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This is an offshoot of this question, and comes in part from a comment recommending this blog post about "Advanced Doggies and Dragons", a game developed for a four year old by a gaming Dad.

I have a three year old who's very curious and fairly intellectually mature for his age, and in the recent past has been very intrigued by story telling that felt very reminiscent of role playing: I would make up stories with him and Curious George doing things together, and he would occasionally jump in and make decisions (either prompted, or often unprompted - he would excitedly decide we were buying Lasagna for dinner, for example, when we got to the store.)

I began designing a simple RPG system for him tonight, and realized I had some trouble determining what would be a good way to give it some 'difficulty'. I set him up as a monkey with the option of [Strong | Fast | Curious], with the Man with the [color] Hat (and color similarly was tied to those attributes]. We then went into a Museum, and wandered through Rooms with Pirate Treasure in them, each room having some challenge to overcome. Except I couldn't really figure out how to tailor 'challenges' that might not be overcome; he's smart, but not necessarily smart enough to solve riddles/etc. yet, which is all I could really think of.

In my test run I gave him a few opportunities for multiple choice options - he had a Strong monkey and a Fast man with the purple hat, and I tried to give him solutions to puzzles where either Strong or Fast works but not the other. That didn't work too well, but it's early days yet, and he is undoubtedly still figuring things out himself. We also did a Monte Hall type scenario with three caves, two of which had bears and one had a coin; each time I asked him to have one character go in and run away or fight the bear based on their skillset. He figured it out eventually, but it took some time and explaining.

What would be a good way to make challenges that are difficult without hitting a three year old's frustration level? Are there elements in other RPGs (I'm only familiar with D&D, basically) that would be well suited for this kind of game - something that he would feel happy to overcome but would have an idea that it was difficult? Ideally I'm looking for something from previous experience with children, or with adults that might translate to young children. I would also accept pre-existing products (storytelling type games or similar) that are aimed at 3-5 years old, that are easily adaptable to the kinds of stories my son would be interested in, and include some 'difficulty' mechanics (so there is a game element that is not a 100% success, and not solely storytelling).


Just to be clear, I'm not looking to turn him into a D&Der explicitly (like the linked "How do I foster enjoyment..." question implies, for example); I'm happy for him to do so or not as his personality develops. I'm looking specifically to tailor a storytelling-type game for him, at this age, that will keep him interested for a half hour or so and start to teach 'game' concepts (ie, winning and losing, challenging/difficult things). I think I have the storytelling down, but adding the game concepts is the problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember folks, Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. Back up your answers with citations or personal experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 3 '14 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman please answer in answers. Joe, please edit that into your question. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 3 '14 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered what the challenge is for? Does the 3yo enjoy tackling challenges? Is it possible you're assuming that RPGs must have challenge? Is "teaching game concepts like challenge" the only reason, or is there more motive for it? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 3 '14 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Hmm. Teaching game concepts, and teaching how to deal with adversity (and not always getting your own way). It's something that needs teaching at that age, I feel, and RPG to me feels like a good place to teach it. (I also hope it will make the game more fun, if it's regularly presenting him challenges and he's regularly overcoming them at least most of the time.) \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Sep 3 '14 at 16:34
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Systems

As one part of this, I would take a look at the wide variety of RPGs now available that are aimed directly at younger players. In order of ascending complexity, I would first look at the following games:

  • Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple: I had an absolute blast playing this game with the designer a few GenCons ago - so you and your wife won't get bored playing! This game takes a look at The Little Prince through an anime-tinted lens. Every character has a way they help people and a way they get into trouble. Story-fuel aplenty. You get to narrate your way through it, but there are some scenes that end well and some that don't, and there is a budget for each, so your child might not get to have everything happy-ever-after every time (the not 100% success point you noted).
  • Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE): This stripped-down implementation of Fate Core does a lot of what you were doing - the approaches are descriptions of how you do something - Flashy, Sneaky, Careful, Clever, etc.. It takes a modern, well-supported, and highly-regarded RPG down to the bones and does it with much plainer language and a solid, story-driven ruleset.

Fiction-First Thinking

But equally importantly, I would also encourage you to adopt fiction-first thinking. This is common among modern and (especially indie) RPGs. Dungeon World (as mentioned here) follows this ethos as do the Fate games and many others. This means the driving force of the game is the shared story you are creating. The rules serve that shared fiction and not the other way around.

