The original Hobbit novel
that my mother read to us
It started for me the way it starts for many would-be gamers: when I was a boy, my mother read The Hobbit to my brothers and me. I was positively fascinated by this world of gruff Dwarves and noble Elves, nasty Goblins, magic swords, and terrible dragons. Later on, she read The Lord of the Rings to all of us and it instilled within me a lifelong love of the fantasy genre.
Some years later, when I was in 7th grade, I took a field trip. I sat at the back of the bus with a classmate of mine (named Doug Phillips) who wanted to introduce me to D&D. I made a male, human fighter named "Crash". All the way there, and all the way back, we played. I don't remember where we went on that field trip. It might have been a sunny day, I don't quite recall. What I do remember was spelunking through the catacombs, solving puzzles & riddles, avoiding traps, slaying monsters, and chatting with other dungeon denizens. There was graph paper with significant markings. There were funny-shaped dice. He said next time we played we could use little lead miniatures.
I was hooked.
Many years later, in my adult life, my two oldest daughters were getting to the point where they could sit for longer stretches and I could read more complex stories to them. (Lisa was about age 5, Jessica was about age 4. My youngest, Sara, was just a newborn and not up to stories of any kind yet.) My brother showed me a beautifully illustrated comic book adaptation of The Hobbit that was remarkably faithful to the book. I picked up a copy of my own and proceeded to read it to them, affecting different voices for all of the various characters.
They loved the description of his house. ("He lives in a hole? Underground? With a circular door? And the doorknob in the center?") They were very worried when Bilbo and the Dwarves got captured by goblins and then later by giant spiders. They were fascinated by the riddle game that Bilbo played with Golumn; they insisted I read them the riddles again and again until they could recite all the answers from memory. When the thrush landed on Bard the Bowman's shoulder and whispered in his ear about the hole in Smaug's armor, they were amazed that anyone could speak bird-language. And when Bard let the arrow fly, they were terrified at Smaug's scream of rage, and relieved when the waters of Laketown extinguished his fires (and his howls). When Thorin died and Bilbo cried, they were sad with him. When Bilbo returned home, they were glad to be back. I think the thing they liked the best was that the entire story revolved around the smallest character. (We rounded out the experience by watching the 1977 cartoon.)
The ITT gaming group
During that same year, while I was teaching classes at ITT Tech, some students of mine who were fellow fantasy-gaming enthusiasts inquired as to whether we could start a D&D group of our own. I was intrigued and immediately went to pick up some supplies: the latest rulebooks, several boxes of minatures, a wet-erase roll-up map we could draw on, and a "Pound o' Dice". (We ended up playing for several years at ITT. Even though I've changed jobs, I still get together with a group of my former students for gaming.)
When I first brought home all the new gaming supplies, my daughters wanted to examine everything.
Jessica: What's this?
Daddy: It's a d20.
Jessica: Oh. (pause) What's this?
Daddy: It's a d4.
Jessica: (turning it in her hand) It's like a triangle.
Lisa: (examining pictures in the Monster Manual) What's that?
Daddy: It's a Beholder.
Lisa: What can he do?
Daddy: He shoots different kinds of spells from the eyes at the ends of his tentacles.
Lisa: Like what?
Daddy: Oh, some of them make you go to sleep, some of them can confuse you and make you attack your friends, some of them could even paralyze you.
Lisa: Wow. (pause) Can we read the Monster Manual for betime stories?
Jessica: What's this?
Daddy: It's a map. You can draw on it with these pens to show where you are. Whether you're outside, in a house, in a cave, that kind of thing.
Jessica: Can I draw on it?
Jessica: I drew a farm.
Daddy: What do they grow on the farm?
Lisa: (examining the miniatures) Who's this?
Daddy: It's an Elf. See, he's even got pointy ears.
Lisa: What's this?
Daddy: It's a goblin.
Lisa: Yuck! (eyes open wide as she picks up another) What's this.
Daddy: A Halfling Rogue.
Lisa: Halfling... Like a Hobbit?
Daddy: Exactly like a Hobbit.
