Roleplaying Games (RPGs) for Kids

I was glad when a friend asked me to write about roleplaying games (RPGs) for kids, because it’s something I’ve put a fair amount of thought into, and I relished the excuse to look into it a bit more. I started playing tabletop RPGs when I was about 11 years old and never stopped. I definitely intend to introduce my kids to the hobby one day. Two of my brothers have already started roleplaying with their older kids.

Luckily, the market for roleplaying games is really healthy. RPG design and theory have expanded drastically in the past 20 years or so, and the number of options out there is truly staggering. There are tons of RPGs designed just for kids—way more than I had initially suspected before writing this post. Many of them are very inexpensive or even free. I haven’t tried any of them (yet), and there are just too many for me to make specific recommendations. But down below I’ll give an overview and list some pages where you can go to find one that’s just right for your kids.

Before picking one and diving right in, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before introducing your kids to roleplaying games.

Violence and Monsters

Consider your kid’s maturity level with regard to violence and scary situations. RPGs originated with war gaming, and many RPGs are tied closely to fantasy adventure stories, so combat plays a big role in most games. A lot of RPGs designed for kids do a good job of downplaying such violence and focusing on other types of conflict and gaming challenges, so you have plenty of choices in that regard. For example, in one game each kid plays a fuzzy stuffed animal character, and when opponents are defeated, they simply go to sleep. Even in some more mature games, violence is abstracted to “hit points”—a simple numerical value that indicates character death upon reaching zero. The level of realism in these games is rather like cartoon violence, where every blow just bounces off until the last one.

Other games are targeted towards adults or kids with a higher tolerance for violence. Some kids deal just fine with violence in RPGs. After all, it is in the imagination. I personally started out with a rather violent RPG called Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP). Tolkien’s Middle Earth can be a rather violent place, and the game reflected that. There were damage tables that describe severed limbs, blood, crushed skulls, and all manner of physical harm. I started playing that game at 11 years old and still remember the first fight my first character got into. I was playing a dwarf, and we came across a nasty orc. I decided to have my dwarf use his war hammer to hit the orc, and thanks to a lucky roll on MERP’s detailed injury tables, my dwarf ended up shattering the orc’s kneecap. I thought it was awesome, and since then I’ve always preferred RPGs with more realistic and gritty combat.

However, even if you choose a game with such violence in the mechanics, you don’t have to focus on the gory descriptions or even use them at all. It’s all up to you—that’s one of the great things about roleplaying games. You don’t need to feel tied to the rules; you can change them at any time, for any reason, if it increases your enjoyment of the game. If the level of violence described in the game doesn’t make you comfortable, you can change the way you describe it to your kids. Gloss over the violent aspects of the game or make it more cartoony. You may also want to avoid having humans as bad guys and instead focus on monsters. If your game has monsters, you may want to avoid monsters that are too scary. This is one thing that will keep my waiting until my kids are older.

Some games probably aren’t appropriate at all. Horror, post-apocalyptic, or cyberpunk games will have themes that may be too mature. Stick to animals and cartoon-like games for younger kids and heroic fantasy, space opera, or superheroes for older kids. When choosing an adventure for your kids to explore, maybe steer away from a storyline where the characters have to perform a series of assassinations to start a guild war, and instead focus on a plot where the characters have to defeat goblins to reach a magic sword or something along those lines.

Math

The original roleplaying games, and many modern RPGs, relied a lot on dice, numerical scores, and math formulas to mediate the outcome of actions within the game. Some modern games do away with a lot of that math and instead use other mechanisms, such as a bartering system, to decide how the story goes. But most still rely on math to one degree or another. This can be a challenge for some kids. Their idea of fun isn’t crunching a bunch of numbers or looking up a bunch of charts.

Luckily, there are a lot of games designed for younger kids who haven’t mastered basic math skills yet. Some games are designed for kids as young as 5 or 6 years old.

Attention Span

Kids generally aren’t interested in making sure all of the rules are being followed exactly right and all the formulas are being followed perfectly. If you spend too long looking up rules or figuring out results, they won’t have fun.

One way to solve this problem is to choose a game that you already know really well—one you’ve played enough to know the rules without looking them up, or make them up if you need to. If you aren’t familiar enough with any RPGs that are appropriate for your kids, there are lots of games that are quite simple to learn and perfect for kids with shorter attention spans (see below).

Expect your kids to want to do outrageous things. If they want to do something that doesn’t fit into the rule systems of the game or that you’re not sure how to handle, just roll with it. Let the kids have fun! That’s the whole point, right? Just make sure they have a blast—otherwise they won’t want to keep playing.

