Tuesday, 25 July 2017

GMing for Children #2: Making Choice Matter

(This post is part of a series on GMing for children, drawing on the experience/lessons I’ve gained through 7+ years working professionally at a business that runs RPGs for children and young people. For the introductory post that talks about my background and my aims with this series, look here).

So last time we talked about how to help kids to grasp and get a fix on the economy of abstract resources (HP, spell slots, actions per turn, what have you) that are highly prominent in most roleplaying games.

Today, I want to talk about how to help them make meaningful choices, and how that intersects with agency.

Let’s start by laying out some things that I’m going to assume are true: players making choices is a key part of roleplaying games; choices should have consequences that follow on, and not just the illusion of choice, and choices made with no clues to what those consequences might be aren’t actually meaningful.

The wording of the last is important: “what those consequences might be”.

As my friend Ash said recently while playing Darkest Dungeon: even if the clues are arbitrary and don’t really correspond to the consequences, that still feels better than being asked to choose entirely at randomly.

But I digress: how does all this relate to children?

To reiterate the core theme of last time, children are natural roleplayers and can be wonderful to GM for but it is important to recognise they are children. Their capacities and skills differ from adults, often in ways that make playing an RPG (which assumes certain baselines of ability) more complex.

Children have issues with making choices, often for exactly the same reason they have trouble with resource management.

Abstract thought isn’t real yet to them, and weighing the cost/benefit of two choices is tricky because everything involved is abstract and intangible. None of the things that distinguish the two choices are physical or graspable: the differences cannot be seen, or felt, or interacted with.

Comparing two similar options and choosing between them, particularly when mathematical probability/optimisation gets involved, is a huge struggle for children.

Speaking from experience, they hate wasted time. That thing in games like Torchbearer and Burning Wheel where certain choices in a Conflict just mean your action is neutralised?

Kids will fucking riot.

And just in general, present them with too many and too complex choices and they get disengaged, they get bored, they get frustrated. Often, they pick at random and then feel betrayed by the outcome (because they didn’t really grasp the associated consequences, even if you explicitly identified them).

Now, what can we do about this? There are a number of strategies, depending on what you like best.

I’m going to stay focused, and talk about just two: streamlining choice, and incomparables.

So, streamlining.

Anyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons, how many options do you have in any given round? Between the various questions of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, the order of your actions, the question of positioning, the length of a spell-list, the length of the skill list, and so on, there is a near-infinite combination of things to choose between.

Now, some of these choices are clearly sub-optimal (though maybe not-so-clearly to a seven year old) but that still leaves a large array of options that have to be compared to find the best choice.

This is too much choice and too much demand for abstract reasoning for a seven year old.

Way too much.

And especially when the added burden of learning how to roleplay in a structured manner and learning the game rules is already in place.

Build to slightly more complexity by all means, but keep it simple to start with.

Two options, maybe three. Give them a couple of tools with which to solve their problems – a combat option, a tricky or sneaky option, a diplomatic option – and then let them learn to use them. Streamline their options and make them distinct and non-overlapping, so that they have only a few valid choices to navigate.

Give them a few meaningful choices rather than subjecting them to death by a tiny thousand decisions.

The other strategy comes down to this idea of meaningful alternatives, and it’s about the power of (mathematical) incomparables.

Don’t ask a child to compare 2d6 damage and 1d12 damage, don’t ask them to compare risk-reward rations, don’t ask them to compare a lower chance to hit with more damage and a higher chance to hit with less.

Give them choices that can’t be compared based on mathematical advantage or probability.

Give them distinct choices between genuinely alternate possibilities that don’t need to be compared in those terms. Make the choice between them a narrative choice, a character choice, rather than a question of optimal tactics and play.

Do they help the stranger or run away? Do they focus on offence or focus on defence? Do they kill the bandits with fire spells or make them all fall asleep?

And to return to the point from before: let them know what the likely consequences are.

Let them choose between the two distinct options with a sense of what will happen if they do. Let them choose, meaningfully. Not between two mathematical equations but between two likely outcomes, so they can decide which one is more desirable to them.

And of course, there’s an important coda to all this: make sure to leave space for them to come up with alternative choices of their own.

That’s one of the most key elements of making sure that players have agency: give them some authorship powers of their own. But that’s starting to touch on questions of pre-planning vs. improvisation and the dreaded GM railroad, and that’s a subject for another blog.

So, there it is:

Kids don’t like option paralysis, they don’t like wasted time / trap choices, and they don’t do well with choice that involves probability and maths-based tactical analysis.

Instead, pare down the options you offer, and give distinct choices, and prepare to be surprised.


  1. Loving this series.

    Have to add, that summary is true for most adults and gamers too. Not just kids. Role players are a unique breed.

    1. I mean, you're not wrong :P Most roleplaying advice for GMing a specific kind of game / for specific demographics / in specific circumstances ends up having utility outside that original context.

      Glad to hear you're enjoying!