And now for something completely different. Regular programming will resume shortly.
I’m sitting in my living room on a Saturday night and I’m listening to my son tell me about Pathfinder. Pathfinder is one of the most recent iterations of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, and is described in many heavy, rather expensive books that lay out all the rules, characters, classes, spells, monsters, treasures, and other things that make up this flavor of fantasy role-playing.
“I’m going to be a sorcerer,” he’s telling me, “and since I’m also going to be Dungeon Master, I’m going to make a rule that any character who wants to have more than one class and wants to be a sorcerer for one of them has to start out as a sorcerer. Because otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”
Believe it or not, the phrase “doesn’t make sense” has probably been uttered more often in the context of fantasy role-playing games than in all the articles about the government shutdown combined. This is because D&D is all about internal consistency, about creating a world, about figuring out why orcs are so grumpy, why gnomes are without doubt the best character race, why only magic swords glow and not magic maces. This is also because D&D is played, largely, by geeks who love to argue about esoteric things.
As my son continues telling me his theory about how the initial appearance of a sorcerer’s powers would have to occur before a character starts adventuring, I find I’m only half listening. And that’s because I’m remembering back to when I started playing D&D, when I was his age, growing up in Hawaii.
I have no idea how I first heard about Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, I grew up in Honolulu, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at a time when there was no internet, no cell phones, and only four channels on TV. Five if you count the Japanese language station (KIKU, Nihongo terebi) I would watch for samurai period shows and Japanese live-action Manga serials (Kikaida!). How would I learn about D&D? Fantasy and science fiction were most of what I read and I wonder if perhaps the fantasy shelves in the local bookstores might also have held a boxed version of that entry drug of role playing, Basic D&D.
I remember the box set well–the primitive cover illustration of a red dragon about to breathe fiery death on a party of foolish adventurers; the rule book that only took you up to level three, while promising oh, so much more once you got past that point and (*cough*) bought the advanced set of books; and the initial, fill-in-the-blanks module, “In Search of the Unknown.” And the dice. Cheap, plastic, multicolored, malformed. I loved those dice, even as the low-grade plastic began chipping away on all the edges, turning the 20-sided die into a smooth marble that kept rolling off the table. In seventh grade I convinced three other friends to play D&D with me. I was the DM and had no clue at all about how to make it work. The only thing that saved me was that my friends knew no better, and so I made them struggle through a year of playing without ever advancing a level.
It got better. We bought the advanced books, better dice, more modules, learned by trial and error. Eventually I realized one could actually give experience points that were not just for the monsters killed and treasure gained. I also discovered one could create worlds that weren’t underground tunnel systems, and that “Dungeon” really meant “Story,” and that the story could go anywhere. I played through high school and college, our circle broadening to more than a half dozen (including, amazingly, a few girls). It was a way to socialize, a way to imagine, a fun way to pass the time because, you know, in Hawaii there’s, like, nothing to do.
“I’m not sure what skills to pick. What would be best for a sorceror who will add the barbarian class at the next level?” my son asks, forehead furrowed in thought.
And here I am now, and I see my son growing, and learning, and stretching his imagination. He’s sprawled on the floor, looking back and forth between a couple of steak-thick, glossy rulebooks, scribbling notes on his character sheets while also doodling designs for the tower that will be the first adventure he’s planning.
When I learned I was going to be a father I didn’t really know what to expect. I think that puts me in pretty good company. Ten years later, I still don’t really know. There are trends and patterns, indications and hints but also complete surprises. The other day I heard my son and a friend get into a lengthy discussion about the relative merits of Pokemon editions and releases. I had no idea my son paid any attention to Pokemon, only to hear him holding forth with an analysis worthy of Nintendo University. Some days he’ll drive me nuts with inattention all day only to shock me by brushing his teeth, putting away his clothes, and getting into bed without prompting. Surprise!
My son carefully places a bookmark on the page detailing earth elementals and looks up at me seriously, “You really need to make your character now, so that we can play.”
His foray into Pathfinder is one small part of him learning who he is and what he wants to be. How he wants to grow. Am I happy that he’s got a streak of geek in him? Yeah, I am. Part of parenthood is seeing how your influences, biological and cultural, take root in new soil. But I’m happier still just to watch him growing up. Becoming himself, only more so. He is, every moment, poised at a place like the neck of an hourglass, the point between the proverbial past and future light cones. All his past rolls up into the him that’s there now. All the future stretches away in front of him, providing countless directions in which he could go. Like I was, more than thirty years ago. Like I am, still, now.
If I enjoyed playing D&D, it was largely because of this: the wondering about what was down the corridor, behind the secret door, inside that locked chest, over the hill and inside the tower and across the sea. And the joy of finding out. Raising a child is a lot like that. I hope his adventures turn out better than…well, than most of my D&D forays, come to think of it. I worry, I am proud, I hope, and I enjoy these moments, as I hunker down on the floor next to him, kiss the top of his head and say, “Okay, I’m ready, pass me the dice.”