Pathfinder Beginner Box – Kids GMing for Parents or “How I got my wife to play RPGs!”

I know, you are all wringing your hands waiting for the first installment of the Pathfinder Beginner Box through the eyes of my son and his friends.  I swear to you it is coming so please don’t locate me using Google Earth and pound on my door and windows like the mob of angry zombies that attacked while waiting for my latest SKYRIM article!  If you missed that article you can jump back and read my son’s reactions to the Pathfinder Beginner Box here!

This article will still whet your taste buds in preparation for additional Pathfinder articles to come.  This is the story of Kids GMing for Parents or how I got my wife to play role-playing games!

My son Justice has been very excited about role-playing games ever since he saw some friends and I gather around the table with small painted miniatures, funny yet colorful looking dice, and beautiful model scenery and maps.  From the age of 5 he was asking me when he would have the chance to play.  I told him that his time would come, he just needed to wait a few more years until he could understand the basics.  That time finally came, and for the past three nights, Justice has sat behind the GM screen running Pathfinder games! (Actually he paces around the room with the adventure module in hand!)

I’ll start at the beginning.  During Justice’s first game with his friends he was GM.  My wife was in the kitchen baking up one of her delicious concoctions (she really should start her own bakery) and overheard the entire adventure.  Her post-adventure comment to me: “I like the way they play!”  “How do you mean?” I said.  “The players say what they want to do and Justice lets them do it!”  My wife let loose a devilish grin revealing a starved role-player hiding inside.  Although I always encourage exploration and pushing the limits in my games there are limitations to characters abilities. For example a plain old fighter doesn’t know how to use a magic wand without a special skill and that’s just how it is… or is it?  The old seers who crafted the first couple editions of AD&D always prefaced the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters guide with something important and meaningful.  I think Zeb Cook’s preface to the AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Master’s guide sums up how I feel about RPGs and the way they are meant to be played:

Let’s assume that since you’re reading this, your are, or plan to be, a Dungeon Master.  By now, you should be familiar with the rules in the Player’s Handbook. You’ve probably already noticed things you like or things you would have done differently. If you have, congratulations. You’ve got the spirit every Dungeon Master needs. As you go through this rule book, I encourage you to continue to make these choices.

Choice is what the AD&D game is all about. We’ve tried to offer you what we think are the best choices for your AD&D campaign, but each of us has different likes and dislikes. The game that I enjoy may be quite different from your own campaign. But it is not for me to say what is right or wrong for your game. True, I and everyone working on the AD&D game have had to make fundamental decisions, but we’ve tried to avoid being dogmatic and inflexible. The AD&D game is yours, it’s mine, it’s every player’s game.

So is there an “official” AD&D game? Yes, but only when there needs to be. Although I don’t have a crystal ball, it’s likely that tournaments and other official events will use all of the core rules in these books. Optional rules may or may not be used, but it’s fair to say that all players need to know about them even if they don’t have them memorized. The Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master Guide give you what you’re expectedto know, but that doesn’t mean the game begins and ends there. Your game will go in directions not yet explored and your players will try things others think strange. Sometimes these strange things will work; sometimes they won’t. Just accept this, be ready for it, and enjoy it.

Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don’t just let the game sit there, and don’t become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can’t figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.

At conventions, in letters, and over the phone I’m often asked for the instant answer to a fine point of the game rules. More often than not, I come back with a question—what do you feel is right? And the people asking the questions discover that not only can they create an answer, but that their answer is as good as anyone else’s. The rules are only guidelines.

At the beginning of the first Dungeon Master Guide, Gary Gygax stressed that each of us, working from a common base, would make the AD&D game grow in a variety of different directions. That is more true today than ever. Don’t be afraid of experimentation, but do be careful. As a Dungeon Master, you have great power, and “with great power comes great responsibility.” Use it wisely.

David “Zeb” Cook
(Preface to the AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Masters Guide)
2/9/1989

Notice the bold underlined text above?  “The rules are only guidelines.”  I realized with great sadness that this ethos had begun to slip away from me as time had gone by.  Players who constantly reference their PHB, rule lawyers, and perfectionism have pushed me away from all that I hold dear in the game.  The freedom to do whatever you want?  I want my fantasy back!

