So I'm GMing for my 4 year old tonight

RyRy
edited April 2012 in Make Stuff!

So my eeevil genius daughter made me pinkie swear that I was going to play story games "at the table" like she saw me and my friends doing last night. I was playing a Goblin in a Savage Worlds game.

She wants to be a goblin too.

She wants to in a city near the boats too.

Zobie, her giraffe stuffie, is the bravest of the Sapan Giraffes (Sapan is a template that gives you night vision and lets you sleep all day). He must be incorporated in some way.

She wants to roll dice.

I can wing it with just this, but I thought who better to ask than Story Games?

Comments

  • I'm thinking of a system by which the character sheet is:

    Name:

    Funny:
    Gentle:
    Scary:
    Sneaky:

    and she gets to pick a die for each (10,8,6,4) and try to roll high.

    What would you say would be a good block of ammo for a 4 year old?

    What should I do with the dice results?

  • edited April 2012
    That's really young. My own experiments in that age range have indicated that the child is probably most invested in getting to do anything at all with people close to her; children at that age can be frustrated by the lack of activities that are meaningful to both sides, especially if the adult is an old fuzzy like me who doesn't bend to childish games easily. The biggest challenge is going to be to keep yourself entertained. I recommend preparing to do plenty of narration and incorporation, and let her participate at her own pace, and keep yourself entertained by weaving a compelling story. A game with limits is probably not appealing at that age; the children I'm familiar with haven't grogged the connection between limits and being able to e.g. roll dice meaningfully by age 4, which in practice has meant that they're quite happy with dice as an oracular device. They roll, you look at the result, then narrate what happens. Trying to say no to something because it doesn't fit the game or because the dice roll was bad or so on is perhaps not fruitful - the child might accede to it, but they would probably enjoy free play more. Think "play", not "game".

    Character sheets and dice and tokens and whatnot are totally appropriate as long as they're used in oracular ways. I recommend e.g. map-drawing and other activities that are not about tracking states of play, because the child's attention span won't be sufficient for actually doing such tracking or appreciating it. So by all means generate records, but try to make them such that the creation of the record is rewarding, and the end-result is interesting as an object.

    Make the character sheet something you draw on, rather than something you write on. For example, if you decide to use stats to enable character-specification (I could go either way on this one, myself), don't make a character sheet where you write in numbers she tells you. Rather, try to think up a sheet where e.g. she can color in a bar for each statistic, and the higher the bar the better the statistic. Ideally you'd manage something that helps her clearly visualize what her character is like. Perhaps start character creation by picking an image from the Internet, and then print out the character sheet with that image on it. Or draw an image of the character, of course, if you're into that.
  • Some ideas:

    Target numbers
    3 = easy
    5 = challenging
    7 = very hard

    Opposed rolls:
    You pick die on behalf of opposition, and higher die wins

    Give +1 for one tool/weapon/costume/whatever, when throwing a die, if she got something that can help in the action.

    When achieving a target; let her tell whatever she feels like, about how she makes it
    When failing a target; tell her you will describe how bad it goes, but get her to propose something

    Setting
    - something light, with fairy-tale logic
    - a nice place to live; a glass-castle, or hollow tree, or house of candy
    - high feelings; crying, laughing, shouting ...
    - maybe an evil witch Gurrah (with a weakness for her black cat; Tom-Bom)
    - maybe a raging and gargantuan TROLL (with a torn in his foot?)
    - some very nice cookie-goblins; Hop and Top (selling cookies for leafs/stones/sticks/bones?)

    Good luck!
  • Good idea - I'll give her a magic map at the beginning, and we'll say the magic map draws wherever you go.

  • RyRy
    edited April 2012

    Oh, target numbers (and failure) are not in the picture, she would get way too frustrated with that.

    She definitely wants to roll dice and look at paper on the table.

    The closest I'll do would be like, High numbers are going to be Yes! and low numbers (1 and 2) are going to be yes, but...

