Updated: Sep 30, 2022
This is the second of a two-part blog to help people new to the hobby jump into the educational and emotional benefits of story-game play with kids. Here, I'm writing about my approach to helping kids from 7-13 learn and grow, and its from ; you can find the first - for kids 2-6, by the amazing Steph at TTRPGkids.com - here.
Here's a quick directory to help you navigate this guide:
THE STRANGER THINGS EFFECT
More than a decade ago, I was running a class in Chicago and pulled out a twenty-sided die to introduce some randomness in an activity. Kids went wide-eyed, and one asked: “Mr. Low, do you play Dungeons & Dragons?” When I told them that I did, another student asked “can you teach us?”
I was flabbergasted. Since when had role-playing become cool, I wondered?
D&D is having a cultural moment - I have seen D&D references in everything from Stranger Things to the Amazing World of Gumball. And while the game itself may not be my favorite entry point for kids into the hobby, any entry point is better than none.
The educational benefits of gaming with kids - play-based learning - are many and well documented, but most research to date has focused on the idea of playing games with younger students. As any adult role-player will gladly tell you, RPGs are one of the most educational, creative, and social past-times someone of any age can take up - and for kids, they offer that rarest and most precious of experiences: a completely emotionally engaging and compelling activity where learning happens with joy. That’s what led me to start designing and running game classes to help kids learn, and there’s potential there for revolutionizing how we think about education.
But D&D can be … a bit much. As an adult story-gamer, I’ve found that the amount of preparation for learning can make the experience of joining a game feel like too much work for any but the most enthusiastic newbie. As a guardian or parent looking to start playing with kids - and even, as is becoming more common lately, being asked to play BY kids - where to start?
Generally, most RPGs can be pretty simply described as “storytelling, but with a bit of chance and strategy.” Some include dice, of course - others cards. As an educator, I use the following framework for thinking about what happens in a game:
Entice & Engage
Explore & Adjust
End & Extend
When you Entice, you get kids interested - show them pictures, maps, ask them about what kinds of stories they love. Once they’re interested, you get to Engage - make characters, describe the world, and imagine mysteries and adventures.
Exploring is what kids get to do once the story takes off - asking questions, trying to change events with their abilities, and interacting with people, places, and things in the world of the tale. As you go, you’ll need tools so kids can Adjust the experience by working together to resolve any problems they have with the story.
Game sessions tend to be like episodes of an ongoing TV series, so coming to an End means wrapping up the current event or plotline - and Extending the game means thinking, writing, planning, and imagining what will happen during your next session. In my writing development classes, I use two more Es when I work with students: Edit and Evaluate.
You don’t have to be an educator, a performer, a writer, or any sort of expert to game, but using these basic steps as a framework for thinking about what happens in a game can be a handy way to get into the hobby. Don’t worry too much about “doing it right,” though - step one, if you’re curious, is to pick which game you’d like to play.
(ENTICE) SYSTEM MATTERS
While with younger kids, the story is the thing, but kids start to hunger for a little more tension, drama, and chance at older ages. From 7 or so, they begin to like a bit of strategy, tactics, and the surprise of chance, which means picking a system becomes a bit more important. As Steph has mentioned, there is a metric TON of systems out there for you to use - her list is an incredible resource, and a great place to start.
I designed Stories RPG and the monthly Starsworn series for first-time players to learn as they play. The game requires nothing more than a few six-sided dice, a printer, and stuff to write with. It comes with podcasts of voice actors playing out adventure stories (from the incredible team at Stories Podcast and the brilliant Daniel Hinds) that you and your kids can listen to that teach you how to play. It also helps adults and older kids get used to some of the “soft” tools for running games - how to negotiate and discuss the results of rolls, how to build details and characters in scenes, how to allow for player choice in a story even when you’ve planned some of what you’ll do ahead of time.
If you’re an old hand at gaming, however, the best system is the one you’re most comfortable with - play what you love! All the skills and tools I’ve put together here are easy to make part of any game or classroom experience.
(ENTICE & ENGAGE) TELL THE STORIES THEY LOVE
Once you’ve figured out the basics of a system you like, you’re ready to think about setting. There are plenty of pre-generated stories out there like Starsworn, and that takes out a lot of the prep-work - check Steph’s list for examples.
But you want to play something both you and your kids LOVE. If you have any shows or books you’ve read together that you have really enjoyed - The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Dragonfell, or Klawde, to name a few of our favorites! - you may want to think about playing and telling a similar story. If a kid loves Percy Jackson, you can easily create a story about young godlings. If they’re into Hilda (check it out on Netflix, or get the amazing comics!), a game about a place where magical creatures roam is a quick win!
