This week’s post is going to be a little different. I’m going to reflect on the last few weeks of my DnD campaigns throughout my country’s COVID-19 lockdown. I don’t want to be doing ‘campaign diary’-type posts on this blog because I’ve always felt them to be dry and almost ‘lazy’ content. So little of the DnD experience can really be conveyed through a play-by-play breakdown of a session. They always feel to me like that guy in the room talking about something hilarious that happened to him last week and he doesn’t realise no-one else is laughing.
Anyway, now that I’m done soapboxing about campaign diaries I want to talk about what’s happened – or indeed what hasn’t happened – to my campaigns during lockdown.
For some slight context, I live in New Zealand. At 11:59 pm on the 25th of March we entered ‘level 4’ lockdown, which is our highest level of lockdown wherein all non-essential travel is entirely banned, all non-essential businesses are shut and you are to isolate your social contact to only those you live with. We were in level 4 for just over 4 weeks, having moved to level 3 on the 28th of April.
For 4 weeks we played Dungeons and Dragons online. I used a very simple system. We used a discord call and I suspended a webcam from my microphone arm (which I would usually use for broadcasting from home) and used that to show battlemaps from a top-down perspective.
At the start of these 4 weeks I also rebooted an old 5e campaign that had petered out about a year prior since most of the same people were now playing again. We would play this campaign on Wednesdays – picking up where we had left off while adding new characters for the new members at the table – and would play our standard Pathfinder 2e game on Sundays.
We mostly did this for the entire 4 weeks. Then something unusual happened.
Building Better Dungeons
I imagine most of you are familiar with my Building Better Dungeons series (it is to date my most popular set of posts and the one which launched this blog) and The Grave of the Lantern Keeper that was used as an example dungeon in that series. As it happens, after 2 sessions my Pathfinder campaign made its way to the next dungeon in the same set as The Grave of the Lantern Keeper (there are 6 in total).
This dungeon is complex. If The Grave of the Lantern Keeper was my most ambitious dungeon at the time then this one beats it out by a factor of 10. I realised that the digital format was simply not going to do this dungeon justice, and for the amount of time I had spent on building it I felt it would be a waste to try and run it online. So I decided to delay the campaign.
To replace it I started back up another loose episodic campaign I’d run called ‘Gladi8ors’, Yeah the name is dumb. The gimmick here is that you play as a gladiator in a high-magic setting. Each ‘week’ has a different fight and is set often at a different level (and perhaps with other rules in place). It was something I originally started in 5e to allow friends who couldn’t make my Sunday campaign to play a less commitment-heavy session on a weeknight. Because it was episodic there was no need to play in each and every session. The other main purpose of the campaign was to playtest the ever-increasing amount of Homebrew I’d developed at the time.
It did both of these things excellently. I will almost definitely be making a more detailed post on the system some day.
So now instead of the full Pathfinder 2e campaign, we were instead playing one-off combat-based sessions on the Sunday.
Then level 3 hit, and my part-time job restarted. It is busier than it has ever been in all my time working there (we are an online art store). It is effectively currently a full-time job. I simply cannot find the time to run my 5e sessions on a Wednesday anymore.
We’ve also not played anything on a Sunday for 2 weeks now, since this most recent Sunday was Mother’s Day and the one before that I had another commitment.
So what has ended up happening is I went into lockdown all gung-ho going ‘I’m going to run all this extra DnD since we all have time and we’re going to restart that old campaign we all wanted to finish.’ In the end, I’ve probably played less DnD than I normally would.
Where Am I Going With This?
The thing is, I don’t feel disappointed, or foolish for biting off more than I could chew, or anything remotely like that. I think it would be very easy to, but I truly don’t. For the record, I don’t think I at all bit off more than I could chew, I just think circumstance did me a disservice with regards to my DnD plans.
If there’s a lesson to take from this it’s that sometimes it’s worth being relaxed about our DnD campaigns. I for one am very ‘strict’ as it were, in that I very rigidly maintain the structure of regular weekly sessions on a Sunday. I run a big game too (7 people), so I’m asking for quite a big commitment from a lot of people. Naturally we make exceptions some weeks, but those exceptions are usually tied more to my schedule than anyone else’s. I personally think playing campaigns seldom works out unless you’re very structured and serious about playing regular DnD sessions.
So this has been a big shift for me in that I’ve had to be ok with not playing much DnD and letting campaigns sit on hold for extended periods of time. Usually in this scenario I’d be worried that the whole thing will just fall apart (as it has with so many games I’ve played in and even run). Right now though I have a bunch of players who are all really enthusiastic about continuing as soon as we can. That to me is the difference.
There’s a few other things I wanted to reflect on with regards to this time.
When the 5e campaign I referred to earlier in this post initially fell apart I was really thrown for a loop. I had put so much care and effort into this campaign. Everyone’s characters were incredible. They were all deeply nuanced and well-integrated in to the world. I genuinely haven’t put that level of effort in to working with my players on character creation since (not that I put in no effort now, just not as much as I did for that game).
Playing that campaign again was like having a dead relative come back to life for a few days. I had already grieved and found a way to move on, so everything after that was kind of a bonus. We were essentially only playing on borrowed time as the campaign was only set to run until the end of lockdown when we all returned to work and couldn’t play at midday on a Wednesday. It was such a great feeling being able to revisit that campaign and world, and in a way I feel like I have more closure now even though we will once again be leaving the story in an unfinished state.
Separately, Running Gladi8ors in the Pathfinder 2e system really helped me cut my teeth on it in a much more profound way than the main campaign has. Encounter balance is something I think you only get a feel for with time, and leaving 5e for me meant leaving a huge amount of system fluency with encounter balance. Playing Pathfinder 2e at much higher levels for the Gladi8or sessions really helped me gain a sense of how the game plays and where power levels are headed. This makes it so much easier for me to gauge which characters are maybe outshining others in power level as the campaign progresses. It also gives me a sense of how powerful a class is supposed to get overall, which lets me better map out what scale of threats the party should be facing at different levels. This will also help me with converting some of my Homebrew to Pathfinder 2e (such as the Gunsmith, which is already partially converted).
I still need to finalise the finer details of the dungeon I’m going to be running in – if we progress through lockdown levels as expected – 1 week’s time. I’m worried about it not ‘living up to the hype’ as it were since not only have we waited now some 4 weeks for it but I’ve also made the grand assertion that it was not worth running online. If my players walk away going ‘We probably could have done that over discord’ then I’m going to feel a little stupid, so I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m pretty confident that it won’t. It is, if I do say so myself, an absolute banger of a dungeon.
Infrequent and Uncomfortable
I won’t do many posts like this. I want them to be as the heading suggests. I wanted to make an exception for this week as it should in theory be the last week of me not playing in-person DnD. Many other DMs around the world have found themselves over the last few months in that same position of playing DnD digitally, and just as we share experiences of running campaigns with one another I feel it is important that we share our reflections on this time in our lives with one another. I’ve always loved how much I learn from other DMs when we share in this way. I want to make sure I’m contributing.