  • I think the drawing maps together thing could work well.
    rgds
    rob
  • Posted By: RyOh, target numbers (and failure) are not in the picture, she would get way too frustrated with that.She definitely wants to roll dice and look at paper on the table.The closest I'll do would be like, High numbers are going to beYes!and low numbers (1 and 2) are going to beyes, but...
    This sounds a lot like the game I wrote for my daughter when she turned five. Which might be of some use to you.

    My experience running the game was that the child quickly became most interested in just telling an imaginary story, like you would when playing with dolls or action figures. Dice and character sheets just became props for playing pretend with her dad.
  • For a system, I'm thinking a light variaton of John Harper's The Wildlings might be interesting. (Say, "roll 1d6, and depending on how high choose either 1, 2 or 3 possible outcomes from this list".)

    As a disclaimer of sorts, I have no idea (and no empirical experience) if it'll work with a kid that young. Might be worth a try.
  • My experience with my daughter was she was great when she was late 4 and early 5. Faery's Tale, Archipelago, and Universalis (believe it or not) were our best hits.

    She only liked to roll dice if stakes were low: losing sucked. So we would play Faery's Tale diceless ('he's stronger than you, you won't be able to beat him that way') unless stakes were really low. ("Roll dice to win the pie eating competition at the carnival") She was very random about contributing - sometimes she was very creative ("my magic cat's paw turns into a key and unlocks the cage") other times she'd clam up and I'd never be sure why. In the end things would degenerate to 'daddy tells a story' - so eventually *I* burned out. She didn't.

    Having everything be 'yes' or 'yes, but' is pretty genius - how I used to free-play with my daughter usually was to have everything be a 'yes, but' [Yes, the little pony gets the gem from the cave, but now her friend is jealous. Etcetera.]

    Now that she's seven I honestly can't play rpgs with her anymore. Every now and then she says she wants to and we get all set up and start playing and then she starts telling me I'm doing it wrong for one reason or another ('don't talk in that weird voice!', 'don't ask me what I do! you tell me!', 'too scary!') and I get fed up. I try to be the sort of GM who responds to player feedback but there's a limit!

    So! Enjoy this age!
  • My best success with getting kids story-telling has been an exercise borrowed from a theatre impro book. Describing it simply:

    - You say that you've thought up a story, but you're not going to tell them what it is (of course, you've done no such thing).
    - They have to ask you questions about the story you've "thought up" which have yes/no answers.
    - You answer yes or no either randomly or whichever way you feel is most productive for the story.

    So the kids write the story through their questions, without ever realising that they're doing so.

    It worked very well with 8 years+ (and with adults too). Not sure about as young as 4 though, as they'll need some degree of concentration (though saying yes pretty much all the time would help). Mapping stuff or drawing pictures of characters as you go sounds a solid idea (do stick figures she can colour in later).

    Not sure what to do for dice rolls, but I happened to meet a 5 year old today who was really keen on numbers (and on getting me to explain what an ampersand was) so perhaps when her character gets something she can roll a dice to see how many of it she gets (e.g. the giraffe king gives you *roll* four cakes) which you can then draw.

    BTW the Sapan template appears to be the archetype for teenagers.
  • Posted By: Mr. TeapotDice and character sheets just became props for playing pretend with her dad.
    That's what I'm expecting. We do a lot of this with puppets.
  • Instead of rolling one die and getting bonuses, roll more dice. Counting and interpreting dice is fun (my 1.8 year old has taught me that). If you can involve hats, do so.
  • Posted By: Epistolary Richard[W]hen her character gets something she can roll a dice to see how many of it she gets (e.g. the giraffe king gives you *roll* four cakes) which you can then draw.
    That's a much better way to bring in the dice, thanks!
  • Posted By: RyPosted By: Epistolary Richard[W]hen her character gets something she can roll a dice to see how many of it she gets (e.g. the giraffe king gives you *roll* four cakes) which you can then draw.
    That's a much better way to bring in the dice, thanks!

    Oh yeah, I totally forget I used to do a space marines "larp" with Sofia. We'd run around the backyard with plastic binoculars and pretend guns shooting aliens, and then roll a 20 sided die to see how many we shot. Again I burned out on it before she did...
  • edited April 2012
    What about making some random tables together? ...designing custom moves together? Design the game as you go along.
  • If your daughter is anything like most four year-olds I've met, you can probably just sit back and she will tell you what the map is for, and what the dice are for, and what's going on with the goblins. :-D
  • Posted By: Frank TIf your daughter is anything like most four year-olds I've met, you can probably just sit back andshewill tell you what the map is for, and what the dice are for, and what's going on with the goblins. :-D
    THIS.

