Now is a Great Time to Start Virtual D&D With Your Kids
It’s Wednesday again, and we’re trying to fight our way through the lair of an anti-dragon hate cabal. As I polish the pink and blue shortsword I was gifted by a kind dragon lady, I sometimes wonder how an elf like me got caught up with this crew.
There’s the tiny halfling Yui and her large, sentient brown bear companion, Rufus; the jet black tiefling warlock Jynkx with a penchant for dropping Eldritch Blast like it’s hot; Fenrir, the measured copper dragonborn paladin; Kirito, the contemplative but fierce dual-wielding half-elf ranger; Raven, the most skilled thief I’ve ever known; and Silv, a scarlet tiefling ranger with an adorable pseudodragon sidekick. And then there’s me: wood elf, arcane trickster, thief, rogue. My name is Lunabe, but those who fight by my side call me Luna.
On this particular evening, we’ve found ourselves in a library staffed by Undead librarians with a prisoner we’re pressing for information. Suddenly, a fighter we’ve tangled with before appears and ends our interrogation with a swift dagger to our prisoner’s temple.
Enraged, I lock my violet eyes with the villain’s and ominously mutter, “I just thought of something hilarious.” I wait, but nothing happens. Normally, the spell would render my opponent useless with hideous laughter, but this villain seemed immune to my trickster magic.
Before we can react, a voice seemingly all around us issues us a directive we’ve no choice but to follow: “Roll for initiative.”
We summon our trusty polyhedral dice and rush into battle. Little do we know what the future holds for us in the course of the next few hours: One of us will lose her life only to be resurrected by a magic force we don’t understand. Another will be driven to madness. And soon, our party will be split in two, divided by an impenetrable wall that will send us deeper into the Underdark. But we face it all bravely knowing that we are on a mission that could determine the very fate of the universe.
The CBN Effect
I first learned about Dungeons and Dragons in the Sunday evening church service at the local Southern Baptist church I grew up in. It was 1980-something and the pinnacle of CBN’s and Jerry Falwell’s influence on the American faithful. Before the Osteen era of Prosperity Doctrine, the driving philosophy in many Southern Baptist churches often focused on spiritual warfare, and for many, this accompanied a literal belief in many sneaky Trojan horses the devil would use to seed hearts and minds with evil like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, The Last Unicorn, Ghostbusters II, Scooby-Doo, and the musical stylings of AC/DC and their ilk.
It was during a particularly fiery sermon that I learned young people were getting lured into Satanism and the occult via a “seemingly innocent” role-playing game known as Dungeons & Dragons. I would discover years later this sermon was inspired by the 700 Club’s tele-preacher Pat Robertson. In this 1989 700 Club special, Robertson argued that Satan was using the media to conduct a targeted attack beginning with Saturday morning cartoons like the Smurfs to charm children into the occult through imaginative stories about magical swords, ghosts, and other demonic elements. It’s completely hilarious and I definitely recommend watching it.
The scary telephone game version I heard from our church’s preacher had me absolutely terrified of anything remotely witchy or spooky from ouija boards to pentagrams on rock band shirts. It was a shame, really, since magic, swords, unicorns, and the paranormal had been among my favorite things as a little kid from the time in about third grade when my super gifted friend Rowan had introduced me to Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Thundercats (Rowan’s mom has been my parenting patron saint because Rowan was so amazing).
Somewhere across town around this time, my someday-husband was feeling the fallout at Union, where the students staged a protest because band shirts had been banned (you can read all about how they won back the right to wear band shirts here).
Thanks to one particularly hardcore sermon, I had come to believe that any step too close to magic or witchery could end in demonic possession. Friends would joke about saying “Bloody Mary” in the bathroom mirror, but I would be petrified with fear.
In a few years when I was old enough to hang out at Java Dave’s over lattes with my nerdy high school friends, I would occasionally see groups of guys playing Dungeons and Dragons and wondered why they looked like regular dudes and not super metal and Satanic. In my mind’s eye, I had always imagined groups of gothed-out witches and warlocks in long, dark trench coats led by Kiefer Sutherland from the Lost Boys; they’d all be gathered around playing a quick game of Dungeons and Dragons before sacrificing a small animal atop a pentagram to summon Satan.
