Tips for playing D&D with kids

While I don’t run team building D&D games for children, I’ve had the opportunity to run a few kids games in the last few months. I thought I’d share my experience as a game designer.

Exploring the Caves of Chaos for Culture Night 2018 in the Fumbally Exchange

Play easy games

When I say easy games, I don’t mean they should be easy to win — I mean they should be easy to learn. Whatever your tastes in RPGs, you shouldn’t waste your time and the kids’ enthusiasm on learning the intricacies of a rules system. Out with Pathfinder and D&D 5E, in with Pits & Perils and The Black Hack (and so, so many others). Of course, nothing prevents you from hacking into your favourite system to make it more accessible. That’s what I do with Lunchtime Dungeons, but it may be more work than what you’re prepared to do.

Games with engaging and ‘gamey’ mechanics are certainly a plus when playing with gamers, but in practice these mechanics can be difficult to implement. Recently, I tried using a variant of my kr√Ęsses mechanic from Lanfeust / the dK System, and I found no one had any interest in using it. Turns out straightforward dice rolls brought all the tension we needed.

Play heroic games

If, like me, you are an ‘adventure gaming’ enthusiast (aka an old school D&D fan), you may want to make your ruleset of choice a tad more forgiving and heroic. The pathetic aesthetic we like so much may not work so well with 10 year-old kids. Give them cool powers, magical items, pets… All the stuff they’re used to expecting from a video game.

I’m not saying you can’t teach old school games to preteens. You certainly can if you have the time. I tend to run one-shots, so I’d rather give my players some instant gratification. And again, I am not trying to help people build better communication skills using Dungeons & Dragons. I’m just here to give a bunch of kids a good time and — hopefully — give them a taste for tabletop games.

Play with props

Like most newcomers, kids can get confused when dropped into a theatre of the mind environment. Having visual and tactile props is a good way to alleviate this and maintain focus. Have some miniatures or tokens, a battle mat, terrain pieces, spell cards, health counters, etc. Illustrations for places and people will also help with everyone’s immersion.

I don’t do acting props, but it strikes me that a hat, pipe, glasses, or other simple accessory would be great to establish important NPCs. Even with a table full of adults, it can be hard to keep everyone’s attention. I’m thinking this would spare you the “sorry who’s talking now?” question.

That said, NPC interaction probably isn’t going to be the focus of your game. I’ve never seen kids get involved in a long conversation with a character, so I tend to keep it to a minimum. I wait for them to set the tone of the interaction, make sure they get the info they need, and we keep going.

Play with a chill zone

If you plan to play a couple of hours, you can bet that some kids will get bored or distracted once in a while. This is especially true if you have a large group of players. Having something else for them to do can be a good way to keep the table engaged.

Now make sure your chill zone isn’t more instantly gratifying than your game. I’d avoid the TV or console for example. If you have access to a garden, a football or trampoline can be a good way to blow off steam while they wait for their turn.

Play with talking rules

Not all kids are well behaved, and happy to wait until they’re asked to. Especially if it’s a birthday party and they’ve been hitting the sugary treats. Under these circumstances, letting the table police itself when asked what to do can become a nightmare. Not only will you be leaving the game with a headache, but you may have had to shout to make yourself heard (bad), or left out the more shy players (worse).

I’ve handled this in two different ways:

  1. Have a caller. The caller is a player whose role is to communicate the party’s plans and actions to you, the GM. This rule comes from Basic D&D, which was published at a time when 8- to 10-player parties were the norm. With a table full of kids, giving that role to an adult (or a responsible teenager) will be a lifesaver. They will also take over the ‘herding cats’ aspect of GMing, and remind everyone that it’s a team game.
  2. Enforce a table turn. Only let the players tell you what to do when it’s their turn: you just go around the table and ask each player what they want to do. Do this during combat, exploration, travel, down time… From the beginning to the end of the session. If players want to talk between themselves, let them do it, but the conversation takes up the player’s turn… and the next player’s if it takes too long. I lifted this from Index Card RPG, a great resource for making your games fast and fun.

Play now!

As with everything else in tabletop roleplaying games, jumping in is the best way to learn. So why don’t you run a game for the little people in your life? If you have already done so, I’m sure everyone would love to know your top tips.

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