I didn't realize how D&D would save my mental health amid a global pandemic and also inspire my writing. I want to take this opportunity to talk about my experience learning how to run a game virtually during a pandemic and all that it has afforded me. This experience is unlike how I expected to become a Dungeon Master. I want to take the time to explain my game, my players, and my experience learning as I go about how to create a fun collaborative environment. This series will be somewhat therapeutic for me so I hope you enjoy the look back with me as I share my journey and let you into a bit of our campaign at the same time. I guess to start, I’d have to take a moment to think back, it is March 2020 somewhat at the beginning of the Covid Pandemic and we are newly quarantined at home with the stress just starting to settle in. The novelty of not going to work has begun to wear off and I am getting restless. A big part of my social life for the last couple of years has been my regular Dungeons and Dragons game. To be honest it was a Pathfinder game (a similar Role Playing Game system but I digress) that I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been playing a pretty regular game with a group of friends I'd met while I was living in New York City. We would meet at our DM's (Dungeon Master - the person that runs the game) house and he would run a game for us in-person every week. I loved being a player and weaving a collaborative story but I never thought I would be the person to run a game. For me, it was so overwhelming just coming to the table prepared and knowing everything about my character that the idea of controlling the overall story and keeping track of countless NPCs (Non-Player Character's) seemed impossible. Flash forward to weeks of not seeing my friends and family, getting food and supplies delivered, and experiencing a depression that I had up to that point never had before in my life, this was also the height of the BLM movement that spring leading into summer so I was also reconciling the injustices faced against African Americans by police brutality as it seemed like another Black person was killed by the police each week. As a black gay man, in quarantine at home, away from my family for an indeterminate amount of time due to a pandemic, seeing person after person that looked like me being slain in the streets for existing...it was a lot. There were days when I couldn't eat or sleep. I had thoughts of loss and depression that I couldn't pull myself from. There were times when I felt so isolated that I wondered if anyone would even care if I was gone. I felt so alone that I had dreams of dying and it being weeks before anyone cared to check-in. In hindsight, I realize while some of these feelings were valid they were also unfair. Everyone was experiencing this pandemic and dealing with it and the repercussions in their own way. It was unfair to think family and friends didn't care because they also had things going on in their own lives, adjustments to their lifestyles, and relationships that were tested with this quarantine. At some point on a call with my friends, there was a suggestion to run a game over Zoom and I volunteered to put together a quick story that we could play out. I asked everyone to be patient with me as I tried to learn the rest of the rules to D&D 5th Edition (the most recent update to the Dungeons & Dragons game from the '80s and a more streamlined RPG ruleset than Pathfinder).
I think the idea of taking the foundation of the game that I had already played for years and writing a story that focused on saving my character in a setting that I created lit a fire under me and lifted me out of a darkness I was beginning to drown in. I don't think I have ever truly shared with my friends what running this game meant to me. I am not usually one to express my innermost feelings, I tend to want to BE the supportive friend without NEEDING to be supported. It is a flaw that I am continuously working on but I set my sights and my mind to convert the game from one system to another and helped my friends create or convert their characters from Pathfinder to D&D 5e (a lot of help was received from my bard player as he had already DM'ed games in 5e and helped convert some of the harder characters to easily playable versions in this system).
One thing that I was sure that I wanted to do was have individual sessions with each player to give them some backstory, let them test out their abilities, and establish some storytelling that they would be able to bring to the "table" when we had our first official session. At this point I was spending so much time writing the campaign, I was excited again. I was happy. Something I hadn't been in some time. I was looking forward to something beyond the monotony of another day in quarantine. I started with a zoom session with my cleric. He and the character I play, a wizard named Genara, embark on a task to recover a book of knowledge stolen from a temple by cultists and return it safely. After defeating a few cult members they make their way into a dungeon and find giant spiders that threaten their lives. Luckily they are defeated, the book is recovered and as a reward, the cleric is given a magic key that opens a library where he can research to find the knowledge of his lost family. Next was my Eldritch Knight player, he was taken at a young age when he donned a magic armor as a boy that whisked him away to a magic land. He is destined to be Champion of the Realm (or so he was lead to believe) but his greatest wish is to find his lost younger brother. After receiving a missive from the local adventuring society our Knight and Genara embark on a quest to dispatch a gang of bandits terrorizing a nearby town. Traveling to the city, they are met by a young girl who warns them of the threat and they are able to dispatch the gang and free the city. Genara obtains a vision that leads to information about how to find the Knight's brother and reveals that they understand the ache of not knowing what happened to your family as she never knew either of her parents.
With each session zero that I complete with my friends, I begin to realize that maybe I can do this. I am enjoying the role play, I am enjoying the planning and I relish spending time with my friends even if it is only virtually. Also, my creative juices are flowing freely at this point. I pick up the novel that I have been writing forever and add a chapter, I change the format and delve into the complexity of my characters because I begin to see what my players are going to bring to the table. They inspire me to bring that same level to my writing. The next session is with my Barbarian player. He is asked to accompany Genara for safety as they have been given a task to retrieve a jewel. The wizard tells the Barbarian he can't let the rage he feels at the loss of his wife and child consume him because while he is the muscle, his heart is the strongest thing he brings to the group. They find the jeweler's house destroyed and a barely alive murmuring in pain as they are attacked by two giant Ice Spiders and an Ice Troll. The Barbarian defeats the threat with Genara’s help and he learns that the group is Genara’s chosen family and she like the barbarian also understands the loss of a child. She gives him a ring that allows him to control his rage enough to use magic while he is fighting. By now I am well into my character backstories and I know what the threat will be when our group comes together but I still have three characters to meet. Our party’s fighter player is next. They are a new character (this person was a new addition to our original group) and they play a character from Genara’s past, someone that helped her when she needed it most and in turn, was when Genara found information that would help them she immediately brought it to them and accompanied them on a journey of discovery. The journey leads to an abandoned temple, where they surprise two ogres and a troll and after defeating them, they find a Dragonborn scale. A much-needed clue to a larger question. After scrying to determine a location, the fighter and wizard part ways. I am beyond excited by the time I get to my paladin player. This character is another new edition (this player was my previous DM so in this game he gets to be a player), a character that Genara met in her youth that saved her from an angry mob. He has taken a vow of vengeance to bring to Justice the pirate that killed his mother. Finding information leading to the whereabouts of the pirate crew Genara contacts the paladin and joins him to exact his revenge but they don’t find the leader, they find a captain that has painstakingly united multiple pirate crews under one banner. A battle ensues and information is recovered leading to the paladin's quarry. Rounding out our group is my bard player. This was a fun session because Genara and the bard have always had a contentious relationship. There has always been an unspoken resentment or animosity coming from Genara for undisclosed reasons. The bard has always tried to ensure their friendship with a reluctant Genara. He accompanies her on a task to recover an item that she’d ordered from a local merchant, upon visiting the merchant's shop the bard finds it destroyed and the shopkeeper, a local artist almost dead. They defeat four armed men and realize they saved the merchant just in time. The bard saves Genara’s life and she reveals to him details of her family never told before and shows her appreciation by giving him a magic lyre that she’d created for him. She asks him to complete another task, visiting a wizard he’d had dealings with before, and sends the bard on his way.
At this point, we have met all of the players and I am exalted at the aspect of running this game. The pandemic is still raging on and we are no closer to being out of quarantine but I have something to look forward to. The benefit to my mental health is immeasurable. Joy does wonders in your life. Now I just have to plan the first session.