This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
So Your Kids Want to Play. . . .
This installment of Save My Game examines how to structure D&D games for children. What's a DM to do when young players come to the table eager for action but with limited attention spans and no knowledge of the game?
Problem: Running Games for Kids
I have the interesting challenge of DMing for a group of children, ages 10, 11, and 13. I would appreciate any advice on how to manage such a group, as well as how to escape the cliché game.-Adapted from a post byMomtheDungeonMaster on the Wizards of the Coast message boards
Hey, training the next generation of D&D players is an important part of the hobby. I started playing when I was 10 years old just because the fantasy element interested me, and I think a lot of folks who began in the late 70s and early 80s took up the game for the same reasons. Nowadays, though, fantasy themes abound in popular movies, novels, and computer games, so tweens and teens who might once have been sitting around the school library watching other kids play D&D may now be hitting the internet to play World of Warcraft. So for starters, congratulations for taking on the challenge of sharing D&D with the younger set!
Running games for kids definitely is a challenge, though. For a player who's new to your game but has played before, fitting in may be just a matter of learning your style, but the learning curve is much steeper for someone who's never played before. And if those new players are kids, they may be terribly intimidated and confused by the barrage of new words, the rapid-fire arithmetic, and the amount of reading that seems to be required.
Solution 1: Be Patient
Though age and maturity don't always go hand in hand, kids do tend to react differently than adults. Even kids of the same age may differ in how long they can sit still, what parts of the game they enjoy, how much background reading they want to do, and so on. In my underage group (namely, my three kids), the player who has read all the books is the most gung-ho about gaming. The other two also enjoy playing, but they prefer to discover what the game has to offer in their own ways.
If you have an "expert" in your game, be especially careful to avoid letting her boss the others around or tell them what to do. Your know-it-all may be giving good advice, but the other players probably don't want someone else playing their characters for them, even if that person would make fewer mistakes. It's okay to let your expert help someone who has a rules question or needs to find a piece of information in a book, but make sure she maintains a helper's attitude. The same advice also goes for you as DM-it's fine to provide help when asked, but let the players play their characters and make their own mistakes. Just be ready to take breaks to explain what went wrong for the characters and why.
Most importantly, don't try to pack too much into a game session when you run for kids. Playing too long puts a strain on them and on you, and that kind of stress can cause gamers of any age to snap at each other, become frustrated or bored, and just generally stop having fun. Two hours is probably about the longest nonstop session you should plan. If you want to play longer, take a break from the action when you reach a good stopping place, then come back to the game-maybe later the same day if your players are really excited, or maybe the following week. When you resume, check to see what everyone remembers from last time and refresh their memories if needed, before starting up again.
Solution 2: Start with the Basics
Although playing is truly the best way to learn the D&D game, green players do need at least a basic tutorial in game concepts and ideas. So talk first about races, classes, and ability scores, explaining briefly what those terms mean. Ask your players to think about what kind of character sounds interesting to them, and why such a hero would go adventuring. You don't really need the answers to those questions, but thinking about them helps players get an idea what their characters would really be like.
Since the game is D&D, combat must enter the conversation at some point. If you have a miniatures game or a battle mat, explaining combat becomes much easier because the kids can see where their markers are and visualize the concepts. Using such aids also resolves a lot of arguments about who did what and where everyone was. And if you show your players examples of tactical movement on the board, abstract rules such as attacks of opportunity can be made clear in a remarkably short time.
The first and most important combat rule for kids is initiative. It's a simple rule, but making it clear and enforcing it can save you a lot of headaches because it helps the kids learn to take turns. By always taking actions in initiative order, you can organize the chaotic cries of "I do this" and "I do that" into an orderly, sane procedure.
