Dungeon Delving with Preteen Murder Hobos

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There has never been a better time to introduce kids to tabletop role-playing games. Wizards of the Coast's fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is broadly accessible for all ages, and the company has even posted free adventures online to help people find social and creative outlets during the pandemic.

I just wrapped up a seven-month-long campaign I ran for my son and his friends. It was great fun getting back into D&D, but running a tabletop RPG for kids poses its own unique challenges. I thought I'd share some of what I've learned in the hopes that it will help other parents, teachers, or anyone else who is looking to run a game for young players.

1. Bring the parents on board.

It's been a long time since the moral panic over D&D, but it never hurts to be proactive. While my son was inviting his friends to play, I was inviting their parents into a group chat dedicated to the game. This was absolutely essential for scheduling, but it also provides a channel for any questions or concerns the parents may have. Nothing has come up so far, but it's good to be ready in case it does.

And you never know what's coming. When we had to move the games online due to the coronavirus, the parental chat became the means for sharing the Zoom invites and other links necessary to running the game. It wasn't designed for that, but having it in place made the online transition a lot easier.

2. Keep it small.

Most tabletop RPGs are designed for four to five players. Run them for any more than that and you're going to face additional challenges in adjusting the opposition, running combats, and moving around the focus so that every player gets a chance to be in the spotlight. But you're really going to have a challenge if those players are a bunch of fidgety ten-year-olds.

I broke this rule almost immediately. I didn't want to exclude any of the kids, particularly once the coronavirus hit and other social opportunities dried up. We spent most of the campaign with six players, growing to seven by the end. I made it work, but it took a lot of additional preparation and I wouldn't wish it on a new DM. Make your life easier and set a firm cap from the start.

There is one advantage to running a game for kids. My other gaming group of old friends doesn't get nearly as antsy and they rarely start climbing on the furniture. But if they did, I couldn't tell them to go run a lap around the house.

3. Set clear ground rules.

This is really important for any new game with any age group, but it's especially important when running a game for kids.

Many gaming groups now hold a "session 0" at the start of each new campaign where the DM and players discuss the campaign rules, themes, and any potential red zones to be avoided. My players were largely brand new to the game, so this was less a collaborative discussion and more an explanation of how my game would run.

Some of the ground rules were set to preclude future arguments (all treasure and XPs are split evenly, and every character is the same level) and others were more about establishing the right tone for the game. That includes an absolute ban on any sort of player vs. player combat. I even extended that one to prohibit the sort of threatening, posturing language that insecure and obnoxious gamers frequently use to greet new players. D&D is by design a cooperative game and I have no qualms about enforcing that at the table.

I laid down these rules because I didn't want to leave any opening for any kind of bullying in the game. My own gaming groups outgrew that sort of behavior long ago, but as the adult in the room, I'm not going to be responsible for creating an environment in which the kids can harass each other. The point of the game is for everybody to have fun, but not at anybody else's expense.

4. There is no such thing as "but it's what my character would do."

This line has become a cliché among players looking to justify bad behavior, and they learn it fast. One of my players tried it out in our first session, while I was laying out the ground rules, which of course justifies the whole point of having a session where you lay out the ground rules.

Playing in character is great; it's one of the tentpoles of role-playing games, right up there with exploration and combat. Playing a character who behaves like an antisocial jerk, especially to the other player characters, is not great.

Maybe your character would do that. But so what? You're the one who chose to make your character that way. You are a person with agency, sitting around this table with other people, and deciding to be a jerk to them. Decide on something else. Your relationships with the other players and the well-being of the group as a whole take precedence over your desire to act out.

5. Sandboxes steer better than railroads.

Our first session went off the rails really quickly. I was running Lost Mine of Phandelver, the adventure that comes with the D&D Starter Set. It's an ideal introduction to the game, with a good mixture of a clearly-defined story to follow and a larger sandbox to explore, and a simple hook that can't fail: the player characters are hired to escort a supply wagon to a mining town, they discover that their employer has been kidnapped by goblins, and they follow a trail that leads them through a series of adventures to rescue him. That's all you need, right?

Except one of the players (playing the rogue, of course) decides he wants to drive the wagon into town, sell the goods, and keep the money. Perfectly in character, and it doesn't violate any of the ground rules I laid down, but... the rest of the kids go along with it. Even the paladin.

At that point, I could have introduced some new obstacle that forced them to go to the goblin caves (a barricade across the road, another goblin attack). I could have ordered the paladin to chase after her boss, dictating it as a matter of her alignment. But that kind of railroading can leave players feeling like they are simply characters in someone else's story--or not even characters, but a captive audience watching the DM read from a script.

Or, conversely, I could have chucked out the entire campaign and just improvised a new one built around the premise of heroes who answer the call to adventure by stealing and fencing their boss's mining equipment. But building a whole new storyline for the group would have been a lot of work, and the whole point of running a pre-made campaign was to avoid having to write my own. Plus, there's no guarantee that a party that ignores the written story hooks would follow up on any new ones I threw in. And to be honest, I had no interest in running a campaign where the kids learn that the appropriate response to finding out somebody is in trouble is to steal their shit.

