My kid wants me to DM. I don't know how.

So, my 12-year old son is very interested in the concept of Dungeons and Dragons. He loves his Runescape, and now wants to kick it old-school style. Recognizing that I am old, he has requested my assistance.

The problem is this: Although I old enough to remember the good ol’ days of D&D, I never really played. But not because I wasn’t interested. I didn’t play because my parents were (and still are, in spades) Jesus freaks who believed the hype and were convinced that playing D&D was asking for demon possession.

And so here I am, age 38, completely not demonically posessed and completely lacking in any D&D skillz whatsoever.

I did play twice with my friends, who are now demonically possessed engineers and software programmers, and got the gist of the game, which I think goes like this:

It’s basically a text-adventure (I was allowed to play those), and the DM’s job is to read the text. You’ve got strength, dexterity, and defense and stuff, and so does the whatever you are attacking, and it’s also the DMs job to roll dice to figure out (1) if you hit it, (2) how much you hit it for, (3) if it hit you, and (4) how much it hit you for.

As I noted, he really likes Runescape. I’ve told him that D&D is like Runescape, only much, much slower–partly becuase the computer knows what to do, and I don’t.

He remains undeterred.

So, I looked it up on line. And there is a LOT of information out there–much more than I am willing to read. Can someone give me some simple ideas… some basic websites with texts and how-tos, etc., with an emphasis on these words: SIMPLE. BASIC.

Quick notes: I did by him a “Basic Game” recently, but it did not resemble what I recalled. It had a board, action figures, and other crap. It did not have six young nerds sitting around a table drinking Coke while the head nerd explained things to you. I also bought him a couple of “Monster Manuals” (or something like that) from Half-Price Books.

As far as I can tell, he’s ready roll up a character and go on a text adventure with me rolling dice and telling him what’s up. How do I get started?

The most important thing isn’t the combat mechanics (what you’re talking about re: figuring out whether you hit and how hard), though that is part of the game. Most importantly, it’s about telling a story. Just a sequence of assorted monsters to fight gets old, real fast: You need to put the monsters in some sort of framework; make them obstacles that need to be overcome or circumvented to achieve some goal. Nor need all the obstacles be monsters, or anything else actually covered by the rules: Maybe, for instance, when he finishes hacking through the villain’s guards and reaches the captive princess, it turns out that she’s developed a case of Stockholm syndrome, and needs to be convinced to be rescued. In that case, the princess herself is an obstacle.

It’s interactive storytelling. As the DM you control the set, setting and minor characters. The players control the protagonists.

I’m DMing for my 12-year-old son and his friends right now. Here’s some basic suggestions:

  1. You need a group. Just you and your son will get boring quickly. Him plus 2 or 3 of his friends will work much better.

  2. You’re not just there to read the story. It’s a role-playing game, which means your job as DM is to assume the role of every character the players run into. You don’t have to jump around and do funny voices, but if they ask the dwarf bartender about where the thieves guild is located, your job is to pretend to be the bartender. It’s this dramatic interaction between the players and the DM (and each other) that makes table-top RPGs so interesting.

  3. Generally you don’t roll the dice for them. You let them roll the dice. More fun that way. You only roll the dice for things that need to be kept secret.

Generally a game session goes like this: I give them some sort of hook to get the adventure going – they see a fight in the street and join in to help, or some travelers approach them and hire them as bodyguards. When we’re not in combat I keep it very loose and free form, but I do go around the table and make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute. We role-play through them gathering info, or negotiating, or researching or whatever.

Eventually the adventure will lead them to a dangerous situation. They arrive at some ruins guarded by kobolds, or they follow some giant rats into a sewer. At that point we have a big blank map marked off with one inch squares. I draw the layout of the space in dry-erase marker and they show their positions with miniature figures.

When they encounter bad guys things get more formal. I ask them one at a time what they’re going to do: “I charge at the lead spider swinging!” “I hold back and shoot an arrow at the evil mage.” When it’s the bad guys turn I decide what they’ll do. We move the figures on the map and roll dice to resolve each action. The players roll their dice and add any bonuses their characters have and I tell them if they hit. If they hit they roll their damage. I do all the rolls for the bad guys and the monsters.

