Players, New and Young: Creating a Great First Game

The world of roleplaying games has expanded over the last decade – more and more players are finding their way to the table and the screen, and many of those are young adventurers with different needs and perspectives than what some of us… shall we say “veteran campaigners”… are used to. This is new territory for many GM’s, and so we present a handful of start-up tips for capturing the imaginations of players, both new and young.

2018 saw the release of several childrens’ books related to roleplaying. Among them, The ABC’s of D&D and The 123’s of D&D by Ivan Van Norman and Caleb Cleveland, as well as The Little Game Master by Randall Hampton. In my mind, publications such as these mark a turn away from the old and ignorant taboos born in the 1980’s and reveal that RPG’s are being accepted by many, at last. Even the littlest goblins want to grab some dice and join in. But children at the game table, especially small ones, present a set of challenges that may require some new tale-telling techniques.

Tip #1 – Manipulatives are Magic. The very youngest players will be satisfied with rolling dice, shouting numbers, stomping miniatures across a table to bump a bad guy off the edge, and scribbling wildly over maps. Go overboard with the pieces of play and incorporate some of the kid’s toys if you don’t have many mini’s. Rules and roleplay are somewhat less important than the toys at the pre-school to early-elementary ages.

Tip #2 – Simplicity is Splendid. The rules that you do use for little ones should be short, sweet, and age-appropriate to your young gamer. You can skip the character sheet completely and just use a theater-of-the-mind approach, but if they insist on stats (as my son did), then I recommend a small sheet with only a few variables (Mind/Body/Health might be enough). As they get older, their sheets can grow in complexity, but even brand new players with lots of birthdays under their belt can also benefit from focusing on just a few stats, to start.

Tip #3 – Bloodless is Best. Skip the guts and gore. Kids can be sensitive to violence and death, not to mention other adult subjects, so either swap swordplay out for wordplay (“you’ve tricked the guard into thinking there’s cake in the kitchens!”) or give them lots of options for non-lethal victories (“this magic dust can put anyone to sleep for a whole day”). Mature themes are for mature audiences only – and it’s good practice to ask older players what level of gritty realism they want as their limit. This is a form of escapism, after all.

Tip #4 – Borrow the Board Games. In middle school, my best friend and I accidentally discovered roleplaying games after we started adding our own house-rules to HeroQuest, a board game. If your young player has some favorites (that they force you to play again and again), co-opt them and add a bit of play-acting to the standard rule-set. If they start to show interest, you can introduce RPG’s tailored for their age group:

Tip #5 – Advocate Action. New gamers of any age can be intimidated by unfamiliar games, stacks of rule books, and joining games with people they don’t know all that well. Pre-teens and teens can be especially uncertain, anxious, and sometimes downright terrified of making some sort of social mistake. If you encounter a timid player, it falls to you as a GM (or an experienced player) to give them the best first game possible by patiently encouraging them to step up and declare what they want their character to do. Build their confidence by saying yes often (and then figure out how to make it happen with whatever rule set you’re using). Their timidity will fade with time and exposure. Before too long, they’ll be running games for you!

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