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I DM for my brother’s four kids. Their ages are 14, 13, 12, and 10. I made everything up in the world, so it’s not an official campaign. They’re asking questions that I didn’t even think that they’d ask. What am I supposed to do in this situation? I try to answer their questions, but it’s kinda tricky.

They ask questions like (if they’re in the woods) "Can I go 20 miles from here in search of a village?", "May I roll perception, then run back to the previous village?", "What would happen if I drank the water from the creek?"...

The players are asking questions about the world that I have not prepared an answer for - how do you handle these in game?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you give more context to this question: "May I roll perception, then run back to the previous village?"? \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov May 6 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ It was just some of the questions the kids were asking me, it’s not a question I was asking. They came from the village Valdon, and went into a mountain for a bounty, one of the kids wanted to go back, but they also wanted to see if anything could possibly attack them on their way, or at least at their current location. \$\endgroup\$ – Devils _Spawn May 6 at 17:30
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Redirect questions seeking information by asking what the character is doing to learn that information.

Here is how I would respond to each of the example questions you give:

Player: Can I go 20 miles from here in search of a village?

DM: That sounds like a long trip, are you going alone or do you want to talk with the party about searching for a village?

Player: May I roll perception, then run back to the previous village?

DM: What is your character looking for? Are you trying to be stealthy?

Player: What would happen if I drank the water from the creek?

DM: There's only one way to find out!

It is my experience that newer players are often less comfortable with roleplaying and try to gain information as the player instead of as the character. When DMing for newer players, it helps to directly encourage the players to lean into rule 2 of How to Play the game:

The play of the Dungeons & Dragons game unfolds according to this basic pattern.

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurer's actions.

When your players ask questions from the players perspective, redirect that question back at them by encouraging them to describe what they are doing from the character's perspective.

Obviously, if you're faced with describing something about your world you haven't prepared for, you will have to improvise (NautArch's answer gives guidance on improvisation), but in my experience it is much easier to improvise facts about your world in the context of the player's actions, rather than just making up trivia.

Setting expectations: What are you trying to achieve?

In a comment, user Dan W mentioned an excellent question DMs can use to help their players, a question I ask all the time:

What are you trying to achieve?

Once we have gotten our players in the frame of mind of asking questions and describing actions from the perspective of the characters, it is often helpful to ask this question so that you and the player can be on the same page about their intent for their actions. Dan W gave an excellent example about setting expectations:

Player: Can I climb on top of the roof?

DM: Sure. Give me an athletics check...

Player: Now I'm above him so my bow does more damage!

DM: erm... no?

Player: Oh, it worked that way in [other game]

In this situation, the DM is in the dark about the character's motivation for climbing on the roof, and as a result, they have misaligned expectations about the outcome of climbing on the roof. This is easily resolved by asking "What are you trying to achieve?":

Player: Can I climb on top of the roof?

DM: What are you trying to achieve?

Player: I want to get above him so my bow does more damage!

DM: You won't get a bonus to damage, but it may still be a tactically good choice. Do you still want to try it?

Player: Let's go for it.

DM: Give me an athletics check!

In this situation, now the player and the DM have aligned their expectations about the outcome of climbing on the roof, and the player is now better equipped to make a decision on their turn, and they won't be disappointed that things didn't turn out the way they thought they would.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for encouraging players to gain information IC instead of OOC. "That's a good question. How do you intend to find out the answer?" is a phrase I use almost constantly whenever I GM. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 6 at 21:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding the creek, another way to frame the question is as asking for more description; I might answer this with e.g. "Based on your experience travelling in the wild and given the fact it's been a hot summer, there's little water in the creek and it's barely flowing, you might end up with an upset stomach." (Or another world-appropriate answer, of course). \$\endgroup\$ – Angew is no longer proud of SO May 7 at 6:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AngewisnolongerproudofSO: agreed; and I think DMing for kids / early-teens makes that go double. They probably have less experience and knowledge about how the real world works, and may be trying to apply things they've heard but don't fully understand why/why not (e.g. don't drink from streams while hiking) to the game world. If the DM understands better, the players would probably appreciate learning some general outdoors knowledge their characters would probably have. (Of course, the characters may not know the germ theory of disease, so a real-world infodump would divert from the game.) \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes May 7 at 9:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The "what would happen if I drank from the stream of water" might also be something you could have the character make a Nature check for - and then describe to them what the character would know about streams and water (note - unless they roll particularly well, do not inform them of the exact nature - give them hints, based on how much their character would know.) \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz May 7 at 13:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd also suggest double-checking what the player is wanting to achieve if they're asking something unexpected. Player: "Can I climb on top of the roof?" / DM: "Sure. Give me an athletics check..." / Player: "Now I'm above him so my bow does more damage!" / DM: "erm... no?" / Player: "Oh, it worked that way in [other game]" etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan W May 7 at 15:20
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Improvise!

