Storygame up my Middle Earth camp!

edited July 2009 in Story Games
So I've got a unique opportunity coming up next week: I'm working at a outdoor skills camp with little to no training! I was hired on the strength of my mad storygameing skills, since the camps have a heavy focus on narrative and invesating the landscape with mythology and meaning. The particular camp I'll be teaching is Welcome to Middle Earth for 8-10 year olds. There's already a built-in general structure where the troop will have a "One ring" that they must hide from "Collum" and "the Orcs" (staff in costume) as a pretext for walking about in the woods and learning to move quietly. The kids will also learn skills from staff in different roles, like Archery from "the Elves" or firebuilding from "Aragorn." But the teacher (moi) has a lot of latitude in how they approach the camp activities and what sort of narrative bent they cast on it.

So among other things I want to do some simple story-building activities with the kids. Probably not a full-on game with lots of rules or components, but at least little improv exercises to get the kids talking and sharing instead of me doing all the blabbering and them fidgeting and heckling. I don't want to use any props more complex than playing cards, unless said props flow naturally from the environment or activities. One idea I have (probably after we've broken the ice with several days of less daunting exercises) is to go someplace in the woods and tell a story round-robin style about some event we imagine took place long ago on that very spot. Connection with the land, right?

So my question is: what storytelling techniques and level of complexity is good for 8 or so preteen kids? What are the strengths to play to, or the pitfalls to avoid? How best to teach or explain activities?


PS Please, I'd like comments from folks with experience trying roleplaying or storytelling activities with kids, in some form or other. I'm not looking for idle speculation; that I got in spades. Thanks!


  • edited July 2009
    We have 4 daughters in our current group, ages 16 to 12. The thing I would recommend the most is keep things short. Their attention span is almost non-existant, especially in a large group. We run Savage Worlds which is ok for them. Something like John Harper's The Mustang would work well I think. No dice, no cards, no character sheets, just coins. I think your idea of the round-robin style will work. I'll keep thinking on this.

  • Well, i don't have experience, Joel, but i think these kids are in awesome hands.
    If i've had the opportunity to have you leading me through the woods story-gaming up my formative years when i was 8-10
    (and you weren't also 8-10 at that point), my life would've opened up a lot sooner, i bet.

    And i think your idea about telling a round-robin tale about what happened there is really great.

    I'm overflowing with ideas, but i'm sure you are too.

    Good luck!
  • Thanks for the kindness, Tegu. Tell you what, new rule: I'm still looking mainly for experience with kids, but ANYONE who wishes can chip in a SINGLE, SUCCINCT idea for an activity. Cool?

    Tom, short attention span, check. That's definitely good to remember. I just checked out Minotaur, and WOW. That's some sweet candy. I'll keep some principles in mind from that.

    Man, this is the best job opportunity EVAR.
  • I'd put props in the location you're going to tell a story about. Something like an long expired fire pit, maybe a weapon or tool, perhaps some carvings in a tree. These elements would then function like an Oracle of sorts to springboard imagination.
  • OK, I'll be the Worry Wort:
    * I wouldn't leave weapons OR tools laying about a campsite for 8 to 10 year olds. Check with your lawyers.
    * PLEASE don't carve into a tree--they don't like tattoos, and you're scarring them for the remainder of their (perhaps hundreds of) years. It is also a vector for pests or disease, so you might come back next year and it's dead.

    But Charles's idea is generally pretty good. Even better is if you put props out that were biodegradable (ex: an "old" parchment with weird symbols on it; a VERY small bow and arrows made from green twigs; a cluster of stones made into an arrow shape pointing... somewhere interesting for the story sequel).

    Has it occurred to you to try to do a LARP of some kind? Simple, rules-light (or rule-less), pregnant with factions and reasons to cooperate, full of nature and preservation themes. Hehe... I just imagined some of the kids as treents with sticks and foliage sticking out of headbands and arm bands. Dwarfs with ridiculous fake fur beards (only the smallest kids can play dwarves... who are the STRONGEST characters... nice little touch, I think). Hobbits with ridiculous fake fur feet.

    And keep in mind these kids are probably in better practice at "let's pretend" than you are--don't underestimate their willingness to play story games with somewhat more complex rules. Hmmm... Red Box Hack to the rescue? ;)
  • I think David's ideas about the LARP path are good ones. I can see my younger kids and their friends getting into that.
    Be patient and have fun. That will be infectious.
  • Props Good--Weapons and Tree Mutilations Bad. Got it.

