GM Field Guide 14: Kids in Gaming
There are many in the gaming community that would consider the Palladium Books system as far too complex for any Players less than 15-years-old, not to mention legitimate concerns about the mature themes. If we were discussing children aged 10 and under, I’d be inclined to agree, but with a little polishing and some minor accommodations, I believe most kids 11+ can handle with Rifts with some normal supervision and simplification.
Like any children, the level of adaptation is dependent on the consumer of this particular form of media, which to some extent includes the parents, who are naturally going to be more risk-averse than their kids. There is definitive justification for a Session Zero to facilitate healthy game play and maintain the flow of the game. Consider themes, triggers, and in some cases some small parental consent issues, in order to ensure things are handled appropriately. If you are unwilling to consider some alterations to your adventure and style for your Players, this is not the Group for you.
For context, I started playing RPGs (specifically AD&D) when I was in grade 6. This was back when THAC0 was a thing. Shortly after shocking my mother with this information, my close friends and I started playing ROBOTECH (RDF, Southern Cross, Invid Invasion, Return of the Robotech Masters, and Sentinels) and TMNT, which apparently was fine with her. In grade 10 I met a guy thumbing through the Rifts RPG and we became fast friends, and I found myself GMing our group. The Palladium Books system is my jam, has been for over 30 years. I find it more impactful than any d20 product I’ve played, so much so that when my 11-year-old daughter expressed interest in D&D (from Stranger Things), I introduced her to the system, then the Rifts setting, employing many of the “hacks” or considerations I’ve laid out below.
BENEFITS OF THE PALLADIUM BOOKS SYSTEM
Alignment System. With a clear set of bullet point positions, each Alignment defines what is acceptable. Players get a good sense of what they can and cannot do. You could always restrict younger Players to certain Alignments (e.g. anything non-Evil), thereby giving them a clearly defined list of expectations. I wouldn’t hold it as a hard-and-fast code of conduct but use it to steer any of the wilder suggestions. It certainly provides a better idea than trying to explain Chaotic-Good, and Lawful Neutral
Easy Hand Wave Rulings. The rules can be intricate when leveraged to their fullest; they also provide a great way to streamline for effect. You can easily 'hand wave' rules to facilitate the game play and keep things rolling. The d20s used for actions and attacks can be summarily provided benefits or penalties based on the situation, as can the skill rolls on the d100s needed to measure skills. A quick summary of factors, an arbitrary ruling later, dice are rolled and the story continues.
Not Tactically Restrictive. Because the rules don’t support a grid-styled system of play and Feats that rely on placement of models, the GM can verbalize the scenario/action in a manner that allows Players’ imagination to flourish. It is a more conversational manner of game play that children are more apt to absorb and react to than presenting a mechanistic, option-heavy mechanic.
Scope of Adventure. Very few TTRPGs have achieved the scale and scope of Rifts in terms of supplements and adventuring ideas. Over 30 years later, most continents boast many of discrete “adventuring zones.” This doesn’t even take into account the Mutants in Orbit setting, intergalactic adventures with Phase World, and the myriad other Dimension Books. All under a single version of the game, where the oldest World Book and Sourcebook are compatible with every book published since.
GM TIPS FOR YOUNGER PLAYERS
Character Generation. PB games are renowned for the character generation issues, particularly the length of time it can take. This is particularly evident to new GMs and Players, and only exacerbated when dealing with younger Players. But unlike several d20 systems, Palladium doesn't have "ideal builds" with perfected Feat evolution, and Rifts character generation can actually be much simpler in many cases. Just like running one-shot adventures at a convention or introducing a new game to a group, presenting the system is a critical aspect. You want to explore the idea of TTRPGs in general, but also reinforce elements of the game that fits their interest.
Complete Pre-Generation. Simplifying the process by presenting a group of compelling characters, completed and ready to hand out, with easy to find information on key skills and abilities. Everything from Attributes to skills, weapons, bionics, spells, psionics, and gear are selected. A two-minute review of the sheet with each Player in turn provides the group an overview of everyone’s capabilities. Dice may now be rolled.
Consulted Pre-Generation. Have a conversation with the Players on the types of characters they wish to play, with specific highlights or key characteristics. Reinforce Player agency, allowing them to roll their Attributes and select a few key skills, weapons, bionics, spells, psionics, and gear. Create the remainder of the PC from there, with the knowledge of what skills will be useful. Example: If they need to climb into a cave structure, give them the Climb skill. If they need to pilot a particular vehicle, give them the relevant skill.
