Roleplaying Games With My Kids

I’ve been an avid roleplayer ever since junior high, when I somehow stumbled on the game “TMNT and Other Strangeness” at the comic shop by my house. My brother and I played a ton, made new characters a WHOLE ton, and quickly started expanding into other games like Heroes Unlimited, Rifts, Toon, and so on. I never got actually got into D&D until college, when 3rd Edition came out, but since then I’ve had one game group or another meeting almost every week for the last fifteen years. For a while there I was in three campaigns at once–Pathfinder, L5R, and a wacky homebrew by Brandon Sanderson–and still couldn’t get enough. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when my own kids would be old enough to play with me. I’m delighted to announce that this day has finally come.

When we moved to Germany, roleplaying was one of the many things that we left behind. I tried to convince my three gaming groups to drop everything and move with us, but they apparently have “jobs” and “families” and whatever, man, I don’t need them anyway. We’ve talked about trying to play over Skype or Google+, but even that’s not a great option thanks to the 8-hour time difference. My kids, on the other hand, were eager to jump in to Daddy’s favorite hobby, so I poked around for a good game to start with and, when one of the Grandpas asked for Christmas suggestions, quickly offered up “Marvel Heroic Roleplaying” from Margaret Weis Productions. My kids are avid superhero fans, even (and perhaps especially) the girls, so a game where you get to play as known heroes seemed like a great gateway into the larger hobby. I should point out that we’ve attempted some other games over the past year or so, and the one gap my kids still have in their roleplaying foresight is the idea of power balance: ask them to come up with their own character concept, and they’ll toss a ridiculously overpowered Mary Sue wish fulfillment monstrosity every single time. Even when I explain to them that weaknesses and limitations are what makes a character interesting, they still go a little crazy; one of my daughters created a superhero named Snapmind, who can do, be, or make absolutely anything in the entire world, instantly, except she has to snap her fingers in order to do it. Sounds super balanced, right? So yeah. Lets start by playing with pre-existing characters you already love, and go from there. We’ll get to the “create your own characters” part of roleplaying when we’re ready.

“Marvel Heroic Roleplaying,” or MHR, is a very simple, narrativist system, which is game-theorist-speak for roleplaying rules that focus on storytelling, from both the gamemaster (called the Watcher in this case) and the players. Every RPG is about storytelling, but a narrativist game takes it further, removing or lessening some of the standard considerations about power and “realism” (ie, the game does not try to simulate certain aspects of the real world like distance, ammunition, and so on). In MHR you take actions by rolling a big pool of dice and then choosing the best results, but the number and type of dice are controlling directly by your ability to tell a good story. If you say “my character punches the bad guy in the face” you might get three or four basic dice, but if you say “my character rips up a lamppost, swats away the thugs, then wraps it around the supervillain like a rope,” you get five or six dice, with more sides on them for potentially bigger numbers. There are rules to govern some of the more theatrical skills and powers, like whether your character’s actually strong enough to rip up a lampost, but for the most part that’s it: you tell an awesome story, and then awesome stuff happens. Combine that with well-known superheroes like Spider-man and Wolverine, and you’ve got a perfect game to play with my kids. Probably any kids, honestly, but my kids especially.

We took the shiny new Christmas present RPG book on our big vacation last week (which I have not yet blogged about, but I promise I will), bought a big old handful of dice from a hobby shop in Prague, and started our game one night in a Dresden hotel. I was playing with just my two oldest, 11 years and 9 years, and for their characters they chose, perhaps inspired by the eastern European vibe of the vacation overall, the two Russian superheroes in the book: Black Widow and the X-man named Colossus. I proposed a story about investigating a mysterious factory, because I’d worked out what I thought was a neat story, but they both immediately rebelled and demanded something more exciting and world-threatening. The factory idea would have eventually become world-threatening, but no matter; they wanted something more immediately flashy, and that’s fine. The game is there to have fun, so I asked them to propose some ideas of their own and figured I could wing it. We batted a few scenarios around, and at one point I proposed a time-travel idea: a villain tries to take over the world in the past, when there are no superheroes to stop him, and Black Widow and Colossus get sucked back in time and blah blah blah. My son said that time travel stories are lame, probably because his sister loves Doctor Who and he wanted to be contrary, and I said that I thought it would be fun because we’d just spent a week looking at medieval castles and stuff, and this would be an opportunity to play around with them in our game.

