RPT#188 – 5 Tips For Roleplaying With Younger Children
A Brief Word From Johnn
Next Issue A Little Early
I’m off to do a little camping soon, so issue #189 will hit your Inboxes earlier than usual. Keep an eye out for it near the end of this week.
Thanks To The GM Mastery List
I got my Dragon column off this weekend about player versus character intelligence. Dragon doesn’t post URLs or credits usually for column articles, so I want to take a moment and thank you here for your tips and advice on the topic!
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By Cris Brown
For those of us who are parents, fun time with our children is often a luxury. Alas, roleplaying is a hobby which requires a significant investment of time, so we can feel as if we’re faced with a Hobson’s choice: abandon the hobby, abandon the kids for several hours on a weekend, or deal with the frustration of trying to roleplay while the kids wander in and out seeking your attention. But there is sometimes another alternative: include the kids in the game!
While young children haven’t developed the cognitive skills and attention span for complex RPGs, I’ve found that most 9 to 12-year-olds can surprise you with their abilities. After all, roleplaying is merely a more structured version of “let’s pretend.” Obviously, however, the Narrator will need to make some adjustments as per the following tips.
- Choosing A Rules System
Choose a rules system where the players’ options are reasonably intuitive and the mechanics are consistent and straightforward.
Intuitive options. A child should be able to look at his/her character sheet ? without having read the rules ? and have a pretty fair idea of what kinds of things that character can do. Look for rules that list each character’s special skills and abilities explicitly rather than class-based characters. A 19-year-old may know what a “Thief” character can do, but a 10-year-old needs to know that Fingley Fingers can sneak around, hide, climb, pick locks, pick pockets, and lie convincingly.
Consistent mechanics. Younger children learn readily (and surprisingly quickly!) by repetition, so choose a rules system which uses the same (or very similar) mechanics for combat, challenges, and social interactions. An adolescent might not mind learning three different sets of mechanics to fight an orc, climb a wall, and lie to the local constabulary, but for a child such complexity is daunting. It more than triples the number of times an adult will have to explain how to do something ? or worse, the number of times an adult will just step in and do it for the child ? leading to greater frustration.
As an aside: most adult gamers I know also value intuitive and consistent rules. It’s easier to get into character when you can focus on what you want to do, rather than the technical minutiae of how to do it.
- Designing Scenarios
Children tend to be more impulsive, guileless, and egotistic than adolescents and adults. They also tend to think more immediately, which is to say they’re generally not as adept at evaluating risks and consequences, delaying gratification for long-term goals, and making or following complex plans. On the other hand, they’re often better at solving riddles and puzzles, and can be very imaginative and find creative alternatives that adults would overlook. And finally, keep in mind that children have more fluid boundaries between imagination and reality; a scenario which is fine for adults might be horrifying or even harmful for children.
Make sure the child will have something to do. Consider what the characters will have to do in the scenario, and how much of that would be within a child’s cognitive capacity. Avoid scenarios which hinge on subtle, deceptive planning (e.g.: espionage) and/or detailed out-of-game knowledge (e.g.: criminal forensics, details of Tolkien or Lovecraft).
If you’re already running such a campaign and will be bringing a child into it, consider how you might craft an “introductory” scenario, with the arrival of a character from a different time and/or place, who has, knows, or is capable of something which the party needs:
- The party is walking down a wooded lane and encounters someone who is lost, frightened, and disoriented. They discover a character from the Last Age (now legendary), or The One whose coming was prophesied but who was to be born in the Next Age. Alas, this character hasn’t the faintest clue who’s who or what’s what in This Age!
- As the party is waiting for their contact at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, they are approached by a man with Mongoloid features. As it turns out, he’s from Tibet (or Appalachia), and is the first person in recent memory to leave his village. His journey was compelled by a dream/vision/religious/supernatural experience, but he hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s supposed to do or how he might do it.
