D&D 5E Wait - Is This D&D? (DMing for Teens)

Retreater

Legend
I had the privilege to be asked to guest DM at a local event because the regular DM had been called away for a family emergency. This gaming club had three full tables of teenagers on a Friday night (don't worry, I was asked to run only one table of six players). It was awesome to see the next generation (or in my case the next-next generation) completely enthusiastic about this hobby.
Only one player had an actual physical copy of a character sheet - handwritten all out of order on notebook paper (just like when I started the game in the 80s). The other five were as far from that original experience as possible - running their characters (and rolling their dice) on their phones through D&D Beyond. That's fine - times change, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to use technology. But I had a lot of difficulty verifying die rolls and character stats without asking to look at their phones all the time.
My theatrical background of presenting memorable NPCs with accents (and dropping my usual puns) engaged the players, and everyone was really getting into the game. But something went wrong starting with the first combat encounter. I was going to run the adventure the event organizers gave me - a family-friendly quest to get a pie recipe designed for characters levels 1-4. The characters the teens had been using for this unofficial organized play were at least 5th level and outfitted with magic items well beyond their stations, with homebrewed weapons that would do ridiculous amounts of damage. One player commanded a water elemental and could shoot two lightning bolts a turn. Suffice it to say the encounters with three goblins weren't going to be much of a challenge.
I didn't mind if it was easy, as long as everyone was having a good time. But unfortunately, fights were over before all the players got an opportunity to do something. Even when I was doubling HP, pulling out tougher opponents out of the Monster Manual.
I decided to lean back into my strength with them: memorable NPCs. But the players started going completely "murder hobo." The 3rd level barbarian and gunslinger decided to pick a fight with a friendly Treant and destroyed him in two turns.
Because this was a one-time guest spot DM role, I didn't think I should change the way the organizers run the event. I did call out a few glaring issues and tried to engage all the players and keep them on track the best I could.
The experience at that event did worry me about running for young people overall. This is relevant because I'm going to be running a regular game starting tomorrow night for a large group of teens in my neighborhood who are already asking me about homebrewed options.
Those of you who have run games for Gen Z, does this experience sound typical? Since I'm planning my Session 0 for tomorrow night, how should I lay down ground rules without coming across as a curmudgeon or killjoy?
 

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The characters the teens had been using for this unofficial organized play were at least 5th level and outfitted with magic items well beyond their stations, with homebrewed weapons that would do ridiculous amounts of damage. One player commanded a water elemental and could shoot two lightning bolts a turn.
The more things change, the more things stay the same, I guess! I knew people in 1992 who had 1E/2E games like this.

I think what you're facing is nothing to do with Gen Z specifically and everything to do with teenagers playing TT RPGs.

One thing that is an issue that's kind of modern though, if everyone is using D&D Beyond, is the way it presents Homebrewed stuff. Are you familiar with Beyond? If not now would be a very good time to familiarize yourself. If you're starting a new campaign, you probably want to tell people to create characters with the "Homebrew Content" switch to off.

The problem is, literally anyone can Homebrew content on Beyond and set it to Public, and they only do minimal checking to ensure it's not a rip-off of WotC material and not full of swears or whatever. So if you have a player who is adding Homebrew stuff, they can, if they go looking for it, add any kind of completely bonkers stuff some dude dreamed up, and it's not always immediately clear what is completely OP nonsense an what is reasonable at first glance.

Also, and this is in many ways likely to be a bigger problem is that players who have PCs in multiple campaigns will likely have some campaigns where the DM has selected "Allow Content Sharing". This is basically good because it allows them to use whatever books the DM has, but the problem is it also auto-shares any Homebrew content that DM has attached to their account on Beyond, and whilst that doesn't show up for the PC if they have "Homebrew Content" off, it does if they don't, and can include some very wacky stuff.

And there's no simple way around this, though people have asked D&D Beyond team for one many, many, many, many times and the Beyond team have said they "hear" and are "working on it".

For example, you might think "Well I'll attach only the Homebrew I want to allow for my campaign to my account, and have control of it!", but that only works if the players (not PCs) aren't in any other campaigns at all, and they probably are. So my best suggestion is just ensure every PC is made with "Homebrew Content" switched to Off, and if anyone has an extremely good reason for using some homebrew content, just let them enable it after they create their PC, and change the PC to the homebrew stuff after that so the player isn't distracted by all sorts of weird nonsense.

