Monday, February 6, 2012

Tales from the Junior Front: Playing Pathfinder with my Daughters

As Theo mentioned in a previous blog post, he and I share an interest in teaching kids to play tabletop RPGs. I have twin daughters, who are currently nine years old. I’ve been playing RPGs with them off and on since they were six. I would have liked to start them off earlier, but they weren’t quite ready. They have minor attention deficit issues and a few other challenges, including mild cerebral palsy, due to the fact that they were born almost three months early.

While they are miraculously free of the worst difficulties that they could have, I have to take their current challenges into account when we do our gaming. Although I’d love to say that my kids are way advanced and are already able to play a full game of Pathfinder, even though the suggested age for the Beginner Box set is 12 and up, the fact is, they aren’t quite ready for the kinds of games we adults tend to run. Playing RPGs with them has taught me a lot about running games for younger players. It's probably no surprise that Theo and I aren’t the only ones interested in this topic.

During PaizoCon 2011, some friends and I had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa Stevens, co-owner of Paizo, and Ryan Dancey. Since playing Pathfinder with my kids has been a longtime goal for me, I wanted to pick their brains about designing things for the Beginner Box that my daughters could play. Ryan told us that Wizards of the Coast had actually commissioned a psychological study to determine the age at which an “average kid” could pick up and play a game of D&D. It turns out that the “12 and up” age suggestion is based on the fact that Pathfinder, D&D and similar games require skills and understanding of concepts that younger kids just haven’t developed, yet. I have found that to be mostly true for my kids.

Although I started my kids out on other games, I’m a Pathfinder fan, at heart, so I played a couple of sessions with my daughters using the full Pathfinder RPG rules. When the Pathfinder Beginner Box came out, I jumped at the opportunity to use a simpler version of the rules to help the girls get the hang of things a little easier. Over the course of several sessions, I’ve learned even more about gaming with my daughters. These experiences fit with the ones Lisa and Ryan were talking about at PaizoCon.

While individual experiences will vary, the following generalities are lessons I’ve learned that many adults can use when preparing and running games for young players.

First, and foremost, playing games with kids requires even more patience than playing with adults. Every game master knows that players are the most unpredictable and challenging aspect of running RPGs—the dice have nothing on a bunch of players when it comes to generating something random. While that element of uncertainty is part of the fun and challenge of being a GM, in the case of kids, that randomness can be frustrating, because most kids won’t limit themselves to what’s going on in the game.

The party might be in a dragon’s lair, preparing to assault the beast’s inner sanctum, when one player decides that her PC needs to go back to town (which is miles away), so that she can buy a bouquet of flowers to try and make the dragon friendly toward them. Or, she may simply decide that her character wants to go off and find her long-lost brother who mysteriously disappeared after the great battle that killed their parents—nevermind the fact that this is not a part of her character history that you’ve ever heard about or that it has nothing to do with your carefully-crafted plot. You need to be able to work in a variety of “unorthodox” solutions to problems while also keeping them on track toward a current objective, all without losing your temper. (I would like to say that I’ve always managed to do that...but I would be lying if I did.)

You’ll also need that patience to deal with more frequent rules questions and to explain in greater detail how a character takes an action, often more than once. Kids aren’t going to notice or remember all the nuances of how the rules work and they’re going to make dumb tactical choices, because they aren’t paying attention, don’t know the rules well enough, or just think it will be more fun to do things a different way.

It’s tempting in these situations to correct such poor decisions or tell kids what to do. But forcing a young player to change her mind can backfire. It slows the learning process and can even cause the player to rely on you for even more decision-making in the future. Even worse, it can make the game less fun for them, because they feel like they are only allowed to play it the way you want them to.

You need to be able to let them make mistakes to learn through consequences, but at the same time, you don’t want to be too harsh, because that’s not fun, either. If possible, let them succeed despite a poor tactical decision—maybe not all the time, but enough that they aren’t always frustrated. Kids will learn over time, but the overall goal is to have fun, not become tactical prodigies in elementary school.

Characters, not Tactics
The fact is that not only are most kids not aware of the principles of tactical combat, most kids don’t even care about them. When I asked my daughters what their favorite things about playing Pathfinder are, the unanimous response was, “talking to the people and making new friends.” For them, in-character social interaction is at the core of a fun roleplaying game—and it applies in every situation, not just when you head back to town to get your next assignment.

A good example of this came up when we played the adventure in the Pathfinder Beginner Box set. The girls wanted to talk to everything. Even when they clearly understood that they weren’t going to be able to talk their way out of a battle with the creatures in a specific room, they wanted to carry on a conversation while they were fighting. They wanted to hear what the goblins had to say or throw taunts at the monsters.

I had grown to expect that from my kids, with whom I have played other games like Faery’s Tale Deluxe. I enjoy games like these, because I can “do voices” and play characters in a big, exaggerated way without feeling silly. I know I look silly when I do it, but when I’m doing it for my kids and they’re laughing and having a good time, I don’t feel self-conscious, as I would if I tried the same thing with my regular adult gaming group.

