Running D&D5 for Youngsters

I’m going to put @thebrand on the spot here - I hope you don’t mind, Brand! If you do, don’t worry - I’m sure someone else has had a similar experience lately and might chime in.

Here’s why:

I know that you have played a whole variety of deep, immersive, and experimental games in recent times, including things like 360 LARPs and all other diverse manner of curios.

I also know that recently you started running some D&D, straight up, for a group of kids.

I am very curious to know what that transition feels like for you, and how you’ve found the experience. Going from the former to the latter must be quite a trip, and I’m very curious what aspects of the experimental gaming you’ve done filter into your D&D game (whether as beneficial intrusions informing your play, or as bad habits or expectations you’ve had to unravel).

What’s it like to go from this to that, and how have you adjusted? Do you run D&D differently, given the audience, and particularly after the rather different games and experiences you’ve been exploring over the last decade or so? Have you tried carrying over any aspects of the former? Or do you draw a bright line and revel in the contrast?

Do you have any advice for anyone else doing the same?

(There’s a great photo of this game in progress, but let’s not put it here unless @thebrand likes the idea. Sometimes we want to maintain a bit of anonymity online, after all! But one of the cutest things about it is that there’s a classic “DM screen” set up on the table and apparently he had nothing to do with it - the players brought it and set it up for him!)

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This is cool, but let’s close the thread if @thebrand doesn’t want to talk about it.

Yes, agreed. That’s a good way to handle it!

I’m 100% good talking about this. So, to answer some questions in no particular order:

What’s it like to go from this to that , and how have you adjusted?

This is super interesting and a bit difficult to answer.

On one hand, there are ways in which I can answer “it didn’t feel like much of a change.” I feel that because I almost never assume an experience about a game before I play it with a given group. I always try to keep myself open, and to work towards having the kind of experience that I want to have with this group of people, using this set of systems.

So when I’m going to GM something like Rosenstrasse at a con, I really focus on making a safe space, getting everyone on the same page, letting us all experience the game fully, and helping everyone (including myself) get what we want out of the game. And so when I went to run D&D for my nephews, the things I was thinking about, focusing on achieving were very much the same.

But, of course, how you get mutual joy out of D&D with 12 year olds and get mutual learning out of Rosenstrasse with adults are very different. So while it feels the same to me, the tools and techniques are quite a bit different in practice.

For this game, which was the first time most of the kids had played D&D my goals were to give them a taste of RPing and to set them up so they could play D&D in the wild if they wanted. I used 5th ed, and the adventure from the Essentials Kit, to meet that later goal. Even though it wouldn’t be my first choice for gaming (I’d go Black Hack or Dolemnwood, probably) – I wanted the kids to learn a system and a way of playing that would easily enable them to play with others.

With that in mind, I mostly just ran the game out of the box. I didn’t do a lot of customization or shifting or reorganization – all of which are things I normally do when I run a published campaign. For this game I wanted things to be pretty straight up, to match with the experience of D&D in a lot of ways. Like, I knew that one of the kids had friends who had played this campaign – and I wanted them to be able to talk about it with them, to meaningfully compare notes about what happened and have that joy of having been through the same story, but also a different story at the same time.

The places where I drifted things from a lot of D&D play, however, was in focusing on player abilities to create things in the world, and developing a sense of what their characters personalities were. Because they were kids, this was all pretty simple stuff. I asked a lot of questions like:

  • What does your magic look like?
    Ex: We’ve never seen you case magic missile, what are your missiles like?
    Ex: You’re a wizard, you learned your magic by being formal taught by an arch mage. Who taught you, and how do you feel about them?
    Ex: You’re using a holy symbol to cast that spell, where did you get it and what does it mean to you?

  • How does your character feel about that?
    Ex: You’re a half-orc in a mostly human town, but the people here look to you as a hero. How do you respond when they all start cheering for you?
    Ex: You said earlier your character never had any friends before. Are the other party members your friends? (When yes) How do you show them?

Lots of stuff like that. And then I’d build on their answers as we went. For example, our Wizard was a Dragon Born. He answered one of the questions by saying his father, a blue dragon, taught him magic. He became an adventurer because as a half-dragon he wasn’t powerful enough to master real dragon magic. So later in the game, when they faced off against the dragon in a quest, that dragon recognized the character and knew his father and taunted him with it.

