Content Warning: This essay contains references to cancer and the death of a loved one.
Dungeons and Dragons is how I learned how to read. Odd as that may sound, once I got the basics of the written language down, I started reading these books that my dad had with pictures of monsters and heroes in battle. I remember looking up at the table where my older brothers and their friends would play with my father as the dungeon master. The table looked so tall in my memories, but it was just a regular dining room table. I remember 24-hour road trips to the far-off land of “Ohio,” where my extended family lived. I remember gathering around those tables and playing the game with dice that were old and fraying around the corners. Giant glasses on everyone’s face. Learning different styles of Dungeon Mastery from how various family members would do it. Some improvisational, some using modules, and others who just mashed together old fantasy novels. It was something we all had in common, and we all loved our time with the game.
But times change. My brothers and I grew up, got jobs, and had children of our own. I tried to keep in touch, but work got in the way, then law school. It’s always something. I kept in touch with my brothers and my parents, but extended family fell to the wayside. But then things happen that focus you. It tears your attention away from the day-to-day grind of the world and brings important things back into focus.
In 2016, my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t a great prognosis. The type of cancer was aggressive, and most people don’t make it longer than five years.
When I heard about his condition, I realized that I didn’t know him much anymore. I hadn’t spoken to him in over 15 years. It wasn’t a falling out or a situation where we didn’t get along. I never thought about calling him, never visited.
But we all used to play Dungeons and Dragons together.
I had been honing my skills as a Dungeon Master for years at that point. I was building a world of my own, even learning about techniques and types of dungeon masters. Something told me that I could use this game to get to know my family better.
So I proposed running a game, the younger generation as the GM, for the older generation as players. Most of my family had not played a game since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. I taught them about virtual tabletops, and we got an online game together. We lived in 3 different cities across two states. A party of three, fighter, ranger, and paladin (because party balance is a lie!) left the tavern and ventured forward into the night to save the blacksmith’s child from a band of goblin.
Sometimes a cliché is the best way to start.
Every Sunday, like clockwork, we met online. Rarely did we miss a session. Even as it got worse, with my uncle in the hospital, we played. He insisted. One time, as the phone was blaring the conference call from his hospital bed, a nurse came in and asked what he was doing. We screamed into our microphones, “HE’S PLAYING DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS… NERD!” We mocked him mercilessly when the surgery to remove the tumor made his voice squeak like a little child. But we kept playing.
It was the best campaign I have ever run. Not only because it was for my family, but these were seasoned players who roleplayed masterfully. From lowly adventurers, they rose to the level of heroes, to legends, to kings.
My uncle passed away on February 11, 2019. The last text I ever got from him was to schedule the next D&D session. I didn’t realize that would be our final game. I traveled up for the funeral, and with his best friend, my other uncle, and my father, acted as a pallbearer. We buried him with a set of dice, and the D20 in his fist, having rolled a natural 1. We were pretty sure he would have thought that was hilarious.
It brought us closer together than ever before. Nothing in our lives, not blood, birthdays, food, video games, sports, or anything else, brought us together like Dungeons and Dragons. We all felt it would compound upon the tragedy of his passing to let the game die with him. So we refused to let it go.
We gathered more family. My two brothers joined the game, as well as my brother’s eldest kid. And just like that, we had three generations of my family playing in a game together. The youngest is a fan of Critical Role, who has only played the 5th Edition of the game. My eldest brother hadn’t played in a game since high school. And my father and uncle started way back with the First Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But to this day, we meet every Sunday like clockwork. We span five cities, three states, and two time zones. It is a small way for me to honor my uncle’s memory, but it has also made my family closer than we have ever been.
Dungeons and Dragons isn’t just a game to me. My uncle went from being a distant relative to being my friend. My family went from seeing each other on holidays to seeing each other every week. For that, I will always be grateful. And as more family comes of age, they will join. Like any tradition, it will pass from generation to generation and keep us all together for years to come.