Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Is there a best way to run a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game for kids? Nope…. That is simply because some players are visual learners, some are auditory learners, some players need manipulatives and many players appreciate a mix. Just like “all students learn differently,” all players learn, experience, and play D&D differently.
Is running a D&D game for kids different than for adults? No, and Yes
No. There are no huge game differences. When you run a game for adults:
· you need to think about the game’s pacing (Same for a game with kids)
· you need to think about player engagement (Same for a game with kids)
· you need to think about group dynamics (Same for a game with kids)
· you need to think about spotlighting players (Same for a game with kids)
· you need to prepare for your game (Same for a game with kids)
Yes. Of course, there are differences. When kids play D&D, it could be the first time they experience a taste of free agency (making decisions without their parent’s guidance.) Young players experience many social and emotional situations for the first time on their own during a game. This agency is one of the reasons why people think of D&D as a great tool for improving social skills.
What to expect when you run a D&D game for kids?
1. Get ready for companion animals and familiars. I have been running games for adults and children for years. Kids love pets! Adults also enjoy a good animal companion or sidekick, but kids make it a major part of their game experience.
2. Kids love peaceful resolutions. I was surprised when I ran games for younger kids (8-11) how much some players preferred a peaceful resolution. Despite many of the D&D combat situations, sometimes young players look for other solutions. I ran a group once that refused to kill their enemies. They only wanted to disable or knock the enemies out unconscious. It helps to prepare for that kind of situation rather than pushing players into a killing blow.
3. Combat is the most popular of the 3 pillars. Combat, Social Interaction and Exploration make up the 3 parts to D&D. Each game should have each of these parts to be complete. I see most of my younger players become more engaged while they are gleefully tearing their enemies to bits. (Re: #2: “sometimes” kids love peaceful resolutions)
4. Game length should be shortened. The ideal length of a kid’s session is 2-3 hours with built in time for breaks. Sly Flourish, a well-known (in the world of D&D) writer on how to prepare and run D&D games put out a survey and the results showed that 60% of adult groups played between about 4-6 hours. That time period is too much for most kids. We run our games either 2 or 3 hours and we take a 5-10 minute break every hour. By using this shorter time period we feel we get the most energetic and creative gameplay from the kids, and things rarely seem to languish.
5. Stories are more important than the rules. I have NEVER counted how many arrows my players have. I have ignored the entire action-economy aspect of the game. If battles take too long, I will have monsters perish a bit easier than planned. When playing with kids, you use the written rules as guides. Some kids will know the rules better than you. Allow the kids the freedom to “flex” and admit that they are correct. There are over 900 pages of written rules in D&D between the three main books so as a game master there is a lot to remember.
6. Use as many assets as possible. D&D allows for the use of maps, music, and other items to improve immersion. Most of the players I have played with are used to the “theatre of the mind,” model where the story is solely related through the spoken word of the Storyteller. (Note: In the world of D&D: Storyteller, Dungeon Master, and Game Master are synonyms.) While this invigorates the imagination, using any tangible asset is great for keeping players from getting distracted.
7. Preparing for the Game. Session Zero is when you will talk about the game expectations, any special rules, and norms for the table. Everyone can provide their input before starting the actual game so that all get the chance to participate. This helps especially if your group hasn’t played together before. You can learn players’ expectations and likes while learning how to balance them. For example, combat-centered players might be paired with people who love to role-play.
8. Offer Guidance for Players who are overwhelmed by choice. Dungeons and Dragons has situations where characters can do anything they want. When presented with these situations players sometimes panic and become silent. As the Storyteller, you need to be able to provide options to guide them. When combat starts, you need to be ready to say “Well, you can use your short sword, the dagger of one of your spells, like Magic Missile or Sleep.” You will need to know your player's character sheets and their abilities more so than when you run a game for adults.
9. Stars and Wishes. This is a simple tool that is great for games with kids and adults. At the end of the game, every player needs to give another player a “Star” or compliment. Say something cool that another player did. Then, every player needs to provide a “Wish” – something they would like to see in their next game. This is an excellent feedback tool that will improve your game. It helps shift the kids’ focus from themselves to the whole group and helps them understand more of the group’s aspirations.
In the end, what is the one thing to include when considering the best way to run a D&D game for kids? Answer: you need to demonstrate how awesome the game is through your excellent and enthusiastic storytelling while focusing on your player’s fun. By the end of your game, most kids will have made new friends and experienced teamwork, bravery, compassion, generosity, negotiation, improvisation, gamer etiquette, strategy, critical thinking, problem-solving, cartography, and probability all through D&D, the world’s greatest tabletop roleplaying game.
Paul Lazrow is the founder and one of the Storytellers at Adventuring Portal, an online service that focuses on running live-guided fun, safe D&D games for kids. Find out more at AdventuringPortal.com.
Player Art: Moonstone, 10 years old, Druid