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Gaming With the Very Young

Today’s guest article was written by Gnome Stew reader John Fredericks, and it tackles the topic of gaming with kids as young as four years old. Thanks, John!

As parents we all hope to pass on our interests to our children. Whether it is sports, music, art, or gaming, we hope to see that glimmer of interest in their eyes. However, sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn’t. Not every child (or adult) is wired to like roleplaying games. However, if parents play with their children, at least they will get the chance experience the hobby. And who knows, it might grow into something a lifetime interest: We all had to start somewhere. In this article, I’ll list some techniques that I’ve found to work with children as young as four years old.

Use a Consistent Mechanic

Gamers love funny dice and spending hours customizing characters. If you are playing with young children, I have just two words of advice: Forget it. Kids just want to play. They don’t want to roll up characters and rolling different dice for different situations confuses them. Here’s a simple game that works well with even four year olds. First is character creation: It’s a snap. You just ask “Who do you want to be? Batman? Great, let’s play.”

When it is time for action, ask the child what they want to do. Have them roll 3d6 and you roll 2d6. Higher roll wins. Villains have two hit points, heroes have ten hit points. Each hit is one point of damage. That’s it. If you want to use funny dice, have them roll a d20 and you roll a d12. Yes, it cheats in their favor. If you kill your kid’s character, odds are they won’t be back to the table.

This kind of mechanic does several things. It helps kids with counting and comparing numbers. Also, it encourages them to think about what they want their character to do, rather than what the “stats” say. Most importantly, it prevents confusion, which can only lead to frustration. We all want to teach our kids the beauty in our favorite game systems, but that can’t occur until they are intellectually ready. This method (or something similar) gets them into the fun of roleplaying first.

Forget World Building and Continuity

As for world building and a continuing campaign: Don’t worry about it. Get a blank piece of paper and draw a three or four “room” map. Grab some little toys or minis and play. That’s all they need. If you don’t have a figure, draw a little picture on a piece of paper and go. Better yet, draw the map with them under their direction. You’ll be surprised how quickly they learn to put in even a few traps or unusual features. Also, keep in mind your child’s attention span. A twenty to thirty minute session of three or four encounters is more than enough. And if your child looks tired or distracted, cut to the last scene or call it a session.

As for consistency and an immersive game world, well, you might be asking for too much. If your young child wants to play Spiderman fighting Darth Vader to save Spongebob, go for it. If it is fun for them, then you are doing it right. (And is it really that much different than pretending to be an elf?)

Give Up Narrative Control

Allow very young children to tell you what they want to happen. For example, if you have a treasure chest in a room, ask them what they think is in the room. Then that’s what is in there. If it is a magic item, ask them what its powers are. This really helps foster creativity and involvement in the game. Also, it saves you from having to do any prep. Now, you may need to suggest options for them such as “Do you want to fight or use your wand?” — and that’s fine. However, if your child is really excited about an idea, listen and use it.


A lot of these suggestions are just the opposite of standard roleplaying practices: careful character creation, detailed settings, GM narration of the encounter, long sessions. When playing with the very young, you have to parse a game down to its core: having fun pretending to be someone else. You can still have rules (albeit pretty loose rules), but don’t let them get in the way of a good time. Try a quick RPG session with your kid and see if it sticks.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Gaming With the Very Young"

#1 Comment By Tsenn On October 9, 2012 @ 4:59 am

Awesome advice, concise, direct and well written. Now I’m wondering if some of that can be applied to s convention game. Thanks!

#2 Comment By teaman On October 9, 2012 @ 5:14 am

Thanks so much for the kind words. For a con game, something simple like FUDGE, FATE, or Microlite 20 might work really well for you.

For me, when the rule systems get too bulky, it drains the fun out of the game.

#3 Comment By Anaesthesia On October 9, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

Toon is also good (since cartoon characters can’t die). I was also thinking about simplifying Mouse Guard (heard a lot of gamer’s kids enjoyed this rpg).

#4 Comment By shadowacid On October 9, 2012 @ 6:29 am

Good article. This is pretty much what we did with my son early last year for “Teach your kids to game” week.

