A table with books, dice, paper, and other D&D supplies on it.
Community Coronavirus Entertainment Technology and Gaming Texas State University

Escaping Reality: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed the Way We Play

By Henna Punjabi

Longtime friends gather around the dining room table in their college apartment. Papers are strewn across the table, laptops and dice scattered and mixed up between the players. Fingers, still greasy from the shared pizza, rush to grab a pencil and hurriedly take notes on the directions to the next city.

“Alright, that seems like a good place to take a break, are we all still good to play next Friday at 9 p.m.?” concludes Sam Homiller. The rest of the group excitedly agrees and discusses their plans to travel to the next “city”.

These friends, later calling themselves “One Big Party,” have been playing Dungeons and Dragons together once a week for six months, from October 2019 to March 2020. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop role-playing game that allows players to create a character and adventure through a fantasy world, creating stories together, according to Wizards of the Coast, the owners of the game. Sam, as the Dungeon Master (or “DM”), guides the gameplay for the rest of the group.

As Mark Hosek, one of the players, shared, D&D gives players the chance to pretend, to play around, act, story-tell, and interact with a fantasy world. It was an “escape” for many of these players, to sit at a table, share snacks and laughs together, forgetting the troubles of the world.

And then COVID-19 hit.

As various parts of the world went into lockdown and isolation, people had to adjust their entire lifestyles and how they lived their day-to-day life, from getting groceries to finding childcare. The world turned on its head to accommodate the unexpected virus, including the tabletop role-playing game community.

For some, campaigns had to be moved entirely online to keep the players safe.

“Back in early 2020 when everything shut down, all of the in-person games I was in either shifted to Discord or stopped entirely,” says Jien Ogawa, an avid D&D player. “That was a very difficult adjustment since I was someone who played best in the same room as the others.”

But for others, the pandemic brewed the perfect storm of opportunities that allowed them to play again, like for Jamie Noble, who went from playing once every couple of months to playing every day for eleven days.

“When we went into lockdown, I suddenly had time to play again,” said Jamie. “We got through an entire campaign, a feat we’d never accomplished before. It was a perfect storm, lightning in the worst of bottles. That little pocket of time was the chance to properly play again.”

Jamie wasn’t the only one to start playing more D&D in 2020. Overall, Dungeons and Dragons saw a 33% increase in sales in 2020, according to CNBC. Virtual games specifically rose 86% in 2020 with the help of online platforms, according to the L.A. Times.

Online games were only made possible through different online platforms that supported the kind of play that normally requires a table (It is called a “tabletop” RPG after all). While Zoom took the spotlight for many during the pandemic, according to CNBC, there were other platforms that supported the mass increase in users and provided functions and features key to online gaming.

Discord had been used for years in the gaming community and other groups that wanted a way to text, voice, and video chat, according to the New York Times. During the pandemic, however, many found its versatile interface and functions perfect for all sorts of online gatherings, including D&D. Bots can even be used in Discord, including Avrae, a bot that includes dice rolling features and connects to D&DBeyond.

While Discord is versatile, its features aren’t niche or specific for D&D. Roll20, however, provides a “virtual tabletop” for tabletop role-playing games. It features a variety of TTRPG systems, including D&D, Pathfinder, and Kids on Bikes. Roll20 allows all the players to be connected in the same game, view the same “virtual table,” and even roll virtual dice on the virtual table. Dungeons and Dragons accounts for over half of the total games played on the platform, and its usage dramatically increased during 2020. Roll20 added 3 million new users from March 2020 to December 2020, according to their quarterly reports, for a total of 8 million users currently.

However, to actually start playing D&D, you need a character to play with. D&DBeyond provides a streamlined and easy way to create your character sheet online. It’s fairly universal and integrates with the Avrae bot as mentioned before as well as Roll20. The database of searchable information within D&DBeyond makes it a great tool to have at any virtual table.

While all these digital tools certainly make it easier and possible to play online, it’s still a very different experience as opposed to playing in-person. Mark explained that it’s not necessarily about in-person or online being better, but they are just different experiences.

“I started playing in-person before we moved to online,” Mark explains. “Now, I play a little bit of both. Neither is bad, they both serve good purposes and work for each campaign.”

Even though Jien had only played in-person games before, she says that the pandemic gave her the push she needed to dive deeper into the online TTRPG community.

“Right now, even though I play 5-6 games per week, only one of them is streamed,” she said. Jien is currently a cast member of “Plot Hunters,” a D&D campaign that’s live-streamed on Twitch. “I’ve wanted to be more present and productive in the TTRPG streaming world, and being tossed so suddenly into a largely online-exclusive gaming medium did force me to do more of my networking in that world. Since then, I’ve made a handful of friends in the streaming community and I’m getting a little more confident with reaching out to new people and looking for opportunities to put myself out there a little more.”

While the COVID-19 brought, and continues to bring, grief and hardship for many, it’s refreshing to see some of the silver linings of the past two years and their tragedy.

“It’s difficult to talk so positively about something so awful but it was strangely the time when we were the most free to play,” said Jaime. “In a time where we were isolated, where we were lonely, online play was the chance to connect with others.”

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