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D&D Burgoo: Adventuring for the Young’uns

Timon and Salcheech tossed related questions into the Suggestion Pot, both dealing with gaming with 9- and 10-year-olds.  Specifically, Timon was looking for advice on pacing games for that age group, while Salcheech was interested in scaling the game to that age range, as well as, whether morality lessons could be incorporated into the sessions.

Interesting questions, and I think it’s great these Stew readers are introducing the game to players at that age. As long as their young players can do their sums and are willing to imagine themselves in the realm of heroic fantasy — you should have a great time.

Neither Timon or Salcheech mentioned which edition of the game they are playing, but I’ll assume it’s the current Fourth Edition rules, for now.


First, have a selection of pregenerated characters ready for a group of players that young. Actually, this is good advice whenever introducing a new roleplaying game. While creating characters is a worthwhile activity and re-enforces ownership of the PC, when introducing the game, it’s best if you can get into adventuring at the outset.  Let them learn “the game” first. There will be plenty of time for young players to make their own characters once you’ve gauged their interest and they’ve decided they want to invest the time into it. But if you try to start out a session making characters, I think you’re in for at least 90 minutes of page turning — which really bogs things down. It’s much more fun to say you’re swinging a sword or casting a spell, then rolling a twenty-sider to learn the result.

Secondly, prepare a simple dungeon with clearly defined obstacles. I suggest building off the design of a cruciform cross. A long shaft ending in  a room, with two  cross hallways, with each branch ending in a room. This allows some decision-making: “Do I turn right or do I turn left or go on straight ahead?” Stock each room with one of the iconic monsters (goblins, kobolds, beetles and skeletons) to introduce the flavor of the game and one treasure. That way, if you’re a  group of four or five players, each can lay claim to at least one item — a souvenir from their first trip into the dungeon, so to speak.

Third, trust yourself to make rulings on the fly. Don’t worry about looking up the rules during the course of play.  One role of the DM is to be fair, but it also is to keep the game moving. Don’t let “getting it right” interfere with “having fun.” David Noonan, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, tells the story on the “D&D Podcast” that they routinely test the game by having people who don’t have a clue as to what D&D is about locked in a room with a one-way mirror. These novices are given a game box and no instruction and told to just have fun. Invariably, Noonan says, the group does just about everything “wrong,” but usually has a blast just engaging in roleplaying for the first time. That’s your goal: Have fun. Build interest first. There is a lifetime to learn the intricacies of the rules.

Scaling the game

Jettison the subsystems. Over time, D&D has added layers of subsystems to give characters greater complexity in their abilities. Things such as feats and skills, most notably, fall into this category. If you think your players can manage a character with a handful of skills and feats, by all means include them. For 9- and 10-year-olds, I would be inclined to pass, though. In 4E, having characters learn and manage their character class’s powers is sufficiently complex.

If using published material and a reference to a skill check comes up, use this shortcut to simulate the check: Roll a  d20 and then add 5 (keeping in mind any other situational modifiers you wish to impose) to the result. Compare that number to the DC in the published module and rule accordingly. It’s not perfect, but in a novice game, it’ll  keep things moving.

Morality lessons

The game rewards cooperation. I think D&D rewards players who cooperate and engage in teamwork. That’s the sort of meta-lesson of the game itself. As they play more, players learn that character roles become important, and fulfilling those roles are key to additional success. I think that translates into understanding what an individual’s gifts and talents are, and playing to those strengths.

The treasure problem. One of the fundamental aspects of the game is defeating monsters and taking their treasure — a form of theft, really. This is, in itself, a moral question and may require discussion between you and your players.  You need not run a game on this model. Perhaps the question can be framed in the context of “treasure retrieval.” Your adventure story might be that the monsters stole the treasure originally, and your players are essentially authorized law enforcement trying to retrieve the stolen goods. That’s one way to go about it. Another is to presume that the treasure has no rightful owner, it’s all long-lost riches. Yet, another is to address what the players will do with the treasure. Do they keep it, and spend it on themselves, or do they distribute it to those who are more deserving?