    I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that don't seem very in sync with my experience of toddlers. My own daughter is 3, not 4, but still, I don't see tables and target numbers in her near future. It seems like you're on top of that, though, Ry, so no worries.

    the one thing that stands out most, though, is this:
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenThe biggest challenge is going to be to keep yourself entertained. I recommend preparing to do plenty of narration and incorporation, and let her participate at her own pace, and keep yourself entertained by weaving a compelling story.
    ...which leaves me recoiling. The thought of a grownup "keeping himself entertained" by "weaving a compelling a story" while the four year old is left to "participate at her own pace" is the reverse of every adult-child interaction I have ever known. I sincerely doubt any kid would LET you get away with telling the story while she jumps in with occasional input, but even if she did, that looks like a recipe for disengagement.

    The stuff Frank and others have said about letting her tell YOU what the story is jives much better with my sense of play with children. Let her lead, and provide a structure that allows you to have meaningful and fulfilling input, or for her to hand the reins over to you if she doesn't want them.

    I'm all for structuring the experience so that you get something out of it too (kids can tend to play very self-centeredly, like Jamie relates: no, it goes THIS way! That's not right, do it like THIS instead! No, let ME do that! But I'd recommend problem-solving that with as little power struggle as possible. For instance, when I'm playing with my daughter and she starts telling me stuff like "no, your pony doesn't get to do that, your pony has to do THIS! MY pony gets to do that!" I simply tell her I'm getting bored and I'm all done playing, which is the truth. I don't make a big deal about it or force her to play my way. If she's really invested in getting me involved she'll adapt to be more accommodating, or sometimes she'll protest but then fall happily into playing by herself.

    My gut feeling is, she'll work out what she wants out of "story games with daddy at the table," bit by bit, in spurts. If you try it one day but quit because she's to unengaged or too bossy or whatever, she may well come back to it on a later day after self-reflecting (not that she's thinking in those terms!) and be ready to engage in a way that better works for both of you. And day to day, the session might be ten minutes or it might be two hours. As long as the thing doesn't become a chore or a power struggle for either of you, I expect it'll grow organically over time.

    You know your daughter best, and it may be that I'm just projecting my own relationship with and expectations for MY kid onto your post. But hopefully there's enough commonality to be illuminating.

    Peace,
    -Joel

    PS Regarding some of the specific practical suggestions, I think drawing together sounds like a rock-solid idea, provided she likes that sort of thing at ALL. And regarding dice, since she wants to use them, I reccommend getting dice with pips so that you can count the dots together, rather than getting into numbers and math as abstract symbols. And here's an idea for using them, take it or leave it:

    Make a play aid consisting of a row of six boxes. Maybe print off or hand-draw several copies, so you can set up different ones for different situations. Draw a different icon or pictogram on each square. When you roll the dice and count the pips, count that many boxes over on the graph, and whatever pic you land on is the fictional result! The 5 and 6 can be super-duper victory, then 3-4 a nice clean success, and the 1-2 a "yes, but" complication. Or whatever distribution you like. And make the pictures something easily identifiable to her, whether it's smiley/frowny faces, or a pic of a goblin doing something, or whatever. This is where customizing a graph for different kinds of sitches could be handy. Whaddya think?
  • Posted By: JoelThe thought of a grownup "keeping himself entertained" by "weaving a compelling a story" while the four year old is left to "participate at her own pace" is the reverse of every adult-child interaction I have ever known. I sincerely doubt any kid would LET you get away with telling the story while she jumps in with occasional input, but even if she did, that looks like a recipe for disengagement.
    Depends on the individuals, I imagine. My experience is with my nephews, who I don't see every day, and who generally have special expectations about playing with me. It's obviously different from playing with your own child. More authoritative and pedagogical, I imagine.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenMore authoritative and pedagogical, I imagine.
    Actually the opposite.

