The Alphastream Game Design Blog
It’s April 2020, and most of the students in the world are taking classes online. While isolated, my wife and I want to find ways to help our kids progress various skills. In lieu of sports, we have new physical exercise routines we all do as a family. Having been sent home from her exchange program, my daughter is practicing her Japanese online. My son and I… we decided to write a D&D adventure together.
Because I think about writing and RPGs all the time, this is just incredible! To write with my son who I love so much… it’s a dream come true! At the same time, I want to make sure the experience is positive and rewarding. I don’t want my enthusiasm and experience to overshadow his. The process we are using has worked well so far, so I want to share it.
This article is focused on writing with someone young. My son is 14. However, the advice can still be useful to an adult who is relatively new to the writing process.
If the idea of writing an adventure with kids appeals to you, start by thinking through your own goals. As with most aspects of parenting, we want to leave our baggage at the door. This is about them, so our goals have to be their goals too… with a bit of adult direction. I put away any thoughts of my son becoming a serious adventure writer, because that’s for him to decide. Instead, my goals as a parent were the following:
The way I shared these goals was to explain to my son that, with school moving to an online format and being less rigorous, we wanted to find an experience that would be fun and strengthen his writing. I suggested writing an adventure, and he happily agreed.
We also want to ask the kid to share their goals. Over a few days, my son decided he wanted to see the adventure be a product people could buy. He was curious to see how an adventure is made and learn about the process (but not necessarily to do it more than once). He also liked the goals I had shared with him.
Thinking through the final form and purpose of the creation is useful. Maybe the goal is an adventure the kid runs for the parent or the family. Maybe it’s something one of you runs for their friends. Maybe it’s printed and bound once. Or maybe it’s sold online.
You may want to create something other than an adventure. Create one or more monsters. Create a class/archetype. In this blog post I’ll assume an adventure, but there are many possible choices.
In addition to these goals, we talked about our overall approach. We want this to be fun. We want to work together. We want to be flexible and adjust our methods as needed. It is an open situation, where either of us should feel free to speak up and propose changes if needed.
Hard work and the experience is its own reward… but it’s great to sweeten the pot. Maybe we will print it out. Maybe we grant them something unrelated they want, such as a set of cool books. If we are selling the final product, we can discuss how that money is used.
In our case, the big reward is that my son gets to keep any profit we have. If it ends up at all sizeable, we reserved the right to discuss options, such as the percentage that goes to savings for college vs buying something fun.
When I write on my own, it’s often after my day job and my family obligations are done. Work, dinner, dishes, family time, put kids to bed… and then I write! And, I might write for hours once I get going. That clearly would not work. We need to fit into my son’s schedule and to not wear him out.
When I run D&D games for kids, I generally start with 30 minute sessions. Once everyone can handle that, I increase. The younger your kid is, the shorter their attention span. The same is true with writing. It gets easier the older kids are, but just being creative can drain our brains when we aren’t used to it. Being creative and learning new approaches can be even more draining.
I set a time with my son each day to write for 30 minutes, Monday-Friday. We’ve changed the exact start time as his classes and homework evolved, and sometimes my work or his school causes us to skip a day. That’s okay. In general, we know the goal.
In addition to attention span, age adds language and writing mastery. The more they have read, especially fantasy, the more skills they can apply and the easier they can grasp the concepts of adventure writing.
That said, younger kids may surprise you with creativity. Their ideas can be wide open and really cool! Personalities can also cause wide variation in confidence, how quickly they become frustrated, and how comfortable they are working with a parent/adult.
In general, be flexible and attentive to how they are doing. Don’t be afraid to end a session when the kid is tired, or change approaches or topics if something isn’t working. Most importantly, check in with them. Ask them how it is going and what they like about the session, or what they might change. With my kids, it often works best to check in later. They are too tired at the end of a session to offer much feedback.
There are many possible tools that make working with a child easier. If your kid is in middle school or high school, they are likely familiar with the Google suite. If you have two computers, you can both be in Google Docs and write at the same time. This is an ideal setup for collaboration, and one they will likely be comfortable with due to school.
