Turning Young People to the Dark Side (i.e., introducing them to rpgs)

Ok, so I had the pleasure of introducing my 13 year old niece and her stepsister to rpgs this Christmas, and wanted to describe what I did, with an eye to better understanding things like intuitive continuity and also how to do things like this better in the future.

So after some lightsaber practice (Mia, my niece, asked me for tips, believe it or not!) we were chatting, and when she heard that I played D&D, excitedly said she wanted to try it, since she’d seen a show about it and it looked fun. Seeing my chance to turn some innocent young people to the Dark Side, I quickly agreed to introduce her, but said we’d use much simpler rules.

I had no books and no dice with me, but I had a dice app on my phone. My thinking was we’d do a really quick game, maybe an hour or less, and use a really simple system – the last thing I wanted was to for us to get bogged down with technical details. So on the spot I came up with this system: Chargen: what’s your name? Are you good at fighting, magic, or thievery? What’s your specialty? What do you say when you really mean business? Draw a sketch of what you look like. Mechanics: (from Cthulhu Dark, mostly) roll one die if it’s something most people can do, add a die if it’s what you’re good at, add a die if it’s your specialty; result is the high die. Beat the GM’s roll. Use your quote once per encounter to reroll any dice, including the GM’s. If you lose a round of fighting note down your wound; baddies are taken out with two wounds, PCs with 3. For experience, note something that happened during the session; this acts like a “something you’re good at” when relevant. Or, add a specialty or add or change a quote when it makes sense.

I didn’t explain any of the rules at first, I just said “you’re friends from the same village. What’s the village called?” Mia and Bella (the stepsister) came up with “Rejed”. I then went through chargen with them. Mia came up with a cyclops-like character named Gormia, who could do magic, specialized in mind magic, and whose quote was something like “Bumbling bungling bimbos”. Bella’s character was a thief named Bellajum who had a parkour specialty and whose quote was “Oh sushi!”.

I wanted to give them the experience of creating as much of the setting as possible, so asked them questions about the village and the people in it. This, I figured, would also help me see what they were interested in. I asked them who in the village liked them; this turned out to be Bellajum’s brother, Kolajum, and a fat man. They were having trouble coming up with a name for the fat man, and since I happened to be wearing one of my mushroom t-shirts (with some Porcini on it) I suggested “Edulis”. They agreed, but insisted it had to be Sir Edulis. Sir Edulis liked them because they were the cool kids in the village, and he always wanted to be in their company, but they tended to rebuff him because although he was rich, he was older, fat, and thought too highly of himself (all this was detail they added).

Next I asked who in the village didn’t like them. They came up with the NPC of Oddabudge, a teenage girl who was jealous of their popularity. Oddabudge was popular with the guys because she could shapeshift her appearance and look like anyone or anything. Sir Edulis was wooing her.

I also asked who in the village stirred up trouble all the time. They said this had to be Bellajum with her thieving ways. Since I’d just been watching the Mandalorian which prominently featured a baby Yoda, and we’d recently seen the latest Star Wars movie and the girls were giggling over the cuteness of Babu Frick, I decided there needed to be a cute creature in the village. So I asked them what the cute creature in the village was like. They invented a strawberry-shaped creature with little arms and legs who could roll or hop along, and whose name was “Tub-bing”. He spoke in a cute, high-pitched voice; when I tried to emulate it I was met with shrieks of laughter and nods, so I guess I got it right 🙂

Finally, I asked what unusual event was happening in the village, and the girls said it was the Day of the Dead, which would be immediately followed by the Night of the Rotten. This night was special because the village paid homage to fungus, including mushrooms, molds, and so on, by cooking them up in a big cauldron and eating the resulting stew.

