Teaching D&D to Teens

My kids are young (10 and 8 at time of writing), and so when I run D&D for them and their friends, I feel justified running my preferred iteration of the game: Basic D&D. It’s perfect for kids this age, for whom D&D is their first step into fantasy roleplaying games.

A while ago a friend of mine (who is not a gamer) asked me if I would mind teaching her teenage son how to play D&D. Her teenage son plays a lot of computer games, so I assumed he has a good exposure to computer RPGs already. Of course, I agreed, and then started to ponder what version of the game I should teach him and his friends.

Edition

I love the OSR and TSR’s versions of Basic D&D. But when asked to teach the hobby to somebody else’s kid, a teenager who has a lot more experience with the genre (albeit through the video game world) than my own kids, I hesitated. 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is either the most popular version of the game ever or the most popular since the early 1980s anyway. It’s the version of the game he has seen played online on Critical Role (maybe I should watch some of that to get an idea of what expectations he may have), and the version of the game that kids his age are going to play. The logic was inescapable – teaching 5th edition gives the best chance for this interest to turn into a long term hobby.

Starter Box or Not?

The next decision to make was whether to use the D&D Starter Box or my own dungeon to introduce the game. I already bought the starter box for my friend to give her son, and I figured the beauty of that boxed set is that it is designed to teach the owner how to DM, not just how to play D&D themselves. I also figured that if and when he wants to DM, he will likely be running a game for the same friends who will be playing in my game. I’d like to leave him the option to run the starter box adventure for them.

Theatre of the Mind vs Miniatures

Next, I had to decide whether it was better to use miniatures or not. On this point, my recent experience running D&D for my own kids and reflections on my own first experiences of the game informed my decision. I used pre-painted miniatures and dungeon tiles to build the dungeon map dynamically and to make combat unambiguous. There’s multiple reasons for this:

  • Miniatures add a visual element to the game.
  • It is difficult for new players to keep the details of where every opponent is in combat in their head. This is why the 1991 starter box I have praised so much came with a complete set of fold-up paper minis and a large battlemat map.
  • Mapping is tough for experienced players and is not really part of the “modern game” of D&D (since 3rd edition if not earlier). Using dungeon tiles will let me reveal the map progressively on the table, as if they are mapping the thing out themselves, without forcing the players to keep maps.
Dungeon Tile Map
Top down shot of the sewer dungeon I created for the game. During play, I revealed this map progressively. Falling (or jumping, or being thrown) into the sewerage provoked a Constitution save to avoid penalties to physical tasks and attacks.

The miniatures seemed to be a big hit with several of the players, and were instrumental in convincing my friend’s daughter to join the game as well. As much as miniatures can seem “superfluous” to many experienced roleplayers, they were extremely important in “selling” D&D to the teens.

Give out XP

Even though this was a one-shot, I gave out XP at the end of play. Several of the players, those who had relevant video gaming experience, were looking forward to XP and were happy to see how close they came to levelling up (it helped that characters need very little XP to reach level 2 in 5e). Honestly, if I was going to do things again, I may even have planned to have a break part-way through to distribute XP, and give out enough XP to let students reach level 2.

Pre-Gens

I used a big variety of pre-gens – mostly from the WotC website but some generated using using Fast Character Maker. The pre-gens were selected to match the pre-painted miniatures I had available. I laid out the character sheets with the corresponding miniatures placed on top of each sheet on the table for the players to make their choices when they arrived. Again, this was about making the character selection visual. I also had a Player’s Handbook on hand and told the players that if they ran their own campaign in the future, they could create characters of their own with the rules in the book.

Play-Time

Much as I would for a con, I planned a very short dungeon, intending to play for 3 to 4 hours. Allowing some time to teach the players the basics about dice and advantage/disadvatnage, some time for some short breaks, and to get going in the first place, we had about 3 hours of actual play. The player characters cleared the sewers of a goblinoid criminal gang, lead by an ogre. There was one casualty, in the very final fight, which was climactic and only served to make the player whose character died even more excited by the game. I couldn’t have managed that on purpose if I tried, but I suppose the lesson I take away is that just because it is the first dungeon doesn’t mean it should be a cakewalk. Most OSR players I know can remember dying, often repeatedly, in their first session, and they stuck with the hobby, so don’t shy away from killing player characters in an exciting final battle

Did it work?

The kids seemed very excited and interested in running their own campaign (using the mini-adventure path in the starter box) by the end of the session. Ultimately, until they actually do that, I won’t declare that the kids are hooked! I know that the morning after I had dozens of WhatsApp messages from my friend about how much both her son and her daughter (whose participation was initially unplanned) enjoyed the game, and how both were planning future adventures, and researching buying funny dice, books and miniatures of their own

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