Do you draw a bright line and revel in the contrast?

One of the places I did draw a big line between this game and most of the games I play these days was around moral and ethical questions and exploration. Many games I play are about exploring history, humanity, and very subtle ethical questions and problems.

This game was not that. I told all the players they were heroes, they helped people. And when, in the course of the game, they did some murder hobo stuff (mostly by accident), I didn’t make a big question about it.

For example, in one of the dungeons the PCs explore a gnome cave. The gnomes aren’t evil, but are in a panic state that leads to combat. (The way the module is written at least one combat seems to be unavoidable. You could avoid it, but you’d have to GM around the text on the page.) Killing the gnomes is… really questionable. And, because these were all new players, yes a gnome ended up dead.

In games I play with grownups there would be some reflection on that. It would come back. You just went into someone’s house and killed them – both ethically and in terms of consequences in the world, there’s gonna be blow back. But not in this game. The kids already kinda felt bad about it, and so we didn’t dwell on it.

Do you have any advice for anyone else doing the same?

I dunno, I’m bad at advice. Really, I think the key is to have some awareness of what you want out of a game, and find ways to play what you’re playing with the people you’re playing with. If you are choosing to play D&D with kids, then lean in on that. Let it be silly. Let it be random. Let some weird shit into the game, and sometimes don’t lean on every issue you could explore because it just won’t be right for this game or these kids.

Here’s the picture. I didn’t set up the screen! I don’t like GM screens. I roll dice in the open.

But when I went to the bathroom and came back, the players had set up the screen. And made each other move so they couldn’t see behind it.

So I went with it. It isn’t normally what I’d do – but it was what they wanted, so I changed to play the game the group wanted.

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Thank you, Brand!

This answer brings me a lot of joy. And, despite your protestations to the contrary, there is a great deal of wonderful advice to mine from this post. I think you’ve outlined a very functional and fun way to approach a game, and a lot of concrete techniques for how to make that work. I know I’ll be rereading this later! Sounds like a lot of fun. They’re lucky to have you!

Of course, viewers want to know if someone is about to make a Save vs Death in this picture…

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I want you to be really careful and charitable when reading this question because I assure you it’s not rhetorical and I’m not implying anything regarding any moral value judgements on your behavior—I’m genuinely curious as to what your take is. I know when talking about the ethics of exposing kids to the hobby discussion can get heated and personal, so I want to get ahead of that.

So now to the question: have you considered the possibility that showing the in-game consequences of this choice might have been an educational moment for the kids, in addition to a cool play experience that emphasized their agency on the world? It doesn’t have to be framed tragically. For all we know, there’s a way to resurrect the gnome and make amends. Maybe gnomes have nine lives and he’s just lost one of them. But showing that actions have consequences and gnomes are real people, and that maybe the gnome’s family wants revenge? Or that he is now known as a murderer by the gnomes?

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This is pretty fucking awesome stuff, not gonna lie.

Yes, of course I did. But this wasn’t that game.

That’s part of the thing about “knowing what game you’re playing and why.”

There are lots of ways to use RPGs to ask and answer those questions. And you’re absolutely right that it could have had lots of interesting ways to play it and use that moment for many effects. This wasn’t one of them.

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That’s a perfecly valid and fine answer, thank you.

Now I’m trying to figure out how to explain how I knew it wasn’t. Because it’s a good question!

Part of it was the timing. The gnome cave was near the end of the session, and we weren’t sure we were going to be able to play again the next day. (We did, but we didn’t know that at the time.) So putting the emphasis on that issue would have meant the game, which had been mostly light hearted fun, would have ended on a grimmer note than the kids were looking for.

Part of it was that I felt the responsibility for it was a bit vague and not really the kid’s choice in a full and fair way. The scenario is kind of set up that there is an assumed automatic combat with this gnome. As a GM I might normally have made something of that – I hate that kind of video game logic violence as default. But because I was trying to run the module straight, I didn’t. And then the kids just went along with what was happening and would have had to step outside the flow of the game while they were still very new to the medium in order to make an ethical stance to not use violence in a game with lots of violence. Which made it feel like putting it on them would be a bit “whammy GM.”

