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Magic Backpack

Started by Codexier, September 29, 2006, 01:02:32 PM

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Hi,  I'm working on a new RPG for children, called "Magic Backpack" (at least for now).  I wanted to get your opinion on the main mechanic of this game, if any of you have the time and inclination to give it some thought.  NOTE: I'm going to apologize right off for the length of this post.  There is a question here, it just takes some time and information to get to it.

Some background:  This game is going to be for children roughly 4-8 years old, or at least that is my target right now.  I have a 5 year old and a 2 year old, so I know that kids normally play "roleplaying games" without rules at this age.  I have a couple of reasons that I want to create this though: 

1) For Didactic purposes.  When I see my kids and others playing, there is a LOT of strife between them about what they can and can't do in their imaginary worlds.  This is ok and normal, and probably somewhat necessary for a child's development in some way (though I'm not a psychologist or sociologist to speak authoritatively about that).  What I want is a game that teaches children to work together and to think about different ways to encounter and overcome challenges.

2) For Selfish purposes.  I am often pulled into these games by the kids, but as an adult, I have a very hard time letting myself go into the chaotic imaginary world that kids play in.  Everything changes within the span of minutes or seconds.  Nothing makes sense.  The loudest and most intimidating kid gets to direct a large portion of the play.

These reasons for me designing the game are important in that I want the mechanics of the game to be directed by my goals for the game.  There are very few rules for this game, in keeping with the target age group.  The main mechanic is what I am calling  "Props".

Props are physical representations of skills, attributes, classes and equipment.  Anything that would normally have a number or a stat associated with it in a normal (adult) RPG now has a Prop instead.  For equipment and weapons, this is simple.  A sword, a rope, a flagon of water.  For skills and attributes it's a little harder.  Gloves represent strength.  Boots represent speed.     Wings would represent a character that could fly (maybe a bird person, or an angel). 

The Props not only would represent the thing itself, but also skill with that thing.   So, a rope is a rope, but also skill with a rope.  You can use to to lasso an animal, climb a mountain with it, tie up a bad guy, or whatever you think of that you could use a rope to do.

Now, I know this is a long, drawn out approach to my question, but I wanted you to know what I am going for.  And here's the question:

I have come up with 2 different ways to deal with these Props, and I can't figure out which is more interesting.  I know that playtesting will help with this some, but I wanted to get some opinions on what you think works better.

The Simple Method.  In this approach each player (child) has maybe 3 props apiece which define what their character can do.  A kid who wants to make a fighter type character might take a sword, sheild and helmet.  But he's pretty limited by that, because it's not really a very violent game at all (that will be another post to discuss).  When the players encounter a challenge they have to think of some way to overcome that challenge using the props they have.  All they have to do is convince each other and the Adult running the game what they are going to use and how it will be successful.

Ex.  The players follow the road until they get to a deep chasm which blocks their way.  That is the challenge.  Now the children must look at their props and decide what they can do.  One player is playing a knight with a sword, sheild and helmet.  He says he will jump over the chasm.  He doesn't really have any props that give him extraordinary jumping ability.  The Adult says "You run to the edge of the chasm about to jump over it and realize it is way too far for even your strong knight to jump."  The next player has a gloves, a map and some food.  Not much there.  The final player has a rope, a jewel and a magic wand (with an ice symbol on it).  The last player wants to use the rope and throw it across the chasm and let everyone cross that way.  This is acceptable (though not entirely realistic, but these *are* kids).  However, another player says "Hey can you use your magic wand to make an ice bridge across the gorge?".  They agree, the Adult agrees and then tells them about the results. 

That's the kind of interaction I'm hoping for. 

The More Complex Method.  This method works somewhat similar to the first method, but uses almost a "level" approach to solving the challenges.  Each prop is color coded.  Green means the player is a novice in the use of that prop (level 1).  Blue means that he is good at the prop (level 2).  Red is the best you can get (level 3).  When a challenge comes up, it has a color as well.  Players must either use a prop of that same level of the challenge to overcome it, must use a combination of props (1 green and 1 blue prop equals a red challenge), or players have Energy Stones which they can spend to add 1 level to their prop or someone elses prop to help it meet the challenge.  This represents putting extra effort in, or teaming up ("we both grab hold of the sword and swing it at the ugly ogre").

This second method makes for more book-keeping and a more complex level of play, but it also makes it closer to normal adult RPGs.  I like both methods, though and can see the didactic value of both.  One method informs a style of play which is more creative and negoiation based.  The other is more mechanical, but makes them think about resource management (with Energy Stones) and working together to overcome obstacles.

What do you think?

