At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.
I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.
Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.
So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.
The box contains some nice marbled polyhedral dice, some basic rules and an adventure. Tempting as it is to start with the latter, I felt I ought to brave the rules first.
It felt intimidating after such a long time. And while the booklet is slim, it was a little hard to piece things together. There’s no character generation material. Instead you’re given five pregenerated adventurers to run. Some of the rules you need to understand things like levelling up is printed on those character sheets, which is a bit confusing.
Once I had it though, it felt like slipping into a warm bath of wonderful nostalgia. These rules didn’t feel like third edition, with its confusing plethora of feats and tables. This felt like the game I remembered, but cleaned up, streamlined yet at the same time made more flexible.
Every stat now has a plus or minus modifier, and it’s used to change a d20 roll. You compare the result against a difficulty number to see if you succeed.
Sometimes that difficulty is fixed, like the armour class of your enemy. Sometimes it’s a vaguer call from the DM, like the 15 that’s suggested for a “difficult” task in the rules. But that basic system, supported by simple rules for a broad sprinkling of skills and proficiencies, is all there is. It’s all the game really needs.
Everything else is just like it used to be, only better. Everyone levels on the same advancement tables. Spell casters have flexible “slots” instead of having to memorize fixed spells, but the principle is the same. And the maths of the system have tweaked to ensure that the power differential as characters advance is big, but no longer vast.
Quite suddenly, after 20 years, I’m desperate to play this thing again.
First things first, though: I need to read that adventure. It’s called The Lost Mine of Phandelver, a corny title right out of the D&D history books.
With that emblazoned on the title page, I’m expecting a classic, by-the-numbers dungeon crawl. But I’m in for a surprise. The adventure has four parts, the first and last of which are standard, but exciting, dungeon delves.
Between, however, are two glorious free-form sections. These see the characters exploring first a town and then a number of wilderness locations, looking for clues. No railroads here: the players can, and likely will, wander around until they’ve gathered the clues they need.
This might seem a big ask for a novice Dungeon Master. But the adventure book is full of helpful hints on how to keep things running smoothly.
After all these years, I think I’m going to need some of that advice. I do the rest of my prep work as best I can. I collect all the figures from my D&D board games and make copies of the character sheets. Just standard fighters for the kids so they don’t get bogged down in rules, and a cleric for me, so they don’t get killed.
I show my eldest the box, and the dice. She recognises the logo and gets very animated. But it’s bed time. To be honest, I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, or them.
I’d been planning to wait until the afternoon to run the game, but as soon as they’re up, the girls are pestering me to get going. So we eat breakfast, clear the table and I set up a makeshift DM screen from the box.
I don’t spend any time explaining the rules or the concept of role-playing. The idea of pretending to be someone else in a fantasy world is as natural to them as breathing: they do it playing together every single day. I’m both worried and curious about how they’ll handle combat.
At first, it’s adorably naive. However everyday the concept of role-playing might be, they know nothing about this paradigm. Within ten minutes they’ve fallen into a pit and walked past some gold because they don’t know to check for traps or search for treasure. I use my in-game character to nudge them in the right direction.
Then they run into some goblins. Their first instinct is to try and sneak past, but the greenskins are guarding the entrance to a cave. After searching for a back entrance, they get stuck in.
It’s a riot. They’re learning to behave sensibly in the game environment. After the guards, they refuse to light a torch in case it attracts attention and ask my Dwarf to lead them around with his night vision. They explore the caves, rescue their friends, down the big bad in the final cavern.
In the showdown, everyone gets knocked out except younger daughter. She’s terrified, rolling the dice then hiding her eyes and squealing in case she misses. But she does it: with a little dice fudging, she saves the day.
Fifth edition has both experience points and a “bookmark” system where you gain levels at specific points in an adventure. This is one: everyone goes up to level two and is very proud, even though they don’t quite know what it means.
In the morning I ask the girls what their favourite part of the game was. “When we found the treasure!” says the eldest, carefully toting up the gold pieces and adding them to her character sheet. “When I saved everyone!” says the youngest, her eyes shining with pure, unadulterated glee.
“Do you want to play some more?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
Yesterday, they learned everything they needed to move to the next part of the adventure, but they’re too young to piece it together. They whisper conspiratorially, planning what to do next, but they can’t decide. So I use my character again to help them work out where to go.
This session is much more based on role playing and skill checks. It showcases how powerful and flexible the new system is, but the youngest finds it a little dull, and starts building towers out of all the pretty dice.
They end up scouring the crowd in a tavern for clues. They order “fruit whiskey” at the bar. Elder daughter is loving all the slowly-peeling onion rings of the scenario, and tries to piece the mystery together. They don’t have all the clues yet, though.
Eventually they face off against the main antagonists in this location, a bunch of human brigands. They’re not happy about fighting other people, and decide to use the flats of their weapons to knock them out at first.
It’s interesting that they had no such qualms with goblins.
They hit on a plan to try and scare members of the same band by carrying round tokens of their previous victory, and fronting it out. We use more skill checks to see if it works, which are just as thrilling as combat.
It does work. One of the surrendering guards tells them there’s a horrible “eye monster” guarding the next cavern. They’re both apprehensive and excited about meeting it.
They tip-toe into the cave and ask to see a picture of the dread beast. Usefully, there’s one in the scenario booklet, so I show them.
They both run screaming out of the room, in a delighted panic. I think that’s a good time to end today’s session.
It’s Monday again, after the high of the weekend. Time for me to go to work, and them to go to school, and everyone to reflect on how things went.
For my part, I’m bowled over by this edition. These basic rules run fast and smooth. Even the cut-down set in the box feel like they could be easily manipulated to handle most situations.
It’s almost the game I remember, except tweaked to be the game I always wanted it to be.
Although the details you need are annoyingly spread out over the booklets and the character sheets, new players can get everything they need with careful reading. And the supplied adventure is excellent, giving you a reason to buy the box over just downloading the free version of the rules.
As for playing with such young children, it went better than I dared hope. They’re primed by their own play to accept this kind of game. I hope they never grow out of that.
Part of me feels like a bad parent for introducing them to what might be the nerdiest thing in my whole nerdy cabinet of nerd hobbies.
But most of me feels like I’m riding a Unicorn across a galaxy of sparkling pixie dust. I’d forgotten how much fun role-playing could be. And I’d never imagined how much extra fun it would be doing it as a family.
I know what we’re all doing next weekend.