Holiday Traditions, Nerd Style

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Since my husband only worked a half day on both the 22nd (Yule) and 23rd and was off through the 26th, it felt like he had a whole week off.  He commented that it reminded him of the Christmas breaks we’d have in college and that I had in law school.  So we enjoyed the time being kids with our kids, playing games, eating lots of sweets, and basically basking in all the snuggle time we could get before we hit the years where wanting to hug our kids (especially in public) becomes an attempt to ruin their lives.

Of course, there are always things families do as tradition over the holidays.  Some traditions are pretty, well, traditional.  Many families do it.  Like opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.  Some traditions are pretty unique.  Some traditions reflect a particular culture or background.

One really cool thing about traditions is that, when you’re older, keeping parts of the traditions can evoke pleasant childhood memories.

For my husband’s side of the family, Christmas is a pretty solemn event.  But they live in Kenya, where people have bigger things to worry about than who gets an Xbox or the latest Elmo doll.  Like pissed-off Somali terrorists, militant government censorship and government-sanctioned violence against women (and other human and civil rights violations), and whether they or their neighbors or the refugees their country takes in will have enough food and medical care to survive.  For some people in his village, Christmas is one of the few times they can eat meat.  But it’s also a happy time–of singing and celebrating and having a great feast.

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A Kenyan city - Image by Mister_Jack via Flickr

So my husband brings to the Christmas traditions of our family singing and dancing with the kids.  He taught us some hymns in Swahili and his tribal language (Kalenjin), which were fun to sing and dance to.  One of his favorites is “Lulu,” which is the Swahili word for “heaven” and is basically about getting there (you can watch the video here) and “Tarajet,” which pretty much has the same message, but in my husband’s language (video here).  I guess we could add to our traditions giving a bit of gratitude for sites like YouTube that let us dredge up obscure Kenyan spirituals (that is, so long as such songs are legitimately available–but I’ll not get on a SOPA-box).

And eating until we feel like we might burst.

From my side of the family, there are certain experiences that take me back to happy times that I want to share with my kids.  Seeing a can of sardines in winter time reminds me of eating sardines on crackers with my father while watching the NFL playoffs.  The smell of anise seeds always takes me back to a late aunt’s kitchen and the amazing Mexican breads and cookies she’d make for Christmas.  And Christmas break meant family game night, especially once I was in my junior year of high school and drowning in a rigorous academic workload (and living on campus).  And family game night in my family meant one of three things: spades or pinochle, dominoes (if extended family was visiting), or Dungeons and Dragons (called “D&D” within the gamer community).

So we watched the New Orleans Saints go down in history again on Monday night while eating sardines with crackers and cheese.  We baked and devoured cookies all weekend (as I mentioned earlier).  And, now that the girls are near preschool age and Starkitten is learning to add, we wanted to introduce them to the world of D&D.

Okay, so the rest of this may sound a bit nerdy.  I will try to explain anything that sounds too technical or supply a link for more info.  Most of this will sound pretty basic to anyone who’s played D&D for a while.

The challenge with D&D is that, at minimum, it is very complicated and would pose a challenge for a small child to learn.  And then there are some PG-rated aspects of the game, depending on the kinds of adversaries the dungeon master, or DM for short, chooses for the player characters (the dungeon master is the person who runs the game, and could also be called a game master, or GM).  Most role-playing games, like D&D are pretty rule-intensive, and it can be very overwhelming for someone new to the game.  But once you play for a little bit, you find that most of the rules are pretty intuitive.

And any good player or DM knows that the rule books aren’t the end-all of the game.  This is extremely important when playing with first-timers and young kids.  And patience is equally important.

How to Play Dungeons & Dragons with Toddlers

Some of our D&D dice

I’d been playing D&D since I was 5 or 6.  My dad, who is something of a nerd himself, felt that his kids would learn D&D, Monopoly (that was more of my mom’s thing), and Stratego while other kids were learning Go Fish, Old Maid, and Candyland.  When we were older, he added Risk and taught us Spades and Pinochle when other kids I knew were learning poker and blackjack (to this day I don’t know how to play poker–but I could hold my own in Magic: The Gathering).  But the version of D&D my father had was the old school first version, which was very simplistic compared to later versions of the game.