Lisa: (eyes wide) Can we play this game?
So I quickly made up some rules that we could use. The "standard" rules would be much too complicated, so I made sure that the ones we used were simple and involved lots of dice rolling, drawing on the map, and moving minis around. Naturally, they both wanted to play Hobbits. I had been playing a Halfling Rogue called "Kridlob Fannypants" (a.k.a. "Kridlob the Gainsayer" -- he didn't like his last name), so they decided they would be the daughters of Kridlob Fannypants, named "Geesa" (Lisa) and "Jetta" (Jessica). (Art imitates life.) They got to crawl through inky dungeons, they had to solve puzzles, they got to slay a dragon, they got to pry gems out of the eyes of a statue... and they even got to play the riddle game...
...And they knew all the answers.
They were hooked.
3x5 character sheets
In all the many, many times that we've played D&D, I've been abidingly amazed at how they've improved their reading, writing, and arithmetic. They've learned many things that have complemented (and at times exceeded) their studeis at school.
The two of them were able to identify most numbers before entering school, but there were a few that they struggled with. The repetition of rolling dice caused both familiar and unfamiliar numbers to come up, giving them ample opportunities to practice. In short order, they could identify all the numbers.
When we first started, I made character sheets for them that had both pictures and words next to all their stats, so they could look at the pictures until they learned how to read. Lisa was very excited to go to Kindergarten for this reason alone. I'll never forget picking her up from her second day of school:
Daddy: Hi, Lisa! How was your day?
Lisa: (disappointed) They haven't taught us how to read yet.
Place value dice
During one particular Sunday night D&D session, I kept track of all the math concepts they either learned or reviewed.
The key to effectively teaching math can be summed up in two words: Relevant Application. I've seen them stare bleary-eyed at a worksheet full of abstract problems, but they've got fire in their eyes when it means figuring out how much gold they get or how much damage the fireball does. They learned (and applied!) more math in one night than I think they did in a week of school.
Map of the Plane of Fire
During one campaign, the girls visited the 4 elemental planes. I tried to give vivid descriptions of the various planes when they first arrived. (Example, when entering the plane of air: "Okay, jumping through the portal, you find yourself standing on a cloud. In front of you is a fabulous sunset, turning into night. Behind you is a pink-fingered dawn. A rainbow bridge leads from this cloud to a much larger, sphere-shaped cloud in the distance. What do you do?") When they got to the plane of fire, I was surprised at how Lisa took the reins from me:
Daddy: Okay, after jumping through the firey portal, you find sky, trees, ground, and a river, but unlike any you've ever seen before. The --
Lisa: No wait, Daddy, I can visualize it! The ground has red rocks, the river is lava, the sky looks like it came out of a chimney, and the trees have leaves on them but the little leaves are made out of flames!
The next thought that went through my head was: "Holy cow, she used the word 'visualize' in a sentence."
"Imagination is more important than knowledge." -- Albert Einstein
Lisa receives the D&D animated
series on DVD for her 9th birthday
Another noteworthy moment when the girls were journeying on the plane of fire: One session ended with them riding the lightning train to join a dinner party at an Efreet's castle. A Fire Genasi on the train told them, "You're in for a treat! This Efreet throws a mean party!"
Afterwards, I asked them, "Are you excited about the next session! You get to go to a party at a castle!" My daughter Jes (around age 7 at the time) gave me a very dour look and replied, "You said it was going to be a *mean* party!"
It was right then that I had to explain what this English idiom means.
After we read the graphic novel adaptation of The Hobbit, my daughters decided that they both wanted to play Halfling characters. (My oldest was ~6 years old at the time, my second daughter was ~5.)
They accomplished the objectives of their first adventure, returning a "sun necklace" (holy symbol of Pelor) to the town Cleric. The mayor of town wanted to do something to commemorate this event, so he declared the day "Hobbit Day", to be celebrated every year. My eldest clapped her hands with glee at this announcement. That may have been the best loot item I ever came up with.
