Introducing a 10-year old to D&D: framing the adventure

Magean

Villager
Hi,

So I am going to stay for a few days at my cousin's place and she has a 10-year old son. He's fond of me because I'm the big boy who understands his centers of interests, plays with him, and at the same time has the experience to show him new exciting games.

That boy is, I believe, the sort of child who gets deeply into fiction (not all do). At his school, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh are still big things so he can just talk about it for hours and hours. And, since he plays the corresponding TCGs, I introduced him to the next level, namely Magic. Following that, I was literally buried under questions on MtG lore. [As a side note, WotC was wise to replace old-style theme decks by planeswalker decks. New players, especially the younger audience, want poster-characters to relate to]. He'd been reading every single piece of subtext on the cards, and asked me about even the most irrelevant names appearing there. He thought about logical inferences on relationships between characters that made sense but were completely unexpected, such as "this dragon [mentioned in a subtext], is part of Kolaghan's brood and Kolaghan is a scion of Ugin, therefore it's Nicol Bolas's grand-nephew, isn't it?" "Uhh... yeah I suppose so".

So, as he has such a mindset and is old enough to navigate relatively complex rule systems, I believe the time has come to introduce him to tabletop RPGs. D&D 5 is a natural choice. It's a very flexible system, not exceedingly complicated when appropriately DM'd, conveniently it's the system I'm most proficient at these days, and it's the one my little cousin is most likely to play with school buddies in the future.

I think the challenge of introducing a newbie to D&D, and in particular a kid, comes in two parts: first, teaching the principles of role-playing and game mechanics; and secondly, devising an appropriate scenario.


Regarding the first part, I'm certainly not the first one to wonder about it, so I researched it a bit and found some pieces of sound though oft unsurprising advice. I'd like to rather focus on the second part, namely scenario-design. Nonetheless, I'll summarize what I have in mind for the first, more general part of introducing D&D.

-don't overwhelm the audience with a lecture on rules and the adventure setting. Instead tell them the basics of roleplaying, that they're going to roll D20's most of the time, that the adventure is rather free-form but for skill checks, except in combat where it's structured more like a board game... things like that. Present the broad strokes of the setting. Then, jump into the game and let people learn by doing and explore the setting. This piece of advice applies to any newbie, not just kids.

-as a result, pregenerated characters are to be preferred. The first time you create a character, it takes hours and can feel overwhelming. The amount of information to process is simply daunting. A roster of pregens (with blank fields for gender, physical features and personality traits) to choose from is largely enough. Attach easy-to-read spell cards to spellcasters, possibly using a color-code to distinguish between cantrips, prepared spells and unprepared spells. Players can prepare other spells once they've a better understanding of the system. Again, that applies to all newbies.

-Now this is more specific to the younger audience: props and visual elements are especially important for them to get into the setting and their character. Bring pictures of people and places, minis, tokens, maps...

-Children love doing cool stuff and they have a vibrant imagination for that. In case of a conflict between rules and cool RP, the latter should definitely trump the former.

-They also like to emulate tropes and famous characters.


Now, regarding the second part, the scenario... The boy doesn't know much about fantasy, he has never watched the Lord of the Rings (his mother find it too violent for now, so there's no starting with Tolkien 101) or the Hobbit, and has probably never played RPGs beyond Pokémon. As a result, he doesn't have expectations about gruff ax-wielding Dwarves, refined Elven archers, stealthy but surprisingly bold Halflings and the like. Thus, I can't tap into those tropes. I can use them, but they won't feel familiar.

However, this isn't necessarily a hindrance because my go-to setting is Eberron. It's the one I know best and can improvise best in. Eberron adds it own twist to the classic fantasy tropes, it doesn't feel as Tolkien-ish as the Forgotten Realms. Now, Eberron is often advertised a "pulp-noir". Obviously, I'm not going full nihilistic noir with a 10-year old. There won't be troubled antiheros with a very dark past, shades of grey everywhere, moral quandaries, clash of political ideologies, everyone being a potential villain with a relatable excuse... I won't do that. The pulp side, though, would in my opinion do the job.

