The first time I played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was in June of 2020. Everything had been shut down and my husband and I were looking for something to do. He played as a teenager and during college, but hadn’t played in more than twenty years. It seemed like a good alternative to watching movies and television.
Just in the first three months of 2020, Netflix added 16 million new subscribers. People seek out entertainment, distractions, and stories – stories to get lost in and maybe to learn something about themselves or society. Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games offer a unique narrative framework for storytelling. The Dungeon Master (DM) is the game organizer, chief storyteller, and arbiter of the game rules. The DM co-creates a story with players who craft their characters and actively participate in the story-telling by describing their actions to the group. Often, dice rolls determine the outcomes of these actions. Being a player involves creating and inhabiting a character who may be very unlike you in personality and skills. In the Tolkien-esque fantasy setting of D&D, a player character may be, for example, an elvish thief, a human fighter, or maybe even a charismatic half-orc performer. D&D offers an opportunity to simultaneously participate in the action of creating and telling a story.
I spoke with Titan Games owners Mark Keplinger and Dan Dudley about D&D and how games help build community even during a pandemic. Keplinger is part owner of Titan Games, which has two stores in Champaign and Springfield and is the co-manager of the Champaign store. Dudley is also a co-manager of the Champaign store. Titan Games sells board, card, role-playing, and miniature games as well as puzzles. The store in Champaign has been around for over seven years and the store in Springfield has been open for five years.
Keplinger has been playing D&D since he was in the Boy Scouts, and Dudley has been playing since college. Both Keplinger and Dudley identify two key events that led to the recent significant increase in attention and interest in D&D. One key event was the show Stranger Things on Netflix, but perhaps even more instrumental is the show Critical Role. Critical Role’s YouTube channel has more than 1.13 million subscribers and first aired in 2015. The show now has over 500 hours of storytelling. The show’s Dungeon Master, Matt Mercer, has extensive experience with D&D as well as voice acting as do many of the others who play characters in the game. It’s a show and podcast in which the audience watches or listens to participants play D&D. Dudley said, “Some people get this crazy expectation that you have to be a voice actor yourself, you have to do all these crazy voices, and that you have to have these perfectly run sessions with these perfectly run stories. And you know, some people say it gives an unrealistic expectation about what you might get with D&D, but you see how much fun these people are having and how cool these stories are, and how involved everyone is.” In watching live games, people see what is happening and even if they don’t think they can play a game with the same inventiveness and acting skill, they are intrigued and want to learn more.
Before the pandemic, Titan Games was hosting D&D drop-in games every Wednesday night. The events grew in numbers, requiring two DMs running games to accommodate everyone. While Keplinger reports that the store had a good holiday season, he also acknowledges that operating the store during a pandemic is difficult. The staff at Titan Games like their jobs because they get to run events, build community, meet new people, and discuss the games that they love. Customers are asking about when Titan Games will have live D&D games again. Keplinger said that a couple of the business’s owners are physicians; they are paying close attention to and strictly following public health recommendations.
In Critical Role’s second campaign, there are seven people playing main characters, plus the DM. When things first shut down due to the pandemic, Critical Role paused production. Yet, the show has the resources to create a set where players can be socially distanced, with the cast at individual tables anywhere from 7-24 feet apart. Plus, cast and crew are regularly tested for COVID.
But what about regular games with friends? This is a game where typically multiple people play and often those people are not living in the same household. Well, just like with almost everything else, people are meeting up online. Some join on Zoom and some use a combination of texting, Zoom, and an online virtual tabletop like Roll 20. Dudley uses Roll 20 for a game that includes mostly first-time players from his girlfriend’s family. After things shut down and travel wasn’t possible, Dudley suggested D&D to his girlfriend and her family. To Dudley’s surprise, they agreed to the idea quickly. Now they play an online game with several members of the family.
Dudley also said that many fathers and daughters are coming into the store looking for something that the whole family can do on Sunday nights during the pandemic.
“The parents say, ‘I heard that this is a great thing for kids to do, but it’s never something I considered before. What does it take?’ And a lot of times, you know, with a family like that, the D&D Essentials Kit or Starter Kit are great. These walk you through a session. It’s kind of an introduction, a taste, but sometimes that’s all you need. Because the great thing about D&D is you get hours and hours and hours of entertainment, and it’s almost primarily out of your own imagination. It’s really interesting to see somebody come in for the first time and ask what even is this like?” Dudley said. Hours and hours of entertainment is right. Critical Role runs from three to over four hours per episode and each episode is just one session of play.
The pandemic has led some people who haven’t played D&D in a long time to take it up again, even if they haven’t played in decades. “It’s one of those games where you never know what’s going to happen. Because you’re really writing a story together,” Keplinger stated.
Even if you don’t have a group of people in your household or have a regular game with friends, Roll 20 and other interfaces like it have made games possible online. There are also games you can join with strangers that are run by experienced DMs. “You can create your own maps. You can use all the maps out of the books. And as the DM you can allow anybody who is in the story or in your module to join with a basic email address. You can allow them to move anything around. There are handouts that you can just post on screen and everyone can see. Let’s say we run into a creature and I want them to see it, I can just drag it from the sidebar and show it to them. And I can say, this is what you see,” Dudley stated.
Titan Games sells more than just D&D sets and accessories. The pandemic pushed forward plans to develop a robust online store. Products purchased online may be shipped or picked up in-store or curbside. You can go to the store; the capacity is reduced and most of the time if you want to go in and ask questions, you and your party might be the only people in the store.
Keplinger notes that it seems like collectible card games aren’t as popular during the pandemic as they were before. Even though you can play online with a camera facing down onto your cards, Keplinger suspects it’s just not immersive enough for people in their homes.
Some games that are easy for people new to games include a two-player board game, Watergate, which appeals to history buffs. One person plays a Nixon staff member and another plays a journalist from The Washington Post. Another two-player game is called Curious Cargo in which each player tries to build the infrastructure of a facility by timing their network and shipping better than their opponent. Keplinger also notes that more people are purchasing cooperative games, as opposed to competitive ones. One reason for this may be that if one person is experienced but wants to play with a beginner who lives in the same household, a competitive game would not be very enjoyable.
Keplinger said that the staff at Titan Games love to meet people and talk games — D&D and others. They have suggestions for all experience backgrounds and can help you find what works for you and your tribe, whether you are in the same household or meet online.