We were in the middle of an episode of Once Upon A Time Friday night when we heard my 4 year old son Sam crying. It sounded like a pretty standard “I’m having a nightmare” cry (as opposed to the “I’ve just thrown up everywhere” cry or what I assume the “the room is on fire” cry might sound like), and I made my way up to his room to see a little teary-eyed face staring back at me. He put his arms out for a hug, and just as I sat down, he asked to see my favorite childhood teddy bear, Fluffy. I’d told him weeks previously that some of my old stuffed animals were in a box in his closet, and I’m not sure what exactly made him remember right at that moment, but my heart shattered into a million tiny pieces and I found myself digging through his closet at 11:30pm in the dark to find him an old friend I knew full well was capable of chasing his nightmares away.
The next 2 days were full of warm memories both old and new. Dog birthday parties were had. We found the stuffed Slimer my grandma made me when I was 9, and we took turns being Peter Venkman for awhile. Strange family trees were constructed in which the teddy bear he got for Christmas last year was my old teddy bear’s dad, and I dressed a Mogwai up like Mr. Rogers. Maybe it was just from being around so many of my old inanimate childhood friends, or maybe it was Sam’s ease with incorporating all the newcomers, but for a few minutes I almost forgot I was 38 and I was just playing pretend all day with another little boy that reminded me a lot of me. It was the freest I’d felt in a long time.
The Ravages of Youth
When I got a little older, the pretending changed to drawing comics about my stuffed animals, and some had extremely detailed stories about their origins. I find it surprising, then, that it took me as long as it did to embrace the roleplaying side of D&D. I came up with characters, and maybe a soundbite worth of backstory, but D&D was primarily tactical combat for the groups I played in all the way through college. (I find this darkly hilarious now, having only last night fought back tears when one of my XCOM: Enemy Unknown support troops was killed suddenly in the line of duty. He was going to go back home and live his dream of opening a pediatrician’s office in his hometown and now he’ll never get the chance. *sob*)
I don’t know what exactly happens to us when we get older and why our play styles diverge so wildly as adults, but I don’t know too many kids who don’t play pretend with reckless abandon, and I know a lot of gamers who get squeamish at the thought of roleplay. Part of me believes this is the sort of behavior that the harsh gauntlet of school social life attempted to haze out of us when we were kids, but with all of us coming out the other side so different I’m inclined to favor nature over nurture as the cause. I’m (obviously) a big Theatre of the Mind type these days. I pour imagination all over everything. I find minis nearly useless — the d12 I put out to represent the evil necromancer glows with a black aura and is making my house plants wilt and I find it more than sufficient. I recognize, of course, that many others play differently. I know pure tacticians that could care less about anything aside from game pieces on a grid. I know guys that don’t want to have combat unless they have the exact minis necessary for the monsters and PCs’ classes/weapons. All of these are perfectly valid and I highly recommend doing whatever flavor of gaming makes you happiest.
Ninjas And Pirates Living Together, It’s Mass Hysteria
That being said, having had my eyes opened to another way to play a little later in life refreshed everything for me. Roleplaying a well-developed PC is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a grown-up version of pretending as a kid. I want to share that freedom with as many people as I can. Whatever your style, I implore you to branch out a little and try the other stuff too — even if you tried it before and hated it. Perhaps more importantly, make your group a safe place for others to do the same. If nothing else, it might help your nuts-and-bolts combat types mix a little better with your thespians. Our kind is in the business of weaving legends, week after week, and better tools and freedom are certainly not going to hurt.
As an aside, Sam opted not to sleep with Fluffy. He told me it was easier for me to chase the nightmares away. Fluffy was pretty understanding about the whole business. He trained me how to do it, after all.