The way I see it, the atmosphere of Paul Dini's Batman cartoons from the 90's would be a very good fit. It's pulp in a noir dress, so to speak. The action would be set in Sharn, Eberron's most detailed metropolis, with a distinctive Gotham feel. Yes, there would be corrupt cops and not-so-benevolent institutions... because we need room for heroic action. The villains may have a detailed backstory but they would still be pulp / Bond villains.

At that point, I'm considering ripping off the plot of The Attack of the Clones. Say whatever you want about the movie, if you remove the terrible angst & love Anakin parts and focus on Obi-Wan, you're left with:
-an assassination attempt (could be a kidnapping, heist, whatever)
-a chase
-an investigation that goes from the slums to the Jedi archives (university library, in game terms), involving different skill checks
-travel to an exotic location
-another chase
-a stealth / infiltration scene
-a climactic battle

All of it leading to the gradual unraveling of a conspiracy, with a a plot that "thickens" along the way.

Doesn't it look like a perfect pulp RPG scenario? There's combat, investigation, social interaction, exploration, infiltration... And a deep-running mystery.

So, yeah, I believe I'll do something along those lines, maybe throw in a small dungeon in the mix because the game is called D&D for a reason. I'll watch a few episodes from the aforementioned Batman series for inspiration.

It's most likely going to be a singleplayer game. I'm pondering letting my young cousin play multiple characters at once, so he can experiment various things. That being said, a friend of his as well as his older sister may join us, who knows.

Alright, so that's what I have in mind. I'd be very interested by your comments / suggestions. I'm looking forward to reading them !

Thanks in advance :)
 
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akr71

Explorer
Ok, I'll admit I didn't read all that, but I think I got the basics. You want to teach a 10 year old D&D. Great, do it!

I started my kids at age 6 & 11 (4 years ago), and their friends, and here are a few of the things I learned:
- I get the pre-gen argument, but kids will get attached to a character of their own making a lot quicker. My kids enjoyed all the decision making and it made the character feel like it was theirs.
- I break character choices down to "what do you want to be? A strong warrior? A fast, nimble attacker? Wizard? Healer? Nature magic?"
- short sessions - younger folks have shorter attention spans. Of course if they say "lets keep playing" that doesn't hurt
- let them feel like a hero, if that means unbalanced ability scores, more magic items, or the occasional "practice roll" then so be it.

It seems like you have a handle on the adventure. If you get the chance for more than one session, you can always ask what parts they liked best and lean into those.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
First of all - will you be writing this up and posting to the Downloads section here? I want to play it!

That said, you might want to check out the rich content on the DMs Guild. Lots of great low-level introductory adventures that you can get for free. Allows you to get up and going right away with minimal lifting.

I quite like creating spell sheets at www.dnd-spells.com - it has helped speed up play at our tables.

I'd caution against having him play multiple characters at once. Let him concentrate on mastering a single character. Maybe give him a few support NPCs that tag along for the ride - perhaps a guard and an acolyte from the Monster Manual, just to keep them simple. He can tell them what to do and roll for them, but they otherwise stay in the background.

Have fun!
 

aco175

Adventurer
I think that exposing him to the 80's D&D cartoon may be appropriate to a 10 year old. Although he may find the graphics a bit childish.

I introduced my son around 10 and he picked it up quickly. He made a fighter and I played a thief NPC to aid him and drop hints if needed. We had a simple few missions and ended up in the sewers fighting a wererat which he still talks about, mostly because he rolled a crit 3 times in a roll and killed it before the thief NPC could help.

I found keeping things simple and making roles transparent helped to get the hang of things.Make good be good and evil be evil without making it over the top. I also kept missions short and had him leave town on simple overnight trips and not a long journey since we were playing intermittently.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Have you considered the Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica? It includes an intro adventure and the book has tons of lore for him to devour once the adventure is complete?
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
I think you guys should have a good time. Something that's going to be pretty key, at least if you want play to feel streamlined for both of you is you will probably have to change the way you present the information in each encounter. You're right to want to not overwhelm with the rules and at 10 that's a very real possibility. If he gets the d20 with rising difficulty thing he'll be fine though, especially if you take care of some of the ancillary math for him at the beginning. My suggestion for running the game is to run the decision making and description in each encounter a little more like a Choose your own adventure. If there are going to be multiple inflection points in an encounter, let him game them out in sequence. Give him some choices about what to do at each step and then let him add some narrative detail. If you chunk down decision making and sequence it I think you'll both have a better time. As his comfort level with the rules increases you can slowly phase out the sequenced presentation and list of options and he can really start to explore the sandbox of RPG play.

