Family Values

Because it’s Thanksgiving weekend, here’s an essay on a topic I’ve been thinking about a while.

Maybe the single biggest event in my life that has shaped how and why I play RPGs was becoming a parent. It is a life changing event, and given how big a part of my life tabletop games are, it was inevitable.

What being a parent has brought to my play is an acute awareness of the presence and absence of children in a game: the world, the setting, the situation.

The first time I ran Sagas of the Icelanders, I decided to just litter the community with kids. Any given household with a man and a woman, I’d ask or propose something like “so how many kids, then? Say between three and eight?” And if there was pushback, like they went below three, I’d follow up with something leading like, “So what do folks think is wrong? What’s the gossip? What are you doing to change that?” Stuff like that. And then on my big crazy relationship situation map, every homestead would have lots of little circles for every kid. They’d outnumber adult characters 3:1 or more.

On the flip side, playing a SotI game sans kids would feel weird and empty to me. Did everyone just arrive? Did some fever kill all the kids? How many women are pregnant now and when are they due? I’d try to fill that gap hard with something, anything.

Slip over to a more traditional fantasy game and that awareness is still there. In our Torchbearer game, the party was underground for, what, four sessions? Five? Lots. And of course, they’re on the job in a very dangerous place. So when they finally crawl out with their meager loot and limp into the crossroads town, kids everywhere. It’s a jarring and important division between their day job life and real life.

The world is full of kids. It’s how we keep going. I’m not even talking about het couples, here, although I have a blind spot I’m working on regarding non-het relationships that are, you know, just part of the background. And if they have kids in their families, well, that brings up interesting questions in any setting. Anyway! Not the point of this. I’m just talking about including children if you have even the faintest hope of creating a world that feels real and lived in.

I’ve sat at and listened in on puh-lenty of traditional fantasy tables, largely before I was a parent. And it didn’t seem weird at all to have a town populated only by adult professionals (blacksmith, tavern owner, The Mayor, guards, barmaid, whatever) and a total absence of even the tiniest hint of family life. Or what about mission-oriented futuristic stuff? Pull into the starport in a Traveller game and head over to the bar/jobs board/TAS, no kids to be seen anywhere.

Unless of course they’re a plot device.

I’m not sure what the child-equivalent trope is to fridging but fuuuuck it happens, doesn’t it? The wizard’s minions have murdered your unnamed, faceless children and now you seek vengeance. Or the dumb Fallout thing: your kid has been kidnapped, and now you wander around doing stuff for what feels like years that has little or nothing to do with finding your child. I can tell you, as a parent, I would not be building communities and assembling sweet powered armor.

So it seems to me like gaming settings are divided between carefree child-less free agents (frequently single as well), and messy, real worlds where kids exist and are important. You kind of see it in genre media as well. The slave community in Stargate is filled with children, giving Ra’s child attendants a chilling vibe. Star Wars: A New Hope has zero children at all, making Mos Eisley a very traditional fantasy town. But obviously family life is important in Rogue One, and additional kids run around in the background on Jedha, making it feel like a living community. Mostly kids are just imperiled by super showdowns in Marvel and DC movies, but at least they’re there (the near-total absence of family life in most supers stories is a whole different topic, and it’s why The Incredibles is maybe one of the finest supers stories ever told).

The GM who creates a world without children is like the player who creates the orphaned loner.

Some thoughts on where and how to add kids, particularly if you’re not a parent:

  • If you want settings that feel vibrant and real, there will be children present. Fantasy settings especially should feature energetic children of any age that can walk literally underfoot anywhere and everywhere. Sci-fi settings of course have kids too, although they might be less present in professional settings. But there are still families. NPCs know and love people.
  • Don’t make child endangerment a go-to plot tool. It’s lazy and gross. But don’t ignore the fact that damned near any parent will be irrationally protective of their offspring, PC and NPC alike. Kids are not ever “acceptable losses” in anyone’s cold calculations.
  • Children are not stupid, but they are terrible at risk assessment.
  • Kids have their own social networks as well, and will be just as loyal to their circle as they are to their own families. This just escalates with age.
  • Look at including a variety of ages. Newborns are a huge pain in the ass, but at least they’re immobile. Pre-tweens are both super-mobile and exceptionally poor at risk assessment. Teens want to act like adults but lack most of what they need to be independent (other than the will).
  • All kids are impressionable by every adult they come in contact with.

Have a nice Thanksgiving weekend.

Children’s Games
Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560

56 thoughts on “Family Values”

  1. It’s not just kids that are missing. Something I’ve been noticing a lot more (and being irked by) in F&SF in general is worlds that are predominantly male. Not a game, but we just finished listening to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Only ONE real female character, really? Raising a daughter makes me cranky about that sort of thing.

