Saturday, June 5, 2021

Playing TTRPGS with Children: Downsides

Image by Urh Kočar from Pixabay

When I decided on doing a series of articles about playing role-playing games with children, I felt it was important to look into some of the negatives.

Lots of people will write about this topic and not dare have a negative thing to say; and I find that strange. It is easy to see downsides to including kids in your hobby. Including behaviors you would never put up with in an adult player. I feel that it is important to cover some of the things that you need to watch for when playing games with kids.

Enthusiasm and Burnout

Let's face it; if your temperament is right for role-playing games, you are also likely to be passionate about them. With their capacity for single-minded obsession and their unbounded imaginations, young kids can take this to an extreme. Their are days were my little guy eats, sleeps and breathes fantasy role-playing... when he is not eating sleeping, and breathing marine biology, Minecraft, or volcanoes.

If your kid takes to TTRPGs they will be constantly in demand. I get asked if I will run or play in short D&D games every day. Often while I am working, trying to hustle my kid to his tablet for school, or as a way to evade conversations.

I built gaming into our daily practice before the lockdowns. And I am glad we did, but there are times after 50 minutes for gaming on the kid level that I just want a break. I have definitely had weekends where my energy for running my "home game" with my wife and close friends has suffered because of the output demanded by my son.

I never thought I would occasionally meet "Want to play D&D?" with "What, again?!"

In the end, this is an opportunity to teach your kid to pace himself. And if you treat it as such, this can be endearing. And hopefully, in the long run, rewarding. But restraint is not a Virtue five-year-old brains are equipped to supply consistently.

High Labor Demands

I don't do a lot of planning for my kid's games. Mostly I improvise a five-room dungeon a few minutes before playing, steal them wholesale from old modules, or use Donjon.  And I try to keep to relatively light rules systems. While this keeps the demands for games manageable on the prep end, actually playing with kids, especially young kids requires a lot more work.

You will find yourself constantly checking simple math. Reminding your kid how to read a character sheet, and not just teaching, but re-teaching the rules multiple times.

When a kid runs the game, the most familiar player might be in charge of interpreting the rules, tracking hit points, and doing the lion's share of adjudicating. You will find one player walks the line between player and co-DM constantly until your kids are older.

It will help to put information like Armor Class and monster HP up front whether a kid is running or playing , even if it costs some immersion.

Image by Liselotte Brunner from Pixabay
Railroading, Hoy!

Whether you are the GM or the Player, when playing with kids, your game is going to need to be run on rails. Kids need to be given a little more than "What do you do?" to make the game move forward.  "Would you like to X, Y, or something else?" becomes your best format as a DM. "Would you like to watch the blinking machine, press a button, look around, or go someplace else?" limits a Player's options, and gives things away a little bit. Leading the players in a way that would be bad form as adults has to be your modus operandi with kids.

Child GMs are invariably going to equate playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons with "telling a story", and are often going to be attached to the story they want to tell. This is how bad D&D happens, of course. You will need to set firm boundaries to protect your player agency.  And that may sometimes lead to conflict, a need to walk away from the table, or your kid rage-quitting the role of GM because you won't "play his game right."

Letting go of the need to control the Narrative a tell "a Story" in favor of letting things unfold based on the character's choices is the hardest part of learning to be a good GM. It requires maturity that a kid often doesn't learn until they are nine or older. 

I have stuck to my guns about railroading, because it is coming from the same impulse that causes kids to fight with their friends and siblings about who is in charge of play. It is the need to be the Boss of others. And, I have found that because I have constantly reminded my son that "You don't get to pick what other people do," he has done a lot better in school than some of his peers at things like group work.

"Peter and Lucy Discover their Lost Gifts"
Illus. by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008)
from Prince Caspian
©1951, C.S.Lewis pte. Ltd.
Walking the Tightrope of Values

You can't avoid imagery of battle in media for little kids unless you are going to isolate them to the most mindless, anodyne, and saccharine of programming. I can't do it: I just don't have the fortitude of will to stick entirely to "Dora the Explorer" and "Paw Patrol". Especially when my own childhood was full of Transformers, the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon, and Masters of the Universe. It would feel like a hideous disservice.

And so you have to temper these images with values. Older cartoons do that quite well. Heroes are merciful, enemies rarely killed, surrenders taken, and truces made. It helps that I have made sure that my son gets stories of high Medieval Fantasy heroism, such as Robin Hood, Arthurian myths, and the Chronicles of Narnia to help him develop his sense of honor and decency.

And that means you need to make sure that many of the bad guys have values and honor more often than not in your games. If you don't want senseless murder to be part of your kid's idea of "fun" you have to remember to make the bad guys surrender, have them fall for bluffs, and run away... or accept surrender of chivalrous terms.

I have found actually exploring the Code of Chivalry with my son, and how it plays out in Narnia, the stories of Arthur, and in TTRPGs is really helpful here.

And that also means that you have to be willing to talk about ideas of Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, Right and Wrong with your kids. You have to keep them as part of your games. A morally grey game is an invitation for a kid to reject some of the highest and most important values their parents are trying to teach them. Your morals have to be consistent within your games.

