Covid-19: 'Dungeons and Dragons got us through lockdown'

By Gwyndaf Hughes
BBC News

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Media caption,
Chris Pyrah set up an online game of Dungeons and Dragons for his girlfriend Rebecca Frew and her family

"It can be whatever you want it to be, that's the beauty of it. It doesn't have to be swords and sorcery."

Nathan Walters turned to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) after his mental health suffered at the start of the pandemic.

The fantasy game, traditionally played around a table, has lured hordes of players like him to online platforms such as Zoom, Discord and Roll20 during the Covid lockdowns.

More people have been playing than ever, according to the game's creators.

'A perfect storm at the moment'

"I have always struggled with mental health issues; like many others, these were exacerbated during the pandemic," said Nathan, 29, from the Rhondda Valleys.

"My depression worsened and my OCD became more fierce."

"I realised that playing really helped with my mental health though. I could still have that social connection even while restrictions are in place."

The game sees players devise characters such as elves, wizards and warlocks through role play.

Image source, Nathan Walters
Image caption,
Nathan Walters said Dungeons and Dragons has helped with his mental health

"It's not a game, it's a social experience. There is no winning or losing," said Nathan.

"It's like you're sitting down with a few people and you're collectively writing a novel, all at once in real time."

He said the pandemic had been "a perfect storm" for online Dungeons and Dragons, as it was a way for people to get a social experience without seeing each other or being in the same room as each other.

'My 97-year-old nan plays too'

For Ellie Watts, 29, the game has helped three generations of her family keep in touch.

Ellie, from Leeds, who is starting a masters' at Cardiff University's College of Music and Drama this year and started playing weekly games over Zoom with her London-based dad and her 14-year-old stepbrother, who had been finding it "really tough" being home from school.

Image source, Family photo
Image caption,
Ellie and her family - including her nan, Doreen - use Dungeons and Dragons to catch up

"We speak every week to play and between that I get a bunch of texts asking when we'll play next. There's a 14-year age difference between me and my stepbrother, so it's great to have something we both enjoy doing together."

What's more, Ellie's 97-year-old nan, Doreen, has also logged in from the assisted-living home where she lives so the family can all catch up.

"She's only five or 10 minutes away from my dad but obviously he wasn't able to go in," said Ellie.

"So for her to be able to come in and watch once a week, that's really important to her.

"I don't necessarily think she understands the stories most of the time but she does find them funny."

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Image source, Cavan Images/Getty Images
Image caption,
Dungeons and Dragons has now been played by more than 50 million people worldwide

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game played in small groups.

Each player creates a character with different personality traits and abilities. The Dungeon Master (or DM) describes an adventure that the characters embark upon.

The success of every action a character takes is determined by rolling a variety of different shaped dice. Usually, all the players work together in pursuit of a common goal determined by the story laid out in front of them.

Image source, Matthew Betts
Image caption,
Matthew Betts say his group of friends express their worries and stresses through their characters

Matthew Betts, 30, from Cardiff has been running a game for six of his friends throughout the pandemic.

"A lot of my friends are living on their own so it was quite important to get that interaction," he said. "For some of my friends that was the only interaction they were getting.

"You express yourself through your character. That's one of the greatest things we've done as a group, we've been able to express our worries, our stresses, as well as the joy that we've had all playing together."

What's behind the rise in popularity?

Wizards of the Coast, which owns the Dungeons and Dragons brand, released figures in May suggesting 2020 was the game's best year and that, to date, more than 50 million people had played it.

D&D Beyond is an online platform which allows players to keep track of their characters digitally instead of on paper.

Parent company, Fandom told the BBC the pandemic had driven a huge spike in 2020 that was continuing into 2021.

In 2020, Fandom said its registered users grew by 78% year on year and was up 16% in the first six months of 2021. Subscribers to the platform have more than doubled since 2019, they added.

The game's rise in popularity over the recent years may have been partly fuelled by being featured in Netflix's Stranger Things show as well as celebrities such as Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson being big fans.

Rolldark, a company based in the UK, loans out DMs with voice-acting backgrounds for a fee.

Robert Bradley who founded the company in 2019 said business "went crazy" in March 2020.

"The first spike we noticed was when our website figures went from 30 a day to 380 a day in the first week," he said. "Now they're around 1,000 a day."

Mr Bradley said the sense of escape was what drew people in, adding: "There is no room in role playing games for worrying about bills or your place in the world."

'At first I was called a weirdo'

Chris Pyrah and Rebecca Frew - both 28 and from Cardiff - were living in Oxford when the pandemic hit. That meant Rebecca couldn't see her family who she was used to visiting regularly.

Chris suggested he could host a regular game for her family so they could stay in touch.

"At first I was called a 'weirdo'," Rebecca said. "I think my sister was probably the most sceptical about it but she decided to join in anyway because it was something to do at that point.

"Then she started playing, quite enjoyed it and got into it. It was quite funny seeing the transformation."

They only intended to play for a month but they're still logging on together.

"It's become one of the things that we specifically put time aside to do even though we can see them now, which is nice," Rebecca added.

Chris also plays with friends from all around the world - from as far afield as the United States and Netherlands - every Tuesday night.

"During the pandemic, D&D truly gave and still gives us a time when we completely tune out the real world around us, in a way that the ubiquitous Zoom pub quiz just cannot," said Chris.