Notebook Campaign: How I got my Son into Tabletop RPGs

This post is my personal musings about introducing my son to tabletop roleplaying as a progression from the Storytime games we’ve been playing since I came back from Gen Con last year.  Instead of telling you why I want to do this, I’ll refer you to Martin Ralya’s excellent RPG advocacy article he just posted here.

Lets just say that I too believe that RPGs are perfect games to teach social and real life lessons to children.

Ever since my son told me that he’d rather do interactive stories or play computer games than play actual Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve been mulling this over.

I feel like a Hockey coach who’s son tells him he’d rather be a painter.

Oh, I don’t mind sticking to the interactive stories, they both feed my gaming needs and allows me to share some priceless quality time with my son.

But I’ve got tons of miniatures, many boxes of dungeon tiles, plenty of books and a head full of ideas for great quests. I’d love to be able to share this with my son.

But maybe therein lies the problem.  I’ve got too much stuff and the current edition of D&D is needlessly complex for a 7 year old to enjoy.  Maybe later, but not just yet.

So I’ve spent some of the last few weeks thinking about what I loved about my first D&D games when I was 10.

It wasn’t combats that I loved, it was the sheer thrill of discovering weird things behind every door of the dungeon my buddy DM created.  It was puzzling out how to escape from a room whose only door shut itself behind me.   I loved making torches out of femur bones and cobwebs.  Or thinking of ways to scare monsters with my awesome illusionist spells!

And treasures!  How I loved finding treasures!

So I could possibly make the experience more entertaining for my son if I toned down the crunchy combats and brought up the exploration aspects of the game.

So if I want to go back to basics, I have a few choices:

  • Go back to an earlier version of D&D or a retro Clone (Labyrinth Lord comes to mind)
  • Chose another game system like Faery Tales, Risus, BESM or Mouse Guard.
  • Simplify D&D 4e to its essence and work up from there
  • Forget about game systems and just make it up.

Last week I decided to go to the actual core of my first RPG experience and decided to re-create it with my son.  I decided to forget about rules and use just one mechanic:

Say Yes or play Rock , paper, Scissors.

I was seated in an empty cinema with Nico (We were going to watch the excellent Monsters vs Aliens).  We still had 20 minutes to kill and none of the arcade games outside the theater interested us.  So I took out a pen and my trusty writer’s notebook and I told him.

Chatty: How ’bout we try a different adventure game?

Nico: Sure! Why do you have this notebook?

It’s so that we can see where you explore!  Here, this is a cross-road in a town.  This house here is your house, and this house here is the adventurer’s store.  You are in your house, tell me about the three objects you want to start the game with”

Okay, I have this big axe that I can throw and it can bust through many, many walls before returning to me”

Wow, that’s one cool axe! Sure, I’ll write ‘magical Axe’ here at the top of the sheet. What else?

I have a shield, it’s not magical or anything, just a shield.

Wood or metal?


Okay, I wrote that down here.  And lastly?

Hmmm.  Can I have a gun?

How about you have a crossbow, you know what that is?

Yeah! It’s like a gun-bow!

That’s exactly what it is.  I’ll even give you 10 bolts packed in a wooden case, that’s how we call Crossbow arrows (carreaux instead of flèche in French).

All right.  Now can I go to the store?

Sure, You have 10 gold pieces and you can buy all kinds of interesting things.  I’ll give you a backpack so you can carry all your stuff.

Okay! And I want another case of bolts!

Sure, no problem, and take a lantern to light your way. You’re all set now?

No, I want a metal detector!

Hmmm, sure, why not? You have one.

And I want batteries in case they run out of power.

Smart move, here, take 10.  You’re out of money. Are you ready?


Okay so the village you live in is very near this mountain (and I draw a wavy live under the village) and this opening leads into a dungeon filled with monsters and treasures.  Are you ready to explore it?


Okay so as you enter, you follow a winding corridor that leads to a big chamber divided by this river that flows from this direction to that one (I divide the room in two and draw a river that crosses the room).  A big troll is sitting on the other side of the chasm, looking sad and confused.  He’s got a whole bunch of planks and nails and tools beside him but he doesn’t seem to know what to do.

I ask him if he needs help!

The troll looks at you, surprised and says “Yeah, I could use some help.  I was told to build a bridge and guard it against explorers, only I don’t know how to!”

Well it’s easy, you just have to put planks across the chasm and nail them real hard to the floor!

Okay then!  The troll and Nico start making a simple bridge. Once it’s completed the Troll thanks you and tells you “Normally I should prevent you from crossing, but since you helped me, you can cross it whenever you like”.  Behind the troll a corridor goes deeper in the mountain and forks in 2 directions, left and right (I draw a Y intersection).

I use my metal detector!

Okay, you detect a large quantity of metal to your right.

I go there.

