“old school” gaming in the children’s library setting

I’ve read a few articles and some great blogs on running tabletop RPGs in the library, but most of those seem to be aimed at teens.  Nothing against teens, but I’m much more interested in introducing elementary school kids (4th-7th grade) to the joys of RPG play and encouraging their creative participation.  Perhaps my personal experiences with gaming are the bias here – my buddies and I started playing D&D in 4th grade with the Moldvay Basic Set.  While we may have been a bit slow understanding some of the mechanical nuances of the system, we grasped the creative and social aspects of RPG play immediately.

Last Saturday’s game at the Mission library got me thinking again about D&D and kids in the library, filtered through the lens of old vs. new mechanics and playstyles.  I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming absolutely floored me, and that that the work has assumed an almost manifesto-like status to some of us in the “retro” gaming community.

When opportunity first knocked for me to play games with kids on “National Gaming Day at the Library,” I had the choice of running OD&D (in my white binder) or the free “Introduction to 4th edition D&D” box set my colleague received at a convention.  I chose to run OD&D.  Not because I’m an old-school enthusiast (I hesitate to use the term grognard though, I’m too young).  Not because I have an aversion to Wizards of the Coast (true) and a dislike for the direction D&D has taken on their watch (true).  I ran OD&D simply because I knew the system, and that it had a certain minimalist simplicity allowing for the rules to fade into the background:

  • Characters:  Even with 5th graders, character creation took 5 minutes because there weren’t a ton of options for “customization” that required explanation.  The character sheet fit on a 3 x 5 card.  For most of the time in play, the kids just needed to know what kind of equipment and spells they had.
  • Rules: Because there aren’t many mechanics, there’s no need to burden newbie players with potentially-confusing details of how abilities x, y, and z functioned or the need for min-maxing their character.  I directed them to roll dice at certain times with a brief explanation of why they were rolling (to hit, damage, avoid falling in a pit, etc.)  I left my reference sheets open on the table, and didn’t have to open the binder once during the entire game.
  • Zen Moments: The one-two combo of “Rulings, not Rules” and “Player Skill vs. Character Abilities”  in Finch’s Primer resonate a lot here.  It keeps the kids’ focus on the imaginative, creative aspect of the game instead of on rules, numbers, and the paper in front of them.

Someone more well-versed in 3e or 4e could probably make reasonable arguments for the merits of the newer editions.  That’s fine, I’m not out to crucify their system or anything like that.  I’m sure that a relatively rules-light 3e/d20-based game, such as Castles & Crusades or a Microlite variant, could work equally well.  Teens who (hopefully) possess longer attention spans and better critical thinking skills will probably be more open to crunchier, more option-driven rules like 3rd or 4th edition D&D, but I can’t picture it with younger kids – at least not the ones I know…

More on this later.

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