There is no disputing that tabletop role-playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, are more popular than ever before. While still a niche hobby, that niche has grown considerably large, and the perception of it has shifted as well.
The moment when I realized how great a step forward the role-playing game hobby has taken occurred not too long ago. My gaming group musters at a coffee shop, hauling our books, dice, pencils and accouterments to a private room in the back. From 4-10 p.m., our group of middle-aged nerds leave jobs, families and other responsibilities aside to step into a fantastical world of make-believe. During one of our gatherings, I went to get a cup of coffee and the teen-aged girl barista asked me if I was with the group in the back, and if we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. I said yep, I’m the Dungeon Master.
“Super cool,” she said.
A small thing to say, the words themselves far from profound, but they had a profound impact on me. How far we’ve come, I thought, from what was once a hobby that would draw sidelong glances to a time now when teen-aged girls think it’s cool that grown-ups old enough to be her parents were playing D&D in public.
Old-time gamers recall the era of Satanic Panic, when D&D was infamous, edgy and, while permeated throughout popular culture, remained something the uninitiated were hesitant to touch even with a ten foot pole (an item which, of course, every adventuring party had in their inventory). These days, being a tabletop role-playing gamer no longer holds the same stigma.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to this paradigm shift can be attributed to our ubiquitous online world of expansive communications technology and platforms. Certainly not limited to only gamers, technology has allowed niche hobbyists the ability to connect with each other across the globe and foster communities whose reach exceeds far afield.
Role-playing games as a spectator event
For some a hot button issue, the concept of sharing a group’s role-playing game sessions has developed immensely in the last few years alongside new technologies. What began with podcasts has grown to include live and recorded games on YouTube, Twitch and similar video platforms. In September 2016, D&D fans filled movie theaters with chants of “Green Flame!” when Acquisitions Incorporated was broadcast live in partnership with Fathom Events. Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role exploded in popularity. There are hundreds – maybe even thousands – of streaming games to watch or listen to online. A significant portion of the recently-launched Alpha subscription-based VOD service centers on TTRPGs. And of course, Nerdarchy has a large selection of live game play videos and continues to live stream regular games as well as share recorded sessions.
Gamers and non-gamers alike have proven there is indeed an audience for watching or listening to tabletop gaming – initially as much a surprise to the participants as anyone else. During the intervening years, however, those audiences have blossomed immensely.
The reasons behind this popular trend are myriad, but the heart of it lies in the core of the games people play. No one – including the Gamemaster – knows how the game and its story will unfold, and watching alongside the players provides a sense of inclusion and discovery unlike scripted entertainment.
What there is to gain from watching role-playing gaming
As a full-time nerd in a part-time world, role-playing games as a spectator event serve several functions. First among them is scratching that itch to keep my love of gaming alive. A career in newspaper design is second-shift by nature and without set days off, coupled with gamer friends who also have erratic schedules compounded by families, makes time for gaming scarce. Following along with the adventures of Acquisitions Incorporated, Vox Machina, the Waffle Crew, the Company of the N.A.G. and the like helps to satisfy the dearth of opportunities to engage in role-playing games myself.
Exposure to a variety of gamers benefits the times when I can do some gaming of my own, too. Seeing how other GMs and players run their games is a huge help. Watching how other GMs handle pacing and description, ways they engage their players and the different quirks and techniques they employ at the table have definitely been useful to me as a both a GM and player. One of the simplest and most useful of these observations is that the GM spends a lot more time listening to the players talk to each other than they do talking to the players. This makes sense purely as a result of the ratio of players to GMs – all things being equal, the players will spend more time talking than the single GM – but also illustrates the collaborative nature of RPGs. The GM throws out a tantalizing hook, lets the players run with it, and spends the majority of the rest of the time responding to player actions or nudging them along with questions.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, watching game sessions is fun! It’s entertainment, after all. As arguably the flagship of spectator gaming, Critical Role has been both praised and lambasted for a cast and crew of professional actors who may be unintentionally setting a high bar for more mundane gamers. “How are ‘regular people’ supposed to compete with this in their home games?” is a common criticism. To this I say, you’re not. Role-playing games themselves are not a competitive pastime, and neither should the meta-environment between tables be. There is only one rule that all TTRPGs follow, and if you’re following the rule at your table, then there’s no harm to be had from watching another group that might play differently than yours. At the end of the day, the results are the same. Humor, drama, action and excitement are part and parcel of any role-playing game, and there’s ample opportunity to discover these elements right alongside other players and GMs.
What comes next?
When it comes to online games and spectator gaming, I am certainly excited to find out what the next development will be. Innovations in audience participation are developing more as this entertainment market grows, and it will be intriguing to see what directions this will take. In fact, Nerdarchy is planning a live game of Open Legend featuring Nerdarchist Dave as the Gamemaster and several Nerdarchy staff as players (including me!). We are super pumped about delving into this new game and looking for ways to involve the audience and fans. One of those ways is a poll where people can vote on what the genre for our game will be.
Stop back the following few weeks when I’ll be reviewing and analyzing some of my favorite RPG programs for their entertainment value as well as gaming tips and tricks. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite RPG programs? Please share in the comments and, of course, stay nerdy!