Keep scenes brief. Children have shorter attention spans, so look for ways to split up long exposition scenes. Rather than a long conversation with one source, consider distributing the clues among several sources, each of which will require a different approach:
- The party’s usual source, a bartender in a nearby village, is missing. Instead of sitting down for a few rounds of drinks (their usual modus operandi), the party must console the bartender’s wife, confront an alley thief, bribe a constable, and haggle with a fish vendor. Taken together, these characters offer the kinds of clues the party would usually have gleaned from a single conversation with the bartender.
Make settings and NPCs vivid. This universal advice is especially important for children. Paint your word pictures with bright, bold strokes. If the PCs have to wander around in a fog, make the fog vivid:
- As you walk along the lane, you smell the crisp, clean mountain air that almost stings your nose, rich with the scents of pine and loam. The sunlight glistens off pine needles wet with the morning dew, so the trees seem to drip with sparkling pearls.
- Tangor Aramath is a short, broad man whose eyes seem to burn into you. His trembling hands clench a cane as he growls: “Who dares to disturb my sleep?”
- You have felt lost before, but never like this. Buildings seem to lean over narrow streets, making it impossible to see landmarks. Every street looks the same, and from every face you pass, a flickering glance reminds you that you are an outsider.
- The darkness wraps around you like a heavy cloak, wiping away sight, sound, scent, almost thought itself. It’s not simply that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t tell if your hand is in front of your face!
Minimize violence. Children like (and need) fast-paced action, but “action” does not mean non-stop fighting. When you do have combat, make it an exception to the previous guideline on vividness.
SUFFICIENT: You hit an orc and he goes down.
EXCESSIVE: Your sword slashes into the orc’s chest, and black, oily blood sprays over your arm as he slides to the ground, bowels spilling out like sausages falling from a torn grocery sack. He gasps “Oh god, it hurts!” and then, with a last, wheezing gurgle, he dies.
Avoid “killer” scenarios. Children get attached to their PCs very quickly, and can (understandably!) get very upset if they’ve spent two hours getting to know a PC, only to see that PC die, and have to spend the next six hours watching TV while the grownups go on playing.
Make the game world DIFFERENT. This is especially important for children who have fluid boundaries between imagination and reality. Events which might be “child-friendly” in a distinctly imaginary world can play entirely different in a very “realistic” world. (Do you really want a child to go to bed wondering if poison gas will come oozing out of the heating vent in her bedroom?)
Q: “What if my campaign is set in the real world?”
A: It isn’t. At most, your campaign world is analogous to the real world. After all, when your PCs kill someone, the cops don’t show up to arrest the players! So, again, emphasize the differences. The cops talk tougher (but usually do less), the villains are smarter (if you don’t believe me, spend a day in criminal court), the PCs are more capable, action is more fast-paced, it takes only seconds to get a night’s sleep, etc.
- Designing Children’s Characters
Again, consider a child’s cognitive and emotional development when you design a PC for that child to play. Most 10-year-olds simply aren’t capable of the suave and urbane behavior of a James Bond, or the simmering emotional conflict of an Aragorn. Rather than setting the child up to fail, create a character which the child can roleplay well, that is, a character who would reasonably behave in child- like ways:
- The PC is a child. This is the obvious solution, although whether you use it depends in large part on the scenario/campaign you’re running. Child PCs can fit well into (some) fantasy/medieval scenarios, space operas, and the like. Fitting them into a contemporary espionage campaign is more difficult, unless you’re willing to make it comic (a’la SPY KIDS).
- The PC is from a different time/place. As suggested above, this “fish out of water” approach allows the character to act in childlike ways, simply by virtue of not knowing the ins and outs of the new time or place. Make sure the character has, knows, or is capable of something the party needs. Otherwise, the other players may treat this character as an appendage, or even fodder, which is frustrating for everyone.
- The PC has special limitations. This is the proverbial simple-minded warrior, the absent-minded professor, the clueless mage, etc. For whatever reason, by whatever twist of background, a potentially powerful adult PC has the mindset of a child.
