coronavirus pandemic

How Dungeons and Dragons Is Keeping People Connected During the Pandemic

NBC 7 Responds found people are going online for their typically in-person games. While it's keeping them connected, it's also hurting local businesses

NBC Universal, Inc.

Imagine standing on a battlefield, sword in your hand, as you look around at the victory you've just won. Your friends stand by your side, cheering on the victory you've just achieved. That's how Dungeons & Dragons can feel, except now it's usually through a video call.

"I always thought it was for nerds," said Weston Gardner. He's a composer who lives in La Mesa. "But It's literally for everybody. It's a way to connect with people on a level that is unlike anything else."

But what is Dungeons and Dragons? Also known as D&D, it's a dice-based, role-playing game where you play a character of your own creation, making decisions along with your companions that can have a drastic effect on the story.

A set of 7 dice and miniature sit on a battle map // picture by Nick Kjeldgaard

"Think of it like video games," said Gardner. "There's video game [role playing games] where you become a warrior knight or whatever and you have to save the kingdom, but we call these tabletop RPGs."

Gardner says he got into it a few years ago when he convinced his group of friends to try it during their weekly game night. It seems to have been a hit.

"For the last 5 years we've been playing in the same campaign," said Gardner.

Because of the pandemic, his group has been meeting online instead of in-person.

"There's pluses and minuses," said Gardner. "It's actually easier for me to run games online because I have access to tons of digital tools, but I really like having physical objects and being in the room with people.

Gardner has a special place in the online D&D community because he writes RPG music.

"My business plan is that I actually give it out for free and I provide the licensing for it," said Gardner. "All you have to do is attribute it to me.

While he accepts financial support from fans of his work, Gardner says he wanted to help people elevate their games and projects to the next level.

"There's all kinds of different situations where music would be nice to have in the background," said Gardner. "I really just want people to create and not feel stuck, because I know what it feels like to have a great idea but not have all the tools available to you."

Gardner's group isn't the only one that has gone online. A growing number of millennial and Gen Zers have been learning about the game and finding people to play with while stuck at home.

"I know there's a lot of people who have gone online for their role playing," said Jerry Horning, co-owner of Off the Shelf game store in El Cajon. "It's different every time. It's a fun way to spend your time. You can sit there and watch a movie but there's no interaction with your friends or family."

Horning opened his store in December but had to cancel a planned grand opening scheduled for April because of the pandemic. Now he's switched his business model around to focus on retail instead of in-person gaming.

"We said we can stay open if we do retail," said Horning. "Let's rent the board games out so people who don't feel comfortable coming and gaming here, or can't, they can take them home."

Off the Shelf now rents out board games of all kinds to people who are looking for ways to pass time at home.

"There's family games, games for adults, couples, date nights, whatever, there's a game for that," said Horning. "If you've never played and you're curious, come on down and we'll be happy to explain some of these games."

Horning says they've been very focused on finding ways to make in-person gaming safe. They clean the tables, swap out chairs, disinfect and even quarantine played games for 48 hours before they are put out for use again.

"Regardless of COVID we always wanted this to be a safe place where people could come and have fun," said Horning.

D&D has grown rapidly in popularity over the last decade. Celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Jon Favreau, and Joe Manganiello are all known to play.

"There's a lot of creativity that comes along with this," said Horning. "That would be there with or without COVID. That's what roleplaying does. It gets those creative juices flowing."

Gardner says a lot of people think it's something only nerds can try but says his group that has been playing for 5 years includes former jocks and rock-and-roll musicians.

"Don't be afraid to commit to something that is outside of your comfort zone," said Gardner. "It will expand you and could become a really amazing part of your life."

A big reason he keeps playing D&D is because it's a great way to learn more about yourself and your friends.

"There are these elements of yourself that you work through things," said Gardner. "That you didn't know that maybe you needed to work through them. When you defeat something, imaginary or not, when people come together, there's understanding that forms."

As the online community has grown, it has turned into a way for people to stay connected, at a time when many of us are farther apart than ever before because of the pandemic.

"People are feeling alone and that's terrible," said Gardner. "That shouldn't be the case. This community has been one of the main reasons that I haven't felt the solitariness of the pandemic."

If you want to use Gardner's music in your own game or project, you can download his music here.

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