We just grabbed a bunch of his star wars guys and each had a D6. We’d take turns declaring attacks and then make opposed d6 rolls to see if the attack was successful. Loser’s star wars dude got tossed in dramatic fashion.

Eventually my son started saying things like “Jango Fett has two guns so he can attack twice.” So that’s when I started letting that dude make two attacks…and so on for other figs with outstanding characteristics.

It’s been awesome so far and has been a simple enough game to slowly add mechanics to as he’s gotten older and more used to the rules.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On October 9, 2012 @ 9:14 am

Good article, and great advice about tilting the odds in the kid’s favor.

I once gamed with a guy who had a young son, and who complained about his son’s infatuation with that mind-numbingly boring and seemingly never-ending game: Candyland. I commiserated, then let slip that during my daughter’s Candyland phase I soon figured out a way to cheat and shorten the game considerably.

I was later invited to his house, where I was ambushed by the young boy clutching his copy of Candyland to the obviously planned delight of the parents and other guests. “Will you play Candlyalnd with me?” he plaintively asked, in the adorable way kids have (I suspect that only parents see this as adorable). I of course said I would be delighted to play Candyland with the lad and off we went with adults craning forward to see what was what.

And the game progressed in the usual infuriating (to anyone over the age of four and not disabled by pharmaceuticals) way until we were finally on the final stretch and I pulled my trick that ended the game with a solid win for the boy.

After the child had gone to bed, happy, the “adults” turned on me. “But you let him win” they said, obviously disappointed in me and my cheesy trick (I had used a magician’s move and all magician’s moves are cheesy tricks which is why they don’t like you to see how they work).

“Of course I let him win” I said. “Did you think I was going to cheat on a four year old and beat him?”

They seemed disappointed in my solution, but they also missed the point. Two points actually. First, the object was to bring an end to the game after a reasonable time, not crush the opponent with a stolen victory. Second, the kid would leave happy at having beaten the adult which would enhance the experience in his little eyes and give him a reason to keep playing.

Also, it wasn’t my job to teach him how to be a good loser. That would be the harder part and his parents were entirely welcome to the job.

#6 Comment By teaman On October 9, 2012 @ 9:24 am

Also, maybe it is not the GM’s job to be a killer with players of ANY age. I’ve only once had a player accuse me of going too easy on him (I really didn’t in that case). Most players of all ages want to be a hero.

Now, they should have to think and work for it, and hopefully be a good team player, but they still want to win or at least accomplish something.

#7 Comment By Maull On October 9, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

I play a highly modified D&D with my five year old. He likes the descriptions of the fights and the stuff he gets. He frequently tells me what the things look like(cloak: black with purple and yellow stars). I asked him what he liked best. He said. “I liked to fight the big bull guy, with the horns. I liked fighting the skeleton with the glowing eyes. I liked fighting the spiders with my purple flaming sword! I also like time with Daddy.” I guess that is the big thing for me, the time spent doing stuff together.

#8 Comment By Orikes On October 9, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

Excellent recommendations.

I think too many people either wait too long to try and introduce kids to the hobby (by the time they’re old enough to get the rules, it’s not cool to hang with your parents) or get frustrated with little kids not getting the rules. These are really good ideas on how to get the spirit of the game across to little kids.

I ran my friends’ three daughters through a very simplified savage worlds game once and it was awesome. They amazed me with how creative they were trying to get past some of the obstacles. It’s easy to hook them if you do it right. 🙂

#9 Comment By DocRyder On October 9, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

I learned many of these the hard way. We tried teaching The Boy to roleplay with TWERPS. It’s a nice, simple, consistent system and plays quick. He and his sister now play in our regular D&D game with the rest of us.

Good advice, well-written, snappy article. Wish I’d had it about 5 years ago. 🙂

#10 Comment By MonsterMike On October 10, 2012 @ 11:45 am

I’ve introduced my own kids and about ten of my younger nieces and nephews to role-playing games, so I can vouch that this is great advice. Faery’s Tale is pretty good for 5-8 year olds, and BEAN! The d2 Role Playing Game had a lot of appeal for the 8-12 crowd. Savage Worlds for over 12.

#11 Comment By teaman On November 19, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

Thanks for all the kind comments. Sounds like there a lot of us who want to pass the torch.