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5E Requesting Advice: Solo game for kids

So with the Coronavirus and all, I've found myself in the somewhat frequent position of babysitting my nephew (9yo) and older niece (7 yo). Thought maybe I'd try to connect with my young friend through gaming. Circumstances necessitate running a game only with the nephew and/or possibly said niece. Unfortunately, though I have extensive (decades-long even) DM experience, I have very limited DM experience with children; nor with running a game with less than three players. So...

Any advice on balancing combat encounters for solo play?
Or how to keep a 9yo mind engaged?

I want to make things challenging but not lethal; nor preferably too swingy based on dice rolls. I've considered adding a couple NPC allies or lackies to assist and maybe drop the occasional hint.
 

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They deconcentrate easily, and they may be too coward or impulsive. Try to avoid the dice checks all the number of times you can. A fight with lots of times throwing dices aren't very exciting. Try the fights to be as fast as possible.

Do you know the rules of Hero-Quest, the board game by Milton Bradley? Do you remember the advanced dungeon dragons game books?

As DMs the children are very creative but they tend to railcoal plots.

Sugestion? Add ersatz characters based in famous cartoons and with some piece of affectionate parody, for example a mother is angry because her little child went alone to the forest to catch pokemons, or a sherif who is searching the dumb who caused a fire by fault of an uncontrolled fire digimon.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
My kids were of similar ages when they started, we played 5e without modifications although with pre-made character sheets (they picked the class, all stats were ready, then added everything that was narrative-only), but they had already played a couple of simpler games and they wanted to try a real RPG.

A few suggestions here:

  • present the game as an interactive fairy tale where they each control one character, but let them know that the dice determine what really happens at the end
  • keep violence content to a minimum: combat is ok, but try to narrate that monsters are simply defeated rather than killed
  • have some simple adventure where the target is clear ("solve the mystery of the stolen gingerbread", "free the unicorn captured by the goblins", "chase the dragon away from the village"), don't ask them to figure out what to do but only how to do it
  • if you know they are fans of certain fantasy things (e.g. fairies, Harry Potter or dinosaurs!) try to include some of them in the story
  • do not let their PC die, if it happens then just replace death with capture or another setback
  • generally speaking, you should make sure they win their first adventure while making them feel they earned it by playing well

As for more technical suggestions:

  • 5e is fine for kids of that age, but if they don't seem enthusiastic about playing, don't be afraid to ignore existing systems and just make up your own simplified rules that will allow you to focus more on the story and less on the rules
  • if you use an existing RPG, do not ask them to build PCs from scratch, make pregens instead and ask them to pick one to play (they can be fully designed characters, or they can be only the stats and the kids choose a name, description, personality etc)
  • if you really want them to build their PC, use a simplified method, and most importantly restrict choice to a few (i.e. don't ask a 7yo Wizard player to pick 6 spells from a list of dozens!)
  • let them play by imagination rather than by the rules ie. ask them what they want to do, then you tell them how to determine the result
  • don't explain rules in advance
  • don't offer them too many options (for example in terms of combat actions)
As an option, consider some simple physical props to represent in-game stuff. Toy soldiers and animals or Lego minis are great for visualizing battles. Miniature objects or cards to represent treasure you hand out to the players directly. Show them pictures of monsters and wondrous places as they encounter them.
 

aco175

Hero
There has been a few threads on this in the past if you want to try and find.

I played a few times with just my son when he was this age and starting out. It was mostly standard with some small modifications like less spells and conditions, but her quickly picked up the dice and combats well enough. I did run a DMNPC to go with him to assist and maybe drop hints. I remember him having a fighter and me playing a halfling thief. I gave a magic item out early that allowed healing 1/rest to help out.

Some of the early monsters were things like giant rats and skeletons where they were not 'people' but it was never a problem. It lasted only 3-4 levels but he still brings up us fighting the wererat in the sewers. I thought it was going to be a deadly fight especially since my thief was getting the crap kicked out of him by giant rats leaving my son to fight the wererat alone. He crit two turns in a row and killed him by himself. That is what he remembers.
 

J-H

Explorer
I am doing Knights and Dinosaurs with my 4 and 6 year old. Entirely D6 based, 10hp (now 11 after leveling up), 2-3 skills per character.

They basically just want to go into the jungle, find dinosaurs, kill them, and repeat. A lot.
My biggest problem is that I get bored with such a simple set of goals, but they aren't ready for bigger stuff. The second problem is that I'm running into the limits of a d6-only system... but until the 4yo is ready for bigger math, it's what I've got.
 

Laurefindel

Adventurer
A few suggestions/observations from my (allegedly subjective) experience.

- Kids like pets, and pets make good tag-along NPCs. "Mundane" animals work, but unicorns that can heal, pegasi that can fly, bears that can share their strength, eagles that give you superior vision, owls that can talk and give wise advice, etc. have been huge hits in my games. Without intention of stereotyping, this may be particularly true with your 7y/o niece.

