Saturday, August 12, 2017

Livestreamed Storytelling: The Fanbases of 'D&D'

With the continued popularity of “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube and gamers streaming their activity on Twitch, it only makes sense that tabletop games followed and brought with them a steadily growing community. If you walk into a game store and ask where the tabletop materials are, you’ll probably be met with a sweeping gesture that includes the entire store. Board games fall under the “tabletop” umbrella, so sometimes you have to get specific and mention games like Dungeons and Dragons or Werewolf: the Apocalypse, which are considered tabletop RPGs. While there are gamers streaming games like Slash, Uno, and yes even Monopoly, those are much less common than tabletop RPGs. Perhaps the renaissance in tabletop RPGs is in part because of the success these streaming channels have brought. The storytelling is different in tabletop: it relies on communal input, chance, luck, and good company. The narratives can be linear, out of order, rambling, or self contained. It’s all up to the game masters, players, and the number on the dice. It’s a different way of experiencing the narrative media that’s a part of everyday life, and the community that has grown out of this phenomenon is incredible.

An added bonus of the plethora of tabletop RPG streams means that people can satiate their curiosity about the games without having to seek out a local or unfamiliar game store. Tuning in to weekly games takes away the initial intimidation that can be felt by those who always heard terrible things about these games but weren't quite sure if the rumors were true (spoiler alert: they aren't). From watching, you can learn the basic mechanics, enjoy the stories the way you would your favorite television show, and maybe you'll eventually gather your friends and create your own game. Some of the more notable tabletop RPG video streams are Dungeons and Dragons games. These include Critical Role; Dice, Camera, Action; and Heroes and Halfwits. The draw of these shows is partly the pre-existing fanbases and partly the camaraderie of the players and their interactions with audiences.

Critical Role is helmed by accomplished voice actor Matthew Mercer and features “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors [who] sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons.” The story is sweeping and crosses continents, numerous guest players, and world-shattering events. It hit the beginning of its final arc early this year. It’s by far the longest show, with over 100 episodes that run from three to almost six hours. The show streams weekly on Twitch, and its long-running time slot has allowed the coining of the phrase, “Is it Thursday yet?” Past episodes can be found on Geek and Sundry, while live games are streamed Thursdays at 7 PST. The group is planning a new campaign once the current one ends, whenever that happens.

Dice, Camera, Action takes popular streamers and YouTubers like Holly Conrad and Anna Prosser Robinson and pairs them with Chris Perkins, the ultimate Game Master. Chris is also one of the people involved with expanding D&D content, as he works for Wizards of the Coast. Thus, the show is a way to showcase the new story modules Game Masters can use in their campaigns. DCA starts with the Curse of Strahd storyline that was released in 2016 and moves on to follow other prewritten modules. It streams Tuesdays at 4 PST on Twitch, and is later uploaded to YouTube for those who aren’t subscribed for the Video On Demand.

Heroes and Halfwits comes out of Rooster Teeth and Achievement Hunter, both part of a popular production company that is built around gaming. You don’t even have to understand the rules or be knowledgeable about the deep lore to be swept along in vivid and hilarious adventures, which revolve around a band of five enlisted soldiers. It has fewer episodes than DCA or Critical Role do, which makes catching up a tad easier. This is a pre-recorded D&D show (so it is not live streamed), and it's released on YouTube and the Achievement Hunter/Rooster Teeth website bi-weekly. Currently it is taking a break between seasons 2 and 3.

For those who prefer to listen to podcasts on their commute or otherwise, Godsfall and The Adventure Zone have established their place in D&D fandom. Godsfall is heavily edited to play more as a radio drama; there are sound effects and music to enhance the story, which is about a world where the gods rule no more and magic was lost until the intrepid adventurers stumbled upon teleportation. It’s a lot of fun with a lot of backstory, and while the beginning is a bit confusing with the introduction of characters, it’s well worth the listen, and is available on iTunes or the show’s website.

The Adventure Zone is also edited, since unlike the streamed games, it isn’t (usually) played live. The McElroy brothers of Maximum Fun and their dad play through a rules loose, comedic, basically sci-fi game of D&D. There’s a composed soundtrack of sorts to underscore the adventures as the three adventurers search for relics of great power. There are tons of laugh out loud moments as well as heart wrenching scenes. It’s also wrapping its final arc, with fans hoping they will start a new game afterward. TAZ is uploaded to iTunes every other Thursday, and can also be found on the Maximum Fun website.

Those who are overwhelmed with the hundreds of hours Critical Role has to catch up on can fear no more—they’ve begun to release episodes in podcast form. Heroes and Halfwits has also been releasing episodes this way on Podbean, which gives established fans and newcomers alike some options when it comes to how they want to experience the story.

Beyond the content and countless hours of imaginative world building, these and other tabletop RPG shows have welcomed a demographic that existed in the past but wasn’t seen: women. If there aren’t players that are women, there are complex, strong, and for all intents and purposes human women NPCs. Being able to see well-known women rolling dice and being open about their love of the game and nerdiness in general has opened the door for others who might have been too intimidated to join the community. Seeing women in their thirties gaming reminds people that you’re never too old to be a geek.

As the community grows, many fans are doing what they do best: creating content. Some of it is the usually expected art and writing, but others have begun detailing their own campaigns, the friends they met through dice, and even going so far as to record and upload their sessions as podcasts. It’s a huge community with enough niches for any person to find a show or three that they really enjoy, whether it’s the more well-known D&D or something a little more wild.

What are your favorite tabletop shows? Would you recommend any I missed?


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