A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to create an introductory one-shot for children and their parents, specifically those who had never played an RPG-style game before. With the minimum age set to eight years, the challenge was to simplify the mechanics enough for the younger adventurers, while still telling a story dynamic enough to engage the whole party. Oh, and it had to fit within a time block of approximately one hour. Yikes.
After some brainstorming and reconnecting my own inner child (yep, she’s still in there), I came up with a plan.
What resulted was a homebrew adventure with pre-generated character sheets and interactions to cover all the basics. I ran three different sessions off the same adventure and, by the end of the day, the kids and their families had such a good time, they all wanted to keep going!
Here is what I learned:
1. Structure with Flexibility:
You may have heard before that D&D is like an open “sandbox” where anything is possible! While this is certainly true, it’s important to maintain a balance between giving your young players the freedom to explore and providing enough of a structure to keep them on task…especially when you’re working with a time limit. What you don’t want to do, is fall into the trap of Rail-roading, or structuring the story so strictly, that the characters only have one path towards victory. This takes the agency away from your players and can prevent them from using the creative problem-solving that makes D&D great!
We started out with Pre-Generated Player Characters (PCs). This is a common strategy for anyone running a timed game, as character creation can take up at least as much time as the adventure itself! Rather than use the standard 5th Edition Character Sheets, I used a simpler Beginner 5e Character Sheet designed for children and new players (I didn’t create this, but found it on a couple of different sites online). I prepared a range of basic classes– Fighter, Rogue, Ranger, Bard, and Cleric– with pre-determined stats, equipment, spells, and abilities. After going through a brief tutorial at the beginning of the session, players could personalize their characters with any race and character traits of their choosing, and I worked with them to add extra abilities accordingly. This was a great way to introduce the players to different classes while showing them the different customizable options at their disposal. I kept a Player’s Handbook at the table for them to peruse during this part.
The adventure framework in its entirety barely took up three pages and was broken down into three parts: The Introduction, The Problem, and The Resolution. I allowed myself a set amount of time for each section and did my best to make sure the players were nudged along at the right times.
For example, the first segment focused on setting the scene (in this case, a village on the banks of a vast lake), introducing some locations, and allowing the players to interact with a couple of Non-Player Characters (NPCs). I did not control which NPCs the party interacted with, but gave myself a list of options and let them decide– some parties visited the local inn, while others decided to climb up the bell tower. Regardless of where they decided to go, I would be prepared.
Once those first interactions were complete, I introduced the “nudge” to keep them moving to the second segment, in which they discovered the problem that needed to be solved. This can be done either through one of your NPCs (“You’re all adventurers, right? Thank goodness you’re here…”) or with a “Ringer” player.
The “Ringer” is someone who is more experienced with D&D and is willing to help you facilitate the game. In this case, I worked with my partner to create a character who lived locally in the town. This served the dual purpose of using them as a story element, while also giving the new players a coach when game mechanics or role-playing got a little tricky. This allowed us to help more than one player at once and keep the story flowing smoothly.
2. Simple, but Detailed:
One of the biggest challenges I faced while writing the adventure, was determining the scope. How complex do I make the characters? Is the challenge I created too simple? Is the villain dangerous enough? I had to keep reminding myself to slow down and remember that I only have one hour. The key, I realized, was not to create a complicated campaign setting, but to keep the story simple and flavor it with detail and fun challenges for the players.
The nice thing about DMing for children is that you don’t need complex social dynamics or political intrigue. Think about what kind of adventure you would have liked to play as a child (I was a fan of myths and magic), and just go from there! When one of our friends suggested using J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts as inspiration, I took the idea and ran with it!
With that, The Luminous Lake was born…a remote fishing village where the villagers and magical creatures coexist together…but wait. Something is wrong! The Guardian of the Lake (inspired by the Loch Ness Monster) seems upset and has scared all the fish away. What could have happened?
The players explored the village and met the Lake Guardian herself, and discovered that someone had stolen her eggs! After more exploration, they found that an evil wizard and his goblin minions had stolen the eggs for a nefarious ritual…
The story is simple in nature but has plenty of opportunity for rich descriptions of the setting and magical nature of the village. I included detailed descriptions (remember to use the Five Senses to make it more immersive) and NPCs with interesting quirks to give flavor to the story.
I also made sure to tailor different challenges for each character: such as stubborn locks for the Rogue, tracking for the Ranger, healing or special languages for the Cleric, performance for the Bard, and challenging combat for the Fighter. Each character had something special they could do to keep the story engaging.
