Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Running Games for Young Players

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!

Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Know Thy Players, Part Two

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. This time, we continue our series on different play styles with The Silent One, The Alpha, and The Storyteller.

The Silent One:
Frequency: You’ll know it when you see it.
Terrain: In the background
No. Appearing: Usually one…unless they’re hiding from you….
Special Attacks: Hiding
Special Defenses: Shyness

Somewhere in the vicinity of your table, far from the spotlight, you may have a Silent One. Silent Ones often appear with one or more players. Maybe they’re someone’s friend or significant other and they’ve joined the game as a way to spend time with friends or loved ones. Or perhaps they’re just shy and wouldn’t want to find a game on their own. Silent Ones pose no threat to the sanctity of your table per se. Indeed, their unassuming nature makes them quite easy to get along with. And therein lies the problem.

How to deal with them:

Silent Ones generally fall into two categories: very shy/self-conscious or along for the company. For the latter, the best thing you can do is accept that they’re having the level of engagement with the game that they feel comfortable with. As long as they aren’t disrupting everyone else’s fun, that’s absolutely OK. For the former type, you’ll want to make sure they have opportunities to drive the action or offer input to the party’s decision making. It can be easy for quiet players to go unnoticed and eventually become disengaged from the game if more vocal players dominate the game. With that said, you’ll have to do your best to strike a balance between providing opportunities and putting pressure on a Silent One to participate. Offer chances to do so with a light hand…lest you cause them to withdraw even further.

The Alpha:
Frequency: The Right Time, of course.
Terrain: Leading from the front or behind the scenes
No. Appearing: Pray its only 1
Special Attacks: Rapid Fire Decision Making
Special Defenses: Certainty

Alphas have a need for control that can quickly lead to other players becoming discouraged or leaving the game altogether as the Alpha tries to drag the game in a direction that other members of the party might not be comfortable with. Alphas tend to hog the spotlight even if they don’t mean to, because unlike the Silent One, they have no problem at all speaking their mind. Alphas can be quite good at keeping the game moving when a Rules Lawyer feels compelled to argue the finer points of some esoteric use of a skill, or when a Thespian’s soliloquy begins to drag on. In these ways, an Alpha can be helpful…ish. Many Alphas see themselves as careful tacticians and are fond of developing intricate plans then lobbying the party to go along with it. At their worst, Alphas can be overbearing and a bit too fixated on their own fun at the expense of everyone else.

How to deal with them:

Channeling the energy that an Alpha can bring to the table is the key to smoothly integrating such a player into your group. Alphas tend to have a natural penchant for organization and for providing their fellow players with a sense of direction. This can be very helpful if, like the Rules Lawyer, you delegate some of the bookkeeping to them, like tracking the party’s loot, or having them update a list of NPCs the party has encountered. If it sounds like the strategy is “keep them busy”, then you’ve got the gist of it, but it needs to be something of helpful to everyone at the table. And like all players, be sure to give the Alpha their moment in the sun occasionally, as they place a particular importance on being able to lead the charge.

The Storyteller:
Frequency: In Three Acts
Terrain: In the background
No. Appearing: A dime/copper/cred-stick a dozen
Special Attacks: Incessant Narration
Special Defenses: Meticulously Kept Campaign Notes

A somewhat uncommon denizen of the playerverse, the Storyteller takes pleasure in obsessing over the most intricate details of worldbuilding. A Storyteller’s character will almost always have extraordinarily detailed back story, which they will eagerly provide you. Much like the Thespian, they often immerse themselves deep into the psyches of their characters, but they’re far more concerned with how their character interacts with the world than with hamming it up in the spotlight. Storytellers arrive at your table in search of their character’s narrative and exploring that narrative in the campaign world. They are creatures of wild and fanciful imagination and are mostly harmless…as long as they perceive the story being told as interesting. If not, they’ll do anything to make the story bend to their personal whims.

How to deal with them:

Storytellers are, at the end of the day, at the table to have a good time just like everyone else, but in some ways, it can feel like they’re gunning for your role in running the game. Be prepared to answer questions about the cultures/languages/economies/religions and other extreme minutia of your campaign setting with a Storyteller around. Feel free to tell them “Eh, I don’t know”. Then feel free to listen to their ideas about it. Nod thoughtfully often. Eventually they’ll move on to ponder something else. The key to dealing with a Storyteller is striking a balance between letting them explore the deepest aspects of their character’s inner nature while also reminding them to engage with the other party members and the overall story. Asking a Storyteller to help contribute to the party’s campaign notebook is a good way to keep them engaged in events transpiring at the table that don’t involve them. Storytellers can often fall in and out of love with their creations, and don’t be surprised if they switch characters (all with pages of background info) several times throughout a campaign. As long as its not going to adversely disrupt the game or the other player’s enjoyment, there’s usually no harm in letting them do so.