This mindset includes adopting the attitude that mechanical failure means complications or setbacks, not outright blocking of the action. See this answer on failing-forward in Dungeon World for more depth.

Taking a cue from the world of improve, many modern games replace "No," with phrases like, "Yes, and..." and, "Yes, but...".

I mention this because this allows him to try being Strong in a challenge you thought would need him to be Fast could just result in stuff breaking, monsters being awakened, the man and the monkey being separated, etc.. You can talk about what happened afterwards and maybe eventually he'll start matching his approach to the challenge...as long as the reward for getting it right is at least as entertaining as the trouble caused by a mismatch!

Caveat

I have not used all of these games with young kids, but I have played them and I have a lot of experience introducing kids to RPGs. A couple of games I have not had an opportunity to play but are well-regarded are listed below:

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the Improv concept - always say Yes. He's very good at that himself, actually, when he creatively plays - if he's running an ice cream shop and you ask him for Chicken Soup ice cream, he'll get it for you with no problem. Not sure how long that'll last but at least for now... \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Sep 3 '14 at 15:18
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Challenge just means interesting and engaging so give him what he enjoys. For my kids when they were young, they mainly seemed to enjoy laughing at crazy hinjinks (usually involving assorted bodily fluids and trickery).

For children, challenge simply means "play." I wouldn't read anything more into it, or try to engage on an adult level. My advice is to simply tell stories and let your little ones interact at whatever level they are comfortable with. Pay attention to their favorite themes, characters, etc, and indulge them. Also keep in mind that story and roleplay is a teaching/learning tool.

I recommend reading a little about child development. A quick look on Wikipedia... at three years old, children enjoy stories with riddles, guessing, and suspense. So that is what you want to work into your stories. For challenge, give them a simple question they have to guess the answer to.

Of course he won't stay three, so keep in mind what is coming next. At four, likes stories about how things operate... delights in wordplay and silly language... bends the truth and exaggerates... tests the limits of potty humor... So the challenge shifts to who can be the silliest and the grossest. Maybe the challenge is out-boasting an NPC or tricking the villain with a clever pun. But I don't recommend planning adventures, let the child have free reign and just ad lib. As an adult you can easily stay several steps ahead of him.

At three years old, questions of success or failure is not even on the radar; if they want something to happen in the story, it happens. To some degree, the challenge for the child is in thinking about what is supposed to happen, or even what they WANT to happen.

Now, as an adult you can still have some challenge yourself. You are far more educated and intelligent and can stay several steps ahead of your child. So use that time to apply good storytelling principles (pacing, reversals, tension, karma, etc) and plan out where it is going; pay attention and be responsive; think up clever things to amuse him, or to amuse yourself. One way to keep it interesting is to resolve to always say "yes" to anything he proposes, and then find a way to work it in. Also keeping track of all the story details you've introduced can be challenging.

I tried (and crashed and burned) at introducing my precocious older son to formal RPG before he was ready. I went back to relaxed, interactive storytelling and it was good. Soon enough he grabbed my D&D set and got into it for real, I guess he was about 6 or 7. He was smart, just not interested yet. Now he is a teenager and handles far more complex games than I can, and takes everything way too seriously. (laughing) My younger son enjoyed the same storytelling as the older son, but he grew to enjoy diceless narrative roleplay and hates mechanics. So each one is different and its all about what they are interested in, they'll let you know when they are ready.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for very relevant experience, and for clearly explaining how adult concepts of "challenge" are red herrings! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 6 '14 at 17:17
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I recommend taking a look at story-driven RPG systems. My favourite/most familiar example is Dungeon World, but I think 13th Age is a similar approach (and may be more familiar to you with a D20 background).

Conflict framework

In terms of the challenge, I recommend creating a conflict framework for your story. By this I mean some way of easily identifying a conflict that needs to be resolved in each situation. The benefits of this approach:

  1. Once you have conflict, challenges present themselves in how to resolve the conflict.
  2. Over time, the player will be able to easily identify with both sides of the conflict in any given situation - it provides consistency, without being limited by rules.