I had this experience with one of my nephews. He chafed at the restrictions and ended up bored by his first game. Luckily my brother knew that all the kid needed was a little more freedom to do whatever cool stuff he came up with in his head. Their games end up being much more free form and narrative, without a lot of attention to the rules. He loves it.

Ease Them Into It

There’s nothing more natural than roleplaying to kids. That’s exactly how many of them play all day long without even thinking about it. My two little girls love to pretend they’re ponies or cats or princesses. The only unfamiliar part of roleplaying games is the idea that while you can try just about anything, you still have to roll dice and follow certain rules to figure out the actual results of your intended actions. So it can help to ease kids into the hobby. There are a few ways of doing this.

Kids will have more fun with a game that has elements they are familiar with. There are lots of games based on popular books, movies, and TV shows. The setting of Middle Earth had a great draw for me when I was a kid (and still does). Your kids may be into a specific setting, like Star Wars or Redwall. There are tons of games to choose from—just about any genre you can think of. Younger kids tend to enjoy games where they can pretend to be animals, especially mice. Other kids will enjoy anything where they get to play a pirate. Picking a game that focuses on a setting you know your kids already enjoy will make it that much more fun for them.

Another way to ease kids into it is to pick a boardgame with roleplaying elements. Descent is a good example for slightly older kids. I’ve also heard good things about Mice and Mystics.

Look for Other Good Advice

I got a lot of the above advice from other sites. There is a lot of good information out there. Try starting with these articles. I really recommend reading them, because they offer different perspectives and recommend some games that I didn’t list below. A quick Google search on the subject will reveal even more articles and good resources.

  • Teaching Kids to Roleplay is Only Natural by Ken Denmead on Wired.com. Good article broken down into age groups with advice and suggested games.
  • RPGs for Kids by Edmund Metheny and Sophie Legacé. Some brief words of advice followed by a long list of games with fairly detailed descriptions.
  • Roleplaying Games for Kids by John H. Kim. This is a list of games and other articles with very brief descriptions. There is a section on free RPGs for kids.
  • Role-Playing Games and Kids by Katrina Middelburg-Creswell. Katrina runs an RPG club for teenagers and has lots of good advice for that age group.
  • Introductory RPGs for Kids by Dan Repperger of the podcast Fear the Boot. A short list of kid-friendly games.

 The Big List of Games

I have only played one or two of these, and read through a couple more. Several of them are based on old versions of Dungeons and Dragons. I hesitated to list them at first. I’ve played a few more modern versions of the game, and don’t feel they were especially conducive to gaming with younger kids due to their complexity. However, they can be good for teenagers, and if you are already into D&D, they can be a good choice for just that reason. The games will be easy for you to run, and your kids will sense your enjoyment of the game.

So, what do I recommend? My own kids are still pretty young, with the oldest being 7 and still pretty sensitive to violence. I would probably start out with rpgKids or Hero Kids RPG for my 7-year-old and Fuzzy Heroes for my two girls (ages 4 and 5)—see links below. For slightly older kids, I think Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies looks like a blast, as does Project Ninja Panda Taco and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. As kids get into their teenage years, they can probably play just about any game out there, depending on their interests. I’m especially looking forward to introducing my kids to Mouse Guard due to its setting and interesting narrative elements, as well as the new The One Ring game because it does such a great job of evoking the feel of Middle Earth.

I had wanted to do more with this section, but alas, I have a newborn baby on my hands, and this post has already been sitting here 75% finished for two months. I hope you find this helpful.

D&D Variants

PDQ Variants

  • PDQ (free, core game for other paid games from Atomic Sock Monkey)
  • PDQ# (free, modified version of PDQ optimized for swashbuckling campaigns)
  • Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies ($15 PDF, based on PDQ#, pirates with super powers)
  • Zorcerer of Zo ($15 PDF, based on PDQ, fast paced fairy tale stories)

Other Games

  • Dragon Age ($29.95, printed book based on video game, simple system but art and thematic elements may be for teenage kids)
  • Mouse Guard ($20 PDF, simplified version of Burning Wheel, based on the comic books, kids play mice, looks fun for adults, too)
  • rpgKids ($2.99 PDF download, ages 4 and up)
  • Faery’s Tale Deluxe ($19.95 printed book, fairy tale game)
  • Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple ($10 PDF, $25 print + PDF, lighthearted game about kid monks trying to solve problems)
  • Happy Birthday Robot ($10 PDF, $25 print + PDF, imaginative storytelling game)
  • Cat ($5 PDF, simple game where each kid plays a cat protecting humans from things people can’t see)
  • Meddling Kids ($6 PDF, simple Scooby-Doo themed game for kids 7 and up)
  • Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying System (free from Lulu.com, very simple RPG suitable for both kids and adults, any genre)
  • Hero Kids RPG ($6 PDF, fantasy game for kids aged 4 to 10, comes with premade characters and an adventure)
  • Project Ninja Panda Taco ($12 PDF, a game about masterminds and their minions trying to take over the world)
  • Fuzzy Heroes ($11, I think in print, kids play stuffed animals)

