Roleplaying Game Fun for Kids
This is an extract from the new RPG Handbook, which has sections on making RPGs entertaining for young kids, older kids and young adults. The content shown here covers younger kids. It’s put out to coincide with DriveThruRPG’s Teach Your Kids to Game Week:
Kids are natural roleplayers and ‘let’s pretend’ is central to early learning games and activities. It’s not difficult to tap into their enthusiasm for imaginative play by offering access to a variety of imaginative media and by adapting RPGs to offer the kinds of entertainment that can keep kids interested. For example, while some kids may want nothing to do with rules-based RPGs well after the age of 7, others may well start to ask about adding a few rules to Lego Heroica or trying out a fantasy card game at an earlier stage.
Whatever the exact timing, these novice RPG players are likely to have clear preferences. Young players often prefer broad, (but limited), choices, with enough prompting to help them build up their roleplaying skills. Many may also make a surprisingly strong ‘investment’ in their player characters (PCs), which can be encouraged through giving PCs a backstory, a few personal traits and some player-determined goals. As a result, the golden rule with young kids and new players is to avoid killing their PCs or their pets. (There may be exceptions for new players as making it tougher to survive is often part of gritty play and injuries are lethal in some hard science or historical RPGs. In the case of a horror game like Cthulhu half the fun is seeing who can run fastest).
There are plenty of imaginative alternatives, including equipping players with extra protection, supplying convenient lucky-bags, using stunt point systems, (which can include a ‘miraculous escape’ option), giving players’ some ‘spider sense’ abilities and/ or selling a beaten, but live, PC into slavery. If a player has such options, (working alongside suitable prompts), and then chooses to ignore all ‘warnings’ in a way that gets the player’s PC killed – so be it.
Magical Creatures and Companions
Young players tend to enjoy open-ended games where they can explore fairly standard fantasy and historical or TV tie-in settings. Discovery and novelty are usually valued over combat and solutions can often be negotiated by talking to monsters and working together to solve basic challenges or to escape danger.
Giving PCs some pets, rides or other companions to accompany them on their adventures adds a lot to play for many kids. Pets are particularly helpful, as players are often quite protective of them and they offer a useful way to prompt new players from within the game. (It can simply be taken as said that kids’ PCs can talk to pets, rides and monsters without learning a language, but other types of communication, including sign languages and training, work well).
Overall, it’s important to recognize that young kids, particularly those under 7, will have a very different understanding of many types of gameplay from older players. For example, a 3- or 4-year-old will rarely have an appreciation of good and bad that goes much beyond a distinction between the two.
Consequently, it’s worth considering the messages and lessons young kids may take away from games. Avoiding overly scary monsters is a genuine concern while children are too young to make adult distinctions between fantasy and reality. Along similar lines, if kids are encouraged to solve problems with combat and to adopt a standard win-mentality, it’s probably more likely they’ll look to these kinds of play as they grow older and, possibly, carry such thinking over into other forms of real world problem-solving.
Tabletop RPGs differ from most other types of game by leaving the rules wide open to interpretation. However, if a game rewards slaying monsters and collecting gold above other options, (such as rewards for completing challenges or entertaining roleplaying), it’s not uncommon for play to focus on collecting loot and seizing magic items or technologies that help with collecting loot.
Young players may well be unaware of the emphasis placed on combat by some RPG systems. This presents an opportunity to encourage player choice and challenge-focused play right at the start of youngsters’ RPG gaming. Doing so involves issuing rewards in the form of surprising or fantastic discoveries, bonuses for players’ pets, new equipment for the local Dragonriders’ school and, perhaps, the grateful thanks of those the players have saved.
Treasures and player advancement can be part of a wider approach, but young players with no goals other than killing the next monster will either get bored, or adapt to and join, the ‘hack and slay’ brigade.
When playing with youngsters it’s not unusual for a certain amount of live action or Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) to start up entirely spontaneously. Plastic figures are easily lifted from the table and brought into play, landscapes built from Lego don’t take long to make and NERF darts are as good a way as any to battle with the Big, Bad Guy (BBG). Safety first please on the equipment if mock combat is part of the fun.
Young players are busy spending their time exploring novel situations and working out solutions to new problems in real life. It is, therefore, far from surprising to find that they usually enjoy a fair amount of novelty and exploration during gameplay. Fantastic locations, unrelenting villains, bold maps, mystical creatures and other staples which may seem too familiar to older players all work well with youngsters, because kids can often be quite happy spending half-an-hour talking with the first imaginary unicorn they’ve ever come across.
Uncovering a straightforward mystery, finding out how dragons are raised, learning how to mix a potion in a magic laboratory or traveling to an exotic land where the plants communicate are examples of discoveries likely to appeal to young players. Under such circumstances, working out how to make an antidote to a poison that’s harming a friendly PC is usually going to be more meaningful and relevant than getting paid 500 gold pieces to kill a monster.
As players get older standard issue PCs and NPCs lack the depth of character and character background required to sustain players’ interest. However, for young players a world bristling with pirate captains, brawling fighters and grumpy old sorcerers makes for a welcome start. Apart from anything else, these caricatures tie-in with similar caricatures found in other media for children, allowing players to take cues from interacting through familiar roles.
Making Player Characters
Experienced RPG players will start a game with a character sheet full of skills, abilities and equipment. The design of a new PC may even be quite a mechanical business involving combat optimization. Kids who don’t know or care much about elaborate rules are unlikely to take much from this kind of PC design.
A group of young players is highly likely to be open to making much more of the character building process. Many can find hours of play in simply exploring their characters’ background.
As soon as the parents have been killed off or side-lined, (which seems to be about establishing that a child’s PC is independent and free of parental control), young players’ PCs will often happily explore their local village, chase-off the school bullies, fix an invitation to wizards’ school and/ or set up a home or base. Rules are barely necessary at this stage and the resulting ‘adventure ready’ PC already has a place in the game when it comes to setting out on further adventures.
Tricks or Traps
The types of subtle tricks and deadly traps set in the way of older, experienced players are, for the most part, fairly unwelcome in games aimed at young players. What appears to be fair play and/ or a tough encounter to an experienced player can easily be interpreted as an unfair bolt from the blue by a novice. GMs can get round this by clearly flagging what players should expect from a trick or trap – and by offering multiple solutions to the problems presented by tricks and traps.
Powers, skills, abilities and technologies stand in direct opposition to authentic, gritty play if players’ PCs are able to wield major or even unlimited powers on a regular basis. Youngsters can usually see the sense in retaining a challenge within a game, but they are likely to be looking to collect rewards involving a combination of frequent minor bonuses/ power-ups and some persistent – and genuinely useful – powers or skills. An occasional touch of the spectacular doesn’t do any harm either.
The starting point here can be to make available magic items that give a modest regular bonus, which becomes much more effective when a ‘critical hit’ is rolled.
Design Gaming, Shared Gaming and Gameplay Design
Co-design and game-related play, such as making-up stories using plastic figures, creating models out of boxes, putting together game-related collages, gaming with Lego, drawing PC sketches and similar activities prime kids for imaginative games and sharing in the design of their own play and learning.