Google Docs also allows your kid to work on their own, later, if they have a high level of interest. Some kids may like the idea of working away from the parent. Or, they may want to gather ideas and put them in a folder.
You can use Google Drive or set up a Dropbox folder. There you can store artwork and other files that can inspire you or be used during the project. The DMs Guild has art WotC allows you to use in Guild projects. If you aren’t publishing on the Guild, you can find art under a creative commons license that allows you to publish for profit. Even if you aren’t using art, a collection of art (or Pinterest) can help you visualize cool concepts related to your project.
When collaborating, I would not initially worry about format. Don’t make the words pretty unless your kid wants to spend time on that. Layout and aesthetics can happen after the writing is done. You can make your life a bit easier using heading styles (Title, Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) while writing, but even that is optional.
Let’s talk about the process we want to use.
Before we ever write, we want to work on a high level concept. This can be done at any time. While exercising, while tucking in at night, over a meal. Think through the basic concept. My son and I wanted an adventure that dealt with clockwork creatures and a mage’s tower, inspired by a sculpture garden we visited in Japan.
Over time we worked on just a tiny bit more. The idea of a town near the tower, and having to travel to the tower. All of this was done before we formally began the project.
This stage works best when you let the child come up with ideas, and help them refine them by asking questions. For this blog post, let’s say it’s about underwater creatures. Do they like the idea of being shipwrecked somewhere? Traveling along a coast and finding something interesting? A town in peril? Sea-side? A big lake? A river? See where the ideas go. Offering choices lets kids compare, without feeling that their ideas are shot down. Kids may have trouble choosing. It’s okay early on to be unsure and make a mental note to figure a choice out later.
When the ideas seem like they need something, I don’t generally correct immediately. This prevents the kid from feeling like their ideas always need adjustment, or that this will be a frustrating project where the parent is always correcting. I let time pass and I think about how to approach it. The next time, I might ask different questions or make a few soft suggestions to see if we can improve on the ideas.
Adjust your approach based on age. For very young kids, the adventure really might be about how the hero learns to eat bears and ride cats. Go with it! The most important part is having fun and learning. This doesn’t have to be the next classic adventure.
One of the best lessons a young/new writer can learn is how to work from an outline. An outline will help them think through the project without getting stuck on the details. With kids, it’s especially helpful to start at the really high level and then iterate through the outline and add more detail.
Let’s say we want to write an adventure about being shipwrecked on an island and having an underwater adventure. We might start with a really high level outline:
We can guide kids with questions and ideas. What kind of dangers? What’s it like underwater? How does it end?
Our first session might produce a basic outline like the above. That is a perfectly reasonable outcome from 30 minutes of relaxed and fun brainstorming with a kid.
We then want to iterate over several sessions. Each session builds up the outline, until we really feel we have the structure and concepts down.
In our project, my son and I would often spend 30 minutes on just one of those high-level concepts. For example, we might think through how the shipwreck works. Do we wake up, shipwrecked? Do we start on the boat during a storm? Can we avoid the shipwreck? We might come up with the following:
We can also add some common adventure sections to the outline:
The outline process is truly critical. It allows us to work through ideas before we actually write. We get to discuss options and agree – vital to collaboration! Our iterative process is good for kids. We can stop if we get tired and come back until it is done. The outline makes future steps easier. Having the outline hopefully is exciting, because we can visualize what is coming.
When our outline feels solid, we can start writing. How this stage plays out can vary greatly based on the age and personality of the child.
The process is simple: take the first bullet in your outline, and do the writing for that part. For D&D adventures, we usually have a paragraph setting things up for the DM, some boxed text to read to the players, and then the material that supports the scene or encounter.
I find that we generally spend one-to-two 30 minute sessions writing out a section of the adventure, such as an encounter on the open road, the town, or moving across a forest.
Ideally, the adult isn’t doing all the writing. The point of this project is to strengthen their writing, and people learn by doing work and by making mistakes. Even adults write imperfectly, needing successive edits to get to a final state we really like. We want to encourage kids to write, imperfectly, and then come back later to improve the writing. I am especially careful not to make a big deal of any typos or grammatical issues while they write.
