You’ve likely heard of the game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and similar games before, at least in passing. You may even be a regular player (and if you are, you might want to just skim this article, there will definitely be some bits that are just explaining what a roleplaying game is, which people with experience likely already know). So, as foreshadowed in the parentheses: what exactly is a tabletop roleplaying game? And what could it possibly have to do with childcare?
Dungeons and Dragons is probably the most well-known, but it’s far from the only tabletop roleplaying game. There’s quite a few of them now, with lots of different systems to play, some being quite simple to pick up and some others being very complex. But what is a tabletop roleplaying game exactly? First thing, tabletop just means you play it around a table versus something like a videogame played on a screen. Monopoly is a tabletop game in that sense. Roleplaying is the bit that sets these games apart. My favorite way of describing them is that it’s group storytelling. I’m also partial to refer to it as playing pretend for all ages.
Everyone in the group except for one makes a character that they play, and the one remaining person’s role is to be the game master (or GM for short). The GM’s job is to tell the story and build the world for the players. When playing with children, it’s probably best that you as the adult do this, at least for the first few times you play.
So why the childcare incorporation? Well, I think tabletop games can be a great way to let kids flex some creative muscles through both writing and improvising storytelling. It can even include some math or other subjects if you want it to. It also allows you to teach some moral lessons straight out of classical children’s books if you’d like. Unlike videogames or prebuilt boardgames, the possibilities are essentially endless. It’s like having an interactive storytime, a choose your own adventure book where the endings aren’t predetermined. It’s a lot of fun to play these kinds of games with kids, as they’re more than happy to suspend their disbelief and play around in a fantasy world you’ve created.
I’ll explain more later what kind of scenarios you could create when playing these sorts of games, but I also want to mention that this is something I actually did with my dad when I was a kid. My dad was the game master and ran a super old Pokémon tabletop rpg for me when I was young. It was a wonderful bonding experience, and also let me explore a fictional world that was my absolute favorite at the time. I remember having to creatively solve problems my dad placed in front of me, and feeling super satisfied when I managed to get through them. That was my first time playing a tabletop game, and I still play them with my college friends today. It’s a really nice social activity, since it’s everyone getting together and actively storytelling. Let’s say we’ve got you interested at this point: how are you going to go about starting a tabletop game?
If you’re playing with older children, something a little bit more complicated like Dungeons and Dragons might be your preference. My recommendation is the 5th edition of the game if you end up going that route, particularly if you’ve never played before. There are lots of other systems that aren’t Dungeons and Dragons as well (a quick Google of “tabletop roleplaying games” will prove that). But that can be a lot of homework for someone new to the game, both for you and any kids you’re trying to play with. “No Thank You, Evil” is just one example of a tabletop rpg that is directly intended to be geared more toward children. But, you can also just make one of your own if you’re interested in trying out the idea with very little investment.
If you just want to dip your toes into storytelling with a child you’re hoping to entertain in a unique way, you can still do this using a simple system that doesn’t require anything more than a regular 6-sided dice. It’s something my friend introduced me to when we were all together and wanting to do something creative, but not quite wanting to break out all the pen and paper of D&D. Basically it goes like this: you have the kid come up with a character idea. Maybe they want to be a brave knight or a masterful wizard or even an alien going on a sci fi adventure. You’ll decide what this character would be good at, just get a basic idea, no need to write it down. Then you’ll tell a story together and rolling dice will still determine results as in a traditional tabletop, but everything will be much more streamlined than in a game such as D&D.
You’re the game master in this scenario still, but there are a lot less rules to know and keep track of. I’ll give a silly example of the kind of thing you’d be doing.
Let’s say the child you’re caring for has decided they want to be a brave warrior. You’re now going to give that warrior a basic world to interact with. You can say something like “Alright, the queen has called you into her palace for a meeting. She requested you specifically. As you enter, you see bunches of nobles standing near the windows, whispering quietly to one another. Eventually you reach the queen’s throne room. She’s sitting in her throne, looking concerned.” The kid who you are playing with might say something like “I ask her what is wrong” or even say “What’s wrong?” like they are talking in character to the queen.
That was an example of the setup of the story. Let’s say that the queen was concerned because an evil wizard has been menacing the city from his castle. She’s wondering if the warrior can do something to stop them. We’ll skip ahead and say that the warrior reaches the castle of the wizard successfully. Now, the kiddo gets to choose how to defeat the wizard. And that’s the fun of tabletop rpgs, everything is an option.
Maybe they decide they want to try and persuade the wizard to use their powers for good. This is where the dice comes in. You would have the child roll a dice to see how successfully the wizard is persuaded. A 1 or 2 is a failure, 1 being particularly bad. The wizard would decide they want to stay evil with this roll. A 3 will be a “partial success.” This means that they get what they want, but with some stipulations. For example, maybe the wizard wants something in return for turning good. They’ll do it, but not without a price. 4 and 5 will be successes, 5 being particularly good. The wizard would be so convinced that they decide it’s a good idea to change their ways.
I also said earlier that you should decide what sort of things the warrior (the kid’s character) would be good at. That also is going to come into dice rolls. Let’s say the warrior used to live out in the woods and are therefore maybe particularly good at woodsy activities such as tracking pawprints. If the child rolls to follow some tracks, you can give them a +1 to their roll. So, if they roll a 3, it will instead become a 4, making it a full success instead of partial.
This is a much easier pill to grasp as far as rules go. And it can be a lot of fun to do. It’s also easier for younger kids than a regular session of a more complicated tabletop game.
And honestly, I’ve seen people use actually math problems as puzzles for their players with no one complaining and everyone happily just trying to solve it. And it’s easy enough to create something that feels real in the world that also just so happens to be a common childhood lesson (maybe the wizard in the tower is sad because he doesn’t have any friends, and the players teach him to share his magic with others in positive ways). Every plot line can be adjusted based on age, and what you’re hoping to give to the kids you’re playing with through the experience. I’d caution against making it feel too educational to the point of forcing it, but honestly a lot of these things can come up organically.
Tabletop roleplaying might seem like a lot to pick up. But there are lots of resources out there (Google video examples of role playing sessions can be helpful). And it can be very rewarding. It requires a whole ton of imagination, which is always a good thing to have kids exercising. You can even add things you want them to practice into the game (a troll under the bridge that makes you spell a couple words, a door that only opens when you solve a math problem). As long as you aren’t too strict with those things, it can actually make getting past some usually annoying problem practice feel rewarding. All in all, there’s a lot that can be done with role playing games. It’s social, positive, and honestly just a great way to pass the time.