- Determine the setting based on THEIR interests
- Narrow the setting based on YOUR interests too
- Be up front about educational parts
- Create a captivating story hook
- Key points: Get buy in, don’t force the plot, and be willing to practice
Determine the setting based on THEIR interests
First off, we need a setting – is this adventure going to take place in a winding cavern? Is there a medieval festival that’s plagued by a dragon? Are they on a quest across distant wooded lands? These settings are pretty typical for a standard TTRPG, but not all kids are going to connect with them if it isn’t what they’re into.
This first impression is super important because they need to be interested from the beginning. Unlike with most adults who will wait a little bit to see where things go, if a kid (more so the younger they are) isn’t into the topic, they probably aren’t going to want to stick around for very long or be very enthusiastic.
So, we want to ask, what is your kid interested in? How can we get them to say, “oh… what’s that?”
When I make settings for games with my kid or for StoryGuider, I like to list all of my son’s current favorites and then pick a few from the list that I think would draw him in. Here is a sample list that I may use to get all the topics he’s into at the time:
What are the current 2 favorite:
- TV shows
- Stuffed toys
- General topics (dinosaurs, space stuff, etc)
- Recent events (birthday party, holiday, etc)
- Places to visit
From here, I maybe see that he recently got into a book about a toy tug boat, he asked to watch Moana twice, and he was really getting into the Row, Row, Row your boat song… so, this week, I ask him if he’d like to do an adventure on a boat!
Next week, maybe it is cats, a birthday party, and The Ants Go Marching song – then, I’ll ask if he wants to do one about a cat having a birthday picnic where the ants take the food. It changes pretty often, so make sure to re-evaluate.
This works for older kids too. Some kids may 100% be into a classic medieval setting, but from this list, maybe you see that all their favorite movies are about zombies and they really like superhero comics. You could then ask them if they’d prefer for the game to be about one of those topics instead so they have some options that might stick with them better.
Narrow the setting a bit based on YOUR interests too
You need to have fun with this too. If you aren’t having fun, I think the kids will pick up on your mood or maybe you become hesitant to run the next game. I am majorly in favor of the “GM” being able to enjoy the game along with the players AND for parents to take care of themselves.
One thing that I learned to look out for… if my son asks for a game about topic A and we run it… he will be fascinated by topic A for several weeks longer than normal. If it happens to be learning about outer space or something based around Puffin Rock (I think that show is adorable), I’m OK with it.
However… There are also certain other topics that tend to drill a hole in my head. Great example aside from certain shows and books… he kept asking for a birthday party story after we had his last birthday. I understand his interest, and I ran it a couple times… which lead to him asking for more. I wasn’t particularly cool with singing the Happy Birthday song for every stuffed toy for an entire month. So, I gently steered him away from that topic by suggesting some other options. You don’t HAVE to do it just because they’re interested.
For older kids, you can do this as well. Maybe there are topics (ex: if you think romance stuff could get awkward or don’t want to see them getting super violent) that you don’t want at the table – state this up front that the setting won’t cover these. Just make sure that you understand your boundaries up front as well so that you can keep wanting to provide a cool game and don’t start to dread it.
Be up front about educational parts
Sometimes, I will run TTRPG’s with my kid just to have a casual game to play or to pass a little bit of time. Other times, I use it to work on other skills with him. I think it is important to know ahead of time what you plan to do with the game, and, if you want to include education or skill building, ask your kid if it is OK with them so they don’t feel tricked later.
Here are some ways that I’ve considered for adding skill building to settings without making the game super preachy:
- Math: Let players add to their roll if they solve a math problem
- Shapes: Markers on the game map are different shapes we’re learning
- Emotional: When a character (or player) gets upset, walk everyone through a practice clam down exercise, like deep breathing
- Empathy: Encourage your child to help an NPC who is lost or concerned
I like to add little bits of these to my games, and I’ll ask my son if he’s OK with it or if he just wants to play today. I would much rather have him happy to just play (and reap the existing benefits of TTRPG’s) versus having him leave the game 5 minutes in because he wasn’t expecting to do extra shapes practice today. The focus here is fun, and being up front with your kids about any extra goals is important to letting them have a little control with that.
Create a captivating story hook
You have a topic that your kid and you are both OK with, and you’ve got the OK on any educational bits that you’re covering. Now, you need a story!
Sometimes, you can loop back to section 1 and pull stories from your kid’s interest list and you’re all set! I know my son can be very happy just replaying the plot of one of his favorite books, and it can be very easy to run.
