Running a campaign for four, five and six year olds requires a very different mindset to running a campaign for adults. Here are the key things you need to adjust:
Keep it short
Campaigns for young kids should be short. Three or four sessions is plenty. Six is definitely enough. That’s not to say you can’t play more sessions with the same characters, just that you probably want to give them something else to do. Don’t overestimate kids’ attention spans.
To help with recall start each session with a recap. Ask your players what happened last time, and what they have to do now. This is also a good moment to address any misunderstandings that might have crept in.
Make it Episodic
Try and have each session be a neat, self-contained story. Don’t leave things open ended or let the heroes spend a whole session wandering around making a bit of progress in a lot of different directions. Give the players a structure that they can work inside. Two structures that work well for kids campaigns are collections and journeys.
In a collection campaign the heroes need to assemble a selection of special items. This could be magical swords, unusual creatures, spell ingredients or anything else you like. The important point is that there is a known, finite number of these things, and each session will feature the heroes finding and retrieving one of them, until the set is complete and a final showdown is triggered.
You can reinforce the structure by having a collection point for the objects in the story. Perhaps the five jewels of Shanara have to be restored to the kingdom’s crown. Well, end each session with the heroes adding a jewel to the crown.
A journey campaign is about going from A to B. At the start of the journey provide a list of hazards to be overcome, perhaps in the form of a map. Then build each session around overcoming one of the challenges on the route. Perhaps an aged pirate whispers a route to some treasure: “First, cross the Whirlpool Sea, then make your way through the Jungle of Monster Lizards, then scale the Burning Mountain. At the summit you will find the Perilous Temple. Within lies treasure beyond your wildest dreams” That’s the whole campaign, right there.
The nice things about episodic campaigns is that you can write an outline like the one above in a few minutes, and it will serve as the basis for a campaign that covers four or five games. In between sessions ask your kids what they think they’ll find in the next part, be sure not to disappoint them.
Include a mentor
Young players often aren’t the best at spotting the plot or working out their next move. So make sure there’s a mentor character in the game who can give them advice and nudge them in the right direction. It’s important that mentors leave all the hero work to the characters, so while they might know a lot make sure that all the actual heroism is left to the players.
For our pirate campaign we might have the aged pirate pass the heroes his talking parrot, which has made the journey before. It can squawk the odd piece of advice, but it’s not going to sail the ship or fight the monsters itself. Don’t forget to make it a memorable character.
If the system you’re using includes character development accelerate it. Let your players see their characters turn into mighty heroes before their eyes. This may well mean developing characters much faster than the official rules suggest, but who cares? Those rules weren’t written for five year olds.
If your system doesn’t include character development, and Amazing Tales, for example, does not, this doesn’t mean the heroes can’t progress. Let them gain knowledge, allies and items that progress them toward their goal. Make sure that in every session your players acquire something they’ll be able to use in a subsequent session. That could be the knowledge that ogres are afraid of cats, or a hyper-drive that lets them outrun the alien’s fastest ships. Just make sure that your heroes feel stronger and more prepared each session.
The final thing a campaign needs is a great villain. But that’s for next week.