I’ve been playing some RPGs with the kids (6 and 9), and the game that we’ve so far had some of the most fun with is Amazing Tales. What I appreciate most about it is how open-ended and flexible it is, especially compared to other kids RPGs we’ve tried.
The rules are simple. So simple, in fact, that I need to be careful not to give them all away! The PDF itself is only $5.95 on DriveThruRPG, though, and it’s well worth it for the setting and storytelling ideas. Go buy it.
Amazing Tales is not tactical or strategic in any way, and might not even fit into stricter definitions of “game” and instead land in the softer category of “activity.” It describes itself as a “story-making game,” and I think that’s very apt. It’s a technique for you and one or two children to tell a story together.
You play by, as the adult, describing what’s going on. When it comes time for one of the kids’ characters to make a choice or solve a problem, you just ask, “what do you do?” There are dice involved, but they’re really there to be an objective1 way to make things go in an unexpected direction — never more than a 1⁄3 chance — which is just often enough to add excitement to the story but not so much that they get frustrated by repeated failure.
To make a character, all you need is for the kid to describe four things that that person or animal or whatever is good at. My daughter (9) has a sort of forest urchin who’s good at parkour, sneaking, figuring things out, and training magical animals. My son (6) has been role playing Pokémon, who are good at things like chomping, flying, and being adorable2.
I like how this gives the kid clear ownership over their character. Compared to other games, they 100% dictate who their hero is and what they can do. It’s been so neat to see them create characters, come up with backstories, and tell me about their lives and world. Naturally, it’s part of my job as a storyteller to give them scenarios that require those skills that are so interesting to them. And my son really just likes being able to play as Pokémon.
My kids like to have companions and pets, which are easy enough to accommodate: you either have an ability like training or communication with the companion, or you just directly include things the companion can do in the set of abilities.
We’ve even introduced a tiny bit of game-to-game inventory, because getting stuff at the end of an adventure is fun. It works in naturally, though, by expanding how they can use their existing skills. Having a shield3 doesn’t mean my daughter’s character starts blocking blows in combat, but it does mean she can go surfing down a mountain on it, owing to her sweet parkour skills.
Playing a Scenario
Amazing Tales actually recommends that you don’t think too far ahead with the story before you start. The story is supposed to be a collaboration with the kids, so you need to leave things open ended so that their choices can make a real difference.
This is very different from, say, Storm Hollow, which requires planning out an explicit beginning, middle, and end, including mechanically what the characters will have to do to advance the story at each stage. I appreciated that strict structure at first when I was learning how to write a scenario, but it meant that I had to put in an hour or so of work ahead of time to be ready for when they were interested in playing. It also became frustrating when the way I wanted to take the story didn’t fit in with the game’s pattern.
Keeping things open ended means that I can more easily accommodate when my kids want to just go somewhere else. My daughter likes to play what I will generously describe as chaotic neutral characters, but the scenario books that come with kid RPGs generally don’t have an answer for when the so-called hero fires a bow at the creature they were asked to rescue, or when they decide to just walk away and leave the partygoers to deal with the rampaging T-rex on their own.
Amazing Tales has much lower stakes, and telling a story mostly off-the-cuff is something I’m enjoying getting better at. I try to have a bit of an idea of where I want it to go or what twists could be involved, but it’s nowhere near the level of planning I feel like other games require. Moment-to-moment it’s “what can I put in their way to challenge them?” and then, when they succeed or fail, “how can I describe what happened in a way that makes them laugh?”.
The rulebook actually gives the great storytelling advice: “Remember that they haven’t seen all the clichés yet – so you can use them!” What makes the story interesting and fun is that it’s us telling it with characters the kids have created. If it seems to incorporate all of the tropes? They won’t notice.
Having Fun Together
Amazing Tales is a game that we can just decide to play some evening, and it will take between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on our stamina. Sometimes they’re in the mood to be really inventive, and we can go with that, and sometimes they just want to solve problems the first way that comes to mind and I accept that.
I love watching my daughter expand the world on her own, sketching her character and drawing a map. It’s great to see my son jumping around as he explains how the Pokémon are using their abilities to get through whatever barrier has come up.
Have you had any good experiences playing RPGs with elementary school–age children? Let me know on Twitter: @fionawhim
- “Objective” here meaning it’s not me the storyteller saying, “nope, I decide you failed that.”↩
- This was used as a successful distraction that allowed my daughter to knife some assailants in the back.↩
- Which she got off a corpse. Which she made.↩
- To be fair, this may be more of a mismatch between the scenarios that the game’s creators wrote to get started and problems that my kids were interested in solving. But it’s worth noting that Amazing Tales helps you more easily make stories that are directly tailored to what you kids like.↩