Armagideon Time

“So what kinds of videogames do you like?” I asked the Kid during one of her weekend stayovers prior to officially moving in with us.

Minecraft. Fortnite. And that game where you’re going to have your head cut off but then a dragon shows up and burns everyone to death.”

“That sounds like Skyrim,” I replied, not really thinking that would be the case.

“YEAH! SKYRIM!”

“I got that for the PS4.”

“CAN I PLAY IT? PLEASE?”

…and that’s how Arianna the High Elf Battle Mage With Cool Scars came to wander the northern wilderness on her trusted horse Linda, seeking out bandits to electrocute and ingredients to use in crafting recipes.

Watching the Kid immerse herself in developing her in-game avatar and exploring its environments set some long dormant wheels a’turning in my skull.

She loves Stranger Things. She loves tabletop games. She loves make-believe and crafting stories. She loves social gatherings. She could stand to use a little help with applied math, vocabulary, and problem-solving skills.

I’d already been thinking of organizing a family game night, so why not make it a family Dungeon and Dragons night?

D&D and me gone our separate ways over three decades ago, but I picked it over Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay because it would be simpler for a novice to grasp and had the whole Stranger Things angle going for it. After some internal debate about whether to go with the “BECMI” era Rules Compendium or the 3rd ed rules, I opted for the 5th edition ruleset based on Lil Bro’s recommendation. They’re simple, flexible, and intuitive, dispensing with much of the clutter (and meta-wankery) yet retaining the game’s core strengths. In short, it was precisely what I was looking for in a fantasy RPG system.

We’re still trying to work out the scheduling and logistics for the approaching school year, so things are still in the planning stages for now. That’s been fine by me because it gives me time to become familiar enough with the rules to explain them to others and scrape together the rough outline for a campaign.

In my younger days, I was a “big picture” type of gamemaster. I’d have sooner eaten my own foot than begin a campaign with anything less than a full continent mapped out, a dozen realms delineated, and a few millennia of history codified in excruciating detail. As enjoyable as that conscientious worldbuilding was, however, only the tiniest fraction of it would turn up with the actual game sessions. It also had the dubious effect of letting the backstory drive events rather than the players’ actions when it came to crafting scenarios.

“I created this fluff, so you’re damn well going to experience it.”

This time around, I’ve opted for a much looser approach. There are no megamaps or chronologies, just a relatively small parcel of turf sprinkled with adventure seeds and suggestive names. More detailed info will be filled in as required by campaign events. 5th edition’s relative gentleness towards low-level characters makes it easy to craft neophyte-friendly scenarios — and blunt the urge to start everyone off at fifth level for the sake of avoiding a Total Party Kill during the first session.

I’ve long been partial to low-level play where even the most minor of magic items is a valued prize and each level gained is a significant event. The charm isn’t in the higher mortality rates, but the sense of accomplishment as your character slowly “comes into their own.” It’s why I’ve played the first third of the Baldur’s Gate games and Skyrim and Diablo III dozens of times, yet have only finished them a couple of times each. Powergaming can be fun, but it also tends to devolve into a joyless grind for incremental optimization.

Give me a single digit-hit point total and cave with a handful of goblins to poke with a crude spear over using the powers of a demigod to thrash the same elder dragon a dozen times in hopes of obtaining a rare drop.

My previous attempt to put this approach into tabletop practice (by way of 2nd edition WFRP) fell apart because of scheduling reasons. (Working out the logistics for a weekly gathering of thirty-somethings is a feat more daunting than anything described in a heroic fantasy novel.) I did hold onto my set of MS Word campaign notes, which migrated across a half dozen computers over the past fifteen years. Most of it was world-building fluff, useful only for as an embarrassing reminder of what I was reading at the time I wrote them, but there were enough bits and pieces of value to form the basis of a new campaign.

After a little tooling around with a free map generator (ain’t technology grand?), I came up with this…

What you see on the map is pretty much what you get in terms of world-building — some evocatively named locales covering a decent spread of environments, sprinkled with various points of interest. There’s a little bit more detail stored in my skull, but it can’t be disclosed in a venue where a couple of the players might encounter it.

The opening hook will be simple and to the point: The characters are held over in the orchard-heavy village of Pomedale because soldiers of the As Yet Unspecified Kingdom Army have blocked road north because of Some Vaguely Understood Event. To keep the characters from spending their days drinking and brawling and making nuisances of themselves, the locals suggest various nearby attractions for adventuring types.

The only tricky part thus far has been working out suitable challenges for what will likely be a three-person party featuring a halfling barbarian, elven druid, and some kind of warlock, but I planning to emphasize exploration and atmosphere over combat, anyhow.

Map aside, it’s going to be a fully analog game. I’ve got nothing against the various RPG-assistance apps out there, but the hands-on aspect of picking out a cool set of dice, having paper character sheets, manually mapping dungeons, and leafing through printed manuals will be a significant part of the game’s mystique for the Kid. If it does manage to gel into a regular, ongoing thing, I might even spring for custom Hero Forge minis for my two geeky ladies.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Fun charted territory
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Messing with the best
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Yes, arcana

2 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Raise dead”

  1. Scholar-Gipsy

    That’s some top-notch Nerd Dadding right there. Well done.

  2. Zeno

    Trust me, it will be a great way to draw the family closer. I spent about 18 months taking my younger kids and their cousins through some 1st Edition dungeon crawls. Now there’s this whole new level of shared experiences and in-jokes (about sage barrels, gnome hostages, and Dio lyrics, among other things) between them all which will never, ever go away, and always make them laugh when they reminisce. And my daughter has carried her character on to college and is now in a new campaign with some of her fellow classmates, where she’s the most experienced player of the bunch. Does me proud.

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