I've been a reader of Martin Thomas's Daddy Rolled a 1 blog for some time. He posts a mixture of rpg musings and homebrew material, but I really wanted to ask him about the game he's been running for his daughter and her friends. He's been posting about his experiences on the blog, as well as having some of the players post their own recaps. My own (roughly the same age) daughter has been playing virtually with a group of friends at her school, and I think it has been a worthwhile experience to get them to socialize, especially in this age of covid.
Question. One of the main reasons I wanted to interview you was because you've been gaming with your tween daughter and some of her friends, and have been posting session summaries on your blog (including some summaries written by the players). This started, I believe, shortly after Covid. Can you talk a bit about how it got started? Had you gamed with your daughter before? Had any of her friends gamed?
Answer. Yes, we started during the Covid lockdowns, which was really the catalyst for getting the game running. I'd been playing in a few different games run by friends, and also running a 3rd Edition campaign (that eventually transitioned to 3.5 and then Pathfinder 1E with a little bit of Trailblazer thrown in). That last game I ran at my house, so my daughter would always be around and would sometimes watch us play instead of going to her room. I always had in my head that I was going to run a game for her one day and I started broaching the topic when she was in 3rd or 4th Grade. She was excited about the idea and she began creating characters (no stats, just a concept). Her first was an Elf she named "Jingles" and she drew a picture of him.
I have a bad tendency to overthink things, so I really dragged out getting the game ready. I knew I wanted to start her with the old module B2: Keep on the Borderlands, but I wasn't sure if I was going to run it for 5E or not. I began doing some research online, specifically looking for a review of the Goodman Games Into the Borderlands product, and I came across a review by Professor Dungeon Master on his DungeonCraft Channel. After watching his review, I was convinced to get the Goodman Games version, but then an interesting thing happened: YouTube's autoplay feature then played the first video in Professor DM's "Caverns of Carnage" playlist, in which he took his own players through B2 and showed how he modified it. I was hooked and began to realize I could run my old copy of B2 from the 1980's "as is" without needing a 5E conversion.
Then the pandemic hit, and my daughter was doing online school. Being an only child, she was of course lonely, as her mom and I were busy with working from home. I was also getting stir crazy, so one Sunday afternoon I went out into our backyard with a notebook, a big sketchbook, and some pens and pencils, made myself a big gin and tonic, and began working on the campaign that I'd eventually run for my daughter and her friends. I asked her which friends she wanted to invite, and then sent an email to their parents telling them that my daughter wanted to invite them to a D&D game. I explained what the game was like and the benefits of playing and even invited the parents to play if they wished.
None of the kids had played before, and only one dad had played a few times. All the kids agreed to play, as well as the one dad, and with all the parents' permission, I set up a what was intended to be a "Session 0" to go over how to make characters, some basic rules, etc., to be held in person in the backyard of one of the other parent's house. One thing all the parents had agreed on was that our kids were feeling very isolated and they needed some kind of actual in-person interaction. Online school wasn't cutting it and most of our kids had begun acting out as well as retreating from interacting with us, their parents. Some of this is natural for girls this age (most had just turned 11 by this point), but everything was being exacerbated by the pandemic. Unfortunately a massive wildfire swept through a neighborhood very close to the family that had agreed to host, so our Session 0 was held online.
Our first actual session was held a month later, in October 2020, in a family's backyard. The dad and daughter sat together at one table, I sat with my daughter at another, and the two other girls sat separately in chairs. I played theater-of-the-mind, so there was no need to gather around to look at maps or place minis. Everyone wore masks. And that was our first session.
Since then, we've played roughly once a month, taking time off during the holidays and during finals at school. And, the younger sister of one of the players also joined our group, so we were up to a total of six players: one cleric (the dad), one fighter, one thief, and three elves. We just had our 16th session last week.
Q. What advice can you give for parents looking to do the same? Have there been any unexpected pitfalls or problems that have emerged? Have they done anything in game that really surprised you?
A. As far as advice for parents, I think the main thing is to not procrastinate and just start it up, if your kids are interested. At this point, as my daughter is getting older, I'm already regretting that I didn't start this game a lot sooner for her. Not only would that have helped ingrained the game a bit more into her life, but having a schedule with a regular monthly play time where she could see these friends she's known for years but none of whom she goes to school with any more, would have been a big benefit to her, I think. I kept delaying, thinking "I'll have time later" and also over-thinking how much work I needed to put into the game. But I learned after running this game that the only session I really need to worry about is the next one. At the end of each session, I ask the players, "What do you want to do next time?" and then give me an outline. That's what I use to figure out what's going to happen next time. I make flowcharts with options of "If they choose A, that could lead to B, C, or D..." and that gives me enough to go on. I don't have a "BBEG" and I don't know how (or if!) the campaign is going to end, so that makes it much easier with my schedule to work on the game, as I'm only focused on how to make the next session the most fun it can be. It also allows me the opportunity to be flexible so I can incorporate ideas the grow naturally from the players during the game rather than discarding them because they don't fit some predetermined narrative I made.
