Gather round, folks, because I bring you a tale that begins on the very precipice of the pandemic, extends through a year of extreme burnout, and involves a fantastical land full of dragons, dungeons, and indecisive half-elves.
Picture it: February 2020, AKA the last normal month on Earth. We were all reading COVID-19 articles with a sense of bemusement that grew into dread as they crept from the international news section forward to the front page, but most of our lives hadn’t been changed by it at all.
Three big things happened in my life in February 2020. First, I started what seemed like it was my dream job (spoilers: it was not).
Second, I started playing D&D remotely with my college friends back on the East Coast.
And, third, we were almost deported!
Of these three events, it seemed like starting the D&D campaign with friends would prove to be the least significant. It was the 18th anniversary of when we assembled to play together in college. That campaign ran for just a few months, but it gained an appropriately mythical status in our collective hindsight. When our beloved friend Dante passed away in 2014 we reformed for a one-off night, but none of us ever expected to play together again – certainly not with me halfway around the world!
During a catch-up with Lindsay about my new gig, she mentioned that some of the old gang would be assembling physically for a new campaign. We joked about how funny it would be to have me projected on a screen playing remotely – imagine that! But, the more we joked about it, the more the idea took hold. After making arrangements with our longtime DM, I appeared in that first session live from New Zealand!
I cleared off a desk in our spare bedroom, still packed with boxes from our recent move, and pointed it out the window so I could enjoy the sunny day while I played with friends who were up past midnight back in the US. It was ridiculous fun. We had forgotten all the rules and were all playing newly-invented characters and classes we had never played before. I inadvertently vaporized an entire alleyway of assailants with my first Thunderwave. Even though the session was meant to be a one-off, we agreed to reconvene two weeks later.
Two days later, the New Zealand government informed us we were 40 days away from deportation.
(This is too big a story to explain in full here, but in short: The NZ government told us repeatedly in writing that we absolutely should not renew our visas while we waited on a decision on our residency application. When we (as a pair assiduous rule-followers) did not renew our visas while waiting on said decision, the Ministry promptly informed us that our visas had expired, we were in the country illegally, we had to quit our jobs, and we should make plans to depart immediately.)
The weeks that followed our deportation notice were one of the most stressful periods I’ve experienced in my entire life. We lived every day wondering if we should put our newly-moved-into household into storage and look for a place to stay back in the states even as a global pandemic began unfolding. It was one of the many times in our lives as recent immigrants when we realized how powerless we were and how arbitrary the rules of borders and residency are in every country around the world.
Truly, I don’t know if I would’ve had the emotional fortitude to survive our tense process of getting emergency visas without the fresh connection with my best friends from the states and the knowledge that I’d see them all again in two weeks. We played that second session with all of us remote from each other as the early days of the pandemic reached into all of our cities. I certainly had a thrilling story to share in our “what’s been going on with you in the past two weeks!”
Then, between our second and third session, New Zealand began its first two-month COVID lockdown. That meant no leaving the house, other than for groceries, gas, banking, medical care, or a short walk around the neighborhood.
Even if the states wasn’t in an official lockdown, all of my party members were similarly shut in their houses. It was the perfect opportunity for us to set a regular date to play – none of us were going anywhere! Each session before playing we would catch up, sharing our stories of hunting for scarce groceries or finding the perfect pattern for sewing masks.
As our initial campaign drew to a close, I asked if I could take a turn at being Dungeon Master for a session or two while our regular DM prepped his next adventure. I had always been fascinated by DM-ing as a mash-up of carefully planned math and improvisational storytelling, but I never had the guts to try to convince people to play with me as a first-time DM.
DM-ing for a session or two turned into my own mini-campaign that ran across several sessions, which turned into me officially co-DM-ing our campaign in the long-run. I was ordering D&D books from anywhere that was still shipping to NZ during various lockdowns and enlisting the help of my family to work out new puzzles and traps over dinner. We even added a trio of additional college friends, swelling the ranks of our party but turning our sessions into a full-on biweekly Drexel Players reunion.
Every two weeks I got to hang out with two groups of friends – the real group of theatre kids as found family I’ve known for decades, and the fictional group of bickering erstwhile adventurers learning to become a found family (when they weren’t actively trying to get each other killed).
Dungeons and Dragons become the story of my year in 2020. By the time I DM-ed my first session it was clear that my cool new dream job was not actually a fit for me. D&D became the one constant in the world as my work life worsened and our household moved in and out of lockdowns. Heck, comics even stopped being published for a few weeks in there!
Despite all of that, every two weeks I know I’d see the seven faces of my friends (plus special appearances from various partners and kids) and sometimes I would be the one responsible for their virtual lives. Our sessions always began with an hour of catching up – something we hadn’t done with such regularity for almost 20 years. Those catch-ups eventually got past the surface level to be really about ourselves. We were no longer idly recapping our weeks, but actually opening up about our feelings and anxieties.
Even though I used to spend hours every day rehearsing with these folks (and partying with them on weekends) (okay, also on weeknights, there’s no use pretending, it’s all documented here on the blog), I don’t know if we had ever been closer. When I eventually left my job and returned briefly to stay-at-home-parent status, it was the regularity of our sessions that helped me retain a sense of normalcy and motivation.
We have now been playing for two and a half years straight, through many of the worst weeks of my life. The only time we’ve ever skipped a session was when I was DM-ing and life was just all too much for me to be ready to be in charge of everyone’s experience for the night. I felt awful to cancel on our long-running streak, but the response I got told me everything about why D&D was so good for me. My friends said, “if this isn’t a thing that’s good for you this week, you shouldn’t do it. But, next time let’s just keep the session and hang out without playing.
I don’t know who I would be right now in 2022 without our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I might still be in a wrong job or no job at all rather than something that makes me happy and fits in with my life. I would certainly have spent two years of the pandemic feeling more isolated than ever before without any longtime friends here in NZ.
And, I am certain I would not be here blogging for you, because being a Dungeon Master reignited a creative spark in me that had dwindled over the past few years.
The best campaigns of table top role playing games are about more than playing a fantastical game of pretend. They’re about constructing a mutually-agreed-upon reality where you feel safe even when your character is in imminent danger, and about encouraging both playfulness and introspection you can bring with you back to your regular life.
And, also, about slaying dragons.