Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Media Review: May 2020

Dungeons and Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guide Series
Published by Ten Speed Press
Written by Jim Zub, with Stacy King and Andrew Wheeler

Dungeons & Dragons is my oldest friend. I owe almost everything good in my life to it, and nearly every life-long friendship I have forged in my forty-three years has arisen because of our shared interest in it. It’s difficult to convey just how important it has been to me without sounding grandiose to those who didn’t have similar experiences in their own childhood. There are many of us that had similar experiences, and now we are parents, training a whole new generation in a hobby that was born in our lifetimes. To understand the role these books play in today’s market, I want to describe what it was like in the D&D Stone Age.

I was a geeky kid in the early ’80s, mostly ostracized by kids my own age for being a bit odd and very much a know-it-all. I didn’t have many friends, but that changed when a neighbor kid a few years older than me offered to teach me how to play Dungeons & Dragons, starting with the Basic or “red box” edition. We met in the afternoons a few times a week and he acted as my first Dungeon Master, leading me on journeys as my very first character, Dorwick Silverblade, an elven adventurer deft with sword and spell.

My own parents were completely baffled by this new form of game, but they were happy that I suddenly had a friend. For my next birthday, I received my own brand-new red box edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I spent nearly all my time after school drawing maps on graph paper, rolling up characters, and playing through the solo adventure included in those rulebooks. This was uncharted parenting territory, but my parents could clearly see how happy the game made me. They never steered me away from it despite the Satanic Panic that put D&D in its sights later in the decade.

After about a year of play, my first Dungeon Master moved away. I was despondent, but at least I had my own books. Soon, a group of middle school kids in our apartment complex learned that I played. I was quickly recruited to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the more complex version of the game and one that my nerdy brain took to immediately. From then on, my primary hobby was playing role-playing games, weaving adventures and stories collaboratively with friends. The hobby continued through college and well into adulthood. Even when living in Wyoming after college, at a loss for how to make friends in the real world, I stalked the local bookstore’s meager selection of game manuals, hoping to meet someone who played (and I did!).

The systems and games changed over the years to Shadowrun, Rifts, and World of Darkness, but always, with each new edition, I found myself returning to the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. No matter where I lived in the country, I could make friends through our shared interest in the game.

Parenthood proved to be the latest challenge to my passion for the game (after Satanic Panic ostracism and living in a state with more sheep than people). I had little time to gather with friends. When I got in a game at all, it was a simpler board game because my sleep-deprived brain could handle little else. My wife also plays, and we tried to play here and there, but the new responsibilities of a whole human’s wellbeing made it difficult to say the least. A baby or toddler makes a very poor companion in a role-playing game, we soon found. Still, our house was littered with games, the detritus of our youth. I despaired of ever playing again. Perhaps it was inevitable that my son Matty would take in interest in the games, surrounded as he was by them. I certainly wasn’t going to discourage his interest.

As he grew older, we began to introduce him to children’s board games, and then finally, a friend asked me to teach her children how to play D&D. Since I had last played, the hobby had exploded in popularity thanks to television shows like Stranger Things and video streams like Critical Role. After some planning, I ran my first game for a table full of children ranging in age from three to sixteen.

Previously I had found the game fun, but this experience was utterly delightful. I witnessed the game once more through young eyes, and my passion was renewed. As of today, I run that irregular game for those same kids as well as three other online games for friends around the world using online tools such as Roll20.net. D&D is my primary means of socializing with my closest friends, and I expect it may be for many years to come.

Sometimes I wonder how I would have felt if my son had shown no interest for the things I love. I know I would have loved him just as much, but I would have missed out on something marvelous. The greatest joy I have felt as a parent has been watching my son’s own interest in the hobby blossom.

I believe every parent wants to connect their children with their own passions, to pass on the good experiences just as we try to protect them from our past hurts. In truth, I might not have been so keen on my son playing if the game didn’t have such mainstream acceptance today; the ’80s were a darker time for gamers, and I had several notable conflicts with religious family members. To tell someone you played D&D in the ’80s was a risky endeavor, and this mainstream attitude kept it in the basement far too long. No longer is it something played by “greasy nerds”; now the public perception is of famous people adopting ridiculous voices and rolling dice for public amusement. D&D is finally, mostly, seen as harmless, even a good thing. Many educators have begun to see the value of it, and D&D clubs are springing up at schools around the world. I could rest easy knowing I was giving my son a life skill by teaching him how to play—one with little downside.

After his first game, Matty began asking me often when we would play again, and in his spare time, he took to writing up his own scribbly character sheets and drawing grand maps for his own games. We often get out my dungeon terrain and build dungeons together, even if we don’t always have time to actually sit down and play the game. Nothing pained me more than to tell him with regularity, “Sorry, I don’t have time to run D&D for you today.”

