Kids and Games: Getting it Wrong is Doing it Right

Shortly before Gen Con, my 8 year old son Nico had a buddy come over for the afternoon. I was busy working from home so when Nico asked me if they could play Talisman, I got the box out from my gaming cabinet and told them “Sure, but I can’t set it up nor play with you”.

Nico: That’s okay dad, we’ll figure it out.

An hour later, I came upstairs and had a look at the ongoing game.  While they had grasped the core concepts (Nico, the buddy and I had played previously), they were making a lot of stuff up, inventing what some cards did and fudging how combat worked.

They were having lots of fun.

As I looked at them, I was flooded with powerful memories and a striking realization. One of the reasons why I love D&D so much is because I learned most of it by making stuff up while trying to learn it. I got most of it wrong, but I didn’t know then and I still had more fun than any other games I’d played so far!

I cherish these memories dearly. Back when I had a partial grasp of English, Gary’s AD&D Player’s Handbook was like a stack of encrypted secrets I got to decipher with a broken decoder ring.  For instance, I thought that a two-handed sword was a 2 bladed-sword, so I made a three-handed one made of three 6′-long blades!  You could even shoot the middle one, like that Sword & Sorcery movie I had seen on my uncle’s Betamax machine.  So badass…

While watching my son play Talisman his own way, it dawned on me that as a gamer parent, I had a dual responsibility.  I had to guide my children into this awesome hobby, if they were so inclined, introducing them to different games, teaching them about their rules and the social etiquette that come with them (wait for your turn, don’t cheat, be a good sport, etc).

But perhaps more importantly, I must also give my children the appropriate space and liberties to let them take full ownership of that hobby and infuse it with their own personalities, unbound ideas and, yes, technical flaws.

I must learn to silence my inner Brainy Smurf and allow my son to get things wrong about the games he plays, so he can discover his own paths and create memories similar to mine.

I must strive to be a model to emulate, not a tyrant that smothers.

That’s why, when I’ll get around to showing the new D&D Red Box to Nico and his friends, I will step away and let them play with it as they see fit.  Maybe, if they really dig it, they’ll start creating new powers, character classes and monsters with absolutely no regards to balance or playability.

They’ll get rules wrong, ignore many, misread others and that may very well be completely fantastic.  There’ll be plenty of time later to correct that, if they ever do. House ruling is an important skill too.

Go ahead and show your kids how to be gamers.  Just  don’t forget to set them free so they can take ownership of their gaming experience. Getting a game right should never get in the way to having fun with it.

I say lets go and help build a child’s future nostalgia today.


  1. As Mom to a 6 and 8 year old I struggle with how much guidance to give them when they play games. You don’t want them to play it “wrong” but that really is half the fun of it when you’re learning as a kid. I agree that if you get the basics of gaming in general, the sportsmanship and fairness, then in time they’ll get the rules down the way they were actually written.

  2. Love this post! 🙂

  3. Amen to all that. Beautifully written, CDM.

  4. Fun fact: The first game me and my bros got to play was AFMBE. I mis-interpreted the criticals rule, which was supposed to give you a bonus roll, that you divided by two. I had the group roll full numbers. One time, a friend rolled triple criticals in a firefight and apparently did enough damage with a 9mm gun to break a critical part of a bridge.

    If someone were to travel back in time and try to correct me, I’d have to kill them.

    Also; lack of rules means more uncontested space for imagination.

  5. Great article. I have a lot of fond memories of making up my own D&D game cobbled together from the Basic and Expert rules, my AD&D PHB and the Dungeon boardgame. I had looseleaf pages with notes and new rules on it. None of it would hold any water today, but it was so much fun as a kid.

    You are totally right about our responsibility to raise good gamers, but to let them explore the hobby, rather than be indoctrinated into it. My kids are a few years away from starting, and I will now keep this article in mind when it comes time to introduce them to the hobby.

  6. @Nicole: I believe that its totally all right to teach them the correct rules and do a soft enforce when you play with them. But when they want to play the game by themselves with friends, try to step back and let them figure it out. If you stay within hearing distance, resist the urge to intervene if they get a rule wrong or if there some low-level arguments about the game.

    Step in if asked to or if the argument escalates.

    @Sersa V & Greywulf: Thanks for the kudos.

    @Trabant: Bestest Critical Hit story ever! I totally agree that lack of rules/story makes for better creativity and imagination.

    Oh man, I can so totally see the Handgun of Destruction going again!

