116) Dealing with the Devil: Adventures in parenting, Part 4 — Role-play, kids, and personal growth

So, Siskenet had a pretty interesting discussion with a Lord of Evil eh?

What fertile ground has been prepared!   And seeded!  Such rich soil, such abundant energy, for future conversations and questions about topics like power, compassion, maturation, stereotypes of masculinity, personal responsibility, and Lord (of Evil) knows what else!

This is one of the very deep and truly wonderful by-products of engaging in something as personal and, indeed, intimate, as role playing games with your family.  And I wonder how well-known this is to the “general public” (whatever that means)?  Like, do people think of Dungeons & Dragons as just a kind of wacky game, where you pretend to run around in a Lord of the Rings type of world, kill stuff, and steal treasure?  It’s like kids pretending to be super-heroes with magic powers? Basically? It’s cool and all if you play D&D with your friends in grade 8, or 11, or whatever, but it’s not something to do for “the rest of your life”!  And certainly not with children!  Sheesh!!  What are you teaching them?

Well, I have no idea if people think that or not.  But, if they do, they are sadly in the dark about the incredible, literally life-changing potential of a year-after-year-after-year, campaign of heroism and adventure, magic and myth and mystery, tragedy and victory, with your kids.  It’s The Best.  

Our campaign started with a mystery, when the youngest of my kids were about 6 or 7. The mystery of the hooded man who disappeared from the caravan. Where did he go? And why? Once we found his trail, and followed it into the forest, a whole world of intrigue opened up to us, plots and counterplots, alliances and rivalries spanning millennia, extra-dimensional powers, ancient technologies, gargantuan beasts.

Nine years later in the real world, we are proudly 10th level characters, having earned every level through literal months and years of ridiculous, hilarious time spent together. We just saved the birds from extinction and captured Asmodeus in a time bubble. (Well, we didn’t really capture him ourselves, but we made it possible for someone else to….anyway, details, details….). Now, we’re heading home, after having to flee those many years ago, to see if our families are still alive, to join the Resistance and overthrow the tyrannical King, and see what can do to put the world right again. Of course, first there’s a side-quest in the Elemental Plane of Fire, because there’s something very, very important there we need to steal…..but I digress….

So just imagine, after that many years of shared memories and Larger Than Life experiences together, how much rich fodder there is for conversations with your kids. Not just ridiculous ones, although those too. But deep ones, Meaning Of Life ones, because your characters have been through the trenches together, have made some very difficult moral choices together, have suffered, have mourned, and of course, have celebrated and feasted.

It’s similar to when you watch movies or read stories with your kids, and then later on, in real life, when some moral dilemma, or heartbreak, or tragedy, or other important thing happens, you find yourself likening your experience to the narrative of that story.  Once you have analogically mapped your “self” (your self concept, the interrelated set of beliefs, opinions, values, experience, etc. that you think of as “you”), onto the story, then that story speaks to you.  Personally.  It’s a source of meaning, guidance, wisdom.  

So imagine when the story is one in which you also participate.  You co-create it.  You are a co-author, a co-narrator, and you play, as yourself, one of the main characters.  You ARE the story.  

And the stakes are high!  As high as they can be, in a sense, for at least in the imaginary world to which you relinquish normal-reality for these wondrous, imagination-firing periods of time calling “playing D&D”, the stakes are Life and Death.  Fame and fortune.  Glory and sacrifice. Heroes and villains.  Saving the world and stealing the ancient artifact.  

I have often said to people, that many of the best times in my life, and many of the best things I’ve ever done with my kids, never really happened. 

But oh, they happened!  You just ask any of the half-dozen or so of us sitting around the table on that particular night, ask us whether the near-death encounter, the brilliant caper, the ridiculous escape, really happened.  You will be regaled with stories.  Details.  Memories.  Conversations.  Emotions.  They happened as surely as your heart stopped in dread, watching that 20-sided die roll to a stop, knowing the result may mean your death.  They happened as surely as you choked with laughter, spitting pop out of your nose, as your buddy rolled his third “1” in a row, while your other buddy, having shape-changed into a flying lizard, was twisting and turning through the air, while four Elves on a flying carpet chased him, shooting balls of fire, while on the ground, the halfling with the adamantite armour was holding her own, morningstar whistling and crunching, Orc-blood spewing dark purple on the white snow.  MWAAHAHAHAHAAAA!!! 

