Shadows and BURPS: RPGs With Kids!

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Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Gather your family at the table with paper, pencils, and dice.

First tell them to draw a quick picture of themselves—stick figures are fine. On the same paper, they should draw their shadow: the person, monster, or alter-ego that is longing to get them in trouble, to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences. Then assign one die (different colors) to each of these drawings. Finally, say to your family, “You are asleep in the house. Suddenly you wake up to a strange sound.” And so the Shadows game begins.

This is one of the simplest role-playing games around, which makes it great for kids. And perfect for adults who are interested in RPGs, but don’t know where to begin. Shadows, by Zak Arntson, is a group storytelling game with a fun twist. Whenever the leader of the group asks about a move, the player has to answer twice—what they want to do in a situation, and what their shadow wants to do. The decision is made by dice.

My children and I have played the Shadows game many times, and this was the game I chose when I did an “Intro to RPG” event at my local homeschooling group. I wanted a game with a short prep time, so we could jump right into the action. Experienced gamers really, really enjoy character creation, spending weeks on stats and backstories. But with kids, they just want to play.

There are many systems out there (feel free to comment below with your favorite) that are quick on the start-up. Risus by S. John Ross is one I like. It has enough structure to satisfy kids who want more than Shadows, but with a twenty second character creation, there’s no waiting. My favorite part of Risus is how characters are defined by cliches. You can make up your own or be inspired by their example list:
Gambler: Betting, cheating, winning, running very fast.
Computer Geek: Hacking, programming, fumbling over introductions.

My kids enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, so one afternoon I took out Risus, a list of Greek gods, and a list of Greek monsters. I told the kids they were demi-gods, and monsters were ravaging our downtown. They grabbed their dice, picked whom their powerful parent was, wrote down a cliché or two, and we were off on an exciting adventure.

Now perhaps you are an experienced gamer and want to bring your geeklings into the fold of serious RPGs. There are also many systems that allow for expansive character creation and detailed worlds (again, list your favorites below.) Anything with the PDQ# system by Chad Underkoffler is creative and easy to run. I once ran a long campaign with my kids and their friends in the Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies world with great success.

My husband did a few one-shot Dungeons and Dragons games with the kids when they were younger. But he made their simple character stats for them, “I want to be a really cool warrior with a big sword!” I had asked if he ever wanted to run a family game, but he remembers the amount of time it took to create a satisfying game week after week for his friends way back when. So that was a “no.”

My personal introduction into RPGs is a system called GURPS (generic universal role playing system). However, I will never read all those books for the GM (game master). Luckily, there’s this handy-dandy version called GURPS LITE. It’s perfect for playing with kids, and I used it for a short series with my own kids a few years back. The character sheets were still too unwieldy, so I wrote up my own called BURPS (beginner universal role playing system). Please feel free to grab it for your own game.

Not enough suggestions? Go here. Spend an afternoon on an adventure with your children using your collective imagination and the clattering of dice.

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14 thoughts on “Shadows and BURPS: RPGs With Kids!

  1. One of the reasons I *had* kids was to play D&D with them. (Well, not really, but it was a significant fringe benefit.) With my oldest turning 12, I thought the moment had arrived and bought D&D 3.5 for the family for Christmas last year. I’ve been so incredibly disappointed.

    I played old-school second edition rules as a kid, followed by AD&D, and I find the 3.5 rules unwieldy and overly complex. It’s as if the writers took every “house rule” every player ever invented and made it part of the official rules.

    I’m searching eBay these days for a decent, cheap second edition set. Or even an old AD&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

  2. If your kids are computer savvy (and whose geek kids aren’t), consider Lord of the Rings Online which recently went Free-to-play. You would, of course, have to turn off some chat windows depending on the maturity level of your kids, but character creation is fun and [relatively] easy. Our kids are a bit young still, but we can’t wait til we can roll our own 5-man team 🙂

  3. I never played it but I’ve heard of something similar to Shadows I think was called “Sketch” where every one draws there character and the other players assign attributes for the drawing. So a stick figure would have a very low Str score but high Dex for example. Also anything you could fit in to the drawing was fair game as far as equipment goes, and if you didn’t draw it you had to get it in game otherwise. I miss running/playing Mage games (The old series I do not care for the WoD reboot)

  4. Thanks a lot, Rebecca! I have to wait a few years for my son being old enough to play, but I enjoy by anticipation! I’ll have to check French kids-friendly RPGs, too.

  5. One way we had success with RPG’s was integrating legos into the gameplay so they had something they could customize and visualize. At first they created a lego guy who was them (including helmets, capes, weapons, etc). When we started – we used a simplified character sheet that was essentially based on their lego guy (it was dnd but a drastically simplified version). As things have progressed I will put nuances into the stories and I am amazed on how they pick up on those things or how creative they can be when solving problems.

  6. If you are going to with the props route, consider the Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men — pair it with some FRED ninja cookie cutters, or gingerdead cookies, for extra fun.

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