I was going to wait. I mean four year olds are pretty good, they can do a lot of stuff, but actual roleplaying? With choices and consequences and the terrifying tension of the Vital Dice Roll? We had a go at Lego Heroica for a while, but the standard rules are so basic and dull and dry that you basically have to lay an entire new RPG system on top to get any fun out of it, and besides which it’s far too combat-focused. I wanted more than that. I wanted to show my daughters the fun and the rush of a proper RPG, of making a story together, of having things spin out of control due to a single wayward toss of the dice. So this afternoon, when Miya came to me with her usual blunt “Now what?” I thought, well, why not? She loves stories, loves games, loves rolling dice, so I suggested we try a new ‘story game’.
She was tidying up the kitchen table before I’d even gotten my dice out.
I’d been thinking about this a bit recently, mostly in terms of mechanics, and I felt that simplicity would be best: just one die, with skill rolls to see if actions succeed or fail. Easy actions have low target numbers, harder actions have high target numbers. I let Miya choose what dice she wanted to use, and she went for the twenty-sided. I nodded in approval. (This d20, incidentally, was my very first, from the red Mentzer set of D&D Basic.) I gave her a very brief description of the game—that we were going to make a story together, and that she was going to be the main character in the story. I would tell her what was happening, and she had to tell me what she wanted to do.
Dad: …now the dice is for when what you want to do is a bit tricky. Like if you want to jump across a wide gap, you have to roll the dice to see if you make it.
Miya: *nods seriously because she is an attentive and earnest sort of girl*
Dad: Okay! So the first thing we have to do is make you a character. Maybe it’s good to start with a name—
Dad: Okay, Holly. I’ll write it down here so we don’t forget. Name – Holly. And what kind of character do you want her to be?
Miya: She’s a princess. Princess Holly.
Dad: Okay, but what kind of princess? There are lots of different—
Miya: Gem Princess.
Dad: Wow. So she’s got some kind of—
Miya: Princess Wand.
Dad: With different gems in it? And the gems have different powers?
Dad: So what gems and powers does she have? Maybe she could start with three.
Miya: Ruby, crystal … um …
Dad: Pearl, emerald, opal, topaz, quartz, diamond … do any of those sound good?
Miya: Maybe emerald?
Dad: Okay, ruby, crystal and emerald. What powers should they have? Ruby is red, firey—
Miya: Hmm … sharp roses.
Dad: Ruby sharp roses, okay. I guess that’s a combat ability?
Miya: Mm-hm. Maybe you can slice with that. Slice, slice.
Dad: Next is crystal, hmm … crystal light?
Dad: And emerald. Green, maybe growing things or natural things—
Miya: Maybe talking to leaves and grass?
Dad: And trees—tree-talk?
Dad: Okay, emerald tree-talk. You’ll get more abilities later but those are good to begin with—
Miya: And Princess Holly has a unicorn. As a pet. Her pet unicorn Gracie.
Dad: Gracie the unicorn. Okay, I’ll put that under ‘stuff’.
[Suddenly a wild LITTLE SISTER appears!]
Little Sister Luna: And don’t forget her princess bag!
Dad: Okay, a princess bag filled with princess things.
Miya: Like lipstick and—
Dad: Well we don’t have to list them all right now. Just if she needs a princess thing she can get it from her bag, and if she finds anything else she can keep it safely in there too. It’s a magic bag so you don’t have to worry about space. It’s got lots.
Dad: Okay, so, you’re a princess—
Miya: Princess Holly.
Dad: —but you’ve been spirited away from your kingdom. You were walking in the woods near your castle one day and found a mysterious portal, glowing with magic energy. Before you knew what was happening the portal sucked you and your pet unicorn Gracie in, and the next thing you knew you were in a strange forest that you didn’t recognise. It’s nearly night time and it’s getting dark, so you better hurry to find a safe place. Looking around you can see three paths. One is wide but there are thick cobwebs everywhere. One is narrow and crowded with trees. And one is very rocky and rough. What do you do?
Miya: I want to climb a tree. Using tree-talk to make it bend down.
