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I'm playing Amazing Tales with my two daughters (an even simpler version, actually-- we don't really make characters with specific skills, I just let them be whoever and we make up a story while occasionally rolling dice). The problem is, they're trying to go in conflicting directions. The "campaign" currently involves being on a pirate ship, and while my 3-year-old wants to rescue their space alien friend who's been captured by the mean ol' pirates, my 4-year-old wants to join the pirates and keep their friend prisoner.

I know the #1 rule when gaming with little kids is "always say yes," because the more they're allowed to let their imaginations run wild the more they'll love the game. But I don't know how to do that with two kids who keep coming into conflict. (We've been with the pirates for several sessions now, and this is not a new problem.) It's not that my 4-year-old likes being mean-- I've tried to explain how badly their alien friend wants to be free, and how sad her husband back home will be if they don't free her-- she just likes the idea of being one of the "bad pirates" and is willing to help them do whatever they're trying to do. Last night I decided to let my 3-year-old have her way, and she rescued their friend over my 4-year-old's objections. In a previous session when the girls themselves got captured, I let my 4-year-old talk her way into the crew and stand guard over her sister's cage (I was hoping she would use the opportunity to free both of them, but she dutifully kept her sister locked up).

How can I let both of them have the story they want if their goals are mutually exclusive?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm going to leave a gentle reminder to answerers that they should support their answer. The method you suggest should be tested, and that testing should give you expertise to say when it worked and any drawbacks or limitations it may have. This also goes to voters, please look for answers that show experience. Many ideas sound good until you try it and realize you forgot about X thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Aug 22 at 22:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ You're playing RPGs with a 3- and 4-year-old? Even simplified, that seems like it might be pushing their cognitive abilities at that age. IIRC children don't usually develop things like a sense of morality beyond "If I do bad things, I'll be punished" until about the age of 7, for instance. \$\endgroup\$ – nick012000 Aug 23 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ If Four "just likes the idea of being one of the 'bad pirates' ", can't Three make a deal with the Pirate Chief to swap the Alien's freedom for her sister's? \$\endgroup\$ – Robbie Goodwin Aug 24 at 12:28
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You're the GM--create an opportunity for win-win and help them find it themselves.

This is a great opportunity to work on some basic conflict resolution with your kids. You should mediate a discussion between them in which you challenge them to find a way for them to free the alien and still stay with the pirates. Given their very young age, you will need to prep the playing field first. To do this, you will have to take advantage of your all-powerful role as GM: You control the NPCs creating this conflict.

So in your next session, create a new conflict either among the pirate NPCs or between the pirates and some outside force (perhaps more aliens) in which it becomes much easier to both release the alien and stay friends with the pirates (example: something threatens the ship and if freed the alien can save the pirates). Once this opportunity for win-win is created, begin the conversation between your kids to find that win-win solution themselves. You can drop hints if they have trouble getting there, and the pirates should remain completely obtuse and oblivious to the solution.

This kind of mediated discussion puts the kids on the same side of the argument, not opposing sides. Instead of defending opposing positions (getting what they want at their sister's expense), they're both looking for a common goal (they both get what they want). This reinforces the attitude (necessary to live in a society) that someone doesn't have to lose out for you to gain. It also reinforces that talking things out can lead to something other than a complete impasse and it gives them the satisfaction of reaching the conclusion themselves (they won't see how much you helped).

Yes, kids need to learn you can't always get what you want. Yes, kids need to learn to compromise. But to learn those things, they first need to learn how to get past the digging-in-their-heels stage (I know adults who never have), and helping them reach a win-win that you have made possible by engineering the story is a way to help them mature to that level.

ALSO IMPORTANT: Moral Development

The scenario you present also has some implications for your children's moral development. These girls are not a 17 and 18 year olds playing Pathfinder's Way of the Wicked campaign for some vicarious change-of-pace fun. These are little girls in the early stages of developing their sense of right and wrong. They do not know with the certainty that you do that it is wrong to imprison innocent people against their will. This is a chance to instill some certainty in that conviction. It would be a very bad idea for you to have an outcome in which the alien stays imprisoned. Whatever the outcome, you want your 4 year old to realize in no uncertain terms that letting that alien go was the right thing to do.

