The Agony and Ecstasy of Socially Distant Dungeons & Dragons

It’s the best and worst time to ever play Dungeons and Dragons. D&D might be 46 years old, but it’s still far-and-away the most popular tabletop roleplaying game thanks to a resurgence brought on by the revised ruleset of its 5th edition. Some of the most popular “actual play” podcasts use the game as a canvas to tell compelling stories; the McElroy brothers’ Adventure Zone regularly tops the iTunes charts and Rude Tales of Magic is just fun. Critical Roll, the most popular D&D Twitch stream, recently collaborated with publisher Wizards of the Coast on a source book based on the show, and Amazon Prime is adapting their campaign into an animated series. Stranger Things put the game on the map for the less internet-savvy.

More people want to play D&D than ever, and with the coronavirus pandemic still in full swing, there are plenty of socially isolated potential players looking for distraction and connection. The only problem? Playing D&D kind of sucks.

Playscape Torment

Playing the most recent edition of D&D digitally has always been an option, but for the most part, your best bet was either getting together with friends or finding an IRL group online. The quintessential experience of meeting up for a few hours every other week to eat pizza, drink, roll expensive physical dice purchased from an Etsy gemstone carver, and build a sprawling fiction narrative together is what people think of when they think of tabletop roleplaying, whether the setting is high fantasy or in the back alleys of a modern city. Looking for a game online meant wading through poorly written descriptions, communicating with players in other time zones, filling out applications, interviewing with the dungeon master over Discord, and potentially committing to a game that might run for three weeks, or three years — then doing it all again if things don’t work out.

I’ve been DMing a real-life campaign for close to three years now, and we made the awkward, but necessary, leap to online play in March, right as New York City was shutting down. It’s more convenient, obviously; I live in a pretty isolated part of Manhattan and getting together on a bi-weekly basis meant that half the group needed to either drive or sit on the subway for half an hour. We’ve switched to using Roll20, the most popular virtual tabletop by far, although there are quite a few out there. It’s a versatile system that can be used for pretty much any type of tabletop game. You’ve got a grid system, character sheets, tokens and maps, and that’s pretty much it. Just build your game from there. 

Our group still meets every other week, but instead of printing out monsters to slot into plastic stands and drawing dry erase maps, I need to find high-resolution battle maps, tokens for every NPC and enemy, and stickers or structures to fill the board with. For the aspiring DM who happened to either pay for a map on Patreon, grab one from the many subreddits that offer free graphics on tap, or draw it in the map making program Inkarnate, be prepared to improvise as your players try to interact with every tiny, unintended facet. If you’ve turned on Roll20’s fog of war or dynamic lighting system (both are different ways of unspooling what the players can see at any given time), be prepared to either reveal the map manually as it’s explored, or delineate which walls can and can’t be revealed dynamically ahead of time.

For first timers, things are even more tedious. If you’re a fantasy fan who’s been lured in with promises of liberating a country enshrouded in perpetual night from the grasp of a vampire, rescuing a city that’s sunken into hell, or hopping all over the multiverse to fight brain eating squid monsters, where should you start? 

Normally, one might meet up with friends, spitball race and class combinations, come up with a setting-appropriate backstory, then allocate your stats. D&D has six “pillar” attributes — strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma — that can range from 1 to 20, and how many hit points you have, when your turn is in combat, and how good you are at the game’s 18 skills (everything from acrobatics to religion to survival) all flow from those initial numbers and affect your dice rolls. If it seems unintuitive, that’s before accounting for what skills you’re proficient in, tool usage, weapon and armor familiarity, how spells are cast and how many you know at a time based on your class… the list goes on and on. You do all of this after, of course, paying $30 for the Player’s Handbook, which breaks down everything you need to know about how to make a character on a pen-and-paper sheet.

Dungeons & Dragons

The Walled Garden

I’m making this sound much more complicated than it is, and there are a few services out there that really streamline things. DNDBeyond is a great resource, and you can build up to six characters for free… after repurchasing digital versions of the books you might already own in real life. Trying to bring the character you made into Roll20 or another virtual tabletop? Too bad, you’ll have to pay those respective services for access to their books as well in a less easy-to-use environment, or you can input everything manually — Wizards doesn’t have its own tabletop simulator, it only sells its materials through third party providers.

