It’s the last day of Camp Tepikai. Six rather unusual camp counsellors linger behind after all the kids have gone home. They sit around a dim campfire under a waning moon. All is quiet.
Too quiet, as they say.
The counsellors are gathered to figure out why three ominous figures were spotted in the woods just outside the camp, and how they're connected to the disappearance of several campers.
The scene is part of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign designed by Brittney Hubley, and is displayed as a digitized map over Zoom. She designed it to look just like a summer camp, complete with a mess hall, cabins, and a main office. The camp buildings are surrounded by trees on one side, and a lake on the other.
The counsellors are a filborg cleric, a tiefling bard, a water genasi warlock, a human artificer and two half-elf twins. Rattled by a series of mystical happenings and inconceivable accidents, they are trying to prevent more kids from being murdered and stop whatever supernatural force is causing it.
Since the pandemic began, the game of Dungeons & Dragons – D&D for short – has seen more virtual activity than ever as players stay apart physically and instead opt to play over digital platforms. Apps like D&D Beyond and Roll20 offer players access to the game online, complete with online tabletops, player handbooks, the ability to build campaigns and character sheets, and the ability to create “homebrew” – slang for custom spells, monsters, or game rules created by players. Some aspects of the game have changed with online play, but the move online is making it easier for new players to get involved, no matter where they are in the world.
Hubley spent nearly a week creating Camp Tepikai as a “one-shot” campaign, designed to be played in one multi-hour session. Hubley has been playing Dungeons & Dragons for nearly 10 years and has been serving as Dungeon Master – the player who describes the world and acts as a neutral participant – for six.
This, however, is my first time. She helped me design my character: a water genasi named Nuumia. She has short dark hair, purple eyes and blue skin; everything I wish I looked like.
Kyra Jones is also new to the game. In this campaign, she plays Calvin, the filborg cleric. Calvin has a beefy stature, elven ears and reddish hair covering his face and surrounding his large, ogre-like nose.
Jones says that because the rules are complex, it can be hard to bring newcomers to the game.
“I've always wanted to do D&D because it really aligns with a lot of the nerdy shit that I'm really into,” she says. “But it's hard to get into unless you know people who are into it.”
Jones says she felt comfortable learning to play from someone who knows the game, and that the pandemic left her with plenty of time to learn the rules. She has only played three sessions, and is already picking up the mechanics.
The players at Camp Tepikai were scattered across Canada, some of us in Ottawa, some in Toronto, and some in Edmonton. Many campaigns that began in person have moved to online formats, which allow for this kind of cross-country participation.
“I don't think it would have occurred to us to start a Zoom D&D session pre-COVID,” says Scott Jackshaw, who is playing Monty, a slender tiefling bard with maroon skin, horns, and piercing white eyes.
“Every campaign I've been in in the past fell apart because of scheduling issues or because of exam season or something,” he said. “This has sort of been the first group that seems like it might continue.”
On the other hand, some D&D veterans like Emily Dell found it easier to organize games when everyone was able to meet in person. Her character is Aniya, the only human in our group. Her partner, Richard Smith, plays Lumin, a half-elf. They have both been involved in another game that has been going on for nearly three years.
“We have some sessions where we start at breakfast and we’ll play until like 10 p.m. or midnight,” she said. “Just to really get our D&D in.”
I can tell she isn’t exaggerating.
A newly online world
While online platforms allow for players to connect from around the world, some players find it challenging to participate in aspects of the game they love.
Dell’s other campaign is what she calls “high production”. She has props like secret chests and movable pieces. Her brother, who is Dungeon Master for the game, has created 3D-printed miniature figures to represent Smith’s characters – called “minis” in D&D parlance.
“We don't really have a map or a base or anything. It's mostly just for the players,” she says of the minis. “I do think that that would be something that I would really miss playing exclusively online.”
During our game, Hubley created a breakout room in Zoom for some players while she directed a fight scene between Calvin and Monty. In person, she would have pulled them aside or told the rest of us to leave the room.
“I miss being able to whisper into people's ears,” Hubley says. “I love the secrets.”
Virtual play can also hinder a player’s abilities with their character. At Camp Tepikai, Dell’s character Aniya had a ring of keys to open every building.
“I wish that we were at a table so that I could hand Emily a stack of papers with seven individual keys,” Hubley says. “Because that would tell Emily as a player, that she can give out individual keys [to other players].”
Private conversations, she adds, are important for the plot of the story.
“You can give information to players in your game and give them the power to reveal that information to others,” she said.
Divvying out the keys at Camp Tepikai would have allowed our characters to cover more ground by splitting up and investigating separate buildings to learn the identity of the mysterious figures.
...Because splitting up always seems to work so well in horror movies.
An evolving game
Dan Anderson, who has been playing D&D since 2016, is the owner of Bugbear Brothers, an Instagram page where he and another game designer create stories and reference guides for D&D players. Like Hubley, he believes that while online D&D has the ability to connect communities around the world, being with people in person while playing is part of its charm.
“It's just not quite the same,” said Anderson. “You're not able to read people's facial expressions and body language.”
Anderson’s past playing partner’s mother was diagnosed with lupus, and he was unable to see her in person. His family was disconnected for years, so his friend started an online D&D game for them.
“That was really powerful during the pandemic for him,” he says.
Online D&D has made the game more accessible to new players. Anderson says he enjoys that the game is gravitating towards a style that requires players to use their imagination, and where the rules can be bent – and even broken.
“It brought it back to something much more ancient in my mind, like [telling stories around the] campfire,” he said.
Online or in-person, newcomers to D&D shouldn’t be deterred. The tabletops may migrate to our screens, but like Hubley says, it is more about who you are playing with than where you are playing.
“If you're with the right group of people, there's a lot of space to find information and ask questions as you go,” she said. “It's about finding the right group of people to learn the rules with.”
We never found out why the children at Camp Tepikai were killed, but we survived the haunted happenings at the summer camp. Nuumia evaded injury having used not a single spell (mostly because I was still learning the rules, which slipped through my keyboard once or twice as I rolled the virtual dice).
For every lapse in my understanding, it wasn’t long before a plot twist would force a gasp of shock and delight. It won’t be my last time at Camp Tepikai, and it won’t be my last time in the D&D universe. But the pandemic has given me plenty of time to get to the bottom of the mystery at Camp Tepikai. ✈️
✍️ Raylene Lung is a second-year Masters of Journalism student at Carleton University.