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GMing With Kids

RPGs aren't that different from playing pretend... [1]

RPGs aren’t that different from playing pretend…

A couple weekends ago, I ran a game for my friends’ three daughters, ranging in age between 9 and 14. This was something I’d been meaning to do for a while, but with hectic schedules, it ended up taking longer to coordinate than I had hoped.

All three kids are bonafide nerds in their own right, but they only know of pen and paper RPGs by reputation. R, the oldest at almost 14, is hugely into the webcomic Homestuck [2] and starting to experiment with cosplay. L, the eleven-year-old in the middle, is a diehard Star Wars [3] fan that I wouldn’t go against in a trivia contest. She has even had to defend her right to be a girl that likes Star Wars to the kids at school. A, the youngest at nine, doesn’t really have a particular nerd niche of her own yet, but she likes the same things her sisters do and has had a quirky sense of humor since she was a toddler.

Before we could do anything, though, I had to determine which game I was going to run for them. I went back and forth on this for a while, debating the merits of various systems. I wanted something that had easy but solid mechanics, so they could get a taste for how RPGs work without getting overwhelmed with numbers and stats. I also wanted it to have a fun and not too complex story for them. Should I go for a simple super heroes game with the modified Marvel SAGA [4] game I’ve run in the past? What about getting into a story using Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space [5], which I adore? Maybe Savage Worlds [6] would be the best ‘simple’ system with whatever story I want to hang on it? There’s always Dungeon World [7], but doesn’t that require a bit of an advanced understanding of RPG concepts?

While debating this all, I came to the abrupt realization that I was overthinking it. If Dungeon & Dragons [8] was good enough for their dad and I to dive into back in the 1980’s when we weren’t much older than they are now, why wouldn’t it be good enough for them? There’s quite a bit I like about 5th edition, which is miles away from the convoluted mess that 1st edition was when we were first getting into gaming. They’re smart kids and they’re all familiar with the basic concepts from having watched Lord of the Rings [9] and the Hobbit [10] movies. In addition to overthinking it, I was underestimating their abilities. D&D it was!

During character creation, the biggest obstacle was realizing how much of what we gamers consider ingrained concepts are not necessarily intuitive. It was fairly easy to explain the difference between class and race, but attributes were a bit more of an abstract concept for them. Skills were a particularly big challenge since they didn’t quite parse the way the attributes played into the various options. I was able to leave them to their own devices when it came to buying equipment, though. At one point, though, L looked at me and said, “Ang, I’m running out of money. Is there any way I can kill something right now to get more money?”

When they were done, we had a high elf rogue named Kibishi Nomi, a wood elf fighter named Matix Soren, and a dwarven wizard named Felthius Mailmor. Though they struggled a bit with some of the other parts of character creation, they quickly grasped figuring out background connections between the characters. Since Kibishi and Matix were both elves, they decided they grew up knowing one another, but they were never close friends. Felthius and Kibishi had both chosen the criminal background, so they determined they had a connection through the local thieves guild. The adventure hook had a relative asking for help, so Felthius’s cousin requested he (I didn’t have any female dwarf figures, so L made her character a male) get a group together to escort a wagon to a neighboring town. Without even batting an eye, they quickly determined that Felthius brought in Kibi who, in turn, brought in Matix. I’ve played with adult, experienced gamers who make that type of intro far more complicated than it need be. Leave it to some kids to make it easy.

As a side note, L did learn one of the unspoken rules of roleplaying games the hard way: Be careful what you name your character. While Felthius Mailmor is a good strong name for a dwarf when written  down, it was quickly twisted once spoke aloud. Sometimes he was Filthiest Mailman, and sometimes he was Fluffiest Mewmew. In retaliation, R’s rogue became Kiwi and A’s fighter was Mad-ox, but it was a last ditch effort to save some face with her sisters.

The game itself went smooth but slow. Again, there are standards we take for granted that newbies and kids may not necessarily be aware of. For example, when they were faced with a couple of different paths in the goblin caves they were sneaking into, their first instinct was to split up so they could save time. Knowing they’d get overwhelmed solo with the encounters down any of those paths, I gently pointed out that they had already had trouble with the goblins guarding the cave, so they might be better off sticking together for strength in numbers. I also kept having to remind them of what they needed to roll, but they had a good handle on strategy that had little to do with needing to understand game mechanics. With some successful stealth rolls and a well-placed sleep spell, they were able to defeat the big bad boss of the goblin clan.

All in all, the game was a success and a great experience. They reminded me of what it’s like to GM for those that are new to the hobby and how important it is to have patience and remember why we’re all there. The girls all had fun and they were immediately asking when we were going to play again. We ended on a cliffhanger, so they need to know what happens next.

Apparently A spent the next day trying to explain to her non-gaming mom about the game. She was very adamant that her mother understand the difference between class and race. Mom called me up later that day and jokingly lamented, “Yep, I knew it would happen. I’ve lost them. They’re gamers now.”

