Monday, January 13, 2014

Spontaneous Role Playing with my 5-year-old

... or how a kid taught his dad a few things.

But first, a quick, "hello!" My name is Guy Fullerton, and besides playing AD&D and various other rpgs, I also occasionally publish and/or help produce rpg modules & supplements. Rob kindly invited me to post here, and in a few weeks I will post a some teasers and tidbits about the upcoming reprinting of his excellent Dark Druids module. For now, though, I offer a brief anecdote on an unexpected role playing session with my young son...

As a parent, sometimes I get into odd conversations in places that might surprise a non-parent. A few days ago, while in the bathroom to keep my five-year-old son company while he sat on the potty before bed (too much information, sorry!), I happened to mention D&D. I don't recall the exact remark, but it might have been about running my lunch-time AD&D campaign earlier that day. The conversation quickly became challenging.

Me: "blah blah ... Dungeons & Dragons ... blah blah."

Son: "Dad, how do you play Dungeons & Dragons?"

Me: <pause> "Uh. It's like... Hmm."

A parental predicament! How does one explain D&D to a five year old who is supposed to go to sleep soon? I chose a simple answer, so as to keep the definition flexible, but also to avoid any monster-ish bits (bad dream fuel), and to avoid exciting conflict bits that might get him wound up before sleep.

Me: "You imagine yourself in a situation, and then decide what to do."

Son: <slightly furrowed brow, suggesting he sort of understood, but wasn't totally sure>

Me: "It's kind of like this: Imagine you are in a boat, in the very middle of a really big swimming pool, like the one at the athletic club*. It's getting close to dinner time, and you feel very hungry. Nobody else is around. What do you do?"

(*where he has started taking swimming lessons)

Son: "Eat some food!"

Gah! Not the best DM skills on my part there. I didn't describe the situation sufficiently, so:

Me: "Oh no! There's no food in the boat with you! What do you do now?"

Son: <pauses to think> "I wait."

Initially that answer surprised me, but in retrospect it makes sense. He's not much of a swimmer yet, so I wouldn't expect him to try getting into the water. And he's still pretty dependent on my wife and I when it comes to getting food. Admittedly the situation didn't give him any tools, so I decided to supply a potential, though indirect, tool...

Me: "You wait for a little while, and are even hungrier. Hey—here comes your big brother! He doesn't see you though, because he is walking across the pool deck to go somewhere else. What do you do?"

Son: "I wait."

My eyes opened wide with surprise. But that's okay; now he can observe a consequence...

Me: "Your brother passes by without noticing you, and he's now getting pretty far away." <pause>

Son: <silently waiting for me to talk more>

Me: "Your brother is out of sight now. You're still very hungry, and it must be around dinner time—you'd normally be eating right now. What do you do?"

Son: "I wait."

I gave my son a sideways look of suspicion. Maybe he's treating this more like a bedtime story. On the other hand, maybe he's just being silly. On the other-other hand, it's close to bedtime, and he's not at his best when he's tired.

Since my wife and I are generally the suppliers of his basic necessities, I tried to spur action by bringing one of us into the imaginative environment...

Me: "You wait more, and you are *really* hungry now. Oh look! Here comes mommy! She's walking near the edge of the pool. It looks like she is headed to the same place your brother went. But she doesn't see you in the boat, either. What do you do?"

Son: "I wait."

Here, I sorta wanted to shake my head in defeat, but again: Possible mitigating circumstances. I decided to wrap things up quickly and get on with bedtime...

Me: "Mommy walks on past, without noticing you in the boat. She goes out of sight, just like your brother did. Okay, kiddo—time to get down from the potty and wash hands and stuff."

So we did all the bedtime stuff, and he went to sleep.

On first reflection I felt like the experience (experiment?) was a failure. I thought of a dozen ways I could have framed a situation that was less puzzle-ish. And certainly I'll use some of those ideas next time we play this kind of game.

But later I realized it was actually a very rewarding experience. Obviously my son get to observe some consequences of action ... or inaction, as the case may be. More importantly, though, I saw how he might react in a situation of separation. I learned a little bit more about his (overly?) patient temperament. It reminded me that we haven't talked about how to get help when you're alone, or when you're not sure what to do.

For me as a parent, that's powerful stuff.


  1. My daughter's four, and we did the same sort of improv exercise. She was walking down a forest path, in princess garb (naturally), but with sword and shield. She was attacked by a troll. She hit it with the sword (she's in martial arts and does sword class with us weekly; she knows about hitting stuff with swords) but it regrew. Hit it again, regrew. So she declared she was casting a magic spell on it and burning it.

    OK. Trolls don't like fire, victory achieved. Farther down the path, another monster, a giant spider. "I cast a spell so it's a good spider and friends with me with my wand."

    Huh. Mind control. Go Short Stack go.

  2. Great post Guy! Perhaps next time, try you in the boat with your son and, instead, you being hungry and see how he reacts, :)

    @ Douglas--That's a precious story. Here's a small part from a book I'm currently deep in writing that is related to all of the above.

    *And here we must consider children with all of their creative and wildly intuitive play methods: they adjust to situations in their ever-changing sphere of play as suits their growing needs; they use democratic principles while defining and expanding upon the infinite territory of the mind; they engage with life full throttle while they are imitating it; they are inclusive, considering everything and everyone as appropriate to their spheres of imaginative thought. In sum, they are open to experimentation and change and are thus dynamic with their applied curiosities. “What if?” doesn’t take long to become “That’s what it is!” with children.* Copyright 2014 Robert J. Kuntz

  3. Ooh, good idea! I will try it with me in the boat tomorrow.

  4. Unless there's a follow-up I haven't read, it seems Guy and his son must havebstarved to death on that boat. Sad regrets.

  5. @Grandpa Chet: Heh. I met Guy at Garycon VI and indeed asked him about the follow-up, but he had opted for another course that yielded the same result, above. Perhaps we'll learn more if and when he tries it in he future. :)