How a Game of Dungeons and Dragons Kept a Group of Friends Together for 38 Years and Counting

This blog was originally written by Jay McGinley on Satellite’s Blog.

The Connection Series highlights stories about people going to great lengths to keep their relationships intact.

Staying in touch is hard. We’ve all had friendships that slowly dissolved through no fault of either person. An avalanche of competing priorities and responsibilities comes tumbling down and because of that, checking in with our friends sadly gets put on the back burner. Put simply, life gets in the way. 

That’s why it’s always inspiring to hear a story about someone who found a unique way of cutting through the noise of everyday life to keep their friend group together. We first heard about this one from the podcast “Great Big Story” from CNN.

Robert Wardhaugh is a Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario. He is also the dungeon master of one of the longest-running games of Dungeons and Dragons the world has ever seen – 38 years and counting.

Call to Adventure

Our story starts in 1982. At the time, Wardhaugh was a teenager living in the small town of Borden which is in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. A friend of his had just learned about a relatively new game called Dungeons and Dragons and came over to tell him about it. To Wardhaugh, the game sounded incredible. As he writes on his website for the ongoing game, “I had always loved imagination, fantasy, history, and board games, and had a particular love for toy soldiers. D&D seemed to combine all of these.”

Soon after learning about it, he decided to start a campaign. Within a couple of months, he had recruited 6 friends to play. They pooled together their money to buy modules and odds and ends to get the game rolling. And like the fantastical in-game characters setting off on their quest, off they went in search of adventure.

Building the World

In high school, the friend group developed the campaign further. The players established their characters, developed family lines and the world began to grow. Pretty soon, the first set of characters began to meet their demise whether through some witch’s fatal spell or valiantly in a battle for the kingdom. Whenever a character would die or even retire, the player would take on the mantle of one of their children. At the end of high school, the campaign had already burned through two generations of characters.

History Meets Fantasy

The game began to grow exponentially once Wardhaugh moved on to college. New friends from college joined the game and lands were quickly added to the world to compensate for the influx of characters. Wardhaugh began to weave in many real-world historical events. Alternate versions of ancient civilizations like the Romans and the Celts started to pop up in the story. Wardhaugh’s love of history was starting to influence his storytelling.

During this time, the campaign zoomed through 230 years of in-game events, and some players adopted characters that represented the 10th generation of their family lines. The campaign had come a long way.

The First Test

But then, like an orc blocking the path forward,  the first test for this long-running game appeared. Wardhaugh moved to Winnipeg to start his Ph.D. in history leaving everyone else behind in Saskatoon. In a time before email, smartphones, and video chat, this represented a potentially fatal blow to the campaign as the players were now over an 8-hour drive away. Would anyone be willing to make that drive to keep the game going? 

Yes, it turns out. The distance couldn’t stop them as the players and Wardhaugh made the trek back and forth between the two cities several times a year. This was a testament to the quality of the campaign Wardhaugh had created as the dungeon master. And it was exactly what Wardhaugh strived to do. As he told CNN, “I knew early on that if I was able to create a game that was good enough, that they would keep coming. And that they would play with me, no matter where I was.”

Technology to the Rescue

Soon thereafter, technology began to make the game more convenient for everyone. Email gave them the ability to write player reports about each session told from the first-person perspective of one of the characters so that any players who missed the session would stay in the loop of world events. As Wardhaugh writes, “it provided a forum for people to remain in communication despite the distance and time between sessions.”

It’s About Staying In Touch

Nowadays, the campaign regularly has close to 60 players at a time from places as far-flung as Northern England. Wardhaugh lives in London, Ontario now and players still travel long distances to participate in in-person sessions. Meanwhile, technology in the form of video chat software has made the game even more accessible for those who are unable to travel.

Here we are – 38 years later – and the game continues. Looking back, Wardhaugh marvels at what he was able to accomplish. As he told CNN, “One of the greatest successes of my game has been the fact that it has fulfilled its ultimate objective, which is keeping my friend group together.” 

And that, my friends, is the power of a well-told story.

Check Out the Instagram Page

Check out pictures of the nearly 20,000 miniatures and terrains that have been built for the campaign over the years at the official Instagram page for the game, @the_gamend.