However, growing up with D&D at an early age meant I was the family DM by the age of 11.  And, being 8 and 10 years older than my two younger brothers, it gave me an idea of how to include little kids who wanted to play with everyone else.  As a teenager, I figured out how to include kids who couldn’t really read or write yet into the game, and still make it fun for everyone.

Here are a few considerations for playing D&D with young children:

  1. Let go of some of the rules, and fudge the game in the little kid’s favor a bit–not too much, as they need to understand you don’t have to win all the time, but enough to still let them feel like they are doing better than the grown-ups.
  2. Be patient.  Expect to explain things.  But give points of reference.  Start off with monsters and situations that the child can identify with–maybe borrow ideas from his/her favorite cartoons or books.
  3. Animate the story.  And I mean by using descriptive words, maybe gesturing (or even act it out a bit).  Some DMs do this and some don’t, but–explain what the characters see or experience like it’s a story.  Tell it like a storyteller, putting emotion into your words:  “As the party walked down the stone passageway, everything got darker and darker.  Even the torches didn’t seem to bring much light.  The dungeon was quiet.  Maybe too quiet.  They could hear the skittering of the mice darting away before them.  Their own footsteps echoed loudly down the hall.  As they kept walking, they began to pick up a faint acidic odor.  And, soon, the sound of something scraping against stone.”  Seriously, kids love storytellers.
  4. Encourage the child to feel like a part of the story.  Just as much as kids like a good story, they want to be in the spotlight of the story.  Ask him/her, “Is your character scared of the dark hall?  What does your character think is making the scratching noise down the hall?”

    A D&D game session in progress

    A D&D game session in progress - Image via Wikipedia

  5. Let them be silly, especially if it encourages creative thinking.  For instance, when my youngest brother was 4 and learning to play the game, he asked me if his character could vomit into a bucket and toss it on the monster he was fighting, arguing it was acid vomit.  (Yes, this is gross, but that’s little kid thinking for you.)  Sure, why not?  If he can roll a “vomit check” (I picked some arbitrary number based on his character’s wisdom–can he make himself vomit?) then I’d give it the qualities of an acid splash spell.  I don’t remember the outcome of the roll, but it was hilarious for everyone and he had a fantastic time.
  6. You may have to adjust information on the character sheet for him/her, but explain what you are doing and why.  And turn it into a learning experience.  D&D can be a fun way to teach math, strategy, and empathy (once they are ready to learn to role-play).  For instance, have the child count backwards with you as you deduct hit points.
  7. Make the adventures short, until the child demonstrates that he/she can sit for a longer game.  And make the goals of the adventure simple: rescue the princess, find the secret treasure, that kind of thing.  Adventures dealing with mysteries and riddles and more complicated story lines should wait until they are older and/or get the hang of it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure I could think add more, but it’s meant to be a guide.  Also, every kid is different, and as a parent (or other relation) you’ll know best what would work with the child.  And the Number One thing to remember is:  It’s just a game, and the point of the game is to have fun!

That being said, I’ll share a little bit about the game we’re running with Starkitten and Sunfilly.

To begin with, we gave them a point of reference by letting them choose characters styled after their favorite fictional characters.  For Starkitten, that’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for Sunfilly, it’s Mulan.  So Buffy (who specifically fought the undead and demons) became a human ranger with undead as her favored enemy.  Mulan (a woman warrior) became a human fighter.  See?  Easy enough.  My husband decided to be a cleric, and we let the kids choose his character:  Yoda.  And, since they don’t have… whatever the hell Yoda was in the D&D manual, for the sake of simplicity, we made Yoda be a gnome.  And even though I was the DM, I rolled a character, too, so that they’d get the idea of what you can do in D&D.  I wanted to be Hermione Granger, a human mage, but Starkitten gave an executive veto and insisted I instead be Tinker Bell.  “Tinker Bell” to my girls really means any of the Disney fairies (or any fairy, for that matter), so I went with Rosetta, because she’s spunky, as an elf sorcerer.  I assigned them standard equipment (I gave Buffy an axe and a crossbow, instead of a stake, because on the TV show, when she’s pissed off, she likes to carry huge scary weapons like axes and crossbows).

