Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Five or So Questions on Amazing Tales

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Martin Lloyd on Amazing Tales, a roleplaying game that's maybe a little more approachable for the kiddos of my readers than my normal fare! Feel free to check out some of the actual plays that exist for the game and the website, and check out Martin's responses below!

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A black femme person using a keyboard and high tech tools and interfaces

Tell me a little about Amazing Tales. What excites you about it?

Amazing Tales is a role-playing game for kids aged four and up. I wrote it to play with my daughter five years ago when she was four, and introduced my son to it at about the same age. We had so much fun playing it that I wanted to get it out there so other people could do the same. My first thoughts were to do it as a simple PDF download in the style of Lady Blackbird or Lasers and Feelings. But I was lucky enough to get a sabbatical from my job, and I decided to use that time to turn it into a full fledged book. I had a huge slice of luck when Iris Maertens agreed to do the artwork, that let me create the book I always wanted to make, packed with illustrations so kids can get inspired by it, and feel like it's a book for them, even if they can't read it.

Now 8 months have passed since release and I'm loving watching what happens as the game gets out into the real world. It is a huge kick to see people sharing pictures of themselves playing their first role-playing game with their kids, or pictures of their child's first character sheet. One of my thoughts when I was writing the game is that as soon as role-players have kids they want to play role-playing games with them, but anticipate a wait of maybe ten years before they can. Amazing Tales gets that waiting period down to about four years, and that seems to be making a lot of parents very happy.

I am also delighted that Studio 2 have picked Amazing Tales up for distribution and an offset print run is happening. Amazing Tales is going to be in shops! For something that started out as a way to fill a rainy day it's come a very long way.

a fantastical scene with mushrooms, a squirrel, a fairy, and a tower in the background, all very curvy and colorful

What are the mechanics like for conflict resolution in Amazing Tales? How did you make them approachable for kids?

I chose conflict resolution rather than task resolution for Amazing Tales, so unless you deliberately want to stretch stuff out to make it dramatic or climactic everything is handled by one roll, be it flying a spaceship, making friends with a talking monkey or exchanging cannon fire with a rival pirate ship. Characters in Amazing Tales are defined by four skills, and each skill has an associated dice. Either a D6, D8, D10 or D12. To use a skill you roll the relevant dice against a target number of three. The target number never varies. The only thing that changes is the size of the dice used.

Tests have two possible results, if you succeed, you succeed. If you fail, things get worse, but they don't end. So the monster might catch you, but it won't eat you. The GM - typically the parent - never rolls dice, which means they're never playing 'against' their child.

I picked three as a target number because kids like succeeding, and I picked conflict rather than task resolution because it keeps the story moving. Watch how much stuff happens in the first two minutes of a kids' cartoon show, that's the attention span kids have. And that's the kind of storytelling pace Amazing Tales aspires to. Tell some story, pose a challenge, choose an action, roll the dice, resolve and repeat.

What I've just described is a very very simple system and that simplicity is the key to making a game approachable for kids. I firmly believe that anyone's enjoyment of a game increases when they know what they're doing. We've all played games where we didn't know the rules, someone told us to roll some dice, modified the result for reasons we couldn't follow and then told us what happened. That sucks when you're an adult, and it definitely sucks when you're four. So Amazing Tales can be boiled down to 'roll the dice for the thing you're trying to do, if the result is three or more you succeeded'. Four year olds can understand that, they can repeat it back to you, or explain it to their grandparents and their friends.

In the early days of playing Amazing Tales I tried things like modifying the target number; providing magic items that gave +1 bonuses; or requiring multiple successes for difficult tasks, but I quickly realised that it made no difference to how much fun the kids were having. Young kids don't understand probability, so why bring in things like modifiers? The only reasons for having different dice sizes for different skills are that one; kids love rolling dice, two; they like dice with interesting shapes and three; role-player parents can't wait to introduce their kids to polyhedrals. To adults it's clear that changing the dice size changes the odds, but that's not why they're there.

I have been pleasantly surprised by how happy older kids have been with these very simple rules. In my mind Amazing Tales was a game for kids aged about four to eight. In practice it turns out to be a game for kids aged between 3 and a half and ten. Seeing how well Amazing Tales works has also convinced me that most games for adults are unnecessarily complex.

A pirate on a ship with another ship in a distance, with an octopus on their arm that is holding a bottle

How did you approach providing a fictional background for the game that is welcoming to a diverse audience of children?

First off, Amazing Tales is absolutely a game for everyone. Iris and I worked hard to make sure that whatever your kid's background there should be someone in the artwork that your they can recognise as relating to them. I don't know if we nailed that, but it matters to us and we'll keep trying in future projects.

The other way to look at this question is to think about what kids want in a game beyond a confirmation that it's for them. Young kids don't have the same breadth of cultural references to draw on that grown ups do. So when I was thinking about the settings to include in the book I tried to pick things that small kids would be familiar with from a very young age. I ended up with four settings, the Deep Dark Wood (think talking animals and fairies), Magical Kingdoms Long Ago (think King Arthur), The Pirate Seas (pirates) and Adventures Beyond the Stars (space). I thought about doing super-heroes, but left it out because my kids knew the names of super heroes, but had no idea what kind of stories they might appear in. In retrospect I think that was a mistake, there are plenty of kids out there playing Amazing Tales as super-heroes.

