For those of us who regularly take up the mantle of GM, there’s a pattern to be observed in mature players who are new to RPGs. They generally go through three phases.
Phase 1 - Childhood
Some budding dice-rollers skip this phase, but most people taking their first tentative steps into the hobby start off apprehensive and shy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. After all, it can be scary to lose your inhibitions. It leaves us open to ridicule and ultimately makes us feel vulnerable. Phase 1 is a bunch of beginner musicians, picking up their instruments for the first time, still a little too inexperienced to share their new songs with one another
Phase 2 - Adolescence
Much like human adolescence, RPG adolescence is a time of emotional attachment and unbridled experimentation. You’ll test the limits of the rules, building broken characters just for the hell of it and doing stupid, anti-social things that annoy your DM and your party. You’re no longer afraid to engage with the story, because it’s there purely to provide a playground for you to go wild in. As in real life, some of us never grow out of this. That's a shame because while adolescence is often looked back on with fondness, it's an inherently shallow period of our lives. Phase 2 is the beginning of the band’s competence, stringing together basic chords and belting out sincere, but simplistic, lyrics.
Phase 3 - Adulthood
RPG adulthood is when those truly memorable campaigns are played. You know the ones, because they’re plastered all over YouTube. Your DM is on the level of Matt Colville or Matt Mercer or some other very knowledgeable Matt. Your fellow adventurers are puritanistic priests of the God of light, rugged rangers from the forlorn wilderness, or sardonic sorcerers on a mission from the arcane university. Campaigns last for months, perhaps years, and you cycle through different systems, experiencing both an entertaining and academically satisfying hobby. Phase 3 is a group of seasoned musicians, effortlessly jamming out complex melodies, rarely missing a beat.
This progression is just a natural part of acclimatization for anyone forced to live in the adult world of paying bills and being a super-serious grown-up. Fortunately, there’s already a bunch of players out there, eager for you to run games for them, who exist outside of this culture. They’re innately imaginative, spend most of their free time playing games already, and don’t have much responsibility. I am, of course, talking about children.
Kids are awesome. I know this because I used to be one and, according to most of the people close to me, still am one. I used to run a weekly D&D game for under-12s and it was some of the best D&D I’ve ever played. Sure, I couldn’t fill my sessions with grim-dark slaughter and subjugation, and the plots had to remain as simple and ‘PG’ as possible, but really that just meant less prep was required.
Children aren’t burdened by a sense of shame or social anxiety. Anyone who has taken a toddler to the supermarket and suffered through them yelling “Daddy, why is that man so fat?” will attest to this. When it comes to pretending to be an elf or a wizard, kids will rarely feel any trepidation about throwing themselves, heart and soul, into the role.
In all the time I ran games for young’uns, they never acted like RPG adolescents. Every single one of them took the story and the world with seriousness and, unlike any adult campaign I’ve ever run, none of them played douchebag characters. They always wanted to do the right thing. Always stood up for the little guy. Always helped out the villagers. Always tried to avoid bloodshed by negotiating rather than drawing blades.
Running D&D for kids was a humbling experience for me. Not just because I was being trusted to be a good mentor and ambassador for the hobby, but because it made me into a better DM. Most of us won’t admit it, but the reason we play RPGs is to feel like kids again. We want to unburden ourselves and experience a little bit of that pure, immature joy that we were once able to so easily attain by pretending to be a Ninja Turtle on the playground. While we’re now able to understand more nuanced concepts, such as lust or political intrigue, ultimately we all just want to be a badass for an evening.
I meet a lot of parents who, between raising a family and earning some dough, struggle to find time to get their gaming in. I always tell them the same thing. Play D&D with your kids. Join them in creating a world, crafting stories, and be a little munchkin with them. They're only awesome for a short time until the become salty teenagers, so make the most of it.