Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Roleplaying Games for Kids

Introducing children to roleplaying games might seem like a recent trend in the adventure gaming hobby, despite its evolution from a marketing urge by established game publishers to a personal quest for many parent-gamers seeking to interest and involve their kids in one of their own favorite hobbies. Then as now it presents numerous challenges in merging engaging settings that captures children’s imaginations with workable rules systems within kids’ comprehension and attention spans.

Publishing a roleplaying game solely to introduce a younger audience to the adventure gaming hobby has long remained the “holy grail” of game companies. Many felt an introductory product would help create a new generation of players to fuel future sales of existing product. One finds many admirable efforts in this vein given the hobby’s short and prolific history; however, their degree of success varies wildly, and no one product stands out as being quite the iconic introductory success publishers would like. Some of these weren’t necessarily marketed as introductory roleplaying games specifically for children; most catered to fans of a particular license or genre seeking to play out their fantasies within the scope of a roleplaying game. A few examples of introductory products come to mind, not all of which were or are suited to children, even with adult guidance; but they offer some insight into past approaches and pitfalls of designing roleplaying game products with newcomers in mind:

Dungeons & Dragons: Throughout most of its publishing history, most editions of Dungeons & Dragons have had some introductory boxed set available to lure unsuspecting game enthusiasts in mass-market toy stores into the roleplaying game hobby. They usually come in boxed sets with a variety of components, depending on the TSR/Wizards of the Coast budget at the time; some include the bare essentials of player book, gamemaster guide, and polyhedral dice, while one even came with unpainted plastic miniatures and CDs with sound effects to accompany the obligatory beginner adventure module included in the box. One might argue the original Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons experience was an early effort to introduce a younger audience to the terminology and gameplay of Advanced D&D.

Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game: A long-lost gem of the introductory game genre, the Prince Valiant game was designed by Greg Stafford and published by Chaosium in 1989, based on the extensive knowledge he poured into the Pendragon Arthurian roleplaying game. The game system relied on only two attributes, Brawn and Presence, and resolved game conflicts with coin tosses (though some of us preferred six-sided dice with 1-3 as “tails” and 4-6 as “heads”). The text was generously embellished with amazing Hal Foster line art from the comic strips, which helped to maintain visual interest in the rules and, in many cases, illustrate basic game concepts with examples from the comics. The game introduced basic roleplaying game concepts through the storytelling perspective, complemented by its comic-strip provenance. A rare treasure these days -- I found my copy in New York City’s The Compleat Strategist when it maintained a storefront in the subterranean shopping concourse of Rockefeller Center.

Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game: Possibly the most successful in execution -- though not sales and continued play -- of the professionally published roleplaying games for kids, this game attempted to introduce younger kids (6+) to gaming in the Pokemon universe without the complexities of the collectible card game produced by Wizards of the Coast at the time (before losing the license). Designed in 2000 by the venerable Bill Slavicsek and Stan! (both West End Games and Star Wars Roleplaying Game alumni), it included an extremely simple Pokemon combat system and a book of linear adventures through which kids could play. While it represents a solid effort to design an introductory roleplaying game product for children based on a popular setting, it failed to reach and retain a large audience; plans for supplements supporting the game line were scrapped after Wizards of the Coast lost the Pokemon license.

Lord of the Rings Adventure Game: Iron Crown Enterprises’ 1991 attempt to lure new players into its complex yet well-established Middle-earth Role Playing system used a much simplified rules set based more on the company’s Middle-earth Quest books than the main game. Programmed adventures walked individual players through the basic rules and a gamemaster through the nuances of running a game for several players. The books came in a box with maps, dice, and cardboard characters with stands; two full scenario supplements were also released. It’s doubtful the adventure game lured too many games into its more complex cousin, which already had an extremely loyal following, and the company lost the Middle-earth license in 1999, ending any plans to support the introductory product. (And while subsequent Lord of the Rings roleplaying games had far better, full-color production values, they were clearly produced for an audience steeped in the intricacies of roleplaying games.)

