Hullo, Gentle Readers. Something you may not know about me is that, although I have no kids of my own, I have a long history of running D&D games for kids. I’ve run for my nephew, for Steve’s 14 year old cousin, for my high school friend’s son and his friends, for a group of kids at a local gaming store, and so on.
Although many of those games have been one-shots, I’ve also gamemastered some campaigns that ran for a few years. It was fascinating to watch those kids grow up as the game progressed, and I will certainly describe it as a very fulfilling experience.
There have been some amazing articles out there on the Interwebs about gaming with kids, and I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert on the subject, but I do feel I have some tips and tricks to keep in mind when running a game for the younger set. I thought it might be a good time to look at some of those tricks and how they differ from the tricks you might use in an average game.
How Did I Get Started
Before I delve into my bag of tricks, I want to reach out to the DM who just thought about clicking off of this article. “Kids?” that DM thought. “I don’t have kids, I don’t want kids, I’m never going to run a game for kids. What’s the point?” Well, before you click away, o Skeptical One, let me tell you that I was once in your shoes. Let me tell you what changed my mind.
A number of years ago, my friend Mike was working at a gaming store in Waltham called Danger Planet. Regrettably, it’s not there any more, but I used to enjoy dropping down and visiting him from time to time. One time, while I was there, Mike introduced me to Paul. Paul was a 12 year old boy who was apparently a frequent customer. He seemed a bit awed…I guess Mike would always tell the kids who liked D&D about what was happening in my Swords of the Amanar campaign. So to be confronted with wide-eyes and “You’re *that* Andy?” was pretty flattering.
After a moment, Mike had to go help a customer, and Paul and I kept chatting while I browsed the minis. It was clear he was avidly interested in D&D. Finally, he asked the question I had sort of been dreading. “Would you like to hear about my character?”
I sighed, wondering what kind of about-to-be-a-teenager hormone-induced muscle-bound barbarian he was about to describe. I remembered being a 12-year old gamer. I wanted to play a Halfling, but all my friends wanted to be barbarians and assassins and half-elves that looked like Mr. T. But I’m a pretty nice guy with a high-tolerance for geekery, so I said “Sure.”
To my shock, he launched into a description of a gnome bard. He had a very elaborate description of his family names and what they meant, and he also described this very distinctive cloak (one of his surnames was Ashcloak) and what it meant to his family. He was a character who wanted to use his Charisma and social skills to avoid fights.
I was dumbstruck. This kid didn’t just want to game; he wanted to roleplay. Within a week or two, I was volunteering to run a game for Paul and his friends at the store on weekends.
Younger, Smaller, but Still the Same
The first thing I got right away was that, while Paul was young, he and the rest of the group fell into the classic gamer types. Paul was our actor, but we had all the others, too. We had a power-gamer, who was doing his best not just to play the most powerful character, but also to get everyone else to min-max, too. We had a slayer who just wanted to fight. We had a casual gamer or two who drifted in and out. We had a rules-lawyer…who no one seemed to want to play with, but who everyone was too nice to tell to go away.
What I discovered over time was that, while starting off simple and small was good, I was soon able to express the same kinds of things I would do in a larger campaign. I opened up the world, creating a simple but effective map of a continent and putting some important features on it, making it clear that, if the players wanted to go somewhere, they could. I was very pleased when, months later, they hauled out that map, located The Great Library, and headed there, looking for information on something they had found. Yes, they were kids, but I could use all my normal tricks, including recurring NPCs, long-term stories that grow, and so on.
While it’s fine for me to work intricate details, subtle clues, and Machiavellian plots into my normal campaigns, a game for kids generally works better when you use broader strokes. This is not to say that no group of kids could be enticed in this manner…just that in general, I’ve found that younger audiences need clearer paths, more obvious choices, and more blatant villains.
In my own games, I can get away with things like faint hints that the players can slowly realize over time. I can drop a clue that only comes to fruition games later, and I know the group I normally game with will pick up on it. Or I can put a riddle into the game that the players can puzzle over, and I know they’ll get it, or they won’t, but they probably won’t get super frustrated.
