Friday, August 10, 2012

Playing it Forward

Gaming runs in my family.

My first experience with anything beyond Sorry, was when our mom made my older brother, Steve, take me with him to his friend Scott's house to play AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, not Accidental Death and Dismemberment, though that sometimes happened). It was 1978 and I was eight-years-old. I'd play Scott's quarter-free pinball machine for hours listening to their adventures over my shoulder. Eventually, the big boys let me sit at the table.

The group gave me something simple to play, a 1st level Elf Magic-User. Back then, 1st level Magic-Users were known as "One Shot Magic Items" because they only had one spell per day and it didn't always work. In this case, my spell was called Sleep and it could knock 2-16 low-level monsters out of a fight. I bummed around in the background, picturing my Yoda-like Elf shuffling about thinking magical thoughts far beyond the understanding of the older boys (yes, Yoda hadn't arrived on the scene yet, but that's exactly how I remember him). The rest of the party barreled through the dungeon, kicking in doors and looting monsters until they kicked themselves into a guardroom full of heavily armed goblins. Sixteen heavily armed goblins, to be exact.

"Is this a good time to cast my spell?!" I asked, bouncing up and down in my seat.

Surprised that I was still paying attention, the older boys told me "Yes!"

My 1st level Elf Magic-User sauntered to the front of the group and waggled his fingers. I rolled the two diamond-shaped, eight-sided dice that would determine how many of the goblins I would subdue. The dice bounced across the table, off the Dungeon Master's screen and rolled to a breathless stop with two 8's showing. All sixteen angry goblins collapsed to the floor in a snoring heap. The older boys cheered, patting me on the back as my pointy-eared hero shuffled awkwardly to the back of the group--exhausted at his magical feat.

I was hooked.
Me and my gamer friends hard at work

From the old Red Box Basic D&D to the obscure Official Superhero Adventure Game to buying Hero Games 1st Edition Champions with my own allowance (I still have the receipt), I would never go back to the likes of Life or Monopoly.

My brother inspired me, molded me into that rare combination of storyteller, improv actor, and mathematician that gamers train for like triathletes. When I was sixteen he told a friend of his that I was "the best DM he'd ever played with." It's a complement I hold dear to this day. Last week I got to pay it forward.

My brother didn't have his first child until 2004. This past week, my wife Megan and I flew to Kentucky after our wedding to visit my family. Steve's wife warned me that Carter, my now eight-year-old nephew, had been looking forward to my visit for weeks. Apparently, he'd become convinced that I'm the person most like him in the whole world. He got that idea because his mother, my brother, my mother and everyone else kept telling him how much he reminded them of me.

Carter and Me
They were right. From his bed full of stuffed animals, to his love of superheroes and his passion for gaming, Carter is as much a mini-me as I could hope to meet.

Not wanting to arrive empty handed, my wife and I brought several games with us, including two we bought as presents: Smallworld for Carter and Once Upon a Time for his younger sister, Laynie. Carter and I played Smallworld seven or eight times over three days, watched Young Justice and Green Lantern Animated on Saturday morning, talked superheroes and stuffed animals and told stories. It was like I'd gone back in time to spend a weekend with my eight-year-old self.

I'd been given a chance to witness the influence we can have on our children and how much our genes translate from generation to generation. Carter and I haven't spent much time together in the past, living 2,000 miles apart. I'd gotten glimpses of how similar our personalities were on my previous visits, enough to name the main character of my first novel after him (a character I based partly on myself). This trip, though, instilled a connection I never expected.

When I told him Megan and I would be going back to my parents house the following day, he froze. Confusion and disappointment shadowed his quiet expression. Instead of whining, or crying, or taking it personally, he hugged me, smiled and said, "I've really enjoyed the time you've spent with us," with such sincerity I nearly cried. When I saw him for the last time this trip--when we were leaving the state and not just his house--he once again did a valiant job of holding it together. My sister-in-law later told me that his stoicism didn't make it out of the driveway before he broke down. I'm not ashamed to tell you that mine didn't either.

I've now become something I never imagined. I'm that Uncle. The odd one from way out West who doesn't seem to follow the same rules other adults do. The one that never quite grew up. It's never something I pictured for myself, never been a goal I aspired to, never been something I wanted--until now.

Spending time with Carter and Laynie has given me practice for when my own kids arrive. Whoever they are, or whatever they love, I hope I can help them find the thing that impassions them and teach them to use that as a strength the same way my brother taught me.

Love you, Steve.

Thanks for everything.


Don't think Laynie was left out of the fun--she LOVED Once Upon a Time. At five, she's just old enough to grasp the concepts of coherent storytelling. Her mother, a teacher like my wife, also loved the game and plans on picking up several copies for her kids; storytelling is a learning requirement at their age, I'm happy to say.

Laynie also helped us play Smallworld by being the banker, while my wife, Megan, secretly taught her math. Megan and I believe that games are the best way to teach. Participation in something that excites while it educates cannot be beat.


  1. Hey that's my photo at the top! :-) #drellinsferry

  2. I love this. My stoicism didn't hold up till the end of the post. :)

    1. Thanks, Anne. Did you see that Written by a Kid I posted? You'd love it.

  3. Got me teary eyed....
    Eldrad Wolfsbane

    1. Thank you. And thanks for reminding me this story is out in the world. Sometimes I forget about the ones from so long ago.