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Experience playing Shadows with young children

Started by sdm, May 03, 2007, 04:09:46 AM

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On Sunday I played Shadows with two of my daughters for the first time.  They're four and six years old.  I've had some limited D&D 3.5 play time with the six-year-old and her two older sisters (ages 9 and 11), but find it hard to hold their interest over two or three consecutive sessions at a time.  We play a few times then stop for several months.  I suspect that much of the problem is my inexperience and inflexibility as a GM and some of the problem is the complex mechanics which slow the story down to a crawl.

My daughters have always loved for me to tell them stories at bed time – whether auto-biographical or make-believe.  So I decided to search for a game that would appeal more to the children's sense of adventure and story rather than detailed game mechanics.  Through this search I found Shadows by Zak Arntson
and felt that it would serve me well for several reasons: simple mechanics, emphasis on story, choices that don't have to feel threatening, and very portable (i.e. travel, bed-time, camping).

I read the rules to Shadows on Saturday night and on Sunday I was baby-sitting the 4 & 6 year-olds in the nursery after church while my wife attended a brief meeting.  I decided to try a Shadows session while we waited.

Even though the rules to Shadows are very simple I simplified them further because of time, resources (no dice or paper), and experience constraints.  I was holding my sleeping one-year-old and didn't have any dice so I decided to handle Shadow Rolls by mentally choosing either "zero" or "one" and then having one of my daughters try to correctly guess which number I was thinking.  If she guessed correctly the story took the branch that she wanted; otherwise I narrated what the shadow wanted.  (For this first session I (the GM) decided what "the Shadow wants to happen" rather than allowing the players to decide.  I thought this would make the game easier for my 4 year-old, but I was wrong – more on this later.)  I didn't use the tokens as prescribed in the rules either, since I didn't have much time or any items to use as tokens.

I started the game with my daughters "asleep in their bed at home."  They awoke to a deep, humming, mechanical sound.  I decided to have an alien craft hovering over the houses of our neighborhood and abducting people as the conflict of the story.

I was surprised at how easy it was to explain the game to my daughters and get playing.  I was also surprised at how quickly the girls became immersed in their roles.  They acted out their parts and spoke "in character" without me having to encourage them.  For example, the four-year-old did a great job of "peeping outside through the window-blinds."  The six-year-old mimicked dialing 911 and held a conversation with the 911 operator.

I found that I had to guide the four-year-old's "what do you want to happen" responses since her most common answer was "if it's a bad-guy, I get my sword and kill it."  I might guide her answer by asking, "OK, how about if you start by finding your sword under the bed?" and she would say, "OK".

On one occasion the four-year-old looked like she might cry (literally) when I called for a Shadow Roll.  She said, "No.  I don't want the shadow to win."  She was scared.  I had to reassure her that everything would work out alright even if the Shadow got its way.  Later, she said her legs were shaking and she didn't know why.

The few times I've GMed in the past "I" had set the plot and I found that I kept wanting to control the story this time too.  With time I found that my daughters had clever ideas that I wouldn't have ever dreamed up and I enjoyed this twist.  Even though my daughters were playing "themselves" one said she'd "use her sword".  I was about to tell her that she didn't have a "real" sword in our "real house", but then I decided this was more her game than mine.  I expected my six-year-old to be heroic but instead she ran to the telephone and dialed 911 – a truly brilliant idea!  At an intense moment when the alien light-beam was about to abduct the six-year-old her sister interrupted and said, "I'm going to push a button on the remote control that makes us invisible!" and she succeeded.

All of us enjoyed the game and look forward to playing again.  My four-year-old said that the next time we play she wants to be a princess and there "won't be any bad guys."  Apparently I need to find a way to make the game a little less intense for her.

The next time we play I'll do a few things differently.