Years later, I would learn that there actually is a "Hobbit Day", celebrated every Sept 22nd, to commemorate the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.Wikipedia entry for Hobbit Day.
The plane of water
(The girls drew the jellyfish.)
One night when we were playing D&D, Lisa asked if there wasn't anything to eat. I had a bag of M&Ms in my car, so I brought them in and cracked them open. After munching on a few, Lisa observed "Hey, we're really playing!"
Because, you see, all the dice / maps / minis / adventure prep didn't really matter. It wasn't until the swag arrived that the game arrived.
Since then, having a bag of swag (of some kind) has become part of the tradition. The night usually begins with all 3 girls chanting "Swag, Do, Swag! Swag, Do, Swag!" ("Do" being an abbreviation for "Daddy") until I bring some downstairs.
At the conclusion of their first campaign ("The Return of the Sun Necklace"), everyone (myself included) was very pleased with the way that they dispensed with the "boss enemy" and accomplished all their objectives. To celebrate, we went upstairs to have some ice cream. Their mother, wanting to be genial, struck up a conversation:
Mom: So, girls, how did the adventure go?
Jessica: We defeated a displacer beast.
Lisa: Yeah! I distracted it with some Dancing Lights--
Jessica: And then I used my Sneak Attack--
Mom: Sorry girls, you're already talking over my head.
Daddy: (putting an arm around each of them) It's okay, girls, you can tell the story to Uncle Jared and me.
One evening, much later on, I was chatting with Lisa:
Daddy: So, Lisa, how was school?
Lisa: (sighing) There aren't enough geeks at school.
Daddy: (nodding) I know, honey. You'll find more when you get to Jr. High.
Jessica makes a d6 out of a
radish one night at dinner
On one occasion, they were spelunking through a dungeon and they encountered a trap door. They failed their Dex save and fell in. Lisa (who was ~8 yrs old at the time) said "Oh geez, another pit trap..." I replied, "Yep. And you're falling onto some spikes at the bottom! Let's see how much damage you take." [rolls] Lisa blinked and said "Wait a minute -- There are spikes in the pit?!?!"
Ya gotta learn someday, kid.
On another occasion, they found a treasure chest and I narrated the items inside.
me: You find [rolls] 13 gold, a crude little dagger, and a potion. Lisa: Ooo, a potion! me: Yes, would you like to quaff the potion? [my wife was walking through the room and she snarkily commented]: Because you can't just "drink" a potion, can you? You have to "quaff" it! me: [irked] One does not "drink" a potion. That would be gauche. Lisa: Yeah, mommy!
After one battle, the two girl's characters got particularly beat up. Jessica (now playing "Venita", a Catfolk Cleric) decided to heal the party:
Jessica: I cast Cure Moderate Wounds.
Daddy: Okay, that'll cure 2d8 damage to both you and your sister. Go ahead and roll.
Jessica: (rolls and gets an 8 and a 7.)
Daddy: Way to go, Jes! So, add them together and tell me how many hit points do you heal?
Jessica: (looks at the dice, then looks at Daddy) Eighty-seven.
Plane-hopping to The Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus.
(The little lobster is a toy we got from Red Lobster,
and represents the Apparatus of Kwalish that they used
to travel through the planes.)
On one occasion, Lisa stepped barefoot on a d4 and exclaimed, "Ouch! Those pointy dice really hurt!"
A little later, they came to a store where they could buy caltrops. It was easy to explain to her what they were. She bought a big bag of them and threw caltrops under every orc she encountered for the rest of that session. They were super effective.
One time, after fighting a big monster, Lisa (around age 7 at the time) drew a giant, red, blotch on the wet-erase map we were using, right by the fallen monster mini.
Daddy: What's that?
Lisa: That's the monster's blood.
Daddy: [sheepish] Lisa, if your mom comes downstairs and sees all that blood, she's not going to be very happy about us playing D&D together. Look, let's draw a volcano nearby and just say that it's lava.
Lisa: [pensive] Okay. When mommy comes down, we'll call it "lava", but you and I will know that it's really blood.
Hence the expression: "Mother is the necessity of invention".
