What are Tabletop Roleplaying Games?
Roleplaying games (RPGs) are open-ended adventure games based on shared storytelling and imaginary adventures. Some videogames borrow features from tabletop RPGs - but open-ended, player-lead games usually involve playing tabletop RPGs.
There are RPGs for almost every genre or setting imaginable. For example, in a fantasy RPG an adventurer might be a powerful wizard or a hard-as-nails warrior. In a SciFi RPG a player’s adventurer or player character (PC) could be a merchant, a space marine or a pilot.
Playing Tabletop RPGs
- Players take the part or role of an adventurer or player character (PC) and usually roll or create an adventurer. They might, for example, play the part of a spy, a starship officer or a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world.
- Players then choose and describe their adventurers’ actions during play.
- One player often becomes the Gamesmaster (GM) or Referee, who designs adventures, describes what the adventurers see and interprets outcomes. That includes rolling dice for the non-player characters (NPCs) such as monsters or aliens.
- Players' adventurers explore imaginary worlds, meeting many different situations in imaginary settings. For example, medieval castles and dungeons or spaceships and unexplored planets.
- Adventurers gain more skills and experience as they explore, allowing them to meet increasingly difficult challenges in return for greater prizes.
- The challenges found in adventures can be about exploration, discovery, investigation, crisis management and combat - amongst other options.
- Over time adventurers' imaginary lives become an interwoven part of the many events that make up their game-world or campaign.
- Select a system with straightforward rules and a genre or backdrop that appeals, e.g. fantasy, SciFi or Western.
- If you are the GM you will usually find it much easier to sketch out the adventure first. You can either prepare your own adventures or start out using – and adapting - ready-made adventures.
- Find some tokens or figures to help to place or locate your adventurers in the game. Extra tokens, chips or figures for the characters and creatures you encounter can also be helpful. Some groups may wish to use floor plans with measured grids; others may prefer to sit round the table and talk through the action.
- Complete adventurer sheets displaying adventurers' skills, abilities and equipment.
- Sit down around a table with some dice and start playing. The Internet has plenty of free RPG dice rollers if you don’t have any gaming dice.
- Try not to take the rules too seriously – it’s a roleplaying game and the only way to ‘win’ is for the group to have fun.
The wide variety of dice used to settle outcomes in RPGs is all about varying the odds and outcomes to fit the circumstances. For example, twenty-sided dice/ D20s make bonuses for rolling a natural 20 occur fairly infrequently; while rolling a D4 for the injuries caused by a dagger fits with rolling a D8 for the injuries caused by a sword.
Common dice shapes include D4s, D6s, D8s, D10s, D12s and D20s. D100s are also fairly common, as an alternative to using two differently colored D10s to roll for percentages. These options are easily covered by cheap packs of plastic dice or free dice apps available for Android devices, iPhones and even Wordpress sites.
A minority of RPGs use uncommon dice such as a D30 or dice showing symbols from the game. These are not as likely to appear in free apps and are usually a bit of a gimmick.
Adventurers aka Player Characters aka PCs
Adventurer or character sheets are used to keep records of adventurers’ skills and abilities. That includes skills, abilities and possessions made available when an adventurer starts out, as well as those gained during play.
It is usual for common features often shared by all adventurers/ PCs to be grouped first. This is then followed by items and skills that are used frequently during play. Other specialist skills and possessions often come last. That said there is no need for a fixed arrangement and players can easily vary or decorate character sheets.
There are countless variations on character sheets out there and some games, e.g. Treasure, differ in offering options such as character visualization through images or icon sets. Across most of the variants the underlying spine of a character is generally a consistent blend of natural abilities, learned skills and current possessions. Character histories may also be added to some sheets.
Styles of Play
There are so many different styles of play and genres that it’s quite hard to categorize RPGs consistently. Broadly speaking RPGs do tend to fall into groupings according to complexity. The complete length of a set of core rules can be a general guide to the likely level of complexity, but this is not always the case as some contain lots more support aka fluff than others:
These are cut-down or very short RPGs, which are often quick to set-up, but short on support and lifespan. They may be promotional demos of larger systems or quick start gems like Risus. Another familiar approach is the ransom rule set, where a basic or level-limited game is offered in the hope that you will upgrade. These can be fun starter kits, but it’s worth keeping an eye on how costs might add up.
Rules light (to medium) RPGs are typically games based around easy-to-learn straightforward rule sets and a variable amount of supporting content or fluff, e.g. tips on running the game, lots of items and examples of play.
This kind of system may lack the tactical nuances of more elaborate systems. However, they often leave room within the rules to be filled by players’ imaginations and usually support improvisational play. Rules light RPGs are, essentially, about offering open-ended gameplay and player choice. Traveler and Treasure are examples of RPGs with rules light mechanics allied to rules medium support.