3. Emphasize Inclusion
From the start, I knew I wanted to make the story inclusive to any player that approached the table. There is an unfortunate stereotype that most gamers happen to be Caucasian and male. As a person of mixed heritage myself, I wanted to make sure that no one felt out of place. So how do we encourage this?
First of all, I had the good fortune of running the sessions in an easily accessible location: a local bookstore. The staff is very welcoming and frequently holds Game Nights and activities for children, which made it perfect for this event. Avoid holding your game in any sort of venue that is hard to find or that caters to a specific sort of clientele.
Second, I had a diverse range of NPCs. The players had the opportunity to interact with characters of a variety of races, speech patterns, and genders… I avoided unnecessary stereotypes and made sure the interactions were positive and memorable.
Finally, I ensured that every player had a part to play. Each session had a combination of boys, girls, mothers, fathers, and players with varied levels of experience with D&D. We also had a mix of backgrounds since we live in a rather multicultural city. While there are always players who try to dominate the action and stay in the spotlight, ensuring that each player is empowered and feels confident about speaking up goes a long way in creating an atmosphere of inclusion. Which leads me to my next section…
4. Young “Murder-Hobos”
Just like there will always be a player who tries to stay in the spotlight, there will always be a player who takes advantage of the “sandbox” nature of D&D, and tries to get away with things that they can’t do in real life. Sure, you can try just about anything in D&D…but that doesn’t mean that actions don’t have repercussions!
Most of us have played with this kind of player before: the charmingly-named “Murder-Hobo” that thinks they can go around threatening NPCs, stealing, and even killing off some poor villager if they don’t cooperate. Typically, I am not a DM that likes to let characters get away with this kind of behavior. Unless, of course, you are running an “Evil” Campaign, which can actually be quite fun when all players agree to explore the “bad guys'” perspective! Most new players, however, like to play the hero in a story, and villagers typically won’t celebrate someone who just stole their gold! So how do you correct this behavior while still allowing characters the freedom to play a character they find interesting?
First of all, not all characters have to be “good”. There are plenty of mischievous rogues and rough-around-the-edges fighters out there who still do good things, but with questionable tactics. If you have a player that starts to cross that line (as I did in one of the sessions), you have some options:
You could always confront the player directly. You are the DM. Never be afraid to address a character who starts to cross the line. I wouldn’t recommend stopping in the middle of the game (especially when working with children), but maybe speak to them privately during a break. If you feel that one person’s behaviour is taking away from the other players’ enjoyment of the game, just say something. Explain that the villagers might not like them if they start stabbing people without reason. Conversely, if that player would rather play an “evil” campaign, maybe explore options for a different game with new characters! It’s always interesting exploring the villians’ side of the story!
Use NPCs to set boundaries. This is my favorite method, particularly when children are involved. Rather than call attention to the child directly as the DM, use one of your NPCs to set the expectations of behavior. For example, one of my players was playing a rather mischevious rogue (of course…) who was intent on trying to pick the pockets of every villager they saw. The other players voiced their frustration with the behavior (in character, which helped to keep the narrative intact), and so I allowed the rogue to go ahead with the pickpocket attempt. Rather than allow a successful check, one of the local fairies saw the rogue reach for someone’s purse and intervened. She told him off for trying to steal from her friend, and put an enchantment on him: a large, red feather sprouted from the rogue’s head that could only be removed by the fairy. She told him that, next time, she would turn the rogue into a chicken.
The interaction yielded laughter from the entire party (rogue included), and the bard was able to convince the fairy to take the feather away. After that experience, however, the rogue didn’t try to steal from any villagers for the rest of the game. The problem was solved through a fun NPC interaction and no one felt as though they were treated unfairly. Never be afraid to show that player actions have in-game effects.
5. Keep the Dice Rolling!
Finally, keep the dice rolling! Regardless of the player’s preferred style of story or adventure, D&D is ultimately about exploring, fighting baddies, and rolling dice. This isn’t just for combat, either! You can challenge your characters with skill checks during NPC interactions (like rolling insight, persuasion, or intimidation), or when exploring the environment with investigation, perception, and survival. You can tailor the check to the strength and weaknesses of each character, and there are always multiple ways of solving a problem or finding a clue. Use your imagination and, if players start to seem bored or uninterested, get those dice rolling with some skill checks and bring them back to the game!
Running a game for children can be extremely rewarding, and I hope these tips help! Now go forth and enjoy your next adventure!
Coming Soon: Children’s D&D Storytelling Workshops