- Kids like challenges they can 1) relate to, and 2) contribute in some ways, no matter how small. These challenges don't need to be combat-oriented, or even pose a significant threat, all things considered. By "relate to" I don't necessarily mean real life, but their experience and knowledge of pop-culture, computer games, TV shows etc. At these ages, gender difference and 2 year gap can be significant. Or it may not be. But be prepared for them to relate to different things.

- Some kids mostly want, for lack of better words, for you to take them on a tour. They'll go to the next valley just to see what's there, and then leave for the next mountain. This has not been true with all my kids, but especially since you'll have one-on-one time with them, expect this as a possibility.

- Keep spells known to a very small, very manageable list. Forget about prepared spellcasters. If need be, give new spells as rewards.

- Some really enjoy the awesome!!! factor. Some are more modest. But in my experience, narrating how difficult and significant what they just accomplished was, is very rewarding for them.

I'm sure there's more. That's what I can think of right now.

Also, there are a few RPG specifically created for young players. They are worth looking into, and I'm betting they will have really good advice on DMing for kids.

[edit] Oftentimes, little things experienced adult players would find trivial are awesome for kids. I have in mind a Star Wars game where my son's character ability to kip-up as a free action allowed him to reach his ship and close the door before the bad guy. Of all things that happened in that game, that's what he remembers as a defining moment. In other words, don't be afraid to add little details, even if they sound/feel trivial. They may very well become memorable moments for them.
 
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J-H

Explorer
Ah, I just realized that a light Hex-crawl may be perfect for kids. It gives them choices and direction, and adds another non-combat layer to the game where they can find cool things.

Yeah, I'm gonna do that....
 

jgsugden

Legend
I'd think more along a "Choose your own adventure" format than a sandbox hex crawl to get them started, but in general - just make it a story telling game at first, telling them what to do and why they're doing it to enact a simplified version of the d20 rules, then add in rule layers as you go. If my 5 year old can do it, so can a 9 year old.
 

aco175

Hero
A hex crawl is good if you have time to prep. Also remember that kids change their mind quickly and you may need to adjust on the fly. I would also tend towards a simpler set of names. Things like Bone Woods and the Dungeon of the Ooze works. Simple NPCs are good as well. The brave, noble, knight and the gold grubbing merchant are simple for kids ti identify with.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
There are several adventures on DMsGuild specifically designed for young children. The Little Astralnaught is one.
 

Story, not Rules.
Fail Forward.
Die rolls should be dramatic (even if they aren't, make them seem that way).
Pets is an awesome suggestion. I used our pet dogs as giant wolf companions when I played with my son at that age.
 

Eltab

Hero
I took a Zelda dungeon layout and put Basic monsters in it (copying when I could, such as the bats in the undercaverns) for my son's first D&D session. Pre-gen characters (the 4 original classes). Magic item directly helped beat the BBEG - Skeleton Dragon that "breath weaponed" a string of knuckle bones at you. It did not at all appreciate being smashed by the +1 Mace after being shot by arrows and taking half damage because skeleton.

Next up (but not played because he figured out 3e rules) the "Swordswallower" dungeon - BBEG was a Rust Monster.
 

Thanks for the advice, everyone. I don't know if it's of interest to anyone but I've...slowly and intermittently...begun my kid campaign. My nephew insisted on played a premade adventure and starting at level 1, so I adapted the Sunless Citadel (from TFTYP) with a number of changes. My niece really liked the picture from Xanathar's Guide to Everything of the Shepherd druid with all the wolf puppies, so decided to play a druid with a litter of wolf pups as pets. I gave her two shiny glass beads to represent spell slots. My nephew is playing a rogue (with the intention of going arcane trickster) with an apprentice rogue minion following him. I gave the apprentice rogue 5 hp and a +4 attack bonus; making him vulnerable but still useful; and unlikely to outshine my nephew's character. My nephew controls and rolls for him when he chooses to but I roleplay the minon. The nephew immediately (and wisely) tricked out his apprentice with a shortbow. The wolf pups are too young to contribute to combat, but they're alert to danger and are decent at tracking things when I feel the need to pull the youngsters in a particular direction.

  • The game started with about half of my niece's wolf pups being kidnapped by a mysterious, tiny, assailant. Which later turned out to be a goblin.
  • One wolf pup was found at the bottom of the chasm where the Sunless Citadel lies
  • The goblins in the citadel worship an evil demon death-chicken. They've been collecting sacrifices (like one of my nieces' wolves) to give to it. I'm not sure how I'm going to ultimately handle this; but I might replace the ultimate outcast druid villain with some sort of giant chicken monster on the final level. Or just have it be a minion of the evil druid.
  • The goblins have been vandalizing the citadel's dragon imagery, trying to make it look more like chickens. The kobolds have been trying to undo their efforts.
  • The kobolds managed to capture one wolf pup who chased the goblin kidnapper into the citadel. They intended to eat it but are willing to trade it back to the niece's druid in exchange for returning their dragon wyrmling, Calcryx.
  • The kids have really loved Meepo (who I'm keeping in reserve as another minion if it turns out they need it) and tricking incompetent goblins.

Unfortunately we haven't had much playtime, since the two are usually accompanied by a 4yo sister who requires a lot of oversight and doesn't have the patience for the game yet.
 
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