Adam “Cave” Johnson of the University of Northern Iowa Tech Writers writes:
We’ve all been there. Somebody’s playing a cool game, but “it’s really hard to explain.” Such is the case with many tabletop role-playing games (as I’m sure most of us are aware), like Dungeons & Dragons and its countless variants. Complex games such as these, while rewarding once all their intricacies are mastered, are admittedly really hard to grasp at first — My first experience with D&D a few years ago took weeks of preparation.
For those of us with kids, this begs the question: What if I don’t want to wait until my kid’s a teenager (or at least old enough to avoid confusion) to introduce a tabletop RPG? Any given system takes focus and open-mindedness to learn, let alone teach; and while young children have nearly limitless imaginations, it can be difficult to teach them the rules of the game, especially if they have little frame of reference — this ain’t exactly Candyland, folks.
It’s ultimately up to you if, when, and how you decide to introduce tabletop gaming to your kids, and you might ask yourself any number of questions: Do I break out the minis right away, or should I keep it all in the imagination for now? Should I stay away from the more visceral (or sensual) details of role-playing? What tone should I use when giving plot details? It all depends on the dynamic between you and your youngster(s). You can make these decisions better than anybody else, and if you try something that doesn’t work, it can be easily tweaked for better results.
Without going into specific game system details for the sake of brevity, here are a few tips to get you started on your way to playing your RPG of choice with your little one(s):
- Do away with some of the more intricate details of the game system. How many times have even the most experienced players gotten fed up with consulting the Player’s Handbook to find out the difference between “frightened,” “shaken,” and “panicked?” Things like status effects, level adjustment, certain special abilities, and sometimes moral alignment can be confusing even to seasoned veterans of tabletop RPGs.
- Simplify combat. Remember those early video game RPGs when everybody just took turns trying to hit each other rather than strategically moving to flank or ambush? Sure, a surprise round is okay, but often when the battlefield is too complex, those without tactical knowledge can end up at a disadvantage. However, don’t oversimplify — if a major battle is portrayed as little more than a mess of hack ‘n’ slash, rinse, and repeat, the epic feel of an encounter can be hugely undermined.
- Use the KISS method. KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I know, we all have the smartest kids in the world, but even they can fail to grasp things sometimes. When in doubt, trim the fat: Keep the core idea (e.g., important NPCs or key story points), but if players aren’t picking up even the most obvious of clues, it might be time to tune down the murder mystery in favor of a more straightforward plot. This can apply to all areas of the game as well, not just plot; again, it might be useful to shave off certain game system mechanics to streamline the game.
- Don’t be afraid to be creative. Come on, it’s a fantasy role-playing game we’re talking about here. Sure, the barbarian might be a brutal killing machine, but he still doesn’t know how to read. Part of the plot could hinge on literacy. Make players find ways to be clever. There are few things kids like more than knowing they figured out a puzzle themselves.
- Stuck? Just let the DM tell the story. Remember, the entire game is always at the DM’s mercy. If the story seems to be going nowhere, you (as the likely DM) have a responsibility to see that the plot advances. Whether it’s a simple tip-off to the location of the proverbial rats in the tavern cellar or a total deus ex machina to balance the final boss battle in the (losing) party’s favor, the story is in your hands, and ultimately, in your imagination. You are, above all, a storyteller. Never forget this.
I’ll be completely honest: I’m obviously not the first one to think about simplifying tabletop RPGs for kids. I’ve found a couple great articles from people who have already come up with completely new systems. The first comes from Kevin Makice at wired.com’s GeekDad blog, and is an overview of a new system, “DnDish,” he created. The second is from Mike Shea and contains more ideas for simplification.
Over all, the main things to remember are keeping a simple yet entertaining storyline and cutting down on the things that are or can be confusing. If you use your imagination (and, perhaps more important, let kids use theirs), the sky’s the limit.
Image of adorable baby looking up rules for a sneak attack maneuver shared by Daniel Hughes.