DM Academy After-school club for fourth and fifth graders: how would you handle?

In a month or so, I’ll be starting an eight-week long, one-hour-a-week afterschool club for fourth and fifth graders who want to try their hands at running D&D as a dungeon master. It’ll only be for kids with previous experience with the game, and I want them to leave the club feeling confident with their skills at managing the prepwork of a game, the rules adjudication and roleplaying during a game, and (maybe most importantly) the, er, unique social dynamics that can show up in a game. I already have some ideas, but I’m curious: other gamers, especially those with kids, what would you want such a club to include?

(Note: although I might spend a session showcasing other systems, D&D 5e is set in stone, for a variety of reasons. Teaching kids to play or run other systems would be a cool club, but it’s not what I’ll do with this one).

So nine or ten years old? Just getting them through the basic mechanics seems it’ll be the biggest focus, but in my opinion also helping them have the mindset that the goal is for the party to have fun, rather than everything to go according to the DM’s plan, might be helpful.

I’m not sure I really have any guidance for game masters of that age range; in the 8-10 year old bracket I would assume relatively little narrative complexity or the attention span for an involved story arc, so I assume the primary focus is character interaction and straightforward actions like combat and problem solving exercises (disarming traps, fording a fast stream, et cetera). I would emphasize an understanding of the difference between character interactions and player engagement, specifically asking players what their character would do in the situation at hand and encouraging players to interact with each other in character, and ensure that all of the players have more or less equal opportunity to engage. It is also a good point to put a limit to the native munchkinism by emphasizing empathy with NPCs and minimizing wanton slaughter. Making combat more meaningful by making it more descriptive than mechanical is also a way of giving more weight to encounters and not making them seem like rote killfests of monsters that just exist to be impaled and beheaded.

As far as the system and adjudication of rules, I’m not familiar with 5e but I would recommend stripping it down as much as possible for younger players. D&D, with its origins in wargaming, has always had a heavy focus on complex rules (even though they were often arbitrary) but in terms of actual role playing you don’t actually need much in the way of mechanics beyond a general means of resolving various conflicts, and any interpretations should be at the sole discretion of the game master in a way that best serves the story rather than some blind adherence to rules. Roleplaying should really be more of an exercise in collaborative storytelling (again, within the limitations of what children of that age are interested in narratively) rather than any kind of competition by the players and game master to outwit each other, and of course to have fun and walk away with a feeling of social cohesion.

As for prep work, at that age I would minimize it as much as possible. “One page dungeons” are about the right length and complexity for that age, and getting the players immediately engaged rather than doing a lot of fiddling about with character introductions and setup is going to crucial to keeping their attention focused on the game.

Good luck with the workshop.


Having GMed for kids a lot (including kids at about that age), I think that you’ll want to do a few things:

  • Make sure that everyone gets a chance for their characters to have some time in the spotlight
  • Include scenes and challenges that are better solved by talking or problem-solving, rather than hitting things with a weapon (and make it clear to them that it’s that sort of encounter)
  • Look for ways to encourage cooperation and teamwork among your players

Maybe have a session for some sort of round-robin exercise, like a “Yes, and…” improv thing to get used to deal with players coming up with unexpected solutions.

Other ideas:

  • As you mentioned, spending time saying that the game is open for everyone (boys, girls, whatever) though that means everyone there has to also be ready to play with everyone. That means good manners, good sportsmanship and good hygiene.

  • Maybe something about ways to play on a budget such as dice rolling apps, using various things in lieu of minis, etc. As far as prep work, making sure you have your creature stat blocks ready and reading/re-reading a module a few times before you play just so you’re not surprised or know what to expect. That doesn’t sound like a ton of fun, but it is very helpful.

  • Especially with kids, being open to other’s characters and ideas or creative ways to use existing popular characters in a game. If some kid wants to play Fantasy Iron Man, instead of being “That’s just Iron Man, that’s dumb” how can you make it work as a character and have fun with an Iron Man-esque character in your game?

Why are you limiting it to those who have previous experience with the game? ISTM that you’ll likely be having each club member take a turn at DMing and thus the others will be players when they aren’t DMing. To me, your requirement would be like requiring a director to first be an actor. I might be wrong here, but wouldn’t it be better to also have people you can introduce to the game. I haven’t played in many, many years, and a huge part of that reason is that the last few DMs I encountered were anything but judicious, fair, or even clear about their decisions during the sessions. If I had learned to play in a school club such as you’re suggesting, I think I would’ve been a happier, or at least a more informed, player.

Knowing how to play D&D and knowing how to run D&D are two entirely different skillsets, but you absolutely need to know the former before you can attempt the latter. If he has to take the time to teach the rules - and he only has eight total hours - he’ll never get to the actual DMing part.

To the OP: Good luck! You have picked a very challenging topic for any age group, let alone your kids. I’d tackle it almost like a peer counseling and mediation course. The hardest parts about being a DM are, as you say, the unique social dynamics involved.

