Tips and tricks: Demystifying RP With Kids!

Learn from guest writer, Graham Gentz, about how to breakdown the RP part of TTRPG and make it a bit less intimidating for yourself to start facilitating a game for youth!

This is a guest article written by Graham Gentz and posted, with permission, on TTRPGkids as part of an article swap collaboration! You can find Graham’s work here, and the sibling post for this article will be available both on Graham’s site (here) and TTRPGkids (here).

Graham has taught game design at the Brooklyn Game Lab, plays games and tells stories at Plato Learning and Camp Half-Blood, writes his own TTRPGs, and much more! Thank you Graham for sharing your XP with us!

There’s this thing that always happens when I help run large convention game events. 

Late on the Friday night of a con, people sign up to play a special session at one of many tables in a big ballroom. A group of facilitators will all set up while con-goers excitedly line up, waiting to be let in. Enviably one of the other GMs will peek at the crowd, groan, and say with horror: “Oh NO. One of the groups has kids.” And then whirl around to me with fear in their eyes. 

If you’re here, reading this and hanging out, I imagine I’ll be preaching to the choir with this one: kids rule. They’re funny and smart and constantly underestimated. While I started playing story games and nerdy card games with my friends in elementary and middle school, these hobbies continue to thrive. But I keep thinking about the fear people get with and around kids. 

I’ve worn a lot of hats in related fields over the years. I’ve run board game libraries. I’ve taught in after school programs and tried to pull in tabletop games and RPGs. I’ve run kids’ game design programs and tried to bring in more children care principles. I also just design and write and run a lot of different kinds of games.

I adore running RPGs for people who have never played before. I find it really gratifying. I have never stopped playing and running these kinds of games, always asking more and more questions about why and how it worked.

We were all kids once. I think one of the magically potent aspects of roleplaying games is how they foster creative empathy. That’s what I’m here to address. The vulnerability and power in empathy when running a table with kids. 

Professionals like to say that you should treat children like adults. I don’t agree. But you should treat them like people. They should always be respected and listened to. Vitally so. 

If you’re an adult who spends time with kids, then you know. You gotta be flexible.

Scenario One: ”I burn down the forest.”

There is this assumption that Kid D&D is entirely chaotic or silly. And sometimes it is. Maybe you want to tell a more serious story. Or something more noble and adventurous, like a story that inspired your imagination as a kid. 

And so you do what you’re used to: you describe the scene, you set the mood, you plop the characters in the middle, and ask, “What do you do?”

“I burn down the forest,” one of the players says with a giggle and the table all laughs along.

I’m going to pause this moment in time. Because you can, too.

You theoretically ignore them. Or assume that it’s a joke. Or ask if it’s a joke. But that’s not what we’re here to do. And a good facilitator is always listening. 

RP is a tennis match. “The Conversation.” When you serve a “what do you do?” 

An important piece of RP is the separation between “player” (the human being physically in front of you) and the “character” (the fictional person that’s a part of the game). It is a meaningful tool for you, as both a facilitator of the game and story, and the adult in the room, to be able to make that difference extraordinarily clear when you want to.

So ask the player any number of questions, like:

  • “Why would you want to do that?”
  • “What do you want to happen?”
  • “Why do you think that will happen?”

…with healthy follow-ups. If the answers are “I just want to see what will happen” or “it would be funny” or “I don’t know,” you further the dialogue.

  • “Is that what you want?”
  • “Is that what your character would want?”
  • “Why would your character want that?”

This principle extends to just about any point of player choice that doesn’t fit the tone. This category could just as easily be called: “I attack the shopkeeper.” 

This goes to the most fundamental part of RP: narrative agency. Kids are particularly lacking in agency in the entire rest of their existence. They’re told where to go and what to do by everyone in their lives: adults, parents, teachers, everyone. And suddenly, they’re told there’s an activity where they can, and in fact, should make big bold choices to see what happens?

Kids aren’t looking to disrupt. They’re looking to explore.

Scenario Zero: Set expectations. Set them early.

So, it’s true, I’m backtracking. But that’s because this step might fall into overprep. Do you have any actual reason to be concerned? Is it a packed table of eight howling with the megahype? Then you have different concerns on your hands. Or is it the opposite end where they’re too nervous to say much.

Mischief also isn’t automatically bad. We’re, after all, playing an imagination game. If this is something you, and the players, are collectively onboard with, then a tabletop roleplaying game is, in fact, the perfect and safest place to just try things out.

Like the questions you ask the player when you pause the action, ask them what they want. What kind of game do they want? What kind of story? Questions about their characters are key for this. Who have they become? These are the fundamentals of table culture. 

Scenario Two: “The Thin Hierarchy”

There’s an old stereotype of the woebegone Dungeon Master crushing and confining the player characters while they plot and act from on high.

This is, and always was, bad and wrong.

You need to be yourself with kids. You need to be earnest and honest with what interests you in the game and story. They’re in the process of constant experimentation, discovering who they are and what the world is like. Help them do that.

A healthy table is a collaborative table. A roleplaying game is an emotional experience. And healthy table shares. This is how you build trust in the shared and vulnerable RPG space. 

Scenario Three: “Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.”

This needs to be fun for you. If you’re having a good time, it is so much easier for the players to as well. So be honest with them, and yourself, with what will be enjoyable for you.  

Kids really love the bit characters. That’s a big part of the magic at the table. It’s also an indispensable way to shift focus and establish tone. 

So what NPCs do you like playing? Do you like helpful creatures? Noble warriors? Wise wizards? Weird little guys? 

Don’t overprep. Maybe don’t prep at all. Just ask the players a few questions:

  • What does their character want?
  • What do other people think of your character?
  • How do they see themselves?
  • What was their last adventure?

So what are you afraid of?

Thank you again, Graham for sharing your XP with us!! And you can find more from Graham on his website here!

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