Thanks so much!  What a fantastic resource The Forge seems to be!  I'm so glad I've found it.


Hi Codexier.

Don't be afraid to post long posts on this forum - browse around and you'll find that there are many long posts.

I generally like your idea. I don't like the fact that you try to organize the children's play, but that's a topic for another discussion.

There is atleast one other RPG which targets children as players - I think it's name is Shadows. Google it. It's a mystery-type of game, so your's also needed.

I would suggst that you use the lighter variant with smaller children - it's not too complex and it isn't easy to make some characters good and some outstandingly bad. You wan't it to be fair. And if they seem to like roleplaying, I would move on to the little more advanced rules, giving them a head start when they pick up a "ordinary" RPG. The lighter variant will also focus a lot more on the problem - and solving it - rather than who's character is he best.

I think you wrote somewhere - I can't find it now - that you wanted to even the social power between the loud and silent childrens - You won't do that with these rules. Thou, what I like to do is to form a problem which only the silent child can solve. If the loud kid shouts something "Use your magic rune to scare the rats!!", and the silent goes "Y-yes..", I would try to separate the characters and set the rule "No talking while not present In-Game". Or.. That might be dumb. Nah, I don't have any education in this subject. I'll leave it.

Well, my tip where to go with the light rules in the low ages, and the advanced rules in the high ages. And to set conflicts that'll make every character  equally good.
Martin Ahnelöv.


David Artman

So I'll throw out a data point and say that I favor the more advanced form of the game, for these reasons:
1) Even simple resource management will help them practice addition, sharing, and delayed gratification.
2) You will have a reward mechanism that you can use for incentives: increasing the color rank of a Prop.
3) There will be just as much negotiation, as the kids must still justify applying a Prop, regardless of the rank element.
4) In fact, as you have ranked challenges, there will be MORE creative application and negotiation, as the kids seek to combine and apply their Props in unusual ways, to meet high-rank challenges.
5) There could be "setbacks" with a ranked system: say the kids do something you would consider to be a "critical fumble" or "Bad Idea": rather than merely discourage/deny the action (like the jumping knight above), you could tell them they've suffered a setback (narrating it) and increase the challenge rank. Then, they'd have to come up with more applications of Props, to surmount the higher challenge. So in that chasm situation above, the knight IS allowed to jump... but he falls short, and is now dangling by his fingertips on the other side (increase challenge by 3 -OR- add a follow-up challenge, with its own rank).
6) You could encourage the kids to make their own Props (or to customize provided Props) by offering a +1 to its rank, if they do so. Thus, you could also stimulate artistic creativity... and, for that matter, if they come up with "cool" Props they want to make themselves, they might even give you ideas for challenges--never mind that thinking about efficacy in such a manner would be good for their brains, yes? Of course, rankless Props could also be kid-created (and wouldn't that be a good intro to character creation, in general?), but I think there would be more incentive if you could reward the creativity directly, by making the Prop higher rank than an unmodified one.

By the way, I'd make the ranks red (low), yellow (medium), and green (high) so as to accord with some other real world element--in this case, stoplights. Or, if you want a higher granularity, use the rainbow/spectrum (Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet--Indigo is too weird of a word, and too close to blue in appearance). That would allow you to have up to rank 7 6 effects and challenges, and the higher the potential challenge rank, the more you can drive cooperation and "MacGuyver" play choices--e.g. "I'll throw my rope (2) across, then use the ice wand (3) to freeze it in place; then, the fighter's strength (gloves 3) will keep it still while we walk across--total is 8, surpassing any challenge rank 8 or lower (i.e. all, in the 6 ranks system)."

Then again, now that I think of how Props would be combined (additively), it might be pointless to use color--it could be an epiphenominal layer of complexity, compared to simple numbers (which are what the colors must equate to, to use combination, right?).

Hope this helps;
Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages

Josh Roby

Hey there, Codexier, and welcome to the Forge.  Do you have a real name we can call you by?  We're sort of a real-name kind of community. ;)

In any case, my first question is whether you expect to play this at the table or out in the yard.  I think that would have a pretty profound impact on how the game is played.  Out in the yard, 'geared up' with their stuff, the kids will be a lot more expressive (and energetic), and can act out what they're doing in addition to just talking everything out.  Your silent kids can be doing stuff that doesn't involve talking, and the GM/Adult can ask them directly, "Okay, what's George doing?  You're digging?  Excellent!" to bring their contributions back into the game.