This starts with very basic questions, but leads to immediate academic skill-building: where will the story take place? Who will the story focus on, and what will make the story mysterious, dramatic, or full of adventure? Once you’re comfortable with a given system and a way to approach stories, you can use almost any plot idea to build your own worlds and storylines. One amazing element of playing role-playing games with kids is that they often naturally lead to literacy skill building activities.
The key to creating games kids love - and activities that have them writing for the joy of it? Asking questions.
(ENGAGE & EXPLORE) ASKING QUESTIONS
Want to create a land to travel to? Great - write down what it’s like! Want to befriend a strange or magical creature, build a giant robot to ride around in, or explore a new world in the depths of space? Create that world and we’ll tell the story of what happens there - tell the story of that creature and we’ll encounter it in the game. These sorts of questions naturally and easily lead kids to deeply engage in writing, as they give them something to look forward to in the game and offer agency and control.
Asking questions is also how to work through the story. You don’t have to know what happens next - the best approach when you’re stuck is to invite your kids to help! Let’s say the kids are playing a crew of magical researchers following the migration trail of the jackalopes. There’s a shaking in the ground, suddenly, and everyone almost loses their footing - what caused it?
You, as the storyteller, could make that call, but it’s often a huge moment of agency to ask your kids: “All right, what do you think should be causing these quakes? What would be a fun or interesting story for us to explore?”
The next step to playing role-playing games with kids has to do with you - the adult - learning a bit about collaborative storytelling. Don’t get nervous - it’s immense fun, and more intuitive than you might think!
(ENGAGE & EXPLORE) SETTING A SCENE
The next step, after you’ve mastered a system and decided on a story, is to learn to do some story-telling yourself. Like Steph mentioned, this can be a bit scary for adults, and it’s a barrier that may need to be broken down.
We often imagine “we’re not creative,” or that there’s some kind of magic involved in storytelling that we’ve forgotten.
That is 100% untrue.
The first thing to learn is what every teacher learns - the pirate’s code: beg, borrow, and steal. It is absolutely wonderful to use the plots and hooks and stories you’ve read, watched, and listened to. You may need to tweak things a bit, but any story can help you get started. The Godfather might be inappropriate for kids, but a story about a young wizard who’s worried about taking over her mother’s business doing “favors” for kids as a fairy godmother? Spot on.
There are three short steps to building and resolving a story scene which I use in Starsworn. They’re very simple:
Describe and explore the scene
Make a move to resolve an issue
Triumphs and troubles
As a story-teller, the first step to engaging kids in the story is to set the scene. Describe where their characters are - are they in a spaceport area, where they’ve just docked? The edge of a great sea, with glittering shells of giant snails glimmering in the crystal clear waters? An inn where the friendly owners bustle about and the smell of freshly baked bread and honey fills your nose?
In Starsworn, I designed short read-aloud passages to help set the scene. If you’re making your own game, just give some sensory details and descriptions, then let the kids ask questions and interact. If they ask “can I have some bread?”, take on the role of the proprietor and ask their order. If they come up with something crazy: “can there be a dragon in the inn?”, it’s time for the power of “yes, and” - sure, there’s one curled up next to the fire in the corner!
(EXPLORE) DEALING WITH DRAMA
Eventually, as part of this scene, the kids may start some drama - or you, as storyteller, may inject some. If one of the kids tries to wake the dragon up with a bucket of water? Drama! When that happens, it’s time to help the kids figure out what abilities their characters can use to solve the problem. In StoriesRPG, this means figuring out how their character’s story could help them - if they’re “calm and composed,” they can use that trait to have a better chance at keeping their cool when the dragon wakes up flaming mad!
The key here, again, is to ask questions and make suggestions about how best to deal with the problem. Another tool I like to use are “moves” - a simple list of ways to solve problems kids can consult to think about what might work to deal with an issue. I use the following:
Influence: Make a friend, calm someone down, lie or pretend, get everyone’s attention, change someone’s mind
Get Physical: Run, jump, climb, swim, wrestle
Figure It Out: Find the answers to questions, investigate the situation, notice details, use your senses
Know the Lore: Know something important about history, people, creatures, places, magic, technology, etc.
Use Your Power: Cast a spell, use a superpower, do something extraordinary only your character can do.
Work Together: Use your skills and abilities as a team to do things you’d never accomplish alone!