With my own players, the most casual ones were most "at risk" here I note. The min-maxers knew I'd go "Hahaha no" to homebrew weapons and the like, but the casuals couldn't immediately tell.
 

My DM ran a game for years for teenagers, but he is also the one who taught them the game (4e), so it is probably a bit different. It wasn’t anything similar to what you describe. That being said, I think you need to get comfortable with saying “no.”
 

Murderhoboism is generally going to be very high amongst children who are relatively new to the game. Their daily lives are controlled by other people, they have never had much actual personal responsibility, and many have been shielded from any actually consequential consequences of their actions. You throw them in a "you can do anything you want" game and they will A) want to do the most outrageous thing possible, B) notice that the "buttons to push" most prominently presented by their character sheet are the violence buttons, and C) not realize that proper D&D is a game with consequences and that their actions will have repercussions.

The format of the games these kids were playing may not allow for much consequence of player action. When kids run games for other kids they often tend to be short, kill a big monster affairs with minimal plot which also have minimum consequences for outrageous behavior (and usually also involve showering the party with overpowered magic items). But you have killing a random Treant lead to the Ents making war on the party and whatever village they're in and the village hating the PCs for it and, after a few such series of events, they will begin to realize that D&D takes place in a world of consequences.

Note that the younger generation is perfectly capable of playing from character sheets with real dice, if you don't trust them with digital dice.
 

ArwensDaughter

Adventurer
Having run tables of Jr High and High School students, yeah, murder hoboism can be a thing, although it isn't for every player of that age, nor are only young players murder hobos either.

I generally didn't allow homebrew at the tables I ran that weren't official organized play. (Organized play, of course, doesn't allow it at all.). The potential exception is a group that's composed solely of my children, niblings, and in one case their significant other. All but one are 20 somethings now, but I started to play with them when they were preteens and teens.

You are well within your rights to specify no homebrew, or only homebrew you o.k., and to specify that they need to turn off homebrew for their characters sheets for your campaign if they are using DDB.

Most of the gen Z folks I played/play with liked using physical dice. My family group has to play online because we are all scattered. They all use DDB for character sheets, but they often use physical dice rather than DDB's digital dice. (I tend to use DDB's dice, mostly due to space issues when playing online). I trust these players: they've given me no reason to believe they are fudging rolls, but with a group I didn't know as well I'd insist on a dice rolling method that let me easily verify. (DDB if playing online, real dice rolled where I can see them if in person). I did insist on dice rolls where I could see them in my more open table games because some of the players weren't all that trustworthy when it came to dice rolling.

New players sometimes struggle to keep the dice straight, but there are some ways around that.

One side note: before COVID and a move, I DM'd a few AL games at my nearest FLGS. I am generally not good with jr high kids, but TTRPGs and Board games make that easier. One night I ended up with a table composed entirely of jr high (or maybe even upper elementary) boys, in part because the more experienced DM was not a kid person, and I'd run tables for jr high kids before. This was my first time to run a table of kids who had no connection to my own children. (My offspring recruited the players for the table I ran at the public library at the time). Having numerous stereotypes about jr high boys running around in my head, I was astounded to discover that they were thankful for my help (several were brand new to the game) and they were respectful of and polite to me. I had been somewhat dreading the table that night, and was delighted to be proven wrong. At least a couple of those boys returned another night I DM'd and remembered me.
 

MockingBird

Adventurer
I would second the "get familiar with D&D Beyond". You can create up to three (I think) campaigns for free. You can then invite the players to it. Once they join your game you can see their character sheets and rolls. It also logs all the rolls.
 

I well remember trying to run games as a teenager, and players turning up with 20th level characters with all 18 stats and every magic item in the book. That's the way teenagers are. I guess they haven't learned the "cheating spoils everyone's fun" lesson that keeps most adults from doing this. You probably need to closely supervise character creation for each player, explaining that as an old timer you need it to be in print. I would ban phones from the game all together if you aren't comfortable with the tech.
 

jgsugden

Legend
I have guest DMed for othe groups when the DM was unavailable for a bit. My #1 rule is to do my best to be a seamless fill in and not change anything.

Dring the game, if I am told the other DM rules something differently, even if it violates the rules I know and have been provided, I say, "Cool. Thanks. We'll do it that way."

I have no reservations about making suggestions to the DM outside the game if I think they could improve the situation at their table, but I do that outside the ears of the players.

