I I I I I I I  

AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Things I Learned While Deposing the King

Everybody loves a good story. I love telling one, and getting and audience involved with the characters. One of my favorite ways of doing that as a teenager was through role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. If you’re unfamiliar with this widespread but slightly insular hobby, here’s how it works: the players make up imaginary characters typical to a certain genre of fiction (a fantasy wizards and dragons milieu is perhaps the most common, but the breadth of options is dizzying) using a convoluted rule system that defines their attributes, skills, abilities and so on, and they strive together to complete adventures devised by one special player, the ‘game master,’or GM. The GM makes up the world around the characters, the supporting cast, the villains, and even dictates the weather. Everyone sits around a table and talks a lot. The GM describes what the characters experience (“The hooded figure in the doorway of the theatre steps forward and points at you.”), the players declare their actions (“I duck behind Carl and yell ‘It wasn’t me, I didn’t do it!'” “Hey! Carl holds his hand up and says ‘Don’t drag me into this! What did you do this time?’”), and this goes back and forth (“The figure commands you to ‘Step out of the way. This is between he and I.’”). Dice rolls usually determine the success or failure of physical things the characters try to do, and that’s what the aforementioned rules mainly relate to (“I try to duck back into the alley behind me and hide in the shadows.” “Kind of hard to disappear when he’s already looking right at you. Roll your ‘hide’ check with a –5 penalty.”). It sounds pretty complicated, and it can be, but it’s basically a sophisticated game of pretend. Your weird aunt offers you $100 if you stay a night in the haunted house: what do you say?

The appeals of the hobby were numerous; it was limited only by my imagination, there was a constant element of surprise introduced by the unpredictability of the other players, it was fairly cheap, and it spawned many great anecdotes. “What did you do yesterday?” “Oh, you know, I hung out at the donut shop.” “Yeah? I hunted down a vampire.” Or solved a murder mystery, or negotiated a peace treaty with some aliens. Even when the dice worked against you, there were often some laughs in it. “Okay, to be honest, I tripped on the door sill when I went in after it, and the wooden stake sailed right out of my hand and fell into his lap. He laughed so hard he shot blood out of his nose before Carl came in to back me up with his cross.” Sometimes the tone of the game was deadly serious (“What do you mean none of us knows how to defuse it?”) and sometimes it was just plain silly (“Well, Moe, the settlers are so happy you helped them get their start here, they’re going to name this place after you: Motown. Want to be mayor?”). I’d already been clearly defined as a chess club, school trivia challenge team, just-slightly-too-odd-to- ever-be-cool geek, so what did it cost me? I found out over time that there were other advantages that weren’t so obvious. All of the charts, figures, multipliers and calculating odds paid off in general math confidence, and the vast amount of reading skyrocketed our vocabulary (“What do you mean the word ‘enervating’ seems awkward here? Let me get you my O.E.D.”) and writing skills, not to mention our general knowledge about certain historical subjects (“Flying buttresses are really common in castles of this vintage"). We grew a lot of good problem solving and thinking on our feet skills, too. And I had a blast. And with a handful of very close friends I built a lexicon of shared mythology, in jokes, and memories.

Naturally, I wanted to share this with my offspring. I always look for ways to use whatever the boys are interested in as a vehicle to illustrating something in the real world. When Keefe was heavily into Star Wars, I used it to exemplify how our electoral system worked. (“Okay, Leia will tend to vote along with Luke because they’re both part of the same ‘party’, but she’s got to approach each issue with the idea of what’s best for the survivors of Alderaan even if it brings them into conflict. Jabba over here, though, is in the pocket of his huttese backers so he votes against that ecological initiative his constituents want…”). Even better, those action figure games let me challenge the simplistic us vs. them mentality of a lot of children’s fare encourages (“Just because I’m wearing this costume you assume I’m a supervillain! It’s the guy with the sock over his head over there who’s trying to rob the bank, I’m just here helping my mother.”). Eventually, though, Keefe had heard enough amused references in passing between his friendly uncles about Tharg the Bonecrusher’s fear of literacy and what not that he wanted to get in on the action. We’ve played a few games together, both he and I together and with a group of his school friends, and with a certain amount of good-natured head-shaking by my ever-gracious wife, he’s heard over months the long arc of the most ambitious role playing campaign I ever GMed. I’m surprised to see how much I am still learning as a result of this process of sharing it with Keefe.

First of all, I am reminded that I do tell a good story. Keefe’s enthusiasm has been utterly satisfying, refreshing my own (“The wizard finally breaks free and, seeing how the battle’s going, he says a single magic word, and all of the trees in the orchard start turning into armed warriors.” “What? He can do that? Holy crap!” “Well, for all they know it’s an illusion or something, but they’re pretty rattled.”). At moments, he wrings his hands, or cheers, or puts parts of the puzzle together, and these characters and things are as real to him as they were to his uncles. It brings back memories eight or more years old of a time that Keefe saw me as his best friend and this really cool guy instead of the fun police homework enforcer that he spars with so commonly today. I’ve found a bridge to span some of the chasm that’s grown between us in the years since his brother’s birth and his loss of only child status.

I stumble from time to time on relative appropriateness of the material for my audience. The story has profanity, sexuality, betrayal, and horrific elements. “So after the fight with the werewolves, Raji meets Benedict on the road: the guy who was blackmailing them earlier. Trouble is, Benedict’s got some of his bandit friends with him, and …” Oh, yeah, this is the part where he tells Raji that if he points that sword at him, he’ll take it away and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Later, his friends find Raji’s lifeless body in that highly undignified condition. Maybe this is the wrong story to tell a grade five student.

