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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Phillips

Our Pandemic Campaign

A Dungeons and Dragons game table, with miniatures, map, electric candle and small lights. A laptop for Zoom, a gooseneck phone holder, dice and a dry erase board. This picture has all the components labelled.
My Zoom Session Game Setup

It was late November of 2019, at a pre-pandemic party with some old friends in Hartford when I saw Laura’s homemade dice tower. It featured a courtyard surrounded by an impenetrable stone wall and a castle tower where the the hands of fate could rumble the rattling bones down the tower, tumbling through the arched doorway, clattering down the steps to ricochet off the barrel, a bale of hay and a scattering of random rocks to finally display a result that even fate could not fathom. As far as i was concerned, this construct was a natural 20, the creativity that this original dice tower brought to the table was an inspiration. We were all gaming at that time, they were involved in a D&D campaign and I was playing Shadowrun with the Monday Night RPG group and I had an ongoing Lunchtime D&D session at work on Thursdays.

A grey clay-looking dice tower with black felt on the bottom, a tower with an arched doorway for the dice to go through, landing a walled-in courtyard with a small barrel, rocks and various black and red polyhedral dice.
Laura's Original Dice Tower

When the pandemic went into full swing, my Thursday lunch group transitioned to Roll20 until schedule conflicts put that game on hold, the Monday Night sessions transitioned online and depending on the game and tech issues, became a hybrid of a few different platforms and schedules also made gaming sporadic and ultimately left me longing for the days around a table with both these groups. Since the release of fifth edition D&D, TTRPGs had crept back into my life like a rakish rogue in the shadows and now that the TT aspect of the game was no longer an option, I could feel a creative conduit was closing.

Laura and I started texting about Dungeons and Dragons and before long, the idea of me running a campaign for some of our old friends seemed to be just what the pandemic-driven malaise needed. Connections with friends through D&D in any form were a welcome thought, which led me to consider in what way could this be an enjoyable game with enough of the feeling of being together, remain engaging and fun for the whole group and be something that I would even have the bandwidth to manage? I mean, it’s a lot to homebrew a campaign, a fully-formed fantasy world out of tabula rasa. I’m a fool who has a habit of talking on too much, getting overwhelmed and then losing the enthusiasm that I started with. I was not going to let that happen in this game, I needed to keep my energy and passion flowing if this was going to work.

With all this in mind, I binged some relevant podcasts, checked out some good videos and paid close attention to story structure with any movies or shows I watched. Some exciting ideas began to emerge, so I decided I could make this work as long as I kept in touch with myself and adjusted accordingly. This resulted in additional writing apart from the campaign, where I could be honest with myself about self-assessment, time management and the emotional journey of being creative during a pandemic and all the anxiety permeating the world. These writings eventually prompted me to write this blog and I’m relieved I found the balance point that allowed me to be both insightful and vulnerable about the process of homebrewing a campaign within this game I so love.

I had to come to terms with some of my Dungeon Master shortcomings before I could get started, I had made the commitment to doing this right, which meant being honest about my past mistakes. Way back when, you’d crack open a new module (B2: The Keep on the Borderlands was one of my favorites!), read it quickly and toss the characters at whatever perils it had in store. Other than interpretation challenges, these modules were easy to run, yet without the context a full campaign requires. As a teenager with more imagination than I could handle, I began to create worlds and adventures that I put my friends through, they were clunky and more battle than story but it felt good to create in that context. Most recently, my DM experience with 5E were mini-campaigns where the bar was set high by my friend, Neal, who brings a certain flourish to the narrative aspect of the game and was kind enough to let me DM the Monday group in his world, so much of the building was already done and the players brought new characters to life in a land we all were already familiar with.

Pulling all this together, I reasoned that with a solid world build, well-defined characters and a deviously contrived, multi-faceted story arc would be a good start. I committed to myself that note-taking would be a must for this campaign, there were more and more threads forming as I designed the setting and stage for us to begin our shared story. I have a terrible tendency of not taking notes and relying on distorted memories of sessions past. This would not do. Fortunately, Laura set to assembling players while I began to consider how I would pull off the most difficult part of this game, the feeling of playing around a table all together in a room.

I’m a GM who likes using maps and miniatures, I’ve never been super detailed with them, I just find it easier to run combat scenarios when you can visualize where all the characters are and the limitations of the location. Honestly, I’m mostly Theater of the Mind when it comes to the majority of the game, but once initiative is rolled, I need that map. I’ve used Roll20 for campaigns, both as a player and as DM but I found too much focus on the map tended to distract from gameplay and a hybrid model on a single laptop with shared video got confusing. Perhaps over many months, at work and home, participating in many online meetings and family gatherings, I’d gotten comfortable with Zoom. I didn’t want to sweat the tech, figuring that takes away from the rhythm that the game requires. We began a Discord channel for communication and a place for reference documents to live and after confirming with the amazing group of friends Laura pulled together, we decided to use Zoom for the games.

I picked up a gooseneck phone holder so I could dedicate one Zoom participant for whatever map angle I wanted as well as showing other handouts and area maps for reference. My laptop was the Zoom host, I set it up so I could be seen on the same screen as my daughter, Sirena, who also plays. This setup does allow for me to be more animated if I stand farther back to illustrate moves or just act like a fool, for this game can be silly, serious and fun all at the same time. I play ambient sounds to accompany whatever setting we’re in, it is subtle but effective. Punctuated with the sounds of dice descending the stoneware dice towers that Laura sent to us all! Each week has something new to offer, discussing what’s on our minds before the game starts, a creepy video to accompany the game, a sea shanty-esque recording that has become an original theme song of the campaign, The Heroes of Bounty. Our sessions are filled with laughter, detective work and many topical, unplanned side quests that keep me on my toes.

It seems we’re all happy with this style of online game, with many comments of how much we all look forward to these sessions. I’m hoping soon we’ll be able to have our sessions all together in the same room, or at least a hybrid model with some together and the rest online. I’m confident that no matter what configuration, we’ll find a way to make it work and have a blast doing it!

Please visit my Glossary and Links page for some definitions of terms and a link to Laura’s Etsy page!

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