As a professional DM for ages 6-13, I’ve seen a number of kids who really engage with the game but have problems participating actively. They will show up to sessions every week, make their turns in combat, but otherwise will never say more than 2 words during a session.

Matt Colville calls these “Audience Member” players. This can make it hard for a DM, especially when they have an entire group of players like this. Have you ever had to do a one-man show improvisationally? It takes a lot of energy!
This week, two of our DMs had been struggling with this issue. Traditional advice for getting kids to participate in the classrooms boils down to: sharing your enthusiasm, turning the activity into a game, and giving the kid a role in that game. But, how do we get shy kids to participate when the activity is an actual game?

I’m a big fan of Matt Colville and his Running The Game series, wherein he suggests that the DM should not shine the spotlight on the “audience member” players. This isn’t an option for us at the New York Society of Play. We use D&D to foster social and emotional growth in our players. We try to appropriately challenge their comfort zones and provide a space for them to fail or succeed without real-world consequences. So, how do we get shy kids to open up?

Icebreaker games are meant to open people up in social situations. So, one method we decided to try was using icebreaker games for the kids’ characters. We started with Two Truths and A Lie. For those unfamiliar with the game, the rules are pretty simple: Everyone in a group tells 2 truths about themselves and 1 believable lie. The other people then try to guess what the lie is.

One of my DMs reported back to us with incredible results.

He has been running an online game for a group of 4 kid players between the ages of 8-10. They are all extremely quiet, but one girl in particular barely speaks during the session. At the start of the session, he spoke with her calmly and directly. He told her “I would love to hear more of your ideas, more about your character’s thoughts and actions.”

She disappeared from the zoom call and came back, flushed and embarrassed, but totally agreed with nods that she thought that would be good. The rest of the kids in the group agreed that they loved her ideas when she spoke up.
He then used the two truths and a lie game with her. She had a couple of really cool truths. The first was that she used to have a pet Elephant named “Kitty Kat”. The second truth was that she had a magic tree that grew cats.

The DM was able to get more words out of this player than he had on all of their previous sessions combined. She opened up socially, started thinking about her backstory for the first time, and provided material for the DM to engage with to make the session more fun without having to improvise blindly.

If you’d like to learn more about the New York Society of play, and our in-person and virtual programming for kids check out our website.