We live in very uncertain times, where a person who was always right there, laughing and cheering on your next dice roll is suddenly, painfully absent. Having characters die in a D&D game happens, sometimes pretty often if you’re playing with a really brutal DM, or just have really bad dice rolls, but losing a player, a comrade, a friend, that’s something entirely different.
I sincerely hope you never find yourself in this situation, but I suddenly did this past December. One of my oldest friends, in fact the man who introduced me to this game, passed away suddenly. Our gaming group is pretty tight knit, and we’d lost another friend earlier in the year as well. So it has not been the best year for our little merry band.
But this loss struck me very hard, as I’d known him since elementary school. We were friends in high school, and college, and that’s when he introduced me and a couple other friends to this crazy, wonderful game.
I was reluctant at first. Yes, even I felt the stigma towards this game that was largely considered the domain of the uber nerd. But he convinced us to try it, and it was a lot of fun! The first session was an utter disaster as I rolled natural 1 after natural 1, and if he hadn’t been rolling just as bad, it would have been a slaughter. But still, we enjoyed it, and picked up the game again next week. Over the course of the next year or so, what had been our board game night quickly became D&D night, and we never looked back.
Fast forward to today: The group is a little larger, and we’ve been gaming together for well over a decade. We’ve had some amazing, memorable moments, both highs and lows, and seen each other in the best light, and the worst. There’s something about acting as a different person — maybe wish fulfillment for the type of person you wish you were, or the type of behavior you wish you could get away with in real life — but it has a paradoxical honesty about it. It tends to help you lower your walls a bit, and when you do that with a group of people long enough, you start to get to know them, and bond with them in unexpected ways. To an outsider it might seem crazy, but there’s some real psychological benefit to taking on the skin of a different person and engaging in a chaotic battle for survival where you can make all the right choices and still come up short. It’s tense, as the life of this character you have created and lived as for weeks, months, or even years could be a crumpled up paper in the trash at any moment.
Of course no one is in any real danger. It’s just a game. But it can get very intense, and sometimes you inadvertently learn things about yourself as you play.
And if everything goes well, or even sometimes if it doesn’t, you and your friends have just helped build an amazing work of fiction full of moments you’ll remember and tell stories of for the rest of your lives.
So it’s even more impactful when one of those people you’ve been sharing stories with leaves a vacant seat.
There’s no one right way to deal with loss, and I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to grieve, especially since I can’t make any claims to dealing with this loss very well myself. But what I do know is that this game was my friend’s entire life. He was a frequent DM, always a rules lawyer, and knew the books backwards and forwards. So after he passed, I was trying to find a way to honor him. And after discussing it with my group, and of course my friend’s mother, I found the perfect way to honor him.
Most d20’s used in D&D are plastic, and a lot are made of resin. They sell resin molds to make dice, so making your own dice can become a fun or even profitable activity. Or, you can put your dead friend’s ashes in them so he will always be a part of your game. Is that crazy? You betcha. Is it exactly what he would have wanted? One-hundred percent. Do I recommend this for everyone? No, absolutely not. Even I thought I was crazy, but with the rest of the group backing me, I went to work. His mom gave me a portion of the ashes, and soon I’ll have eight memorial d20’s. But I felt having the dice wasn’t quite enough. So while I was initially looking for someone to make the dice for me, since I didn’t have the materials or tools, I instead decided to make little boxes as keepsakes to hold the dice, something special and memorable so they wouldn’t just get lost in a big dice bag. I mean, they still could, but at that point it’s on them.
I bought eight little wooden boxes for cheap from a craft store, and with almost zero woodworking experience, set to sanding, staining, and painting them, adding little teeth that you only see when you open the box, and soon had eight little mimics with a cushion for the memorial dice.
And working on those boxes helped keep me sane. I’m not normally one for craft projects, but working on something with my hands gave me something to focus on and let my hindbrain do the processing. And it helped me find a little bit of closure in that I had even one tiny aspect of this horrible situation that I could control.
Now, again, I don’t recommend everyone do this exact thing. We all grieve differently. But maybe by putting this out there, this can help someone dealing with a similar difficult situation of losing a friend.
Because while that chair is going to remain empty, and that’s going to ache for an extremely long time, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t full to the brim with incredible memories that will last just as long as that mourning, if not longer. So years from now, when the pain has dulled and the wound has scabbed over, you’ll remember the good times, the important times, and the incredible lives you and your lost friend shared at the table — rolling plastic math rocks to see if you’ve successfully convinced the ogre not to kill you. Maybe it seems silly, and it is really silly, but friendships and more have been made at gaming tables all over the world.
Roll in peace, Brandon Kroll. Thank you for the lifetimes.