A 5th grade girl is DMing D&D with a circle of boys on the playground of the school where I teach. I sit down to play along. She is having everyone roll a die.
Me: “Where are we?”
DM: “We’re in hell.”
Me: “Why are we all rolling dice?”
Boy: “Hades cursed us to pick up his room. We’re rolling to see if we can put away all the clothes.”
Me: “Can I teleport out of here?” (I’m a magic user.)
DM: “No, there’s too many clothes.”
[Rolling continues until someone rolls a natural 20. Everyone cheers.}
DM: “Hades teleports you all out of there! Roll a die to see where you end up!”
DM: “You’re in the top of a tree! A palm tree.”
[Everyone else rolls. They’re in a tropical village nearby.]
Me: I want to climb down.
DM: Roll a die! [It works]
Me: I want to find out who’s in charge of this place.
DM: Roll a die! Use your Charisma.
Me: 4 [I’m not charismatic].
DM: You have no idea who’s in charge of the village. A lady walks by and is like, “Who are you?!”
Boy: I want to find out who’s in charge! [Rolls CHA. Succeeds.]
DM: You see a huge mansion on the hill. It has enormous billboards next to it saying “The Guy In Charge.”
Me: I want to knock on the door.
DM: Roll a die!
DM: No one answers. They’re ignoring you!
Me: I want to kick that door down.
DM: Roll a die!
Me. I’m a weak wizard, but I’ll roll my strength. 17!
DM: You kick a hole right in the door! You stick you head through and see the guy in charge.
Me: What does he look like?
DM: Roll a die!
DM: He’s a…half orc. A really skinny half orc.
[The whistle is blown and recess ends]
Let’s analyze this. For one, there was almost no railroading (apart from not being able to escape Hades’ bedroom). It was a total improv sandbox, where you could try anything and the DM would come up with a result.
Second: there was no cutesy theme, no polish. Character sheets were hand drawn and photocopied. Character art was about what you would expect, which was half rabid enthusiasm, half bored doodles.
Third: There was no moralizing, no paternalism, no appropriateness filter.
Fourth: There was no emphasis on storytelling of any kind. No narrative mechanics, no personal goals. There was also no combat (although I have observed sessions this DM runs with combat). The focus was on immersion and on doing what you found to be entertaining. Exploration and amusement was king.
Fifth: The DM let herself be surprised. She demanded rolls for everything, even rolling to see what kind of NPC the village leader was. She didn’t have a table or anything, so I have no idea if she just made that up on the spot, or if it corresponded to how dangerous the species was, but it was funny anyway. She treated the dice like a kind of oracle that was guiding the game nearly as much as she was.
In other words, it was utterly unlike every RPG on the market that’s targeted at kids.
There’s no shortage of “Kids RPGs” (No Thank You Evil, Playground Adventures, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple), but they all seem like games written by people who haven’t observed kids playing RPGs in the wild. The most worrisome was Playground Adventures, which actually pitches itself as a game about making good moral decisions. Kids are amoral little psychopaths in games, and no RPG is going to reign that in. (I certainly haven’t in my four years of running RPGs with kids.)
Most kids’ RPGs are highly mission based. Set up a quest, have the kids go do it. Turns out that that kids love random tables and surprising twists that they have to deal with on the fly. Most Kids RPGs focus on carefully designed PCs who don’t ever die. Turns out that kids love the high-risk, high-reward structure of lethal dungeon crawls, and love generating oddball characters with dice rather than planning them out. Turns out that kids don’t enjoy games where violence is sanitized or glossed over, and enjoy dealing with real danger.
(Example: I had a game where kids were on a sinking ship in a storm. They piled into the lifeboat, but there wasn’t enough room for the captain, who begged to be put on board. One kid looked at the others and said. “It’s okay guys, the captain always goes down with his ship,” and they rowed away.)
The biggest problem is that these games talk down to their audience, and kids (at least 5th graders) can smell condescension a mile away. Kids don’t want to be “A Cool Robot that love Ooey-Gooey things,” as No Thank You Evil! would have you believe. They want to be Spike, A Chaotic Neutral Fire-dog Rogue with claws, fire fangs, and a 7d6 fireball spell.