What Kids' RPGs are Missing: Children and Emergent Play

I’m restoring this content from @LordPersi’s inappropriate message because I think it’s worth reading and discussing on its own.

The context is the idea that to teach RPGs to children their choices have to be reduced, or they have to be put onto an on-rails experience before they can graduate to emergent play. The quoted article by Ben Milton argues the opposite—that children do this quite naturally and that the way they’re introduced to play should be modelled after the play that naturally occurs among themselves.

Remember: this forum is not a debate hall, so first of all questions, dialogue and sharing of experiences—no rhetorical arguing, appeals to the crowd, or trying to “win”.


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These two Adept Play posts are relevant to this discussion, even if they don’t involve children. The topic is the development of Tales of the Round Table by Zac P. and his partners at Mythweaver Games, and subsequent consulting sessions with Ron Edwards.

Tales of the Round Table a game that was explicitly designed as an introductory and accessible instrument to experience what Ron calls Story Now as a purpose of play for beginner practitioners.

The objective is to constrain the play experience so that actionable content and moments of choice are clear and unambiguous, but without losing active listening, reincorporation, and emergent outcomes—i.e. all the things we like about this hobby. I’ve played the game and in my opinion it achieves these goals, but that’d be a story for a different thread.

One particular thing I want to single out is Ron’s reference around the beginning of the video in the latter post to the boardgame Snakes and Ladders, which is a children-targeted boardgame based on sheer luck, which he states—and I would agree—makes for a shoddy introduction to boardgaming, just as @LordPersi is arguing railroaded adventures make for a shoddy introduction to roleplaying.

I see this in many introductions to roleplaying, even recently published ones. The introductory adventures in the starter set of The One Ring 2E are a perfect example—even though the game isn’t built for railroading, the aforementioned adventures are designed to be on rails, so that dice and number mechanics can be slowly introduced in a controlled way.

The expectation is to go on like this for many sessions! I’d agree that this type of introductory material teaches all of the wrong things, especially how to be passive, and how to control others. I shudder at new players learning the ropes like this.

Essentially—we learn by doing, and holding a toy wheel while your dad is driving will not help you know how to drive when the time comes.

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I cringe too when people seem to follow this naive view that kids are imperfect adults. Kids invented pretend play, they already know the instrument at age 4. I made most of my games so that a six year old girl could “teach a lesson” to their dad. Guess what, it works. XP.

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I don’t have much experience playing with kids but my best friend/partner in crime at NessunDove does. As a museum educator he holds workshops for kids where he uses roleplay as an activity. We discuss these experiences often, so some observations that came out of them:

  • First of all, he does not use a lot of tabletop. His go-to are Marc Majcher’s game poems, which are more akin to short freeform experiences drawing heavily on improv principles. So there’s less of “everyone has a character and is advocating for them” and more “everyone is contributing to this story together” (which is also necessary due to workshops being class-sized for 15-20 kids).

  • There’s a big difference that comes with age, but not in the way you’d expect.
    With smaller children (elementary school and down), the creativity comes spontaneous. What requires teaching and sometimes a little restraining is willingness to build on others’ ideas (despite what I said above, the kids often try to overwrite each other and sometimes feel very protective of their personal contribution to the story, getting upset if someone else alters it) and keeping coherence (which is to be expected I imagine, children’s play is not exactly novel-tight). So as a facilitator most of what he works to do is managing everyone’s contributions so that they can fit together without clashing.
    As he puts it, what small kids lack is a filter that sorts out constructive contributions to the story. They often say the first thing that comes to mind, which can be great or hard to handle. Which is where I expect most of the railroading experiences come from: inexpert facilitators/game designers trying to turn a deluge of input into something more easily managed. It takes more effort to try and direct it in a positive direction, but it can definitely be done.

  • With older children (middle school and up), there’s some weird phenomenon that sets in where a lot of kids get extremely self-conscious about sounding dumb by doing what they perceive as “little kids’ stuff”, which includes play pretend. So it requires a lot of work to get them to open up and creatively buy into the premise. I think this may be another angle where railroading is an easy solution: if you have them do the bare minimum of choosing A or B at a certain point and take care of everything else, you can get an illusion of a nice story going. Personally I feel like that attitude can come off as condescending and unhelpful in getting them to lose the notion that roleplaying is kids’ stuff.

A caveat: as I said, the settings of these observations are workshops aimed at school classes or summer camps where parents sign up the kids. So I think there’s an additional layer of dfficulty where they’re not choosing the roleplay activity in the first place, it’s being offered as something “educational” (though my friend never puts it this way to kids, it’s still coming from the top down) and thus there is going to be less buy-in from the start.

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Hi Chiara, I find your remarks from concrete children play really useful. What I notice is that we can apply your point about the middle-school range to adults as well.

My partner’s experience in playing D&D 5e at the local library with kids (middle-school as well) is that they have no issue in taking hard decisions or being pro-active. My problem comes from the fact that adults assume that they need some sort of bicycle wheels to play successfully; from there, you have railroads and so on. As you said, I see more the social issue of doing “a silly childish thing” rather than an inability to play emergently and bein pro-active.

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Great posts here, thank you. I enjoyed reading and thinking about this!

For what it’s worth, I haven’t actually ever seen someone applying railroading practices to play with children - if anything, I’d associate that far more with playing with adults.

Children as well as people new to the hobby generally (in my experience) are creative, spontaneous, and trying lots of different things. It’s older adults and people who have been playing for a long time who are more likely to want to “go along with a railroad” (I’m generalizing, of course; these are trends I’ve observed personally, not true for every individual). I actually think that playing along with a railroad takes some skill/habituation of its own, and doesn’t come naturally.

If anything, I’d say that the urge to “railroad” can be somewhat of a childish impulse, as Chiara describes nicely here:

At least, that matches my own experience (GMing games as a kid, I did desire strong control, as did other kids running games).

Some of my favourite/best roleplaying experiences with kids were all about a) the power of the imagination (it can be so vivid at a young age!), b) total, unabashed creativity, and c) teamwork and creative problem-solving (e.g. in old-school D&D type games).

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