One of the great things about role-playing is the chance to do the impossible, to be a hero. To have your character matter to a world in a way that few people, perhaps no people, will ever matter in the real world. You could be the one to throw the ring into Mount Doom, blow up the Death Star or pull the sword from the stone. That’s what we think of when we think about fictional heroes.
When children think about heroes they think about it the same way. Lately my kids have been watching two cartoons, Troll Hunters and the Deep. In Troll Hunters if Jim and his friends lose, it’s the end of the world as we know it. In the Deep, if the Nekton family fail then it’s the end of the world as we know it. Dangermouse, another family favourite, saves the world, galaxy or universe pretty much every episode.
Kids get this kind of drama every time they sit down to watch a cartoon or see a movie. And they like it. Even classic children’s stories do this. Most of the Narnia books feature an evil that could destroy the entire kingdom. Harry Potter has Voldemort to deal with.
Most kids don’t do subtle, nuanced and understated. So don’t be shy of giving children a high stakes game to play.
How do you make the stakes high? There are a couple of ways to do this.
1. Introduce a problem that threatens everything
If you’re playing an adventure in space with your kids, go for the alien invasion. Or the sun going supernova. And make clear that it’s down to them to stop it. Them, their space ship, their ingenuity. Make sure their characters are up to the job. No six year old dreams of being a raw recruit in the space rangers with a lot to learn, they want to be the best space ranger in the galaxy, with the best ship and the best robot sidekick. Say yes.
It helps to create a tangible object to represent everything. The shield generator that holds back the aliens and must be defended, the observatory where they will be first to see that the sun has exploded. This is the thing in the story that will represent everything in the world. Film directors do this all the time. Learn from them.
Does saving the galaxy every week get old? Well not if you’re five years old it doesn’t.
2. Introduce a problem that threatens everything in the story
This sounds similar, but it’s slightly different. A lot of Doctor Who or Star Trek episodes work like this. Our heroes discover an interesting, exciting place. In Doctor Who it’s often a planet or a space station. In Star Trek an alien life form. In magical kingdom stories it might be a hidden kingdom or a mystical temple. For pirates a hidden island, or an amazing ship.
And then a threat comes along that threatens to obliterate the interesting, exciting place. Not damage it a bit, or make it slightly less amazing, but obliterate it, totally.
Why do this? Well saving a village is cool. But if you know there’s a whole kingdom out there it can feel like your adventure was small. A small adventure. A child sized adventure.
And children don’t play role-playing games to be children. They play games to be awesome. To do grown up sized things that even a grown up would think of as heroic. Unless they ask to play a child, don’t assume that they want to, or that that’s what they’re doing. They’re playing a full grown adult, doing what your child considers to be heroic, grown up things.
But what about development?
If you’re used to role-playing games you’ll be familiar with the idea of leveling up. The idea that over time your character gets tougher and the challenges get tougher. And so you progress from farm hand to fighter to knight to slayer of dragons and defeater of dark lords.
This takes a while. It requires an ability to think about long term time horizons and retain details of a plot over a period of time. To plot out the development of a character in a way that makes sense.
Kids aren’t great at that stuff. This is why they’ll happily watch cartoons where every week the stakes are a variation on save the world. It’s why they never wonder why characters in cartoons don’t learn from their mistakes, but rather retain their character flaws week after week.
If you’re dead set on that kind of progression try and do it quickly. While the timeline isn’t completely clear Luke Skywalker goes from farm hand to blowing up the Death Star in about a week. At least in Episode IV he doesn’t have to train, he is the best star pilot in the galaxy, even if he’s never been in a spaceship before he meets up with Han Solo.
And what about next week?
Grown ups might get a bit jaded if they’re asked to save the world every week. They start looking for games where the stakes are emotional or personal, rather than physical. They start wanting games where they can build a character’s history and skills. Where they can take pleasure in having followed every step on the path from farm hand to defeater of dark lords, or the slow unravelling of a global conspiracy.
Most kids don’t crave those things. They want to be heroes and save the world. Let them.