The point is, when playing RPGs with kids, you should focus on what the characters are doing and saying. Give them funny voices and mannerisms. Make them memorable because of how they behave, not because of the special abilities they have or how deadly the combat was. Kids will engage more if they can actually interact with a dungeon’s denizens. While this is true for all age groups, really, it’s especially important for kids.

Combat and Victory
When I asked my daughters what their least favorite thing about Pathfinder is, both of them responded with, “Missing.” In other words, they don’t like it when their attacks miss. And I can’t say I blame them. I mean, who does like failure? But for kids, not being able to succeed at every task can be a real obstacle.

In that study that Ryan Dancey told me about, one of the things WotC learned is that kids need to be old enough to accept that failing a roll is okay. Until they reach a certain maturity level, kids will get stuck trying to unlock a specific door, even if they don’t need to get through that door to explore the rest of the dungeon. If they can’t make the roll to open that lock, then they can’t proceed with the rest of the adventure.

Similarly, younger kids have a hard time with the idea that their attacks won’t always hit. One of my daughters specifically pointed out that she wished combat was more like a battle in her Pokemon game on the Nintendo DS. In those battles, the attacks always hit, and it’s just a matter of whether your attacks are stronger and your health is greater than your opponent’s. Understanding that mentality can go a long way to helping your kids understand combat in a game like Pathfinder. Call on that patience that we just talked about, ignore any potential whining, and gently explain that they will get to try again next time.

That doesn’t mean that I’m going to start letting my daughters succeed at every attack roll. Part of learning to play any game is learning to accept that the rules work a certain way. That goes hand in hand with learning some basic tactics to keep from getting killed in every encounter.

What it does mean is that, when running Pathfinder battles for young kids, you need to give them straightforward scenarios with plenty of opportunities to succeed. While older players may be able to appreciate the frustration of having their enemies escape to fight another day, most kids aren’t going to find that satisfying. (It was for that reason that I chose to let them defeat the evil dragon in our adventure, rather than have it escape. The dragon would have been smarter to fly away, but the girls would have been disappointed.)

Objectives: Sometimes Railroading is Good
One of the biggest challenges in playing RPGs with my girls, and probably with a lot of kids, relates to that anecdote about leaving the dungeon in the middle of an adventure. We all know kids can get distracted pretty easily, and not just kids with attention deficits. While a short attention span may not always send your PCs off to far away lands, it can prevent them from making progress through a single location.

Even if a kid is old enough to understand that a locked chest doesn’t have to be opened for them to proceed on with the adventure, she might just as easily get fixated on an otherwise unimportant feature you’ve placed in your dungeon—something you just thought would add ambience and interest—and try heading down a path that has nothing to do with her original mission.

When this happens, you should consider working to change your story on the fly to incorporate the new train of thought, because doing so will make the game feel more interactive and tells the player that she can interact with the game world in a more organic way.

Alternatively, you can avoid complex back stories or intricate details that don’t help the characters focus on the current adventure. That amazing mural on the wall that depicts an ancient civilization at the height of its power may be a great detail about who originally built the dungeon and why, but it also might send the player characters off in search of the powerful artifact in the picture, rather than deeper into the dungeon where the current resident is waiting for them.

Tools and Props
I have to admit that one of the other reasons I love playing games at home with my kids is that it allows me to use a lot of the cool props and miniatures I’ve been collecting over the years. I have tons of miniatures, Paizo Flip-Maps and Map Packs, and an awesome Magna-Map combat mat by Dungeon Life and Alea Tools’ magnetic markers that go great with them. All of those things have found new purpose now that my daughters are playing, and I look forward to sharing those items so my daughters can use them for their own games at some point in the future.

In the meantime, those tools provide a cool hook for them. They love moving their miniatures around the board, and a well-made, full-color map helps them visualize the scenes they are in. The stand-up pawns in the Beginner Box are a great asset, too, providing pictures of their enemies and allies for them to visualize while they interact, especially when that enemy is a cool new monster they’ve never seen. These details make it easier for them to appreciate combat encounters more, which is important when they’d often rather be talking to the shopkeep.

Some of these tools also make the experience better for me. Using nice, pre-printed maps saves me from having to draw things and allows me to focus on telling the story. Having a good mini to represent the bad guy can even help me stay in character. But one other tool has made a significant impact on the quality of our tabletop gaming experience: a dice tower.

I’d never really seen the need for dice towers until I started gaming with my daughters. But youngsters aren’t always known for their great hand-eye coordination and they may not know their own strength. One of my daughters, in particular, takes the term “throw the dice” literally. After numerous re-rolls because the dice ended up on the floor, I realized we needed to do something different. I found a pattern online for making my own dice tower and modified it for use with foam core board. The design worked pretty well and I posted pictures online, which prompted a friend to point out a tower that someone was selling. That design could be taken apart for easier transport. I liked the idea so much, that I modified my own design and decided to share it. (You can get the pattern and directions, here, on my website.)

