Running an RPG for kids

I ran a “Dungeons and Dragons” event at a public library last week, with six 10-or-so year old kids showing up to my table. It went well, but boy was it a challenge.

How do you prepare to run a game for kids you’ve never met? The system obviously needs to be both simple and quick to teach. And while “D&D” in the event name was used as a generic term for roleplaying games, having PCs be heroes fighting some evil threat seemed like a good idea. I picked Dungeon World, but even that turned out to be too much. Bonds, weight, deities, high level spells, it was all a bit overwhelming and either was ignored during the game, or distracted from it. The “legacy” aspects of DW, such as stats being two numbers only one of which actually mattered for most of the game, provided unnecessary confusion as well.

Next time I’d choose something even simpler. Maybe Roll For Shoes. FAE is another contender, though I’m not certain I could explain aspects well enough. Time is a big constraint: 3 hours for everything! And as it’s a one-off event, you can’t even build system mastery over several sessions. I’m aware of RPGs made specifically for kids, that’s obviously worth investigating as well.

But back to game preparation. Unambiguity of opposition’s evil seemed important. Leave challenging morality questions like “is it ok to kill goblins” to teenagers. Stick with robots, zombies and dinosaurs. Turns out, undead are cooler than robots. Who knew. I prepared a basic adventure: start at the entrance to the dungeon with a task to retrieve a macguffin from within. Inside await a fight or two, depending on how fast the game goes, a couple of opportunities to be smart and avoid traps, a guardian spirit to interact with and a choice at the end.

I was particularly fond of the first room, a dining hall of a mansion whose owner has seemingly perished, still staffed by robot butlers. They do their best to maintain it, while everything including themselves succumbs to rot. Very “There Will Come Soft Rains”. And if the adventurers decide to break things, or steal the silver cutlery, they get their first fight. That was the plan. Here’s how it went in practice: the fighter (named Darth Vader, naturally) went in first, saw creaking figures in the darkness, and attacked the closest one.

Lesson learned: don’t bother with subtlety. It’s not that kids can’t appreciate it, I’m sure some could. It’s just that one of them will inevitably smash it with a flail. For that matter, having a logical and consistent dungeon didn’t seem to matter to them much, either. Again, not surprising: they’re experiencing a sensory overload as it is.

Another lesson learned: placing a puzzle-like scene near the end of the adventure was a mistake. Kids get tired, their attention wanders, and placing them into a situation with no immediately obvious solution leads to them drifting away. An extra consideration for structuring the adventure.

The toughest part about running the game was managing the group. Six players was definitely too many. Rotating the spotlight and making sure loud players don’t dominate the session is tricky even with adults. With kids it’s an order of magnitude harder. Loud players literally jump up and down demanding attention, while quiet players are content to sit and not say a word unless directly drawn into the action. I had expected the flexible nature of DW to help out in this, but I suspect a rigid initiative system may have worked better. In part because it makes sure everyone has to participate, and knows roughly when it’ll be their turn. But also because putting a kid on the spot, one of the GM moves of DW and a great tool otherwise, has a risk of simply not working if the kid quietly says “I dunno”.

Another element of DW that didn’t always work was the fact that often enough PCs simply don’t trigger a move with their actions, leaving the GM to decide what happens. Normally, that’s fine. But when a kid tries to use a dagger to jimmy open a blast door that just slammed shut, saying “no, that just doesn’t work” leaves them stumped. The remedy to both of these problems, I think, would be to replace the traditional “what do you do?” with “do you do this, that, or something else?”

Something that surprised me a bit: most of the kids had simply shown up because it was a summer holiday activity, not because they were already interested in fantasy gaming. They hadn’t previously played anything remotely similar, digital or otherwise, and none of them had read or seen Lord of the Rings. Establishing common cultural tropes was tricky at times.

Despite these difficulties, I had fun, and so did the kids. A special shout out goes to the girl who played the cleric, and came up with an ingenious use for the light spell: cast it on the eyes of enemies to blind them.