Today I’m going on a journey a long way down memory lane, in support of the Kids In Gaming initiative at RPGNow. Specifically, I am trying to remember what it was like GMing for my brothers Paul and David.
It must have been around 1981, which means that David would have been about 15, and Paul must have been ten, though in my mind he was younger than that. And it would have been late in the year. I had returned from my first year of University studies disillusioned and reconsidering the path I was taking toward my chosen career. But I was completely captivated by the new hobby I had encountered, Role-playing games, and for the next several weeks or months I introduced them to the hobby, and to the game at the heart of it in that era, AD&D.
You may have to bear with me a little, as my memories of 30 years ago are a little fuzzy now. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.
Play proceeded virtually every day over that spring & the early part of summer. I remember that Paul at the time was a few years younger than was considered the minimum age for the game, and for that reason I was initially a little hesitant about including him, but his enthusiasm convinced me. I can clearly remember sitting down with Paul early in the character generation process and talking with him about how we could customize his character to make it easier for him.
Paul had chosen a human Fighter – probably the simplest class in the book to play. We talked about whether or not he wanted his character to be a little less smart so that he wouldn’t have a case in which his character understood a situation and he didn’t, and offered to trade some of the character’s INT for a better Strength. He thought about it for a while and wouldn’t have a bar of it; instead he suggested that his character come from the country and not know everything that was going on.
In many ways, selling the fantasy and wonder was an easier job with Paul than with David; already a craftsman with his hands, my middle brother had a very different take on Gaming. To him, it was closer to a more traditional board game – without the board and with a lot more flexibility. But for Paul, the fantasy world in which his character adventured was as real as the one around him, and a lot more interesting.
After a brief framing narrative, I pitched my pair of players into module S1, the Tomb of Horrors. Despite being five to ten levels short of the recommended character standard, and two instead a full party of four, and lacking any serious magical capabilities – either clerical or arcane – they managed to hack their way through it, defeating challenge after challenge with grit and determination.
While David was old enough to consider the practical aspects of game circumstances – hit points remaining, healing potions on hand, and so on – Paul was all exuberance, except when approaching something a little more supernatural. At such times, David was compelled by his interpretation of what a Paladin was like to charge in while Paul hesitated and held back with a little more caution. On at least one occasion, each of them had to bop the other over the head and stun them to carry them physically out of the dungeon.
In the latter part of the campaign, David’s character got into the politics of the kingdom, and trying to hold together an unstable alliance against Drow subversives and their Bugbear catspaws, while Paul dug deeper into the high fantasy, trying to understand the way the Elves thought and why they sometimes did things that even he could see were stupid – like celebrating “beardless day” (when they won their last war with the Dwarves) while encamped in the Dwarven capital (having been chased out of their forests by Bugbears and Orcs under Drow control).
There were definitely times when David had trouble visualizing what I was describing, because he tried to build up his picture intellectually, while Paul seemed to get the idea very quickly. There was sometimes a pronounced conversational lag in which Paul and I would be several minutes ahead of his grasp of the situation and staying there. By the same token, there were occasions when things went the other way, and David’s greater experience with the world enabled him to grasp things more quickly. Of course, as soon as I realized that one of them wasn’t keeping up, we would pause to let the other get a handle on whatever the situation was.
While to David, the game was just a pastime, and a novel diversion, Paul’s interest in the game continued after I left home and went to work, and after the family had moved, finding his own group to play with. After high school, he had to let gaming go to concentrate on his planned horticultural business. He might have eventually found his way back to the hobby but for the intervention of a terrible car accident; he stopped breathing for eight minutes, was in a coma in critical condition for two weeks, and suffered considerable brain damage as a result. One of the things that I most regret about my life is that I was unable to be with the family in this period. Paul went on to make a recovery that was nothing short of miraculous, but he was still changed by the experience; though I know from conversations with him that he still looks back on those days around the kitchen table, hacking through the Tomb of Horrors, with pleasure and affection.
There are a number of lessons for anyone else contemplating gaming with kids that can be extracted from this reminiscence and the experiences that accompanied the events it describes.
- Don’t compromise more than you have to. I’ve seen a number of people GMing with children in the years since, and they all seem to pitch their narrative at the youngest in the group. Don’t. Instead, pitch the narrative towards the average age. Those who are younger may not fully understand what’s going on, but they will extract an age-appropriate interpretation of events from what they perceive anyway; and kids can smell condescension a mile off.
- Don’t talk down to them. Just as would be the case with any other player, respect them as people and participants.
- Mind the rating. That doesn’t’ mean that you shouldn’t censor yourself just a little – aim for a G-rating or (at worst) for a PG-rating for cartoon violence. In many ways, D&D and other fantasy games have an uphill battle being age-appropriate, though kids seem to mature faster these days so it is less of an issue; a superhero game might be easier, because morality is easily simplified and the action-adventure aspects of the game have a greater chance to shine.
- Play to their strengths. If you don’t think they have any, you aren’t paying enough attention. Whether it’s immersion, or a more free-wheeling imagination, or simply an enthusiasm that can’t be matched, find what they are bringing to the table and work with it.
- Design the character, not the character mechanics, to suit the player. This is exemplified by Paul’s suggestion that his character be from the backwaters instead of made more stupid. This works because kids grow up fast and learn faster, and tomorrows’ limitations are not going to be the same as today’s. If the limitation derives from the character and not the characteristics, it can still be accommodated as the child grows.
- Be Patient when necessary. Kids aren’t stupid; it just takes them longer to understand something, sometimes. Be prepared to explain things a second time or answer questions a little more readily than you would when gaming with an older player.
- Don’t forget the funny – or the fun. But beware of the silly. Children are more sensitive to the entertainment value of what you’re offering. There will be times when everything else should be sacrificed on the altar of fun, like the time Paul tried to catch a ghost in a glass vial that had held holy water and had both David and I rolling on the floor with laughter. Silly, on the other hand, undermines the fun because it makes the kids feel foolish; in the long run, silly will categorize the hobby as juvenile, something to be discarded.
- Take your cues from what they read and what they watch. This is the best way to avoid over- or under-pitching to a child’s intellectual level – pick something they like to watch or read, and talk to them about it. The characters, the plotlines, why people do things. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll find yourself revising your targets upward in terms of complexity and depth and characterization. And, as a bonus, you’ll gain referents that you can use to help them connect with the game. Two of my abiding memories are watching The World At War in the early 70s and Life On Earth in the late 70s with David – neither subjects that interested him particularly before or after, but things on which we connected at the time – and both of which helped me couch game events in terms that he could understand.
- Give ‘em what they want.Everyone games for a reason, finds something that they want to experience in the course of a game session – or stops playing. Part of the GM’s job is to identify what the players want (even if neither side can articulate it) and deliver that. Nor should he exclude himself from this, either – there’s no game without either players or GM.