Simplifying Dungeons & Dragons
So, you watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and now you are even more confused than ever about how Dungeons & Dragons works. You feel like you have to memorize over a thousand pages of rules and then there is all of the roleplaying, world building and political intrigue aspects of the game. It can all get very overwhelming for both players and dungeon masters alike.
Forget all of that game theory and advanced DM’ing stuff and simplify your game. As with any complex subject, some people will dive deep and to explore every nuanced detail. We need a version of D&D that a 3rd grader can understand. So let’s break this game down a bit.
Simplify The Character Sheet
Action, Reaction, Movement, and Conversation
In general, the totality of Dungeons and Dragons can be boiled down to action, reaction, movement and conversation. Actions can be things like attacking, casting a spell or using a skill to accomplish a goal. Reactions are very quick actions that are taken during another character’s turn like blocking or dodging an attack. Movement happens during a character’s turn and can be split up to happen before and after their actions. Conversation happens at any time, like a character yelling, “Look out!” as a monster closes in on another member of the party.
That’s it. Don’t over complicate it.
But What About Bonus Actions and Attacks of Opportunity?
As characters go up in level, they get more attacks and abilities. This can include getting multiple attacks, special abilities and bonus actions. These are a little too much for new and younger players to keep track of at the table. When you are playing with new players and younger players, ditch these. Just ignore them. Keep it simple.
If you feel like your players can handle the complexity, keep them, but I suggest you use some form of physical reminder of the options like tokens. So you might give them a 3×5 card that has actions in one column and bonus actions in a second column.
Paralyzed by Too Many Options
I have literally listened to a 3rd grader analyze every possible action, try to guess what the reaction of the monster might be, and finally decide that they should not do anything because the monster would always win. I finally had to boil it down for them this way, “Move your character so they can take an action, then move them back into hiding. Don’t worry about what the monster will do. Just worry about what your character is going to do.” After that, the character ran out, cast a Magic Missile and ran behind a column to hide. That guaranteed the character hit and minimized the potential for taking damage on the monster’s turn.
Having a limited set of options keeps the players focused on what they can do. That 3×5 card or the stack of spell cards makes it very easy to focus young players attention. Once they get used to their action set, you can level up their character and give them more options. If a character’s action set won’t fit on a 3×5 card, it is too complicated for new and young players.
Level Up Players, Then Characters
When playing with new players and young kids, it is best to keep them at low levels. In many ways, low level play is the most exciting of the game. It is at this stage where a single hit from a monster could leave a character making death saves. Characters have a very limited set of skills. Fighters are gonging to get one or two attacks, and spell casters only get a hand full of spells.
One tip for spell casters…Instead of having the characters suddenly increase the number of spells and spell slots, then telling the player to pick out their new spells, have a mentor teach them a better version of a spell they already have or a single new spell.
In short, increase the options the character has based more on the ability of the player than the character. When you find players stop referring to their character sheets and crib notes during play, level up their character and give the player more to track.
Encumbrance & Resource Management
To keep characters from carrying around 3 full sets of plate mail armor and an entire dragon’s hoard, Dungeons & Dragons has rules for encumbrance. The more you carry, the slower you move and the worse you fight. Ditch the encumbrance calculations entirely.
Use common sense for what the characters can carry. I have a literal box of treasure (a painted cigar box), which contains coins from all over the world and some toy store jems.* That 6″ x 6″ x 4″ box weighs 12 pounds. When new players join the game, I do three things…I ask one of the regular players to bring the treasure box to the table, I ask the new player to pick an inspiration token from the box, and then I ask the new player to put the box back on the shelf. Later, when they encounter some treasure, I relate how much treasure they find to the actual treasure box. When I tell them that there is enough treasure to fill 100 of those boxes, they know that there’s no way for them to carry it all.
Handwave all of the normal pack stuff. If something comes as standard equipment in a pack, the character has it. That includes things like rations, water, tinder box etc.
Remember that 3×5 index card? If you really want to keep some aspect of resource management in the game, have the back side of the card represent the character’s inventory.
I like to use poker chips to represent spell slots, which makes it easier for players to track them.
*Call around to coin shops and banks in your area. One of them will likely sell foreign coins by the pound. Your local tobacco shop likely sells old cigar boxes for $1 to $3 each. Your local hobby shop will likely sell wooden project boxes for $4 to $12. A little paint and some fittings make this a great way to get a treasure box full of coins.
Feats and Other Optional Content...Nope
There is a lot of optional content for Dungeons & Dragons. These are for experienced payers and DM’s. Just pass on the optional and play test content. Stuff like unearthed arcana, optional character races, and feats can overly complicate your game real fast.
Players Come and Go
You will find a lot of discussions, some very passionate, about dealing with characters being added to or dropped from a session because of the attendance of players. You will hear phrases like “breaking immersion.” When it comes to games for kids and new players, don’t worry about it. We play multiplayer video games where other players pop in and out constantly. Hand wave it away OR make up some creative and overly dramatic way to emphasize the change. One of my players’ favorite was the time I had a memic barf up the characters, slimy and low on hit points.
When a player is gone from the game for a significant period of time and other player characters have leveled up, but their character has not, this can become a problem. This is when I like to point out that the party has a shared treasure hoard from which they can equip the character. Give the character a +1 weapon or other item that helps boost them up a little. “Welcome back Jona! We found this great suite of armor in a dungeon and we thought it would be perfect for you!”
Share and Share Alike
A table rule I have is that the party has a shared inventory. There is one other adult that plays at most of the games and acts as the party leader. She also manages the party inventory in a portable hole. We have really great players and our shared inventor rule has worked very well so far.
The only time our shared inventory system has become a problem is when a player is absent and their character has a vital piece of equipment. To make sure that does not happen, I ask at the beginning of the game who has any specific items they will need. If an absent player character had the item, I will hand wave moving the item to the inventory. At the end of the session, the item is transferred back to the original character unless there is a really good reason we can’t.
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