Within storytelling games building shared stories takes precedence over the cut and thrust of resolving challenges mechanically - and players may be rewarded by the system for characterization and dramatic roleplaying. This approach encourages players to build stories, but tends to induce the process instead of allowing it to arise, which can be frustrating for players looking for a more self-mediated improvisation.
A rule for everything tends to place simulation over a sense of authenticity, which is probably not helpful in encouraging new players to play RPGs and in helping players to stay in the moment. That said some massive, multi-volume Goliaths are so extensive that everything can’t really join up. These arguably leave the same kind of gaps in the fabric of the game as found in rules light systems, but place them in a rich layer of overlapping rules and sub-systems that can support highly improvisational play through inducing house-ruling/ remixing.
Options and Opportunities for Kids
The ways in which tabletop RPGs can open up opportunities for kids and learners is not going to be of immediate concern to many players – so please feel free to skip this section. That said anyone planning to run a group for kids or to use RPGs in education may find it helpful to have a short outline of the benefits likely to result from playing tabletop RPGs.
The following selection of RPG gameplay options or opportunities is not exhaustive but does sketch out some of the approaches to fun and learning accessible to kids, (and adult learners), through tabletop RPG gameplay:
Fish Tank Gameplay
RPGs make ideal ‘fish tanks’, where players can try out a limited version of a full game. This allows players to learn the structure of the rules or guidelines using a simplified, and largely consequence free, approach to exploring the gameplay
Sandbox games present players with realistic situations and set out to deliver open-ended gameplay, (where players are encouraged to shape their own challenges and make their own choices). Tabletop RPGs are well-suited to sandbox play, because many are designed to allow and encourage open-ended gameplay.
Unlike most boardgames, wargames and videogames, tabletop RPGs let players define their own roles and targets instead of setting a fixed finishing line or requiring a ‘win-mentality’. Some RPG players do adopt a win-mentality over gaining possessions or defeating enemies in combat. This is sometimes encouraged by games that reward player characters (PCs) largely for collecting loot and slaying opponents.
Fortunately, many RPG players, (and their groups), are much more interested in setting their own goals and prefer self-competition in terms of playing as well as they can. These goals are more likely to concern how players tackle novel situations and ‘in-game’ challenges than simply acquiring trinkets and power-ups.
Improvising solutions to deal with difficult or complex situations isn’t an option within most videogames, as any options the programmers leave out simply aren’t available. Well-designed tabletop RPGs invite and foster improvisation, as players can interpret and, even adapt, the rules as players are devising solutions to dealing with difficult circumstances.
By leaving GMs and players to select their own goals RPGs make it easy to set flexible challenges, which can be quite demanding without ever having to be impossible to solve. In other words, if players are increasingly frustrated by a problem, the problem can be revised or set aside to allow play to progress. Equally, if play isn’t challenging enough a GM can introduce a few ad hoc adjustments to make life a little harder for the players and/ or their characters.
Gameplay and learning take place more effectively when players can see how skills and options combine to form a coherent system. Tabletop RPGs are usually intended to let players, and their PCs, progress and advance in a series of stages – allowing players to develop an understanding of how everything fits together.
We tend to draw meaning from personal experiences rather than from shared definitions or scientific principles. The many varied situations encountered during RPG play may assist learning by allowing players to carry out a wide range of actions that contribute to their personal understanding of comparable experiences. For example, PCs might find themselves in charge of evacuating a city or in a rush to repair a sinking ship under very difficult circumstances.
Tabletop RPGs are able to open up opportunities to customize and personalize gameplay when making PCs, interpreting rule sets/ guidelines, designing adventures and constructing campaign settings. Consequently, players who may be used to having little or no input into how they play or learn can suddenly find themselves able to take part in deciding how they play and learn.
The most valued learning skills, (involved in developing the most elusive skills), allow learners/ players to become actively involved in shaping, adapting and re-designing a system/ gameplay. There are widely-used design games, (most obviously Lego), which allow players to set their own goals, design their own solutions and fine-tune gameplay.
Tabletop RPGs make especially good design games, because they’re suited to co-design on several levels. Players start design gaming when they customize their PCs, but rapidly move on to co-designing solutions to encounters, roleplaying their characters and negotiating play with GMs and other players.
From there RPG players may also help to script narratives, interpret rules, form story arcs and define long-term goals. (Some RPGs even present options involving complete freedom to edit rule sets, encouragement to design gameplay props and ideas for introducing your own art or media into the gameplay).
Players who become GMs aim to cover all the same ground as players. They also interpret, design and patch the rules, try to promote player choice and, in many cases, construct settings and scenarios which set out to keep players thoroughly entertained for anything from an afternoon to a few decades.
