Drudgery and Drag-on

Giving up some of the structure of the game you’re playing can sometimes make for more interest in the story you’re telling.

So we finally got a gaming table set up in our living room (a sweet hexagon table we picked up for cheap… reminds me of BattleTech), and the entertainment center next to the table is filled with all things D&D.

Time to put it all to use!

For my birthday, among other things, we decided to finally sit down as a family and play some D&D for the first time since our move. I had some new Eevil Paizo products, and I wanted to try them out! I whipped up some generic notes to form a very rough (and thus flexible) plotline, got character sheets and minis and map packs ready, and laid out sets of dice.

We got started, but we’re not the traditional table-top RPG group. I’m dealing with a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old, who both pretty much “get it.” My wife is also playing, but our 1-year-old is requiring attention RIGHT NOW. And then I’ve got a 6-year-old who wants to play but also starts thinking about Angry Birds any time there’s a second of silence in the game. So… how to cater to the needs of this group?

It has been a while since we played. I mention terms like “Perception” and then have to explain where on the character sheet to find the skill. We talk about powers and attacks, but they’re not remembering what all they can do. We go over generic descriptions of the characters they’ve chosen, and what sort of decisions they might make.

Can I just do some math homework instead?

I figure, start with action rather than with non-combat role-playing, or else the 6-year-old is done. Sure enough, he’s pretty well into the combat, even if he needs coaching on how his character can participate. “You can shoot your crossbow at that rat, or you can run over, pull out your sword, and slash at it.” His first attack goes well, but the second misses. He seems kind of overwhelmed, and his character gets stung by a scorpion. I try to put it in terms he understands. “Remember when you were crying today because your sister hit you SO hard? That’s what this felt like for Clayface. He got stung in the shoulder just like you got hit. He could take maybe another three or four hits like that before he gets knocked out.”

So he’s mad at that scorpion, and still kind of unsure about what to do. Then my wife uses her warlord to give my son a free attack. Basically, the warlord opens up, vulnerable to attack, drawing the attention of some enemy… then one of the warlord’s allies gets to use that distraction to his or her advantage, making a free attack. Justin rolls his attack…

…and gets a 20.

I use the GameMastery Crit Hits deck (and the Crit Fumble deck) for additional description and excitement. I have seen exactly zero players complain about the fun of finding out what specifically their crits accomplished, and sometimes the random cards fit the story in ways far better than I could come up with on my own. So my son’s rogue, Clayface slashes at the scorpion, doing only modest damage, but permanently blinding the poor creature. Now he’s completely excited.

Still, this fight is taking a long time, and the kids are barely familiar with their characters and the rules. They get the idea that “you say what you want to do, you roll a d20, add some number off the sheet, and then figure out if that’s enough to succeed.” It hits me… do we all really care that the AC for a Giant Centipede is 16? Does it really matter that they have a Mandible attack that is +6 to the roll, with a chance for 1d8+4 damage on hit? No, none of that matters. What matters is, do they get the feeling they can contribute in a meaningful way?

Very quickly, we’re doing guesstimated math. If a number is readily available, I’ll use it. (My wife’s warlord’s AC is 17, for example). If not, I have a good guess in my head. Maybe I’m not doing the monsters justice, or maybe they’re slightly more powerful than they should be.

So what! We’re playing this for the kids, not just for me. They’re completely satisfied with this system.

We finish the fight and it has gone longer than I planned (1 year old distractions!). For whatever reason, in my haste, I never bothered to think of the party capturing the last evil creature for questioning. They ask a bunch of generic questions, and decide to use the goblin as a bargaining chip for when they meet the rest of the goblins that might be attacking the town the heroes came from. (Little do they know that the goblins have no loyalty at all  and won’t care… but that will be for next time.)

By now, it’s 9 PM, and it’s time for bed for the kidlets. But I learned something important in this short gaming session: as long as your group is fine with it, you can speed things up significantly by reducing the strictness of the rules. I didn’t have exact breakouts for every monster’s stats or make the kids do all the math required to play by the rules. We just got the story and the fight going, and kept it moving fast enough to keep them interested.

You can be strict with these… or not.

You roll a 5 when you make your attack? You miss. You roll a 16? You hit. Figure somewhere about 11-12 as the cutoff and then just go with it. Is it a tough monster with thicker armor or swifter reflexes? Maybe 13 or 14 is the cutoff for that one.

The attack does 9 damage? Ok, then this level 1 or level 2 monster is probably bloodied now. Do you really need to make sure that Dire Rat #2 gets its full 12 HP worth of actions before getting bloodied? No, not really, not for this particular group.

Your group dynamics are going to tell you very quickly if you can get away with this sort of thing. I’ve often had at least one player in the group who wants the specific numbers. “Wait a minute, I rolled a 13 last time with a +6 to attack, and I hit… she rolled a 14 with a +3 to attack and missed… so this thing’s AC must be about 18…”

That player is probably not going to be satisfied with this option.  I’d suggest being honest and up-front with your players about it. Ask if it will bother them if you try to speed combat and skill challenges along in this manner.  It may take some of the pain and concentration away from strict dice math, and focus the concentration of your players on the story developing in the game.

And I think that’s where you want it to be.

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