Okay, but first, lets see if your metal detector’s battery goes out, let’s play rock,paper,scissors.

(Nico lost, so I took off one battery from his inventory).

Okay, you come to an iron portcullis that’s locked.  Behind it you see a series of 5 doors to your right and 5 to your left.  What do you do.

Hmmm.  I shoot an arrow with my crossbow on the 1st door to the right.

Okay, it makes a ‘ping’ sound when it strikes the Iron door and the door opens, you see a little guy, a goblin, peer out. Do you think he’s a bad guy or a good guy?

A bad guy! I shoot it with my crossbow.

(We play rock, paper, scissors again, he wins)

You hit the goblin and he falls, a set of keys drops from him and falls on the floor, too far for you to reach for it.

Okay, I shoot my crossbow on the open door, maybe it will swing back and push the keys.

Hmmm, why not, let’s play for it (he wins).  It works!  Your bolt hits the door, it swings back, hits the wall and bouces back.  It hits the keys and they are pushed close enough for you to take them.

This is fun!

At this point, the cinema’s light dimmed and we promised to play again soon.

After the movie, while we drove back home, Nico suprised me (yet again) by taking my notebook and my pen and drawing more details on the dungeon maps.  He added new entrances into the mountain and stretched the river in both directions.

“Here, there will be a treasure, and here a locked door!”

Turns out I’ve been doing it backwards, instead of nurturing a new RPG player, I should be coaching a new DM!

God I’m a lucky man!


  1. Is the rock-paper-scissors actually a randomiser, or can you win or lose at your whim?

    (One powerful crossbow, too.)

  2. I have a bit of an advantage over my son because he always, always chooses Scissors first.

    But if I truly want a random response, I choose scissors first and then we go into unknown territory. My goal is to replace the scissors with d6s OR Math questions to help him learn his tables.

  3. Wow… Touching. Hope he learns to use the Power of the screen for evil DM purposes and not good..

    Brians last blog post..Hmmm…. don’t know about this… but ok. I’ll Tweet…

  4. For many decades role playing has been used as an educational tool. What a fantastic story this is. Good luck, with the many years of RP adventuring with your son, that lies ahead.

    I think rock is the 80% choice among young male adults.

  5. @Tommi: In regards to the X-bow, my son tends to focus on one piece of equipment and have it do everything. His Laser sword in the Super Nico Chronicles, dynamite in his Indiana Nico game and here, the ACME all-in-one X-bow.

    @Brian: What’s surprising is just how easy it is to do. No story, no rules, just a sheet of paper and a pen.

    @Rick: I hope we can share this activity for many years to come. Oh and Everyone knows that The Rock rules.


  6. Mouse Guard could certainly be a good way to introduce him to it, but it has the potential to be a little rough on solo play (because there’s a huge emphasis on teamwork and collaboration). That said, you can dumb down season Natures and animal Natures or give Nico a tenderpaw helper. 🙂

    In terms of character creation, it’s awesome. It’s a questionnaire, essentially. In terms of play, it can be as simple or as challenging and choice/story driven as you want. For your son, you can eliminate the idea of GM Turn/Player Turn to start with and just focus on the idea of decisions leading to conflicts which, in turn, can lead to other conflicts and fun situations.

    The best part: There is no failure. D&D is pretty much go/stop in terms of pass/fail (which is a downer when you’re 7), but MG handles it completely differently.

    Succeed: accomplish intent. Well done!

    Fail: accomplish intent but you’re Hungry (or Tired or Angry, etc.). Or… the story changes (a twist), after which you’re back on track as though you’d initially succeeded.

    Personally, I’d say give it a chance and see what he thinks. I know my friends’ kids (7 and 12) really want to play it with me (and their parents, 33 and 38).

  7. Once I detect that Nico wants/needs more structure I’ll likely acquire a RPG that caters to kids. Mouseguard is a game I heard good thing about (a simplified Burning Wheel engine, or so I heard).

    I’ve also been told that Faery tales works.

    Brave Halfling Production has also created a Kids Dungeon Crawl game and I have an early edition copy of it.

    All possibilities, but right now, like when I was 10, the pen and simple task resolution seems to work perfectly.

  8. Definitely. There’s a lot to be said for gradual introductions. The last thing you want your son to think is that rules and dice are more important than imagination, storytelling and fun!

  9. Hell, he’s the one who told me when I asked him why he didn’t want to play with the minis and tiles anymore. Too many rules he said!

  10. Do Nico and you both speak French as your native language?

    I actually tried an interactive story like earlier in the series. I was explaining D&D to my friend Jonny (you’ve read the Blog post where I played with him, I believe), and I did an example. I can’t remember what it was, but we got so wrapped up in that simple little story we didn’t realise we’d ran quite a long way! 🙂

    Certainly I’ll try and get my wee brother into it, but he’s at exactly that age where he’s influenced by EVERYTHING. I think he thinks of the D&D stereotype.