Dad: To get a better look at what’s around? Okay, you’re wearing a princess dress which isn’t very practical for climbing, but the tree is helping you which is useful. So you have to roll … six or better.
Miya: *rolls* … eleven!
Dad: The tree lowers its branches for you and helps you climb to the very top. There’s thick forest all around, as far as you can see, but you notice a mysterious glow coming from a nearby stone tower. Maybe that would be a good place to head for.
Miya: Hm. Maybe.
Dad: You can see that the rocky path will lead you to the tower. Do you want to take that one?
Miya: Yes yes.
Dad: It’s getting darker as you walk—
Sudden Little Sister Luna: MAYBE she could use that useful light spell.
Miya: Oh yes my crystal light. Can I use that one?
Dad: Of course! You hold your princess wand up and call out—
Miya: CRYSTAL LIGHT!
Dad: The path is bathed in a warm glow. Everything looks much cheerier now, and you’re much less likely to trip over. You’re also more likely to spot things that are hiding—and speaking of that, as you walk along you feel like something is watching you. Gracie is nervous, tossing her head and whinnying. Just then, something jumps at you from a tree! Roll the dice!
Miya: Why why! What’s happening!
Dad: Something is jumping at you, so you have to see if it gets the drop on you. If you get an eleven or more, it doesn’t surprise you.
Miya: *rolls* … oh no seven!
Dad: Something big and heavy and hairy hits against your back and you fall off Gracie. It’s a giant spider!
Miya: Oh no!
Dad: It leaps at you *rolls* but misses, thudding against a tree. What do you do?
Miya: I don’t know!
Dad: Maybe use one of your abilities?
Miya: But what are they? Oh! Tree-talk!
Dad: You could use that one, maybe ask the trees to grab the spider?
Miya: Yes something like that!
Dad: The trees are happy to help you, these spiders have been invading the forest and putting their sticky webs everywhere. If you roll a six or higher the trees are successful in grabbing the spider.
Miya: *rolls* … seven oh phew!
Dad: The trees’ long branches whip and grab at the spider, stopping it from attacking you—but not forever. It struggles and tries to get free. Just then, Gracie attacks! She lowers her head and charges straight at the spider *roll* oh, natural twenty!
Miya: What’s that?
Dad: Twenty is the highest you can roll on a twenty-sided dice, so it means you’re super-successful at whatever you were trying to do. In this case, Gracie spikes the spider straight in the abdomen with her unicorn horn. There’s a flash of dark energy and the spider vanishes—it seems that it was some kind of shadow-creature!
Dad: In any case the path is clear and neither you nor Gracie are hurt. Thank goodness.
Miya: Thank goodness.
Dad: You continue on towards the tower, which turns out to be quite strange. There’s no door that you can see, and the only windows are high above. Shining out from them is the mysterious glow you saw earlier.
Miya: Then how can I get in if there’s no door?
Dad: Well, that’s the problem. What do you think?
Miya: Maybe I have to use one of my spells. Hmm. Ruby sharp roses?
Dad: You want to attack the tower?
Dad: Okay, why not. Maybe a fourteen or more, since the tower is pretty solid.
Miya: *rolls* It looks high!
Dad: Seventeen, that is high! Well done!
Dad: Your ruby sharp roses slice the tower’s stone to pieces, revealing a large wooden door—large enough for both you and Gracie to go inside, if you want to. But first, from all your experiences you gained a level! Now you’re a level two gem princess. That means you get another ability. Let’s see, you can get something red and firey from your ruby, something useful from your crystal, maybe an ‘unlocking’ spell, or something greeny from your emerald. Maybe a climbing spell, ‘sticky fingers’. Which one do you want?
*much hemming and hawing here, sticky fingers initially attractive but ultimately discarded in favour of a fire spell*
Miya: Maybe fire … flower?
Dad: Fire flower, good. You can now create a fire flower that you can hold in your hand, or throw like a fireball at enemies.
Miya: *satisfied nod*
Dad: Okay, do you want to go inside now?
