[Faery's Tale+Universalis] Playing with 5 year olds and GM burnout

Started by jdfristrom, July 04, 2010, 08:22:06 AM

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My daughter has been gaming with me even before she turned 4 - Warhammer Quest (hey, it's easy, you move up to 4 spaces and attack), a little collaborative storytelling, sometimes with stripped down Universalis rules, sometimes more freeform (a particularly good one:  http://fatherjamie.blogspot.com/2010/06/collaborative-bedtime-story.html), and just recently I discovered Faery's Tale, designed specifically for kids. 

Maybe kids a tad older than mine, though - the very first time we rolled dice to resolve a conflict she was unhappy.  The rules suggest going diceless with this age, and so we do.  In my laziness, we play through all the canned adventures it comes with, and any I can find on the internet, and some of my only nods to being what I think of as a good GM are that instead of introducing new characters with the successive adventures I reuse the old;  I give the NPC's relationships to Cat the Pixie, the PC;  I usually give her a choice of which adventure to play ("Do you want to go look for the missing faerie or do you want to help the frog prince?");  and I don't force her choices.  "What do you want to do?  Do you want to help the frog prince?"  "No," she says.  "I want to do something else."  Or - my favorite - "It looks like the evil fake prince is going to marry the princess and one day become king!  What do you do?"  "My birthday is coming up so I want to get ready for the birthday party.  I get out papers and start making invitations."  The 'birthday' adventure ended up being one of her favorites.  So, ok, these stories aren't going exactly the way I want, which is fine, right - being a GM is a service, if your players aren't happy then you can't be GM anymore - and I should be loving life, right, I get to play RPG's with my kid.

And yet - I've created a monster.  She wants to play every waking minute.  When I say "I've got nothing prepared" she says "Let's just make it up as we go along".  And I'm feeling something I haven't felt since I ran a Warhammer RPG campaign some fifteen years ago - I didn't even realize there was a name for it until I started browsing the intertubes about being bored as a GM - "GM burnout".  But none of the advice seems to fit my situation;  a lot of GM burnout is due to unenthusiastic players.  I've never had a player as enthusiastic as my daughter!  Even when I completely phone it in ("Ok, we'll play.  What do you want to do?  Ok, you do it.  What next?  Ok, you do that too.") she doesn't seem to notice.  They suggest taking a break.  I'd love to, but...that look of hurt on her face, the incessant "why can't we play?"  Start over with a different game:  no, man, she's all about the Faery's Tale now.  Have someone else GM:  yeah, right, though I did suggest it as a joke.  "Why don't you GM and I'll play?"  She actually tried to read the rulebook at that point before declaring it Too Hard.

Then serendipity happened.  As I'm looking over websites trying to find some way to recharge my fun-meter, telling her, "Sorry, I don't have anything prepared."  She says, "Why don't we mix up the other adventures together?"  I say, "Like, what do you mean, there's a beanstalk and a haunted castle and a frog prince?"  She says, "Yeah, I want to go up a beanstalk to a haunted castle filled with ghosts and zombies and swords and axes and the ghosts go boo."  And I'm thinking, yes, this is what I've been looking for, let's get her making the story and it'll be like playing Primetime Adventures or something.  (Not that I've ever played PTA.)  Anyhow, no prep, and the story won't be something almost completely out of my head, sounds like a win.  So now I'm acting more like editor than GM, "Another beanstalk?  How about something else?"  "A spiral staircase?" she asks.

And we're off.  She's framing scenes, and I start adopting rules from Universalis as we go.  Before I know it, we're not playing Faery's Tale anymore, we're playing Universalis with her Faery's Tale characters drifted over.  She's bidding for scenes, she's buying traits, and for some reason she's not afraid of the dice anymore - we used to be able to use dice when there were no stakes in the conflict (the faeries are playing hide-and-seek, who wins?) - but now we're using them to resolve important stuff - her cat companion frozen by ice magic, something that previously might have reduced her to tears, she took in stride.  Maybe partly the way Universalis works is to thank here, it being pretty easy to undo damage by spending coins.  (The spell wears off.  Clink.)  And I'm having fun again!  The story goes places I don't expect - turns out that haunted castle in the clouds was protecting an ancient artifact, the Zahir (I pulled that from the list of names in In A Wicked Age) - we don't know what it is yet, but it shouldn't fall into the hands of evil - then, turns out that Morgan, the evil witch from our previous adventures, was the one who created that staircase in the first place.  She was tricking the fairies into disarming the traps for her, so she could sweep in and get the Zahir for herself.  Morgan, after having her previous plot foiled and being found out by the king of the land, has taken to riding a hut around the forest like Baba Yaga.  We do end up in the GM - player relationship again, with Sofi controlling all the protagonists, but now for some reason it's fun for me.  So - the evil witch Morgan has made it into the room with the Zahir (still don't know what it is yet - my daughter paid a coin to say it was wrapped up) - and rather than sending her fairies in after Morgan, my daughter says the traps get Morgan...I show her how to use the complication rules to create a trap and have it get Morgan, and it does.  A pit with a vacuum-like wind that sucks Morgan in and magically makes her as small as a faerie.  Nice.

