I've been playing more tabletop RPGs since the lockdown began than at any point before in my life, and I haven't been breaking quarantine to do it. I'm playing online, using Discord servers for voice and Roll20 for a virtual tabletop space, and the pastime is a savior for both my mental health and my social life right now.
Before COVID-19 shut my non-essential life down, I thought playing games like D&D over the internet was a poor substitute to playing in person (though I did log in to Roll20 every now and then to keep campaigns going with distant friends, as described in our guide on how to play D&D online). I had a treasured spot in a bi-weekly D&D campaign a quarter mile away, and I'd often play pick-up games at my local game store. I even started running a couple Blades in the Dark campaigns in person earlier this year - something I'd been wanting to do ever since I bought the book on a lark years ago.
Then self isolation happened. I already work from home, so it wasn't nearly as big of a change for me as it was for many. But it did mean our weekly D&D sessions were put on indefinite hiatus. Thank God, then, that our Dungeon Master moved quickly to get us playing online. I followed his lead and started running my Blades in the Dark campaigns online as well. A couple of online one-shot sessions for Lancer and Beam Saber that I'd already scheduled before the quarantine concerns went ahead too.
At first, it felt like serendipitous timing that I was already part of so many games. Now I know I need to keep it going. No slight against escapism-courting games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but they simply can't compete against an entire world that lives and breathes inside your mind's eye. If your brain is busy thinking about things like, "well, what would my giant robot look like?" it doesn't have time to dwell on the state of the world. You've probably been hearing about the power of your imagination since pre-school so I'll leave it there, but seriously - it's legit.
Almost never leaving my house has also made me appreciate how all-inclusive of a social activity tabletop gaming is. You may already be familiar with the fact that the actual act of playing the game rarely ever exceeds, say, 60 percent of the conversation in any given group. But it doesn't need to, because the game still gives the conversations around it structure. I feel like I run out of things to talk about quickly when I'm just chatting with most people. But if we're playing a game that we literally bring to life through our conversation, we always have something new to discuss.
Even if you don't already have a dedicated gaming group, it's never been easier to find folks to play with online. My main piece of advice would be to forget about trying to jump straight into your traditional, lengthy D&D campaign with a bunch of strangers. Look around for one-shots instead. I've had the most luck by finding the Discord servers for games I'm interested in, then lurking on their LFG channels. You can also check out the dedicated tabletop LFG section of Reddit or trawl the listings on Rule20.
Playing one-shots will familiarize you with more types of games and ways to play them, and just as importantly, will let you meet more people to play with. If you're like me, you'll probably feel awkward just chatting with strangers on the internet at first. But, with the fiction and the mechanics of the game to focus on, that initial awkwardness will melt quickly. Eventually, you might even find some friends who accompany you past the one-shots to put together the campaign of your dreams.
I still miss gaming in person: everybody gathered around a table with snacks, exchanging grins and eye rolls, screaming at the one set of dice that really seems to want to kill the entire party. I can't wait to get back to that. But when I was able to go out into the real world whenever I wanted, to get dinner with my wife or go to the gym or see a movie, playing games in person was just a fun hobby. As long as self-isolation remains necessary, online tabletop gaming is going to be my lifeline.
Speaking of getting the gang together in a socially responsible way, we quizzed the GamesRadar staff in our first virtual edition of Challenge Radar.