Traveller: Child’s Play
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Freelance Traveller’s December 2011 issue, and was inadvertently reprinted without reprint acknowledgement as the featured article in the April 2012 issue.
Starting New Characters As Children
Once I started a new campaign with a group of players, all new to Traveller, most new to roleplaying. To help them break in and learn the basic mechanics of the game, I decided to start out with an introductory adventure that would be a sort of “wiffle ball” game, where they could concentrate on things other than worrying about getting killed. To do this I chose to run it with the characters as children. After rolling up the full-grown adult characters, we scaled the characters back to children then played the adventure over a few sessions to get them acquainted with the game.
I made the rule that none of the characters would die in the initial adventure to encourage experimentation in the game. I used the justification that since we’d already rolled up the adult characters clearly the characters must have survived, somehow.
The effects were far more profound than I expected.
Roleplay was much richer than in many other games I ran, with much more initiative on the part of the players. The characters had a history that the players regularly drew on through the game to justify their actions. The players were far more comfortable with their characters, including any quirks or disadvantages they had. Their interaction with other characters in the game was also much stronger. For example, if a newly introduced NPC reminded them of a character from the introductory adventure, they’d immediately begin to react to them according to the character’s “memory” of the character of whom they were reminded.
Since then I’ve tried to have a childhood adventure for every campaign where there’s enough play time to do so. Every time I do it, it makes for a much more enjoyable game. The characters are defined faster, the players have an easier time choosing courses of action for their characters, and play is more character-driven in general.
When setting up the adventure, I base it on a children’s mystery of some sort, similar to those from the Three Investigators series of books, Hardy Boys, or something of that sort. I modify it to suit the conditions of the homeworld that the characters will be on. Then I work out the critical locations and characters for the adventure.
I usually plan for about five to eight hours of play in the introductory adventure. I have considered starting a campaign with the characters as children, then playing continuously until the characters have grown to adulthood, but so far I haven’t had a campaign that runs long enough and consistently enough.
Since I usually have at least the outline of the adult adventure worked out before I start planning the childhood adventure, I start looking for places where I can insert characters from the adult adventure. One rule I have is, “You can never introduce a villain too early.” It’s amazing what sort of response you get when somebody from the character’s childhood turns up again later when they’re an adult. It would be easy to overdo this, but I find that two or three characters carried over adds a lot of spice to the game.
The children characters will need access to resources to play out their adventure. Transportation, money, tools, etc. can be provided somehow, distributed among the characters. One might have a family whose business gives them access to some transportation, usually with an adult driver. Another might have wealth in the family, or have some other means of finagling what they need out of others.
The child characters should have more freedom to move through society than adult characters would have. They can take advantage of being in the background in the adult’s world. There should be hazards and threats, though, as well as the chance of calling attention to themselves if they do anything that stands out. This extends to the credibility of the child characters as well. If they try to tell things to adult characters, give them warnings, and so on, they will usually be disregarded unless they can present clear visible proof of their assertions. This also helps make it clear that, whatever the core of the mystery is, the characters are the only ones who can solve it.
Violence will usually be quite limited, but a threat of it should be present. There are ways of avoiding it, even when it seems inevitable that some NPC is going to react violently to the child characters. Third party adults can be used to intervene to deflect or deter violence, such as the adult driver left with the vehicle making an appearance at a crucial point.
As with any adventure, the initial mystery should hide something deeper. I’ve found it easier to “sell” more outrageous mysteries to players playing children than when they are playing adult charactesr. In fact, I’ve used the outrageousness as a purposeful technique of the villain to conceal their plan from other adults.
Finally, the adventure has to be solvable by the young characters. They should be placed in a position where they, and only they, can solve the problem. There may be points where they use adults to assist them, but the young characters must to the heavy lifting themselves. Also, it should involve each of the characters using something unique about their character.
There are several possible approaches to creating young characters. Obviously there are some characteristics that will not be the same as for an adult character, such as the physical characteristics and education. Intelligence can be independent of age, to some degree, but reasoning ability does change with age. Social standing is tricky. The character themselves will usually not have a high social standing as a child, but they may have a connection to an adult of high social standing that will give them the ability to “pull rank” in some circumstances.
The way I do it in my game is as follows:
If adult characters are rolled first, the “first die” of each characteristic roll is recorded along with the regular adult characteristic value (both dice.) This is the characteristic value for young childhood (age 5-9).
If child characters are rolled initially, we roll one die for each characteristic to get the young childhood value.
The starting age of the character is determined. This should be based on the age the referee desires for the group as well as the relative ages for the characters. Having a mixed-age group makes for a more interesting game. The little one tagging along at the back will still remember that this is who they were, even when the characters are all adults.
Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, and Intelligence will be their single-die values for ages 5-9. Education will be zero at five, and add one for each year of age after that until the maximum rolled EDU is reached. Social standing will have the single-die value, but any connections to adults of high SOC should be noted. The child’s SOC will be a measure of how effective they are at taking advantage of those connections (1=poor, 6=excellent). Each character receives one homeworld skill that a child could reasonably be expected to have in their environment.
At age 10, one is added to each characteristic (while not exceeding the adult value, if known).
Statistics do not change again until age 12. At that point, the second die is rolled if it has not been rolled already. The adult value is noted. If any adult values are above the current value (from age 10), one is added to the working value of characteristic. SOC is still a measure of how effective the character is at influencing others through the SOC of their adult connections. Also, a second homeworld skill should be added at this age.
At age 14, for each characteristic that is below its adult value 1 is added if the adult value is 1 or two points above the value from age 12. Add 2 if the child’s current characteristic is more than 2 points below its adult value.
At 16, all characteristics become their adult value. Depending upon the society, SOC may now become the character’s actual SOC, or it may remain their ability to use the SOC of their connections until they assume an adult role in society.
If you’re using a character generation system that employs formal connections between characters, some connections should be left open for use while playing the childhood adventure.
Finally, each child character should have some defining characteristics as a child. To some degree the relative ages are likely to determine some of their role in the group. Other attributes should be chosen as well. Which child is the one with the sweet tooth? Which is the inveterate tinkerer? Is another a troublemaker, or shy, or precocious? The referee should work with each player to come up with a character that they are interested in playing, especially when they know that they’ll be able to redefine their character later, as an adult.
It’s been my experience that players, both experienced and inexperienced, play quite differently when they’re playing characters that are children. They also treat the experiences their characters have as children very differently than they do all but the most intense experiences as adult characters. They take them much closer to heart, and they later refer to them as ways to define the character far more readily.
Having the characters adventure together as children also builds a different dynamic to the party. They have a background together. They can communicate more effectively by drawing on the characters’ past experiences. And if other players come into the game later, they respond in interesting ways to the new character.
The new character is an outsider, and this has both positive and negative effects in roleplay that come out in fun ways. To the other players they not only represent someone who isn’t completely part of “the club”, but they also represent someone with whom the characters have the chance to define themselves differently than they are known to the others.
Playing as children gives players a fun and easy way to slip into their characters. New players can learn game mechanics in a non-threatening game, avoiding “analysis paralysis”. The tone of the game can be kept light, even while dealing with serious subjects. It’s worked well enough for me that I start all my campaigns this way whenever time allows. While it’s not a formal part of the rules of any version of Traveller, it’s been such a nice addition to my game that I wish it was so that others could routinely add this facet to their games.