Even after organizing my own game and running one-offs for friends, I’m no stranger to how rough D&D can be on the player side. I had been in a pretty well thought out online campaign since January of this year, and even while wrangling seven players spread across every conceivable time zone, the DM had seeded the story with narrative hooks to chase based on our backstories. Then, at the beginning of April, we were just about to travel to my character’s hometown… but our DM revealed that she had just been checked into the ICU after contracting COVID. Thankfully, she recovered pretty quickly, but our once-weekly sessions became sporadic in part due to her decreased lung capacity, and the campaign is now on “permanent hiatus.” Rest in peace Mason Tangleweave, morally ambiguous cleric of a war god, maybe you’ll avenge your dead wife one day.

Therein lies the rub with trying to socialize through a fantasy game; no matter how deep into the lore and roleplaying you get, the real world is still going to intrude. The dynamic at my table is a lot slower than it used to be. People are unsure of when they’re supposed to talk, the doctors and students of the group alike are tired and overworked, and technical hiccups often have us reconnecting to Discord multiple times a night. And, as protests over police brutality and anti-Black racism continue throughout America and beyond, the same issues have come up in online fantasy gaming too.

At the end of April, “Orc” was trending on Twitter after users once again started debating whether D&D’s coupling of ingrained stat bonuses and good/evil alignments with the concept of race is, well, racist. As written in Voldo’s Guide to Monsters, a supplementary book with extra “monstrous” options, anyone who wants to play as an orc has to take a -2 penalty to intelligence. Even half-orcs canonically still feel the rage of Gruumsh, the orcish god of destruction, tugging at them “in their blood” towards violence. This shouldn’t be surprising; D&D traces its lineage back to Middle Earth and Tolkien’s similar depiction of orcs as magically twisted, inherently violent hordes.

Wizards of the Coast, for their part, announced that they would suspend streams of Magic: The Gathering and D&D in support of “those fighting racial injustice,” but the purveyors of their content took things to the necessary next level. In a blog post simply titled “Black Lives Matter,” Roll20 announced that it would be soliciting and promoting the work of often overlooked Black creators, reshuffling its advisory board to be more diverse, and donating $50,000 to community groups. DNDBeyond donated 50 percent of proceeds from the sales of digital dice to Black Lives Matter through June 9; the Dungeon Master’s Guild, where users can upload and sell third-party content, is offering special Black Lives Matter bundles highlighting Black creators, and Twitch streamers are running charity games for bail funds and other causes. 

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Dungeons & Dragons

Making it Work

Dungeons and Dragons is an escapist fantasy, but it’s not a video game. Overcome the technical hurdles and the racist or sexist themes from others at the table can still unwittingly (or worse) work themselves in, even as the companies offering the game shift towards broadening the player base and making amends for past oversights. I’d recommend a consent checklist, and a DM willing to offer it is one who’s likely to respect players’ boundaries.

IT hiccups aside, if you can find a setup that works and where everyone respects each other, even the lowest lows can become memorable stories; one of my fondest memories is of Maria Copperleaf, a hulking ranger who used brute strength and failed spectacularly at everything thanks to an improbable string of failed rolls. In nearly every combat she’d get her massive sword wedged in a door frame, fall on her ass, or get tripped up and bound by spiders. At the end of the adventure she was polymorphed into an elephant and defeated our quarry, a sadistic usurper to the throne, by falling over and squashing him. Even though she was immensely stupid and my friends still rib me over it, she holds a special place in my heart.

So, want to pretend to be a devout gnome paladin on a quest to stop Chthonic horrors from taking over the universe, or raid a sunken pirate ship as a demon-spawned bard? Go ahead. We’re all grasping for intimacy, meaning, and the trappings of “the before times” in the coronavirus era, holes that baking bread and online MMOs have stepped up to fill. Even if online D&D has technical barriers, its ability to bring people together on a regular basis to collaborate through play is more than worth it.

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