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Back in Black
Breaking in the Newbies, Part 1
by Kenton Kilgore
My daughters were not, however, new to the fantasy genre. They both had seen and loved the old Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit and the live-action Lord of the Rings movies. Like other kids, they’re big fans of the Harry Potter and Narnia series of books and movies, and had read lots of other fantasy novels as well.
Beth was 16, older than I was when I started. Ally-Jane was 11 ½, which is some might think is too young, but I wasn’t much concerned, as she’s very bright (like her sister) and has a long attention span (also like her sister). As I developed the campaign, I took their ages and likes into account, but then, I do that anyway for my players, because why spend time and effort creating something no one wants to play?
KISS: Keeping It Simple and Small (Creating
To begin, I explained to them that participating in AD&D was sort of like playing any of the “let’s-pretend” games they did when they were younger, only with rules and dice. They were familiar with creating characters from playing Rock Band with me and my wife, so next, we went right to that.
Thanks to their exposure to fantasy novels and films, I didn’t have to do much explaining about what each race was and could do, and it was even easier seeing as I’ve cut down on the number of available player-character races anyway. I described each class with a one-line description, usually an example from something they already knew:
Getafix the druid (left) and Cacofonix the bard (right). I'd say Getafix is 14th level, Cacofonix is definitely 1st.
Explaining the attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma) wasn’t difficult. Alignment, however, can be if you’re a newbie: the differences between “Good” and “Evil” are easy to grab, but what “Lawful” and “Chaotic” mean, especially interplayed with “Good” and “Evil,” is not so straightforward. So, similar to what I did with classes, I offered examples:
In the end, Ally-Jane chose to play Clover Tealeaf, a halfling thief; Beth created Raina, a high elf magic-user; and Joni had Lassiel, a wood elf ranger (all of them female, by the way). Most old-school AD&Ders that I knew and gamed with wanted at least one thief, one magic-user, one cleric, and two fighters (with melee, missile, and blunt weapons) in any party, so as to be able to handle any situation, but I didn’t try to steer my new players any certain way. As you’ll see, I just adjusted my adventure ideas to fit them: plenty of opportunities for thieving and using Raina’s spells (Burning Hands, Comprehend Languages), little combat.
Continuing my plan of teaching them the game by playing, we went straight into adventuring. I wanted my daughters to experience a “typical” AD&D gaming session, so I started them in a “typical” fantasy world (that is, similar to LOTR, with which they’re most familiar).
In my experience, the easiest way to make the eyes of any player, newbie or veteran, glaze over is to tell them (or give them to read) a long, complicated backstory for the campaign. This is even more true when you have brand-new recruits and everyone’s itching to get to “the good part.”
Accordingly, the only thing I told my players was that, about 1000 years before, the elves of this world had retreated to their ancestral homeland (an island on a large lake) and stayed out of the strife and tumult that had consumed the nearby human lands. Recently, the elves had decided to send several two-person teams off the island to observe and report back in a year. Two of those scouts were Lassiel and Raina.
That’s it: no history, no names of NPCs or areas, no further backstories for the PCs. In addition to not wanting to bore my new players, my other reasons for not investing a lot of time and effort in a campaign description was that 1) I didn’t know if my kids would actually want to play past the first adventure; and 2) I had a radically different concept in mind for the campaign. More about that another time.
I had Lassiel and Raina meet Ally-Jane’s character, Clover Tealeaf, in a human village at a tavern. Really. Yes, the convention of “You-all-meet-at-a-tavern-and-decide-to-adventure-together” has been a cliché since, oh, 1983, but like I said, I wanted to give my kids the “typical” AD&D experience. Sure, I know it’s trite, I know it’s camp, but it was new to them, it was easy, and it worked (I did tell the kids that the “party-meeting-at-a-tavern” bit was a gaming cliché, but they didn't mind).
At the tavern, the party heard rumors about a dead wizard’s tomb, supposedly hidden a few miles nearby. The wizard was a wicked fellow who had a soft spot for his three daughters, and by various foul means, he accumulated a lot of riches that were meant to go to them but somehow wound up buried with him. The party set off to find this crypt, a happy little place that I told them was nicknamed “The Tomb of Horrors.”