It helps to make the worst of the bad guys who do atrocious things really, irredeemably bad - cartoonishly so at first. So, when they do bad things, that is a part of their character, and not something that the players feel like they can get away with.

And I know for some people that is not much fun.

It is for me. I like a game where we take prisoners and negotiate surrenders, even when it is a pain in the ass. In fact, the dilemmas present be not acting like a bloodthirsty murder-hobo add a level of complexity to the game that I think most tables miss - but that is another article.

Best Writer of Parenting Advice in History:
Get some perspective!
Image by 6212079 from Pixabay
You Become a History Teacher

Kids just are not given much of a sense of History by modern children's media or school. Why your settings have kings and queens, why you have a world that needs knights and heroes, why people go to war or steal in the context of your setting needs to be given some context.

I am lucky that my son is very curious, and retains information well. Talking about Feudalism, and its goods and evils, discussing the rise and fall of Rome, talking about how the period of a story changes what kind of story we can tell, and discussing the arc of Aristotelian and Enlightment thinking has been interesting to him.

But putting them into bite-sized pieces a four or five year-old can digest has been a heck of a lot of work. Answering questions about the books I read him and the games we play has forced me to create entire home-made texts of History lessons to keep up with the wonders he has presented after a game session.

And that means that you had better be up to the task and willing to approach it with honesty.

Depriving Kids of the Joy of Forbidden Discoveries

The PRG Pundit and I have a relatively good rapport, even though we disagree on a lot of points. I have enjoyed my few exchanges with him. And I would be remiss if I did not point out an argument he made against playing TTRPGs with your kids, which is this:

Like Science Fiction, Punk Rock, Metal, and Comics, TTRPGs are subversive. They are a gateway to a world of possibility where your parents and your teachers might be wrong. Where you have to figure it out for yourself. Its a world of subtly sexy images and off-beat values; a world of surreal and strange ideas that force you to think differently about the Universe than what you were taught in School.

To make that a part of your childhood takes away the discovery and the uncomfortable and enlighteneing culture shock that role-playing provides.

I get his point. TTRPGs opened a lot of doors for me at the same time that Metal and Beat Poetry did.

Behold the words of the Sage
But I would also argue that the Modern TTRPG has none of that Subversive value. Like most other things, Role-playing games have become anodyne corporate pablum. Candlekeep Mysteries has all the subversiveness of a Disney sit-com. AD&D might have been Frank Zappa, but D&D5e is Hannah Montana. And that goes double for kid-oriented role-playing games. Worse yet, within a large portion of the indie TTRPG / Storygame community's games are nothing but hollow virtue-signaling that might at best be compared to Celine Dion.

It isn't the hobby of TTRPGs that is subversive. It is a subset of indie OSR games that are. It is the stuff on the top shelf of my Gaming shelf: Daniel Thron, Mike Evans, Jim Raggi, Venger Satanis, RPG Pundit, Zak Smith, Luka Rejec, Jobe Bittman, and Chris Kutalik that have the real power to open his mind. They are the survival of the Zappa spirit of AD&D

And as long as they stay on my top shelf, out of reach but much enjoyed, when he is tall enough to reach them, he is still going to get his brain cracked open.

In the meantime, I try my best to raise my kid as a contrarian, anyway. Some of the garbage they are trying to teach him in school, especially about the history of Canada is so absurd and contrary to rational thought that I would be a poor parent to let what he has learned go unchallenged. Part of a good parent's job right now is to help their kid spot bullshit, because they are being served steaming heaps of it.

As to his other point... Yeah... kid games are not nearly as good or enjoyable to play with my son as Tiny Dungeon 2e or BECMI D&D are. At the end of the day, a rules light RPG for grownups, with curated content and visual aids is probably going to be a better choice for an intelligent kid than the pap that many "Kid RPGs" present.

Poster: "CHUD II: Bud the Chud
©1989 MCEG

General C.H.U.D.liness

If you are the kind of parent who plays games with your kids, then odds are good that your kids feel safe and supported at home. At that means that your kid occasionally behaves like a CHUD for no apparent reason, and they will take that to an extreme in their TTRPGs sometimes.

If this makes no sense to you, here's the lowdown: Kids know intuitively that experimenting with behavior among their peers can get them ostracized. Acting like a weird little jerk can get them abandoned on the playground. And that is not a great place to be.

But their parents love them unconditionally. If they do something that might get them in trouble, they know that they might get a small sanction: a lost privilege, a time out or a time in, but at the end of they day, they aren't going to be rejected and ostracized. And that means the well-loved child is going to save their boundary pushing for home.

When you are doing something like playing a game with a well-loved kid, they are occasionally going to cheat, or do or say something ugly, just to test to make sure that a) you love them, b) you are going to set meaningful boundaries on their behavior (which makes them feel safe), and c) that the behavior is indeed not acceptable.

Psychologically, it is normal, and a good sign.

But actually dealing with that bullshit is going to kill the fun of playing with your kids stone dead when it happens.


  1. Thanks for including me among the subversives, hoss!

  2. Great article. Running games for kids is a blast and I agree, has its downsides.