    @DNAPhil: It’s amazing how many 80’s gamers had a similar kid crush/love story with their own version of D&D. I was all PHB and d6s until I bought a full set of polyhedrals and the Dungeon Master Guide.

    Thanks for the nice words my friend.

  7. I’ll admit I ignored some of the rules when I ran Red Box at Gen Con. On my second day, we had two kids playing and one of them was playing a rogue. He wanted to do all sorts of tricks to get combat advantage (and the extra dice) and, well, he mostly rolled really well. And when he didn’t, I made sure to give him some bonus. As a result, the whole table had fun, even when they were bloodied or unconscious.

  8. Well done Chatty. In today’s interconnected world of blogs, Twitter, message boards, etc. we often forget those initial joys we had when we first opened our Red Boxes and played through that dungeon crawl, chasing after Bargle and “going back because I didn’t mean to go that way” when we came across the ghouls.

    Back when the game was still fairly young and there wasn’t a whole internet full of rules lawyers to tell us we were playing wrong, we made up our own stories, rules, and adventures. It was “our own” game that just happened to be produced by a company in some obscure place in Wisconsin.

    I don’t have any problem with the global game that D&D has become, not at all. However, it is nice to be reminded like this at times that it is a simple game of show and tell at heart.

  9. I was introduced to RPGs in a roundabout way through my friends and I making up games, then going, “do they make fantasy figures for us to play with?”

    I can’t wait until my son is old enough for me to start teaching him.

  10. This revelation is exactly why I read your blogs Chatty! Thank you for putting down your thoughts!

  11. Let me tell you something: Getting it wrong is important to game design, as well. You need to listen to that inner kid when you’re coming up with stuff for a game.

    When we were kids, getting it wrong with D&D—heck even as teenagers—a lot of us got it wrong in the same ways. We read a rule and said, “Huh?” or “That doesn’t seem like fun.” or “That’s too hard to remember to do, and/or it’s not worth the results.” So we ignored those parts of the game or changed them. That’s what Dave Noonan calls routing around system damage.

    As a designer, you use that intuition to avoid creating system damage. It works.

  12. This brings up wonderful memories of when my son was young, and would teach me the rules of games, as he played them with his schoolmates. All the complexities disappeared, and you were just left with a lot of fun. As a teenager, we still play games together, and I still let him take the lead when a rule is contested, although with a lot more compromise.

    Creative gaming is something you never have to grow out of. =)

  13. Wow, that’s a great insight! Fantastic work, Chatty!

    Chris, that’s a great thought. I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s very true.

  14. I let my kids do exactly the same thing with Talisman. Actually I also wrote like 2 pages of game rules for all their Star Wars miniatures. I came down to the basement a little later and found the Storm Troopers hiding in the ruins of a Gothic Cathedral fighting off a white dragon (Icing Death if you must know).

    I feel that exploration was a big part of AD&D. When we were growing up we were not just exploring dungeons, we were exploring the rules. (Not to mention kicking some monster’s lily ass.)

    I do feel that with 4th edition that exploration has gone by the way side, there’s like 50 pages of rules, and action dominates the adventures. (I bet that the new rules explorers can be found in the WOTC Character Optimization Forums.)

    I believe that more 4e adventures need to have an exploration element in them.

    Phil… let your son play with the Character Generator…. You might be surprised at what he comes up with.

  15. This was a great read, I have already begun engraining gaming into my sons psyche and I’m hopeful that it stays in there so that as he becomes older and mentally able to absorb more things that I can actually begin gaming with him. I’d break every rule in the book just to see him have a great time.

    I also agree with Alio that while we do all have a million resources these days, rules for balance, rules for this and that and guidelines we all are obligated to adhere to. D&D is ultimately (well RPG’s for this matter) an infinitely customizable game with no boundaries. This by far makes it the ultimate medium for use of your imagination, more so than XBOX. I feel it’s our duty as gaming parents to uphold that that knowledge continue to resonate into generation after generation.

  16. @Tracy: Letting younger players get away with more coolness through looser interpretations of rules, while not the main point of this article, is absolutely crucial for Convention GMs. It’s been said many times that GMs are the the guardians of the gates to the world of tabletop RPGs and how they present the games will make or break new players.

    You did good at Gen Con, I’m sure the little Rogue will remember his moments of awesome and you might have added a new fan to D&D’s base. Great Work!

    @AliotheFool: Thanks for the kind words. We musn’t forget that we don’t have to be on the Internet when we open a new RPG game or show one to a child/teen. For instance, I know the Red Box will have some online grumpies screaming, but I know it will be perfect for teaching D&D to the future generation. The second fact far outweighs the first in my opinion.

