#303 — Roll for Initiative by Jamie Formato

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book called Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. One of the observations I made then was that while fanfic writing and fandom is discussed in the first half of the book, it felt rather cursory. “A setting rather than a subject. Like it was more of an excuse to explore an introvert who prefers losing herself in a fictional world rather than dealing with the real world.”

When I started Roll for Initaitive, I was concerned it might follow a similar path with roleplaying. This is most assuredly not the case.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of other issues being dealt with here, both on the surface and under it, and we’ll get to them shortly, but this is also unashamedly a story about young gamers, about gaming, and how roleplaying fits into the lives of a group of middle-school girls. Roleplaying does not feel like just a hook or a gimmick to carry you into other subjects, and that’s worth celebrating.

That might be how I would sum up this book. It’s a celebration of gaming and the part it plays in the lives of kids as they deal with the everyday struggles of growing up. 

The author, Jamie Formato, is a gamer herself. She’s also an elementary school teacher, so this book falls firmly in the category of “write what you know.” In fact, the book was inspired by the games she plays with her husband and four children.

Now in any other column, I’d focus on the characters next, and I’ll get to them soon enough, but first I want to talk about the themes of gaming covered.

If you demand everything in a game be played “as written” and are a stickler for the rules, as if the core books were brought down by Moses… you’re going to cringe at what Riley’s group gets up to. But, good news, you’re totally going to empathize with her older brother, Devin.

This book carries a theme of acceptance on multiple levels, including styles of gaming. Devin is a methodical, rules and lore focused GM, and when Riley tries to follow in his footsteps, it doesn’t really go well. She and her younger friends simply want to have fun and not get bogged down on minutia, and end up home-brewing parts of their world (and even characters) and having a blast. There is a very positive message in this book about playing the way that works for you that’s not to be dismissed.

But the theme of acceptance goes beyond the game table, and there are lots of great lessons for young readers to take to heart (okay, now we talk about characters).

Riley’s just starting middle school, and working without a net. Her older brother Devin (who she adores) has just left for college and her mother is constantly busy with work, leaving her to fend for herself. She’s never even taken the bus to school before, and is so shy she doesn’t have any friends.

That soon changes when she runs into a more extroverted girl who is just as nerdy as she is and they start playing D&D together. It’s not long before she’s got a full party playing at her table (even if it is in a dank and creepy laundry room).

Riley’s journey is one of coping with a changing family life and learning to be independent. Her mother constantly has to choose between spending time with family and working extra shifts to make more money, and the realities of life have her choosing the latter all too often.

As a result, Riley has had to rely on her older brother most of her life, and now the idea of doing things on her own is quite intimidating for her, but eventually she comes to love the freedom it brings.

Coping with anxiety is just one of the themes this book covers. Riley and each of her friends feel relatable, covering a wide range of family types, backgrounds, incomes, and challenges. Most young readers are going to find some combination in there that applies to them, from parents burnt out from work with not enough time for their kids, overachievers who put too much pressure on others to succeed, the disappointments and struggles of living in a split family, and so on.

When talking to parents about her book, the author noticed that Stranger Things tends to come up a lot, and credits that show for helping make gaming more mainstream and normal to talk about. A number of her fellow teachers have realized how useful roleplaying is for problem solving, storytelling, and interpersonal and communications skills.

It’s important to note that this book is written in a way that you don’t have to be a gamer to get it. In fact, it might create some converts in young readers, because it introduces the fundamentals of what roleplaying is about without being a manual and without resorting to tired cliches.

It even introduced a tradition that I think parents should try with their kids. Every time they roll up a new character, they celebrate with a birthday cupcake, complete with candle and song. That’s pretty adorable… though I might worry about the players treating their characters like lemmings to score more cupcakes.

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