The settings themselves are quite vague. They're really collections of prompts and ideas to get parents and kids making up worlds together. It's up to you whether the deep dark wood is full of monsters or full of friendly animals, but the setting gives you a jumping off point to get started. What's important is that parent and child can start from a shared idea of a wood, fairies that are small, have wings and can do magic, and animals that can talk. The settings include suggested skills, suggested plots and lots of ideas for parents to work with and artwork to inspire the kids. From there it's up to the parents to work with their child to create something that will work for both of them.

I also wanted to write a game where that made good on role-playing games' key promise - that you can be anything and do anything. That's one of the reasons there's a picture of King Tyrannosneak in the book even though he doesn't fit in any of the settings. He's a character my son came up with when he was five. He's a giant robot t-rex, with four arms, which he needs because he has two swords and two shields. He's also a ninja. When you tell kids their characters can be anything they want they take you at your word, and Amazing Tales supports that.

A winged archer in a sparkling wood

How did you play-test the game to make sure kids could understand it? Were there any specific experiences you had that you learned from?

Making sure kids could understand it wasn't the hard part. Kids seem to get the game very quickly indeed. The character generation section includes a quick script - a list of questions to ask your child to walk them through the process. By the end of that kids are usually completely into the game, and it only takes a few minutes.

I was more concerned about making the game easy for parents to understand. I'd love non-gamer parents to consider Amazing Tales as something for their kids, so I tried to get as much advice for first time gamers and first time GMs into the book as I could. It's also why I shot some actual play videos, just so people can see how it's done. Amazing Tales also suggests that you don't do much (or any) preparation for a game, it works well if you just improvise as you go. That's a challenge for parents who haven't done any kind of improvisational story telling before, so again I tried to pack in the advice.

A few experiences from play-tests do stand out though. One was with a friend of my daughter, a lovely five year old girl who elected to play a princess. At the first sign of trouble she announced 'I stab it in the face with my dagger', which was both fair enough, and rather jarring. Kids, it turns out, come out with this kind of thing all the time. This led to my including a section in the book on non bloodthirsty ways of resolving combats. I'm not a fan of my kids describing graphic violence, so I try to keep lethal encounters to a minimum when I run games. There are plenty of other ways to have fights end, with enemies running away, surrendering, begging for mercy, bursting into tears and so on. Evil robots, animated shadows, skeletons, those kinds of things are also great for heroes to fight their way through without having to worry too much about the morality of the situation.

Another thing that stands out happened when I was testing out the space setting. I had vaguely assumed that kids who want to play aliens would want some kind of star-trek kind of alien, a humanoid, with weird coloured skin and one or two distinguishing features. But no. At least in the test games I ran kids who played aliens launched into a competition to be the weirdest, most out there alien they could be. Tentacles galore, mouths on their feet, dozens of eyes...

And one last thing I noticed across a lot of the play-tests was that kids often like to copy each other's characters. They'll want to be the same kind of hero, then they'll pick the same skills, describe their characters in the same way and so on. It's doesn't create a problem the way having a party of three wizards would in D&D, it's just what they like to do. 

A t-rex with two shields and two swords and armor in a desert wasteland
King Tyrannosneak!
I love King Tyrannosneak! As a designer, what are the important parts of those kind of imagined characters that you see across the age range - what do you see when people get to be creative with your game that you treasure knowing about? 

I love that kids get to live out their fantasies, and that they get to do it at an age before their fantasies have been neatly organised into recognisable tropes by mass media. I can see in my own kids that as they consume more media their characters start to reflect that. My son loved Reepicheep in the Narnia books, and suddenly he's playing a Pirate Mouse. But before that starts to happen kids come up with the most incredible stuff, hang glider piloting gnomes with poisonous noses, pirates with laser eyes and pet tigers, that kind of thing. A few years back my kids came up with a pair of knights/super heroes called 'Key-man' and 'Crasher Girl'. Key-man had a sword which fired keys at things, which was obviously a useful weapon but also instantly unlocked doors. Crasher Girl was just great at crashing through things, I think she had rocket boots too.

So I hope that one of the things kids will get out of playing Amazing Tales is the idea that they can create new stuff and colour outside the lines.

Not that there's anything wrong with more derivative characters. I know of a little girl who's out there fighting the Clone Wars with a character who's skills are 'being a queen', 'shooting blasters', 'knowing things' and 'piloting spaceships'. I loved hearing about her, because her idea of being a queen involves saving the galaxy with laser guns, brains and charisma, which sounds like a good thing to learn when you're growing up.

The last thing, and perhaps the thing that makes me happiest is all the stories from people who've found playing games with their kids to be a fulfilling experience. Because Amazing Tales puts most of the cognitive load on the parent everyone playing is really engaged. Anyone who's tried to spend lots of time with small children knows how tedious it can get. They can play snakes and ladders twenty times in a row, they don't get bored of the same (very short) story book again and again, and they value your attention so highly that getting you to read that book again is the most important thing in their world. Amazing Tales is different because it makes the parents do some brain work, and then it becomes a real joint activity. I think kids can tell when their parents are really engaged, and I think parents find that rewarding too. So seeing all these parents find a new activity that they can do with their kids that they both genuinely enjoy - that's been great.

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Awesome, thanks so much Martin for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Amazing Tales on DriveThru!
 

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