Monday, January 18, 2016

Reasons to Game with Kids - Teaching Them to Fail

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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why You Should Play RPGs With Your Kids...and coincidentally, I wrote one

So I wrote a game. It’s called Young Centurions, and I wrote it with Clark and Amanda Valentine, who are pretty much saints in my book. It’s a family-friendly RPG about teenage pulp heroes—if you’re thinking Young Indiana Jones, you’re right on the money—and yes, you do have the opportunity to play Sally Slick and Jet Black as they set off on adventure if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s up on Kickstarter now with a bunch of other games from Evil Hat Productions, and it would be very cool if you’d check it out.

Here’s the thing—I’m aware that many fans of my books and people I know in general have never played tabletop RPGs and might not know what they’re missing. I’m a long-time gamer; in fact, my first paid writing gig was for an RPG. And in particular, I think people don’t realize the value of playing RPGs with kids. I know that I’m always on the lookout for fun and inexpensive activities I can do with my own kids that are rainy-day compatible, and gaming fits the bill. Plus, there are so many opportunities for them to learn in a way that doesn’t make you or them want to pull your hair out.

Storytelling RPGs offer a lot of advantages to kids beyond the obvious things like: they’re off electronics for more than five minutes at a time; they’re talking to you in complete sentences about things other than electronics, and they’re being creative instead of passively sitting in front of the TV. Frankly, on some days those things alone would sell me on the idea as a parent, but there’s a lot more there. Today, I’d like to give you an example of a teachable opportunity in storytelling RPGs, just to give you a peek at what I mean. And for clarity, I’m using the word “storytelling” to denote games that focus on telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end rather than crawling around a dungeon and rolling dice to defeat monsters. That can also be fun, but it doesn’t fit the definition as I’m using it here.

One thing I noticed all three of my kids struggle to grasp is cause and effect. The whole logic of one action causing a logical reaction just didn’t click with them. It was particularly evident in their stories—my kids tell a lot of stories, and those things were RANDOM. Magical artifacts and unicorns would appear and disappear without making any sense at all, and people would suddenly stop in the middle of conversations and walk off into haunted forests where no one left alive. Stuff like that. And school-wise, if you asked them questions about what happened next in a book, they’d skip around and totally miss how the elements were related. They could remember them as isolated incidents, but the logical connections were missing.

So I started talking to them about the whole idea of cause and effect, and let me tell you, that was a failure. Without context, they just couldn’t grasp what I was saying, and using examples from the media didn’t work very well, because they had a hard time picturing alternate endings for familiar books and movies, since they already knew how the story was “supposed” to go.

Then I suggested we play an RPG. I used Fate Accelerated Edition (which, coincidentally, is the same system that powers Young Centurions) to create a game about tween superheroes. The characters were siblings who had to keep their superpowers hidden while still fighting evil. I set up a very simple one-shot scenario. At school, one of them discovered evidence that their arch-nemesis had planted a bomb in the building. With their powers, finding and diffusing the bomb would be easy; the real challenge was figuring out how to do it without anyone learning that they were superheroes, because again, that was a secret.

The characters were at gym when they learned about the bomb, and when I asked how they were going to get out of class, the random happened. One of my daughters wanted to light the teacher’s hair on fire and run out of class in the resulting chaos. Which is pretty ridiculous, but this is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Here’s where I started asking questions. “That sounds silly, but what would happen if you lit her hair on fire?” My daughter quickly realized that this wasn’t an option and moved to what was to her a logical alternative. She wanted to pull the fire alarm in plain sight of everyone. Again, there were questions and discussions among all of us about the logical effect that would result from that action. She’d get in trouble, of course, but would that be worth it to save all the kids? Of course it would. But would they evacuate the building if they saw her pull the alarm with no fire in sight? No. So that wouldn’t work.

Slowly but surely, we drew down from the wild and crazy suggestions to some very simple solutions. One character asked to go to the bathroom, went into the stall, and turned invisible. Another one talked back to the teacher until she got sent to the principal’s office, and the third character—a bit of a goody-two-shoes—offered to escort her there. The three of them then convened in the hallway for a bit of fun action in which they located the bomb (solving another puzzle in the process) and disarmed it with time to spare.

All in all, it took about an hour to play, and a decent sized chunk of that time was spent talking out how to solve the problems logically, with the kids proposing possibilities and then the four of us talking through the likely outcomes together to come up with the best options. I’d say they did more thinking than they do with any workbook page I can give them, and here’s the big difference—they hate workbook pages, but they ask me to play “that superhero game” all the time. And it’s becoming a familiar process to them, giving them context to understand how to begin to ask, “What would happen if…” when they tell their own stories and “What happened when…” when they read a passage for comprehension.

And it was damned fun too.

That’s just one example of many teachable opportunities you can create for kids with RPGs, and I’ll talk about some more of them over the next few weeks. In the meantime and as always, feel free to hit me up with questions. There is a learning curve to starting off with tabletop RPGs, but fun and affordable educational activities don’t come along all the time. I’m happy to help out anyone who wants to try one with their kids or students. And of course, I hope you’ll check out the Young Centurions RPG and stay tuned for the cover reveal as soon as it’s available!