Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Children and Tasers

Penny Arcade has started a new round of "Lookouts" and WOTC has rolled out a 'kids' D&D game so kids games are kind of in the air (John Harper's working on something too and because it's John, it's probably going to rock). The bug has nibbled at me, but I also know that I really wouldn't even take a swing at it until I had time for some massive fictions consumption.

See, the problem is that most RPGs are much more fighty than kid fiction. Kid's stories, especially YA stuff, have a lot of conflict and adventure, but precious little actual fighting, and when there is fighting, it still follows very specific rules. Enemies are knocked down or tripped and taking out of the fight through their own incompetence.

This is why I use the yardstick that a system that can't handle tasers[1] can't handle young adult fiction. Fights in YA tend to be one sided and resolved by clever efforts, not direct confrontation. Boxes are dropped on things, enemies are tricked into traps, oil slicks are spread or (as is perhaps most common) enemies are evaded entirely. [2]

RPGs don't support this well. They support fights well, and you occasionally get efforts to shoehorn these things together, but it tends to work badly. To understand, take a look at actual kids material. At the extreme cartoony end you may have direct violence, but even that has specific rules - you can only hit appropriate targets (zombies, robots, stuff like that) - otherwise attacks are dodged, parried or blocked. When that doesn't happen and a hit lands, it's palpable and a non-trivial event. Consider that model versus a traditional hit point approach[3] and the disconnect becomes evident.

Other approaches are even more indirect. One reason magic works so well for YA stuff is that it often offers an array of ways to handle problems without violence, and when direct conflict is necessary, keeping it specifically within the domain of magic allows it to be dramatic and forceful, but rarely actually hurt. Similarly, it's very popular to allow for fierce conflict by proxy - cockfighting games like Pokemon allow kids to get their fight on without actually getting in a fight.

You can really go on for ages finding examples of this, but hopefully if you've been exposed to enough young adult stuff, you can see this pattern well enough. Minimize direct violence, emphasize cleverness and other virtues. Easy peasy.[4]

But that's not what RPGs tend to do well, so the prospect of a breakout RPG for kids is a rough thing to pitch, especially when the strongest ideas ('A Pokemon RPG!') are wrappers around things that are already fun on their own. If the idea does not include the unique benefits of RPGs, it's dead in the water, because kids are smart, and they'll just go do the other fun thing without the baggage.

So what DOES make a good YA RPG? That's where the plie of fiction comes in. Start grabbing books from Rowling to Nix to Alexander to anyone else you can think of and start reading them with an eye towards what problems the hero faces and how he overcomes them. You will find that the answer is very rarely "With Both Guns Blazing" but what the answer is may be a bit harder to pin down.[5]

1 - Very, very few can. Insta-helplessness is a cost effective route to killing for bad guys or easy victory for good guys, and most games put up explicit barriers to keep that from being a cheesy path to victory. Unfortunately, it's essential for YA stuff.

2 - This does not last forever, depending on the story. One coming of age element that you'll sometimes see is the point at which the young hero must fight and kill. It's never a trivial thing and it underscores the idea that you don't do it lightly. This idea has, of course, been subverted by the popularity of dark hero tropes, because killing is fun an totally ok because there are lots of people who deserve it! However, that's just lazy writing. Killing people without consequences is juvenile at best, and a number of writing habits have evolved over time to address this. Monsters, specifically unsophisticated evil monsters like zombies, allow for "killing" without complexity.

3 - Yes, it can theoretically be handled by very abstract hit points, but in practice, that theory works for crap.

4 - This is not to say that YA stuff is toothless. It's not. But if you think violence is the only way to bring it, you need to work a bit harder on that.

5 - I am not touching anime in this discussion. Just acknowledging that and moving on.


  1. The Princes' Kingdom (a Dogs in the Vineyard riff by Clinton Nixon) is, in my opinion, a pretty great YA game. The mechanics are simplified (all stats are d6s, complicated things are 1d4, good things are 1d8, gear uses a simple version of the DitV method, the end), and their nature means that the solutions that kids bring to each challenge are the things on their sheet.

