How Dungeons and Dragons can help with child development
By Erik Missio
Photo by Adam Clarke
Dec 15, 2017
Sitting down with some friends for a roleplaying game (RPG) is an experience somewhere between traditional board games and the kind of imaginative, world-building play you got into when you were a kid.
Here’s a very oversimplified version of how many RPGs work. Take a game system as a guide (Dungeons and Dragons [D&D] is the most famous), create characters with intricate backstories and roll a 20-sided die to see how smart, strong, or charming you are. Then one person assumes the role of the Dungeon Master (DM) — they basically tell the story, and explain to players what they’re seeing. They also act as a kind of referee for what actions players can take. Think of the game as a group choose-your-own-adventure book.
It's perfect for kids because it's fun and requires a lot of imagination, but it's also excellent for building skills and smarts:
- Literacy: Even if you’re not the Dungeon Master, getting into these games often requires players read a lot of rules, and there’s often a journaling aspect for recording what’s going on.
- Math: When you get punched by an orc or discover a potion, you will keep track of your character’s health points and magic use by adding and subtracting.
- Probability and Game Theory: If you’re rolling dice to determine whether you can jump over a bottomless pit, you want to know if the odds are on your side.
A lot of people associate RPGs with high schoolers or adults, but can they work with younger ones? And how can families new to this world get more involved?
Creativity and co-operation
Vernon Kee, a high school teacher at the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), runs a weekly D&D club for students in grades seven to 12. He began playing when he was eight, relying more on his imagination than the official rule book.
“My friend would just describe a setting and ask me what I wanted to do, and then we determined what happened,” he says.
He still plays with the same group of friends from high school. People who are now partners at law firms, biology PhDs and MBA-holding engineers get together every couple of months to resume roles as wizards, warriors and rogues.
“[Age] 12 is a good start, but a kid who has read The Hobbit is going to definitely be ready for D&D,” Kee says. “And you don’t have to read the rules to play. You can simplify things — there are parents who play with kids at the age of five.”
When a mom or dad is calling the shots as Dungeon Master, they can help younger kids get through the imaginary world, even if that means bending the rules a little. (Look, just because your daughter rolled a six doesn’t mean she can't run away from the scary monster just this once.)
As for the game being for devil-worshipping nerds? “I’ve heard people say it’s nerdy—and I guess it is, but being smart is cool now,” he adds. “I have also heard D&D is devil worship, but, look, plenty of people at my church play. The game is whatever you want it to be. The rules aren’t so rigid you have to play them exactly out of the book.”
The social game
Online RPGs, including many multiplayer games, have become very popular on video game consoles and smart devices, but there’s a unique potential for family time with the old-school tabletop versions.
“Tabletop gaming has that element of social interaction its digital cousins don’t promote as effectively. Being in a shared physical space with other people and interacting with their expressions and feelings is different than staring at a screen, hidden by a digital alias,” says Wood for Sheep Hobbies co-owner Nate Tenefrancia. “One of the most common comments when talking about tabletop games with parents is they appreciate being able to ‘see’ their kids when playing.”
“You are physically with people and talking to them. There is nothing like hitting that critical [dice roll] and everyone around the table erupts in cheers. Of course, you can have good times playing computer games, but there’s a difference between laughing at your screen or laughing together in the same room,” adds Kee.
For families who have RPG sessions with their kids, the action doesn’t need to stop with the game, either. There are a lot of related hobbies, including painting miniatures representing the characters, landscapes and monsters in your world. As part of his D&D club, Kee says he actually prints small 3D models with his students, adding arts and crafts to the skills they develop.
How to get started
So how do you start playing RPGs with your kids? If you’re not familiar with this world, it can feel daunting. Fortunately, there is a growing number of camps to teach your kids, and many tabletop-gaming stores are welcoming to newbies.
“We have weekly D&D nights where everyone is welcome to come in and try the game. We do have parents that bring their kids for that, and they all play the game,” says Tenefrancia, who also points out a family really only needs a base rulebook, paper, pencils and a set of dice to play.
“There is a bit of effort required to create characters and develop the story, but thankfully there are some pre-made materials that can get players going sooner,” he says. “Many of the major RPG systems — like D&D, Pathfinder and Star Wars — have ‘quick-starter’ packages available, where the adventure and characters are ready. The players and DM simply need to familiarize themselves with the rules, and they can get going.”
Taking a standard game and adapting it slightly for younger minds and shorter attention spans is one option, and the official D&D site has some thoughts on how to be a DM for kids, like keeping campaigns short and focusing on styles of play over character stats. Another route would be to seek out RPGs specifically aimed at families and kids, like the non-violent Golden Sky Stories or Hero Kids and Little Wizards, which are made for kids under ten. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as there are stories about mermaids, superheroes, bugs and more.
For kids who aren’t quite ready for in-depth storytelling adventures, there’s also another option in collectible card games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi Oh (or, for older kids, Magic: The Gathering). D&D purists may not all see the common thread linking Pikachu with Tiamat the Five-Headed Draconic Goddess, but Pokémon’s duelling system of character attributes and advancement of abilities is fairly true to the roleplaying spirit (and math requirements) — it could be a gateway for bigger adventures down the road.