I also try to make sure that I go easy on the PCs. If you kill PCs in a guest spot... not cool, usually. I tend to stick more to puzzles than to deadly fights.
 

The 3rd level barbarian and gunslinger decided to pick a fight with a friendly Treant and destroyed him in two turns.
Sounds like how we played in the '70's. Nothing to do with Gen Z. Has to do with personalities, expectations, and presentation, etc.
Those of you who have run games for Gen Z, does this experience sound typical? Since I'm planning my Session 0 for tomorrow night, how should I lay down ground rules without coming across as a curmudgeon or killjoy?
I'm sure you already know this, but its worth a reminder / a thought.

Who's game is it? Yours because you are the DM? Or the Players because they out number the DM? Or everyones?

Fo me, Session 0 is about everyone coming to terms with what the game is going to be, not for the DM to "lay down the law".

Open and honest conversation. Maybe the most important thing for session 0 is to teach the teens to how to have open and honest conversations when people have different expectations. And how to respect people with expectations different than their own.
 


jgsugden

Legend
I wouldn't want to fill in for a DM in their campaign. If I was filling in, I would run my own short adventures/one shots with all new characters.
That is my preference as well, but I factor in the wishes of the table. In the end, I think a DM can find a way to slide into a game, have some fun, and not disrupt the plans of the existing DM too much.

As an example of my approach, the last time I was asked to guest DM was for an estimated 4 months while the DM was giving birth and raising a baby (priorities, right?) I asked the DM what they would prefer I do, and they told me to ask the players. I asked the players and they wanted to continue the current PCs as they were close to some fun level advancement (which wasn't a great reason in my mind, but - again - I'm not the sole decision maker). I sat down with the DM and plotted out a side adventure, ran the treasure/benefits in it by the DM, and we decided that we'd keep the PC advancement to 3 levels over ~16 evening sessions.

Then, I wrote a Ravenloft based adventure and gave the DM a few hooks to toss into her game. The hooks brought a mystical artifact into their possession that seemed to be tying the group to the Shadowfell. When the DM went into labor a bit early (when the PCs were mid-combat between sessions), I stepped in and had them - mid-combat - be sucked into a Ravenloft domain. It was a dark Groundhog Day scenario where the PCs awoke in an inn and had until the stroke of Midnight to solve a mystery that could not possibly be solved in one day unless you took knowledge from each loop and figured out how to use it (like the T.I.M.E. Stories board game). Importantly, if a PC died in a loop, they returned the next morning ... but they'd pick up a curse that could not be broken while in the Ravenloft Domain - and that escalated with each successive death (the one PC that died did so three times and lost control of their shadow(s) - which would run off and do horrible things).

There was a Dread Lord that became aware of the PCs and began to manipulate the situation to stop their efforts. The goal of the adventure was to end the reign of the Dread Lord (which was actually something it could be convined to want). Eventually, they did something that limited the number of loops they had left. If they defeated the Dread Lord and saved the Domain, the area would be 'returned' to a part of the campaign world (in a place that had been empty on the DM's map, but was prime real estate) and provide them with valuable resources (There was a Mithril Mine). If they failed, they'd be returned to the Material Plane and the Dread Domain would go on. Either way, they'd return to the Prime in the instant that they had left it in the exact positions their PCs had been in and in the exact state they were in at that point of the Ravenloft adventure - which ended up being really messed up.

We ended up running a few extra weeks beyond the initial plan as the DM needed more time and their last few loops took much longer than I'd expected (they crammed a lot in as they tried to solve the big riddle and tried to gather valuable treasure, too), but my goals were met:

1.) I did not have to walk through the DM's world too much (although I asked a lot of questions of the DM so that the Domain felt like something from his campaigns past that had been sucked up and removed) ,
2.) The players got to play their characters in a self contained adventure (and they worried a lot over what was going on in the 'Real World' as they were stuck in the plane, especially when they realized they'd been through the loop thousands of times without remembering those loops),
3.) The adventure had real stakes (they 'reappeared' with their gear and curses from the other realm - and could have brought vast new resources to the area),
4.) The adventure was something new and fun for the players (I put a Jenga tower on the table when I run Ravenloft games and PCs have to pull from it when they roll a 1 or they decide they made an error - and something really bad happens if it falls), and
5.) I wasn't going to kill the PCs no matter what (although one died as the 'paused' combat continued).

