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Dungeons and Dragons: The Next Generation
So proud right now
Last night I did something I haven’t done for a very, very (very) long time. I buckled on my improv-narrative armour, dredged a set of dice out of the depths of my sock drawer, and ran the first part of a very gentle DND dungeon for my family.
Dungeons & Dragons has changed, by the way. Way back in the days of the First Edition, the rules were absurdly complex, and indeed complicated. Roll above this, roll under that, compare this with that by using a regression curve, here’s a graph… oh, and keep it peppy. I know there’s a lot of debate over 5e and so on - and I have massive sympathy, because I am a die-hard about World of Warcraft having been much better when the difficulty meant it was essentially a group version of Elden Ring. I have to say, though, that coming back to it after actual decades - like thirty or more frickin’ years - I was extremely grateful that the mechanics were pretty basic. That made my life a lot easier. Because I had a series of challenges to overcome which were non-trivial, my friends, and they were a ten year old, a twelve year old, and Mrs Harkaway.
My family are severe judges of narrative and they have exactly zero time for bad storytelling. Books beloved by millions get short shrift when they’re saggy, and woe betide the TV writer who tries to waffle their way through a retcon or a fudge. My soft-hearted kids will tear a hole in your unguarded flank and start eating, while their proud mother strangles your next seven episodes like a sackful of fresh-hatched studio execs at a WGA party.
(Excuse me a moment: my bilious dog is staring at the floor and making a noise like a kettle. I definitely don’t want her to vomit in my shoes again, so I’m just going to put her outside. She’s not in any danger, she just drank pond water like an idiot and she’s paying the price.)
All right, so we rolled up some characters: a warlock, a wizard and a fighter, respectively. That last was my recommendation to Mrs H: you spend your working life making finely judged decisions and exercising subtle power. Take a break and hit things with other things until they do as they’re told. Which she did, with glee and delight.
Because the party wasn’t hugely versatile as given, I lobbed them a couple of slightly goofy NPCs: a tank named Teak the Solid and a thief-healer claiming to be a respectable academic (Mad Old Snout). I figured that while I could always ratchet up the difficulty I didn't want them wiping at minute one. I had some reset options in my back pocket, too, like the Amulet of the Timeless Groundhog - if the party gets obliterated, a giant transdimensional groundhog resets time to a moment where they had other options.
(Speaking of wolves, the kettle thing is still happening and I haven’t put the dog outside because I’m soft-hearted. Pray for me.)
As it turns out, though, I wasn’t going to need the wipe options - at least, I haven’t yet. The issue is, as ever, that the cloth-wearers need to stay out of the melée - as the gag goes, a first level wizard can die of 1d4 embarrassment damage - so you want the enemy focused on the heavy mob. The jeopardy is real enough; a stray arrow will cause some serious grief and two means almost certain doom. Happily Mrs Harkaway’s headstrong and irritable elf warrior was plenty distracting by herself, never mind in the company of an NPC Goliath berserker.
The first problem we ran into was when the group charmed a goblin and interrogated it immediately after killing its fellow guard. Goblin Brian and Goblin Gavin turned out to have had a deep interior life, a friendship spanning many years. Brian’s sense of betrayal at what he’d just seen was genuinely appalling in the way only comedy can be, and as the party tried to make things better what started out as a demand for information veered into a disturbingly co-dependent relationship premised on magical mind-control. With some hasty prompting, they left the survivor tied up in the corner before the whole thing became actively traumatic. Here was my first challenge: in an off-the-peg starter pack adventure which was heavy on goblins (which, because the whole discussion of goblins and their semiotic baggage is pretty bleak, I had spontaneously rendered as wiry little shock-white humanoids* with button noses and straw-coloured hair) that whole monster type had just become emotionally toxic to all of us.
The rest of the cave complex’s occupants underwent a rapid transformation, becoming a mix of bandits and skeletons.
I won’t go into detail about the whole thing. My players surprised me at every turn, and it was superb. In the end, instead of fighting a motley crew of red-cloaked highwaymen for custody of a captive, the young warlock barraged them with a series of astonishing lies. Each was just about plausible and rolled over the moment where the enemies might have tried to fact-check the last, beginning with the assertion that he’d known the guy in charge of the group way back when - CHA vs WIS contest which went heavily in the warlock’s favour: the desperado couldn’t remember, but thought he might have - then reminding them of a deep loyalty that members of their gang owed one another through shared experience and battle, and finally culminating in the demand that - as per orders the party did not produce from a boss whose name they’d only learned about a minute before - the highwaymen hand over the prisoner “for torture and interrogation”. Bewildered and facing a sinister collection of hard-bitten mercenaries, the poor red-cloaks went for it.
I had honestly expected the party to stumble through one fight after another, blowing things up and setting them on fire. Wow, was I wrong. They did a certain amount of that, but only when it was the only option. They argued like the Marx Brothers, gave conflicting instructions to the NPCs, tripped over their own weapons… but somehow, only when it didn’t matter. When the chips were down, they were full of guile and resource. And they played their roles like pros.
All I can tell you, in the end, is this: we had a FANTASTIC night. It was that elusive, sought-after thing: vastly enjoyable, collaborative family time.
*here’s a thought: that collection of descriptions potentially breaks the “order of adjectives” in that I could have written it “little wiry shock-white humanoids” or “shock-white wiry little humanoids” as well.
The dog’s fine, by the way.