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Gaming with Kids

Posted by [email protected] on February 6th, 2014

The secret behind my screen

I’ve noticed a lot of online posts from parents, mostly former gamers,  interested in getting their kids into old school, pen and paper RPG gaming. I like this trend for a lot of reasons, but mostly, I feel like anything that gets kids engaged and doesn’t involve a screen is a major win in 2014.

There are many reasons why a parent might be motivated to start table-top gaming at home, but it usually boils down to some variation of: “I played these games as a kid, and now that I’m a parent I:

a) …have no one else to play with so I wish my kids would hurry up and get with the program so I can start dice rolling again. 
b) …want to spend time with my kids doing something non-electronic / non-screen related.
c) …think that structured role-play would really help my kid to overcome ‘___’. 

Why RPGs?

  • Social interaction
  • Problem solving
  • Creative thinking
  • Basic math and statistics
  • Strategic planning
  • Leadership
  • Research

The question for lots of folks continues to be “how do I do it? Where do I start?” Or, “I tried it and it didn’t go so as well as I hoped”. Well, here’s how the path worked out for us.

As some of you know, I started this site as an offshoot of my RPG sessions with my 2 kids (both boys, 10 and 7).  We used these audio files for our own games and I decided to share them online. For me the motivation was totally a) above. with b) and c) not far behind. We started a couple of years ago as many father/kids combos, with the D&D Red Box, and, although it was pretty fun, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. To be honest, I found our gaming sessions equal parts stilted, drawn-out and overly complex. 

Even worse, I remember getting that sinking feeling about 30 minutes into each session that I was losing my audience and  didn’t know how to get them back.  Before starting a system debate or an edition war, I should say the real problem, it turned out, was me.

The Red Box

We Started Here..

Like most noob GMs, I thought that running a published adventure in a ‘beginner box’ would be the safest, easiest way to introduce my kids into the D&D world. Why wouldn’t it be? There’s no story to come up with, the maps are pre-made, and the adventure was created by professionals for the sole purpose of teaching new players how to play the game.   So why did it go so badly? Well, it turned out that one size does not fit all. Even more so when kids are concerned. Additionally, by burying my nose in the adventure text, I wasn’t as receptive as I could have been to what was going on around the table. I was dictating the adventure to the kids, not reacting to their decisions. I was effectively removing control of the game from the players. I knew where the story was going, and gosh darn it, we were going to get there!

So the map before us became just another game board, the minis were just pawns and the whole adventure and exploration aspect of the game flew out the window. Our game became a series of mechanical encounters, during which I had to check rules every 2 minutes (“daddy do you even know how to play this game?”). It was exhausting for all of us. We finished the red box adventure (barely) and that was basically it.

What Would You Do If?

Hurry up and Wait

One day, a few months later, we were waiting on a subway platform and I got the idea to pass the time with a little impromptu RPG-ing – system-less, dice-less, theater-of-the-mind. I decided that the game would be called simply: What Would You Do If? My idea was to coax the kids into role-playing without sitting around a table strewn with pencils and paper which, coincidentally, looks a lot like ‘homework time’. So I created a quick scenario in which the kids had to go into the Deli at the end of our block to get potato chips. I told them that when they opened the door of the deli, there was nobody inside. No customers, no clerks. There was an empty bag of potato chips on the floor and, from somewhere in the back, the sounds of munching and grunting.

Immediately, they started asking questions: “What time of day is it?, do we have anything with us? What’s behind the counter? If someone was hiding back there we wouldn’t see it from the doorway, can we look?”. They were engaged, actively parsing the information, planning their next moves, discussing tactics with each other and….we were still on a subway platform in Brooklyn. 

By the time we got on the train there was a 9 foot troll standing between the door and the kids, blocking the exit. They had discovered a cowering shop keeper behind the counter who needed medical attention, and they had collected all the potato chips in the store to use as bait (or as loot). They decided that the best plan was to try and get out the front door with the clerk and trap the troll inside until the fire department got there. (Apparently you call the FDNY when you’re in trouble because the NYPD just cuffs you and puts you in jail.)

I resolved the conflicts by telling them that each time they performed an action, they had to pick one semi-bad thing that happened as a result of an action. This worked out pretty well until my oldest son realized that throwing his brother under the bus was a genius bit of rules-lawyering. I put a stop to this by house-ruling that the bad thing had to happen to the action taker.

We finished the scenario on the walk back from the subway. By the time we got home, the troll was trapped inside, the clerk had pulled down the security gate and locked it, the FDNY was cutting a viewing hole in the security gate with a laser cutter (sure, why not?) and the kids had managed to score the entire stash of potato chips and were munching away while talking to the adoring press.

The next morning on the way to school, they paused outside the deli and looked in. For awhile.

What I Learned

Not bad actually!

I learned that I’m not a terrible GM,  I’m just not that good at running published adventures.  This is probably something I’d get better at with practice. I should probably use the published adventures more like index cards than a read-aloud novel. We actually had better luck with Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Their beginner box game was pretty good, but still not as good as the dirt-simple scenario I made up one morning over breakfast. I’m starting to realize that rolling your own adventure is not as daunting or time consuming as I once thought.

Here’s the thing. As a parent, you know your kids. Duh. You know what makes them tick. You know what stories they like. You know what’s going to get them excited. So this is where to start. This is how you get them engaged. Kids need agency, they need to care, and they need to feel that their choices matter. Running a generic dungeon crawl adventure means rolling initiative as soon as the party sees an adversary. No questions, no consequences. After a few fights, the kids get bored. There are only so many ways to say “I stab it with my sword”. In our subway platform game, the kids were more thoughtful. They didn’t attack the troll in the deli, they recognized the danger they were in and they opted for escape over conflict.

Now What?

A hit with the kids

We still play ‘What Would You Do If?” games on the subway platforms and during other periods of urban in-between-time, except now my kids want to GM the games themselves. This is awesome because I get to be the kind of active player that I want them to be. I ask more questions, I come up with alternatives to fighting, I keep them on their toes by doing surprising things, and I praise them when they throw in a cool plot point . I still have to stop them when they say things like “oh, Daddy, I forgot to tell you that the room was on fire”, but they’re definitely getting better.

What’s working for us now are simpler systems. Free games like Dungeon Squad and Lasers and Feelings are great for short one-off evenings.  Games like Monte Cook’s beautiful Numenera, which we’ve been playing for a few months, work especially well for kids. The setting stimulates the creativity of everyone at the table.   A single d20 roll against an easily-arrived-at target number is about 95% of the mechanics. We did run the first published adventure in the core book and…yep…I still whiffed it. So we immediately set off on another adventure I made up on the spot.

“You’ve got to get across this field and pick the fruit off that tree. Except the grass is alive, the tree moves, and a deadly storm is brewing..”

Much better.

4 thoughts on “Gaming with Kids”

  1. XAD says:

    You should probably dive your nose in a few books that I recently read:
    – Unframed, by Gnomestew and published by Engine Publishing
    – Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley

    Both books bring tools and reflexion on improvising and engaging the players to build a game collectively. Tap into your kids’ imagination and narrate their decisions and ideas.

  2. Rob says:

    Nice post, and I love the “What would you do if?” idea for engaging the kids in some pen-n-paperless RPing. Great for long trips in the car. Awesome idea, and I’ll use it! Also love your audio tracks and am following. Kudos on following your passion. 🙂

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