In corners of the internet where D&D and parenting intersect, I routinely see posts by parents looking for a game system to introduce their kids to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and the wider world of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). These posts broadly fall into two categories:
- Posts by parents who already play D&D and their kids have expressed interest in the game. These parents are usually looking for simplified D&D 5e or other systems to ease them into the game.
- Posts by parents that are new to the hobby themselves and looking for an easy way to get into tabletop role-play gaming with their kids.
I have typically seen both of these types of posts receive the same advice, which is a lot of recommendations for systems and games designed specifically for kids. While I think this can be good feedback for the second group of parents in particular (with one caveat I will go into later), I have an alternative suggestion for those who already play D&D (or other TTRPG): just play it.
A kid asking to play D&D because they see their parents playing and then being introduced to something like Hero Kids is the same as a kid asking to watch The Lord of the Rings and being shown The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s a good story and it’s more targeted toward kids; it’s also not what they wanted to watch.
Don’t get me wrong, many of the games these commenters recommend are great games. Compared to D&D or Pathfinder, games like Hero Kids are easier to learn for both the players and GM, and they can be great introductions for newcomers to the hobby. In fact, this is exactly how I learned how to run TTRPGs. There is one caveat we ran into, however. We started playing when my daughter was five, and I ran only a few sessions with her and a friend before they both craved much more “crunch” than the simple mechanics provided. They wanted to customize and advance their characters far beyond what the game’s rules accounted for. So while this was a great game to start with because of it’s gentle learning curve, we all quickly outgrew it.
It was not long before we switched to playing D&D 5th edition. I had been reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide for a while and had run a session or two for my wife and her friends, so I felt that I had enough of a handle on the mechanics that I could teach them to kids. My daughter, who was now six or seven, picked up the mechanics fairly easily. She needed some help at first, but it wasn’t long before she required very little handholding. One of her favorite activities became stealing my iPad to create numerous fully fleshed characters on D&D Beyond (a past time that she still hasn’t outgrown now at age ten).
As I have discovered other games I have offered to run them for her, but she has been extremely resistant to anything that looks simplified, rules-light, or like a “kids’ game” (even if it isn’t).
Don’t Fear the Crunch
So here’s my advice for those who already play a TTRPG: play the game that you want to run. If you have only ever played D&D, or know its rules best, don’t feel you have to learn a new system just to play with kids.
In most TTRPGs, the heavily lifting is generally on the GM – not the players. All your kids will have to worry about is what is on their character sheet. In my experience, kids are not only quick to learn how to navigate a character sheet, but they prefer it to a simplified one with only a few bonuses and abilities on it. If you don’t believe kids can learn a complex player interface, watch one play Minecraft or Roblox.
Now, there are some cases where “simplification” is necessary, such as where reading and math skills limitations come into play. In cases like this, I recommend making your own modifications based on the individual player. You know what’s going to be best for your kids.
How to Introduce Complex Rules
When playing with adults I tend towards using the rules more or less as written. But with kids, I lean much more into the “rulings, not rules” and “rule of cool” philosophies. If a player wants to do something that feels appropriately powerful for their character’s level, I will try and find a way to make it happen (or at least determine a check they can make to see if it happens). If it bends the rules too far, I will explain how they may modify their action to work within the rules.
When playing for the first time, don’t overwhelm them with all the rules upfront, but introduce rules and game mechanics as they organically come up during play. There is no need to explain to a new player what a saving throw or attack of opportunity is until the moment it affects them.
Another easy way to keep things simple is to keep the player at lower levels. Start at level one and don’t level the character until the player has a decent understanding of their abilities. With kids, I have a house rule that no one levels up until they’ve used all of their new racial/class/subclass abilities at least once. Don’t worry that this will slow down your campaign or story. You will likely find that game sessions with kids will need to be kept shorter and the story may progress much more slowly anyway. That’s okay. Focus on making each individual session fun. I’ve written more on planning shorter game sessions in a previous post.
But That’s Still Too Complicated
In my opinion, the expansiveness of modern D&D’s rules is both its strength and weakness. On one had there is so much written for and about the game online that you can find an answer to any question you have. On the other hand, all of that same information can feel very overwhelming to a new player.
If you are new to TTRPGs or are overwhelmed by the prospect of GMing the game for your first time, you may prefer to start with a simpler system than D&D – and that’s okay! There is an astonishingly large quantity of high quality games available to us these days. TTRPGKids.com has a great list of games and supplements written for kids and there is an abundance of games available on drivethruRPG.com and itch.io.
I encourage you to take the leap and start playing with whatever game you feel most comfortable with. At the end of the day, play whatever game will get you and your kids adventuring and role-playing as soon and often as possible.