Everything above is rendered largely worthless if players aren’t enjoying the game they’re playing. Getting involved in open-ended, improvisational storybuilding can be driven by either immediate or deep motivations. In either case, having fun remains central to staying motivated. If RPG gameplay heads off down a route towards grandstanding, win-mentality gameplay the fun is going to die, as that is not what genuine RPGs are designed to deliver.
Roleplaying Game Fun: Kids
Kids are natural roleplayers and ‘let’s pretend’ is central to early learning games and activities. It’s not difficult to tap into their enthusiasm for imaginative play by offering access to a variety of imaginative media and by adapting RPGs to offer the kinds of entertainment that can keep kids interested. For example, while some kids may want nothing to do with rules-based RPGs well after the age of 7, others may well start to ask about adding a few rules to Lego Heroica or trying out a fantasy card game at an earlier stage.
Whatever the exact timing, these novice RPG players are likely to have clear preferences. Young players often prefer broad, (but limited), choices, with enough prompting to help them build up their roleplaying skills. Many may also make a surprisingly strong ‘investment’ in their player characters (PCs), which can be encouraged through giving PCs a backstory, a few personal traits and some player-determined goals. As a result, the golden rule with young kids and new players is to avoid killing their PCs or their pets. (There may be exceptions for new players as making it tougher to survive is often part of gritty play and injuries are lethal in some hard science or historical RPGs. In the case of a horror game like Cthulhu half the fun is seeing who can run fastest).
There are plenty of imaginative alternatives, including equipping players with extra protection, supplying convenient lucky-bags, using stunt point systems, (which can include a ‘miraculous escape’ option), giving players’ some ‘spider sense’ abilities and/ or selling a beaten, but live, PC into slavery. If a player has such options, (working alongside suitable prompts), and then chooses to ignore all ‘warnings’ in a way that gets the player’s PC killed – so be it.
Magical Creatures and Companions
Young players tend to enjoy open-ended games where they can explore fairly standard fantasy and historical or TV tie-in settings. Discovery and novelty are usually valued over combat and solutions can often be negotiated by talking to monsters and working together to solve basic challenges or to escape danger.
Giving PCs some pets, rides or other companions to accompany them on their adventures adds a lot to play for many kids. Pets are particularly helpful, as players are often quite protective of them and they offer a useful way to prompt new players from within the game. (It can simply be taken as said that kids’ PCs can talk to pets, rides and monsters without learning a language, but other types of communication, including sign languages and training, work well).
Overall, it’s important to recognize that young kids, particularly those under 7, will have a very different understanding of many types of gameplay from older players. For example, a 3 or 4-year-old will rarely have an appreciation of good and bad that goes much beyond a distinction between the two.
Consequently, it’s worth considering the messages and lessons young kids may take away from games. Avoiding overly scary monsters is a genuine concern while children are too young to make adult distinctions between fantasy and reality. Along similar lines, if kids are encouraged to solve problems with combat and to adopt a standard win-mentality, it’s probably more likely they’ll look to these kinds of play as they grow older and, possibly, carry such thinking over into other forms of real world problem-solving.
Tabletop RPGs differ from most other types of game by leaving the rules wide open to interpretation. However, if a game rewards slaying monsters and collecting gold above other options, (such as rewards for completing challenges or entertaining roleplaying), it’s not uncommon for play to focus on collecting loot and seizing magic items or technologies that help with collecting loot.
Young players may well be unaware of the emphasis placed on combat by some RPG systems. This presents an opportunity to encourage player choice and challenge-focused play right at the start of youngsters’ RPG gaming. Doing so involves issuing rewards in the form of surprising or fantastic discoveries, bonuses for players’ pets, new equipment for the local Dragonriders’ school and, perhaps, the grateful thanks of those the players have saved.
Treasures and player advancement can be part of a wider approach, but young players with no goals other than killing the next monster will either get bored, or adapt to and join, the ‘hack and slay’ brigade.
When playing with youngsters it’s not unusual for a certain amount of live action or Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) to start up entirely spontaneously. Plastic figures are easily lifted from the table and brought into play, landscapes built from Lego don’t take long to make and NERF darts are as good a way as any to battle with the Big, Bad Guy (BBG). Safety first please on the equipment if mock combat is part of the fun.
Young players are busy spending their time exploring novel situations and working out solutions to new problems in real life. It is, therefore, far from surprising to find that they usually enjoy a fair amount of novelty and exploration during gameplay. Fantastic locations, unrelenting villains, bold maps, mystical creatures and other staples which may seem too familiar to older players all work well with youngsters, because kids can often be quite happy spending half-an-hour talking with the first imaginary unicorn they’ve ever come across.
Uncovering a straightforward mystery, finding out how dragons are raised, learning how to mix a potion in a magic laboratory or traveling to an exotic land where the plants communicate are examples of discoveries likely to appeal to young players. Under such circumstances, working out how to make an antidote to a poison that’s harming a friendly PC is usually going to be more meaningful and relevant than getting paid 500 gold pieces to kill a monster.
