Me: “As you approach the top of the hill, your companion runs ahead pointing out a crack between the rocks. Suddenly, a wolf jumps out! Its hair is raised, it's growling, and it's moving toward your friend. What do you do?”
Addison (my 4 yr old daughter): “Okay. I take out my magic wand. I'm casting a spell. I point it toward the wolf and I'm shooting a snake out of it. The snake runs up to the wolf and bites it. It's a poison snake.”
Me: “(....woah..) Uh okay, the wolf yelps. Now it's scared and angry. It lashes out at the snake and kills it, but then it turns and slinks back into its den. Your friend is safe for now.”
Addison: “I walk up to my dead snake and pick it up. I wanna put its meat in my pack. I'm gonna need that.”
Me: “(....what?) Okay cool, you put the snake meat in your pack.”
This exchange is from the first time I ever played “Dungeons & Dragons” with my daughter Addison when she was 3 years old. I'm using heavy quotations here because the way we play is quite different than the rules as written.
It turns out that stripping away most of the rules doesn't matter. Playing fantasy roleplaying games with kids is an incredible experience. Here's how I approach it.
Table of Contents
- The kids drive everything
- How to add just enough structure
- An example session outline for how I play D&D with my kids
- Quick thanks and highlights
The kids drive everything
Addison was the main worldbuilder, rules maker, and storyteller in this game. I just sketched out a wolf encounter and she did the rest. There was no prep whatsoever. I certainly never told her she could summon snakes, or that stealing their dead snake meat would be useful.
In my experience, children are better at fantasy roleplaying than most adults. They are less worried about making stuff up on the fly, and their imaginations are like wild fire. As the Game Master, your first step is to let go of everything and lean into the chaos. When you play D&D with kids under 10, they are the Game Masters.
I recommend playing RPGs with kids as the best way to improve as an improvisational GM. They don't think like adults, and they'll surprise you even more than your usual players do. You really have no choice but to go with the flow!
There are downsides. Games have rules for a reason after all. Any good game is really a series of meaningful decisions. When the kids can bend every rule and choose from infinite options it removes the importance of every decision. For me, the key to playing D&D with my kids has been figuring out how to apply just enough structure to bring back consequential decision-making without squashing their imaginations.
How to add just enough structure
I've settled on 3 tools to successfully play D&D with my kids and strike the balance between their wild imaginations and good game design.
For the record, this is what works for us: a weird dad and 3 daughters currently aged 8, 5, and 3. Everyone has different kids with different needs so your mileage may vary. I will definitely have to re-write this article once they are all teenagers...
My 3 tools are:
- Maps - Use visuals to offer meaningful decisions and ground the story
- The Core Loop - Understand that the heart of D&D is actually a simple 3-step loop
- Yes, but... - Let them do what they want, but make them pay a cost and see consequences
This may be heresy, but I think dice are optional. With younger kids especially I find they tend to cause distractions. We are trying to tell a story here, not play “lose the shiny math rocks”. I'm just starting to introduce them with my two older daughters but with a fixed DC (every roll needs to beat 10).
Maps ground the story and offer meaningful decisions
It took me a while to notice this, but maps are much more than just eye candy. Maps are boundaries. Without a map, players can and will go anywhere. Kids especially have a way of bending the rules of space and time. But when you put a map in front of them, two things happen:
- They instantly understand where they are and where they might go.
- Their choices feel more meaningful.
Cool pictures pull the kids into the game and the structure offered by the map helps them situate themselves in the world once you start. The coolest part is that they start to feel the weight of their decisions. When you can just go anywhere you want it's easy to not care about one direction over another. With a map, non-decisions like "anywhere you want" turn into interesting choices like "left or right?"
The Core Loop is the heart of D&D and it's all you need
The Player's Handbook for D&D 5e is 316 pages. The Dungeon Master's Guide is 320. It's a huge undertaking for a group of adults to read those and understand all the rules inside. Asking young kids to play by the rules as written is a recipe for boredom and strife. You'll spend the whole game reminding them to track their spell slots or constantly repeating the words "no you can't just do whatever you want" when instead you should be improvising a fantastic story together.
I'm not saying that kids aren't capable of learning the rules. They absolutely are. What I'm advocating for is that you start with nothing but the core. You can start layering in more complexity as they get older, stronger at reading, and more familiar with the art of roleplaying.
