Tips for dungeon master parents, part 2: "Never underestimate kids"

201106090923 Last month, Tom Fassbender wrote about his experiences as a role-playing game master for his kids. Recently, he ran a real Dungeons & Dragons game with kids, and here's his report.
The game went great, even better than I expected, and the four 2nd-grade players really enjoyed it. Our Castle Ravenloft sessions helped a lot; turns out that Ravenloft's turn-based combat is very similar to D&D Essentials, which I'm sure is no coincidence. But as we found out, it sure takes a lot longer to slay the beasties in D&D. After considering some of the advice I got from Boing Boing commenters, I decided to stick with my initial plan run with the D&D Essentials rules. But when one of the players wanted to be a non-Essentials Shaman (which I thought was an inspired choice) and another wanted to play a non-Essentials Deva (some sort of immortal timelord-esque race), I had to do a little retrofitting back to the good old regular 4th edition. To speed things along on game day, I had the kids start to create their characters ahead of time. I did all the heavy lifting with ability scores, skills, and bonuses. The whole character generation process was somewhat confusing at first, but I think I got the hang of it eventually. I also gave each character a rudimentary backstory that the players will be able to use to build their own character stories. When that was all done, we ended up with a knight (my daughter, obsessed as she is with her hit points), a shaman, a wizard, and a sorcerer. The party came up a little short in the stealth/thievery department, but we rounded that out with some strategic skill selection. The game got off to a rocky start when my daughter spilled her water across the game map. But on the upside, we were happy to discover the map was “waterproof” (in the words of the players) and survived mostly intact, although it's now in two pieces. After we established a “no drinks on the table” rule, we just dove in. I decided to explain the finer points of combat and how their powers work as we went, and by the second battle they were using strategy, working as a team, and using their their powers for maximum effectiveness. Never underestimate kids. I enjoyed listening to them between combat sessions, when they had to figure out where to go and what to do. The discussions they had about their options were incredible. I told them they could do anything they could think of, and they really embraced that. This freedom was what they were missing from Castle Ravenloft, and it allowed them to bring the game they played in the heads at school to the table. I had planned to do two encounters, both retooled versions of the solo encounters from the Red Box to accommodate a party of four. But they made a case to do a third encounter, and after checking with the parents, we ventured into the Twisting Halls, the first group adventure included with the Red Box. The entire game session lasted six hours with a significant break between the second and third encounters. The total play time was about four hours. I think they could have kept going, but the parents (especially me) needed a break. But if all goes according to plan, the intrepid adventurers will continue delving into the Twisting Halls on Memorial Day. Photos: The Adventurers | The Adventure Journal | Red Box Redux

I turned my 4-year-old daughter into a Dungeons & Dragons geek Mouse Guard: kid-friendly RPG where you get to play a mouse with a sword! Tips for dungeon master daddies (and mommies) HOWTO have a D&D party for 8-year-olds RPG for Preschoolers - Boing Boing RPG monsters designed by fifth graders Wil Wheaton teaches his son to slay dragons


  1. Only six hours? And you got a break in the middle?! Geeze… must be nice to be able to call the players’ mothers to get a reprieve :P

    1. However much they are enjoying themselves, you can’t get a group of 8 year olds to sit still for much longer than that!

      My husband has been running a game for our kids + a several friends kids (total of 6 players to start with, 7 now) for 6 years. Our youngest pair of players were 4 when they started. One of his biggest rules (for when they were younger) for himself – no moral ambiguity! Navigating shades of gray requires a little more age and wisdom than 4, 6 & 8.

  2. Just don’t forget to bump them up to ADnD once they hit middle school. That’s the DnD that puts the RP in RPG.

    1. Oh God. I started AD&D when I was about 11, and loved it, but… I still really think 3rd edition was a vast improvement in terms of mechanics. It freed the players and DM from a lot of memorization and drudgery. You shouldn’t need *that* many tables to play the game.

      For those who don’t remember: In AD&D, sometimes you want to roll low, sometimes high. Every ability score, class skill, and proficiency used it’s own set of tables for determining outcomes. Non-human characters were limited in their selection of classes and in what levels they could reach. There could only be one 15th level druid at any one time in the entire universe. Good times.