- During The Game Session
Everything you’ve ever read about maintaining player interest goes double or treble when children are playing. Here are some specific tips:
- Be ready to help, but not TOO ready! Give children every opportunity to make their own decisions and dice rolls (they may surprise you!), but be willing to help them if they ask for it. If grownups keep stepping in to “just get on with it,” the child will become frustrated and quit… guaranteed.
- “What do you THINK you should do?” Children will often ask “what should I do now?” either because they’re confused, or because they sense that they will upset people if they make a mistake. But if the child is simply parroting an adult’s advice, the child isn’t really playing the game. (Also, other players may get upset that the “mentor” adult actually has control of two characters.) So, when a child asks “What should I do now?” reply with questions which elicit the child’s own decisions:
“What do you think you should do?”
“What skills do you have which might be useful here?”
“How would that help or hurt you (or the party)?”
“What could happen if you’re wrong, and how could you be ready for that?”
These kinds of questions not only encourage the child to play his/her own PC, but they also help him/her to develop problem-solving skills which will be useful in all of life.
- Laugh with children, but not at them. Children are not miniature adults. They are children and will make children’s mistakes. Don’t laugh at those mistakes. Do, however, share in their humor (however lame it may seem).
- Protect the player, if not the PC. In some situations and some game systems, you may not be able to protect a child’s PC. But you can always be sensitive to the child’s feelings.
“You did the right thing. That orc would have surprised me, too.”
“Yes, your character got arrested. But we’ll do our best to get you out.”
“Gee, that ice trap caught you. It caught me the first three times too.” (Even if it didn’t.) “Let’s find a way to thaw you out.”
- Use common sense regarding snacks and drinks. Children’s metabolisms are more sensitive to refined sugars than are most adults’. Most children get hyperactive (the “sugar high”), then tired and cranky (the “sugar crash”). It may sound obvious, but I’ve seen many adults overlook it, to their and the children’s frustration.
- Take breaks. Even grownups like to get up to stretch a bit. For children, it’s essential. Ask any teacher.
- Start earlier, and stop at bedtime. Again, it sounds obvious, but many RPGers are used to playing into the wee hours of the morning. Childrens’ biological clocks are not as flexible as those of adolescents or adults. If evening comes and the child is getting irritable or too easily distracted, it’s time to stop…for everyone.
- Be patient. The first gaming session might be clumsy and awkward, but remember that “let’s pretend” is a very natural exercise for children. Most children will pick up the structure fairly quickly, and as they gain experience and confidence, their unique outlooks will be a welcome change of pace at your gaming table. It’s worth the wait!
- After The Game Session
Many adults will try to “debrief” the child immediately after the game session. What went wrong, what did you learn, etc.. This is generally a bad idea with children. They’re likely to be tired, excited (or disappointed), and too close to the experience to talk about it. So:
- Congratulate them. Make a point to note the good things they did. Ignore their mistakes (for now).
- Let them help clean up. Perhaps “let” is the wrong verb there. Still, they shouldn’t share in the fun, then dash off to watch TV while the adults gather up papers, dice, figures, drink cups, snack bowls, etc. This will also make them feel more a part of the group.
- Invite them back. Tell them when the next play session is, and give them a teaser of what will happen.
- Debrief at the start of the next session. This is the time to ask about what went wrong last time, what the child learned, and the like. The lessons will be distant enough that they shouldn’t sting, and the new information will be fresh in the child’s mind during play.
Children can be a wonderful addition to your RPG group. What’s more, allowing children ? and setting up the campaign and scenario with children in mind ? may be the difference between keeping and losing a regular member, or attracting a new member. With time, the children will develop into capable, confident players whose ideas and perspectives will often surprise and delight everyone. And you’ll have brought someone new into the hobby. Enjoy!
About The Author
Cris Brown is a published novelist; she and her partner have 40 books in print. She is also a mother of five (ages 10 to 31), and has been playing RPGs and wargames for nearly 30 years. She narrates a GURPS campaign for her entire family.
