So a few weeks ago, I was at SCARAB, a local gaming convention here in Columbia SC. I run the Kids Track at SCARAB (a fact I am rather proud of) so I mostly run games for children. Having done both, I find that GMing for kids is in some ways the same as for adults, and in some ways different. Kids can work in a shared imaginary space, and can act out roles, and engage in dialogue as well as adults can, sometimes better. Especially this kids I GM for, most of whom have gamer parents. I prefer to use simplistic game systems, so that mechanics and math skills are not a hindrance. But kids don’t always think about problems in the same ways adults do, their reasoning skills are not the same, and often they are not affected by the preconceived notions that most adults have when presented with familiar story scenarios. So sometimes they do things that are silly, or illogical, or just plain surprising. GMing for kids is about being willing to be flexible, go with the flow, and embrace the chaos.
So its the Sunday morning of a convention that started on Friday, so my players and I are a bit sleep deprived. It’s me, the 13 year old daughter of our con director, our friend’s 11 year old son, and another 11 year old girl who is a regular at SCARAB events. We were playing a game called Shadows, which is an awesome kids game with a very simple premise: Everyone has a Shadow, which is an invisible monster that wants them to get in trouble. You play with two dice of equal sides and different colors. One is for your character, and one for their Shadow. You declare what you want to happen, and what your Shadow wants to happen (something bad), and roll, and whichever die is higher, that’s what happens. It puts a great deal of plot control in the hands of the players.
This particular scenario, which I titled “Choose Your Own Adventure”, started out with the characters asleep, and they wake up to find that there is a little boy that they do not know playing in their closet. I asked my players what they were doing. Two of them put a lot of description into how they were finding weapons for themselves. (“Do I have a baseball bat? A metal one? Maybe I better get a wooden one instead – I could kill someone with a metal one, and I don’t want to kill anyone.” “Do I have a nerf gun?” and so on.) The oldest girl, though, stated that her character was leaping from the bed into the closet to tackle the little boy, yelling “Super Rainbow Ninja of Darkness!” Clearly, she had not had enough sleep…… After a moment of staring at her like she was a lunatic, I conceded, and we moved on, with me narrating that the little boy disappeared through a door in the back of the closet that had never been there before.
The PCs emerged simultaneously into a long hallway with endless doors. When the players went through a door, I let them decide, via a roll, what was on the other side, and since the older girl was the first to state that she was going through, I let her choose. I was taking a chance there, since she had already shown herself to be less than sane that morning. “I want it to be a world made of rainbow,” she said, and my eyebrows raised a bit, but I nodded. “And my Shadow wants it to be a gloomy, gray world.” She rolled. Rainbow world. OK. So I describe it. Fields of flowers, orange sky, purple sun, different colored trees. It was weird, but the players were smiling like it was kind of cool. Great. Now time for an encounter. I turned to the boy, and asked him to declare who they would run into. I forget what his other possibility was, and which was good and which was bad, but the one that won was “Darth Vader”. So now I faced a choice. I could tell him “no, pick something else” and nip the silliness in the bud before it got completely out of hand, or I could let it happen and see where it led. So I had to stop and think, “what is my goal here?” Was I there to create a realistic, focused story experience? Or was I here to entertain kids? What the heck. There’s nothing like a little rampant chaos to get your energy flowing in the morning.
So the PCs looked up and saw, in the distance, the Death Star floating over the hillside, with its energy beam sucking all the color out of the landscape. They meet a pencil-sharpener smoking a pipe (something the younger girl chose because she had seen it in a dream) who gave them directions to the Stormtrooper basecamp. The two girls took the teleporter up to the Death Star, while the boy stayed behind, stole a blaster, and sniped at Stormtroopers from the roof of a building. They got caught, of course, and were rescued by Lady Rainicorn (someone from a TV show I’ve never seen, but the kids knew who she was and thought it was hilarious) and the flying Unicorn Army, who were mad at them for starting the rebellion early.
And the story got weirder from there. I let the kids declare whatever they wanted, and tried to keep it, if not logical, at least flowing smoothly from one scene to another. They went to a world where all the people were made of food. (Yes, anthropomorphic food people!) The less-than-sane older girl started a riot in a fast-food restaurant (food people eat paper and cardboard!) and they had to flee to the next world. They ended up in a giant’s refrigerator and had to rescue the little boy who started the whole thing from being eaten in a giant carton of leftover Chinese. They got the kid safely back to the Hall of Doors, and went home to live happily ever, after or something like that.
So I guess the moral of the story is, not all game stories are created equal. Some stories are serious and focused. Some are about deep emotional soul-searching, some are about wild, campy action, and some are about flights of imagination that don’t need to be hindered by logic or reality. Creativity comes in so many flavors. As a gaming group, you have to decide what kind of story you and your players want to tell. Have fun, and do what you want to do, even if it is just really silly.
PS: For rules for the Shadows RPG, and more awesome games, see http://www.harlekin-maus.com/games/shadows/shadows.html