I’ve been running impromptu games for my two boys since they were four or five (they’re now seven), and I’ve been thinking about a GUMSHOE Kids framework that I’m going to develop as a priority now. In the meantime, though, I’m aware that there are suddenly a lot of people working from home with kids who can’t go to school, so here’s the benefit of my experience.
Use A Focus
Especially for younger kids, it’s good to have something physical they can focus their attention on and remind them that they’re actually playing a game with rules and structure as opposed to “let’s pretend”. When I ran No Thank You Evil, I hardly used the rules, but I more than got my money out of the cloth map. A sketch map, a wargame using toys – any bit of ritual to catch their attention and remind them to concentrate.
A character sheet isn’t as important as a physical representation (“this is my guy”) on the map.
Run Short Games
Young kids have short attention spans. Most games won’t last more than 30-45 minutes at most. Look to tell simple stories, and try to work the kids’ ideas and discoveries into the conclusion as much as possible. If the kid decides that they befriend a random frog you mentioned as set dressing, then – lo! – the bad guy’s secret weakness is frogs! How did you know!
Especially if you’ve got multiple kids playing, you’ll need to enforce turn order very strictly. Once kids get excited, they’ll start shouting and demanding attention. Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk and act – and, where possible, make sure everyone has an equal impact on the story, especially its conclusion.
Oh – one kids get going, they tend to seize control of the narration. (“I punch the bad guy, and his head explodes, and then and then and then”). You’ll need to balance wonderful exuberance with keeping the game from descending into chaos.
You’re In Their World Now
Kids don’t have the same set of cultural touchstones that adult gamers do. Expect to see a lot of elements crossing over from whatever cartoons, computer games or other entertainment they’re into. Creepers and Pigmen from Minecraft mean more than orcs and goblins to them, and all pop culture is one big shared universe – I’ve run a bunch of dungeon crawls where the player characters are youtubers and characters from computer games. Work with whatever they throw at you, even if that means Batman and Buzz Lightyear fighting Sauron.
Give Clear Options
Provide a bit more guidance to new players than you would to experienced gamers. Present them with a clear menu of options – you can go down the corridor, or try the door. You can talk to the goblin, or try to scare him. GUMSHOE really comes into its own here – the investigative abilities work as a clear list of ‘questions I can ask’. Then, ask them to describe how they take that action. You have to give a clear structure for the shared imaginative space, or things will spiral out of control.
The content of your adventure can have some educational elements, without going overboard – just running a game set in, say, ancient Egypt lets you talk about mummies and pyramids and hieroglyphics or the importance of irrigation. Running a game in space lets you drop in a little science. Mechanics, too, teach basic math – if you spent four points from that general ability, and you rolled a 3, does that beat the Difficulty of 6? Rolling dice is always fun; for younger kids, it may be useful to give them tokens to track ability pools.
The most important thing of all, of course. Think of it as a chance to spend quality time with the kids, while also ensuring you’ll have a gaming group on tap in the months to come…