Some topics off the top of my head:

Learning your DMing style (prepping vs extemporizing)
Learning your players’ play styles (the thinker, the actor, the dice roller, etc)
Dealing with unexpected player decisions
Active listening
The rulebook vs. Rule Zero
Setting expectations
How to say yes
How to say no
How to give your players the spotlight
Consent and respect in gaming

At that age I’m not sure how you’d truly prepare them for the concept of ‘problem’ players without making them feel like DMing is an inherently adversarial process, so better to firmly establish the general concepts of inclusivity and respect at the table.

Make them memorize loot tables and throw dice at them when they get it wrong.

Just kidding. I’d have them go through some sample combat scenarios, very short ones where each one takes turns running the “bad guys” as the others play a party. Maybe have each one make a character, but the DM’s character is absent from the group when it’s their turn to run. Basically a short campaign made of a string of combats with a small narrative between each encounter.

Free dice!

Better yet, spend eight hours reminiscing about how much better 1e AD&D was.

That would entail having to explain the supposed benefits of THAC0, and from there variational methods in statistics and their applications to combat mechanics, which is definitely sixth form work.


THAC0 was the special joy of 2nd edition.

1st edition means discussing why a random harlot table is essential.

I would spend time having them talk about what makes a “good” DnD session or campaign, and come up with a list of goals or norms for a good session that everyone agrees on. Then, when things come up, you can ask if that behavior would be likely to make a session better (reach those goals) or pull it away.

Thanks for the ideas, y’all! Here are some of the things I’m thinking about doing:

  • Session Zero and making expectations explicit: explain the importance of having shared expectations, especially the idea that everyone is there for everyone else’s fun. Talk about consent, red cards, and similar topics to protect everyone’s comfort and safety at the table.
  • Rules adjudication: different approaches, ranging from winging it to stopping the session to look something up. I’ll recommend a “players can ask the DM about a rule, but can’t belabor the point” approach.
  • Handling intraparty conflict, and distinguishing from intra-kid conflict: it’s real common for kids to use D&D to be awful to each other, thinking it doesn’t count inside the game; DMs should be ready to step in and help if it looks like someone isn’t having fun with it.
  • Creating the scene: elements of a good combat (including one or more of: an awesome location, a goal besides mass murder, a time limit, ongoing effects, multiple complementary enemies, more than two sides to the conflict, etc.)
  • Building the adventure (including deciding between the extremes of sandbox and railroad, how to connect scenes, how to design good clues, how and why to allow meaningful player agency, etc.)
  • Building memorable NPCs (two physical traits and a mannerism, and similar tricks; establishing goals; knowing how important NPCs think about PCs and about other NPCs)
  • Building your world (starting small and working out, or starting large and choosing an exemplar region)
  • Using published adventures and online resources.

There’s another club that’s run for years, and will run concurrently with mine, for kids to play the game; this one will not emphasize actual play, but instead techniques for running the game. Kids who are new to D&D should not start off in my club but in the other one. Those who come to my club will have at least a basic understanding of the rules, and we’ll talk about how for at least one GM style (“wing it!”) a basic understanding suffices.

I might do “fishbowl” encounters (four players play an encounter with me while the remaining folks watch), so we have something to discuss. My idea is to create a simple setting–maybe a town in a mountain pass that’s an active trade route, or something like that–and use our first session to explain what a session 0 is, setting out parameters for making characters. Players who show up with compatible characters at the next session can be eligible for playing an encounter, and so on.

I wonder if it would be useful to talk about how running a game is like being a host: when you have friends over, you are responsible for making sure they are having a good time even if it means you don’t get to do what you want. They aren’t used to your toys, so you should maybe agree to play with toys you are now bored with, if for no other reason than you want them to want to come back.

I’d give them a sense of what it means to be “prepared” for a game. What needs to be ready?

Maybe also some talk about the handling feelings when the adventure doesn’t go the way it went in your head. Even adult DMs get frustrated when they’ve worked hard on a scenario and the players just brute force a clever trap, or refuse to help the person they HAVE to help to get the plot going. It gets worse when the reason it doesn’t work out is that you didn’t really plan as well as you thought. I watch kids play make believe, and they elite a lot of details without realizing it, which is a problem when others are trying to follow. But a frustrated GM mad at you for “doing it wrong” is a very negative experience.

I guess I think a good motto to use as a focus is “how to run a game people will want to come back to”.

That’s a great idea, and a lot of what I want to get at. I think I can break down this idea into three skillsets:

  1. How to prep for an awesome game.
  2. How to run an awesome game.
  3. How to host an awesome game.

The first is the crunchiest part: write notes, know the rules, draw maps, find online resources, read the module, etc.

The second is the most fun part (for me, anyway): playing NPCs, describing action and setting, creating a sense of excitement, wonder, and hilarity.

The third is the most crucial part: making sure everyone is treating everyone with respect and kindness, and resolving player (not character) conflicts in a way that everyone is happy with.

All of them are super-important, and I need to figure out how to structure the 8-session club to hit all components and leave the kids feeling excited about, and ready to, DM a game.

That sounds great. The only thing I would tweak is that when you make sure “everyone is treating everyone with respect and kindness” , each child needs to include themselves in everyone. I’ve seen more bad behavior from inexperienced, frustrated GMs than from other players.