Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Solid Design Elements in Hero Kids

 I sometimes examine other games to see what other game designers are doing and find inspiration in the different ways they approach projects. Justin Halliday’s Hero Kids has provided some interesting insight into a roleplaying game crafted specifically with children in mind, somewhat relevant to one aspect of a project currently on my desk.

Crafting a roleplaying game to introduce kids to the hobby remains an elusive “holy grail” of designers. Even those most carefully attuned to kids still require the involvement of a knowledgeable adult to explain a game process quite different from the usual board game fare children usually play and shepherd them through both character creation and adventure encounters. The key remains creating something kids can pick up and play on their own, with minimal or no parental involvement. Several solid attempts have appeared in recent years, notably rpgKids and Hero Kids (and my own oddball Creatures & Caverns, more a ludological curiosity than anything else). I recently picked up Hero Kids from DriveThruRPGto see how it approaches essential elements of fantasy roleplaying games in ways ideally suited to helping kids learn to game:

Intuitive, Basic Mechanics: The core mechanic to resolving combat and other challenges consists of rolling dice associated with the related attribute (melee, ranged, magic, and armor, each with its own representative icon) and comparing the highest single result to an opponent’s roll or a static difficulty number. The more dice you have, the better the chance you’ll roll high. Stats range from no dice to three dice depending on the character type. Gear and skills tied to the character’s class can also add dice to rolls. I have an odd attraction to roll-and-keep systems, which I first encountered in the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game years ago. The very basic system in Hero Kids offers a simple yet intuitive means of resolving conflicts kids can understand without all the complexities of other roleplaying game systems.

Clear Character Sheets: The character sheet summarizes all relevant information for players using easy-to-remember icons and quick summaries of combat actions. Hero Kids presents seven pre-generated character types -- -- three with a male and female version complete with fun illustrations of kid heroes and a few variations in skills and gear -- along with blank hero cards to create your own. These work to present pre-generated characters to quickly introduce the different kinds of heroes children can play. The use of icons for stats, gear, and skills makes room for the concise summaries of what they can do in terms of a general attack, special actions, and bonus abilities. The game summarizes monsters in the same clear manner.

Open Layout: Each page explains one game element using clear headers, lists, icons, and short, concise paragraphs. A few iconic illustrations fill in spaces on thematic pages. The landscape layout makes the rules easy to view on a notebook or tablet device.

Advice: An entire page offers “Hints & Tips” for running the game with kids, useful both from a general gaming perspective and specifically geared toward rule elements in Hero Kids. Another page covers special considerations for gaming with kids, including pitfalls regarding violence, language, religion, and morality. A two-page glossary also offers yet another helpful tool both for kids getting into gaming and parents seeking quick definitions of game terms.

Kid-Centric Setting: The default setting -- described with one page of text and a map -- provides a relatively insular campaign area, the Brecken Vale the kids call home, bounded on all sides by wilderness areas rife with adventure possibilities. On the preceding page sections entitled “Pint-Sized Heroes” and “Big-Sized Problems” help demonstrate the kinds of adventures kids and their heroes might undertake. The setting is tailored specifically to kids, including playing heroes who are kids facing reasonable challenges.

“Board” & Pieces: Scenario encounters focus action on dungeon maps used with stand-ups for characters (included with each of the pre-generated hero cards) and monsters. These visually based encounters on a gridded play area help younger gamers make the transition from more traditional board games to the more freeform roleplaying games. Each adventure encounter includes a location set-up map with the heroes’ entry point noted along with the numbered places where adversaries lurk, all cleverly keyed to account for varying numbers of characters.

Although Hero Kids still requires a knowledgeable adult to run the game with young players, it remains completely focused on being a roleplaying game for kids without being diluted by any other agenda of simulating an old-school, retro-clone or promoting a particularly ground-breaking campaign setting. It’s a well-developed game (as are its several adventure supplements) with appealing layout and practical utility in running games for kids.

In examining these elements in the context of designing my own roleplaying game with kid-friendly elements I realize my aims seem split between offering something engaging younger players can understand and infusing the game with original, efficient mechanics without too much complexity. I’m considering making the “kid friendly” aspects of my own game secondary to creating a concise, retro-clone-style game I’d like playing, with a basic yet enjoyable game system that cuts down on crunch and focuses on playing to signature character strengths. 

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