This is much easier said than done, but ultimately a big part of DMing is going to be improvisation. No matter how much you think you can prepare, your players are going to do, find, and say things that you would never have suspected and learning how to roll with that is part of the job.

You've actually got a few options within improvisation to consider and hopefully you'll discover the fun of doing so. I play as a DM fairly loose with my plans because I understand my players are much more clever than I am. That means listening to what they're trying to do and working to make it successful if I can. Most of the things you'll improvise will be session-dependent, but other times things may have further reaching implications than you realize.

In those situations, it's up to you and your table as to what needs to be done. At times, you can simply change your plans to fit the new narrative, but other times you may need to unring a bell in order for things to work - and that's okay. You're not perfect and neither is the game. Focusing on fun and being able and willing to change your mind (your players should also try and maintain this mindset if communication is open) will do a lot to making it a happy table.

Things may require in-game immediate adjudication

This is where things get a bit trickier. If your players want to do something with knowledge they are asking for, you're going to have stay on your toes. This means coming up with a mechanic (I'm a big fan of ability checks and mixing and matching skills and ability scores), and then positive and/or negative outcomes depending on the results. The key is in keeping the story going and having fun. Most of the stuff isn't going to impact the larger story, so lean on in and have some fun. For me, that usually means rolling dice and hopefully laughing or gasping at the results.

Considerations

Before asking for rolls or engaging in the questions, it's also important to figure out what that question is going to do to the player. If it's dangerous move, you can have them roll some sort of relevant ability check to see if they notice. I've used this and it also has the flipside of a clear fail creating worry for the player :)

You can also ask them what they are trying to do to help fill in what direction you should go. But what you shouldn't do is penalize the player. If they are doing something extremely dangerous, you can let them know. Odds are if it's obvious the danger, then the character should also see that even if the player doesn't - and you can be blatantly obvious and clear here with them.

It's okay to say you don't know

This is just as important as the first bit about improvising. If it's something you think may be a big deal, table it! It's okay to tell your players that you don't know, but you'll figure it out for next session. If it's an absolute sticking point, then you can work with the players to help them understand their current options and have them refocus on those.

Answers may come to you either in the resources of a campaign you are running, or through your own research and campaign planning.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd only add a suggestion to make a note of anything you improvise, so the story about it doesn't change a little down the road... \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso May 7 at 18:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the whole reason we have human GMs and not computers. Encourage the players to push these creative boundaries! \$\endgroup\$ – Dewi Morgan May 7 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Yes, and..." is the mantra of improv. Always a helpful guiding force. Though often when you're DMing, the "and..." part involves rolling dice and maybe failing. \$\endgroup\$ – Beefster May 7 at 22:15
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The art of improvisation and the Chaos of playing with kids

It sounds a little bit awkward, but there's indeed not an exact ruleset for improvisation. And in fact there's nothing wrong about improv, since you cannot have all the answers to all of the possible outcomes and that counts especially for young players. They just think differently.
I DMed for about 10 years in an institution for children. We played DnD, Cthulhu and my home-brew system. And you can't imagine how often I had to ask: "You want to do WHAT?"
Playing DnD with kids is like trying to ride a flea circus through a hurricane. It's pure chaos. My advice: Dump your stupid story, dump all the plans you had, let them have their fun by dismantling your world. That worked pretty fine with "my" kids at least. It's a lotta work, because sandboxing your world IS freakishly much effort. Or, just improvise or (how I did it) do a healthy mix of plan/plot and improvise.
The biggest mistake you can do is to prepare too much but also not too little that your players lose guidance; it's more like a general rule. When playing DnD with kids I went from highly prepared adventures to loosely connected event snippets ready to get discovered by the party.

How they get from one event to the next is completely improvised.

That's because kids tend to lose focus very quickly, because kids are so much more curious than adults; they will turn every stone, push any button and open every door, just for the purpose of finding out odd stuff.

