Introducing Kids to Role-playing

At the beginning of last semester, when I called roll in a class that included a student with the last name “Gearhart,” I have been telling steampunk bedtime stories to my kids (Peter, 10; and Carolyn, 6).

Each night, after my daughter has finished the tooth-brushing and prayer-saying, in total darkness I try to advance the plot for about ten minutes, then give the kids some “interactive time,” where they role-play various characters.

Tonight, Captain Rod Gearhart, having been prodded by his older brother, the banking tycooon Maximillian Gearhart, finally decided he will declare his love for Miss de Meaner, the science officer from a rival blimpship (the Dark Blimpship of Count Catastrophe). After a quick visit to his quarters to freshen up, he strides down to sickbay, where Miss de Meaner is recovering from an injury received in a pirate attack. She is asleep, so he sits on the edge of her bed and declares his love for her (in an appropriately stiff-upper-lip, stuffed-shirt, all-work-and-no-play kind of way).  When he finishes, the figure in the bed sits up — it is not Miss de Meaner after all, but one of her biobot crew members (artificial humans, picked up in an earlier adventure).  The biobot says that the devious Solomonder told him to load Miss de Meaner into an escape pod and then lie down in her bed and pretend to be her.

I heard the children gasp, and Carolyn — who loves the romantic subplots as much as Peter loves the etherpunk technology — fumbled for my hand in the darkness.  All week I was planning that twist, even having Solomonder snicker under his breath “Heh, heh heh!” after he requested permission to leave the ship, and establishing that one of the biobot crew members is missing.

Every couple of days I write down all the latest events so I can keep them straight in my head, and I’ve also got a list of long-term goals for a story arc that will probably take months to tell. I’ve set the ground rules that there will be no encounters with aliens, and we won’t leave our solar system. We’ve had stories that feature a campaign for being elected mayor of the Moon, a rebellion on the Space Station of the Soldiers of the Third Realm, and a peasant uprising in the Kingdom of Icy Arctica. When my daughter freaked out and had a tantrum in a store when the cake she ordered for her birthday didn’t look exactly like the picture in the catalog, our bedtime stories featured Smart Carolyn from the Moon being renamed Smart-mouth Carolyn from the Moon, and having to go on three quests (issued by the Mayor of the Moon) in order to earn her regular name back and regain the right to vote in the upcoming mayoral election. (My daughter cried when she heard how her character in the story was going to be punished.)  I’ve also told stories in which the Dastardly Count Catastrophe tempts the children, one by one, to join him in his wicked plan (and in the process I tried to reinforce the “If a stranger asks you to get into a van to look at a puppy, what should you do?” lesson that is an inevitable part of suburban parenting these days).

I’ve established that Count Catastrophe has a library that contains books with every story that has ever happened, and every story that will not happen, but there’s no way to tell them apart.  So sometimes we have postmodern, comic plots that include vaudeville-style magic words (“Niagara Falls!” “Slowly I turned…. step by step, step by step…”), and if the events get too silly we can easily “reboot” by identifying the night’s events as a story from one of Count Catastrophe’s books of stories that will not happen.

Peter recently asked me, “What’s Dungeons & Dragons?”

He’s very interested in world-building. He keeps track of what I’ve said about how the etherdrive engines work, the relative distances between the planets, whether it’s possible to maintain synchronous two-way communications with an ethership that is travelling inside a gold ether bubble, and how many passengers the escape pods can carry.

My daughter is far more intersted in the characters. She has created three different characters that represent different sides of her personality — “Smart Carolyn from the Moon” explores moral lessons, Polly Ann has adventures, and Baby Annie mostly asks questions, offers donuts to anyone who’s upset, and announces that she needs to go to the bathroom.

I had read that the 4th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rules have been slimmed down to make it easier for newbies. Although hard-core D&D fans complain that the result is too simplistic, I’m thinking of making a visit to the bookstore, just to see whether I can learn a few things from the latest dungeonmaster guidelines.

After putting the kids to bed, I spent a little time working up a basic character sheet, filling in stats for the varous recurring characters, asking myself how Chief Engineer Crankshaft differs in temperament from his assistant, Swashplate, and how the character flaws of Captain Gearhart are mirrored in the strengths of his nemesis, the Dastardly Count Catastrophe.

I don’t want to lose any of the time that I spend sharing our own original stories, but maybe if I can get the kids intersted in D&D they’ll spend less time fighting over who gets to be Indy in Lego Indiana Jones.