‘Virtual play has exploded’: How to escape reality with role-playing games

Facilitated by Zoom in lockdown, pretending to be a goblin is the new thing to do, writes Alexis Soloski

Sunday 14 March 2021 00:00
<p>Only a game: Model of a hobgoblin archer from <em>Wizards of the Coast</em></p>

Only a game: Model of a hobgoblin archer from Wizards of the Coast

A wizard, a druid, a cleric, a ranger, an artificer and a couple of bards met – not in an imaginary bar but on Zoom.

The bards fought, the druid baked cookies and the cleric was wearing dragon horns and took hallucinogenic mushrooms. Together they explored candy-coloured barracks in a vain search for an elusive character. Cat jokes crowded the chat.

This was an average evening for Mike Sell, a professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who moonlights as an online games master. On Tuesdays, he gathers friends, colleagues, partners and children and has them ramble, remotely, through his role-playing game, Curse of the Sugarplum Fairy, a madcap riff on The Nutcracker and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tagline: “Who can take a rainbow and wrap it in a scream?”

Modern role-playing games began in the mid-1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented Dungeons & Dragons. The form has since proliferated – if you can imagine a genre (Western, mystery, sci-fi) or a peril (zombies, rogue AI, Greek gods), it has probably inspired a game. A hybrid of theatre, make-believe, board games and fan fiction, the games encourage players to create a story collaboratively as they play.

Nicholas Fortugno, who directs the digital game design programme at Long Island University, says: “Tabletop role-playing is the most powerful, most versatile form of interactive narrative we have. Nothing touches it.”

A relatively niche hobby, a typical session involves considerably more effort and imagination than, say, Scrabble. And who dresses up for Monopoly? But when lockdowns made them risky, these games began to proliferate online, attracting new players and reviving interest among veteran, dice-clutching hands.

Not your nerdy teenager’s Dungeons & Dragons

Last March, when lockdowns began, Roll20 – one of many sites – experienced so many new-user requests (840 per cent up) that its servers assumed it was some kind of cyber attack, says Dean Bigbee, the chief operating officer. Within a year, the site has added three million new users to total eight million. Representatives of similar sites such as World Anvil and Role Gate also reported surges.

The revenue for Dungeons & Dragons, which still commands the largest market share of the games, grew by 33 per cent in the past year. Usage of its dedicated website, D&D Beyond, doubled.

Ray Winninger, the executive producer in charge of the of Dungeons & Dragons studio, says: “It was always growing but nowhere near that.”

In a typical game, online or off, the game master will present the players with a situation such as an encounter with a reptilian humanoid or “kobold”. Each player decides how his or her characters should respond, often rolling dice to determine the success of each manoeuvre. As these games are cooperative, not competitive, players don’t vie against one another. So this is pandemic-friendly escapism that allows your friends to escape with you. Unless a “mind-flayer” takes them out first.

If you have Wi-Fi, you’re in, and you don’t even need dice: Wizards of the Coast has a page that will roll the dice for you virtually

Over the past five years, tabletop role-playing games – a designation that differentiates them from immense multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft – have edged a little closer to the mainstream, becoming the kind of hobby a person could now admit to in mixed company (thirty-nine per cent of Dungeons & Dragons players identify as female). Vin Diesel, Terry Crews and Drew Barrymore have all outed themselves as players and actor Joe Manganiello (True Blood) hosts a celebrity campaign in his basement.

The streaming site Twitch has more than 100 channels devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. Critical Role, a live-play campaign executed by voice actors, has become a YouTube hit that recently raised more than $11m (£7.9m) for an animated special.

Role-playing games have also inspired dozens of podcasts, both fictional and live play, such as The Adventure Zone and You Meet in a Tavern. The Netflix show Stranger Things has made Dungeons & Dragons a central theme: The boy characters play the game and use its vocabulary to understand their town’s bizarre goings-on. You can even buy a Stranger Things-inspired D&D starter set.)

From the basement to Zoom

Before the pandemic, when people already seemed to live mostly online, tabletop role-playing games were seen as a respite from multi-screen life, a more artisanal and analog way to connect. Sell says: “The ability to get together with friends and put on a show, that’s a pretty amazing experience.”

During lockdown, when the ability to get together went away, role-playing games stayed. Many of the most popular games had already found a home online. Sites and apps like Roll20, Role Gate, World Anvil, Astral, Fantasy Grounds and D&D Beyond have created platforms to make online play possible. Many have tools – like character generators – that simplify a campaign.

Role-playing games don’t require tactile experience (apologies to those who hand-paint miniatures of their characters), so they adapt well to online play.

Winninger says: “Almost everything that happens in Dungeons & Dragons happens in your imagination. It makes the transition to virtual play easier.”

Face of fun: “Batiri goblins” from Dungeons & Dragons live streaming in studios in Seattle

If you have wi-fi you’re in and you don’t even need dice: Wizards of the Coast has a page that will roll the dice for you virtually. Other sites feature game enhancements, such as virtual maps, and the ability to sync your game to a selection of creepy music. Want to run your own game? Gather a group on Zoom, Skype or Discord. Don’t have any like-minded friends? Wizards of the Coast released the Yawning Portal, a site that matches players with virtual games.

Other sites run message boards and marketplaces that connect individuals with groups and groups with game masters. Newbies can easily find experienced players to show them the ropes and chains and dimensional shackles. After-school programmes and libraries run games catering to children and teenagers.

Building a bridge for the social divide

And yet we lose something when we can’t play in person. Because role-playing games depends on storytelling, the experience dwindles when we are no longer face to face with fellow tellers.

Fortugno says: “It’s all about looking at people in the eye and performing with your body. When you lose all of that, the game becomes more stilted.”

But questing through darkened forests or perilous caves from the comfort of your sofa can still thrill. And because role-playing games have inherent structure and turn-taking, they may offer more natural engagement than the average Zoom cocktail hour. Having a mutual goal – maiden-rescuing, treasure-acquiring, annihilation avoidance – makes the conversation flow. And players can now meet across countries and continents.

Avery Alder, a game designer (Monsterhearts 2, Dream Askew) who lives in rural Canada, used to host weekly in-person role-playing games in a nearby post-and-beam “town hall”. The pandemic ended that but she still plays when work and child care allow, which is not often. She argues that maybe we need role-playing games more than ever.

She says: “In a year when people are feeling a big, big sense of fear and scarcity and gloom, it’s really important to be imagining other possibilities. Even if you’re telling stories about a fantasy world, you’re still telling stories about exploration, connection, hope.”

© The New York Times

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