Even if you made it through the traps, you had to face Acererak the demi-lich, which was kind of like getting up in the face of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis and telling him that he’s a “mama’s boy.”
So why was I sending three 1st-level characters into the Tomb of Horrors? Well, first, because it was a dungeon crawl, a “typical” AD&D adventure for my kids to teethe on. Second, because ToH had plenty of opportunities for Clover to use her thieving skills (all those traps to find, all those locks to pick), plenty of times when Raina would need to cast a spell (Comprehend Languages to decipher writings, Burning Hands to deal with the zombie I put in one room), and enough monsters for Lassiel to fight without Joni having to worry about the other PCs getting squished.
Third, because the 1e version of ToH came with these way-cool illustrations to show the players as their characters progress through the dungeon. As a DM, I’ve learned that visuals—handouts, miniatures, pictures of monsters—really engage players and help them better understand what’s going on. I figured (correctly, as it turned out) that my kids would think the illustrations were really cool.
Finally, I’ve always wanted to run ToH, but my previous players—most of them veterans, none of them dummies—had ever obliged.
My wife Joni is, as I have mentioned, a veteran gamer (and is also no dummy), so she was…concerned when I said that I was going to run her and the kids through ToH (by this, I mean “concerned” about how my new home—a cardboard box at the end of our driveway—would keep me from freezing to death this winter if I killed off our kids’ characters 12 minutes into their first adventure). Not to worry, I assured her: all would be fine.
Obviously, running three 1st-level PCs, two played by newbies, through ToH as it was originally written would be suicide, for them and my marriage. Obviously, I would need to tweak the module a LOT to make it survivable, much less fun.
After reading the module again, I decided to shorten it, so that we could play it in a single evening. In deciding what to keep and what to throw out, I flipped through the illustration book, picked out the most interesting ones, and used them to drew up a new (and smaller) floorplan for the tomb.
I simplified the dungeon by making it easier to find and enter, and by having fewer secret doors and fewer traps. Next, I powered down the traps and monsters: instead of anyone falling, say, into a pit of poisoned spikes that re-sealed itself and trapped PCs forever, they might (if they failed a DEX check) fall into a 10' deep pit that they could climb out of with a rope.
The sphere of annihilation, if touched, now merely teleported one outside the tomb. The mutant four-armed gargoyle of the original module became the dead wizard’s homunculus, on eternal guard duty. What appeared to be venomous snakes in a treasure chest was actually an illusion, with no ability to cause actual harm. Even mighty Acererak himself was now just a zombie, who suffered greatly when Raina used Burning Hands on him.
Joni is a great leader (her druid character led the party in the longest-running, most successful, and most fun campaign I’ve ever done) and a great teacher: she kept the party safe and coached our girls on looking for secret doors, checking for traps, etc. What Joni and our girls didn’t know—and what I’ll reveal to you only if you promise not to tell them—is that….
Wait--lean in real close so no one else hears.
No matter what happened, none of the party members were going to die.
If you say that's cheating, then, yeah, I cheated. If a die roll for a trap or a monster would have taken either Raina or Clover below 0 hit points, I ignored it. “The skeleton lunges at you, trying to slash you with its swords…and barely misses!”
If you're thinking, “Sacrilege!” or that I was violating the “Integrity of The Game,” well, all I know is that no one (especially if you’re 11 ½) wants to spend a few hours making up a character and then have said character get dusted in their very first outing. What fun is that?
My job was to provide a fun, thrilling introduction to AD&D, and, if I may say so, I succeeded. My kids had a blast. Both of them got to contribute in meaningful ways; they felt like their characters were in danger, but not doomed; and they were challenged without being overwhelmed. They were engaged the whole time, were sad to have it end (even though they liked the treasure they won), and were very enthusiastic for more.
I told them that our next session
would continue in the “traditional” AD&D vein and would be an outdoor
adventure, with some time spent in a town. I also asked their cousins Matthew
and Natasha if they wanted to play, and they did. Next time, I’ll tell
you what happened….
More Black in Black
Posted November 2010
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