Lessons learned from fables. As for the type of morality lessons, say, those that come from fables, that’s a little harder to address. If you are up to the task, you can certainly use fables as templates and craft D&D stories around them. “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Be kind and generous,” “Don’t be gullible” are all worthy topics.  If those opportunities come up, feel free to incorporate them. Just be mindful, however, that the game is not designed to address such things. Again, the basics is to defeat monsters.

The killing game. Squeamish about running a game where 9- and 10-year-olds are killing things all the time? I am, quite honestly. But D&D has a host of monsters that aren’t “alive” in any real sense. Constructs are one such monster. Any object that has been animated, say a statue, is another. There are oozes to be obliterated. Elementals are expressions of fire, water, earth and air —  which doesn’t fit into the definition of something that’s alive at all. Skeletons and mummies and wights are all “undead” creatures to be banished. And depending on your level of tolerance, defeating bugs and other vermin is usually seen as a service akin to extermination, rather than outright slaughter. If you understand the need to weed a garden, then there are also plant monsters that can fall into the category of “weeds” that need pulling. This approach keeps the humanoid monsters out of the equation.

Moreover, you need not “kill” monsters per se. It’s a matter of definition. If you prefer, they can be beaten until they fall unconscious. This little trick also works for PCs. Run out of hit points, you fall unconscious. Leave the dying part out until the players are older and they can handle that aspect of failure in their roleplaying.

Third edition suggestions

If you are playing the Third Edition rules, there are two introductory modules I recommend using to get started with young players.

Wizards of the Coast designer Andy Collins wrote a delightful 2nd level adventure called “Something’s Cooking,” in which a magically created calzone creature is unleashed. Kids love fighting a cheese and tomato-sauce spewing creature. (And as a DM, it’s equally fun to be a walking pizza, I can tell you).

Collins’ spouse, former Wotc editor Gwendolyn F.M. Kestral, wrote an introductory module “Scourge of the Howling Horde” especially for new DMs and new players. Because the adventure uses the delve format for encounters, it can easily be adapted for use with the 4E rules.  Regardless of the rules set, it is a good teaching device.

I hope these ideas address the needs from the Suggestion Pot. I certainly welcome comments from our readers on their experiences on gaming with young players and the kinds of adventures that fit best with them.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: Adventuring for the Young’uns"

#1 Comment By DrAwkward On January 29, 2009 @ 7:39 am

Great post! I’ve linked to it at the Young Person’s Adventure League – [1]

#2 Comment By Rafe On January 29, 2009 @ 7:53 am

I would recommend reading up on ChattyDM’s experiences roleplaying with [2]. They’re great reads and show how even a 4 or 5-year-old can get into the idea of interactive storytelling.

For an actual gaming system, I would heartily recommend Mouse Guard RPG. It’s fantastic for kids and adults. All of the morality lessons listed above come into play BIGTIME (in fact, it’s focused around them, in a sense), and there’s no issue with “the killing game” since you aren’t actually beating the snot out of things. Many fights end with a compromise or a complication. There are no hit points (so no damage is done), and failures at tasks only lead to “twists” in the story. I highly recommend that people looking to introduce kids to gaming check out Mouse Guard.

#3 Comment By Rafe On January 29, 2009 @ 8:06 am

( Bah… sorry, my mind went astray. I see the point is to introduce youngin’s to D&D. I’ll address that system specifically.

I think the biggest thing is to not worry too much about numbers. Just fill some things in for them after asking questions. “Is your fighter strong or tough?” “When a fight breaks out, does he charge right in or does he try to help others?” (give A or B type options) These questions are obviously aimed to distinguish between someone wanting to play a Guardian Fighter or a Great Weapon Fighter. After that’s determined, I’d suggest going with the default powers, feats and gear listed. Simplify character creation but let them personalize: “I don’t want an axe! I want a huge spear!”