      I do wish they had kept some of the flavor of the old AD&D magic item creation system. Now it’s just “you pay gp and xp, wait a few days, and POOF!”

  3. Tom’s 3rd entry:

    Things were going really well for the kids until the Wizard took a arrow in the chest from a goblin hiding in some weeds. I could tell that little Chrissy was really upset, but I didn’t pay it any mind at the time.

    Now I regret that mistake, because she’s since turned to Satanism to revive her wizard and cast spells just like Jack Chick tried to warn us about! :)

  4. Six hours is a good length for a weekly game. You definitely need some downtime between sessions or burn out. (We used to do twelve-plus hour marathons in my old 3.x game, but we’d gather at most once a month, which worked out perfectly.)

    Now that you’ve gotten started and know where your game’s snags are, here’s a thread from the D&D community regarding some common combat accelerators — tips and tricks other DM’s use to keep things rolling (and avoid 4e’s infamous potential for grind).

    Keep the reports rolling! I’ll continue to live vicariously through you until I can DM for my own daughter in another few years…

    1. Thanks for the link to those combat accelerators; a lot of great tips there. I already use a fair number of minions in encounters–I’ve found it easier to keep the kids’ interest when they’re mowing through the bad guys.

      I tried to get them to think ahead (“Okay, it’s your turn next, think about what you want to do.”), but during the longer battle sequences the non-acting players would lose focus on the game and talk about other stuff of interest to eight-year-olds. The biggest challenge I have seems to be re-focusing them on the game after one of those moments.

      And yes, six hours is about the maximum length the kids can sit (relatively) still, but it’s also the chunk of time our families can carve out of our schedules. It’s not easy to find a date that works for all the people involved. All of June is out, so the next game won’t be until July–which will be here soon enough for me, but it feels like “forever” to a kid.

  5. Don’t worry about the water spilling incident. No game of D&D is complete without someone flooding the dungeon, generally with Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew.

    Sir Harrok

  6. I am almost done making my little one’s first adventure. She just turned 5 – but she’s a smart 5. We are just going to use the old D&D rules. Why putz around hacking something else. The rules are simple enough for me to walk her through character creation and die rolls.

    To dance around a few of the more roguish qualities, instead of a thief class, we have sneakers, and instead of clerics we have healers. She want’s to be a sneaker, and I will have a cleric as an NPC with her (and the chance of having a pixie, a centaur, an apprentice wizard, and a goblin joining the party as it progresses.

    The plot is straight out of Dora the Explorer – with a princess having her silver crown stolen by goblins. They have to go through the woods, over the troll bridge, to the castle to find them and the crown. Once there they will have to fight the evil wizard who lives in the castle.

    I have the castle maps almost finished – feel free to use them if you want.

  7. OH – one bit of fun – I started drawing a map – and then I got anal and redrew it, and redrew it, and redrew it again with a ruler.

    At one point I thought – why not just get a program to build this map? I figured there would be a lot out there – even free ones. I was right.

    I downloaded one and started working on it. After an hour I stopped. “What am I doing?”, I said. “Making maps on graph paper is half the fun!” It felt like a chore with the program. So I drew it out again – and later cleaned it up in photoshop.

  8. When I DM for my daughter (7) and her friends (7-13), I don’t use any of the printed maps or figures. I focus more on role playing, letting them use their imagination, and will draw out a rough map on a big piece of paper as the story unfolds. We use chess pieces or any object the kids want to represent them, and I use basic positioning for combat (no strict grid system).

    I originally started this in order to get the kids into the game and role playing spirit without being bogged down by rules, and after 2 years of playing this way I enjoy it more than the tactical centric system the 4ed has become. I recommend it highly! It’s why it takes me back to the golden years of DnD in the late 70s and early 80s.

  9. This has totally inspired me to introduce my 7 year old son to D&D. He has an active imagination and I’m sure he’d love it, as long as it didn’t get too scary. It’s been a long time since I played, but I don’t remember playing on maps or boards. we drew our own maps, according to the descriptions given to us by the DM.

  10. THAT IS AWESOME! Nothing like getting kids to use their imaginations instead of video games. This is also a great opportunity to get them to read, not only D&D books and such, but History books and maybe even research! We need more teachers like this! WAY TO GO!

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