RPGs for Kids: “Castle Death” Revisited

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Last year, I wrote a short series of posts about a dead simple roleplaying game I played with my son Nico. I thought I should revisit it and add more meat to the concept.

The Game

Based on the first RPG system I created when I was my son’s age, Castle Death is a simple game with 4 mechanics and 4 GMing principles. Its implied setting borrows heavily from fantasy tropes. It plays best as a one on one, but I have played variations of it with 3-4 players when I was a tweenager and it worked fine.

Rules

  1. Take an index card and write your character’s name and equipment.
  2. Whenever you wish to perform a task whose outcome is uncertain, Roll a d6. On a 6 you succeed with great success, on a 1 you fail horribly. All intermediate  results are interpreted based on the ongoing story.
  3. Roll a d6 whenever you actively explore a new element of Castle Death. On a 1, it spells a LOT of (not lethal) trouble for the PC. On a 6 something REALLY positive is discovered.
  4. Set aside blank index cards and label a few of them “Truths” to write all story elements that come up during play that might be relevant later in the game.

GMing Principles

  1. Use an enclosed area to set the adventure but consider it an outline rather than a set piece.
  2. Always describe the world as one filled with dangers, wonders and colorful characters.
  3. Let the dice guide the story, not dictate it.
  4. Low rolls spell trouble and hardships, high rolls spell amazing success and discoveries.

And that’s all there is to it.

The Characters

Given the sheer simplicity of the game’s mechanics, you want the players to focus on who they are (the name) and what they carry (the equipment). If your players have some experience with fantasy games, they might want to jot down the character’s class, race, and possibly even some attributes. Go with the flow. None of those require additional mechanics but should affect how players run thier characters and what they can do.

For example, if Luke makes a serpent-man Ninja of the Invisible Fang clan, chances are the actions he attempts will be far different than Rosie’s tough-as-nails Sand Elf Warrior-Queen. If the game features more than one player, the choice of class and race should also provide you with a guide as to who is best suited to perform some tasks and you should encourage such players to take the lead when trying to resolve obstacles and situations within their area of expertise.

Additionally, by adding a few layers of flavor (races, classes, titles, clans) you manage to create a richer setting before you start describing the first scene.

So encourage players to go wild. The only advice I’d give is to try to nudge some of the more enterprising players away from omnipotent character types. It’s fine to have little Thorling and Hulkettes, but be wary of mighty wizard kings that can willfully destroy the multiverse with the roll of a 6. Then again, I would LOVE to play with a crafty 6 y.o. because I would go to town whenever a ‘1’ was rolled.

With great power…

Running the Game

To those who have played Apocalypse/Dungeon World, Castle Death could be considered a Lite version of that. What I mean by this is that this is a game where the GM plays no dice and focuses on 2 things:

  • Describe the environment and the consequences of the players actions.
  • Manage the dramatic beats of the game based on the chain of successes and failures of players.

I may expand on this in a later post if I see demand for it.

While simple on its surface, Castle Death has three core elements that may be a challenge to some GM more used to classic, structured games.

The Players

Your players are likely going to be children unconcerned with the concept of realism and simulation. They’ll fire ideas and actions at a rhythm you may have a hard time to follow. For instance, my son is rather Cartesian and is well-versed in what is expected to happen in a heroic fantasy story. I can expect his action to fit within a certain predictable pattern that allows me to spin a more classical yarn. On the other hand, my daughter has a far different take on what roleplaying should achieve. She will jump in, assume that fantasy characters can do the most outlandish things, and steal from every story she has ever read, seen or heard. It takes all my experience as a GM to stifle my inner judge and say yes to her enthusiastic descriptions.

You must be ready to react to whatever kids throw at you in ways that will surprise them or lead them to make interesting choices. Whenever they want to do something that has a significant chance of going awry, ask them to roll a d6 (the LOVE doing that). If you have a hard time coming up with a way to interpret a result, ask them.

“Okay, so you try to hook the chandelier’s chain to the sleeping minotaur’s nose-ring. You rolled a 2, what bad things do YOU things is going to happen to you now?”

You’ll be surprised at how creative your players will be to create trouble for themselves.

The Setting

The second element to take into account is the complete lack of setting. While I called the game Castle Death based on the dungeon I played with my son, you can set the action anywhere and at any time. I recall playing a modern-era game when I was 10 where I explored a cursed train. The “dungeon” was linear but my friend made each wagon more mysterious and bizarre than the previous one. We had a blast, I must have died 5 times!

