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Are Children PCs Okay?

It’s a rare situation, but what if one of your players comes to your table with the idea to play a child as their character? What would be your initial reaction? Now, I’m not talking about childlike as in, say, a kender, but an actual child. Furthermore, can we even agree on where the bar is when it comes to defining a child? Is the 16 to 18 yr old teenager staking vampires at night a child or do we have to go even further, into the single digits?

Walt briefly dipped into the well with one of his Hot Button articles [1], “What is your Taboo?” in discussing the death of children in adventures. A taboo I happen to share; in general I’m reluctant to include children in games in any meaningful manner. In fact, in a recent Call of Cthulhu one-shot that was planned with pre-generated characters — who were children — another player and myself had to request a different adventure.

But the child PC is another beast of its own. First, it can be difficult to integrate in a mixed game. Imagine a child PC at the table full of adults. Do the other players, by virtue of their age, have a leadership role over the child? Consider the implications of the power dynamic at the table.

Now I have to admit a bit of perverse pleasure of my own in playing Eden Studios [2]’ most-excellent Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG [3], specifically the Slayer. However, in a game where all the PCs are predominately teenagers this actually plays into the role of the game, not against it. Other games, such as Little Fears [4], also follow this dynamic and take it even further. (Interestingly both games are in the realm of horror.)

So would you have any problem with a PC minor in your game, say, in D&D? Would you give that PC any special consideration, mechanically or otherwise?

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19 Comments To "Are Children PCs Okay?"

#1 Comment By Orikes On February 13, 2013 @ 2:11 am

I think it depends a great deal on the scenario. While for the most part I would be reluctant to include children PCs in a horror scenario, I have seen it done well (the very first Dread game I ever played was ’13’, a sleepover gone strange). It’s something that can be done well, but must be handled carefully.

Teenage PCs are a different beast and I definitely don’t have the same hesitation. Many of my favorite games I’ve ever played involved teenage PCs. There’s a fascination and nostalgia in exploring the mythology of being a teenager – not to mention many of us get to enjoy poking fun at our foibles as teens by playing teens. (I have a great deal of fondness for super hero games where the PCs are teenagers).

#2 Comment By Dhomal On February 13, 2013 @ 10:57 am

I absolutely agree here! *waves at Orikes*

I don’t think I would have much issue with children as PCs even if it were not for the whole group. As others have also stated, Exceptional kids DO exist. I could also Very easily see a child becoming a Bard in a D&D setting, with a great voice, talent for learning new songs heard once, and some instrument aptitude. Now, I ~might~ have a slight bit of trouble believing such a person was a great Orator, being able to inspire with a “Go Get ’em” speech or some other non-song off-the cuff inspirational words. That IMO is more learned over time than a natural gift, but could be learned as well, as adventures take place etc.

In my years of playing, one aspect that has never really come up was relationships/intimacy, and I envision some people having issues with children in this way. So, for me, it is a non-issue, as it just generally has not been a part of games I have run/played in.

And like Orikes, I also have some (though not nearly as many!) memories of some great children as newly discovered ‘powered’ people, grappling with this, at the same time as starting to thwart evil. (Or at least the severely uncool!)

#3 Comment By shortymonster On February 13, 2013 @ 2:27 am

I’ve played child characters before in a rather grim game of Cyberpunk2020, and plan on running a game with all minor PC’s in a neo-Victorian game called Unhallowed Metropolis. I think it does work better if the entire group are of comparable age though. It also works very well with anything that should be scary, but not necessarily horrific.

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#4 Comment By The_Holy_Skwervo On February 13, 2013 @ 3:18 am

So much of this depends on the people playing and the tone of the game. There’s also the aspects of historical accuracy and even advocacy of political issues to consider. In games that are fairly lighthearted, it’s no big deal. West End Games included a Child template in their D6 Star Wars RPG. Starting equipment was a bottle of fizzy-glug and a pet (dead or alive)
A game set during the American Revolution could have child soldiers, and this could also apply to a modern game taking place in some of the more war ravaged places, like parts of Africa. A child is a legitimate concept, but it requires a little extra sensitivity to incorporate.
There’s also mechanical considerations. Playing a child in a realistic way will require a character that is statistically less powerful than the adult characters. Can the game system fit that in, or is it too scaled for a group of PCs that are roughly equal in power?

