My game of choice for any new player, young or old, is the Fighting Fantasy system. So, with my old copy of Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Roleplaying Game, dice, some printed adventure sheets, a village map from a 2003 edition of ‘Dragon’ Magazine and the cardboard figures from Paizo’s ‘Pathfinder Beginner Boxset’, I set the scene.
Bruce created a character and named him ‘Saint John’. A fighter of renown, Saint John had a sword, shield, chain armour, a bow and arrows (in red, for some reason) a potion of Stamina and two lots of provisions made up of bread and pizzas. Go with what you know, son.
A nearby village had suddenly become deserted and there are reports of undead creatures stalking the night.
‘What are undead, dad?’
‘They’re like skeletons but they can walk and make groaning noises and they wear dirty ruined clothes and carry nasty rusty swords.’
‘So they’re not alive people?’
The lord of the local lands asks Saint John to take up arms and rid the village of the creatures before it spreads.
‘Do you have an army?’
‘I do, Saint John’.
‘So why are you sending only me?’
‘For you are a hero, a swordsman of great renown.’
‘I’ve never played this before, dad.’
‘But that’s who your character is.’
‘Can we play the stories that made him a hero?’
Saint John arrives at the village and sees the empty houses. Knowing that there is danger, Bruce immediately tells me that he will be sneaking into the village, hiding behind the houses and try to stay in the darkest areas. Good thinking. He heads towards the village square where a strange green pool is situated.
Suddenly, an orc appears at the far side of the square and starts to walk to the pool, carrying a blue bag covered in symbols, in which something is writhing and thrashing. Bruce decides to hide and watch what the orc does. The orc throws the bag into the green pool.
‘Were there animals in the bag?’
‘You don’t know, Bruce.’
‘Do you know?’
‘Were there animals in the bag?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘You can’t see in the bag.’
‘But you can tell me.’
‘I can’t unless you see for yourself.’
(A little annoyed) ‘There better not be animals in the bag. I’ll jump out and run towards him.’
‘Are you sure?’
Saint John leaps from cover and heads to the orc.
‘Hey, you stinking orc! What did you do to the animals?’
A fight ensues as the orc rushes at Saint John. This is a perfect time for Bruce to use that imagination of his and practice his basic arithmetic. He rolls his two dice and slowly we go through the procedure of him adding up the numbers and then adding them to his SKILL score to decide the outcome of the battle.
‘Roll your dice, Bruce. Now, what’s on them?’
At first it’s a little frustrating for him as he tries very hard to remember what the dice rolls mean, as he’s focused very much on the action at the table and wants to move the figures around. That’s fine, it’s how we play with figures normally, but it was very important for me to make him focus on the rolls, the numbers and what they mean. After the third or fourth round of patient explanation he finally got the idea of the rolls, what to add them to and how they worked. By the time the fight ended he was comfortably rolling the dice, adding the numbers and proudly letting me know what the totals were.
The defeated orc falls to the ground. I don’t go into detail; after all, it’s probably not a good idea to narrate decapitations, flailing entrails and sucking chest wounds to a 6-year old, so I keep it Cartoon Network and make a couple of silly comments when he successfully hits the orc, such as ‘Ow, my bottom!’
As Bruce celebrates, the pool starts to bubble and churn and he remembers that the orc had thrown the bag in there. As he watches, two undead climb from the pool and start to shamble towards him.
‘Oh no, dad! People that are not alive!’
He quickly goes into action and, with no prompting from me, tells me that he has his sword ready and his shield up. The fight is short and the two undead fall at his feet.
‘Did they come from the bag that the orc threw in the pool?’
‘Well remembered, Bruce.’
‘It’s Saint John that remembered, not me.’
‘Now you’re getting it.’
Instead of steering him towards another encounter I ask Bruce what it is he wants to do now. This is his chance to decide on how the story progresses. Much to my surprise, he decides to climb up onto the roof of one of the buildings overlooking the square, with his red (?) bow ready, and watch the pool to see if anything else comes out.
Two more orcs appear, one from where the original orc came from and another on the roof of the building opposite where Bruce’s character is. The one on the ground has another blue bag and the other is putting an arrow to his bowstring. I ask Bruce what he wants to do.
‘If I don’t shoot at the orc with the bow, he’ll shoot me.’
‘Does the orc with bag have a bow?’
‘Then I’ll shoot the orc with the bow or he’ll just shoot me and I’ll be dead.’