At its most basic expression, Castle Death is played with a near-blank piece of graph paper that you fill as your players explore. You make rooms on the spot, filling it with your pick of features, characters, monsters, traps and treasures. The idea is to come up with very different situations and challenges from room to room. If this is the type of things that makes you uneasy, you should consider drawing your dungeon in advance or take a pre-drawn map from your favorite RPG source book.  I mention a few options in this post.

While the game has almost no setting, it has a deceptively powerful mechanic to back world building: The Truths cards. Whenever a player declares a detail that you find interesting and (mostly) plausible, add it to the cards. When a player makes a declarative sentence, or when something you rolled for gives you an idea that leads to something worth remembering, you should note it on the cards.

Over time, the stack of cards will become a collection of one liners that you may decide to expand upon. This is especially true if your players grow beyond the game’s simplicity but would like to keep playing in the same “world.”

Making Failure Interesting

The third challenge comes from determining what constitutes an interesting success and, more importantly, an interesting failure. In a game that has no hit points or any ways of tracking trouble and complications, it’s easy to be at a loss when someone rolls a 1 or a 2 when they pull on a rope sticking out of a wall. Since the game has so few mechanics, everything from tone to the level of grit and lethality depends on how you interpret these rolls.

For example, at it’s most basic (i.e. when I played that game when I was 10) we only rolled for combat and results meant this:

1: Your character is dead, lose all treasure and go back to the start of the dungeon.

2: Man you took a beating. You will die if you roll 3 or less on the next roll.

3: You’re kinda hurt, I guess you can take 2 more hits like that before dying, we’ll see.

4: Monster is scratched, it’s angry now, roll again. Better make it a high roll.

5: Oh, the monster is real hurt now. Was it scratched before? If it was, you killed it! Hurray!

6: You spatter the monster’s guts all over the place. Oh, you were using a spoon? Well, it explodes all the same.

I may be using some artistic licenses here.

The way I would run it today I would do something like:

Chatty’s Castle Death Resolution Interpretation Chart and Examples

1: Something terrible happen to the player, something that will invariably need to be addressed before the adventure goes further.

Examples: Near fatal wound, a debilitating curse, caught in a gruesome trap, wand of Fiery Death explodes in middle of party, a neutral NPC attacks.

2: Significant trouble has hit the proverbial fan. The story is impacted but the trouble can be dealt with some effort or possibly ignored for a short time.

Ex: Moderate wounds (broken bones or significant bleeding), annoying tricks and traps that restrain or block movement, damaged or lost equipment, a neutral NPC becomes hostile.

3: Trivial trouble which flavors the story and may influence later events.

Ex: Sprained muscles, eerie sounds reverberating throughout the dungeon, the war cry of goblins on the PC’s trail, a neutral NPC becomes annoyed.

4: Minor success, the character gets the minimum positive result for what was attempted.

Ex: PC inflicts a minor wound,  a minor Truth is established in the setting, an obstacle is cleared but at a cost.

5: Significant Success, the outcome is as good as expected without any surprises.

Ex: PC inflicts a serious wound, a neutral NPC becomes friendly, a hostile NPC is willing to parlay, an obstacle is cleared without cost.

6: Perfect success! The outcome is perfect and may come with a bonus reward.

Ex: A monster is taken out of combat, clearing an obstacle reveals a secret reward (treasure, Truth, secret), a hostile NPC becomes friendly.

One of my favorite ways to make failure interesting is to give the player who rolled a failure a choice: they get to either fail outright at whatever they attempted or they succeed at a cost. You don’t reveal the cost, they must choose, but they know the cost will be relative to the level the roll failed by.

So for instance, on a 1, you might kill a monster, but you would suffer a lethal wound. On a roll of 2, the Ogre King might order your execution, unless you accept to undertake a gruesome quest for him. On a roll of 3, you might evade a pit trap as it opens under you, but drop your torch in it. And so on.

Whatever approach to failure you take, be aware of the level of maturity of your players and what you believe they would prefer. My children were raised on making significant choices to get out of trouble in story games, so I refrain from Old School deaths and story dead ends. Your themes and tones should adapt to your players.

That’s pretty much it.

Let me know if you play the game and how it turns out for you. Send me question via email, I would love to do follow up posts about it. On my side, I plan to play with my kids soon.

Thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. Great idea! My 11-yr-old son has expressed some interest in RPGs, beginning with the first time I let him play Arkham Horror with me. But alas, I gave up that sort of gaming many years ago, around the time he was born. I still have dice, though. You never can tell when those will come in handy (actually I use a couple of 10-siders to indicate monster- and outskirt-limits during AH).

