Let's Play...a Child!
I was recently chatting with a friend of mine about different and unique characters for roleplay campaigns, as I've seen a wide range of characters in my time. So I thought I'd start a new series answering some of those questions, showing both the types of questions you should be thinking about, the ways medieval fantasy people might differ from 21st Century people, and everything in between.
Today we're going to start with one I've seen done effectively several times as a game master: a child as a roleplay character. We will start with the thinking process behind picking a child as a character, then we'll look at what a medieval fantasy child would be like (compared to modern children), and then we'll do a brief chat on mechanics and how you can express the character through your stats.
I. Why Play a Child?
When I think of "Child Player Characters," several people come to mind: Peter Pan, Jim Hawkins, most protagonists from fairy tales (Hansel, Gretel, Jack, etc.), to some extent Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck, and of course Ender Wiggin. One might also add people like Rue from The Hunger Games, and depending on your definition you might say everyone from The Hunger Games, but for this study I am intentionally limiting myself to characters who are below the age of maturity, for reasons you will soon see.
Why would you play a child? First, you might play a child because they are definitely a Level 1 Character. If your campaign starts at Level 1, there's a legitimate question of why your mature adult who has a backstory is still Level 1. I once had a player who brought me a 7-page backstory showing how his character had plundered cities (he was a pirate), wooed women, and made a fortune in the past, and I looked at this backstory thinking, "That's really nice and it tells me a lot about him, but why then is he a starting character?" The character on paper couldn't do anything that was written in that backstory, because he wasn't there yet.
So if you know that you are starting as a Level 1 character, consider playing a child: you have a few things you can do really well, you might have a subclass feature if your game has a class system and you choose the right subclass, and you will have some glaring weaknesses, which sounds reasonable to me as a game master if you are playing a child. Children are still learning and growing, so if you bring a kid to me as a player character when we are starting at Level 1, I'll buy that immediately.
Second, children grow up. Or, in the case of Pan, most children grow up. This means that the concept of leveling up and improving in skill is natural and normal. You don't need to explain to me why chopping a bunch of goblins with a large axe gives you greater skill with an axe when you've been chopping wood, bears, and chickens for 20 years (like an adult has), because you are honing skills that you have done before (proficiency), but not thousands of times before (experience increase).
Finally, children understand dependence. When kids get together to play, it doesn't take long before they choose a leader, find out who is best suited to push the swings, and figure out who is fun to play with. There is a natural draw toward party cohesion among children, and that is arguably one of the biggest issues a starting party can have. So consider playing a kid - it will help your gaming group.
Now, all of this assumes that your child is competent and capable to aid the party, which is where we turn next.
II. How would a Medieval Child Act?
There are several things we need to consider when we look at how to roleplay a child character, both in a way that is consistent (the part that will come naturally to you) and in a way that is useful to the party (because otherwise what are you doing? Don't sabotage the party by being a problem!).
First, competency: this is an underrated skill in the creation of a zany character concept and should always be a focal element of it. A lot of people latch onto a cool concept, build it out, but don't think about how it will help the party and be valued by the party. So I think it's useful to first think through how our perception of children has changed over the years, and how this gives them competencies that will be useful to the party.
So to start off with, children in Earth's medieval period came of age by 12-13 years. By this time a young man was working in his trade, nobles had undergone 6-7 years of formal training, young men seeking to be knights had several years of combat training under their belts by this point, and some young women were even married by this point. So realize that when I say "child" I'm not referring to a 15-17 year old. That's an adult by this point.
Medicine was different back then. It was not uncommon for a child of just a few years to have seen a dead person in their house, as people often died at home. Open sores, large wounds, physical deformities to the face due to an axe - all of these things were seen by kids of all ages around town. Seeing rats, mice, etc. was common (though they were also signs of squalor and the medievals would get rid of them - they lived a more clean life than they are often portrayed on television). So realize that things that are shocking to disturbing to young people nowadays would not disturb a child of the time, and perhaps even more so in a world that has magic and dragons.
So build a competent child. I once had a player who built a child as a street urchin as a character, and she was the party thief, forward scout, and candy locator for the group. She was susceptible to damage (as she should be, because she was young and small), but she was very good at sneaking into places that the party couldn't easily access, all because she was a child. Size definitely helped as well.
So realize that your child can be competent in many things even within the first 8 years of their life. Many children learned to beg (a Deception, Persuade, Stealth, and Sleight of Hand set of skills), tend to animals (an Animal Handling or Nature set of skills), learned to read (mostly from abbots and other clerical figures), and helped the family with the family business (various trades, tools, and sometimes weapons). So think through how competent your child is, and roleplay them accordingly.
