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Once Upon A Time: Parent Power

by Steve Darlington

In which the author looks at where our gaming origins really lie


I remember it so well. We were in the library, and my friend was telling me about this new game his dad had bought him, called Dungeons and Dragons. Later, we continued playing at his house. Only two of us was a little limited, so we got his mother to play with us.

I was hooked. My parents had bought me Talisman a few years ago, but this was something far better. A few months later, my dad took me into the city to buy my first copy of D&D. And so it all began.

So many of the stories of how people got into this hobby begin with these kind of sentiments. Even if we first heard about gaming from a friend, or a brother, most of us had our parents play a very significant part in those early days. Very often, our parents are the people who first bought RPGs for us, first encouraged us, and even, on some occasions, first played with us.

Yet, when you read the stories in this magazine, or in other sources, or hear people talk about it, how often is the role of the parents given any importance? At best, they get a cursory mention at the top, stating that it all began when they got D&D for Christmas one year; then we launch into a lengthy tale about how the interest really grew from playing such and such an adventure with cousin Bobby. At worst, the parents don't even warrant a mention at all!

I think this is something of a travesty of justice. I think it's about time we gamers examined just how much we owe to our parents. Let's take a look at my experiences as an example.

You read that right in the first paragraph: we were lacking in players, so my friend's mother joined in. Younger siblings have also been known to do this, but for a parent, this is definitely above and beyond the call of duty. Not to mention a little odd. A women in her mid-forties killing kobolds in a 10x10 stone corridor is not something you see every day, but she never batted an eyelid. She listened to the rules, made a character (a fighter called Cleopatra, I believe) and started playing. She was a bit slow on which dice to roll when and she never really understood the concept of killing kobolds the way we instinctively did, but she played. She played well and with some enthusiasm, for at least an hour or two.

To this day, I wonder what she really thought about the whole experience.

My mother never actually played RPGs with me, but she did play Talisman. This was my gateway drug to roleplaying and boy did I love it. My parents gave it to me for Christmas, and spent most of Boxing Day learning the rules, then explaining them to me over our first few games together.

Talisman, naturally, was not enough, so my Dad tracked down the one book store in town that carried Talisman expansions and drove me out there. He waited patiently while I gaped at a world I never knew existed; a marvellous world of games, fantasy, and dazzling polyhedral dice. I soon found myself torn between getting two Talisman expansions, or just one, and this other game which I'd played with my friend once or twice. Dad's advice was that it made more sense to get two different things, rather than two of the same. I took his advice, and went home with a copy of Dungeons and Dragons sitting on my lap.

As I said, my mother never played this one with me, nor did my father. However, as roleplaying began to captivate my every waking hour, they both did pretty much everything else they could to support me. They listened to me explain how it worked and convinced my little sister to play it with me. My mother in particular understood my frustration from lack of adventure supplements; so much so that she helped me comb the shelves of toy stores across the city for adventures for the basic set.

At the time, D&D was being phased out, with AD&D 2nd edition about to come in. The products I wanted were as rare as hen's teeth, and, in truth, I had no idea at all what I was looking for. So imagine how confused my mother must have been. Yet she asked shop clerk after shop clerk what sort of D&D they had in stock. Sure, these days mothers have to ask about Pokemon or Nintendo GameBoys, but at least clerks - and mothers - have some idea what those things are, even if they don't understand them. Back then, most of the clerks had less of an idea what D&D was than my mother did, and would often stare back at her as if she'd gone insane. Yet my mother was undaunted.

A year or so later I stumbled onto my friend's copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and fell in love. I had to have it, so I did the only thing that made sense. I borrowed the book and asked my mother to photocopy every single page for me at her work. And so I got my second RPG, and the one that truly got me hooked, thanks to my mother spending two full lunch hours in front of the photocopier.

The support continued. I received RPG supplements as gifts not just one Christmas, but three in a row. I was quite savvy by then, but my parents' knowledge had not improved by much. Yet they continually braved the dark, musky corners of gaming shops and plucked me out something from precisely the right line, and exactly what I was waiting for. They only got it wrong once, when the Paranoia adventure they purchased was for an expanded setting for which I did not have the original sourcebook. I think that's a pretty outstanding success rate.