  2. Sue Solberg read newer books! There has been a really big shift and it’s being reflected in Hugo and Nebula winners. Old school genre fantasy is super terrible about being dude-only.

  3. I’d hazard to guess that there are also important crossovers with multiple schools of feminism here as well. Not always in easy, uncomplicated ways — but when there are no kids many of the roles traditionally associated with women’s work are either rendered obsolete, invisible, unimportant, or just non-existent. And one of the places where many women in pre-industrial society got their center and power is just vanished.

    It also skews all the “world building” in a setting. With no kids society doesn’t look anything like real societies, and that’s going to trickle down into making a weird Disneyland world instead of a real world in just about every facet of the setting.

    So a couple of additional random points:

    * Many societies base some part of their cultural networking on age-bands. This can be tribal initiation groups or highschool graduates all wearing their class ring to identify with each other. But in any case, having multiple age bands — including seniors and children — is required to make this work.

    * For a lot of cultures fosterage and/or hostages (which often come to more or less the same thing, depending on how nasty your culture is) is a critical point of exchange. Raising kids of other kin groups in your own was, once upon a time and across large parts of the world, totally normal and — in fact — required to make society work.

    * Speaking of which — putting kids into a setting makes you look at how people raise kids. This can be both cool historically (how did folks actually organize child care? — hint, it wasn’t always “woman stays at home and takes care of the kids born from her own body”) and imaginatively (in a world where women have most of the magic, and are always out changing the world, who takes care of kids? and how? and what does that do to social networks? — let’s imagine other ways society could be other than just the 1950’s nuclear family bullshit).

    * Think about what kids mean in your society — like, what is a child and what does childhood mean? At what age do kids get named? At what age do they get their own choices? When do they start work in the house? Outside the house? When do they get married? Are there stages to becoming an adult? All of these things have a lot of nuance and difference across historical (and modern) human cultures — put some thought or research or imagination in here!

    * In many cultures age and gender interact in weird ways. “Women and children” for an weird 50’s Euro-American example. Or, did you know, in many parts of Europe through the early 1800s boy children and girl children were all dressed the same? They didn’t get differentiated by clothing as “boys” and “girls” until they were 5 to 9. And then girls kept being dressed the same, and boys wore new clothes and had to prove their “boyness.” Which… man. Right? So what is the interaction in your world?

    * Most folks know this, but might not think of it, but kids actually do effect the lives of adults who don’t have kids of their own. The kids of other family members are mentees, need to be sometimes cared for, may be named after you or give you religious obligations. The kids of friends and other social group members may change the ways you’re able to interact, and the types of things you do together. (“Sorry Thrag the Destroyer, can’t go adventuring this week, gotta pick up Matilda from Wizard School….”)

    (I’d also go into kids and “acceptable losses” and how I actually disagree there, just based on actual historical accounts of many pre-modern societies, especially the psychotic warrior cultures of northern europe, but I think your point is — in general — valid and don’t want to give the edgelords more fuel. I will say though, it changes your opinion about some “great historical men” when you find out they let their own kids be butchered in order to start a war so they could murder other people and take their stuff.)

  4. Oh, also, generational play is awesome, and requires kids. Pendragon was a leader in this, but a few other games do it too.

    And, these days, I’ve been playing generational games in genres not always associated with it. The Masks game I’m playing with Mo Jave is based on the kids of the cast of the game we played a decade+ ago — some of whom were born in that game.

    I’d love to do that with SotI at some point, pick up with the kids from the last game of it we played. Most of them lived, and the psychotic shit their families went through would probably give a very strong background for why Icelanders behaved as they did.

  5. Sorry, I just have to totally agree with your Fallout assessment. I had a blast with the game, but only after I accepted that the backstory and motivation for Vaulty wasn’t going to help me enjoy the game.

    I started a second playthrough on Survival mode and tried to 1) go melee-heavy and 2) play the game like a worried, grieving parent would. It went poorly.

    Beatrix Kiddo didn’t take side quests.

    As to your main point, I’m super guilty of de-childrening my games out of a great big aversion to putting kids in peril, which I feel like it’d come up, so I don’t. It’s not entirely rational, but neither is parenting I guess. I should keep this in mind in the future, though.

  6. Many of my friends have kids, so I have also become more and more aware of this, but I do struggle with not introducing kids just to put them in danger.

    My Doskvol in Blades in the Dark is pretty Dickensian, so it is full of kids, but many of them are treated like small, inexperienced adults. Kids who are cabbies, kids who are thieves, kids who work in factories, or doing fine work picking valuables out of the slops of the Leviathan Hunter fleet.

    I hadn’t considered it much when I played SOTI, though in that case I was a player, and my character was an adolescent. But thinking back on it now, certainly the absence of children is strange.

