Sometimes, they were a band of characters taking jobs and quests from around a kingdom, trying to help enough people and solve enough conflicts to be appointed as royal advisors. Other times, they were an outcast gang of misfits turned space pirates, who were planning a heist to steal a spaceship.
But every time, they were a group of Auburn students gathered around a table or on the floor, rolling dice and playing the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game, where players create and play as characters in fantastical settings, which can be of their own creation or a pre-made adventure. By rolling dice, players take actions and explore the world around them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these students, who often spend multiple nights a week playing what they described as a collaborative storytelling experience, are having to adapt the game to an online format. Students said the change has impacted their relationship with the game; it has become paradoxically more difficult to enjoy, more immersive and more intimate.
Joshua Atkins, junior in software engineering, said he plays in two D&D campaigns.In one of his campaigns, he is the dungeon master, the person who controls the game, telling the players what is happening in their world and animating the people, creatures and villains they find throughout it.
Atkins said his campaign transitioned online right before Auburn announced it would be moving to remote instruction and shutting down its campus. He was starting his co-op, so his group had to adapt as Atkins wouldn’t be in Auburn anymore.
Before online play became the only option, Atkins and many Auburn students would reserve a room in the Student Center for campaign sessions. Others would meet at a player or dungeon master’s home.
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Atkins and his players began using the virtual tabletop website Roll20, which was designed to translate pen-and-paper roleplaying games like D&D to an online format.
“We were basically just a step ahead of the curve there,” Atkins said.
While he had to control the game online after leaving campus, his players would reserve a small room in the library so they could still play together, at least until the campus closure and social distancing mandate required them to move online as well.
Christian Bookout, junior in aerospace engineering, was playing in four D&D games before Auburn’s campus closed. However, one of his games, which had been running since October, was not able to transition online, so it was shelved. While he said they might return to it once they are back on campus in the fall semester, there is a chance it could get left behind.
Eli Getman, senior in computer science and mathematics and president of the Tabletop Gaming Club, plays D&D six times a week. Like many others, he uses Roll20 for his newly online campaigns.
One of Getman’s campaigns, which used an older version of the game, was very difficult to transition to the Roll20 service, so it was scrapped. It had been running since the beginning of the semester.
“It’s a huge amount of time to put a game on the backburner, so we have just scrapped the game,” he said.
He’s considering making another campaign in the fall semester when students return to campus.
Caleb Gosnell, junior in music, plays D&D three times a week: twice as a dungeon master and once as a player. While he used to play in the reserved rooms in the Student Center, his campaigns are now played over Discord, an application that allows users to communicate through text, audio and video.
He still had to make sacrifices from his regular session setup. While Gosnell’s in-person sessions had ambient music for the players to enjoy, Discord would not allow him to provide music for his players while using video. He decided to choose seeing his players over having ambient music.
Heather Mann, junior in mechanical engineering, plays in two D&D campaigns, as a dungeon master and as a player. For her campaign, she uses Zoom to communicate with her players. She had previously used Discord to connect players who couldn’t make it to in-person sessions.
“We’ve had a lot of success using Zoom at our last session, just because the audio was a lot clearer than Discord,” she said.
Unlike Roll20, which only lets users communicate via voice chat, Discord and Zoom give users the ability to see each other. Without video, nonverbal communication between players and their dungeon master is largely lost.
While these services help to replicate the traditional D&D experience, it doesn’t work as well for all players. One of Mann’s players quit the campaign because of the transition.
Video and voice chat just weren’t as fun as doing it in person.
Atkins said one of his players quit because playing the campaign at home would have disturbed his roommates, as his apartment’s common area was in earshot of his room.
According to Atkins, preparing for online games as a dungeon master required a different strategy than in-person games.
“There’s so much more information available to you playing in person, a lot of it being non-verbal stuff,” he said. “You kind of have a captive audience. They can’t just step off and do things while they are waiting on stuff.”
While it may be easier to set up games online, Atkins said it was harder to run them. Instead of reacting to player behavior, a dungeon master has to predict it.
It’s difficult for dungeon masters to tell why a player is silent in an online session, he said. Were they bored and playing on their phone, or were they just waiting for their turn?
Atkins said dungeon masters can alter the game based on what their players do or how they feel. If a player looks bored and has their head on the table, a dungeon master could introduce or change something to make the game more enjoyable for that person.
But if the only way players and dungeon masters can interact is verbal and sometimes visual communication, how can a dungeon master adequately gauge a player’s experience?