One night Lisa learned the important distinction between player and character.
Daddy: Okay girls, you walk through the canyon and pass some funny-looking boulders. Both of you make spot checks.
(Jessica rolls high, Lisa rolls low.)
Daddy: Okay. Jessica, you notice that one of the boulders you pass is moving towards your sister.
Lisa: I move away from that boulder!
Daddy: I'm sorry, Lisa, you didn't notice that, only your sister did. (Turning to Jessica) Unless you want to share that information with Lisa?
Jessica: (shakes her head emphatically)
Daddy: Really? Okay, sorry, Lisa, you don't know that anything strange is going on.
Lisa: But I just heard you tell Jes that the boulder was moving!
Daddy: Yes, you, Lisa, heard that, but your character, Glouve, didn't hear that. You have to take actions based that.
Lisa: (looking at her mini and cupping a hand to the side of her mouth) "Hey Glouve! There's a boulder sneaking up on you!"
The Star Trek episode 'Devil in the Dark' was the first TOS episode my mom ever showed me when I was a kid. (I say "TOS", but at the time there wasn't any other incarnation of Trek.) This was the episode with the giant pizza monster that was boring tunnels through a cavern and killing miners, but was eventually found to be a mother who was trying to protect her young (shiny, spherical, eggs). It left a huge impression on me and made me a lifelong Trek fan. In the years that followed, I would get assigned by English teachers to write short stories and I frequently used the "misunderstood monster" concept that I learned from 'Devil in the Dark'.
In Fall of 2006, I watched every TOS episode with my daughters. Naturally, we started with 'Devil in the Dark'. My girls were just as taken with the episode as I was at their age. (Lisa commented that the Horta had very nice handwriting.) Some months later we played D&D together. They were spelunking through a cavern and I told them that they found some "odd-looking silvery spheres." Their eyes lit up and they exclaimed "There's a Horta in here!!" They found her, were very nice to her, and she was nice to them in return, even helping them by digging a tunnel to their destination.
Venita (played by Jessica) and Glouve (played
by Lisa) cry out from Howler's Crag in the
Windswept Depths of Pandemonium. (The Apparatus
of Kwalish is pictured in the background)
When my daughters were little, I read all the Harry Potter novels to them (books 1 through 7). They were captivated by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, with all of its wonders, dangers, and quirks. We always looked forward to reading them together.
Lisa & Jessica had played their first characters (Geesa, a Sorcerer and Jetta, a Rogue) for many levels. Their final campaign was to form a Rod of Command Dragons to defeat a horde of dragons which were planning on invading from the various elemental planes (Red from the plane of fire, Black from the plane of water, Green from air, Blue from earth, and White from the material plane). The big showdown occurred at the edge of town by an old, abandoned, building that looked surprisingly like a school...
Following this climactic battle, Lis & Jes were ready to retire their characters, but were unsure what their fate would be. Many of the villagers approached them and said "Can you teach us your skills so we can be prepared if other threats like this happen in the future?" So the girls set to work renovating the old building, naming it "Dragonfalls School of Roguecraft and Sorcery". Naturally, Geesa & Jessica became the headmistresses.
Afterward, they made new, level-one, characters so they could play some more... And their new characters started their training at Dragonfalls...
One time Lisa's teacher asked the class to draw a picture of something they like to do with their family. Lisa's drawing showed a couple of stick figures (one of them was her) kneeling around a large rectangle on the floor. (At first, I thought it was a picnic.) On top of the rectangle were some smaller stick figures and some strange polygons. In a little word balloon coming out of stick-figure-Lisa's mouth were the words "I cast fireball."
While we were in the throes of gaming together, I was avidly collecting & reading the Knights of the Dinner Table comics. (I usually collected the "Bundle of Trouble" compilation volumes.) My daughters would see me reading them and wanted to get in on the action, so we began reading them for bedtime stories. They loved hearing the misadventures of B.A., Bob, Dave, Sarah, and Brian. They were especially delighted that there was a comic depicting the same kind of gaming we did at home. I kind of miss those bedtime stories.
