Our group consists of my sister-in-law (Kathra), her son (8; Mindartis), her daughter (6; Keiio), and my daughter (5; Aiyot). We're all basically beginners, but my sister-in-law has some limited rpg experience. Her son's totally into it, and is largely the reason that we're playing (aside from my new-found D&D craze). But I've been surprised at how interested the girls have been, and how able they are to participate. I'm only a few sessions in as of yet, but here are some things that have worked (or not worked work) with younger kids.
The Story is the Draw
This is probably true of any type of DMing, but the story is a big draw with the kids. It doesn't take much with the kids, though. My DMing skills are pretty lousy right now, but I was able to revamp the opening to Twisted Halls so that they could all play as a party right away. A few memorable characters, and a simple "go fetch" quest later, and they were on board.
Playing with kids obviously is going to impact what kind of story I can tell. There was a fantastic monster/story piece by the Id DM at This is My Game, for example, involving a tragic female villain who was driven to evil when a priest executed her lover (also a girl). Beyond the lesbian issue (which I honestly think would be a non-issue at our gaming table), the description of someone's love being taken from them and killed is far too much for the kind of game I can run with these kids. I'm going to instead try to focus on adventures that are pretty light-hearted. I mentioned a while back that Snickersnack! could be a fantastic little module, and I'm currently trying to put together something inspired by it in Masterplan.
Keep it simple: little kids should play fighters
Mindartis is playing a mage, and is doing ok...though he's been far too reliant on magic missile thus far because it always hits. He did lead the last fight off using his encounter spell (Charm of Misplaced Wrath), though, and dispatched a trio of foes with a single freezing burst later in the fight. I think he's going to be ok.
The girls, however, I have playing a pair of fighters. Aiyot is playing a Dwarven knight, while Keiio is playing a Dwarven slayer. There are several advantages to this. First, the idea of being the two strongest and toughest members of the party appealed to the girls, simply due to their age. The idea that Keiio has to protect her mom and her big brother seems to thrill her. Second, as fighters, they can primarily focus on combat and can leave roleplaying to the older folks (for now).
And third, they're super simple to play. As a level 1 slayer, Keiio has two choices with each attack: do extra damage when you attack, or move up to three spaces after the attack. Because Mobile Blade still incurs opportunity attacks (as I read the power), it's almost always going to be better to just get the extra damage. Similarly, for a level 1 knight that my daughter is playing, she decides between attacking two enemies with one attack (cleave) and slowing one enemy (defend the line). With her defender aura/battle guardian combo, most of the time cleave will be the attack of choice whenever there's a pair of foes near her.
Beyond those choices, the only other things to keep in mind for them is their power attack encounter power, plus the use of action points. I'm just going to prompt them about that for now, at least until they start trying to use them on their own. Furthermore, I'm keeping track of their hit points and such behind the screen so they don't have to wrestle with that math, and I keep the character builder stats cards behind my screen so I can keep track of their key attributes. The girls just move their characters, pick who to attack, and roll their dice. It worked pretty well.
Keep it simple: skill challenges are hard for the kiddos to grasp
We ran our first real skill challenge today in the conversation with the fledgling White Dragon of the Twisted Halls. It didn't go very well. First, I think conversations make for pretty lousy skill challenges, especially when it's complex enough that eight successes are required. That's a ton. Halfway through, I was pretty much out of new information to tell them and was having a hard time coming up with excuses to keep putting off letting them win. I ultimately caved early (though they're getting 1/2 XP because of this).
Second, skill challenges are very abstract things. The idea of a "religion check" is hard enough to grasp. Having to come up with some reason that you're doing a religion check in order to convince a dragon not to eat you is very challenging for an 8-year old, much less a 5-6 year old. As a result, I had to do a lot of prompting, and it felt as though I basically just led them through the encounter (this is probably also part of the reason I ran out of useful directions to go in the conversation...but again, 8 required successes!? That's crazy!).
Therefore, I think, in the future, I'm just going to focus on using skills outside of formal skill challenges. I'll try to include opportunities for all sorts of checks as they explore their environs, but I'm probably going to avoid true skill challenges for the time being. ... unless a really good idea comes to me, of course.
Reign in the violence.
D&D's a violent game. That's part of the fun. But when you're playing with kids, I think you have to be careful about how much violence you allow into the game. I'm following two main guidelines.
1) No "people" enemies. The closest I'm going to get are foes that used to be human/dwarven/elven, but have undergone an irreversible corruption of some sort. For example, Maraleth, the chief baddie of the Twisted Halls, is supposed to be a human. Because he's a necromancer, I'm going to claim that he's been distorted by necrotic magic such that half of his body is already in skeletal form.
In most cases, though, I'll just reskin. A fight against four town guards in an earlier encounter will be instead conducted against four hobgoblins. Same stats, different appearance. If we do Reavers of Harkenwold later on (which comes with the DM Kit), I'll probably reskin the Iron Circle to be orcs rather than humans.
2) Death descriptions are muted. I'm going primarily for mild cartoon violence, probably not even to Bugs Bunny levels. Natural monsters fall on their faces, sometimes after spinning in a circle with little birds above them, and then just never move again. Foes from other planes, like an Imp, will probably just vanish with a pop when they die rather than falling to some gruesome fate. If I could get away from the term "bloodied" I would, but it's too entrenched in the vocabulary of D&D and I couldn't shake it. I do think I can get away with gratuitous violence against undead and constructs, though, so there we'll see arms, legs, and heads go flying in those cases.
Avoid player character death
This might be controversial, because D&D people love their character death. But I can tell you right now that my five-year old will not be able to handle it if her character dies at some point a month or two from now. She's already very proud of her, and will probably have a breakdown if something terrible ever happens to her. That would be the opposite of fun, and we're playing to have fun.
So, here are the house rules on death:
1) Players who drop to 0 hit points are too hurt to rise again, but are not actually "dying."
2) They make saves vs death per the rules to avoid falling unconscious. Skills like first aid work to prevent people from falling unconscious rather than dying.
3) If characters take negative bloodied damage, they fall unconscious (instead of dying).
4) Players who fall unconscious (failed 3 death saves, or negative bloodied damage) do wake up at the end of the encounter, but they do so at 1 hp and with zero available healing surges and thus must go for an extended rest.
Therefore, falling unconscious is something to avoid as much as possible, but it's not permanent.
In the event of a Total Party Kill, one of two things will happen. If the monsters are not killing for food, and are not particularly intelligent (e.g. some goblins or some kobolds), they will probably just assume that the adventurers are dead and dump them outside of their lair with some garbage. They'll then wake up and sneak away with their tales between their legs.
If that's not a believable scenario--say they're all devoured by a Bulette or something--I'm going to have to go with a god intervention/resurrection scenario. Since I don't have something planned for that right now, I'm probably going to have to make it a godfather thing delivered by an angel: "My [unnamed] lord is doing this thing for you now, but will require your services in the future. What say you?" If nothing else, it'll make for a good plot hook later on.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts on playing DnD with little kids. Anyone else out their tried it? Suggestions?