Why an article specifically about moody TTRPG sessions for kids instead of just players in general?
There are already several articles out there on how to handle a moody situation at the game table for players in general, but there’s some different elements at play when talking specifically about young players who are still working on SE skills or don’t always have the vocabulary to express their needs clearly. I want to help give some of my personal examples for how we’ve addressed this with my kid (4yo) and breakdown a strategy that, while really applicable to any age range, should help specifically with kids at the game table.
Quick note: Moody situations vs. “bad” moods
What a lot of people call a “bad mood”, I’m calling a “moody situation”. Feeling upset about something isn’t “bad”… something was upsetting to that person and now they feel upset. We want to both address the mood and the potential situations fueled by that mood to help everyone feel seen, heard, and respected… and still enjoy the rest of the game together.
Recognize what’s going on
The first step is for you, as the grown up of the group, to recognize what’s going on with your player’s moods, especially when dealing with younger kids who maybe are still learning to understand themselves.
Sometimes, you can see things like disengagement and frustration building before it gets to a boiling point. If that’s the case, it can be addressed before it becomes an issue. If not (and I know it gets harder to see this when there’s more players taking your attention), then recognize when the mood surfaces and address it in a positive way.
Pause the game
If you have a safety tool like a yellow card, pause sign, or spotlight token, this would be a good time for you to use that to pause the game and check in with the player(s) that seems to have a concern.
If you don’t have a tool already set up, just say, “I’d like to pause the game. Are you OK?”
That can be enough. The important thing is to not just push further into the game.
Get your player out of character
I think this part is REALLY important with some kids who tend to get caught up in the game, and this is a bit more unique or relevant to a game with kids versus a game with grown ups.
With my kid, he’s sometimes still very wrapped up in the story and is trying to think as his character or about what he wants them to do even after we’ve paused for a while. However, I need to talk to my kiddo about his emotional state regarding a poor roll, not Fred the ninja cat who is mad because he just failed to climb up the tree in the neighbor’s yard despite being the world’s best ninja cat. To clarify, my kid doesn’t really think he’s Fred, that’s just where his emotions and problem solving skills are directed right now, and I need them focused on HIS state instead of his game character’s state.
To pull him out of this, we have a post-game wind down where we notice a few things in the room, take a deep breath, and do a thumbs up (or down) to show how we’re doing. This helps him to connect more with what’s around us and focus on himself again.
For your situation, it could look something like:
*picks up the spotlight block*
“Hey, we need to pause the game for a second”
“Thumbs up or down, how is everyone doing?”
“OK, we have a thumbs down, so we’re going to talk about that. First, can we breathe in as much as we can…. Breathe out…”
“Can you help me find my glasses? What do mean they’re on my face? Where? Oh, I’m wearing them… OK… wait, how many of you are there?… 1, 2, 3, 4? OK, all set I think then, let’s talk.”
We used the thumbs up/down to get kids to start thinking about how they’re feeling and move their body in an intentional way. We did a deep breath that required focus on the game leader and another intentional movement. Then we looked for something that directed attention again back to the game leader while visually connecting to surroundings. Finally, we looked for one more thing, which was the people at the table, for another visual connection and to help realize that there are others here too.
Ask, listen, repeat back
At this point, I’ll pull my kid away from the table, and if it’s one kid having a concern at a larger table, it would probably help to talk with them separately from the other kids too.
Ask them what’s going on and how they feel.
Let them explain.
They may sound angry and think they know why: I rolled three nat1’s and it’s not fair! There’s something wrong with my dice!
They may sound sad and not know why: I don’t think I want to play.
The important thing here is to listen to them, see how they’re acting… and then see if you understand. I like to repeat back what I think my kid is trying to say but maybe doesn’t have all the words for in the form of a question. For example:
“I want to make sure I understand; you’re angry because you rolled low several times and think there’s something wrong with the dice, correct?”
“You think you might not want to play anymore, right? Do you know why?”
This gives the opportunity for them to either know that you understand or let them clarify so you do understand. Sometimes hearing their own words back helps them to realize how the issue sounds outside of their own head, and it lets you gain more information as they respond.
Next, we want to acknowledge that there’s a feeling there and name it.
In the case from above with the poor dice rolls, you could say, “You said you’re feeling angry, right? I get how frustrating it can be to roll really low over and over again. You just want to do it, but because of some random dice, you can’t. Do you think there’s anything else too? Are you worried about your character?”
For the situation with maybe not wanting to play, let’s say they responded with a concern about not getting to talk about their idea. We can maybe ask, “Did you feel left out or maybe sad?”
This shows understanding, and, a lot of times with my kid, once we name the emotion, the lashing out kind of subsides. We’ve gotten past the behavior and can help with understanding the mood and root cause of the situation now.
Next, I like to brainstorm ideas about how to address the mood now and for next time. Some common ones that I’ve used have been:
- Adding something to our safety tools
- Adjusting my game style to avoid railroading
- Making poor rolls more fun (i.e. make them funny)
- Talking about what happens if our character is hurt or lost
- Adding a spotlight tool to rotate turns
I’ll ask my kid for a couple ideas too, and we’ll see which ones we both like and want to try.
For the kid with the poor dice rolls, maybe all that’s needed is to talk about how his character can come back if they go out in a fight, talk about helping a team member instead, or offer to use some spare dice to see if that works better.
For the kid who couldn’t share their idea, adding a spotlight card to the game could help to keep her engaged and let her be heard.
Confirm consent for changes
Whatever you decide to do, check with the whole table to see if they’re OK with it. Make sure to get confirmation from everyone before adding or changing something.
Talk about next time behavior
This is another part that I think is critical for games with kids that you might not need to do with grown ups so much – I know my kid is still working on some SEL skills, so this helps him to learn what to do next time there’s an issue.
Instead of yelling, we can ask nicely to try different dice or take a step away for a minute..
If they feel left out, we can raise a hand or tap the spotlight card.
Whatever it is, give them a tool or strategy for next time so they can learn to express their feelings in a way that helps themselves both in this game and in real life..
Try, watch, ask, adjust
OK, so you have done all the steps:
- Out of character
- Ask, listen, repeat
- Talk about next time
Now we want to do something about it. Take your agreed brainstorm method and try it out! Watch to see if it’s working, and then ASK for feedback. Don’t wait for your players to tell you or for another moody situation, ask if what you’re using is working and accept the feedback. This shows that you want and respect their opinions and care about if it is actually working, plus it gives you a lot more information about how to proactively adjust and what good things to keep!
Final thoughts on resolving moody situations at the game table (with kids)
I hope this helps you with recovering from moody game situations at your table, whether they be with grown ups or with kids (but especially in games with kids). Moody situations can be stressful for everyone, but these tips and tricks should help with giving a process to run through when those situations do pop up. If you have questions or stories that you’d like to share, let me know below, and, until then, happy gaming!
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