You think I am kidding, but I am not kidding. I really believed this was what Dungeons and Dragons was.
Searching for a Table
Over the years as I grew up, I had come to look back on the CBN era as histrionic and absurd. But I never stopped to put much thought into Dungeons and Dragons until I was in my thirties or so, which was around the time when more people were getting into MMORPGs, and larping was becoming more mainstream. That’s when I began to realize that many, many of my friends had played and loved some kind of RPG when they were younger, and I started to feel ripped off. I caught bits and pieces of what it involved when D&D would show up periodically in TV shows and began to develop a yen to play, but I didn’t know anyone at the time who was actively playing.
When fortune smiled upon us and blessed us with three beautiful geek children, I tried to learn more about the game, hoping we could learn to play together when they were old enough.
For my 40th birthday, my sweet husband gifted me the Dungeons and Dragons starter set. But I quickly realized DMing (Dungeon Mastering) is something that’s better learned from gameplay as a player and is extremely challenging to start doing on your own. The more I learned, the more I realized we needed to join someone else’s game.
Roll for Initiative
A few years had passed, and two-thirds of my kids were dying to play, but we needed a party and a literal seat at the table. After searching far and wide, we finally found our ticket to dungeon adventures at the Name Your Game Expo last year (you can check out my review of this fantastic local gaming expo in this post).
One of the best features of this event was a large dedicated space for tabletop games. When we happened across a group of folks playing D&D, we asked if we could observe. They were super cool about it and answered a few of our questions.
After I told them we’d been looking for a game that would welcome me and the kids, one of them invited us to join him at Wizards Asylum where he runs a weekly game that’s open to new folks. The first time we went, he lent us his dice and gave us pre-made characters. He was a seasoned and highly knowledgeable Game Master, and playing at Wizards gave us a chance to get the basics down.
One of the first things we learned is that D&D is not just a game; it’s a commitment. You play together with your party, and they depend on you to be present and participate actively. Game nights can be marathons, sometimes lasting for hours (I think the longest we played was close to seven hours at a time).
After a while, we moved to a smaller virtual weekly game with one of the players we met at Wizards, which was a better fit for us schedule-wise and has ended up being a blessing during Coronathon 2020. Every Tuesday or thereabouts, we ritualistically gather our gaming binders and dice for the highlight of our week. Sometimes, we even cosplay for it.
There are two things that really took the sting out of the Rona this year: D&D and GISH. Dungeons and Dragons works great virtually thanks to apps like Zoom that allow screen sharing. We’re able to connect with our team without having to worry about face-to-face contact, which has been a tremendous source of positivity and helped to maintain normalcy during the pandemic. I also find it easier as a family just because it’s much easier to rearrange schedules if we need to, we don’t have to really plan ahead for D&D night meals, and everyone can fairly easily take a break or leave if they need to for some reason.
Demonic possession aside, here are just a few reasons Dungeons and Dragons is great for kids:
- It has a surprising amount of math.
- It teaches kids to handle their emotions.
- It forces kids to work together with others.
- It teaches kids to handle disappointment and defeat graciously.
- It’s imaginative.
- It’s unplugged.
- There are table rules that need to be respected.
- It involves working toward long-term goals.
- It can be scaled for kids. In other words, a good, kid-friendly GM can make the game as complicated or as simple, as fun or as strict as they like.
- Kids are treated with the same respect and expectations as adults.
The right age to begin will depend on a lot of things including your kids, the party, and the style of the game, but I will warn that it can be fairly complicated. Lucy was a bit on the young side when she started (8), but she had experience with quite a few somewhat complex tabletop games. By 12, most kids should be able to handle it. If your kids are a bit younger, you can experiment with a lighter modified version at home.