    Which means that if they don't have fighty things on their sheet, then that's not how they're going to solve their problems, and obviously the way their solution plays out in the fiction is going to be part of your narration, which means you can set the tone however you like.

    (The 'natural' tone for the game, by the way, is sort of a mix of Tanith Lee's "Defender of the Small" series and Wizard of Earthsea.)

    Anyway. The Princes' Kingdom. I recommend it for this kind of thing.

    (I've also run "Shadows" quite a lot with little kids, so I'll mention that as well, as well as using Vincent's Otherkind dice mechanic (as tweaked by John Harper) in lots of different settings.) Otherkind definitely allows the players to solve problems without shooting things.

  2. Y'know, I had totally forgotten about The Princes' Kingdom, but you're right, it does pretty much rock the house.

    -Rob D.

  3. I think your pokemon example shows that you're kind-of missing the point. Pokemon or Yugi-Oh are conceptually no different than D&D in that it's the kids fighting by proxy. All have hit-points and trivialize the violence to the point where it's simply the culmination of a quest goal against a competing adversary. Yes RPG's do violence well, so does Pokemon and both trivialize death to the point where it's not really a big deal. (In pokemon death is simply the monster losing the duel, while in D&D, death is solved by a resurrection scroll.)

    It sounds like you're trying to re-invent the wheel by applying adult reasoning to the limitations that the game should have so that the kids aren't exposed to the harsh realities of mortality or by extension become desensitized to it. But it's not the kids who are preoccupied with the consequences and harsh realities of death, it's us. Kids have been doing sword fights and cowboys and indians forever and don't dwell on horrors of these scenarios, they're simply caught up in the action. Eventually they take these innocent activities and see the more complex issues associated with them and might become interested in those as adults.

    Children's movies and books can't illustrate the horror of death in a trivial fashion because it's an adult telling a story to the kids. But kids don't play games to tell stories like we do, they play games because they're games and it just wouldn't be as fun to take out the action in favor of more narrative-friendly conflict resolutions.

  4. I think there's a distinction between the nature of the proxy between Pokemon and something like 4e. In both cases, it's an agent of the player performing the fighting, but in the case of pokemon, there's an extra layer of remove. That's a genuine and important difference.

    That said, this does highlight what I consider to be a real problem in my thinking. "kids" is actually a really broad spread and while I'm primarily thinking about YA (in the sense of Young adult fiction) I am cheating a little bit in pulling in media targeted at younger kids. That was mostly laziness - the nuanced difference between Pokemon and its ilk will be lost on most (including me!) but the idea of battle by proxy is so clearly illustrated by it that it's hard NOT to use pokemon as the example.

    But all that aside, the pokemon example is a very small slice of the larger point: in kids _stories_, violence has a very different role. I totally buy that "I killed you!" is part of play from a very early age, but that's not the element that intrigues me. I look at a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson and I think "How can a game be like those stories? How are these stories _different_ than others we look at as source material?"

    Right now, not a lot of games give me the tools to answer those questions. And I think it's important because, and I can't emphasize this strongly enough, kids read these books. They get excited about them.

    I think you're taking my embrace of the tropes of those genres as treating a YA audience as unsophisticated, but I promise I think it's quite the opposite. Kids are INTENSELY aware of the rules of the genres they enjoy, and these are those rules. Kids are happy to mess with these rules, but they do it from a position of comfortable knowledge. A game for kids needs to recognize that sophistication, even as it recognizes that it's a game for kids.

    That's tricky, to say the least.

    -Rob D.

  5. I'd also recommend Cartoon Action Hour Season 2. The system works in part of 'fail tokens.' When you do something, anything to hinder the bad guys and make the rolls, you give them a token. Three tokens and their current plot is foiled.

    This allows Scooby Doo, Jar Jar Binks, and Inspector Gadget to be ABSOLUTELY affective when encountering the bad guys. My point here is when those guys can actually function in a game without being bullet stoppers, ANY character can be.

  6. You and I are of like goals as far as creating game stories goes. The 4th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide really opened my eyes to giving the GM (or DM) the tools to build an adventure as part of the game. Up til then I considered offerings like a Storytelling sections and DMGs to be useless page filler.