“What is it, dad? What happens?”

“Okay, Keefe, I will trust you not to take this unpleasant scenario to heart, and not to repeat this to your friends on the schoolyard, because it’s not really appropriate.” I edit some, I cringe inwardly, or sometimes chuckle at a ribald joke that I’ll share eventually. Keefe nods sagely, gets most of the jokes anyway, and tells his uncle Matthew the next time he sees him how sorry he feels for Raji’s ignoble passing. As always, I see that he’s naturally cogent of some very sophisticated story elements. Still, perhaps it’s the evolution of videogames since I was his age (and simply his age itself and the inexperience that goes along with it) that leads him to think more in their terms. Which one’s the bad guy? Okay, get him! Use the fireball! On that level, the game merely calls for a bit of tactics, occasional flukes of the dice, and a GM with a flair for description and sound effects.

Where things get interesting for me, and for the guys I used to play with, is the point where it doesn’t matter who’s bigger or tougher than somebody else and the characters confront hard choices, or conundrums that reshape their world. Does Lasalle tell his companions about the hallucinations and bad dreams he’s having, and will they stop trusting him if he does? How will Raji confess to Tharg about killing his son Bwana? On the brink of sacrificing him, the evil priest smiles down at Feyd and instead simply lets him leave. “I had a dream about you, boy, I have to let you go. You’re going to do me a great service one day.” The question ‘what would I do if?’ is never a hard one when the ugly zombie reaches its cold hands towards you. When Tallorien is being railroaded into an arranged marriage he doesn’t want, the conflict between duty and desire is a theme the players will likely encounter in some form in real life. At this point, as the GM, I’m derailing the whole world of Star Wars or Batman or whatever the fantasy of the moment is towards my own purposes. What’s right and wrong here? How do you define yourself? Can you forgive? What will you try to make it right? It’s harder to carry out the bloody revenge that resolves 80% of action movies if you can see that wrong actions might come from good intentions, the antagonist is painted in shades of grey, or you know that pulling the trigger won’t fix the real problem. This is really the world that I am driven to introduce Keefe to: the world of making choices the way he’ll have to as a part of growing up. The magic swords and tough guy dialogue and special effects are ultimately window dressing: the sugar that makes cough medicine palatable to youth. Besides, they’re fun.

Looking in the mirror, I also know that sophisticated though it is, there’s something adolescent in this pastime that I’ll never be ready to give up. I like to think that it will be a part of our household’s stories, and a way that it never has to stop being cool for Keefe to play with his dad. I would want to do it even if that weren’t so. As a cooperative social activity, it’s always going to be more interesting to me than some video game, despite the embarrassingly rudimentary nature of the visual effects. There’s also a big kid in me who will always think it’s cool trying to find a cure for the alien virus before it turns me into some kind of monster, and would rather do that with my limited free time than, say, wearing a butt-groove in the couch watching a bunch of overpaid strangers play sports. It keeps my mind active and creative, and sometimes it’s cheap therapy.

That juvenile part of my psyche is also highly infuriating. It’s not a cast member in all of the conflicts I have with Keefe, but you can bet it’s on stage for every dumb pissing contest. For which I offer the following example. A couple of weekends ago, I took our front hallway apart to paint it. The coat rack and boots and things spread over the dining room and living room plunged the house into general chaos. Having gotten about half of it done Saturday, Jan convinced me Sunday morning to take a break and go sledding with her and the boys. At one point I asked Keefe if he wanted to take the toboggan to the top of the big hill with me. He’d slipped off of it on his first attempt with Jan and was having none of it thereafter. Come on, I cajoled him: it’ll be fun. He looked at me, clearly not realizing quite what was coming out of his month, and told me, utterly deadpan, “You’ve already screwed your friends up mentally, I’m not going to let you do it to me physically.” I was flabbergasted. Stupidly, I was also determined. So, I took the whole hill from the top by myself. I spun out of control, hit a mogul, sailed far through the air, and came to an abrupt stop. I broke two ribs, emptied my bladder, and slammed my consciousness so far out of my body that it took me at least thirty seconds to realize that several people were standing over me asking frantically if I was okay. Oh, the dignity! Keefe, to his credit, hasn’t once said I told you so.

Now I’ve been as pleasant company as any wounded animal for about two weeks, perpetually short winded because I can’t properly take a deep breath, and I flinch whenever I cough or sneeze. In my more lucid moments, I feel chagrinned, and a little humbled. Nobody goaded me into that slippery slide, and it would be childish of me to do it even if they had. Let’s be honest: I am too old for any sort of pissing contest anyway. That’s an adolescent’s game. But once again, I’ve learned something about myself, hopefully hard enough to make it stick. What seemed more urgent, once I got out of the emergency ward, were the questions Keefe’s comments raised. Was that really the way that he saw my hobby and the stories we’ve shared about it? I had to have a hard think on that.

And then a couple of days ago on the phone with one of his friend’s parents, the topic of getting the kids together to game came up. She told me about the humor with which Keefe had been regaling Matthew; with second-hand tales, and the gravity with which he handled some of those anecdotes of questionable appropriateness. Matthew’s a year older than Keefe, and argued that if they’re okay for Keefe, he could certainly handle it. “But I could tell that Keefe really listened to you,” said Linda, “It seemed really important to him that he stick to this arrangement you made, and the privilege of being ‘in on it’ meant something.” So there I go. I guess, no matter how dumb I feel, that it’s as worthwhile as I hope. My stories are becoming his, and he cares about them. We will get to share many more. And what better gift can I think of to offer him, than something that meant so much to me?

Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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