You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, that the holidays are once again here to greet us. Friends and family gather as they do once a year, celebrating each other and the new light of a new year. We reminisce about our pasts together, predict what our futures will be, and speak blessings (Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Holidays…) over every moment that we spend in each other’s company, even in passing.
I’m looking back over my history, too. And quite a lot of it is entirely fictional, made up of stories invented by the people that I love. Some of them are the simple games we played in childhood that carried over with us when we grew up. Others are the dreams we convinced ourselves would come true, which we then followed or veered away from. Others, we wrote together intentionally, playing games.
Growing Up with Dungeons and Dragons
Some of my earliest memories include Dungeons and Dragons. No, really.
My parents played, courted while members of a local gaming and LARPing group. And while the Horde had mostly split by the time my sister and I were born, a core group of their friends still got together every Saturday for TTRPGs. We amused ourselves while they played, but would wander in every once in a while, to investigate. And when they were done playing, we found our way into the bookshelves to read (or just look at the pictures in) the various game books that they had.
It was magical. It was also very formative.
When we got a little older, enough to understand and remain unbothered by the violence inherent in most TTRPGs, we were finally allowed to join. We’d already developed a love of fantasy, fueled by Narnia and Middle Earth bedtime stories and a family that lived for fictional worlds, and we couldn’t wait to take our playing pretend to the next level.
After a short attempt with Tunnels and Trolls (a simplified fantasy game very much like DnD) which was cut short by my grandmother’s general dislike of its gameplay and worldbuilding, my parents decided to simply start us properly with 3.5e DnD. My first character was Ame’antha, an elven druid, whose only real discernable personality trait was loving animals. In my defense, I was about 8 years old, and ‘liking animals’ was enough of a personality trait to define any of my fellow third graders who shared it.
Once we started playing, we never stopped. It was DnD, Mutants and Masterminds, Pathfinder, Fate, LARPing and writing and making memories out of the stories we were telling each other. Often, my table was made up of my family. When I reached high school, it became my friends, whom I slowly roped into weekly after-school games at the local game shop. I was pleasantly shocked when, completely separate from myself, a DnD club emerged, fueled by the sudden popularity of Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. While it felt surreal to have a school-endorsed club (my parents had kept me from bringing my DnD books to school for years for fear that I’d be badly bullied), I happily learned 5e to play with even more people, in even more ways.
What Tabletop Taught Me
Somewhere along the line, tabletop games became a little bit more than a scheduled activity, or even a simple game to be playing. We spent as much time chatting, making each other laugh, as we did accomplishing goals and conquering quests.
I learned how to set boundaries – DMing rowdy highschoolers requiring a firmer hand than I was accustomed to giving as an anxiety-ridden teenager. I learned how to read people – figuring out how to maintain everyone’s fun, what they wanted from the game and from each other, when they hadn’t really learned how to properly communicate it yet. And I learned how to bend when needed – accepting that the dice won’t always roll in your favor, nor will your fellow players.
Gaming was a teaching mechanism, alongside other notable activities in my youth (most of them equally as nerdy), most of which gave me a real sense of community among the outsiders who found such solace and joy in inventing other worlds and immersing themselves in them. And even as DnD has gotten bigger, more ‘mainstream’, I see the love of it enduring in much the same way it grew in me in near isolation. We’re all allowed to be someone else for a little while. Or to be ourselves, made safe in the trappings of the narrative.
A Game that Keeps Us Together
These days, I often DM for people who I rarely see outside of the game. But the game is also a way to keep seeing people that I otherwise don’t get to see. My friends have grown up and moved on and away, but Dungeons and Dragons has grown with us. Time can be made for a campaign or two, traded off week-by-week between serious horror and southwestern fantasy.
And while my family has never been one for arbitrary sit-down dinners (a bunch of introverted geeks and nerds don’t tend to seek each other out without reason), but we will gather for a game or a boardgame. Someone wants to tell a story, others want to play a character other than themselves for a while, and we don’t have to pretend that our small talk isn’t stale.
Dungeons and Dragons is often at the core of my family time together. It genuinely, literally, brings us together. We still tell stories with it the way that we used to, although those stories are a little bigger and more complicated than anyone told me when I was just a child.
This holiday, I’m going to play Dungeons and Dragons with my family. Or perhaps Shadowrun. Or maybe Mutants and Masterminds. In the end, it doesn’t matter which game we’re playing. The lights will be twinkling, the heater turned up as much as it needs to be in a desert winter, and we’ll have gingerbread cookies and hot chocolate. And there’ll be combat, and traps, and that one badly painted miniature in red and white that we fondly call “Evil Santa”. It wouldn’t be my family without them.