A lot of things changed for my father when I was born. He gave up smoking, took up a job he’d work at for the entirety of my life, becoming third in command at the place over time, and he also discovered this little thing called Dungeons and Dragons.
It feels incredibly weird to say that. For as long as I can remember, Dad had cases of dice and stacks of sourcebooks, folios full of character sheets, and a near-endless supply of miniatures he would painstakingly prime, paint, and polish for every Friday’s gaming session. There are two memories which are some of the earliest in my life, one relating to each parent, and I think both define them in my head to this day. With my father, it was him starting up Eye of the Beholder III in our den, and an early encounter was frustrating him. I watched him apply all his buffs and walk into battle repeatedly, only to have the party fall to two beholders and their anti-magic rays (which in turn left everyone pretty vulnerable to “I look at you and you become dust” stares). I wanted to help, so I just suggested he try casting something different in the fight.
“Why not Dispel Magic? If it can’t cast anything on you, this should be easy, right?”
This story is one of the only ways I know that Dad didn’t play D&D before I was born, because he probably would have realized how insane what I just said was. Instead, he nodded, applied all of his buffs, walked through the door, cast the spell, and IMMEDIATELY began swearing up a storm as all of his protections vanished in a single mouse click. It was not the only time a young me would inspire this reaction1, but it was definitely the original, because I didn’t hang around quite so close to watch for a bit after that.
I grew up my father’s son, but of his two children, I was not the favorite. That’s not a bad thing by any means – I was my mother’s child, and my sister was Dad’s. At this point, I don’t think any one of us would deny it’s how it broke down, and it’s not like I was neglected for it. But the one thing I went way more in on than her, and one of our tightest bonds for years, was my sister never dove hard into tabletop or CRPGs like Dad and I did2. We both kept going through the 90s into the lean times for the genre, but whereas I branched out into more titles, Dad stuck with the genre, began picking up CD megapacks of the older titles he missed, and over time, would replay the ones he loved most. Somewhere in here, he learned of the furthest he’d go from the party-based style: my father bought a copy of Diablo.
This was the first time I began to realize part of why he stuck to turn-based games for the most part: by the end of Diablo, Dad had to have me by his side watching the hotkeys to feed him potions and keep him going. He didn’t have the dexterity to manage a mouse, his skill keys, AND tap the right key in the heat of boss battles. Strangely, this didn’t scare him off the genre! It’s only because he kept trying to play these (but a. never online, and b. never another Diablo game) that I learned about this weird little German title called Sacred, and later, I ran all over town trying to find him a copy of the sequel which had a rocky US launch. Getting the expansion for this game was what finally convinced him to make a Steam account, and ever since, it became THE most played title he ever got into on the platform until this past year3.
The surprising thing is, despite all of this, he never finished Sacred 2. I actually don’t know what the last game he fully beat, start to finish, was. Everything in the above screenshot I’m damn sure he didn’t polish off, and maybe one game further down the list was it, Legend of Grimrock. 1. He never went on to the sequel because by that point, he was getting to the point where the sidestep-and-swipe-shuffle of those real-time dungeon crawlers was too much for him. I highly suspect due to this he never beat it, just because of how brutally tight that last boss “puzzle” could be. But he never complained! He just decided that he’d grind a little more and still have fun with the action titles he played. My father put 500+ hours into Kingdoms of Amalur just because he figured out “Oh, I can just forge and potion myself to invincibility” on his own and it meant if he got stuck, he’d just do that for a bit, then run off to some new corner of the world and make a fiefdom, and… To my father, RPGs didn’t seem to need endings, they were just worlds he was passing through. Nowhere was this clearer in the 20+ year D&D campaign he played in as I grew up.
Dad’s GM was an ex-submarine tech, and apparently, how he spent his time at sea was just taking notes. Designing worlds. Statting critters. I was a teenager the last time I attended one of them, and by that point, the man had a literal wall of banker’s boxes full of binders and notes and paperwork. It wasn’t focused on being a perfect, clockwork world – I remember Dad joking all the time about “oh yeah, you can tell someone enjoyed Jurassic Park, we’ve been running into a lot of giant lizards lately” or some other new focus that became fodder for the campaign for a few sessions. But it was a world, and whatever his players wanted to do in it, he’d let them. It had one of the more creative rules I ever saw, probably because it lasted so long: if a character reached level 104, they became an NPC. They would be a potent NPC, and probably someone that the party or successive adventurers might look to for aid or a story arc, but you were too potent to just be wandering into dungeons at that point. You were the head of a druid circle, or a local lord, or the head of a merchant empire. And all of these happened! I remember my father spending an entire week between games once statting out all of his wagons and who carried what where, calling the GM to roll up if anyone made it, were there brigands, did I hire enough guards – All of this BETWEEN GAMES just to make sure that he wouldn’t slow everyone else down handling it at the one tabletop session of the week.
I ran some tabletop games for years. I started in high school, and it definitely reflected my younger, self-destructive self. There was the time we all drove out towards a California wildfire to meet up and play when our school was canceled, but the house where all of our stuff was was in the path, just ten minutes out instead of five. We legit kept two trucks ready for all of us to hop into in case the winds changed, but had we been unlucky: that definitely would have killed the 6 of us. This campaign ended with one player pulling a shotgun on another, and while it wasn’t fired, this was definitely enough that it kept a bunch of nerdy teens from resuming the next week.
But we all still hung out on campus, of course, because we weren’t going to get weird about it.