- Mapping For The PCs
From: Chiven Dragon
For the mapping in my games, rather than giving my players a perfect rendition of the dungeon’s map or making them map it themselves, I usually have an NPC offer to sell them a map or something like that. Usually, these maps are missing some information, such as being incomplete, or having the wrong information, such as a corridor that isn’t there, or not mentioning one that is.
My players, after only 3 sessions (keeping in mind they are completely new to the AD&D world) have managed to figure out they shouldn’t put too much faith in the maps, but for a few hundred gold pieces it’s still better than wandering into a dungeon blindly. This means that usually a decision of “left or right” is eliminated once they’re IN the dungeon.
- More On Character Rewards
From: Callan Sweet
I thought one extra thing needs to be considered in relation to the tips on ‘Balancing Frequency & Size of Rewards’ and it’s about something outside your game: how often you play in real life.
In our club we play once per fortnight. After waiting that long in real life, we’re hungry for reward and will savour it. The rewards can be big and still meaningful. However, if we were playing twice a week and getting the same amount, we would get blase about it. So, it’s important to note that what is considered a reward is a lot more about the player, not the character. If you’ve had to cancel a few sessions in real life and it’s been quite some time since the last game session, you might want to increase the rewards in the game. It’s strange that the real world matters like this to game design, but it’s something to consider! 🙂
- Intelligent Creatures
From: Erik Jensen
Sean B. has a good point about intelligent creatures that should be used as major forces in the fantasy campaign world, on equal terms with humanoids. I think there are two pitfalls that one should be aware of when doing this.
Reusing gargoyles as an example, one is to let highly organized gargoyles into the world. They have excellent combat skills compared to the average humanoid. Numerically equal armies of humans and gargoyles may very well see the complete decimation of the humans. Organization is one of the ways humanoids get ahead in spite of their individual weaknesses.
Which brings me to my second point: intelligence is a strange concept. Let’s assume for a second that dolphins are exactly as ‘intelligent’ as humans. Let’s say they are just as capable of abstract thinking. Would they be major forces in an above-surface campaign world? Probably not. They do not congregate in huge cities and thus lose the chance to make a major impact (to say nothing of the lack of opposable thumbs or above-surface locomotion).
Dragons are usually among the most intelligent of beings in a fantasy campaign, but they do not go social (which is just as well). Ants are not tremendously intelligent, but through organization (or sheer mob rule) they can rule their forest area.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t put too much into a creature’s intelligence rating. It says little of the creature, and should perhaps just be thought of as a game- technical measure. I hope I’m more intelligent than the average stickle-back fish, but when it comes to stickle-back behaviour it will outdo me no matter how much I train. I’d be eaten within five minutes.
Evolution-wise, it’s a better idea to be alone and without competition from other members of the species. Only when dealing with conflict with other creatures does gregariousness come into the calculation. If you can pretty much kill off any enemy by yourself (like a dragon), there’s not much reason to have to put up with other dragons. When you’re weak and fragile (like humanoids) it’s a good idea to specialize. One guy grows the food, another mines the ore, a third makes the metal into weapons, and the fourth goes off to kill the dragon. Because they’re all pretty good at what they do, they manage more easily and thus outweigh the problem with competing with the others.
Okay, that may not have been two cents’ worth. Perhaps three would be more accurate. Anyway, there it is.
- World Building: Creation Myths For RPG Settings
From: Andrew Gould
OK, so you’ve decided to take the plunge and create your own world. This can be extremely rewarding but also extremely difficult. The purpose of this article is to provide some of the common themes to creation stories across the real world and in roleplaying games.
Where to start?
The D&D 3rd Edition DM’s Guide describes the ‘inside-out’ and the ‘outside-in’ methods of world building. Essentially, this means you either start with the local area and expand the detail out from there, or you start with the whole globe and fill in the details down to the level you desire. Both of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. But me, I say start at the beginning, or rather, ‘In The Beginning’. Once the creation story is written, you can use any method you like to detail the locations and history of your world.
Why start with creation?
