COVID has changed TTRPGs, have we changed with it?

It’s dangerous to go alone…and unprotected. You should still be wearing a mask to big events.

COVID has changed TTRPGs, have we changed with it?
Credit: Edwin Hooper

“The lockdown forced many of us to play TTRPGs online whether we wanted to or not,” said scholar Stefan Huddleston when I DM’d him on Twitter about the impact of COVID-19 on TTRPGs. “That alone changed the face of the hobby.” 

Among any number of apocalyptic events, this month marks the four year anniversary of the initial quarantine period of the (ongoing) COVID pandemic. While the impacts of the disease continue to be vast and horrific, those months were a boon for mainstreaming fringe activities that require a significant amount of time, energy, and education; like learning to crochet, community organizing, or playing TTRPGs and watching actual play. “[The lockdown] opened up new lines of contacts,” said Huddleston, “bringing people together who otherwise wouldn't have shared a table, not because they didn't want to but because of busy lives and a host of other reasons.” 

Conflicting schedules, the bane of every TTRPG group, became non-existent. People who’s labor was not deemed “essential” (or had the privilege of being able to stop working) had nowhere else to go and, importantly, nothing to do. The internet became the central social hub for the larger population in a way it had always been for those of us already existing on the fringes. Disabled people and other marginalized folks were able to expand networks of care as physical accessibility became less of a barrier to connecting with others. In many ways, geographic divides and artificial social distinctions started to fade as everyone became icons on a screen suffering through “unprecedented times” together. “I have talked to many who formed new friendships and found people they can and have played with many times since,” said Huddleston. 

On social media platforms, communities like TTRPGfam and D&DTok formed as people yearned for both connection and escapism—and no sourdough starter can ever compare to the communal fantasy-making of TTRPGs. These platforms also became a medium for education, not only for niche hobbies, but also for social injustices. And as knowledge spreads, taboos dissolve. Once you learn that the fabric of your society is held together with duct tape and institutional oppression, playing a silly game of make-believe with your friends (or watching other people play them) doesn’t seem all that strange anymore. 

“The lockdown was a hard time, but there were some silver linings,” said Huddleston. “One is that new connections formed, and it may be years yet before the wider implications of those connections are realized.” According to a 2021 Dicebreaker report by Rascal’s very own Chase Carter, Wizards of the Coast claimed that millions of people had downloaded the D&D 5e Starter Set in 2020. A few months prior, a CNBC report stated that sales of the game jumped 33% during the first year of the pandemic. While I fundamentally do not believe that the popularity of D&D trickled down to other parts of the industry, a rising tide can lift all boats. More exposure to the concept of tabletop roleplaying games in general gives people the opportunity to find what they want to play and who they want to play with, rather than settling for the only group and game they can find. 

While we are only just beginning to see the fruits of these new gaming connections, their impact (and the pandemic’s at large) is most evident in actual play. The medium was over a decade old by the start of the pandemic, and a portion of the increased interest in D&D 5e was already being attributed to the growing popularity of in-studio shows like Critical Role and Dimension 20—which could not be made during quarantine. 

“Actual Play saw a significant change in the wake of 2020 lockdowns,” said AP scholar Em Friedman when asked for her take on the impacts of COVD on the medium via Twitter DM. “Shows like Critical Role pivoted to non-AP material until they could return to studio, while other studio shows were forced to move to remote play.” 

However, while the big name shows faced limitations, a new influx of talent was discovering the joys of telling a story through tabletop games. With the exponentially increased use of video conferencing tools, anyone with a webcam, internet access, and a desire to create could make their own actual play. “The budgetary differences didn’t entirely go away,” said Friedman, “but it was a lot flatter. Actual Players could be cast from anywhere, and there was a sense that opportunities were opening up beyond geographic bubbles. The number of Actual Plays exploded—[2020 was] the 3rd and biggest expansion of the form to date.”

While the first year of the pandemic was a huge inflection point for the medium, it only exacerbated pre-existing divides between community and corporations. “Wizards of the Coast discontinued the live events that had previously brought actual players together,” said Friedman about what she deemed a long-term rupture in the “imagined community of actual play.” 

