Top 10 Dungeons and Dragons Lessons Learned

D&D players handbook
D&D players handbook
Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook is a great place to start to learn the game

One of the best things about running a Dungeons and Dragons adventure is never, ever being able to predict how a group of characters will react to any given situation.

However, some things should have been predictable. Here are my top 10 Dungeons and Dragons lessons learned about running adventures for 12-year-olds.

  1. They need a mentor non-player character to help them out, to inspire them in some cases, to guide them to their next adventure, and to explain what may or may not work, without taking them out of the story. It’s why Gandalf is there with the hobbits, why Moiraine arrives to talk to Rand Al’Thor, why Dumbledoor advises Harry Potter. I goofed that one up.
  2. They are completely uninterested in learning about the backstories of the people in the world, the politics in the town, or the greater world as a whole. Maybe this will change, since a ton of stuff was thrown at them on the first day, but right now, it’s ‘where do I have to go and what do I have to kill?’
  3. Sugar intake control is vital to playing a successful game. Too much too soon, and they become like Vikings bent on looting and pillaging everything in sight. Or, to use the new Dungeon and Dragon adventure terms, they become murder hobos. Kill everything. Take everything.
  4. Fighting rats is not fun. Gosh, why didn’t I see that one earlier. Sure, they are tough, and, statistic-wise, a pretty good challenge, but who wants to go home talking about killing rats. To be fun, the players needed to overcome something with swagger, something they can brag about, something larger than life. Doh!
  5. To simulate healing potions, I bought small vials, washed them thoroughly, and filled them with Gatorade. When the boys had to heal themselves from wounds in battle, I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have them drink the Gatorade vials? However, what I should have foreseen is that they like Gatorade and so would take damage just so they could drink the Gatorade. (sigh)
  6. Never let the characters damage each other. In the game, when the players roll a ‘1’, something bad happens, but if you let that ‘something bad’ be hit another player, then that player wants revenge and pretty soon they’re swinging swords at each other. It’s funny, for a second, then the whole party dies and everyone is mad at everyone.
  7. A good fart noise goes a longer way with 12-year-olds than with adults. Ok, wait, no, it goes a long way with adults as well…but be careful, if you let one boy make a loud fart noise because one failed ‘1’ roll, then they all start wanting ‘1’s so they can make that noise. Over and over and over and over again… and, perhaps to no one’s surprise, sometimes those noises are not faked. Never make this a farting game. Ever. No.
  8. I stressed and stressed about painting miniatures for the boys. I spent hours making sure their characters looked amazing, but, being nearly blind in my old age, and with shaking hands and a rather feeble ability to paint small things in the first place, I wasn’t able to really do anything to a pro-level (despite watching 200 YouTube videos). However, it didn’t make any difference. The boys were so excited to have painted miniatures of their characters and didn’t care that I’d not been able to paint a microscopic belt buckle.
  9. Food matters. There’s a post on what happens when there’s too much sugar, but not feeding them is a bad idea as well. Balance is the key here, and I don’t mean lots of carrots and celery sticks, no, just better management of pop, chips, candy and, for supper, pizza. Failure to properly control the food results in an alien-like transformation of good kids into scary, drooling monsters.
  10. They knew nothing about the rules but what I told them. I was so used to running dungeons and dragons adventures with people who knew more than I did so I had studied hard for these sessions, but it really wasn’t necessary. So what if I forgot about ‘opportunity attacks?’ So what if I goofed up how minor illusion worked? So what if I didn’t quite get how ‘sneak attack’ works? I will make sure it to make it fun, first and foremost.

3rd Dungeons and Dragons Session pt 1

D&D, gandalf, balrog

Dungeons and dragons adventures should always be epic, gandalf, balrog
Climaxes have to be epic! In dungeons and dragons adventures, this means more than just giant rats

This session would define the game for a long while.

In video game terms, it was the boss fight. In movie terms, the climax. In Dungeons and Dragons adventures, it’s a moment where failure could mean death.

