Christmas Eve 1987.
I was eleven years old.
As far as gift-hauls go, 1987 was a reasonable year. I raked in some fresh NES games, unwrapped a new pile of GI Joe action figures, and rolled my eyes at the requisite stack of clothes for school. I would’ve been satisfied if that’s all it had been. Toys, games, and clothes…what more could an eleven-year old want?
And then my Uncle John rolled into town.
You see, I lived in Chicago with my grandparents at the time, and the snows that winter were brutal, particularly that night. We’re talking piles of white powder in the yard and dirty grey slush on every road. We’re talking fifteen hours of night, and no real breaks in the clouds for weeks. Uncle John had to commute all the way from downstate, which normally takes two hours, but that night it took him pretty much triple the time. Either it was the snow’s fault, or he dreaded Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house. I guess I’ll never really know for sure.
The hour was late. Ok, maybe not that late, but late for an eleven-year old who’d just spent the entire day begging his grandparents, aunts, and uncles to unwrap
a few of all his gifts early. Having succeeded at tormenting them into a massive gift-release, I sat in my bedroom, surrounded by wrapping paper and happiness, content with my life. I could’ve died a happy child right then and there, drowning in a sea of blue inter-connectable racetracks, NES cartridges, tiny plastic rocket launchers, and socks.
But I didn’t die. I heard a summons from the living room, and out I shambled. If I was slow, it’s because my belly was stuffed with Circus Peanuts and Orange Crush. I was sleepy. I was dragging. I just wanted to be left alone for the next three months to fully soak up my gift-haul.
“Jeremy, your Uncle John has one last gift for you. Do you want to open it tonight?” I remember someone asking me.
I halted. Of course I do! I screamed in my head-movie.
“Yeah ok,” I grunted in real life.
Uncle John handed me a wide, flat box. You know the ones. I think it was from Macy’s, and it had all the hallmark signs of being another box full of clothes. It wasn’t gift-wrapped, but it did have a single red bow on top. One. Red. Bow. Uncle John wasn’t a sentimental dude, which I could (and still do) understand.
When I took the box, I had the same sinking feeling every kid does when he sees a box like that.
Great. More clothes.
I thanked him and padded back into the hallway. No one thought much of my departure. I wasn’t two steps away before all the adults (I was the only kid in the house) started talking politics again. Not even Uncle John seemed fazed by my apparent disinterest. Untended to, I plunked down in my bedroom doorway, sighed with all the weight an eleven-year old could muster, and pried the top off the box.
I guess I should’ve realized the box was too heavy to be full of clothes.
And I should’ve known my Uncle John was too cool for sweaters and school shirts.
What was inside?
Before that instant, I’d never heard of Dungeons & Dragons. I’d never heard about role-playing, tabletop gaming, or rolling dice to kill undead lich lords. As I picked up the first tome (the Dungeon Master’s guide was my favorite) I felt as if a sharp breeze blew away the memory of all my other gifts. It stunned me, and made me shiver both literally and figuratively. Also in the box: a set of sparkly green polyhedral dice (which my players would learn to hate) and a stack of PC stat sheets, but I didn’t yet comprehend their meaning. I couldn’t see it yet.
I was lost, but in a good way.
Winter deepened. Chicago frosted over for most of the next three months. I didn’t care. Even though I lacked local friends to game with or a real understanding of what I was getting into, I consumed the books Uncle John had bought me. When I say ‘consumed’ I don’t mean to imply I merely read them a few times. No…I memorized them. I gobbled up the D&D dialect, became a master at its mechanics, and plotted for the day I’d actually be able to run a campaign.
But more than this, more than just learning the game, I felt a door open inside my mind. I’d always had a vivid imagination, but this was something different. It changed my perspective about what creativity could be.
And in doing so, it changed the course of my life in a very real way.
* * *
Let’s fast forward a few years.
