Transforming Dragons

NOTE: For the foreseeable future, I’ll be referring to X using female pronouns, for reasons explained (or at least alluded to) here. I encourage you to do the same!

Early on, X didn’t go in for imaginative play. Stuffies were good for throwing, Lego was good for leaving out where parents could step on it, but it took years to tame an object, saddle it with a metaphor, and ride it through a narrative. The first glimmers came with chess, the rules of which X learned quickly – but the narrative payoff of which, we both agreed, was slim.

So I skipped directly to Dungeons & Dragons. I was impatient – like the hockey dad trotting his toddlers out onto the ice before they’ve learned that ice skates aren’t for eating – and I figured, if X could master chess rules, then D&D rules shouldn’t be too difficult. In this respect, I was wrong; chess rules fill 10 pages, tops, whereas Pathfinder (my D&D spin-off of choice) has a 500-page rulebook, plus countless supplements. But I was used to fudging the rules, even for grownup players; I was ready to accommodate X’s budding imagination however necessary, if it meant I got a lifelong gaming partner out of the deal.

The first obstacle involved the concept of the Dungeon Master. Basically, D&D requires one DM and any number of players, or PCs. The DM creates the maps, the monsters, and the quest – he or she is God in the unfolding world of the campaign. The PCs are the heroes, overcoming obstacles (or not), slaying dragons (or getting eaten by them), and earning eternal glory through story and song (or rocks fall, everybody dies).

What didn’t work out, back at the tender age of 3, was the immutable divide between the roles. Every time something didn’t go her way – a poor roll of the d20, an unexpected trap, a disappointing cache of treasure – X felt she could amend the problem by switching jobs on the spot. “I’m the DM now,” she’d say, snatching the dry-erase marker from my hand to modify the dungeon map to her advantage. I’d made a terrible mistake, introducing a toddler to a game in which one player gets to be God but then blithely assuming that she wouldn’t think the job belonged to her.

So my favourite game ever went back on the shelf, or at least returned to “grown-ups” status, till this year, when two factors conspired to bring it back out. First, here in France I am starved for opportunities to roll the dice. I had one session with a group of francophones, but our schedules have never aligned since then. I run an online game, but it’s painfully slow and lacks the spontaneous, improvisatory thrill of face-to-face gaming. So as soon as I spotted a glimmer of interest from X, I leapt.

The second factor is Zelda. Over the course of three months, we played through The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 2DS – I handle the controls, mostly, but she advises on how to proceed through the open-ended world. It’s a fantastic video game – consistently voted one of the best ever – partly because it provides the illusion of choice. Even still, at five years old, X was perceptive enough to notice the pre-programmed boundaries, and she began to chafe at the game’s limitations. Why can’t we use the hookshot to cross the magic river? Why is there such a shortage of empty bottles? Etc.

The answer to all such questions is Dungeons & Dragons. The game’s elegant answer to any “why can’t I” question is, “Roll a d20 and maybe you can.” And so, with our Zelda odyssey nearing its end, I unfurled the gridded paper and the geodesic dice. “So, there’s a village, and a forest, and some borderlands,” I began, “and you have a dagger and a sling. What do you want to do?”

The results have been insightful. I half-expected X to try to recreate Zelda, but her choices reveal a deeper insight into the world’s potential. After liberating some goblin slaves from their orc masters, she immediately set the goblins to work for her – not an option most video games provide. And upon learning that the Big Bosses worship Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders, and frequently leave valuable offerings on her shrines, X has begun an active campaign against Lolth-worshippers – not because they pose a threat to good citizens of the world, but because the more shrines she can loot, the more powerful she’ll become.

Unless you’re learning the names of different polearms, D&D isn’t the greatest educational tool in the world. But I believe it does teach critical and creative approaches to complex problems, partly because the solutions are limited only by the PCs’ and the DM’s imaginations. A great example, which involves X’s still-shaky grasp of metaphor, occurred when I introduced a creature called an air elemental. All my D&D figurines are back in Sydney, so we’ve been mostly using Lego guys, but for this unusual creature I simply grabbed a white 20-sided die and plunked it on the map. “It’s about this big,” I said, “and looks like a whirlwind.”

X understood it was a special challenge – but she noticed something which I did not. “It’s got a number 15 on top,” she said, referring to the die itself. “Is that important?” On the spot, I decided that sure, it was. I told her that the creature was drawn to things related to the number 15. Immediately, she started figuring out how to “weaken” the air elemental by luring it towards buildings with fewer sides than that. Ultimately, she brought it close to a 3-sided structure, bringing the creature’s number down low enough that she could attack and kill it. This solution would never have worked in a standard D&D game, but it was so ingenious I just had to let her get away with it.

It’s also revealing to watch X process ethical questions within the game – for instance, how much should she risk her own character’s welfare for the sake of strangers? – but mostly I just enjoy the glee she demonstrates when rolling a “natural 20,” or getting to go up a level – the same little joys that players of all ages find transcendent. She still sometimes looks for opportunities to blur the line between PC and GM, but I think I’ve learned to be more flexible, too. We’re building a collaborative story, and I’m willing to let the solipsistic outlook of the five-year-old in on that process.

But if she thinks her character is automatically entitled to a hookshot or an Ocarina of Time just because we played some Zelda, she’s got another thing coming. This isn’t cushy video game time, kiddo. We’re in dragon country.

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