Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Dungeons and Dragons: A Pandemic Retrospective

(Guest post by Kenton)

Creation, both as an action and as an idea, is fundamentally intertwined with our existence. Every meaningful activity, and every meaningful connection, from birth until death, springs out of acts of creation. We make food, we make conversation, we make friends, and take stories from childhood and make them into scenes. Imagination describes this idea well, and is embodied perfectly in Dungeons and Dragons. The game of Dungeons and Dragons calls for players to bring together their own characters, their own stories, their own ideas, and bring them to life with every turn. Whatever your mind creates, this game gives you the freedom and the capacity to make. It is as big as you can imagine! There comes a question, then: could a world of limitless boundaries be limited by a pandemic?

I have a good amount of experience playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). For full disclosure, my first time playing occurred just before the pandemic; and since then, I’ve only been involved with three other campaigns. For those who don't know, a campaign is typically an extended storyline following a set of characters spanning across one or multiple worlds. Most people involved in D&D, that I know, only ran into it, or had their interest in it rekindled, because the university experience brought them together with those who are really passionate. Mine involved college in a more roundabout way:

I met my wife at BYU, and her sister and brother-in-law introduced D&D to the both of us. My first experience was very simple: we stayed at their place once on vacation, and were given character templates to customize and work with. My wife was a High Elf sorceress of the aristocracy, very noble and snooty, but with high-minded goals. I was a rough Dwarf barbarian merchant who was on a quest to avenge the death of his swordsmithing father, and my sister-in-law was a mischievously clever Human rogue, out for adventure and robbery: to steal from the rich and give to the needy (she counted herself as needy too). The setting began in a typical pub, when a fight broke out where our three characters had to work together. After, the rogue pulled a clever fraud involving selling a horse that was actually her servant in disguise, and we then set out on our quest. That was our first session, and the rest was done online. Our party had no reason not to travel together, and had various adventures involving a bugbear, a necromancer, and a large city. We never finished that campaign (no relation to the pandemic), but it was a good introduction.

Ever since that original campaign, I’ve only ever played D&D one other time in-person: the rest were facilitated online. I like interacting with people, and so the pandemic was a little hard for me. Even so, I was glad that I could at least get some interaction through online sessions. Did it hurt, not being able to interact normally? I'd say it certainly did, and it does take away from some of the "tabletop" elements of the game. Sometimes it's easier to get distracted, to tune out, and lose track of what's happening. If you can meet in person, you will have a better time, no question, because of the natural interaction, the natural focus, and the better feeling of meeting together in person. However, D&D is also a game of connection, not just creation, and there will be times when the only way to connect with others is through Zoom or other channels!

When we got back from vacation, we were able to continue our campaign for a few sessions. Later on, I was able to join other sessions with my brother-in-law, and once they moved closer to us, they were able to start and continue campaigns with their friends back home. None of that would have been possible without that technology. Nor is it entirely a disadvantage either, because it's easier to share maps and PDFs or other visual aids, or even to discuss things privately between the DM (dungeon master) and one of the players when the need arises. Online D&D may not be the most superior experience; however, it still makes for a good one, and sometimes even makes possible what would have been impossible.

Connection, and creation, and recreation are intrinsic to our experience. We can't really separate these things out, and we can't really say we're living when those things aren't present. Could a pandemic hinder the traditional way of experiencing that connection with D&D? Maybe it could, but life finds a way. Even if it means we have to use pixels to see each other, and electric signals to reproduce our voices, the human experience endures and ascends past what seems to limit us, and we come out together in the end. 

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