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.