When the combat is over we switch back to role-playing. They search the bodies for treasure, divvy it up among themselves, then move on to the next challenge. Sometimes instead of monsters to fight there’s a puzzle to solve or a trap to disarm.

And through it all there’s a story being told. For example, their very first adventure was to rescue the mayor’s daughter who’d been kidnapped by goblins. (They saw the tail end of the kidnapping, but were unable to stop it.) It turned out she was being held prisoner in some ruins outside of town by an alchemist who was experimenting with ways to turn humans in were-rats. This resulted in a nasty surprise when they freed the alchemist’s “prisoners” only to have them turn into giant rats and attack. The alchemist himself escaped and will return as a villain later on. The adventurers return to town as heros and now the mayor will trust them with other jobs. See … it all ties together into a bigger story than just hack, slash, kill, get gold.

Thanks, all.

So, for a start, I can just draw up a grid (that he doesn’t get to see*) and design a story around it? That’s why I always remember it being like a text adventure:

“You are in a room… you see x, y, and z. The street runs east and west, and there’s a doorway to the north. What do you want to do?”

*Or does he? The “Basic Game” set we bought has a dungeon-looking grid that can be fit together in various ways, but then he’s only got four “rooms” to visit.

I guess if I want to not worry about monster mechanics, I can just let him roll, pretend I know what’s happening, and say “you inflicted… um… ten damage… the troll is dead.” And then he can pick its pockets or whatever.

Also: is there a nice library of simple adventures somewhere on-line? I don’t know if I have the time, knowledge, or creativity to invent one. (Well, not a good one, anyway.)

LOL. You really need the rules. He’ll figure out pretty quick that the dice rolls are meaningless.

At a minimum you need this. It’s the core rulebooks which includes the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and the Monster Manual.

The Player’s Handbook tells you about all the character abilities, equipment, and the rules for combat.

The Dungeonmaster’s Guide has suggestions for how to run a campaign, including a starting town and a starting dungeon.

The Monster Manual has stats for all the different monsters.

There are lots of other supplements, but that core set of three books, plus some dice will get you started.

4th Edition quick start link with basic rules and an adventure.

It also has a link for a character creator program which is somewhat neat.

Draw up a grid that he doesn’t get to see, but also have a second grid that he does see and fill this out as he explores.

That’s even better! He can test out the game before he drops $50 on the full rules.

As an alternative to shelling out the $ for a 4E rulebook, the Pathfinder RPG is, apparently, basically D&D 3.5 with some revisions, and is currently available in free-beta here

If you decide to press forward, you may want to run pre-fab adventures available for sale/download. They used to be called “modules”…basically a self-contained adventure, complete with story, encounters, NPCs, and loot. Dunno if they still make those anymore, but some of the classics from back in the day may still be around. I think “Keep on the Borderlands” was the title of one module intended for begining players…

For a start, you design the framework of a story. How exactly you do this is up to you, but you don’t necessarily need a map in advance (or even at all) to do this. It’s perfectly OK, for instance, to have a town with a tavern and a blacksmith and a Town Hall and a guard station, without needing to know where they are in relation to each other. The players might say “OK, we leave the tavern and head to the Town Hall, to tell the mayor we’ll take the job the notice on the inn wall told us about”, and you say “OK, on your way to the hall, a street urchin bumps into you, but apologizes and goes on his way”, and secretly roll some dice to see if they notice he picked their pockets. That’s a perfectly good piece of story there, and you didn’t need to know whether the Hall was north or south of the tavern to tell it. If you do prefer to design things around a map, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary.

Thanks for the tips and links, everybody! I found a simple “module” online, and we ran through a game last night. I acted as the DM, reading the bits I was supposed to read, and improvising when I needed to. He already knew how to roll for what, or claimed he did, so that worked itself out, and we completed his first D&D adventure.

Of course, that didn’t inspire him to play another: it inspired him to go to his room, grab some graph paper, and begin designing his own modules! I suspect that he’d be a much better DM than me.

Later, he grabbed his Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and wanted to duel. I tried to die as quickly as possible, but apparently I had 10,000+ hit points…