Timon and Salcheech tossed related questions into the Suggestion Pot, both dealing with gaming with 9- and 10-year-olds. Specifically, Timon was looking for advice on pacing games for that age group, while Salcheech was interested in scaling the game to that age range, as well as, whether morality lessons could be incorporated into the sessions.
Interesting questions, and I think it’s great these Stew readers are introducing the game to players at that age. As long as their young players can do their sums and are willing to imagine themselves in the realm of heroic fantasy — you should have a great time.
Neither Timon or Salcheech mentioned which edition of the game they are playing, but I’ll assume it’s the current Fourth Edition rules, for now.
First, have a selection of pregenerated characters ready for a group of players that young. Actually, this is good advice whenever introducing a new roleplaying game. While creating characters is a worthwhile activity and re-enforces ownership of the PC, when introducing the game, it’s best if you can get into adventuring at the outset. Let them learn “the game” first. There will be plenty of time for young players to make their own characters once you’ve gauged their interest and they’ve decided they want to invest the time into it. But if you try to start out a session making characters, I think you’re in for at least 90 minutes of page turning — which really bogs things down. It’s much more fun to say you’re swinging a sword or casting a spell, then rolling a twenty-sider to learn the result.
Secondly, prepare a simple dungeon with clearly defined obstacles. I suggest building off the design of a cruciform cross. A long shaft ending in a room, with two cross hallways, with each branch ending in a room. This allows some decision-making: “Do I turn right or do I turn left or go on straight ahead?” Stock each room with one of the iconic monsters (goblins, kobolds, beetles and skeletons) to introduce the flavor of the game and one treasure. That way, if you’re a group of four or five players, each can lay claim to at least one item — a souvenir from their first trip into the dungeon, so to speak.
Third, trust yourself to make rulings on the fly. Don’t worry about looking up the rules during the course of play. One role of the DM is to be fair, but it also is to keep the game moving. Don’t let “getting it right” interfere with “having fun.” David Noonan, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, tells the story on the “D&D Podcast” that they routinely test the game by having people who don’t have a clue as to what D&D is about locked in a room with a one-way mirror. These novices are given a game box and no instruction and told to just have fun. Invariably, Noonan says, the group does just about everything “wrong,” but usually has a blast just engaging in roleplaying for the first time. That’s your goal: Have fun. Build interest first. There is a lifetime to learn the intricacies of the rules.
Scaling the game
Jettison the subsystems. Over time, D&D has added layers of subsystems to give characters greater complexity in their abilities. Things such as feats and skills, most notably, fall into this category. If you think your players can manage a character with a handful of skills and feats, by all means include them. For 9- and 10-year-olds, I would be inclined to pass, though. In 4E, having characters learn and manage their character class’s powers is sufficiently complex.
If using published material and a reference to a skill check comes up, use this shortcut to simulate the check: Roll a d20 and then add 5 (keeping in mind any other situational modifiers you wish to impose) to the result. Compare that number to the DC in the published module and rule accordingly. It’s not perfect, but in a novice game, it’ll keep things moving.
The game rewards cooperation. I think D&D rewards players who cooperate and engage in teamwork. That’s the sort of meta-lesson of the game itself. As they play more, players learn that character roles become important, and fulfilling those roles are key to additional success. I think that translates into understanding what an individual’s gifts and talents are, and playing to those strengths.
The treasure problem. One of the fundamental aspects of the game is defeating monsters and taking their treasure — a form of theft, really. This is, in itself, a moral question and may require discussion between you and your players. You need not run a game on this model. Perhaps the question can be framed in the context of “treasure retrieval.” Your adventure story might be that the monsters stole the treasure originally, and your players are essentially authorized law enforcement trying to retrieve the stolen goods. That’s one way to go about it. Another is to presume that the treasure has no rightful owner, it’s all long-lost riches. Yet, another is to address what the players will do with the treasure. Do they keep it, and spend it on themselves, or do they distribute it to those who are more deserving?
Lessons learned from fables. As for the type of morality lessons, say, those that come from fables, that’s a little harder to address. If you are up to the task, you can certainly use fables as templates and craft D&D stories around them. “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Be kind and generous,” “Don’t be gullible” are all worthy topics. If those opportunities come up, feel free to incorporate them. Just be mindful, however, that the game is not designed to address such things. Again, the basics is to defeat monsters.
The killing game. Squeamish about running a game where 9- and 10-year-olds are killing things all the time? I am, quite honestly. But D&D has a host of monsters that aren’t “alive” in any real sense. Constructs are one such monster. Any object that has been animated, say a statue, is another. There are oozes to be obliterated. Elementals are expressions of fire, water, earth and air — which doesn’t fit into the definition of something that’s alive at all. Skeletons and mummies and wights are all “undead” creatures to be banished. And depending on your level of tolerance, defeating bugs and other vermin is usually seen as a service akin to extermination, rather than outright slaughter. If you understand the need to weed a garden, then there are also plant monsters that can fall into the category of “weeds” that need pulling. This approach keeps the humanoid monsters out of the equation.
Moreover, you need not “kill” monsters per se. It’s a matter of definition. If you prefer, they can be beaten until they fall unconscious. This little trick also works for PCs. Run out of hit points, you fall unconscious. Leave the dying part out until the players are older and they can handle that aspect of failure in their roleplaying.
Third edition suggestions
If you are playing the Third Edition rules, there are two introductory modules I recommend using to get started with young players.
Wizards of the Coast designer Andy Collins wrote a delightful 2nd level adventure called “Something’s Cooking,” in which a magically created calzone creature is unleashed. Kids love fighting a cheese and tomato-sauce spewing creature. (And as a DM, it’s equally fun to be a walking pizza, I can tell you).
Collins’ spouse, former Wotc editor Gwendolyn F.M. Kestral, wrote an introductory module “Scourge of the Howling Horde” especially for new DMs and new players. Because the adventure uses the delve format for encounters, it can easily be adapted for use with the 4E rules. Regardless of the rules set, it is a good teaching device.
I hope these ideas address the needs from the Suggestion Pot. I certainly welcome comments from our readers on their experiences on gaming with young players and the kinds of adventures that fit best with them.