(1)   I'll give my daughters more say in what they want to happen for themselves and what the Shadow wants.  I think this will make the story more creative and also make the outcomes a little less intense (scary) for my four-year-old since she'll be in control of what the Shadow wants.
(2)   I want to try the full rule-set of Shadows.  I'll work with my daughters to create the "social contract" so I know what they expect out of the game.  I think we'll all enjoy the hand-drawn pictures and I think the dice rolling and token usage will add to the game analytically as the girls will have to weigh choices about a limited resource (the tokens).

I can't wait to introduce this game the next time we have fun-loving adults over for an evening.  It will be a crack-up.

Cool game!  The next time we travel and my children ask "Are we there yet?"  I'll ask them "do you want to be?" and if they say "yes", I'll ask, "What does your Shadow want?"


Here is the detailed transcript as I remember it:

GM: You wake-up to a deep humming sound <I attempt to make a low mechanical humming sound>.  Pale green lights shine on the blinds of your bedroom window.  FourYrOld, what do you want to do?

FourYrOld: I'm going to be brave in this game.  If it's a bad guy I want to get a sword and kill it. <She swings her arm in the air as if she has a sword>

GM: OK.  Would you like to go to the window and look through the blinds to see what it is first?

FourYrOld: Yes.

GM: SixYrOld, what do you want to do?

SixYrOld: I don't want to do anything, I'm scared.

FourYrOld: She's always a chicken.

GM: SixYrOld, what would you do if you really saw those lights and heard that sound?

SixYrOld : I'd call 911.

GM: OK.  Good idea.

GM: FourYrOld, you get to the window, but your eyes haven't adjusted to the light and you can't see anything in the green light yet.  <FourYrOld pretends to be peeking between the blinds.>

GM: SixYrOld, make a Shadow Roll.

SixYrOld : Oh, no.

<SixYrOld gets what she wants from the roll.  If the shadow had won I would have made the phone be dead with static.>

<SixYrOld pretends to pick up a phone and dial 911.>

GM (as 911 operator): This is the emergency operator.  How can I help you?

SixYrOld : Uh... there's green lights outside my window and a noise.

GM (as 911 operator): OK.  Is this a joke?

SixYrOld : No.  Really, there's some weird lights and noises outside.

GM (as 911 operator): Is your address 888 Main Street?

SixYrOld : Yes.

GM (as 911 operator): I'll send a police car over to check it out.

SixYrOld : Thanks.  <hangs up>

GM: FourYrOld, your eyes have adjusted to the light now and you see a large metal disc as big as three houses hovering up in the air.  Greenish lights circle around the outer edge of the disc.

SixYrOld: It's aliens!  FourYrOld, it's aliens!

GM: The disc floats over our neighbor's house across the street.  A pale beam of light shines down from the disc onto the house and the roof shatters.  Seconds later our neighbors are rising in the air within the light beam into the disc.

<FourYrOld pretends to run back to talk with SixYrOld> SixYrOld, it is aliens! 

GM: SixYrOld, what do you want to do now?

SixYrOld: I'm going to call 911 again.

GM: Make a Shadow Roll.

<SixYrOld gets what she wants from the roll again.  If the shadow had won I would have made the phone be dead with static.>

<SixYrOld pretends to pick up a phone and dial 911.>

GM (as 911 operator): This is the emergency operator.  How can I help you?

SixYrOld: It's me again.  I called before about the lights.  It's aliens.  My sister saw their space ship.

GM (as 911 operator): OK.  A policeman is already on his way there.  I've had several strange calls tonight...  Anyway, the policeman will know what to do.  Good-bye. <hangs up>

GM: FourYrOld, what do you want to do?

FourYrOld: I'll get my sword and go outside to kill the space ship.

GM: You mean your play sword?

FourYrOld: No, a real one.

<I considered saying "we're playing like our real house", but decided I shouldn't interfere with her fun.>

GM: How about if you start by getting a sword from under the bed and running outside to face the aliens?

FourYrOld: OK.

GM: Make a shadow roll.