Good luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a very important answer and I want to highlight it. A trinity is formed when a tension between two parties that apparently have opposed interests, is resolved when a third party creates a larger space, within which both "opposed" interests find a way to work together. Wind wants to push downwind, water wishes to remain still: the helmsperson on a sailboat uses the rudder and mainboard and sail to reconcile the apparent-opposites and create motion along some bearing in some greater space. \$\endgroup\$ – CR Drost Aug 24 at 18:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ So too in negotiation. He wants this, she wants that, they are at an impasse? We bring in skilled negotiators and they say "no" to the idea of impasse. Why does he want this? Why does she want that? What are their deeper needs? What is each more willing to trade off for the other? I and my employer quarrel about whether they should pay me more, a hypothetical negotiator may realize that I am looking for more fun with my family whereas the company needs to ease cashflow problems and suggests maybe I only work 4 days/week for similar pay, which meets both needs. \$\endgroup\$ – CR Drost Aug 24 at 18:21
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First, let me say I commend you for playing with your daughters that young — I GMed for my daughters, but not at that early age.

From their perspective, if Parent says this is a fantasy game, and I can do what I want, why is Parent not letting me do what I want? Natural sibling rivalry and age-appropriate selfishness may encourage them to value achieving the goals of their character, only.

So, it may be time to introduce the lesson that You Can't Always Get What You Want - at least not everything you want. If at all possible, try to design a scenario where it is explicit that:

  1. If the PC's refuse to work together, neither gets anything of what they want.
  2. If the PC's agree to work together, they can each accomplish some of their goals.
  3. There is no way either one of them can accomplish all of their goals, at least not immediately.

(It might help to read up on iterations of the Prisoner's Dilemma and/or Mediation and Conflict Resolution, such as:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/174242?seq=1)

For example, can you engineer a situation where:

The 3-year old gets to free her friend, but only if she joins the pirates for the time being.

The 4-year old gets to join the pirates, but only if she helps her sister free her friend.

If you can devise a way that they can work together and achieve at least some of their own goals and more than they can achieve on their own, you will help them learn to compromise. Of course, it may be that what one or both of them really wants is to frustrate the other one, and that is more important than achieving their own goals. If so, that is important for you to know because this kind of conflict will reoccur.

In terms of how to achieve the above, you know the plot line and details, but here is one idea:

What do the pirates want with the alien — ransom, information, hostage? Whatever it is, have the alien suggest a 'better' target for the pirates to the 3-year old, a target that they can only capture with information that alien has. The alien wants the 3-year old to convince the 4-year old to convince the pirates to go after this other target. (Or; the pirates know about the other target but the alien refuses to tell them about it — the pirates ask the 4-year old to get the 3-year old to get the information from the alien).

The 'price' of this information is that the 4-year old has to promise to help free the alien against the wishes of the pirates (and there may be alien magic or technology to enforce this if you don't think she will keep her word), and the 3-year old has to help the mean pirates capture the new target.

While the pirates would prefer to have both captives, after the dust settles they will actually be better off and prefer to have the new captive rather than the alien, and will promote the 4-year old within the pirate ranking and accept the 3-year old. Both girls can get something they want at the cost of something they don't, but they have to work together to get it.

In response to Please Stop Being Evil's reminder to support my answer, and concern that unachievable goals will bring about existential dread in a 3-year old:

I am a father of two daughters (currently 19 and 16) and stepfather to a son (31 but he was seven when we first met so I did not experience him at 3 and 4). The girls were raised by my wife and me with "attachment parenting". Existential dread is certainly a thing - I believe many of the tantrums of the 'terrible twos' are reactions of distress that accompany the transition from infancy, where a parent can meet all of a child's needs, to toddlerhood, where they cannot. Growing psychological complexity brings the horrific realization to the child that it is not the center of the universe and cannot, in fact, always get what it wants. That is certainly a difficult process. In my, admittedly limited, experience, the worst of that is over by three, and children of three and four can understand things like sharing, taking turns, helping, and empathy, all of which sometimes require setting aside personal goals. Of course, each child is different and there are lots of three and four year olds that are not ready for these things. The OP, or anyone else referencing this question for their own use, knows their children better than we and will need to take that into consideration.

I appreciate your emphasis on temporary vs permanent deferment of goals and have edited my answer to reflect that. Many two year olds would certainly be strongly affected if asked to share their ice cream - that is an ice cream which they will never again be able to eat. Some three year olds, in my experience, are able to console themselves with knowing that perhaps they won't ever be able to eat that particular ice cream again, but that somewhere in the future there is another, different ice cream.

