On a recent trip, my wife and her friends wound up teaching classes during the day. I spent a few days exploring the city, but also spent a couple of afternoons gaming with their teenage sons.

It’s been a while since I was a teen; I admit that I remember the endless hours for gaming with a great deal of nostalgia. So it was neat to get to play with them. I was forewarned; on the plane flight I whipped up an adventure based on memories of a few Eureka plots. (Predominantly Blood Bound on page 70.) We were going to play D&D 3.5e; through a version of telegraph, I heard that they were only interested in 3.5. I was traveling light, so I stuck to monsters accessible through the hypertext SRD; though I made sure I brought along a copy of the Player’s Handbook.

Beginning to Game

Though we were in a beautiful, foreign location, we were all eager to game– even though it meant spending a couple of afternoons inside instead of exploring. Their mom didn’t understand the appeal at all… isn’t that the way of most moms?

One afternoon the boys made up their characters. I established that the world wasn’t one of the stock high fantasy worlds, that it was a sketchy homebrew. They quickly invested the world with flavor; their characters were named Rodrigo and Mattaes, giving the country a very latin flavor. Their Dad joined us and had a different vision for his character; Ishiro was a Cleric devoted to the Tao and wearing lacquered armor. We decided to have him be a visiting priest from a distant land. The characters began at third level, which surprised the players a little. (I think they expected a crawl from level one, even for a one-shot.)

Their Dad was into the game, but was distracted with other responsibilities and he wasn’t very familiar with the current edition of D&D. His sons guided him and helped him equip his character. They did a good job of helping him pick feats and equip his character; I mostly helped them figure out how to treat his eastern equivalents. We derailed into a philosophical discussion of Tao and tried to figure out which Domains matched.

Quick Character Links

I borrowed a bit from Diaspora to link them up. First I had them explain what great deeds they had accomplished to earn their way to third level. Rodrigo vanquished bandits plaguing the roads, dumping them in the lake. Then I had the player to their right explain how they helped that come about. I got a fun tale of Mattaes attacking the bandits the night before, wearing them down and making it easy for Rodrigo to find them. I then asked how they had crossed paths with the other character; Ishiro was having trouble navigating the court, but Rodrigo so enjoyed his philosophical talks that he mentioned him to the king when he was rewarded for his bravery in confronting the bandits.

This was a fun tool– and one that often stumps groups when they first encounter it. It can be a bit tricky to come up with your character’s heroic act, particularly when you’re imagining from scratch. A blank slate is often hard to face, but throwing out some examples led to the players seizing some ideas and elaborating. They were a little hesitant at first, but really got into it when I cheered on their actions and encouraged them to describe their heroism cinematically.

The Adventure Begins

A couple of days later, we started up again after lunch. The seemed impressed that I had some notes for the adventure. They went interesting directions during their investigation, splitting up and roleplaying the interactions well. They did a great job of descending into the city and talking to everyone that evening, and came up with some interesting approaches I hadn’t anticipated at all. When they got their lead, they picked the swiftest boat– but were willing to wait for the packets to be offloaded to disrupt the kingdom less.

They chewed the scenery well and really enjoyed getting to a good, violent confrontation when their ship was forced aground. They did a great job of adapting to the unusual circumstances of their fight in the shallow water, keeping in character and fighting effectively. Then we ran out of time, but it had been a good session.

Beyond the Game

In between playing, we walked to the laundromat and took care of chores they’d been assigned. We talked about their home groups, the campaigns they’ve played in and run over the last year or two, and their play experiences. They were tweaking 3.5 for a less magic heavy experience– but hadn’t heard of Iron Heroes.

Even these game enthusiasts don’t read much about games online. I thought that free might have sucked them in, but their days and nights are filled with other things, it seems.

They haven’t had a chance to read or play other games; it reminded me of designing based on my reactions to AD&D in high school. (Don’t we all try it?) It was nice to get to discuss games; they enjoyed tales of play in other systems. They had heard about 4e, particularly the negative first impressions around its release, but were willing to let me talk about my experiences. It sounded like they wouldn’t have minded trying it out… if only we’d figured that out before we left.

