Running D&D for Kids

As a dad and an avid gamer, I guess it makes sense that I have ended up running a lot of D&D games for kids. I am also the Director of an increasingly large tabletop gaming convention. A feature of our show, Gamehole Con, is our flourishing Kids Track. These are games specifically for kids run be vetted GM’s that have experience running kids’ games.

More generally, I volunteer frequently at my kids’ schools and am a youth sports coach. I just flat out really enjoy working with kids. For all of these reasons, I have spent more than a bit of time thinking about the best ways to introduce roll playing games to kids. So, I thought I would pen my thoughts here on running D&D for kids, your own kids and others, with the hope that something I write here might prove useful.

Before I launch into my ramblings on the subject, this proviso – please do not think that I take myself for the foremost expert on running kids D&D. There are many great DMs/GMs out there that run fantastic games for kids. I am merely offering my thoughts on the subject hoping they may add something to the overall topic or may provide some specific help to anyone who wants to run RPGs for kids. Finally, when I say “kids,” I am talking primarily about an age group of roughly 8 – 12. Now with expectations hopefully sufficiently lowered, here we go!

One of my daughter’s D&D groups. At the time of this photo, other than my daughter, these girls were all first timers.

If you are a member of Generation X like myself, I think it is important to appreciate that kids today are enjoying a very different cultural experience than we did when we were kids. Just with respect to my experience of beginning gaming in the 80’s, very few people were playing D&D (even here in Wisconsin where the game was created!) and instances of fantasy themed entertainment in broader society were few and far between.

I had similar experiences playing D&D in college in the 90’s. I distinctly remember Muggles (heavy foreshadowing) thinking that we were weird for playing such a strange game.

Well, what a sea change we have witnessed since then! Frequently, I see people referencing Stranger Things as an explanation for the resurgence and massive expansion of hobby gaming and specifically D&D. While I don’t necessarily disagree, I don’t think that the popular Netflix show is primary cause of this cultural shift.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but I believe that Harry Potter changed the world. The massive popularity of that book and movie series changed entire generations. Magic, spells, fantastic creatures, and fantasy instantly became main stream. Combine this with the massive response to movie franchises like LOTR, Star Wars, and comic book movies – we find ourselves in halcyon days when it comes to fantasy entertainment and gaming. D&D is now mainstream.

In my opinion, it was this fertile cultural ground that then allowed D&D specifically to flourish, nurtured by an amazing and much more intuitive rule set – Fifth Edition D&D – while being generously fed by popular and nerdy entertainment offerings like Stranger Things and Critical Role.

Man, this was a very long way of saying, unlike my days as a kid, you don’t have to explain what elves, magic, and all that stuff is to today’s kids. They already know. They are already there. In fact, they have been living in these fantasy worlds for years.

But beyond this initial thought, if you are going to run games for kids, especially for kids that are not yours, I have a handful of suggestions that I hope might be useful to you. They are:

Goals of the game – While I think you will find that kids come with a good understanding of fantasy settings in general, they of course will need to have the point or goal of the game explained to them. As we all know, D&D and RPG’s are unlike just about any other traditional games out there. In D&D, there is no “winning” in usual meaning of the word and no competing with fellow players.

Rather, the point of D&D is to enjoy a collaborated experience of role playing characters in some fantastic setting. Axiomatic to success is the understanding that the characters represented on the players’ sheets are not the players themselves, but rather someone altogether different and distinct from the player. This is something that you will have to explain to your beginner kid gamers. The point is not to compete for points or try to win, but rather to work together with fellow players to accomplish their characters’ shared goals, whatever those may be. I have found that kids pick this up very quickly and are universally excited as they start imagining what this means when it comes to playing this game.

Story over game mechanics – While this may seem obvious, it bears underscoring. With new players, especially new youth players, I often use slimmed down character sheets. These character sheets only contain what I believe to be absolutely necessary, e.g. hit points; character class; important skills; attacks; and, very truncated spell lists.

Kids, just like grown up gamers, will develop there own preferences with respect to the amount of complexity or rules crunch in their games. Just like us adult gamers, some groups are more narrative in approach and some are more tactical. From my experience though, the number of narrative kid gamers far outweigh tactical/meta/power/dungeon crawl type of gamers. So, my suggestion is to ease kids into the rules in order to not overwhelm them with mechanics at the start. No matter how old you are, there are few things more frustrating than feeling like you don’t know what is going on or why certain things are happening. I strongly suggest that you keep ease of play at the forefront of your play plan when introducing kids to D&D.

Simple plot lines – This is another thought, and related to the above, that probably goes without saying, but there is no need to try and develop overly complicated plots when running D&D for kids. Explore the haunted mansion? Yeah! Search for the missing crown in the dungeon? Oh yeah! Rescue the villagers from some nasty monsters? Yes please! Unravel a lattice of political intrigue to figure out who is the real power behind the string of nefarious but seemingly unrelated deeds? What? Um.

Kids of different ages and gaming experience can handle plots of differing complexity. But for beginner kid gamers, I strongly suggest that you keep things simple. The basic game mechanics are going to be new for them and will give them more than enough to keep track of as they start to learn this wonderful game. The adventures in both the D&D Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit hit this goal squarely on the nose. I give both sets my highest recommendation for all beginning players, but even more so for kids.

I love both of these box sets. They are both wonderful D&D entry products.

Theater of the mind – For this reason, I strongly suggest that you start off all kids groups playing theater of the mind instead of with miniatures and battle mat/terrain. Again, kids have explosive imaginations. If you slow down and spend more time providing vivid and evocative descriptions, I assure you that you will be amazed at how well kids respond.

Once a group of kids has played together for a bit and get a hang of the basic mechanics of the game and a feel for the general pacing of it, then, and only if you want to, I believe it makes sense to introduce things like miniatures into their game.

One of my more experienced groups playing with mini’s and a battle mat. (One player is feigning fright over the two blue dragons they have discovered in this dungeon!)

Boys vs. girls – Based on my experience, I firmly believe that stereotypes about boys playing D&D one way and girls playing it another are patently false. I have had plenty of bloodthirsty “kick down the door and worry about the consequences later” girls in my games and plenty of contemplative and careful boy players. One mere anecdotal observation from my games that I do have that does break down along gender lines though is that girls tend to get the concept of shared resources more intuitively than boys. Again, just an observation, but I have experienced more instances of boys being, “that is mine!” than girls. However, with some gentle reminding of what the goals of the game really are – shared success through collectively reaching objectives and not to mention basic survival – this has never really been a problem.

Demeanor as DM – I get that not everyone is as comfortable (or as good!) as Matt Mercer when it comes to voicing NPC accents and tones, but remember your audience here. These are kids. I suggest that you try leaving behind whatever reluctance you might feel towards “theatering it up” with your friends and contemporaries. Kids make for a great audience. They love funny voices. They love whacky characters. Ham it up! Have fun!

My final suggestion is simply this: If you are considering running D&D for kids, do it! I always have fun running these games. And, I expect that you will be deeply touched by the reaction your players have to the games you run. I find running games for kids to be a tremendously rewarding experience. So get out there and roll some dice with some awesome kids!

I hope that these digressions are in someway helpful to you. If you have any reactions or observations you would like to share, please comment! Thank you for giving this a read.