Art by Avery Liell-Kok

I’m in fifth grade. It’s after school and I’m stuck waiting for my mom to pick me up. The middle school kids have their classrooms at the other end of the building, and I can hear shouting, so of course that’s where I go. They’re in our dingy little library gathered round a battered table. They have paper, dice, and books– and they’re playing Dungeons and Dragons. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, to be specific (they are very specific). They offer to teach me, but for now I just want to sit and listen, maybe look at the books. While they argue about THACO, I open the Monstrous Manual, and my world changes.

I am in 7th grade. I am taking orders. “Okay . . . so, here’s the list of races I can draw. Yeah, I can totally do a Swan May. What color hair should she have? Eyes? Skin?” I have a tiny cohort, and they all want characters to “adopt”. A battered copy of the Monstrous Manual is passed around, in case anyone doesn’t know what a Swan May is, or a Drow, or a Rakshasa. I also offer custom races– mermaids, cat people, vampires, anthropomorphic ducks (don’t ask). My notebooks have their own entries, copied off D&D’s model, detailing the biology, habitats and stats of all these creations. I slavishly create my own pictures. My goal is to make something look as cool as the Tarrasque, but I’m leagues away.

I am in 8th grade. My dad comes home from the recycling center with a box of abandoned books. The all have similar titles– Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith:the Oblivion, and Changeling: The Dreaming. My heart skips a beat when I see Changeling’s beautiful stained glass cover. I think of my favorite author, Charles de Lint, and the world he described in my personal holy book, Memory and Dream– a world of faeries and stranger things, of a painter who could bring the numinous into reality by the power of her brush alone. When I open that book and see Rebecca Guay’s unbelievable watercolors and Tony DiTerlizzi’s iconic splash pages, I think this is what Mr. de Lint was describing. This is real magic. I use up reams of printer paper creating a whole cast of characters for my own personal World of Darkness, and never show anything but a sliver to the outside.

I am a freshman in college. I am ostensibly here to study art, mostly I am here to escape my disintegrating home life. I am depressed, and for the first time I understand what artist’s block is. The best I can manage is some half-assed Jackie Chan Adventures fan art. I take comfort in the mechanical exercises of my entry level classes, but my worlds are closed to me, until my old high school friend tells me I need to come with him to this LARP. It’s Changeling based, he says, and so much fun, and all I can think about is how embarrassed I would be to play in a game with people I don’t know– but in the grayest part of February, when I can’t walk down the street without wanting to chuck myself in front of a bus, I say yes. He helps me with the basics. I go home, and start thinking about my character. The first thing I need to do to get to know her is draw her face.

I am a Junior in college. I am doing a project for the Changeling game, drawing as many of the characters as I can. There’s a lot– we’re talking a game that regularly pulls in around sixty people at it’s height. I’ve decided to focus on illustration when I get out of school. Just last year was my first GenCon, and this year I’m putting together a portfolio to take to the people at Wizards of the Coast. I work at my local games store and when I’m not slinging magic cards, I’m coming up with picture ideas. I never do finish the project, and the Wizards people very kindly tell me they hate my work, but I am invigorated. I can do this.

I am a couple of months out of school after taking an extra year to travel to Italy. When I’m not wandering Florence, I’m either working on several illustrations related to the Exalted game I’m utterly obsessed with; or, I’m reading the new Changeling: the Lost, and once again coming up with a cast of people to inhabit this gorgeous, insane city I will come to call home even ten years later. When I return and graduate, it is these illustrations I include in my portfolio when I get my first real gig doing some interiors for a little company called Silvervine Games. It’s a start, and I can’t be happier.

It is 2016, and I have been working full time as a professional illustrator for five years, employed at a company that gives me a salary to draw all day. I have never broken through to Wizards, in large part because I stopped thinking of painting a Magic card as the pinnacle of my potential career. I have other ambitions, now. Those old notebooks? I still have them. I’m starting to think maybe other people would be interested in those places and characters I have imagined so thoroughly, have drawn constantly. In partnership with my writer friend, I’m working on my first original gaming supplement. It’s great– I draw, he writes; he writes, I draw.

Roleplaying games were the fertile ground in which the seeds of my creativity were planted. Whatever fantastic fruits spring from that garden, I’m always going to tithe a portion of the harvest to the industry that nurtured me and gave me the confidence to tell whatever story I wanted, that taught me about world building and the joys of character design and made it imperative that I learn to tell a story in my paintings.

Thanks, you guys. I’ve got my pencil – Let’s play.

What was your gaming journey? How did you get inspired and pulled into the world of gaming?