Their campaigns sounded a little meandering; they had a lot of “wrestling over whose character to follow” (spotlight issues), and lack a lot of good tools to talk above the game level.

I was envious though; in the last year they’ve had time for a couple of long campaigns and several short series and one shots. They’re also quick to abandon a game that goes off the rails, which has encouraged them to experiment and try out some incredible story lines.

How about you?

Are any of our readers teens? Or have you played with teens recently? Please share your experiences– and any differences it’s important to keep in mind.

[Edited to add: If you'd like to read about a game club with 16+ teenagers, playing games like 4e, Inspectres, Mouse Guard and Dread, check out MJ Harnish's site.]

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.



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13 Responses to Gaming Across the Divide

  1. How about pre-teens?

    My oldest son is almost 12, and has wanted to play with Mom & Dad for a while. Last year, another gamer-dad in the neighborhood started a D&D 3.5 game for his son and mine, and a few others. I wanted to do the same, but lacked the time to do it. This summer, I vowed to get it done.

    I wanted to do something easier rules-wise, but decided to stick to what they’d already learned, D&D 3.5. I drug out the old “Bone Hill” module for my sandbox (plenty of outdoor encounters, and an old-fashioned dungeon or two to boot). My son recruited 5 boys (2 of them sons of gamers), but we quickly picked up a younger brother, too.

    They had a ball, and by the middle of July, one boy had bought the 4e books and wanted to run on his own. I was playing Tuesday afternoons, so he took Wednesdays. My son wanted to run next, so he took Thursdays. A third boy wanted to run on weekends, but other parents and their calendars nixed that. I suddenly had to take up babysitting my infant niece and pre-schooler nephew, so I handed off the Tuesday afternoon slot and observed that while the others were running D&D, but he was the only one with the Star Wars d20 books. So the gang has three games a week, and my boy’s birthday wish-list is bulging with minis. There’s been one sleepover so far.

    Pretty much, it was a case of winding them up and letting them go. I did leave out a lot of setting detail (just enough learn that some worlds are different, and DMs have different likes). They got attached to their stuff, as players do. I saw them make sub-optimal choices here and there, and sometimes I found ways to make them pay for those.

    I didn’t set out to teach them a One True Way. To my mind, they are still 11- and 12-year old boys, and if they want to act like preteen boys, that’s fine. I did nip in the bud some intra-party theft and violence, but mostly, I stepped back and let them roll. It may be indulgent, but I want them to have the Old School style of learning about gaming from the dungeon up; stuff about relationships to NPCs and Theme and Role-Playing and Plot can be picked up later. I’d rather they pick those things up on their own, as they grow into the hobby. Recruiting girls is another issue I wonder about, but one sister has joined up and not been driven away, so they’re already ahead of my gang from back in the day.

    Like your teens, they haven’t read gaming blogs or forums or even magazines (gasp!). They haven’t read as many novels, either, which kinda bothers me. They do study the books, and mine has the advantage of his parents’ 3.5e book collection.

    *I* learned that as an old fart and a housekeeping stay-at-home dad, I barely had time to keep up with prep. I was glad to be running out of a module, but I still had to keep an eye on stats, treasure and the like.

    Christmas break? Next summer? A one- or two-shot? Sure thing. Different game? Quite likely, with lighter rules. Maybe Traveller or Savage Worlds. Different setting, one that appeals to my grognardity? You bet– I’m eyeing old Star Frontiers.

    Going back to school next week is going to hit them all really hard, but I will make efforts to see that his weekends have at least as much gaming as mine.

  2. That sounds like an interesting experience Scott. The only recent experience I have is one that you have shared with me.

    Our group decided to have a young teenager join the party, first in Star Wars Saga Edition as a temp for a missing player, before eventually leading to a full time role taking over an NPC converted to PC.

    We then had him join us for a D&D 4e series. I didn’t realize what a new player the kid was during my time in the GM hot seat. The kid likes Star Wars and he sort of slid right into his role as a Jedi Padawan rather quickly. D&D was different though. I was now sitting beside him as a fellow player.

