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Soapbox: About the Industry

Running a First RPG for Kids

by Sandy Antunes
Oct 07,2005


Running a First RPG for Kids

by Sandy Antunes

The table had a power gamer, a loon, and a roleplayer, plus a pair of kids that had never RPGed before. It was like the setup to a bad joke. Oh, and the kids were both girls, ages 6 and 7.

It was a Relaxicon. I was the GM. The youngest at the table was mine. This is our tale of how to run a game for kids.

I. Don't Go Halfway

All there knew the point was a) to play a fun RPG and b) to let the two kids have a good time at their first RPG.

So we all wanted to keep it real. There may be children present, and it may be their first game, but it's a real RPG session. It's not a demo. It's not a story. It's not a guided adventure. The whole joy of RPGs is "you can try anything", and the only way to make new gamers is to bring that joy in from the first moment.

II. Instant Settings, Instant Characters

First, choose an accessible setting that requires, like, zero thought to invoke.

Iceland in the 1400s, only with cybertech and chinese dragons, and also a big backstory that you'll never really find out.
You're all smart, talking animals in Baltimore.

Similarly, characters should be iconic, easily recognized. Think like a movie or sitcom-- the character types should be instantly understandable. Yet at the same time, there should be infinite possibilities for the players.

A 1st/9th level half-drow half-shrub cleric/SCAnadian from Livermunder.
A house cat in the city.

They were like animals at the table. I mean, their characters were animals. The game was set in modern day, they were all speaking animals in a game billed as a Mage/Call of Cthulhu/Disney crossover.

Character selection matched the fast, iconic setting. I had a bunch of slips marked things like "speedy and fun", "quick and stealthy", "silky and posh", "tricky but loyal", "broad and bold". I'm pretty sure those were the 4 chosen by the players.

Game mechanics were generally 'roll a d6, roll high'. If it matched your character (like a tiger trying to catch a truck), the number you had to beat was low ("roll higher than a 2"). If it didn't match, the roll was harder ("roll a 6 or you'll eat pavement.")

The neat thing about this system is that players get a say. They can state their case, the GM gives a difficulty, and the players can either restate their case more strongly, alter their game plan, or bring up extra information in order to improve their odds.

Sort of like, "you can do anything, if you can justify it." Which is really what an RPG is all about.

III. Give Out Special Powers

Everyone likes having something unique and special. For this game style, I let them draw a card, samples of which are:
USEFUL "You have a useful item that anyone could use"
PUZZLING "You have a useful item, even though you personally aren't able to use it"
SAFEHOUSE "You know a good place to hide and lay low for a while"

These one-use items worked out great. They let the players control the environment in a non-abusive fashion and encouraged feelings of competence. They allowed the more experienced players to engage in metagame activities, and let the newcomers have a handle on solving puzzles in a non-linear fashion.

Solving puzzles in a non-linear fashion is the essence of RPGing. Linear puzzles are tactical, but RPGs are all about beating the odds and being clever and doing the impossible.

IV. Strong goals, open paths

Third lesson, keep it simple and keep it focused, but don't make it linear. There should be a goal, but any path there should work.

Some paths will be easier, some harder-- but what is 'easy' or 'hard' is really up to the party to decide, not the GM. The GM just has to make a fair evaluation and provide cautionaries.

"We will go rooftop to rooftop!
          "Okay, but it's rainy so you may slip and die."
"We'll take the sewers?"
          "Okay, but there are alligators."
"We take a minivan?"
          "Okay... but have you _seen_ gas prices these days?"

Some degree of path independence-- equal work regardless of path-- isn't a bad standard for a GM to enforce. By this, it means the characters will face a good degree of challenge regardless of which path they choose to take. The difference in paths is largely in the nature of the challenges.

With this, they get the sense of adventure necessary, while having good control over their own destiny in terms of what they are risking, and what likely consequences they will face.

The GM serves primarily as adjudicator. Having the 'easy high concept' setting really helps, because that creates an instant group consensus on the world. Very rarely do players have to ask if 'X' is possible. The question just becomes "what's the cost or risk to do X".

In the end, a good RPG session isn't about whether a goal is possible. Of course it's possible, that's the point of gaming. The real issue is what risks the characters will have to take to achieve that goal, and what it will cost them to succeed.

V. Keep it short

A good intro game should fit neatly into a two hour slot. Okay, I admit a bias here-- I think most Con games should be 2 hours (2 hours gaming, a 3-hour slot to handle character selection, late arrivals, debrief, et cetera). Like movies, you can skip the boring stuff and always be doing fun stuff.

Since we had an instantly recognizable setting and iconic characters with a very simply underlying set of mechanics, all we needed was a hook and we were off! I've attached the actual scenario to the end of this column.

VI. Toss in some live action

As a soft goal, it's handy to toss in a little kinetic action to a game with kids or a Con game. In this case, it was "GM was bored guard and players had to sneak around the tables to get past without being spotted". Short, easy, and half the players loved it!