  7. Gherhartd Sildoenfein my experience is that 95%+ of the time players love it when you give them things to bite, and things that bite back. As long as the kids are done in ways that matter, but that don’t necessarily suck time or focus out of balance with other aspects, folks generally are very positive about it — even if they wouldn’t have thought about it before hand.

    Really, it’s like dealing with historical information in games like Pendragon or SotI. If you do it well, make it part of the world, make it matter, let players interact with it in ways that give them choices, most folks will like it, or at least roll with it. It’s only when you want them to get into the details of what type of tang their cloak pin has on it and how that wasn’t actually invented until the 950s, and this is the 910s, that folks get irked. Similar with kids.

    And the other 5% of the time… I gotta go with Paul. Harsh but true. If someone objects to kids being part of the world, I’mma point out to them that there are other people they can play with.

  8. Agreed so hard. In fact, I’ve decided in my next game to make one of the playbooks (the Halfling) be all about their family, and the Hx-like questions have a required one that asks a question about trouble your child got into.

  9. This may be one of my favorite posts of yours, Paul!

    Aside, and if it’s derailing please ignore it: how does your perspective affect your view of all of the kid-focused games that have cropped up recently? Not just the angsty teen games (e.g., Monsterhearts) but also the wave of ’80s-adventure-kids games that have followed in the wake of Stranger Things, e.g., TftL.

    It’s sort of a weird dichotomy — either the game is specifically about kids, or else kids don’t exist.

  10. Dang, Paul. Much to think on.

    [That’s such a fraught space for me – child NPCs – running and playing games where horrible shit routinely happens (Apocalypse World, I’m looking at you). Be true to the fiction? Or break down with parent-feels in tears at the table?]

  11. I feel this. That said, I’m terrible at including kids. I have been feeling NPC-fatigue lately, just exhaustion trying to remember which NPC acts how. So adding more than parsimony dictates feels scary.

    Anyway, in one of my cough cough favorite settings, there’s a distinct lack of kids in the source material: Regency fiction takes an almost complete “neither seen nor heard” approach to kids. But obviously, they existed! As did, say, servants, who also get hidden out of the period stories for the most part. And in both cases, I find modern stories are enriched by remembering that they’re there.

  12. Gary Montgomery you do make me realize that the presence of kids in AW usually weirds me out, because I have so ingrained in my ideas about that game that there’s no real future and the world is dying.

  13. Kathryn Miller​ is fond of telling the story of the first D&D game I GM’d for her. The players were hired to clean out a kobold infestation in the local dungeon. I had mapped out the whole kobold village, including kobold children. Her paladin had a crisis of faith and became a cleric. The group was a lot more careful of their mission choices from then on. I hadn’t set out to problematize violence in fantasy settings, but it sure made an impression.

  14. Mark Delsing hmm, I’m not sure how to tie your question into my post. I wrote a long reply but it didn’t have anything to do with this stuff, maybe because it’s a GM-facing topic. It’d be impossible to run TftL without kids, right? But I’ll bet non parent GMs approach the material in a different way.

  15. Huh, my second kid will be born in about a weeeeeek but I don’t fill the world with kids like you do. Kids are there, but I don’t mention them a lot. Maybe I should change that.

  16. Adding my comment to this thread as well:

    Yes!!! Also, kids are really really vulnerable! I’d follow up your “so how many kids then?” with “and how many dead?” Also, if one assumes all babies and toddlers are nursing if able (which one hella should ) natural child spacing is about two years apart per sexually active and fertile woman, with some women naturally going to four years between births and others going to one year. Given a life expectancy of 60 and an onset of menarche at 12 and menopause at 40, and first birth at 16, that’s 10-14 reasonably possible children per bearing parent, providing for survival of childbirth and complications in the first six months, which drops both surviving children and bearing mothers by as much as 10% easy.

    In other shorter words: heck yes this.

  17. Since Meguey Baker​​ is here (hi!) I want for swing back around to your comment, Gary Montgomery​​: I think the presence of children and families in an Apocalypse World game is the bright line between a hilarious romp and a seriously harrowing situation. Like maybe not “fun” by many metrics.

    I’ve been emphasizing this aspect in our current game and the emotional stakes are really high. High enough that it’s kind of tough to get amped to play.

  18. More historical context: kids are REALLY ABLE from a young age, especially in a pre-Industrial or agrarian setting. 5 year olds head into the fields with the cows for the day. 7 year olds start apprenticeship to learn a trade. 13 year olds are often seen as adults and can fight in a war or run a school or get married or rule countries (sometimes even with some degree of competence!)

    This thing where we think people under 20 are basically incapable of doing much of anything is some serious post-twentieth century and industrialized nation business. Go to Guatemala or Ethiopia today and you will see kids with a great deal of agency and responsibility that we just categorically don’t give kids in much of the US. Some of this is in direct reaction to factory and mine work in the late 19th century and social reformers who wanted kids to be kids, not young adults.