So, coming back to my wife and I talking… she had mentioned that the kids were doing whatever they wanted in the game.  If they didn’t understand a rule they threw it away or made up their own.  In the end they had an AMAZING time!  My wife had such a great time listening to them play I realized this was my chance.  The chance to finally convince my wife she needs to play role-playing games.  (If you ever get this chance don’t let it slip away, they come only once a decade!)  How was I to get the entire family involved in a way which would promote healthy exploration and complete and utter freedom and creativity?  Ah ha!  Instead of my experienced hand and mind behind the GM screen I would let Justice run the game.  My wife and I would play a couple characters in the Pathfinder Beginner Box and run through the dungeon.

In the past my wife would take a week just rolling up a character.  She spent hours writing every detail down with perfect penmanship and absolute purpose.  By the time she was done she didn’t want to play her character lest she die! Realizing this I grabbed the pre-made characters that come with the Pathfinder Beginner Box, golden!  I asked her if she wanted the female cleric that looked like a man or the slender and attractive elvish rogue.  She of course went with the rogue.  I handed her the sheet, we put our 2 dimensional cardboard avatars upon the flipmat and Justice opened his adventure module.  He read the intro to the adventure which I won’t display here since I hate spoilers as much as you do!  We were whisked away into a fantasy world just like that!  No need to spend hours rolling up characters or arguing over mundane details (this is NOT a mundane detail MICHAEL!! sorry, random Office Space reference…)  

Oh yes, my choice?  I went with the warrior.  I prefer to play wizards, but I knew since our party numbered only two that I would have to play the tank.  Plus, if my wife died in the first adventure she may never try playing again.  This was one of the most purposeful adventures I had ever been on!  The fate of my family’s ability to play role-playing games hung in a precarious balance.  We were attempting to take on an adventure meant for 4 players with only 2 and my son GMing.  I hoped he would go easy, at least on my wife.

Our first encounter with a couple goblins went brilliantly!  My wife used stealth to sneak up behind the first goblin and slayed him with a sneak attack outright.  That put a smile on her face!  I charged into battle swinging my trusty longsword prepared to decapitate the last goblin.. and missed!  The goblin attacked me and rolled high, he hit.  Next my wife attacked and hit again, rolling another high damage roll and killed the other goblin as well.  I stood there looking like a big dumb brute.  “Uh, nice work beautiful.  Perhaps I should relinquish party leadership to you seeing as you best me at both combat and skill.”  She gladly accepted (what wife doesn’t like having power over her husband’s player character?) and we moved into the next room.

Justice thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of GM and although he has a ways to go, he reminds me of myself at his age.  Except this time, the parents are encouraging the child to get lost in a fantasy world.  Throughout the adventure he made mistakes and said “Whoops, oh no!  I messed up!”  I gave him my sagely wisdom that I have learned from years of GMing.  “Son, don’t tell the players when you mess up.  Trust me, they will never ever know.  Plus, there are no mistakes- there are just chances to use your imagination!”  He smiled and nodded and we kept playing.

We have played 2 short sessions since that initial game.  Now we keep our Pathfinder Beginner Box game sitting on the coffee table.  Now each night instead of sneaking off to work on my website or watching Star Trek- the Next Generation, we spend time as a family adventuring through a dungeon while my son GMs!

When Justice walks upstairs he sees my towering bookshelves lined with the entire Forgotten Realms catalog from 1st edition, all of 2nd, and every book (save 1) from Forgotten Realms 3.5.  I also have the healthy beginning of a Pathfinder RPG library (the core books and Advanced Players book).  Oh yeah, don’t forget all the old issues of Dragon magazine dating back as far as the late 70’s all missing covers!  😛  I try to imagine having access to such a library at his age and I just can’t do it.  Is it overwhelming?  Exciting?  In time I’m sure he will pull a few of the old RPG tomes off that shelf, dust them off, and ask “Dad, what’s ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons?”  I will smile proudly and sit him down to roll up a character while I try my hand at DMing for HIM!

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About Jonathan G. Nelson

Jonathan G. Nelson is the editor-in-chief and owner of NERD TREK. He is also owner/publisher at AAW Games / AdventureAWeek.com, a tabletop gaming company based in Snoqualmie, WA. Connect with Jonathan via Facebook.