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RpgGamerDad – Kids and Combat

Combat in role-playing games: part of the deal, right? Everyone likes it really, even if we discuss at length how to get the pacing right, how to make fights interesting, how to stop it being a 3-hour session of dice-rolling drudgery? The familiar feeling of the dice in the hand? Looking up numbers on my character sheet instead of the tricky business of staying in character? Cool. I love that. What about descriptions? Should I let it get gory? Should I focus on the numbers and keep it nice and neat and tactical? Should I narrate outrageous Feng Shui RPG-style Hong-Kong cinema stunts? All of the above? Yeah, why not! I use all of these techniques as a player or GM depending on what suits the game and how I feel at the time. And I’m sure most of us agree that combat it is a fun part of the hobby and maybe even essential.

But how about combat in RPGs with kids?

This is what I’m finding tricky at the moment. I have been listening to a game of Dungeons and Dragons I played with RpgGamerBoy. We played for fun, of course, but with the ulterior motive of putting it into our podcast It will appear in episodes #29 and #31 in case you want to hear it. We have previously played some Labyrinth Lord which is basically identical to the original (pre-1st edition) D&D but this was a board-game version based on the 3.5 edition rules and it was a very different experience.


In fact, I have just been listening to the point halfway through the session where I turn to my 5 year-old son and say something along the lines of,

‘Do you know what? I’m really uncomfortable with these descriptions of violence. I think we need to take a step back here and just treat it as dice-rolling.’

A little later, I (as DM) offer extra rewards if RpgGamerBoy can resolve the quest without combat.

So, how does that make me sound? Like a vegetarian? A tree-hugging hippy who won’t let my kids play with toy guns because of my limp liberal sensibilities?

OK, I am a vegetarian — and would probably be considered liberal by most. On the other hand, I am a huge martial arts enthusiast. I have been for years and I take it pretty seriously. I have no issues whatsoever with striking or being struck in sparring sessions. It’s fun!

Do I let my kids play with toy guns? Of course! I also occasionally give RpgGamerBoy a foam baseball bat and he tries to beat the living crap out of me while I try to dodge. It’s all done with great joy and often ends with me lying on the floor giggling as I receive a pummelling.

And how does that feed into our RPG gaming? Well, here’s the problem: as I mentioned in a previous article we are big fans of HeroQuest and have featured it on the podcast several times. We bend the rules a lot and this often involves avoiding combat situations — getting baddies out of the picture in some clever way, perhaps persuading them with some good role-playing and a decent dice roll. But when the chips are down and we fight, that’s fun, too. We even come up with creative descriptions of cool moves:

The Dwarf leaps at the table and uses it as a springboard to gain height for his axe-blow.

The Hero pushes the door open a crack and levels his crossbow, taking out the first Orc before they even know he is there.

Bright light streams down from the ceiling and a Genie appears — rushing towards its enemy and disintegrating it in an instant.

These are descriptions which I would call ‘creative’ but not actually ‘graphic’. I’m not quite sure how I draw that distinction but, to me at least, it seems true. And this is a rhythm we have fallen into naturally in our family gaming — we all love a bit of Sword and Sorcery and that means killing bad guys.

But this system broke down in our D&D game and I think I figured out why. Quite simply, the system of combat (which is a hugely, hugely, hugely modified version of the actual 3.5 edition rules and absolutely not representative) seemed interminably dull. If we had played it out as written, it may have taken an hour to take down a handful of goblins. To liven things up, we had to spice up our descriptions and before I knew it, my 5 year-old son said something along the lines of,

‘Regdar the Fighter somersaults into the pit, drawing his sword as he falls and he stabs the Goblin in the face.’

I hear the recorded me pause for a second as I consider that this might not be responsible parenting. Then I backtrack as hastily as possible and take the blame for the description. I use a few tricks to end the combat early: I slash hit-points from the Goblins, fudge armour classes and house-rule extra attacks for the goodies. I even sneak a couple of Goblin miniatures off the board while RpgGamerBoy is distracted.

Then I offer extra treasure for a non-combat resolution to the quest — leading to some totally awesome roleplaying from RpgGamerBoy. Together we come up with a fantastic solution partially inspired by his current bedtime story Frostborn‘ by Lou Anders.

(This book, by the way, has transformed bedtime story sessions for us. Now we BOTH enjoy the story and I get to practise my various attempts at accents. The first two chapters are available to download for free on the website if you want to try it out. More on this and other cool fantasy stories another time.)

So, what advice do I have to give about combat in RPGs with kids? Well, not a huge amount, to be honest — and I’m very interested to hear what others have to say on the issue. In an interview I recorded recently with Russ from The D6 Generation Podcast he mentioned that, in playing D&D with his daughters, he gauges the level of violence by what video games they are allowed to play.

But in the RpgGamerFamily household somehow the violence of video-games seems a step or two further removed from reality than the descriptive violence of RPGs. So I’m not sure that technique would work for us.

I hit upon the idea of continuing our HeroQuest games with robot baddies. Sounds pretty strange? Well maybe it is but, given that HeroQuest is set in the Warhammer world, we’re talking about a late Medieval/ Renaissance setting where Dwarves are already coming up with some pretty advanced steam-based tech. Steampunk dungeon-crawl anyone? Clockwork robots? That could work!

The other thing we’re doing (partly by coincedence and partly by design) is moving towards Fate Accelerated as our system of choice. I feel it fits quite snugly halfway between the Swords and Sorcery dungeon-crawls and the Indie-Storygaming we’ve been doing over the last year or so.

So until someone comes up with a neat, elegant answer, here’s my list of quick-fix semi-pro tips:

  • Make descriptions creative but not graphic.
  • If things are heading gory, come back to the crunch: talk about numbers on dice, not blood splattering on faces.
  • Make sure the monsters go down quick so there isn’t too much time for things to escalate.
  • Distance the monsters from reality in some way – hopefully this will keep you detached from the violence.
  • Keep combats short and make sure the rest of the game is really exciting.

And if this whole issue sounds too liberal and vegetarian for you, I totally understand! Go ahead and be graphic and gory and find a way to make it work for you. But also remember that pretty much every martial arts discipline emphasises control and respect as absolutely vital characteristics. You never let things get too heated and, when you leave the training area, you draw a definite line between what you do there and how you can behave in the real world.

I guess the same thing should apply to RPGs.

I am very sincere, by the way, about wanting to hear other ideas and experiences. I would love to add to and/or completely rewrite my list of semi-pro tips if you have any ideas. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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