I have been running a Dungeon and Dragons 3.5 game for my 10-year old son and four of his friends for the last few months. Though they are all geek-kids with video-game experience and lively imaginations, it is, on occasion, very challenging.
For anyone not familiar with the basic concept of Roleplaying games, the idea is that players create characters that have skills and attributes (like strength and dexterity, but also perhaps magical power) which determine how well those characters can do things in an imaginary world (break down the door with your strength, cast a sleep spell upon the guards by expending magical power). As you character has adventures she gains experience, becomes stronger and more skilled: the thief gets better at picking locks and the wizard learns new and more powerful spells.
One person takes on the role of "Game Master" (GM), creates the adventure and helps the players by
- Describing the things they encounter ("you push aside the vines and find a dark passageway leading into the heart of the forgotten temple")
- Working out the effect of their actions ("your spell causes the giant spider to flee", "you failed to pick the lock, a tiny poisoned dart shoots out at you", "your search uncovers mysterious symbol carved into the wood of the door", "your strengh is insufficient to lift the sarcophagus lid").
- Looking after the story ("If they search the temple they will have to defeat five giant spiders, but may find a crucial amulet", "The amulet gives the crucial answers which will lead them to the hidden cultists in Persia")
Running a roleplaying game is pretty complex and many Roleplaying systems have reams of rules designed to help the GM deal with moving around the world: how much can a strong barbarian carry and still fight off monsters or sneak past a guard, far can people travel in a day etc etc. Getting to grips with all these rules can be a real chore and get in the way of the fun, storytelling aspect if you focus on it too much, but I did want the support and consistency a system provides, so we are running "Dungeons and Dragons". D&D is the Microsoft of roleplaying: not everyone's perfect system, but ubiquitous and standard. It is easy to find other players who can play D&D.
I started the group of 10-year-olds when my son wanted a Dungeons and Dragons birthday party. Marjolein made Dutch versions of character sheets from the Basic Game and they set off to explore the underground dungeon of the evil dragon Tussenmaug. His friends had a very good time and we have been carrying on the adventure every few weeks ever since. Today they got to the culmination of the current adventure and killed Tussenmaug, who had been planning to enslave the town. When the beast finally died (having given them a tough fight) they jumped to their feet and cheered. That, of course, made my day. There were some great moments during the adventure: everyone holding their breath while the thief delicately disarmed the trapped door, trying to set the greasy hair of the harpy on fire.
I have been gradually increasing the complexity of the rules as we go on, drip feeding the more complicated stuff as it became relevant. My advice to anyone running a game for kids is to prepare thoroughly. We used a lot of stuff from the Basic Game set of D&D, simplified rules, nice maps etc. I also made cool backstories for each of them, including "hooks" to hang new stories on, reasons for them to be together and simple keywords to spark roleplaying (arrogant, careful, generous etc). In the adventure I tried to make sure that everyone played a vital role: the cleric turned back undead, the fighter slew the dragon and the thief disarmed deadly traps.
Given that keeping a group of ten-year-olds sitting around a table for any length of time is difficult had plenty of munchies and regular run-around-outside breaks. I was firm about taking turns and not shouting: the best way of doing that was to keep the action moving and speak quietly. Every time I said "something's happening..." they concentrated and listened, because it might well be a horde of orcs coming round the corner or knifes flying out of the wall...
I am just on the point of moving them over to 4.0, largely because it will simplifiy some of the mechanics.