#5 Comment By Crimson Newb On February 13, 2013 @ 6:37 am

The_Holy_Skwervo’s got some great points. I think there are some great stories that could be told. Some considerations would have to be made in regards to the character’s lower abilities. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with a child character. However, I play with people who have kids, and also prefer not to explore the unpleasant aspects of life. With that in mind, it would depend on what kind of game I was running. I’d talk to the player about what they wanted to play, then discuss it with the group as a whole.

#6 Comment By Brandon Lighter On February 13, 2013 @ 7:52 am

Just about every D&D game I have ever run has featured significant child characters (either PCs or NPCs). Children die, its a fact of existence, even more so in pre-industrial settings, and I have never had a problem depicting that reality in my games–I even ran one adventure that centered on a child’s funeral (which incidentally included players who were minors in addition to adult players).

Likewise, fiction and folklore are full of great child characters who face adult-oriented dangers (Harry Potter and friends, the Artful Dodger, Arya and Brandon Stark, Jack the giant killer, King David…the list just keeps going). Playing epic fantasy but excluding one of the most classic tropes of the genre (child prodigies performing heroic tasks) feels like letting my players down.

As for mechanical considerations, children are, other than being shorter (usually), not that much different from adults. My own grandfather was swinging a pick in a coal mine by age 11, and I had a good friend growing up who was 6 feet tall by the time we hit middle school…then there are people like Michael Kearney who had earned a masters degree by age 14. If PCs are meant to be exceptional individuals already, then child PCs (as exceptional children) should probably have the same stats as adults.

#7 Comment By Svafa On February 13, 2013 @ 8:29 am

None of our current PCs are children, but one of the major NPCs is a child prodigy of approximately twelve years. The two things I love about playing him are his adamant desire to be taken seriously by the adults and his constantly being mistaken for an adult Halfling.

I probably wouldn’t play or prominently figure children below that age range though. Descriptive background is probably the most they’d get. But I have no issue with a player wanting to play a teenager, and would give them the same attribute as the adults. After all, if a hundred year old elf has the same starting stats as a twenty year old human, then why not a twelve year old human as well?

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 13, 2013 @ 9:54 am

For most ongoing games, a child PC would stand out like a one-legged cheetah man and I wouldn’t allow it. For one-shots, pretty much anything goes.

I’ve always found child PCs work best when everyone’s playing a kid, rather than when it’s one kid in a group of adults. They tend to bend the group around them, intentionally or otherwise.

Some games wouldn’t feel off with a kid in the mix. Mermaid Adventures, for example. One kid in a Walking Dead-themed zombie adventure — think Carl on the show — could be great.

#9 Comment By Throst On February 13, 2013 @ 10:00 am

My groups generally play D&D and other medieval fantasy games, where we use the historical standards of age. This means that by 13 or so, people are generally considered “adult” (see Romeo and Juliet, etc.). We therefore consider 16 year old characters pretty standard for young heroes, and 32-year-olds to be grizzled old veterans.
Nobody has ever wanted to play a character younger than 13 or so, which means the question of “children” has never really come up. If we had the ability to appropriately stat them, as the nWoD book allowing child characters does, then I’d totally allow it but limit class selections to certain options — I can’t see a 9-year-old fighter and a wizard needs a lot more years of training (though I suppose he could be some sort of savant), while a young thief/rogue would be a really cool idea and perhaps a child of a divine class could be some sort of oracle or vessel of their god.

#10 Comment By Alan De Smet On February 13, 2013 @ 10:54 am

For myself, the key elements are: does the child character “fit”, is everyone cool with the stakes, and can the player portray the child reasonably well.

A child can potentially fit a wide variety of games. Obviously they fit in games centered around children (Sailor Moon, Little Fears, Misspent Youth, Grey Ranks, etc). I can totally see a child fitting into a lot of pulp games, and even potentially into some Serious Drama games if done well. A child character probably doesn’t fit real well into, say, a realistic modern police procedural, but I’d be open to the possibility.

Comfort with the stakes is important to everyone. Some people will be uncomfortable with a child being exposed to danger, serious injury, abuse, death, and other Serious Things things that may come up. The discomfort will vary depending on context. I’d be uncomfortable with a younger child in my fairly dangerous Swords & Wizardry campaign (although I’m okay with young adults). I’d be okay with a child character in Grey Ranks, despite the fact that the child will likely be treated worse than in the S&W game. I think in this case the problem is that my S&W game has a slightly goofy but deadly feeling, and the potential death of children would put a chill over the affair, while in Grey Ranks that chill is intentionally part of the game.

