By Lucas Servideo
GMing for kids is not for everyone. I am posting this here to reflect on my experiences running games for kids of ALL ages. I am certainly not saying you need to run for kids to be a better GM, but it might give you a new perspective. What follows are some of my experiences and what they’ve taught me as well as how I’ve used that knowledge to make myself a better GM. Hopefully my experiences will help you.
I have been running for kids on and off for 13 years when I started running games for my oldest and his friends. It was a huge eye opener for me in my GMing because, like most adults in the industry I had run games for my contemporaries. When you are young and running for friends you do not look at the experience the same way as an adult would running for kids. For example, when we were young and GMing for friends, the possibility of those friends not enjoying the game we ran for them, was of greater danger to our budding self esteem than it would be now. Particularly as we did not yet have the tools needed to solve the problem of friends being disruptive at the table or fixing their restless dissatisfaction. We didn’t really know why “John” ruined the game by fiddling with the die and distracting others. Now we might pick up on the fact that “John” had been sitting in the same place for too long and needed to stop. Maybe the 6 hour marathon game was too much for their attention span.
When I started running for my oldest and his friends when he was around the age of 10, I noticed those same patterns that had happened to me as a young GM in my gaming group of contemporaries. After about an hour the kids would start to get fidgety, or when there was no combat they started losing interest. Kids are kids after all! Below are things I have learned over my years as a Gamemaster for Academy, Father of Gamers and Scout leader.
Attention Spans and Body Language
This happens with gamers of any age. You as a GM need to notice the signs your group gives off whether or not a table break is needed because a player can’t sit still or someone is bored because of lack of action. Be alert and flexible. Some may simply not be into the roleplaying that night and just want to kill the monsters because they had a bad day. Note the things they may be telling you non-verbally. As a GM you need to learn what your players do when they hit that point and how to refocus the game or bring the session to an end.
With running for my son and his friends I started running shorter sessions going from 2 hours to 1 hour games and things worked out a lot better, for the game and their sense of enjoyment.
You Don’t Always Have To Follow The Rules
This is sometimes hard if you have been playing the game the same way for years. It is hard to try something new, while observing a game running at GenCon I watched as a GM proceeded to TPK a party of characters, while for adults this is not a big of a deal, for younger players this can be devastating. The kids are still learning to deal with loss. For many kids (and some adults) that character is a part of them and losing it is like you took away one of their toys. In games I run for kids I don’t kill characters. They are always knocked out and there is always a way to heal them up afterward. The goal here is for the kids to have fun and to make them want to Role Play again. They aren’t so far from the playground world of cops and robbers and rules made of nothing more than shouts and consensus. Whereas with adults I worry less about killing characters, my flexibility with them means I tend to bypass rules that slow the game down as my focus is on keeping the action going.
While this seems to be something simple to simply hand wave certain rules, it allows you to concentrate on those rules that can make the game more fun it making a better game for everyone.
Alternate Solutions to Problems
This is where running for kids has really helped my GMing. Kids come up with creative solutions for problems and while not always something that should work, in their mind it makes sense. Here it making sense matters less than it making things fun. If the kids are excited about it, consider their novel solutions. It will make them bold adventurers with a trove of fond memories bringing them back to gaming. One cautionary note: when running, whether at GenCon or any where for kids, if there are parents are at the table I make sure the kids are the ones making the decisions throughout the game.
I was running a game for my daughter, my son, and their friend. The adventure was simple go to the woods then rescue the person from the ogre. They followed the trail that the ogre had left and heard him roar. They ran, but then realized they needed to rescue the person before they could leave. They talked about possible solutions from combat to sneaking in, the usual. One of them suggested that the ogre might be lonely and that is why he took the person. In the end they brought ogre a stuffed animal to keep him company with a spell that would sing a lullaby when he was sleepy. It was an unexpected and charming solution and all three were thrilled with their power in causing this effect in their imagined world.
Ideas like this opened me up to allowing players to come up with schemes that would make the Scooby Gang proud. Including a player who was the master of using a blanket in combat.
Acceptance and Cooperation
When you play games with kids I have noticed at almost every table everyone is an equal. After all they are generally after the same goal, they are there to have fun. During the game the kids might not always get along, but at my tables, if you are there to play you are welcome. This is something that as adults we can all take a lesson from. It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are, if you are there to play the game and have fun you should be welcome. Kids are great at coming together to figure out how to best beat the dragon or find a way to rescue the person.
Sometimes we as adults take the game too seriously, bringing in outside baggage. We lose a sense of fun in our quest to win or be right about that rule or loophole. We tell other players how to play their character and we tell them they cannot play that build because it isn’t optimized, ets. Maybe that is their fun and who are we to step on it? We adults need to remember games are for fun and the feeling of community. While there is a sense of challenge or needing to beat the big bad, Players and their characters tend to do better as a group working together than an individual telling everyone else what to do.
I have been GMing for 38 years but it’s in the last 13 years that I really started to evolve as a Gamemaster. I don’t always follow what I’ve learned from my players, whatever their age, but I continue to learn to be a better GM. And whether running the table or playing by their side my kids keep me on my toes.
About Lucas Servideo
With a storied career in gaming (which began as a way to pass time on the bus for away games) he’s played various systems throughout the ages and has the dice to prove it. The former graphic designer, now copier technician, uses his skills to create items for his local community. Well known for his character journals as well as his “wee” core books, Lucas is an active part of the Paizo Organized Play Community in Massachusetts. He serves as Venture Captain, managing the North Shore. Also known for his work at GenCon running Kids Track and Academy, Lucas is always trying to come up with new ideas to keep kids interested. His annual coloring book is greatly anticipated.
Besides his work with Organized Play Lucas is a father of three and a Scout Leader, where he volunteers as a merit badge counselor for Game Design, Digital Technology and Graphic Arts.