Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about children PCs.
A few months ago, I was kicking around a resurgent interest in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Overall, it’s a very fun game if you’re focused on exploring new places, finding secrets, and recovering ancient treasures. That said, there are many aspects of the game that I personally found tiring. Specifically, how Skyrim handles its NPCs. They have roughly half a dozen different voice actors and models for all of the NPCs in their game. You take five steps inside any town and its like, “Oh look, its Cyclons #1 and #2! And oh good! All five children models in the same orphanage! Cool!”
Bethesda has a history of doing this, mind you. It happened in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas too, though it’s a bit more noticeable in Fallout 3 than New Vegas. While its somewhat uncommon to see adults treated like this, its distressingly common for child NPCs to be marginalized like this in video games. For example, let’s take World of Warcraft as an example. While World of Warcraft (and most other MMOs) have a tendency to build one NPC and copy it over and over again for a specific in-game area, most races in the game don’t have a model for children: the only ones that do are orcs, humans, blood elves, draenei, and pandaren. All of the other races just used downscaled versions of the adult model for children. Notice how I note that the game doesn’t have —a— model for children, though; World of Warcraft has one model per gender for each of the races I noted above. Sometimes they have different color skin or hair, but that said it is the EXACT same model with no differentiation. And in all cases, that model is anywhere from 10 to 8 years old. Heck, one of the game’s in-game characters shared his model with ALL THE COMMONER CHILDREN for years until he was aged up into a 15-year old young man, and then he got his own, unique model because he wasn’t a child anymore.
This is a common practice in video games and honestly, its just as common in Tabletop RPGs, but in a different way. In tabletop games, children can’t get marginalized through visual appearances because there are few visuals in a tabletop game. Instead, children are marginalized in how they are portrayed by the GM. Today’s GM Guide is devoted to help fixing that trend.
Common Uses for Children in RPG Games
Let’s start by talking about how GMs commonly use children in their games.
- Youth the Scenery: This is the most common use of children in an RPG game. Campaign Settings feel unnaturally barren if they are completely void of children so GMs will often note in their initial description of a new settlement that “children are frolicking in the fields,” or something along those lines. But aside from that initial blurb, children aren’t often used. In video games, this is akin to obligatory “random children” that run around a given settlement and serve no other purpose then for the world designers to say, “See! See! Our world has children!”
- Youth the Burden: When children are plot-centric, their status as a child is often used as a burden to the players. They’re too young and need to stop to rest or they’re whining and complaining or they need to be saved from some horrible monster. In such games, children have few redeeming skills or abilities and often the GM or game designer uses helpless children to try and force the players to accept a mission or quest. Why? Because anyone who would abandon a child is an inhumane monster of a man, that’s why! Very common trope and its even worse in Skyrim when, regardless of what you do in the game, all children in the entire world hate you and you can’t do anything about it because of the next reason.
- Youth the Untouchable: MANY games use this. This is obviously more common in government-regulated media (like video games) but in many games children are above death. You can’t target them. You can’t attack them. As a matter of fact, you can’t interact with them in almost every possibly human way and in many video games they’re designed to be infuriatingly snide about it (Bethesda games do this ALL the time). If children can be killed in a game, nine times of ten it’s done off-screen so the players don’t have to suffer the “inhumanity” of dead babies.
- Youth the Savior: This trope is sickeningly common: the young child who is the “key to victory” or the “last hope for humanity.” We hear all the time that children are the future, so games like to take this idea one step further and make a child the literal hope for the future. The Star Wars prequels famously tried this and it can also be seen somewhat in the third X-Man movie. The problem with this approach is that it often removes the child’s identity as a character; the fact that they’ve become a MacGuffin (a poorly explained object that advances the plot) overshadows their identity as a living, breathing person virtually every time this trope is used. The ONLY time I have seen this trope used effectively is in Avatar: The Last Airbender because it contrasted this prophecy with the character’s insecurities about his future. Star Wars does NOT do this; either does X-Man. Aang is a character: Episode I Anakin is a MacGuffin.