I remember the first time I saw the movie The Neverending Story. As a kid with an overactive imagination, that film seemed tailor made for me: the racing snail, the Rockbiter, Falkor the Luck Dragon... I instantly fell in love with all these creatures. I even had a pet tortoise as a kid, so I was filled with glee when I saw Morla the Ancient One make her entrance. I remember the ending when the Empress handed Bastian the last grain of sand of Fantasia and said he could have as many wishes as he wanted to rebuild the world. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be Bastian.
As an adult, I played D&D with my (then) grade-school-age daughters. We got together every week and had adventures. I found a map online that we could use for our sessions. We explored every bit of it and met oodles of fantastical creatures along the way. One day, my eldest daughter said "Our world is called 'Earth'. What's the name of this world that we play in?"
I smiled and answered, "Fantasia".
On March 4th, 2008, all the kids arrived at the dinner table and found that I had placed a d20 on each of their plates. When they asked me about the dice, I said, "Gary Gygax died today, girls. He's the guy that invented Dungeons & Dragons, the game that we all enjoy playing together. So before we eat dinner, we're all gonna roll the dice together -- And remember to roll high, 'cuz we're rolling for Gary tonight." We all rolled, we all ate, and we all remembered.
See you on the planes, Gary.
As we played, I made sure to tell my girls about famous gaming lore, including the infamous "Gazebo" story.
The Story of Eric and the Gazebo
One day, the whole family was walking down the street with the grandparents when my mom exclaimed, "Oh, look at the lovely gazebo in the neighbor's yard!" My oldest daughter Lisa (who was ~8 yrs old at the time) replied, "A Gazebo?!? I cast fireball!!!"
My mom was perplexed. It took a lot of explaining to resolve her confusion.
All 3 girls at the mat
(Yes, we used the toy castle)
On one occasion, Jessica was playing a Gnome Ranger (named "Shamiel") and they were visiting a farmer:
Daddy: (as the farmer) My daughter says she saw a Kobold go down the path last night.
Jessica: Do you know where he was going to? We're looking for their lair!
Daddy: (again, as the farmer) No, we just saw him last night. If only there was some way to track him...
Jessica: (looks skyward, wondering)
Daddy: (after a few moments) I said, if only there was some way to track him...
Jessica: (taps a finger to her chin)
Sara: (age 4, has been hearing the whole thing; she runs around the map to her sister and whispers in her ear) Jessica, you can follow the footprints and find out where he went!
There's a song by Harry Chapin called Cats in the Cradle which describes a father's middle-age regrets for never having spent enough time with his children. I don't think I'm going to feel that way when I get older, in large part because I've always set aside several hours each week for playing D&D with my daughters.
As mentioned earlier, Sara has been joining us for each session starting at around age 3. She doesn't play a character, but she does enjoy eating the swag and playing with the dice and minis.
Sara: (looking into the box of minis) Beholder! Beholder! Where are you, Beholder!
Daddy: (finding the Beholder in the corner of the box and holding it up for her)
Sara: Oh! There he is. (She pauses to turn the mini in her hand) He's got an eye!
Sara doesn't feel like she's quite ready to join us yet, but she's warming to the idea. Who knows, someday we might just make a character sheet for her and pick out a little mini that'll be hers to command.
But first, I think I'll read her The Hobbit.
Early in 2009 (February, I think), Sara started playing D&D with us. I asked her what kind of character she wanted to make and she instantly shouted out "Spellbinder!"
Sara seems to know exactly what spell she wants to learn every time she levels up. Some examples of her replies:
She even has a wizard costume that she wore when we played on Sunday nights.
One night while playing D&D with my daughters, Sara (age 7) said, "What if there was a preschool in D&D. There would be lots of little Dwarf babies -- and they'd all have beards!"
On one occasion, they were adventuring to the planes and they traveled to The Abyss. They hopped through a swirly portal and arrived in a dark, cavernous, place that was covered with cobwebs, and that meant one thing: Lolth.