Were you to go with the "Advanced" route, which after reading David's reply I'll have to agree with, you might also add in a point for each different player that is involved, whether or not they're using a prop.  So the rope (+2), the rope-wrangler (+1), the ice wand (+1), the wizard (+1), and any other player to hold the rope still (+1) gives you, what, 6 or whatever.  But more importantly, the more people are helping, the better they'll do.  This can be a mechanical means of encouraging inclusive behavior.  For the 4-8 range, I wouldn't give any props more than a +3, and I'd keep the "target number" at ten and below.

Now, I can see that you've got adult moderation as a central feature; I'd be really curious to see if you could do this without the GM/Adult.  That would let the kids play on their own, and apply those mediation skills in their free play, rather than always needing an adult to arbitrate for them.
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Eero Tuovinen

Hi Codexier, and welcome! Your game idea looks very exciting to me, I'm designing something very similar myself. Let me go directly to your actual question: simple or complex?

I think that a bit of complexity is warranted and works well with children 5 years old and up. By "complexity" I mean, of course, resource management. It's good to have some resource that can be used when the player wants, because that's the primary method of assigning importance in rpgs; if you care about it, you spend resources to reach it. Many young children will want to use the resource all the time to succeed all the time, though, so make sure that the basic system does not require resource points to fuel it. Running out of resources should be a learning experience, not a catastrophe. (This is all from my experiences with my nephew and Fist of Dragonstones; the latter is an adult gamer bidding game which the 5-year old boy can certainly play, even if he usually loses because he is only slowly realizing that sometimes it's better to save your gold coins for later.)

Another issue to consider is qualitative vs. quantitative: while color-coding different levels of ability is nice, it's still just another way of saying that you have a +2 in your skill. This is a problem when playing with children because the whole quantitive perspective is not only difficult to master for the young ones, but also pretty dull! I suggest looking into making the differences qualitative: at first level your ability allows you to do this, at second level you can do this better thing, and so on. Make it matter.

For an example of qualitative skills, here's how my similar game-in-development, Eleanor's Dream, does it: when you first gain a prop (the game has a bit of a collecting aspect) it doesn't give any mechanical bonuses, it just allows you to try solving problems with the prop. So if it's a sword, you can use it to fight, for example. But when you get familiar with the prop (effectively "level 2"), you can use it to reroll your die when using the prop to overcome challenges (or do some other things, there's different kinds of props). When you get friendly with the prop ("level 3"), you get zany narration powers allowing you to meddle with other players using similar props. So if you were friendly with a sword, whenever anybody used a sword in the game, you'd be there to describe the sword-fight.

See how that's much more interesting and significant than just getting the same thing, but better? But it's also more complex as you have several mechanics, so it's maybe not everybody's cup of tea. I would, however, stick with either the simple option of no levels at all, or the qualitative option: having quantitative skills in a children's game seems like a pain in the ass and destructive to play; if you have a higher-colored chasm and a player with a lower-colored rope, I'd be pretty miffed as the player if my rope didn't help any with the chasm. Why am I lugging this rope around if you're just going to put in chasms that are immune to my rope? Doesn't seem like leading to interesting interactions at all, if the only reason for having levels is to have more situations of "no, you can't do that".

If you want complexity, you can get it without different levels of props by having rules for combining and trading props: have a "stock exhange" where the players can trade props for new ones, have players trade between themselves, and give out "recipes" in the game for how if you combine a sword and a hat you get boots (or whatever, doesn't have to make sense). Actually, that could be the Magic Backpack: put stuff in the magic backpack and you get new stuff in it's stead. Sounds interesting to me.

As for energy stones: I like them, and if you can include them, all the better. Could be that the Magic Backpack is powered by the energy stones. You should have an interesting and evocative method for collecting more of them, of course. Probably get them by beating challenges, I imagine. Heh, that sounds like an interesting game: props, recipes and energy stones in a simple-yet-robust relationship with one another. Include a couple of dozen ready-made encounters (with suggestions for appropriate props, recipes and energy stone awards) and advice for defining the overall quest, and you'll have something pretty playable!
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
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Your game idea sounds super-cool. I don't see why you couldn't make a game booklet with both the simple and complex variants in a single book. The mechanics aren't complex enough to make it take up more than a few pages for both, it seems.
However, what exactly are these props going to look like? Where are they going to come from?
The reason playing with props is fun is because they're a full-sized hands-on experience, but you can't slap a full-sized plastic sword, 5-10 feet of rope, a couple of wands, a shield, a map, a garden hose and what-have-you in every box for your game and still have it be cost effective.
Check out Fae Noir, a game of 1920's fantasy.


