RPGs came about in a time when so many things didn’t exist: pre-World of Warcraft, pre-HBO-Game of Thrones, and pre-internet. In those early days, players sat down and let their imaginations provide the imagery, the sounds, and the story. All you needed was some paper and a pencil (often the GM was the only person who had dice) and some friends and you were in business. Early RPGs were a shared secret that we geeks enjoyed (secret until the media got wind of it, that is, and put its sensationalistic spin on our hobby), and it allowed us time together to fly the nerd flag proudly because we were saving the world… or maybe just a small village under attack by goblins.
These days, being a geek/nerd doesn’t necessarily come with all the negative baggage. Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is sci-fi and Game of Thrones is fantasy, but many non-geek viewers are happy to ignore these facts and enjoyed them for the story and characters. Geeks and non-geeks anxiously await the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe releases. And let’s not even try to tackle the effect Harry Potter has had on the world.
The fact is… it’s cool to be a geek. (Of course, it’s still standard procedure for people, old and young, to make fun of geeks even if they conveniently forget that last night they watched the latest episode of [fill in obviously-geek show of your choice here].) And one of the absolute coolest geek merit badges you can pin to your backpack or briefcase is the one called RPG. Back in the day, most RPGs were fantasy themed, with a few science fiction ones available. Today, just about any genre you can imagine probably can be found in an RPG form, and that means there’s no excuse to not try your hand at playing one (assuming you’ve never played one before).
This site being GeekDad.com, we typically write about geek-related things for adult males with children (most of our staff are dads), but RPGs are for moms… and grandparents… and teachers… you get the idea. RPGs can be enjoyed by everyone. And that also means… kids. If you’re a parent or legal guardian or after-school club leader or whatever… and you’ve never played an RPG, let alone played one with kids, let me offer you some thoughts on why you might want to gather these young players around a table and get them playing.
RPGs build reading, writing, and public speaking skills
This one is so obvious that I almost considered leaving it out, but on the off chance there are some parents or teachers out there who are wondering if RPGs truly offer any benefits, this would be a big one that cannot be ignored. I can’t cite any studies other than personal experience—in 6th grade, I was reading the Player’s Handbook, the DM’s Guide, and the Monster Manual cover to cover. I was reading issues of Dragon magazine cover to cover. I was reading fantasy and science fiction books that were definitely ahead of my grade level. I was already a decent reader, but once I discovered RPGs (particularly D&D), there was no shortage of reading.
When it comes to writing and speaking, I think those of us who play RPGs can easily understand why writing and speaking skills are put to the test. Try explaining (pleading?) to your GM how you’re going to sneak past the guards or why you think climbing 30 feet over the dragon’s head and jumping down on its back will work. When your GM asks you to provide a short background on your character, many players will spend hours pondering the history and motivations before putting it down on paper. Young DMs (and I speak from experience) will spend hours and hours writing up room descriptions and NPC (non-player characters) backgrounds and how this trap works and why that wizard turned evil.
Are better reading, writing, and speaking skills guaranteed by playing RPGs? Nope. But they probably aren’t hindered or ruined. And in this day and age with all the distractions of YouTube and video games, if playing an RPG can get our kids away from the screens for a few hours a week, and reading and writing and talking in front of peers and even strangers… that’s something parents and teachers should be considering.
RPGs build social skills and teamwork skills
Along with reading, writing, and speaking skills, RPGs typically force players to work together as a team. The social aspect of tabletop gaming is well known; whether with friends or strangers, gaming tends to bring out the nicer side of people, and laughing and joking around is just part of the experience, and young gamers will find that bad behavior and disrespect are frowned upon and can get you in trouble. There is no doubt that gaming is a social experience, and RPGs offer young players a chance to sit, face-to-face, with friends and strangers, an experience that online video games does not provide. Trash talk may be possible, but it’s harder to stare at someone across a table and say things that you might otherwise get away with over a microphone and the anonymity of a screen name.
While traditional tabletop games have been one winner and multiple losers, the growth in popularity of collaboration-style games where everyone wins or loses seems to reinforce the idea that games bring people together. Players often enjoy working as a team, and RPGs are no exception. A shared goal, shared risks… young players will find no end to the opportunities to work as a team to overcome obstacles and save the day. And again, it doesn’t matter if it’s with friends or strangers, RPGs force young gamers to talk, to bargain, and to ultimately work together in a civil manner, especially if the players are enjoying the game and wish to continue to play. Good behavior and respect seem to go hand-in-hand in RPGs when players are enjoying themselves.