More to the point of the OP's girls, rather than the emotional ability of the children to accept temporary or even permanent deferment of goals, which I believe they may be capable of, is the nature of the emotional contract they have with OP vis a vis "the game". If up until now they have always been able to meet all their goals in the game, and OP is now telling them that they cannot, there certainly is the chance that they will feel betrayal and resentment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ An intelligent three year old is, in my experience, quite likely to reject your proposed ploy out of hand. If all they are pursuing is their own goals, they will pick up on the fact that the compromise gives them one thing they want but also means they can't get the other thing they want ever. Delayed gratification is close to morality for three year olds in my experience, so I would expect a difficult choice eventually made to reject the compromise and take the double failure scenario, without realizing that it is in fact a double failure scenario. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Aug 22 at 22:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you do manage to convince them that they can't give up getting what they want now and get it later then I expect tears, and existential dread around it not always being possible to win, not just in the short term but ever, a lesson that's a bit harsh for 3 imo. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Aug 22 at 22:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Pleasestopbeingevil OP has stated the 3yo's goal as freeing her friend, and I have suggested a possible goal as well as frustrating her sister's desire to join the pirates. I don't understand what you think is the specific goal that is not achievable ever? Or are you just objecting to the concept of having to give up one thing to get another? \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Aug 22 at 22:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is one of the best parenting answers I've ever seen on SE, and I did not expect to find it on rpg.SE. Kudos! (I am parent of 4yo and 22 month - not currently running games for them) \$\endgroup\$ – Alex M Aug 24 at 7:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ "From their perspective, if Parent says this is a fantasy game, and I can do what I want, why is Parent not letting me do what I want? Natural sibling rivalry and age-appropriate selfishness may encourage them to value achieving the goals of their character, only." I've DM'ed for some 30 year olds who still needed this explained to them. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Aug 24 at 16:26
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[Dear Reader: if you haven't yet tried Amazing Tales and have the chance to do so with children, please do. It's really awesome. Absolutely my go-to for introducing kids to RPGs.]

I ran into a situation like this when playing Amazing Tales a couple of years back with my three kids. Basically, it was an argument about whether or not we should wake the tiger that was plopped in front of the gate to the princess's garden...

We went ahead and played it out both ways, and then chose which we liked better. We played until the next player skill-roll would have been called for; it created a natural "cliffhanger" moment to break off and consider the other timeline. When the second timeline got to its next skill-roll, we paused a sec to decide which thread was real and which was just their characters imagining "what if we...?"

I was surprised that the youngest — then five or six — grokked the notion of "alternate timelines," but it wasn't a problem at all. I don't know if that's going to translate down to a three year-old as well as it did here, but give it another year or two and I'm sure it will.

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Paired Success and Paired Failure from Non-Intersecting Goals

Here's a small adaptation of a framing mechanic that originally appeared in a game called shock: social science fiction. It will slightly change the course of the game and introduce something called the spotlight. Pick something chunky and easily passable to represent this. It will start with whoever wins a coinflip at the start of the session.

Run the game as normal, but when the characters are opposing each other directly, whoever has the spotlight is the protagonist and says what they want to do first; then, the other player, the antagonist, says what they want to do. The only rule is that both the protagonist and the antagonist have to be able to succeed. This means that the protagonist can't annihilate the antagonist, but the antagonist can't directly contradict the protagonist, and neither side can do anything to be rid of the other forever.

So you can't have: "I free the alien from the pirates!" "I stop you!"

But you can have: "I free the alien from the pirates!" "I join the pirates!"

Then roll as normal and adjudicate the results. If only one side fails, that side gets or keeps the spotlight and will be the protagonist next time. Otherwise, the spotlight swaps sides.

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Have you considered assisting them with deferring the harsh lessons by making the Pirates actually the alien's friends who came to rescue the trapped alien?

This fulfills both desired outcomes without breaking either illusion of accomplishment.

While this does not teach the reality of not always getting what you want, it does not sacrifice 'play time with family' to make the harsh point.

I might suggest allowing the younger to discover the twist as her goal is being co-opted by a potentially dominate sibling...and might make for a more socially equitable resolution...but this would depend on much more that I can observe on this side of the screen.

Should the older become upset with this win-win resolution then you know there is a more difficult dynamic involved.

You could possibly try to find out what the older is enjoying about joining the pirates and fulfill that as well so it is a true win-win.

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