Star Wars Adventure Game: This was my personal contribution to the introductory roleplaying game genre. With the release of the Star Wars Special Edition trilogy re-release (way back in 1997) West End Games hoped to draw more fans into its roleplaying game with a introductory boxed set with a host of components: player and gamemaster booklets, an adventure campaign book, cardboard stand-ups, maps, and dice. I took a hiatus from editing The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal to develop the intro game in-house. I’ll admit the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game influenced my approach in providing programmed adventures for both players and gamemasters; I also attempted to distill the more expanded, complex rules that sprouted with each new edition of the Star Wars roleplaying game toward a more basic form, more like the game’s first edition. The game was published in time to capitalize on the Star Wars Special Edition re-release to movie theaters; again, evidence remains purely anecdotal that fans who picked up the intro boxed set at Toys R Us and the other, limited mainstream venues in which it appeared moved on to play (and purchase) mainline Star Wars Roleplaying Game materials.

Warriors Adventure Game: This 54-page roleplaying game available for free download online introduces fans of the popular Warriors novels (about cat clans living in the wild) to roleplaying, providing guidelines to create their own cat characters and interactively create their own stories in the Warriors setting. The game uses some standard roleplaying game elements like ability scores, skills, and knacks, but leaves out the random nature of die rolls in favor of “chips” players can spend to improve their scores in trying to overcome particular obstacles during the game. Players take turns each scene as the “Narrator,” giving everyone a chance to run the game. The game includes a short sample adventure, plus game information for the major cat characters from the books. One of the better games for kids seeking to explore roleplaying games on their own.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box: The only contemporary entry in this list, the intro box for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (an iteration of the popular D&D 3.5 edition rules as released under the Open Gaming License) serves as an example of what a current introductory boxed set looks like in this day and age of slick, full-color booklets, cardboard stand-ups, dice, pawns, and maps. Although the level of game complexity remains based in D&D 3.5, the beginner box presentation and streamlined rules gradually introduces game concepts to newcomers. I regret I’ve not yet acquired a copy to evaluate first-hand, but the model seems to work for Paizo Publishing, though much of Pathfinder’s popularity rises from its firm grounding in D&D 3.5 and its hordes of followers who rejected the latest D&D 4th edition and its many changes.

No doubt a web search for roleplaying games for kids would turn up a number of sites offering general surveys of acceptable materials offering varying degrees of success and numerous genres that may or may not interest a particular group of children. The “RPGs for Kids” listing provides relatively comprehensive and recent guide, but most all the entries fall under the category of games that are good for parent-gamemasters to introduce kids to roleplaying rather than ones kids can pick up on their own and start playing.

I’m sure I’m inadvertently forgetting or overlooking some key examples individual gamers remember -- this isn’t mean to be an exhaustive survey or dissertation on the subject -- but most of the above-mentioned, professionally published games rely on potential players’ previously established interests in a particular license, setting, or genre. While these products -- and others -- purport to introduce the concept of roleplaying games and iconic setting to newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby, they’re not always well-suited for bringing children into the gaming fold. These games are either specially designed for people new to roleplaying or are easy and inspiring enough for an experienced gamer to introduce to non-gamers. Roleplaying games remain an esoteric pastime that many of us learned not out of the box on our own but from others who showed us how to play. Few are ready right out of the box; at the least they require an adult gamemaster to learn the rules and translate that presentation to the level of children with limited attention spans; at most they require lots of effort to port existing game product to a child-acceptable level, possibly including pre-generated characters, simplified rules, and modified setting material.

One might argue many games exist adults can easily to use to introduce kids to the roleplaying game hobby; but finding a game that, in and of itself, is a good introduction to teach kids, without an adult, to play roleplaying games is a far more difficult creature to find or design. Which leads me to surmise that the best approach to introducing kids to roleplaying games comes from a knowledgeable parent-gamemaster customizing a game to the interests and attention spans of a particular group of children, and not from any “ready to play right out of the box” kids can explore on their own.

Where does that leave parents seeking some elusive product that can magically entice their children into an enthusiastic interest in the roleplaying game hobby? The solution requires a bit of work, but ultimately crafting a roleplaying game experience for kids in an engaging setting customized from an easy rules-set familiar to the parent-gamemaster seems the best option; one Hobby Games Recce will explore further in the next post.