Far removed from frosty Chicago, I found myself in a hot, heavily-wooded part of North Georgia. My parental unit had remarried and shipped us to the deep south, where summers were forever and winters were but a few weeks of rain in late January. I missed the frozen wastes, but thawing out felt nice. And more than the weather were the chances to meet new friends.
Friends who would game with me.
Friends who shared my passion for deep, dark storytelling.
…friends who would fight this guy with me.
And so it began. In eight grade, I met The Kube, a friend who was willing to spend endless hours rolling dice with me. He created the legendary characters Silverleaf, Black Dragon, and the wizard who became a prime character in my epic fantasy series, Dank. Then in my freshman year in high school, I met Egg, John McGuire, and the devious Chris Griner.
And it was ON.
I was a dedicated DM, going so far as to create my own 200-page hardcover campaign setting…
We spent thousands of hours role-playing.
We downed hundreds of pizzas, killed barrels of Mountain Dew, and endured sessions lasting upwards of 15 hours.
My players learned to hate my dice, but I like to think (in my head-movie) they enjoyed the fact our games were about more than slaughtering imaginary monsters. We told stories. Deep stories about sacrifice and suffering. Legendary stuff that no video game can capture, that not even the longest, most profound novel can duplicate. If you’ve ever played our style of ‘storytelling’ D&D, you know what I mean. The players are a part of an epic tale, not just dice-rolling treasure fiends. The dungeon master is merely a blank page, ready to turn whichever direction the players want to go.
But the best part?
It didn’t stop there.
Many years after my last epic session, sometime in the early 2000’s, all the storytelling lessons I’d learned flashed back into my mind. I missed (desperately) the feeling of sitting down with friends to weave a deep, dark tale, but I knew at the same time I probably wasn’t ever going to recapture it. We’d all moved apart and built our own lives. Some of us were married, and others were exploring new careers. Lacking a way to play the game I loved, I had to find a new outlet for my unbridled creativity.
And so I started my writing journey.
I sat down in the dark, my brain brimming with an entire childhood’s worth of ideas.
And the stories, many of them birthed a decade or more earlier, began to pour out of my fingertips.
Over the next fifteen years, I wrote fantasy novels, sci-fi tales, spooky novellas, and other fictional fare. I couldn’t stop. I was (and still am) a man possessed. Looking back at all of it, I know I never would’ve done it if not for those endless nights of dice-rolling and gold piece counting. I might’ve done other creative stuff, but the depth wouldn’t have been there. The story-telling skills I learned during a decade of D&D’ing were irreplaceable stuff. The seed had been planted on Christmas Eve 1987, and had grown into something I never could’ve anticipated.
Those three little books changed the way I thought. The way I imagined. The way I wanted to create. And after thousands of dice rolls, hundreds of hours spent preparing stories for my players, and countless nights at the gaming table, I wasn’t the same person I’d been. I’d grown to appreciate the art of a story without an end, and I’d learned to love all the crazy thought-collisions that happened while playing this simple little game.
There are those who will mock D&D. They’ll say it’s a game for nerds, introverts, maybe even losers. Some will even claim it supports anti-social, anti-religious behavior. Nonsense…all of it. Done right, D&D is a vehicle for allowing people to take part in a story. It’s better than TV, which isn’t interactive. It’s better than video games, which confines players to a controller and some pixels. In many ways, it’s the most imaginative game ever created. It was for me. And I’m willing to bet, it was for many, many others.
So here’s to The Kube, Egg, Griner, Nicky P, Jeremy II, John, and all the rest. These fine friends were inspirers of more characters than I can recollect. AD&D First Edition forever!
And here’s to Uncle John. He gave me three little books that rocked my world.
…and inspired twenty-four books of my own…and counting.
Published in 2015….conceived in 1992.
If I had any advice to modern parents, it’d be something like this:
Take your kids’ phones away. Give them a D&D book. And walk away.
J Edward Neill
Author and Artist