RPGs use the creativity “muscle”
I think many adults would agree that creativity just seems to come naturally to kids. It’s to be encouraged, whether in music or art or any other hobby or skill that a student chooses to pursue. Sometimes, however, creativity seems to be stifled, either from peer pressure or from rules that tell a kid that something must be done a certain way because… well… that’s just the way it is done.
Kids express their creativity and individuality in all sorts of ways—typically with their clothes, their hair, or their favorite music. At some point, however, the social groups (especially in school) that our kids encounter begin to exert influence. And it’s usually not positive. Kids learn what society thinks is cool… what is not cool… and they often curb their interests to avoid ridicule.
With RPGs, young players are forced into situations that they probably don’t ordinarily face. I think it’s a safe bet that none of us have had to defend our homes from an ogre attack. But sitting at a table playing an RPG, we have to get creative when it comes to problem solving. And here’s the thing—kids are GOOD at it. A GM can toss all sorts of obstacles at the young players, and they’ll easily come up with half a dozen possible ways out of a problem. And because RPGs are set in a fictional world, it’s often difficult to argue with a unique and crazy solution.
And here’s the thing—creativity is stressed for both players and DM/GMs. In both roles, young players often enjoy digging deep into their creativity and coming up with off-the-wall actions and unusual descriptions. RPGs encourage this; it’s really a requirement, if you think about it.
RPGs allow bad decisions without real risks
We do our best as parents to teach our kids to make smart decisions. We put a lot of rules on them, many to keep them safe when we think they are incapable of spotting a risky situation or activity on their own. But we’re also told to let kids make mistakes. But some mistakes are too costly to make, even with the life lesson they bring. We don’t want our children learning the hard way about the risks of drinking and driving, for example.
But with RPGs, about the only real risk in a roleplaying game is the loss of a favorite character… or the loss of a fellow gamer’s character. Many bad decisions will be fictional, of course, but that doesn’t mean the consequences will be any less real to the player who has invested time into developing an in-game character. One of the things that many RPG players learn in time is to listen… to watch… to ask questions… and then take action. Those players who run into rooms without first listening at the door? They’ll be the first to feel the wrath of a room full of ogres. Smart players learn to make smart decisions, and hopefully this practice will carry over into real life.
But bad decisions will be made. And a roleplaying game is the perfect place for kids to have the full mantle of responsibility put on their shoulders. Parents and other adults can step back and let these young players make mistakes, perform questionable actions, and take extreme risks… and know that the end results will only affect the health of a fictional hero.
RPGs increase focus and concentration
I don’t have any evidence to support this claim other than having watched my own children and other kids play RPGs. I’ve watched them listen intently to the DM/GM’s descriptions of a dungeon room or the insides of a spaceship hangar bay. I’ve seen them dig deep into a player’s manual, eyes squinting as they hunt down that elusive rule or scour a particular spell description to determine if it can save the day.
When my boys play videogames, I can stand beside them and ask a question three times; they won’t hear me. They are so tuned into the game that they have tuned out the world. This is good and bad. I know they can concentrate, but they focus at the expense of being fully aware of what’s going on around them. With RPGs, I believe the focus/concentration is not as strong, meaning that while an RPG can help a child learn to center their attention on a particular moment in the game, they’re not so engrossed that they aren’t aware of their fellow players or the actions going on around them. I could be wrong, but I don’t see the same extremes in concentration that I do with video games.
There’s one difference that I can speak to when comparing video games to RPGs. With RPGs, you’re at a table with your fellow players—no headphone, no microphone—and the actions are not constrained to a television screen. You have to learn to listen to your DM/GM, your fellow players, and you have a map or terrain on the table, someone rolling dice to your left and right, and your own character sheet in front of you. There IS concentration here, but I don’t believe it’s ever so intense that a young player isn’t also capable of quickly shifting attention to another player or even to a parent yelling down into the basement that it’s time for dinner.
RPGs offers kids a chance to safely express empathy and mercy
Kids have a tough time in their social circles. Kindness to others is often something that is made fun of when displayed where kids congregate. It’s easy to pick on the underdog when your peers are watching; it’s hard to stand by the underdog’s side and show compassion.
This is one that’s taken me a while to notice, but it’s definitely there; RPG players, especially young players, will often find times during gameplay to forgive, to show mercy, to sympathize with a person or creature that may not be the most deserving. I think of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and how he was both a despicable character and one that managed to inspire pity. RPGs give players a chance to do things that are unexpected, and this often plays out in ways the GM cannot predict. And players often do this without worry of how their fellow players will react.
