As I wrote in my intro to this blog, my kids are more or less responsible for my current obsession with Dungeons & Dragons. I blame them for all the money I’ve spent on hardcover campaign books, pencils, and dice!
But seriously, I don’t blame them at all. It’s been a blast showing them how to play the game, and watching them snag a rulebook and study spells or look for special skills for their favorite classes or find some Legendary magical item to add to their Magic Wish List for their current D&D character.
I’ve never been more proud of my role as a nerdy dad than when I saw my 13-year-old on the front porch swing with his nose stuck in the Players Handbook. Or when my 10-year-old has to choose between the Monster Manual and the DMs Guide for night-time reading.
So while I’m not claiming to be any sort of expert with my less-than-one-year experience playing, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about playing D&D with kids.
Ten Tips for playing D&D with kids
1) Used pre-generated characters or streamline character creation so it’s manageable for younger players. Creating really good characters takes time, so create some characters for younger players, especially if they’re new. Maybe talk to them beforehand to see what sort of character they’d like to play, or give them 2-3 player sheets to choose from. Then you can jump in and start playing!
2) Keep sessions short. This was really hard for me to stick to at first, because it usually took 15-30 minutes just to get the adventure session started, and I didn’t want to stop after just a few hours. But I’ve found that with younger players, around 2 to 2 and half hours is about the maximum amount of time for them. Three hours is pushing it. Their attention starts to wane, and they get antsy. Definitely plan for breaks every 45 minutes or so!
3) Give each kid a job. I try to assign these jobs for an adventure, just to make sure everyone feels like a key part of the group — plus it makes my job easier:
- Mapper: Hand out a small whiteboard and a couple dry-erase markers and explain the rough dimensions of each room as you go to your mapper.
- Treasurer: Especially if you have someone who either loves math or loves money (or both), assign a player to keep track of everyone’s gold and other plunder.
- Scribe: Ask a player who loves stories or writing (or both) to keep track of the details of the current quest, including key NPC names and clues.
- Battle Master: For the battle-hungry kid in your party, have him or her keep up with the number and location of monsters during combat, and if you’re using tokens or miniatures, the Battle Master can track the location and movement of players and enemies.
- Monster HP Counter: If you feel up to giving up some of the control, you can have a player track the damage to monsters during combat. The HP Counter can work with the Battle Master to make combat run really smoothly.
4) Keep the adventure simple in scope. Especially if you have new players, you don’t want to overwhelm them with a complex challenge with multiple fronts. It may feel like a cliche to you to save a kidnapped friend or locate a missing magic object, but to kids it’s all new.
Also, include a generous mix of combat, NPC interactions, and puzzles. If you’re running a two-hour adventure, you probably have time for 2-3 battles, maybe 2 NPC interactions for role-playing, and some exploring. There are many “5-room dungeons” out there that are great for quick “one-shot” adventures (here’s a free e-book of 5-room dungeons!).
And hand out plenty of loot, including some magical potions, scrolls, weapons, and other nifty trinkets!
5) Use the character background for each player to advance the story in some way. Maybe your paladin has to fulfill a quest to redeem himself, or your wizard is looking to find the thieves who stole his mentor’s spellbook. Use the backgrounds for the characters as “plot hooks” to really get the players engaged and invested in the story.
Also, give the characters cool things to do, based on their class. The rogue has to disarm a trap or pick a lock, the cleric gets to heal everyone, the bard gets to sing made-up songs for Bardic Inspiration. Everyone should get a chance to shine in the spotlight.
6) Keep things open-ended by not saying “You can’t do that.” Sometimes my ten-year-old Mitch comes up with the most convoluted traps and schemes while playing the game, and I just roll with it. He’s also the character who gets more than one “Inspiration” dice during the course of a gaming session.
I give out an actual d20 from my pile as an Inspiration reward for players who come up with clever ideas or plans, as well as characters who really role-play their character in a meaningful way. A lot of times, every player has his or her own Inspiration dice, which they can use (just once, then they give it back to me!) on any d20 roll. You’d be surprised by how much wonderful events can occur if you just say “Yes” to your players.
7) Make your NPCs memorable! Come on now, you have to just go for it when you’re role-playing a goblin or a surly dwarven bartender. Think of some of your favorite supporting characters from TV shows or movies and try out their voices and accents. Mix a couple characters together and get something totally new and fun.
I gave Droop the Goblin (from the Starter Set adventure “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”) my somewhat bad version of Dobby the Elf’s voice from the Harry Potter movies. My son Drew gave Meepo the Kobold (from “The Sunless Citadel”) a squeaky voice and barely spoke in complete sentences.
You might feel goofy, but the kids will never forget it.
Give those non-player characters lots of character and personality, and the game will come to life for players of all ages. And Droop keeps popping up in our later adventures, that little green rascal…!
8) Keep the dice rolling! There’s something about rolling the dice that really gets everyone’s attention. If you feel like the energy is flagging at the table, or the kids are getting distracted, give them a reason to throw their dice. It doesn’t have to be attack rolls for combat, either. It could be Perception checks to see if they can find a hidden clue or a trap, or an Athletic check to see if they can cross that rickety rope bridge without falling.
9) Let the kids drive the bus! When my two sons saw how much fun I was having as the DM, they wanted to try it, too. Drew dove in headfirst with the massive “Sunless Citadel” adventure, which was updated for 5th Edition in the wonderful Tales from the Yawning Portal book.
That smiling guy to the right is Mitch, 10, right after running his first-ever session as a DM. I sat next to him and helped out with any questions or problems he had during the session, but he barely needed me. I think he has a whole new appreciation for the game after seeing all that a DM gets to do.
Changing up who’s running the game ultimately makes all of us better players.
10) Snacks! I’m not really sure how this tradition started, but it seems like you’ve gotta have food if you’re playing D&D. I guess it goes back to the marathon sessions from “the old days” when you would play all Saturday long in your parents’ basement and live off of the junk food you ate. My kids are all about the snacks — to the point where I wonder if they’re only playing the game to get to eat ’em.
Here’s a tip, though: stick to “self-contained” snacks like M&Ms, jelly beans, pretzels, or even Chex mix to keep from getting all your papers and books covered in potato chip grease or fake orange Cheetos remnants.
And above all, have fun, and happy gaming!
Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this blog, feel free to take a look at my books at UnWrecked Press and Amazon. If something I wrote here improved your gaming experience or you just want to say thanks, buy a book or two!