Every Sunday, Drew Biscardi and Taylor Marie would prepare their home for a slew of guests. Their friends are greeted by a hearty home-cooked meal, typically chili, soup, or anything that could fit in a large pot. Their table would be adorned with flatware, as well as a whiteboard, books, pencils, paper, and colorful sets of dice. After catching up with some light banter, and the party is well fed, they would continue their weekly Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Slaying monsters and saving their realm from the evils that lurked behind every corner is a weekly ritual for most. Since the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through the world, many groups began to feel the fallout of disbanded groups, players dropping off, and sometimes falling into depressive, almost recluse states. But folks like Drew, Taylor, and others have shared with me their experiences and how they have fought to keep their adventuring parties together.
If you are unfamiliar, Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop role playing game, where players use their imaginations to carry out adventures dictated by the Dungeon master (DM). Players adhere to a set of rules while the DM controls the game, doling out reactions to the player’s actions. Occasionally, the DM would reward players with magical heirlooms or psychologically torture their players with cursed treasure. There is a very good chance that you have heard of this game before, as it has once again taken the world by storm thanks to modern media.
After appearing in popular TV shows like Community, people started to get back into the hobby. Drew and Taylor both used to play in their teens when Dungeons and Dragons First Edition was still popular. They were reminded of the game upon watching Netflix’s hit, Stranger Things, and from that moment on Drew and Taylor regained their love for the classic RPG. Unfortunately, several months into their adventure, COVID-19 began to gain traction around the world, putting a halt to their in-person meetings. Like many others, Drew and Taylor moved their games to a virtual setting, and with that change came a new set of challenges many others would also face.
Since before the pandemic started, companies began to embrace the newfound love for Dungeons and Dragons as well as other beloved tabletop role playing games (TTRPG). Virtual tabletops like Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and D&D Beyond were all created to enhance the experience and make it easier for everyone to jump into a game. Discord, Reddit, and even Facebook became havens for people looking to play and create groups with others around the globe. As convenient as these services were, they came with caveats.
Part of relocating parties to online platforms was utilizing the various tools without losing yourself in the complexity of it all. Despite not having the same impact as playing in person, people were still able to adjust to their newfound weekly habits. “The hardest part with Roll20 is navigating the menus,” Alex Zapeda, another player said to me, “getting everything planned out can be incredibly hard due to the rough interface.”
I for one can vouch for Alex’s point of view when it comes to using virtual tabletops. Dungeons and Dragons can be a daunting experience, especially for those who never played before. Adding a virtual element can also cause more problems, and not just from a technical standpoint, but from an emotional one. Drew mentions his DM who is a college professor and could not stand being on his computer for too long after spending many of his previous hours working on said computer. “We tend to use theater of the mind, and keep computer use low.” Drew and Taylor told me.
As Drew and Taylor were more seasoned gamers, Alex Zapeda and Steve May were practically brand new to the hobby. Alex started playing a year ago and highlights his love for Dungeons and Dragons as a new passion of his, building friendships over distances and becoming more accustomed to the virtual landscape. Steve May, a singer and songwriter, has been greatly influenced by the methodology of what it means to embrace your imagination. “It (D&D) helped my lyricism and changes the way you think about problem solving and the types of stories you tell,” May told me.
The experience that everyone has with D&D is truly unique, and the stories you hear are never the same, even learning the game and picking up the rules is an adventure of its own. Alex started playing D&D by learning how to become a DM first, and slowly molding himself into a player after a friend picked up the reigns. Alex then began to put himself into a teaching role, showing his fellow party members how to navigate through a virtual plane as well as manage a character. Even though things seemed to be well, a player of his did drop out, and seemed to disappear.
“He didn’t answer any messages, it was like he became a ghost,” Alex said, “but he did return, and after having a special one-on-one session, I was able to reintroduce him back into our game.” We can only wonder what may have caused this player to fold from the group, but as someone who has had to take a step back from their respective group, I can understand.
Steve May’s group started sporadically at a backyard BBQ, where someone suggested they should play. Without understanding the rules, they began to forge a concept until someone properly guided them. After playing several sessions in person, creating a unique playing environment using lighting rigs and costumes, they were forced to adopt the digital side of playing. Once the pandemic hit, things adjusted. They went from playing once a week to every other week, eventually playing only once a month.
“It wasn’t a bad thing,” Steve assured me, “We found that playing once a month actually made our sessions better, and our DM was able to create deeper, richer experiences.” In an angle I did not expect, Steve had an entirely different experience, but even though he didn’t play as much as the others, he still holds a love for the game. “I make regular decisions with a D20, down to what I am going to eat,” He told me in jest.
Walter Green, another player who embraced the virtual side before pandemic was in full motion, shared with me his experiences using online sources. Most of his players were all part of a group called the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS), which primarily focused on wargaming. From that group, Walter was able to gather friends and dive into running 6 to 8-player groups. Engaging with players was natural for everyone involved but moving online has taken Walter some getting used to. He said, “We don’t use cameras, so I can’t really read body language, and had to learn how to actively listen to my players.”
In the middle of The Dungeon of the Mad Mage pre-written adventure, I had to leave my own group. At that time, I was experiencing my own level of frustration with my environment. I never felt comfortable when I played at the computer, sitting for hours, missing the in-person aspects of the game. With a newborn in the household, volume must be maintained, and for some reason I could not focus. I never felt truly at ease, no matter what I did. It is depressing when your favorite escape from reality becomes intolerable. The disconnection made me feel like husk, and the energy that invigorated me when we met in person seemed to be dried up.
It did not help being home all the time and sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, staring into the white abyss of a document or spreadsheet wore me down quickly. Sometimes not having a commute is nice and being home gives me a level of freedom that I know I would not get if I were in an office. I had to deal with the concept of never leaving my environment, so I changed it. I purchased a folding desk from Amazon and kept it in the bedroom. When the time comes, I unfold it, and embrace the change of pace. I no longer feel tied down as much as I used to. I feel like I can now enjoy my time with my friends once again.
The pandemic has been a trying time for a lot of people to say the very least. After talking to each person here, I noticed that everyone has experienced something unique, but they still had one thing in common: they looked forward to every game. This perseverance in the middle of a dark time is incredibly admirable, no matter how you cut it. It is incredibly easy to drop off, like I did. But to embrace new technology, and devise ways to make the adventure continue no matter how frequent your games are, is a feat unto itself.
Even though it is hard to escape reality at times, the ability to embrace the chaotic nature of this world and use it to your advantage is praiseworthy. It is possible to have some semblance of sanity during a time that seems bleak and isolating. Even though it has been some time since Drew and Taylor cooked for their fellow adventurers, they keep their head held high, and eagerly await the day where they can once again open their home and roll some dice aside a bowl of home cooked chili.