Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Kid GM

Engraving by W. A. Cranston 
My oldest son is an exceptionally creative soul. And a sensitive one. I might describe him as the epitome of the Artistic Temperament t. When something catches his attention, he learns about it voraciously, represents it in his art, and wants to ask questions about it, tell stories about it, and share facts about it with everyone he sees.

Currently, the colossal squid is his major obsession. I seriously doubt there is a relative, classmate, or educator that gets in front of my boy who doesn't know everything there is to know about the colossal squid. Before that it was volcanoes. And before that butterflies. And before that Final Fantasy games. 

One of the ways that he started expressing his interest was to ask me to tell him a "Dungeons & Dragons story" about the topic of the month.

Because I have to walk him to school everyday, which is a 2 km hike there and back (8km walk g a day for me!) , we have lots of time to have these little scenarios so long as we have a rules light game in front of us. To that end, I created a simple diceless system we could play almost anywhere: Square Dungeon. And games using it were, before the second lockdown, a daily practice. 

Square Dungeon is a diceless, rules-light 
Adventure Game
I designed so that I could 
play with my little guy any time. PWYW on DTRPG 

The Kid GMs Square Dungeon 

Around early December an interesting shift occurred. Rather than asking me to tell him a scenario, he instead asked if he could tell me a story in our game. He wanted to see how someone might deal with a volcanic eruption, and so decided to put me in a TTRPG scenario in which I am a person having to deal with one.

I have to say, I had never thought about playing a scenario where I'm a member of a search and rescue team, and dealing with an everyday problem like a volcano. But, it was a fantastic way for him to learn more about his obsession. And to explore topics like survival, emergency readiness, social interactions and how adults might cope with the world. He started putting up encounters that let him explore "what if" scenarios.

Using Square Dungeon, he has been able to put me in scenarios from the mundane to the fantastic and try to see what I, as an adult would do with them. 

Along the way, of course, I have had to deal with some of the most typical gmming mistakes. Because he wants to tell a story, he's prone to railroading. For example, if I try and run away from some fearsome creature he wants to explore, somehow flight is impossible.

Image by Citron, CC-BY 3.0
I've had two PCs eaten by
Colossal Squid so far... 

Sometimes, he doesn't want to have his favorite animal scared off or defeated, at which point realism goes out the window. And sometimes, he just wants to drag on his game forever without end in sight.

For those situations calling him out on what he's doing and giving him a gentle reminder of what a good game feels like and looks like has been important. And that has meant I've had to model a very straightforward style of gming with him.

I have found letting him GM, among other things, requires setting a time limit, or at least a limit to the number of encounters in a game.

I have also, on occasion, had to discuss some of the broader aspects of his games with him to help him create ones that are more enjoyable. For example, there was a Spate of time where every treasure chest was a mimic. And I started avoiding treasure chests on the basis that I did not want to be bitten by mimics. He got frustrated that I wouldn't go after treasure, and we had to have a sit-down talk about how some fun things like mimics had to be used sparingly.

The Kid GMs Dungeon Crawl Classics 

"Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG 'Door' Cover"
by Doug Kovacs, © 2012 Goodman Games

More recently, he has shown an interest in running the game in a more complex system, where an experienced player can do the rules adjudication while the GM simply focus is on the narrative. 

The other day my son asked me to roll up a character for a "D&D game." I didn't have dice handy, but he knew I had the Purple Sorcerer Crawler's Companion app on for running Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. He insisted that a level zero dungeon crawl classics character would be just fine.

And so I hit the create level 0 character button and ended up with a fairly tough dock worker, who I named Nemo. I knew that the adventure would be squid or shark oriented, because he asked for me to keep rolling until I got a nautical character

Once we got rolling, I simply grabbed my Basic Fantasy RPG manual and used it to find stats for the monsters he wanted to use, which happened to be evil mermaids, tiger sharks and great white sharks. (Yeah, thanks for that, Octonauts!

By having the monster stat block in front of me, but letting him decide what it does, I was capable of adjudicating whether or not I hit with my attack rolls, ruling crits, and handling everything needed to run Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG with another game's OSR-compatible monsters without any trouble.

I miraculously survived, by the way.

My son loves this new arrangement, because it allows him to play more sophisticated characters. During our brief flirtation with playing Basic Fantasy and BECMI Dungeons & Dragons, he did get a taste for those more complex rule systems.

The Good, Bad & Ugly of this Arrangement 

Not only is my son using GM and role-playing games as a way of being creative, he's using it as a way to explore, and to learn. He's using it as a way to connect to me emotionally, which I value deeply.

It also allows him to test social boundaries. He is occasionally prone to trying things to see if I will put up with them . Like railroading, stealing my agency, or simply refusing to let me do an action because he hadn't thought of it.

And it allows him to include unacceptable content, Like being mean to my character as a way of being mean to me. Like pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in our household by including it in the story. (I.e, violence for violence's sake, killing things when mercy is possible, harm to animals,) it is a safe environment where he can explore these things without actually doing something bad, and where I can simply be stern about calling him out on unacceptable themes without the fallout of real world Mischief.

He is essentially looking for a "Yes, this is still not acceptable to me, and here's why..." moment. 

It can be exasperating at times, but it also allows me to show him how to set boundaries and what is and isn't acceptable to me. It helps us with his moral education. 

After all, I can't take him out for a walk in downtown Oshawa right now to talk about the homeless men, crazies, and bad grown up behavior he occasionally sees there. For which I am somewhat relieved.

Kids often misbehave, break rules, and push buttons to test to make sure that you are accepting of them and love them. Setting boundaries, being fair but tough, and even sometimes having an experience the negative consequences of their actions in a compassionate way is how a lot of kids know their parents love them.

Playing with him also has vastly opened my horizons to what can be done with a role-playing game. To say that his games are a little Gonzo is an understatement. I have had pirate adventures that turned into surreal battles against giant food monsters. I have had adventures in the deep sea become explorations of lost cities of talking fish, or strategy games on how to retrieve lost submarine parts from cantankerous sea monsters.

Because he is too young to understand genre and convention the way an adult who has been swimming in pop culture for years has, his games have limitless potential and can be refreshingly unpredictable.


  1. Since your son is into nautical themes, he might be interested in Bargain Basement Bathysphere. It's a free, roll-and-write campaign game. The basic mechanic is push your luck, but then the game adds in all sorts of side quests like stocking an aquarium, rescuing divers, laying undersea cable, and so much more.

    1. Thanks! Downloaded! I will play it this week and review it at some point.