As players get older standard issue PCs and NPCs lack the depth of character and character background required to sustain players’ interest. However, for young players a world bristling with pirate captains, brawling fighters and grumpy old sorcerers makes for a welcome start. Apart from anything else, these caricatures tie-in with similar caricatures found in other media for children, allowing players to take cues from interacting through familiar roles.
Making Player Characters
Experienced RPG players will start a game with a character sheet full of skills, abilities and equipment. The design of a new PC may even be quite a mechanical business involving combat optimization. Kids who don’t know or care much about elaborate rules are unlikely to take much from this kind of PC design.
A group of young players is highly likely to be open to making much more of the character building process. Many can find hours of play in simply exploring their characters’ background.
As soon as the parents have been killed off or side-lined, (which seems to be about establishing that a child’s PC is independent and free of parental control), young players’ PCs will often happily explore their local village, chase-off the school bullies, fix an invitation to wizards’ school and/ or set up a home or base. Rules are barely necessary at this stage and the resulting ‘adventure ready’ PC already has a place in the game when it comes to setting out on further adventures.
Tricks or Traps
The types of subtle tricks and deadly traps set in the way of older, experienced players are, for the most part, fairly unwelcome in games aimed at young players. What appears to be fair play and/ or a tough encounter to an experienced player can easily be interpreted as an unfair bolt from the blue by a novice. GMs can get round this by clearly flagging what players should expect from a trick or trap - and by offering multiple solutions to the problems presented by tricks and traps.
Powers, skills, abilities and technologies stand in direct opposition to authentic, gritty play if players’ PCs are able to wield major or even unlimited powers on a regular basis. Youngsters can usually see the sense in retaining a challenge within a game, but they are likely to be looking to collect rewards involving a combination of frequent minor bonuses/ power-ups and some persistent - and genuinely useful - powers or skills. An occasional touch of the spectacular doesn’t do any harm either.
The starting point here can be to make available magic items that give a modest regular bonus, which becomes much more effective when a ‘critical hit’ is rolled.
Design Gaming, Shared Gaming and Gameplay Design
Co-design and game-related play, such as making-up stories using plastic figures, creating models out of boxes, putting together game-related collages, gaming with Lego, drawing PC sketches and similar activities prime kids for imaginative games and sharing in the design of their own play and learning.
Roleplaying Game Fun: Older Kids
For kids of 7-11 the wafer-thin plots and cardboard cut-out characters that once helped to keep RPG life simple soon start to look increasingly tired. Many such players are already likely to be watching TV shows like Merlin and Primeval, which offer moderately complex characters and plots. At the same time their play and games will be going through a process of social shaping at school, involving a shift from imaginative learning through play towards more structured and procedural activities. As a result, GMs and players who wish to keep kids of 7-13 playing, (or to recruit new players), appear to face a difficult task.
Tabletop games do, however, have a couple of aces up their sleeve. Firstly, a console or a DVD doesn’t offer the same social fun as a light-hearted boardgame or RPG session. Secondly, whenever older GMs and other players step in to help to bridge young players’ skills gaps, (through encouragement and prompting), the resulting gameplay puts players back in charge of shaping their own gameplay.
The following options suggest a few approaches to adapting play to suit older kids. The style of play offered to older kids, (in terms of not taking the rules too seriously and offering challenges that prompt players to shape play), seems as likely to recruit more players as any number of electric plots or epic characters.
The trusty steed, the oily thief, the brash warrior and similar PC and NPC staples that often serve well when playing with younger players become ever more worn and clichéd as players get older. Players and GMs generally look to escape such basic PC and NPC stereotypes at a fairly early stage to lend their gameplay greater authenticity.
Rule sets may attempt to cover the whole of PC characterization in a single sweep during PC design/ generation. Unfortunately, this method can rely on characterization through exhaustive PC builds, character optimization and the straitjacket of myriad character classes. For a kid without an understanding of the subtle nuances of characterization resulting from rolling an extra 5% bonus in Truffle Detection this largely mechanical approach is a pretty soulless business.
Introducing simple mechanics that take account of a wider range of skill sets can help to breathe life into PCs and NPCs, as selecting personality traits, customizing PC’s clothing and discovering, or uncovering, some kind of past all go some way towards fleshing out a unique character.
Introducing backstories to character design is an even better way to build more compelling characters, because talking or playing through PC and NPC characterization allows players and GMs to shape characters as they’re formed. The results are PCs or NPCs which have been self-negotiated to arrive at a good fit between a player’s expectations and the types of gameplay that are going to occupy everyone at the table.
Once play has begun characterization can be firmed up and freshened up by keeping accounts of PCs’ and NPCs’ actions and deeds. Adding visual elements to PC records, keeping logs of adventure maps and diagrams, and recording brief details of PCs’ adventures all help to put flesh on the bones.
