Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Playing D&D with Kids: Managing Information Flow

My daughters surprised me while we were camping this past weekend by announcing that they want to play a lot of D&D while we're on vacation next week.  It's cool because I like D&D, but it definitely caught me off guard, and I've spent some time this week trying to catch up and get ready for our game. 

If you've never played with kids, it's an interesting experience. Definitely a switch for me because my regular (now defunct) game was a made up of a bunch of engineers and professional physicists. Yes, we had two physicists, and they were both awesome Players. But they were very different from my girls because, as a group, they were all very comfortable with the crunchy, math-based side of be game. And speaking personally, I'll admit that while I personally think of D&D primarily as a storytelling medium, there's a side of my personality that likes all the math and appreciates any venue that lets me use applied statistics on an ongoing basis. 

Kids, though...  They don't process information the way that adults do, especially engineers. In fact, even smart kids like mine can tend to get a little hung up in the details that D&D presents, and they can be overwhelmed by the sheer free-flowing nature of the game--caught in an ongoing loop of analysis paralysis by the very concept that, Hey!  I can do anything!

D&D's Fourth Edition was the worst for that because even at the basic levels it presented multiple options for doing even simple things like attacking with a sword. My girls and I have played a couple of the 4e-based board games, Wrath of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt, and that kind of thing came up a lot. And while playing was still a good experience all around, invariably what happened was that the girls would get surrounded by monsters, look at me, and ask, "What should I do now?"  

"Anything you want," was not much of an answer. 

Fortunately, those board games provided Power Cards to kind of make answering that question a little easier. So if you were playing a Ranger, you might have a card for your bow attack and a couple more cards representing various sword-attacks you might make.  The girls got that. "Oh, I can do one of these things, right?"  And then Wizards of the Coast (WotC) added power cards like that to the base 4e game, and although I never tried to play the full version with my girls, I could at least see how it might have worked. Those Power Cards were a good idea. 

So. The good thing about D&D Next is that it's a little simpler than 4e, especially as a combat simulator. But the problem is that the Playtest has so far gone to some trouble to fit all of the information you need to run your character onto a single double-sided page, and that's fine if you're an engineer with experience playing the game, but it makes it a little harder if you're an 8- or 9-year-old girl. For kids, compact information like that isn't particularly easy to absorb.  Big blocks of text aren't fun the way cards are. 

So I decided to make some Power Cards. 

This is my daughter Hannah's character, Sneax the Halfling Rogue, and I thought for awhile before I decided the right way to present the information that would normally be shown on her Character Sheet. Ultimately, I went with three 5" x 8" notecards, one for character basics, one for combat options, and one for skills, feats, and other, non-combat stuff. 

So far, so good. We'll have to see how it goes when we field-test these in Maine. 

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