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!