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