Some of my concern is that children are easy to do “wrong”. Abusing children is frequently a tool used by lazy storytellers. Like a character with mental illness, a player can use a child PC as an excuse to be “wacky” and disruptive in a way that doesn’t actually make sense. In the right hands it can be great, so I want to keep an open mind, but bad experiences have left me cautious.

#11 Comment By Tazo On February 13, 2013 @ 10:55 am

One of the better resources about playing children (both specific to the system as well as in general) is the new World of Darkness book Innocents:

[6]

Aside from going into some mechanical differences that are inherent to playing children (although it’s very much focused on the idea of playing an all-child group, as opposed to a kid among adults), it also goes in-depth on what playing a child would be LIKE. I seem to recall that when writing the book, the designer mandated that only people who actually had kids could write on it, because they were close enough to actually understand.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On February 13, 2013 @ 11:23 am

To me, child PCs are okay if they emerge during group character generation, but they rarely work out right if one player makes one up and expects everyone else to just accept it.

I think you can tell some very strong stories by deliberately including children–alone, or as a whole group of kids/teens.

When one player creates “a kid”, it’s very important to work out in advance how the kid’s going to be treated. Why do the adults around her allow her to get into fist fights with werewolves? Do they have no protective instinct? Similarly, how much is everyone going to ignore the presence of a kid (to streamline group scenes), and how much is the kid going to be sent to bed when we pick the missions? Will the kid get a vote as a character? As a player? [Without conscious effort, shielding the kid can cut the player out of the fun too.]

#13 Comment By SeeleyOne On February 13, 2013 @ 11:51 am

I have tried playing children in Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, Savage Worlds, and Mutants and Masterminds.

In Mutants and Masterminds it works the best. The results are based on character design, Power Level, and complications.

In Savage Worlds you nerf your character with a Hindrance. You get less for the value of the Hinrance than it takes away from the character (skill points and attribute points). This is not in itself a problem, but it can lead to some character creation imbalance if players want it to add up across the table. It is best if several (if not all) of the characters are also children. Some balancing can be done with giving Advances or some other math balance.

In GURPS it is suggested that you have lower stats and skills, choosing disadvantages that emulate the younger age.

In Dungeons and Dragons, it was 2nd edition when I tried it, and there were no rules that I can recall. Maybe we started off with lower stats.

The main idea across the board seems to be that you make your character with lower capabilities. That is fine and dandy at the start, but the problem in my experience comes through character advancement.

I have never seen in-game time match character growth. A character can gain a level (or itse equivalent) in a day. It becomes absurd, except for a super hero setting, to have an archmage that is old enough to be in 7th grade. Suspension of belief only lasts so long. I am not too familiar with Manga and/or Anime, but what I have noticed is that kids are awesome. So, in that context it is not an issue, but in most other genres at some point the character growth will get to an absurd degree.

This brings up some of the earlier Dungeons and Dragon edition problems (which my group ignored). Why were Humans able to reach any level in a given class when Elves are limited to 8th level and Dwarves are limited to 12th? Those races do after all live longer than Humans. If anything it seemed that the Humans would be the race with such restrictions. The rationale that I read was “game balance”. Whilt it is true that the non-human races were stacked with abilities of dubious rationale, limiting future growth seemed a backwards answer.

So in my long-winded post, I am trying to say that you have to be careful to watch for character growth in case it kills the game for you. An option might be slower growth. Another is to make larger leaps in elapsed time. It has always seemed odd to me that a 17 year old Human and a 124 year old Elf are both level 1 with the same number of skill points and capabilities. Maybe Elves are REALLY slow learners.

#14 Comment By Nojo On February 13, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

And then there are vampire PCs who were embraced as children. This can bring much hilarity as when the Victoria BC police pull over the van being driven by a seeming six year old.

#15 Comment By Keianna On February 13, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

I am playing a child (14 year old) character in a 7th sea game right now. It is working fantastically. One of the other characters has appointed himself her protector and sticks by it even when she got herself into the trouble. Both gm’s have used her curiosity as a plot device to instigate conflict. Mechanically she is built like the others just geared toward mobility over brawn. She is also a sheltered genious. She went to university and knows more about most things than most people, but has no practical experience. This game is one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of. The kid gets the group into trouble and then we have to work together to solve it.
In a fantasy setting children PC’s might not work as well, but if a player has a solid character concept I will let them run with it as a general rule. And I use child npc’s all the time. There was a wonderful little girl vampire who convinced the party to take her home and fooled them for days…

#16 Comment By randite On February 14, 2013 @ 10:15 am

I think Child PCs create an interesting dynamic either way.