FourYrOld: No.  I don't want the shadow to win. <Tears welled up in her eyes.>

GM: It's just part of the game – you'll be alright, I promise.

<FourYrOld's shadow wins the roll.  She has a look of fear which concerns me a little bit>

GM: You grab your sword from under the bed, run to the front door, and throw it open.  The metal disc begins to float toward our house.  Just then a police car drives onto the street and shines a spot light up at the disc.  From the disc a much larger light shines down on the police car and the car begins to rise into the air.

FourYrOld: Daddy... I don't know why... my legs are shaking.

GM: Are you scared?

FourYrOld: I don't know.  My legs are just shaking.

GM: OK.  SixYrOld, what do you want to do now?

SixYrOld: I don't know... Oh yeah, I'll wake up mommy and daddy.

GM: Make a Shadow Roll.

<SixYrOld gets what she wants from the roll yet again.>

<SixYrOld pretends to shake me>

SixYrOld: Daddy! Mommy! There are aliens outside!

GM (as daddy): <In a groggy voice and rubbing my eyes...>  What?  SixYrOld did you have a bad dream?

SixYrOld: No.  There are real aliens outside.  Look at the  window.  Don't you hear that sound?

GM (as daddy): Sounds like a diesel truck idling outside the house...  What's going on?

GM: Suddenly the roof disappears above our heads.  A light shines down on the bed and mommy and daddy begin to rise into the air waving our arms and kicking our legs.
Mother shouts, "SixYrOld, stay in the shadows.  Stay out of this light.  Get away and help FourYrOld, then find a way to save us."

GM: FourYrOld, a long metallic arm reaches down from the disc toward you.  What do you want to do?

FourYrOld: Chop it with my sword.

GM: Make a Shadow Roll.

FourYrOld: Daddy I don't want the Shadow to win again.  <Once again almost in tears>

GM: It'll be alright.

<Unfortunately, FourYrOld's shadow wins the roll again.>

GM: As the metallic arm reaches for you, you swing hard with your sword, but the sword shatters as it strikes the hard metal arm... But the arm draws back as if in pain.  <I had to do something to relieve her fear.>

GM: The light is moving toward SixYrOld now.

FourYrOld <interrupts>: I'm going to push a button on the remote control that makes us invisible!  <She's really into it>

GM: OK.  Make a Shadow Roll.

<Finally, FourYrOld gets what she wants.>

GM: Suddenly, you and SixYrOld become invisible.

<At this point my wife returned from her meeting and we had to leave. >


Hey, sdm, welcome to the Forge!

First, do you have a name I can call you by? Or maybe at least some vowels to add?  :)

Second, great post! In a couple of weeks I'm going to play Faery's Tale with my niece and nephew, who are six (almost seven) and four-and-a-half, respectively. I've been wondering what sorts of issues might arise, and you've definitely given me some stuff to watch for. Their dad (my younger brother) and probably their mom will also be playing, so that should help, in that they can look to them for support while I'm the focus of any conflict.

Two observations:

1. It seemed your four year-old actually overcame her fear/excitement (whatever it was making her legs shake) even though she "failed" the roll and her sword broke. I think it's fabulous that she then just jumped right back in with the invisibility button idea; a lot of adult gamers would've been stymied, or just kept trying to violently end the situation. Also, I think you made the right choice about the sword in the first place---younger kids especially have a pretty hazy boundary between "real" and "pretend" anyhow, if my three-and-a-half year-old is any meter. Plus, isn't the world just that much more interesting if you can pull a sword out from under your bed or use the invisibility button on the remote?

2. Isn't it crazy that, just from your short description of the saucers, that they knew it was aliens? Pop culture runs deep and strong...

Lastly, I think you're right on about letting them in on what the Shadow wants; it seems to me to be a key point of any game aimed at younger kids: let them have a say in the stakes of conflict.



Kesher, thanks for the feedback.

