I’m 100% good talking about this. So, to answer some questions in no particular order:
What’s it like to go from this to that , and how have you adjusted?
This is super interesting and a bit difficult to answer.
On one hand, there are ways in which I can answer “it didn’t feel like much of a change.” I feel that because I almost never assume an experience about a game before I play it with a given group. I always try to keep myself open, and to work towards having the kind of experience that I want to have with this group of people, using this set of systems.
So when I’m going to GM something like Rosenstrasse at a con, I really focus on making a safe space, getting everyone on the same page, letting us all experience the game fully, and helping everyone (including myself) get what we want out of the game. And so when I went to run D&D for my nephews, the things I was thinking about, focusing on achieving were very much the same.
But, of course, how you get mutual joy out of D&D with 12 year olds and get mutual learning out of Rosenstrasse with adults are very different. So while it feels the same to me, the tools and techniques are quite a bit different in practice.
For this game, which was the first time most of the kids had played D&D my goals were to give them a taste of RPing and to set them up so they could play D&D in the wild if they wanted. I used 5th ed, and the adventure from the Essentials Kit, to meet that later goal. Even though it wouldn’t be my first choice for gaming (I’d go Black Hack or Dolemnwood, probably) – I wanted the kids to learn a system and a way of playing that would easily enable them to play with others.
With that in mind, I mostly just ran the game out of the box. I didn’t do a lot of customization or shifting or reorganization – all of which are things I normally do when I run a published campaign. For this game I wanted things to be pretty straight up, to match with the experience of D&D in a lot of ways. Like, I knew that one of the kids had friends who had played this campaign – and I wanted them to be able to talk about it with them, to meaningfully compare notes about what happened and have that joy of having been through the same story, but also a different story at the same time.
The places where I drifted things from a lot of D&D play, however, was in focusing on player abilities to create things in the world, and developing a sense of what their characters personalities were. Because they were kids, this was all pretty simple stuff. I asked a lot of questions like:
What does your magic look like?
Ex: We’ve never seen you case magic missile, what are your missiles like?
Ex: You’re a wizard, you learned your magic by being formal taught by an arch mage. Who taught you, and how do you feel about them?
Ex: You’re using a holy symbol to cast that spell, where did you get it and what does it mean to you?
How does your character feel about that?
Ex: You’re a half-orc in a mostly human town, but the people here look to you as a hero. How do you respond when they all start cheering for you?
Ex: You said earlier your character never had any friends before. Are the other party members your friends? (When yes) How do you show them?
Lots of stuff like that. And then I’d build on their answers as we went. For example, our Wizard was a Dragon Born. He answered one of the questions by saying his father, a blue dragon, taught him magic. He became an adventurer because as a half-dragon he wasn’t powerful enough to master real dragon magic. So later in the game, when they faced off against the dragon in a quest, that dragon recognized the character and knew his father and taunted him with it.
Do you draw a bright line and revel in the contrast?
One of the places I did draw a big line between this game and most of the games I play these days was around moral and ethical questions and exploration. Many games I play are about exploring history, humanity, and very subtle ethical questions and problems.
This game was not that. I told all the players they were heroes, they helped people. And when, in the course of the game, they did some murder hobo stuff (mostly by accident), I didn’t make a big question about it.
For example, in one of the dungeons the PCs explore a gnome cave. The gnomes aren’t evil, but are in a panic state that leads to combat. (The way the module is written at least one combat seems to be unavoidable. You could avoid it, but you’d have to GM around the text on the page.) Killing the gnomes is… really questionable. And, because these were all new players, yes a gnome ended up dead.
In games I play with grownups there would be some reflection on that. It would come back. You just went into someone’s house and killed them – both ethically and in terms of consequences in the world, there’s gonna be blow back. But not in this game. The kids already kinda felt bad about it, and so we didn’t dwell on it.
Do you have any advice for anyone else doing the same?
I dunno, I’m bad at advice. Really, I think the key is to have some awareness of what you want out of a game, and find ways to play what you’re playing with the people you’re playing with. If you are choosing to play D&D with kids, then lean in on that. Let it be silly. Let it be random. Let some weird shit into the game, and sometimes don’t lean on every issue you could explore because it just won’t be right for this game or these kids.
Here’s the picture. I didn’t set up the screen! I don’t like GM screens. I roll dice in the open.
But when I went to the bathroom and came back, the players had set up the screen. And made each other move so they couldn’t see behind it.
So I went with it. It isn’t normally what I’d do – but it was what they wanted, so I changed to play the game the group wanted.