Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. Our focus this time will be tips for running games for younger players.
At some point in your GMing career, you’ll be asked (or maybe decide on your own) to run a game for one or more younger players. Most often these players will be new to tabletop, but not always. In any case, younger players don’t engage RPGs in the same way as older players, and in most cases you’ll need to alter your approach to accommodate that audience. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you craft a smooth running and fun experience for younger players*.
*By younger players, I mean those between the ages of 8 and 13.
1. Did I Mention They’re Kids?
To play with and run a game for kids, you have to be more patient than you would otherwise be. A 5th grader doesn’t have the same command of small unit tactics that you do. They won’t always think before they act, so offer them a chance to reconsider their choices. If a young Wizard is going to charge a zombie dragon, offer him advice on the wisdom of that choice. This doesn’t mean that you always have to give them a pass. If the young wizard decides to press on and get eaten, that’s OK. Allowing them to make mistakes can (hopefully) let them learn from the experience and make smarter choices the next time around.
If you’re running a mixed party of older people and kids, be sure to gently remind the other people at the table to be patient with the younger player(s). We all want to have a good time, but sometimes we older players can forget that we weren’t born able to recite the list of 3rd level spells. A younger player has every right to be at the table, just like any adult player. This can cut both ways, however, and if a younger player is being actively disruptive, don’t hesitate to firmly (but politely) tell them to rein it in.
2. Fun first, rules second.
Tabletop RPGs are, in a way, the antithesis of what most kids might consider fun.”RPGs are sort of “make believe with lots of rules.” On its surface that proposition can be a deal-breaker, but the key keeping it fun is to…well, focus on the fun more and the rules less. If a kid wants to play a Paladin that dual wields laser-beam-shooting-katanas, then OK. Let them pretend to be the heroine they want to be. The key here is that they: 1. have fun 2. are allowed to be creative, 3. learn that RPGs are a good way to do 1&2. If a kid wants to be Batman in your D&D game, then for the love of Paladine, let Batman beat the crap out of some Orcs, OK?
3. Pre-Make Everything (as much as you can):
Have you ever noticed how a character sheet looks like an exam form? Yeah, that’s not lost on your players, either. Do them (and yourself) a favor and provide your players with pre-generated characters if its their first time. Or if they’ve played the game before, let them use their character. In case of the latter, they’d probably want to use their own character away. In either case, this will allow you to spend more time actually playing that rolling up character and potentially having to explain how character creation works. And while you could set up a specific time to get together and make characters with these players, the act of character creation can be an onerous process–especially in the case of games like Rolemaster or GURPS.
Pre-creating your adventure materials is even more important in these cases since you can run the risk of bogging the game down or losing the interest of your players even faster than with adults. Try to prepare your “main path” but also be ready with a few random encounters or set pieces statted up to throw into the mix when the players go too far off script or if the adventure you have planned becomes predictable. And while that is pretty standard advice, in the case of kids and their attention spans it’s even more important. Or you can do what I like to do, and use pre-made adventures.Organized play scenarios like those from the Pathfinder Society or the D&D Adventurer’s League are especially useful in these situations.
4. Faster Pacing is Better.
In the same vein as #3, a faster paced scenario will help keep your players engaged. This means often times it could be a combat-heavy affair, but it doesn’t have to be. Following the model of an escape game like this, you could set up a challenging puzzle for your players (a Sphinx’s riddle or a room slowly filling with acid) and impose a time limit to solve the problem. However you decide to do it, by forcing your players to make choices on a fairly regular basis you can create a brisk and suspenseful pacing that will keep them looking less at their phones and more at each other.
5. Shorter Game Sessions are Better.
Given #3 and #4, this should be a no-brainer. Not only will kids start to get antsy if a session lasts for more than a few hours, but they also have far more restricted schedules than adults. Young players are still have to deal with curfews, homework, chores–all things we adult players have long since been (thankfully) liberated from. For very young players, those still in elementary school range, consider only running for no longer than two hours. For older kids, a full “con-length” session of 3-4 hours may be feasible, but always adjust for your table’s attention span and taste.
Most of these tips are just GMing best practice, but in the case of young players, each of these ideas are even more important. Do you have any tips to share for GMing younger players? Leave a comment if you do!