Parting Thoughts:

While the six player styles we’ve covered in the series covers most of what you’ll encounter as a GM, in reality most players will have elements of all of these styles in varying degrees. Be sure to match your tactics to the players you’re working with! Everyone, myself included, has player habits that can sometimes cause GMs and fellow players headaches. Hopefully you’ll be able to use this as a basis for being aware of the blind spots in your own play style the next time you sit down on either side of the GM’s screen.

Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Know Thy Players, Part One

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. This time, we begin the first in a series covering different play styles GMs can encounter in the field and how to handle them. This month we take a look at The Rules Lawyer, The Power Player, and The Thespian.

Players, like the characters they bring to the table, have their own personality quirks and idiosyncrasies. But believe it or not, they also have their own classes. While not as grand as The Spellfinger, The Murderbeard, or The Sneakypants, these secret (usually to them) classes are just as powerful when determining the actions their PCs will take and the shape of the campaigns you’ll run. When brought together at a table, their fel powers combine to form a multi-headed, headache inducing Hydra of Heartburn. That is at least, if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Last month we talked about what to do when players do the unexpected. This month, we’re going to begin to explore the why. Each of the examples below are the extremes of their ilk and not all Players will be as terrifying as the horrors below. (Also, I still love you Players. After all, I’m one of you as well.)

The Rules Lawyer:
Frequency: Too Often
Terrain: Any (Most often their favorite game’s message boards)
No. Appearing: 1 Too Many
Special Attacks: Mind Palace of Obscure Rules
Special Defenses: Endless Reference Material

The Rules Lawyer is perhaps the most well-known and dreaded of all the foul denizens of the Playerverse, for they know all and will take extreme joy in sharing their knowledge with you and the rest of the party. During a game. Outside of a game. Via text message. At 4:30 in the morning. (Please send help.)

Rules Lawyers are usually the kind of people who go straight from beginner to expert in record time. They will spend hours pouring over the books, extracting every nugget of mechanical knowledge about the game they can. Most often they genuinely know the rules quite well. In fact, you can count on them knowing the rules at least as well as you, if not better. This would all be fine if they wouldn’t spend every possible opportunity contesting a ruling that doesn’t go their way. It’s a little known fact, but Rules Lawyers are the best pro-bono legal counsel in the world. They never lose a case (at least in their own mind.) If they’re decent humans, they’ll faithfully and accurately tell you what the rule is. If not, well…you should probably ban them from play until the can be above-board.

How to deal with them:

The dread Rules Lawyer has but one weakness: they aren’t running the game. A GM’s chief job is to help keep the game fun for everyone at the table, and its the GM who ultimately referees the game. Don’t be afraid to overrule or even ignore a Rules Lawyer if their insistence on a particular interpretation of the rules threatens to derail the game. If they have a problem with that, then maybe they need to take a break, or maybe your game isn’t for them. On a bright note, the power of the Rules Lawyer can be used to benefit everyone. When rules conflicts emerge, ask the Rules Lawyer to pitch in and be a point of reference. Most of the time they takes to this duty with gusto and it can go a long way to integrating a fearsome but lovable Rules Lawyer into the party.

The Power Player:
Frequency: Every. Damned. Time.
Terrain: Among the Scattered Remains of Their Enemies
Special Attacks: Absurd Damage Rolls
Special Defenses: Absurd Damage Rolls

The Power Player is the best they are at what they do. These avatars of carnage seek the power of the gods and let nothing stand in their way. They may not know all the rules, but they know how to optimize their damage with a Gurgleburgle’s Ceremonial Decapitator.

Power Players (also known as Munchkins…yes like the game) are easy to spot. They will gladly tell people how awesome their character (and they) are. They may not always be Murderbeards, but they will be ridiculously good at being strong/pretty/magicky/fast/skillful or anything else they can take to 11. They can sometimes be competitive with other players and may get upset if they’re character doesn’t get the magic Wookydoodle of Slaying that another Player happened to find.

How to deal with them:

Power Players can unbalance things for a GM if left to their own devices. GMs will need to plan with the strengths of the Power Player’s character in mind–either by compensating for them or by making encounters that other members of the party will be instrumental in defeating. The Murderbeard’s Death Tomato is of little use when an encounter requires magic, stealth, or diplomacy, for example. Good-natured Power Players (or benevolent paragons in their own minds) might also be encouraged to help other members of the party optimize their characters to increase overall Party Badassery. Most Power Players love a challenge to test their character’s awesome power. Don’t be afraid to give it to them (and hopefully the rest of the party survives).

The Thespian:
Frequency: The Perfect Scene
Terrain: The Center of Attention
No. Appearing: What do you MEAN there are others!?
Special Attacks: Overly Dramatic Monologue
Special Defenses: Impassioned Acting

A lesser-known, but no less dangerous creature of the great dark beyond the GM Screen is the Thespian. Capable of accurately portraying literally everyone, the Thespian glories in acting out their adventures. The rest of the party? Eh, whatever. The Thespian helps keep the game moving…as long as moving means revolving around themselves.

There are role players and then there are character actors who happen to be at a table rolling dice with the rest of the party. Thespians crave attention and want to be at the center of the action every time. They often mistake their need to constantly drive the action as enthusiastic role-playing. Thespians are often the least introverted of people at the table. They make wonderful GMs if they can spare the time away from their pet character or NPC.

