In one of the first games I played with my sons they had a very good run against a nest of kobolds and were knee deep in kobold innards in a very short space of time. When the combat had finished I was somewhat surprised when my eight year old asked whether it was worth skinning the bodies to sell the hides! The same child was overjoyed when he discovered the coup-de-grace rules and has to be pushed not to finish off his opponent when they’re down but while other characters are still fighting.
This has caused me to consider whether these games are really a good idea for eight year old boys and I think, despite the above, that the answer is a firm yes in my mind for a number of reasons.
Unlike computer games, TV programs, etc as GM I can control in real time the content of the game for my youngest. If I realise that he’s getting too into one particular idea I can steer him away from it, if he’s finding it too tame I can liven things up and if it’s getting too full on then I can tame it down. It’s also interesting to know what’s going on in his head and it gives me opportunities for conversations we otherwise might never have.
The obvious and often quoted advantages of role playing are with mental maths, visualisation and problem solving. Additionally I think there are positives in areas of concentration, imagination, forward planning, vocabulary, conversation skills, social skills and dealing in a safe environment with disappointment and bad luck.
Anything that means that my kids are having to deal with lots of small maths problems is good to me (I’ve rolled a 13, now I need to add 5, 2 and 3 to that quickly to see what the outcome is). Mental maths suddenly becomes both exciting and something that players want to be able to do quickly rather than a chore to be endured. Likewise roleplaying games require you to think about the probabilities of the results of different actions.
There aren’t many areas where a child gets to visualise something described to them, question it and have their solution to the situation tested to find out if it works. In this situation it becomes something that the child actively enjoys and I have the option to fudge dice rolls and rules if I think it’s a really clever or novel solution. With role playing he has limits that often aren’t there in his normal play (simply because something would be convenient or cool doesn’t mean it will work) but equally it’s far more open to thinking outside the box than most problems he’s given verbally. In most situations where a child is visualising and problem solving he’s trying to find THE right answer, i.e the answer that whoever set the problem envisaged.
The less obvious advantages to getting kids into roleplaying are in the social nature of the game. When roleplaying you have to listen to what is going on even when your character isn’t doing anything, something small boys in particular aren’t renowned for. You have to concentrate on potentially complex, non-static problems and adapt to those situations, just because something was a good idea last round doesn’t mean it’ll still be good now. Key to the whole thing though is that it’s conversational and social, one needs to be able to express what they’re thinking about quickly and concisely as well as understanding what other people are doing so that you can work well as a team. The more you cooperate the more fun you’ll have.
The last thing that I like about getting kids playing is that even if they try really hard sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes what you think is a brilliant plan simply wasn’t because you didn’t have all the facts when you made it and even if it was brilliant often it doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy, especially if you’re having a day when your dice rolls are cursed. My youngest finds it really tough when his character charges into battle and nearly cuts his own legs off because he rolls badly he’s learning that the game can still be fun. That’s a valuable life lesson and at the end of the day having fun and writing a good story together is the aim of the game.