As a live action cautionary, use this to see what different players like. One of the newcomers wasn't into the kinetic bit, so I didn't add more. Net result: some players loved it and wanted more, other players tried it and realized it wasn't to their taste. Everyone wins!

VII. Leave 'em Wanting More

Which leads to the final point-- always leave them wanting more. Again, another advantage of movie-length games is that the players remain up through the whole bit, and leave thinking "wow, great!"

Ivy wants to play again. I was victorious.

Until next month,

Addendum I: Their Characters

The roleplayer chose to be an ex-police dog, very type A, very loud. The player was forceful, overbearing, bossy, and completely cool with letting the GM shift spotlight time.

The tactical gamer, also parent of the 7-year old, choose to be a crow and take a "how to solve this" stance. Utterly useless in this context, alas. Fortunately, character and player were well aligned, and he seemed to enjoy watching plans fall apart even as the crow made disparging comments about the other characters.

The loon was a fancy persian cat, perfectly played. He was completely disruptive and utterly confused the new players, and therefore was a total asset to the gaming experience. The lesson he granted was one most RPGers never get a chance to learn-- that not all plans are good ones. The group had great fun with his presence, and he definitely had fun being trouble.

The 7-year old girl chose to be a tuxedo cat. She had a hard time being in the spotlight and having decisions forced upon her. The short larp-like bit in the game also was not her favorite. Alas, while she had fun, I don't know if the RPG bug bit.

Ivy, the 6-year old, chose to be a tiger cub. Already, my daughter's abusive exploitation of the rules in order to gain power is evident. I'm so proud!

Addendum II: The Game Scenario

This game originally used a stripped down Mage character sheet and had a surreal twist: the players chose characteristics, stats and items, but were not told they were animals, only that they were 'street folk'. They only find out they are animals in the endgame, and then get the shock of reintepreting everything from that point of view.

For this introductory session, the only change I made was to inform the players ahead of time that they were animals. You can run the game in its full surreal aspect, with the GM carefully avoiding humancentric language, or as an introductory scenario, with animal nature known from the start.

The Beautiful Ones (A Night To Be Noticed), A Mage One-Shot, heavily improvised by the GM, likely range 2-3 hours including char creation by Sandy Antunes.

Ostensible Plot:

A stranger pops in among them, talking about a conspiracy to kill all the 'street folks'. He dashes off to warn another group, and as he turns the corner you hear an 'ah ha' and, by the time you check, you find the same strange dark van is driving off with the stranger peering plaintively through the bars and windows. He gives one last call, "you'll be next", then they're gone.

There's a strange allercation a block down. Peeking, all you see is the same strange dark van driving away with a motherly type behind the bars, next to the stranger. A young and attractive babe-- as in, child, female, no predatory comments here please-- is visible in the near shadows, crying piteously. "That's my mother!" she cries, but can't say much else, being very young (think toddler-level talking).

The clear mission is to find where her mother (and the stranger) were taken, and rescue her, while also avoiding capture.

Surreal Premise:

The 'characters' have streetwise identities-- tramp, bon vivant, detective, dancer, artist, cook or chef, good samaritan, upper class slumming, etc, all urban-magicky. At least, that's how they self-identify, plus they all have the quirk: "Although you work the street, you are better looking than 90% of the folks you see."

In reality, they are animals. Much like Disney, they talk and comprehend and interact-- but all the Humans they see treat them like the animals they are (tomcat, persian, bloodhound, hound dog, mouse detective).

Until they see a mirror, they won't see exactly waht they are, and after all animals do think of themselves as humans, just better looking. Descriptions they can use to describe each other are in their kits.

Goal is to rescue and either find safety or shut down operations. Other goal is to come to group consensus: are they really animals, or humans trapped in animal form?

The villain is a mad scientist doing animal experiments (in the kid's version, he was trying to speak with animals). I set the lab in an old rusty freighter in the city's harbor, and gave him some guards.

Character types: Rough and roguish, broad and bold, brutish and slow, dim yet kind, speedy and fun, silky and posh, quick and stealthy, jesting yet cautious, grouchy yet good-hearted, sly and perceptive, catty and sarcastic, academic and worried, or tricky but loyal.

"Item" cards (Decide to give either 1 per player or 2 per player)

1) PUZZLING "You have a useful item, even though you personally aren't able to use it"
2) USEFUL "You have a useful item that anyone could use"
3) VALUABLE "You have an expensive, well made item of value"
4) ILLICIT "You have an illegal item of some use"
5) SAFEHOUSE "You know a good place to hide and lay low for a while"
6) HANGOUT "You know a good place to eat where no one asks questions and the cops don't visit"
7) CLUB "You have a friend who's got a place where you and friends can hang out"
8) STREETWISE "You know a good person to ask for streetwise information"
9) EXPERT "You know someone that is an expert in such matters"
10) FAVOR "That person owes you a favor"
11) SECRET "You know something about your friend's past that even they don't know" [can be played on another character-- you get to determine the secret!] TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