Players continuously develop a PC’s characterization though play, but NPCs don’t receive the same attention and can appear static unless GMs form a pool of recurring NPCs who move with the times. For some, such as an old friend who never left the village the PCs grew up in, change may be infrequent and the occasional birth and marriage is enough to keep events in motion. However, for other familiar and favorite NPCs it may be worth keeping a basic timeline of events and updating it whenever players come into contact with the same NPC.
Tricks and Traps
Few players of any age seem to enjoy having deadly traps sprung on them. Older kids are open to adding extra risk to play, but not in ways they consider unfair or completely unexpected. Traps should, ideally, be well signposted, have multiple solutions and only get lethal if players are disregarding the signposting.
Basic tricks can be introduced on a number of levels, including straightforward distractions, delays, bad deals and switching or concealing items. More elaborate tricks, such as pyramid schemes, are not something older kids are likely to be familiar with. In addition, young players may not recognize more complex ploys or schemes as a part of gameplay they are comfortable with until they’re used to more basic tricks.
Rounded characters, campaign backdrops, (with geographies, histories and cultures), calendars of events, recurring enemies and plenty of events players can participate in, (e.g. an annual jousting tournament or a Griffin race), are among the elements a GM can layer, mix and weave together to form an immersive game that captures players’ imaginations.
It may seem impossible to keep track of all the details thrown up by so many options, but there’s no need to try. A GM can start play with a framework or blueprint and only drill-down into finer detail where and when the plots and challenges chosen by players call for further thought.
GMs may find it helpful to work from feature and event rich outlines that prime a setting with plenty of challenges and shared expectations. This approach makes it quicker and simpler to fill the gaps when zooming in on the gameplay of most interest to your players.
Older kids are interested in more immersive games with imaginative settings, but few are looking for this to go down the route of simulation gaming. Making play more authentic, more connected and generally grittier, therefore, has to avoid taking away the ‘magic dust’ or pure imagination offered by RPGs. For example, playing high fantasy with powerful wizards and mighty heroes works well with older kids, but complete flights of fantasy, (where the highly unlikely or inconsistent impacts on play), become increasingly unwelcome.
A much wider range of encounter settings, plots and challenges, NPCs, tricks and monsters is needed to keep older kids entertained. Bolts from the blue may not be entirely welcome, but thrills and spills, the shock of the new, elements of mystery and investigation, minor conspiracies, a deeper or darker atmosphere, more territory and options to explore different habitats are all likely to be appreciated.
The more subtle the introduction and use of novel and unexpected elements, the greater the chances of them becoming a preferred option within a gaming group. For example, allowing players to research and develop a form of Greek Fire within a fantasy setting is probably going to work well enough, providing the cost of the ingredients balances alongside the destruction caused by the Greek Fire. (It might also be helpful to limit the substance’s use as a result of it being very hazardous to transport).
The alternative approach of simply suddenly introducing gunpowder, with all that follows, is less likely to seem novel and unlikely to add anything meaningful to a group’s gameplay. Instead play risks being drawn into a technological arms race, which tears away at the expectations and challenges offered by mid to high fantasy.
Design Gaming, Shared Game and Gameplay Design
The design game options available to older kids include many suited to younger kids. However, there’s a clear difference in terms of the variety of co-design activities that are both practical to run and also likely to appeal to players. Illustrating PC sheets, drawing detailed maps and building more complete models can progress to a new level with older kids. New activities might incorporate activities like painting gaming figures, planning and making a fantasy banquet, designing giant PC sheets or using markers to draw A3 dungeon layouts.
Starting out as a GM may also become an option for some kids aged 7 or over. Ideally, players who show an interest will get the chance to help out a GM at a few games, before putting together a small adventure and running a short game. Those who have the opportunity to develop in this way are likely to pick up a wide range of valuable gaming skills without becoming overwhelmed by the work involved.
Roleplaying Game Fun: Young Adults
By the time a player is about to become a teenager some of the more magical or fantastic roleplaying enjoyed by younger RPG players has completely lost its appeal. So much so that such gameplay can be considered deeply embarrassing. As a result, there’s a strong incentive for teenagers to move away from story-building gameplay towards supposedly more adult rules systems and/ or games mastery.
This drift towards win-mentality gameplay and wargaming can be tempered by making RPG gameplay genuinely more adult; which frequently involves offering increasingly authentic settings and plenty of realistic in-game challenges.
Adding greater authenticity is about adjusting the balance between the real and the imaginary – rather than getting bogged-down in simulation and re-enactment. Consequently, presenting teenage players with open-ended ‘real world’ challenges is a very straightforward way to set about introducing more authenticity without abandoning imaginative gameplay.