I say this as a teacher of grades 5 and 6, and my own kids of the same age who've done what you're going to do. The above is what I wish I'd done to start off my first campaign with my kids. Good luck! I hope you guys have a blast.
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
How much time do you have? I get you are going to be there for a few days, but are you going to have 12 hours or so? Because that's what I would expect with what you have laid out.

Plus given how others might join you, I think of bunch of 1-2 hour one-shots that are roughly related would be a better start. Would allow for you to change and adapt as people want to join. Would allow for him to try a couple of different characters, etc.

Thought I've never played it, I've read it and this one has always stuck out to me as a great one-shot and place to start off new players; https://koboldpress.com/prepared-the-impregnable-fortress-of-dib/
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
Oh, and another reason I think small/short adventures will be better, if life happens and you don't finish, that's going to leave a poor experience. Like getting half-way through a game of Monopoly your first time (now why did we do this?). Multiple quests that he 'wins' at each time will leave him with 2, 3, or 4 'games' under his belt.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I’ve taught kids in the past, and I think the most important thing is to keep rules very light. Just the basics. Too many rules are intimidating. And encourage their out of the box and creative thinking. Every time I teach new players, especially kids, they are very good at “I wanna try this!” As opposed to experienced gamers who get caught up in “what will the rules allow?”
 

S'mon

Legend
Re PCs, I would take him through making his own character. Making a level 1 5e PC really shouldn't take long. The main problem would be if you use point buy, so I recommend rolled stats in order, replace any one stat with a 15. Reroll the whole PC if necessary - this should be a lot quicker for him and he'll get to see the character emerge as he rolls it up. Also younger players especially find rolling a lot more fun than point buy number crunching.
For a solo campaign especially, I recommend full CON score + max hit die as level 1 hp, rather than CON bonus + max hit die, so he doesn't drop too easily.
 
I can bring my experience of teaching D&D 5e to our own kids, and also both 3e and 5e to many adult beginners/casual gamers, but I'll focus on the purpose of teaching a 10yrs (my youngest were actually younger when we started playing).

-don't overwhelm the audience with a lecture on rules and the adventure setting. Instead tell them the basics of roleplaying, that they're going to roll D20's most of the time, that the adventure is rather free-form but for skill checks, except in combat where it's structured more like a board game... things like that. Present the broad strokes of the setting. Then, jump into the game and let people learn by doing and explore the setting. This piece of advice applies to any newbie, not just kids.
You are absolutely right to avoid excessive rules explanations at all costs. In fact, I suggest you teach nothing about the rules before starting. It's not easy to avoid, because as soon as they will see the character sheet, they will start asking what's the meaning of this and that. Resist telling them the details... stay generic and respond in a single sentence: "What's AC?" "A number that tells how good is your defense in combat". Promise you'll explain the rules when they will actually come into play.

And about telling the "basics of roleplaying"... what's that? Just tell the kid(s) they will be playing a character in a fantasy story full of monsters, traps and battles! The only "basics" to know is that you can't always get what you want, you decide what you want to do, and the rules + dice rolls will tell you what you get.

-as a result, pregenerated characters are to be preferred. The first time you create a character, it takes hours and can feel overwhelming. The amount of information to process is simply daunting. A roster of pregens (with blank fields for gender, physical features and personality traits) to choose from is largely enough. Attach easy-to-read spell cards to spellcasters, possibly using a color-code to distinguish between cantrips, prepared spells and unprepared spells. Players can prepare other spells once they've a better understanding of the system. Again, that applies to all newbies.
Even though character generation is a huge part of RPGing, I strongly agree with you that pregens are better for the first session ever, unless you already have the strong feeling that the players are interested in a long-term hobby. Even with 5e fast generation of characters, it will still take the kid a long time making decisions. It's better that you create a few pregens, and you only let them choose which one to play. Let them fill some non-mechanical details if they want to (e.g. appearance, personality) but don't force them to... this is stuff that can be added later or just emerges from playing. Ask them to pick a name, and start the story immediately.

