Old School Jams.
The battle with Venomfang was going badly. Sprax, Ivy, Zola and Irinitis found themselves facing down the young Green Dragon on top of a wooded hill and a number of Dragon Cultists hemming them in at the bottom of it. With his poison breath, the dragon opened with a pretty devastating attack and I started wondering if all of the "OMG this battle is going to be so deadly" hype I poured on them all day was going to bear fruition. I had prepped the kids all day for a very dangerous encounter - "it looks like we might be putting some character sheets in the recycling bin today". And here they were, on the brink of death saves. Their adventure was bound to end in Thundertree, with Wave Echo Cave falling into the hands of the Black Spider.
But you know what, being a DM is an awful lot like being a DJ. You've got to keep the floor moving, you've got to read the room and see what is working and what isn't. You mark the get-down, you bring it back up when you want to shift the energy. They were low, and I could feel it. They were stunned by how much damage they took, seeing as this actually was the most dangerous fight of their short adventuring career and coming to the realization that it's not all just happily hacking your way through goblins.
So I moved the sliders, tweaked some knobs, and from out of nowhere Sildar Hallwinter of the Lords' Alliance appeared along with Reidoth, the Emerald Enclave druid they had met previously in Thundertree who had asked them to take care of the dragon in the first place. They had saved Sildar early on in the adventure, and even bothered to return his sword to him. So it only made sense that he would repay the favor by appearing and saving their bacon. He cut through the cultists while Reidoth entangled the dragon.
They won- after Ivy's Flame Blade set the brush on fire and Venomfang fled, but it was still a brutal fight, and I felt like I still had to deliver on the promise of defeat. So the dragon wound up eating Reidoth. I made some mysterious, undisclosed, and secretly inconsequential die rolls behind the screen and delivered the bad news. It was the first time any good guy had died in the game for them, and it came across as appropriately shocking. My daughter's response to the Druid's death was "hey, he offered us some money to fight the dragon!" I suggested she send an invoice to his next of kin.
It was really a ruse though- I wanted to make them think that they could actually die there on that hill. They didn't of course, because I'm the DJ and that ain't the mix I'm playing for them. They were never really in any danger. I've had Bugbears roll critical hits on them and after the clatter of dice I report "take two damage". Because I want to keep them dancing, not losing heart that they are getting beat down by relatively low-level monsters that are rolling like gods. I'm effectively censoring the game to remove the possibility of their deaths - at 9 and 7, it's just not something I want them to deal with. Or explain to mom.
But it's not just fatality that I'm spinning out of the narrative - I'm also editing out anything I think would boring for them. We've hand-waved some of the travel, smaller encounters, and the more crunchy elements such as encumbrance, spell components, and some of the more detailed intrigue. There was a bit in the early part of Wave Echo Cave that is a maze. My son said "I'm not really having fun doing this part" so I just cut it right the heck on out. I'm tuning virtually every element for maximum fun.
This is all another strength that RPGs have over more fixed experiences like board games - with a DJ on the decks/a DM behind the screen, you can adjust everything on the fly to make sure everyone is having fun. We've all been in that game where one player or even all the players aren't having fun and the whole thing is really just a downer. Usually, the only way out is to stop playing, sweep the game into the box, and play something else. But I am really digging the ability to shape each session based on what I am reading from them.
And, I am especially enjoying the creation of bespoke narrative especially suited for my kids. I really like that they are playing druids (and Emerald Enclave druids at that) because we can fold in bits about environmental stewardship and animal welfare. With a more fixed format, those themes are either there or they aren't. You can't create them on the fly.
As far as some of the darker subject matter that D&D can often bend toward goes, I've not yet encountered anything I felt was too dark or adult that I needed to censor out of the game. In our household, we don't accept "too scary"- my kids are not allowed to be scared of monsters, frightful imagery, or other fantastic spookery. They know that the real monsters are human. The violence that is inherent in, well, chopping a Hobgoblin in half is something we sort of look past. I don't allow them to be overly descriptive or cruel. I do have to remind them occasionally "you are Lawful Good, you are the good guys."
So we may not be running Curse of Strahd, with its dream pies made of ground children, anytime soon. Unless I can figure out how to spin that in a different way more appropriate to their age and a general Rated T for Teen approach. That won't happen for a while anyway, as right now I'm working out how to match beats linking the end of Lost Mine of Phandelver to Storm King's Thunder via The Sunless Citadel using a story idea my daughter had about rescuing a horse farm from a deadly plague. Wish me luck.
Next Time: The Adult Table.