As dungeon master Per Nieman concludes the Dungeons & Dragons session for the night, all five of his players whine about ending the story on such a big cliffhanger. Two of their characters are hundreds of feet deep in the ocean, sinking toward an underwater temple of sorts, and the rest of the party is unable to reach them from the safety of a ship. They will have to wait a week to play again, giving Nieman time to set up the next part of the story.
This group have formed a strong friendship during the pandemic because of their weekly game. Nieman takes the group through a world that he has created, guiding their play in the fantasy setting, everyone hoping to escape the pandemic and have fun.
“I heard about Dungeons & Dragons before COVID, but I never had any real experience before playing,” said Marko Buxar, a player in Nieman’s campaign.
Buxar, who lives in Prague, Czech Republic, said had it not been for COVID, maybe the group never would have formed or started playing.
“I was the only one in my group of friends that was apprehensive at first because none of us had ever spoken in person before,” he said. “I am also foreign and English isn’t my first language.”
Buxar and his group of friends met online years ago, but had only ever communicated via text over Discord. It wasn’t until the pandemic that they started to play Dungeons & Dragons, after Nieman’s suggestion.
They have become very close friends who speak on the phone every day for hours. It’s an unlikely friendship; only three of the group members live in the United States. The other three live overseas.
“I think I wouldn’t have been able to play D&D before the pandemic because I was working full time before COVID started,” Sol Dawson, who lives in Bristol, England, said. “I then got furloughed from my job and had loads of free time afterwards.”
Dawson said even though the group has free time to play now, it’s possible schedules could change once restrictions are lifted and people resume going to university and meeting other obligations.
According to Hasbro’s 2020 Annual Report, Wizards of the Coast, the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons, had its biggest year ever in 2020 and generated $816 million in revenue. Revenue generated from Dungeons & Dragons in 2020 was up 33% from the previous year.
Staff at The Philly Game Shop are all too familiar with how important games like D&D can be for people looking for a way to socialize during hard times. Taylor Jenkins, who opened the gaming store on South Street in the summer of 2019 alongside her husband, was totally unprepared for a pandemic.
“We didn’t even have a real website,” she said. “I had to learn how to make a website so that we could make some money with curbside pickup and deliveries to stay in business.”
At first the pandemic slowed down their business, but thankfully the couple had a community of people who wanted to help support them.
“Even though the pandemic slowed us down, it also happened to bring a lot of new people into the hobby,” Jenkins said. “People needed new indoor hobbies and we thankfully haven’t suffered a ton, but we are still eager to have things go back to normal.”
Despite being the busy owner of a gaming store, Jenkins makes time to play three times a week.
“It’s a great social outlet and it has helped me and my friends stay in contact,” she said. “We have so many customers who feel the same, they come here every week to play with their friends in the store.”
The Philly Game Store hosted regular game nights that filled the store prior to the pandemic. Hopefully, as more people get vaccinated and pandemic restrictions loosen, it will be able to let groups play other tabletop games — not just D&D — in the store. Meanwhile, groups like Nieman’s continue to play online.
Brage Ward is a player in Nieman’s campaign who lives in Hamar, Norway. Ward has participated in two campaigns over the course of the pandemic, both of which started during COVID. Aside from Nieman’s campaign, Ward was part of an in-person campaign with friends which only met for one session.
“We started playing because of COVID and then we stopped playing because of COVID,” Ward said. “We stopped because of school and life, things just got too stressful.”
Dawson noted that in times of a pandemic, things can feel lonely and stressful and so having a creative outlet can be very helpful.
“It’s a fun social experience,” they said. “D&D is what started my friendships with the people in the group. I now talk to them every single day, not just during a session, so I would say it has definitely helped me cope with the pandemic.”
Because English isn’t his first language, Ward said gaming has helped him start initiating conversations and helping him become less shy.
“It’s a very fun game,” Ward said. “For now it is a fun pastime to do with my friends.”
Ward has also found extra time to try to serve as dungeon master for his own game with the same group of friends. He has plans for a campaign in the future but wants to run a few one-shots, a one session long story, beforehand to make sure he gets enough experience.
For Buxar, playing the game feels like a long-term commitment and can require individuals to set aside their individual preferences for the good of the group, he said.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I want to play, but there are other people in the group who have made a commitment to have their schedules cleared every Friday and they all want to play,” Buxar said. “I just have to suck it up and do it, which can be harmful because if I’m not in the right mood I feel as if it ruins the game for everyone else.”
For this group, gaming sessions start every Friday night at 6 p.m. and can last anywhere from 4-8 hours. The group uses online tools like Talespire to render visuals of maps and game pieces, making the experience more interactive than it otherwise would be online.
“With Talespire, I think online combat and online D&D is going to improve a lot,” Ward said. “They don’t play in person, so there is no physical board for them to play on. Online tools help them see a battlemap and everyone can interact with it.”
Wizard’s of the Coast also offers players D&D Beyond, an online toolset for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. According to the website comicbook, it has reportedly seen a 79% increase in total users registered to its site and a 55% increase in monthly active users since November 2019.
For Jenkins, the community surrounding the Philly Game Store is growing, and so is business. Jenkins is currently working on a curriculum to teach people how to play D&D.
“So many people are getting into the hobby right now,” Jenkins said. ”We have hundreds or thousands of dollars of sales for D&D books a week. Having more players come into the hobby is great because more players means they will need more dice, more books, which is more business for us.”
Nieman might not have gotten deeper into his D&D hobby had it not been for the pandemic.
“COVID provided me with the opportunity to [dungeon master] a real campaign for the first time,” he said. “Seeing the reactions from my players to the world that I built, and the situations that I put in front of them, is something really special. It’s a very unique experience that I think it’s almost impossible to find in any other medium.”
Jenkins hopes there are many other players out there like Nieman, folks who may have been interested, but also saw the pandemic as a time to try something new. But, she also likes to tell people they don’t need a global crisis to try a new hobby.
“To anyone who is thinking about playing, you should give it a shot,” she said. “You can do anything you want and it’s one of the best games in the world. It’s one of the funnest experiences you can have. It might surprise you.”
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