Monday, March 21, 2011

What is Kid-Friendly?

C'nor asked what I meant by the term, because different age ranges might mean different ideas of what would be appropriate. Here are some thoughts on the matter.

When I said I wanted to design a kid-friendly adventure I was mostly thinking I would 1) turn my creep meter down, 2) be more careful in my assumptions about how violence and thievery are rewarded, and 3) incorporate toy-like qualities that would be fun to explore.

I think 2 and 3 could just as easily apply to adults, so really the only difference is 1.

Nightmares aren't the Goal
I'm not certain about all this, I mean, I know kids like to be scared.  But I think something like the unborn might be too much of nightmare fuel.  (I was telling one of my adult players about them over the phone and making the noise they make and she started freaking out, "Ok, ok I don't want to hear about them.")

I'm not even sure I would do this intentionally to an adult.  I want to make players uneasy, to feel the game, to be immersed, but not actually be terrified.  I had a player who just lost a fighter to a giant spider bite to the face say, "Thanks a lot bastard, you know I'm arachnophobic, right?"  I said, "What? No, sorry!"

What are We Actually Saying about the World?
I like a lot of things about B2 but I get uneasy when the main thrust of it is to go exterminate whole tribes of sentient evil things.  Call me a sissy hippie, but I just start thinking of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. (that's not to say I would never have evil creatures with human-like qualities in a game, but I feel especially leery about underscoring that tendency in young humans).

Also, young players will have plenty of opportunity to experience violence in the real world.  It won't hurt them a bit if my world challenges the assumption that violence is the first or only solution to problems.

Toy-like Fun
What the heck do kids like about Pok√©mon and Bakugon type toys?  I think there is a lot of potential for experimenting, combining, collecting, and making-type fun that isn't found in a lot of adventures.  Whatever wondrous machine keeps a party so occupied they stay in a room through multiple wandering monster checks, that's the machine I want to design.  I don't want this instead of exploration, resource management, adventure fun, I want it in addition.

So, I didn't really answer the question about age range, I think the parent DMs are better suited to address that.  But what do you all think about the three goals?


  1. I think there's a difference between genocidal violence and fighting, where the monsters you fight are not really sentient or true. It's the difference between orcs-as-vatgrown-soldiers and orc babies asking "where's daddy?" The book "Killing Monsters" by Gerard Jones makes the case for keeping adult anxieties about violence out of our judgments of aggressive play by kids, and there's also a wonderful essay by Umberto Eco, "Letter to my Son" in Misreadings, that makes a similar point.

    But yeah, those things all go toward kid-friendliness, plus allowing more hints and clues to figure out puzzles and tricks, and assuming very little about the paths they will choose to follow ...

  2. I've found "kid-friendly" is more about description and presentation, and less about content (except for the moral issues like the inherent slaughter of B2). I can pretty much run the same adventures as the adults, and just change up the narrative style.

    I've had kids fight ghouls (no problem) but if I go overboard on the description - snarling, slavering, running on all fours, leaping to tear at a character's throat with teeth and claws scratching at their neck... well, then I find out some of them had nightmares. (This was last summer, and I've learned not to be a moron). But the kids love danger, fighting, and scary monsters. They just don't want to be scared of/by the monsters.

    I'd have a revolt if they had to fight candy cane golems and rainbow dragons.

  3. Whatever wondrous machine keeps a party so occupied they stay in a room through multiple wandering monster checks, that's the machine I want to design.

    2 birds 1 stone: a machine with switches & dials and a big lever that spits out the monster they spec'd with their random switching & dialing.

  4. Eco's Letter to My Son is truly excellent. I second recommending it to fathers out there.

  5. I think for 1), the creep factor, yes, you don't want provoking nightmares to be a goal of your adventure design. But at the same time, it's hard to know what level of description is going to be just icky to some kid and terrifying to another, and so you have to calibrate that as you get into it. With my own niece and nephew, I end up doing this with most activities we do together, even if they aren't potentially scary. If we're having a conversation about something funny or serious, making up a game like "Make a Film of Uncle Brendan Throwing Oranges at Squirrels at the Park" (the holidays in Fresno; you know what it's like), or watching Sponge Bob, I watch how they react to things, how much their imaginations are engaged, and how flipped out they get. So the freakiness you throttle up and down as necessary, depending on the kids and how they hype each other up.

    For 2, the genocide aspect of the game, well, I think D&D isn't really a good place to take a stand on genocide, pedagogically anyway. But if by 2) you mean you want to have an adventure that teaches that you can succeed by not slaughtering babies or stealing grandma-orc's pension, then yes, you're right on. But again if the kids have an image of orcs as the Peter Jackson LotR Orcs, or Star Wars Stormtroopers and don't see them as sentient beings, but as manufactured beings, maybe they are fighting a war against conformity and they are actually punk rock. Again it depends on the kids. Maybe they don't feel it's fair to slaughter. Then the DM has to roll with the way they play the situation; you should try to avoid punishing them for not wanting to kill everyone (i.e., avoid situations where fighting is the only possible option). Otherwise, maybe they are really happy to be fighting evil as they conceive of it.

    For 3), well, shit yeah. The puzzle-machine-trick-enigmatic-building stuff that you do in your campaign with the Black Pylon and the Sunken City makes me envious, it's so cool. You're right that the appeal of such things applies to adults as well as kids. Since you feel there's not enough of that in adventures in general, consider that you've got the opportunity to make some future gamers come to EXPECT that kind of cool stuff in their game. That's pretty awesome. Cue that Whitney Houston tune about the children are our future ...

    I guess my final thought is that if you talk to kids like they are intelligent people in terms they can understand, and LISTEN to them, and be fair, then you'll figure out how they see the game world and they'll respond to situations in ways that are probably no less coherent than the average chronologically-adult gamer. And then you'll know how to modulate the tones of the adventure and folks will have fun.

  6. Fabulous comments. Thanks, I appreciate it.

    @Roger: I read what pages Google will let me of Eco's letter and it is really nice. And I agree wholeheartedly. I'll see if I can get it from the library tomorrow.

    @Beedo, yeah, I don't want to be condescending. I was thinking of mud monsters- literally from a vat,-- that kids could hack away at if they want.

    @V: I'm hoping when they realize the Combinator can make a chicken-headed snake, and they have a chicken, that a snake hunt will be a fun corollary to the machine itself.

    @Spawn: You make a good point about fighting the rebels (and Eco goes there too), sometimes its good to fight. And thanks for the compliment.

    I love kids, but unfortunately have none around now to playtest with, but my experiences with ze Bulette's nephew and Tavis' son tell me they can be bright, imagination TURBINES. I'll do my best with the island, put it out there and be happy to revise based on feedback(or let others remake it as they see best)

  7. I think D&D isn't really a good place to take a stand on genocide, pedagogically anyway

    yup. Moe generally I'd worry about teaching my kids ideas about good and evil that have nothing to do with behaviour.
    Sign me up for the toy-like machines. I'm a Cthulhu player at heart, but I love how you play (really play) in territory that I tend to foreclose as horror. I would just say that lightness of tone is an art, and hugely important. It's amazing what Roald Dahl snuck past his audience just because he kept it fun.

  8. Dahl is a great example. I was influenced a lot by him. He is the perfect example of mixing dire, whimsical, and wondrous tones, sometimes all at once.