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "GMing With Kids"

#1 Comment By Chamber13 On December 9, 2014 @ 9:00 am

I just started running a D&D campaign for my daughters, 11 and 9! Mom has joined us as well. I’m running 3.5 because I haven’t had the chance to upgrade yet, but so far we’re having fun. I found out the hard way that my 9-year-old is more than likely to run off and start firing arrows at anything that moves 🙂

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

I was very amused that the oldest girl, who is normally a sweet and kind kid, has a tendency to create unlikable anti-social characters. 🙂 They were also pretty quick to pull out the weapons for some encounters they could have solved in other ways.

#3 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On December 9, 2014 @ 9:18 am

I, too, recently ran a game for a friend, my brother, and their two ten-year-old kids. It was funny to see you mention the temptation to split the party; my brother — who has been playing AD&D since the 1980s — separated himself from the party and ended up getting beat down (kid-friendly, cartoon violence, but still). The kids learned never to split the party their during first game by watching him!

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

I thought about letting them learn the lesson the hard way, but they had forgotten that Felthius was down to 1 hit point at that stage. 🙂

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On December 9, 2014 @ 10:44 am

I’ve run my nephews through a PF Beginner Box adventure, when they were 11 and 12, and they are still playing on their own at 16 and 17.

The primary author/designer for my Kaidan setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG), Jonathan McAnulty had his 12 year old son run a Kaidan one-shot module, Up from Darkness (a very dark one) as a con game at Origins last year. Imagine running a very dark game as a 12 year old to a bunch of nerdy adults – sounds like glorious fun!

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

That does sound pretty interesting. I know playing with kids at the table can go in many different ways. I’ve played with pre-adolescents at the table that are chaos incarnate, and I’ve played with ones who are way smarter than we give them credit for.

#7 Comment By Dhomal On December 9, 2014 @ 11:27 am


Oh, how I wish I could have been there!

*smiles widely*

The A here and his mom have played one thing, briefly, almost a year ago. It didn’t seem to spark his interest like Minecraft does though.

Please, keep me updated, either here, or Elsewhere!

I miss all of you!

( Returns you all to your Normal comments section )

#8 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

We miss you too, DOTU!

When we get a chance to play again, I’ll shoot you an e-mail and let you know how it went.

#9 Comment By Airk On December 9, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

I always take issue with the logic “Oh, hey, D&D was good enough for me in 1979! It’s good enough for kids now!”

That’s part of the problem with this hobby. D&D has gotten exponentially more complicated than it was “back in the day” when you got into it. Those skills that were difficult to explain? That’s one of those things that weren’t in the game back then.

Glad you had a positive experience, but I don’t know that D&D was the “right choice”.

#10 Comment By Dhomal On December 9, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

Well, of Course it was the right experience! They were asking when they can play again!

I think one element that is important is to -challenge- their minds, both with the game some, as well as the experience. Much like how the MMOs work so well, leave there ever to be more to learn and experience, for them to come back. Choose a system that the Genre is uninteresting, or the difficulty is -too- low (or non-existent) and you will not spark their imaginations, and desire to learn and experience more.

Opinion of course, definitely YMMV on this one!

#11 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

I disagree that it has gotten exponentially more complicated.I do believe it has tried to get significantly more flexible, but 1st edition was a convoluted mess. You want high for these rolls, low for these rolls, and so on. I couldn’t even imagine trying to explain THAC0 to a newbie. To some people, it all made sense because it was what they were used to, but to gamers looking back on it today, it’s all very “WTF?”

Ultimately, my point was that I was underestimating their ability to ‘get it’. There’s no reason to shelter them from D&D because it’s too complicated. 🙂

#12 Comment By mrm1138 On December 9, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

I, too, was a little resistant to the idea that D&D would make a good first RPG for kids that young. (Certainly, I thought, something like BASH! or Fate Accelerated would make a better introductory game!) After all, I had just recently helped a couple friends roll up characters for a D&D game I’m currently running. They had never played a tabletop RPG before, so a lot of the concepts required a fair amount of explaining. It seriously took about four hours to get finish their character sheets, and we didn’t even go into backgrounds, personality traits, etc.

However, it sounds like your instinct was the right one, since the kids really got into it and want to keep playing. That’s really what matters at the end of the day.

#13 Comment By Keith Garrett On December 9, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

I enjoyed this, Angela. Thanks for posting it!

#14 Comment By Angela Murray On December 9, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

#15 Comment By John Fredericks On December 9, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

I’ve run Microlite20, D&D, and 2d6 roll under FUDGE as first games. Now, I use Basic Fantasy as my version of old school D&D. As long as you tell them what to roll, the rules tend to get out of the way.

And kids (and newbies) think outside the box. They aren’t always trying to game the system like some long-time players who are system wonks.

#16 Comment By Angela Murray On December 10, 2014 @ 1:50 am

It always amazes me when they come up with unique ideas that experienced gamers would never consider. 🙂

#17 Comment By John Fredericks On December 9, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

And thanks for a great article Angela.