In my experience there are many bad ways for a DM to react to such players. For example: Place some nasty traps just to push your players to not mindlessly stride around. Don't punish your players for having fun in your world, reward them instead for appreciating the inside of your head. They're guests there, so treat them as such.

In my experience the only real solution is to let them find odd stuff that is somehow connected to your adventure plot. Because everything they do is delivering possible plot hooks. Maybe not for your planned adventure, but maybe for something completely different.

Two examples:
A player wanders without focus through the woods and finds a small village that is threatened by a feral goblin tribe. BOOM, instant quest.
A player drinks from the creek and finds some strange item (ie. a message in a bottle) that gives a clear hint for your adventure.

It needs a lot of practice to get used to improv and you WILL probably fail in the beginning, but that's okay. Let your story grow and develop into something epic. They will need some time to get along, but if you just let them do what they want to do and push them smoothly in one direction they will finally get along. Most likely, they will surprise you with ideas you never thought that they'd be possible. Just present them a problem, don't plan possible solutions; just let them do their thing and you will learn completely different ways how to play DnD.

At least that was my experience that I made while DMing for kids for a decade.

A general advice for becoming more self-confident in improvisation

It's so simple that it's quite redundant: read the fluff, devour it. Be an expert of the campaign setting you're running. That works best for a home-brew setting that you soft-write. That means your world is a pretty blank slate except for the sites that are important to establish the adventure plot. Everything else is pretty much created at the spot. Just take notes if you do that and make it become canon of your world. It takes some time and a lot of sessions but during the course of your campaign it becomes more and more elaborate. I wrote a whole planet with that method and I let my players have significant influence in designing that world, by just asking them: What do you want to see/experience?

In the end it was a huge pile of meshed together genres from high fantasy to cyberpunk. But hell, my players loved it and I had a lot of fun DMing that rather improvised world. At some point the world in your mind will turn into a living one, like a chaotic anthill inside your head. At this point you can improvise almost anything. Name generators help, especially for NPC, regions and new plants (the last point gets pretty much important, if you have some kind of Alchemist in your party, because your kids will want to know all that stuff).

Playing DnD with children is harder than to DM for a party of veterans. Children don't know any of the game's conventions. A veteran party pretty much knows that "Okay, we meet at the tavern, slay that dragon, save the damsel and get rich." It's pretty straight forward. They just know the dynamics of looting and leveling. Children don't know that concept yet. That's okay, but it forces you to think differently as a DM.

Yes, from time to time it's okay to say: "Phew, I really don't know!"
But don't use it as a standard cop-out, because it's like dropping the ball. Try to not drop the ball. If a player asks you: "What happens if I drink from the creek?" go with the obvious. If you don't have another idea in mind or a reason why it's anything BUT default your answer should be: "I guess you will be less thirsty. The water is crystal clear, you can fill your waterskin in it."
I mean, why won't you know what happens if someone drinks some water?
What happens IRL if someone drinks water?
In general, if you don't know the exact outcome in your world go with what would happen IRL.
If you don't want for a single player to wander the woods, tell him that the next village is that one they're coming from and that the next one is hundreds of miles further away.
The character could know that stuff, so why not just tell the player?

Another important thing: Keep Them Busy

Give them something to do. Sometimes they won't react to obvious hints, but that's because they don't know how to read that hints yet. If there's an obvious quest giver in the middle of the market, maybe let that one talk to THEM instead of the other way around. You have to teach them how to read your world first. Take them by the hand and let them lose step by step. Kids get distracted very fast by things you describe, that also counts for any other players but with kids that is turned up to eleven.

If you describe a room for example, start with the most unimportant things first: What is the floor made of? How high is the ceiling? Are there any windows? Than describe interesting items: There's a silver sword hanging at the wall. A huge golden candelabra is standing on a wooden table next to a small metal box. And close with the most important/dangerous things: A grumpy troll is looking down to you...roll for initiative.

And that counts for a greater scope as well. Give them something to focus on; a clear goal they have to achieve, a world they can dive into. If your world is a completely blank slate, your player won't got the extra mile for you to imagine your adventure. At least you need a very clear picture of your world that you can communicate to your players. Children's imagination on the other hand is most oftenly very wild and unsteady, if you don't give them something to "chew" they will break out and "chew" on the first thing they can grab. But you can focus that raw creative power if you push them smoothly into your adventure's track by giving them a clearly communicated goal to achieve. For example: a monster kidnapped some children from the village, save the children, naturalize the monster, bring back the children, get 100gp.

