Gaming In Remote Locations: The U.S. Navy

Navy Ships

As someone who only got into Dungeons & Dragons a year ago I found it difficult to find anyone else in Juneau Alaska who had experience playing D&D. Checking the internet was little to no help in finding a D&D group. I did however find the Penny Arcade/PvP/Wil Wheton podcasts by Wizards of the Coast to be very helpful for me in flushing out the game play early on.

Eventually I got five friends together and we decided to tackle the game and just address questions one by one as they came up. That has worked out very well. We all get together about once a week for an afternoon of gaming. We have played the same game we started out with a year ago. Of course we have had a player or two come and go, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast.

Living in a remote place like Juneau you tend to have to pay a little more for products. The only way in or out of Juneau is by plane or boat. I try to support local businesses whenever I can. The internet has been a real wallet saver when it comes to buying books and minis. has become a lot of local people’s friend.

When I lived in Washington State my good friend and roommate Lyle Vogtmann, had shared a couple of stories with me about what it was like playing Dungeons & Dragons on a Navy ship. Lyle, had previously served for the United States Navy for 8 years, and every now and then I would get to hear a story about what it was like in the Navy. I asked him recently if he would not mind being interviewed over e-mail about his experience playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Navy. He was all to happy to recount his navel gaming days with me.

Youseph: What is it like playing on a Navy ship?

United States Department of the Navy SealLyle: Luckily I wasn’t stationed on a ship, but part of a squadron that deployed with a carrier.  That meant I didn’t have to live on board ship my whole time in the Navy, just when the air wing deployed.  One 6-month deployment preceded by a 2 month and then 2 week “workup” cruise every year and a half rotation.  I spent a total of about 2 years at sea in my 8 years on active duty.

Playing on board ship came with a few surprises and benefits.  A surprising number of players available, all with very predictable schedules.  There are no weekends when out at sea, everyone works every day, usually 12 or 13 hour shifts, and regardless of what job you had, the workload was pretty synchronous (tough busy day/night for an ordnanceman usually meant the boatswains were bushed too.)  When we’d pull in to port for shore leave, we’d all have a break at the same time (extra duty/watches not withstanding.)  So I’d say the best part about playing at sea… everyone involved usually showed up at the same time every week to play, no excuses.  If we had a rough week/night/day shift, it usually meant everybody else in the party was also beat, and we’d reschedule.

That afforded us the ability to do MASSIVE campaigns, our DMs would take turns (we had 3, though one, a Ryan Fuqua from Puyallup, WA, was the most imaginative and would come up with the most detailed and entertaining campaigns) and continue each weeks session from the last.  We got to play the same characters with the same party members together from level 1 to retiring them at the end of a 6 month cruise nearly at the level 20 cap.  (Christian D’Avenant, Lawful Good Cavalier, was the last character I played back than, I still remember the names and classes of our regular party members, even though I can’t remember everyone’s real life names!)

BattlematFinding people to play with, and places to play was the most interesting aspect of playing on board ship.  As always, DND players do tend to find each other one way or another.  Despite the massive size of an aircraft carrier, finding places to play was the difficult part.  We’d get chased out of berthing areas where people sleep in their off hours, playing in someone’s work shop wouldn’t work, as they were always manned with the current shift.  For a while we played up in the mezzanine of the hangar deck where empty airplane fuel pods were stored (wish I would have taken pictures… we had to climb a ladder 4 stories or so, and doing so while carrying our bags/briefcases full of manuals/dice/character sheets.  We looked like a geek Special Forces team moving to higher ground positions!)  That’s actually how we found a few of our players, seeing a group of geeks trying to find a place to congregate drew attention, sometimes from people interested in playing, others chasing us away from their stored equipment (DND geek persecution if you asked us back then.)  Sometimes we’d get lucky and one of the sponsons would be unused… wind would force us to hold our character sheets/papers to keep them from blowing away, and rolling dice might result in it going overboard, but man, fresh sea air and a view of the horizon made for a great setting for gaming.

The group I played with (and there were a few regular groups, we’d see them playing in the same spots we used, but at different times) all worked nights, so we would usually get together every Wednesday morning (I think, can’t remember for sure now) and play after our shifts for about 4 hours before having to sleep a few hours before our next shifts began.  It’s hard to believe we could stay up for so long after working 13 hours, but we were all strapping young healthy Marines and Squids with a passion for gaming.  It was our escape from the hard work and sometimes monotonous schedule.

Youseph: Did everyone have their own books and dice or did you all share?

Lyle: We’d share.  Most everybody had their own dice at least, but storage space for personal effects on board ship is very limited, so most people left their manuals at home.  Ryan (the DM I mentioned earlier) however, had a whole briefcase stuffed to capacity with monster manuals, dm guide, pencils, papers, maps… he even had catalogs from replica weapons makers (SCA sort of stuff) that he would use to illustrate what weapons we would find as loot.  (i.e. You take the slain knights bastard sword as a trophy from the battle… here, this is what it looks like and it does 2d6 damage, pointing to one of the swords in the catalogue.)

Youseph: How hard was it to get new D&D supplies?

Lyle: Isn’t that the greatest thing about D&D?  All you really need is your imagination, pencil/paper, a few dice, a group of friends, and a DM with a penchant for story telling!  While that’s true, we would make an effort to “stock up” prior to shipping out.  We could mail order things, but running out of supplies was never an issue.  Someone would have the DM/Player guides and dice, and that was pretty much all we needed.

Having said that though, I’d like to mention that we also played a fair bit of Magic: The Gathering back then.  THAT game needed new supplies (cards) to keep things interesting.  We’d play against the same people, with the same decks so often, it became predictable. Lucky for us, an enterprising shipmate was also a part owner of a comic/gaming shop in the ships home port of Norfolk, VA.  He’d have large boxes of cards shipped out to him on a regular basis, and he’d run a kind of comic shop out of his bunk!  Seriously, the guy had a couple unused bunks in his berthing area, FILLED with unopened display boxes of Magic cards, comic books, DND books…  I’ll bet he made more money at sea than back at his shop in Norfolk.

Youseph: What version of D&D did you play?

Lyle: Version 3.5.  (IIRC, I know for a fact we used the old THAC0 combat system, so whatever version that was.)  I think version 4 was still very new then, so we all didn’t have the new books.  I remember one guy did, and he really liked the new spell points system, so we let him use that when it wasn’t too confusing.  We really concentrated more on the story vs. combat/rules.

Youseph: What was your rank in the Navy?

Lyle: Petty Officer 2nd class.  Though I didn’t hit that rank until right before the end of my first 4 year enlistment.  After that I transferred to NAS Whidbey, and didn’t pick up another steady D&D game.  So while I was playing D&D I was a Petty Officer Third Class (first real rank above airman.)  We were all about the same rank (players in our group).  That’s pretty common in the Navy (I think), to hang out with people from the same rank.  Higher ranks hanging out with lower wasn’t exactly frowned upon, but if there ever was any trouble, the highest rank person would be blamed/taken to task.

Thank you Lyle for taking the time out of your day to be interviewed. I hope our readers enjoy your story as much as I did.

If your in a remote location and into RPG or table top gaming and would like to be interviewed about your experiences, drop me a line.