Finally, I think part of it was that the game as a whole was a bit Saturday-morning cartoon in vibe. Violence happened, but when things died they mostly just fell over and stopped fighting. Then the PCs would collect a dingus and go back to town to get their quest reward. There was no reality in the dying – unlike in a lot of the games I play or run. There was no dealing with bodies. No ugliness of corpses, or death, or the other realities of issues that make real violence so fucking nasty.

So to go from that to making the gnomes death be an actual killing death felt like it was layering a lot onto kids who didn’t mean any of that.

So yea, it’s a good question! The answer is all of the above, plus a little “ya just had to be there.”

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I definitely hear the “it’s built into the game and the module” angle here - kinda hard to blame the kids for following the well-laid grooves here. You get XP for fighting bad guys, these people are in your way, the module says you’re supposed to deal with them, everything on your sheet is a combat button… there’s a sort of inertia there that’s pretty hard to ignore.

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Alright, the one before was a perfectly valid and fine answer.

This one is actually really informative and precise. I’m glad I asked that question. It’s bringing a few additional thoughts to my head but they’re not definite yet enough for writing down.

Thank you very much, it’s stimulating to think about this.

Interesting posts. Thank you Brand. Recently some family friends (not kids, but some older people who’ve never played any tabletop RPG) asked me if I could run a D&D session for them to introduce them to the game. Your story helps give me some new ideas how best to go about it.

For this game, which was the first time most of the kids had played D&D my goals were to give them a taste of RPing and to set them up so they could play D&D in the wild if they wanted. I used 5th ed, and the adventure from the Essentials Kit, to meet that later goal. Even though it wouldn’t be my first choice for gaming (I’d go Black Hack or Dolemnwood, probably) – I wanted the kids to learn a system and a way of playing that would easily enable them to play with others.

I admire the humility here, of knowing what you really want to give people and choosing the system that’s best for that purpose instead of your own favourite.

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I’ll make a comment but I don’t want this to be taken as trying to start a debate on the topic. I’m relaying a thought.

Even though the game as you described looks like a healthy instance of wynwerod roleplaying (freshly minted expression), I feel a bit dejected by the idea that to give new players, and specifically kids, a taste of it, one needs to expose them to what I’ll call mainstream D&D play culture—with the understanding that they’ll eventually end up encountering audience-tailored roleplaying shows (what goes for “actual play” nowadays), transitive entertainment, consumerism, lifestyle brand marketing, railroaded adventures, etc. (Not a judgement on the game or people that play it, just the culture surrounding it as promoted by WotC)

In the end these are choices one makes, that have complex ramifications, and I don’t judge you for it—your stated reason is good enough. I’m just wondering about the long term effects of choosing D&D 5th edition as a play vehicle as opposed to something lesser known, or even an older edition of the same game.

I’m open to other points of view on the issue.

I have another question, which is the one I’ve been asking in most threads, and it’s in regards to situation-building in play.

Could you relay how you got, together as a group, from the adventure and the character sheets on the written page to an actionable situation in play, resonant and believed to exist in the shared fiction, with all characters situated? Since there was some confusion in another thread on what I mean with this, actionable means that meaningful action—i.e. meaningful choices—can be taken by any participant.

Let me know if it’s clear what I’m asking.

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For the first question – let me say I feel you! I am personally very anti-corporate, especially in hobbies and creative endeavors, and had very mixed feelings about starting the kids on playing D&D 5 instead of something else. Especially given the fuckery that WotC gets up to on a regular basis.

In this case, however, those concerns were a bit mitigated by the fact that these kids are tied to me and we’ll keep talking about games as the years go on. While D&D is the game they’re most likely to play with friends at school now, the truth is that if they remain interested in RPGs there is little chance I won’t play something weirder and wilder with them at some point in the future.

Some of that conversation has already started. One of the nibblings asked me in chat the other day what games I play other than D&D. It let me point him at a few other games I thought he might like – including Fabula Ultima and Demigods (as he loves JRPGs and Percy Jackson books). My brother (his dad) also asked how many different games I’ve played at this point – which let me go on about larp, and scenario games, and freeform, and all those things.

So the kids are already getting a taste of things beyond D&D. I’ll keep exposing them to different stuff as they grow. Just like my uncles did with me. It’s not perfect, but we live in an imperfect world.