I’m sure some people reading this remember that I ran another campaign for a while after that, a podcast series that went on for a few years. I’m not the fondest of it. The whole thing came about during the lowest point of my life, where I was drinking, surly, abusive, and really just an outright terrible person to be around. Barely any of those players speak to me anymore, and I don’t blame them, even though I think the majority of them still regularly play and record other stuff as a continuation of the show without me. I don’t know if anything else in my life was as much of a wedge between Dad and I. He continued playing tabletop games until he died, still getting the same enjoyment when their GM split, and they found new players, and new people. We would legitimately be running around town when I went home and I’d just get introduced to “oh, hey, this is so-and-so, she’s younger than you and she just joined our D&D group. You’ve always got a place at the table if you want it, son!”. This happened repeatedly! For him, it was never a chore, it was the peak of his week no matter what, and I envy him that. To this day, I still have possibly-PTSD over tabletop stuff, just thinking of all the horrendous things I did and how incredibly low I was with alcohol. I do not know if this one was ever public, but according to multiple of the players, there was a side session we ran one week where I was apparently so plastered that they thought I had killed myself, or at least wounded myself quite a bit, and I was giggling on the floor. I confess I don’t know about this one because I woke up on the floor or in some shitty position more than once after those games.
I guess I let it slip in the last paragraph: my father is dead. Freshly so, it was this week. I’m writing this on what was his D&D night, and I’m afraid to call and ask whether they’re taking the night off just this once, or if the game goes on without him. This whole thing comes down to one last request: we knew he was going for a while, but before he did, he made quite sure that we all knew I got his dice. And so, on the day he passed, I went home to my parents’ place after work, and I helped with some of the cleanup until the hospice nurse arrived and loaded him into a van under a sheet. When I left, I did so with sacks and containers of dice, an impressive number given that sometime in the 2000s, someone broke into his van and stole all of his D&D books and bags, and this was everything he had recollected just since then.
He never played a tabletop RPG post-D&D 2e. I think they dabbled in Pathfinder a little, but his new GM and the remnants of that old group returned to their custom system, filing a few edges off for playability. That was something we had friction over at times – I was never content to just play a game. I was analyzing it, I’d find flaws, I’d nitpick. He threw himself into it and just had fun. We argued about design and whether a game was fun or not, but to my father, games were just to be played, the system didn’t matter. Every game had rules and sometimes you could do better, but nothing would ever leave his mouth in the middle of play: the rules had been set and he was going to play by them. One of the only people who ever got kicked out of that group was someone who just kept pushing those boundaries and finally everyone had enough, and while Dad kept up with him for years (I ran into him the other day, at Dad’s bedside, the day he slipped into a coma he never woke from), they all agreed: Mark was a real shitty player.
Ernie Arnett never knew me as Sibyl. His health had been failing for years, last year he received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, and early in 2021 he caught Covid-19 and somehow survived for another six months5. I don’t doubt he would have been fine with this part of my identity, there was nothing else I ever came to him with that he didn’t accept, from my sexuality to any of my relationships to just “I don’t think I want to work at the same company as you, Dad”. But I didn’t tell him because I think on some level, he wanted A Son to continue his legacy, and I was willing to keep that fiction alive for him with the clock ticking. His father had died at 65, and his father’s father the same. That Dad made it past that milestone, even briefly, made him incredibly proud, and I told him at the time I intended to top whatever record he set. I still plan to, even if in his absence, I’m gonna fudge some of those details. My father bailed me out of so many jams and still I’ll remember one of the final things he said to me was that he wished he had done “more for his kids”. The man who raised three of us, one who wasn’t even his by birth, and still he thought he had let us down on some level.
This is where I broke down crying and stopped, weeks back. I keep returning to this post in fits and starts. I’ve helped pick up around my parents’ house, cleaning up the master bedroom that became a remote hospital bed for months. The strangest things set me off throughout this. The realization that I will constantly just see my father “online” for a while to come as my brother in law laid claim to his PC/Steam account, an account whose only friend was me, so I could gift him titles, is a weird sensation that trips me out every time6. I’ve got a big pile of Dad’s dice and a lot of his media that ended up in my care for sorting, there’s some real weird landmines in those bags. When that Wheel of Time show comes out this fall, that’ll probably be a fresh gut-punch, we both read those together every time a new one dropped. On and on, and still, despite it… this is probably for the best. I don’t want to forget my father, he was a wonderful man, even if his declining years were not amazing on a few levels. He just faded out, far from the worst way cancer could end.
I keep putting off finishing and posting this. I find myself thinking of other stories to add7, or more ways to try and extend the metaphor… it’s like if I finish this, if I admit it’s over and release it, then I’m burying my father myself. Now that I’m sitting here staring at the terminal, though, I know it would just be cruft. I’d edit half of it out and start over, or keep trying to reframe this whole thing so it “flows better”. It’s not going to flow better. It’s me processing grief on a page. I’ll have to do it again later, I know that much. We can’t really hold a service or see any other relatives in the middle of a pandemic kicking back into high gear, with family all around the country and the travel being risky as hell. So someday I’ll revisit my father’s grave, and maybe I’ll break a sober streak and down some liquor with aunts and uncles, and see which of us yells at the other first, especially because I’m sure it’ll be the first time a few of them find out “Ah, you’ve got tits now, and not like your father did”. But I set myself a timer on this, and I’m almost done with the last song on the playlist, Tom’s Diner. It was just the right bit of melancholy to round this out, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have some Sarah McLachlan stuck in my head for a week after this.
He was the man who helped make me who I am, and I intend to be surpass him, same as he aimed to with his father.