    I think the next time we have a couple of hours of free time (perhaps on a Sunday afternoon) we might give this a shot. I haven’t GM’d in over a decade, but the good thing is he’d never know if I’m a sucky GM.

    My 8-yr-old daughter also acts interested in this kind of gaming. This could be a really fun family adventure! It’ll be interesting to see how she (who really likes chess, Carcassonne and Stratego) and he (who really enjoys Betrayal at House on the Hill, Clue and Minecraft) will play off one another in a genuine roleplaying scenario.

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll let you know how it goes!

  2. Sweet!
    “I may expand on this in a later post if I see demand for it.” Of course there is demand !

    My daughters are too young even for Advanced Fighting Fantasy (which is my new favourite game btw) because at 5 and 3 they can’t really count. But the 5 y.o. keeps asking about that “Donjons et Dragons” thing I mentioned to her once so this summer we ran a game based on your previous Castle Death posts and called “Peluches contre Fantômes”. They loved it ! I handled combat with opposed rolls and hit points, but in retrospect I should not have bothered : your simple system for wounds is better.

    I didn’t use the Table Of Truths because I didn’t think the girls would come up with enough interesting details of their own. I was completely wrong. So next time I will just play Castle Death the way it is written and tell you how It went.

    Thanks a lot!

  3. My kids had a blast playing “Castle Death” last weekend. I let my 11-year-old son choose the setting and he opted for future earth sometime after alien contact. Turned out to be a lot of fun, but I learned that sometimes it’s a challenge to GM for kids with no preconceived notions regarding the conventions of traditional roleplaying. When I thought I was setting him up toward a certain path he would, without fail, choose a completely and infuriatingly unexpected course of action.

    Me: “As you enter your apartment, expecting to thank your buddy for house-sitting while you were away on your Mars mission, your intergalactic space-dog, Fuji, comes from the other room to greet you. He has left a trail of red footprints behind him, and his muzzle appears to be covered in blood.”
    Him: “Aw. I’ll get out my first aid kit to fix him up.”
    Me: “O…K… Uh, he’s unhurt.”
    Him: “Give him a hug and wipe his mouth off.”
    Me: “Um, alright. OK, he starts barking repeatedly and turning around in a circle. He walks toward the way he came from for a few steps, then comes back and barks at you again.”
    Him: “Aw, he wants to play. I’ll find his ball.”
    Me: ” He starts barking really loud at you, and he’s not interested in the ball. His RED FOOTPRINTS from the OTHER ROOM are really getting muddled on the floor now. You still haven’t seen YOUR FRIEND who was house-sitting.”
    Him: “Uhhh…”
    Me: “It’s like Lassie…? When he wants someone to follow him to the well that Timmy fell down…?”
    Him: “I’ll follow Fuji and see what he wants.”
    Me: (Sigh) “You follow Fuji to your bedroom, where you find your friend lying face down in a puddle of blood. The knife in his back is stabbed through a handwritten note. You’re not sure if he’s alive.”
    Him: “I want to read the note.”
    Me: “Are you sure? You’re NOT SURE IF HE’S DEAD or not…”
    Him: “Pull the knife out so I don’t rip the paper, and read what the note says.” … Rolls a 1.
    Me: “OK, you pull the knife out and blood starts squirting everywhere like a fountain. It’s all over the place. He wasn’t dead before, but you didn’t know that because you thought it was more important to read the paper stuck to his back than to check his pulse or see if he was breathing. Now he’s bleeding to death and there’s nothing you can do. Oh, and as you’re kneeling there over his body with the murder weapon in one hand and a carefully unripped but very bloody note which says, ‘He failed to deliver. You’re next. RF.’ in the other, you hear the police squad cars approaching from all directions, converging on the front of your apartment building.

    I swear to Buck Rogers, that’s how the entire game went. Wrench after wrench after wrench thrown into the works. We ended up having to call time after an hour or so because it took almost that long for me to keep re-planning how to bring the two characters together. My daughter was playing as well.

    But since then they’ve both asked about resuming the adventure. We’ve got quite a world of TRUTHS building up now, and I’m looking forward to giving it another go now that they have the basic idea.

    Thanks for your post!

Trackbacks

  1. […] only is Chatty DM’s Castle Death a way cooler rpg than any of the ones I designed as a kid, it’s designed to accommodate the […]

  2. […] the new games category, we have Castle Death, which describes a neat little system for gaming with kids. Also over at Critical Hits, the Chatty […]