So, you’ve decided to bring your kids to the gaming table so you can begin to pass on your wealth of nerdy knowledge, but you don’t want to just use some canned adventure for this memorable event. Some special consideration may be needed when designing your child’s first pen and paper role playing game adventure. For the experienced dungeon master, this process will be very similar to what you do for your friends’ adventures, but with some modifications to cater to your young gamer’s attention span and imagination. The purpose of this article isn’t to present a fully formed adventure to run, but to help gamer parents develop their own awesome game session for their kids. Also note, these guidelines aren’t written with a particular game system in mind, so feel free to use them with whichever system you enjoy most.
Here are some general rules to follow when designing and running your game:
1. Favor narrative to mechanics — It’s true that there are players who revel in the byzantine complexities of role playing game mechanics, and older kids might enjoy figuring out these rules, but this will probably be a turnoff for your younger kids. Rather than forcing your child to memorize a bunch of rules and stats, focus on character interactions, exploration, and dramatic action. An engaging story will hold their attention much longer than repetitious dice rolling.
2. Respond to the unexpected with “Yes, and …” — When possible, avoid saying “no” during your game session. When your kid says his character is going to do a back flip off of a balcony, catch a rope and swing around to kick that giant in the head, don’t say, “No, you can’t do that.” Instead, go with it and describe what happens. In cases where you feel there is a pretty good chance of failure, explain why, and let the dice make the determination. But, if you stifle your players’ sense of control over their characters’ actions, you’ll soon have a frustrated and uninterested party.
3. Don’t railroad the story — Most RPG players have several stories of times they’ve lost interest in a game because the DM continuously narrowed their options to force the story in a certain direction. The flip side, of course, is that DMs often invest a lot of time building adventures and don’t want the party to totally bypass all of those great, carefully crafted encounters. However, you’ll find that the most enjoyable adventures are the ones in which players take ownership of their characters and become totally immersed in the game world. So, don’t fret when your kid decides not to go into the troll’s cave to recover the missing villagers. You might spend the rest of the game session just winging it and making everything up on the spot, but you and your kid will enjoy the free-form imaginative play.
4. Use props — Sometimes the best technique to pull your players into a game world is to use good visual props. If they find an old treasure map, have ready for them an actual map they can hold and look over. If you’re having a hard time describing a specific setting, print out pictures to use as references. For more of a board-game feel, use miniatures to show the positioning of the characters during a fight or tense moment of action. Have ready for your kids pictures of their characters’ equipment and encourage your kids to sketch out their character’s appearance.
But what about the adventure itself? There are a lot of possible hooks and scenarios that you could play with, but I recommend sticking to a story on the local scale. Start your young gamers off protecting a trade caravan from bandits or searching the local ruins for treasure, rather than saving the world from impending doom.
The typical adventure, much like any story, has four main parts: setup, exploration, climax, and resolution.
In order to get your adventure started, you’ll need to set the stage. It’ll help if you and your kid agree ahead of time what her character’s role and motivations are. Is she a noble knight wandering the land looking for wrongs to right? A careless warrior selling her sword to the highest bidder? A shrewd wizard seeking to increase her knowledge of the magical arts? Knowing what drives the character will make it easier for you to keep the story relevant.
Present a variety of options and let your kid choose a path to follow. Has the local lord put out a call for adventurers to solve a problem? Is the local blacksmith short on supplies and in need of someone to travel with him to the next town over to restock? Maybe the local apothecary needs someone to gather rare ingredients from the wilds. Whichever hook your kid goes for, let him role play the decision process, the negotiations, and the preparations for the adventure. It’s best to let all of this play out without dice, as you’ll want to encourage your child to think through the social interactions and really get into character.
While you may balk at having to have ready several different adventures, it’s not as daunting an effort as it might seem. If you use random encounters and allow most of the game play to be spontaneous improvisation, then all you really need to come up with are several hooks and the eventual story climaxes resulting from them. This will allow you to have ready multiple story branches without having to plan each one out in exacting detail.
Next, you’ll need some exploration and encounters to help spice up the action. How you do this is completely up to your own gaming style and the system you’re working with. Two to three is a good range for encounters per adventure, and it’s always good to mix in combat and non-combat encounters. Are there wild creatures roaming the halls of the the ancient ruins? Maybe the party finds an old hermit in the woods and trades goods with him. Perhaps the trade caravan passes a troupe of traveling musicians on the road. You can either plan these out in detail, or use random encounter tables. I personally like to make a deck of index cards with a wide variety of encounters on them and then shuffle them before a game, drawing one out each time the party has a random encounter. With a deck of encounters, its easy to quickly remove encounters that don’t make sense for the setting.
This is also a good point in the game to allow your kids to explore your game world. Draw out a map of the dungeon while they explore it, or show them a map of the countryside and let them decide where they want to go, updating the map as they discover new places.
After your kid has enjoyed exploring, fighting, and interacting with the game world for a while, it’s time to move on to the climax of the adventure. Think of this as the “boss fight.” If your kids play video games, they’ll find this to be a natural and satisfying evolution of the game’s narrative. It doesn’t need to be a combat encounter, either. While it might make sense to have your party fight a band of highwaymen while protecting a trade caravan, maybe that hermit in the woods has the alchemical ingredients you need, but will only relinquish them if you defeat him in a game of wits. Whatever you choose, make it a cinematic and exciting reward for the party’s time spent exploring.
Finally, you’ll need to bring the adventure to a close. Like the beginning, this resolution should be played out through dialogue rather than dice rolls. Let your kids’ characters return to town triumphantly, basking in the praise of the townsfolk and receiving their rewards. You may even want to consider making some sort of physical reward or trophy they can keep to remember the adventure by.
Just remember, role playing games are all about having fun, so keep things light and playful. If you do it right, you’ll have your children hooked on the RPG experience and begging for the next installment of their characters’ grand adventures.