Next, combine characters and combat by talking about Armor Class, hit points, saving throws, weapons, and armor. For starters, describe the basic equipment. You can use the sample PCs from the Player's Handbook, or just talk with each player about some of the options he has for equipping his character. Buying other equipment is probably not all that important in actual play, but thinking about the sorts of items a character might want for exploring the unknown can be a fun exercise. You can roleplay the shopping trip if you wish, but watch for signs of boredom. If you see any, summarize the purchases and move on to the game's main action.
Solution 3: Build up the Complexity as You Play
Don't just start simple and stay simple. As new situations arise, you can gradually bring in more of the game's rules to cover them. If you like, you can discuss skills and feats during your tutorial, or you could deal with them as they come up in the game. For example, you could arrange practice situations, such as archery or jousting tournaments at a local festival, that allow characters to practice using their feats. Or you could let them make Climb, Jump, Swim, or Ride checks in a race or athletic competition, or Spot checks when a thief tries to pick their pockets, or Sense Motive checks to guess when someone is trying to swindle them.
As you play, let the game come to you. The first time the PCs meet a crocodile while crossing a river, they learn about water combat and grappling. The first time a goblin uses its whip against them, they learn about tripping. When they encounter the vampire moss of the Black Swamp, they learn about ability damage. Just keep adding a piece here and a piece there, and let your players learn as they go. You could deal with multiclassing opportunities when the characters hit 2nd level, or you might just decide that for the first campaign, all the characters must be single-classed, at least for the first couple of levels. As the players gradually become more familiar with the rules, the basics will become almost automatic, and they can think more about their characters and what they want to do with them.
Solution 4: What's the Matter with Clichés Anyway?
I'm not sure that avoiding clichés is a good idea with a group of youngsters. After all, the clichés and tropes of the fantasy genre may be exactly what your kids want. What kid wouldn't want to be the knight who saves the town, or the dashing rogue who steals the crown jewels-or even the prince's heart? Kids don't need gritty realism from day one, so clichés or not, simple stories and plots are best ones to start with. As play continues, you can plan adventures with different themes-one lighthearted, one creepy, one involving underground travel, one featuring a sea voyage, one in the elven woods, one in the slums and sewers of the city, and so forth. Let the PCs explore the world while their players explore the gaming experience. In some encounters, the character may have to fight the bad guys, while in others they may have to talk with NPCs. Some adventures may depend on figuring out a puzzle or mystery, others might involve urgent missions, and still others might just take the encounters as they come.
A simple way to start the first few adventures is to give the PCs a job to do. Have an NPC hire them to fetch some stolen goods, or to guard a caravan as it makes its way through a bandit-infested forest. Most adventures should be straightforward, especially in the early part of the campaign, so that the players have a foundation on which to build their perception of the game's "reality." Later on, you can always add a plot twist if you like. For example, perhaps the person who hired the party to fetch the stolen goods actually stole them herself, or maybe the bandits in the forest are the rightful owners of that land! The plot twists you use for kids should be fairly simple and obvious, though you can offer clues that build on each other-for example, the PCs could find pieces of a map or key. (This technique gives you a perfect chance to use visual aids and manipulatives, which is a great way to maintain the interest of youngsters!) But don't overdo the tricks and plot twists, or your players will always be expecting one, and they may start to lose their understanding of the baseline campaign world. Give your young gamers a chance to figure out a mystery, and they'll develop the feeling of accomplishment that comes with doing so. Maybe one day, they'll even begin to write their own stories!
The best way to learn the D&D game is by playing it, but beginners still need at least a minimal tutorial. If your players are kids, keep the explanations brief and focused on what they need to know to decide what characters to play. Thereafter, introduce rules slowly as they play, and don't let one player who has read the books dictate actions to others. Keep your game sessions short and your adventures simple, at least in the early stages. Vary the settings to offer variety and teach your players about different parts of the campaign world, and create adventures that require them to use different character abilities. You can add plot twists if you like, but don't do so too often or make them too complex. And clichés aren't so terrible that they must be avoided at all costs, especially for youngsters who have not yet had the opportunity to become jaded by overexposure to classic fantasy tales.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.