Before the world turned upside down, I ran a 5th Edition game about once a month. I was hopping between campaigns with an overlapping group of players, which included my kids and my friends and some of my friend’s kids and ranged in age from preteen to middle-aged. We were running Storm King’s Thunder in the Forgotten Realms and two campaigns in Midgard: one that kicked off in Zobeck and then headed into the Margreve, and a new campaign that started in Stannasgard and was meant to explore the Northlands.
And that was an end to getting the group together. Getting any group together. My family went into extreme lockdown with no one but my mother coming over. (And she’s got no interest in RPGs. Believe me. I’ve tried.)
So no gaming. At all.
For a while, my kids and my friends both would say, “We should play online. Why don’t we play online? Can’t we try playing online?” But I was resistant. Very resistant. Part of it, I realize now, was just flat out denial, the refusal to admit that this was the “new norm” and that it wouldn’t all just blow over in a few weeks. If I started playing online, then I was giving up; I was acknowledging that things weren’t going back to the way they were any time soon.
But I came to realize that a larger part of my hesitation actually struck to the heart of what the game had become for me. About where my fun was. I’m very much a GM who likes the “presentation.” I’ve got two 3D printers that run every day in my garage, and setting the table with ever larger and more impressive displays to wow my players and make them feel like the “luckiest adventurers anywhere” was where I lived as a GM. Sometimes that’s animated maps from Dynamic Dungeons, and sometimes that’s huge builds from Fat Dragon Games. Mostly it’s a mix of both. But my players have come to expect me to knock their socks off with new terrain and new setups each month. I’m not saying the game has to be this way or that you can’t play it all theater of the mind with a pencil and a sheet of paper and dice and nothing else. Of course, you can. I’m just saying this is what the game is for me. I run primarily published adventures, and the creative parts, where I have input, is in how I realize those adventures on the table. In fact, I was 90% done with two enormous builds—a huge hollow tree that stood maybe two feet tall that I was planning to use for “The Midnight Tree” from 12 Peculiar Towers and an enormous, outdoor spread that included a river, a mountain with cavern complex, a Viking-style village, and woods on a slight hill, which would have covered a 6×3-foot play area completely.
And then Covid-19.
And the idea of just shoving all this terrain in a box so we could play over Skype broke my heart. It still breaks my heart six months on. As I work on an airship, a mining complex, a dwarven hold, and a castle. All for “some day.”
So I just kept putting the game off. And putting it off. And putting it off.
I felt guilty. I felt irresponsible. I felt like a bad GM. Of course, I did. But I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. I’d say, “I’m not ready,” or “I just need a little time to transition,” or “Maybe next week,” or even just admit to myself I couldn’t get to that place psychologically.
And then one day, my brother called me. Now, my brother is a) not a gamer and b) a religious scholar. We are very different, but sometimes we get each other in ways no one else can. So he called me up because he’d been listening to a podcast from John Vervaeke, an award-winning lecturer at the University of Toronto in the fields of cognitive science and Buddhist psychology. Now, I’m not endorsing Vervaeke here—I haven’t delved into him myself. But my brother David enjoys him, and he wanted to share an insight he had while listening to a lecture. So my brother called me up to talk about this revelation he had about shamanism. Quickly summarizing our conversation, he said that shamanism is common to all human experience, that it emerges universally in the Upper Paleolithic Period, and that shamanism is the bringing about of changes in consciousness (through dance, chant, sleep deprivation, psychedelics, whatever) as ways of shifting awareness to provide insight and give advantages to tribal society. I confess I was nodding along, maybe only listening with half an ear—while the other half of my brain was thinking about an old book I once read that contrasted shamanism with rock stars (The Death and Resurrection Show: From Shaman to Superstar by Rogan P. Taylor) and how I could work that into the conversation when it was my turn to talk—when David comes out with, “And that’s you. The game master.”
Wait, what? That’s who?
Yup. You. The game master.
And David goes on to explain that this is why he called me—his realization that GMs are modern day shamans. Both shamanism and RPGs, he said, use totems and props and projected fictional universes in which one person who embodies and leads the ritual brings a small community of people into their experience of “soul flight,” permitting all of them to enter into the experience and go back transformed into normal life.* And that’s what the GM does. And RPGs are literally filling a role that’s been an important part of history since before there was a history. And that doesn’t mean other things in modern life aren’t also analogous to shamanism. But without getting all mystical or self-important—
I realized that David was right. And that I had deserted my tribe in a time of crisis. That maybe here where everyone was self-isolating and suffering from a lack of social contact, RPGs might be as important as ever, and I had a job to do. And I got over myself, and I logged onto Roll20 the next day.