Dungeon World has an easy-to-follow "adventure front" concept. Essentially, you build in a couple of interested parties (in your example, these could be pirates and villagers). Each interested party has a driving force or "impulse". The pirates' impulse might be "to steal things", the villagers' impulse might be "to protect what belongs to them". So immediately you have a conflict between the two groups. Any character you introduce to your world can fit into either of these two (or more) interested parties. Then it's just a case of providing a situation where the player(s) can choose to influence the conflict in some way. Depending on the choices made by the player(s), they might be rewarded by one or other party (they pick a side), or neither (they fail), or both (they mediate) in any given situation. This approach can scale up to campaigns if you need it to and DW also provides a "campaign front" framework.

Individual situations could involve combat, negotiation/use of leverage or use of other character "skills". I'd probably advise combat is handled carefully given the age group - with one side "winning" or "losing", rather than full-on blood, mutilation and flying body parts. Although I guess it depends on the kid...

13th Age takes a similar approach, but provides a series of "Icons" and all story elements somehow link back to these icons. I don't have enough experience with 13th Age to say much more on it (but wanted to provide another option, in case I sound like I have shares in Dungeon World or something!).

Simple pass/fail mechanic

Dungeon World specifically starts you off with a very simple pass/fail mechanic - roll two D6s and add the numbers up:

  • More than 10: You pass
  • 7-9: You pass, but something else might happen (GM usually makes a "soft move")
  • Less than 7: GM decides what happens (GM makes a "hard move" - GM can choose to still allow the initial action to pass)

The character creation is also simple and quick, although I would recommend stripping the system down completely to pretty-much just use the pass/fail mechanic above.

Other options

You might prefer to opt for one or more of the following other options until such a time as you feel the player is old enough to have a go at a full RPG system:

  • Adventure books (I remember some Sonic the Hedgehog adventure books from when I was little - they were impossible to win. I'm sure there are loads of different ones out there these days).
  • Card games, like Munchkin.
  • Board games. Treasures and Trapdoors was awesome when I was about 4-10 (and probably still would be!) and we're spoilt for choice on board games in 2014.

But remember: roleplaying is effectively interactive story-telling. The rules are just there to help decide what options you have available to you. The dice are just there to help decide if what you want to happen happens. I bet if you wanted to you could get the player to provide the challenge AND the solution and they'd still have just as much fun.

I hope that helps!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ have you done this with any children? \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 3 '14 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, as Brian asks; while this all looks useful for the future, I don't know that this is quite at the 3 year old level yet. I probably don't want 'real' combat, for example; he certainly doesn't understand violence or fighting other than something he's not supposed to do with his little brother. Board games really aren't appropriate at this age, either (that's more like 5 or 6 from my past experience). Adventure books will be one route eventually (CYOA and such), I'll keep that in mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Sep 3 '14 at 15:17
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Perhaps including a physical element to it would help, say... Repainting the back side of a simple puzzle thematically, or having him use legos to try and make a tool to be used in the story.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site. Do have a read of Good Subjective, Bad Subjective which explains the down votes. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Sep 3 '14 at 8:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, I didn't include very solid language, and my answer would apply more to immersion discussion than adding challenge. \$\endgroup\$ – Tarmikos11 Sep 4 '14 at 4:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the record, I didn't mean to imply unintelligence with my "Simple puzzle" comment, I just meant that adding a physical element would give a more tangible sense of challenge than using descriptions of the puzzle, plus increase immersion. The level of difficulty/number of pieces of the puzzle itself would obviously have to change on a case-by-case basis. \$\endgroup\$ – Tarmikos11 Sep 4 '14 at 4:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's in part because GS/BS encourages drawing on experience. There's a vague suggestion in here, it isn't clear how we'd use it effectively, and it isn't clear that it will be effective - being able to speak from experience on the matter will clarify it being so. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Sep 4 '14 at 4:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Further explanation, including examples. If you happen to be playing a more traditional game, having a physical note to try and read helps with getting more immersed because it actually simulates the experience of doing a Linguistics check in Pathfinder, and solving a physical puzzle makes the process of figuring out how to work an in-game sliding tile door more real, because you have the physical "Lock" to manipulate. \$\endgroup\$ – Tarmikos11 Sep 4 '14 at 4:24

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