- Youth the Bastard: This one is both literal and figurative. A lack of parents has always been a common archetype for youth in literature (see EVERY DISNEY PRINCESS EVER) but its slowly becoming more and more common with the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Folks, let’s get this out there: a lack of characters in your life does not give a child character; it’s often how one reacts to that change that defines them (see Batman). In this use, The Bastard is a plot device. In the most slang use, The Bastard is the child who does horrible stuff to players with the expectation that the NPC will get away with it because he’s a child, and only horrible people would exact vengeance upon a child. Right? If being a jerk utterly defines your child character, you’re doing it wrong.
- Youth the Shining: The final common trope involving the savior trope: children are the devil incarnate. We’ve all seen games, quests, and television shows that have used this idea: Good Son and the The Shinning are the big two that come to mind immediately. While not an intrinsically bad approach for a story, this seldom works for a video game because one of two things happen: 1) the GM tries to use the Devil’s status as a human child to make the overall resolution of the plot a moralistic quandary for the players or 2) the Devil is so irredeemably evil that the fact he is a child is completely overshadowed. The most common reason to choose this type of character is for the good ‘ole fashion Paladin bait, in which the GM tries to lure his paladin player into a morale corner where any action she takes will result in her loosing her paladin powers. The second most common reason to select this type of child (and the better one) is to juxtapose the symbolism of the innocent, childhood face with the supernaturally evil things he is doing. This juxtaposition is often handled poorly, however, and the result ends up on my list of horrible things designers and GMs do with child characters.
So ultimately, many games (both GM-run games and designed games) either flat-out omit children characters or push them into one or more of the categories listed above. And that’s all from the GM’s side of the table: players are just as bad at being children.
Players as Child Characters
One-dimensional playing is not restricted to GMs when it comes to writing and acting as child characters: PCs are just as guilty of this practice. Let’s look at some common player trends.
- Youth the Protected: This goes hand-in-hand with The Bastard section mentioned above. Some players make their characters children so they can do horrible things to others (especially players) and expect no repercussions for their actions because their character is “just a child.” Its infuriating at best and will often destroy parties.
- Youth the Super Hero: Another common PC trend is to make their character young, but only to show how awesome the character is at something. For example, the idea of a “child wizard” often goes into this route: “I’m only 8 years old and casting 6th level spells! I’m a prodigy and super special and amazing!” This isn’t to say that I think that there shouldn’t ever be any 8 year-old wizards of 13th level or higher, but if there is you need a reason for it beyond, “I’m super-special and kewl.”
- Youth the Stereotype: There is a tendency for players to exaggerate stereotypes regarding their character’s race either by following them to the tee or by acting so counterculture that it makes the stereotype all the stronger for every other member of the character’s race. This happens with age too. When youth is over exaggerated, the character is silly to a fault, energetic and playful all the time, and is only concerned about childish things. These are the characters who ask silly, inappropriate questions during serious moments or quip in a child-like way during roleplaying. Often you’ll see things like, “my character gets bored and starts starting at a butterfly with wonder and interest.” Humorously enough, most people peg children with stereotypes better suited for younger children. Older children, let’s say 8 to 12, can handle adult subjects much better than toddlers or preschoolers can but that’s seldom reflected in the player’s roleplaying.
So yes, there are a LOT of things we do wrong as players and as GMs when it comes to roleplaying children. So how do we fix it?
Youth the Inexperienced
The best way to handle children in any media is to think of them as inexperienced adults. They may be children, but they’re still human children. They are capable of the same emotions and reactions as adults, even if they don’t understand what they’re feeling. With this in mind, I’m going to revisit the above tropes and talk about how they can be used correctly.