  • See What Sticks by Sandy Antunes, 06jan06
  • Simple Gifts for Pre-Gamers by Sandy Antunes, 09dec05
  • Col vs Blog by Sandy Antunes, 04nov05
  • Running a First RPG for Kids by Sandy Antunes, 07oct05
  • Making It Pay by Sandy Antunes, 02sep05
  • The Hazards of Non-Combat Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 05aug05
  • Just-in-Time Pre-order Hell by Sandy Antunes, 01jul05
  • Cassandra's Industry Report by Sandy Antunes, 03jun05
  • Fiction or Non-Fiction by Sandy Antunes, 05may05
  • I am not a Storyteller by Sandy Antunes, 08apr05
  • A Better Job by Sandy Antunes, 01apr05
  • Advice For Working Writers by Sandy Antunes, 04mar05
  • Startup Fever by Sandy Antunes, 04feb05
  • Why Blogging is Lame by Sandy Antunes, 07jan05
  • Being a Pro Writer by Sandy Antunes, 10dec04
  • Viral Marketing Invitational by Sandy Antunes, 05nov04
  • The 24 Hour RPG Challenge by Sandy Antunes, 08oct04
  • A Decade of Distilled Advice by Sandy Antunes, 03sep04
  • Go Ahead, Hit Me! by Sandy Antunes, 06aug04
  • Promoting Yourself by Sandy Antunes, 09jul04
  • 10 Hurdles to Selling Your Game by Sandy Antunes, 11jun04
  • Let's Team Up! by Sandy Antunes, 07may04
  • Beyond Role and Pla(t)y(pus) by Sandy Antunes, 08apr04
  • Slow Improv and the Post-Kilgallon by Sandy Antunes, 05mar04
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  • Mad Scientists and the Kilgallon Paradox by Sandy Antunes, 09jan04
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  • Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers by Sandy Antunes, 07nov03
  • Eigentesting by Sandy Antunes, 09oct03
  • Atomic by Sandy Antunes, 05sep03
  • Is Writing a Commodity? by Sandy Antunes, 06aug03
  • Designing Amidst the Tides of Gaming History by Sandy Antunes, 08jul03
  • Buy This Book by Sandy Antunes, 05jun03
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  • The Websites That Wouldn't Die by Sandy Antunes, 10apr03
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  • Cattle Mutilation: The Game Design by Sandy Antunes, 06feb03
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  • How To Be An Industry Poser, Part 1 by Sandy Antunes, 05dec02
  • all i game with, i learned from kids books by Sandy Antunes, 19nov02
  • TCG: The Total Cost of Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 10oct02
  • Game Publishing & The Law by Sandy Antunes, 06sep02
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Sandy Antunes, 01aug02
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  • April 10, 2002 13 New FAQs
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  • December 13, 2001 Conflict, Ethics, Winning, and Money
  • November 13, 2001 Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!
  • October 16, 2001 Leadership and D&D
  • September 4, 2001 Leading Industry Site Reports Secret: Sex Sells!
  • August 7, 2001 Any, Anyone Can Be an Internet Success-- Why Aren't You?
  • July 3, 2001 Fine Print, Part U
  • June 5, 2001 Fine Print, Part I
  • May 8, 2001 Pushing Limits
  • May 4, 2001 RPGnet State of the Union special feature
  • April 6, 2001 The Other Magic: Niche Hobbies and Other Markets
  • May 9, 2000 Running a Business as an Old Style D&D Party
  • April 14, 2000 First to Market
  • March 20, 2000 Labor Pains
  • February 15, 2000 One Trick Pony
  • January 6, 2000 Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for Business
  • December 14, 1999 Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs
  • November 2, 1999 Why Editors Lie
  • October 5, 1999 How to publish a quality game, accept criticism gracefully, and lead a happy life: Pick Any Two
  • September 7, 1999 It Takes a Village (to publish an RPG)
  • August 3, 1999 All Gamer Money Isn't Equal
  • July 6, 1999 Tides of Cash Flow
  • June 1, 1999 Ad-itudes
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  • March 2, 1999 Roleplaying would have saved Millions
  • February 2, 1999 Games That Won't Suck
  • January 5, 1999 Dangerous Games
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  • November 3, 1998 The $1K Company
  • October 1, 1998 So You Want to Start Your Own Company...
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  • August 4, 1998 Gamers Must Die!
  • July 7, 1998 Profit versus Prophet
  • June 2, 1998 Acquire! Acquire!
  • May 5, 1998 Power
  • April 21, 1998 The GAMA Trade Show Report, Part 2 (eventually)
  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
  • March 3, 1998 Culling the Herd
  • February 3, 1998 Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company
  • January 6, 1998 Double Feature (Us and Them/A Clash of Images)
  • December 2, 1997 "How to Scam Games for Free"
  • November 4, 1997 "Women in Gaming?"
  • October 2, 1997 "Fear of a Gaming Planet" (Welcome to the RPG ghetto?)
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  • August 2, 1997 "For the Money" (convention mating rituals)
  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

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