Players in RPGs know that there are times when the evil-looking creature is just that: evil-looking. But not evil-acting. RPGs allow young players (and really ALL players) to feel sympathy and show mercy to see if they get a positive result without risk of ridicule.
RPGs offers kids a chance to be strong and brave
RPGs are fictional games. Anything can happen. And this allows players, young and old, a chance to try out actions they might not normally get to do in real life. You’ll frequently see at a gaming table a normal, introverted person playing the brave warrior and running into danger without hesitation. I personally know a player who who makes hard decisions every day at his job, that is always leading meetings and having to be the group leader. When he played at my table, he played a quiet wizard who stayed in the shadows and examined and listened to everything.
The stereotypical RPG-playing kid of the ’70s and ’80s was never the football quarterback or the star on the track and field. He or she was often the quiet student or the one who is marginalized in school. The outcast. But put them at a table playing a dwarf barbarian or an elven wizard and they were saving lives, defeating dragons, and making discoveries that historians would write about and bards would sing songs.
I don’t know if this holds true today, but I imagine there are still a significant number of kids who don’t get a chance to shine all that often. These are the kids who should be playing RPGs. But the days of RPGs being just for “the nerds” is over.
RPGs offer control at a time when kids normally don’t have it
We put all sorts of rules on our kids and force them to do things they’d rather not do. Bed time. Homework. Flu shot. Home by 9. No YouTube. The list goes on. Of course, many of the rules and limitations we put on our children are for their safety and health whether they understand the dangers or not. But the fact remains that kids often have very little control over their day-to-day lives. As adults, many of us have forgotten just how fenced-in our lives felt as kids, with few decisions other than maybe where we want to eat or what to wear to school.
RPGs have no fences. A good improvisational GM can allow young players to do all sorts of craziness (whether it kills the character or not), and adults watching kids play RPGs will often be shocked at how the kids let loose. I try not to limit my younger players, and when it comes to kids at my table I try to be as supportive of their proposed actions as I can, including praising unique solutions.
As parents and teachers, we need to understand that RPGs put no limits on a child’s creativity, and that means no limits in a game, too. Of course, adults should be careful to monitor exactly what young players are hearing and saying and doing in game, but as long as the game’s content is not questionable to the participants and their parents, the sky’s the limit should be the rule of the day, and the young players should be given an opportunity to take risks and maybe break some rules/laws that won’t have consequences in the REAL world—stealing gold from a dragon, however, is never recommended.
BONUS REASON FOR EVERYONE TO PLAY: RPGs will continue to thrive
RPGs have a long history, and I hope that they continue to grow and expand. But without players, an RPG is dead in the water. And if young gamers aren’t introduced to this different style of gaming, we (current RPG players) run the risk of seeing our hobby die slowly as we get older. I can’t imagine I’ll stop playing RPGs anytime in the future, but at some point… I won’t be around any longer. And based on what I usually see at the local gaming stores, the average age of RPG players has to be in the 40s. (There are some players in their 20s, a bunch in their 30s, but most of them are 40+… this makes sense as that’s about the age of pre-Internet gamers.)
Again, I don’t have any official statistics to go on, but I’d have to guess that most RPG players are 40+ years in age, have a family and job, and play one to four times a month with a regular group. I suspect that there’s not a lot of new blood being introduced to the RPG hobby. And we’ve got to change that.
Local game stores need to find a way to encourage young players to come in and try an RPG. This could mean creating a specific day or night or weekend and actively alerting schools and parents (How? I’m open to ideas! Post a comment below!) to the events. The events need to be kid/family-friendly—and this should be enforced! No foul language, DM/GMs vetted and checked out to make sure they understand the rules and boundaries for a game, maybe free pizza and drinks for players. Giveaways and prizes for those who invite friends? Training sessions for young DM/GMs?
I love RPGs, and that’s never going to change. I have such fond memories of playing them as a kid, and I still enjoy playing them as an adult. I want my hobby to survive, and I imagine my fellow RPGers do, too. For this reason, we NEED kids playing RPGs.
Below are some additional articles I’ve written related to RPGs and their history:
A Little History with Your D&D
Review – Of Dice & Men by Dave Ewalt
Review – Dungeons & Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland
Review – Empire of Imagination by Mike Witwer
Fantasy RPG 2D Terrain – Past & Present
My Gaming Nostalgia Shelf
Before D&D, There Was Chainmail
Chainmail vs. 5th Edition D&D
The Original Metamorphosis Alpha is Back
Gaming Flashback: Top Secret
Gaming Flashback: Car Wars
Where One Particular RPG Boldly Went (review of Star Trek: RPG, 1981)