July 9, 2021
by Ashley May ('21)
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many obstacles for interaction while highlighting a desire for connection. Many were unable to meet with friends or continue participating in group activities, leaving students like Jake Kirkwood (’23) and Brooke Scudder (’23) without a dedicated Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) group. When the US entered the thick of the pandemic—and getting together for gaming felt impossible—Jake and Brooke decided to create Board with Friends (BWF), a club that brings tabletop gamers together in a virtual environment. The club utilizes a Discord channel and Zoom to communicate, as well as Roll20, a virtual tabletop platform. Roll20 connects remote players through video chat and shares a virtual version of a board game or map, allowing players to move tokens or roll dice. The platform helped the club seamlessly transition from playing in person to a remote environment.
“Playing online isn't very difficult, since Roll20 has camera and audio options,” Brooke says. “Our group does use Zoom because one member's computer can't run the Roll20 camera and audio. It doesn't make playing any more challenging.” As someone new to the club’s D&D group, Brooke says her experience in the tabletop community is open and “easy to get into playing and have fun with.”
Over the past several years, a game once considered "nerdy" or, as Jake, president of Board with Friends (BWF), jokes "for basement-dwelling, sweaty kids," has grown into something more significant than a tabletop role-playing game (RPG).
"D&D picked up a lot. I think that's because people started to turn into themselves and tried to escape this terrible world we were in,” Jake says. “We were hoping to get a self-sustaining community of players that can reach out to each other, be comfortable, and play games that they love."
Board with Friends acts as a liaison for people who enjoy tabletop games and want to find other players. Club members virtually play tabletop RPGs, card games, board games, and even chess. All students, faculty, staff, and alums are welcome and may introduce a game that doesn't have a previously established group.
The club rose out of a group of students previously enrolled in Dr. Chris LeCluyse's May Term course Roleplaying Games in Society. Chris, faculty advisor of Board with Friends, supported students by running games as a referee or dungeon master (DM) and, eventually, helped establish the club in November of 2020.
Tabletop games and RPGs, more specifically, are not only recreational. Through tabletop RPGs, players can navigate a world where they can freely experiment with different personalities or express their sexuality, gender identity, or racial identity.
"It's playing around with ideas and creativity and telling a story with your friends that is the most exciting part," Jake says. "Channeling little bits of you into this fantasy world is an excellent way to escape from something that you may be struggling with. With COVID-19, that's a huge part of why D&D is so big now because people can step away from the pandemic in some way."
Brooke, who serves as the vice president of Board with Friends, enjoys focusing on one character. “My first character is basically me with magical powers. I don't really try to be different from how I would react in a situation,” she says. “It's about creating, playing, and rolling dice to see if you do something disastrously."
Though RPGs offer a form of escape, they also help provide a perspective on reality. "People who study tabletop RPGs talk a lot about how, through that escape, you achieve an outside vantage point that allows you to look back on daily life in a new way," Chris says. "It's a way to try to empathize with identities that are different from those in our daily life."
With the historical and political state of the US oppressing marginalized groups, communal spaces like Board with Friends are necessary for escapism and dealing with internal struggles. Chris says that, although some games still struggle with representation and mark non-European as monstrous, BWFs' dedication to maintaining a safe space for everyone is a part of their club constitution.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy on any harassment or degradation against any person,” Jake says. “With our Discord, we hope that people will include their pronouns so we can recognize and be respectful. Everybody under the sun is welcome to join and encouraged to express themselves however they choose."
The club is also interested in introducing new games that explore social issues. Recently, Board with Friends held a fundraiser to donate extra copies of a RPG called Coyote and Crow to Native American nations in Utah. The game takes place in an imagined future where the Americas were never colonized. Most of the game's developers are Native, making it a fantastic contribution towards racial equity and representation in tabletop RPGs.
Board with Friends hopes to eventually host in-person events at Westminster College. Though the club is looking forward to rekindling with local board game stores, establishing game nights, and collaborating with other college departments like Student Disability Services, it will still offer remote options.
"We're interested in having beginner DM sessions. Or just having an open game night. We also want to get word out and push that it's whatever you want to do, game-wise,” Brooke says.
Jake adds, “We're a service for students to use to get together and play games. It's all for the students. We want to continue to build our community and, hopefully, have a good time."