Getting Started in D&D for the First Time
I often run into families who have been dreaming of starting D&D for the first time but like us can’t figure out how to get things going. I strongly recommend finding an experienced GM (Game Master, also called DM for Dungeon Master) who is flexible and supportive and willing to play with kids. The best way to connect with the right folks is to join a local Facebook D&D group and get to know some folks. There are often people who are looking for new party members or wanting to try out GMing for the first time and willing to work with other newbs.
There are also plenty of kid-friendly games around town including a weekly D&D Zoom at All Souls Unitarian Church.
Once you’ve found some folks to adventure with, here are a few tips we’ve picked up in our short time playing:
1. Use a binder and notebook or journal.
At its most basic, your notebook will essentially need two sections: one for your own reference and one for keeping notes from the game.
The first includes all of your character’s stats, which can be a lot to keep track of, and other info you may need such as a list of spells or combat moves you might want to use.
I searched for a long time for a journal or notebook that was designed especially for gaming kids, but I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. I even designed my own on Canva. But in the end, the best solution I found was to print up some decent character sheets and helpful handouts I found on Tumblr and Scribd, place them in sheet protectors, and organize everything in a binder. It can be difficult to find what you’re looking for during a melee, so I highlighted some of the things my kids need to refer to often.
You’ll also need to keep track of what happens in gameplay because so much happens over the course of a campaign that it can be difficult to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done.
My kids don’t write notes, but they do draw them. While we’re playing, they draw the events that happen to us in their sketchbooks.
2. Get some cool dice and a dice holder.
You need a set of seven dice to play, and typically, players like to have their own, although ours always end up in a bowl of polyhedral chaos. You’ll be surprised at how many types of custom dice are available like these amazing Call of Cthulhu dice, these dwarven gold dice, these glitter rainbow dice, these metal heart dice, these futuristic dice, and all kinds of dreamy iridescent and holographic dice. Find the best creations on Etsy. Wizards Asylum has a fantastic dice collection nearby if you’re looking to support local business.
Just about anything can be a dice box/dice holder. The best dice holders are easy to open and fun to look at. We have a few that were sent by us to a friend, but Lucy now prefers a ceramic macaron we bought at the $1 tree and I typically use a little jewelry holder because I don’t have to go digging through it during gameplay. Arthur prefers to line his up in a row while he’s playing sans dice holder and put them away after session.
You can find some of the best dice holders at comic cons and Renaissance faires, neither of which anyone is attending anytime soon, unfortunately. In the meantime, I would shop on Etsy or look in local D&D and faire groups where you can find plenty of artisans dying to share their wares.
3. Learn from experienced players on YouTube.
One of the hardest things to do when first starting out is to be able to get into character or even know what to do when it’s your turn. For the longest time, it would be one of our turns and we would have no idea what move to make. Awkward moments would ensue where we would try to look purposeful while resigning ourselves to “I draw a bow and aim” for the tenth time in a row.
Having a really engaging GM helps tremendously with this, but there are plenty of fantastic YouTubers with great advice on getting into character. Tips like “Develop a catchphrase” and “practice talking like your character in the car” come to mind.
These days, we’re finally starting to come into our own as characters. Lucy (Yui) sometimes cosplays for sessions and keeps a staff with her in game (Yui’s weapon of choice is a quarterstaff). Lunabe has developed something of a somewhat unpredictable improvised combat style with moves like tickling opponents or throwing flour at them.
It’s hard to believe now that there was ever a time when I thought D&D was anything but wholesome. Being able to game at home while still remaining connected to other people whom we interact with has given us a safe social connection and something to keep looking forward to. A huge shout out to our GM Jess, who has nurtured a supportive, friendly environment with flexibility and a focus on keeping things fun above all, and to our party, who have never been anything but excellent to the kids and treated them like any other players.
Overall, Dungeons and Dragons has been one of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had as a family. If you’re thinking about playing together with your fantasy-loving kids, I definitely recommend looking into it further.
If you’re playing D&D with your kids or thinking of playing, leave me a comment below and tell me about your character. Thanks for reading, and I wish you a week of epic adventures in your little nebula!