Other times, I will try to create my own by tying into one of these three main groups:
- Tease a reward
- Set some friendly competition
- Acknowledge my kid’s concerns
Tease a reward:
If you tell your players that the goal is to get from the city to the top of the mountain, they are going to want to know why. For older kids, you may be able to use classic TTRPG hooks like “go up there and defeat the evil wizard that’s trying to destroy the town”, and it can work out totally fine simply by them wanting to be altruistic heroes.
For younger kids though, that might be a little intimidating. So, I will sometimes set the goal as a reward: The character(s) found a treasure map to a chest full of toys! They are going to party! The town baker will make a cake for everyone if you find all the ingredients!
These are easy ways to kick off a short journey and have a really clear and easy to define goal for your kid. They simply encounter obstacles or challenges along the way but are always brought back on track by the promise that their character gets some kind of reward.
I will also sometimes add real life rewards, like a sticker sheet or an extra treat at snack time, to represent the game reward as well. My son always stays interested when he knows there’s a real life reward at stake.
Set some friendly competition:
Having a friendly competition, like a race, pie eating contest, or color-a-thon, as the main point in your game can be another way to keep kids interested through their drive to either succeed or just play a game (this time it is inside another game a little).
They will probably get excited to “win” against NPC’s (non-player characters) if there is some kind of challenge, and it can also be a good way to introduce ideas about being a good sport. If your child wins, have them act out helping a sad NPC’s or saying they did a good job. If your child didn’t win, this can be a safe place to learn about how to handle a defeat without getting too upset. Either way, I know my son was VERY engaged when trying to eat his pretend pie faster than the NPC (which happened to be a Pikachu stuffed toy).
It can also be good for helping them to think under some mild pressure, and this keeps the stakes going throughout the game. Maybe during the race, the tire on their car gets broken when they hit a bump! Do they keep going at a slower speed? Or do they get out and change it? This teaches some quick thinking and also keeps a little bit of engaging tension.
Acknowledge my kid’s concerns:
This is the one I actually use the most for any educational/skill building games. I will take something that my kid is struggling with and try to base parts of the game around it. It helps me have an easier time talking about issues with him, and I think it helps him connect with the characters more because they are going through the same issues.
For example, my son decided not to try tomatoes all of a sudden. So, I made a game where an astronaut goes to a space station party with their alien friend, and everything (food, people, games, music) was different. I had researched methods for getting kids to try something new, and I let my son pick which method to use every time an event came up. When he got to the party food table, he even said, “it’s like tomatoes!”.
I don’t know if he consciously understood that he was connecting with the game over his locking up about trying new things, but I could see it happening. As he saw that the character could deal with some of the issues, he got more confident and excited to try out more and use his new tools. I think it is really similar to what a lot of adult players do in D&D when building conflict into a character’s backstory, but this is at your kid’s level.
Just to give some ideas for other types of “concerns” that I’ve tried with my kid, here are some problems to plot hooks to get you started! (notice that a lot of them also draw elements from the other two techniques):
- Trying new foods → alien space party full of new (but fun) things
- Dealing with spills → clumsy superhero keeps knocking things over and needs to clean up
- Upset over broken toy → toymaker journeys to find parts to fix their toys
- Saying “I can’t” and not trying → main character learns to ride a bike to get to a picnic
- Upset when screen time is done → inventor has to figure out new ways to work (and have fun) when the power is out
Key points: Get buy in, don’t force the plot, and be willing to practice
Throughout this article, I have made a point of mentioning to check in with your kids about the plots and topics that you are choosing. If you don’t do this, you can sometimes run the risk of assuming what your kid wants… and maybe they weren’t actually in the mood for that particular thing. Being upfront about what you’re doing and getting buy-in lets your players (regardless of age) have a little bit of control and shows that you want them included. It becomes our game, not my game, and I think allowing that ownership locks in a little player investment.
Another key is to not force your plots onto them. I will usually have about three possible plot hooks on the back burner so when my son loses interest in one, I can pull another one in. Sometimes, we will also just end when it is obvious he’s not into any of the options and isn’t suggesting anything. It can be hard as the game-master, but pushing kids to play the game can push them away for future games, so I find it best to just drop it and try again tomorrow.
It also took me a few months of TTRPGkids’ing with my 2.5-3 year old to really fine tune this. That was trial and error AND my growing in understanding of my particular kid. It’s very rewarding, but it was also a lot of practice before we got to ~90% of our games being a solid success (no meltdowns, kid engaged through the end, I was not burned out, and kiddo transitioned to whatever post-game activity without issue). Just, don’t get discouraged if it takes a couple tries – you are learning to understand your kid better and picking up a lot of new skills. That’s awesome to do for you and your kid, and hopefully these articles can help give a jump start!
If this article helped or you have some tips of your own, please let me know below in the comments and share! I would love to hear from readers, and I hope these articles are helping bring more parents, teachers, caregivers, etc into confidence with running games with their kids.