The PG series is a collection of articles incorporating the perspective of my eight-year-old daughter, Lila.
Sometimes the game does the work for you.
When Lila saw Animal Adventures spread out on the table – an evocative paper mat, bright character sheets, and several well-detailed miniatures – she went gaga. I had a difficult time coaxing her to break away from the game despite promising that we would actually play at a later date. Until that day came, I was battered daily with a demand for “the animal game.”
But here’s the thing, this is a full-blown tabletop roleplaying game. You know, like Dungeons & Dragons. We had never played an RPG together before. She didn’t even know what one was.
I have played a few. My entire life from middle school through college was roleplaying. Sure, there were other things, like N64, Warhammer, and Xbox. But twice a week we played RPGs late into the night, drunk on sugar and carbohydrates and adventure.
Yet, I was intimidated. Not because Animal Adventures is difficult or uninviting, but because I knew I had one shot to impress my kid. If I failed, she’d bolt and never play one of these things again. I DM’d for a decade and I wasn’t going to let a little human break me.
It turns out, this was actually just what we needed.
This boxed set is incredibly welcoming. Conceptually, it allows you to play as a dog or cat, performing heroic deeds to save other creatures. The miniatures and components are sharp, coming together to present a compelling vision of an imaginative world. This feels a stronger product than some of the previous Dungeons & Dragons starter sets I’ve mucked with.
It’s important to understand this is squarely designed for children between the ages 6-10. You could go a little higher I suppose and perhaps a little lower, even. The main problem is that the bottom end of that spectrum will require plenty of handholding. Lila, a fiercely independent warrior, definitely needed guidance during play. At eight, however, she was able to internalize many of the concepts and had a strong understanding of the mechanisms after two encounters. Our third was as smooth as any session of Apocalypse World or Vampire that I’ve been a part of.
The goal here is to ease people in. It doesn’t throw you into the deep end of RPGs by just giving you a rulebook and some dice. There is a strong physical element which grounds the rules with context. The paper mat is double sided and used in the three included scenes. Enemies are represented by tokens with the fantastic miniatures reserved for player characters.
By establishing the focus on pieces and a map, it establishes buy-in and reserves the stronger roleplaying aspects to apportioned snippets. This worked exceptionally well for my child.
The system functions as a significantly stripped-down 5th edition D&D. The actual rules text is only a couple of pages as you’re instructed on how to perform skill checks and run combat. Pre-generated character sheets are included to get you into the thick of it right away.
The figures here are fantastic and a huge boon. They of course serve Animal Adventures well, but you can take them out of the game and use them elsewhere. In fact, there’s a whole line of these animal miniatures from Steamforged Games. I have several boxes and can envision a multitude of uses. Besides RPGs, they would serve well in a number of fantasy board and miniatures games. The details are crisp, and they fit right in alongside a number of ranges from other manufacturers. We’re going to give painting them a go and I’m optimistic they will turn out splendid. If not, I’ll lie and say they’re beautiful anyway. Because Lila is eight and I’m not a villain.
But back to roleplaying.
The first time I explained what this even is, she didn’t believe me.
“Wait, I can do whatever I want?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
I think I ruined her. Kids naturally roleplay when left to their own devices. Telling and acting out stories, pretending to be something they’re not, it’s all old hat to a child.
But we’ve been playing so many board games the past few years that her concept of a game is something precise and restrictive. Oh dear.
It wasn’t long into her first encounter when everything changed. I could see her mind come apart and then back together again in real-time. She experimented and tested the boundaries. She was creative.
Everything ended up playing out much more effortlessly than I expected.
I have to say, this is a pretty strong boxed set. Beyond the toys, the rule booklet includes GM advice and an adventure spanning three scenes. There are tips offered during the adventure and the writing overall is solid.
I do wonder if someone completely foreign to the concept of roleplaying would struggle to function as the Game Master. The included advice is useful and there is an example of play, but both are brief. I still have strong memories of my very first session in the 90s, me, fumbling about with the adventure book in the AD&D starter set and struggling with the flow of play. GMing as a pursuit is daunting, although I’d like to think it would be easier in this day and age with plenty of advice to be found on YouTube and such.
Intersecting with this limitation is the worry that this game may prime a child for the murder hobo style of play endemic to the hobby. That is, the main way to interact with the story and environment is presented as combat. It feels as though this is a result of wanting to keep the ruleset concise, but the system itself doesn’t guide them to exploring various other options through the course of play. Of course, an astute Game Master can certainly gently guide players into creative solutions, but there is no specific support for that sort of thing. I think this is overall a small issue, as I can’t expect a game such as this to approach a broader exploration of conflict and morality.
The final concern is that the scope of this set is very limited. It intends to onboard a group into the world of RPGs and alight a child’s imagination. I think it succeeds there, but it may leave you confused on where to go next. Now, part of the magic of this kind of game is making up your own content, which certainly an enterprising Game Master could do, but there are no guidelines or suggestions on how to accomplish this. You would need to recycle enemies or come up with new ones from scratch, which would be difficult for the inexperienced.
Steamforged does offer an option at additional cost. The follow-up campaign, Secrets of Gullet Cove, is a hardback book offering a large amount of additional content. That’s great as it shows they’re supporting this game and providing a way for you to continue your journey, but it’s important that people committing to the Animal Adventures base set realize the content here is limited.
Rather than picking up Gullet Cove, I personally plan on using this as a springboard into the deep end. I’ve already told her we’re playing Dogs in the Vineyard next week, and her eyes naively lit up at the mention of more canines.
Despite the limited scope of Animal Adventures, I do think this an attractive introductory set. The modest price allows an unsure parent to test drive the RPG concept with their family and avoid buying multiple rulebooks and supplements. This provides a focused vision in combination with a delightful setting that will enthrall most children. It’s so important that you hook their imagination, and I can’t fathom a better way to do that than Lady and the Tramp swashbuckling with some goblins and zombie rats.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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This would have been awesome for my youngest a couple of years ago… he’s probably past roleplaying as a wizard kitty in front of his friends now, though. 🙂 They just had their first DnD session, and I wonder if they will be able to figure it out.
“Kids naturally roleplay when left to their own devices. Telling and acting out stories, pretending to be something they’re not, it’s all old hat to a child.
But we’ve been playing so many board games the past few years that her concept of a game is something precise and restrictive. Oh dear.”
Hey, this is exactly why I’ve always loved playing boardgames with my kids – I’m bad at pretending. 🙂
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Ha! I don’t know if we should ever be completely past pretending.
In sure they will figure D&D out. They will likely ignore or house rule the parts that don’t make sense to them, it’s pretty resilient to modification.
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I’m not involved, so he doesn’t have to worry about the old man checking the rulebook. My job is to paint minis and send over pizza. They can pretend away. 🙂
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I’m curious if you have an opinion of how this might compare to No Thank You, Evil! as a intro to RPGs for young children.
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Unfortunately I haven’t play No Thank You, Evil! Sorry, Jay.