I was aware of D&D growing up, it seemed on track for He-Man style global domination on the back of the 1980s animated series, but then the moral panic happened. Yes, that Stranger Things Hellfire Club plot strand is real - and the red box became a harder sell to parents.
While it's hardly true to say the game disappeared from view - it has regularly appeared on best toys lists - but it has arguably taken a whole generation for D&D to return to mainstream consciousness. But now the geeks officially inherited the Earth, D&D is back with a vengeance propelled, of course, by Stranger Things and this year's Honor Amongst Thieves film.
The latest movie certainly captured the imagination of my nine-year old son. I'm very much encouraging this - conjuring up vivid fantasy worlds to populate with horrible beasts is certainly more creative than sitting in front of Minecraft videos on YouTube.
However, it has put the onus on me to learn to DM. My own adventures in role-playing are limited to a few sessions of a TMNT game in the late 'eighties. I tried once more later on: having spent hours creating a grizzled space marine I was ambushed and eviscerated by a (low level) space Slug thing on leaving the barracks.
This scenario would not play well with a pre-teen whose frames of reference are more Teen Titans Go than Warhammer. So, we started with D&D.
Our first port of call was the Adventures Begins board game. Aimed at younger players, it offers a gentle intro to the Forgotten Realms, covering a number of fan favourite locations such as Neverwinter Wood and Mount Hotenow.
The game offers a gentle introduction to the mechanics of the core role-playing game with players taking turns to take on the DM role and control any monster(s) in play.
Adventure Begins certainly won't challenge anyone, but that's not the point. What it does brilliantly is build the camaraderie of the D&D party and introduce newcomers to the vast potential of the world. Quests take in vampires, pirates, guilds and, naturally, dragons. You'll meet all manner of iconic creatures from goblins to gelatinous blobs, beholders - and an adorable baby owlbear.
Most of all, the game captures the underlying humour of what is surely the most welcoming - and frequently - silly of all role-playing games, Adventure Begins is more Monty Python than Tolkien.
Adventuring… With A System
Graduating from Adventure Begins, we moved on to the first of Wizard of the Coast's 'Adventure System' boardgames, Castle Ravenloft. Each of the seven 'Adventure System' titles provides scenarios based on popular campaign source books. They offer a more accessible way to play without having to digest - or invest in - a small library of rulebooks and lore.
It's a compelling offer for those dipping their toes into D&D, or are less confident in having to take on DMing duties. The games dispense with the need for a dungeon master full-stop and are far more fast-paced than D&D proper. Each quest typically takes one to two hours to complete.
That said, despite a not insubstantial cost of entry, these titles are a great value toolkit for those planning to graduate to the full-fat tabletop game. Each game offers a generous selection of miniatures for particular scenarios, which look great when they are painted up.
Notably, some of the board games include some truly massive boss monsters, my personal favourites being a toss up between the red dragon, Ashardalon (from Wrath of Ashardalon) to Errtu the Balor, a Balrog-a-like from The Legend of Drizzt.
The modular dungeon tiles are compatible with the official D&D terrain case and can be used to add interior and exterior locations for your party to explore for your own campaigns.
The Adventure System games are easy to learn, with well written rulebooks that won't take a whole evening to digest. They are a great choice for those interested in exploring the D&D world but might find the scale and mechanics of the original tabletop game intimidating.
Adventure Begins Again. Properly
I speak from experience having recently attempted to graduate to DM'ing my first fully, or perhaps semi-fledged D&D adventure using the cut down rules of the starter set, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle. The low cost box set gives budding players all they need to start a campaign.
This includes the rules, dice, an adventure booklet giving an aspiring DM all they'll need to run a game with minimum fuss, and pre-generated character sheets. At 32 pages, the slimmed down rulebook doesn't require the investment in time a DM would need to put into the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide.
That said, this is no 'choose your own adventure' version of roleplaying. While it provides the key ingredients for a DM to work with, it still requires the core skills that make role playing games an art, rather a simple exercise: the muscles it calls on are imagination, storytelling and - arguably - a photographic memory.
I would be the first to admit that my initial forays in DMing leave a little to be desired. While the various Wizards of the Coast board games do provide a good framework for understanding the core concepts, the reality of leading your own session is a big step up.
Having to introduce the core concepts of role playing games, as separate to traditional board games… - You mean I can go… anywhere?” - while trying to juggle a rule book, campaign back and scribbled notes behind the DM screen is something of a learning curve.
But I’m going to stick with it, there’s a whole world out there - and that baby owlbear isn’t going to tame itself!