So instead, I let them take the wagon to town... where the townsfolk recognized the employer's mark on the merchandise and accused them of killing their boss and stealing his goods. (They were half right.) Faced with an angry town, the party promised to rescue their employer, ditched the stolen wagon, and promptly returned to the adventure hook with a brand new motivation--avoiding jail, or worse. They still got where they needed to go, but they chose their own path there.

Maybe I should have titled this section "consequences steer better than prohibitions." As long as my players don't break any of the ground rules, they know they can try to do anything within their abilities. But they are also learning that their choices will carry consequences for their characters and their community.

6. But new players need direction.

After we finished Lost Mine of Phandelver, the kids wanted to keep playing, so we transitioned into Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

That adventure has a reputation as being quite a railroad, and having run it, I basically agree. Most of the adventure is a very long, slow-moving chase sequence as the party follows a wagon train loaded with stolen goods. They encounter lots of interesting locations and characters along the way, but the adventure path is pretty much a straight line.

However, the kids didn't seem to mind that one bit. They're new enough to the game that accepting quests from a quest giver still holds a sense of novelty, and following a really obvious trail of clues to the next location gives them a sense of achievement. I think they appreciated having the clear signposts of where to go next. Kids just want to get to the adventure; there's nothing wrong with letting them take the most direct path there.

7. For online games, use a dice roller.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced some major changes to every aspect of our lives, gaming most definitely included. Spending several hours sitting around in a room with people from different households is a great way to transmit the coronavirus. We stopped meeting in person after early March. But with the schools closed, sports leagues canceled, and the weather still cold, the kids' opportunities for socializing were limited. I didn't want to cancel the game on them, so I started looking for the easiest way to move it online.

I didn't want to use one of the virtual tabletops like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds, since that would entail a steep learning curve for the kids--not to mention a lot of extra work for their parents. We were running most of our games in theater of the mind anyway, with only the occasional combat on a dry erase battlemap. The path of least resistance was holding Zoom games with the occasional map shown for reference. And given the bandwidth problems some of the kids have been having, I'm glad we didn't try to run anything more demanding.

But that convenience came with a cost. We were playing on the honor system, where I trusted everybody to report their rolls accurately. That lasted about a week. The trouble started when one player had a string of extremely good rolls for an entire session, good enough that even the other kids were taking notice. We had a conversation about that, but soon the hot streaks were coming back. Worse, it was leading to an escalation as some of the other kids started rolling extremely well too. The conversations were becoming a weekly occurrence and nothing was getting better.

So I switched over to an online dice roller where we could view all rolls in a shared window. (We're using Roll Dice With Friends. Zoom has since added the D&D Dice app, though you can't use it in the in-call chat. Go with whatever's easiest for your game.) There was some grumbling at first about how "unfair" the dice roller was (interestingly, these complaints did not come from the players who had been reporting bad rolls all along) but it died down after one session. Now I don't have to worry about whether my players came by their natural 20s honestly.

The online dice rollers offer other advantages, too, such as the ability to roll multiple dice of each type at once. That may not sound like such a big deal until the sorcerer casts fireball and you realize he only owns one six-sider. Our combats move a lot faster now, and I have complete confidence in everybody's rolls. In fact, it's so convenient that I'm thinking about implementing this for the old-timers until we can meet in person again.

8. Keep it in perspective.

Previous RPG experience is usually a plus when running a game, but there is one way that it can set you back when DMing for kids: they still have yet to learn the things you take for granted. They won't know about the folly of splitting the party or skipping a short rest until they learn it the hard way. You can walk them through their options, but sooner or later you will have to let them choose on their own and deal with the consequences. Remember the goal is to have fun, and try to be patient.

There are compensations. Because they have no preconceived notions about what players are supposed to do, they will come up with ideas you never could have anticipated. Sometimes those ideas will be hilariously unworkable (I will never forget the time one player announced his plan to defend the village of Phandalin by relocating the population to a different village entirely) and sometimes they will be hilariously workable (which is how the whole group ended up carrying around tiny screaming mushrooms as their own personal fungoid alarm system). Try to roll with it and let them be creative.

My group have become much more seasoned players over the past seven months, to the point where they can now optimize their characters, coordinate actions, and take down dragons. It opens up new levels of play for us and it's been fun to watch them grow into the game. But I do kind of miss the days when the gnome would stand on the halfling's shoulders and put on a cloak so they could pretend to be an enemy guard. They have outgrown some of their reckless enthusiasm.

And that's the best reason to play tabletop RPGs with your kids: because they won't be kids forever.

Marc Singer teaches English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies and Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics.
Dungeon Delving with Preteen Murder Hobos Dungeon Delving with Preteen Murder Hobos Reviewed by Marc Singer on Tuesday, June 09, 2020 Rating: 5
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