Your kid may be shy or tentative, or simply not know how to start. Asking questions can help. “Okay, we are on the shipwreck, right? Why don’t we start with an overview… 2-3 sentences… of the situation for the DM, then describe what the players see?”
Another technique that works well is to ask the kid to talk through the next paragraph or so, then write it. “Tell me, when you think of the characters waking up, what do you see happening?” You can jot down ideas based on what they say, then have them write that.
Sometimes we do a mini outline. We talk through ideas, jot down bullet points of what we will do, and write. It seems strange to do an outline of an outline, but that can actually be very useful at sorting through our ideas and can be far better than writing without fully thinking through what you are writing.
For example, for the shipwreck our outline started like this:
We might do a quick mini-outline to flesh it out even further:
And so on.
Ideally, this process begins to build confidence in the young writer. A writer wants to think through concepts and then put words down on the page. They don’t have to be perfect. We can come back later and refine. In this collaboration, we want the kid to trust us that we are okay with their words. We know writing is imperfect.
Sometimes, your kid may want you to write. Or, as you gain trust, you may both be able to write. “Why don’t you finish up that paragraph? And, do you want me to work on the boxed text?” It’s a lot of fun when you are both working in the document at the same time.
Keep your eye on the goals you set. This should be fun, and the kid should be strengthening their writing skills.
One last part for this phase. RPGs tend to have very specific language. In D&D 5E, the words we use to discuss a skill check or a saving throw, the use of italics and capitalization… it’s all very technical and specific. Don’t burden a young writer with those. Let them know that there are a bunch of crazy rules and they don’t need to worry about them. You can correct those later.
Once we have written a section, the next session we can move to the next. Or, we may want to spend the next session doing a bit of editing. In my experience, it’s better to write all the adventure sections and once that is all done we then go back for edits. Sometimes, one of us may think of an idea to improve a section. In that case, it can be cool to go back and edit a section.
When it comes time edit, we again want to work through a section at a time, ideally in order so we get a strong sense of how the adventure flows. Depending on the age/experience of our young writer, we may need to be very forgiving. Maybe this is just about them catching the errors they happen to catch. Questions like, “how do you feel about the ways the words flow?” and statements like, “let me know if you see any words you think don’t fit, or could be more interesting,” can help direct the young editor.
A young reader may not want to do an editing pass, and I wouldn’t push something they don’t want to do, but it is good for them to get in the habit of reading over their work and improving it. It’s valuable to learn that no one’s work is flawless the first time and that good writers do several read-throughs and edits.
If the work will be published for sale, it’s worth discussing that writers usually hire a separate person as an editor. A separate person will see the work with fresh eyes and catch things the author(s) won’t. If you have a budget for the project, an editor is a great addition. If not, having another family member or friend read through the adventure can really help.
Depending on type of project, this may be a desired step after the writing and edits. You can use a template (such as the free DMs Guild template) or create your own. Some kids can be very visual and may enjoy doing this work themselves.
Similarly, we may want to choose art. This can be free art and art licensed for commercial use, or we might make our own if we have such talents. As with the rest of the process, it’s best to see what the kid wants and to go with that idea.
If this item is for sale, you could hire someone to do the layout and even the art. This is expensive, but the results are amazing. If you go this route, you might involve your kid in thinking about art options and writing up the art order for the artist. Make sure that the art and layout aren’t the main attraction. The lesson and focus needs to stay on the writing, not on a budget. It’s perfectly okay to just use Word or Google Docs and a few fun fonts!
It’s entirely possible that the kid decides they are done with the activity. This is okay. It’s a reason to keep things as fun as possible, so that if the time comes when they want to stop, you can both look back on that time fondly.
If this happens, talk through what to do. Stopping is totally okay. Maybe it might resume at a later time. Or, maybe they want you to finish it. That’s okay if it’s what they want.
When I started the project, I knew it might not end. So far so good! With a bit of luck, we will finish this year and have it available on the DMs Guild!
Have you tried writing with a child? What tips would you share?