Oh yes, those experiences were real.  As real as any others of my life now lodged in my memory banks.  

Role-playing games, in a family context, are an amazing opportunity, not only for imagination, fun, family bonding, great experiences, problem-solving, creativity, cooperation, working through emotions, resolving conflict, and gods-know-how-many-other-benefits, but, in addition to ALL that, role-playing games are a beautiful opportunity to go really, really deep into Who You Are.

You get to create and experience characters with your kids who are downright awesome Heroes. Ethical, moral, fight for the little guy, kind of people. But not only that, not by a very long shot. You get to create characters that exemplify any and all of the different archetypes you will encounter in life. And the best characters, the most interesting ones, have flaws. They might even be downright terrible people. And thus, you get to experience everything, all the messiness of Being, in a magical, kick-ass world where you can experiment, you can try on different selves, you can stretch and play within your own subjective identity, you can be anything and anyone.

So who are you, really? What kind of person are you? Where do you stand; where do you draw the line? Let’s find out. “Roll a d20…”

And emotions!! You want to talk about helping children learn skills of “emotional intelligence” and self-regulation? Through role play, you create experiences that can capture pretty much every challenge of life, and thus, through play, you practice the skills of self-regulation that are necessary for making it in this world. It’s much the same as many animal species, whose play behaviours are like training sessions for hunting, combat, escape and other skills that will be critical to their lives. Play is real work, and role playing Dungeons & Dragons with children is a major emotional work-out.

You encounter awe, fear, greed, compassion, regret, anger, jealousy, and the desire for vengeance, and all the rest. You experience team-work and ally-ship, courage, loyalty, but also betrayal, being lied to and manipulated. You experience Good people who really are Good people, but also Bad people who pretend to be good people in order to coerce you into some nefarious ploy of theirs. You experience being uncertain, scared, having to take risks, having to work together to solve problems. You experience encounters with malevolence. You are challenged, questioned, put to the test. 

Through role play, you can have a safe space in which to explore who you really are. 

And of course, as the Dungeon Master who creates the larger world and scenarios and encounters, you have infinite freedom; you can embed any “life lesson” into an encounter, any real-life analogy into a Quest.

And so, we had Siskenet’s (and Faeruz’, although he was pretty out of it…), encounter with Asmodeus, one of the Lords of Evil in our D&D world.  The encounter was surprising, not only to Siskenet, but to my son, the real-life person behind the character.  He was expecting his Demon captor to be classically evil:  ugly, violent, sadistic, with skulls and flames and screaming and all the rest. 

And instead, what he seemed to encounter was simply another being, more or less like Siskenet himself, albeit of quite a different form.  But this being seemed reasonable, intelligent, deep.  He had things to say, and in fact, the things he said seemed pretty much what Siskenet believed too! 

There was, of course, “something off” about the whole encounter, in no small part because it was happening with a Lord of Evil in the first place.  So Siskenent (and my son) walked away with a lot of questions.  Questions that led to a lot of conversations.  And conversations that then have become relevant down the road, as my kids have gotten older, as the messages they encounter “out there in the world” become more complex, and wisdom becomes more difficult to always discern.  

One of the most basic, “meta” points that I know for sure sunk into my kids’ minds from their encounter with Asmodeus (and others that have occurred subsequently), is the fact that the best lies, the most devious propaganda, the most slippery, manipulative messages, are built out of the truth.  The more truth that’s in the lie, the better it is.  The absolute best un-truths will be built entirely out of truths, put together in such a way that, holistically, as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, they take on a different kind of meaning. 

Think of how useful that is, if you are interested in helping your kids learn to be critical thinkers.  Or to help your kids learn to examine and be conscious of their own values.  

Rich soil indeed.  

In a future post, I’ll describe their encounter with Baphomet (who we quite affectionately call “Bathmat” now).  For while Asmodeus was about personal responsibility, the utility of compassion & altruism vs. suffering & “natural consequences”, and creating a world whereby people’s lives focused on Excellence, Baphomet is going to have some quite different things to say.  And some quite interesting views on Asmodeus (of whom Baphomet is truly not fond).


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