This article was written as a guest post for my friend
Draconick! If you haven’t seen his blog yet, check it out here for some more fantastic D&D content!
The art of oral storytelling has been part of our collective consciousness since the very beginning. It’s how we communicate our histories, beliefs, fears, and dreams…and it is usually our first exposure as young children to the experiences of our elders in an intimate and interactive way. Consider this common scene: the storyteller in an animated stance, their face shifting from old to young, weary and emboldened with the flickering of the firelight, creating a range of personas without masks or costume. An enraptured audience hangs upon their every word, the ebb and flow of emotions is palpable as the spoken words paint a vivid scene in the audience’s imagination. The passing of time itself seems distorted while speaker and listeners alike are transported to a different world, swept away by this shared experience. This is the essence of humanity. Today, this beautiful tradition lives on alongside more modern interpretations…like Dungeons and Dragons.
Like its predecessor, D&D resonates with all ages, cultures, and walks of life. That being said, it is still largely enjoyed by adult audiences, with surprisingly few family and kid-friendly resources (with some exceptions…check out the shout outs at the end of this article).
It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Adults and kids of all ages can surely appreciate a good story, and TRPGs can be such a positive bonding experience for a family, but there are certain roadblocks that can make the game seem daunting to parents and young players alike. Families who come to my table tend to fall into one of two categories:
- The parents have played Pathfinder or an earlier edition of D&D (all the way back to AD&D) and now want to share the hobby with their children
- Children have heard about D&D from other kids in school and want to play with their friends and family, and their parents want to support this interest
Regardless of what brings the family to the table, they are drawn by the same thing: a desire to share in the collaborative experience of D&D, but simply don’t know where to begin. So what can we do, as creators, to open the door wider to young players and families? The roadblocks often come down to things like game mechanics, fear of role playing, or even lack of familiarity with the fantasy genre. After several months of running family campaigns and workshops, I’ve learned that there are some easy ways to smooth the path:
Streamlined Rules and Mechanics
Navigating the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and even the published adventures is a cumbersome task for adults who are new to the game…even more so for children! While Fifth Edition is already significantly more streamlined and loose compared to earlier iterations, it’s still a lot to take in. If you can find a way to pare down the rules to more easily-digested highlights, you’re already making the game much more accessible to younger players. For the workshops, I like to start with the absolute basics:
- The d20
- Skill Checks and Saving Throws
- Making an Attack
If you take away everything else, all the nuanced variations and exceptions, that is the bare minimum that a player needs to play the game. Start there and the rest can come in the form of “hands-on” learning as you work your way through the story. If you can provide a simplified Character Sheet, then that’s icing on the cake!
Even with the established rules and guided adventures, D&D gameplay is based purely on the imagination of the people at the table…you needn’t have ready Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter to dive into the world! Few structured games outside of RPGs allow for such flexibility in problem solving. Some players are naturally bold with their off-the-wall shenanigans, but others will be a bit more shy…you will want to make sure you encourage creative thought by giving everyone a chance to voice their ideas. Don’t criticize an idea for being unconventional or outside the commonly accepted parameters of possibility…it’s an imagination game. If they want the cleric to anoint the warlock’s pet rat and turn it into a holy weapon, let them (true story). Kids and parents alike will appreciate the freedom to explore and, with some patient coaching, the shyest of adventurers will find their inner hero.
Promote Inter-Party Role Playing
When we were first starting with the Heroes of Iyastera family campaigns, just about every child at the table tried to conduct their interactions through me. They would excitedly ask my permission to interact with NPCs, the environment, and each other to the point that it felt more like a game of “Mother May I” instead of D&D! In time, I stopped granting them permission and instead encouraged them to interact with each other. Sometimes you need to remind your players that you (the DM) aren’t “there” in the scene. Save for the perfectly reasonable questions about gameplay or clarification, the party needs to be able to plan and interact with each other. Provide plenty of opportunities for PC interaction—you can open up scenes while they’re taking watch, travelling to the next destination, sitting in the tavern…embrace down time! This will help build confidence and trust in each other, and the bonds they create will only enrich the game that much more.
Simple Stories can still be Complex
I mentioned earlier that everyone, regardless of age, can enjoy a good story. A common misconception when writing for children is that you must “dumb down” the plot…but that isn’t the case. You can have an adventure with more family-friendly themes like identity, inclusion, and defending those in need without removing the complexity.
A complex story will have many moving parts that interact with– and have effects on– each other, but it can still be easy to follow and understand. Think about a clock:
Clocks are pretty simple to understand and use, and we know that there are gears inside that move the hands along, but that system of gears behind the watch face is actually very complex. There are many delicate, moving parts, and each gear functions by interacting with the gears around it. Simple concept, but complex in function!
Your stories can be the same way. If you oversimplify a story, you’ll lose the older players in the group and inadvertently put a limitation on how much the younger players can develop their critical thinking skills. I’m not saying you should dump a 6-year-old in the middle of a crazy sociopolitical conflict, but that could very well be happening in the background. Think about the way the different plotlines interact, like the gears in the clock, and that will help you maintain a richness of story that will inspire your players regardless of age.
Even with all the other tips and insights above, the best way to bring young players to the table is to just have fun! If you’re having a good time, getting into character, and releasing some of your inhibitions, they will naturally find themselves more at ease and drawn into the game. Just as in the scene at the start of this article, your energy as a storyteller will inspire them to open their minds and hearts to the adventure.
Have fun and the rest will be easy!
If you are interested in more family-friendly RPG content, feel free check out these amazing storytellers!
Hatchlings and Inspirisles (@HatchlingDM)
Monique Franzsen (@moniquefranzsen)