-Now this is more specific to the younger audience: props and visual elements are especially important for them to get into the setting and their character. Bring pictures of people and places, minis, tokens, maps...
Yes, but don't go too far in the first session. A map and a bunch of minis is enough to engage the players.

-Children love doing cool stuff and they have a vibrant imagination for that. In case of a conflict between rules and cool RP, the latter should definitely trump the former.
Yes and no... I think it's a good thing to teach them that the game has boundaries, but of course it should not frustrate them.

However, this isn't necessarily a hindrance because my go-to setting is Eberron. It's the one I know best and can improvise best in. Eberron adds it own twist to the classic fantasy tropes, it doesn't feel as Tolkien-ish as the Forgotten Realms. Now, Eberron is often advertised a "pulp-noir". Obviously, I'm not going full nihilistic noir with a 10-year old. There won't be troubled antiheros with a very dark past, shades of grey everywhere, moral quandaries, clash of political ideologies, everyone being a potential villain with a relatable excuse... I won't do that. The pulp side, though, would in my opinion do the job.
Up to you. I am biased because I don't like Eberron, but in general I would rather go with the most "classical" fantasy world possible, so that their first experience is the most largely shared with other players in history. Hence, I'd go with a "vanilla D&D setting" that has humans/elves/dwarves/halflings on the good side, and orcs/undead/dragons and other iconic monsters on the evil side.

At that point, I'm considering ripping off the plot of The Attack of the Clones. Say whatever you want about the movie, if you remove the terrible angst & love Anakin parts and focus on Obi-Wan, you're left with:
-an assassination attempt (could be a kidnapping, heist, whatever)
-a chase
-an investigation that goes from the slums to the Jedi archives (university library, in game terms), involving different skill checks
-travel to an exotic location
-another chase
-a stealth / infiltration scene
-a climactic battle
Sounds great, but it might be hard to fit everything on a single session.

I think it might be better to make sure your first session will be self-contained, such as a single mini-dungeon to explore, as a "coming-of-age" adventure for the main character. IMHO it gives a good feeling to a beginner to "complete" their first quest on day 1. If he likes the game, you can then have the real adventure with all its parts start on session 2, and then not worry about taking a break, because if he's up to session 2 then he'll also be up to session 3 and 4 and...

It's most likely going to be a singleplayer game. I'm pondering letting my young cousin play multiple characters at once, so he can experiment various things. That being said, a friend of his as well as his older sister may join us, who knows.
This is the only part that worries me. The absolute best feature of RPGs is that they are cooperative games. If he's playing alone, he'll be missing this key feature. Playing multiple characters won't make up for it, and it can even be a bad idea for a beginner. Try the best you can to find someone else to play together (at least 3 players)!
 

Magean

Villager
Thanks a lot to all you guys for your sharing your experience and advice. Very interesting pieces for sure.

There doesn't seem to be a consensus on whether or not to use pregenerated characters. Bear in mind that this kid isn't very familiar with fantasy tropes, so building a character wouldn't be as easy as recreating Gimli. I'm not sure he'd be able to say "I want this one!" and not be overwhelmed with option paralysis.

However, you're probably right that the scenario I have in mind would be too long.

So, I'm now considering the following... We'd start with tutorial prequels, like in some video games. They would be a series of short one-shots letting my cousin experience various character archetypes.

Plot-wise, the prequel approach would justify him not building his own character. His future character may be a child during the prequel. You see, like the trope of the young boy watching his village being raided by orcs/bandits/invaders... When that happens in video games, you typically play the father/mentor. Then, the screen goes black and scenario resumes a couple years later. The young boy is now ready to adventure on his own and take his revenge.

Afterwards, if my cousin wants to continue playing, the tutorial characters may appear as NPCs in the real adventure. Unless he really likes one of them and wants to keep playing that character.