    EDIT: Wait, did you mean that you playing with your nephews is more "authoritative and pedagogical" than me playing with my daughter? I was reading it the other way around. If this Is the case, the yes, I imagine your play with kids IS more authoritative and pedagogical than mine. I don't credit that to her being my own child, though; I credit it to my general philosophy that kids have a wonderful, brightly burning spirit that gets ground out of them by totalitarian government, syncophantic culture and standardized education. As such I consider it my "job," when playing anything with kids, to listen to their ideas and see where we can go with them.
  • Posted By: JoelWait, did you mean thatyouplaying with your nephews is more "authoritative and pedagogical" thanmeplaying with my daughter?
    Yes, that would be it. I'm more of a mind that small children are by nature on the brink of permanent social and intellectual frustration, as their developing curiousity and ego over-reach their capability for handling their existential problems like growing intractably bored or getting much too hooked on the latest commercial knick-knacks. They need education and external pressure to grow into human beings. Also, obviously enough I'm not needed in the local equation to proffer affection to the kids (they having parents and all), so I'd rather make it clear to them that if they want to play with me, they need to follow my lead.
  • I would keep it simple, brightly coloured and low conflict. I was reading about the initial development of Sesame St, and they put in an insane amount of research into how their show worked for toddlers, and they found that:
    - 3-4 yr olds pay attention when they understand what's going on and phase out when they don't
    - they paid more attention to the muppet characters than human characters
    - they phased right out when there was conflict in a skit. Grown ups arguing is boring when you're four, I guess.
  • My own kids are about 3 1/2, and I'd judge them as too young to really be interested in a tabletop game, so obviously your mileage will vary. ("Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel" is a big hit, however.) On the other hand, every night we do a bedtime story and lately I've been turning them a bit more into choose-your-own-adventure type deals. That might be a fruitful place to start, to get across the idea of telling a collaborative story. Once that's down you can start to layer in randomizers if you like.

    Another thought is that although rolling dice is fun, my kids get bored of it fairly quickly. If I were doing this, I'd probably use a card-based randomizer stolen from one of their other toys. They have a "Concentration Memory" game, for example, with pictures of animals, household objects, etc. So when you want to find out what's inside the treasure chest, have them pick a card and - bingo - it's an airplane. Now what do they do with the airplane? Perhaps a little more accessible than mapping an abstract number to an event. Though I do like the idea of rolling dice and then just using them as a number (Richard's "four cakes" example above). The notion that rolling a die tells you whether the thing you just said "really happens" or not strikes me as kind of a buzzkill for young kids, but that's just speculation.

    Please do come back to this thread after you try the game with your daughter. I'm very interested to hear how it goes.
  • Looking back at the OP, I wonder why no one though to contribute any ideas on what might be going on with the Sapan Giraffes, boats and goblins, which would probably have been more valuable input. Anyway, Ry, how did it go?
  • edited April 2012
    I only have a 2.5 year old, but my experience in collaborative storytelling with her is that she loves "conflict" in the sense of horrible things happen to the character she identifies with--at least, if they're the right kind of horrible things--but that she can't deal with being in conflict with me in the storytelling process, even goofy pretend conflict. So I'll declare very dramatically, "And then something horrible happened!" (ETA: I could see this declaration being the result of a dice roll, though we haven't tried that yet) She tells me what the horrible thing is--usually it involves Pinky getting injured and going to the hospital--and then I describe it. The main problem is, I have this parental protectiveness where I keep trying to narrate Pinky toward a solution and my daughter keeps wanting me to talk more about the horrible situation Pinky's in. I think this kind of approach is potentially useful for dealing with whatever fears she wants to bring up, though, and making the story relevant to her means making it more powerful, too.
  • edited April 2012
    What if the stats worked like a list? Rolling low doesn't fail, it just means "pick again". You could use a permanent target number, say 4. So if you present her with an NPC guard who doesn't want to let her into somewhere, she can pick Funny, narrate something funny, and roll. If she rolls lower than a 4, then the guard appreciates her being funny, but doesn't let her in yet. Then she has to pick another stat and try again. If she doesn't get it in the first three tries, then the 4th automatically works. So what you're really rolling for is how long and detailed each obstacle-resolution is.

