How can your game go wrong when the lead story designer for the team behind creating Dungeons & Dragons runs the campaign? In “Dice, Camera, Action,” Wizards of the Coast’s Chris Perkins leads a core party of adventurers along with several guest players through a live streaming season of the official published campaign Curse of Strahd in season one. The second season continues the party’s adventures with Storm King’s Thunder.
Core group members are Commander Holly Conrad, Anna Prosser Robinson, (Pro)Jared Knabenbauer and Nathan Sharp. Their characters respectively, Strix the tiefling sorcerer, Evelyn the human paladin, Diath the human rogue and Paultin the human bard, are brought to life during the show, which is live streamed Tuesdays at 4 p.m. PST on Wizards of the Coast’s Twitch channel, uploaded to WotC’s YouTube channel the following day.
In the grand tradition of this column and the spirit of D&D, I’ll look at where “Dice, Camera, Action” scores a Success or Failure along with where it lands a Critical Hit or suffers a Critical Fail, with an extra Perception Check to notice hidden details or make closer observations.
Chris Perkins’ DMing style is top notch, not surprisingly. He strikes an excellent balance when it comes to juggling the various DM duties like portraying NPCs and prompting and adjudicating character action. Letting players explain what they’d like their characters to do and interpreting that information through the rules and how it relates to the adventure is the heart of a DM’s job, and Perkins does a terrific job in that regard.
DMs can certainly learn a lot by watching how Perkins runs the game. When it comes to NPCs, there’s two key tips to pick up on. First is that each has a particular detail that identifies them for players right away. It could be an accent or a verbal tic like the one that identifies the different dwarven clans, or a visual cue like describing the way an NPC walks. These aren’t voice actor quality performances, setting a high bar for GMs, and Perkins would be the first to admit to that. It’s encouraging to see someone put themselves out there and set an example for their players to try adding this kind of flavor even if you’re not an experienced actor.
The second thing to note regarding NPCs is the clear focus on their goals and motivations that drive their words and actions. This is something experienced GMs hone over time, as Nerdarchist Dave shows in his games as well. Knowing what drives the NPC makes it much easier to respond to player interaction with them. There’s a reason certain NPCs exist in your game, and keeping their motivations simple means the interaction won’t get bogged down or confusing for players, and help drive the adventure forward.
DCA has welcomed a lot of different guest players throughout seasons one and two. It’s a lot of fun to see different characters join and leave the party for their adventures. Often the guest players will play as creatures out of the Monster Manual. The way guest players are inserted into the story is a great tip for GMs, too. Perkins does a terrific job inserting them into the adventure, and giving them monster-type creatures to play it saves time in constructing leveled-up standard characters while letting them use lots of cool abilities.
From the players’ standpoint, DCA delivers on one of the hallmarks of RPG adventuring not long into the first episode – naming the adventuring party. The group comes up with the name Waffle Crew about 22 minutes into the first episode, while discussing what adventuring activities they were up to before the Mists of Ravenloft swallowed them up. Commander Holly, as Strix, mentions searching for waffles and Anna Prosser Robinson dubs them the Waffle Crew.
“Don’t let that become your name, please,” comes the priceless reaction from Perkins. And here we are 40-something episodes later with the Waffle Crew still going strong. They’ve got the hashtag, the subreddit, fan art and cosplay. All from a throwaway line that came out organically before the epic quests even began in earnest.
And yes, they eventually did get to eat waffles (the crispy griddle cake, not their baby owlbear pet).
Dice, Camera, Action includes an opportunity for viewers to donate to Extra Life, a charitable organization that mobilizes gamers to help raise funds for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. A tracker during the live stream shows how much is raised throughout each episode. To my knowledge, though, there isn’t much attention drawn to it. It’s an oversight on the production not to advertise this more. Taking a moment at the beginning of each stream to mention Extra Life and the contributions viewers can make would raise help raise awareness.
The lack of bells and whistles, coming from a show produced by the very caretakers of D&D themselves, speaks to what it most appealing about the hobby. Handouts for players, miniatures, maps, battle grids, mood music and endless other forms of accoutrements to enhance the RPG experience are terrific and can certainly become worthy inclusions to the tabletop RPG experience.
However, a group of players really only needs paper, pencils, dice, the rules and their imaginations to have a great time creating fantastic adventures together. Not long ago, Wizards of the Coast put out a question to the community along the lines of what helps make an RPG experience great, and a large percentage of responses indicated vivid description around the table. Perhaps as a result of that question, the DCA players began to not only describe their own characters more colorfully but also to prompt each other to do the same.
This kind of collaborative description is absolutely a fantastic tool to bring to your home game, for players and GMs alike. As a GM, you can lead by example. A habit that many GMs fall into is overly-long descriptions and narrations, whether while setting the stage or describing a combat scenario. Instead, try throwing it to the players. Unless key features of the description are part of the adventure, like environmental details that contain clues for observant players to pick up on, let them describe the wilderness they’re traveling through, how their character survived the dragon’s breath or the sights, sounds and smells of the spell they cast. If you’re lucky, the players might begin prompting each other for more description, giving them greater agency and contributing to bringing the world to life.
Dice, Camera, Action can stray towards being frenetic in terms of pacing. The story and action move along at a brisk clip. To the players’ credit, they roll with things good-naturedly but for my taste I enjoy a slower ride.
The larger picture that emerges from the quick progression of the game is that it often leads to poor or rash decision on the players’ part. More than once the group takes actions that are questionable, leading to many near-death experiences or generally plunging them into greater peril. On the one hand, getting into hot water is built into the fabric of D&D and RPGs in general. But on the other, taking a little time to think things through more thoroughly helps to mitigate that.
Perhaps it is by design; Perkins has mentioned that he enjoys the shorter game sessions in DCA so it could be something of a behind-the-scenes directive to keep things moving along. For the audience, especially since the demographic consists primarily of gamers I’d imagine, it would be nice to see the party have a bit more time to interact with each other. At a gaming table, there’s typically time that exists somewhere between the real-time action in the game world and out-of-game player discussion, and some more of that could be beneficial to the adventures.
- Nathan Sharp/Paultin is absent quite often, and in earlier episodes is very quiet compared to the other players. The former is a common occurrence at my gaming table, and Perkins handles it much the same way – by handwaving it for the most part. It happens, and it’s better to gloss over player/character absence than try to awkwardly come up with a detailed reason. As for the latter, I can certainly relate to that. Playing live streaming RPGs is a new experience for me, in Nerdarchy’s Aether Skies game, and it’s a learning curve to figure out when to talk. You don’t want to interrupt people the same way you might in a private home game. Like Nathan Sharp, I hope to learn the ropes as well as get a better handle on my character in time.
- Guests playing as monsters that aid the party is fantastic. Since they only stick around for a session or two, this is a great idea for fun, interesting characters to play without the need for leveled-up character building. Also, who wouldn’t want to try their hand playing a dryad, frost giant, wereraven or other monstrous creature once in a while?
- The one-shot episode where the Waffle Crew played as their pets was a fun side adventure that tied into the PCs’ quest. In their adventures they’ve picked up a number of critters and it was a cool way to put them in the spotlight.
- It’s interesting to watch how Perkins runs two published campaigns that he had a large hand in creating. This is a great example of how the players direct the action. Both Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder hit the high points of the respective campaigns, but events play out quite differently than if the campaigns were railroaded.