    @Mark: Passing down one’s passion is one of the most satisfying experience of being a parent/teacher/older sibling. Getting rid of all the baggage that may hinder this is a must. I look forward to hearing your own “Nico” stories.

    @Scot H: (Bows down): Thanks so much. Comments like this still make me blush with pleasure, even after 3 years.

    @Chris: That’s a vital insight Chris and I thank you for sharing it. So stoking a child’s ownership of gaming is also an enabler for their inner game designer… and fostering keeping that inner kid around for later helps too. Duly noted!

    @Veakari: I’m happy to see that what you built with your son remained, to a certain extent, during his teen years. Creative Gaming 4evar! 🙂

    @Andy: Thanks man. I agree that Chris dropped an awesome comment.

    @UHF: Hey man! Stormtroopers vs Icing Death is made of Awesome. I want to play that scenario now!

    In my opinion. exploration in RPGs come in two aspects: Exploration of rules and exploration of the setting/environment. Older editions of D&D were all about the exploration and Action was often a byproduct of exploration gone wrong or bad luck. Now exploration has, in many adventures and design advice, been embedded in action scenes.

    But you can still play 4e with exploration as its main focus… you just have to design it that way… the DM rewards’ Tomb of Horrors is a great example.

  17. @Jerry: I agree 100% about breaking rules for unbounded fun. And yes, playing around a table with kids (and friends) opens up so much more creative possibilities than electronic media… at least for now.

  18. Great post. This past weekend I lived through a similar experience.

    I was introduced to D&D when I was 8 and while almost never playing since, I have collected all the D&D editions. My oldest son, now 15, has wanted to play for years but it wasn’t until 4th Edition that I thought the rules easily supported smaller groups (2-4 players).

    Back to the story, I ran a short adventure for my buddy (38) and my son; we all had a blast. I improvised 90% of everything, never checked for rules, and even ended encounters when “the feeling was right”. I wasn’t trying to keep PCs from dying, I just didn’t see the need to roll dice for another round or two once the outcome was certain; next roll killed the monster and we kept the momentum rolling (yeah, pun intended).

    If there is a point to this post, it’s make D&D your game and play it your way. For these players, they needed a simple story and simple rules while they got their feet wet. Interestingly enough, I was told my descriptions and narrative made the session, helping them get immersed in the game.

    My son, who is very active (basketball, volleyball, video games, girls), said it was one of the best times he has had and he can’t believe D&D isn’t more popular. Now I’m scrambling to pull another adventure together for him and two of his friends this weekend; once my younger children are in bed.

    I’m sure as they learn the game more, we will start following more rules and have deeper stories. But for now, my only goal for this upcoming adventure is to maintain the “fun factor”, so the players keep coming back for more.

  19. It is these foundational principals that led me to create Untold. You will find this unhindered freedom and fun built into our core mechanics. 😉 Great post, Chatty.

  20. Phil: You have tapped into one of the collectively known but largely unrecognized experiences of D&D players, I think. You can’t even really properly thank your children for teaching you such valuable lessons, except by doing exactly what you suggest in your post. Letting go of the “you have to play it right or you’ll mess it up!” feeling has got to be tough, but I’m confident you’ll do a great job of it and Nico will certainly grow up to be as good as or even better a DM than you are!

    Hats off to you, as usual. Community education 101 should be listed as one of your specialties!

  21. @Eric: The coolest thing about this blog man, is that you don’t need to have a point or get to it with any haste. I’ll read your comment no matter how long, because I love doing it. That being said, I find it awesome that you finally shared D&D with your son in a way that you were comfortable with and such that he loved the experience so much.

    I suggest that you get him the DM’s chair soon. That’s where the real fun starts!

    @Ashy: Thanks man. I hope things are going well for you with Untold.

    @Bartoneus: Oh wow, man. I’m humbled. Thanks. I think I wanna be called the Big Daddy of the Online RPG community 🙂

  22. Dave Neumann says:

    When my cousins and I started playing D&D back in the late 70’s, we had no clue what we were doing. Looking back we did everything pretty much wrong. My favorite was asking our parents what a ‘mace’ was. We were told that mace is something that you spray in people’s eyes and it burns them. We shrugged and ran with it.

    While the rules didn’t make a lot of sense, I remember those first sessions better than I can remember many from just a couple weeks ago. Yelling, laying on the floor when you were paralyzed, pretending to be chained up to the refrigerator when we were captured by orcs…damn, that was fun.