Instantly, and in perfect unison, my kids’ eyes lit up. “I know exactly what we should do!” My daughter cried. “I know exactly what you’re thinking!” said my son. I figured there was no way they were thinking the same thing, but I was amazingly wrong. Almost like they’d rehearsed it beforehand, they shouted together: “We go back in time, and Black Widow gets kidnapped by Elizabeth Bathory!” You see, one of the places we’d stopped on our vacation was the ruined castle of Elizabeth Bathory, and the kids had been enthralled by her story, even making up elaborate plots and movie pitches in the car. They thought the idea was the best thing ever, and I was down for it, so we dove in, and spent the first night getting their feet wet and learning the rules: they flew a jet, they dodged some lightning bolts, they got sucked through a portal, and ended up talking to a farmboy who couldn’t figure out why they were dressed so weird. The same two children who’d been convinced that the story would be lame unless the entire world was horrifically imperiled were now having the time of their lives just trying to figure out what they should say to this medieval farmboy, and how much they should reveal about themselves, and so on. We had a blast, and we spent the last few days of the vacation making jokes about “What year is this? I’m from the FUTURE.”

Our second game session was last week, when they finally got the chance to meet Elizabeth Bathory, learned that at least one other person was sucked through the time portal (THE PLOT THICKENS), and started to wonder if maybe Elizabeth Bathory wasn’t nearly as bad as they thought. They got into their first real combat, did some very clever, cinematic things, and ended on an exciting cliffhanger. The kids are getting really good at this, and I’m a very proud papa watching their little storytelling minds churn out one cool thing after another. Our next game session is tonight, and it’s going to be a doozy. This is seriously one of the best hobbies ever.

6 Responses to “Roleplaying Games With My Kids”

  1. Training them right, Dan. :)

    And this is a good description of narrativism for those who think GNS is a misspelling of gnu. :)

  2. James says:

    You add game balance by telling your daughter that Snapmind doesn’t have fingers or toes.

  3. Cavan says:

    Say what you will, “Snapmind” is an awesome name for a hero or villain.

  4. Devin says:

    That is so awesome. It’s funny, you could have been describing my sister’s kids (roughly the same age, the girl is into Doctor Who). However, they don’t have any power creep tendencies that I’ve seen; in fact, my nephew seems enamored of characters whose powers don’t work right, from a bumbling old wizard to a knight who doesn’t do much more than eat.

    Just this week I pitched the old Marvel Super Heroes RPG to them (FASERIP), since I knew my nephew liked superhero comics. I wasn’t sure whether my nieces would be interested, but they were immediately intrigued. The younger niece immediately wanted to play Black Widow from the Avengers movie; the older niece chose to play Artemis from “Young Justice”, and though he considered Spider-Man for a moment, my nephew eventually decided to play Blue Beetle (also the “Young Justice” version).

    It’s always invigorating to see kids discovering the joy of roleplaying games. I can’t wait for our first session…

  5. Jerry says:

    Hello – this article was linked to from one of the many G+ RPG communities I belong to. How old are your kids? I am currently toying with getting my son into RPGs and I *love* your idea about MHR – I had been looking for fantasy genre because that’s what i started with but you are so absolutely right that a supers game is way more kid friendly.

    My son is 6 and we’re in the discussion stage atm. He’s going to love the MHR idea :)

    Thanks for sharing this.

    -j

  6. admin says:

    Jerry:
    My kids are 11 and 9; I have a 6yo as well, who I might bring into the game soon once I get a better handle on exactly how the older ones are playing it.

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