DM'ing Dungeons and Dragons for young kids

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Running a game of Dungeons and Dragons is tremendously fun. You and your players have agreed to collectively tell a story with their characters in the starring roles. As the dungeon master (or DM), you’ve prepared a fun and engaging adventure to be everyone’s source of entertainment for a few hours. When everything clicks, it’s great. It has a tendency to fall apart when you’re DM’ing for young kids.

Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar. You’re committed to running a game of Dungeons and Dragons for young kids, maybe eight, nine or ten years old. Some of them have never played before, while others have minimal experience with the game.

A few minutes in, their attention starts to wane. Some kids talk at the same time, they all want to act simultaneously and the fun game you planned for has become a chaotic exercise in frustration for you and the kids. Feelings are hurt, patience is gone and your vision of introducing new, young players to the wonderful world of D&D has evaporated.

It’s easy to feel stuck, frustrated and out of control when DM’ing for young, inexperienced players. We’ve felt that for sure, and it’s a genuine bummer to walk away from the table knowing some of your players didn’t have a good time. Fortunately, you can take specific action during your prep time and game play to reach your goal of a fun, rewarding session of Dungeons and Dragons for everyone. Let’s start with preparation.

How to prep for this group

Much has been written on best practices when prepping a session of Dungeons and Dragons: Be thorough but don’t go overboard, have some random tables ready to go, have a general sense of important NPCs, rely on your sourcebooks and so on. That’s all great advice, but when preparing for a session with young, novel players, we recommend these additional steps.

Throw your elaborate campaign or one-shot out the window

That multi-session campaign with the double-crossing, backstory, and awesome, multi-level underground dungeon is not going to cut it. Instead keep things very simple:

1. Have a very obvious bad guy whose motivation is clear. “My water elementals will reduce this lighthouse —and its keeper — to nothing so I can find the treasure beneath it!”

2. Keep the session short. One hour is pretty much all this age group can handle.

Prepare for they unique way kids play

In my experience, kids love to role-play shopping for weapons and magical items. I mean, they really love it. Have a few tables you can roll on handy. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a good resource, of course, as is donjon.

Additionally, kids love to receive trinkets and invent uses for them. Again, the DM Guide and donjon will provide lists of trinkets.

Another important distinction is they way kids role-play. Once they’re comfortable with it, roleplaying becomes very powerful for them.

The adults I play with tend to separate roleplaying and combat. When a fight breaks out, the game turns into simple math: Roll to attack, 21 is higher than 15, roll for damage, eight minutes HP. No on to the next person who repeats the process, on and on until the baddie is dead.

With kids, the role-play doesn’t stop during combat. Completely invested in their character. they’ll take great pleasure in describing exactly what happens with each attack. That description is their chance to have the spotlight and go to town with creative, descriptive, on-the-fly story-telling.

As the DM, don’t respond to a successful attack roll as “That hits.” Instead, add a bit of flavor, “Your Great Axe cuts through the air and sinks into the orc’s shoulder. It lets out a rumbling howl. Roll to see how much damage you’ve done.” Better yet, encourage them to describe hits.

Next, understand that kids will do the unexpected. Adults do this too, of course, but young players really ramp it up. I had a group of players decided to try and redeem the “big bad” once they found him. Likewise, another group refused to race dinosaurs through the town, and instead devised a plot to secretly free them from their captors. Be flexible and prepare to go with the flow. Remember, it’s their story. You’re just the catalyst.

Finally, use maps and minis. This age group loves both. Not only are they cool and exciting, minis on a map help young minds conceptualize what’s happening, where their characters are in relation to NPCs, terrain, monsters, etc. Your maps needn’t be elaborate, but kids do benefit from this visual reference.

Gameplay

Before a single die is tossed, I always tell my young players, “We’re going to tell a story together, and your characters are the stars of the story.” I also set the ground rules right up front:

1. Respect each other.

2. Respect the DM.

3. Treat the materials as if they were your own.

4. Inappropriate language or behavior will not be tolerated.

5. Rudeness towards me or each other will not be tolerated.

After having everyone verbally agree to the rules, it’s time to get down to the fun. Speaking of, my first gameplay tip is to make the mundane interesting.

