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How Penny Arcade writer Jerry Holkins aims to be a good DnD dad

From tweens fixated on waterboarding, to players who want to ‘reshoot’ scenes, Penny Arcade writer Jerry Holkins talks about running DnD for kids.

Penny Arcade writer Jerry Holkins playing DnD, wearing armored pauldrons, beside a model castle with a white dragon on top

Jerry Holkins is the author of long-running webcomic Penny Arcade, the player behind the half-elf Cleric Omin Drann in DnD actual play series Acquisitions Incorporated, and a father of three. In the third part of his interview with Wargamer, Holkins talks about life, and DMing, as a parent.

If you’re a parent who also plays DnD, there are few things more daunting – or rewarding – than taking on the DnD DM mantle in a game for your kids and their friends. Holkins’ experiences might have something to teach you:

Penny Arcade webcomic - teens playing Penny Arcade discuss hiding a baby in a portable hole

Do you have experience running RPGs for the youth?

I have prodigious experience with this, actually. I’ve role played with lots of different groups. I role played early on with a group that was largely young boys just moving into the teen years.
What was that like?

There was, I would say, statistically speaking, a surfeit of waterboarding and torture. There was a surprisingly high ratio of waterboarding to not waterboarding. Imagine every board wet, and that’s that’s the world I’m proposing to you. Soaked boards from hell to breakfast. Nary a dry board in sight.

But we were able to build some really cool concepts. The hook for that campaign was –

Penny Arcade webcomic - Gabe calls child protective services because of Star Wars lore inaccuracies

[Interrupting] fantasy Guantanamo bay?

Certainly they tried their best to turn it into a wicked parody of their nation. But no, that game was essentially the pied piper in reverse, so that all of the adults are extracted from the town, and only the children are left.

So the game is essentially about them trying to figure out how to run a town and defend a town and build all the skills that they need to do that, because that was just the first step of an incursion. That was a blast.

As they continue to explore they discover that there is an entire under-city of dwarves that were essentially displaced. And their entire city was built on top of it. And so the incursion is itself, at least in this particular case for these kids. The incursion is actually the survivor of that pogrom, an artificer, manifesting his arcane and technical expertise to create a force that could retake the town.

It was fucking sweet. Like, we had a super, super good time. That was with my eldest who appreciates a more gamey game, a more crunchy game. Because, you know, DnD’s guts are wargame guts. Obviously there’s a million ways to play DnD, but on the sheets, especially if you’re a young player, the combat information stands out. Who knows why?

Penny Arcade webcomic - teens playing DnD

What about roleplaying with your daughters?

I started my youngest daughter Ronia and her friends out on DnD. It was called ‘Perilous: the Adventuring School for Girls and Now Also Boys”. All eight and nine year old girls, and every one of them was an orphan. All of their character origins were ‘orphan’. So I thought, “At a certain point, I just gotta take the note, I probably just have to use this”, and I set the game in an orphanage.

But this orphanage, it turns out, you’ll be happy to know, has a relationship with the Perilous school. They have the ability to offer scholarships to certain deserving orphans. And of course, wouldn’t you be surprised to learn that the characters themselves had received the offer.

But listen, it’s bad news – Perilous, once a recognised and lauded adventuring academy, its headmaster has left under mysterious circumstances. It’s now under the control of this new woman and her wicked twins. Bad news for everybody.

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Are you still gaming with them?

She’s 14 now, and she prefers tabletop RPGs out in the indie space, that are largely about problem and conflict resolution, and storytelling. That’s the stuff that she and her friends tend to appreciate. For us, Tales from the Loop is a great system for that, that game has been a blast.

The new game is essentially set in the 90s. At 14, their sense of retro aesthetics and their appreciation for what they consider – functionally speaking – apocrypha is very very high. The aesthetic aspects of it are very salient for them.

I just set it where I grew up, so they can go wherever they want, because I lived there. Wherever they want to go, whatever they want to do, I remember all of it, so I can take them to a quite accurately assessed 1990s Spokane.

How do you accommodate the way kids play?

This is one of the things I like about Mike [Krahulic, the artist at Penny Arcade, who plays the Wizard 5e Jim Darkmagic in Acquisitions Incorporated], is that he plays the game as wrong as possible. Mike considers the spell list to be like tools. Obviously they’re modelled in terms of area, damage… His job is to look at his spell list and try to figure out the most off label use for any spell and use their effects as role playing tools.

When you’re playing with much younger kids, they’re just trying to make things go bang, you know what I mean? They’re looking for big effects and things like that. There’s sort of a through line there, where people find their own games inside the system, and if you are there with them, and you are following through, then you can just pick up all the suggestions that they’re giving and carry them into the game.

Penny Arcade webcomic - a teen running DnD for their friends

Have kids ever brought something to a game that you’ve never seen from an adult?

In that Perilous game, my daughter Ronia’s friend Pearl didn’t know how to play. She didn’t know the official thing. She made her character, it was very cool, and she was very good at interactions. She was down to clown 100%.

But she would often want to redo scenes. And I’ve never seen this once. I’ve never seen anybody at a table try to redo a scene.

Aiming to get a different result?

Changing the feel! The energy of it. The dice rolls are all real. But she constantly wanted to go in and embroider and add extra details and stuff like that. It was really cool.

How did that work at the table?

I didn’t want to say no, because for new players especially I want the table to invite them. I want them to feel like they have a place there. But eventually we had to have a limit. She can only change it two times after the original time, so she gets three takes basically.

But I’ve never seen anything like that. And I didn’t hate it as long as there were some guardrails around it. Because frankly I often do the same thing, even as a player – the DM is just in there somewhere. It’s always trying to describe things, it’s always getting out of pocket. It’s not being a player correctly.

I just have the same instinct that she does: “Oh, no, we can leave some of this off. Let’s get this scene in a wind tunnel. Let’s get this thing smooth, let’s make sure the air flows correctly.”

Penny Arcade webcomic - Tycho Brahe gives inaccurate anatomical information to his son

How do you feel about being a dad?

It’s been really great. One just turned 18 last week. At this point, there’s just another adult person in the house, like a border.

How does that feel? I still find myself surprised that I have a daughter, and she’s eight.

Well yeah, we can’t get used to it because they’re never the same person every day. If they had the good sense and politeness to maintain some semblance of structure, we could become inured to it. Unfortunately, these polymorphic beasts, these warp-touched aberrations, they’re constantly changing.

So there’s no way to get used to them. At first, they don’t say anything. And then they start saying stupid things; the vocabulary is not there, it’s a shameful display. And then they start saying things you don’t like. It’s awesome.

Penny Arcade webcomic - Tycho Brahe visits the movie theater with his son

Do you have a parenting style, per se?

Obviously, there’s a structure, [kids] need to have some structure just so they feel safe to explore. But the substrate under that has to be something that they can respect and appreciate because it’s trying to create good outcomes for them.

I’m willing to bet that it’s not going to be worse than the vigorous interactions that many of us had with our own fathers. I don’t want that. I already went through it. Our house is quite different from the house that I grew up in – where my dad essentially had to be a father to nine other people, when he was 10.

I think that circa 2023, as fathers, we can develop a different approach. I feel like that’s a much more fair way to do it. We’ll see. We’ll see how they turn out. But so far, you know, we’re good.

Thanks Jerry!

If you haven’t already, check out the first two parts of our interview with Jerry Holkins, exploring how his upbringing during the Satanic Panic shaped his understanding of RPGs, and his advice on how he DMs DnD.

Looking for more things to do with your nerdy offspring? Check out our guides to the best kids board games and the best family board games.