Gamer Tots – Making RPGs Kid Friendly
All gamer boys and girls grow up some time, and when a gamer man and a gamer woman fall in love, they have a gamer baby. Unfortunately, many kids may not be ready to grasp all the rules. This article gives ideas and tips to simplify the rules and create adventures that work for your kids, allowing them to try DnD sooner and giving them a great way to express creativity and de-stress, just like us big kids.
Crunching the Numbers
Making an RPG kid-friendly begins with the simplification of the stats. This can be as simple as doing away with the character sheet altogether, as Chatty DM dad does with his son Nico, and using rock paper scissors to determine the success of an action. As your child develops as a player, however, you may want to add in some dice, ability scores, AC, skills, and hit points. It takes a little time to convert your favorite game’s character sheets to a kid-friendly version, but once it’s done, you may find you prefer it as well because it makes for quicker combat and more opportunities to role-play.
I have some basic suggestions for each stat type that can be adapted for most RPGs. If it’s not working for yours, take the basic idea of the stat change method (reducing the steps to get the stat) and modify it for your own needs. As far as when a child is ready for character sheets and stats, there is no set age. Basically, when your child can add and subtract two-digit numbers, then they are ready. Generally (very generally – every child is unique, and numerous factors go into mathematical readiness), this age ranges from six- to nine-years-old.
4E has already done the work for us on this one. Each class adds a specific number (10, 12, or 15) to the Constitution score. When leveling up, each class adds a specific number (4, 5, or 6) to the current Hit Points. However, you can always simplify this further by making every class have the same added number. I recommend taking the middle ground, with 12 as the original number added when creating the character and 5 as the number added at each level. Also, I add it to the simplified Body ability, but more on this later.
If your child is struggling with addition and subtraction, use 10 and 5 as the numbers. These are easier to add than other numbers. Also, you can choose to start out with a base HP of 25 for their characters, and add 5 at each level. Many children can count by fives in Kindergarten or even younger, so this formula works well for many kids.
The simplification method I use for this stat is to start with the Body ability (we’re getting there) and add one point for each level. So if the Body ability starts at 15, at level one the kid PC would have an AC of 16. At level two they would have 17, level three 18, etc. Not only does this make a one-step method, but the child is simply “counting” the AC.
I hear it now: “Time out, Krys, what about armor bonuses and modifiers and all that?” My answer is: throw it out, at least for now. When your child begins asking why the scale mail she’s wearing isn’t helping her any more than her brother’s leather, or Gamer Jr. can’t get why if he’s such a quick little Halfling the frost giant doesn’t get any negatives for trying to clobber him with the hammer, they’re ready for the big time. Switch to standard character sheets, and dive in to the armament shop.
Abilities and Defenses
Here’s where it gets a little trickier to simplify. I can think of numerous ways to look at these scores as reducible figures, and no one way will satisfy everyone. Please remember, the method I’m recommending is just one of many, and I’ll discuss some other points of view as I go over each.
With this method, I’ve combined Defenses and Ability scores. Depending on your needs, this can be changed as well. I’ll cover the full method I use first, and then provide information on modifying it.
With 4E in particular (although I believe this can also be used by most RPGs), I’ve reduced the six abilities to three: Body, Mind, and Spirit. It can get a little grey when we get into the original abilities that these three umbrella. Strength is a given for Body, and any related stats previously affected by Strength are now affected by Body. Constitution is the other Ability I tie to Body because it affects Hit Points, and I see this as a largely body-related stat.
Intelligence and Dexterity are the stats I label “Mind”. Intelligence fits perfectly into a Mind ability label, but Dex is definitely arguable. Some would prefer Dex as a Body Ability since it involves movement. I call it a Mind ability for two reasons: (1) some part of your mind controls the ability to move quickly, and even if you are not a muscle-bound meat shield, you can still have good defense by being quick-witted and, lo and behold, dexterous; (2) it fits my idea of having two abilities merged.
Lastly, Spirit is a combination of Wisdom and Charisma. Both really make sense to me to be in the Spirit category. Wisdom is an ability that can be seen in very young children, showing that it is not a learned (Mind) ability, but rather an innate (Spirit) ability. Charisma also fits this innate vs. learned definition.
When creating the original scores, I recommend starting at 10 for each Ability and letting them add in another 10 points and dividing it up however they want (with advice from you in regards to what’s best for their class). Or you can just put two stats at 13 and the most important stat at 14.
To simplify this even further, I make Body my Fortitude defense, Mind my Reflex, and Spirit my Willpower. Here’s where it gets a little complicated. In 4E rules, the Defenses depend on the modifier of related Abilities, and of course ½ the level. Under the leveling up rules, Abilities level up once every four levels and are given no bonuses (although their modifiers are) based on the level number itself. What I’ve chosen to do is not use the related modifiers at this level, but instead give a full point per level for each Body, Mind, and Spirit. I do not use modifiers at all, as this method increases the modifiers far more quickly than needed. I’ll get into attack and damage bonuses and skills and how to accommodate for this later.
Some other options for the Ability and Defense stats are to keep them separate and use modifiers for skills, attack, and damage bonuses. I still wouldn’t use them for Defense because it’s just easier to add 1 for each level than for the kid to figure out if the modifier’s changed again. If you use this method, level up the Defenses +1 at every level, and level up all three Abilities +1 every 4 levels. I recommend this method when the child starts wanting more complexity from the game.
