Howdy! Continuing from last fortnight’s post, today I will be sharing my approach to introducing RPGs to younger audiences.
In the aforementioned previous post, I used the acronym CHEESE — that stands for ‘CHoose the right game’, ‘Explain RPGs’, ‘Establish expectations’, ‘Set boundaries’ and ‘Explain rules’ — as a means to induct new players into the hobby. This approach is good for general audiences, but you might need to do a bit of tweaking to your approach if you’re running for younger ones, especially non-tabletop gamers.
Potential Difficulties With Younger Gamers
As an educational therapist, I get to meet kids of all ages. I’ve dealt with kids as young as 8, and as old as 17, and if you’re looking to run a game for the young ones, I can tell you this right here and now: you need to know your audience better than ever. We can assume most adult players know of the unwritten social contract of gaming, but don’t make that same assumption with younger ones. One thing that I was taught when I was new to the job: no two learners are the same. Here are some possible obstacles you might encounter with younger players:
Short Attention Spans
Be prepared for kids with short attention spans — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t believe in traditional definitions of ADHD or ADD. They will stand up and walk around, their minds will wander, and they will talk a lot — out of character.
Younger players, especially if they’re 12 and below, can have the tendency to hog the limelight by declaring more actions per turn than they’re allowed to. This usually stems from wanting to be ‘the hero of the show’.
What adults see as simple/lightweight games might be tedious for younger players, although this is variable depending on the individual. It could be a bookkeeping issue, difficulty with crunch, creativity limitations, or even just rules that deviate from expectations. For instance, I have a group that finds 13th Age (a rules-medium game) easier than Microscope (very rules-light), due to the latter being more freeform.
While playing, younger players can develop unreal expectations, for example visualising things differently from the GM (or even their peers) or wanting to resolve a task with an irrelevant skill. Hey, a large part of RPGs is in giving players creative freedom after all, right?
Dealing With These Difficulties
All of the above are from personal experience. Dealing with them hasn’t always been easy, but there’s a list of things I usually do. Note though that a lot of these coincide with the CHEESE approach from Part 1. Oh and I’m not going to come up with an acronym this time because meh.
Pick The Right Game
For players who are aged 4 to 10, I recommend Hero Kids or Dagger. If they’re older, go with Barebones Fantasy or something else that’s light, doesn’t have too much bookkeeping to do and has straightforward rules. Risus also works well as a generic system. But really, just go with what your audience is comfortable with, and if they’re not, switch it.
Understand The Players
What do the kids enjoy? What are their personalities like? Do they have any quirks that might inhibit theirs or others’ enjoyment? Before you even start on a game, remember that you’re hosting a social game for a group of still-maturing young adults, so get to know them on a personal level first (unless they’re your kids), and assist them in getting to know their peers too. Good group dynamics, especially with younger players, go a long way towards ensuring a smooth session.
Prep The Players As Much As Possible
Explain the basic rules and do a simulation of them; also, make sure you’ve set behavioural boundaries and are firm about it. Take an hour or so if you have to. Basically, don’t neglect Session 0. One of the worst things that can arguably happen is when the game’s first session takes off with a bang, only to crash to a halt when one of the kids suddenly realises he/she doesn’t know what to do, or when he/she starts telling you about their life story (I swear this happens more often than it should). Not only does it slow down the game for the others, but it also means you have to spend a few minutes talking to everyone. Again. Take the time to explain things first — at the beginning — even if it means you won’t get to play much for that day.
Put Their Interests First
While older players can handle a more adversarial style of GMing, younger players will lose interest fast if they find themselves constantly against the GM. One of the things I do is to ensure their input matters. Every action, every word they say, shouldn’t be casually dismissed. Consider how their input can occur within the framework of the story. If they want to trash the ceiling to bring down the place, go ahead and let them (with a roll).
That is not to say anything that they demand/declare goes, but this issue is less likely to surface if session prep and expectations have been properly established. If it does happen, rationalise it with the kids rather than dismissing it outright, or work out a concession. One of the hardest things to do is explaining why Tame Animal doesn’t work with goblins, but that’s where role-playing in-character can help to illustrate the point.
Alas, I have to admit sometimes I’m guilty of not putting my younger players’ interests first. This is why I need to strongly highlight this to all of you who might even have the slightest interest in running games for kids: in the long run, this can be a make-or-break deal for their interest in RPGs.
As some of you may know, most of my players are kids. Of the games I’ve run, about 80% of them are for players below the age of 17. Initially, when I first started out GMing for kids, the experience was significantly different from that with older audiences, but over time it’s been easier, and in fact not much different than how I would treat adult players. In fact, the process is similar to the latter — you just need to put in more effort with the introductions.
I’ve been reading on r/rpg about players asking for advice on GMing for kids, so that’s what inspired me to write this (both Parts 1 and 2). Regardless of whether you have any intention to GM for kids, I hope this post has been informative. If you’re keen on following future posts, check out S&S’s Facebook or Twitter. Have a good gaming week ahead, and I’ll be back with a new post two weeks from now.
(Also, I recommend checking out John Aegard’s write-up on doing Dungeon World one-shots. It’s really good for inspiration, even if you don’t play DW.)