From The Mailbag: How Do I Play D&D With My 10 Year Old Daughter?

2009 February 9
by Vanir

Occasionally, a reader will sneak in and drop an email in our poor, emaciated inbox. In accordance with state inbox cruelty regulations, I am required to elicit a response to this:

Peter Blood writes:

It has been 25 years since I played D&D in college and I still miss it. Now my 10 year old daughter loves fantasy, LOTR, and has read the whole Harry Potter series. I want to play D&D with her but do not know how to start. I am not at a level where I could set up my own dungeon and be a DM. I can’t remember all that stuff about how to attack and saving throw stuff.

How can I play D&D with just the two of us?

Is there an online game where the computer is the DM? Is there a video game without much killing?

I am all ears.

First, Peter, let me inform you that I am totally jealous of your awesome name. For a moment I thought a pirate or sorcerer was emailing us and, with a name like Peter Blood, the person sending the email could not have been under level 18.

Now, getting down to business. I have personal experience playing D&D one-on-one with someone else. I did so all through high school with a friend of mine, and that was the only way I knew how to play the game for years until I found a regular group to play in. I was 13 years old, and the adventures were ridiculous and terrible, and occasionally I get all misty wishing I could have that much fun again.

If you intend to run adventures for your daughter, I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to get around learning some game mechanics. However, I completely feel your pain on this one. When I run adventures, I feel as if I am going to choke to death on how many things there are to keep track of. Under normal circumstances, you have a couple of options.

Our group has relied on a two-DM system where one person primarily does story and the other handles the nuts and bolts of combat. This leaves the guy who doesn’t want to deal with the numbers free to roleplay his fool head off. However, this isn’t really a solution for you, because it’s just you and your daughter.

This means you need plan B, which is what I do to cope as DM in any size group: rules light, roleplay heavy. By this, I mean you need to learn the barebones of combat and a few other actions — but a lot of the time you will just make a judgement call or handwave a skill check. Make the game less about the rules, and more about the interactions between your NPCs and your daughter’s PC. What do I mean by this? For example: have some orcs capture her PC and make it clear that she’s going to get killed if she tries to fight her way out. Play an orc, and make her figure out how to get out of there (either by escaping somehow or talking her way out of the situation).

DMing is difficult, especially at first, but don’t get discouraged (and don’t forget nobody is expecting you to be perfect right out of the gate!) Everything gets a lot more comfortable after plenty of practice and mistakes. I know our group saw more than a few spectacular disasters when I was running last, but at the end of the night everybody was having fun so it was OK.

You don’t have to come up with the dungeon and everything in it on your own, either. Expeditious Retreat Press has a whole bunch of modules designed for one DM and one player titled, oddly enough, 1 on 1 Adventures. I would add that I think these are D&D 3.5e and not the new 4e, but it is somewhere to start (and you’ll probably want to avoid this one, for obvious reasons). If your daughter enjoys solving puzzles, you can sprinkle some into your adventures too. Cloud Kingdom games has some awesome books on this topic.

As far as videogames go, there are lots and lots of RPGs out there, but most are single-player. However, if you’ve got multiple computers, you could go with something from the Neverwinter Nights series or one of its predecessors. With videogame RPGs, though, you’re pretty much going to wind up chopping up lots of people and monsters into tiny little pieces to get XP. I’m having a great deal of difficulty thinking of one where that is not the case (unless you’re playing Myst or something). If you’re looking for nonviolence, my recommendation would be to stick to tabletop adventures where you can be assured of everyone’s peaceful demeanor via your omnipotence.

There is one other option that may terrify you, but it’s so crazy that it just might work: give your daughter the books, and let her run a game for you. She’s older than the age I was when I started getting into this stuff, and I guarantee you it’s a great way to spark her creativity. I would keep it super extra rules light though — perhaps eschewing the D&D rules for a much simpler set you two agree on (combat settled by rock-scissors-paper, for instance).