Yes, both of these methods will throw off the numbers slightly from the standard deviation, but it is still pretty slight and in the PC’s favor. When it comes to kids, it’s always better to give a little boost than make it more difficult for them.
Skills are pretty simple…training is still available because it’s a +5, and kids can count by fives at a fairly young age. With my favored method, again modifiers are not used. Instead, give the kid a full point per level instead of a ½ point.
Also, I like reducing the number of skills as well. This also simplifies things once you begin using the modifiers. Athletics (which involves any kind of movement), Knowledge (covers all knowledge-related skills, including Heal), Thievery, Stealth, Perception (which also covers Insight), and Speech (covers all talking-related skills, including Streetwise, Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidation) are the six skills I use for 4E when playing with kids.
Most kids can comprehend that some people don’t speak the same languages they do from their first day in school when they meet other children from different cultures. Our multi-lingual society makes it easy for children to grasp the fact that language can create barriers between different peoples. I recommend keeping these in the game.
My advice is to let them pick whatever weapon they want and give a base damage of 1d6. When they begin questioning why a dagger does as much damage as a hammer, then go to the standard version. For attack and damage bonuses either give them 1 point per level or use the modifier, depending on the method you choose. The first method does give large bonuses at higher levels, but if it begins to seriously affect game play, adjust the monsters’ levels to something more challenging.
Keep the ranged pretty simple. You can count the squares if you want, or you can estimate and let them make reasonable shots at a target.
With 4E much of the work has already been done. An additional option would be to give one new power at each level instead of giving the long list of options at certain levels. Pick something you think your kid will like and give them that. When they are older and have a better idea of game play rules, have them choose from the list.
Another consideration is to make daily powers encounter powers. It’s not really necessary, but it can help with really young kids to only have to comprehend two power types instead of three. I still keep the three types separate, but I do not generally make a distinction between Utility Powers and Attack Powers. I just call them all powers, and only differentiate by how often they can be used.
Just get rid of them. I always forget to use my feats anyway unless it’s something added in to my stats via Character Builder. This method also helps alleviate the additional bonuses due to the other changes, especially at higher levels.
This is where some more difficult math comes into play because surges involve some basic division. However, there is a trick that most kids can grasp. You may have even seen this on your 3rd grader’s math homework when they must show their work.
Not long ago we were still using the memorization and draw the box and reverse multiplication and all that to learn to divide. Our teaching methods have improved quite a bit thanks to some very insightful mathematicians. Say we have 25 hit points and we want to figure out our healing surge. We could try to rack our brains to remember that 25 divided by 4 is 6 with a remainder of 1. Or we could draw four circles since we know that a healing surge is ¼ the total HP, and then put a line in each one and repeat until we get to 25. Check out this link to see an example. And yes, I did this myself. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT make fun of my (lack of) artistic ability.
The first circle will have seven lines, and the rest will have six. Explain to your child that this means that ¼ of 25 is somewhere between 6 and 7. We always round down, so the healing surge value is 6.
Another suggestion you might want to try is making healing surges standard, at-will actions but doing away with the second wind. Let the characters use them more often than once per encounter, and maybe you could even put a cap, say three uses per encounter instead of just one with the second wind.
Saving Throws and Death
I’m not a big fan of character death and TPKs, and I tend to do my best to keep the PCs alive, even in adult-only games. This has nothing to do with any beliefs on whether a kid should learn about death or anything like that. It really has more to do with the fact that I want my players to get to the next part of my campaign that I’ve worked so diligently on. One thing I recommend is giving out special healing tokens for good roleplaying that the kids can use to spend a healing surge while unconscious.
Don’t just give these out for any attempt at roleplaying, though, unless you’re trying to encourage the shyer kids to develop their rping skills. And I really wouldn’t do it for adult players at all. It’s actually pretty hard to die completely in Dnd 4E anyway, with rituals and saving throws and certain powers that can grant hit points to allies, even unconscious ones. I recommend using the saving throws as intended, but remind the other players of ways they can help their friends out while they are dying.
Magical Items and Other Equipment
I don’t use the standard magical items as written in 4E for kids. Generally, I just tell the kids that they found an item (such a brilliant sparkling gem set in a gold ring) and when they put it on they feel its effect (you can recall more information from your studies) and then give more detail about how they apply the bonus (+2 to their Knowledge Skill Bonus). You can do the same things with the specific magical items available through PHB, Adventurer’s Vault, etc., but I find that it gets the same reaction.
Keep them. They give the kids a chance to practice strategy, and they don’t add much, if any, difficulty to the game.
Keep it simple at first. Use the d20 as written for the rules. Use the d6 for all attacks unless or until you include different levels of damage based on the weapon.
I take the Sorry™ rule on this one: youngest goes first. When you want to get more complex, you can start rolling dice and adding in the initiative stat.
Get rid of all the status rules, combat advantage. Keep line-of-sight, but don’t over-complicate it. If they can see the monster through the trees, don’t bother with bonuses or penalties. No marks, nothing that would change the rolled number other than their base attack bonus or what’s allowed by the power.
Keep it at 6, regardless of other factors. Once they are ready for standard rules, switch to those.
You can use the same basic rules for monsters, or just leave them the same and wing it during actual play.
Go heavy on the story telling, and let the kid tell the story and develop it whenever possible. This is the players’ story, and keeping them as involved as possible in its progression is key whether you’re playing with kids or adults.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways to modify RPGs. What have you done to adapt the rules to help your kids get involved with role playing at a younger age? How did they work out? If you’ve tried out the methods mentioned here, how did it affect your game play?