As a parent, if you're worried that other parents aren't going to understand the game or have questions, I can share the email I sent to all the parents of my daughter's friends. It's a bit long, but goes into what an RPG is and the benefits of playing. It helped to quell a few questions and fears that some of the parents had.
As far as pitfalls, there have been a few with a group of kids at this age.
Firstly, when we started, none of the girls except one had a mobile phone. They also were not used to checking emails regularly, and none of them had social media accounts. So, trying to communicate in-between sessions was a real chore. We discussed it several times, and I gave them the option of telling me the best way to contact them, but none of them had any ideas. While I have all their parents' contact info, I don't like using the parents as go-betweens (and the parents don't really like it, either). It's still a challenge. Even though they all have phones now, their main communication takes place with Snapchat or TikTok (neither of which I use). Getting them to read, let alone reply to, an email is so difficult. This makes planning a date for the next session really difficult. We take a rotation approach, so each family takes turns hosting. After each session, we do a potluck and all the parents show up to chat while the kids can all hang out together. So, not only are we trying to figure out what day we can play based on who is hosting, but also what food we're going to bring, etc. It's more work than actually planning the session.
Secondly, after the kids did get mobile devices, there was a point where only about half of them had one. Those kids became glued to their devices, ignoring the game and the other kids who didn't have phones. So I had to make a rule: while we play, phones go into a basket in the middle of the table. We'll take breaks occasionally, at which point you can check your phone. But you are not allowed to look at your phone while we're playing. And I told all the parents that their kids wouldn't be looking at their phones, so if there's an emergency, they can call me. So far, nobody has had to do that.
Thirdly, I had to come to terms with that knowledge that these kids are playing not because they love D&D, but because it's scheduled time for them to spend together. When I was a kid, I was in love with the game and spent hours reading rule books, creating characters, and drawing maps in-between sessions. None of my players have caught the bug. So, during the sessions, it can sometimes be a lot of work to get them to concentrate and focus and to be in character. The one dad player does sometimes get frustrated, as do I, when the kids say or do things that aren't "in character." They're constantly cracking jokes and rebelling against authority and telling me that their character is saying things that no reasonable person would actually say, and I have to remind them, "What would your character really do or say in this situation?" A lot of it comes from the movies they watch, and the constant winking at the camera and breaking the fourth wall mentality, where everything is a joke.
Speaking of movies, another pitfall I had to come to understand was what our knowledge and history was with fantasy. During our Session 0, I asked them what fantasy they were aware of. When I was their age, my fantasy was the Hobbit, Star Wars, King Arthur stories, Conan, and comic books. Their fantasy is Avatar: The Last Airbender, Studio Ghibli Movies, and Harry Potter. Only about half of them were familiar with what LOTR or the Hobbit even was, and also about half of them had never even seen Star Wars. This really impacted me when I had an encounter with goblins and based on their actions and comments, I realized they didn't know what a "Tolkien-style" goblin looked like. From that point on, every time I have encounters planned, I find pictures on the Internet and print them out to put in my DM Notebook, so I can say, "It looks like this!" The first time I showed them a goblin picture from the Pathfinder game, they were all astonished. They were expecting something much smaller and "cuter."
Players of this age are also really into their characters having pets. One player went to our local game shop and bought a mini before we started playing and that mini was of a Druid with a big wolf companion. She asked if she could have a wolf. I was hesitant, but then agreed, but said the wolf had to be a pup, and it was completely dependent on her (it couldn't fight, etc.). And then everybody wanted a pet wolf pup. My daughter wanted to create a character like the Mandalorian from the TV series, and asked if she could have a "Baby Yoda" on a floating bassinet. I wasn't willing to go quite that far, but that concept turned into my daughter's Elf character carrying a turtle in a backpack. While this didn't fit how I had envisioned my world, I've gone along with it, and the wolf pups in particular have added quite a bit to the game, as the players had to find someone to train them and watch over the pups while the PCs go into dangerous situations, and that led to the creation of one of my favorite NPCs in the game who trains and watches their pups for them.
