My brief stint as a parent has taught me that it is equal parts con artist and stage magician. It’s a constant mental game where you convince this strange, alien intellect that you are the boss and if they don’t listen to all you have to say, dire and terrible things will occur like them getting hit by a car, not getting into the right school, or voting the wrong way.
Luckily for me, this terrible duel of wits is vaguely familiar to me because for years, I have participated in the willing, communal schizophrenia known as Dungeons & Dragons. (Actually, I have played a wide selection of games but D&D owns the major market share of the general public’s understanding of tabletop role-playing games so I will use it as a useful shorthand with full apologies to West End Games’ Star Wars) Now, sitting in the player’s seat is its own brand of villainy but doesn’t have require quite the level of deviousness, cruelty, and bureaucratic obstructiveness as running the game as the Game Master (GM).
As a GM you are expected to be a storyteller, a referee, an encyclopedia, a minor deity, an ATM, and a nanny. Parents and GMs reading this will be nodding their heads and soon widening their eyes as the terrible truth dawns on them that yes, GMing is essentially the best practice one can have being a parent without facing kidnapping charges.
Here are just a few lessons I have had to learn from behind the thin cardboard veil of the GM screen that inform if not absolutely make up the entirety of my parenting style:
Learn how to thwart your players at every turn and keep them from destroying everything while still providing them a satisfying game experience
Players, like children, think they know what’s best when in reality they know about as much as Jon Snow at any given moment. They are impulsive, capricious, and operate from a limited awareness of the world around them. Let them off the leash and they are just as likely to set fire to the city, try to run the king through, or drink the mysterious green potion they just found because what’s the worst that could happen?
This means the GM has to chase them around or fence them in so they don’t hurt themselves or others but do too much of this and the players will grow to either resent you, lose all sense of initiative, or most likely, both. Finding the balance where you give them enough room to explore, to experiment, and to play is almost as important as keeping them alive. With kids, the same rules apply only when they cheese you off, you can’t drop them in a 50 foot pit full of Rust Monsters and gelatinous oozes.
The adventure you spend hours and hours on will often be met with a so-so reception but the one you make up as you go will be one of the most memorable.
You’ve written mountains and mountains of notes, drawn an exquisitely detailed and painstakingly realistic map, and set up a chain of events just waiting for your players to slot in and have the adventure of their lives! If my experience means anything, it means that this is the best way to make sure you never ever find players for this game ever. Even if you wrangle them first and then start putting together this Best Laid Plan, it will be so taken off the rails or wind up feeling stale and flat that you’ll just bash your head in wondering why oh why did you even bother.
Then there are the last minute pick up games when you are required to dig into your high school improv training and cobble together a barely plausible, entirely ludicrous scenario which will wind up being the stuff of legends for years to come.
In truth, the best games usually involve a mixture of these two styles but still, I’ve been burned so much by over-planning that if I’m going to err, I choose seat-of-pantsedness to taking up a Silmarillion level of effort.
The same seems to go with my daughter. Here’s a day’s worth of excitement which I’ve researched and by the end of it, you will have a milestones-appropriate experience to further your growth into a prosperous citizen. Reaction: blank stare. Let’s just start walking and see where it leads us? Reaction: The kind of magic and wonder Neil Gaiman barely scratches the surface of.
Again, some planning will help and not forgetting the diaper bag can be just as useful as brushing up on grapple rules but by and large, leaving yourself flexible and open will make you tear your hair out when it inevitably rains.
It’s okay to adjust the rules as you go. Sometimes you may even need to change systems or the game itself.
You lie to yourself both as a GM and as a parent by saying that there are some things you will never do or allow. It’s a lie because life is cruel and it’s cruelest to those with ideals and high expectations. At some point, these rules and guidelines you establish will get tested because children and players only ever come in one alignment: Chaotic Awful and when you are faced with these tests, you will have to decide what hill is worth dying on. Many times you will choose to abandon the hill and live to fight again and guess what? That’s sort of okay. Sure you’ll be disappointed in yourself and like someone currently face to seat with a commode, you will vow to yourself to do better but chances are you will find yourself here once more and again, that’s sort of okay.