Morgan does manage to recover, summoning her bat familiar to lower some string so she can climb out of the pit and ride the bat to the Zahir, which turns out to be a vampire-werewolf that's been magically asleep - she wakes the Zahir by giving it her blood and swears it to her service, and now the faeries are really in trouble.  They try to outfly the Zahir as it charges along the clouds towards them and it uses its ability to dispel magic to take away their flying.  Looks like they're in trouble, but then Burclover the sprite, a character from a previous adventure we never found the sheet for, flies in on a hawk and rescues them.  Seems like the evil witch wins this round.  My daughter now hates Morgan more than any other story villain we can think of except Voldemort - he's a tie, and I realize I've played most of the day with her without being overcome by exhaustion - she wasn't the only one who wanted to know what happened next.

So what's my point, other than my daughter is awesome?  I have a few:

I'm wondering if I've happened across a miracle cure for GM burnout when your players are still enthusiastic:  change the system without changing the campaign.  That system you've been dying to play.  If Universalis had existed 15 years ago, I bet I could have talked the gang into giving it a try, keeping their old characters and world.  (I also bet I *couldn't* talk one of the (crunchy gamist) groups I play with these days into it, but I'm not the GM there so not my problem.)

If you play with kids and want to bring some dice into it, you can do it gradually by introducing them at first with no stakes, followed by real stakes and a safety net. 

If you play with kids and want to bring some player authorship into it, give Universalis a shot, they might surprise you.

And, some random other nuts & bolts:

Some gimmicks we used with Universalis:

Events and facts are free, but we use d6's for complications so you earn less (1-3 per win).  Loser gets 1 coin per 2 dice, round up.  It's been ages since I've played Universalis with adults;  I think I'd play this way even with adults these days, to make it more fluid like more recent storytelling games.

I have an "inspiration deck" which is just a bunch of flash cards with archetypes written on them.  Neither my daughter nor I had an idea for what the Zahir actually was.  The inspiration deck said "Blood" and "Wolf".  When the faeries were trapped by the Zahir and Morgan at the edge of the cloud, we were similarly stumped, and she wanted to try the inspiration deck.  She drew a few inapplicable things before we got "Hawk" - "A hawk flies down," she said.

You can spend 1 coin to give a component to another player:  I used this so I could get the party of faeries together and execute complications against them as a group. 

Characters have their own essence pools.  1 essence is = 1 coin;  this allows me to balance magic in a way Faerie's Tale never bothered.

Don't take your daughter's characters away from her.  I didn't try it, but I'm sure it would have caused tears.

Migrating Faerie's Tale to Universalis:
- subtract 2 from each stat.  So Body 3 becomes "Athletic", Body 4, "Athletic x2", Body 1 "Unathletic"
- gifts go over verbatim (in Faery's Tale, they typically add two dice, but we only added one)
- essence pool gimmick.
You're done.

(Hmm, you could do it with D&D, except it would provoke a bloody revolt by your players:  use the stat bonus or penalty as the xN, divide level by...something, feats go over verbatim, skills...I don't know...someone else must have done this somewhere.)

And that was my first post to the forge.  What do you think?


I've never played Faery's Tale or Universalis, but your post did prompt me to winder if you own the card game Once Upon a Time?

Those cards work great for randomly generating fairy tale plots.  You and your daughter could deal out a few cards to determine either

  • an initial problem her character has heard about or been asked to deal with, or
  • daily rumors that will eventually accumulate and help you create a "sandbox" setting.


I haven't - I'll check it out - thanks!

(And jeez, I somehow didn't realize how long that post was.  Sorry to those who sat through it.)