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Small Scares for Tiny Tabletoppers

You’re watching a classic scary movie with some younglings and that one scene you think might be a little too much for them is about to come up. Do you cover their eyes? Make sure their ears are covered too? Use the remote to quickly skip past it? Or maybe you let them take in some mild horror and deal with the psychological fallout afterward? It would be so much easier if you had just a little more control of what's going on, some way to dial back the scares a tad or curtail the number of killings. Lucky for you, your spooky entertainment isn’t limited to TV specials, movies, and books. You can take the great artform of the scary ghost story and bring it to your own tabletop games, even when you have a younger audience. If fantasy gaming is more than your thing than horror (monsters like werewolves and vampires notwithstanding), there are still settings and adventures that mix the spooky with the sword-and-sorcery, such as Ravenloft and Ghosts of Saltmarsh for Dungeons and Dragons. How do you get it just right though? Let us delve into the dark recesses of Never Say Dice and venture back with some terror tips.

Picking a spooky setting that's appropriate for younger players is the best place to start. Make sure you aren’t only focusing on your young players' ages, but also their maturity levels. Every kid is different, even when they're technically the same age. As you’re thinking about which adventure to undertake, or designing one yourself, consider how much violence and gore would be appropriate to include. A good way to judge is by the media they're already ingesting. If you use that as a guide and dial back the violence a bit from there (these are their own characters we’re talking about, not someone up on a screen!) you should be good to go.

You can’t just focus on the physical though, spooky stories will usually come with a side order of something psychologically disturbing. That is a tough task when it comes to children. Especially for a form of storytelling that is already so firmly embedded in the mind, make sure to give some time to this - you don’t want to give them nightmares just make things a bit more macabre. You aren't trying to scar them for life, just play a creepy game session. Kids may also want to seem tougher than they actually have reason to be, so watch out for that bravado. 

In this blog, we often mention taking the time to talk directly with your players - and this advice couldn’t be more important than when dealing with kids taking part in your games. While knowing the media they consume is helpful, only they can really tell you what they're comfortable with and what's too creepy. It is also good to take a moment and remind them that you’re all playing a game together. There can be breaks. You can adjust as you go if things get to be too much or someone becomes uncomfortable. As adults, sticking up for oneself can easily get taken for granted. Explicitly giving children players permission to do so will make your spooky gaming experience a more pleasant one.

Kids are very observant. This makes the way you set the tone for your gaming sessions all the more important. Dim the lights. Add some of those mildly cheesy candelabras and fake spiderwebs to your table. Play that creepy music. If you don’t have creepy music, play a light cold wind sound effect, or the occasionally creaky stair. Can’t do that? Work those things into your narrations, take dramatic pauses (but not for too long. You aren’t…………Calculon, after all.) Include spooky snacks. Encourage costumes. Remember all those fun things you would have wanted to do as a kid at a gaming table? Help them accomplish those things by doing them together! Tabletop gaming can be as much about the experience as it can be the story.

What should you do if things do go a bit too far though? How do you dial it back? If you’ve given them permission to set boundaries (and hopefully you already have), make sure you’re also giving them permission to be scared, as well. That is part of the point, after all. If you sense them getting a bit too scared, though, try to lighten the mood with a bit of humor. Make sure they remember that they have control over their characters and what ultimately happens to them. This is their story even more than it is yours. This is all about the kids getting to have some spooky fun, and hopefully you will, too. If all else fails, take a good comfort break to use the bathroom and refill on snacks. Things are never quite as spooky right once you’ve returned from the real world.

Hopefully, after going down that dark corridor with us, you’re ready for some tabletop terror with teens or tots. Remember to level set early on, and consider both the gore of the game and the trickier psychological aspects. Give those younger players permission - both to be scared and to stick up for themselves, setting boundaries. Set the best tone you can with whatever you have available. And if things get too dark, bring it back down with some humor or a just a quick break in the session. Above all else... have fun! Until next week, enjoy your dice and your spooky tables!

Send questions, comments, and kid-friendly Call of Cthulhu adventure ideas to or "X"-ercise your right to contact us @neversaydice2.

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