Be Wary the CS. For the sake of introducing them to the complex geo-political landscape, I suggest limiting them from any CS-related OCC. Relegate the CS to an “enemy force” or make them the ‘black hat’ for your adventure. They don’t even need to be a major force, but for the purposes of parental engagement and the nuances playing a CS PC presents, just save yourself the trouble.
Magic is Not Like D&D. One of the critical differences between D&D and Rifts is the magic system. Rifts eschews spell slots and daily memorization requirements, but also some of the raw power select D&D spells project. The Palladium P.P.E. engine makes for a significantly different experience and play style. The Rifts caster can leverage a greater number of spells, making them a much more tool-box member of the gaming group.
Book of Magic. There may be some element of pre-choosing for the character to give them a better inkling of what they can do. A copy of the Book of Magic with a couple of earmarks is a necessity.
Review Spells. There are some spells with relatively easy mechanics to explain, while others are a more nuanced. Take the extra time to ensure that they understand the dynamic.
Crawl-Walk-Run. Beginning at first level allows a Player to learn their initial spells and develop a familiarity on how/when to use them. Give them the chance to explore the spells and think of various ways to employ them. Gear the adventure a little to make them think about what spell can be used and when.
Tech Modification as a Theme. This is something that normally would not cause too much trouble, but Rifts has some fairly significant consequences associated with certain classes. Juicers burn the candle at both ends with flame throwers, Crazies have debilitating mental effects as they level-up, ‘Borgs sacrifice their humanity.
Key Class Benefits. Reinforce the "look cool factor” of the class, avoiding the more problematic aspects. The Juicer is a super assassin, the ‘Borg is a super soldier (e..g RoboCop), the Ley Line a super mage (e.g. Dr Strange). All are the heights of their classes, the bad-ass options to play – let’s rock!
Minimize Impact. Minimize elements of the conversions that demonstrate the loss of humanity, or “otherness” of the Class. Most adults never play out the Juicer OCC’s years to risk their eventual demise. Crazies are advanced classes that require careful approach of mental health issues that eventually lead to various forms of insanity; like the CS, best avoided. Heck, adults have problems playing them effectively.
Psionics As Variation of Magic. The idea of forcibly overcoming another character is one of the tenets of the “satanic panic” from back in the 80s. Along with imagining one could Featherfall off the side of an office building, inducing a PC or NPC to do something against their will is an element of the game that needs to be carefully approached. Nobody likes that their PC does something they would not choose, and the Player isn’t necessarily mature enough to process this (I’ve seen adults lose their marbles). It also strips the agency from the Player, so be very cautious in how far you go manipulating PCs, if at all.
D-Bees Are a Thing. There are loads of different species that may be presented in game play. These add a great option for variety and different role-playing opportunities. The quick and easy element to avoid is the racism aspect of play, or present it as a lesson for how the Players should avoid racist conduct. If you allow a D-Bee PC, they are likely only looking at the abilities and bonuses for in-game play anyways, playing them like a human, just with a different body. This kind of backdrop allows Players to develop some life skills dealing with “otherness,” whatever that happens to be in their eyes. How cool is it to play a Lanotaur hunter, or a N’mbyr Gorilla Man Bruiser? Really cool! And keep it that way.
Premiere the Game. Base the first adventure on an episodic approach. In my daughter’s case, she is a fan of two shows called Totally Spies! and Miraculous: Tales of LadyBug & Cat Noir), so I make the adventures similar in nature. We play through short adventures with clear plots and tasks that accomplish success.
One-Shot. Introduce the Rifts RPG with a one-shot, making sure to hit all the major elements of the PC’s chosen OCC. Keep the session moving and light, reinforcing the Players’ choices and guiding them along the plot line to its resolution. We’re talking 2 hours, maybe 3 max; be prepared to break it up into sessions if attention wanes.
Familiar Surroundings. One of the easiest ways to immerse younger Players is to leverage the city or town you live in, or one they are familiar with. This provides them a better opportunity to immerse themselves into the adventure. Example: In my daughter’s game, I based it on the closest major city we live next to, which conveniently escaped the massive tsunamis and floods. I layered some elements from Spirit West, Free Quebec and Canada to build the overall setting. Atlantis spies and Sunaj figure heavily as the bad guys, or a “monster of the week” approach.
Real-World Events. Given a big enough city, you can replicate some of the local news in terms of the crime or significant events. Anything can be leveraged for an adventure. Example: A water treatment plant shut-down turned into an adventure to track down the saboteur and capture the culprit.