In one of the games I did at Danger Planet, I put a very straight-forward riddle into the game. I felt awful, because it was immediately obvious this was a mistake. No one got it. They puzzled and puzzled, and they sought out alternatives. Realizing I’d made a mistake, I let one particularly good Search roll uncover a hidden panel with three images on it. One of the images was, of course, the answer to the riddle. When they saw these, they got it, and they answered the riddle shortly thereafter. Whew! Disaster averted!
Never Underestimate the Monkey
One lesson I learned right away was, while kids can have a short attention span, if you keep them engaged, they’ll hang out for quite a while. One fantastic way to keep them engaged is humor.
In the second adventure I ran for them, I used an old WotC 3rd edition adventure they’d released on their website about a pair of wizard bakers and their calzone golem. Goofy? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Funny? Yes. Did the kids love it? Oh, yes.
When they fought it, I actually called it a Pizza-Golem, and they got that right away, because I didn’t want to have to get down into a discussion on what a calzone was, in case they didn’t know the term. When it hit them with its huge fists, I would describe how the melty-cheese was causing them fire damage, and it was like eating pizza and having it burn the roof of your mouth. They were laughing and all understood that pain. I remember at one point Paul saying, “We can’t let this thing kill us. We just can’t. It’s bad enough we’ll be dead, but we’ll also look stupid.”
Another memory that sticks out for me was the Monkey. See, one of the youngest kids, Adam, was playing the wizard. I’d say he was about 9, and the other kids (including the Power Gamer) would tell him what to do…what spells to take, and when to cast them. He was pretty quiet about it at first, but he spent his time looking over his spell descriptions. And one day, when one of the kids told him to cast Summon Monster I to bring a badger into combat, Adam looked at him calmly and said no. Then he looked at me. “I can summon any of the monsters on this list?”
“That’s correct,” I said. “Any of those monsters.”
His face split into a big grin. “I summon a monkey. And I order him into battle.”
I grinned back, gave a big monkey-screech sound effect, and described the monkey leaping at the face of one of the antagonists. And wouldn’t you know that Adam rolled a critical hit on that attack? So I described the monkey latching onto the enemy’s nose with its teeth, and the guy wailing. Needless to say, I had them laughing at the screech, so they were howling by the time the monkey bit down and held on. Adam actually gave his character the last name Monkeycaller, and I don’t think he ever summoned another badger. I was very proud of him.
One tip that’s odd but somewhat inevitable is to understand that the kids you play with won’t always be kids. Change is inevitable, of course…I’ve had players in my games get married, have kids, change jobs, move away…but when you’re playing with kids, those changes can be even more dramatic. Two that stand out for me are Paul and a kid I’ll just call Joe.
Paul was sad for me. At first the dedicated gamer who brought me into the circle, Paul’s attention drifted as he became a young teen. After that game broke up, with fond memories of gaming with Paul, I invited him to play another game I was doing with Mike and some other gamers. He wasn’t there any more. He was withdrawn, difficult, and just wasn’t interested in gaming. I let that game die a quiet death as several players just weren’t into it, but the changes in Paul were really difficult to take. I haven’t seen him in years; I hope he has some fond memories of those weekend games and grows up to play again.
Joe was what I would call a power gamer and a slayer in our group. He wanted to fight monsters, and he was disruptive when things got away from that, or just didn’t get involved, despite my attempts to draw him into roleplaying or story. A couple of years after the game, I ran into him at Danger Planet, and I was struck by how mature he’d become. He told me about his character, who was a cleric. Go fig! And Mike told me how he was now sort of a protector to younger kids who were playing, not letting other players bully them, encouraging them to make their own decisions…which was funny, as he’d been one of the ones most pushing on Adam to summon badgers. I guess he just grew up. Good for you, buddy.
Gaming with kids isn’t that different from gaming with adults. You can get away with a lighter, more comedic style, and using broad strokes is wise, but they have their gaming preferences, and you need to respect that. And the most inevitable thing about kids you game with…they grow up, for better or for worse. Recognize that, adapt with it, or just accept it.
Have you ever gamed with kids? Were there any tricks you found useful? Can you not imagine gaming with the under 18 set? Let us all know.