You could say they were just supporting their child's interests, like any good parents, but it's not that simple. Being a gamer is no ordinary hobby.

First off, the craze tends to be at its most ardent in early puberty, a time when uttering more than five words at a time to your parents is a rare event. The last thing you share with your parents at that age is what you do for fun, let alone try and explain how it works. Plus, as we all know, roleplaying is hardly a very mainstream activity. There's not likely to be anyone they know with experience, or any way for them to get an idea about how it works, independently.

They can always brave the RPG shops, but those places are not exactly user friendly. Even if they get some information about the hobby, there's still another problem. RPGs are so esoteric and difficult to explain that it's doubtful they'd understand anything they found out. Nowadays, my parents occasionally ask casual questions which prove they still haven't quite got it all figured out yet (So when you change games, do you keep the same characters?).

Then, of course, there's the little image problem our hobby has. It's not like doing drugs or stealing cars, but the suicide link never goes away. It was certainly still quite present when I was first starting out, even far away in Australia. And let's not forget the moral minority's disapproving eye. If you were raised in a strong Christian community, particularly in America, it's quite likely you parents would have faced conflicting messages about the healthiness of your chosen obsession. There is no stronger instinct in a parent than to prevent their children from coming to harm, and if they were deceived into believing there was even the slightest risk, who could blame them for taking you out of harm's way? They may have also faced considerable peer pressure to censure your behaviour. With all this against them, they still trusted you to choose your own path.

Of course, there are far too many sad tales of parents who decided any risk was too great and removed or destroyed their children's books. Parents who did everything they could to discourage roleplaying tendencies. This is the regrettable worst case scenario. What it means though, is that even if your parents did nothing whatsoever to support your hobby, they were still going out of their way to help you, because it would have been so easy for them to actively disapprove. Being ignored by your parents is far preferable to having your books burned.

Perhaps you're still thinking that your parents' contribution wasn't very significant. They certainly helped you, they certainly never burned anything, but they were hardly one of the critical factors to you getting hooked. Think again. If you really look at it, you'll find that your parents were key to the whole process, if only for the simple fact that you spent the majority of your childhood with them.

You see, it wasn't the big things my parents did that really got me into gaming. Rather, it was the small, subtle things. The spur of the moment decision that Talisman would keep me happy that Christmas. The random piece of advice from Dad that made me chose to buy D&D. The way my mother looked so interested when I bought some new dice. The way they never questioned me on exactly why the turtles were mutated ... or teenagers, for that matter.

Or like the time I explained to my mother that my female mutant porcupine crimefighter moonlighted as a typist, and she said she thought that was a bit cliche. Ten years later, Spike the crusading journalist, a female Peter Parker, is one of the richest characters I have ever developed.

In those early days, most of us only had the beginnings of a gaming group, and the idea of a community which shared our passion was ludicrous. The only people we could talk to about our hobby were our closest friends, and our family. If our parents had shut us down, we would have had no one to talk to, no one to listen, no one to feed off. Our interested would have waned, and most of us wouldn't be gamers now. What's more, the details of these discussions not only determined if we stayed interested in gaming, but what sort of gamer we would become: the sort of characters we designed, the sort of stories we told and the sort of games we enjoyed.

So have a think about it. Sit down and really try and piece together those early days. I guarantee you'll find that you're the gamer you are now because your parents bought you something, photocopied something, listened to something, played something, supported something, and because of all the millions of subtle ways they showed interest in your hobby. A hobby of which they had no experience, no knowledge, no understanding, and even a large amount of distrust and fear as to its influence. A hobby from which they could have so easily prohibited you.

Think about how much fun and entertainment you've had in a lifetime through this hobby. Think about the money you've spent in a lifetime procuring that entertainment. Think about how much a part of your happiness, your friends and your life roleplaying has become. Think about how much of that could never have happened if not for your parents.

Then think about how much you should spend this Mother's Day.


Steven Darlington was born in 1922 in London's East End. Forced to work in a jam factory from the age of eight, it was not until his service in WWII that he discovered his gift for acting. After the war, he joined a theatre troupe touring the US, where he was spotted by Hollywood mogul Jack Warner. Today, Steven is a household name thanks to films like Dark River, The Three Mrs Smiths and Hammers Over Hamburg. He lives in California.

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