    I had to contain my laughter and try to offer up sensible advice whenever our young trainee decided to do something incredibly brave (or dumb) during the D&D series. I found myself showing some restraint though, for who doesn’t remember the days when they learned from deciding to “split the party” or “try it solo.”

    When our intrepid young Ranger got caught in a water pit and was knocked around like a bobbing apple by a bunch of drowned ones, it was a very frustrating encounter. It took quite a while to save the kid’s PC and it left some of us wondering if we should have done so. But I think the kid learned from this and that was awesome to see that awareness develop in a young gaming mind.

    When I recall the stupid things that I did in games when I was his age, I could hardly be mad at the kid for his mistakes.

    I think that realizing and allowing that learning curve for new players (especially kids)is a key to fostering their desire to keep gaming. It certainly helps make gaming “across the divide” much easier.

  3. @Lee Hanna – That’s a great experience. It sounds like the two parents have ignited a whole neighborhood of gaming, which is neat!

    It’s amusing that you’re the one who’s talking about having to cut back on complexity– I think that’s really common, but contrary to expectation. It’ll be interesting to see how their gaming develops, particularly after you introduce them to lighter systems.

    @BryanB – It has been interesting adding our teen to the ongoing group. In many ways, he hasn’t had much chance to play the way we did as teens– there’s too much advice around the table. But I agree– letting him get into trouble and fight through it has been educational, for us all.

    He had some trouble fighting through MMO training at first, but I think he’s fitting into our group well these days.

  4. Also going with the pre-teens here: I was doing a few simple home-brew games for my son by the time he was six. Then about the time he and his two best friends turned eight (I discovered D&D at about 8 or 9 myself), I offered to run a session of D&D for them to see how they liked it. Due to one parent’s objections to the game, it turned into d6 Star Wars instead.

    D6 works extremely well for new gamers, and I was able to set them up with PCs by asking a few simple questions, then stat out the specifics. Instead of throw a bunch of game-speak at them about their force powers, I gave them thumb-nail descriptions of what they could hope to accomplish. At game time, I handed them their character sheets, explained the simple process of reading them and how the numbers would be used in-game, then we jumped into the game.

    First lesson learned: 8-year-old’s can bring a very “shoot first, and then shoot some more” attitude to the table, even when playing Jedi. All of them chose to be weapons specialists of varying types, and wanted to open fire on something – anything! – from the very first moment. My attempts to explain to them that they were essentially police officers, pulling out shotguns to start blasting away at an abandoned vehicle they’d just spotted at the side of the road, quickly turned into a comedy routine worth of Abbot and Costello. Once we finally got past that hump, though, things went surprisingly smoothly, and everyone was eager to keep playing even when we’d run out of time.

    Second lesson learned (at our next session) is that an eight-year-old obsessing over a video game would rather spend all night whining about the fact that he doesn’t have it than participate in an RPG. While the other two were still clamoring for more at the end of the night, though, that did bring D&D back into the mix, since the video game addict was the one not allowed to play it. We agreed I’d set up a two-player D&D game for those times when we found ourselves forging on without him.

    Which brings us to the most recent lesson learned: 8-year-olds LOVE the powers system of 4E, even if they want you to spend as little time as possible actually learning how to use them.

    All in all, the same approach I used luring girls into gaming in college meets the needs of children, too: give them story, give them action, give them cool factor, and sweep all those pesky numbers and rules out of sight under the rug any time their eyes start to glaze over. They can always go back and learn that stuff later if it suits them.

  5. @GiacomoArt – That was an excellent point about sweeping the pesky mechanics under the table and focusing on the unfolding story that is being created. While a lot of us have a gamist side that enjoys the mechanical aspects of a game, we are ultimately playing these games for the collaborative sharing of adventure in fictional worlds and the enjoyment that it provides. The thrill of the ride would seem to be more important and more interesting for a new player than learning the rules for how to do it :).

  6. @BryanB
    I brought both my sons to the gaming table. Paul at 12 Maxwell at 10. Paul prefers card games. So he doesn’t game with us to much. Maxwell enjoys playing. He is currently in my gaming group and ran for Paizo at GenCon 2009. Our style of play is very different. Most of my games I ran this year at GenCon had teens in it. Second generation gamers. I try to keep an energetic game. For my younger players I try to bring a real sense of wonder. I give them the high fantasy treatment.

