Gaming With Munchkins: The Challenges And Joys Of Kids At The Game Table

Our game club hosted a game faire this past weekend, and by all accounts it was a rousing success (more about it in a future column). Faires and conventions are great places for gamers to have new gaming experiences, and this event was no exception. For me, this was the first time I did some serious gaming with kids, both as a player and as a GM.

While my family and friends have made me an auntie many times over, I don’t have children of my own. I’ve spent a limited amount of time with children of any age, and don’t consider myself to be especially great with them. There were a lot of kids at our game faire – far more than I expected – and while a lot of them banded together to play games (and to discuss Hitler’s demise upon the Death Star – true story), a number of them ended up gaming with the grown-ups.

I have to admit, I cringed a little when I realized I had two kids signed up for my four-player Pathfinder game, and sort of regretted not marking the game as adults only. But then, I remembered that I was a kid once, too. While I didn’t get into RPGs until I was an adult, I loved board games as a kid, and have lots of fond memories of my parents and their friends playing Pictionary, Masterpiece, and Battleship with me. There must have been times when they would have rather played without me, but yet I was always included. Would I even be interested in games today if I hadn’t had patient adults willing to let me play as a kid? I shudder to even think about where I’d be if I hadn’t had those childhood experiences.

Our hobby will die out if we don’t encourage new generations to join in. Is it always easy to game with kids? Oh my, no. Is it always fun? Yes and no – sometimes, it’s fun in a different way. If you’ve never gamed with kids before, here are some things you need to consider, both good and bad.

The Challenges

Playing RPGs with kids means making adjustments for them. In the Top Secret game I played in, we had an adult GM, four adult players, and a 12-year-old. We realized immediately that we would have to watch our potty mouths and some of the more dark interrogation tactics we would normally use would have to be passed as notes to the GM instead of said aloud at the table. Did it change the way we played? A little, but we were all experienced enough to make those changes without trouble – well, at least not too much (more on that later).

Running an RPG for kids presented all kinds of challenges. One of my young players was a very young 13, and didn’t have a ton of RPG experience. I let the players choose from the pregenerated characters, and we all strongly encouraged him to take the simplest character, the fighter. That took some convincing, because the fighter was female. It took me telling him that I play male characters a lot, my female player pointing out that she had a male character, my adult male player telling him that he’d played females before, and his 15-year-old brother telling him that the fighter would be fun and easy to play to assure him it would be OK. (Why didn’t I just make the character male on the fly? Only because the character sheet included a picture of the female goblin, looking quite proud in a bridal gown and veil. That’s a visual that even the greatest adult player would have a hard time ignoring.)

The youngster started cheating a little as the game progressed (though not entirely intentional) so we had to start watching his rolls. And even though it was a short adventure as far as one-shots go, toward the end he was starting to squirm in his chair and asked me, “When is this done?” I won’t deny that it was a little stressful having him there, but in the end, he seemed to have had a very good time, and was excited to walk away with his new dice and dice bag, so that made it all worthwhile.

From what I noticed in both playing in and running RPGs for kids, they seem to embrace their stats and the rules with relative ease – they devour everything on their character sheet and know exactly what their character is good at. What they struggle with is the roleplaying, the pacing, and the spatial aspects. They want desperately to be involved in everything, and don’t always understand that they can’t, whether due to it not being appropriate, that the timing doesn’t work (just because it takes an hour to travel to a location, and it takes an hour to make a mutagen, does not mean you can make a mutagen while traveling), or that they’re physically unable to be part of it. (“I want to make a surveillance check, too!” “You’re not there to even know what’s going on.” “Can I hear them talking and get there?” “No. You’re five miles away.”)

In playing board games with kids, it’s really important to pick games they can easily understand and enjoy. Even more important? Explaining and holding to the rules of the game without being a rules lawyer. You’re not doing the kids any favors by ignoring the rules or making rules up as you go, but you’re going to ruin the experience for them if you just smack them down at every turn. When playing Carcassonne with a youngster who wasn’t quite grasping the whole matching the edges of the tiles thing, every time he tried to place a tile that didn’t work, we explained to him why it didn’t work there, and then showed him several spots where he could place it – he still got to pick where it went, but we gave him options that actually worked. By the end of the game, he was getting the hang of it, and finished in a close second place (and most importantly for him, finished ahead of his dad).

The Joys

While gaming with kids is definitely a different experience, it can also be a lot of fun. Kids bring a ton of enthusiasm and excitement to the table, and that rubs off on everyone else. We were also lucky enough this weekend to play with some pretty bright and funny kids, and they kept us amused and at the top of our game.

In Top Secret, we were doing pretty well with not swearing until the leader of our group of secret agents had his expensive suit pawed by a nasty guy with mayo-and-mustard-covered hands, and the first f-bomb dropped in response. While we really did keep trying to watch our language, the horse was out of the barn, and we decided that the kid would get a piece of candy from the Halloween bucket on the table every time we swore. By late in the game, he told us, “You guys can keep swearing, but I’m tired of candy!”

While playing Pit (a fun little stock trading game that I’ll be writing about in a future column), a young boy joined our table, and told us, “I’m not little, I’m a second grader!” He then promptly hustled us, winning his first round by somehow losing two cards in the trading process. It was awesome, and we immediately declared him a true Sandbagger. (Our unofficial motto is, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”)

There is little that’s sadder than seeing a kid sitting all alone with no one to play with. We’re all geeks here, so let’s face it – many of us were that kid at some point. All it takes is getting out a quick and easy game and asking them to play with you to make their face light up and totally make their day. And while they may be disappointed when you have to excuse yourself for another commitment, now that you’ve gotten them going, they’ll soon find another game to play in.

It Doesn’t Always Work, But When It Does…

There are naturally situations when it’s not appropriate to game with kids – games with mature or overly scary themes (I’d never try to play Vampire: The Masquerade or Call of Cthulhu with little ones), or games with adult themes (one of my heroic goblins was supposed to get lucky – I scaled that back to having a cute goblin girl ask him to dance). There’s also nothing wrong with simply not wanting kids at the table, whether it’s because you want to have a beer while you play, you don’t want to watch your language, or you want an adults-only evening.

When the situation is right, though, having a kid join you at the table can be a lot of fun. And you’re helping spread the joy of gaming to a younger generation. Nothing but good can come from that.

What experiences – good or bad – have you had gaming with youngsters?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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