Dungeons and Dragons is a game. Games are for kids.
Two simple statements, but they both raise big questions. D&D is a game, sure, but is it a game in the same sense as Candyland or Snakes and Ladders? Games are for kids, but they’re also for adults; is it wise to cross the streams?
Happily, they come with simple answers. Yes, D&D is a game in the same sense as Candyland: both have sets of rules, ways to interact with a fictional environment and ways to play out success and failure. And yes, D&D is open to kids. Kids play chess and go, and neither chess nor go lets you change the rules to make the game easier. D&D encourages it.
D&D is a perfect match for parents, teachers and anyone else with kids to look after. First and foremost, it’s something for them to focus on that isn’t Fortnite or climbing the walls or climbing the walls while playing Fortnite. It’s also a great way to teach teamwork, spend quality time together, and foster creativity.
Luckily with just some basic prep work and a few simple tools, playing D&D with kids can be made much easier. Follow us as we guide you through a game of D&D with your younglings.
Friends, Fun and Adventure… what more could a kid want? | Image from Stranger Things – Netflix
Why Play D&D with Kids?
It Brings People Together
This is the best part of gaming. Staring at a screen by yourself can’t match the experience of playing games face to face with friends and family. Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect chance to bond with your children doing something you can both enjoy. After all, at the end of the day D&D is basically story time with dice. It’s a bedtime story that is empowers your kids to be both storyteller and hero.
Trouble getting your kids to do their math, language or art homework? Try D&D. Dungeons and Dragons makes mental math, creativity and spatial awareness part of the fun. Players benefit from a consequence-free environment; even experienced players sometimes miscalculate a bonus or ask the Dungeon Master (gamers shorten that to DM) to clear up a rule. That means D&D doesn’t just help with concrete skills like arithmetic and spatial analysis, though it does. It also teaches kids that being smart isn’t about memorizing facts or filling in blanks. It’s about reading, asking questions and staying curious about the world.
It Encourages Lateral Thinking
Throughout their childhood, your kids will hear a lot about how not to think. Mass media, teachers, employers will all do their utmost to make your kids, and indeed adults, think in generic, predictable ways. Perhaps the single most powerful appeal of D&D and gaming in general is that it encourages players to break those strictures and think outside the proverbial box.
Tabletop RPGs have a rep for being a haven for outsiders. Nerds, loners and sundry oddities often find a home at the table. But at one time or another, every kid feels excluded and alone. That’s the nature of growing up. RPGs like D&D not only make everyone feel welcome, they provide a healthy outlet for people frustrated with the real world to embody their fantasies and act out their imagination. Better still, a good game of D&D requires teamwork, socialization and cooperative thinking. Those are lessons that will stick with kids all the way into adult life.
D&D is a powerful tool for kids to learn a vital skill: how to turn things they’ve imagined into things that exist. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of seeing something that only ever existed in your head come to be in the real, physical world. It’s where art starts, not to mention building and engineering. It’s the beginning of craft.
D&D is fun, educational and helps encourage imaginative thinking | Image from Wizards of the Coast
How to Play Kid-Friendly D&D
Playing Dungeons and Dragons with kids offers some unique challenges. It also provides unique rewards. are some tips, tricks and strategies for getting kids into D&D.
Turn down the lights. Get some music going; most streaming services have playlists under “D&D” or “Fantasy” that will set a suitable tone. Light a candle or two. Playing D&D is an event. Help your kids get in the party spirit.
Even for adults, part of the appeal of D&D is all the wonderful toys. Even though we won’t be using many of them, at least not the way the Players Handbook prescribes (see “Theatre of the Mind” below) make sure you have a few.
Get on Google and find some custom character sheets. Pick up some generic minis online or from your friendly local game shop. Don’t tell the mini collectors we said this, but you can swap in Lego or your kids’ action figures in a pinch. Consider costumes.
Visual and tactile elements will help your kids get into the game. D&D is a global hobby, so if you don’t find what you want with a Google, try hopping onto your favorite social media sites and reaching out to artists to get exactly what you want. There are gifted, geeky craftsfolk who specialize in everything from graphic designing your kids’ character sheets to 3D printing miniatures. The search query “D&D artist” should have you off and running.
Hacking has a bad reputation in gaming, but here, we don our white hat and hack for good. One of the most useful hacks we’ve found in tabletop gaming with kids is “Initiative for Everything.” Have everybody roll for turn order in the first combat or role-play (RP) encounter, then use that turn order in every future interaction.
You can fudge it a bit in RP, for instance if a particular PC wants to talk to a particular NPC, but in combat or skill-check territory, having a set turn order keeps a kid-friendly table from turning into chaos.
For a kid-friendly game, prep is more complex than rolling up characters and talking out back stories. It’s about incorporating what they want to do into the game.
Adults are more comfortable going along with an overarching story. Kids don’t have that kind of attention span. If they want to throw fireballs or fight gelatinous cubes (and who doesn’t?) set up a story that gets them there in the first 10 minutes.
Notice we say “10 minutes,” not “immediately.” You could jump straight into battle, and if you’ve got rambunctious kids at the table, that can be a smart move. If they want to play the game, however, and especially if they’ve watched you play before, give them a chance to be their characters before combat or significant RP.
Let them playact and strut their stuff as wizened wizard or brutal barbarian before you break out the dice.
Theatre of the Mind
In the elder days of the hobby (like the mid-90s or so) there was a mysterious place all players sought: the Theatre of the Mind. This theatre, it was said, could bring forth all manner of beautiful illusions and fed upon the sacrifice of…mini figures…and…graph paper?
This metaphor may have gotten away from us.
Theatre of the Mind is a way of playing D&D that strips the game down to storytelling, character sheets and dice. In combat, everybody’s in range of everybody. In RP, everybody acts out the encounter, rolls relevant skills, and the DM makes a judgement call.
We strongly recommend Theatre of the Mind for kids, especially younger kids. It necessarily lacks the tactical crunch of rules-as-written D&D, and it asks a lot of the DM to keep things from descending into anarchy. At the same time, it encourages imagination and disposes of game elements that kids might find boring. It’s also an order of magnitude cheaper than graph paper-and-minis D&D, which is not to be sniffed at, especially when you’ve got young players who may or may not love the game.
Actor Joe Manganiello brings his love of Dungeons and Dragons to kids at Pittsburgh hospital | Image from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
D&D for the Next Generation
There’s one more important tip for DMs hoping to include kids in their game: you’re not alone. Both Wizards of the Coast and third party companies have released resources aimed specifically at getting kids involved in the game. In particular, the beautiful Young Adventurer’s Guides present all the important content of the Big 3 D&D books in a kid-friendly way.
Published adventures can also help your kids get into the game: Lost Mine of Phandelver included in the D&D Starter Set is an excellent choice (be sure to check out our review of the D&D Starter Set).
Beyond that, remember that D&D is a community as much as a game system. The Internet abounds with folks who have played D&D with their kids. If you need help or just a bit of input, reach out. Your fellow nerds will answer.