In September of 2013, I picked up the reins for the Teen Intro to Dungeons & Dragons class at my local library. I spent a year having a blast introducing kids, tweens, and teens to the hobby, but Dungeon Mastering for kids aged 6 to 16 comes with its own unique set of challenges, especially for someone who is not a parent themselves. There are a few pit traps I had to learn to avoid along the way that I hope to point out here. Without further ado, the following is a list of five ways you can fail at hooking the next generation of gamers.
#1. Dumb Things Down
Kids are a lot smarter and cleverer than many adults give them credit for. You can “dumb things down” for young roleplayers and let them run roughshod over towns and NPCs Grand Theft Auto-style for lack of anything better to do, but then they’ll miss out on the most rewarding aspects of role-playing: character development, investigating mysteries, and progressing through a story.
Sure, they might not be ready for an intricate game of political intrigue, but most RPG campaigns I’ve played in don’t get that sophisticated either. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, for example, was aimed at the general D&D populace but is perfectly suited for the 10+ demographic. In some ways, it seemed like it was written with kids in mind, given the hefty dose of humor in the form of the “dworcs,” curses, clockwork cat familiars, and a pet black dragon hatchling.
Kids will rise as high as the bar you set for them, in my experience. When you’re running a game for young people, take the game a step further than it was before. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how quickly they can learn and grow, and soon you’ll be able to take them to the next step after that.
#2. Rules Lawyer It Up
Although this might sound like it contradicts rule number one, there are two main reasons why you might not want to “throw the book at them” in this age group, depending on what system or edition you’re using. The first being that as a free introductory class, most kids didn’t have core rulebooks of their own and had no opportunity to read them between sessions. If I wanted to enforce the rules as written, every single round would have been me telling the players what they have to do and what they can’t do. Let me tell you, that’s a surefire way to have them check out of the game.
That leads directly into the second point: super crunchy systems (like the D&D 3.5 that we were playing) can get in the way of doing awesome stunts and having fun (like surfing down a staircase on a shield while loosing arrow after arrow). On the other hand, I’d probably feel comfortable using the full rules as written for D&D fifth edition, because it is designed to be light and easy-to-learn, and it does away with most of the niggling rules: reloading, drawing, threatened squares, and concentration checks* for spells cast in combat.
#3. Take a Long Time Between Turns
It’s hard enough for adults, but it’s doubly hard for kids to wait their turn and stay engaged with the combat when it takes five minutes to get back around to them. The best sessions were when I had backup GMs to divide out the kids into groups of four or five instead of the sixteen I commonly had to deal with. Anything else you can do to speed up combat and keep everyone involved is going to pay off big time.
#4. Just Talk at Them All the Time
When done well, “Theater of the Mind” roleplaying can be very powerful and evocative, but that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to just that. Every time I took out the battlemap and miniatures the kids’ eyes would light up and they would instantly re-engage with whatever was going on. Handouts, images, and big poster maps were also big hits with the kids.
If I had found a way to bring props in to the picture, I’m sure they would have gone over well, too. Some organized play programs have a few artifacts that, in addition to giving out certificates for them, have physical items to represent them that the player gets to keep. The next time I run a campaign for kids and teens, I’m going to head to the local thrift store to see whether I can represent the MacGuffin and other story items in the real world, too.
#5. Say No
This rule applies to games run for kids and adults, but kids especially haven’t fallen into the (I might call them bad) habits of adult players. Kids are incredibly creative and inventive, and although these flashes of inspiration might seem disruptive initially, if the GM is willing to improvise and take what they come up with and run with it, the result is incredibly rewarding. By not forcing them to take the obvious path, they are less likely to make the kinds of assumptions adults often do: for example, equating initiative with combat and relying on circumstantial evidence to indict suspects.
In the same vein, I tried to be as accommodating as possible in terms of character concept. The only times I said no was when the psionic character was overpowered to the point of ruining the fun for everyone else in combat. Otherwise, the tiefling worshiper of Asmodeus? As long as you have a reason to be working with the party, you do you, kiddo.
Ultimately, running a campaign for kids can be really rewarding for both players and DM. I can’t tell you how much I wish I had the opportunity to play roleplaying games in middle and high school. It’s my hope that during the twelve months I was volunteering, I was able to get at least some of the kids interested in the hobby and inspired to start campaigns of their own.