I allow critical hits in my Fighting Fantasy games; if you roll double one on a less-than SKILL score roll for using bows, or if you win a round of combat with a roll of double six, you get to double your damage. So, when Bruce rolled snake eyes for his bowshot I tell him that not only did he hit the orc, he hit it for double damage because his roll was so awesome. This results in a two minute victory dance, in which the words ‘Oh, yeah!, Oh yeah!’ are repeated over and over.
‘I can’t believe I did a cridcul!’
He then fires at the other orc and just before he brings it down it manages to throw the bag into the pool. This time, the pool not only froths and churns but a great beam of light shoots into the sky.
‘I can’t wait to tell mom I did a crithcul!’
Two more undead climb from the pool and Bruce takes one out easily with his bow. At this point he’s rolling, adding up the numbers and comparing the results to his SKILL score with no help from me, and is constantly annoyed when he doesn’t roll a double one or if he misses. It can be frustrating for a 6-year old to be told that what he wanted to happen hasn’t happened, or that he missed, or that he basically failed his roll. I’m 42 and I don’t like to hear that my rolls failed so it must be worse for a boy still in single digits. All I can do is continually give him encouragement and maybe fudge a roll or two of mine to help give him the upper hand if I see that the frustration is in danger of getting the better of him. I make sure that he sees the positive side of the game, and that failed rolls don’t necessarily mean that he has ‘lost’. He understands but still screws up his face into that ‘I’m annoyed!’ look. He feels much better once he has bought the second undead down.
‘That was hard.’
‘But you got there in the end. Just keep at it, Bruce, it’s called perseverance.’
Following the two fallen undead, and appearing from the beam of light, comes a skeletal champion. I explain to Bruce that this is a strong, dangerous foe and that he should be prepared for trouble.
‘Like an end of level boss in your Mario and Sonic games on the Wii.’
‘I’m fighting Bowser?’
The fight is joined. I’ve given the skeleton a slightly lower SKILL score than Saint John but a high STAMINA score to be sure that the battle is a tough one. The rolls go on and Bruce does some damage, but he in turn takes two hits in succession and his STAMINA goes down from 16 to 12.
‘I’ll never beat him! He hurt me!’
‘Keep at it, Bruce, it‘s not over yet.’
‘I’m dead. I’m so so dead.’
‘But the fight isn’t over, Bruce.’
‘But I’ll never win.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because he’s hitting me.’
‘But that’s why you have your shield, and your armour, to help you. And if you do stop and run or whatever, you’ll not know how the story ends.’
‘But I don’t like to get hit.’
‘I know, it’s not nice. Daddy doesn’t like it, either, when I play.’
‘Really. But do you know what? It’s just a game. It’s just some fun, some dice rolling and running around hitting monsters and bad guys. It’s not happening to me, and if anything does happen to my character, if he gets defeated or whatever, I can just start again with a new character.’
‘But I like Saint John.’
‘Then make sure he does well.’
The fight goes on, and Bruce’s frustrations are kept at bay even though the constant dice rolling is obviously getting to him. Perhaps I’ve given this skeleton a few too many STAMINA points… it won’t hurt to shave a couple off.
As it seems that Bruce will finally defeat the skeletal champion, he jumps from his chair and waves an imaginary sword in the air.
‘I’m gonna beat you, skelenton, and you’re going to die! And you came from some light, which is rubbish!’
‘Okay, Bruce. We’re not LARPing.’
Finally the skeleton is defeated and Bruce collapses into his chair as if exhausted, panting heavily. He shakes his head and tips the skeleton figure over. He smiles at me and then jumps from his chair and gives me a huge hug.
‘I did it, dad. I got him.’
‘If only everything in life could be decided by dice.’
‘Two-face uses a coin.’
My wife is a huge Batman fan.
‘Would you like to play this again sometime?’
‘I might. We should play this with mom.’
‘We should, she’d like it. When do you want to play this again?’
‘I’m not sure. Not right now.’
I’m a little disheartened by this. I though he had a great time; I know he got a little frustrated but in the end I thought he appreciated overcoming the odds. Had he actually not liked it? I wasn’t going to push it on him. Maybe he was too young for it, or maybe it’s just not his thing.
That night, Bruce and mommy decide to have a camp-out in the living room. Bruce gets all tucked in under his duvet on his inflatable bed and mom stretches out on the surprisingly comfy sofa.
I’m making my way to bed and I can hear them talking as I stand at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Do you want a story, Bruce?’ Mommy asks.
‘Can I tell you one?’
‘Of course, that would be lovely.’
‘Once long ago, there was a warrior called Saint John…’
Yeah… we’ll be playing that again.