I think doing so would add a cinematic layer to the storytelling, serving both tutorial and exposition purposes.

Quite conveniently, the main Eberron timeline is currently running 4 years after the end of a major war. The tutorial could be about events that occurred during the war.
 

akr71

Explorer
Thanks a lot to all you guys for your sharing your experience and advice. Very interesting pieces for sure.

There doesn't seem to be a consensus on whether or not to use pregenerated characters. Bear in mind that this kid isn't very familiar with fantasy tropes, so building a character wouldn't be as easy as recreating Gimli. I'm not sure he'd be able to say "I want this one!" and not be overwhelmed with option paralysis.
I see this as an asset. I've already come down on the 'roll your own' side. No trope/expectations means what he creates will be his own and original. Keep the choices simple - just because it is an option in the PHB, doesn't mean you have to tell him about it. If it were me, I would just default to human unless he has strong feelings in another direction. Let him discover the other races through game play. You can ignore Backgrounds altogether and just assign 2 skills, or assign a Background that makes sense.

You can keep character class choices simple too and let him discover the others over time. Maybe as simple as Fighter, Rogue, Wizard or Cleric.

However, you're probably right that the scenario I have in mind would be too long.

So, I'm now considering the following... We'd start with tutorial prequels, like in some video games. They would be a series of short one-shots letting my cousin experience various character archetypes.

Plot-wise, the prequel approach would justify him not building his own character. His future character may be a child during the prequel. You see, like the trope of the young boy watching his village being raided by orcs/bandits/invaders... When that happens in video games, you typically play the father/mentor. Then, the screen goes black and scenario resumes a couple years later. The young boy is now ready to adventure on his own and take his revenge.

Afterwards, if my cousin wants to continue playing, the tutorial characters may appear as NPCs in the real adventure. Unless he really likes one of them and wants to keep playing that character.
My favorite beginner scenario is giant rats. Wherever the player(s) happen to be, giant rats crawl up from the cellar/the back alley/somewhere.. Quick, hopefully winnable and move on to the next story beat. If the characters are strangers to each other, they now have some common ground. It also gives access to an easy patron "Go investigate where those came from and I will reward you!"
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
What I did with my kids is run a pre-module exactly like you describe. It consisted of discrete, simple elements that highlighted the three pillars of play. Then there were a couple of bits that combined two elements, and then there was a very small dungeon crawl. That got them to level two and I ran a simplified version of Phandelver for them. The pre-module even linked into the Phandelver story line. So yeah, run some quick one-hitters, it works.
 

aco175

Adventurer
You can take on old movie and use that for the plot. Since he is 10, he may not have seen or remember 80's movies like Indiana Jones, or Flash Gordon or even Neverending Story. A little cut and paste for introduction works well.
 

Len

Prodigal Member
There doesn't seem to be a consensus on whether or not to use pregenerated characters. Bear in mind that this kid isn't very familiar with fantasy tropes, so building a character wouldn't be as easy as recreating Gimli. I'm not sure he'd be able to say "I want this one!" and not be overwhelmed with option paralysis.
I would definitely use a pre-made character. You don't want to make him sit through an hour of paperwork before getting to the fun stuff. (Yes, it would probably take that long with a 10-yr-old first-timer.) Just give him a choice of fighter, wizard, sneaky rogue, whatever. Make them all human, since he's not familiar with the fantasy races.

Give him a character and start the adventure. There's plenty of time to learn all the ins & outs of the game, one detail at a time.
 

EdAbbey

Villager
I started my kids and a neighbour kid at a similar age with LMoP and the pre-gens. It worked well - they’ve all become hardcore gamers! I agree with most of the suggestions above, specifically:
- let them be heroes - high ability scores, cool magic items and set the DC’s low if they come up with imaginative solutions
- be very generous with inspiration
- incorporate a memorable tag-a-long NPC for some comic relief (a goofy goblin or something similar); they love potty-talk situations
- kids love pets. Let them try a animal handling skill check to train a giant weasel or baby wolf
- if at all possible, include one or more of his friends - they will constantly re-live the adventures long after you’re done playing

I probably don’t have to say this but make sure you enjoy yourself too!
 

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