Second, size: the size of the child may vary based on racial selection (giants compared to fairies, for example), but it is generally acknowledged that children are smaller physically than their respective adults. So if you are playing a child, should your character have a maxed out Strength score? Is it realistic, even if it is consistent with your character concept (Baby Hulk as a goliath/kyklopes, for example)?
On a similar note, the mental faculties of a character are also growing at this point, so should your Lore or mental stats be maxed out? Maybe, depending on the age and nature of the kid - Mozart was brilliant when he was 7-8 years old, far more brilliant than most adults at full maturity. So think through how the age of your child affects the stats that you select, and how their nature will affect their stat selection.
Third, curiosity is huge in children, and it changes with age. At young ages (0-3) the curiosity is experiential, wanting to touch, eat, hear, and look at things themselves. If you are playing a child this young...consider that this could cause stress for other players, and you'd need to do some explaining as to how you will be useful to the party. But realize that this is technically possible: you could play a child at a very young age whose curiosity is driven by experience (Baby Yoda, as a great example).
As kids get older they begin to ask questions, experience taking the backseat to the inquiry, and often the line of inquiry we call "the unending question stream." From the ages of 3-10 children ask questions, make claims, and then revise them as new answers and experiences come up. The result is a talking character that can verbalize thinking processes (for hilarity or spurring party action to move things along) because the child has not yet learned how to be "politically correct."
And finally, consider dependence: children rely on adults for things, and it comes naturally to them. So be dependent on the party: turn to them for help, ask them for assistance, and hand over "big tasks" to them. Engage with them, because they are the Big People who take care of you. So that's their job. Help them come to grips with doing it.
III. Mechanics for Children
There are five things most games will have you consider when you build a character: your stats, your class, your equipment, your skills, and your magic (inasmuch as your game has magic). We will briefly walk through each in turn.
For your stats, as we mentioned above, consider limitations with your stats. Should your Strength be lower? Your Finesse/Dexterity be higher? How should your mental stats reflect the prodigious (as in, "prodigy") nature of the character, if applicable (think Mozart with music or Ender Wiggin with strategy)? What is the natural Charm/Charisma of the character? If your game system allows you to assign values to your stats, assign them accordingly.
Also keep in mind that your limitations are opportunities for party members to fill roles. A child who is a fragile spellcaster, for example, needs to be protected by the party, so if a party member invests in Strength they have a way to help you. This is good for building party cohesion and reliance.
I had a fellow player once who played a cabin boy who was also a shapeshifter (which is how he stowed away aboard the boat), and our GM loved the concept, as did we. He had his quirks which led to weaknesses (he would sneeze and accidentally change into a random form instead of the intended one), but he was always useful, no matter what shape he took. That's a cool way to play a zany child character: crazy, vivid, and useful all in a small, well-wrapped package.
For your class, you can use almost any class naturally as a child. Some are trickier than others (Monk, for example, though Aang from The Last Airbender is a noted child monk), but you can make basically any class work. In Zurn there isn't a "class system," but if you want to make a melee character you can (you've been trained from your first steps to use an axe or knife by your parents, sword tutor in the case of a noble son or daughter, etc.). Same goes for ranged characters (hunting from birth) and even spellcasters (whether through apprenticing to a local wizard or coming by your power naturally or through unexplained ways).
For your equipment, think through what your child would bring with them on a quest. Bring a weapon, perhaps armor, etc., but what else would you bring? Are you a Linus-style person who brings your blanket with you everywhere? Is it your Arcane Focus for casting spells (now isn't THAT an interesting concept!?!?!)? Make your equipment memorable - you're a child, so you only bring what's important to you.
For your skills, consider where your character comes from and how that has forged them into who they are. We talked about this in our 7 Questions Series recently so we will not belabor the point here, but asking these questions will help you choose adjectives, skills, or whatever your system uses for determining what you are good at, as it will help you to naturally determine what your character would excel at.
And finally, if your character uses magic, consider how children would use magic differently from an adult. Yes, you can use them like adults do (burn zombies, for example), but you can also use your grasping tree root to knick an apple, not just a person, because you know - you're hungry, and you're a little person! This will require more thought from you, but if you do it your character will be vivid and different from other characters of a similar stripe to yours. And with spells like Mage Hand, Tree Root, and Timely Words, the options for hilarity through child-wielded magic are virtually endless.
A child is not an easy character to play - a lot of thought and creativity goes into it, but when you play it, you get a radically different experience for you and everyone around the table. If you are looking to spice up your game, consider playing a child.
In our next post in this series, we'll consider another commonly used character type that I've bagged on a few times, and will again in that post - the "lone wolf" character concept. Surprisingly, though, I'm going to tell you to play one, because it will change your life.
Until next time,