    In your typical 500-1700 CE type fantasy settings, every person who can walk has a role to play in helping the family and community thrive, even if it’s just “rock the baby’s cradle” or “gather up wood chips for the fire so we can cook food”. Don’t just fill your world with kids, recognize they have stuff they are doing that contributes and matters; this is part of why kids are not just expendable – their existence counts.

  19. Paul Beakley For sure! One of the most intense games of AW I ever ran involved a kid who was hidden away by her parents because she was so deeply touched by the maelstrom, and when the hardholder found out about her, they wound up questioning everything and changing playbooks to become a touchstone.

  20. As authentic as it is, knowing how many people have gone through child deaths and miscarriages and kept the burden to themselves, I could never ask a SotI (or other) player, “And how many dead?”

  21. I’d just note, on the AW front, that the movie (a bit less the book) Children of Men is about exactly what happens to society without children.

    I mean, you can disagree with it (I do), but the point in the movie is really, really fucking clear. Like, unsubtle as a sledgehammer to the toe level of clear.

    And, of course, Beyond Thunderdome, that classic of AW movies, is all about what a dude will do to save a bunch of kids. Just so happens that the kids kinda kick ass themselves.

  22. Mo Jave pointed out that Fury Road and Logan are also all about AW kids.

    Notably, in most of these (maybe not BT) the kids are objects and not subjects. So… games can maybe do a bit better on that front. Still though, without children none of those movies work.

  23. Is it just an assumption though Paul? That kids are present in the setting? It’s like the players want to interact with whatever is meaningful to the narrative. Just because you don’t narrate kids, doesn’t mean that they’re not there. The same principle
    Applies to anything in the setting really.

    It is nice to highlight kids (and extended families) on occasion just to firmly entrench the players in the world.

  24. Nathan Roberts in a visual medium, you can have kids passively present in the narrative, as background figures in a painting or sculpture or photo, or as extras in a film. In an aural medium, you have to either have voices of kids in the background or say explicitly “There are kids everywhere, and here’s what that’s like….”

    In role playing, if it’s not actively narrated into the setting, it is exceedingly hard to assume something is there. That assumption could (and has) led to “there were no women who fought” and “there were no people of color in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages” and the like.

  25. I was thinking how in The Fellowship of the Ring (the book), Tolkien never really mentions child hobbits but otherwise paints a picture into which it’s easy to insert them. The Shire is a bustling town! But in the movie, Jackson absolutely adds hobbit kids because their absence would be weird now that we have to see them.

    But I also get that, like, it’s not really weird that kids have no place in a Jason Bourne movie. It’s all grownups, and it’s ostensibly set in our world.

    (I still find it weird and jarring as an adult and a parent to watch Star Wars and notice the total lack of actual kids, and not just crypto-kid-coded presences like the jawas, an alien in the cantina, and Luke himself.)

  26. Actually, there is a thing there. I cannot find it now, but I once read a really good article about how the Bourne movie’s setting — almost all the business/industrial heart of major urban centers — is part of the inhumanity being painted by the movies.

    Which is to say, it’s areas of town that often are low in children (though not as low as the movie shots, I think) that are full of people who may not (probably do not) live there coming and going from other places. In that sort of situation a time-table magic-user like Jason can come and go unnoticed, an alien in an alienated society.

    Like, it’d be a lot harder to just fit in and magically and be able to ditch cops with split second entrances to subways if there was a group of kids on a field trip making the train late, or a group of parents who might immediately notice the presence of a stranger in a human — rather than technological — way. Then Bourne might have to interact with people, and not just with representations of a system.

  27. Aaron Griffin three of my five regulars don’t have kids. Nobody has mentioned anything.

    (But see my comment above about my feelings regarding folks put off by this.)

  28. Meguey Baker Paul Beakley,
    I stand enlightened! I hadn’t thought of it in that light. I like playing kids in games, whether as NPCs or PCs, and this thread has prompted me to consider more ‘front and centre’ with them as characters as an active force in the setting.

  29. Paul Beakley I quite like them — at least the first couple. But I like them because they were (or seemed to me) to be pointing out the disconnection as a flaw. Like, Aaron Griffin’s comment about the farm is on point — it’s the place with kids, outside of the city, and the place where one of the few human connections in the movie happen.

    Of course, that’s also country/city distopian bullshit, but I’ll forgive the movie for recreating that bit of bullshit.

    Also, on a note for Aaron, and others — I don’t have kids. Many of the folks I play with don’t have kids. And yet, kids end up in our worlds a lot of the time. Not always successfully or evenly, but kids is kids.

  30. See, this is exactly the sort of essay that should be on an easily linkable blog so I can send it to my friends who don’t have G+. No matter, I made it into a PDF and already sent it to three people!

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