Hopefully, this was of some help to you, and you both will have a good experience like I did when I was starting out: ridiculous, terrible adventures — and lots of fun.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    February 9, 2009

    great advice Vanir… i’m still 5-years out before I could even think of getting my kids to play. I would also point your readers to a recent post over at WIRED GeekDad.. that maybe your emailer would be interested in as well.

  2. Silus permalink
    February 9, 2009

    I would recommend using a rules-light system to run with. I personally have become fond of a modified Risus system. It's a free game, so no investment besides about 15 minutes of time to learn it.

    A simple system allows you to get on with roleplaying and spend less time crunching numbers or hunting through books.

    If you must stick with D&D, 4th Edition is a little easier to understand than 3rd overall, so I would recommend that.

    Now, as for the actual running of the game.
    1) Since this is a one player session, the whole plot and indeed world can be based around what that one player wants. She likes LotR and Harry Potter. If you know either of those worlds really well, you can run a game in a similar world easily. If not, most high fantasy settings would probably be acceptable.

    2) Character Creation. I recommend creating a character more around a concept, and filling in numbers later. Basically force the game mechanics to fit the character.
    Some ways to help with initial ideas: Choose three adjectives that define the character. Write a paragraph showing a typical day for the character. Define their greatest hope and fear.
    Ask her what she pictures the character doing in their life (what sorts of problems will they face, how they will overcome them).

    I hope some of these ideas are useful to you. Good luck!

  3. Vanir permalink
    February 9, 2009

    @Silus: can you link that modified Risus system? I’m curious. 🙂

    Also, very good ideas — I’m guessing Peter’s daughter would very much like to play the role of a student at Hogwarts. Just the thought of roleplaying some of the “in the classroom” stuff gets me all giddy like a schoolgirl.

  4. SirGeekelot permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Yes, I miss the times of crazy silly adventures. I remember once giving my friend a sword of singing. I would basically play a random song from a CD I had and then make them roleplay the results. (A character turning into Superman, them getting the Enterprise ship) Good times.

  5. Francois B permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I found a minimalist d20 ruleset at :

    I didn’t read it, but found the concept would fit what you need

    When my son was about that age, his school session project was to play a fantasy game with dice. So i used a watered down warhammer quest (i loved that system)

    Since this system is not supported/printed i don’t feel bad giving this link to pdfs of the rulebooks :

    This ruleset uses only d6, so it’s a little easier on the maths then using d20.

    My son got 3 other friends to join the group and we did 1h sessions every week.
    I started the story with this : my son found a bizarre book from the school library that nobody had every seen. They all went to a friends home to read it. It had some readable text, some bizarre script and pictures of fairies and monsters. After reading for a while, they where sucked into the book and traveled to another world where they encountered a chained angel that gave them the last of his angelic feathers so they could find and destroy the 5 magical seals that retained him. Once freed, the angel would take them back to our world. With the feather, they where transported to a war-torn town where they had to escape and find the first seal. I added a “power rangers” feel, because they could use their power to make 1 big construct and each could control an aspect of it (movement, 2 arms for melee attacks and head for magical attacks).

    As “homework” : they had to draw their characters and weapons, make a story for their PC’s and other stuff i don’t remember.
    And as a bonus, during all that time they where doing math like crazy (add die rolls, substract hit points, manage bonuses) and didn’t even know it !

    Hope you have fun with your daughter, can’t wait for mine to be as interested.. 6 more yrs to go !

  6. Neon Tapir permalink
    February 15, 2009

    Risus is terrific for children. And adults.

    My kids (14, 11, and 10) use Spirit of the Century, though we really end up ignoring the rules except aspects.

    The key is telling a story together.

  7. SambearPoet permalink
    March 7, 2009

    Hate to butt in here, but I have a Kids & Roleplaying Yahoo group that has been around forever and has a lot of parents who are gaming with their kids participating….so it is a great resource for bouncing ideas and learning more. Also, check out the Dragonkin podcast for Kids & Roleplaying at

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