As I sit down to have lunch today, I’m stuck in a whirlwind of thought about my son and his not-so-awesome experiences playing PnP roleplaying games at the local library. From what he’s telling me, it’s a pretty caustic environment (at least for him) and he’s just not having a good time. So much so in fact that he’s probably not going to go back. Which sucks. Worse than that, though, is that I’m not sure I can help him. Which really sucks.
It’s not that I don’t understand what he’s going through. I spent my entire youth (from about the age of 13 to, oh, yesterday) playing, planning, immersed in, thinking about some kind of roleplaying game. Whether Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in high school, Marvel Super Heroes in college, Both during the early years of marriage, or electronically through World of Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age … well you get the idea. What I’m trying to say is that my resume is chock full of experience with the games, so I ought to be able to fix whatever he’s going through. But I can’t.
When I was in my teens, I gave a lot of thought to what it meant to get together with friends (and not-so-friends) and go on an imaginary adventure together. What it meant to sit around a table with Mountain Dew and chips, clattering dice, pencils and graph paper and share the time — not as ourselves with our mundane zit-focused can’t-get-a-date problems — as creatures from our imaginations. There was a deep trust shared by everyone there that bickering and petty disagreements from the hallways of highschool couldn’t break. That this was a time to be apart from all of that. As the dungeon master of most of our weekly games, I felt it was up to me to protect that trust. Naturally, some fun-poking would be had and alliances crossed, and all of that was in good fun. It was up to me, though, to keep it as good fun and to referee the game and where it went. I wish I could do that for Gabe.
The problem is that I’m 36 years old. I can no longer enter the world of youthful gaming in any way that wouldn’t come across as creepy. I can’t volunteer as a DM or a player. I can’t give advice to the kids on what tactics to use to keep things friendly. Hell, I don’t even know if the concerns my friends and I had around trust and whatnot apply to Gabe’s group. All I know is that he’s not having a good time.
Basic game mechanics, good refereeing of the players’ actions, fairness in on-the-spot decision making and positive story telling can all contribute to a group dynamic that — while potentially adversarial and quasi-violent — will eventually yield fun for everyone, even — perhaps especially — for the kids who are socially awkward (are you listening, DMs?) I can see the solution. I know how to fix it. I could fix it. If I were younger.
For the first time in my life (aside from the white hairs in my beard that my wife tells me look sexy) I am really faced with my age and what that means. I live in a world of adults with adult problems, most of which I can solve. Faced with issues where adults aren’t involved — where it is the teens who are running things — I’m at an impasse. I can be here for Gabe and offer advice and counsel, a calming word or a hug as needed. Maybe even a distraction in the form of an ice cream or World of Warcraft raiding session. What I can’t do, though, is the thing I desire the most: fix the source of his pain.
For years I’ve felt that tabletop RPGs were a way for teens to safely learn things about each other, to learn what it meant to trust and empathize, to learn positive social interactions in a safe environment. After all, it was always our characters being harassed, not us. It was our characters who bore the brunt of everything, and they could teach us how to respond. For Gabe, though, it seems that what he’s learning is that no matter where he turns outside of his home there is little to be found in the way of empathy, compassion, trust, and honor. Worst of all, he’s finding that characters are no longer a protective avatar, but a tool to be used as a way of enhancing real-life bullying tactics.
And for this I have to apologize to my son. I’m sorry, man. I had thought that the games that brought me joy and lasting friendships in my youth might do the same for you. I hope you keep playing. Because if you do, I’ll be your DM anytime you want.