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D&D Summer Camp #4: At The Grown Folks Table

MB Updated
D&D Summer Camp #4: At The Grown Folks Table

Game Information

There Will Be Games

Failing a DC 20 adulting roll.

My longest standing game group - folks I've played with for over 15 years - have never really gotten into D&D or any other roleplaying. This is despite the fact that core of this group is a family of Society for Creative Anachronism enthusiasts who have crossbows and bec-de-corbins as home decor. They came up through the hobby via Warhammer, and at my store I got them all into board games. But a couple of weeks ago, as D&D Summer Camp hit its stride with my kids, I thought I'd more or less force them to play at least one session. I also wanted to use the experience as a way to show River and Scarlett how a larger game with adult players worked.

But then I found myself kind of in a situation- game night was less than 24 hours away, and I really didn't have much prepared. I decided to run the classic Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh from the just-released Ghosts of Saltmarsh anthology, a lovely collection of aquatic-themed adventures with plenty of pirates, Sahuagin, boats, and other fishy trappings. I liked that it was both extremely traditional in some ways hearkening back to 1st edition style adventures, but also quite innovative for its time as it is a supernaturally-infused "mansioncrawl" that winds up with the party being tasked with staging an attack on a smuggler ship. There also seemed to be a lot of silly fun stuff to play with- the first encounter is a couple of Giant Weasels, there's a treacherous nude man, and the whole thing is really kind of a big Scooby-Doo style mystery. And, most importantly, it is written for up to ten players and I was looking at having at least 8.

Since I dreaded the first session character roll-up, I just printed out pregens for everyone to choose from, and that was absolutely the right decision. We were able to get started not too long after a dinner of homemade vegan sushi and a few drinks, with everyone taking a character and giving them a ridiculous name and I made them all explain what the hell they were doing in Saltmarsh. This was all completely new to most of the players. My friend Hobbytown is a longtime vet and he actually showed up with all of his stuff and a Dragonborn sailor rolled up and ready to go. Another friend, who designed and was not properly credited in my opinion for Xenoshyft, had watched several of the popular D&D podcasts had was super psyched to play. The rest had no experience at all, which made my kids among the most experienced players at the table

And Helm bless those kids, they played that game for about six hours straight without complaining.  Weasels were slain, but not before attempting to make the Halfling Rogue dinner. A mysterious banshee was determined to be sad because she didn't want to see the Paladin expose his abs. The Dwarf Cleric ("Guido Sarducci") opened a door, saw a bunch of skeletons, and promptly closed it. The Elf Wizard set half the house on fire in a fight with smugglers in the basement. There were crumbling bannister incidents, mold poisoning, spider attacks, a book of erotic poetry was recovered, and that nude man with the worst Cockney/Australian accent I could muster was accused of being Dracula. They didn't finish, which was unfortunate. I really wanted to see how this bunch of ne'er-do-wells handled the boat assault.

I'd love to say a good time was had by all but that's not really true. My kids were positively beside themselves that they got to play in such a big (and really pretty unwieldy) game. They loved the endless banter, jokes, and good-natured bickering. They felt grown, knowing how to play the game better than the adults. But a couple of my friends just did not get it, reinforcing the notion that RPGs really aren't for everybody. I did my best to accommodate these players, which included pumping up the combat so it was more skirmish-y and rules-heavy. But the other dad in particular just did not mesh well with the concept. The table was kind of split half and half.

Driving home I found myself thinking about how it was actually the largest game I have ever run for any RPG. Even though I couldn't please everyone with the game mechanisms, I still felt like everyone at least had fun with the story and the action. We had lots of laughs, including some sure-to-be new running jokes (e.g. "weasel pie"). Most importantly, River and Scarlett had a great time, and now they are asking me to round up the same gang again to continue the story. And even the dissenters want to at least finish the adventure they started. I gave them at least enough fun to hook them into a second session.

I got to to thinking about how malleable and adaptable the game had been - and it was so with quite little preparation. There wasn't much that happened I wasn't equipped to manage and I had really done nothing more than read through the adventure. I even prefaced it on-the-fly with a classic and intentionally cornball "you are in a tavern, a stranger approaches you" lead, which even enabled me to drop a well-received Jaws reference (that my kids did in fact get). Of course every group every DM is different, and both are challenged differently by different aspects. But I left thinking about how we played a relatively complex game with a detailed story and I spent exactly 0 minutes going over the rules.

In fact, I told them up front the Great Gygaxian Secret. The shocking truth behind those "this is your game, break all the rules if you want" statements. . With kids, they tend to hear that and get it right away. But adults seem to naturally want there to be more structure and organization, especially board gaming adults. I think this may have been what frustrated my less-than-thrilled players, as they were looking for more rules grit to bite into and exploit. And it may be why so many nuts-and-bolts, "serious" game players shun the more emotional, expressive performance that role-playing requires.

But you know what? I've never really been that kind of "serious game player", ever. So maybe I belong over at the kids' table anyway, cracking jokes, rolling dice frivolously, and talking in funny voices.

Next time: The Death of The Black Spider

There Will Be Games
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #299128 01 Jul 2019 22:49
My first foray into DMing 5e was with a mixed group of adults and one child. We used the pre-gens from the starter set. 5 year old took the melee Fighter, Mom took the Rogue, Grandma the Wizard, and Grandpa the Cleric. With the exception of Grandma, who was ex military and had played AD&D ages ago, they were all new to role playing, and relatively new to gaming outside of Chess and Monopoly. They all had a blast and finished Phandelver. We started a second campaign that didn't last as long, but that was likely for other reasons.