(I also recorded the sessions and sent the recordings to the DM - she listened to some, but not all).
 

nevin

Hero
I had the privilege to be asked to guest DM at a local event because the regular DM had been called away for a family emergency. This gaming club had three full tables of teenagers on a Friday night (don't worry, I was asked to run only one table of six players). It was awesome to see the next generation (or in my case the next-next generation) completely enthusiastic about this hobby.
Only one player had an actual physical copy of a character sheet - handwritten all out of order on notebook paper (just like when I started the game in the 80s). The other five were as far from that original experience as possible - running their characters (and rolling their dice) on their phones through D&D Beyond. That's fine - times change, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to use technology. But I had a lot of difficulty verifying die rolls and character stats without asking to look at their phones all the time.
My theatrical background of presenting memorable NPCs with accents (and dropping my usual puns) engaged the players, and everyone was really getting into the game. But something went wrong starting with the first combat encounter. I was going to run the adventure the event organizers gave me - a family-friendly quest to get a pie recipe designed for characters levels 1-4. The characters the teens had been using for this unofficial organized play were at least 5th level and outfitted with magic items well beyond their stations, with homebrewed weapons that would do ridiculous amounts of damage. One player commanded a water elemental and could shoot two lightning bolts a turn. Suffice it to say the encounters with three goblins weren't going to be much of a challenge.
I didn't mind if it was easy, as long as everyone was having a good time. But unfortunately, fights were over before all the players got an opportunity to do something. Even when I was doubling HP, pulling out tougher opponents out of the Monster Manual.
I decided to lean back into my strength with them: memorable NPCs. But the players started going completely "murder hobo." The 3rd level barbarian and gunslinger decided to pick a fight with a friendly Treant and destroyed him in two turns.
Because this was a one-time guest spot DM role, I didn't think I should change the way the organizers run the event. I did call out a few glaring issues and tried to engage all the players and keep them on track the best I could.
The experience at that event did worry me about running for young people overall. This is relevant because I'm going to be running a regular game starting tomorrow night for a large group of teens in my neighborhood who are already asking me about homebrewed options.
Those of you who have run games for Gen Z, does this experience sound typical? Since I'm planning my Session 0 for tomorrow night, how should I lay down ground rules without coming across as a curmudgeon or killjoy?
The same way you have too in all editions. Consequences. Kill a Treeent the forest is now your enemy, which include any elves and fey that live there. Fey Curses, maybe the town gets attacked by the other Treeent's. Or the town throws them in jail and takes thier stuff and then turns them over to the elves. But I think every game I've ever participated in at a Game event had some hobo killer in it. I don't know if people just do stuff they'd never do in their home games or game events just attract that kind of player. My opinion is that organized play groups that just run dungeon crawls create most of those players.

Just keep a running list of who they wrong and have them suffer consequences for those actions. They'll either get it or if they are like a group I ran in Palladium's TMNT you may spend the entire game with them being the bad guys and all the lawful groups trying to hunt them down. Most groups I've run that started down that path straightened up after dealing with consequences a few times. Don't forget the good consequences for the behavior you want to reward.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I well remember trying to run games as a teenager, and players turning up with 20th level characters with all 18 stats and every magic item in the book. That's the way teenagers are. I guess they haven't learned the "cheating spoils everyone's fun" lesson that keeps most adults from doing this.
I don't even know I'd say it's strictly about cheating as much as maxing out an empowerment fantasy. It's a bit immature, but a lot of us experimented with it as kids. I would expect most of the kids to outgrow it in due time.
You probably need to closely supervise character creation for each player, explaining that as an old timer you need it to be in print.
With this, I definitely agree. It also helps you get the kids on board with collaboration with the DM, collaboration with each other.
I would ban phones from the game all together if you aren't comfortable with the tech.
This may be something that someone DMing kids today may just have to accept. There's something nostalgic about the hand-made character sheet, but many of the kids are going to be smitten with the tech. Might as well help them learn to use it constructively and in a way that integrates with the game at the tabletop.
 

I don't even know I'd say it's strictly about cheating as much as maxing out an empowerment fantasy. It's a bit immature, but a lot of us experimented with it as kids. I would expect most of the kids to outgrow it in due time.
Sure, I agree. And so does Lothric Skullsmasher, 18/00 strength half ogre.
This may be something that someone DMing kids today may just have to accept. There's something nostalgic about the hand-made character sheet, but many of the kids are going to be smitten with the tech.
You can sell kids on nostalgia and doing things "Old School". It has more novelty value than the tech.
 

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