BJ Hensley on Playground Adventures and Writing Adventures for Kids

This is an interview I conducted with BJ Hensley of Playground Adventures as part of the AetherCon V Convention Program.


JI: I love any product that introduces kids to RPGs. What makes Playground Adventures’ modules uniquely suited towards younger gamers?

BH: PGA’s adventures are created beginning to end with children in mind! We include rewards for good moral decisions, puzzles geared toward learning, and explanations that make it easy for children to get into the game. Many of our adventures also include small aids like recommendations for “brain break” times or even hands on projects that keep little hands busy as they wait their turns.

JI: A lot of the Playground Adventures have hands on components that allow kids to do puzzles and science experiments. What are some of your favorite examples of this and where do the ideas come from?

BH: That would be our Fun & Facts line. These are made specifically for children to learn important educational facts as they play. My favorite adventure that we have available to the public at this time is For the Hive! It’s a fun adventure all about bees. The PCs get to shrink down to the size of a bee and venture forth to save the queen! I love the bee facts spread throughout the adventure. It’s fantastic that children can learn about the very real hardships facing the bees in our own world today.

The ideas come from our own children, teachers, schools, and our various developers. We have a pile of requests from teachers for example, that we are wading through to help various after school and in school programs.

JI: Why is it important to you personally that kids play RPGs?

BH: RPGs have a limitless ability to teach us things. They make a wonderful interactive classroom for problem solving, arithmetic, reading, writing, creative thought, social skills, and more. I have spent many years working with both my own children as well as others. One thing that has always stood out to me is how easily kids learn when the education is a side effect of a game they love. Very specifically, these games speak to children who otherwise struggle to learn, who struggle to focus, sit still, or just aren’t quite adept at social niceties.

I have seen children who hated math happily adding and subtracting to account for the mechanical nature of the game. Those who shun novels are somehow more easily inspired to read the rulebooks or campaign settings lying around the house (and every now and again develop a love for novels in the process). I’ve used RPGs to teach social skills to my own and other autistic children. Tabletop roleplaying games make learning fun! They are fantastic tools for teaching, togetherness, and providing safe after school activities for children. It is very important to me that other children benefit from these opportunities as much as my own and local children have.

JI: Beyond the obvious, what are some good tips when writing an adventure for kids?

BH: I believe the three most important factors beyond the obvious ones such as avoiding adult themes are:

Brain breaks: I am a huge fan of brain breaks, everyone has a limit to how much they can absorb before their brain gets tired and begins to wander off. For the small ones this time frame is pretty short. I love adventures that keep that in mind. Whether it’s a timeout for a themed snack (yes some of our adventures have recipes in them!) or a pause while everyone acts out a silly song or meme, these breaks where the table gets up and moves around a bit are important. It gives them time to be less intense and brings them back to the table ready to focus.

Hands on items: Children do well with hands on projects. Including items such as puzzles, craft projects, or even just a coloring sheet for everyone to make use of as they wait their turn can make the whole experience better for everyone.

Good moral choices: Sure, a lot of people love hack and slash (and there is nothing wrong with that) but remember small children are still learning what is right and wrong, and these games are a perfect opportunity to reinforce good moral choices. Allow for options that go beyond kill the monster, loot the stuff. Allow for the salvation of a creature, the ability to make friends with those they wouldn’t normally befriend, alternative problem solving, and then reward those choices with new items or higher experience and praise them for finding creative solutions.

JI: I’ve heard a lot of all adult gaming groups also love to play through the Playground Adventures modules. Why do you think that is?

BH: They do! I suspect there are two reasons. First, many of us are just as in need of lighter themes as the young ones are. It’s surprisingly refreshing to play a not-so-serious game or better yet play from the perspective of a child. Children can do things outside the normal constraints, think outside the box, because they don’t have predefined imaginations. They think of something and see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do it, and so they try. They don’t care if they look silly and they don’t think, “Oh that won’t work.”

Also, some of our adventures are a bit like beloved fairy tales and they can be played in the lighter tones, as they are written, or surprisingly dark ones with a few minor alterations. Pixies on Parade is a perfect example of this!

JI: What are some of your favorite Playground Adventures’ modules and why?

BH: Pixies on Parade is one of my absolute favorites. It’s a fairy tale adventure with amusing and fun side treks but it has a dark side as well. That adventure can be geared to teach children good choices, have fun, and use their imagination with imagination magic but it isn’t all fluffy bunnies. In fact, some of the dark sides if given a more serious tone are perfect for adults. For example, I find the baby teeth section to be just creepy, and the nightmare king could easily scare some adults if you choose to spin it in a darker tone. (Note: James also finds the baby teeth section WONDERFULLY creepy.)

I’m also quite fond of the Wonderland adventure path. It’s perfect for teaching new gamers the ins and outs of the game and offers some fantastic hands on adventuring. Chapter one is actually an adventure board game!

JI: What’s next for Playground Adventures?

BH: We are always working on a dozen or so items but our newest line is 12 & up! We just launched Creature Components, our first book in the 12 & up line, that allows you to make stronger spells and items by adding creature components to the mix. It received 5 stars and pretty much every recommendation available and we couldn’t be happier about it!

For the younger crowd we will be releasing a guide book soon with a plethora of options for little gamers, such as classes, magic items, spells, feats, and more. Keep an eye out for Toolkits and Toyboxes (some assembly required)!

JI: Finally, as a person in the gaming industry who works with many companies and gets tons of new players into the game, what can publishers do to make the community feel welcoming and inclusive of all people?

BH: I think the simplest answer is to make content that is inclusive of all people. People want to see themselves in their games. Keep that in mind when you create. Listen to your fan base, and where you can, make adjustments to accommodate them. I personally always try to be kind and remember that I too was once new to the game.

Check out more great interviews like this one by grabbing your copy of the AetherCon V Convention Program being released Nov/1/2016 here:

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