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Sam, the Educational DM’s tips for playing tabletop RPGs with young kids

I am happy to post our first guest article from Sam, the Educational DM! Sam shares his insights into playing tabletop RPGs with kids from the viewpoint of teaching, and has regular advice on how to help make games with kids more interesting, engaging, and educational! I am excited to bring in more points of view and include advice for a larger range of tabletop RPG use – I hope Sam’s tips help with games for your class or family!

This article was written by Sam, the Educational DM, and he has given permission to use this article on the TTRPGkids site.

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Tabletop RPGs from an educator’s view

At the start of this year, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and release some tips for playing with young kids, now fortnightly on my social media channels. However, it would be fair to ask what a single middle-aged man with no kids, who teaches teenagers (13-18 year olds), has in terms of experience with dealing with young kids. Well, for much of my career, I have also taught regularly as young as 11 year-olds and occasionally as young as 7-8 year olds. I have also played Dungeon Master to young children. Finally, I spent a good few years working on summer camps with young children (8-12 year olds).

In British secondary schools (11-18 year olds), I see three main stages:

The first is those who come into the secondary system wide-eyed and bushy tailed; they are bursting with enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity and are loaded with a lot of the thoughts, perceptions and view of the world that their parents have given them.

The second stage is where they then transform into what most people know as the “stroppy teenage” phase. They stop telling their parents everything (in fact, anything). They become more cynical, lethargic and resistant to doing work.

The final stage is when they are starting to prepare for university – and we hope that they reach this phase before they leave school, but I fear for some it doesn’t kick in until their mid-twenties – they start to realize that they need to study for themselves, start to form their own ideas and seek to forge their own destiny.

Of course, this is hugely broad strokes, but the tips I’m looking at here are mostly for the first phase, and so this is aimed mostly at parents and Dungeon Masters who deal with children who have not reached that stereotypical “teenage” phase. Some of the tips may work perfectly well with older teenagers or even adults (shhh… I do use some of them in my adult groups). In my previous school, where I spent ten years, my pastoral role (form tutor) was as a specialist with the younger students (11-13 year olds) and certainly the first year, 11-12 years olds, they demonstrated this wonderful childlike quality. 

So in this article, I am going to give you two tips that I’ve picked up as a teacher and two tips I’ve learned as a Dungeon Master. I’m going to flesh them out, give examples and reasons and say more than I’ve been giving in my pithy fortnightly tips..

Tips for playing tabletop RPGs with young children

To calm down over-excitable children, a cool breeze can sometimes help.  Open a window or switch on the air conditioning.  This can help change the tone or mood of the adventure.

1. The Cool Breeze

In my first year of teaching, we had a local meetup for new teachers. This was a tip that I was given by some primary school teachers (aged 5-10). During a warm afternoon, when older teenagers get a bit tired, they become lethargic. With younger children, they become a little excitable. Often, if you open the windows or turn the air conditioning up to let a cool breeze blow over the children, it can calm them. This can be useful for changing the tone of your adventure or just to calm the children down a little.

Tips for playing tabletop RPGs with young children

Try making every 1 rolled a critical fumble, but really make the consequences hilarious so that kid will want to roll a 1 to see what happens.  This will make them unafraid of failure.

2. Critical Failures

Sometimes I see people online cry foul when I suggest Critical Failures. Outraged, they ask, “Why would you want to punish your players like that?”. 

The answer is: “Because it’s fun!”.

Critical fumbles can be hilarious, even if it is causing damage to your teammates. Of course, it can be all about the fun descriptions and you have to avoid it becoming cruel, but you can also ask them, “So what do you think happens?”… and then you take their descriptions and like many roleplaying components, you embellish it and make it sound more epic.

You also want to make children unafraid of failure. Yes, you don’t want to punish them for failure, but if they see that rolling a critical fail can be funny, it makes them more ready to laugh at themselves, pick themselves up and try again. If you ask them what happens, and they get into the spirit of describing something fun, they should be much more receptive to seeing failure as something that’s not something to be afraid of in their minds. This is part of what educators call “Resilience”: learning that failure is ok, dealing with failure, seeing that failure is part of life and a learning experience and that some of the most interesting things happen when you fail.

Let me be clear, I do encourage children to laugh at another child’s failure. If they are laughing together, that’s a good sign. If not, I will gently discourage it. I also quickly model the behaviour of following it up with asking if they are ok, and model empathy to the other children if they are feeling hurt.

Learning how to handle failure is an important lesson that TTRPGs teach in a safe environment.

tip for playing tabletop RPGs with young children

to get the most out of excitable young children with lots of energy, you need to inject more energy than them.  Get them to describe the action, then take over and make it epic.  Use their energy to fuel the story.

3. Excitable Children

Another teacher tip, and one that I have used to great effect on the summer camps. Sometimes, it is great to have children excited about what you are describing, and really getting stuck into the game. To make the most of that energy, and to effectively harness it and mold it, it can sometimes be helpful to try to have more energy than the children. Make the fights exciting and epic, act out some of the scenes with them, embellish the roleplay with larger than life actions and characters. Use their energy.

With older teenagers this can be used to inject energy into a somewhat lethargic/ apathetic group. They may groan about it, and be reluctant, but usually they appreciate it, especially if you have a good rapport generally with them. This is something I have to work hard at, and this last year of online teaching has been especially sapping because I don’t get the energy feedback from my students when I try and inject energy into the lesson.

tips for playing tabletop RPGs with young children

give your players pets, familiars, and/or animal companions.  it teaches them to care.

4. Pets in tabletop RPGs

Many parents with young children understand the value of real-life pets in a child’s life. It teaches them responsibility and even care and empathy.

To a lesser degree this is true of pets/ sidekicks/ familiars and animal companions in game. For the most part you can let the kids dictate the actions of the pets, but occasionally a pet will wander off where they shouldn’t, make a sound when they are trying to be stealthy, trigger a trap or alarm, or just get caught in a stray fireball.

In roleplaying games, some of the most amazing experiences happen when things go wrong, or the players get themselves into trouble, and anyone with pets will know how often a pet can get themselves into trouble with no help from anyone else. A pet can act as comic relief for your sessions, or show the curiosity that the party may lack when they “happen” to “accidentally” find that item that it would be incredibly helpful for their party to have.

Closing thoughts on tabletop RPGs and education and links:

Well, I hope those have been helpful. Do check out my Facebook page for more, and if you like this article, I may talk through some of the others.

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Thank you Sam for your insights!

Sam can be found on twitter as well and is definitely worth a follow for great advice!

Please let me know in the comments your advice too, and, if you liked this post, make sure to subscribe to the TTRPGkids monthly newsletter to stay up to date on the latest reviewstips and tricksgame and podcast list updates, and more! Thank you for playing tabletop RPGs with your kids and sharing this awesome hobby with the next generation!

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