- Youth the Scenery: There’s nothing wrong with using children as scenery, but they need to be given the same tone and importance as adults. Inappropriate contrast between adults and children is a surefire way to ruin a child character because players are always going to look to adults as knowing “how things are.” In many situations, when this contrast exists its because adults are creating an illusion for their children: pretending everything is right when it isn’t. But realistically, children KNOW when things are wrong, but they’ll often keep pretending for the sake of their parents. In doing so, they often think that they’re helping their parents cope and in a way, they are.
- Youth the Burden: This one is inexcusable: everyone is good at something. At the very least, children might be somewhat familiar with legends or stories that the PCs, as foreigners, don’t know. For each time that a child needs to be rescued or is dangerously unskilled at something, give him or her a redeeming quality that the PCs can latch on. They won’t mind having to carry the injured child if he’s funny or escort the captured princess if she is able to provide them with helpful legends or clues from time to time.
- Youth the Untouchable: You destroy your game’s sense of immersion by excluding children from the violence. If adults can die, so can kids. You may not strive for it, but do not outright exclude them. The death of a child is a powerful motivational tool, especially when the PCs witness it (or its consequences).
- Youth the Savior: The best-done example of this that I have ever seen was Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang is the inheritor to a phenomenal amount of power and how does he react to it? He runs away from home, starting the entire series. Children as saviors need to still be characters: have them act accordingly. If they’re nothing but mini-Christs, then that’s not believable and ruins the character you’re trying to build.
- Youth the Bastard & The Shining: Don’t focus on the character’s past; focus on how the character’s past developed the present. Along those lines, no one is born a jerk (unless you have the evil subtype, I guess). If your child is evil incarnate, develop why he’s evil. Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s doing is wrong, or maybe (for some reason) he doesn’t have a choice. Maybe he green up on the streets and has a pessimistic, rage-fueled outlook. Remember: children are inexperienced people, not incompetent cardboard cutouts.
Before I end, I want to talk quickly about the Pathfinder RPG’s Youth rules. These were first printed in Ultimate Campaign and for the most part, I like them. That is, up until I read this: a young character does not have access to the same classes as adult characters. Not yet trained in the advanced techniques of war, arcana, faith, and varied other pursuits, a young character is a squire, apprentice, acolyte, or student on the path to expertise. As such, you can select only NPC classes while in this age category, beginning play and advancing in level as an adept, aristocrat, commoner, expert, or warrior, according to your interests and social background. As soon as you reach adulthood, though, you may retrain those NPC class levels as levels in any base classes of your choosing (see Retraining).
Saying I deplore this rule wouldn’t be strong enough. It’s an unnecessary restriction at best. These rules do a number of things incorrectly:
- They tie an age category to experience. Experience does not improve a character’s body (the penalties to Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity).
- They restrict class selection for arbitrary reasons. If I am playing a Youth as a PC, then I should be allowed to select a PC class. The term “NPC” stands for “Non-Player Character.” Telling me, a Pathfinder player, that I am a Non-Player Character because I choose to start off as being younger than my fellows is lame. Incredibly lame.
- The section cites characters such as Harry Potter (a wizard), Arya Stark (a rogue/swashbuckler), and Aang (a monk) as being iconic examples of Young characters, yet the rules don’t let you play those characters as the classes they closely represent.
- As soon as you gain levels in a PC class, you automatically “age up” out of Youth and are now an Adult.
Most of those rules go back towards the GM problems I listed above: they’re stereotypes that serve to make PCs playing a child character a burden. As a home rule, in my campaigns Youths can become members of any class that they want. Arya clearly retrained out of expert and became a swashbuckler / rogue. Prince Jeoffery, however, clearly never took levels outside of aristocrat.
And that’s all I have to say about Young characters. For now. What do you think? Do you allow your PCs to play Young characters now that rules exist or is your game for Adults only? How do you handle Child NPCs in your campaigns? Leave your answers below and I look forward to chatting with you next time!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Age Category combination is kitsune Youth, and his favorite Youth character in a fictitious work is Sokka, from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Prince Zuko is a close second, though.