The options set out below can, hopefully, combine to help Gamesmasters to present campaigns and adventures that balance authentic, gritty RPG play alongside the slightly edgy imaginative story-building suited to the preferences of many young adults.
Young adults are ready to move on from standalone characters to characters that operate within networks of relationships. Under these conditions a PC or a NPC might act quite differently when influenced by certain individuals, groups and/ or circumstances.
For example, a NPC might develop from the ever-amiable bard to the companionable bard who is completely hostile and unapproachable once a year. Along the same lines, an employee might behave quite differently when the boss isn’t around, while a temperamental wizard could turn out to be unusually fond of apricot pastries – and very appreciative of someone who went to the trouble to find this out and bring a few round.
Group dynamics allow GMs to go a step further and introduced effects based on the behaviors of groups and communities. For example, the collective mindsets of crowds, fans, rioters, celebrants, zealots, families and organizations are more than capable of influencing, and dramatically shifting, the views and actions of individuals caught-up in group interactions.
Tricks and Traps
Mechanical traps and deadly traps are not of a lot more interest to young adults than other age groups. Tricks offer far more options and solutions to explore. That is not to say that traps serve no purpose, as finding a solution to an elaborate and dangerous trap can prove entertaining if players have to think on their feet. Nevertheless, most young adult players and groups are likely to be more intrigued by tricks, which offer a much wider range of challenges and plot hooks than most traps.
The combination of a trick and a trap also becomes an option with young adults. It is probably worth bearing in mind that even adult players need a gentle introduction to double-edged traps and trickery. Otherwise, they may feel the challenges they’re facing aren’t sufficiently ‘upfront’ or fair to give them a chance to come up with solutions.
It’s quite straightforward to make RPG sessions for teenagers a shade darker than games for kids without frightening or offending anyone. Hauntings, ill omens, dark prophecies, seemingly bizarre events, local superstitions, cries in the night, curious rituals and secret ceremonies are all able to lend play a touch of extra suspense. These kinds of events or interactions can also back-up any dark undercurrents waiting to be exposed within ongoing plots.
In contrast, within RPG sessions excessive violence and reveling in gore rapidly loses all impact. A threat to PCs only holds any real suspense while it’s a veiled threat and the guiding principle with creep is that less is more.
For instance, a few drops of blood spattered over some leaves, a bloody hand print missing the impression of a ring finger and the discovery of a bloodstained dagger clearly brings more to the table than a gruesome description about a NPC losing a finger.
Appealing to as many of the players’ and PCs’ senses as possible is very helpful here and the options go far beyond the standard definition of five senses. Intuition, color, texture, physiology, (e.g. tears, torn muscles and perspiration), personal likes and dislikes, emotional reactions, and formal and informal language may all combine and interact to create tension and play, or prey, upon players’ imaginations.
For example, amidst the battle cries and lamentations of a desperate last stand, PCs and players might, respectively, have positive ‘in-game’ and ‘out-game’ reactions to the welcome sound of the marching song of a long overdue relief column.
In addition, when games may well involve all manner of wildlife, fantasy creatures and/ or alien species the sensory options get much wider. The electronic detection systems of a Hammerhead Shark may not be something we can easily relate to, but a PC experiencing a shark’s senses while underwater might, for example, have access to radar-like images kept unavailable to those without sharks’ senses.
Further options include some snakes’ heat-seeking vision, dolphins’ ultrasound capabilities, certain dungeon-dwellers’ night vision and comparable sensory systems, which are in plentiful supply both in the natural world and inside most monster catalogues.
At times a GM can really pile on the pressure when playing with older players. Crisis management is discussed in more detail when looking at challenges elsewhere in the RPG Handbook. However, the basic principles are straightforward and highly likely to help older players get caught up in RPG gameplay.
In the middle of dealing with difficult opponents, surprises, ambushes and/ or any number of other plot hooks and challenges, there’s nothing like the sudden arrival of an all-consuming crisis to shake everything up.
A meteor strike, a massive earthquake, a volcanic eruption or any similar physical or political cataclysm can act as a trigger and players, and their PCs, are suddenly dealing with whatever was going on already amidst a major crisis. Under such circumstances players clearly have to adjust priorities, adapt to new conditions and remain mindful of the world as it was.
Survival gameplay is also discussed elsewhere in the RPG Handbook, but remains worth mentioning here because older players can become more motivated and more involved in play through the extra demands placed on players and PCs by survival scenarios. Adding a layer of survival gameplay to a game can add authenticity, encourage players to resolve to overcome the conditions, and present a series of dilemmas concerning who survives and how they continue to survive.
It’s usually helpful to avoid using either crisis management or gameplay as a simple means to lay PCs low. So, rather than drop the players’ favorite bank straight into a caldera full of lava and burying an entire city in ash, it might be more interesting to present players with the realization that they don’t have much time to act if they wish to protect their wealth and their health.
