Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Gaming with Kids: Final Thoughts

Playing TTRPGs even with small kids can be a great way to help them explore their world, and a great way to bond on a rainy afternoon. But it is going to be fraught at times with unique challenges that you aren't going to run into with mature players.

Running a game for children, especially small children can require a lot of extra work. You need to help them navigate the rules. You will need to contend with a short attention span in some way, either through the structure of your game or the volume of your content. You will need to be aware that if you are playing with your own children, or children that trust you that you are teaching values at the same time that you are playing, and make sure that your game reflects that, rather than trying to be gritty, morally ambiguous, or revolutionary.

As children are no good at advocating for themselves, you also have to exercise a significant deal more empathy. Reading the room, making sure that the kids at your table are comfortable and having a good time, balancing the game in a way that gives every player a chance to shine, and interviewing your players to figure out what they like and don't like is important. D&D tables with adults are subject to Market forces: if the players don't like the game you're running they won't come back. If you're running a game with kids, they may feel like they don't have a choice but to playay.

Most Children's role playing games has certain qualities that are designed to make them more approachable. They tend to use one die type, tend have very simple and light mechanics, tone down violent imagery significantly, and they tend to have some structural mechanism to help deal with short attention spans.

However, they also often suffer from being designed with very little respect for the intelligence of children, and, seem to have absorbed the values adjustment philosophy that took over schools back in the 80s. Namely, the idea that kids' media should have very little if any moral content or frightening material. They tend to be devoid of danger, the monsters are usually misunderstood, rather than being monstrous, and neither player characters or NPCs gets hurt.

Lacking those elements, a role playing game doesn't feel Brave or Heroic. Nor does it feel like adventures are a struggle with any meaning. They are simply a fun way for a group of superheroes to kill time.

This is not universally the case. Hero Kids works quite hard to establish a heroic frame and moral content, and does quite well. I would say of all the ones I have reviewed, (and my reviews here are only a small cross-section of the ones I have looked at,) it does the best job of creating a setting, and stakes, that feel genuinely exciting for kids.

In my experience, you may well be better off taking a simple, rules light game built for adults, and then carefully structuring your adventures to the needs of your particular table.

Kids are pretty smart. They can figure out how to tell the difference between a d8 in the d10 pretty quickly. A slightly more sophisticated ruleset isn't going to be much of a bother. Especially if you as a GM or a senior player at the table are willing to hold their hand and let them learn at their own pace.

My son much preferred playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Fantasy RPG, Tiny Dungeon 2E, or even Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG over playing No Thank You, Evil!, First Fable, or Mermaid Tales.

Making a good adventure for kids that works is, structurally, pretty straightforward: variations on the five-room dungeon structure will often render you a game that can be played in less than 40 minutes, with some minor tweaks.

Entrance w/ Guardian: Make getting in to the dungeon straight forward: a sentry, a trapped door, a puzzle, or a trapped unintelligent creature that can be tamed or set free is ideal. 

Puzzles or Roleplaying: If you are going to use a puzzle, consider making it physicay or digitally interactive is advisable. Using a puzzle in a video game or a physical prop can help prolong attention. 

If you are going the Role-playing route, the NPC in question should be very memorable. They should have an easy way to get information out of them the players can try, and that ths will hint at it. Put this encounter on some kind of countdown before the NPC refuses to help or just gives in ("You have three chances to give me what I wants, or I eats ya!") 

The best rewards for this encounter are ones that push the adventure forward: that give the PC information or a weapon against the climax of the dungeon. Or a way to avoid the trap. 

Trick or Trap: Tricks that force PCs back to the beginning or fool them into leaving the dungeon are time wasters, and you don't have time. Traps that just tax a few hit points are likewise a waste of precious timing.

This encounter designed as either a trick  or trap that will make the climax harder (depriving the PCs of spells or gear, forcing them to take a different route to the final challenge, etc.) is an excellent option, especially as it will push things towards the climax.

Climax: This is where you put forward the terrible monsters, the frightening battles. There needs to be a real risk here. If you are not comfortable killing a PC, the destruction of an important artifact, the forever imprisonment of an important NPC, the opening of a terrible portal, etc. can suffice: just make sure there are terrible and meaningful consequences.

This encounter works best with a timer before the terrible consequence comes to pass. If the encounter can become about racing to pull a lever, sabotage a ritual, pulling an NPC out of a devious device, etc. 

Your villains ought to be over the top evil here. But they should also be willing to run for it or surrender. Make it easy for the PCs to take prisoners, and don't let the villain do anything stupid while in the PCs custody. Use morale rules if you have them. 

Reward or Revelation: This is where your players should feel like heroes.  Piles of loot lovingly described, a grateful NPC heaping praise, wise sages and senior priests handing down spells or relics, etc. Keep it short and linear. Often, it is best you just treat this like an epilogue with a choice of reward or future activities provided to each player.  Alternatively, this might be the PCs chance to catch a fleeting glimpse of a master villain as he flees. 

And, of course, this is the ideal opportunity to just ad-lib once in awhile 

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