Remember what I said above about Best Laid Plans? Well another maxim is that few battle plans survive the encounter with the enemy and adjusting and finagling can often times be a far lesser evil than standing on principle for its own sake. Now, there are certain principles that are worth fighting for and you will be better able to determine them if you haven’t treated every capitulation like the Battle of Manzikert.
Parenting styles are not theological positions no matter what the internet or the publishing industry might try to get you to believe and when push comes to shove, your child and your sanity will thank you for showing flexibility just as they will be shored up by the hard lines you do draw and maintain in a non-arbitrary manner.
Manage their expectations.
Man alive but this is a hard thing to do but it speaks to a lot of what we’ve discussed above. One of the greatest powers a GM and a parent has is to set the tone and manage the shared mental space both of the table and the nursery. If you can communicate effectively to everyone involved just how things are going to go down and not constantly surprise them, you will go a long way towards creating something approaching harmony. You won’t achieve it because as stated above, Chaotic Awful, but you will at least go a lot further in helping everyone have some idea just what to expect and what not to expect.
In gaming this boils down to making sure that everyone knows what sort of game is being played, what emotional boundaries are present, and what sort of fun is going to be had. A GM who runs every game like Paranoia without telling his players what they’re in for is going to find his table emptier than usual. The same goes with managing players who seem to only play Paranoia regardless of what everyone else is playing. Everyone comes together with their own expectations, biases, and notions of How Things Ought To Be Done and the more they are discussed beforehand, the better.
Children are not so great at communicating their expectations but man alive, do they absorb what you put out both verbally and non-verbally without you realizing it. They are devious, cunning, alien minds behind those big eyes and the sooner you set a tone and establish predictable, repeatable patterns, the less anxious and more on board they tend to get with whatever else you have planned.
Until they hit another sleep regression and everything goes to Hell again.
It matters less how much you’re in control as it does how much they think you’re in control.
Remember what I said at the start about con men and magicians? Yeah, that. In gaming, we know that we’re lying to each other. We accept that and barring some Father Pardue sort of incident, everyone is cool with this. The lie that isn’t spoken aloud although I suspect it is known on some level is despite the GM’s authoritarian mandate, that authority rests on the consensus of the players and the players have a strong and powerful capacity both to enrich and destroy a game at any given moment. It’s not the GM’s game, it’s everyone’s. The GM acts as a focal point and an arbiter but they are not in fact divine figures with authority given to them from above and their failings and very humanity is what often makes them more compelling storytellers and managers.
Before my daughter was born, I read a book which, to my wife’s annoyance, I bring up constantly, more often even than I do West End Games’ Star Wars Imperial Sourcebook (I’ll pause so that folks who know me can finish gasping.) The book is called Far From the Tree and it’s all about parenting in extreme circumstances like disability, mental illness, criminality and so on and how this effects notions of identity and notions of parental control. My big take away from it was about that the illusion of control. As parents, we are responsible for an awful lot when it comes to these tiny, moist charges which we keep alive and safe and try not to impart with too many personality disorders but ultimately, they are these little strangers we invite into our homes and their choices and the various scenarios God throws their way go beyond anything we can do to predict, affect, or control. Making peace with that and learning the limits of responsibility while not using that as a license for complacency is a huge process that I’m still undertaking but ultimately a fruitful one.
It goes back to that notion of managing expectations and keeping everyone on the same page. Players and children need to be able to trust in the illusion of authority so that they have a safe space to explore and to play. The safety net may be imperfect and it may be imaginary but that trust is key to maintaining that sense of wonder and hope.
You know you’ve done everything right when you sit there silently and they play the game themselves.
The best games are the games where I do as little talking as possible and where my players are running the show, making plans, debating, acting, and living out the story I’m helping to curate for them. That’s when they surprise you in a good way and not just by setting fire to the tavern. There are few things like it. You’ve all come together to the table to play a lazy version of dress up and for some magical moments, everyone has bought in and is immersed in that sense of play and that sense of possibility.
As my daughter grows up, I expect to do less and less talking and more watching as she comes into herself and takes on the world without my holding her hand or pointing out where all the dangers and visible exits are and while that idea is terrifying, it’s also incredibly heartening and I hope that I take the lessons above and help her be prepared to step out on her own and start crafting her own adventures.
Until then, I’ll keep my game face on and tell her to roll for initiative.