Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Of Children, Dungeon World, and Playing Fair

This blog has been fairly quiet of late, because for the last month and a half or so the only RPG-related stuff I’ve been doing has been at work (or working on a game for an upcoming convention, but I'll talk about that later). 

And I always feel weird posting about my work, for several reasons.

It feels too much like boasting, for one – I’m sure there’s any number of amazing designers and GMs who would kill to have a job that’s RPG-adjacent. Then there’s always the imposter syndrome, the fear that talking about my work is either boring to everyone else or that I’m not qualified to draw anything out of my experiences at work.

And always, of course, is there’s the privacy concern: for me, and more importantly for the kids.

But after thinking (and blogging) for a while I think I’ve found a line I’m comfortable with in terms of privacy. And the last frantic fortnight of GMing 10-hour days has spawned all kinds of thoughts I think are interesting enough to share.

While I work on the more theory-heavy stuff (including the next installments of my series on GMing for Children), there’s a quick story I want to tell.


So, for the last fortnight the kids and I spent our lunchtimes playing Dungeon World.

The actual programs we run are played using a custom system that combines LARP combat, improvisational theatre, and tabletop gaming, but starting in the first week I found the kids begging me to run freeform Dungeon World instead of taking a break from gaming.

No dice, no character sheets, nothing but our imaginations and my best memory of the mechanics.

And even though these kids are doing a lot of roleplaying, both within each day and over the course of the fortnight for those who are regulars, they were still hungry and keen for it every day.

And so, we played Dungeon World.

It started with one of the older kids, who’s most invested in systems and the mechanics of RPGs. We’ve been chatting about Powered by the Apocalypse games for a while, and he’s even tried writing his own.

He was telling me about a recent failure running Dungeon World for his friends as I diagnosed his issues (he was running just with the free sheets from the website, without reading the GMing chapter of DW or Apocalypse World), and to prove a point I started GMing it for him.

Incredibly free, incredibly casual: making decisions about stats and equipment as they became relevant and just having a conversation in the most Powered by the Apocalypse way possible.

It took us five minutes before a single move was even made (which served to prove my initial point).

By then, though, we’d attracted a crowd. Other kids were piping in with their desire to play, and soon where we’d had a single character we had a party. Over the course of the fortnight, numbers swelled until I had to limit the numbers of characters in the party and kids had to work together to play people.

The point of this story, though, the part of it that’s interesting, is the mechanics.

As I mentioned above, we were playing freeform. We only had the mechanics and sheets in my memory, and so we ended up playing in some ways the purest form of DW: players simply describing actions, with me activating moves when their triggers came up.

But we didn’t have any dice.

Whenever a roll needed to be made, I simply told the kids their modifiers and asked the player/s to tell me what they rolled. It was the usual 2d6 + MOD, but all the randomization and math was going on in their heads.

One might expect that there was a string of 10+s, that failures vanished as they learned the thresholds.

I’ll be honest: at first, I had the same fear. When we talk about children and RPGs, the discussion is always framed by unstated assumptions about maturity and fairness: the belief that children will have issues with consequences, or with failures, or with randomness giving rise to differences in reward and difficulty.

And yet the failures never disappeared. The partial successes never disappeared.

From start to finish, the statistical probability was pretty much the same as on a set of dice (perhaps slightly skewed towards success, but then I was more generous with bonuses). In fact, if anything there was an increase over time in their willingness to embrace danger or failure.

All of this surprised me.

I’ve been GMing for children for a decade now, seven of those years professionally, and still, I was surprised: by their ability to play fair without an external arbiter; by their willingness to embrace failure and consequence; by their openness to pushing towards difficulty as an interesting and desirable outcome.

And I think, as I work on more articles on GMing for children, that all this is very important to remember both for me and for my readers.

Playing fair and embracing failure aren’t limited to adults.

And children are often far more capable than you give them credit for.

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  1. As someone who occasionally GMs for kids (and his daughter), I found this very interesting and useful to keep in (an open) mind. Thanks for the writeup!

  2. I was doing some volunteering at a local kids club where I was teaching a game development course. For the design portion I was using the fate system and the kids seemed to be really enjoying it. Sadly their was a rezoning of the school system and many of the kids in the class could no longer make it. How did you get into working with kids and playing RPGs for your job?

    1. It's the most ridiculous story in the world: back when I was a kid, I attended the children's service where I now work and that was my first exposure to RPGs. I started volunteering as I got older, then I got casual work helping them to manage the kids, and then I started to be employed first to run the programs and then to write them.

  3. It's always been the case that people are more likely to engage with the things they feel they have agency over. Same reason they can endure higher levels of pain if self-inflicted.

    #Agency is really important, perhaps more than #Equity or #Happiness.

  4. Very interseting :)

    Have you checked out Fall of Magic? I've played it with the primary aged children i run my creative writing workshops with and they love it. Me and my seven year old have played it together too. It works really well.