    LARP-wise, the thing of it is that the whole thing is sort of a semi-LARP: all the day's activities are framed in terms of meeting different peoples to learn their skills, and taking the Ring across country and hiding from Gollum and bands of Orcs. I really wanna play that up, and don't want any specific Storygaming activities I introduce to intrude much on that metanarrative. I have my first prop--a wax-sealed letter from Bilbo Baggins containing the One Ring on a chain. I had fun making that. In addition I've got some rudimentary Elvish lessons on index cards, and a whole series of theater games ("Juicers" from Creative Advantage) that I can use to feel the kids out on confidence and creativity, leading up to some bonafide group storytelling. And which are all fun in their own right.

    Aaaaand, I'm off to my first day, bright and early! Thanks everyone for your input!

  • Huh...

    So... I'm reading LotR to my son right now. Finishing up RotK, in fact. Funny thing is, at 8, he can actually read it himself if he wanted to do so. But I've been reading to him all his life (Harry Potter, Narnia, Spiderwick, etc), and he wanted me to keep it up. So I told him this is the last thing I will read to him.

    My point? Well there's nothing like getting the kids to know Middle-Earth like reading a bit of it to them. Just to get them in the mindset. I'm assuming that many of them will have seen the movies (my son watches them over and over). But it's not quite the same, and you can't very well show film clips in the woods. Select some accessible bits, short and punchy, and rattle them off.

    I don't know if you're religious, but think of religious ceremonies. You have openings, transitions, closings, etc. Readings like this can be great for clearing social space to get folks into the activity. This is especially important for kids whose minds may otherwise wander. A lot. Lighting fires, and putting them out are good for such punctuations, too. Anything with obvious symbolic meaning.

    Not to put too fine a point on it - and no, I'm not suggesting you start an actual cult - but if you think a little about activities that are related to ceremonies it can get you a long way to creating the atmosphere you're looking for.

    Hope your first day went well.

  • Posted By: Mike HolmesSo I told him this is the last thing I will read to him.
    That made me cry a little. Going out with a bang, for sure... but it never occurred to me that there was a "last book read to me"--maybe it wasn't a formalized event for me? Honestly can't recall.

    But, man... The Last Book Dad Read To Me sounds like a seriously tear-jerking drama of loss of innocence (or loss of something far worse...).
  • Cool, Mike. As a matter of fact I have been reading a bit, from the Hobbit. Since I've introduced Bilbo as someone who used to have Adventures, and who bequeathed us the Ring, it works well to offer glimpses of Bilbo's past adventure, without intruding on our own version of Lord of the Rings that we're playing out. if I introduced LotR plot elements I feel it would intrude on our ability to say things are happening our way. Anyway so far they're eating up the readings, to the point that they beg me to read more when I stop. I want to nudge them more toward telling their own stories pretty soon.

    Ceremonial markers are definitely awesome; I've done a bit of that but it's hard to keep it up all the time. Next time I do this (next summer, hopefully) I wanna be much more prepared. I'm barely keeping up with these kids, to say nothing of my own ideas. It's cool that they're assertive and creative, but things run a bit wild sometimes and like I said above, I haven't been able to get to a lot of the group storytelling stuff. But I think a couple of days of general tongue-loosening and relationship-building will serve us well for diving into that.

  • So! i've been back for a few days now, letting my thoughts and experiences percolate. Here's how it went:

    First off--I didn't get anything you'd actually call roleplaying or storygaming going. It just wasn't the way the wind blew. There was a LOT going on at each day of camp, and I wasn't prepared to force anything. I was looking for ways to use group storytelling to enhance the rest of the experience, not pull energy from it or even just work alongside it.

    Also, I didn't want to throw anyone into the deep end. Instead, I used the aforementioned Juicer deck as a series of steps further and further out from the shallow end of the pool. This is the fluency building that Willem Larsen talks about in his (admittedly awkwardly named) Pedagogy of Play: once everyone's comfortable with a given step, THEN go deeper. And make each step fun in its own right so you're not "waiting to play for real." So I took each Juicer game on its own merits. I played a lot of name-reinforcing stuff to help me learn them all and get them talking. We played "tuning" where we all make the same silly sound, and when someone changes sounds we all match it as quickly as possible. We played "sound ball" where you make a funny sound then "pass it" like an invisible ball and the next guy has to "catch it" by mimicing the sound. W played "Yes, and. . ." where we all tell a story around a circle by adding positively to the last contribution: "We're going out to explore the Elven forest!" "Yes, and we'll all get captured by Orcs!" etc.

