Roleplaying with kids, part two: The System

Earlier in the year I wrote about roleplaying with kids. My plan then was to run a Middle Earth-set game with a larger group, although that didn’t pan out – mostly for reasons of my own poor planning. With the busy schedule we somehow seem to have fallen into, I didn’t play again with even my own kids until last week.

I talked to my boys about having another roleplaying session when we were on a hike, and they wanted to play again but just not with superheroes.  What they wanted to play was an Animal Agents game, à la Agent P in Phineas and Ferb*.

The Agency

Agents F, G and R observe goings on in the marshmallow factory gift shop

Agents F, G and R observe goings on in the marshmallow factory gift shop

Agent P is platypus who works for the Organisation Without a Cool Acronym (aka O.W.C.A.) and foils the deranged plans of Dr Heinz Doofenshmirtz. Agent P’s cover identity is Perry the Platypus, the family pet of Phineas and Ferb. The dichotomy between Perry and Agent P is that his owners do not know of the agenting, and his capabilities as Agent P are far in excess of his humdrum existence as Perry.

Clearly there is scope for other agents and other villains to defeat.

System

There are game systems around targetted at kids. Fuzzy Heroes, for example, is based around the idea of stuffed toys protecting all that is good and fuzzy against the depredations of the Renegade Boy Toys. Another good option would be Toon, the cartoon roleplaying game.

I chose not to use either of those though, since I wanted to build my own setting and use mechanics that could be extended into more sophisticated play as my boys grow.

I like Savage Worlds: it is a flexible system with a lot of options to tweak mechanics. I therefore decided to design a simplified version of the system.

  • attributes – Savage Worlds characters have five primary attributes: Strength, Smarts, Spirit, Agility and Vigo(u)r. In this game I’ve cut it to just Strength, Smarts and Agility. There are also secondary attributes including Pace, Charisma, Toughness and Parry. I cut these down to just Pace and Defense (combining Toughness and Parry)
  • skills – there are 24 base skills in Savage Worlds. This is actually on the low end for this kind of game: Call of Cthulhu has dozens of skills, RuneQuest has yet more. Still, that’s too many for a game aimed at young kids. I trimmed those skills down as follows:
    • Knowledge rolls can all be treated as Smarts
    • we only need one Fighting skill, as opposed to separate skills for Fighting in melée, Shooting, and Throwing**
    • vehicular skills are inappropriate, so ditch Drive, Pilot, etc. I added in a “Machines” skill instead, which will also work instead of a Repair skill
    • we only need one Persuade skill
    • Climb, Swim and other feats of prowess become Strength checks
    • replace Stealth, Lockpick and other such “underhand” skills with “Sneakiness”

    In the end, there are seven skills in this version: Fight, Heal, Investigate, Machines, Notice, Persuade and Sneakiness.

  • Hindrances – chose to just not use these
  • Edges – bestow them selectively to satisfy character concept
  • Damage – Savage Worlds uses separate tracks for wounds and fatigue, but there doesn’t seem to be much value in that for a kid game. I replaced both with a single Hurt track
  • combat – actually didn’t change much here. Savage Worlds uses dealt cards for initiative, which is fun and accessible, and players get chips to spend on rerolls if they don’t like a result. The boys grokked that pretty quickly.

The one question I had after this was how to model the amazing things that the agents can do, and then it struck me: treat them as superpowers. The superpower mechanics used in the Superpower Companion are simpler to play than the ones in the core rules so I used those, bestowing powers in the same way I did for edges.

Characters

We’d already discussed the characters they wanted to play, so I made up characters with baseline attributes and skills, then assigned edges and powers which would give them the special abilities we’d talked about.

This is an area where it’s all about GM judgement, balancing the abilities of the characters so that they are more or less equivalent. So, I just said that Fred the Python was an Acrobat and had the power of Leaping, while also saying that George the Scorpion had partial immunity to kinetic energy so that he could avoid dying if someone stomped on him. I limited the number of abilities to two – that is, one edge and one power or a couple of powers.

This will be more of a challenge to manage as the characters advance, but I am not going to worry about that for now.

When we sat down to play, the first part of the session was getting the boys to assign points to their attributes and skills. I drew up some labelled grids and then gave them poker chips to spread around – four chips for the attributes, and ten chips for the skills. This is a bit more generous than for the core game, where you start with five points amongst the five attributes and fifteen points to spread across your 24+ skills.

That’s the game system summarised. Next time I’ll talk about how the game went.

[*] which is a Disney cartoon, but one which is accessible and even enjoyable for adults.

[**] combat skills are where the more sophisticated games go to town: Call of Cthulhu has separate skills for Rifle, Shotgun, Handgun, Sword, Axe, Club, Knife, and so on; RuneQuest has separate skills for different kinds of sword and shield.

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