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My daughter has asked me to GM a D&D5e game for her and her friends, who are all aged 13-15 years of age. In the US this puts them in middle school, an age of interesting transitions. With younger players I would just give them pre-generated characters; with older ones I would expect them to be mature enough to understand about game balance. I am struggling with this age group because they want "to do really cool stuff" but this can degenerate into everyone wanting to play Mary-Sues.

This is an age when kids are still figuring out who they are and how they want to interact with others. I'd like this to be a happy and healthy and creative experience for them.

Techniques I plan to use include a Session Zero that talks about taking turns, respecting one another and the assumption that the players are all on the same side; a version of the X-card for handling fears and discomfort; and some sort of token system so that everyone gets a chance to speak.

I'd prefer another gaming system but this group has heard so much about D&D that they want to play it. I would be grateful for any experience-based suggestions of techniques that work well for this age group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a particular reason you don't want them all to be Mary-Sues? \$\endgroup\$ – Newbie12345 Feb 1 at 22:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be that my reticence is more my problem than theirs. I had thought that learning to work within constraints and grow a character up from a low level would be a learning experience. I may be too stuffy in that regard. I would love to know how a more relaxed approach worked for others. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Feb 1 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think D&D could be a nice fit, especially since it has a lot of rules which constrain what is possible and what not. And in my experience a (board-)game having absolute unbendable rules is an accepted thing at that age. So I think this could go a lot easier than fairly opne settings, where the players need to play by a lot more unwritten rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Feb 4 at 13:36
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Since you asked for anecdotes:

I had a pre-teen player join my table once (he was the son of one of the other players) and his character concept was just a mary-sue as you fear. He basically wanted to be Raistlin the Tiamat killer on session one.

So my challenge then was to find a way to mold expectations for this character concept so that he still basically got what he wanted without disrupting our normal game by having an overpowered PC fall into their midst.

I accomplished this by taking stock of his character bio and breaking it down to its essence. He described a brooding dragonborn with an exceptional talent for magic who carried an orb that allowed him "power over dragons" (I told you he stole this concept, right?), a wand that could shoot fireballs, and a ring that made him invisible.

I can feel the eye-rolling through the internets. Bear with me!

What he wanted in essence was:

  1. Powerful magic
  2. A connection to dragons
  3. Something fiery and flashy
  4. A way to be sneaky

The problem was the party was only 2nd and 3rd level. So here is what I did: I used examples from things he would recognize: "Hey, Luke Skywalker couldn't beat Darth Vader straight off Tatooine, right? He needed to learn, find a teacher, and eventually overcome the evil in himself before he could beat his dad. Our game is like that. You start off a bit weaker, and get stronger as you go."

I then gave him all the magic items he wanted but with caveats. The orb was indeed an orb that could control blue dragons, but it would only do minor things for him, like warn him if a dragon was nearby. he had a clue as to where to find hidden knowledge of this artifact and I turned that hook into a subplot of the group's adventure. Everyone had a great time with it over the long haul, not just him.

The wand of fireballs was legit, but only had one charge. Recharging it required a burnt offering to his Patron god, Bahamut, and cost him a price in gemstones. So he didn't whip it out every encounter, but rather saved it as a "holy heck we're gonna die" move. Even after he mastered the actual spell for himself, he kept it around as an ace in the hole and the party's rogue even used it once to save everyone when he went down.

The ring was a bit of a trick. Actual rings of invisibility are stupidly powerful, especially with clever players. For this, I simply had a frank discussion about it with him and instead it started as a minor magic item that only gave him advantage on stealth checks. Later as the orb-subplot advanced, we decided it would be cool if the ring and orb were linked, and it grew in power as his mastery of the orb grew. By level 10 it was totally a ring of invisibility with a few other minor perks and by that point the party was facing threats of a level where a single invisible player would not unbalance the encounter.