I have to say that I love the idea of having a real backpack with things in it to be the Magic backpack, and I love the idea of having real items to structure play, but I think the levels/colours idea is a pointless addition. I think the core mechanic (you have things and problems you can solve with the things) is already quite compulsive, and really promotes thought and storytelling, much like the cards in Once Upon a Time for example, you don't really need resource management on top of that.

What you do need, I would think, is something to encourage co-operation as well. Maybe there are two sorts of items, ones that each player has for themselves, which only they can use, and others that are shared in the backpack. To encourage everyone to be involved you could use some sort of tokens as well, that a player has to give to another player (or to the backpack) whenever they want to use an item from the backpack to solve something. That way as a kid does more he or she has less tokens, which shifts the focus to the kids who do have tokens left.

Alternatively you could use a more imaginative shared-storytelling approach, I see it working like this.

You get a group of kids around a table (this would be an indoor version I think) ideally around a real backpack prop. Each kid gets a prop or two for their character, they don't have to be real, a slip of paper with a name would do. You also give them some tokens, like coloured stones. You then start the story, and tell them about the first obstacle, e.g. "The brave knights stared their journey to the castle of the evil giant, but no sooner had they left the king's city and entered the forest they found their way blocked by a chasm with a terrible river at the bottom, how do you they get across?"

To find away past the obstacle one or more children must use an item, either one they already have or a new one they make up on the spot. The more imaginative the use the better it works, the more kids involved in the idea the better it works too, so using a rope to cross would be okay, but throwing down a net into the river to catch a magical fish to take them across would be far better :) If a kid needs an item that isn't one they already have then they can pull it out of the magical backpack, but they have to give up a token to do so. If they use an item they already have then they have to put it in the backpack, or pay a token to keep it ... so the knight can use his sword more than once if he wants to hang onto it.

After the obstacle is passed everyone gets to choose either (a) a stone from the backpack or (b) an item from the backpack as a reward. Thus kids who do nothing accumulate stones or items until they are bound to be able to do something later. You should also rule that no one can ever pull the same thing out of the backpack twice, once it is used in the story (and not saved with a stone) it is gone.

This game would really promote imagination, and structure, and shared storytelling, and even has some resource management in there! :)

As an aside I can't imagine my 8 year old sitting though more thatn about 5 seconds of any of this unless it had pokemon in it :)


Wow!  I'm so happy to have posted here.  You have all given me some things to think about.  I really appreciate you taking the time.  I thought I'd clarify some of the points, though this may verge a little away from my primary question, but might help make clear what I'm going for.

First, my name is Erik Battle.  Someone asked and I'm happy to go by that name.

This game is intended to be an inside, table top game.  I haven't thought much about the materials, but I see the props being printed on heavy card or maybe thin wood like a kids puzzle.  Most likely, since I don't have a publisher, it would be a PDF that you can print out the rules and props and then cut the props out.  Course it'd be neat to offer a Deluxe Chest edition with real rope and plastic sword, etc.  The initial game release would be fantasy, but if it was successful, perhaps a space version and adventure series (kinda Indiana Jones meets Dora the Explorer).

For character creation, I see the children being able to pick maybe 3 or so props from a group.  Each player's character sheet is a picture of a backpack that they put their props on.  The will earn more props as they complete challenges, some for their character and some which will help them later on (a key to a door somewhere).  I absolutely love the idea of allowing the children to create their own props.  Not sure how to handle that, but I've got to incorporate somehow.


I agree about organizing child's play, to some degree.  I'm happy to let them play however they want.  It's just when they say "Daddy, play with us!" that I'd love to have something a little less chaotic.  This idea evolved around a set of stories I've told my son and his 2 cousins.  In the stories they are the heroes and I tell it like it just happened.  They love to jump in and tell me what happens next.  It started with me telling the whole story and now they contribute or even take the lead.  I do want this to be a game, though, with goals to accomplish.

Good point about this not necessarily solving the problem of the quiet kid not being able to contribute as much.  In my head I see the Adult leading this, but I do want to make the mechanics fit this such that all kids have an equal say in how the story plays out and what they do.

One idea to resolve that I just thought about was a sort of "dealer" button and it passes around the circle of kids.  When a child has it, maybe he decides what happens the has some narrative power.  Something like that.  That's a new idea, though, so I'll have to play with it.


I like the more complex version for the same reason, because they have to deal with mathematic and logic problems.  My son hates math and I do need to reinforce the "real world" math problems he'll have to deal with later.

I had not fully decided on colors.  I went with green first, cause you call a new soldier "green".  I like the traffic light analogy though.

A number of people seem to like numbers rather than color.  I understand that, but are you thinking as an adult or a kid?  I picked colors for a couple of reasons, primarily for artistic reasons (a sword with a green gem would look cooler than a sword with a "2" on it) and because the children I've been around seem to relate to the world in a very visual rather than mathematical way.  Still, a few of you said it, so it definitely bears considering.


