This post was inspired by a similar post on Gnome Stew (whichI would link to, but the site seems to be down at the moment) by Don Mappin. In it he asked if children were appropriate as player characters in a game. His primary concern was about power inequities between the characters — if you’re playing a 12 year old, you’re not really on the same level with the adults. Most likely, you’ll have to listen to what they tell you…or do you?
The comments seem to suggest most of the readers found the idea acceptable, save for one opining, “…a child PC would be like a one-legged cheetah man and I wouldn’t allow it…”
Well, that’s your loss, ennit? Most recently, my wife played an 11 year old Chinese street urchin named “Shanghai Sally” or “Monkey” (no racism there…nope!) during our Hollow Earth Expedition campaign. She was the employee of an PC, Roland “Boss Banana” Kessik (half Chinese, half-Scot — his racist sobriquet came from the Chinese gangsters he worked for.) Small, physically weaker than most of the opposition, but fast and athletic, she was a challenge to play. Yes, she listened to Kessik’s orders. Yes, she tended to listen to the other adult PCs. But like child characters from movies, television, or books, she did her own thing. In a fight, she needed to use the environment to either escape, or gain the upper hand. (She once used a big brass rolling bellboys rack to knock a bad guy through a plate glass window.) Like Short Round, she had her uses — she was a street kid and knew how to get around unobserved, slip into places she shouldn’t be, and knew kids who knew…pretty much everybody. (No one much pays attention to street kids…)
So how can you use a child character? (Or a one-legged cheetah man…? I can think of a few.) Let’s look at a few kid characters from movie and TV franchises, and literature. First off — who is a “kid”.
In the Middle Ages, you could be a page as young as six. Would you get dragged on your master’s adventures in a D&D game? Probably. Figure the strengths of a youth — small size, innovative thinking, a tendency to blend into the background until needed. Maybe make the kid a 1st level thief (or whatever the hell their calling it in the edition you play.)
Who is a “kid” in, say, the Victorian period? You could be tried as an adult in the UK for any crime committed as a child, and many street kids were intimately involved in the criminal underworld — see Oliver Twist. In a historical or steampunk game, the kid has a lot of uses — the street urchin thief or enforcer. (Child soldiers, for instance, are notoriously violent.) Are the other characters military folks — the kid could be a drummer, or flag bearer, or a quartermaster’s aide delivering ammunition during the battle. In Napoleonic times, kids shipped out as midshipmen — officersin training. This is how Horatio Hornblower gets his start. Billy Budd was a sailor in his early teens. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer…
What about the smart kid? Thomas Edison was inventing by the age of 20. He had saved a child from being hit by a train in his mid-teens. Think of the precocious genius characters — they’re annoying often (Wesley Crusher — whose awfulness was a function of crap writing than the actor), but they can be useful. Maybe he’s the kid that just “gets” machines. I recently had a character like this for a Hollow Earth one-shot I ran; the engineer of the small tramp steamer was a late teens Italian kid who could make anything mechanical work. They just made sense to him.
Who’s a child in the 1920s or ’30s? By this point, the idea of a specific period called “childhood” that should be cherished or considered important to a person’s development has come into vogue. You could be tried as a juvenile and avoid prison for all but the most serious crimes. But when did childhood end? Legally, it was 18 to be an adult, but rural kids were working in their early teens. Get outside of the developed nations and childhood was still just a word. Some examples of child characters would be Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or even the young Indiana Jones from the television series. .
In modern day, what is childhood. You could argue it stops about 45, nowadays, but legally it’s 18 (unless you want to own a gun or drink in the US, then it’s 21…even though you’re more dangerous with your vote.) In modern fiction you have kids battling government jerks in ET, or finding lost treasure in The Goonies, or stopping nuclear armageddon in War Games. (The ’80s were a truly great period for the kid hero in movies.) How about something more realistic? How many kids are involved in gangs, the drug or sex trade, or violence? How can this be used?
Science fiction, as with historical game, are an excellent setting in that you can give kids leeway to act like adults, even if their abilities are up to snuff. Let’s take Luke Skywalker — he’s a late teen (or supposed to be.) He’s whiny, idealistic, and often just clueless. But he’s brave and he’s a hell of a pilot…and eventually he becomes a Jedi. Even the execrably written Annakin Skywalker shows some of the tropes from above — good with machines, good as a pilot. Weesley Crusher — genius: He can fix things, act as comic relief. Paul Atreides is a young noble and a combat expert. Child heroes populate a lot of the fiction (check out Cory Doctorow’s works.) And we haven’t even touched on alien children…
Children as PCs might not be appropriate for every campaign, but they certainly don’t need to be reflexively ignored as a character archetype. The player, however, needs to realize that there are going to be certain limitations and weaknesses to the youthful character — this is what makes the child character interesting and challenging; keeping yourself in that mindset is difficult, but can be quite rewarding.
Author’s Note: Sorry if this post was a bit disjointed. I’ve been trying to turn it out for two hours, while entertaining my daughter (or rescuing her from getting her foot caught in a piece of furniture.)