After describing the cobwebs, the second thing I narrated was a giant, mechanical, spider that walked on some spiderweb strands just above them. They heard gears creak and whir, but the spider otherwise ignored them. After it passed, they began exploring, searching for the object of their quest: a magic gemstone. My youngest daughter Sara (6) was pretty excited about this new place. She kept smiling and asking what she saw around every corner.
Later on in the session, they descended on a rope down into a pit. I said, "You land on something hard and metallic. It feels different than the surrounding stone. It's really dark though, so you can't tell what it is." My daughter Sara said, "I cast light. What do I see?" I answered, "You're on the back of the mechanical spider you saw earlier."
Sara's eyes went wide. She became silent. She scooted away from the mat and sat on a nearby piano bench. Her sister Jes (10), much more experienced with adventuring was undaunted. She crept into a trapdoor on the back of the spider, scouted around, and found the gemstone. In a nearby room, she heard Lolth talking to her trusted lieutenants. A failed stealth roll alerted the baddies to her presence. She popped out the trapdoor, but a troop of Drow were right behind her.
As soon as Sara saw the Drow, she exclaimed, "I cast Fireball!!! And Lightning!!! And Summon Dinosaur!!!" They battled their way out, hopped back into the swirly portal, and escaped back to the safety of the Material plane. Sara let out an audible sigh, and I knew I had done my job as a DM.
I always let my daughters pick out a mini for their character, and a mini for their pet (much like the old computer game 'Nethack'). When my daughter Sara (~6 yrs old at the time) made her Spellbinder character, she wanted a turtle familiar. She even had a little turtle toy that she got at school and was happy to be able to use it while gaming.
While we were in the middle of our campaign, we watched the 2008 film adaptation of _The Colour of Magic_. Sara loved it. She especially loved Great A'Tuin who ploughed through space, carrying the Discworld on his back.
One time while they were dungeon delving, they found a treasure chest. Upon opening it, they found a strange, oval-shaped piece of cloth that depicted a top-down view of four elephants. Sara's eyes went wide. She exclaimed, "I put it on my turtle!" I replied, "Your turtle starts to fly." She jumped up and clapped her hands rapidly.
After some testing, she discovered that this magic item could be used to make her turtle fly twice per session. Later on, in a separate dungeon, she found another oval-shaped blanket that depicted continents and oceans. She laid it on top of the elephant cloth that was already on her turtle's shell, and discovered that it doubled the flying powers up to four times per session.
They encountered plenty of rivers, gullies, and chasms, in the adventures that followed... and those obstacles just didn't pose any problems for them.
I fed my daughters plenty of nerdy media as they were growing up. We watched Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, and (of course) Lord of the Rings. Sometimes I tried to tie-in things they'd seen in the movies with our D&D sessions.
On one occasion, they visited "The Island of Good Dragons" and met a (badly wounded) Golden Dragon. They healed him, so in return he gave them a golden egg saying, "Use this when all hope is lost."
Later on in the campaign, they found themselves underground in a series of caverns, beset on all sides by Mind Flayers. They were hopelessly outnumbered and really getting worried. Seeing their distress, I said, "The golden egg in your pocket vibrates and glows, and you hear the words of the Golden Dragon again, saying 'Use this when all hope is lost.'" They glared at me and said, "Daaaddyyy... You're just doing the 'Phial of Galadriel' from Lord of the Rings..."
Can't put anything past them.
And yes, they used the egg and the Golden Dragon came crashing through the ceiling. With their combined forces, they laid waste to the Illithid foes.
And for all those who were wondering, yes, I read Sara The Hobbit. She kept me on task and reminded me every night that it was time to read. Her favorite part was where Gandalf makes the trolls argue for so long that they turn into stone with the morning light.
At the same time, Jessica's artistic talent has been improving by leaps and bounds. She frequently will draw pictures of the evening's adventures during, or after our session.
A picture Jessica drew of her and Sara's visit to a candy shop in the village of Himinborg on the Heroic Domains of Ysgard. (Click to enlarge.) The monster in the "Monster Pops" jar that you may not be able to identify is a Grell.