In October of last year, itmeJP gathered together some of the best known names in the Dungeons & Dragons community and put them in a video call roundtable together to talk shop. Adam Koebel moderated the conversation between Matt Mercer, Mike Mearls, and Matt Colville. Topics ranged across many different aspects of the game: criticisms, advice for Dungeon Masters, why we play the game, and many more.
And as if one roundtable discussion with formidable pillars of the hobby wasn’t enough, on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018 they did it all over again. This time RollPlay hosted the discussion and Adam Koebel took part in the conversation. I highly suggest checking it out on JP’s YouTube channel if you’re at all interested in hearing both hilarity and insightful commentary on the game we love. And if you enjoyed the previous roundtable discussion, you’ll more than likely appreciate the direction they took for Part 2.
Roundtable topics of note
I won’t spoil the whole RollPlay discussion for you, but I’ve picked out a few salient points that are worth elaborating on. Most of these topics are developed in the context of streaming D&D, or other tabletop games, and how they change based on that context.
- Approaches to character death
- Advantages of being a small publisher of D&D content in today’s tabletop RPG community
- The importance of rules in the game and their role in the hobby as a whole
It sucks to lose a character. If you have an emotional connection with them or you’ve put a decent amount of time into creating them and interacting with the world as them, death of a character can be rough. But in the context of streamed content, games broadcast to a live audience, there’s an aura of mystique and morbid fascination with character death. It’s the classic situation of schadenfreude, pleasure derived from the suffering of another individual.
Why do we love Game of Thrones? Death of beloved characters and drama surrounding those deaths. The same thing holds for our investment in streamed D&D content. We might love the characters and connect with them, even identifying with them to some degree. But there’s always a little part of us that wants to see something bad happen to that character.
The group touches on this and addresses the weird situation that can occur when the audience is satisfied beyond belief (due to a character death, for instance) and the players themselves are miserable (because a character just died). Of course the reverse situation can also happen where the players are having a blast and the audience is bored out of their minds. Both of these instances present problems because there’s a dichotomy in expectation vs. reality.
But it’s a problem that can be fixed, according to Matt Mercer and Matt Colville, by not catering to the audience. In other words, taking the approach that Critical Role has in simply transplanting the game from the home location to the studio location. Not pandering to an audience means the DM is free to develop the narrative (something that is stressed to a heavy degree in this discussion) and if character death happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.
A nice addendum to this topic came at the suggestion of Matt Colville when he said he wanted to see mechanics for making character death heroic, memorable, awesome in some way. His on-the-spot example was some kind of heroic ability that would only be accessible if the character who possessed it was dying, or had died. I thought this was a great suggestion and it hammers home the point that character death, while gut-wrenching at times, can be worth remembering and makes for lasting stories. Of course that’s assuming the death was meaningful or humorous in the first place. But Colville’s suggestion of some kind of mechanic almost guarantees those conditions will be met.
A topic that was touched on briefly is the notion that right now, it’s a great time to be producing homebrewed content and releasing it via the various sites supporting it, like DriveThruRPG and Dungeon Master’s Guild. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: And we’ve got an exclusive coupon code for all those sites! DTRPG-Nerdarchy gives a one time 10 percent discount on digital product purchases of $10 or more.]
Adam makes a fantastic point that D&D has come full circle in supporting independent designers and publishers. Back at the game’s inception, there was licensed material put out by TSR, but more often than not, the settings many of us have a fondness for like Dark Sun and Birthright were independently developed and published out of someone’s basement. They’d put together ‘zines and ship them off to interested parties who wanted to run games in their settings or incorporate new and interesting adventures into existing campaigns.
Now, more than ever, we see the exact same thing going on. Online resources make homebrewing content and distributing it easier than printing materials and mailing them off to people who express interest. And, even better, Wizards of the Coast has Dungeon Master’s Guild explicitly supporting such endeavors to tailor our games to our ideal vision of how D&D should be run. All told, the hobby embraces the creativity of its community. And this is precisely why communities like Nerdarchy, RollPlay, WebDM, DawnforgedCast, and many others can exist and thrive in the modern era of tabletop roleplaying.
Rules and their roles
The final topic I believe bears mentioning is another small portion of the conversation, but it’s an important distinction between “rules as written” and “rules as interpreted.” This discussion came about in the roundtable because of a question regarding how much handholding should occur at the table: should the players know their characters inside and out, or should the DM seek to help players who don’t understand or can’t remember the rules? Almost unanimously, the answer was a resounding yes to the former question. The group agreed that if the party can streamline their understanding of the game as much as possible, then the game is more enjoyable as a whole.
There’s the caveat of new players, of course. New players who sit down at the table are not going to be as well-versed in the rules and mechanics as the more experienced players out there. So, clearly, efforts have to be made to help them understand. We don’t want the hobby turning into an elitist one where new people are turned away because they’re new and don’t understand the rules completely with no prior experience.
But both Matt Mercer and Matt Colville make the point that as the game progresses, our perception of the rules shift. And Koebel reinforces this by introducing the distinction I mentioned above. We have the rules as written in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook. They inform the baseline level of play, what’s allowed and how that gets put into play mechanically. But as the players advance in level, and as the interactions between their abilities and those of the rest of the party become more convoluted and less black and white, we edge into the territory of rules as interpreted.
Disputes often arise as a result of a misinterpretation, or a difference in perception of said rules. These conflicts can’t be avoided. But they require an understanding of the rules as written to resolve in a way that’s acceptable to everyone at the table.
It might seem like a semantic difference, but in practice, it makes perfect sense.
On the whole, the RollPlay roundtable discussion was well put together and the opinions and conversations were well reasoned. As you can imagine, if you get these people into a video call together, it’s going to be fruitful no matter how you slice it. The one drawback was the tone of the whole discussion was heavily aimed toward people who are thinking of streaming D&D. Much of the advice given was for that particular audience. But by the same token, the advice was punctuated by interludes where the participants waxed philosophic about D&D and the hobby as a whole. So I think it’s worth a watch just for those sage nuggets of wisdom from people who could be considered role models in the community. It was thought provoking and funny in equal measures. Just like a great session of D&D.
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