,NEW YORK — Recently, a wizard, a druid, a cleric, a ranger, an artificer and a couple of bards met on Zoom. The bards fought. The druid baked cookies. The cleric, wearing nifty resin dragon horns, took hallucinogenic mushrooms.rrTogether they explored candy-coated barracks, searching for an elusive; cat jokes crowded the chat.rrThis was an average evening for Dr Mike Sell, a professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who moonlights as an online game master.rrOn Tuesdays, he gathers friends, colleagues, partners and kids and has them ramble, remotely, through his role-playing game, Curse of the Sugarplum Fairy, a madcap riff on The Nutcracker and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tagline: “Who can take a rainbow and wrap it in a scream?”rrModern role-playing games debuted in the mid-1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented Dungeons & Dragons.rrThe form has since proliferated — if you can imagine a genre (western, mystery, sci-fi) or a peril (zombies, rogue AI, chthonic gods), it has probably inspired a game.rrA hybrid of theatre, make-believe, board games and fan fiction, RPGs encourage players to create a story collaboratively as they play.rr“Tabletop role-playing is the most powerful, most versatile form of interactive narrative we have by a mile,” said Mr Nicholas Fortugno, who directs the digital game design program at Long Island University. “Nothing touches it.”rrRPGs have always been a relatively niche hobby, which is understandable. A typical session involves considerably more effort and imagination than, say, Scrabble.rrAnd who dresses up for Monopoly? But when lockdowns made in-person activities risky, these games, began to proliferate online, attracting new players and reviving interest among veteran, dice-clutching hands.rrNot your nerdy teenager’s Dungeons & Dragons.rrLast March, when rolling lockdowns began, Roll20, one of many sites that host RPGs online, experienced so many new-user requests (an 840 per cent spike, in fact) that its servers assumed it was some kind of cyberattack, said Mr Dean Bigbee, the site’s chief operating officer.rrWithin a year, the site has added three million new users, for a total of 8 million. Representatives of similar sites like World Anvil and Role Gate also reported surges.rrThe revenue of Dungeons & Dragons, which still commands the largest market share of RPGs, grew by 33 per cent in the past year. Usage of its dedicated website, D&D Beyond, doubled.rr“It was always growing, but nowhere near that,” said Mr Ray Winninger, the executive producer in charge of the of Dungeons & Dragons studio.rrAccording to Winninger’s colleague Liz Schuh, the director of product management for Dungeons & Dragons, “Virtual play has exploded.” Which means Zoom is the new finished basement.rrIn a typical game, online or off, the game master will present the players with a situation — an encounter with a kobold, say. Each player decides how his or her characters should respond, often rolling dice to determine the success of each manoeuvre.rrAs these games are cooperative, not competitive, players don’t vie against one another. (Smack talking? Purely optional.)rrSo this is pandemic-friendly escapism that allows your friends to escape with you. Unless a mind flayer takes them out first.rrOver the past five years, tabletop RPGs — a designation that differentiates them from immense multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft — have edged a little closer to the mainstream, becoming the kind of hobby a person could now admit to in mixed company. (Thirty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players identify as female.)rrVin Diesel, Terry Crews and Drew Barrymore have all outed themselves as RPG gamers, and actor Joe Manganiello (True Blood) hosts a celebrity campaign in his basement.rrThe streaming site Twitch has more than 100 channels devoted to Dungeons & Dragons.rrCritical Role, a live-play campaign executed by voice actors, has become a YouTube hit that recently raised more than US$11 million (S$14.76 million) for an animated special.rrRPGs have also inspired dozens of podcasts, both fictional and live play, like The Adventure Zone and You Meet in a Tavern.rrThe Netflix show Stranger Things has made Dungeons & Dragons a central theme: The boy characters play the game and use its vocabulary to understand their town’s bizarre goings-on. (You can even buy a Stranger Things-inspired D&D starter set.)rrFrom the basement to Zoom.rrBefore the pandemic, when people already seemed to live mostly online, tabletop RPGs were seen as a respite from multiscreen life, a more artisanal and analog way to connect.rr“The ability to get together with friends and put on a show, that’s a pretty amazing experience,” Dr Sell said.rrDuring lockdown, when the ability to get together went away, RPGs stayed. Many of the most popular games had already found a home online.rrSites and apps like Roll20, Role Gate, World Anvil, Astral, Fantasy Grounds and D&D Beyond have created platforms to make online play possible. Many have tools — like character generators — that simplify a campaign.rrRPGs don’t require tactile experience (apologies to those who hand-paints miniatures for their characters), so they adapt well to online play.rr“Almost everything that happens in Dungeons & Dragons happens in your imagination,” Mr Winninger said. “It makes the transition to virtual play easier.”rrIf you have Wi-Fi, you’re in, and you don’t even need dice: Wizards of the Coast has a page that will roll the dice for you virtually.rrOther sites feature game enhancements, like virtual maps, and the ability to sync your game to a selection of creepy music.rrWant to run your own game? Gather a group on Zoom, Skype or Discord.rrDon’t have any like-minded friends? Wizards of the Coast released the Yawning Portal, a site that matches players with virtual games.rrOther sites run message boards and marketplaces that connect individuals with groups and groups with game masters.rrNewbies can easily find experienced players to show them the ropes and chains and dimensional shackles.rrAfter-school programs and local libraries run games catering to children and teenagers.rrBuilding a bridge for the social divide.rrAnd yet, we lose something when we can’t play in person or share Cheetos. Because RPGs depends on storytelling, the experience dwindles when we are no longer face to face with our fellow tellers.rr“It’s all about looking at people in the eye and performing with your body,” Mr Fortugno said. “When you lose all of that, the game becomes more stilted.”rrBut questing through darkened forests or perilous caves from the comfort of your couch can still thrill. And because RPGs have an inherent structure and turn-taking, they may offer more natural engagement than the average Zoom cocktail hour.rrHaving a mutual goal — maiden rescuing, treasure acquiring, sphere of annihilation avoidance — makes the conversation flow. And players can now meet across the country and across the continents.rrMs Avery Alder, a game designer (Monsterhearts 2, Dream Askew) who lives in rural British Columbia, used to host weekly in-person role-playing games in a nearby post-and-beam town hall.rrThe pandemic ended that, but she still plays when work and child care allow, which is not often. She argues that maybe we need RPGs now more than ever.rr“In a year when people are feeling a big, big sense of fear and scarcity and gloom, it’s really important to be imagining other possibilities,” she said.rr“Even if you’re telling stories about a fantasy world, you’re still telling stories about exploration, connection, hope.” THE NEW YORK TIMESr
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