Features Archive | 11/8/2012
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Dungeon! with Kids
How to Grow a Little D&D Gamer of Your Own
By Nina Hess

The Dungeon! board game has returned (with optional rule variants recently provided by Chris Tulach, and D&D Alumni's interview with the game's original designer, David R. Megarry!). Nina Hess writes about her own experiences with the board game, and how it can help introduce kids to RPGs.


Several years ago, I was interviewed on the radio about my book A Practical Guide to Monsters. For those of you who don’t know (or suspect), there are many people in the entertainment industry who are closet Dungeons & Dragons geeks (Colbert! Conan!). After doing a lot of radio interviews that year, I came to realize D.J.s and talk jocks also rank high on that list.

In this particular interview, we rolled through the jokes about Britney Spears vs. zombies vs. ghouls. (Which one did she most resemble in her shaved-head phase?) But when we hit the commercial break, I discovered I wasn’t there to crack jokes about celebrity monster look-alikes. The real reason I’d been invited to the show was to answer, off-air, one extremely important question: "When the freakin’ heck was Wizards gonna re-issue Dungeon!?"

Before I could get a word in edgewise, my D.J. host told me all about how much he’d loved that game as a kid. Now that he had kids of his own, although he liked D&D, Dungeon! was the game he wanted them to know.

Black Puddings, Purple Worms, and Green Slime

Mr. D.J. isn’t alone. For many people around the halls of Wizards of the Coast, Dungeon! recalls the halcyon days of childhood. Peter Lee, the game designer behind Castle Ravenloft and Lords of Waterdeep (among other acclaimed D&D-inspired games) credits Dungeon! for igniting his love of Dungeons & Dragons and gaming in general:

“While Dungeon! wasn’t my first experience with D&D, it was the product that made me fall in love with it. The monsters in that game became the iconic D&D monsters to me: I can’t look at Black Puddings, Purple Worms, and Green Slime without thinking of playing the game with my brother on the living room floor. If I think of spells, I’ll immediately list Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Teleport. I remember finding a +2 magic sword near the beginning of the game and feeling nearly invulnerable. I remember how much my brother loved his ESP Medallion, especially as he was playing a wizard at the time. I don’t think I’d be working at Wizards of the Coast if it weren’t for that game drawing in my interest.”

D&D Web Producer Bart Carroll remembers how Dungeon! folded right into his family’s game night:

“When I was a kid, probably around 8 or 9, my family used to spend evenings playing board games together. They knew about my interests in knights and fantasy, and the older kids in the neighborhood were already into Dungeons & Dragons. My parents had no idea what an RPG was, but they could wrap their heads around the concept of a board game. So my dad must have asked someone at the hobby shop what a good introduction was to D&D—who knows, but one day he came home with Dungeon! for us to play. I remember being enthralled with the dungeon, the monsters, the magic swords you could find. The board itself sort of looks like a graph paper-sketched D&D dungeon come to life. The rest of my family never was into fantasy, but I appreciate the fact that they humored my interest, and playing that game started me down the road of avid D&D player.”

Many of these guys who grew up hunting down Black Puddings, Purple Worms, and Green Slime are now grownups with kids of their own—and perhaps you’re one of them? Dungeon! may have been the gateway back in your day to the world of Dungeons & Dragons. But, hey, your kids have you to introduce them to D&D. So why start with Dungeon!?

It Will Make Your Kid Smarter—REALLY

As much as D&D appeals to kids, the complexity of the rules and the time required can be a barrier to entry. Although I’m a proponent of playing D&D with kids, I do admit it can take some modification and dedication on the part of an adult to make it work. (You might, for example, take a look at The Heroes of Hesiod scenario, written by Susan Morris.)

Dungeon! on the other hand, has all the fun and flavor of a D&D campaign without all the fuss. Everything you need to play is right in the box, the rules are easy to pick up, and the pace of play runs fast—making it a perfect introduction for younger gamers who want to learn D&D but aren’t ready for a full-blown dungeon crawl.

And for any teacher or fellow parent who asks you—its educational benefits are undeniable. Research has shown again and again that linear board games, like Dungeon!, improve kids’ math skills. Dungeon!, in particular, helps kids practice arithmetic fluency by adding up dice rolls and treasure. Reading fluency, pattern identification, memory, and social skills—taking turns, winning and losing gracefully, problem-solving—all get a boost as well. With Dungeon! there’s also the element of imagination that comes into play—when stepping into the shoes of a wizard, fighter, cleric, or rogue and battling monsters, storytelling takes flight.

Go Ahead: Split the Party!

The thing I love best about this game? It can also be played alone. In D&D, we like to chant “Never split the party!” but with Dungeon!, you can feel free to go it alone and still have a lot of fun. Better yet: three variations on solo play keep it from getting boring. Very few board games for younger kids have the option of solo play, so it’s a good choice to share with your kids when you don’t have the time to join in, or for kids who don’t have siblings or a neighborhood tribe to make an instant game group.

I know, as a parent, I will feel a lot less guilty setting my kid down in front of Dungeon! while I cook dinner, than in front of the TV or Xbox. For kids, solo play familiarizes them with the flavor of Dungeons & Dragons so that when they find a group to play with, they’ll feel confident and excited about taking their D&D skills to the next level. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want? A little D&D gamer of our own!

About the Author

Nina Hess is the author of the New York Times best-selling A Practical Guide to Monsters, the editor-in-chief of Dungeons & Dragons novels, and the founding editor of Wizards of the Coast’s children’s book imprint, Mirrorstone. Her kid is only one and a half years old, but as soon as he hurries up and learns to read, he’s getting a copy of Dungeon! for Christmas.

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