    Tahakkis last blog post..Possibly buying some dice

  11. Wow, this was really heartwarming to read.

    It reminds me of my early games. I was 12 but we still ignored or misunderstood any rules that got in the way of our fun. It was all about the adventure and exploration.

    I hope we get to hear more soon.

    Nicholass last blog post..Doesn’t the stew look awesome? (and we all know it tastes great)

  12. @Tahakki: Yes, we speak French at home and it’s our first language. However, we’re also bilingual. My kids have decent english for Grade schoolers, thanks to the multi-cultural daycare centre they attended for 5 years.

    Yes, I do recall your first experiences with Johnny, and its cool that you were able to touch one of those ‘Oh my god I can’t believe we spent so long on this little bit!”

    @Nicholas: I think we share similar first experiences with D&D. It took me until I learned to read English (12-13) to learn that casters got to cast their spells every day and not every time they leveled.

  13. Great story. It sounds like your son would love to play HeroQuest, which is a watered-down D&D. Basically, you go through a dungeon, fight monsters, and collect loot, and your character can evolve. Better yet, you can use all of your miniatures (or use the ones that come with the game).

    I used this game to get my nephew hooked, and it worked!

    Paul Kaspers last blog post..RPG Tech #1: Online Whiteboard

  14. Way to go Nico! Might I be so bold as to suggest the Savage Worlds rules for when Nico needs a little more structure. PIT #3 has taken to this systme like a duck to water (he’s 10). When I was statting out Doctor Manhattan recently, PIT #3 was looking over my shoulder and correcting my stats (dang it he was right).

    Vulcan Stevs last blog post..The Magical Gnome, a new Play by Post RPG Forum

  15. That’s sweet!

    From what I understand from your stories, you probably got the near-perfect rule set for your son, at the moment… perhaps with a simple dice game instead of rock-paper-scissors.

    Use d10s and you’re almost playing with the rule set of “vampires” 🙂

    I wish I was a tenth as inventive as you and your son are with the crossbow!

    As I war reading the story, I was just rooting for the attempt at gaining the keys with the door / crossbow combo to succeed.


    Eric Maziades last blog post..Looking for lost hubby…

  16. That’s outstanding. My four-year-old will love it, since he’s not quite ready for Kids, Castles and Caves.

    Thanks for sharing, Chatty.

  17. “God I’m a lucky man!” – Indeed you are!

    And if we don’t praise you enough, thank you once again for taking the work to share all this with us.

    The entire “I’m a troll and I want to build a bridge to guard it from explorers” was simply genius!

  18. Thanks for the link love, Chatty!

    This is one of my favorite article series that you’ve ever written, and it’s a an absolute pleasure to read.

  19. Such great feedback, I love waking up to this kind of thing!

    @Paul: Welcome to the blog Paul. Heroquest will be on my list for sure. Nico already enjoys playing Talisman and I bet that Hero Quest will have a similar attraction.

    @Vulcan Steve: I’ll likely just go with D&D when he’s ready as that’s the game I have right here at home. However, I’ll probably go through some other games I have, like BESM. I can’t wait to show him my Car Wars Bankers box. I think I have every books and maps in there.

    @Eric: Being inventive is a lot about not sweating what would work and what wouldn’t. Since Nico is not yet burdened with hard-wired concepts of what’s possible and what isn’t and that reminds me not to prevent him from doing anything that makes remotely any sense in regards to the story.

    As for creating the stories, it really is just about recycling RPG tropes and subverting them to allow Nico to explore new ways to interact with monsters.

    @Alric: Thanks for the feedback. I don’t want to do some name dropping, but I have it from a source very very close to Gary Gygax that he used to do interactive Bedtime stories with his kids every night and that it was something that his children really looked forward too… So go wild my man!

    @Psygnnosed: Thank you so much dear friend. If we ever go and visit your corner of the world, we’ll make sure that you meet my son as you seem to be one of his biggest fans! 🙂

    @Martin: It’s also my favorite articles to read… there’s nearly no work involved. Thanks for the kudos!

