Running a D&D Event for Kids: Some Observations

A friend of mine has been running D&D events in places like local libraries. These events are often kid-centric -- after all, what kid in 2018 doesn't want to get into Stranger Things-like hijinks with their multi-cultural friends? In my day, we were chased down flickering, blood-soaked halls by brutal and otherworldly monsters on the way to buy a Crystal Pepsi for 5 cents at the malt shop.

D&D isn 't just fun for kids -- it has some real and proven benefits. Here are some observations that I made while watching children play -- what worked and what didn't work. 

Bringing D&D Into Your Community

The idea that D&D is good for kids is nothing new; D&D has been used treat social anxiety, autism, and a variety of other childhood challenges. D&D inspires problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Over time, it builds confidence and leadership skills. It also shows you about the inherent unfairness of life, risk-vs-reward, and a healthy dose of authoritarianism. 

Libraries and schools may want to consider hosting D&D-related events, especially now that D&D is growing in popularity. Odds are many children have already heard of D&D or developed an interest in it; they just need a place to go.

But DMing for children is also very different than DMing for adults. Children have shorter attention spans, may need more coaxing, and will often deal with situations in a way that's even more inexplicable than your typical murder hobo party. An example: in a dungeon, our fighter decided to just start running through the dungeon and keep running. The more monsters appeared, the more frightened he got, and thus the more likely he was to keep trying to forge ahead. Even the most stubborn adult isn't likely to do this.

Tips for Running a D&D Event for Kids

  • Have them create a brief background for their character before they start playing. Ask them leading questions, such as: Do you know any of the other characters? How did you get here? What would you say motivates you? It doesn't have to be in-depth; in fact, the more detailed it has to be, the harder it may become. 
  • Try to keep the table sizes smaller with younger children. Just like classroom sizes, the amount of one-on-one attention you can give each kid is important. Adults can function on a table size of 6 or 7. Children really need a table size of 3 or 4, so none of them feel as though they've been left out. You need to do a little more babysitting here to make sure that everyone is getting their turn and doing something that's fun.
  • Pregenerate a wide variety of characters. Letting kids create their own characters is usually going to take way too much time. Make sure kids are given a wide selection of characters (and try to have some options beyond traditional race/class combos). Try to offer female/male versions of each. Consider making your character sheets dry erase. A dry erase character sheet will make it easier to reuse them, which also means you can have a larger variety of pre-gens available over time. 
  • Create your adventure in stages. Your adventure should be designed in compartmentalized stages rather than a single over-arching adventure. This is really helpful, because you want to have some "resolution" regardless of how long the kids take. Your first 20 minute stage might end up being the entirety of a 2 hour session. Conversely, your 3 complete stages may be blown through in an hour. During either session, children may need to leave or may need to come in late. This gives them entry/exit points.
  • Strongly consider doing a homebrew. A stripped down homebrew system that is based on an established system, like 5th edition, is going to be much smoother to run. 5th edition should be reserved for when you have more time available; at least two or three hours. 

And, of course, there are the things not to do. DMs need to be careful when they're dealing with children, especially when dealing with issues of race -- which is a hot button topic these days. Many campaign settings include racial divides, and it's easy for someone to slip and say "Oh, I won't deal with you people (dwarves)" without thinking about the implication it might have to a child. "Everyone knows" elves and dwarves don't get along, but when a child's character is being treated incorrectly due to their race, it can trigger feelings that merit discussion.

There was one moment in which I cringed: the DM mentioned, "You can't be sisters. You'd be from a mixed-race family." -- to two sisters of color. The DM meant they couldn't be a halfing sister and an elvish sister, but because the children had never played the game before, there was a clear moment when they thought he was talking about them. Even worse, he followed it up with, "One of you must be adopted!" I saw a child's mind shatter. (It was recovered quickly.)

So there are things you need to watch out for when dealing with kids, and it would be advisable to have a second helper around to tip you off if something might have slipped past you. Other than that, you may find that small, impulsive children aren't that different from your regular, adult parties.