Critical Role and the Rise of D&D



  • edited November 2017
    Meanwhile, I keep exploring this new online D&D celebrity culture. It's totally fascinating, although much of it very foreign to me.

    Here's a perfect example. It's a video of a woman named Satine Phoenix (her stage name, since she started her career as an adult film star, but has now transitioned to doing celebrity appearance and fundraising D&D stuff, as well as art) giving tips about running a D&D game.

    It's pretty cool to see someone make such a transition into this field and to be making money doing it. I'm all for that. She runs another very well-received and popular D&D game which streams online called "Maze Arcana".

    However, the actual content leaves me fairly dissatisfied. I'm not saying it's all bad advice; just that it sounds like it's by people who see roleplaying as an entirely different activity than I do. The GM's job here is to provide a service, to entertain, and to try to give the players the best they can (much like the Matt Mercer video I linked to earlier, on preparing one-shots), because clearly the players can't fend for themselves.

    It's worth checking out if you're curious about what I mean; fascinating stuff. Notably, she begins the video by explaining that she, unfortunately, is NOT Matt Mercer (the fellow who ran Critical Role), but nevertheless has GMing experience and expertise...
  • If you're not sure what this whole thread is about or why it might appear strange and unfamiliar, I'd recommend seeing that last link I posted. It's a very new and distinct subculture which appears to be emerging here, which brings together old-fashioned traditional roleplaying practices (to a painful degree, in my opinion) with a sort of celebrity culture which suggest we should be admiring and emulating the cool people we see doing this stuff. An unusual mix that wasn't really part of "nerd culture" ever before (at least not in my lifetime).
  • edited November 2017
    Does anyone know if Critical Role is Illusionist to the point that Matt (the GM) will fudge dice roll results? For some reason, I think that he doesn’t fudge results, which I personally prefer because the stakes feel more real that way. Anyone, know?

  • edited November 2017
    Does anyone know if Critical Role is Illusionist to the point that Matt (the GM) will fudge dice roll results? For some reason, I think that he doesn’t fudge results, which I personally prefer because the stakes feel more real that way. Anyone, know?

    I'm not sure but I think the special Vin Diesel episode is heavily scripted. I mean Diesel rolls a crit just when they need it. Come on! :)

    Also, to double back to Paul_T:

    Diesel looks really nervous on the footage. Every time the spotlight is on him and he needs to decide what to do, he freezes a bit. Sometimes you can clearly see the fear of saying (doing) something uncool in his eyes. Usually he solves it with falling back to what he is confident about: speaking in deep voice.

    An actor who does have actual RPG experience is confused in front of a camera. Which I think tells a lot about the true nature of this new format.
  • Interesting stuff!


    I don't know, but fans of the show (like Matt Colville) say that he appears to move around content to make sure it shows up (e.g. put a certain encounter wherever the players end up going, that kind of stuff), but otherwise is quite free to adjust to the outcomes taking place. I'd be suprised if there was a way to find out for sure, though, unless he admits as much in an interview somewhere.

    Still, there are all kinds of structures in place in modern D&D and the culture surrounding it which all support an Illusionist or Participationist approach to play. You can see that in his "How to craft one-shots" video, above - he says he's open to players doing different things, but clearly he expects his planned plot to come through nevertheless.

    Some examples:

    1. Given the GM's level of prep (painting miniatures, making maps, preparing NPCs and handouts), the players (GM included) will gravitate towards revealing that prep, which means collaborating towards moving in those directions. "Where's the adventure? Let's go there," in other words.

    The characters don't have goals of their own; following "the plot" is the point of play, kind of like in a video game. (And it's possible that video game experience informs the players' approach here, too.)

    2. Many things in the adventures require a roll - noticing something, figuring something out, escaping a dangerous situation, etc. In all these cases, however, all the players get a roll. There are seven or eight players in this game. Because of "bounded accuracy", the odds of success are always reasonable. As you can figure out for yourself, that means that the rolls pretty much never fail. (Even assuming no character has the necessary skill and therefore odds of success are low - which is unlikely! with 7 characters someone will have the skills or abilities necessary - seven people rolling means your odds of failure are in the 0.1%-0.2% range. That's fifteen times less likely than rolling a natural 20!)