Experience Points. Not to be handed out like candy, but certainly used in a manner that reinforces good play, and gives them a tangible benefit to their actions. Be a little looser while awarding them. Heck, get creative and tie them to a physical reward - a Skittle for every 50 or 100 XPs can wrack up a sugar high by the end of the session, then hand them back to their parents! ;)
Star Trek/Star Wars Rules on Violence. There are multiple examples where characters in Star Wars and Star Trek died on screen, but the way in which it is presented allowed younger audiences to still enjoy. TIE fighters and X-Wings blew up, storm troopers and Red Shirts died to blaster/phaser shots without any blood or gore. Phaser beams could stun or kill, but rarely did any examples include any gore or graphic visuals.
Sanitized Violence. Leveraging the 60’s episodic action shows (e.g. Batman), sanitized violence prioritizes the effect of the enemy falling or out of the fight in order to allow the plot to continue. Unless required for plot points, think very carefully about how you portray the damage dealt or deaths; nothing need be overtly bloody, gory, or described in detail. With younger kids, having cue-cards with “Wham!” or “Bang!” may appear corny, put plays right into their expectations. Make more visceral only once they show the ability to handle it.
Simplify Combat. The PB system for combat can be daunting. Unless they demonstrate the ability to get into the weeds, keep the action flowing and dynamic. Don’t layer too many rules, or things get overly complicated. Nothing kills the flow more than a Player dealing with “paralysis by analysis.” You’ll find yourself making more suggestions than allowing them the freedom to discover their own solutions.
Selective Enemies. Something about fighting demonic and monstrous foes makes it easier to justify in younger minds; it’s relatively black and white. Killing other humans/D-Bees presents a layer of political discourse they are likely not mature to understand. Sure, you can have bad guys, but the deeper, more nuanced reasoning of “why” that adults can read between the lines will be lost on kids. Alternatively, a deep-dive into the monstrous appearances might not make you any friends with other parents.
Theatre of the Mind. I find that D&D suffers from the complexity of Feats and the overly tactical nature of combat. I like to maintain a theatre of the mind approach to game play, leveraging models and game maps only as a last resort in order to support tactical planning. Even then, the PB rules don’t support the granularity of issues present in d20 systems. I’ve found that theatre of the mind, supported with basic hand-drawn maps, allows my daughter to employ a role-playing approach more than tactical feats and counting squares on a map.
G.I. Joe Armour. This is the idea that regardless how little MDC remains in the PC’s armour, a final shot that exceeds this amount simply means the armour falls apart (e.g. crumbles to the ground). Call it “easy mode” or something else, it provides the Player a chance to continue gaming and realize the risk of their choices and consequences they now have to deal with.
On Character Death. There is something to be said about having the Player deal with the death of their PC. This happens in video games, so might not be too much of a leap for many. I’ve seen adults loss their marbles over a PC death, more so than I would have expected; perhaps they have more invested in the character concept. This scenario provides the Player a chance to discuss “life lessons” of choice and consequences, about winning and losing. Heck, you can make creating a new PC part of the game process and weave them in at a suitable point in the adventure.
Politics. Rifts present some incredibly nuanced opportunities. There is absolutely no need to try and explain the intricacies of the fascist approach to governing of the CS. Kids are capable of understanding relatively challenging ideas, but this is not something you should be attempting (for a variety of reason). Give them challenges, but make them more black and white. The mayor doesn’t like a member of the Group, ergo he makes it hard for the PCs to get stuff in town; the Sheriff and his posse follow the mayor’s orders. This is a tricky one, so be ready to hit the “easy button” to ensure game flow continues.
NPC to Guide. NPCs can be great vehicles for the GM to influence the party, or help even the odds. You don’t want the NPC to be the lead character in the group, but to help alleviate some of the hesitation younger Players may have until they are comfortable with your adventures.
Example: My daughter’s Super Spy PC has a Dog Boy NPC based on the family pet. Our cockapoo is her in-game companion, and I use his abilities to help steer the plot, warn her of key elements she missed, and obviously help even the odds when she gets into scraps. The character itself clearly exceeds what the OCC would allow (e.g. skills, capabilities), but this effective tool provides a bit of Ex Deus Machina to keep things in line.
Adjust Themes. Rifts is a game that presents with some very triggering and adult themes: demons, religious worship of other pantheons, kidnapping and slavery, nationalism and human supremacy, a human government overtly based on fascist ideals, mass death and slaughter, drug use, insanity, prostitution, mental assault (psionics), among others. Given this list, why WOULD a parent introduce a young player to the setting? A number of reasons:
Choices. Because the setting allows a myriad of problem sets, there are equal amounts of responses and chances to deal with topics in a matter that develops real-world critical thought, and abilities to analyze and develop solution spaces. Kids are resilient and sometime find those novel solutions you would *never* have thought of
Sanitized Environment. As discussed previously, sanitized scene setting allows young Players the chance to enjoy the rich game setting without being encumbered by nightmares, or triggering either Player or Parent.
