How to DM games for very young children (under 6)?
During the fringe, I animated a pop-up D&D stand and a lot of the players spontaneously coming to me were parents with little kids. I thought I would share with you a couple of tips regarding how to best play with such young audiences.
1. Keep the descriptions and language simple
Another good tip is to avoid using big words and try to keep the sentences short. I'm the first one guilty of using long cinematographic descriptions, but this will lose a child. The younger the child, the more they like repetition and simple sentence structure: "your princess enters the big square mountain, with the square door and a tiny square handle".
Simplifying doesn't mean talking down to the child or cutting down the story. It means telling it in a way that will enable children to understand what is going on and be involved in it.
Sentences like "you see a bunched creature riding a massive dark horse, smoke curling at the edge of the large hood covering his face" become "you see a man riding a tall horse. The horse is dark like the night. When you look at him, he wears an even darker and larger hat that hides his face".
2. Don’t play for long periods of times
While adults will not blink when being offered a 2 hour games, it is a lot harder for children to stay focused (and still for long period of times). You can break up your game in small more manageable parts, with different typologies of activities to keep the story going. After a bout of story, why not ask your children to “make the potion themselves by mixing the poop of a giant (chocolate), with water from the fairy fountain (lemonade). When entering the villain’s lair, why not play hide and seek to see if the villain catches them sneaking in?
Never hesitate to use gesture and props to keep the story diverse and thus entertaining !
3. Do not assume cultural references are known
When we say the word "elf" it automatically immediately raises for teenagers and adults alike the image of a Tolkienesque character with elegant ears and blond air. Children often do not have such background cultural knowledge! To keep them engaged describe the mysterious and beautiful lady, softly shining light in the dark with her blond hair, and with really really pointy ears.
4. Keep the goal clear and simple
Often in more adult games, the party handles 3-4 objectives at the same time: while entering the dragon’s lair, they must grab as much gold as possible, avoid the dragon, decipher the strange runes in a map they found and also find-out why is Jamie having those strange dreams at they get closer to the beast. For younger audiences, having 1 objective induces less panic and helps them focus. Prefer dungeoneering type adventures (finding the fairy queen’s crown in the maze of whispering roses) to fully open worlds (finding where the gobelins are hiding to defeat them).
5. Simplify the gaming system
No young child can be expected to keep track of proficiency bonuses. Personally, I like having a simple d10 and setting the difficulty based on this. And depending on what the player wants to be (ninja-rogue, dora-ranger, fighter-power ranger, etc.), give them advantage if the task is linked with their ability.
6. Rule of fun and silly first
No killing nor pool of blood in my domain, but a lot of silly farting noises from the dragon. Fun is always the main objective, even if the story takes some turns along the way!