When they’ve made a decision and you’ve made a roll, it’s time to figure out Triumphs and Troubles - what happens as a result of their roll. I always make sure to stress to kids that what makes a story interesting is trouble - a great way to access this knowledge is to simply ask something like “would Encanto have been interesting if there hadn’t been a problem with the family’s magic - or there were no problems between the family members?” Every kid knows a story thrives on drama - the trick is getting them to see how coming up with interesting drama in stories they’re emotionally engaged in can be a safe way to explore tense situations.
A note here on violence - should you choose to have violence as an option, think about the message you’re sending. Many of us are raised on stories of “heroism” being about hurting someone who is easily identifiable as “evil” - the source of our problems. Many systems - D&D being one - are mechanically focused on combat.
That focus tends to create an obvious pressure to approach problems with a violent mindset; something that most guardians and educators wouldn’t want kids to do. Using moves - or any system that is designed to encourage creative, critical thinking and empathy when faced with challenges - is, for me, a way to encourage the kind of mindset I want my students and my son to take with them into their lives.
(ADJUST) CALIBRATION TOOLS
Now that we’re discussing safety, a note - games can feel real. In fact, there’s research that suggests the imaginary experiences we fully engage in can re-wire our neural architecture in much the same way real ones do, which makes the responsibility of running games a serious one.
To that end, there have been a number of different approaches and tools created, tested, and used by a range of creators. I've linked an article by Peter Jung, who's an expert - please check it out for an in-depth look. My favorites at the table are the X Card by John Stavropoulus and the use of “video controls” (pause, fast-forward, and rewind). The X Card is built into Starsworn and StoriesRPG, and is very simple - if something is uncomfortable, players make an X on a note, touch an X on the table, make an X with their arms, and the element they identify is removed from the story, no questions asked.
The key in this for kids is giving them the wheel - allowing them the agency to decide when and how they want to encounter certain topics, scenarios, and moments. I’ve had a student cry at a scene with buildings shaking and X Card it - they’d had a traumatic experience with an earthquake. I’ve had a student dealing with anxiety who X Card-ed moments of failure.
The question I’m often asked about calibration tools has to do with the flip-side of safety - helping kids confront and negotiate their fears in a safe environment. If they are able to “opt out” of tough spots, how will they deal with them and build resilience for handling similar situations in real life? The answer, for me, is that they will - but they will have the agency to pick the time and place and way that they negotiate those fears. If you want people to grow emotionally, you have to make sure they feel safe being vulnerable, and that requires proving to them that you will not hurt them if they trust you with their truth.
Kids know this instinctively. It’s one of the reasons teachers can make such a difference in kids’ lives - the ones who earn trust teach lessons that transform. That kid who X Carded a number of stressful situations? She’s also the one who wrote one of the most honest and open stories about her struggles with anxiety - and asked for it to be read aloud to the class. That kind of trust is precious, and takes time and energy to develop - an easy way to help foster it is to show kids they have the ability to engage with the narrative, stop when things are tough, discuss how they’re feeling, and remove elements they don’t like or aren’t ready for.
(END & EXTEND) WRAPPING UP
Usually, the drama will have some obvious resolution - you’ll put out the fire, befriend the dragon, stave off the spread of the infected vines. Sometimes, kids will fail - the key in finding an end, there (assuming they accept the failure and don’t X Card it), is in providing the next challenge they’ll face: demonstrating that failure is normal, and part of an ongoing story of struggle. It’s always great if you can manage a bit of a cliffhanger, so kids are left wondering what’s coming - and how they’ll cope! - in the “next episode.”
Extending is a chance to really help kids practice academic skills. A great game is so emotionally compelling, kids will talk about it for days after, telling the story again to anyone who will listen, acting out and quoting the most intense and funny lines and moments. All it takes to help this excitement turn into academic practice is the opportunity to develop the world of the game between sessions - and the key, once again, is questions: where will we go next time? Who lives there? What kind of creature is hiding in the woods?
If you want the question to lead to passionate writing and investment, make advancement in the game contingent on the stories kids write to build their characters and the world. Do they want to ride a unicorn? Great - write the story of how your character befriended that unicorn, and we’ll put them into the story! The fact that their tales become a living part of the emotionally engaging story will light a fire that is both genuine and generative, and lead to academic gains that impress and delight kids and guardians alike.
LEARN TO PLAY, PLAY TO LEARN
In my classes, kids have gone from a few sentences to multiple pages within a single week, and my own son has gone from awkward, disconnected descriptions to stories rife with humor, dialogue and descriptions. I cannot recommend RPGs as a learning tool highly enough - when designed to educate, they create outcomes I have not seen with any other method.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Want to sign up for a class? Check for open spots or reach out to find your own time!
If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.
If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!