Using a dice tower has improved our gaming experience, because even my “dice-hurling daughter” can be assured that her rolls are as fair as everyone else’s. And believe me, little details like that make all the difference when you’re gaming with kids.

This, Above All: Have Fun
I love playing RPGs with my kids and look forward to many more adventures with them in any number of fantastic worlds. I hope that they enjoy it enough to take those adventures and make them their own, over time, but even if they don’t, I’ll be glad that we could spend the time together. After all, isn’t that what tabletop RPGs are really about?

About Paris Crenshaw
Paris Crenshaw currently resides with his family in San Diego, California, although his years of service as a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy have given him the opportunity to live and work in a variety of locales around the world. While pursuing his Naval career, he has maintained a love of writing and creating, focusing most of his energy on the sci-fi and fantasy adventure genres. Paris’s published work has mainly been in the world of fantasy roleplaying games, including articles in the Earthdawn Journal and freelance development work for West End Games and, more recently, Clockwork Gnome Publishing. He is a member of the Wily Writers and has been a guest editor and contributor to that group’s website. His most recent publications include stories and articles in several issues of Wayfinder magazine, a fanzine for Paizo Publishing’s award-winning Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.


  1. Great post! I have been playing AD&D 2E with two girls (9 and 12) and their mom for over a year now. I started writing about it back in October,
    My point being that I can relate to a lot of what you've written.

    You hit a lot of good points and my experiences have been similar, although there are a few areas where they differ.

    For instance, our characters never miss in combat unless they roll a 1. This isn't something I made up for the kids. It's just how the abstract 2E combat works. So I've never experienced any complaints about "missing". Although, when it comes to failing at causing any damage in combat, I find that their mom gets more frustrated then the kids.

    Although we don't use miniatures, the combat taking place abstractly, props are spot on! I've used things like a Halloween skull to represent Acererak from the Tomb of Horrors, the old coffee stained scrolls trick, jewelry (also from the Halloween store) and other random things.

    The dice throwing hasn't been a problem. Well, maybe Kay's forest dice, since you can't read the numbers, unless you're inches away from it.

    I personally don't like the concept of railroading, but there are definitely times where I recognize that their mom is steering them in a specific direction. Since she is not the DM, it's not really the same in my opinion.

    Anyway, the whole experience has been really fun.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Finally, a moment to sit and read my own blog. And I didn't have to write it!

    Thanks, Paris, it's a great post. The issue of "misses" is interesting. I wonder, do your daughter's play any other games? My nephews are big video gamers and I think this has given them a higher tolerance for failed rolls. At the same time, I have attempted to try and make as many failed rolls as I possibly can entertaining in other ways by my narration. Even though I don't fudge the failures, it's an attempt to make failing fun, too.

    I'm going to reread and ponder, so I may have more later, but for now, this has me thinking about how to improve gaming with my nephews, which looks to be turning into a weekly event, now. And the girls, by the way, are cute as the dickens.

  3. I enjoyed this one. I ran a kid's game for a year or so back, and then a few of the precocious boys moved into our adult game as regulars (we're dealing with age 10-11 boys) but it's really great to see the perspective on gaming with daughters - mine is 6 and we're looking forward to when we can run a family game with her in another year or so. I had to show her your picture - "See, girls totally play D&D too!"

  4. Thanks, guys! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It was nice of you to let me contribute, Theo. Of note, I just fixed the post, because I realized I'd left out a few links. You can now go to my page and get that dice tower template, if you wish.

    Also, a couple of quick points:

    1) I probably didn't explain my meaning about the "railroading" concept, but I'm glad my lack of clarity prompted discussion. What I really mean, there, is that it's better for younger kids to have a clear sense of purpose--the overall objective has to be big and memorable, so they won't get stuck trying to follow a bunch of side treks.

    One technique that I've used is to be very obvious that my stories are based on fairy tales or stories the kids know well. That way, they have a clear sense of what the "boundaries" are and can keep the story moving on their own. If they want to break those boundaries, that's okay, but they will know they are doing it and it will (usually) have a purpose.

    As they get older, kids can incorporate more and learn to follow multiple paths without losing sight of the ultimate goal. That let's you create more complex stories. But when they're younger, keep it simple and don't throw things in their that are likely to lead them off track.

    2) Thanks for the compliments, Theo. I think my girls are cute, too...but I'm biased. ;)

    Without being unflattering, I have to admit that maturity and patience are not something my kids have in spades. They aren't the best sports in the world. Frankly, one of my hopes from playing RPGs with them is that we can build there skills in that area before it's "too late."

    They do play video games but usually they are games like LEGO adventures or Pokemon, which have different combat mechanics. I do think they're getting better over time, but I found it interesting that they both said that "missing" was their least favorite part of the game. Given our current struggles with homework, I'd expected them to say they didn't like having to do all the math.

    3) Thanks for the feedback, Beedo. If your daughter is anything like mine, she's already been prepared for a seat at the gaming table just by being surrounded by all the books and hearing Daddy talk about it so much. I'm sure she'll be a natural.