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with. He rolls his eyes at the exorbitant behavior of his employer but silently stands guard. This is Sildar Hallwainter.
The dwarf bellows, “I’m looking for stalwart men (and women) to share an adventure, guiding my caravan south along the High Road to the sun swept foothills of the Sword Mountains. 25 gold to a man. For all those of brave hearts and good character, may fortune be ever in your future!”
Obviously, the players will speak with this dwarf. But for the sandbox enthusiast who needs choices, have a second NPC, covered from head to toe in muck and smelling like a sewer, kick in the door a few moments later and yell, “I need ten blokes to help shovel shit out in the mosquito infested swamp north of town. The pay is 5 silver for the day!”
Have the party introduce themselves to the flamboyant dwarf, Gundren. He will ask them what brings them to Neverwinter and what skills they bring to the table. Have another NPC challenge a player for a spot on the party, with an arm-wrestling competition or best slingshot on that mouse in the corner, etc.
This intro works for a number of reasons. Most important, it creates its own story hook. With just a few lines of dialog you’ve created a memorable and fun NPC. And hopefully, one that the players will actually care about rescuing when the time comes.
The thief might try to pickpocket Gundren. Let him succeed and gain a small rough-cut gem worth 10 gold. At the end of the encounter have Gundren say, “My light-fingered friend can keep the trinket as a down payment. There’s plenty where that came from.”
They might attack Gundren (some parties are dumber than others). Gundren sits back, snaps his fingers and Sildar destroys them, knocking them all out. The party wakes up on the road in a wagon heading south with four other NPC guards. One guard says, “Gundren liked your spirit, but he thinks you’re confused about your motives. He’s willing to give you a shot at redumption, (purposely mispronounced) whatever that is.” The party’s been shanghaied. Of course, these NPCs will immediately perish in the coming goblin ambush.
Have the trip to the ambush site take 2 days. Roll for random encounters, once each day, and once each night. Make whatever percentage chance you want. It doesn’t matter. The whole point of rolling dice as a DM is to keep up the tension in the players. You can read my expanded thoughts on dice rolling here (coming soon). Sometimes I’ll just randomly roll dice and act relieved or disappointed or concerned just to keep my players on their toes.
If an encounter occurs, keep it simple and low level. A half dozen kobolds, a couple of lost orcs, a lone starving wolf, etc. There is a terrific website called KoboldFightClub that can help you make leveled monster encounters on the fly. Enough tips for advanced players, back to the novice adventure.
At the ambush site, I ran it as is from the book. Make sure you stress knowing the general location of each party member. Who investigated the horses, who stayed near the wagon, who stayed in the wagon. Players will get attuned to expect something when you do this. Later you can mess with your players by asking for this info and nothing happens or not asking for it just before a major encounter. You can read about expanded thoughts on “dramatic tension” here. (still coming soon)
If the encounter is too quick add a couple of goblins to attack from behind. But only if this will increase the dramatic tension. Learn to gauge your group and know when you need to back off the pressure if your players (ie. your friends) need a breather.
James the wizard immediately took down two of the goblins with a sleep spell, but then they had a hard time killing the last two. They even had to chase down the last one before he could warn any other goblins lying about in wait in the woods. The group did not know that there were none.
After an unnecessarily long discussion on how to tie up a goblin, the party interrogated their captives. I play goblins like bigger, meaner gremlins. I mean the wet, nasty ones like Stripe, not cute, furry Gizmo. They are stupid, and silly, and really mean. There was a lot of cackling and gnashing of teeth on my side, and far too many back handed slaps on my party’s side. Apparently, the ACLU hasn’t gotten around to promoting goblin rights in the Forgotten Realms.
Later, as a parent, I did have a discussion with the kids that the torture and physical abuse of captive goblins (and little brothers) is frowned upon in modern society, but in the pseudo-Medieval, semi-wild frontier it’s a morally gray area. This would have sunk in better if it wasn’t the other adult leading the goblin abuse parade because his dwarven “character” despises goblins. “Look it’s written on my character sheet”.
The captured goblins agreed to lead them to their cave. But they didn’t tell them about the traps along the way. This led to Andrew, the fighter/leader, falling into the snare trap and dangling upside down. There was much cackling coming from the DM, I mean goblin, side of the table.
That is one of the reasons why this game is great. Where else can a parent laugh at his kid and say, “He looks like a piñata!” in an evil, goblin voice and not offend said child.
This also teaches a valuable lesson about party order. Put the guy with high perception in the front. Which helped them avoid the second pit trap. I also probably helped put them on alert. After the snare trap, the party asked the goblins if there were any more traps. They responded, “er, NO, -snicker- -snicker-,” while giving each other elbow nudges and winks.
Did I give too much away? Did I ruin my own trap? Yes. But the job of a DM is to lay the foundation for a good story, not sadistically wear the players down. Sometimes, it is good to whittle down the PC’s resources; hit points, healing, and spell slots, to then have an intense combat encounter. But not here. Here, the purpose is to teach about party order and Perception checks. Again, if you have an experienced party, then make tougher traps, add spikes to the pit, unleash wolves on the snare trap victim. Whatever.
The party makes it to the cave entrance. They quickly dispatch the four goblins out front. The book says two, I made it four. Modify the adventure in any way that improves the drama, the tension, or the story.
Just as the party is about to assault the goblin hideout, I halted the session. And this is the biggest tip when playing D&D with children. Know when to stop. Even though we only did 2 combat encounters, 2 trap events, and very little role-play, after about 2 hours I could tell that all the boys were losing focus on the game. It is better to end with a short session, than to drag one out into a long slog.
All in all, the kids said that they had fun. Granted, Andrew would say he had fun even if he didn’t, but James doesn’t pull any punches and he said he had a blast.
So here are my initial thoughts on playing D&D with kids. It was a lot of fun but it was exhausting. It did not help that no one knew any of the rules. Except me, sort of. And the three boys had never role-played anything before. Plus, all three are kind of shy and introverted, so playing a “character” was uncomfortable for them. But they were trying and that’s the important part.
But teaching a role-playing game to a group of kids at the same time requires a lot of patience. You will have to remind every player, every round, what dice to roll to hit, what dice to roll for damage, and where they can find this info on their character sheet. Every player. Every round.
This was a very difficult task, when added to the task of keeping track of the adventure as well. I will say that this does get better, although some players, regardless of age, pick up on the mechanics of the game quicker than others.
In the intervening weeks, I created a folder that I gave to each player to keep their character sheets and other handouts in. Also, in the folder, I wrote up a four-page Rules synopsis. One page of Adventuring basics, a page of Combat rules, and a page about Combat Conditions and Dying rules. The last page is a Home Brew page expanding the Critical Hit and Critical Fail chart. Here is the link: Rules FOUR PAGE
Hopefully, having access to these rules will help the player take better control of their characters. We will see.
Next week, the party infiltrates the Cragmaw Goblin Cave.
As always, never abuse your goblin hostages, and Game On!
Now, goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. – J.R.R. Tolkien