Dad: Inside it’s very dark—
Miya: CRYSTAL LIGHT!
Dad: —until you use your crystal light ability. The tower is a mossy, damp sort of place, all made of stone, with big stone stairs leading up. From above you can hear a loud, snotty snoring.
Miya: *wide eyes*
Dad: What do you want to do?
Miya: I don’t want to go up those stairs!
Dad: That’s where the glow is coming from, though. It might be treasure!
Miya: But what’s that big thing that’s snoring?
Dad: You can’t see it from down here. You’ll have to sneak up if you want a look.
Miya: But it might get me!
Dad: That’s true, but there’s no reward without risk.
Miya: *wide eyes*
Dad: Suddenly, you hear a tiny voice. It says, “Princess Holly! Princess Holly!” It’s not coming from Gracie—she’s a very beautiful and loyal unicorn, but she can’t talk. No, it’s coming from your princess wand!
Miya: Oh! It can talk!
Dad: Your wand says, “Princess Miya, I can—”
Miya: Princess Holly.
Dad: Oh yes. Sorry. “Princess Holly, I can feel a princess gem somewhere close! Maybe at the top of this tower!”
Miya: But there’s something up there!
Dad: “Maybe you could try to sneak past.” Do you want to try?
Miya: …okay. I’ll try.
Dad: It sounds like it’s in a pretty deep sleep, whatever it is. You just have to roll a six or higher to sneak up. Oh, and Gracie has to stay behind because she’s too big to get up the stairs. She’ll just wait for you outside.
Miya: …twelve! Okay!
Dad: You sneeeeak up the stairs and peeeak into the room above. It’s full of broken furniture and rubbish, but mostly it’s filled with an enormous, smelly, sleeping troll, a huge club lying beside him.
Miya: Oh no!
Dad: On the other side of the room, past the troll, you can see a ladder leading up, and there’s a glow coming from the room above. That must be where the princess gem is!
Miya: But how can I get past the troll? Can I do more sneaking?
Dad: You can try, but you’re much closer to the troll now. You’ll need an eleven or higher to succeed.
Miya: Um … maybe some ability then? Maybe … tree-talk?
Dad: There’s not much plants around here, just some moss growing around the place. In fact the troll is using it as a bed. Do you want to talk to it?
Miya: …what’s moss?
Dad: Spongey green stuff growing on the stone. It’s soft and springy.
Miya: Well I’ll talk to it anyway.
Dad: “Hello! We’re some moss! Who are you?”
Miya: I’m Princess Holly.
Dad: “A princess! How exciting! Did you know there’s a princess gem in this tower? The troll stole it and keeps it here. We don’t like the troll much, because he sleeps on us all the time and he’s heavy and sweaty and smelly!”
Miya: Can you help me?
Dad: “We can’t do much because we’re only moss.”
Miya: Maaaaybe you can get the gem for me?
Dad: “But we can’t move! I think the only thing we can do to help you is to try to grab the troll’s feet if he comes after you.”
Miya: Okay! Please do that!
Dad: Well, you’ve got the help of the moss. Do you want to try to sneak now?
Miya: I guess so…
Dad: Roll the dice then. You need eleven or higher.
Miya: …oh no!
Dad: Seven! As you’re sneaking across the room you trip over an empty bottle! It spins across the floor and smashes against a wall, waking the troll!
Miya: Oh no what now!
Dad: “WHAT’S THAT NOISE! WHO ARE YOU?”
Dad: “Princess Holly, we’ll grab the troll’s feet!” The moss is grabbing on to the troll for you. “ARGH! What’s this moss doing! Let go!” The troll grabs his big club and starts smashing around with it, shaking the whole tower!
Miya: *frozen in shock*
Dad: What will you do?
Miya: UM UM UM TREE-TALK!
Dad: Tree-talk? Again? There’s just the moss, though—
Miya: I want it to grow bigger and GRAB the troll’s legs!
Dad: …okay, fair enough. Maybe a twelve or higher, since it’s already trying so hard.
Miya: *rolls* … something high!