How to deal with them:

One way to deal with Thespians is to interrupt their monologues. No self-respecting Killmonster is going to let Sir Shinypants word it to death. You can also use this technique to move on to the other beleaguered party members so they can have a chance to act (literally and figuratively). In groups where there’s a greater emphasis on role-playing the Thespian can actually fit in quite well (chances are you’ve got multiple Thespians) and it can even be fun at times to let them improv. If you have a more tactical boardgame style campaign, chances are the focus on combat mechanics will bore Thespians, which could cause them to leave the game, to the sadness (or relief) of everyone else. A great way to keep a Thespian engaged in a game is to occasionally let them do their thing. They’ll feel important and it’ll help keep them satiated until “drama fever” overtakes them again.

All Players have a style of play uniquely their own, and just like in many games, most Players multi-class into multiple play styles. Hopefully the extreme examples we’ve talked about here can help you and your Players get the most the game and each other. Next month, we’ll have a look at The Silent One, The Alpha, and The Storyteller.

Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Build an adventure

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. We kick off this series with tips on how to build an adventure!

This week I’ve been prepping for our monthly Pathfinder campaign, and it seemed like a good time to talk about do-it-yourself adventure design. Prep can be one of the toughest aspects of running a game and it can feel like work if you’re building your own adventures. Even if you’re running an pre-made adventure/module you’ll often need to tweak it to fit your gaming group. Here’s a method I like to use to organize and build content for game sessions.


What’s the event/situation/trigger that will compel the party to action? This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Plenty of adventures have started off with some approximation of “you’re all sitting in a bar/tavern/inn/cantina/10 Forward when”. The primary purpose of the hook is to provide just enough of a push to get the PCs moving…even when it’s not in the direction you’d planned. In times like those…

Have a loose outline!

Rarely, if ever, will your PCs do exactly what you’d planned for them to do. Even if they arrive at the to assault the Death Star/Unicron/Keep of the Evil Pony Queen on time, they’ll often decide to get there their own way. This doesn’t necessarily mean your plans are for naught. This might sound strange, but come up with your ending first. If the brave heroes are supposed to end up confronting the necromancer in his keep, you can develop other set pieces that can be used interchangeably as the players move from the hook to the ending.

For example, take these elements:

  • The PCs are summoned by the High Muckety-muck and asked to destroy the Necromancer. (Hook)
  • Along their travels, the PCs are attacked by assassins. (A)
  • The PCs could go to a ruined village to search for clues about the Necromancer’s plans or…(B)
  • Navigate the Swamp of Evil Thingies to find an Magical Anti-Necromancer Thingamabob…(C)
  • Go right up to the Necromancer’s front door. (D. PCs love this one for some reason.)
  • The PCs confront the Necromancer in her Lab of Horrible Inconveniences (Ending)

After the Hook, the PCs could run through these in ABCDE order, or DACBE or some other combination. The key to this approach is to have options to choose from that you can throw at the PCs during their journey in whatever order works best for the story.

Also: Players are smart! Use it!

Collectively, your players are going to be smarter than you. Often times, they’ll dream up challenges more horrible/intriguing than you could ever devise alone. Take FULL advantage of it. With a tweak or two you could throw in something player-inspired into the mix which will take the game in an interesting direction and let the players feel clever for “figuring it out” (and make your job easier).

Choose your challenges!

So you’ve figured out your hook and roughed out the adventure’s main set pieces. Now its time to populate your adventure with bad guys/monsters/killer vacuum bots. Also include traps/riddles/puzzles and role-playing encounters with various NPCs with whom the party will have to deal with. Have a Necromancer as your big bad guy? Use Undead monsters, maybe an infernal pit lemur or two. Maybe its the Erlking instead? Go with Faeries and/or magic bandersnatches. Most game systems will have monster stat blocks for a wide range of needs. The same can be said for traps, as well. For role-playing encounters, its important to realize that not all conflicts in a game need to be resolved with violence. Convincing the Sheriff that you really AREN’T here to cause any trouble is overcoming a challenge just as much as if you tried to convince him with your boot.

Maps are good too!

In addition to giving form to plans you’ve already made, mapping out the locations in your adventure can help generate more ideas. Unless you’re playing a highly tactical, board-driven RPG, maps aren’t strictly necessary. But having them means not having to come up with them during the game session on the fly.

Build only what you need!

There’s no need to create the entire adventure from soup to nuts unless you’re running a one-shot. If you’re running a campaign, just make as much as you need for the next session. You’ll feel less overwhelmed and you’ll be able to work in any player feedback you get as the game develops.

Keep a notebook or journal of the game

Keeping notes on the game, particularly for a campaign, is invaluable. You’ll be able to recap for players where they left off, look over old notes for new ideas, and generally be better off organizationally by having a game notebook. For instance, I rely on my campaign notebooks to help me keep track of NPC names. Either a physical notebook or an online notebook or document works fine, so long as its something you can easily get to.