As promised last week, I’ll be taking a closer look at the myriad online roleplaying game programs that I enjoy to offer some reviews and analysis as well as any tips or pitfalls therein. The criteria for me as a gamer, fan, audience member and for the purposes of this series are the entertainment value and the takeaways I can bring back to my own game group.
Most of these shows (okay, all of them on my initial list) are Dungeons & Dragons games. In keeping with that spirit, I’ll rate where each program has a Success or Failure along with where it scores a Critical Hit or a Critical Fail, and wrap up with a Perception Check for miscellaneous observations and standouts as a viewer.
Let’s start this series off with the newest streamed program on the interwebs, Acquisitions Incorporated: The C Team. As an extension of Penny Arcade’s incredibly popular Acquistions Incorporated D&D game, this spinoff series is broadcast every Thursday from 3:30-6:30 p.m. PST on Twitch. The premise of the show is that the characters, played by Kate Welch, Kris Straub, Amy Falcone and Ryan Hartman, were selected as franchisees of Acq Inc. by the eponymous adventuring company’s CEO Omin Dran. Dungeon Master Jerry Holkins oversees their adventures as they traverse the application process and segue into establishing themselves as bona fide adventurers in the Dessarin Valley of Faerun, part of the official 5th edition D&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I imagine that, as a longtime D&D player himself, this opportunity for Holkins to further cement his indelible mark in the canon of Dungeons & Dragons is beyond his wildest geek dreams. His character Omin Dran is, after all, already a Masked Lord of Waterdeep in the annals of the Forgotten Realms lore.
With three episodes under their belt, the players have already brought their adventures to vibrant life. In addition to providing great entertainment, they’ve demonstrated several gaming methods that I’m definitely bringing back to my D&D table. They’re also terrific roleplayers who do a great job giving their characters distinct voices and perspectives within the game world. There is definitely value for viewers to incorporate into their own games. The selection of players is an excellent mix of experience levels, too. First-time roleplaying game players make a fantastic addition to any gaming group, bringing a perspective that can sometimes become lost on experienced gamers.
C Team – Successes
Each session begins with the DM providing a recap of the previous session. This is vitally important for the audience, who may be watching for the first time. Any single episode might be someone’s jumping on point, so providing a brief summary of what has gone before fosters inclusivity. It also sets the stage for the session to proceed. Players are keyed into the important parts of what has come before. This helps to mentally prepare them for going ahead with the adventure.
For your home game, this is a terrific practice as well. Taking a few minutes for the GM to rehash the adventure thus far refreshes the players’ memories and serves as a great way to get the session started in earnest. Whether your group meets regularly, sporadically or has several campaigns going at once, a recap sets the scene for the players and aids in immersion. If you’re looking to take this a step further for your own game, try writing up a narrative version of your adventures between sessions. This is a great practice for both GMs and players to share with each other. Sometimes in the midst of a gaming session, the drama of the situation can get muddled or lost between dice rolls and damage calculations. It’s also fascinating for a GM to have insight into what the players found noteworthy, whether it’s an NPC they took a shine to, what they think is a clue to a greater mystery or a potential hook they want to explore later.
The After Hours segment of the show is, like the recap, another positive addition to the session. If the recap is a valuable tool for the players, After Hours is beneficial for the GM. The group decides on an MVP for each episode, which gives the GM insight into what the players think are the high points of the session. Along these same lines, the group discusses what was fun about the game, things that might have been confusing and generally if they had a good time. The segment is a nice decompression moment from the gaming session and a chance to reflect when the adventure is still fresh in everyone’s minds.
These discussions are absolutely a great thing to bring to your home game. Roleplaying games are a group activity, and sharing feedback between the GM and players helps ensure the game continues to be fun for everyone involved. It’s also extremely useful for the GM in creating adventures. Knowing what the players enjoy and what they found most interesting guides adventure creation so that everyone at the table experiences facets that capture their imagination. By that same token, knowing what the players didn’t enjoy helps GMs to avoid including aspects of an adventure that fall flat at the table, or recognize elements that might need more attention going forward.
