Playing with Youngers: Animal Kingdom

This is part of the “Playing with Youngers” series, but requires no additional context to read and enjoy. Find the rest of the series here.

…Then everything changed when the girls wanted to play.

When two other girls insisted that the boys share their adventure game with them, the boys were pretty hesitant. I’ll admit, I was too. The social dynamic up to this point had jelled pretty smoothly. Sudden self-consciousness might not serve the game well. But I’d give it a go and then boys warmed up to the idea.

I gave the new girls a choice after explaining the concept of the adventure game: “Do you want to be a person, animal, or fairy (in the same vein as Tinker Bell, Navi, etc)?” Both chose animal; one lion and one unicorn.

I then had a realization about running RPGs for kids:


(to a point, of course)

There are many good reasons to include animals in your game.

Animals are the greatest source of abilities, NPCs, and touchstones for children imaginable. The boys had already obtained potions that transformed them into animals, fought a squid guy (from the Belly of the Fishy Beast adventure), and had been described by me as moving “as quietly as mice.” Lemme explain more.

Abilities. All aspects of animals are diegetic. Eagles have wings, tigers have claws, fish swim. All the things can factor into new attacks, modes of travel, appearances, loads of things. So giving a player the ability to be an animal or change into one or have one for a pet goes a long way. They’re easily understood, give more options, and generally make a kid feel cool.

NPCs. Few kids know “orcs” though they might know what “goblins” are. But I found that the easiest way to keep “orcs” and “goblins” and other classic fantasy adventure monsters was to turn then into animals. This made them more interesting and gave them those easily understood abilities. “Rude Orcs” became “pig-men” who ate the party’s food, were loud and obnoxious, and took more hits to K.O. than other minion monsters. “Goblins” became “frog-men” who leapt around the battlefield, snatched items with their tongues, and were slippery little suckers. There were also “fish-people” the players had talked to, electric eels they had avoided, and clams they had looted of their valuable pearls.

Animals also make great friendly NPCs. If you haven’t done the silly voice of a “goat-man merchant/innkeeper” in a session with kids, you haven’t lived. Obviously I’m serious about this.

Touchstones. “Your armor has scales like a fish.” “The monster’s skin feels rubbery like a dolphin’s.” “He charges you like a bull, yelling and screaming his head off.” They help you get the point across for kids, but this is also a just good practice in general. A cool educational side to this is that if a child doesn’t get what a certain animal is, you get to teach them something new! Be ready to explain what an armadillo is (I had to!). Or better yet, bring a picture! 🙂

If you need a list of animals, just bring your copy of Maze Rats that you already have because you’re a faithful reader and take all my recommendations seriously and really want to have a better game so you fill your brain with the best and brightest games in existence. Right?

(Sidenote: Maze Rats is also the ONLY resource I bring to the table when running for kids in this Arnesonian-style. Cheap, light pamphlet, flexible ruleset, chock full of ideas. It keeps things fresh!)

So think of the animals you were obsessed with as a child. Which animals did you DEMAND to see first when you went to the zoo? Were they cute? Scary? Massive? Smelly? Friendly?

Do more of that.

8 thoughts on “Playing with Youngers: Animal Kingdom

  1. I have found that I’ve been cutting away more and more of the random tables used to flavour NPCs until now that’s left is the character’s profession (or former profession for hirelings) and what animal they remind you of, using those very Maze Rats tables.

    Rather than a list of descriptors to read out like boxed text, all those cultural views of animal characteristics – physical or habitual – come to the fore and give a much more efficient prompt for portraying minor characters. A ‘shifty, cunning shopkeeper’ gives one image, but my imagination works a lot more fully when presented with a ‘rat-like shopkeeper’.

    Sometimes it’s a bit trickier – how does this carpenter remind you of an amoeba? – but on the whole it allows for a much briefer NPC prompt.

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