  7. My Invasion Reno adventure included one player who was 14. Since his dad and a bunch of the guys he looked up to were doing it, he was eager to do it too.

    This was the first game he was in.

    He sucked.

    I’m not talking mechanics. I’m not even talking about not being able to remember the basics of who his character was (he had to go to his character sheet any time I asked him, “so what are you doing?”).

    I’m talking basic creativity. He could not get into his character. He had no concept of backstory or what it meant to his character.

    In the Really Big Scene with the Bad Guys, he got hit once, and cowered in the corner, claiming he was protecting our artillery guy.

    We let him play in a D&D game after that, and it was just as bad.

    This is a kid who devours fantasy and science fiction, watches cartoons avidly, etc. But he has no creativity of his own.

    What did I learn? Make prospective players do a character backstory as an application. Talk it over with them. Do a non-cannon, off-the-cuff scene. If they can’t hack that, tell them maybe next time.

  8. Actually, my entire group, self included, is made up of teens. Our first session is scheduled for this Saturday, and nobody but me has any experience with these games. I’m GMing of course, because I love the craft, but I also really want to get my friends into this as much as I am.

    Any tips out there for a new group? :)

  9. @szarkel – High energy is tough to keep up, but it’s invaluable for short attention span players of any age.

    @XonImmortal – I’ve encountered that, fortunately rarely, among new players of any age. I think the hesitation comes from damage averse CRPG play, while looking at the character sheet probably springs from the open nature of the game– most board games have a set list of actions. I’d hope that he’d relax after some exposure… but not everyone fits roleplaying.

    @Chando42 – Good luck! I wrote up this post for my wife last year, when she was introducing new players to the game.

    If your first session is character generation, borrow the quick character links from above. Martin’s group character generation PDF is great, and helps make sure that everyone’s going to fit together.

  10. @Scott Martin – Well, I’m wanting to switch games for two reasons. One is my prep time, the other is ’cause I already play and run 3.5 for my grown-up group. I want to expose them to games other than D&D, too.

  11. I have run an after-school game club for the past 7 years, the last 4 of which we’ve almost exclusively focused on RPGs. This year I have 16 members, ranging in age from 13 to 19, with the split almost 50/50 boys to girls. I really enjoy it although it’s quite a challenge to keep them focused and on task. Some of the biggest issues I have is the focus some of them have on their cell phones and how short an attention span some of them have – if you are raising kids, the ability to focus & stay on task is one of the most valuable skills a child can have and TV, video games, apps, SMS, Facebook, and gulp, Twitter, are not conducive to developing it in kids; their brains are literally being rewired the more they come to use ever changing media. The result is getting some kids to focus on a game task or scene for more than a few minutes is really difficult. The most interesting phenomenon I’ve observed is that the older kids (late teens) have more problems than the 8 year olds I have run games for…

    It is also a real challenge getting the to try their hand at GMing – at one point last year I had 12 players and no one willing to GM so we ended up playing through T1 The Village of Hommlet with a huge party. Old school indeed.

    Last year we played InSpectres, Mouse Guard, Dread, AD&D and 4E D&D. This year we’re all starting with 4E, with 3 separate groups (yes, I have not 1, but 2 kids willing to try GMing!). I’m running something based on Paizo’s Kingmaker AP in conjunction with one of the new DMs, taking a company of about 10 players through it in parallel.

    I write about my experiences and actual sessions with the club kids on my blog fairly often, if anyone is interested. http://rpg.brouhaha.us

  12. @MJ Harnish – I’ve long enjoyed your Mouse Guard and 4e writeups with the students; I wish I’d remembered when writing the article to toss out some link love more prominently. Actually… I’ll edit in a good link now that you’ve pointed it out.

  13. Thanks. There’s actually a “lost episode” report from the MG coming this week – a reader pointed out that I never posted session #8 from the Mouse Guard game which wrapped up the whole campaign. I’ve found my notes so I will be writing the final chapter of that story this week.

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