22 June 2016

Dungeons & Dragons & Drawing

Once upon a time Often upon fifteen+ years ago, I played that little role-playing game called Dungeons and Dragons. As you'll notice in the "Labels" section on the right, I've mentioned D&D here before, plus in a short product description for Nerdy With Children a few years back. I owe my cousins for introducing it to me, because I loved it, and used it (like many people have) to build storytelling skills, plan and write novels, and enjoy a whole lot of adventures with my friends. I guess you could say this is my attempt to pay it forward!

I've mentioned in earlier posts that, after a long hiatus from dungeon-delving games, I eventually found Descent 2nd Edition. I'm still a rabid Descent fan, which I value for its artwork, its relative simplicity (compared to RPGs, which it isn't), and its short preparation time. In other words, I've appreciated not having to fill what I remember as the very time-consuming role of "Dungeon Master."

However, a few months ago, I discovered a Humble Bundle for an RPG called Pathfinder, which is D&D 3rd edition's Open License rule system re-branded by Paizo Publishing. I wasn't eager to jump back into tabletop RPGs; if anything, I avoided it. However, the bundle included digital copies of hundreds of dollars worth of rulebooks and quest modules for less than $20, which was hard to ignore. I mentioned it to a father and son at my church as well as my two boys, and they all convinced me to go for it.

We love games in my house, but we also don't play nearly as often as we'd like to. Descent, Dice Masters, Smash Up, Labyrinth, Ticket to Ride...and now Pathfinder. In other words, we were slow to get started. Fortunately, with all the content I'd acquired, I didn't have to do much preparation. My sons were more excited about the imagination-based RPG than they ever were about the board-and-figure-based Descent, so I helped them make characters. (That's when I learned they took me seriously when I said they'd be able to do "anything." More on that below.) After several short sessions spread over a few weeks, we managed to finish the Beginner Box quest "Black Fang's Dungeon."

Both boys had a lot of fun. Though Descent is highly thematic and simplifies everything with custom dice and equipment/skill cards, there's something to be said for narrative-based exploration. Board games are a break from screentime, but RPGs replace it with a level of imagination usually only found in a good book. It was awesome to see the excitement and fear in my sons' faces when they found a treasure chest buried in a room full of cobwebs, or when an underground lake monster crept up and grabbed one of them in its claw, or when they finally found Black Fang himself - the acid-spewing dragon depicted above - and one of them was immediately knocked unconscious, forcing the other to improvise. After cranking out crossbow shots from the safety of the narrow doorway, my eight-year-old managed to scare the dragon off. He is now determined to track Black Fang down and defeat him in a later quest.

Something else I haven't done much since my D&D days is draw. I used it a bit in college - even completed an illustration commission - but I finally stopped completely about six years ago (if you don't count Kindle doodles with a stylus). To my surprise, this first quest with my boys made me want to draw again, proving that it really is a powerful source of inspiration. In the old days, I would draw my friends' characters and whatever recurring foes they faced. I was excited to repeat this tradition with my own children.

Being rusty, I started with a rough outline:

Although I wanted to surprise them with a finished drawing, I decided to ask for their input about how their characters should look. Both boys had chosen nontraditional heroes, which I was okay with because a) this is for them! and b) I've always liked mutants. Lindon (11) wanted a man-wolf fighter, so we used the half-orc as a template and several of its alternate racial traits, like Bestial and the Keen Scent feat. James (8) wanted a man-snake hunter (druid/ranger) with a raptor companion named Blue. (Can you guess his favorite movie?) We went with the nagaji from the Uncommon Races. As you can see, I imagined him a bit more human, recoiling from the dragon's acid in an admittedly unheroic pose. James wasn't impressed, and drew this for me as a point of reference:

I almost turned over the project to him! However, I pointed out that his character wears studded leather armor, not chain mail, and we agreed he shouldn't have a tail, lest he come across more "lizard-man" than "snake-man." Below is the second (and final) draft:

I kept a similar layout but tightened it a bit for drama's sake, darkened the dragon's lair for the same reason (even though it was open to sunlight from above), and tried to honor James's depiction of his character. It's not perfect. The dragon's acid appears to curve slightly; I wish the shading was maybe a bit more subtle; and the dragons-bane sword found by Lindon's guy, though based on the quest's illustration, could use better foreshortening. Blue was cut entirely because I felt who's fighting whom was already confusing.

They seem to like it, though. It was...I don't know...kind of cathartic coming back to pencil sketches. Admittedly, the game didn't run as smoothly as I might have liked. I never played 3rd edition, so I had to learn a lot of new rules, remember old ones, and try to keep track of everything while waiting for my phone and/or tablet to load the pages I needed. The boys, being young and new to role-playing, needed a lot of guidance. (I have now created the famous "DM's NPC," or non-player character, to fill that need.)

All that said, they constantly ask when we'll get to play again. Currently, they're in a similarly tricky situation: This time, James's character is the one unconscious, having just been pounded by an earth elemental, and Lindon is trying to decide between fight or flight. If anyone's interested, we'll let you know how things turn out! Meanwhile, thank you, cousins, friends, D&D, and Pathfinder, for making this (mostly) screen-less father-son time possible!


  1. Awesome! My wife and I recently took stock of the amount of money we've spent on board games in the last couple years and I'm slightly embarrassed at the total. We also enjoy Ticket-to-ride and Smash-Up and more recently 7Wonders and Pandemic. I have only 1 son but maybe he'd like something like this.

    I played D&D 2nd edition at about the same time frame as you (early 2000s) and found that the ability do ANYTHING really made me think and I believe that the experience greatly expanded my mind. I hadn't thought of playing a similar game with my kids until now so thanks for the spur in that direction. I'm not sure that my girls would enjoy it but I suppose I'll never know unless I try! I might wait until they're a bit older than 6, 3, and 0.2 though.

    1. Hey Bohman! Good to hear from you! Yes, that's probably a bit too young. :) I was so excited for my kids to be old enough that I probably started them on Descent too soon. My next oldest is 6, and if she's interested in a few years, I'll definitely try to get her involved.

  2. You might also look at Hero Kids. It's a vastly simplified version of other fantasy RPGs geared towards pre-teen kids. But it keeps all the fun imagination, creativity, problem solving, etc. that we love from D&D. It's online only, I think the core rulebook is something near $5 while extra modules are a couple bucks. For the DM, very little prep time. We've had fun; might be worth checking out as well.