On a Practical Guide to Playing D&D with Children

A lot of people have been talking about introducing their children (6-12) to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.

This is like discussing quilt crafting by examining the threading of the needle. Who cares how the needle is threaded if the quilt is completed?

Threading the Needle

When you are playing with children, you are playing with people. React to them as people first not as children.

Yet they are children. Do not let this contradiction confuse you. It is empowering.

There are physical constraints for children, they have a drive to move. Sessions should be short (2-3 hours) and have frequent breaks to get needs met. Some will want to play act. Others will want to run around. Still others will want to sit still and pay stoic attention. As people first, respect this and acknowledge that that is the fun for them.

Learning to manage these types of conflicts is how one grows into an adult.

Do not over-explain. As the adult, they already expect you to have all of the answers. It will not surprise or impress them that you know the answer to their question. What they need is time to think about what they have been told. Answer the questions they have, even if you know it to be the wrong question. If they are asking it, it is the right question for them.

Sometimes children will complain. "This isn't fair" or "I wanted the magic sword" or "Why didn't the baby dragon like me?". And the thing they complain about, being children, is almost always a true thing. The best response to hearing such a complaint is to agree. If it is true, shouldn't it be recognized as such?

Children in this age range are still learning how to express their thoughts and feelings. Your statements should be designed in such a way to guide them to a place where they feel comfortable doing so. This often involves saying things and waiting longer than you feel is comfortable before moving on. 

"The Ogre roars and threatens you with the club. Julie, it is your turn. You can do anything you like, is there anything you would like to do?"
Long Pause
[continues] "You can pull out your bow and fire an arrow at him. Or you could draw your sword and shield and guard Thomas, or you could run away. If you can think of any other ideas those might be good too! Would you like to do one of those?"
Often they will have crazy ideas or want to do things that aren't covered by the rules. Those rules weren't written to make children sad. This doesn't mean they should get everything they want either. Letting them try and succeed on a success, and partially succeed on a failure with some creative drawbacks will be an interesting pattern to add.

Qualities of the Fabric

Children want to accomplish things as well as testing their values and beliefs! They are focused on learning and applying skills, dealing with peers, competition, and self-control.

Obviously individuals will vary.

Children 8 to 9 years old:

  • Will make faces and noises and be silly: Accept it and don't take it seriously 
  • Will want to know why things happen: Answer all their questions.
  • Will tend to overestimate their characters ability and internalize all failures: Point out what they can actually do without removing the challenge and focus on the fact that learning and trying are what's important.
  • May also be really hard on themselves and overly dramatic: Encourage them and point out that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Also like immediate gratification: So frequently find some small way to reward them immediately in the game. 
  • Have shorter attentions spans and need more physical activity: Limit game time to 90 minutes with frequent breaks.
Children 9 to 10 years old:
  • Suddenly discover their development is unequal between genders: Don't compare the boys and girls during the game. 
  • Are at the point where they can focus and sustain interest and gain more abstract reasoning skills: Longer games, but it's important that you give them time to think and respond to problems.
  • Sometimes they may act out if the feel ostracised: If this happens reiterate their importance, their role in the group, and that you accept them, even if the acting out isn't appropriate.
  • They may have an obsessive focus on fairness: Acknowledge that things are unfair. Talk to them about how it's ok not to succeed and win because that's part of playing. 
  • Children at this age are into group adventures and social activities!
Children 10 to 11 years old:
  • You are going to need food at the table.
  • They will begin to argue with you using logic: Engage them in discussion and encourage them to use logic. Think about what they say and if it makes sense go with it. 
  • Becomes even more focused on justice and morality. Really focuses on things that aren't right and aren't fair: Acknowledge this inequity. This is a great way to motivate these children ("Something is wrong in townsville!"). Sometimes their sense of justice or rightness will be personal, subjective, and quite rigid. Accept this and support the feelings about the rightness and wrongness.
Children 11 to 12 years old: 
  • Much more likely to challenge what you say: This is not an attack. Don't become defensive, you're the adult. They aren't attacking you, they are trying to figure out why.
  • May seek to become more independent of the party: Encourage them to support their teammates and point out that helping them will allow them to help the player. Allow and encourage opportunities for them to take their own actions in the game. 
  • May engage in exaggeration or be subject to unreasonable or frequent worry: Understand and be supportive, don't overreact to sudden mood changes or exaggeration.

Stitching the Quilt

Allow setbacks to happen. These can often focus a group and allow them the enjoyment of working as a team to overcome a problem.

If you're playing with children, you should consider kid friendly tropes. A small child crying. A noble quest given by a trusted authority figure. A small animal in trouble ("Wonder pets, wonder pets, we're on the way. . .")

Monsters generally attack the person with the highest hit points, because that's the toughest looking player! 

The worst thing that can happen is that a player is knocked out, unless you judge that it shouldn't be.

Remember that the description in this case is both more important and more powerful then it would be in an adult. Keep this in mind as you use your words, for you are literally constructing the framework that allows the children to feel empowered via their confidence in their imagination. 

Everyone should have a chance to feel important. It isn't cheating to make sure everyone gets spotlight time. Doesn't the spotlight feel nice? Who doesn't like to feel nice? If you listen very closely, you can augur where they want the spotlight to be. 

Props, battlemats, pictures, and physical objects are so cool. BE COOL.

Quilt Patterns

For ideas and frameworks that communicate working imagination paradigms, watch episodes of Adventure Time, Spongebob Squarepants, Power Rangers, and Yo Gaba Gaba. See at least 1 episode of Wonder Pets.

Finishing the Quilt

This is not advice for Playing 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with children. This is advice for playing games that allow freeform exploration of fantastic spaces with children: 4th edition, Pathfinder, 13th age, FATE, whatever you like.

The rules, what would really happen, and playing the game "correctly" are secondary in first experiences to Dungeons & Dragons. 

Did the players enjoy themselves? This does not mean that the quilt keeps you warm, only that they will use the quilt again.

After all, we are all children. Now we are just children who know better. 

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