About a year ago I started being a truly regular D&D Dungeon Master for a group of elementary school kids at our FLGS (Favorite Local Gaming Store). A store with someone running a regular group for kids that young is basically unheard of. In all fairness, our FLGS is also a rarity in the fact that they have dedicated groups for middle schoolers too.
I got the gig because our Elder Geek Child was playing in one of those middle school groups and Younger Geek Child was feeling left out. I thought I had heard the store had a group for elementary school kids and asked if this was true and if there was some sort of waitlist. When J, the store owner, said there was no such group, the next words out of my mouth were, “Do you want one?”
That’s the origin story of how I ended up with a group of the Littles, as we often refer to the younger players. Eventually, I ended up taking on a second group, and after some shuffling with kids aging up, I am now at one group of elementary school kids and one middle school group.
It’s a lot of fun and I learned a lot in my first year as a DM. Here’s what helps me successfully DM for kids.
I may have been newer to being a DM, but years as a teacher prepped me for running a group of kids. I often say what I lacked in DM knowledge I made up for in my knowledge of working with kids. A number of things I brought to the table came from my background as a teacher. Our store runs D&D sessions at two hours long, which is probably about as long as you can hold the attention of young players without them getting too restless. I also brought along colored pencils and fantasy-based coloring sheets as well as blank paper. Some kids really get restless waiting their turn, so this gives them something to do. The blank paper is for kids who want to illustrate their adventures. My younger group has a seating chart because I know which kids distract each other, who can’t face the TV in the store, which kids need more help on their turns, and the parents that play with us are often seated near their own kid and another kid who might need help. My older kids need it less, but I usually place the least experienced or soft-spoken kids closer to me so I can more easily help them while they find their footing. As for interruptions, the kids are told that if they need to go to the bathroom to just go. As for verbal interruptions (because kids get very excited at times and want to say or ask things right now), I have a few guidelines. If someone is bleeding, barfing, on fire, doing something dangerous, or spilling a drink (we have expensive books and electronics at the table after all), interrupt. If their character is bleeding, barfing, on fire, doing something dangerous, or spilling a drink then it can wait because I’m the DM and not just aware but likely the one who caused it. If they really can’t wait for their turn, raise their hand. It works pretty decently.
Table manners are the most important thing. The first thing I care about is if my players have good “table manners.” Are they displaying toxic behaviors? Are they working as a team? Are they handling bad rolls well? These are the things I care about first, and I work on teaching them. Next, we focus on common gameplay tactics, but how they treat each other and me as the DM is what matters most. They may play in many different systems over the years with different mechanics, but good table manners are universal.
Pre-made characters worked well with my Littles. Most of my elementary group were very new players, so we took advantage of the fact Animal Adventures (the 5e-compatible setting I use for them) comes with pre-made characters and matching minis. It helps them get started a lot faster because they are learning a lot at first. My group could probably work on making characters from scratch in their second campaign, but the pre-mades were like training wheels for getting started. My older group started from scratch and did pretty well with that.
Handling spells casters can be tricky. If you take a newer player, especially a younger one, and tell them every in-game day they can pick five or six spells from a list of twenty-some spells, they will get overwhelmed and freeze up with their choices. To make it easier I have them treat prepared spells like spells known when they get started so they can get a better feel for what those spells do. If they find they aren’t using one much, we can swap it out later. With my older players, if they are stuck between picking between two spells, I let them take both and let them know each day they have to pick one they won’t have. Since most players of prepared spell casters develop short lists of their favorites, we’re roughly doing a similar thing just from a beginner’s easy angle. I also print spell cards for my players. It saves a lot of time of “What does this spell do?” with prepped spells people can flip the ones they aren’t using face-down. I also make cards that say things like “Cleric: 1st Level Spell Slot.” When they cast a spell, they give me the card and that helps them keep track of what spell slots they used. After appropriate rests, they get the cards back.
Spell cards aren’t the only cards I make. I also make cards for consumable items (if it’s used up, the card comes to me), magic items (What does that item do again?), abilities that need rests to recover (works like the spell slot cards but includes a description of ability), and abilities that don’t require rests (more legible this way then being written in tiny writing on a character sheet). I also color-code them based on type. Doing this saves me a lot of time as a DM because I get a card with info on it so I’m not constantly stopping to flip through a book and holding up the game as much, especially as info can be spread across a few books. As I make the cards, I also get a better feel for what my players can do. The cards do take time on my end to make, but the trade-off is it makes my table time go way smoother.
Stat Trackers save my sanity. Stat Trackers by Top Dog Games are something I swear by. They have monster cards that hang on a DM screen with all the monster info you need. The players just see the monster name, which also helps keep track of initiative, and there are also blank ones for custom monsters of campaign monsters not in the Monster Manual. There is also a player version, so I have all my player’s stats right in front of me if they’re having a hard time finding them. Again, the player side has a name so it acts as an initiative tracker too, and my kids really like knowing when their turn is. Not having to flip through a book constantly to find stats is a huge time saver.
This is what keeps my table with newer and younger players running smoothly. They don’t just need to be used for kids though. I’ve had adults say they wish they had cards with abilities or such to keep themselves organized after they’ve seen what I did and one of my player’s parents has adapted the cards for spell slots for their own game. D&D is a complicated game, but integrating certain things can make it run smoother and be more accessible for newer players. A year in, I’m more confident as a DM than I was when I got started, but these are the things that helped me run things as I got my footing.