I had an interesting gaming experience over the weekend: I ran The Strange for a group that included several children.

This isn’t really anything new: I’ve run games for my kids several times over the past three or four years. But those were always adventures I prepped and ran specifically as family or kids’ games. Slightly watered down versions of pretty middle-of-the-road fantasy tropes, along with fairly relaxed use of the rules, significant hand-holding, and no expectation of bringing a story through from start to finish.

This weekend’s game was for a mixed group of adults and children, and although I kept it PG (well, maybe PG-13), it was otherwise prepped and run like a real, grownup game. I’ve had some experience with kids learning RPGs in the past (focus grouping the D&D Black Dragon Basic Game, for example), so I was really curious about how the session would turn out. It turned out well–but I learned a few things I’ll keep in mind for future games of this sort!

First, here’s who we had:

  • Ryan adults: Experienced with RPGs and The Strange. I was the GM.
  • Olivia (aged 11): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but mostly in sessions that were run specifically for kids. Played a guest session in my grownup The Strange campaign a few weeks back, though.
  • Rowan (9): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but this was the most grownup session he’d played.
  • Adult friends: Not gamers, but familiar with the tropes. Both had read a bit of The Strange corebook.
  • Adult friends’ son H____ (9): Never played an RPG, but had previously rolled up a character under our supervision. A bit of a prodigy (OK, a serious prodigy); he’d read the corebook cover to cover probably multiple times. He knew the game rules and terminology better than anyone else in the room.

These children were all either a little experienced or extremely precocious—they definitely aren’t typical kids playing a game right out of the box, so while it was interesting to observe their reactions I don’t think they stand in for kids everywhere. It’s also worth noting that there was a 7-year-old present who simply couldn’t parse what was going on, so he didn’t participate.

But for the rest of them, the basic concepts of roleplaying, the rules, and the setting were never an issue. (There was sometimes a bit of confusion over these things, but not out of line with what you’d see in a newbie adult player.) And kids lack the level of life experience adults have, so they sometimes needed to have setting or NPC details spelled out a bit more.

A lot of games with a kids’ focus tend to go with oversized components or text, and that’s not a bad thing—but it wasn’t super necessary in our case. There weren’t any problems with reading dice or character sheets/books/cypher cards/etc. These kids were perfectly fine with adult-scaled text and components. (Heck, we were mostly using the Q-Workshop Strange dice, and while I love them they’re not the easiest dice to read!)

Time also wasn’t an issue. People think kids have short attention spans, and kids games are often designed to run short. We played through my entire adventure–a solid six hours, with an hour dinner break in the middle. The kids were engaged throughout (for the most part); the only issue we had was Rowan’s extreme distress that the adventure came to and end!

So if the kids grokked rules and setting and components as well as adults (more or less), where were the lessons? Definitely in the realm of game etiquette. Issues included:

  • Not understanding when to take the spotlight and when to give it up.
  • A frequent compulsion to over-describe trivial character appearance and actions. When a kid gets an exciting idea in his head (like, the pose he strikes before busting through the door guns blazing), he MUST MUST MUST tell everyone. In detail. Excitedly. Possibly several times.
  • Inability to sit in one spot; a tendency to drift along the sofa in front of other players.
  • Some (but not too much) bad behavior during a “boring” part (read: the spotlight is on other players).
  • No understanding of pacing—specifically, when something has been talked to death and it’s time to keep moving. Not just description, but also interpretation of clues, planning the next step, etc.
  • Not always paying attention to the order of events, even when fully engaged. Not reliable about managing who goes when in combat, for example.
  • One of the kids, although he reads like an adult, doesn’t write well and resists doing it. He almost always had to be reminded to mark points from his pool when applying Effort, for example. Not because he forgot or was cheating, but because he simply doesn’t like to write.

So what did I learn? What makes GMing for kids different than for adults? There are minor issues of having to present and explain things a bit differently, but mostly it comes down to the fact that RPGs fill their players’ heads with exciting flights of the imagination–and when a kid has an exciting thought, the compulsion to share it is overwhelming. So a good GM needs to:

  • Control the pace of the game.
  • Control the spotlight.
  • Control the blathering.
  • In fact, just control. Being the GM doesn’t change the fact that you’re still the parent (or at least the authority figure). Sometimes you have to be a bit more forceful about telling a player to sit down or stop talking.
  • And then look out for any needs particular to your child players–whether that’s imagining what a typical city block looks like if they’ve mostly lived in the suburb or reminding them to write down their pool expenditures.

I’ll definitely do this again. (Spoiler alert: I actually already have, sort of. But that’s a topic for another post.) In the mean time, if you have a few spare kids sitting around, maybe it’s time to start them with RPGs! And if you’ve already done so, what have your experiences been?