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.
Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560