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Tips and Tricks: For when kids want to go “villain mode” in your tabletop RPG

So, you’ve picked a non-combat game, you have a nice exploration plot planned, you start the first session, and, as you come to a town, your kid casts fireball and wants to BURN IT DOWN!

What do you do?

I’ve been asked similar questions a few times, either on social media or via email, and I wanted to share my personal experience in running games with my kid to help you get some ideas for how to deal with kids wanting to go villain mode.

Jump to:

What were your and your kid’s expectations for this game?

The example I gave in the intro blurb was one where the game guide was expecting an exploration-style game with no combat, but the kid was expecting to unleash their ultimate power!

So, our first stop is to look at how to set expectations before the game starts so surprises like this are less likely (though not non-existent).  Before a game starts, it can help to ask:

  • What type of game does your kid want?
  • Does your kid want to explore and adventure?
  • Does your kid want to talk with characters?
  • Does your kid want to fight?
  • Does your kid want to solve puzzles?
  • What type of game are you (the game guide) comfortable with running?

If there’s a misalignment between the expectations and comfort level, talk about it and find a compromise where you can.

For example, if your kid wants a combat heavy game and you aren’t comfortable with them fighting sentient individuals, see if there’s a way to fight a robot or a skeleton and ask if that’s OK instead.

You can also help get a ping on this during character creation.  Ask your kid questions about the type of character they want to play beyond just the mechanics.

  • Is their character kind?
  • Is their character helpful?
  • What does their character like more: fighting, talking, or exploring?
  • What does their character want most?

These are four pretty short questions, and depending on how they answer, it can give you a really clear idea of what they are expecting and want to do with the story.

If they answer that their wizard is evil and wants to take over the world, you can choose to either roll with that (discussion to follow) or to talk about and see if your kid changes their mind.  The important thing here is that you’re asking, listening, and ultimately allowing your kid to have a choice and influence the game… and you now have a heads up about it, so you know what to expect too.

Observe your kid’s behavior IRL and ask your kid why they made that choice in game

Whether your kid makes a choice to go villain during game set up or in the middle of the game, you can always take a minute to pause and go through some checks and questions real quick.

First, really look at your kid and see how they’re behaving.  Are they upset? Excited and having fun? Side glancing at you and giving a cheeky smile?

Next, just ask, openly and without judgment, “why do you want to do that?”

And then listen. 

Don’t get upset or try to talk them out of it, just listen to why they want to do this.

Between your observation and their answer, try to figure out their motivations.  To give some examples, with regards to the player wanting to set off an explosion that would blow up a castle, there can be some VERY different motivations and each one can require different approaches:

Testing boundaries

Kid gives a sly smile and narrows eyes: Because I think it would be fun to blow up the castle.

Excitement and not considering consequences

Kid bouncing around in the seat: It’ll be like fireworks!  PEW PEW PEW!!!

Frustration or anger at perceived lack of choice (or something else)

Kid crossing arms and not making eye contact: Because I just WANT TO!  You never let me do what I want!

Not wanting to play anymore

Kid looking down and fidgeting with dice: Because the game ends then.

Seeing a path that you didn’t (and also maybe not seeing consequences)

Kid confidently pointing to pieces on the map: If we blow up the castle, all the people will leave and quit taking the trees from the forest spirit, so it helps fix the forest problem.

And there’s a ton more.  The important thing at this stage is to stop and take time to observe, listen, and understand.

If needed, work through feelings before jumping back to the game

If your kid is doing this because they’re angry, sad, or feeling a big real life emotion, that needs to get worked out first.  This happens with my kid frequently.

One time, he was angry about not getting mac and cheese for lunch like he had the day before. I thought it was resolved earlier and we were past, but it apparently wasn’t, so he acted out in game by folding his arms and saying, “you don’t let me pick whatever I want, so I’m not going to pick what YOU want!” 

So, we paused the game and addressed that first.  We untangled the mac and cheese discussion as a separate issue, and, when I asked if he wanted to play the game again, he was OK with it and asked if he could change his mind about what he picked.