I know all that stuff may seem a little bit off-topic but the less random stuff your players do, the less improv you have to do. But again look at those situations as opportunities for interesting plot hooks, that might get you of track, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ to get paragraphs to break after the period requires two spaces after the period/full stop. It's a Markdown 'feature' \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 6 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related DM tip: I made it a point to put something "unique" that stands out on every wall, floor, and ceiling, and large object, all made up on the spot. Investigating anything would reveal something "unique" about it that I would make up on the spot. If players get stuck, they'll investigate more things, which reveals more "unique" aspects to things. Given enough "unique" things, players can solve any problem with little difficulty. You don't need to plan how to solve problems; just make the world interesting and the players will handle the rest. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck May 7 at 3:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a caveat – not all children would be looking for this type of game. There are many ways to enjoy D&D, and for some players – some children included – they will want to se a clear end-goal, follow the story, and destroy the BBEG. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan W May 7 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanW True, but the most kids I played with started chaotic, unfocused and gained focus with increasing age. When I'm talking about kids, I don't talk about teenagers, I talk about actual children (6-12). Teenagers are more focused in general, played maybe a video game RPG and already learned the concept of questing... and already lost some of their seemingly mindless curiosity. There's in fact not that huge difference between teenagers and adults in this regard. \$\endgroup\$ – TheKhileyan May 7 at 16:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheKhileyan sure - just not all kids will be like this. You need to know your kids. My experience is 5-10yos who love unstructured sandbox games (minecraft, etc), but for D&D they did better with a clear quest line given by a patron - digging around looking for quests didn’t work as well. They could be very chaotic/imaginative in resolving encounters, but in terms of the larger plot they benefited from more direction than adults I DM for. I think that this reflects their smaller life experience - they’re better at imagining scenes than worlds. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan W May 7 at 16:47
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When I'm acting as DM with my group -- who are, I admit, not children, but still occasionally flummox me -- I usually try to work with them change "can I?" and "what would happen if?" questions into either "Tell me what my character sees/hears/knows about..." or "I want to..." plus a general course of action -- something that resolves to either a question of apparent facts or a skill check. Then I can either answer the question, call for a roll, and/or come up with a "yes, and" or "no, but" response.

For example, "Can I go 20 miles from here in search of a village?" Well, what does that really mean? Can you go everywhere in a 20-mile radius to try to locate a town? Probably not in a reasonable time, no. On foot, a 20-mile trip in a relatively straight line is four to six hours of walking. I would probably respond with "Why? Are you just trying to find out if there are towns nearby or is there something specific you want to accomplish?" If it's just the idea of getting a lay of the land, then I'd probably say, "Well, there's a hill to the south that you can reach pretty fast; if you climb a tree there, you should be able to see if there's any towns nearby, or smoke that could indicate people." Then we can play that out, and I can decide behind the screen whether I want them to be completely isolated, or have a town within traveling distance, or dangle a plot hook like "No, you don't see any towns, but to the east, you can see an old stone building that's crumbled into ruins."

"What would happen if I drank from the creek?" Okay, do you want to know whether the water is safe to drink? Well, let's roll a Survival check and see what you can determine about the water from observation. (I'd probably set an easy DC 5 to determine if the water is safe to drink or not, unless there's something sneaky going on.)

Some DMs like to really hold to what the player said -- they aren't going to make any suggestions. I tend not to go that way, though. I prefer to make suggestions and clarifying statements to the players, not only to keep our ideas of what's going on more or less in sync, but to keep rolls to only when they're meaningful. When I'm a player, I hate rolling the dice and then feeling like there was no good reason for it because what I learned (or missed) was so minor as to be meaningless.

With kids, this goes double -- they're often very imaginative and into the game, but come up with what I would think of as obtuse ways to approach a problem, such as "walking 20 miles" to search for a village rather than trying to find a vantage point or search for signs of human activity in the forest. I don't want to take over from them, but giving them a nudge towards a more logical way to approach the problem can make the game better and expand their mental list of options in the future (even if they eventually decide not to go with my suggestion). For example, it sounds like the kids in this case may not be very clear on how long travel times on foot are and how far a mile is (I know I wasn't at that age), so they'll probably need more coaching on those points than on something like how to open a rusted gate.

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