Another issue that's come up that is not really game-related, but which affects play, is when players aren't getting along. As the kids have gotten older, they are dealing with a lot of the natural emotions and hormones that affect kids of the tween and early teen ages. So, things like "How come so-and-so didn't text me back?" or "She didn't even wish me Happy Birthday..." end up affecting how the players interact during game time, which has a huge effect on the game. I've noticed my own daughter essentially checking-out during sessions because she's upset with one of the other players. With adults, you can sometimes talk these things through, or maybe you just say, "I don't feel like playing today," but with kids, that's much more difficult, especially when everybody is counting on you to be there, and parents have adjusted their schedules so you can play. I don't have a solution for this, but it's something to watch out for, and in retrospect, something that could be discussed during a Session 0.
Lastly, one thing I'm really glad I did was ask the players if there were any topics that were "off the table." I used my daughter's severe fear of spiders as an example. I knew she was very afraid of spiders so I had already known I didn't want to include them in the game. But I didn't know the other kids' fears or concerns. Asking them and also relating it back to me (I really hate snakes, but I'm okay fighting them in an RPG) helped them open up and share things they didn't want to deal with, such as evil clowns, detailed descriptions of violence, or "being bitten by a shark."
Q. I think it's awesome that you're introducing a new generation of young girls to the hobby. My daughter has been playing D&D the past two years with kids from her school, virtually one night a week, and it's really been a huge help during Covid, where, even in school, there was a bit of enforced distance between the kids. How do you think the attitude towards gaming has changed since we were kids? Is there any other general advice you can give about getting kids excited about gaming?
A. Thanks. I'm really doing this because I began to notice a shift in the activities I do with my daughter. Since she was little in daycare, I've been the primary "weekday" caregiver, as I started a boutique ad agency that I run from home while my wife was pregnant. Doing that meant that I was the parent who had a more flexible schedule so I could take my daughter to and from daycare or school, and as she got into elementary school, I volunteered for room parent, PTA, Annual Fund, and to chaperone field trips. I also took her to the comic book store with me once a week, so she grew up with superheroes, and listening to the music I wanted to listen to while I was driving her around. But as she got into her 10/11/12 year-old phase, combined with the pandemic closing the schools except virtually, that dynamic changed a lot. She discovered her own things that she liked, and stopped asking me to play Legos or dolls with her. So, D&D was something that she and I could do together, to keep a connection in our relationship that was changing as she got older.
It's also been a life-saver in terms of that "scheduled interaction" that I alluded to earlier. I knew that she needed time with other kids that she was being denied due to having to do virtual school from the pandemic and being an only child with no siblings to interact with. I really feel that if I'd connected with these other parents and said, "We need a monthly time for our girls to get together and hang out," most of them would have agreed that it was a good idea in principle, but most would have very easily ignored it in favor of other things. But having a scheduled D&D game creates a sense of responsibility, and the parents will say, "You need to get your homework done because Mr. Thomas worked really hard to put this game together for you..." It creates a carrot for them to strive for and it's something they can look forward to and know that it's not going to get canceled as easily as a playdate can get canceled.
That said, I don't think I've really instilled in them a love of tabletop RPGs. They enjoy our time together, but none of them have expressed any interest in reading the rulebooks or inspirational source fiction, and they haven't asked to borrow my extensive RPG library even though I've shown it to them when our game is scheduled at our house. I have asked if any of them are interested in taking a turn to DM, and one player said she was, but so far nothing has come from that. But I'm okay with all that. I am enjoying it, having a blast creating each session, knowing that I get to spend time with my daughter, and she gets to spend time with her friends, and then afterward I get to spend time with the other parents, all of whom I really like. Maybe one day one or more of the kids will want to run a game of their own, but in the meantime, I'm satisfied with what I have.
Q. Finally, I'd like to hear a bit about your personal projects. I know you've got three books in the works, and that they draw some material from what you've published on your blog. Like me, I think you're drawn to both the OSR-sphere as well as newer games like 5e, and I like seeing someone else bridging that gap. Feel free to plug or promote anything you'd like to here.