That protective instinct concerning children caused a great group dynamic. The group congealing around the 13yo scrawny, savant-thief girl made for a lot of fun. We tried desperately to not only physically protect her but to shield her from the realities of our vitally important and very violent quest. It made everything we attempted much more challenging and much more fun. I have very fond memories of dad-like discussions between my naive, sheltered, and pretty-young-himself scholar and the grizzled, veteran knight as to whether all our protectiveness was actually helping her… love that stuff. This was powered by my skill-based system. Easy enough to just assign stats & skills per the concept.

I also played in a 0 Level game in a 2nd ed. AD&D. We went to the big city with noble intentions on a big adventure. Then we did the 15yo thing and joined a street gang. (Really earned that first level in Thief with the Thug Kit). Good times. That 0 level thing pretty much worked to show that we were dumb kids.

I also ran a game with a renaissance-enlightenment sort of setting in which Middle Class kids’ 16th year was one without responsibilities. It was supposed to be time for them try different careers, but most of them just did what teenagers do best, find/create shit-tons of trouble. ‘Cause there is nothing on the planet dumber than a 16 year old girl, except a 16 year old boy. I let the players have as many leisure/non-adventure skills as they wanted (needle-point, gaming, husbandry, brewing, etc) but required they take at least one. Then I also let them have one adventuring worthy skill if they wanted it and could justify it (trick-riding, fencing, etc.). It worked rather well for that society and game.

As has been discussed in other articles’ threads in a true to form medieval setting, what we consider now to be children would be considered adults. What gets defined as a kid will change from setting to setting.

#17 Comment By mcmanlypants On February 14, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

I would absolutely allow a child PC as long as they brought to the table whatever mix of interests and skills are needed in the game. I can easily imagine a high-DEX child PC playing the party’s rogue in a game of D&D and I allowed an absolutely horrifying child vampire in an ongoing Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle without a second thought because I trusted the player (she did not disappoint – yowza!).

Child PCs might push someone’s buttons the wrong way, and that’s understandable and should be respected, but they can also be a quick and poignant way to introduce real fear, pathos and empathy into the game. Lots of PCs are the orphaned last survivors of an overrun village. Letting that orphan still be a child is a way to remind one another that for the PCs this stuff counts.

#18 Pingback By Weekly Roundup: Rare D&D Art Found Edition | Roving Band of Misfits On February 18, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

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[…] is one subject he doesn’t want to explore. Along that vein, Don Mappin at Gnome Stew asks Are Children PCs Okay? Given the power dynamic combined with the risk of violence, this could be rife with dangerous […]

#20 Comment By kwixson On February 24, 2013 @ 6:38 am

I’m probably going to be the only one with an unqualified ‘yes’. Like with most questions about RPG’s I fall back on movies as a guide. In this case I’m thinking of movies with children in lead roles along side adults, like Indiana Jones. Even in the horror genre a child protagonist can be interesting, like Interview With a Vampire.

I would have a red line for player behavior as a child. If the player tried to involve the NPC in any sort of sexual interaction, that would be an immediate show stopper. Assuming though that since almost everyone would have the good sense not to try it, I would in most cases be comfortable allowing a child PC character. Having a character for whom sex as a topic is completely off the table is a good thing, because when sex comes up in games it’s almost always a distraction. That’s one thing that makes Paranoia stand out among RPG’s.

#21 Comment By Don Mappin On February 24, 2013 @ 10:36 am

@kwixson, thanks for the reply but that’s not an “unqualified ‘yes,'” as you did, in fact, put qualifiers on it (your second paragraph).

Interesting comments by all. In general child PCs push my buttons (to borrow mcmanlypants’ verbiage) in all the wrong ways. I wouldn’t particularly enjoy playing in a game with one or more child PCs and I flat-out wouldn’t allow it in a game that I run. Notable exceptions being the aforementioned Buffy or a Star Trek Ocampan.

I’m inclined to say that your viewpoint may change once you have a child of your own; I know mine did.