The  pop culture points of reference are helpful in teaching the kids to role-play.  They know how Buffy would react to a scary situation (fight first, ask questions later), versus how Mulan would (come up with a plan, don’t jump right into the fray).  They know Yoda will stick back (they have only seen the original Star Wars, when Yoda is more of a teacher with “magic” powers–the Force) and guide the fighters.  And they know that Rosetta is little and fragile, and so most likely to be squished, but she has useful magical talents.  So when it finally did become battle time, we would ask the girls, “What would Buffy do?” or “What would Mulan do?”  It’s the first step towards imaginative role-playing.

We rolled stats for a very simplistic home-made character sheet (which I have made available for you here if you wanted to look at it and/or use it).  Starkitten read the numbers off the die and we guided her in adding them up: “The first dice reads what number?  4.  And the second one reads…?  5.  And the third?  5.  Let’s count.  4 plus 5 is 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  9 plus 5 is 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.  So we have 14.”

For experience, to keep engaging the kids with math, we changed it to “kill counts.”  So they just count the number of monsters that the party kills (we decided to go with party kills as opposed to individual kills to encourage a teamwork mentality).  To reach level 2, the party needs to kill 50 monsters.  Tough monsters, arguably, could count as more than one kill, but I don’t think the kids are at that point of understanding.

In the back of my mind, I was keeping up with all the more complex rules, like their saving throws and that sort of thing.  This way, there is still some consistency to the game and it could still be enjoyable for my husband and me.

The fun part for the girls, especially Sunfilly, was the actual playing of the game.  We just made a very simple, “let’s run through the dungeon and find treasure” adventure, as the kids have seen my husband play games like Zelda and Gauntlet and have a good idea of what that means.  And, since Starkitten has a huge fascination with zombies, why not let the kids imagine themselves running through the dungeon killing some zombies.

So I made paper tokens for the characters and the monsters using a spreadsheet I created (I’m sharing the blank template with instructions in Excel 2008 format here, and a PDF sample orc template here and zombies/kobolds here).  For a dungeon map, we just used the cardboard map pieces to a dungeon set I’d had for almost 10 years (but you can make your own or find one online).

Close-up of the kobold tokens

Then it was time to tell a story and set the scene.  The girls enjoyed the story, but seemed the most engaged once we got to the part where the party was ambushed by zombies hungry for braaaaiiiiiiiiiins.  Starkitten knew just what to do:  “Buffy wants to squish the zombies with her sword.”  I explained that she had an axe and showed her a picture of an axe, and she then called it an axe.  We acted out how we were fighting the zombies.  Sunfilly really enjoyed rolling the dice, so much so that I’d let her roll for the zombies as well.

Sadly, the zombies had no treasure, but I explained that the characters got a little wiser from fighting the zombies.  They got experienced:  “How many zombies did we kill?  Let’s count the tokens on the side here.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  We killed 6 zombies.  Good job!  Let’s write it down as our experience.”

Then the party wandered into another part of the dungeon and found a different set of monsters (kobolds) which had a different reason to attack the party (we were stealing things from their dungeon) and a different way to fight.  This helped the kids to understand that “bad guys” may have different motivations to want to fight a protagonist in any story: the zombies were just hungry, and the kobolds were just defending their dungeon (but they really don’t like meeting new friends or sharing and want to kill you if you try to visit them, and that’s not very nice, either).  We really did have a brief discussion about this.

Two encounters were all the kids could sit through before getting restless, as toddlers tend to do, so we called it a night and went back to dancing ourselves silly to “Tarajet.”

It was, overall, a great bonding event.  Everyone had a good time, and I think the kids could see that it was something my husband and I enjoyed playing.  Even now Starkitten is counting down until the weekend when she can be Buffy and “Buffy squishes more zombies and finds the secret pirate treasure.”  Pirates?  I guess I need to make some pirate tokens.  Arrrr!

This is what one of our battles looked like. I could totally imagine Buffy and Mulan tearing through those orcs and kobolds like they were paper dolls.

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