Led by their halfling guide, Devon, the boys (Leroy-the-Ranger, Sherlock-the-Wizard, Brad-the-Rogue, and Honor-the-Paladin) had entered a secret entrance into Devon’s home. They hoped to save the halfling’s family from villainous villains (called the Blackskulls) who had threatened to murder Devon’s family if Devon didn’t do what they wanted.

Unlike that last adventure, this one started off well enough. With candy under my complete and utter control, I was able to get the boys focused fast.

They made a plan- clear the dungeon, sneak into the hobbit’s home, rescue the innocent. You know, hero stuff.

Unlike the last session, the boys moved quickly, coming under attack by a purple mushroom that killed Sherlock’s familiar, a cat.  Luckily, though, the cat had unlimited lives since it was the ultimate Scholander’s cat, (existing only when called), so no one felt bad for the loss, (though Sherlock did wonder, “does it feel?”)

Using ranged weapons, they shot the unmoving fungus in one of the mushroom-growing rooms so it couldn’t damage them. It was over quickly and they raced further through the underground rooms, only to be surprised by a big ass spider that managed to entrap the powerful Honor-the-Paladin in a sticky web.

With their main fighter trapped in a web, the rogue, Brad, found (much to his horror,) that he was face-to-face with the spider, Brad wearing only light armor and fighting with daggers.

Shaking with fear, he stabbed at spider’s eyes, hoping to blind it and flee. Despite his fear, he wounded the spider badly, making it scream a terrible spider scream, and as it tried to flee away, wounded, blind in one of its many eyes, Leroy-the-Ranger shot it dead with one well-placed crossbow bolt.

They found nothing in the spider’s web, though, except the desiccated bodies of more than a few giant rats. Sherlock-the-Wizard, (knowing alchemy) harvested the spider’s web and its poison glands for future use.

Dwarven runes needing an answer to a riddle to open are fun in dungeons and dragons
A good staple of any dungeon in Dungeons and Dragons adventures is a dwarven riddle door

Then they were confronted by a thick, metal door with Dwarven runes carved onto it.

Translating the runes, they realized it was a riddle, because, you know, dwarves love locking doors with riddles. It’s their thing. That and drinking.

Their guide, Devon thought he knew the answer, but guessed wrong and took a massive jolt of electricity. The boys, however, were smarter.

They read the riddle.

Power enough to smash ships and crush roofs. Yet it still must fear the sun. What is it?

After a few guesses, and using Honor’s resistance to electricity, they solved the riddle and opened the door.

Answer: “ice”

Even their incorrect guesses were good or at least funny: A vampire. Water. Leroy’s pee.

The room beyond the riddle door held a good selection of alchemic supplies, including a book that could teach Sherlock-the-Wizard how to make a potion of climbing and an antidote to some poisons. Sherlock gleefully collected everything and would have read the book had they not been pressed for time –

Who knew how much longer it would be until the evil Blackskulls realized that Devon had betrayed them and murdered his family?

However, the boys were blocked by another riddle door. Who works when he plays and plays when he works?

Without hesitation, they answered ‘a musician’.

And the door opened.

They raced through the room beyond the riddle door, past looted supplies that Devon recognized as belonging to someone in the town, and past the crispy body of a human who had clearly failed to answer the riddle correctly.

They reached the staircase leading up, a rickety thing that Devon had built himself and seemed oddly proud of.

Honor-the-Paladin took the lead, slinging his shield onto his back, and unsheathing his sword. Although the least stealthy of the companions, they feared that if someone was up there, waiting, ready to ambush them, better to have a huge, dragonborn paladin enter the room first.

From Devon, they knew there’d be at least 4 blackskulls inside. Two of them were greatly feared in the village, one a giant of a man called ‘Ogre’ and the leader, a cruel man named Derrick Quickblade.

Honor reached the top of the stairs and reached for the trap door as the rest of the party shifted on the creaking staircase behind him, ready for battle.