Of course it can still be helpful to use catastrophes as a device to remove the unplayable, unpopular or simply played-out. For example, that much visited kingdom where the PCs are always hailed as heroes may become less hospitable after permanent flooding turns much of the formerly prosperous farmland into a massive swamp.
Design Gaming and Games Design
Safety concerns, mess, costs and commitment can all limit the range of enterprise activities, spin-off hobbies, arts and crafts, gatherings and projects that are easily linked to playing RPGs with younger players. Teenagers still need safe, inexpensive and motivating games and activities, but the gloves are finally off when it comes to design gaming options.
By 11 or 12 many kids are able to begin to make their own games, scenarios, presentations, sketches and modest enterprises. RPGs provide an ideal backdrop for developing such activities and the motivation to sketch a PC or run a gaming group may be just the encouragement a RPG player needs to develop as a graphic designer or as a conference organizer.
RPGs for Kids and Big Kids
This is a selection of RPGs aimed at kids and young people. It's not at all clear if a rule set adds much to roleplaying for younger kids, as they tend to need little more than a few plastic figures and their imaginations to get started. However, for some children a particular genre or style of play can do a lot to encourage an interest in story-building and RPGs.
The appeal of certain genres and styles of play also applies to older kids and young adults who are likely to enjoy learning a basic rule set or beginning to get the hang of a more complex rule set.
That said by 7+ there are many kids who could play perfectly well with a standard or mainstream RPG providing the GM shows a bit of flexibility. Consequently, the list is not intended to suggest that a RPG needs to be tagged as a 'Kids' RPG' to play well with kids. Instead, such games may be of value - to read or to play - simply in terms of helping adults to get inside kids' perspectives on RPG gameplay.
In addition, while genre and multimedia tie-ins, (such as books and TV series), may help to encourage new or young players to pick-up a RPG, most of these games also help out once players start using the rule set. For example, they often have more straightforward language than full-blown RPG titles; they usually keep character generation short and to the point; and they typically offer accessible page layouts.
Advanced Fighting Fantasy
This title is a shade more advanced than the solo game-books of the same name, but far from complicated. Advanced Fighting Fantasy is available as a glossy book and offers a complete fantasy RPG. The popularity of the game-books seems likely to make it all the easier to encourage young players to try out Advanced Fighting Fantasy.
Adventures in Oz
Time to set off along the Yellow Brick Road for RPG gameplay set in Oz. The book and the film have stood the test of time and it won't be a surprise when movie producers decide to give Oz another try at the box office. Until then Adventures in Oz offers child-friendly gameplay with enough roleplaying options to keep adults at the table.
BASH aka Basic Action Games
What no superheroes? Not a problem as BASH aka Basic Action Super Heroes Ultimate Edition covers all the essentials in a compact rule set that's straightforward and accessible to younger players. The game also looks the part and headlines an extended range of RPG offerings based around the same rules-light - but not sparse - framework.
Buffy is a full RPG, which is suited to teenagers rather than kids. It has gone in and out of publication at various stages, but is well worth tracking down. The mechanics aren't particularly complex and the game is well-known for recreating the style and atmosphere of the TV series. There is also a similar RPG from Eden Studios for Angel.
Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
This storytelling game started-out with a very successful Kickstarter scheme. It's a collaborative storytelling game where the players' characters set-out on a fantasy adventure. Strategy and imagination combine to build the story of the PC's journey, but things don't go quite to plan and the adventurers frequently run into trouble. The game's sense of humor is a plus, as is the very appealing artwork. The game plays in a roughly similar manner to Happy Birthday Robot, (shown below), so there's no need for a GM. Kids of 7+, and possibly younger, should have no problem learning the game quickly. An expansion pack called Do: The Book of Letters extends the gameplay.
Faery's Tale Deluxe
Faery's tale is aimed at players of 6+. Players take on the role of fairies, such as a pixie, a brownie or a sprite, and explore Brightwood. The game includes three ready-to-run adventures.
Animals, such as badgers and squirrels, become the heroic characters at the heart of adventures which are otherwise similar to typical fantasy RPG gameplay. In other words, you have character classes like knights, wizards and druids, but they take the form of a variety of wildlife.
Happy Birthday Robot
Young players enjoy shared storytelling as they take it in turns to write the tale of Robot’s birthday. While the players decide the what, where, when and how of the Robot's day, they never know how much they'll be able to add during one turn, as the game's key mechanic gives a limited number of words to be used each turn. No GM required, but you do need a bundle of D6s on hand.
