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tabletop games

7 Simple Rules for DMing my Teenage Players

I’m currently DMing 4 campaigns right now, and although the games are different, the groups are pretty similar. They are all biweekly or monthly for between 3 to 5 players who are mostly in their 20s and 30s with some roleplaying experience. I love running for all of them, but because I’m hooked on tabletop games, I think everyone should play, including people who aren’t so demographically similar to me.

And that’s how I found myself running a game for 10 teenagers, most of whom had never played before.

You can imagine how well that went.

To fill in the details, I volunteer for drop-in high school tutoring at a local community center. Over summer vacation this year, I instead ran a weekly, drop-in D&D game, including the session referenced above. Here’s what I learned.

1. Keep it small

When I showed up for the first day of D&D, the staff gathered 6 interested players. That quickly winnowed down to 4 players after I explained what it was, and it went great.

The second week also went fine with 4 players, but when I came in for the third week, the staff had found 10 players. I panicked, and in my desire to allow everyone to participate, I said yes and started with 10 players.

It was a disaster. I wouldn’t run a game for 10 experienced adults, and this was worse. I spent a lot of time quieting them down because they were yelling suggestions at each other, and no one was actually taking any actions. I lost 4 players quite quickly, and I’m sure that they all concluded that D&D is just chaos, which is certainly not the impression I was hoping to leave.

The best sessions I ran were with just two or three teens. In those cases, I could provide plenty of attention and guidance to all of them, and table management never became an issue.

2. Provide all of the materials

In my first session, I prepared a brief introduction to the concept of D&D. I wanted to connect D&D to something familiar, so I asked the teens if they had played any roleplaying video games like World of WarCraft, Fallout, or the Witcher. Easy, right?

The teens just shook their heads and stared confused at me. When I was at a loss for words, one of the teens explained, “We’re kids. You know we don’t have money, right?”

I had forgotten what it was like not being able to buy things. I myself didn’t really play D&D in high school because I didn’t own a set of polyhedral dice. Instead, I played the Star Wars RPG because it was a d6 system. In retrospect, there were so many creative workarounds, but that takes a lot of activation energy.

Bring everything you need to the table, including rulebooks, dice, pre-generated character sheets, pencils, miniatures, and anything else you would expect your players to normally provide. I’m sure you as a DM know that these are all of secondary importance to the imagination, but your players may not, so don’t let them get hung up on that.

3. Don’t teach the rules

Rules are great for adults who are so jaded that they can’t be creative and need to be told what they can do. Rules are terrible for teenagers who have great ideas and don’t want to be told what they can do. I love tabletop RPGs because they are so much more open than video games and class schedules, so really lean into that.

I provided stereotypical pre-generated characters and pitched them to the teens in one sentence (e.g. “an elf who hides in the shadows and stabs people in the back”, “a big strong half-orc who smashes people with a two-handed battle-ax”). They excitedly took the coolest characters, and I explained the rules:

  1. Write a character name at the top of your character sheet, then ignore everything else on there
  2. I may ask you to roll a 20-sided dice and compare it to a target number, and if it’s higher, you succeed on what you wanted to do
  3. Combat is more structured, but we will get to that later

And that’s it. The players were surprisingly forgiving for only learning limitations as they went (e.g. you can only cast 2 level 1 spells). No one complained, and by the time we had to get into some of the minutia, they were already hooked.

(Some may reasonably point out that D&D is one of the more complex rule systems out there, and to avoid rules issues, I should have run a different game. Although I’m a huge proponent of playing games other than D&D, it has the brand name that makes it an excellent stepping stone for tabletop gamers to get to the bigger world of systems.)

4. Everyone must agree to work together

In the first session, the party needed to sneak into a sewer drain when several goblins ambushed them. When the goblins charged with their scimitars, the squishy wizard ran behind the burly fighter to let him take the hits. The fighter took offense to being treated like a meat shield and used his turn to swing his axe at the wizard.