    I keep envisioning a setup where GM's can create game scenarios by rolling a series of random encounters within a dungeon setting that creates it's own narrative, this has the added benefit of giving the GM something to discover himself, which can be a good thing as long as the GM doesn't require a high degree of narrative control.

    To me that seems like the easy part. The hard part is setting up NPC and critter generators that make for unique allies and adversaries without a lot of prep time, so the narrative generation process goes smooth without being derailed by an extensive character generation. I'll show you my work when I get around to it.

  7. There is also the approach of treating Fighting like most other skills to de-empathise it's importance. I mean if Carpentry can be resolved with a single roll, why not Fighting. Especially if the player got to narrate the result of each success or failure.

    [Perhaps adding FATE-like consequences based on degree of comparative success. You do need to add duration to the contest parameters though. Perhaps adding skills together to determine how long it would take (useful if using a die-based ability system, each side rolls and adds their dice together to get the duration in melee rounds (also works with other skills too; frex, cabinet-making measured in die roll days). Hmmm. Must give this some thought.]

  8. Rob, I don’t have much to add but I wanted to express my appreciation for your insightful and detailed posts. They are a joy to read. Rock, John.

  9. You are, predictably perhaps, on the exact same page as me.

    Also, I really didn't like the Heroes of Hesiod thing, but it's not for its rules or its layout or anything like that. I really didn't like it because I think it completely misses the point of something like How To Train Your Dragon. Cute kids kill cute monsters? No, no, no.

    Mouse Guard and Princes' Kingdom and all good YA fiction don't shy away from violence, or darkness, or conflict, but reducing it to a skirmish game vs the baddies is needlessly simplistic. I really want to see intro quest games, puzzle-solving, traps, danger, peril. Much better for the audience.

  10. Bit tangential to the point, but I've realized my approach to problems in the RPGs I've played might very well stem from all the YA literature I've soaked in from an early age. I tend to prefer characters that rely on their wiles.

    Indeed, my archetypal image of the Adventure was formed from those books.

    For this reason, I find combat-focused games like 4E unplayable (I've given it several tries and concluded it just wasn't for me). And I'm fine with sudden defeats/knockouts/etc.

    In short, I'd probably be prime audience for the kind of game you're talking about despite being out of the target age range.

    Genre emulation is an interesting exercise (I'm currently brainstorming a magical girl game--anime is another primary influence for me).

  11. I would literally pay money to get to sit down with some of you fine designer types to hash some of this stuff out. There's so much to cover, really.

    *Pokemon in a new wrapper. The thing is you've got to unwrap itself and find it's gooey center. I think if you do, you'll find *some* of the core enjoyment of Pokemon is the same from Monster Rancher, How to Train Dragons and a kid getting his first puppy. It's in training and growing and catarogizing as much if not more than it is in fighting. Fighting is just an aspect of that training, and sometimes not even the focus of that training.

    *I need to see the Dr. Who game, but the main complaint (on rpg.net, take with grain of salt.) I heard about it is that it emphasizes running and problem solving over combat. That's a sweet spot for this sort of project, and suggests that, like the TV show, there's possibly a wider audience then just children teen or families.

  12. @filamena You're absolutely right that there's more to pokemon than fighting - I was focusing on the fighting to illustrate how we try to put violence at a remove from Children, but there's a lot more there.

    I think I might even suggest that it's a subset of the fact that kids like MAKING things. When I was 12, the coolest thing in the DMG was the prices for building a castle. I love building castles or towers or HQs for my character. That sort of permanence within the imaginary scope of the game is compelling, and I think the pet training thing hits the same note. Something to ponder. (Also, I note that if you guys ever, y'know, do the tourist thing towards DC, this talking thing is free of charge!).

    @Paul I'm still unsure on that. I can see it, and I can DEFINITELY see that most of it is there, I'm just undecided on the whole package. If it' snot, it's so close that it probably wouldn't take much.

  13. @kaja Yeah, my GMs will tell you I'm a pain in the ass for trying to treat fights like puzzles, so I know your pain well!


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