    3. This applies to combat, too. D&D combats tend to be either against large groups of weak monsters (where character abilities for mass damage and battlefield control allow them to rein havoc) or a single "boss" monster.

    Against a "boss" monster, things feel very scary. After all, the thing has way more hit points than any typical character, and can take someone down in a single hit!

    However, it only gets so many actions per round, which means that characters can be "killed", but never the whole party - usually, someone can run over and heal the downed character and then get back into the fight. Healing magic is ridiculously plentiful, from healing via short rests to potions, items, and healing spells, and it doesn't take long to reach high enough levels to having "bring back from the dead"-type magic.

    All this means that fights can *feel* scary ("That thing has HOW MANY hit points?!?") but very, very rarely if ever end in defeat for the PCs. So, the GM can pretty confidently plan those "setpiece" battles while still being confident that the PCs will advance through the plot.

    In the case of Critical Role, it sounds like at least one character died "for real". That character, however, was allowed to make a bargain with Death (or the Gods, or whoever) to return to life as a revenant and to complete their quest. (Whereupon they would die for good.)

    This is a perfect example of a subtler Illusionist or Participationist technique: we make it sound like the character "dies" twice (first, by falling in combat, and second when the "quest" is complete). Two defeats! However, of course, since "completing the quest" means the game ends, the character's actual death isn't really meaningful to the game. (The player gets to keep playing the character for the entire duration of the campaign, unchanged, after all.)

    If you want to run a game/story in this fashion, it's not too hard to arrange. It would be pretty difficult to accidentally create a threat which could wipe out all the characters at once, with no chance for rescue or resurrection. (Or so it seems to me; my D&D5 experience at this point is fairly limited.)

  • hamnacb,

    I just watched the D&Diesel episode you posted. I don't know if it's actually scripted, but those perfectly-timed criticals are strange, aren't they? On the other hand, the players seem to react to them quite authentically. (Then again, they're all actors!)

    (I also noticed how Vin Diesel was described as the one noticing the wraiths, even though he didn't have the highest roll! Could have been a mistake, though.)

    Although it's (lightly) edited, it's a perfect example of all the things I've been talking about so far:

    * The GM brings the "fun", narrates dramatic and spectacular events and descriptions. He's extremely good at it, and does some of his trademark voices and sound effects (although here it's less obvious how much of it is him, since sound effects are added to the video).

    * The players are along for the ride. They have no real goals or interests aside from following the plot.

    They roll dice and then sit in rapt attention to hear the GM's next brilliant bit of narration.

    * The rolls that are made - including the combats - have no real stakes, since the number of rolls means success is basically guaranteed.

    * The players contribute character voices and make basic decisions in combat. They have no real artistic or creative input into the game here. There is only one moment (two, if you count Diesel's killing blow against the final monster) where a player even narrates anything - the rogue's "backflip" and attack are met with stunned reactions and laughter, it being such a brave step forward.

    However, even in those cases, the GM makes sure to re-narrate and further dramatize their descriptions.

    * The people involved are cool, attractive, celebrities, or actors.

    All of this stuff is amplified, given the context of a (potentially scripted) short YouTube video meant to showcase a guest actor. However, in what I saw of Critical Role, it was all present in the "real" game, as well, just less obviously so. There was more breathing room there, and more space for chit-chat and for the players to actually do things, but, fundamentally, the process of play seemed quite similar to me to what we're seeing here.

    For instance, it's clear in these instances that there is no "plot" other than what the GM brings to the table, and the players' role is to follow and uncover it, while rolling dice and cheering each other on.

    My conclusions from watching this would be to say that the player/GM divide is absolutely stark - they are fundamentally different activities requiring different levels of commitment and skill, to an extent which is almost unthinkable. No wonder, in this mainstream RPG culture, that "being a GM" is seen as a badge of extreme honour, and something you have to earn; something frightening which requires immense talent and charisma.
  • Of course, it could be challenging to adopt stances like "The GM will not let me die if...", when most GMs will not admit to their game having that sort of structure. (Challenging because what if you read the situation wrong?)
    That's definitely the major historical stumbling block for participationist play, the illusion. It's not even a mystery why it is so, it's all because of the wargaming heritage of roleplaying: GMs feel that they're getting away with something when they fudge combats, and they're averse to doing that to the degree that would be optimal for really punching home the illusionist storytelling program.