A. Thanks for the opportunity to share. Like most folks who get into playing and running tabletop RPGs, I've been creating stuff almost since I learned how to play. During the 3.5 era, a book I wrote about playing Aristocrat characters got published by Mongoose Publishing. They asked if I was interested in writing a follow-up book about Experts, and I agreed. That project fell by the wayside, but I had dozens of hours of research and writing that had gone into it. I then discovered the old-school D&D movement around 2010 and started my own blog in 2011, which originally was more a retrospective about my experiences with older games but over time has morphed more into blogging about my daughter's game and the ideas I've come up for that game. That led me to dust off all my old 3.5 notes about Experts to see how it could changed to adapt it to B/X and other old-school games. Around this time I also saw a blog post by Dyson Logos called "D12 Subclasses" in which he took each main class and created a table of 12 small tweaks you could make to change a standard fighter to an Archer, Berserker, Sentinel, etc. Something clicked and I realized I could take all the 3.5 "Character Concepts" (which were sort of a spin on the old 2E Character Kits) and turn them into "subclasses" with very minimal mechanics. I took a stab and posted 12 Expert and Specialist subclasses on my blog, alone with B/X style classes for an Alchemist, Demolitionist, and Inventor (all had been Prestige Classes I'd created for my 3.5 Experts book).
I shared the ideas on social media, and several folks suggested new subclasses I could add, and then asked when my new classes and subclasses were going to be available for sale. I'd struck a chord with the crowd it seemed. And that's the genesis of my first book I'll be putting on Kickstarter soon: Alchemy, Explosions and Inventions - A Complete Handbook To Expert Characters In Old School Fantasy Roleplaying Games. It has all the D12 subclasses, updated a bit from the ones on my blog, along with three new ones for dwarves, elves, and halflings; the three new character classes; two pages each for new alchemical items, explosives, and inventions; notes on using patrons and guilds in a campaign; ideas for running an all-experts campaign for genres such as Intrigue, Low Magic, Military/Sieges, and Technology; some random tables for optional rules for failure when using alchemy, explovies, or inventions; a list of inspirational media for playing or running expert characters, some notes on how to convert the ideas to other editions such as 5E; and more. The book was completely written and I'd commissioned art and paid for professional layout. I wanted to offer a POD version when I realized that I didn't have the correct number of pages so it would print out in a multiple of four, so I'm currently writing up details on a Guild Hall with maps, NPCs, plot hooks, and more. That's about 90% done and then I can finally put this up on Kickstarter. It'll be the first thing I've self-published.
I also then took a few suggestions from social media for new subclasses to create a new D12 table, and that has since sparked a whole series that I've worked on for the past two years: Wilderness, City/Urban, Naval/Sea, Horror, Sword and Planet, Fairy Tale, Criminal, Slavic Folklore, Norse Mythology,and Military. Once again, I got requests to publish them all in a book, so I'm taking each "genre" such as Wilderness, and expanding it into one chapter in what will be a pretty big book. For the Wilderness section, for example, in addition to the D12 subclasses table, I have a new Wood Elf class; some expanded ideas for getting lost; dealing with temperatures; finding food and water that's safe to consume; and tons of random tables for describing different climates such as arctic, desert, jungles, and swamps; encounter and event tables for each of those climates; tables for unique features for rivers, lakes, flora, and fauna; and a list of inspirational media. That chapter for Wilderness is written and it's about 40 pages. I imagine each other chapter will be roughly the same length (I'm writing the City chapter currently). And then my thought was to then include a small campaign setting showing how to incorporate the subclasses and ideas from each genre into the setting.
Lastly, while I was working on ideas for my daughter's campaign setting, I wanted to make the world more "weird" than I typically do, so once again I began crowd-sourcing ideas from folks online about their go-to media for weird fantasy. Reading and watching some of those sparked a bunch of ideas for me which led to another series I've been posting on my blog, "Weird Character Ideas." I took each of the 7 B/X classes and created a D20 table of ways to make the class weird without necessarily changing anything mechanical about the class. Examples are things like a Fighter who keeps the teeth of the foes he slays and claims they talk to him to give him battle advice, or a Magic-User whose master is three identical triplets who take turns speaking every other word. Once again, my plan is to publish all these in book along with a few more ideas for playing the different classes (for example, I have a fun D20 table of weird items a Thief might find while picking pockets, and a table for generating random superstitions and omens for Cleric players) as well as new ideas for the other classic classes such as Barbarians, Bards, Druids, Paladins, Rangers, etc. One of things I'm really excited about for this book is that it's edition agnostic; since the weird ideas usually don't involve mechanics, it can be used with any edition of D&D or with any fantasy class-and-level system game.
In the meantime while working on all these books I intend to publish, I'm still putting out content on my blog and sharing ideas and tables on my social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook; just search for Daddy Rolled a 1, or you can find links on my blog). Please drop by to say "hi" and let me know which project you're most interested in seeing published.
Thanks for reading this interview. Don't forget that I've got a Kickstarter currently running. The BX Advanced Bestiary is a 140-page bestiary that expands on and adds to the classic monsters found in BX and OSE books. You can pick up the pdf on Kickstarter for ten dollars.