Whereas before the pandemic began most high profile people in the TTRPG space had come from within the medium or other niche professions like voice acting and comedy, “[WotC] took advantage of increased availability of more mainstream celebrities for promotional events.” This focus on celebrity and notoriety over gameplay and craft spurred the creation of an Actual Play movement Friedman has deemed the “ambitious middle”—consisting primarily of AP creators who attempt to push the bounds of the medium without the financial backing of a corporation. “The ambitious middle would move more and more in the 2020s to set themselves apart from the ‘big shows’ (variously & vaguely defined, but always including Critical Role & Dimension 20) that they did not wish to compete with nor saw common cause with.”

However, the artistic and economic distinctions between the developing mediums of TTRPG and actual play are not the only divisions the pandemic created. "COVID-19 has more-or-less divided the TTRPG community into two factions,” historian Evan Torner said via DM. “Those who believe it's fine to return to the pre-2020 ways of gaming, passing around potato chips and con crud as if it were natural, and those who... don't.”

Convincing our community to take precautions is made all the more difficult when our government’s solutions to these problems are not to address it at the root, but to ignore it altogether. President Biden declared the pandemic “over” in 2022, despite new surges and strains of the virus occurring every few months. 1.2 million Americans have died from the disease, with thousands of new deaths recorded every week, and many people are now permanently disabled due to complications of COVID. Even if one recovers from an acute infection, nearly 1 in 4 people who contract COVID develop long COVID, with 25-39 year olds having the highest rate of the disabling condition. That risk increases with each subsequent infection.

With no federal safety regulations such as masking or air filtration mandated , the US Government left the responsibility of mitigating risk up to individual choice rather than establishing institutional care. I truly believe that, given the information, most people would choose to protect their friends and family from an ever-mutating pathogen that causes long-term damage to the heart and brain. But, if they’re being told, repeatedly and emphatically, that the danger has passed, that COVID is no worse than the common cold, and those who take precautions like masking are paranoid hypochondriacs; then why would they inconvenience themself? Wearing a mask at conventions and meetups is uncomfortable. Missing out on events and canceling in-person sessions because you feel a little scratch in your throat is a terribly isolating feeling. 

“For those in the first group [who believe COVID is over],” Torner said, “well, you've got pretty much unfettered access again to gaming stores, home games in basements, and the old convention circuit, which has re-emerged with Gen Con, Origins, PAX East, and the like. You gather, you game, and you maybe get sick, too. But for those who are COVID-cautious and/or limited to remote gaming, however, it's a whole new and precarious set of questions!” 

Those questions often include making a choice between which kind of suffering one wants to endure. The lack of systemic collective care leaves disabled and immunocompromised people to permanently isolate, or risk their lives for in-person community. “Do you skip the mostly-unmasked mega-conventions, and try to just attend ones with real COVID protocols like Metatopia, Big Bad Con, or Arisia?” Torner asked. “Do online gaming events get enough attendees to justify the digital and volunteer overhead required?” 

If our government is going to place the responsibility of care onto us as individuals, then we as a community must care for each other. Torner explained that “being COVID-careful is nerve-wracking work, and it'd be a lot more pleasant if risk mitigation were collectivized rather than individualized.” To do this, we’re going to have to reimplement preventative measures in our personal and professional lives and adapt our habits. The very ways we play these games must evolve, as they did during the first months of the pandemic. 

“What does a future in gaming look like, now that we've been more-or-less abandoned by our governments and corporations with respect to an airborne vascular disease?” asked Torner. “Are you going to settle for shorter game experiences at home, like the 1 or 2-hour Discord game sessions I tend to run? How can new games incorporate ideas like character keepers, short sessions, virtual tabletop compatibility, and captioning into their design?”

The answers aren’t easy. They require work and solidarity with the most vulnerable members of our community. But their lives are worth it. Our lives are worth it. At the very least, for me, your friendly neighborhood rascal, just wear a fucking mask.