This week I’m going to share more of my experiences from D&D camp, but I’m going to focus on the things that I learned from the kids and offer some advice for getting younger people into D&D. See last week’s Confessions of a D&D Camp Councilor for an introduction to D&D Camp.
I was really proud of my kids this week. I was fortunate to have four of the six kids I worked with the previous week and two new kids who were very clever and eager. Since I knew the kids a little better I decided that I should branch the programming out a bit. So in addition to playing D&D we did 3D paper craft dungeons and monsters, monster building and a LARP (live action role-playing game).
The paper craft dungeon was a big success. First I got the kids to cooperatively design the layout for the complex and then render it in paper with details like barrels, broken down carts, and working doors and pitfall traps. They were very excited to adventure through the death trap that they had created. They decided that each person could secretly place one trap in the dungeon that only they and myself would know about. This had hilarious results. In one case Brraaalgh the Barbarian, after failing to lure the Wizard (named Dragon Man) into his trap, simply picked the spell caster up and threw him into the pit.
On the third day the party faithfully forgot their character sheets at home, all of them. Typically I insist on storing them over night but on this occasion they were all so excited about bringing them home to illustrate the portraits of their hero that I had to say yes. It all started with an owlbear mini. One of my campers, a girl of about ten, decided that she was going to play an owlbear because she liked the mini. After reading her the statistics for a level 8 owlbear from the monster manual the whole group was up in arms. The party went from two Clerics, a Barbarian, a Wizard, a Paladin and a Ranger, to an owlbear, a young red dragon, a zombie hulk, a gnoll demonic scourge, a werewolf and a riding horse. It was explained to me that despite the fact that the riding horse was level 1, it would “do well in combat because horses are so majestic.” Who am I to argue? The party built their dungeon again and waited for the delicious heroes arrived. The tension of anticipation was growing when a terrestrial octopus swarm attacked!
The last day we went a-LARPing. Lucky for us the camp is housed in a historic fortress that has been well preserved by a population that values its culture. As such the kids had battlements, trenches and structures from the 1800s to make use of. The quest I put them on was a simple one, the king was unfit to rule and his son had died of a sudden illness. A grand arena had be constructed and all the heroes in the realm were called to court to fight for the title of the general of the king’s army. The fortress’s orchard was the grey forest where hungry wolves lingered, the summer garden was the agricultural lands on the boarders of the grand capital city, the gates to the fort were those of the city, and the parade ground was where our heroes would test their might. In the end some of the reenactment soldiers joined in and played the part of city guards, though I couldn’t convince them to give us a 21-gun salute.
DMing for kids can be very difficult. When running a game for “mature” people there is an understanding that you can’t please everyone all the time. But a good DM will do their best to make sure everyone has a good time. When you’re DMing for kids the juggling act becomes a bit harder because their attention spans are much shorter. Eventually someone pulls out a Nintendo DS and you loose half your table because they want to see just how high Mario can jump. In these situations you have to ask yourself some important questions. Is the storyline too complicated for the kids to follow of their own accord? Would they have more fun being helped through a more in depth story or smashing the hell out of zombies? Do you owe the kids the experience of playing a really immersive game with interesting characters and plot hooks, or should you just aim to put smiles on their faces? The only insight I can offer is the old adage, “you win some, you loose some.” Kids can get cranky or sassy at the drop of a hat, and there will be times where they decide, seemingly telepathically, that they’re going to turn on you and test you (this is especially true with the 13-16 age group). The best you can do is roll with the punches and hope to come out of it all with a net gain.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. The fact of the matter is that most kids don’t know how to play. At face value it seems like having a table of people who don’t really know what they’re doing would be tedious, but in every instance where they don’t know the rule, you get to make it up. This can be very important when you are playing with mixed age groups where there is a very different awareness of the rules of the game.
With my last group I had four 14-year-olds and two 10-year-olds. I noticed early on that the little kids took longer to get through their turns and that the older kids were loosing interest due to their lack of patience. My solution was to take the older kids aside and tell them to not worry about the tactical disadvantage that their two younger party members caused; I would tailor the encounters so that they were built to challenge a party of four. Instead of trying to help teach the rules, I asked them if they would disregard any infringements and instead focus on helping the two youngest ones tell an exciting story. So instead of having the 10-year-old playing the Wizard get annoyed by constantly being corrected for forgetting a modifier (something I still can’t do) he got to cast fireball every turn and never had to worry about opportunity attacks. I would say “wow, what a fantastic hit, you burn the goblin and he jumps to the ground screaming,” and then mark down the hit as doing “minus boot” hit points or something silly just so that he would see my pencil moving. The game sped up and the whole table was interested given that they were all doing the things that they were interested in doing.
Kids really like visual and auditory aids. If you can provide drawings of the monsters they fight or the places they visit they will care much more about them. I found the dungeon tiles much more effective they penning my own maps because they kids like to touch them and play with them. People always talk about how imaginative kids are, but the fact of the matter is that they often can’t concentrate long enough on one topic to keep a game running smoothly. Though I didn’t use them, I can only expect that the kids would have loved to have had a recording of forest or cave sounds playing in the background when they were navigating those environments. If you think that it will pull their interest into the game, use it.
My last piece of advice is simply a matter of logistics, but it’s worth noting. Before you start playing for the first time, establish some simple table rules. If you don’t lay down the law early you’ll hear all manner of excuses for why each person ought to be able to misbehave. Simple rules like, “only one person speaks at a time,” keep your hands to yourselves,” and “no yelling,” will go long way to help preserve your sanity. Other rules can help prevent bullying, like having to ask permission of other players to include them in the area of effect of certain spells. This may seem a little silly, but some kids can be very sensitive about their character or by these means one kid may be subtly bullying another. You can also allow the group to establish a punishment for cheating. If the group creates the rule you will have a much easier time enforcing it.
Check out Bauxtehude’s actual play Shattered Sea podcast and visit the Shattered Sea website for recordings of D&D Encounters, the Shattered Sea Development Campaign and more. Due to privacy and security concerns, there are no actual play podcasts from D&D Camp.