I agree that sometimes having less board game experience is better for something like this. I played it very much theater of the mind though... no grid. I'd sometimes put dice out to explain relative positions of skeletons or whatnot. I think I'll try a grid the next time I run a game. There's a fine line I guess. I always think it's kinda weird when people want to optimize their Pathfinder dudes like spreadsheets.*

*Which is probably the type of gamer I was when I played in High School (High school for me was 3rd edition). I kept daydreaming about making an ambidextrous fighter with two bastard swords.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #299130 01 Jul 2019 23:14
I've never run Saltmarsh, but I used to have U1 in my collection. In hindsight, it's probably a very good choice for a bunch of Warhammer players because it was the first TSR module from their UK team. Pre-Warhammer, but probably comparable style plus the Saltmarsh setting has such a distinctive yet familiar texture.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #299148 02 Jul 2019 09:54
It's easy for roleplayers to forget that when you play a lot of board games, playing without the same kinds of parameters is disorienting. Being told you can do "whatever you want" doesn't make a lot of sense, and it definitely takes some practice to have expectations.

Youtube D&D shows have been a real boon for the hobby, but I do think they tend to set expectations for what the experience will be like. You really do need to figure all that out for yourself.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #299151 02 Jul 2019 10:09
"A mysterious banshee was determined to be sad because she didn't want to see the Paladin expose his abs."

Whoa, was he trying to use his...ahem...holy rod on her or something? :)

RPGs can be tough, especially if someone just hands you a character sheet full of stats you dont really understand. What am I good at, what cant i do? What is my goal?

I think noob rpg players should try to create a character very similar to themselves, or at least one with straightforward and well defined capabilities (the classic fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric for example) so they can rely on rules and mechanics that make sense until they warm up to the roleplay aspects and more oblique play styles.

Hopefully your kids get the chance to tutor some more adults. Kids (at least mine) love being the teacher!
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #299177 02 Jul 2019 18:24
Interesting that you think half the table didn't really dig it but they all want to do it again.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #299178 02 Jul 2019 18:52
It was kind of a grudging “I guess we can finish” thing. We are trying to get together this week so we’ll see how it goes!

The pregens I used were from the Starter Kit, so they were really simple. They also have kind of a “how to play” section on their sheets. But that is correct, the free form aspect flummoxed a couple of folks who just didn’t get it. I had to prod one player in particular, he just had no clue what to do. Another was the lone wolf that decided to just run around doing whatever...which was fine because I got to slap him with all kinds of fun stuff- yellow mold, collapsing floors, etc.

Re: the YouTube/streaming D&D scene- I actually watched a few videos back when we started playing, I wanted to see what the “trends” were in running a game. A lot of it is that same as it has ever been, but there’s also a looser, more conversational style than there was in decades past. Some of this is because 5e promotes this style of play, but I also get a sense that the really hardcore “you are in a room, WHAT DO YOU DO?” tone is definitely out. The streamers I’ve watched are very charismatic and extroverted, which is completely contrary to that stereotypical DMs of days gone by. I’ve tried to adopt this more accommodating, flexible, and collaborative style and I’m really enjoying it.

The Matthew Mercer thing with Stephen Colbert was really fun.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #299181 02 Jul 2019 20:32
I think part of it is that 5th is different, part of it is that the younger roleplay crowd on youtube, real play podcasts, etc is into very storydriven indies and that has bled into even mainstream D&D folks.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #299184 02 Jul 2019 21:08
It's tough to DM for a larger group, because you are more likely to get a mix of players with very different priorities. Robin Laws wrote a decent analysis of several gamer types years ago, though he may have overlooked some:

The buttkicker, power gamer, and tactician seem pretty similar, with minor differences in terms of goals and methodology. But they are all likely to be incompatible with the method actor, who is more interested in expressing his character, ideally through role-playing of social interactions with NPCs and other player characters. Meanwhile, the storyteller wants to know what happens next, and may get impatient with the other player types if they slow things down. According to Laws, the DM should try to identify his players by type, and then try to balance the desires of these players so that everybody is getting something out of the game. That's the most crucial goal of the DM.

There is also a good section near the end about how to avoid letting the focus of the game get stuck on something that isn't entertaining for most of the group. Rules arguments may need to be resolved, but crush them before they de-rail the game. I like to make a ruling after a fairly short discussion of pros and cons, while inviting people to email me with some feedback after the game. One campaign group of mine got frustrated by a method actor's insistence on "long conversations with shopkeepers."
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299188 02 Jul 2019 22:47
When I first started playing years back it took me a while to realize that I didn't need to roll a die to walk down a hallway. It seemed so counter to everything I had played up to that point.

I usually recommend that a new player play someone different from themselves, because it prevents them from investing too heavily into that one character, and being someone different can be a nice change. The key is to break their desire to build perfection, to get them to put a foible or two into the character. It makes the game more interesting and gives the player a scaffold to hang the rest of the character off of. Something as simple as "laughs like a donkey" helps flesh out the character's personality.
panzerattack's Avatar
panzerattack replied the topic: #299191 03 Jul 2019 02:11
Running a game for a large group is difficult and more likely to be a miss for some of the players. It's difficult to get everyone feeling included all the time and it's more tricky for the DM to intuit when someone's feeling a bit left out or getting a little bored. The DM's role in a smooth running game is obvious but it's often over-looked how big a role the players have in a game running well too and if even one player isn't playing ball it can be a drag on the whole session.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #299204 03 Jul 2019 11:01
I find that some of the players who don't know what to do start to get it when you tell them how to get bonuses to their roll.