Ok, so with all that background (I provided none of those details, except for the name “Edulis”, they invented everything), I thought it time to get the action going. I knew there needed to be a problem to solve, and the first thing that came to mind was to threaten Tubbing, because who wouldn’t want to help the cute strawberry. The main point of tension among the relationships was Oddabudge’s animosity, so let’s throw her in somehow. So what I came up with was, behind the scenes Oddabudge would tempt Kolajum to bring Tubbing on a thrilling clandestine visit to the cemetery; once there, she’d arrange an accident for them. Since zombies were up and around on the Day of the Dead, if Bellajum and Gormia went to help, they would hopefully get eaten or put out of action so she could become top village girl instead. So Tubbing falls into a mausoleum inhabited by a hungry zombie, and the weeping Kolajum runs to his sister and Gormia for help. I start the first scene that way, with Kolajum finding the PCs in the tavern the Prancing Frog. The background and Oddabudge’s involvement I kept to myself.

Now how to analyze what I did here? Is it IC? I didn’t sit down and prep, like a Bang-style of play would require. In Circle of Hands, which I assume is emblematic of a Bang-style, the GM creates a whole situation of greater complexity, leaving the players a lot of choice in how to proceed, but here the obvious track was to follow Kolajum to the cemetery. Now if the players had chosen to do something else I’d have gone with it of course, but it wasn’t like there were other obvious choices.

Looking back on it now, I could have just asked the players what the problem was, which would have been more in keeping with the improvisational style. Something like, “someone is screaming or crying! Who is in trouble?” Or “Someone lets out a warning shout, and you know the village is in danger. What is happening?” Whether this would have been a good idea in this context I don’t know. What are the benefits and disadvantages of doing this?

Anyway, here’s what happened in play. Concerned for Tubbing, the girls race for the cemetery with Kolajum. The stone door to a mausoleum is open a crack, enough to have let Tubbing in. As they listen at the door, they hear his high-pitched, nervous mumbling, so they know he’s inside. They start pushing the door open to get to him, but then pause when they hear a zombie moaning and the sound of its shuffling feet. They try to get Kolajum to go inside, but they fail the roll badly so I have Kolajum scream and run away, collapsing and shuddering in fear.

Gormia leans in and casts a light spell, revealing a zombie trying to grab the strawberry creature, who hops out of the way. I say little by little, Tabbing is getting cornered and soon there will be no escape for him. They manage to push the door open and enter the room. The zombie turns and reaches for them. Gormia casts a spell, trying to convince the zombie that it should eat fungi instead. The roll comes up a tie, so I rule that the zombie is convinced it wants to eat fungi, but not enough to distract it from the fresh meat in front of it.

Bella decides that she’d rather be a fighter than a thief, so I let her change it. Bellajum does a parkour move off one of the crypt walls and manages to damage the zombie, cutting off several ribs with her battleaxe. Gormia tries another mind spell, telling the zombie that Sir Edulis is a fun guy (hee hee) and that it should eat him as there’s a lot of him. The zombie is convinced, and leaves the mausoleum, moaning “Edulis… Eat Sir Edulis…”

They gather up the gibbering Tabbing, hugging him and making sure he’s all right. It occurs to them that they’d better not let the zombie get back to the village, as the Night of the Rotten has now started and Edulis will be at the community cauldron; what if the zombie eats many people on the way to get him? They race back, reaching the zombie at the cauldron. Bellajum does an attack involving a parkour move off a tree. The roll is bad for her, but she says “Oh sushi!” and wins the reroll, so I ask Bella what happens to the zombie. She says she cuts off the zombie’s head, which flies into the cauldron. Mia chips in that this becomes part of the stew and everyone eats it, so instead of the zombie eating them, they eat the zombie. I must say I never saw that coming! 🙂

As a denouement I have Kolajum confess that Oddabudge had lured him to the cemetery. They liked this ending to the game, and said they had great fun.

So although the final result was positive, I’m always interested in seeing how I could do it better. Your comments welcome. And what are your strategies for introducing new people (especially young ones) to rpgs?


3 responses to “Turning Young People to the Dark Side (i.e., introducing them to rpgs)”

  1. Learning from the fun

    Am I over-reading this, or are you taking it as a given that you did something wrong? The game looks like a blast to me.

