Chatty’s Mailbox: Playing Castle Death for First Timers

This week, reader Franky B sent me an email about my Castle Death RPG. I found that publishing it and my answer would make for a great  Friday post.

Here’s the email, paraphrased from French:

I love your articles, especially those where you share your game sessions. Your last series on Castle Death blew my mind. I’m the father of a soon-to-be 10 daughter and I think that she would love to play this kind of game with me.

Never having been a Game Master, I’m not sure I’d be able to run the game with just a blank piece of paper and a D6. Do you have any kits, books, maps or something similar to suggest that could help me jump start things? Since this would be a first experience, I feel it has to be very cool, or chances are it will be the only time.

That’s an interesting thing. Castle Death can both incredibly easy and hard to run. Easy that a 9 year old can run it without trouble. Hard because, once you aren’t a tweenager anymore, there’s a chance that your unbridled imagination has become strangled by decades of education, experience, issues and uncertainty. Not everyone is a good improv GM. It’s completely normal that Franky B. isn’t comfortable winging it. Let’s see how we can help him.

Simplicity Rules

The most important element of Castle Death is to keep things dead simple. Let your child decide how much details or how deep in the story she wants to go. Whenever you are short of ideas for a given scene/room, ask her what she thinks could happen, then, if she tells you something that inspires you, take on a surprised tone and tell her “How in heck did you guess that?”

Make Plans and Name Them

As for doing everything on the fly, if you aren’t comfortable, I suggest you draw your whole dungeon before you start playing. Do not, however, populate it, leave that to the dice and the whims of the moment. Then, identify various parts of it with evocative names to help you while playing (ex: The Blood Kitchen, the Haunted Cave,  the Icy Pool, the Chamber of Blades, the Mystic Throne, etc.) Perform free associations when you name those rooms. Don’t worry about realism here, let your daughter rationalize the plot holes.

Cater to Their Interests

Make sure to include elements that she’ll like. If she’s a Harry Potter fan, have her meet lost students from the local Magic Academy.  If she loves Twilight, have her stumble upon a  family feud between Vampires and Werewolves. Surf on her nascent geekyness, create hooks she’ll bite into, hooks that will pull her into immersion and create awesome game memories.

Don’t Give in to the Tyranny of the Die

Never let a  roll of “1” create a story dead end. Make things more complicated and apparently harder but NEVER hopeless. Let “6s” be as awesome as they can be however: Magical treasures, Critical Hits,  Secret Doors found in the nick of time… All these are great examples.

As I write these lines, I gave another idea.

Pre-Made Maps

There are a tons of pre-drawn dungeons you can use. In fact my response above was influenced by Planet Thirteen’s For the Love of the Dungeon and that’s where this post’s  image comes from. If you want to create your own “areas” I suggest using 0one’s maps. If you are looking for free products, you can look at my own 2009 One Page Dungeon Codex, or any of the many many such dungeons created in later editions of that contest. If you know any other such ressources, please share them in the comments.

If you have more questions, about Castle Death or any of my other posts (no matter how old), feel free to email them to me at

Post-Publication Addendum

@koboldstyle on Twitter (Creator of the Ennies winning Old School Hack) points out at @dysonlogos‘ website for some awesome free maps.


  1. I’d add that the first-time DM father should embrace the possibility of failure. It’s a great example to set.

    If you find yourself painted into a corner, just tell the child that. She’s 10. Say, “Man, I’m not really sure how you’re going to get out of this (or what’s going to happen next).” She will most likely giggle and suggest something completely ridiculous and fun.

    Go with it. Fail gloriously.

  2. I could not agree more. And in such case, I would not even consider it failing as Franky can re-learn from her daughter the power of unbridled imagination.