Our final session: playing Dungeons & Dragons in a pandemic

‘If you want a remote Dungeons & Dragons player during these grim times, let me know. Happy to make like Geri and re-join the band.’

My brother WhatsApped me this message on a Sunday morning at the end of March last year. It was the day before Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown. Three days later, all schools, workplaces, and non-essential shops closed. They would not open again for nearly three months. I was on day two of a 13-day quarantine, and any opportunity to play D&D online was a godsend.  

Back in the early 2000s, my brother and I had played as teenagers with a close group of friends from school. For more than half a decade, the five of us had met up once or twice a month to roll dice and eat sweets. We stopped playing in 2007. Jobs and university got in the way. (I have written about my D&D story here.)

Fast-forward nine years later, and four of us had started playing again. But until last year, my brother declined all invitations to join us. (Don’t tell him I said this, but he is considerably cooler than me.) When he messaged me out of the blue, I was touched – and not a little surprised.

That same week, we played a one-shot. I asked my brother what sort of game he wanted to play and presented him with a few options. He said he liked the idea of something dark and Gothic. So that’s what we did. He decided to play Eirynor, a warrior-priest devoted to death. He was joined by Lowyn (an evil gnome assassin from the Underdark), Ferro (a giant barbarian), and ‘the Oracle’, a mysterious warlock. I followed the eight steps in Mike Shea’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and cooked up a short homebrew adventure in the village of Gimmerton. There was a punch-up with some thugs outside the tavern, and a crypt, and some skeleton archers. It was fun.

But here’s the thing: there was an appetite to continue. The pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, and with restrictions in place, neither were we. So, we played on.

And on. Ferro became Zarasion, a dragonborn knight; Lowyn became Damiané, a wizard obsessed with magical artefacts. I started a blog and a new job. I moved house (twice). The characters grew more powerful; a story emerged around Zargon the Returner, an ancient abomination of great evil who had returned to devour the world. We were playing almost every week. In fact, in all the months since we first sat down to play, we have had to cancel only half a dozen sessions.

Two weeks ago, for the first time in two decades of play, we hit 20th level, the highest in the game. And today, at 3 pm, my friends and I are sitting down for one last game: the story finale. This time, for the first time since March 2020, all but one of us will be sitting round the table in person.  

Some D&D players hate gaming online. And it’s true, you lose something. Playing in person has its own particular feel: it’s more lively, animated, spontaneous, and it’s hard to recreate that when you’re staring at a screen. But for all that, playing online with friends was a crucial human contact at a time when we were uniquely cut-off from friends and family. It was an escape, a connection. It was a kind of fellowship at a time when we felt intensely separate from just about everything that was normal.

People who play D&D have often remarked that the friendships you make at the table are special somehow. Without wishing to malign my friends who don’t play D&D, I think there’s some truth in this, although it’s hard to explain why. It’s something about the nature of the hobby. It’s not just the amount of time you spend together. It’s the activity itself. Putting aside the rulebooks and the dice, you are creating, exploring, and inhabiting an imaginative world together. In a way, you are sharing a second self with other people. That’s quite a thing. You don’t do that when you go down the pub or watch a football match. The closest parallel I can think of is actors rehearsing a play together, living as their characters for weeks or months on end, but even there the analogy is not quite right. D&D deserves to be seen as its own art form: one which is immersive, collaborative, spontaneous, and unpredictable. There is nothing else quite like it, and the friendships we build round the table are profound and enduring.   

You don’t ‘win’ D&D. It’s not that kind of game. You roll dice, tell stories, have fun. But playing to 20th level with close friends, and over the course of a pandemic: that’s about as close to winning as you’re going to get.

What I learned from running a 20-level campaign

A particularly bonkers encounter at the War Council of Elendis. Map by Dungeon Baker.

Try to play as often as you can. If combat, exploration, and social interaction are the three pillars of D&D, scheduling is the fourth. Carve out a weekly slot and do everything you can to stick to it. Even after two weeks of not playing, you can start to forget story details.

Run a session zero. We didn’t, because the first session was a one-shot, and no one expected it to turn into a 20-level campaign. I would have done several things differently if I’d known we were going to play this long.

The Lazy DM Checklist is essential. If you are not familiar with Mike Shea’s blog, Sly Flourish, check it out and buy his books. Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is the best guide to DMing there is, and every DM should read it.

Challenge Ratings are whack. Encounter building in 5th edition is more art than science, and there’s no point being precious about it. Start with what makes sense for the story and go from there.

Theatre of the Mind can be incredibly liberating. Some players don’t like it because they like playing on a map, but for very complicated and very simple battles, it can make life so much easier. Do everything you can to keep combat moving. (Again, Sly Flourish’s guide is great.)

From around 10th level onwards, characters are extremely powerful. Consider wrapping up the story at the end of Tier 3, and let Tier 4 become a kind of ‘victory lap’. The characters are Marvel superheroes by this point, and nothing really challenges them. It’s worth thinking about how you’re going to handle game-breaking abilities like the wish spell.

DMing can be stressful. Players, no matter how complicated you think your character is, it’s nothing compared to the juggling your DM is doing behind the screen. Be a good player. Help your DM relax. Make notes. Keep your character sheet up to date. Be ready on your turn. Check your IT is working. Find out what sort of game they want to play. If you spot a rules mistake, and it really doesn’t matter, let it go.

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