He missed, but I internally panicked about this conflict. I have been blessed to never deal with major player-on-player conflict, and I didn’t want to scare off a new player. Fortunately, over the next few minutes, the two players agreed that the one swing was sufficient retribution for the wizard’s cowardice, and they continued on without holding a grudge.

I think I just got lucky, so for the following sessions, I insisted that they players agree to work together. I wasn’t worried about fancy backstories with conflicting motivations, but it was just enough to avoid random backstabbing.

5. If a player interrupts another player’s turn, they lose their turn

I love playing cooperative board games (like Pandemic), but the loudest person at the table can easily take over the entire game. They might claim that they’re just trying to help you do the right thing, but it frankly isn’t much fun to have your agency taken away.

Roleplaying games tend to avoid the issue since distinct characters make it clear where the line is, and adults usually respect that. However, that restraint does take some maturity, and even with far fewer than 10 of them, I noticed that the teens would frequently interrupt each other’s turns with “suggestions.” It slowed down the game and effectively sidelined all but the loudest players.

I came up with a simple rule for handling this: if you tell another player what to do (without being asked for advice), you lose your turn. The interrupting player basically is taking someone else’s turn, so they already got one turn and don’t need their own as well.

Amazingly, I didn’t even have to apply the rule in practice. By setting that forth as a rule, it changed the table dynamic. It didn’t completely eliminate the interruptions, but it was close enough that it no longer bothered the other players. I think that was a perfect outcome.

6. Lean into your evocative descriptions

As a DM, I know that I’m supposed to provide evocative descriptions of scenes. Traditionally, combat is filled with prose describing how a sword finds a gap in the armor or a firebolt misses wide and harmlessly impacts on a stone wall.

I do the patter for all of my games, and maybe I’m just boring, but my players rarely react in joy, despair, or frankly anything. They patiently wait for me to stop talking, then move on with their next action.

Habitually, I spouted the same drivel for my teens, and I was shocked when they gasped, widened their eyes, laughed in triumph, and collapsed in failure from it. I was so inspired that I hammed it up my acting even more, and they enjoyed all of it.

I can’t say for sure that they liked my descriptions because they were teens: maybe it’s just a personal preference. However, it’s at least worth trying. And if not that, remember to use all parts of your DM toolkit to see what your players react best to, and maybe you will be surprised.

7. Empower new teen DMs

I had a handful of teens come back week after week to play and couldn’t wait for the next session. When I told them I was going back to tutoring fo the school year, they were disappointed that they couldn’t play anymore. I asked them why, and they said that they wouldn’t have a DM anymore.

Tabletop RPGs have always had a shortage of DMs, and more so than introducing players to the game, I feel it’s important to introduce DMs to getting behind the screen. Each DM can support another handful of players, and that’s how it keeps growing.

In some sense, I as an adultprobably shouldn’t have been running for teens at all. People imagine D&D like the beginning of Stranger Things with a bunch of teenagers in a basement, and I think that’s great: it should be teens DMing for teens. By running games for them, I subtly reinforced a belief that you need an experienced (i.e. adult) DM to play.

Final Thoughts

So to summarize

  1. Keep it small
  2. Provide all of the materials
  3. Don’t teach the rules
  4. Everyone must agree to work together
  5. If a player interrupts another player’s turn, they lose their turn
  6. Lean into your evocative descriptions
  7. Empower new teen DMs

When I talk to my coordinator at the community center, we do go over numbers and attendance and such, and on the days where I only had 2 players, it didn’t feel like I was making a big impact. However, she always came back to the point, “But you just have to reach the one to make a difference.”

As an evangelist for tabletop RPGs, I know I’m at the extreme: most people shouldn’t play as much as I do. However, given the broad interest in geek culture, increasingly regimented structure around education, and presence of the internet in communication, I do think that games like D&D can fill a unique space in a teen’s life. Maybe it’s profound. Maybe it’s just fun. But having made one D&D fan this past summer, I think it was worth it.

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