Dad: Fourteen, that’s good enough! You use your emerald gem to give power to the moss and it grows bigger and bigger, engulfing the troll’s legs. “LET GO OF ME!” it roars, slamming its club down again and again. The moss has a good hold on it, but the troll is very big and strong, it’ll be able to get free soon!
Miya: I have to hurry! Where’s the gem!
Dad: Up the ladder!
Miya: Up the ladder!
Dad: You climb up as quickly as you can, finding yourself in a small room at the very top of the tower. There are windows all around, and in the middle of the room is a big glowing treasure chest!
Miya: With the gem! I get it!
Dad: You try to open the chest but discover that it’s locked! The troll must have the key!
Dad: You can hear it downstairs, shouting and smashing with its club. What do you do?
Miya: Maybe the moss can help! It can get the key! Then give it to me!
Dad: … you mean you want to ask the moss to take the key from the troll, then try to throw it up to you?
Dad: … well, maybe … that’s kind of a big ask, for moss. But it’s worth a try! Since this will be very difficult, you’ll need a sixteen or more to succeed.
Miya: *rolls* … yes! Yes?
Dad: Nineteen is a solid success! Against all expectations the moss manages to grab the key from the troll’s belt, then throw it up through the little hole in the roof. It lands by your feet!
Miya: I can open the chest!
Dad: And inside is a tiny but beautiful pink heartstone gem.
Miya: I can put it in my wand!
Dad: It fits into one of the empty slots on your wand perfectly. You feel a warm, friendly energy from it. Now you can choose an ability! Something friendly, warm, maybe healing or—
Dad: Like a spell to make things be friends?
Dad: Okay, called … heartstone friendship?
Miya: Yes, heartstone friendship.
Dad: Okay. You now have a friendship spell. But! That might not be much help to you, trapped in a tower with a rampaging troll in the room below!
Miya: Maybe I have to jump down!
Dad: Maybe! But what are you going to jump down to?
Miya: Well. Actually. I left a cushion down there.
Dad: Did you? You didn’t tell me about that. So I don’t think there’s a cushion at the bottom of the tower. There is, however, your faithful unicorn.
Dad: It’s quite a long way down, so you’ll need a fourteen or more to land safely.
Miya: *rolls* … oh, one!
Dad: Uh-oh! One! That’s a critical failure!
Miya: OH NO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN
Dad: It means you fail really badly! You miss Gracie and fall right on your bottom. Ouch, it really really hurts! It hurts so much that the troll is able to get downstairs and smash through the door before you can get up again! “THERE YOU ARE YOU LITTLE THIEF!”
Miya: THE TROLL IS RIGHT HERE AHHHHH
Dad: What will you do?
Miya: AHHHHH TREE-TALK AHHHHH
Dad: There ARE a lot of trees nearby, you want to get them to grab the troll while you and Gracie run for it?
Miya: YES YES YES
Dad: Ten or more to—
Miya: ELEVEN YES
Dad: The trees grab at the troll as you jump on Gracie and ride her down the path, but they only slow him down. You got some distance on him, but he can run fast and he’s still going to catch you. What do you do?
Miya: Um um tree-talk again?
Dad: Okay, one more time—
Dad: The trees grab at the troll, once more slowing him down. But! Even though you and Gracie got more distance, the troll is still catching up! On top of that the path is very rocky here, one might even call it treacherous! *rolls* So treacherous that Gracie’s hoof catches on a rocky bit of the path, and she trips!
Miya: Oh no!
Dad: Roll ten or more to recover—
Miya: Seven oh no!
Dad: You go flying off Gracie and land ahead of her. The troll’s heavy footsteps come nearer and you hear him roaring at you! He’s getting closer!
Miya: IS GRACIE OKAY
Dad: She’s not hurt, but what are you going to do?
Miya: TREE-TALK QUICKLY!
Dad: Once more—
Miya: THREE AHHHH
Dad: The trees grab at the troll but it’s too angry and big for them to stop! It raises its club then brings it crashing down. *rolls* Uh oh!
