Dungeons and Dragons is a game that stretches the imagination. It can provide us with endless hours of fun and adventure, as well as social interaction, lessons about morality, and even help us practice math. Older players take all this in their stride, but for much younger players their is additional value to be found other than just fun. Dungeons and Dragons is tailored for players aged twelve and up, but I often get asked questions like “how can I run games for my younger children, aged six, eight and ten?” Today’s topic is going to address this question, and give some insight into how to run games for those below their teenage years.
Know your players (kids).
First off, you should know what your kids are into. What excites them and what hold their interest. Your game should incorporate elements from these interest. No I am not saying that they should be fighting, Giant transforming aircraft, or adolescent mutated aquatic animals. Or spending thirty minutes shopping for their characters next outfit, but the game should encompass elements of these interests. Holding the interest of young children is not an easy thing, and especially for extended periods, so ensuring that your game has multiple elements of interest is vital. Remember that you are running a game for them, not you.
Have an age appropriate theme.
Now I am not going to even try to tell you how to raise your kids! but you know what is appropriate for younger children and what is not. Playing a bunch of evil doers may be fun for mature adults but it probably does not offer the best moral learning experience for a bunch of pre-teens. Make sure that you create and design adventures that will have the opportunity to teach your kids good morality and take advantage of the fact that Dungeons and Dragons can be a great learning tool for children. Also there are plenty of adventure options that do not constantly involve killing. You can offer other ways to defeat the villain rather than killing him if you do not want your children enacting that kind of thing, or you can simply keep combat PG rated and dumb down the prescriptive aspect combat and talk only about hit points and damage points as numbers. I STRONGLY advise that you impose an alignment restriction of an all GOOD party when dealing with younger players. It is easier to have them learn morally enhancing lessons if they have no conflict with making the goodly choices.
Short and Sweet.
The average attention span for children aged 1 to 6 is approximately three to five minutes per year of age, and from seven to twelve it is five minutes per year. This means that a six year old’s average attention span is between eighteen and thirty minutes, where as a ten year old is between thirty eight and fifty minutes. If you expect to hold your kids interest for longer than that, it has to be not only fun, but also very engaging. Either way I recommend keeping game sessions short, with a maximum session length of ninety minutes. Leave them wanting more, as apposed to letting them burn out on a session. It is also important to keep every player engaged and discourage the party splitting up if at all possible. If a child sits with nothing to do for five minutes chances are you will lose his interest. Also make sure to take a few short breaks between play to allow the kids to talk and be excited about what they are doing. Get a snack and a drink for them, take a bathroom break and then pick the game back up.
Another important part of running games for the younger players it to constantly offer them choices. Not only is this good for helping develop their powers of reasoning, but it keep them engaged. This being said, keep the choices simple and not to complicated. If you want to incorporate some puzzles to solve, that again can be a good learning opportunity, but it should be easy for them to solve. If they sit stumped for more than a couple of minutes you run a high risk of losing their interest. Children typically do not have the patience to work long on a puzzle, and will become frustrated easily if they feel it is beyond their ability to solve. Giving the kids clear moralistic choices to make and choices that yield positive and not so positive consequences is also a valuable lesson that Dungeons and Dragons has the power to teach.
Keep it Simple.
Try to keep the game mechanics side as simple as you can. Encourage them to calculate their own math for to hit and damage and skill checks etc, but do not overload them with complex mechanics. This is not typically fun for most kids, so the less complex the rules are, the better. Keep the adventures simple too. Avoid going off into plots of political intrigue or complex ed who done it themed stories, as again these offer potential avenues of frustration and the potential to lose the players interest.
Another thing where children are concerned is the word “fair”. Or more often the phrase “that’s not fair!” Ensuring that each player feels they are being treated fairly is very important, so I suggest allowing the dice rolls to make many of the decisions for you. With adults, yes its likely that an intelligent monster will attack a healer or a weak caster first, and adults understand and accept this, however a younger player may feel like he is being victimized so by rolling the dice openly and allowing the players too see the roll and know that it was generated by chance is a great way to avoid them feeling picked on. When it comes to character creation for kids you should make sure the characters are all equally balanced and no one has any obvious advantages over the others. Often a points buy system works best for kids, and pre-generating the characters for younger players is never a bad idea. Lastly be sure to give every player the chance to be the hero. Try to give each player a moment of spotlight when they get to shine, and make a big deal about it. Encourage the other players to congratulate the success of their fellow player. This really helps pump up the confidence of the younger players and they will talk about it for ages. It creates a lasting memory.
Praise often Reward frequently.
Children love praise and rewards. When they do something good, make a big deal out of it. Let them know they did good and pump them up in a positive way. Also I find that awarding them Experience points as they go, is a great incentive and helps hold their interests longer. Make sure that they get loot frequently, and ensure that their characters are constantly progressing. A session where a young player feels like he or she did not accomplish anything should be avoided. Even if its just one hundred gold pieces, they should feel that they gained something tangible from the session.
If you really want to engage your kids when playing Dungeons and Dragons, nothing does that better than Floor tiles and miniatures. With adults I often do not use miniatures and we use a more narrative approach. With younger players I always do. They are way more excited and pulled into the game when they can visualize things. Also, lets face it, kids love to play with action figures and dolls, so they love playing with miniatures. It also helps them clearly visualize where their characters are and eliminates much of the need for in depth and (to children) boring descriptions.
A case of the giggles.
Some times children just get silly. They find something funny and lose focus. They break out into a fit of giggles or get a case of the silly’s. This is OK and it happens with children. The first thing to remind yourself is that if they are laughing, they are having fun. Secondly remember who you are dealing with. When one child gets a fit of the giggles the odds are they all will. Laughter is infectious. I have heard several times how game play with children comes to a grinding halt through these incidences. When it happens it is time to take a break. A snack and a drink and a few minutes from the gaming table can do wonders for settling the children down. IF it does not, well it is probably time to end the session at that time. One thing you should never do is get frustrated when it happens. This is like saying “Stop having fun”. If the children are not allowed to express themselves and laugh, they will stop having fun, and you will lose their interest.
One of the best ways to know what your young players enjoy is to ask them. At the end of the session it is a good idea ( to help future sessions) as well as a fun after activity to ask them what parts they enjoyed the most. Certainly if you pay attention to their enthusiastic chit chat after the game, you can get a feel for this, but nothing is better than just asking them. Go around the table and ask each player what their favorite moment was. This will give you good insight into what that child considers to be fun. You can then ensure to add more of those elements in the future. I like to make it its own separate activity, by associating it with something. Milk and cookies work well. At the end of the game, we get milk and cookies, sit back down and then go over their favorite moments. Not only does this help to ignite their enthusiasm to play again, but it is a good way to “wind them down” if they have become excited. Of course, I suggest you do this with all player groups, both child and adult. Although you may not necessarily pull out the milk and cookies for the latter..
One of the greatest things you will gain from playing these games with younger players is not only the quality bonding time, but you will create some wonderful memories for you to share as they grow older. The ability to look back and fondly remember “those days around the gaming table” is a valuable gift that the children will carry with them.
Finally here is a great link to something you may find useful. Monster Slayers is a free pdf game specifically designed for younger players. It has simplified rules and an easy to follow system that is great for six to twelve year old’s.
If you have any questions or need more specific advice, do not be afraid to hit me up under the Ask Gorebad section of this site.