I grew up in an age where kids would just “go outside to play”. We didn’t make play dates. We never really knew where we were going; we were just going “out”. Drove my dad crazy to not know where we were. Now that I’m the Dad, it drives me crazy too.
But in a day and age where kids’ time is so structured, it is tough to remember those more innocent days when people weren’t worried about drive by shootings and other random violence. So what do fantasy era kids do?
I think it’s important to call out some differences. I know exactly what kids on the farms do: they help their parents and do chores. Not that they don’t get to play as well, but when there is work to do, they are working. No child labor laws here! I recall a story (no promise that it’s true) that Abraham Lincoln’s father rented him out to the neighbors, and Abe would chop wood and do other chores for money that he then gave to his father. Try that today!
Before moving on - let’s finish the rural kids: Mostly, they are doing chores: weeding the crops, foraging for berries or mushrooms, feeding the livestock, helping in the kitchen, chopping wood or gathering kindling, all sorts of stuff. What do they do for fun? Well, their friends are a fairly long distance away (because they are on the next farm over). This makes playing with friends a little tougher, but if time permits, they will try. More likely, they will amuse themselves on their parents’ farm. Some of their play time will likely be productive; things like fishing, grooming the horse(s), maybe a little hunting, even if it is only for crayfish or frogs. But they will have toys too. Little wooden figures they can set up as knights, corn husk dolls, fireplace soot tic-tac-toe, these kids have enormous back yards and imaginations to fill them, just not as many people as the city kids have.
So what happens in the cities? The kids leave the home and play in the streets all day until they get home just before their dads so it looks like they’ve been around the house all day. My city homes typically do not have back yards, or have very small backyards, because real estate inside a city wall is expensive! So where do these kids go?
Most kids will try to get away from the house so they are out from under mom’s watchful eye, but they don’t want to go too far or they lose all the benefits of home (free food, clean toilet, bandages when necessary). If there is a park close by, they will likely go there. It will be a gathering place for all the neighborhood kids. If there isn’t, then they are far more likely to get into trouble. Come on, you know it’s true. Where would they go? an abandoned house, or the street corner, or a grocery store. Even if their intentions are good, playing and hanging out in these places is likely to cause trouble for someone, and the accidents have far more consequences than they would at a park. But what are they doing? Typically just hanging out.
Is that all? Of course not! There will be some kids who are helping their parents at work, whether that be sweeping up the shop, helping mom when she is cleaning the fancy houses, or legitimately learning a trade as an apprentice. Some of the kids will be enrolled in schools, but with the cost of these schools, it is unlikely that the kids will be there all day, probably only half days. Some of the churches may try to run youth programs, but these are pretty few and far between. While the kids may be playing sports, what sports are common in your cities?
Kids like sports, so let’s think that one through just a bit more. In Forsbury, the main sport is horse racing, but very few kids can afford a horse. So they would gather at the horse ranches, sitting along the fences watching the horses train. They would constantly be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the various horses (sometimes correctly, but more often not) and dreaming of their lives as jockeys. In Brinston, the various policing units all have competitive track and field teams. Here most of the kids would either watch the athletes train or compete in their own races and mini-competitions. No, it’s not organized, but since when did a group of kids need adults to organize a game for them. Oh, that’s right, it started in the 90s. Taking a similar but darker perspective, in Garnock they all watch gladiatorial events. Here the kids would be watching the gladiators train or actually going to the arenas and watching the matches. Watching grown men kill each other for sport has to have an impact on a kid.
Does any of this matter? Yes! Why? Because knowing what the kids do during the day will tell you where they are, and at times, it is important to know where the kids are. Want to steal a race horse, expect that there are some kids at the fence watching you (during daylight hours). Did your pocket get picked? The kids on the corner probably either did it or know who did, but questioning a kid can attract all the wrong kinds of attention. Plan to meet a contact at a public park? You may not be able to communicate from all the noise the kids are making.
Ignoring these types of things makes your world feel dull and flat. You need to describe your world as a bustling, rambunctious place. Make the players feel as if there is life in the city, rather than just describing the signs above the doors of the businesses. Let them know there are kids playing tag in the streets and mothers yelling at their kids for not being careful enough or to come home for lunch. This is the illusion that you need to create.
Want to take it further? One of my best players was the “kid whisperer”. Immediately after getting any mission, she would question the local kids. Why? Well, the kids typically aren’t busy and will stop to talk. Kids can be bribed for a whole lot less than an adult. And kids seldom have agendas that would cause them to lie. Granted, the character needed a lot of acting skill, because she was a cold-blooded killer, and those types of folks tend to scare small children and their pets, but she had the social skills to pull it off. You might want to think about some of this the next time you find yourself in a big city and have no idea how to start the mission - whether you’re a GM or a player.
Post Script: Having trouble with a character history? Well, if you know about Brinston and that’s where the character spent his childhood, it would be common for the character to have Running or Jumping skill levels because of what they did as kids. Do other kids have wrestling skills from the way they spent their youth?