As a reminder, which you probably don’t need because I’m excited and won’t shut up about it, I wrote a game! It’s called Young Centurions, and it’s a roleplaying game (RPG) about teenage pulp heroes. There’s excitement! Thrills! Bad guys! And you have to beat them all and make it home in time for supper, or you’ll be in trouble with your Ma. Anyway, you can learn more about it here if you’re inclined to do so.
I’ve been talking about educational opportunities for gaming with kids (you can read the first one here), because as a gamer and a parent, I’ve used RPGs a lot and think more people probably would if only they knew what they were missing. And sure, I hope you might put these suggestions to use with my game, but even if you picked something else, I’d consider it a win. (In fact, I’ll suggest another one for people not into pulp—it’s called Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, and it’s kinda like Avatar: The Last Airbender and How to Train Your Dragon had a baby, and this game is that baby.) In my last post, I talked about teaching cause and effect, and now I’d like to talk about how you can use storytelling RPGs to make failure interesting.
Here’s the thing—as a parent, I’m constantly reassuring my kids that mistakes are good things. That trying something and failing doesn’t mean you suck; it just means that you’ve got a challenge on your hands. That some of the best learning opportunities come from the things that don’t come easy. Each of our kids has their wheelhouse, and of course the other two are jealous. Frankly, if they had their druthers, everything would be easy.
As far as I can tell, that’s pretty normal (as normal as kids get, anyway), but I still think it’s part of my job as a parent to teach them to cope with failure at the least, and to celebrate it if I possibly can. And frankly, I could always use a brush up on that last part myself.
So how do RPGs help? Well, I have to admit that the bulk of this idea comes from Fate. The Fate system books encourage gamemasters (the people who help apply the rules and tell the story, while the other players control specific characters) to make failure interesting. That’s a very different type of gaming than I’d been exposed to before. Before that, a botched roll meant something really bad was about to happen, and a really catastrophically bad roll meant I needed to make a new character, because mine had died or turned to the dark side or whatever. I remember once making a character for an epic fantasy game that was supposed to last the whole year. I spent a long time on her, because if you’re going to spend a year with a character, that person should be pretty cool. Two rolls into the first game, she was dead.
In short, failure was a bad thing in those games.
As I’m gaming with my kids now, though, I’m actively searching for a way to make failure interesting. Because if you know kids, you know the likely reaction to a bad roll of the dice. I have one who would get mad. One who would cry. One who would whine. After a bad roll, the dice hated them; it wasn’t fair; they didn’t want to play anymore. So was the problem with them, or was it with me because I wasn’t showing them the value of failure? I think the latter, personally.
Because failure can be interesting and valuable. Think about all the adventure stories where the hero tumbles down a hole only to discover something important there—maybe the ancient temple they’ve been searching for, or a back way into the bad guys’ base of operations. They pay a price for it for certain—anything from hurt pride to a broken ankle—but without that fall, they’d be wandering around forever without finding what they’re looking for. That failure got them closer to their goal.
That’s the kind of thing I’m looking to do when I’m playing RPGs with my kids. For example, we were playing Monster of the Week, which is a mishmash of Buffy, Supernatural, X Files, and Dresden—and it’s quite frankly awesome. In this story, the creature was very difficult to kill. You had to discover its weakness in order to defeat it, and in the process, the characters took a beating. That could easily be discouraging, but those defeats provided valuable information which would lead them to the monster’s weakness. And as we were playing, I tried to point that out. “Yes,” I’d say, “your character was knocked unconscious, but if that hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t have discovered the villain’s amulet on the floor. Now you’ve got a clue. And it all happened because you didn’t give up, even when the odds were against you.”
Now, sometimes the tradeoff is more valuable than others. Sometimes it's a piece of essential information, but sometimes something a little less tangible like the good opinion of another character, or even a personal realization that you need to talk through with them. "How does your character feel right now? Determined? She's not giving up? That's pretty brave, especially when she used to be such a scaredy pants, right? Let's write down a note about that so that when this story is done, we can talk about maybe changing your character sheet to show that she's becoming a braver person."
I think it’s working, because the last time we gamed, my son rolled a bunch of minuses (which indicate failure, if that’s not evident from context). He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and threw up his hands. “Oh no,” he said. “What are you going to do to me this time?” And then he laughed and said, "Bring it on, brah." Other than the part where he called me "brah," I thought that was pretty cool.