Viewers with tabletop roleplaying game experience may notice the distinct lack of miniatures and maps, as well. The show has so far employed the Theatre of the Mind approach to gaming. I’m counting this as a success for two reasons. The first is that theatre of the mind is my preferred method of running games. It engages the imagination more and helps cut down on the length of combat, which already takes up quite a bit of time. The second reason is it adds a whole other layer to streamed games that’s clunky to film and manipulate. I’m sure that as this burgeoning form of entertainment continues to evolve and grow, new innovations in adding this element will emerge. But for now, it’s probably wise to leave it aside unless there’s a compelling reason backed up by a technically-sound method for presenting it to the audience.
Holkins’ descriptive narrative tends to be a little long. On the one hand, his verbose and flowery speech does an excellent job of setting the scene. On the other, it can drag on a bit.
There is a segment in episode one where he talks for almost nine minutes, broken by a couple of very brief player interactions. By the most recent installment, episode three, this has mellowed. I’m going to attribute this to player growth, as the players become more familiar and comfortable with each other and their characters at the table. Nevertheless, DM-speak strays into lengthy segments here and there and I find myself distracted. I want to hear how the players react to things. A few times it seemed like Holkins got slightly flustered when players interrupted with their characters’ words and actions.
Far and away, the best aspect of the show is the innovative ways it engages with the audience. Viewers can make donations and when different thresholds are reached, players and the DM gain certain in-game bonuses. For example, players can gain tokens they can cash in to give themselves advantage on a roll, or access predetermined special abilities for their character like a recharge of the dragonborn character’s breath weapon, an augury-like effect for the warlock or the druid’s power to summon “forest friends.”
As both a fan of streamed roleplaying games as well as an upcoming participant in them, it’s fascinating to see new and innovative ways to build and interact with communities that grow around these games.
An honorable mention goes to the show’s intro, too. Kris Straub’s terrific illustrations paired with the ’80s video game-inspired musical score and clever lyrics almost certainly penned by Tycho Brahe makes for an incredibly catchy tune to kick off each episode.
Technical difficulties aren’t doing the show any favors. While certainly not keeping me from watching, I am surprised by some of the stumbles the show has experienced. The first episode had the name cards beneath the players mixed up at first, and the character sheet graphics are a bit inconsistent.
The first and second episodes also had an audio hiccup whenever the camera changed, as well.
Episode three was plagued by several instances of the stream crashing, which ultimately went down before the show ended (I think … I gave up after a while). Thankfully, episode three is available in its entirety both on HyperRPG’s Twitch channel and Penny Arcade’s YouTube channel. The trubs encountered in episode three were due to Twitch server issues, and I’m sure the cast and crew of the show were more frustrated than any of their audience.
Despite all this, I’m confident the series will smooth out all of their technical problems as they progress.
- Just like at a home gaming table, group composition is important for any party of adventurers. All of the players are friends outside of the game and it shows. It takes a certain comfort level to participate in tabletop roleplaying games, compounded by the fact that cameras are broadcasting your game to thousands of viewers live. Kudos to this group for sharing their experiences with us. Along those same lines, I am overjoyed to see the group includes a new D&D player. Ryan Hartman (Donaar Blit’zen the dragonborn paladin) brings the new player perspective to the table that I love having in my own games. New players are the best!
- The more I see games with warlock characters or run my own home game with one of my players playing a warlock, the more I fall in love with this class as a DM. There’s just something about warlocks that lends itself to injecting a lot of unusual circumstances into a campaign. Warlocks are DM gold!
- It’s all about the characters. Rosie Beestinger, the 120-year-old halfling grandmother and way of the shadow monk; K’thriss Drow’b the drow Great Old One pact warlock; Walnut Dankgrass the rabid wood elf druid and Donaar Blit’zen in just three episodes have each had ample opportunities to use all of the characters’ skills and abilities. Moreover, they’ve gelled as a group and individually as well, developing distinct personalities and perspectives almost even before episode one was half over.
I’m 100 percent confident this series will overcome the technical stumbles and continue to grow and evolve into a great show. The cast and crew are clearly passionate about games and gaming culture, as well as innovators in community-building. Most importantly, they clearly have a ton of fun playing games together and I’m very happy they choose to share their experiences with us.