So when editor John Joseph Adams asked me if I would like to receive his review copies of the Young Adventurer’s Guide series for my now five-year-old son, I was hesitant. A quick Google search revealed an interesting set of books aimed at introducing the mega-blockbuster RPG series to younger audiences, but they seemed targeted at older children—ages eight and older. But Matty had already begun playing, and I wasn’t sure he would get much out of them. Still, I accepted the offer, and when they arrived, I explained to him what they were and handed them over. I half-expected that he would flip through them to look at the pictures and toss them aside. He already knew D&D . . . or so I thought.

Instead, he carried them with him on every car ride he took for the next several weeks. From his seat in the back of the minivan, we were peppered with facts about monsters and D&D classes.

“Did you know carrion crawlers can smell blood from a mile away?”

“Elves are a little shorter than humans!”

And on and on. And despite having played D&D for about thirty-five years, I learned a few new things myself!

Most five-year-olds would likely have the reaction that I expected, but to put on my proud parent hat for a moment, Matty reads at above a third-grade reading level, so as far as reading skills, he falls right inside the target audience.

To help write this review, I asked him some questions about the books to learn what he would like to share with people. Here is an excerpt of our discussion:

Dad: Do you think the books help you understand how to play D&D better?

Matty: Um . . . yeah.

Dad: Would you recommend that people buy these books for their kids, and why?

Matty: Yeah, because they would love them because of all the cool stuff in them.

Dad: Do you want to read more of them?

Matty: Yup!

Dad: What do you love most about D&D?

Matty: I like charging into battle!

So far, four books have been released in the series, breaking up discussion into topics such as locations, types of creatures, and groupings of character classes based on their magical or martial prowess. Each is a slim, sturdy hardback with glossy pages, filled to the brim with beautiful artwork and easy-to-read descriptions.

In particular, Matty was entranced by the design approach of these books. Unlike the red box Basic Dungeons & Dragons set that I started with in the early ’80s, these books are merely setting and description, laid out and presented in a way that’s friendly to younger readers. The information rarely feels watered down for children—monsters are still monsters and fighting them is still central to the game, but at the same time, the material doesn’t feel overly adult in nature. Very little seems sacrificed in the name of reaching a younger audience, which surprised me, but it shouldn’t have; after all, I started in the hobby at their target age. The material is simply a lovely introduction to the experience of playing and all the background knowledge we life-long players have absorbed. It serves to help the imagination, and not the mechanics of playing. One of Matty’s favorite features are the silhouettes that appear alongside creature and character races demonstrating how large or small something is in relation to a normal-sized person.

I would wager that these books would be good primers for any age reader on the nature of the world’s most popular role-playing game. I highly recommend them to any parent or person interested in learning more about the world-building of Dungeons & Dragons. The only caveat I offer is that these are not substitutes for the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual, and Player’s Handbook. People interested in playing the game will still need to purchase the rulebooks, some dice, pencils, and paper. Instead, these books introduce one to the kind of cultural knowledge that comes along with playing the game for many years. Just how tall is an elf? How dangerous is a “carrion crawler” and what even is one? Anyone who wants to know the answers to these questions would appreciate these books.

The Young Adventurer’s Guide series is designed as a kind of doorway, a “gateway drug” into the hobby of role-playing games and the game system of Dungeons & Dragons in particular. I was at first a little disappointed that the books didn’t contain a game that was the modern equivalent of the Basic that I first loved. The modern approach to hooking younger players is streamlined, more efficient, and doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of crafty youngsters that want to play out their own stories. Sometimes, D&D even feels a little bit too slick and corporate, what with Hasbro now owning Wizards of the Coast, which publishes the core game. None of that detracts from the core experience of using your imagination to tell an adventurous story with your friends and family. Do these books help introduce that experience? Certainly.

My son may not have needed them to get hooked, but they didn’t hurt, and if I’d had them a year or two earlier, they would have played an even more fundamental role. If you’re looking to bring children to the gaming table, you could do a lot worse than introducing them to these tomes. My advice to all parents is this: Teach your kids to play roleplaying games; they will never want for a friend in life.

And if you want them never to have money for drugs, get them hooked on Warhammer or Magic: The Gathering. That’s my plan.

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Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Seeds of Change, Federations, Polyphony 4, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts, and his story “The West Topeka Triangle” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.

Matthew Tolbert

Matthew Tolbert lives with his parents and cat in Northeast Kansas. He attends elementary school and practices the ninja arts in his spare time.  When he grows up, he wants to make games and be a scientist–probably a NASA engineer.