For the second question, for this game it was mostly easy. That’s one of the things that D&D does well (mostly) – due the tropes of the game having given rise to many of the tropes and styles of play in video games, the kids already knew the basics of how to be a heroic adventurer. And this particular scenario starts with a clear call to action – players on the road see a caravan of innocent merchants get attacked by a dragon, and get a chance to run in and save people (and make money). That got the players involved, and form there they followed the momentum of “we’re heroes saving a village from a dragon that’s too powerful for us to fight right now, so we need to build up alliances and power to be able to fight it.” Simplistic, but tidy and well known.

The scenario also did an interesting job of giving some degree of player choice in this framework. Basically once the players get to town there is a “quest board” that has multiple quests they can take to help save the town. They chose which ones they take and don’t, and how they complete them… or not. It gives a narrow field of choice that lets players make substantive decisions, but with all those decisions focused on the hero’s path/railroad.

The main difficulty we had is that, as kids that age often do, they wanted to play characters who were less than heroic. Like the Orc Paladin of Gruumsh, or the Blue Dragon Dragonkin who was taking after his evil father. In both cases, however, a quick talk with the players about how they needed to be dedicated to defending this village and each other got us a solution to that. The Paladin’s player made up a back story where his father had negotiated a truce between humans and orcs and dwarves in the village, and he was now sworn to uphold that truce and defend all the members of the village. Which caused him to be seen as a traitor by other orcs. (Which, of course, caused problems for him later in the game when orc raiders showed up and attacked him first for being a traitor.)

When we combined the little individual elements like that with the big adventure in the scenario, it made it pretty easy for the players to make meaningful choices in the context of the scenario.

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I love this response, Brand. Lovely.

Sounds like the D&D scenario/adventure/module, however cliche, did the lifting here for informing play.

It’s interesting how D&D can lean in different directions, and two common ones are “here’s a challenging scenario, see if you can survive and make it out with treasure, do whatever you want” and “act like fantasy heroes, do the familiar thing that heroes do in fantasy”.

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Did you find that going into these play sessions with the kids… did you have to intentionally avoid or set aside any of your interests and habits, things you would normally want to do?

What tools or ideas or devices from your other gaming life might have (or even did) interfere with this particular game? Did you find you had to resist any temptations or discard normally well-loved tools? Were there growing pains?

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As we’ve already touched on, I had to leave a lot of the probing ethical questions and getting into the meaning of things for this game. What you do when playing Dogs in the Vineyard with adults and D&D with kids is different there, and at this point in my life I’ve got more experience with the prior rather than the latter. So I had to let a lot of that go.

Also, when running D&D and other games with swingy mechanics (where there is a lot of randomness to outcomes) you have to adopt a different stance as a GM than when you run a lot of PbtA or Burning Wheel or other games with strong “one roll and done/let it ride” vibes. In D&D there is likely to just be a lot of dice rolling – especially as kids “learn to use the controller” and figure out the limitations of the system. They’ll want to roll all their skills, and try to have everyone in the party disarm the trap, and etc. And if you’ve lots of indie game habits you may want to squash that, or limit rolls, or etc. in ways that aren’t actually in the rules for D&D. And you should probably follow the rules for D&D instead.

Other stuff that I wouldn’t normally do that worked for this game included: rolling behind a screen, keeping GM secrets, doing a lot of “theatrical GMing” where I did a lot of voices and way over the top acting, calling for rolls that weren’t really important but got the players excited, and (as you can see in the picture) standing and looming over the table while projecting my voice to dominate the space and focus attention. All stuff I’d never do in a normal indie game with adults – but all worked well in this game.

… oh, and I’d never have the amount of raw sugar at the table normally. Send everyone in my normal group into diabetic coma, for sure.

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Regarding everyone wanting to roll: the Group Skill Check rules are your friend here.

But I wanted to say also that I have been running a game for a pair of middle-schoolers this past year, and I’ve also had to consciously steer somewhat clear of my normal desire not only for moral complexity, but for verisimilitude. It’s a game with collaborative world-building—Fabula Ultima—and I just kept having to tell myself not to worry about where the food comes from, how the kingdom’s economy holds together, etc. It’s Not That Kind Of Game. (I should probably make my own AP post about that experience.)

I also wanted to recount that literally the only time you and I have met and played together, it involved a great deal of scenery chewing and over-acting from you, if I recall correctly. :rofl:

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There’s a thing that has been bothering me about this post, @thebrand .

Did you at all control the outcomes? I heard you mention “railroad”, but I don’t know if you were being facetious or serious.