    In our conversation in A few sessions of D&D, you were very concerned about improvising a plot-significant tower into play. My response concerned the difference between two issues: when Thing X gets created (roughly, “before play” vs. “right now”) and whether the plot is under one person’s control because whatever happens, it bends the way they want.

    The trouble for this conversation, at least as I type, is that I’m not sure whether I’m projecting this same concern into your current post – but it looks to me as if you’re worried about intuitive continuity, or specifically self-critical about it, or willing for someone to tell you what you did wrong by using it. You may be taking it so far as to say that whenever you put anything into play as a GM, oh no, it might be intuitive continuity!

    I’ll stay with this issue just in case and then get to what I found more compelling. Let’s forget about whether improvised content is present or absent. Treat it all as created sometime, and let’s focus on the real variable instead: whether what they did changed a situation, i.e., the outcomes acted as a constraint going forward, or did you make whatever they did “go your way” as you went along?

    It’s not easy to put the improv issue aside, but that’s because it’s often used as a subset of this kind of control. Trust me when I say that it’s only a subset, and the improv as such isn’t the problem, it’s the use of improv as a re-adjustor and actual denier of whatever just happened, to keep the fiction safely on the path to your intended “next step.” It’s also an effective smoke-screen, to say, “See, I didn’t railroad, I improvised it during play.”

    So that’s enough of that topic, at least for me – feel free to follow up, or perhaps I was indeed mis-reading and all of that was unnecessary. Here’s what I wanted to look at instead.

    Looking back on it now, I could have just asked the players what the problem was, which would have been more in keeping with the improvisational style. Something like, “someone is screaming or crying! Who is in trouble?” Or “Someone lets out a warning shout, and you know the village is in danger. What is happening?” Whether this would have been a good idea in this context I don’t know. What are the benefits and disadvantages of doing this?

    This suggestion walks into the point that Paul Czege made so well so long ago: to make up your own adversity and your own solution to it is boring. There is a hard line between contributing to the situation of play (“what’s going on”) and finalizing/establishing it. Getting more contributions into game design, like making up relationships and Kickers and whatnot, was a big deal for us in the early 2000s, but people swiftly discovered that, essentially, “let’s all just make up what’s going on and say what our character do about it” is heinously dull and very swiftly loses function.

    As you’ve described the game, the players’ input was wonderfully contributive – but it works because you, another person, took it over and took responsibility (“authority”) for expressing it as a situation for them to respond to. I think “asking the players what the problem was” in your circumstances, would go over that line and arguably over the cliff.

    You can find some pointed language about this in my response in this post: Unmasking the ad hoc villain.

    Also, editing this in: my comments in Emergent plot? are on the mark for this. I was thinking of these when I wrote this post but didn't find the right link until just now.

  2. Younger players

    I realized I never got back to the title topic and question about introducing younger people to role-playing. That's because I have, pretty much, no thoughts. I don't think I'm very good at it and have never felt like it was the right role for me in the activity. I know some people who are really excellent, some with their own kids or others just in general, including Jared Sorensen. I hope some of them can speak up here.

  3. Some experience when playing with children

    I have run a few games of a kind of storytelling game at conventions and sometimes the players have been children; the youngest barely capable of reading and writing. My overall impression is that the core activity of roleplaying, that of exploring the fiction together, contributing to it, and being taken seriously by the other participants (even an adult!), is sufficient for fun and excitement. The result has often been the kind of zany improvisation one sometimes sees with games that give lots of narrative freedom – Universalis et al.

    In one game there was an angel that was trying to drink some coke, but that tried to roll away to escape, and the fridge was also highly relevant to how things ended up. The children were those that were maybe first classers; one could read, the other could not. I don't really remember any details, but they did seem to enjoy the process in any case.

    With the youngest of children one should obviously be careful about scary contents and too much excitement.

    A well-known observation is that new players obviously have not internalized the player-GM divide, so assuming it is not productive.

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