Six Months of Dungeons & Dragons in a Pandemic

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(Photo: Wizards of the Coast)

The pandemic has changed how I play and interact with Dungeons & Dragons. For me, Dungeons & Dragons sits somewhere between a major hobby and an occupation. As a part-time journalist that covers the D&D beat, it’s my job to understand how the game works. For over two years, I’ve run two games a week and taught at least a dozen players how to create characters and dive into a fantasy world filled with danger, mystery, and plenty of dragons. Dungeons & Dragons is a major part of my life, in part because of it gives me a creative outlet and a way to spend time with my friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t change that, despite still-ongoing recommendations against social gatherings. With nothing else to do on the weekends, I took the opportunity to launch what would become my most ambitious campaign yet – a heavily homebrewed 5E game inspired by the fabled “West Marches” – a sandbox campaign focused heavily on exploration and quests that can be wrapped up in a single week. That game turns 6 months this week, still going strong with two sessions a week and 17 players participating. Not only does this campaign provide me with some much needed social time on the weekends, it's also challenged me to find solutions to problems that didn't exist in a pre-pandemic world.

While the game itself has settled into a steady rhythm – games are played on Fridays and Sundays with missions and quests picked out over the week – it’s still a bit of an experiment. Much of the game is built on homebrewed mechanics, with an exploration role system and a crafting and harvesting system often built on the fly. Two of the players use Unearthed Arcana feats or subclasses, while several others spend their weekly downtime making weapons or designing magic items to generate some extra coin. The game has also evolved based on player preferences. For example, the original intent was to keep the game light on NPCs, but the campaign’s home base is now a bustling hub of misfits, with goblin refugees, tamed coral drakes, and even a few residents of the feywild all providing a bit more flavor to what was supposed to be a featureless starting point for adventures. The game also was originally supposed to use a different leveling system based on clearing objectives in various hexes on the map. That was tossed away with over the summer, replaced with a more traditional milestone system that rewards players for finishing a seasonal storyline.

The entirely online nature of the D&D campaign has been both a boon and a challenge. Playing online means more opportunity to play with friends who don’t live in town, or who wouldn’t normally have availability on the weekends. It also allows me to play around with encounter formats, building ambitious sessions that couldn’t happen in person.One particular week featured a two-part “event” where all 17 players participated in a simultaneous attack on one of the campaign’s main villains. The event only worked because it took place online – the players kept combat and strategy organized through the use of Zoom chat, leaving the voice channel open for the actual running of the game. The entire event took just over 6 hours (split between two sessions), but it was only possible because communication took place over multiple channels simultaneously. While online play has opened up some possibilities, the game has also hit small road bumps due to a limited map feature and occasional lag from overworked online character sheet databases.

Playing online has also radically changed how I DM, even when it comes to building encounters. I print off monster blocks to free up screen space for maps and Zoom windows, and I used fixed damage to save on time during combat. I also let chance decide my players’ fate – monsters often choose targets based on the roll of a d6 instead of pouring over strategy, which leads to unexpected results. A pair of bad dice rolls can lead to an unconscious PC – and there’s barely a week where at least one player hasn’t gotten uncomfortably close to a permanent death. In fact, one player did lose their PC due to some poor dice rolls and strategy - we opted not to kill the character off but turn him into a corrupted version of himself that will likely become a future villain further down the line. Still, that was the first time I've killed a PC in the middle of a campaign, providing me a new (and somewhat unexpected) experience. I'm expecting more deaths/character retirements to follow, especially as the players go off against threats like red dragons, mind flayers, Imix, and more in the coming months.

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My “favorite” part about playing D&D in a pandemic is that the players seem a bit more invested in the game, they seem to enjoy the distraction from the terrors of the real world a bit more than when games were played in person as part of a more relaxed social event. Four players have commissioned art of their characters, and some players regularly reach out asking questions about lore or tossing around potential character arcs. Most importantly, I feel that the world grows and thrives thanks to the players who visit every week – a goal of any DM who opened up their imaginary world to others.

The pandemic isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in the US, which means that this particular home game will be around for at least a few more months. I don’t know if a twice-weekly campaign will be possible once everyone is allowed to leave their homes and see their loved ones, but I am looking forward to seeing how this strange little game will continue to grow as the pandemic slogs on. Here’s to six months of enjoying Dungeons & Dragons during a pandemic – I hope the game has brought at least a bit of comfort and distraction during these strange times.