Playing RPGs with a 4-Year-Old is Exactly the Same as Playing with 35-Year-Olds

I had a funny experience a couple weekends ago.

On Saturday night I played what is rapidly-becoming one of my new favourite games, Dungeon World. (We'll ignore for a moment that one of the players brought a Super-Flu into the house that knocked out my entire family for 2 weeks, which is why it took me so long to write this).

On Sunday morning, I played "Secret Lab" with my 4-year old son, which is basically sitting in a blanket fort making up "secrets," which usually end up being variations of "I stole treasure from the chocolate factory and hid it in the back yard."

Guess what? Turns out they're both exactly the same game.

Stick with me here.

For those not familiar, Dungeon World is a "de-crunched" version of Dungeons & Dragons where the rules have been dialed back to allow more room for storytelling. It is of course based on another game, Apocalypse World, which is a similar set of rules used in a post-apocalyptic setting. It uses simple, open-ended mechanics that leave a lot to interpretation and imagination, and encourages the players to fill in the gaps in between.

Personally I find the biggest difference between Dungeon World and D&D is that it takes a lot of the agency away from the Dungeon Master and gives it to the players, which is a very good thing. Instead of the DM building the world like a director and leading the players through it like puppets actors, in DW the players really build it themselves as they go. The Dungeon Master is there to nudge them along and get the story flowing and the players get to decide exactly what kind of game they want to play.

In Dungeon World, this could be a perfectly acceptable character.
A big part of the DM's job during character creation in Dungeon World is encouraging the players to use their stats to come up with more and more details about their characters. For instance, the Fighter in DW starts play with a "signature weapon." Technically this is just an item with a couple of numerical bonuses, but the DM should be asking lots of questions - What does it look like? When was it made? Does it have a name? How did the player come to possess it? Who was its previous owner? Does it have any secret powers or curses that the character is aware of? Does anyone else know (or suspect) what it can do and seek to obtain it? Suddenly, the GM now has a ton of information to work with - information to craft enemies, adventures and non-player characters the heroes can encounter in their travel. Plus the character herself (and her favourite weapon) takes on a life of her own.

Now, when we did this the other night my players (who are not used to this type of game play) kinda balked at my line of questioning, They felt like I was grilling them as I kept asking "and then what? And who was that? And what did that look like?" Some people think better on their feet, that's fair, but once they got the hang of it everyone started coming up with stuff and having fun with it. For instance, we have a ranger who bonded with his animal companion - a bear - after becoming the surrogate father to her cub when the biological father was killed by hunters. It was a nice twist on the ranger raising an animal himself, which is where we probably would have gone with it normally.

Actually, normally the conversation would go:
"What kind of animal companion do you want?"
"I don't care. Whatever has the most hit points."
The next morning, when I played "Secret Lab" with my son, we went through the same exercise. When I asked him his secret and he said he "stole treasure from the chocolate factory," I immediately started prodding him and prompting him for more details. "What kind of treasure did you steal? What did it to? Who tried to take it from you?" When he wasn't certain I helped him fill in details, and soon we had a story about stealing a magic mirror from mermaids but then having it stolen from us by an evil wizard and we had to enlist the aide of a monkey to climb a mountain to get it back and return it to the mermaids so they could use its magic to dispel a curse. We were TOTALLY playing Dungeon World, just without the dice rolls. I've dreamed about one day playing role-playing games with my kids, and here we were suddenly playing one by accident. It was amazing.

It was extra amazing to have the experiences of both a 4-year-old and 30-somethings back-to-back to compare. The toddler was unlocking his imagination and storytelling abilities for the first time. The adults were re-learning how to do it. Both were feeling their way through the exercise in the same way, and it was a fascinating look into how people learn and express themselves.

Even outside of Dungeon World, I think the exercises we went through would be useful for any type of game as well as other creative endeavours. Asking questions and building connections is an easy way I've started to use in character- and world-building techniques with my Star Wars game, which I previously mentioned was feeling a little more awkward than I would have liked. I'm trying to push back on the players to help them help me build the world and the universe a little more, make them more a part of it. They gave me a couple of great ideas last session that I hope to incorporate into future games.

If that doesn't work, at least I know I've planted the seeds with my son to get him ready for a full-blown campaign in a couple of years...

How about you? Have you played Dungeon World? How do you think it compares to more classic games like Dungeons & Dragons? Is it a useful system for getting kids into the game?


  1. Oh jeeze, you're going to make me be creative and WORK for our game?? :P

    1. Hey, you came up with the blue trees! That's miles ahead of your regular go to: just shoot everything.

  2. Can you tell us more about this "Secret Lab" game you played with your son? Does it have "rules" written out somewhere, or...?

    1. Oh it's nothing so organized as that. It's just a game he plays where he yells "To the secret lab!" and runs and hides in his bed or in a blanket fort. It comes from the movie "The Emperor's New Groove."

      My wife and I added the part about "telling secrets," which was just a silly little kid thing, but then I started asking him questions about his "secrets" and adding bits until it turned into a story. There was no rules or purpose, just silly kid fun.

      If there were rules to it there was no way he would have played it. :-P

    2. Ha! I figured it'd be something like that. I like your approach to enabling and extending his creative play; that's a really cool insight that you're essentially just GMing "diceless DW."

  3. I have been running a Dungeon World game for a group at work for about 6 months now. I have a few players who are veteran D&D players and a few that are brand new to tabletop rpgs. We are all having a blast with it and given our 1.5 hour session once a week this game is perfect. It is rules light, has no tables, very little math and employs allot of creativity and joint storytelling. Highly recommend this game it is my favorite now.

  4. I love DW, all the Powered by the Apocalypse family actually. They play so swiftly and are such a fun storytelling experience.

    As for playing with kids, I am the RPG Chair for PortConMaine and this year had a group of parents ask if I could run a game for kids between 6-9. I said sure and than thought "hmm... What to run?" I decided on DW Lite. I game them four stats. They have themselves the numbers, name and description. We played.

    It was great. Everyone enjoyed themselves very much. We even had some parents play because not all the kids could make it. I will be running it again next year.

  5. I'm dying inside, this is how my family play D&D. We literally took turns DM for each other and asking questions, and it just bounces back and forth as we play. Including acting out NPCs for each other to play off of, which leads to unique storytelling to say the least. Thanks for sharing this article, I am going to look into the game books mentioned here.


Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting at Rule of the Dice.

Greatest Hits

Top 4 Bands That Write Songs Based on Their D&D Campaign

Why Clerics (Still) Suck

Why Star Wars is the Best RPG Ever

Love, Sex & Dice