The creation story provides a background – a canvas on which to paint your setting. All world cultures have a creation story. It seems to be an innate part of human nature to wonder where we came from. This would understandably also be true in a fantasy world. The main difference between a real- world creation story and a fantasy-world creation story is that in a fantasy world, the creation story can be completely true. This means that each and every culture in your world knows the story as a fact of history, rather than the real-world situation of many different cultures and many different stories.
If the creation was many thousands of years in the past, then cultures will have retained records that have been altered or interpreted in many ways in the intervening years. This provides some diversity in the stories of different cultures. At the other end of the spectrum, the creation of the world can be more recent, perhaps within the last few centuries. Every culture would then still have an accurate record and they would disagree with each other less.
You should start with the story of what ‘actually’ happened. Then you can write interpretations of those events from the point of view of the inhabitants of the world. Elves will look at the events in one way, dwarves in another. The original story of what ‘actually’ happened may not feature in any of the interpretations in a recognisable form. Rather, there will be many ‘holy books’ all of which have common themes, but all of which differ from each other in significant ways.
About the Creation Story
A creation story explains the origin of deities, the world itself, and the world’s inhabitants – usually in that order. Monotheism appears to be unfashionable in fantasy settings, so this discussion will focus on a world with multiple gods.
Even in a polytheistic culture, there is usually one or two Supreme Beings who bring all else into existence. In the Judeo-Christian religion this is done by fiat – God speaks and it is so. In other religions, such as Egyptian, a ‘father’ and a ‘mother’ god procreate and bring forth all of the other gods. Each of the lesser gods then has jurisdiction over the world while the parent gods stay aloof. In some mythos there are several generations of beings before the actual gods appear. These ‘supreme beings’ are usually not worshipped as gods, but they are respected as innate parts of the world.
For some reason, in most polytheistic religions, it is often the lesser gods – the offspring of the Supreme Being(s) – who actually do all the hard work of creating the world. This can be by many methods. Many cultures have a ‘diver’ story, where some being or other brings up the land from the bottom of a primeval sea. In other cultures, the Supreme Being(s) create Order from primeval Chaos. This could be a useful idea to snag for D&D with its Lawful-Chaotic alignment axis.
It’s a lonely job, being a god. This is usually the reason given for the gods’ creation of people on the world. In a fantasy setting, a different god can each create a race in his/her/its own image. Most traditions include a ‘fall from grace’ as the source of evil and strife in the world – in other words, everything started pure and peaceful and evil was discovered at some time after the creation. Again, in D&D, this can give a concrete foundation for the Good – Evil alignment axis. A good way to introduce this is to use an evil deity – Morgoth in Tolkien’s Silmarillion being a good example. There was no darkness or evil until Morgoth brought it to the world.
This handy device provides plot hooks galore for the GM to exploit. Creation accounts often include a cataclysm of some kind or another. Many real world stories involve a great flood – first seen in the story of Gilgamesh and adopted in the Bible as Noah’s Flood. However, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not have exclusive rights to the flood story, as it appears in many different cultures from all over the world.
Many fantasy settings (such as Greyhawk) include a magical cataclysm of some kind, which can serve a similar purpose. Science Fiction settings can make this a nuclear disaster, or a product of environmental degradation. Regardless, it is a common theme that people brought the disaster on themselves through hubris or intent. It could even be an evil deity trying to destroy the Creation, but failing (perhaps due to a godly battle).
In some settings, the Cataclysm serves as a creation story in itself, when civilisation is destroyed and the survivors have to build it up again. This is the theme used in the post-apocalyptic settings such as Gamma World, but can also be included in a fantasy setting. In this kind of world there is little information left about what the pre- Cataclysmic times were like. This situation is full to the brim with potential plot hooks – from artifacts to ancient ruins to mysterious survivors.
A creation story can greatly enhance the setting you provide for your players. It provides a background for the location, the religion and the culture of your world. It can provide a unifying theme running through your world that makes it all the more believable to your players. You can seed your creation story with all kinds of plot hooks – epic scale and otherwise.
If you are creating an entire world for your players, it makes sense for that world to have an origin, and it can be fun and satisfying to incorporate this into your campaigns.