    The main idea is to get everyone talking to each other AND listening to each other. If I had it to do over again I'd have focused on these more in the first day, so I could build on it more in subsequent days and actually get to the point of us all telling a full-on story. As it was there just wasn't time by the time I was game to try. If i'd have found even a spare hour in the last couple of days I would have tried my "go to a place and tell of what happened there long ago" idea, but no such luck.

    What we DID do was a blast, though. There was a full-on over-story that framed the week--finding, bearing and destroying the Ring, while exploring the woods and meeting Gollum, Elves, Orcs, etc. You could think of it as a loosely organized LARP, of course. We were limited by A) Props, B) Range of locales and C) spare actors for characters to meet, but within those limits things turned out pretty good. I had wax-sealed letters from Bilbo, Gandalf and Elrond on different days to elaborate on the Quest. I had a Green Man mask for an intern to wear as Treebeard, and a matching leaf crown for a fellow teacher to wear as an Elven Lady. I made up an Elvish song for teaching Elvish words as we name things in the forest. The whole thing was pretty tightly directed, but I tried to let the kids lead as much as possible; I only crafted each letter as I saw each day unfold, and I even tried to let the kids decide what to do with the ring. They were pretty movie-savvy though, and were unanimous about "destroying it in lava."

    A few super-cool things I observed: 1) as I noted I read snippets from the Hobbit. I learned two things to my mild surprise (and delight) about reading it to modern 8-10 year olds: A) They laugh in all the right places ("My, what an awful lot of things you use Good Morning for!") and such, and B) they don't need any help with Tolkien's flowery descriptions and Oxford-y turns of phrase. Oh, and C) they eat it up when you make up tunes to the songs and sing them! :)

    2) Nobody was terminally shy. A couple of kids were horrible at paying attention, and one boy was definitely reluctant to speak first in a game, but everyone stepped up the plate in giving input when asked.

    3) I had a unique opportunity when I was paired up with an other camper group, because they didn't have a One Ring to destroy--they instead had Galadriel's ring Nenya that they were trying to hide for safekeeping. This meant we could combine our stories without contradiction! I also got to talk about the contrast between the Ring of Domination and the Rings of Preservation and Healing, as well as other cool stuff like Elvish hospitality and giving of gifts. The other group's leader was my Leaf-crowned Elf-lady, and together we created a nice Ceremonial space to encourage friendship between the groups and commission our final quest together. When we each set out in different directions into the woods (to converge on the same spot, where the Fires of Mt Doom had "bubbled up" into the forest), the tension was palpable. These boys, who hitherto had "made a noise like elephants" on every hike, were now moving quietly and carefully in the woods, anticipating orc attack at every turn! When we did find the Orcs (High school campers) guarding the fire and squabbling amongst themselves, we fanned out carefully into position until our friends arrived from the other side--battle was joined, foam arrows were loosed, and in the end the surviving Orcs driven off with our Elvish song! Our Ringbearer-of-the-day dropped it in the fire, and the rest of us poured Rivendell's good earth onto the blaze so it might recede from the forest. Then our allies deposited their ring into an ancient Cedar, there to be guarded by the Ents until needed once more. It was truly magical. I got misty. And I never saw those kids more focused.

    * * *

    I think if I get to do it again next year, I'll be able to work to make the experience more kid-driven. Like I said, drilling the improv/storytelling exercises hard the first day will probably lead to them finding a voice AND a focus a lot earlier. Ditto with the ceremonial marking of creative space. I'd even like to consider making our group narrative independent of the Lord of the Rings story entirely--the whole "destroy the One Ring" thing is there mainly because everyone, the camp organizers included, equate "Middle-Earth" with "Lord of the Rings," but it doesn't have to be so*, as my companion with her Nenya Quest demonstrated. Again, the kids are going to have to have a voice early, and understand clearly that we're telling an entirely different story, for us to truly cut that cord.


    *Still, you shoulda seen their faces when I let 'em chuck a replica One Ring into an actual fire, and it became clear that I wasn't gonna dig it out.
  • Very cool recap, Joel. I'd skipped over this before, and read it on whim today. I'm glad I did. This seems like a neat idea. I wouldn't really have had a lot to add, though. My own son is only now nearing 2, and the extent of my experience teaching kids things probably ends at teaching Basic Rifle Marksmanship to my wife's friend's son with his nerf gun.


    I don't think, once I start, I'll ever stop reading to my son. Once he gets old enough, we'll probably take turns reading to each other though, like my wife and I currently do now.
  • Thanks, Lance. Honestly, though I welcome everyone's input, I think the best way to learn how to storytell with 8-10 year olds was to spend the week with 8-10 year olds. :) It was a cool experience and I learned a lot. For next camp, OR for other situations in the future.

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