Honor eased the trap door open.

The dungeons and dragons adventure will be continued!!!

D&D The Mines of Phandelver Begins

DD dice
DD dice
Roll a twenty-sided die.
Nothing is more iconic of D&D than that dice.

Sadly, it took a while to get that first D&D adventure going, especially since the boys were new players, and, you know, 12-years-old.

To their credit, the boys didn’t treat all the information thrown at them like a math test, they listened, fidgeted, and looked excited to start.

After introducing them to my D&D world, we reviewed each character’s backstory so that they would know they had a place in the world. They’d created 4 characters. 

Brad the Rogue – He’d done some thiefie stuff, but had felt guilty about it. Super guilty. Like his-mom-would-find-out guilty. He wasn’t so sure he was cut out to be a thief.

Sherlock, a young gnomish wizard – He’d been expelled from the Arcane Academy (Magic School) because they no longer accepted non-humans.

Honor, a Dragonborn paladin –  He’d been sent on a quest by his people to find a lost artifact.  Ok, yes, it’s a sword, but it’s a very cool dragonie sword.

And lastly, Leroy the Ranger- He’d grown up in a forest, alone except for the animals, until the day he made friends with a gnomish wizard who had recently been expelled from the Arcane Academy. Leroy wanted to find the people who’d killed his family (like any good Disney Movie.)

D&D main character
Finster Farstrider, the kindly, old man who’d left his worldly possessions to the boys. A classic D&D start

All knew a kindly old man, named Farstrider.

He had taught the Leroy-the-Ranger languages, social etiquette and made him bathe. 

He was a teacher at the Arcane Academy and told Sherlock-the-Gnomish-Wizard that expulsion was not a bad thing, that the world beyond the walls of academia held more wonder and knowledge than he could possibly imagine.

He’d even written to Honor-the-Paladin, saying he had knowledge of the lost artifact.

And Brad-the-Rogue? Well, he’d taken the boy in off the streets, given him food and books, and taught him languages with an odd young man from the forest. Only to have Brad-the-Rogue steal his magical cloak. And, yes, that was what Brad felt super guilty about.

The boys have inherited a chest and a manor in D&D

The four were brought together not by Farstrider’s good deeds, but rather by his death.

Seems, he’d put them all in a will, and bequeathed to them, a deed to a ruined castle and a chest with all his worldly possessions.

All they had to do was get to his home in a small town.

Easy, right?

Well, no.

Great adventures are born of ‘no.’

The first twist was that they were not the only beneficiaries! One of them didn’s show up, a woman named Elerra-the-Demonbound. But with a name like that, well, maybe it was better if she didn’t show up. What kind of terrible monster would she be?

However, their guide, a nervous halfling named Devon Havenford seemed very determined to get moving and moving fast. “Not a lot of love for us in Haven, boyos, best we get out of the city as fast as we can.” So they left without Elerra-the-Demonbound, hoping she’d catch up.

So, with sun high in autumn’s harsh blue sky, they began to march northward, the traffic light, the rank smell of the city fading behind them. As farmland turned into lightly wooded hillside, the trees burning with fall colors, they passed a large troop of the All-father’s Red Legion. The soldiers marched in perfect lock-step, their red cloaks billowing in the light wind, their weapons and armor shining.  As they marched past the group, one called them “abominations!” another shouting “Your time will come, monsters!”

Despite what the boys felt, despite what Honor-the-Dragonborn-Paladin wanted to do, they chose to ignore the insults and continued on. Maybe one day, as seasoned heroes, they could take on 50 skilled soldiers, but now was not the time.

They had made the right choice. The only choice.

At camp, with the fire crackling and Devon cooking his weight in sausages, they noticed he wouldn’t meet their eyes and, after supper, chewed on his fingernails like he meant to gnaw them to the bone.

They tried to find out why, but he told them, “Not a fan of the woods, you see. Tis too many bad things in the woods, you see. Too many.”