Board Games

  • Mice and Mystics ($50-60, board game, characters play humans who have been turned into mice and must traverse the castle to save the kingdom)
  • Descent ($30-50, board game, characters delve into a dungeon, fight monsters, and find treasure)

Update: Here’s an awesome list of RPGs for kids from Drive Thru RPG.

What about you? Are you planning to introduce tabletop roleplaying to your kids? What games have you tried, and what are you looking forward to trying with your kids?

17 comments so far

  1. Stephen A. Watkins | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 4:12 am |

    My kids are both too young for RPGs, as yet. (One of them is way too young.) But the oldest has started out with some simple board games now. He enjoys Memory, but his favorite is “Busytown Airport”. Soon we’ll be introducing basic board games like Chutes & Ladders and Hi Ho Cherry-O. Dear Wife and I plan to ramp him up to more advanced and more strategic board games over time. But I’ll have to carry the RPG torch (Dear Wife plays advanced and European-style board games, but not RPGs). When he’s older, I’ll see if this is something I can introduce him to. :)

  2. Ben | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 8:24 am |

    I have never been deeply into board games, although I do enjoy them. I’m more into word-based games like Scrabble, Boggle, and Balderdash. Out of the European-style games, I really enjoy Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, and Ticket to Ride, but I didn’t really get into them until I was an adult. RPGs have always been my first choice.

    Our current selection of games for the kids is pretty poor. We have some card games, Candyland, and a few word games like What’s Gnu. I’ll have to look into more board games. They probably make a better lead-in to RPGs than what we’ve got now.

    My wife isn’t into RPGs, either, although she did play with me for a while when we were dating. She enjoyed them well enough for a while, but not enough to spend her precious free time on them now that we’ve got kids to raise. I have brothers, cousins, and nephews who are into RPGs, though, so there’s potential for running some games at Thanksgiving and the like, which I really look forward to.

  3. Ing | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 9:48 am |

    Shattering enemies’ kneecaps at age 11…should I admit that I was the one who started you down that gruesome road?

    I’m glad to see you have “Cat” in your list. I’ve probably told you about it before… It’s a great little system, easy to play and run, and kids can really get into pretending they’re cats–at least, mine did. The dark enemies that feed on human fear were a bit much for my kids at the time, so I turned them into nonspecific shadows that gave kids bad dreams, and our cat heroes entered the dream world to defeat the shadows and give their humans good dreams. We also dealt with marauding raccoons that stole our food, explored a nearby forest, etc.

    When we started it, my kids were 6 and 9. We only played a few sessions, and any success we had was more due to their native imagination than my game management, but we did have fun. Enough so that when I dug out the old Middle-Earth Roleplaying materials, they were willing to give it a try. My daughter likes the idea of playing a character but gets impatient with game mechanics, so she comes and goes, but my son (now 14) is really into his Middle-Earth character, relishes the Rolemaster system’s gritty combat, and we play every weekend.

    And I’m really, REALLY glad you wrote this post, because I’ve been wishing for a long time that there was a convenient way to play a Harry Potter roleplaying game, and have been toying with inventing one (but it ain’t easy and I’m not very focused and usually short of time), and behold! in one of the articles you linked, there’s a Harry Potter RPG called Broomstix. And it’s even free as a PDF.

    This totally made my day.

  4. Ben | Tuesday, 26 March 2013, 11:18 am |

    Cool, I’m glad you found it useful. Let me know how that Harry Potter game plays. My kids are still too young for Harry Potter, but that could be a good gateway into the hobby some day.

    And yes, you are the one who started me down the depraved road I’m on. But it’s been such an awesome road!

  5. Riotimus | Friday, 29 March 2013, 1:19 pm |

    This is awesome. Thanks for putting this together. My oldest loves games, and I see him taking easily to RPG’s. Speaking of kids, I went to show him the sucker punches you have for sale, but I couldn’t find them. Have I gone blind or did you have to take them down?

    R.

  6. Ben | Friday, 29 March 2013, 1:30 pm |

    Thanks, and I hope you get some use out of all this info!