You can call me Steve, or you can call me Soodoom, or you can call me Saeidouym, but you doesn't have to call me sdm.  OK how about Steve?

I hope you'll have as much fun with your nephew and niece as I had with my daughters.  It's funny to see how they role-play: In reality my 6 year old is a "live wire", but in the role-play she acts tentatively and cautiously; my 4 year old is "sugar and spice and everything nice", but role-plays with courage and gusto.

I love that the role-playing games allow me to interact and play with my children in a creative and fun way for both of us.  Even though playing dolls is perhaps a form of role-play it's hard for me to enjoy it for very long - I have to force myself to do it.  With the role-playing I hope to spend time with them in a way that we both enjoy.  My primary goal is to spend time together but I also see it as a chance to help pass on some values as well.

Regarding your first observation about "grabbing a sword from under the bed" and "the invisibility button on the remote" I found that giving more control to the children made the game more fun for both of us.  They were much more creative than I could have been.

On the second observation I also noticed that they immediately shouted "aliens!"  I'll admit I went with something very common and cliche, but I thought they would perhaps have to "discover" what the disc was in X-files fashion -- no way!  They immediately "knew" it was aliens :)


Cool actual play. I love reading about parents playing RPGs with their kids. I have a five-year-old son, and we've played a few random games at great intervals; they've always been a success, but we've never used any published systems.

Arturo G.

Hi, Steve!

Very nice play! I like it a lot.

I have had a look to the rules of Shadows and the first thing that kept my attention was exactly that the GM asks for rolls, but the rules say that the player decides both, what she and her shadow wants. There is nice advise about helping the player to decide if necessary, but not to interfere with her, and specially avoid to force her in a direction the GM wants. As far as I understood the rules, you create the opposition during the narration and by selecting the moments for asking for a roll. Normally, you do not need to say anything about what the shadow of a player wants.

I'm sure that if you follow that advice everything will run smoothly and your children will be able to tune the game to the appropriate level without noticing.

About adding the tokens. Be sure they understand early in the game what are you (as GM) going to do with them (create bad opposition). For example, at the beginning, return the tokens they invest to them quickly, in low level conflicts, to make them understand the power they put in your hands when using the tokens. Then you may slowly increase the tension of the moments you are using them, or begin to safe them until the players get rid of tokens and feel the consequences.

Thanks to share your actual play with us.


A quick thing about the dice rolls:
With dice, the player gets their way on ties also, which means that a player's chances are better than 50/50. It's a minor difference, but worth noting when you have a chance to play using dice.

Using tokens:
Tokens, IIRC, can be used by any player to make the rolling player reroll the die of choice. That's important, because it means a player can help another player who has their Shadow die as the highest die, if they wish.

(Given that you're playing with your two daughters, that could make for some interesting dynamics: Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Unity? Hmm...)

What the Shadow wants:
If it helps, let any player offer suggestions, but only the throwing player gets to choose what happens if the Shadow die comes up highest.

I'm glad you got to try the game out. I have a huge amount of admiration for that design. Not only is it great with kids, but it is really a good "training wheels" game for adult gamers learning to play games with Stake Setting/outcome mechanics.

I look forward to hearing more if you get another session in soon.
Robert Earley-Clark

currently developing:The Village Game:Family storytelling with toys

Arturo G.

Quote from: komradebob on May 07, 2007, 06:56:27 PM
Using tokens:
Tokens, IIRC, can be used by any player to make the rolling player reroll the die of choice. That's important, because it means a player can help another player who has their Shadow die as the highest die, if they wish.

I was failing to get this. It is even more interesting for me now.
For a moment, I was tempted to think that it means you have the possibility of using the tokens to work for, or against, the interests of another player. But I think it is better. You may use the tokens to promote one of the ideas introduced by the other player. The one you like most. But both has been introduced by the other player. All of them being valuable investment.
One of the invested ideas is going to be lost, but players may use the tokens to select which one they find more interesting at a given moment.