But Brad-the-Rogue, a smart reader of people, knew that to be a lie.

The next night, with Leroy-the-Ranger roaming the woods looking for herbs to make Sherlock-the-Wizard’s potions, Brad-the-Rogue and Honor-the-Paladin pressed the halfling relentlessly.

Being a good person, not able to keep the terrible secret inside, the Halfling cracked under the questioning. “Listen, I didn’t have no choice, you understand, no choice at all. They have me wife and children. I had to do what they told me to do.”

“What was that?” Honor-the-Paladin demanded.

(D&D Adventure to be continued…..)


Our D&D characters

Honor – Dragonborn Paladin. Very scary looking. 

Brad Armpit – half-elf rogue. Nice guy, but watch your purse.

Leroy – Human ranger, crazy good with his crossbow, but about lacking social skills.

Sherlock – Gnome wizard, small but full of energy and a bright desire to learn.

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A Return to D&D

I Have Returned

It’s been 30 years since I played D&D, but when my best friend’s daughter asked me to join her game, I thought, should I embrace my nerdiness, again, put on my wizard’s cloak, take out my wand of magic missiles and join her group?

I won’t lie. I was hesitant.

A part of my reluctance was tangled up in my past. I’d met my first wife, Margot, while playing D&D and we used to game a lot when we were young. Those should be good memories, but as with much of my past life, there is so much pain there that I wasn’t sure I could return to D&D and not feel overwhelming sadness, the type that makes it hard to get out of bed, makes it hard to even breathe.

But what if I could get past that, what if I could turn those memories into happy ones, again?

The other part of my reluctance was, ok, let’s be honest, D&D is kind of nerdy. Maybe, like, very, very nerdy.

However, at some point, you just have to be who you really are. A Maple Leaf fan? Don’t hide it (I mean, don’t brag about it either, but don’t hide it.) Someone who loves dancing-musicals? Great. Bring out those Gene Kelly movies. Love collecting WWE dolls, oh, sorry, figurines?  Well, fondle the Rock all you want. Embrace who you are, write it in your secret diary, put it on your resume, confess it to your significant other.

It’s okay. We are in the age of acceptance. Plus, it’s almost, dare it say it, cool.

But how is THAT possible, you ask? How?

Well, the success of shows like Game of Thrones helped, but one of the biggest reasons kids are discovering D&D is Stranger Things. If you haven’t seen it, well, yeah, see it, it’s outstanding story-telling, but the kids in it play D&D.  They fight monsters together, both in game and in their story, and they find that without each other, they would all be doomed.


They seem to be having fun.

What? Fun without a TV? Without leaping from a bus above an island and landing to murder people?

Yes. Fun.

Then there’s the explosion of podcasts. Critical Role is, at least in my warped mind, the best of the lot, but there are many, many to choose from now. Critical Role, though, brought a bunch of voice actors together and, led by the incredible Matt Mercer, took on Grey Dwarves, Mind Flayers and evil demons, making it all seem like …dare I say it?… fun.

Heck, there are even cool, studly guys like Vin Diesel playing (that look like how I imagine I look in real life), and even at the hockey rink, dads are confessing to have once played back in the day. Could it be that D&D was now socially acceptable?

Judd Nelson at his best, Breakfast Club.
Still relevant today.

In the end, I decided to give it a try, again.

So if you ever played, and I know a lot of you did, come out of the closet. It’s ok. You’re cool now. (Or if not exactly ‘cool’, at least accepted.)

And hey, if you like what you’re seeing, like D&D, want to convert people into nerds or simply love Judd Nelson, share or like on Facebook, twitter, or the blogosphere.

The Best Day Part II

dungeons and dragonsI thought I was prepared for everything, but I had forgotten how D&D can twist your expectations. For better. Or worse.

So here’s how it started. All three players, the Oldest, the Youngest and my friend, were fighters. Rough tough soldiers. Killers. Warriors.