If you strip D&D down to its core loop, this is all it is:
- The Game Master describes a situation
- The Players describe what they want to do
- The Rules determine what happens
Aside: I illustrate the core loop in greater detail in my Intro to Tabletop Roleplaying Guide. Check it out if you are new to Game Mastering.
The pillar that we change the most in our games is step 3. Typically you would roll dice, and then the rules that fill hundreds of pages and character sheets would have their say in the outcome. But, as I mentioned above, dice can be distracting and young kids can have a hard time with consistent rules interupptions. We definitely aren't filling out character sheets.
This is where my last tool comes in.
”Yes, but...” lets kids do what they want then adds a cost or consequence
Instead of filling out character sheets, learning every rule, and tracking every dice roll, I introduce simple consequences in the form of “Yes, but...”. This approach prevents me from constantly stamping down my kids' zany ideas. Simple costs make their decisions meaningful and provide the fun guardrails that the D&D rulebooks offer to adults.
Here are some examples of the types of things my kids will try to do, and how I'll add simple costs or consequences with “Yes, but...”.
Addison: “I leap out of the way, and I cast a purple magic spell, and it blasts the ghosts to smithereens”.
Me: “The ghosts are smithered to pieces, but now you have purple magic sparkles all over you and it's making you easy to see even in the dark.”
Addison: “I summon my unicorn named Esmerelda. She has long blue hair. And she can fly. And she can talk to me in my mind. We ride all the way to the town.”
Me: “(...free mount are you serious?) Esmerelda's gorgeous blue hair streams in the wind as you gallop to the town. She's a special kind of unicorn who needs to eat golden apples to stay strong. You arrive in town quickly but she's really tired now. You are going to need to find more golden apples before you can ride her again.”
Addison: “I find the treasure right away. I pick it up. It's filled with jewels and I love them and I take them all and this one gives me fire powers.”
Me: “Indeed you have found the Lost Hoard of Surtr the Fire Giant. But you can only fit that jewel in your pack if you leave behind all of your dead snake meat.”
Kids will just assume their actions are successful and that they can manifest anything. Personally, I found it boring to try curbing this and constantly nag them about the fact that outcomes aren't certain until dice are rolled.
This is starting to change with Addison who is 8 years old now and getting in tune with how the Game Master should be the one to determine success or failure. For younger kids “Yes, but...” is still my favorite approach. Just let it go.
An example session outline for how I play D&D with my kids
To bring everything together, here's a high-level outline of how I'll prep and run a game. There is zero prep ahead of time (aside from maybe choosing a single map) and it's entirely improvised.
- (Optional) Choose a map
- Ask the kids to describe their characters. I ask them what their name is, what they look like, and one thing they are carrying with them. Sometimes I ask them to draw their characters. This step usually takes up a ton of time and I'm fine with it! They absolutely love imagining their characters!
- Improvise an opening situation, using the map as a starting point if I have one.
- Sit back and let the kids determine most of the plot with their wild ideas.
- Introduce NPCs when I need to buy time.
Most combat and exploration encounters are resolved quickly. Without all the rules and sheets, we just have a bit of back and forth and then it's over. This can be challenging because it means I have to move fast from scene to scene making a lot more content up on the fly. Thankfully the kids tend to lead the way, and when I'm stuck I just ask them what their character wants to do next.
Due to the rapid pace of improv, continuity is a huge challenge. We started out always doing single closed sessions, but recently we've been starting to bring back characters and story arcs across multiple sessions. I'm constantly forgetting names and plot points. If you have any tips on rapid note taking let me know.
My kids mostly love talking to NPCs and talking about their characters. Those activities take up 75% of the time. A great way to become an awesome Game Master for young kids is to learn a ton of funny voices.
Quick thanks and highlights
I'll keep this section short this week. I just want to shout out some cool things I've seen recently.
- A huge thanks to everyone who tested out The Oracle (a new beta coming soon to Here Be Taverns). You folks burned through more than 2000 image credits 😄. Your feedback was invaluable!
- YouTube presentation on Entity Component Systems for Roguelikes. This is a new programming paradigm I'm very interested in. Seems great for building large-scale simulations.
- Questiary. I've mentioned this website before, but I'm bringing it up again because they just keep creating cool monsters and show no signs of slowing down. An amazing resource for improv GMs like me.
- Dreambooth. This bleeding-edge AI tech is getting me closer to my ultimate dream: to recreate the old-timey vampire portraits from What We Do in the Shadows with members of my actual family.
See you soon. The Oracle should be launching next week.