Thursday, 6 December 2012
Don't touch my dice, kids!
Teach your Kids to Game Week always feels slightly evangelistic to me, especially where roleplaying games are concerned. Or somehow that RPGs are a forbidden pleasure of our generation like boxes of Star Wars Lego which needs to be smuggled past our life-partners. Indoctrinate the new generation, we say, they know nothing of games without a screen and controller, how dormant there imaginations must be! Poor things, we're forever forcing them to read "classics" by J.R.R.Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, or failing that, just getting them to read a book is seen as educationally noble, and if that isn't working maybe they'll find comics "quaint". Oh God, please save the children from television and computer games (bearing in mind that some children socialise with xbox live - whilst learning co-operative team skills - it's just a shame that they are shooting terrorists - no, wait, a healthy sense of evil and good is positive, especially after Lucas confused everyone with the prequels, I mean Stormtroopers are the bad guys, right? Okay, shush Billiam, enough about the prequels, already!) ...Let's just put my anti-pro-book face-to-face-is-supposedly-better-than-screen cynicism aside. RPGs are fun. It's not a conspiracy, they're just fun. :)
Judging by my friends on Facebook, and blogger dads, there's a very real sense of parents wanting to share the archaic, yet timeless, love of board-gaming and roleplaying with their youngest, and actually that's just dandy. I was thinking this afternoon whether or not guided imagination / conversation-based play for very young players really need dice, cards or character sheets? I mean let's face it, toys, maps, figures, art, general visual stimuli, should almost be compulsory - but rule systems? But then I realised that I'd missed what is a major opportunity here for the benefits of exploring a structured universe and logical learning. No, really, it's about fun...! If a ten year old wants to learn chess, I wouldn't throw out all of the rules and put the chess pieces on a un-checkered board. Metaphorically speaking chess is war (WAAAR!!!) - but it's a structured simulation (boriiing) - the pleasure of the victory is from applying abstract knowledge -even remembering the rules is part of beating the puzzle for learners. Hit Points, Wounds, Stamina, Endurance are an excellent way of representing (and abstracting) how far the player should imagine themselves as being from the threat of the near-miss/fall/fail/death situation and this inspires thrill (well, dur, Billiam).
Let's say your kid's Superman character has a whopping 100 (one-huuuuun-dred) HP and normal punches only hurt him for 1 HP and bullets cause 4 damage (let's say puny humans have 2-6 hps) ... and he regenerates damage (or shock or whatever) every round. There doesn't seem much point rolling the dice and writing down the numbers, but, no wait, kryptonite multiplies everything by 20. A K-bullet from Lex Luthor's Astro-gun can cause 80 points of damage. Blam! Wowzers, must get out of the way and now! Suddenly there's a parameter or limit - the world gets gravity. Those numbers, those dice, they do stuff.
Maybe your system is just a success or fail on a six-sided die - so when your players find +1 magic swords, those swords become almost solid because maths and dice are the gravity and physics of the magic "if". But hey, if you roleplay, you already know this, what might be just as important is the fact that learning new rules can be a skill in itself.
I have a terrible attention span (Look, Goober Fish!). Lord knows how I ever learnt any game rules. In fact, thinking back, my own family rarely played boardgames, especially those which had little pamphlets where you looked up rules. My entrance into gaming was through Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, the Hawk the Slayer movie etc. So my approach as a DM to D&D Basic and Tunnels & Trolls was all about how I could make those rules fit the narrative. If I'd been a player-character more I probably would have been a lot sharper on which spells and skills are more effective in different situations.
Like it or not, I am coming to accept that I'll always be a sort of B-movie fantasist over being a metagaming strategist (with rules "edge"). How you like your games and why you play with a certain system will always have a profound effect on those first games, no matter what the age of the player.
I'm often drawn to rule systems which are classed as "introductory" or being for younger players. I like something which appears complete rules-wise and yet is simple enough to convey in one game sitting. I think I favour story-telling, but in the "old school" sense. The story just happens - the rules of world are set - magic zaps, swords hurt, but after that your character can talk to anyone in the town before visiting the dungeon and at least be nudged towards a main quest. You discover your flaws, maybe there's a backstory, but it's flexible. By which, I don't mean an open sandbox hex-crawl -ye god's- I like to have very solid buildings and dungeons to roll about in - and following this line of thinking, I'm guessing that it's better to set scene in a way that your young players have to instantly react: Trolls! Run away? Cast spell? Talk? Scream? Hide?
I think what I'm getting at is that if I was to play games with youngsters or even just novices, I'd definitely need game structure - at least a map to retain focus. There has to be a very simple, consistent task resolution system - but nothing too patronising, and maybe it emulate the system that the kids know you like - i.e. if they see you play D&D, at least use a d20 in your scaled down version of the game, let them play with the funny shaped dice. Lord knows how I'd play a game like Wrath of Ashardalon with 6 year olds, but then I could always adapt the Lego Heroica rules... The trick with kids and roleplaying games is defining how they should be different from children just freeform playing. I see roleplaying as more passive-"reactive" than free-form play - the player-characters push creatively against the challenges set by the Dungeon Master. Perhaps presenting a game as a story or film may at least explain why the players have to stay in the same one role throughout. Again, this all depends upon the type of game - if there's a board and figures - moving the Barbarian figure is a pretty good way of reminding the player to talk like a Barbarian if your game has situations where characters get to talk. And, hey, if the player wants to trade with the orcs, let them talk and trade.
I'm guessing that learning from an actual rulebook for older kids must have positive effects in terms of it being fun "text-book" and being comfortable with reference books has to be a really useful life-skill. Just using an index must seem really strange to the Google-Wikipedia generation.
Okay, enough of this unfocussed babble. On an end note I was really bowled-over to have my attention brought to this and other pictures (from here) on Rab's Geekly Digest. The author is working on a fair few projects, I am delighted to say that this home-rules game with his children is using my Inked Adventures dungeon sections.
So, whoever your playing this week, no matter what age, I hope it's filled with imagination and cool looking props (toys?).