D&D is a very fun game but it does have its less-than-thrilling moments. For example the short/short rest.

the good doctor is in and ready to see patients

the good doctor is in and ready to see patients

I’m sure many of you have had their party take a long rest to heal up and prepare for the next event in your campaign. While adults can be perfectly happy with, “You pass an uneventful evening in the empty cave,” that will bore kids to tears. So, liven it up. When my party of young players take a long rest, I have them visit Doc Coddle, M.D., their friendly, neighborhood Owl Bear physician. Really all they’re doing is spending a long rest, but I have then interact with Doc Coddle, receive some treatment and observe the various bottles, jars and flasks of who-knows-what in his surgery. It’s fun, memorable and lets the kids stretch their role playing muscles a bit. Plus, you might get a hook for a future adventure out of it, and you can always have Doc Coddle toss them a healing potion if you like.

Taking turns

Typically in D&D, turn order is reserved for combat. You roll for initiative and off you go. When I’m DM’ing with eager young kids, I sometimes extend turn-taking to time spent outside combat as well.

Often a table of excited players will all want to talk to the dragon, navigate the rickety rope bridge or brainstorm a way into the lighthouse at the same time. It can get chaotic as well as frustrating for the players, as they all feel they’re not being heard. When this happens, I subtly introduce turn order. Here’s an example.

“At the top of the stone staircase is Longshore Lighthouse. The door at the lighthouse’s base is slightly ajar and light can be seen inside. A short stone wall surrounds the lighthouse and the gate is shut tight. Anne, you’re standing right at the gate. What would you like to do? Ryan, you’re next.”

Ann describes the action her character takes while Ryan prepares, as he knows he’s next. Likewise, the other players know they’re not next, so they’re likely to quiet down, or scheme amongst themselves. When Ryan takes his turn, I’ll prompt the next player to ready her action.

You needn’t play the entire game this way, of course, but keep the practice in your back pocket as “crowd control.” If they’re all talking over each other and you can see frustration staring to build (or control starting to wane), try this out.

Next, when the kids have an idea — even if it’s a bad idea (from your point of view) — let them pursue it. Make the objective clear and give them the freedom to find their own solution.

Rails

Don’t be afraid to but an adventure on rails! They’ll need it, especially the very young players.

Roleplaying

Kids may initially hesitate to role play interactions, or simply may not know how. Don’t be surprised if asking, “What do you want to do?” elicits blank stares. Instead, give them options without making it too obvious that you’re doing so. “The gate surrounding the lighthouse is rusty and looks pretty rickety. There are many large stones on the ground.” Eventually, they’ll get the idea and their skills will improve.

Also, this age group tends to like over-the-top or even goofy role playing. Don’t be afraid to ham it up. The silly, wise-cracking dragon will be a much bigger hit than the sullen temple guards.

Help

Ask the older players to help/mentor the younger ones.

The Rules

Don’t go nuts. My simple rule regarding rules is this:

Fun > rules

Remember, you’re playing with young kids, some of whom might have never played before. I’d rather bend a rule and foster a love of this fantastic game in a young person then be a nit-picky stickler.

Janie wants to pull all of the arrows from her quiver, hold them in his fist and jam the lot into the kobold? Sure. Have at it, Janie.

Now, I’m not saying that everything should be a free-for-all of success. The wins are made more meaningful if there are losses as well. Let them miss. Let them take damage. Let them crit fail an attack role and have their weapon fly from their hand and land 1d6 squares away. Just don’t let an amazing story moment that breaks a minor rule squash Janie’s enthusiasm or creative idea.

PC death

This one is simple. Don’t. Younger players get very attached to their characters - tread lightly when designing the first few encounters and get a feel for their comfort level. Character death could be interpreted as being picked on or that they are bad players. At this age, it’s best avoided.

Combat

I like to give them a group option. “How do you want to do this?” Let each player describe how they’d contribute to the action, and give them awesome descriptions of how epic and effective their plan was.

Keep combat fast. While it’s fun, they will get bored and antsy if it goes on too long. Don’t be afraid to fudge numbers, or NPC hit points. Remember, fun > rules.

Here are a few final, bonus tips to keep your session fun for everyone. First, keep puzzles simple. Young kids frustrate easily. Next, they *love* props. Little maps, coins, whatever.

Follow the steps listed here to reach the goal you’re after: a room full of kids laughing, creating, thinking and enjoying a great day of Dungeons and Dragons.