So in short, he got his wishes, but gently massaged into the framework of the existing group. If you can find similar flexibility with your young players, I think everyone will have an excellent time, even if their character are a bit stronger than normal at the beginning of the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ applause Great illustration of the gradual and fun power curve ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 2 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for further guidance. Good first answer! \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 2 at 1:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is such an excellent example of taking a problem and molding it into an opportunity I wish I could upvote this twice. \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan The Brave Feb 5 at 20:53
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You generally don't have to change much. I have not run a game specifically of DND 5e with middle schoolers, but I played DND 2e when I was in middle school and I've played other editions with my middle school son. Generally, the games were not that different from playing with all adults.

Obviously, middle schoolers are at least stereo-typically less sophisticated than adults so I would steer clear of a heavily political or even heavily detail oriented plot. But then many games of DND with all adult players are not heavily detail oriented.

Lots of people like being able to do awesome stuff and middle schoolers being somewhat less mature are somewhat more prone to that. In other words, I would be very tolerant of "Mary Sue" characters in game with mostly middle schoolers so long as it is not taken so far that it interferes with other players fun. (Actually, I'm pretty tolerant of "Mary Sue" type characters in general in RPGs. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the nature of an RPG makes "Mary Sue" tendencies less of an issue than they are in fiction.)

One concern you have that I have never dealt with is that it sounds like you will be running a game with middle schoolers when you are a grown adult and some of them will not be related to you. I don't have personal experience with that, but if I ever tried it I would be very careful of their parents sensibilities. Some parents might get touchy if say demons, devils, and unearthly pantheons play a large role in your plot. Some parents might be so touchy about relationships that they don't want so much as a hint of a romantic sub-plot. This is also probably not the game to try out a deep meditation on man's inhumanity to man.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your last sentence made me grin. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 2 at 0:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point at the end. I may write up a "note to parents" form for the kids to take home. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Feb 2 at 16:57
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Two concrete things I learned: about team play and player removal

The hard one is how the "can't have you at the table" comes off.

Player Removal: talk to parents face to face

I guessed right when I felt that I had to remove a player in that age range from our table, in that I went home with him and discussed it with his parents and him at the same time. I was worried sick that his parents would be upset with me, and while they were a bit more upset with him I still felt awful. I left open the chance to maybe try again later in life if he still showed an interest. It was painful to do, and I am still upset with myself that I wasn't wise enough or clever enough to find a way to keep him at our table without the disruptions and other problems.

It's easier IME with adults and teens/young adults who are a few years older. (In comparison, not that it is IME ever easy to do this).

Team play

The younger than middle school groups often just plays as a team, but I found that the age group you mention frequently needs encouragement and reminders "hey, you guys are on the same team here." From me, the adult and the DM. As my experience goes back over a decade ago, I don't know if that has gotten easier or harder since then, but I utterly forbade PvP with that age group. The Younger aged ones didn't tend to want to, and if all knew it was an option (and people aren't being utter jerks) older teens and adults are usually able to handle it well enough.

Those are my lessons learned: team play, talk to parents.

I stopped Dming for teens/preteens about the time I stopped DMing for my youngest child.

I am pretty sure we have some experienced members here who are more up to date, but those two particular elements of what the Adult/DM presence has an influence on are the two that stand out.

Rules light is the better approach

My other suggestion is "go rules light, not rules lawyer" and err in favor of players, but I prefer to do that with all age groups so that's not middle school/junior high specific.

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I usually GM at events, so from time to time I have young people at my tables.

Keeping them focused is the challenge. Normally they want to talk too much and do anything, so you have to make it interesting and bring the respect flag from time to time. Try not to think "ugh, kids" and instead think more constructively, like they really don’t know how to do this but if you show them they will.

For rules I always go from small to big:
first eliminate all the stress stuff like encumbrance, spell components, etc.: anything that will complicate your life (and theirs).
Then you start with easy encounter elements, like learning how one skill can be used, so they explore their character’s abilities more.
That goes also for combat: start with little elements and then move to bigger ones.

Finally, I recommend you have short sessions, like 1 or 2 hours, so you can rest from their energy and you can maintain their excitement about the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE. Thanks for the answer from your table experience. Please take the tour to see how to get the most out of a Q&A site, and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 5 at 22:42

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