If I had kept going, we wouldn’t have dealt with that emotion, we wouldn’t have learned how to pause and address that, and we wouldn’t have been able to play a respectful game.

Help walk your kid through different options and consequences with your game

Now, if there’s no strong out of game emotions going on, the next typical root cause is just not projecting out cause and effect. If the reason for the “villain” choice is because they just think it will be cool, they think they’re helping someone else, etc, walk your kid through the options and impact their choice will have.  Some questions to ask could be:

  • Does this physically hurt anyone?
  • Does this hurt someone’s feelings?
  • Does this make life harder for someone?
  • What will happen to this person?
  • What will happen to everyone else?
  • What will happen to you?
  • Is there another option?

Encourage them to answer on their own, but, if they ask for help, you can, especially if this is the first time doing this.  This process can help with developing empathy, cause and effect understanding, and a lot more.

With my kid, most of the time, he will change his mind after stopping to think of a few options.  One time, we were delivering a pie to a dragon, and he said he wanted to cast a pushing spell at an “annoying kid” (his words, not mine… kid had a riddle that my kid didn’t want to answer) because he thought it would get him out of the way, so, we asked our questions:

  • Does this physically hurt anyone? – yes
  • Does this hurt someone’s feelings? – yes
  • Does this make life harder for someone? – yes
  • What will happen to this person? – the kid might get hurt and feel upset
  • What will happen to everyone else? – n/a
  • What will happen to you? – I can keep going, but I think it’s not nice
  • Is there another option? – ignore the kid, ask the kid to stop, run away, give the kid a toy if he goes away, answer the riddle, ask the kid to play,, share the pie with the kid, ask the kid to come along

First… This got my kid to stop and think about how his actions affect others.  Next time he’s playing with another kid who he thinks is “annoying”, he’s more likely to go through this process and make a thoughtful choice instead of hitting or saying something in anger or frustration.

Second… I remember this event so much because of the progression on that last point.  He went from being annoyed to inviting the kid along (which was his final choice) because he realized the kid was bored.

My kid’s choice totally flipped, and he made the choice to change that (not me), so he still retained his autonomy and learned from the situation.  I never said no, I just asked him to take a closer look. 

There are also times where my kid does not change his mind, which leads to…

Allow appropriate consequences to unfold

Sometimes after going through all of our questions, my kid still wants to go with his original plan or may come up with something even more devious. In these cases, I let it happen.  He made his choice, but we also talked about the consequences, so those still happen, and he knows that.

One that I remember went something like this: 

We’re at the end of the session, and my kid found a magic spell scroll that would stop a volcano from erupting and could save the island!

Kid smiling and looking smug and bouncing around a bit: I want to throw the spell scroll into the volcano

I stop and see that he’s kind of excited and also maybe trying to see if I’ll tell him no

Me: Why do you want to do that?

Kid: I want to see the volcano explode

Me: OK, let’s ask our questions

  • Does this physically hurt anyone? – yes
  • Does this hurt someone’s feelings? – no
  • Does this make life harder for someone? – yes
  • What will happen to this person? – n/a
  • What will happen to everyone else? – they’ll explode along with the volcano
  • What will happen to you? – my character will also explode with the volcano
  • Is there another option? – say the spell

Me: OK, what’s your choice?

Kid: I throw the scroll into the volcano

Me: Alright, you throw the scroll into the volcano and wait.  The ground shakes and lava starts to bubble up! 

Kid, now bouncing around in his seat: I want to yell, HAHAHAHA!

Me: You laugh at the volcano as lava shoots upward and explodes!  The whole island is blown to pieces!

Kid: YAY!!  OK, now I want to go back to the town.

Me: Well, your character and the town are gone.  You can’t play those anymore.  They blew up with the volcano.  Are you OK?

Kid: OH!  They actually blew up?

Me: Yep, are you OK?  

Kid: Yeah.  Can we do snacktime?