Now, I’d created an account and plunked around on Roll20 several years ago, but back then, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. This time, I actually watched their very helpful YouTube tutorials (cue something here about stubborn drivers who refuse to ask for directions), and it was all a lot less impenetrable and a whole lot easier than I remembered. In fact, it was pretty easy period. And I bought Tales of the Old Margreve on the Roll20 marketplace. That book came out after I’d started my Zobeck campaign, so my players were already 3rd or 4th level, and we started with “The Honey Queen.” So I thought I’d go back and pick up the first adventure, “Hollow”, and run it for a new campaign with a mix of players from the previous campaigns. (See, I was still holding off on moving ahead with the in-person campaigns we’d halted.)
And since it was online, I invited a good friend of mine named Stephenson who lives in LA and who I do not get to see enough of at all and who is very new to 5th Edition.
And the game was fantastic. We use D&D Beyond, that most amazing of tools, so we downloaded a Chrome extension called “Beyond20” that syncs your D&D Beyond characters with Roll20. With the extension enabled, you can click anywhere in your character page (or on a monster’s stat block if you’re the GM), and it’ll roll the virtual dice in the Roll20 window. I homebrew the monsters from the adventure into D&D Beyond (just for the group, I don’t make them “public”) and then link them to the tokens in Roll20. And it’s so smooth.
We played the next weekend. And the weekend after that. And then the weekend after that we played the next adventure in Tales, “The Fingers of Derende.” Then I got my other group online for another game. And then finally, I bit the bullet and moved my Zobeck campaign online. Over the last few weeks, I’ve purchased Tales of the Old Margreve, Underworld Lairs, and Storm King’s Thunder on Roll20, along with Venture City (for the Fate RPG). I could see getting Empire of the Ghouls on there when I’m ready, and I’m really hoping 12 Peculiar Towers and Midgard Sagas will show up on Roll20 before too long. Also Wrath of the River King and, oh well, I’m getting a wish list together now. (Though I should point out there are around a dozen Kobold Press offerings on Roll20 already with more on the way.)
The best result of using Roll20 is we are all getting together again. And instead of playing once a month, we’re now playing three out of four weekends. Not having to get together physically with the time that takes—with travel time and ordering lunch, and also wanting to make the effort worth it by playing all day—means that we can hop on and off for a quick 2–3 hour session without building the day around it. So we can do it more often.
In fact, I’m learning that Roll20 does some things so well that even when in person play resumes, I think we’ll do some sessions online. It’ll be a lot easier to handle the giant scale maps in Storm King’s Thunder online, and I also think Courts of the Shadow Fey would work really well on Roll20. There’s a conceit in that adventure (spoilers) about certain NPCs being invisible for a time, and Roll20’s ability to hide tokens on a “GM Layer” and then move them en masse into a visible-to-players layer would facilitate that perfectly.
So yes, one day we’ll play in person again, and when we do, my players will be overwhelmed by the wealth of terrain I’ve printed and painted in lockdown. But until then, we’re having a blast online, and I think Roll20 will remain a part of our group from here on out. And Stephenson called me the other day to see when our next session is. So we’ll have to keep that campaign online. But wish him luck. He’ll be heading into “The Sanguine Lodge” from Underworld Lairs next!
Thanks to Roll20, my tribe isn’t just getting together again. It’s expanding, and this shaman’s got his work cut out for him!
*This transcendent state is called “flow” (about which you hear a lot these days), and it’s highly correlated to the subjective sense of “meaning” in life. Flow is the psychological state in which you lose yourself in an intended object in a way that is a challenge, has risk and definite cost for failure, but through which you have an expertise you are able to practice that taxes you to the limits of intention. Mountain climbing is the ultimate example of the state of flow, but when you think about roleplaying games, you realize that they tick a lot of the same boxes. Which might help explain the sudden surge in popularity of our favorite pastime.
Lou Anders is the author of the novel Once Upon a Unicorn, as well as the Thrones & Bones trilogy of fantasy adventure novels (Frostborn, Nightborn, and Skyborn), and the novel Star Wars: Pirate’s Price. He has also done role playing game design for Kobold Press, River Horse, and 3D Printed Tabletop. In 2016, he was named a Thurber House Writer-in-Residence and spent a month in Columbus, Ohio teaching, writing, and living in a haunted house. When not writing, he enjoys playing role playing games, 3D printing, and watching movies. He lives with his wife, children, and two golden doodles in Birmingham, Alabama. You can visit Anders online at louanders.com, on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @Louanders.