Now the coolest thing about an RPG (a roleplaying game), is that you can create a character that’s basically one form of you, or someone you may have read about or watched on TV. Or a combination of the two. You can be a Gimli-like dwarf with a bit of nerdy Sheldon, for example.

“Bazinga! Certainty of death, small chance of success- what are we waiting for?”

Or, with the new D&D rules, they assign a few traits to help you create an amazing character.

Here’s what the boys got. The Youngest, who has already made his Christmas list, and it is 2 pages long – got a character who despises money. Material things mean nothing to him. Nothing. He was all about the fame.

Ha. About as opposite to the Youngest as it could possibly be.

The Oldest got a character who loves the forest. LOVES it. Would never harm it. Ever.

shrekNow him being an ogre and all, that was kinda cool. Ogres are known for eating children and bashing knights on the head with big clubs. But not this one. This one loved nature. A big, huge ogre with massive muscles who literally loves to smell the roses. Lie in a bed of clover. Look at the color of leaves in the forest.

OMG, this was going to be good.

So I built the first adventure around those things. The Youngest wanted only glory so I geared up great glory for him if he succeeded. For the oldest, a threat to nature. To the things he loved the most.

It all began, as most adventures in D&D begin. In an inn. There, thought I, they would be confronted by smelly bullies who hated the big ogre. The big ogre would likely pound them into snot, especially if his brother – the fighter who would see great glory in coming to the aid of the outnumbered ogre – helped him out.

Then, based on their manly heroics and impressive tossing of bad guys around, they would be asked to help find a lost caravan. In the forest.

Simple, right?

seagalSort of like every Steven Seagal movie only with less, you know, Steven Seagal in it.

But when I began the encounter, the ogre did something completely unexpected.

I, as the *cough* dungeon master began: “Alright, Ogre, as soon as you enter, three men stand up from their tables. One of them, a burly man with stained leather armor and a red nose from too much drinking, marches up to you.”

(On the tiles I’d set up, I place an Ogre figure by the door and six bad-ass-looking guys near tables. I placed figures of The Youngest and my friend at another table).

thugMe: “The ruffian looks up at you and says, “Your kind ain’t allowed in here,” He reaches for the rusty dagger at his side. He’s so close to you, you can smell how much he stinks. Like our dog after she’s rolled around in dead fish. Behind him, you see his two companions stand up as well and try their best to look menacing.

“Either you go quietly,” the thug in front of you says, “or we’re going to carve you up real bad like.”

(Now, traditionally, and indeed in most bar fights, this is where the other side postures up and soon all hell breaks loose… but not this time.)

Ogre: “I don’t see the need to fight.”

Me (and the bad guys): “What?”

Ogre: “What if I just paid you to walk away.”

Me and the bad guys: “What?”

“I’ve got 100 gold. Why don’t I give it to you and you can feed your families or go buy pokemon cards or something.”

Me and the bad guys: “What?”

“100 gold is a lot of money.”

heartbreak ridge(Now, this is where a video game would force the issue. It has no ability to improvise. To adapt. To overcome. A machine is not a marine. – Or a dungeon master, which is pretty much the same thing.

But I can adapt.

And I did.

Me: “The thugs seem confused. The guy in front of you takes a step back. He rubs his jaw, thinking, but he likes the idea of free money, so, yeah, he can’t pass that up. They take your money, laughing, and leave.”

The Oldest beams. He’s beaten the encounter. Not by violence. But by using his head and a bit of cash. Kind of like what I used to do in junior high where I traded my lunch for someone not punching me in the face.

But it reset the whole game. Like a QB who runs more than he throws, like a politician who actually does what they say they’ll do, like a movie that’s not filled with product placements.

I would have to readjust EVERYTHING and quickly. I had a warrior who hated to kill. An amazingly cool trait, but not something I expected.

I mean, what do you do in a game where the whole point is largely to slaughter the bad guys?

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.