Miya: OH NO A TWENTY
Dad: The troll’s huge club is coming straight at you!
Dad: But! Your brave and loyal unicorn jumps in front of you! Gracie blocks the troll’s attack with her body!
Dad: She whinnies and falls, hurt badly by the attack. She can’t help you now, it’s all up to you. WHAT DO YOU DO?
Dad: Do you run?
Miya: I have to help Gracie though! I have to use a spell! OH! FIRE FLOWER!
Dad: A beautiful firey flower bursts into life in your hand. “ARGH WHAT’S THAT I HATE FIRE!” the troll roars, stepping away. What luck! Trolls hate fire! What do you do now?
Miya: I have to go forward to get the troll away from Gracie!
Dad: You walk forward, holding the fire flower up. “GET AWAY FROM MY FRIEND!” you cry, as the troll steps back.
Miya: Now tree-talk!
Dad: Maybe to build a wall between you and the troll—
Miya: OH YES
Dad: That’ll be a bit more tricky—
Miya: I GOT A TWELVE IS THAT ENOUGH
Dad: It IS enough! The trees work together to block the path, making a thick tough wall that even the troll can’t get past. You did it! You rescued Gracie and got away from the troll! For all that effort you deserve to go up another level, now you’re a level three gem princess!
Miya: What’s my new ability!
Dad: Your princess wand talks to you: “Princess Miya—”
Dad: “Princess Holly, the heartstone you found has healing magic! You could learn a healing spell from it!”
Miya: AND HEAL GRACIE YES
Dad: “Since your unicorn friend is hurt—”
Miya: HEARTSTONE HEAL!
Dad: Your new magic surrounds Gracie with a soft healing glow. In seconds she’s feeling fine again, and together you ride off away from the troll.
Dad: But! Even though you’ve found one princess gem and defeated a troll, you’re still far from home in an unknown place. Your wand talks to you as you ride along: “Princess Mi—Holly, I’m only half a princess wand. I need eight princess gems to unlock my full potential. If you can find four more gems, maybe I’ll have the power to send you home!” It sounds like you’re going to have to search for more gems in order to return to your kingdom. Do you think you can rise to the challenge?
Miya: *explodes from excited delight*
Dad: This is probably a good place to stop for today. Was that fun?
Miya: Maybe we can do more sometime! Maybe tomorrow?
Since then Miya has talked her little sister into joining in too, as Princess Holly’s little sister Princess Daisy, who will be a ‘Colour Princess’ (AKA Art Princess, Brush Princess, Paint Princess) with a magic brush that she can use to paint things that become real, and also to change things into different colours. I swear those two should be working on a cartoon or something. In any case we had a lot of fun and I felt like the basic rules we used worked well, not too intrusive but adding that essential element of tension and randomness. Level progression felt about right too, one new ability in the middle of the session, one near the end after the big ‘climax’. I’ll have to make sure Princess Holly doesn’t get too many different abilities as that could get too unwieldy and confusing … although on the other hand Miya can recite the transformation sequences of like a dozen different PreCure by heart so maybe that’s not such an issue after all. Kids have actual memories that work, at least for this kind of fun thing. I might also put some restrictions on ability use, maybe a ‘cooldown’, so she can’t just keep using the same thing over and over.
For our next session I might plan things out a bit more, this one was entirely winged. I’ll try to include more non-fighty elements, like helping out people with problems rather than just dealing with nasty monsters. I really like Miya’s inventiveness with her abilities, and how ‘fighting’ isn’t her first response to problems, even hostile ones. It’ll be interesting to see how she and her sister do, playing together and working together. I have a feeling that Luna might get bored quickly, so I’ll try to include things to appeal to her, and problems that only her magic brush can solve.
All in all a successful session, and hopefully the first of many. Huzzah!
MIYA’S CHARACTER SHEET
NAME: Princess Holly
CLASS: Gem Princess
Ruby: Sharp Roses – Fire Flower
Heartstone: Friendship – Heal
Pet unicorn (Gracie)
Princess bag (filled with princess things)
Princess dress (pink)