Sunday, 5 March 2017

GMing for Children #1: Abstract Resources & Tangible Objects

The first time I picked up a set of dice and rolled up a character, I was 9 years old. The first time I got a taste of GMing I was 13.

For the last 7 and something years, since the age of 16, I’ve been employed as a professional GM for children and young people at a business that uses roleplaying to teach history, teamwork, problem-solving, and empathy.

Suffice then to say that I have some experience GMing for children.

How to introduce kids to RPGs is a perennial topic in the hobby, but it seems to be one that’s picked up traffic in recent years.

The original generation/s of roleplayers are now of an age to have children, and for those children to be old enough to read, and do addition and subtraction, and hold a conversation, and possess all those basic human skills necessary for roleplaying.

And so, of course, there is now a generation of kids being introduced to roleplaying by their parents.

Children are natural roleplayers already: they take on other roles and characters as easily as they breathe, they have a near limitless capacity for invention, their imaginations are boundless and creative beyond many artists and authors I know.

But while they have a natural inclination towards roleplaying, they are still children.

Certain aspects and demands of roleplaying games are difficult for them; certain skills required of players rely on patience and focus they may not yet have.

In order for kids to have the best possible experience as they’re introduced to roleplaying games, it helps to adjust some techniques and reassess some assumptions. That way the GM knows what to expect, and the players aren’t confronted by demands for which they aren’t yet developmentally prepared.

One of the major issues I’ve noticed over the years is children struggling with the abstractness of RPGs.

There is a lot of resource management in most RPGs, from the near-ubiquitous concept of hit points/health/similar equivalents, to the concept of spell slots or abilities limited per day in D&D (due to its popularity, the most common RPG used to introduce kids to gaming).

And these resources, in the default form of most games, are entirely abstract.

They are written down, tracked only in numbers and in the head of the player, and their proportional relationship – that hit was half of my HP, using a spell is a third of my resources – is intangible.

Children, particularly those between 7 and 10 (the main demographic I GM for) don’t do well with abstractness and intangible numbers.

They happily take hit after hit during fights, but are visibly shocked when eventually they look down and see they’ve only got 5 hit points left. They conserve all their spells slots through the day just in case and never end up spending them, or else blow them all on the first dice-roll of the day despite being warned they won’t get to rest and get them back.

The grasp on these numbers – of hit points, of spell slots, of limited-use abilities – necessary to manage them effectively eludes children, because in a very literal way these numbers aren’t real to them.

They can’t see them, they can’t count them as real things, they can’t touch them or feel them.

And so, I’ve found, the answer is to turn abstract resources into tangible objects.

Give them something that they can touch, and count in a way that’s sensory and meaningful. Give them something that they can visually identify is only half of what they started with, or a third, or a quarter, or only one left. Give them something that lets them understand the gravity of using a limited resource, or lets them feel the impact of losing an amount of hit points.

Give them coloured toothpicks for hit points that they have to snap as they lose them.

Give them spell-tokens, shiny and magical-feeling, that they must expend to use their arcane powers.

Give them cards for limited-use abilities, and better yet put the rules on them in child-friendly form.

You could even go so far as to make specific tokens for each type of thing they can do in a combat (a Movement, an Action, a Reaction) and reissue them at the start of each new round.

(There are already some games for adults that do this transformation of abstract resource into tangible objects brilliantly: filling in the Harm clock in Apocalypse World, turning a dice from side to side to track increasing insanity in Cthulhu Dark, using poker chips to track Trust tokens in the Mountain Witch, everything about the resolution mechanics in Dread and Ten Candles. Look to these games for inspiration.)

Make resources tangible. Make them meaningful.

Make them visceral, if you’d like and you think it will enhance the experience.

(The toothpick idea above is one attempt to do just that.)

Kids are more than capable of giving you some of the greatest RPG experiences of your life, and it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to watch them create their first characters and let their imaginations flourish and run wild.

All you have to do is rethink some assumptions, give them a hand, and watch them fly.

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  1. Thanks, I'm looking to do exactly this!

    The main challenge is that with the kids I'm trying to play with, at least 2 if not 3 of the four have some kind of ADHD. The story progresses very slowly as they are all talking at the same time...

    1. Yeah, that's a tough one. We have a fair spread of kids with ADHD or who are sitting somewhere on the ASD, and it can be challenging.

      On the theme of tangible (ritual) objects, getting them to work together to decorate a talking stick that marks whose turn it is could help? Though really, I don't know the situation and you'll almost certainly have a better idea than me how to handle it.