For those who don’t use video communication for their online sessions, facial expressions, hand gestures and other nonverbal cues are lost in digitization.
“It accentuates a point. When you put body motion into it, when you move your hands around, when you actually look someone in the eye or change how your face looks, it changes how things come across,” Bookout said.
Atkins said he found himself using his hands a lot while he speaks during sessions, even though they can’t see him. Although, there are some things he misses not being able to see.
“One of the things I miss a little bit is the ability of the players to cheat,” he said.
On Roll20, dice rolls are out in the open, where everyone can see. But in person, Atkins said, when players feel the luck is absolutely against them, they might miscount the number of dice on an attack roll or say they got a different number than the one they rolled.
Cheating means the player has an investment in the campaign and their character, Atkis said. It gives them a level of control over where the story goes.
As a dungeon master, he always had that control. If there is something he thinks will hurt the party’s enjoyment of the game, he might say something missed or didn’t do enough damage to kill their characters, even if it should have.
To Atkins, D&D is less about making a character and playing in a world as it is about working together with friends to create an interesting story.
“Every character has their own story that they want to tell, but they also have to all work together to help tell one single story,” Mann said. “All of their stories will, if it’s played right, be resolved, explored and wrapped up within that main story.”
Mann said she doesn’t use Roll20 for her campaign. How does she know her players aren’t fudging their dice rolls? The honor system.
Even though verbal communication between players and the dungeon master is still possible, it is more difficult online than in-person.
“There’s not as much side banter, because you can’t really direct your voice at any one person in a voice call,” Getman said. “It is not like I can whisper to someone.”
Players can’t have conversations on the side anymore, Atkins said. Speaking to someone means speaking to everyone at the same level.
The closest alternative is direct messaging someone, but that takes longer than speaking.
Players still want their characters to have side conversations with other player characters, Mann said. It can be distracting when the dungeon master is talking or when the party is speaking to someone else.
“That causes a lot of confusion just because it clutters up the roleplay dialogue,” she said.
Zoom allows participants to mute themselves, but Mann said some players don’t mute themselves while they aren’t talking. Others may have different volume levels, which can make their voices difficult to hear or jarring.
Occasionally, Mann said her players have had to be quieted down so everyone can hear each other.
As classes have transitioned to remote instruction, some students have found their schedules much more relaxed.
“I’ve certainly realized just talking about it that I’ve got a lot more times for games now,” Atkins said.
With his extra time, Atkins has the ability to host solo sessions with individual players. Instead of playing with a group, solo sessions involve just one player and the dungeon master.
When they want to do things that don’t involve everyone else in the party, like chasing plot threads or working on their character’s backstory, they can.
While the world shuts down, in some ways, their world is starting to open up.
Atkins said he has solo sessions every few weeks during downtime after a big event in the main story. Those weeks, he can have as many as five sessions.
“Pretty much everyone goes off and does some form of downtime event, which, of course, since I have basically nothing to do as well, I have all the time in the world to plan them,” Atkins said.
One player;'s character spends his session investigating, looking for clues to help in the main story. Another player's character, a samurai, spends his session with his sensei, clearing his mind.
Another player's character trains animals, while another looks for his long-lost sister.
It’s a personalized experience, Atkins said.
“Yes, it’s a game, but I think it’s more, for some people, a way to tell a story and, for some people, a way to be absorbed into it,” Bookout said.
Bookout said he enjoys reading, as it lets him fall into a new world and find something interesting about it. He likes exploring its nooks and crannies.
“When you get to do that in the first-person sense and control how the world is shaped around you, it’s a really interesting feeling,” he said.
Atkins said one of his players has projects due every week, but still makes time to play.
“He still just drops in and listens and plays while doing projects, which would have been impossible in normal schooling hours,” he said.
While remote instruction has been more relaxed for some, it is not a universal feeling.
Mann said being thrown off regular schedules really affected her players, who are stressed about their classes — especially classes where professors didn’t adjust the workload.
“In theory, I have a lot more time [for D&D], but in practice I end up sleeping in too late and putting off some of my assignments,” Mann said. “So I have to do those assignments, and then I remember that I have to plan the session.”
Being at home doesn’t puts Mann in a vacation mindset.
Gosnell said his player's environments have had an effect on their ability to roleplay.
Before transitioning online, members of the Tabletop Gaming Club would gather together in the Student Center before sessions.
“You’re in a completely different space. In Auburn, you have the ability to get yourself in the mindset to switch gears, to wind down, to move tracks, to do whatever you have to do and however you need to do it,” Gosnell said.