    Alas, I had to take the sucker punches down. I had set them up using a WordPress plugin, but it was becoming a major pain to keep the plugin up to date. I’ll have to see if there’s an easier way to get them back on the site, perhaps collected into a simple blog post or something.

  7. Ian Plumb | Monday, 27 May 2013, 5:48 pm |

    The best game I’ve found for introducing kids to gaming is Universalis. It is a story-telling game rather than a role-playing game.

    Why I suggest it for kids is that if you have one person — preferably an adult — who understands the rules then the other players don’t need to read anything before they start. How the game works can be quickly explained by the adult without reference to the rulebook if they’ve played the game a few times.

    The resource mechanic that drives the game is very simple (you spend tokens to add traits to things, the more traits a thing has the more importance it has in the game world and the harder it is to destroy), which frees up the players to use their imagination to drive the story.

    The game world is developed as the story unfolds, and the output from the game is a story told by the players.

    The age of the players doesn’t influence the fun of the game — there are no real mechanical tactics, it is more about the plot twists and the scenes that are played out. I’d recommend it for 12+.

    Regards,

    Ian P.

  8. Ben | Monday, 27 May 2013, 9:22 pm |

    Ah, I can’t believe I left Universalis off the list. I haven’t played it myself, so I’m glad to hear your opinion of the game. I hear that Primetime Adventures is somewhat similar. These storytelling games are a great way to introduce kids to the hobby.

  9. Ian Plumb | Monday, 27 May 2013, 11:36 pm |

    PA is an excellent game. I didn’t mention it simply because it is more involved than Universalis. I’d recommend it for 15+.

  10. Ralsar | Wednesday, 19 June 2013, 8:21 am |

    Mice and Mystics is a perfect choice for young children. They won’t be able to play it by themselves, but with a parent acting as gamemaster they’ll have a blast. I play with my 5 year old and it quickly became her favorite game.

  11. Ben | Wednesday, 19 June 2013, 1:21 pm |

    I have heard good things from family members about Mice and Mystics. They also felt like it would be a good choice for kids, and said it was a lot of fun for the adults as well. Thanks for chiming in!

  12. Jake Kimball | Tuesday, 6 August 2013, 8:55 am |

    Thanks for this post. A couple months ago, I bought Life and played it with my kids and it just made me angry and frustrated at how linear and forced the whole thing is. I’m going to try Mice and Mystics with my three oldest (ages 5, 8, and 9) before their imaginations die.

  13. Ben | Tuesday, 6 August 2013, 9:21 am |

    I finally had a chance to play Mice and Mystics last week with my father-in-law and my brother-in-law (who is recovering from a serious car accident). We played through the first scenario.

    In the first scenario, you first read through the back story where a villainous queen kills the king and takes over the kingdom. The prince and some of his followers are imprisoned, and as part of their escape they are turned into mice who have to navigate their way out of the castle. You fight and kill off nasty things like roaches, rats, and crows.

    Apparently there is a whole series of scenarios that you run through sequentially, and it tells a story. The first scenario felt a little too easy to me, although my father-in-law tells me that the first time he ran through it, they almost lost. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt so easy if he hadn’t been there to coach us through. In any case, it did seem pretty appropriate for kids. There are enough rules that you’ll definitely need an adult there to guide them.

    Let me know what you think of it.

  14. Jake Kimball | Tuesday, 27 August 2013, 5:55 am |

    I got Mice & Mystics. I have some acrylic paints and I let my kids paint the figurines and they had a blast. I let my two-year-old go to town on the cockroaches–got some interesting results. Then we played through a bit of the first scenario. The five-year-old, who has the attention span of a gnat, got bored after 10 minutes, but my older two, the eight- and nine-year-old, we’re super bummed when we ran out of time and wanted a commitment on when we’d play next. All in all, a definite success. Also, I bet I can get the five-year-old interested again once I can play without having to stop every two minutes to check the rules.

  15. Ben | Wednesday, 28 August 2013, 9:19 am |

    Thanks for that report, Jake. I’ll have to keep it in mind for my kids when they get a little older. Well, my oldest (7) might do well. My five-year-old might do OK, too. She has a pretty good attention span.

  16. Konrad Zielinski | Wednesday, 16 April 2014, 11:03 pm |

    My Sons have both taken too the diceless Active Exploits system. Previously one of them has enjoyed RPGs while his brother found them too structured and boring.

    Running with no dice, has struck a cord with both of them. As it means we can play and not be tied to a table. One session we ran while walking to the Shops and back.

  17. Ben | Thursday, 17 April 2014, 6:35 pm |

    That sounds awesome! Thanks for bringing it up. I’ll have to look up Active Exploits.

Leave a reply