Session Zero & Due Diligence with Parents. This is something that applies across all game systems. The ‘satanic panic’ that occurred in the 80s was a real thing. I had to assuage my parents about my AD&D play. With Robotech and TMNT, it was with some close friends and the parents would alternate hosting game sessions to allow them the chance to “supervise.” Regardless, role-playing with other peoples’ kids, their parents also have a “seat at the table,” and rightfully have vested interest in the gameplay. Ultimately if they present requirements that you are unwilling to accommodate, it’s likely the end for the group. Nurture and cultivate interest with active engagement, meaning in some cases “easy mode” to demonstrate how fun it can be. Only THEN do you up the difficulty to demonstrate the challenge, and give hints on how to overcome the challenge. Develop their skills and they will surprise you, trust me! Sometimes they will get cocky –the dice giveth or the dice taketh away. This is a VERY valuable lesson to kids – life is not always fair, and there is often always a SLIM chance of success, but don’t bet on it. We’re talking life skills here.
Morality Lessons. There is nothing stopping a GM from introducing a morality lesson within the context of the adventure. The ideals that theft, slavery and senseless murder is bad, that fair treatment of others leads to rewards, good versus evil, the changing face of what is evil, all are worthy for adventure plots. Let’s make sure we reinforce that this is a game, and that real-world events are not necessarily reflective of the setting, and vice versa. Violence as a “solution space” is not necessarily a primary option, but let’s face it, this isn’t a setting of cultured courtiers.
Example. While running the 40k Play League, I had several discussions with parents about the grimdark 40k setting in a manner I am not about to discuss with their child! The lore was used to reinforce the “look cool factor” of the models, and I very aptly pivoted to the gaming aspect over the lore. The math, tactics and interpersonal aspects of the game were my concern. There was always the Ork cop-out as an ice breaker: the race is literally grown from mushrooms, so it’s hard not to laugh at a pizza topping as a major threat within the setting.
Parental Input. As touched upon earlier, some input and guidance may be required from parents; they may provide it, whether you asked for it or not! Be ready to have these discussions on the values being presented. I’ve had this very discussion with my own wife regarding my daughter’s adventures. I had to assuage her on the gameplay and details provided on the action. After she listened in on a session from an adjacent room, she either understood my point, lost interest, or to some extent lost the plot on how the game functioned. Regardless, it was something my daughter found infinitely enjoyable, LOL.
GM Experience. I’ll consider this the “X-Factor” to this entire discussion. The GM has to be very well versed in the themes, and have a deep understanding of the lore for adventures. They need to have some skills dealing with both younger Players and their parents, which is not a universal skill set, for sure. I’m lucky that my background gave me the tools to handle both. If this is not your case, don’t sell yourself short – it’s a very specific kind of gameplay. The GM must possess an innate ability to roll with the group’s dynamic, presenting details in a way that keeps things moving, but not too “babied” or they will lose interest.
There are demonstrable differences from the current dynamic and the less connected, more outdoors experience of my youth. During grade school, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV except for an hour before supper (G.I. Joe and Transformers), and then only for certain shows after supper (Doctor Who a reluctant yes, “V” an adamant no). Today, kids are connected and exposed to sanitized violence and themes at a much earlier age, ironically dealing with an insane amount of helicopter parenting. I would rather leverage TTRPGs as an outlet to better steer my kids to make good life choices, actively reinforcing fair treatment of others, etc.
This hobby can trigger some parents about the quality of message the medium promotes, and whether it meshes with their beliefs. This is fair, as like it or not, they do indeed get a vote. That becomes a negotiation that either reaches an accommodation or the parent pulls the child (which you ultimately have no control over, so accept it). I firmly believe that younger kids can benefit from TTRPGs, so long as there are enough safeguards to bulwark against another round of “satanic panic.” Heck, compared to come video games, it shouldn’t be a hard leap!
I would have little problems recommending Rifts to kids of 15+, even with only a “moderately” experienced GM. For children aged 11-14, the gameplay requires some accommodations to sanitize the setting and some of the more esoteric rules. With those in place, I am fervently confident that an experienced GM can be successful, giving the kids an excellent opportunity to flex their imagination. Despite the Rifts RPG’s latent adult-oriented themes, an experienced GM can manipulate/soften to better manage younger Players. The world is your oyster, go on and share it!
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