  23. Great post. One of my frustrations with gaming in the current world is the way I (and my players) are conditioned to seek out the right answer on the internet for any given problem with rules adjudication that arises in game (and the accompanying “patches” that the big companies release that further exacerbate the need to look online for rules clarification). Sometimes I really miss the freewheeling days of BECMI D&D as a 10-year old where the rules felt like fire for our imaginations, and not like constraints on them.

    As a parent of small children, I hope I keep this post in mind as my boys start to show an interest in rpgs. I think the advice to letting them build their own worlds/games is about as solid of advice I’ve seen on how to be a parent.

  24. Spot-on. I’m glad there’s so many open options for my daughter as she gets to the age where she’s getting old enough to get into gaming (she’s definitely interested already, and we’ve done some basic stuff with bedtime stories along those lines). I can’t wait to see where she goes with it!

  25. This made me think a bit. When I started I didn’t have a clue what was going on either. I had a lot of fun with my first experience gaming but after that I mainly ended up reading the books on my own. I was introduced to gaming by a cousin who lived out of state so I didn’t have anyone to game with regularly. Looking back I’m quite sure I never fully grasped the Basic Set rules for D&D. That didn’t slow down my creativity when it came to thinking up ways to use it though. I moved on to first edition AD&D pretty early and eventually found some friends to play with. The first thing we all did was think up cool sounding concepts and just throw big numbers at their stats so we wouldn’t have to worry about it. I remember a silly monster feature fight we did for the hell of it more than any “adventures” we spun for ourselves. I was thinking one of those demondands that looked like a bulldog (had to look up the name) should beat the snot out of some silly frog thing with teeth (some manner of slaadi my friend was impressed with) because it had a neat list of tricks. I was wrong of course, the frog ate it. 🙂

    Quite awhile later I ended up thinking of roleplaying games as having two parts. One part story, the other part math test. As a child, I’m quite sure my reading and math skills both improved due to exposure to this creative medium and there’s no need to even mention the numerous benefits to having an active and healthy imagination. I probably exercised my imagination a bit more than I should have but that was more a defense against other things going on in my life. Blaming an overactive imagination for problems in a child is like blaming a car wreck on a seat belt.

    But back to my main point… It was always the story that got me involved. Some of my least favorite gaming experiences, and the only ones that made me actually unhappy to be involved with them, were when I dealt with people who were much more concerned with the rules than I was. And were willing to take me to task every time I didn’t get things right. Those older games didn’t have a “Golden Rule of Gaming” printed up anywhere. I think the authors just assumed everyone would get that they were there to have fun. When dealing with kids or anyone new to gaming (spouses, friends, etc. you want to get involved – why stop with just the kids?) I think I’d want to glance over one of the many write-ups of the “if you’re having fun you’re doing it right” rule I’ve seen over the years and think about it for a couple minutes before everyone arrived for the game.

    Blah. Sorry Chatty, this ended up being another one of those comments-that-is-almost-a-post-and-why-don’t-you-have-your-own-blog-for-stuff-like-this things. >.<;

  26. Heck, I wish adults would be so lenient with each other. All too often the rule lawyers ruin the fun, even for other adults. It’s a game for crying out loud. Games are supposed to be fun, not belittling others.

  27. Little Dragon says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this important aspect of letting my kids enjoy games on their own terms. Great post!

  28. I know, as usual I am late to respond (i ran into links to 2 articles today here and notated that I killed both threads comments, so it is not merely paranoia).

    My earliest gaming was with simple games, 0d&d and Tunnells and Trolls. And I still did not understand all of it. Time went on, and I mangled AD&D next, until I started to grasp it.

    But I remember being 10 and 11, and having as amazing a time as possible, as only a new, open door to a secret world could produce.

    And so I hope i take your advice when my boy is that age, so that I won’t remove and of the glossy wonder of that secret place. Another very good post.


  1. […] Kids and Games: Getting it Wrong is Doing it Right I can’t wait until my son is old enough to crack open the Red Box D&D and sit down with his friends to learn the game that I love so much. Like Chatty DM did, I plan on sitting back and letting the group of youngsters read and interpret the rules for themselves. I made a million mistakes with rules going wrong in my day (and I still do,) but I rarely made the mistake of not having fun. So long as the game is fun that is all that matters. However, if my son doesn’t have fun with RPGs, I won’t force it on him…. much. […]

  2. […] When my son declared that a halfling wizard’s Second Chance power (monster rerolls attack on a hit) allowed his PC to turn back time a few seconds and dodge a White Dragon’s breath attack, this power’s flavour text instantly became canon. […]