By Joshua Sky
Describing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) to people who’ve never played before is oddly challenging. To this day, even the game’s surviving creators have trouble explaining it to newcomers. The game is storytelling, tactics, diplomacy – not to mention fantasy and pretend all rolled into one. Games can last hours, days or even years. It’s as immersive as players want and endlessly fun. In short, it’s special and unlike anything else. I tried defining it to my fiancée, the only description that seemed to help was telling her, “Remember that game those kids in Stranger Things played?”
You start with a Dungeon Master, (DM), a storyteller and referee of sorts, some dice, rule books and a group of fellow players who’ve rolled up characters or have pre-generated ones. You can play different classes, like a fighter or wizard and distinct races like elves or dwarfs. The game has infinite combinations and is never played quite the same twice. It’s based on a system of fluid interchangeable rules, which circulate around character stats and the luck of dice rolls built on participant’s actions. It’s about choices, their consequences and most of all adventure. Ultimately the game is what you make of it. It’s a free license to use your imagination. The rules only carry as much credence as the DM gives them, it’s the story and play which count most.
Like many people, I played D&D deeply and with great passion in high school only to forget about it in the tides of adulthood. Looking back, some of the fondest memories of my formative years were spent playing this game. It helped sharpen my imagination while awakening an underlying aspiration to become a writer. It also helped get me through some rough patches without even realizing it. I’ll never forget what one of my friends and fellow players, Matt Erwin, said before he moved when I was a freshman. “Hold onto your imagination. Too many adults lose it.”
I tried playing D&D again over the years. But the game was never like the ones with my old group. Something was missing. I dropped it, only to think of it with wistful nostalgia from time to time. It wasn’t until the COVID pandemic struck that I began to call those old friends to see what they were up to. I knew they were still running their games every week, but the thought of playing again seemed impossible due to time, distance, and the fact that I never thought to join over video conference because that would just be lame. Or, so I believed…
“We’re playing the game over Zoom.”
“You’re what?” I asked with my cell crooked in my ear and a dish in my hand.
“We’re playing online. Wanna join?”
It had only been a few weeks since the quarantine overtook California and a blanket of intense boredom had begun to take its toll. I streamed what felt like every movie and show out there. And re-watched all my favorite classics. But D&D, well – that game presented the ultimate never-ending binge. The middle of that week I received an invite to join. When I logged in, I was instantly transported back into my fourteen-year old self. I was with a party made up of old friends I hadn’t seen for too long. We didn’t miss a beat. There was Thomas, a healer, Jay, a warrior, Mike, a Ranger, and Eric, a neutral evil thief. I played LEM, a fourth level Cleric, wielding a flail. We were on an epic dungeon crawl, battling goblins and undead ogres for treasure. I couldn’t believe how fast I was able to get back into it. Even cooler, online the game doesn’t lose its edge. You still have the witty banter, interesting scenarios, as well as the drama and strategy of combat. I was hooked, especially since my character found a bag of holding, a huge lot of platinum and landed enough XP to make level five. Ah, the zest and lingo of high school virginity, back again! After the game, I found myself trolling Ebay where I pulled the trigger on a copy of the first edition Dungeon’s Master Guide and a bundle of other rule books.
The thing that’s most striking is that the game surrounds you with your friends. It’s incredibly social and you don’t feel isolated. It helps you forget about all the chaos on the news and the fact that the world is on fire.
The next week, I was able to get my fiancée to play. Her character is a fourth level Bard. Had it not been for how bored she was, I don’t think it would have been possible to talk her into joining. At first, she was skeptical. “What’s this game? … I don’t get it… What’s a bard? …. We have chores you know.”
By the end of the game she managed to steal a Book of Deeds from a Dark Wizard and skip to level nine. By week two, she was yelling, “The Ogre is by the door! No, don’t roll for me you jinx the dice!” She was also meticulous about splitting the treasure. So, yeah, she got into it. The week after that, I was able to get Matt to play. We hadn’t played together for nearly twenty years.
Since my old gaming buddies have little else to do in the evenings but game, they also ran other great one-shots beyond D&D — mech combat, space marines and star marshals. While scrolling through Instagram, I saw that other people across the country are table-top gaming online, same as us. But I realized that there are probably players out there who might like to do the same but haven’t thought to or know how to go about it.
For those interested, here is a brief instructional guide:
1st) Find a group of players. There are different message boards out there looking for members, or perhaps you already have one. A gang can be organized with some elbow grease through social media or over the phone. There’s also the sub-Reddit Looking For Group. Twist some arms from a safe distance if you have to! Honestly, it’s easier than one might think. A lot of people are bored out of their minds.
2nd) A Dungeon Master, or DM for short. It helps if you are a good DM, know someone who is or can get a referral. There are also options to hire a freelancer.
3rd) Rulebooks, character sheets and dice. Rulebooks aren’t always required, as some, if not most, DMs already know the rules quite well and can simply walk the players through them. For dice rolls, there are plenty of free digital dice to utilize. As for character sheets, blanks and pre-generated ones litter the internet, but your best bet is asking if the DM has a character in mind that they want you to play, or to go to the official D&D site for free downloadable options there. All these tools can be gotten on the net, many for free, so don’t worry about buying them unless desired.
4th) Once a party is formed there are a number of video conferencing options. Zoom and Google Hangouts are just two of many choices. The players can also chip in to buy a subscription for one of the services for additional features. There’s also a great free application called Roll20, which comes highly recommended. Not only does it have an inbuilt video conferencing system, it comes with many visual tools for the game as well as a search engine to find other groups looking for people to join their adventures.
5th) This instruction is mainly for the DM – who might have his or her own table, grid and miniatures setup to represent the party’s characters. If the DM is of the analog school and has these tools on hand, a good camera setup is helpful if not crucial. Ideally, the DM should have two cameras, one on themselves so the players can see him or her as the story is told, and another camera videoing the game board. If using a service like Roll20.net, no second camera is required, and neither are the other accoutrements. The platform provides free customizable maps, figures, counters and dice.
And that’s pretty much all you need. Hopefully this small guide helps new players and old ones alike. I can’t think of a more important time for this game, or of a better way to bring friends together in an era when we are forced to be apart. As for myself, I’m making up for lost adventures and won’t be dropping my dice anytime soon.
However, I will be rolling them.
List of Resources:
Roll20: An online app that has everything players will need. From a search tool to find groups who want to play, to inbuilt video conferencing, digital character sheets, grids, virtual miniatures, counters and dice. It’s free as well: https://roll20.net/
Dungeons & Dragons Official Site: Here you can download free adventures and character sheets. The current designers have been kind enough to release daily content to keep players occupied. https://dnd.wizards.com/
D&D Beyond: Wizards of the Coast, the owners of D&D have a service where players can play online as well as tips and tricks for getting the most out of remote games: https://www.dndbeyond.com/
Sources To Find Gaming Groups & Other Players
The subreddit – Looking For Group
Have some tips and resources? Please leave them in the comments!