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Dungeons & Dragons organized play moves online with five months of scheduled events

Virtual D&D weekends start at $4, will be hosted by expert Dungeon Masters

Key art for Tales from the Yawning Portal, a campaign book for Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition. Image: Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Finding a regular game of Dungeons & Dragons can be a challenge, even under normal circumstances. Now, in the face of a protracted global pandemic, publisher Wizards of the Coast is moving its organized play program online. On Oct. 21, the publisher announced D&D Virtual Play Weekends, a series of monthly ticketed events that starts Nov. 13 and extend through March 2021. Entry starts at $4 for beginners, and tops out at $15 for a standard four-hour adventure.

Pulling the strings behind the scenes will be David Christ, founder of Baldman Games. He’s been formally running D&D events for Wizards since 2005. If you’ve played a game at a Gen Con or Penny Arcade Expo in the last 15 years, it’s likely because of him and his team. Baldman now also handles Wizards’ marquee annual event, D&D Celebration, which includes organized play for the public alongside new product releases and celebrity events.

D&D Virtual Play Weekends will be organized via Discord, and will require participants to sign on to a code of conduct to participate. Adventures will play out via video conference, and include enhancements from virtual tabletop platforms such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Other than that, it should feel just like sitting down to play D&D at a convention.

“What I’ve done over the last 15 years is I’ve turned the D&D presence at all of these various big shows into self-sustaining units,” Christ told Polygon in a Discord interview last week. “At Gen Con, we’ll run 10,000 people through a game and I’ll have almost 200 DMs working for me, without any backing from anybody other than ourselves.”

The cover of the new Pathfinder Core Rulebook shows heroes fighting against an ancient red dragon, which is bursting through the side of a decrepit castle. Flames fill the frame, while a female cleric with an exotic sword casts a spell through a holy reli
D&D isn’t the only game in town when it comes to organized play. Paizo, which still maintains a large present on the convention circuit, also offers online games through the Pathfinder Society and the Starfinder Society.
Image: Paizo

Christ’s work allows WotC to focus on what it does best — produce new rules and adventures — while in-person organized play gets the attention it deserves. That includes carrying the torch for the D&D Adventurers League, a linked series of adventures that takes place all over the world. These virtual weekends have the opportunity to open up these kind of in-person events to a much larger audience, which will be able to sink its teeth into Baldman’s back catalog of original content.

“Due to the fact that we run so many shows, we actually publish a massive amount of Adventurers League content ourselves,” Christ said. “We currently have a three-year arc that’s going to be wrapping up in February that’s going to encompass some 250 hours, or 64 adventures’ worth of content.”

What makes Baldman’s adventures unique is that they’re not just based on the free-to-play version of D&D. His team is actually able to craft narratives that are canonically part of the D&D multiverse.

“Due to our relationship that we have with Wizards, we requested and they gave us the Moonshae Isles,” Christ continued, referring to a region of the world of Faerûn created by Ed Greenwood. “We actually are allowed to write stories and basically change history in that section of the Forgotten Realms.”

Opening up D&D organized play — which will include Adventurers League and non-Adventurers League content — creates a number of logistical hurdles for Christ and his team. First and foremost is keeping players safe at the table. The core group of DMs will drawn from members of the Herald’s Guild, which is a group of highly experienced players who have worked with Baldman in the past. Christ says not only are they some of the best DMs around, with a working knowledge virtual tabletops, they’re also highly vetted.

“Everybody that we have has gone through a background check,” Christ said. “If they don’t pass, they’re not sitting at the table. [...] I’ve known these people one, two, some of them 15, 20 years. I know that they’re good people. But, even with that, I’ve still background checked every one of them.”

What about bad actors on the player side of the table? Virtual events like this year’s D&D Celebration have taught Christ and his team a thing or two about maintaining order. But they’ve found that the biggest failsafe appears to be the cost of a ticket itself.

“The simple act of charging for an event reduces the number of bad actors we have significantly,” Christ said. “It’s very easy to create an account, grab a freebie ticket, and go to a table and be a butthead. That’s simple. When you actually have to put your credit card in to pay $4, when there’s some traceability back to who you really are, it makes people a little bit more hesitant to be that person.”

The only question now is how many players are going to show up.

“Are we gonna run 150 tables? Or are we gonna run 550 tables?” Christ said. “I really, really don’t know. It’s kind of hedging the bets a bit. We’re going to be prepared for an onslaught, but be ready to kind of scale back if that onslaught doesn’t happen.”

Registration opens Nov. 2 at The Yawning Portal — a new website named after the tavern in the fictional city of Waterdeep.