    Another idea: using her dice values (d10 = Funny, etc.), you as GM roll all the dice at once to generate what she encounters. (Or let her roll.) Whichever die comes up highest dictates. In this example, if the d10 rolls highest, you make up soemthing Funny for her to encounter. If you use this system, tell her about it before she assigns the dice. That way she can use the dice values to not only say what she wants to be good at, but also what she wants the story to include.

    Maybe I'm thinking more for a 7-year-old than 4. Dunno.
  • RyRy
    edited April 2012

    It went great; we stuck with it for over an hour, which is about as long as she can pay attention to anything.

    definitely low-structure, much saying yes.

    Spent a lot of time on "Character creation" which was drawing Smeechy the goblin, and then rolling up how many brothers, sisters, and babies (baby brother/sisters), and then drawing them. Then rolling for grandmas (4) and grandpas (0, "they died") and drawing them.

    Smeechy has a pet Mootla named Moot-Moot. Mootlas are ground seals, kind of like groundhogs, something Mia came up with a few months ago from a drawing she did.

    Smeechy talked to her sorcerous grandma Witchy, who lives in a hole under a pumpkin. Witchy sent them on a quest to the town of Murvale, which is full of people, and where Zobie, the bravest of the Sapan giraffes, is being held "in a cage."

    We got through Smeechy meeting a gnome who didn't like goblins, and who had a donkey. Smeechy and the gnome decided to leave each other alone.

    Smeechy then found a frozen pond and walked across, but Moot-Moot fell through the ice. Moot-Moot was very scared because ground seals can only swim through the land. Smeechy ran back to the gnome and asked him for help. The gnome tied a rope around his donkey and they threw the other end to Moot-Moot. Then they pulled him out by pushing the donkey.

    Moot-Moot was shivering so Smeechy fed him a Mootla berry, which is their favorite food, and he felt much better.

    Then the donkey ate a mootla berry and turned into a two-headed dog.

    Finally, they found a Cyclops with a thorn in its foot. Smeechy at first threatened the giant ("I'll jump on your head!" before being reminded that she was much smaller. ("I'll use a stool!")

    The Cyclops (actually me) started laughing and this let Smeechy get very close. She had Moot-moot eat the thorn in the foot, so the Cyclops felt much better and as a present agreed to throw Smeechy and Moot-Moot all the way to the ocean, near Murvale.

    Then Mia started pulling out other toys and we decided to play her favorite soap opera "Horse, MD." with her plastic animals until bedtime.

  • "I'll use a stool."

    Priceless :)
  • edited April 2012
    Lovely play! Going fully freeform worked great with the Baker kids, over many changing ages of play. Drawing the world and characters was absolutely key. As was running around. :)
  • I would think, "show me how you do it", and, "could you act that out for me", would be key phrases.
  • Damn, why does it take 4-year-olds to get us to do that? I would totally play that game. Good stuff, Ry.
  • edited April 2012
    I like the idea of the donkey turning into a two-headed dog. And the game Horse, MD. I can imagine a game based around a grouchy, dispeptic horse whisperer, where the horse is doing the whispering. If it became a TV series it would have to be voiced by Hugh Laurie, natch. Sorry, Ry, no disrespect to your daughter's style of play- she seems very mature for her years, and disproves the surprisingly tenacious theory that creative people, whether it be writers, artists, TV producers or game-designers, should talk down to children. She seems to have pretty much grasped the basics of table-top roleplaying, and it must have been great fun to see her acting out the scenario she had created, in what seems like a remarkably well-fleshed out game world.

    @David Berg: I really like your idea of failure being represented by taking longer to do something, meaning that you have to keep trying, a very useful lesson for a small person, played out in a practical and non-educational, non-preachy way.

    I'd certainly like to see more AP reports of folks playing games like the above with under sevens. And no, David, I think a four year-old could cope with your mechanic- it would lie in how the 'GM' narrates/explains it. Educationalists have repeatedly shown that children grasp more things at a younger age than most people would assume.
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