  20. I’ve had some very cool one-on-one RPG experiences with my 6 year-old; the best ones have come from him playing Spider-Man using my melding of the FATE and MSH RPG systems. He’s also played some 4E with the kids at the game club I run and he likes it although I think the powers and choices are WAY too much for him to really grasp at this point. Hence we’re going to try out some basic D&D instead during our upcoming “game day.” My only issue is that he only wants to run an elf with a bow… ;op

    MJ Harnishs last blog post..AP: Beyond the Breach Session 2 (Burning Wheel)

  21. Two things that have worked for me and my 7 year old:

    – Sessions of 4E together as players, with another adult friend of mine as DM. I’d helped him make a Forgotten Heroes druid character by having him describe what his character could do and then picking powers to match (he also likes the all-in-one approach, so for him it was a vine -> vine lash and entangle and pets -> animal companion and summon swarm) which was very cool, but after one game he didn’t want to pick it up again. My suspicion is that it was too much for him if I had my normal authority as parent + as enforcer of structured rules + as DM. Having someone else DM shows him that I too have to give up that narrative authority, while being part of a bigger group than just me & him shows that everyone has to work within the structured rules, they’re not just limits imposed on him by me. As a co-player my parenting authority is then just saying shh! when he gets too excited & loud, and that excitement has been really inspirational for the DM & the other adults we’ve played with: “Oh, right, *that’s* why I play RPGs!”

    – Clinton R. Nixon’s game Donjon, whose rules are available on the web via Creative Commons ’cause he rocks like that, is my go-to game for me & my son to play together or with one other adult or kid because it shares the narrative authority. The person with the most dice successes gets to narrate one fact about the situation per success, and that’s about it for the rules (at least at the stripped-down level at which we play). My son likes it because he gets to make up cool stuff just as often as I do, and I like it because the structure of the game, although un-restrictive, still makes it less creatively exhausting as the pure interactive-storytelling activites my son likes best (originally these were “Green Lantern stories,” but now “evolution stories” inspired by Spore are the #1 favorite, with “wizard and creature” stories in which he’s an artificial lifeform I whipped up in a vat in the #2 position).

    I play a bunch of Basic and Original D&D and love it, but running it for my son & some of his 6- to 8-year-old friends didn’t work all that well. The limits on what starting characters can do are too severe, as is their fragility. I enjoy dying twice per session, but it’s an acquired taste.

  22. I’d like to suggest FATE among the “easier to pick up systems” :). It still has some crunch but also provides good mechanics to put fluff forward. But I’ll add a mention for HeroQuest which I loved as a kid (I have some painted minis of it next to me actually…)

    Kudos, by the way, for not going crazy at the mix up of crossbows and metal detectors ;). I know I’d need some serious willpower to swallow that one down 🙂

    Also, troll = need some help? It’s nice to see such genuinely altruistic approaches when you’re used to “troll = bad” :)…. *laughs* on the other hand goblins are clearly bad guys XD

    A new DM is born, woop!

  23. @MJHarnish: Hey, you fostered a specialist player! I agree that basic D&D, the good old Red box, is a great introductory game for kids.

    @Tavis: I will heed your advice and experience when Nico starts showing a need for more structure. I’m not quite ready to have Nico at the table while my group plays but I will definitively consider having a pick up game with him and myself as PCs and an adult player as a DM… I should ask Yan or Franky… he he he.

    @Moni: Thanks for the kudos! I’m really looking forward to playing the next session with Nico. I had forgotten to write about one last encounter and we’ll go on from that one.

  24. This is a great idea! I have an exceptionally bright 5-year-old-going-on-6 who loves playing tabletop games with me (i.e. Heroscape, Heroclix, etc.). I have wanted to introduce him to more decision-based RPGs but my wife is anti-D&D and he’s still a bit young.

    I like your approach to this and I think it could work well before building him into an established system like GURPS or the like.

  25. That’s how I started playing the game when I was 10. Your son will tell you when he’s ready for more complex systems and such.

    If you want to move toward Gurps, I suggest that you play some BESM before graduating. BESM has all the building blocks of a point-buy RPG but with simpler task resolution mechanics.

  26. Just want to say one thing: :’)

  27. Nick Nadboralski says:

    I know this is an old post, but, I only recently got into the gaming scene, started with story-games and have been bouncing around all matters of RPGs. I stumbled on your blog and have been reading alot of your posts and just have to say that this is one of the most awesome stories about roleplaying that I’ve read. I think instead of the need to complicate the system, (there may be a time for it.), but, heck. -I- want to play games like that, where it’s cooperative and fun and I don’t feel like I’m getting entirely shafted by fate. I think it’s great.

  28. @Nick: I love comments on old posts! This type of gaming with my son has brought me back to the very roots of what made me start (and obsessing about) playing RPGs. Going toward more complex rules and gaming environment is a natural part of a gamer’s evolutioon, but somewhere in the land of the uber complex, one yearns to seek simplicity in design and playstyle.

    With the Notebook approach, I’ve reached that point. And I watch my son as he wants to start making things more complex. 🙂

  29. Nice story =)

    also, i may change the rules up just a bit to make it solo. I want to go to school tomorrow not bored. I doubt any1 at MS would want to play a D&D style game.

  30. man, that’s fricking heartwarming. I can’t wait to get to do all this cool stuff with my own son. He’s only two though. I’m patient though.
    .-= Misterecho´s last blog ..What’s wrong with a good ole Dungeon delve? =-.