The Hero Kids RPG is a D6 system aimed at kids from 4-10. It combines a very colorful presentation with a child-friendly, class-based fantasy RPG. The game is 37 pages long and arrives with a choice of 10 heroes and 8 monsters. More monsters are included in a series of separate adventures. Both the heroes and the monsters have matching printable stand-up minis to help kids to keep track of what’s going on as the action unfolds at the table. Modular map tiles are a worthwhile feature included in, for example, the Maze of the Minotaur Premium Adventure add-on pack.
Kids Dungeon Adventure
Pre-school RPG rules may not be necessary, but Kids Dungeon Adventure goes a long way towards suggesting they can offer plenty of fun. The game offers a very easy, flexible system that works alongside kids' other toys to build adventures. The site is particularly good at showing what the game has to offer, so a visit is highly recommended.
Kids and Critters
This 3 in 1 pack includes a woodland/ wildlife RPG called Tales from the Wood; a jolly kids in ideal England RPG called Lashings of Ginger Beer; and a . . . Prairie Dog RPG. The first is all rabbits and badgers gameplay comparable in some ways to Warrior Cats; the second is all about mysteries and adventures in Scooby Doo takes itself too seriously mode; while the last is . . . unique?
The Lego brand and a simple rule set make the Heroica range very appealing to kids of 5+. However, the built-in adventures are a bit railroading and focused on beating-up on monsters. The game really comes into its own when you start to patch the rules and mix-up the gameplay to build on the basic framework. In other words, it may start out as a dungeon crawl, but there's nothing to stop anyone from turning it into a mix of exploration, roleplaying and some beating-up on monsters.
Lone Wolf Multiplayer Game
Joe Dever's Lone Wolf books are probably the best known solo game-books after the Fighting Fantasy series. The RPG uses the same simple mechanics to encourage players of the books to step up to a RPG. As a result of the success of the books, the game has the added advantage of a fully fleshed-out game-world and plenty of add-ons.
There's not a lot of guesswork required to work out the game's theme. Players set off on comic adventures and investigations much along the lines of the TV format. Solving mysteries in spooky locations is central to the gameplay, as is having a laugh about the characters and tropes from the TV series. The game has a lot to offer through its almost universally familiar backdrop - and the expectations that come out of that in terms of suggesting actions and options for players to try out on the basis of their knowledge of the TV shows.
Mermaid Adventures describes itself as a “RPG of Undersea Fun!” Players take the part of a mermaid and go about forming friendships while taking on sea monsters and solving mysteries. The game is suitable for kids of 4+ and full of very colorful line art. The core book has sample adventures and there’s a matching coloring book.
Mouse Guard is a beautifully presented storytelling RPG. It has, perhaps, the most complicated rules system among the games shown here. However, the strong support for story-building, the series of popular Mouse Guard books and the setting built around the books make for an excellent game. It's possibly more a game to be run by adults or teenagers - but younger players with a basic idea of how RPGs are played are likely to enjoy the game.
The Princess Game
The players roleplay different parts of the thoughts of a young girl, e.g. her love, her curiosity, her fear and her imagination. They players then set off to see what they can find and imagine in the world. It plays a bit like other easy story-builders such as Happy Birthday Robot and is available under a creative commons, non-commercial, attribution license. It would not be hard to also play it as 'The Prince Game'.
It was a bit of a surprise to find that the many recent clones based on the original RPG by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson don't seem to include much content aimed directly at children and young adults. This straightforward, but full, version of the most popular RPG out there makes a number of changes to the standard content and presentation of content to deliver a family-friendly take on classic RPG gameplay.
Rory’s Story Cubes
Roll the dice and tell a story based on the images that turn-up. Rory’s Story Cubes are fun, inexpensive, open to all ages, no set-up required and easy to use in schools and libraries. There are now extra packs including Action/ 'verb' cubes for describing actions, the standalone Voyages for epic adventure stories and an iPhone option.
Toon brings cartoon characters into a RPG which is all about recreating the comic mayhem of classic cartoon heroes. You can make any cartoon character you like and then play through adventures in cartoon worlds where the special powers are those of cartoon comedy, which means characters need never die - because they can always pop back into shape.
The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men
Players create gingerbread cookies to act as their character sheets and play the part of gingerbread men in this Christmas-themed title. The sprinkles and toppings on your cookie give special powers to play in game and you simply eat the powers as you use them. Injuries are treated in the same manner - just tear a chunk off your cookie and eat it. The game is highly recommended across a wide age range for use in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
This one's a beautifully produced, short, free RPG based on Erin Hunter's books of the same name. It's suitable for players perhaps as young as 5 and the fiction titles add new, ready-to-run adventures as more books are released. It's also easily adaptable to playing with all manner of animals, including our personal variant Sabretooth.
Witch Girls Adventure
Witch Girls Adventure is a fantasy game about the lives of young mistresses of magic. The Witch Girl books and cartoons provide plenty of support to help to encourage kids to give the game a try. The rules aren't complicated and suit the age range of the popular books, i.e. 7+.