So, with this, I really think it was a combination of him REALLY wanting to do a volcano explosion (because that’s just cool), wanting to see if I would tell him no, and wanting to see if the consequences would actually happen.  We let this play out because it was a great opportunity to… 

Use choices in the game to teach and grow

After that volcano incident, the next time we played, he steered away from a situation that put another character in peril after pausing during one of the questions and asking if it would be like the volcano.  I’ve also seen him apply this to situations like playing rough with a toy too, so it’s helping him learn both in-game and in real life. 

Once we established these questions and this process, there was a 2-3 week phase where he was testing things in our games, and we’ve used those times to work through a lot of scenarios.  If his character steals, people feel hurt and don’t trust his character anymore.  If his character fights random people, people can get hurt and might be afraid of him and not want to help him.

He doesn’t do this much anymore because he’s now realized there’s going to be repercussions (not punishment, but repercussions) because of his/his character’s actions, and it gave him a decision-making process to evaluate this both in game and in real life.  He knows how to think if there’s a consequence and then also knows that it will probably happen with that choice too.  

If I had just said no, it would have taken away his autonomy AND it would have taken away these learning experiences from him.

Other considerations: themes in your game, rewarding heroics, and more

There’s a few other things to consider with your games that can also affect your child’s leaning towards certain behaviors.  I won’t go too in depth here (because they could each be their own article), but hopefully this gives a good overview. 

Look at the themes in your game

If you emphasize a lot of situations that only have two choices, there’s very contrasting good vs. evil, or there’s morally intense situations, it lends towards a “good guy/bad guy” kind of view, and, especially if they don’t find the “good guy” too interesting, there’s a higher chance to side with the villain. 

Something to consider instead is to not really have sides designated as good and bad but instead as having different motivations.

For example, there can be a king who wants you to stop what they describe as an evil spirit who is preventing them from entering the forest.  When the players find the spirit, they’re angry that the city is harvesting the trees.  Turns out the king was trying to build houses for his people after a strange storm wrecked the city and saw the forest as a tool to help, however, he didn’t consider the impact to others.  The players are then challenged with trying to talk to the king about impact on others, get the sides to reconcile, finding a solution to the housing problem, and maybe also handling a storm creature who is dealing with their own problems.  

In this scenario, there isn’t someone good or bad, there’s different motivations (protect, build, exist) and different issues (not taking time to consider options, jumping to conclusions, lack of communication).

Watch your rewards and consequences for heroics too

While I have said above that we allow consequences to unfold for actions that may cause harm, we want to allow positive consequences to unfold for actions that do good too.  If your kid is kind to someone in the game, make sure that’s acknowledged and there’s, on average, more good that comes from those types of interactions than bad.

There’s a saying that says, “No good deed goes unpunished” where it’s about how good intentions backfire.  If you have this a core theme in your games, it can make it hard for players to make kind choices when whatever they choose, the result will hurt.

Keep an eye on testing outside of the game

When trying out the decision making questions with my kid during the game, he was experimenting in the game with a lot of concepts (theft, fighting, etc) to see what would happen because they weren’t things he’d really seen before. 

One of my concerns with this was that he could branch into trying things out in real life too.  I didn’t want him testing to see what would happen if he hurt a kid at pre-K, so we had a talk about the difference between the game and real life.

We didn’t end up having a problem, but it might be something to watch out for depending on how you handle this.

Understand where some choices may originate

Lastly, if you notice a lot of destructive and harmful choices, maybe ask your kid where they got the idea from too:

  • Did they see it anywhere?
  • Did someone tell them this?
  • Did someone hurt them this way?

They may be repeating things they’ve seen on TV or from other kids, and keeping a bead on that can help with a lot of this too.

We did run into one situation where my kid talked about an NPC dying in a storm.  It was a bit odd, and he seemed a little upset, so I asked where he heard about that, and a kid in his class had told him about it.  So, we talked about it and worked it out.

I hope this article helps give you some ideas on how to approach, adapt to, and address when your kid starts making in-game choices that can cause harm or lend to some morally ambiguous situations.  It can be tough when suddenly faced with a surprising response from your kid, but this should give you some tools to use for turning it into a learning experience and allowing your kid to still retain their power of choice. 

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