#18 Comment By Scott Martin On December 9, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

I enjoyed the article; it sounds like a great experience. Glad you’re welcoming in another generation.

#19 Comment By Angela Murray On December 10, 2014 @ 1:49 am

Always got to help the next generation get a leg up. 🙂

#20 Comment By Rob Abrazado On December 9, 2014 @ 9:47 pm

I think a lot these days about both introducing people new to the hobby and also running games for the younger crowd. It’s nice to hear that this experience went so well! I definitely agree that 5th edition is a lot easier to digest than 1st edition was; I think the latest incarnation of D&D makes for a great entry point, especially in preparation for the crunchier stuff.

Did you find yourself pulling punches or fudging rolls? That’s always my big worry when running for kids, that it might stop being fun if the dice go bad. My favorite for alleviating these fears was the old Toon game, or something similar that makes character death a non-issue.

Anyway, thanks for writing this! Alongside what I said on Nick’s guest post: not only do I like hearing about the return to gaming, but I like hearing about new gamers just as much. 🙂

Oh! And tangentially related…about a month ago I got a chance to go to the game design con Metatopia. One of the beta tests there was an RPG called “SBURBia” by Nick Roth, which is based on the Homestuck comic. Might be something to look out for in the future for R! 🙂

#21 Comment By Angela Murray On December 10, 2014 @ 1:49 am

I actually didn’t pull the punches as much as I thought I was going to. I was a little worried about them getting into a couple of the tougher fights, but they were able to hold their own. I thought about skipping the death rolls when one of them dropped to 0 HP, but she ended up rolling a 20 on that anyway, so they kept on plowing through the goblins.

Thanks for the tip on the Homestuck RPG. I haven’t quite taken the time to try and figure out what that one is all about, but she loves it and has apparently addicted several of her friends to it.

#22 Comment By Rob Abrazado On December 10, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

So it sounds like you went in with the expectation of pulling punches if you had to?

Also, I forgot my big question! Did you use a battle map grid or anything? Or was combat left mostly free-form?

#23 Comment By Angela Murray On December 11, 2014 @ 2:25 am

I did use a battlemat with them. I figured it would be a little easier to explain some of the rules if they had a map and the minis in front of them.

And yeah, I was prepared to pull punches, but was glad I didn’t have to. 🙂

#24 Comment By Blackjack On December 9, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

Thanks for this article, Angela. Just 10 days ago my oldest nephew (age 10) asked about dice-and-paper games, and I told him that I started playing them when I was not much older than he is now. He asked if I could run a game for him sometime. That got me thinking: D&D is the family of systems I know best, but how accessible are the modern versions to a child? What changes would I need to make to craft an enjoyable adventure? Your experience shows me that aside from keeping the story simple and being ready to coach them through some of the rules options, probably the only other thing I’d need to do is provide them some PC archetypes so character creation doesn’t take all afternoon.

#25 Comment By Angela Murray On December 10, 2014 @ 1:46 am

I thought about giving them some pre-made characters, but I also wanted them to get the full experience of making characters from scratch. Since they were getting to do a sleepover at my place, I knew we’d have enough time even if character creation took a while.

What would have actually helped quite a bit was having some cheat sheets on character creation. I was only able to use the PDF on my iPad and PC, so what took the most time was letting them each have a chance to read over their options.

Even if you go with the pre-made route, I’d recommend giving them some things they can customize so they can get a sense of ownership of the characters.

Good luck!

#26 Comment By Blackjack On December 10, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

I very carefully avoided saying I would use pre-made characters. 😉 I wouldn’t want to take away from the youngsters the joy of individualizing their character. From watching my nephews and nieces play I expect that that alone would be half the fun for some of them! My plan would be to be ready with half-made characters, kits of common skills and equipment, and coaching to use as necessary in case the kids get too bogged down with the process. Because another thing I see from watching my nephews and nieces play is that if a game gets too hard or dull for more than a few minutes, they lose interest.

#27 Comment By Roxysteve On December 11, 2014 @ 10:56 am

Love it.

At the split party threat I’d have been tempted to have a couple of goblins unseen out in the shadows start discussing how great it would be if they split up.

I know, I know; you’ve seen the Stupid Guards so may times you are sick of them, but kids can get a kick out of nitwits who give them good advice – especially if you do the voices. Think of Gollum in The Hobbit movie. Useful Comic Relief.

#28 Comment By Eric the GM On December 11, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

GREAT article.

A couple of years ago, I ran my daughter and niece, both 12 at the time, through the PF Beginner Box. They both had a good time but my daughter really grabbed it.

We started playing PFS games at our local game store and now we have a group playing a homebrew campaign at our house.

#29 Comment By iteradnecem On February 22, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

Good article.
I’ve recently run several games for my younger siblings and they’ve taken to it quite well actually, faster than friends that I’ve introduced tend to!