Good points.  Regarding no GM, they do that on their own.  :)


I do like the idea of the kids earning the energy stones.  I have that in my rough draft, but you make it more exciting than what I had.  The way I was thinking about the challenges is having either cards or just a list for the adult.  Each would descibe the challenge and then offer a few ways that it could be beat (of course they are not the only ways). 

The short description of your own game is interesting.  Would it be for a little older group of children?


I think you have a great point in that the colored props don't really add anything to this.  After reading all of the wonderful suggestions here, I think I'm leaning towards the simpler approach but still using the stones.  I'll have to think about the other suggestions you make, but they are quite interesting.

And one of the biggest things I'm trying to get away from is freaking Po-ke-mon!  Curses on the fellow that came up with that!

Again, I really want to thank you all.  I was quite worried about posting my silly idea here.  I'm so glad I've come upon such a great group of excited gamers who really think about what makes RPGs great.  I'm sure I'll have many more questions and I still would love more input if anyone cares to give.



Eero Tuovinen

Heh, you guys got me to write about my own game, which I've not done at the Forge yet.

Prop elements: puzzle-pieces seem entirely appropriate. Thick ones, such as you'd find in children's puzzles, so they don't break in little hands. Perhaps even incorporate puzzle-like forms so the pieces can be fitted together for added usability. You could even make that part of the mechanics: props that fit together somehow are "related" and give an additional bonus of the same kid has both.

The other approach is to go with activity: make the first part of play drawing of props, where players draw props for each other. You could have everybody draw whatever props they feel appropriate and trade them with other players, so you get a various and surprising mix. Also include suggestions for making more elaborate props with glue, household hobby crafts and imagination. Hopefully good game-design could create a positive reinforcement cycle between play and hobby crafts.

Which route you pick is ultimately a marketing/publishing decision, I feel. I see great benefits in both, but pretty different ones. The first one allows for a leet boxed game with a real price tag, the kind that could get into toy store shelves. The second one is cheaper, and would be sold in bookstores.

Character sheet: skip it, completely useless at this stage. Character sheets are a roleplaying dinosaur; while greatly useful (to the extent that my own game has one), one shouldn't get stuck into thinking that they are de rigueur. The whole point of having props is that you don't need a character sheet.

Playing with children: complete agreement about the experience, it's very frustrating to be a stupid and clumsy adult who doesn't know how to play. Grown too serious with age, I am. My solution has been exactly this: I teach adult games to the children that I do know how to play, with rules and all.

Quiet kids and design: I find it very positive that you recognize this as a design issue. I meet a lot of aspiring designers who insist that things like group dynamics are outside the design envelope and have to be left to the GM to sort out, or something.

How I solve the quiet kid problem: if you look at my game I refer to above, you'll note that it simply has player turns, so each player gets a turn. Further, the basic interaction is very simple, the player simply needs to indicate a preference in regards to the fiction. So if a player is feeling more active, he can buy himself some freedom, but otherwise it's perfectly OK to let the GM suggest courses of action and just pick one of them.

Numbers vs. colors: Nah, numbers are dull. If you absolutely have to have different levels (which I argued strenuously against up-thread, as we remember), the traffic lights are a much nicer and more interesting option. I'd even go as far as to say that this is pedagogically the sounder option: numbers as abstractions are useful only insofar as a person is able to connect them to practical structures, so learning those practical structures (like the three-step traffic light structure) is at least as useful as learning the numeric representation of the same thing.

Challenge cards: excellent idea. Perhaps you could draw a hand of them from a deck at the beginning of play, and then choose and play them from this hand. And if a challenge is lost, it goes back to the hand, or perhaps you get to draw two challenges on it's stead. Each challenge could also list what props or how many energy stones you get for beating it. And when the hand ends, you know it's time to wrap up the adventure.

Or, better yet: you have that hand of cards, and you always play two challenges from the hand. The players get to pick and choose which they want to face next. The unsolved ones are left on the table as the players got past them, but if a challenge is failed, they all go back to the hand. Or something like that, lots of possibilities for structuring the adventure arc.

Anyway, it's looking good to me. Just figure out simple and interesting ways of having resource management (energy stones, or just plain manage the props themselves) and some situation structuring mechanics, and it's clearly ready for playtesting. Playtest might prove that you'll need some way of getting out of challenges if props don't help in them, but you'll probably figure these details in play. Also, don't forget what I wrote about the magic backpack above, I seem to remember that it was something smart.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.