At Auburn, he would get in the room they reserved their session for ten minutes before they were supposed to start. As he set up and prepared ambient music, his players would trickle in. Once it hit seven o’clock, they started playing.
Now, he starts the voice call ten minutes before they are supposed to start. As players come in, they start talking. They could still be talking 10 to 15 minutes after they were supposed to start playing.
“Focus is way more dispersed just from the onset,” Gosnell said.
When he is at home and away from Auburn, his room is where he works, where he sleeps and where he plays.
“It’s very different, and I have to warm up and kind of do all of those things that I would normally do differently,” Gosnell said. “Physical location matters.”
But his life, as well as his players’ lives, are very different when they are at home. They are with family instead of friends. They are no longer functioning as independents.
“It’s a different kind of mindset for them,” Gosnell said. “Their ability to roleplay how they would normally roleplay is altered. It’s that much more difficult to be able to do the things as we would normally do them.”
Sometimes, he notices that his players aren’t responding as they normally would in character with the information he gives them. The pacing of the game is also slower.
He said it took his players an entire session to plan how they would steal a spaceship. If they were meeting in person, he thinks that time could have been cut in half.
Gosnell said he hopes his players aren’t less interested because of the slower pacing of the game.
Because of the stay at home mandate, Gosnell said D&D is the only social interaction some of his players can get. He doesn’t want to take that away from them.
For Bookout, being at home made it difficult to stay immersed, for him and his players. If his parents interrupt a session or needed him to do something, it takes away from the game.
“I understand that I have to kind of conform to their schedule as well because I have moved back here, but it changes things a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes you have to start a little late because some people haven’t been able to eat dinner yet. Sometimes you have to end a little bit early because some people’s families go to bed early and you can’t really stay up that late. It affects things.”
Sometimes, people have to get up and do something during a session, Bookout said. They lose out on what is happening in the game, so they have to be caught back up or they will miss pieces of information.
Like Gosnell, Bookout has noticed that players aren’t willing to play their characters at the level they normally would.
“For me, I’ve gotten over it a little bit,” Bookout said. “My parents have heard all the weird voices that I make.”
Players are now in their bedroom or a family room, trying to eliminate distractions and interruptions.
Mann said her campaign had eight players. When they would meet for in-person sessions, they would arrange to go to someone’s house.
“That way we could be as loud as we wanted without disturbing other students in the Student Center,” she said. “We could bring all the snacks and drinks that we wanted. We could dress up in funny outfits.”
On special occasions, Mann wore a velvet-lined cloak she got for a Halloween costume a few years ago. It helped her get in the spirit of things.
“It made me feel so cool,” Mann said.
Since there were eight players, they always played on the floor because no one had a table big enough for all of them.
Their only distractions they had in these environments were each other and the food they were cooking, Mann said.
Their campaign focuses on roleplay and exploration, but she’s trying to incorporate more mystery, intrigue and action.
Bookout said he misses the physical component of D&D. He misses the emotional moments, where there is a lot of gravity to what the players do or say.
He can see it on their faces.
“A single roll could have people cheering, booing or just getting angry at it,” Bookout said. “It feels a lot more impactful when you are physically rolling dice rather than just clicking a button that says it will roll for you.”
While automatically rolling dice in Roll20 can’t replace the real experience, Bookout said the service does have its perks, like easily making maps. Usually, he would have to bring a board to his session and draw everything by hand, but Roll20 lets him use maps made by other people.
“It allows you to kind of solidify the world around you,” he said. “It does however make it a little bit harder to not only keep attention but tell a story accurately because it gets bogged down in the mechanics of Roll20.”
It’s not as simple as rolling a dice and adding a few numbers to it anymore, he said. Now, there are a lot of settings that need to be configured and he has to go by rules he doesn't want to use.
When Gosnell’s campaigns were still meeting in person, he said his off-the-wall ideas interested even students who weren’t his players. His games had spectators who would drop into his session’s room and watch him and his players as they played.
“My players are still with me, so I guess I’m doing something right,” Gosnell said.
He liked having spectators in his games. They could give him less biased feedback.
While his players didn’t mind having guests watch them play in-person, Gosnell said some expressed that it made them uncomfortable in the online format. So he stopped allowing others to join their call.
It’s a different mindset. Letting spectators watch online means letting people into their homes.
“Things are different anyways," Gosnell said. "To act like everything is the same and nothing is different … that’s just not how it is."
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