Keep adventures simple. Let the players choose the mission/goal. That way, they have a stake in it right from the beginning. “Alright, mighty heroes. There are lots of adventures waiting for you. You’ve heard about the strange abandoned gold mine, the spooky ruined castle and the fiendish ratmen that come out of the sewers at night…” )

#4 Comment By ulmus On January 29, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Very good article! I don’t have kids of my own yet and my friends’ kids are a bit too young yet, but some of this advice (esp. about pregen characters and simplifying the rules) apply equally to gaming with your non-gaming SO, something we’ve said we’re going to do one of these days.

#5 Comment By Wild Joker On January 29, 2009 @ 10:35 am

I’m in the midst of teaching my kids (12, 10, 8) to RP. Can you steer me in the right direction for the two modules you mentioned? (Howling Horde & Something Cooking)

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On January 29, 2009 @ 10:38 am

A lot of good advice for new players at any age apply to kids too– [3] has a lot of great advice in the comments. I particularly recommend highlighted or simplified character sheets as mentioned by several commenters. (And I’ll borrow the cruciform idea above for advice for the GM.)

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 29, 2009 @ 11:09 am

Scourge of the Howling Horde:


Something’s Cooking

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 29, 2009 @ 11:26 am

My signature line is a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Children know that the bogeyman exists, in many forms. One of the “lessons” that I see in RPGs for kids is that you can fight back against the bogeyman.

There is also [6] and even [7] (same publisher). Faery’s Tale is written specifically as an RPG for children. I haven’t run it (my daughter’s just shy of 8 months old), but it reads very well.

I have always wanted to do the “ [5]” adventure, and then serve up a big calzone at the climax. Mmmm…

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 29, 2009 @ 11:39 am

The names of the wizards in Something’s Cooking are anagrams (sort of) for the authors of those adventures.

#10 Comment By ZedZed77 On January 29, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

Wow, great timing on writing this article! I have just started running a few adventures for my 11-year old sister and her 10-year-old best friend. (I’m 20 – sort of a youngling around here.)

We used the 3.0 “starter kit.” It includes 5 adventures, a bunch of pre-gen characters (Lidda, Tordek, Mialee, etc.) and a map with some tokens. I originally got it for $20 at Barnes and Noble but it is now OOP.

The pre-gens had all the rules printed right on the character sheet, so explaining the mechanics was easy.

We didn’t follow all the rules all of the time, but for the most part they enjoyed it a lot (They are little girls so they liked the magic and unicorns, etc. – go figure.)

I even humored my sister and let her GM for a session, and she had some pretty great ideas (A cursed magical fountain that lures people in with visions of Keira Knightley? Wow, why didn’t I think of that?)

#11 Comment By Balam Shimoda On January 29, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

[8] – Btw, the authors of both these modules will be at Genghis Con XXX in Denver in a few weeks. If you’re in the middle of the country and can’t get to the big cons in Washington or Indiana, this is a good opportunity to meet them (and play some games and have fun.)

#12 Comment By DocRyder On January 30, 2009 @ 1:37 am

I tried introducing an even younger child to RPGs a while back. While he was more interested in bashing plastic minis around, for the context I used TWERPS and set it in a Power Rangers-like setting. The mindless drones were robots who faded away after being defeated, and they looked like skeletons to boot.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 30, 2009 @ 8:04 am

Balam Shimoda: I would love to go to Denver to meet the Collins-Kestral team — and pickup some Hasslefree Miniatures while I’m at it. But alas, such a trip just isn’t possible for me right now. But thanks for bringing it to the attention of all the Stew readers. And have fun yourself while you’re at it!

#14 Comment By Salcheech On February 1, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

Thank a ton for the good advice, i am currently laying out a Campaign and will keep you updated as as i encounter any helpful tidbits of kiddie gaming.