    In my experience it has been massively more common for illusionist GMs to fail because they fudge too little (and consequently don't frame sharp enough: too much time spent on empty dicing ritual instead of cutting to the chase), rather than because of fudging too much. People are entirely too dependent on the gaming mythology of D&D in the mainstream, I think; their play would benefit immensely if the GMs themselves were less conflicted and delusional about the railroading. It would be justified to pinpoint this whole point as the theoretical insight that caused the Nordic freeform style to diverge from traditional roleplaying and start developing towards what it is today.

    (This of course only applies to games that are, in fact, railroad-y illusionist games. A trad game can do other things, too.)
  • I agree with that, of course, Eero (as should be clear from my posts above, I would think).

    I had no idea that Nordic RP evolved from this branch of the tree, however! Are you conjecturing, or is this an accepted fact of the history of Nordic freeform?
  • It hasn't occurred to me that it could be otherwise, and as far as I understand this is generally accepted. I'm not internally and intimately familiar with the history of the school, not being a practitioner, but I've lived in the scene over the years when it got its start in the late '90s, and that's how I always understood it.

    To be specific, the first we knew of freeform here in Finland, as it was early on known, was that a bunch of gamers with a disposition towards larping, GM fiat illusionism, character immersion and very lightweight rules use were establishing a distinctive style of play around these premises around the millennium. The people doing it in e.g. Helsinki, on tabletop, were stereotypically Whitewolf gamers who abandoned any pretense of using the rules in favour of fiat and a focus on immersive play. This developed, with the creative weight mostly centered in the larp scene, into a trend towards abandoning existing rpg texts and their American-geek topics in favour of topical mainstreaming (so less obscure and genrified subject matters for games, and more GM originality, with less dependence on commercial rpg products). The Nordic larp scene was being born at the time (the tabletop gamers have never cooperated across the borders to the same extent), and the big defining ideas (fiat, immersion, artistic ambition, refusal of traditional geek culture) spread quickly and latched into place as what we now know as "Nordic freeform" in the early '00s.

    The sense I got from playing a little bit with people who were into it in Helsinki early on is specifically as I intimated above: the creative motor of the revolution in gaming was the need to push the illusionist fiat GM paradigm as far as it could go: be a better, stronger, faster GM, with more reliability to your games, with stronger emotional impact, with more serious artistry to the themes and content. Explicitly dropping the rules altogether (as opposed to keeping them in there for the emotional security of the players) was the idea that gave the movement its name (that's what "freeform" means, in case somebody here didn't know that) and laid down the central artistic strategy that came to define the playstyle. Not everybody sharing these ambitions chose to double-down on the freeform precepts, but those who did came to largely dominate the Nordic larping world, in which scene freeform (or internal schools with minor differences that vehemently deny being freeform) is nowadays practically the only game in town.

    (Later on freeform has, of course, developed further, so characterizing its fruit today as simply illusionistic GM fiat without rules would be somewhat simplistic. This was clearly the starting point, though; when Jeep came in a couple of years later, bringing more refinement to the tabletop side of the equation, it was observed distinctly as a development in and within the tradition rather than something new altogether.)

    If you're interested in the historical theoretical underpinnings of the style/school/scene/tradition, check out the Turku school stuff from the early '00s. It's one of the early and influential formulations of the tradition. This was what all right-minded roleplayers around here were criticizing when the Forge was still new [grin].

    I'm sure that if we didn't discuss this at the tail-end of a thread on an entirely different topic, we would get somebody with a more intimate relationship to the freeform scene to correct me on this stuff. Despite being in the geographical region where the style developed, it's really not at all my style.
  • I think the second most popular version of this is RollPlay. It's got some interesting differences. Firstly, it was started by a popular video game streamer, not a group of voice actors. The players they get to play in their games are other popular video game streamers. Secondly, they have a variety of not only games but also GM's. The GM's include John Harper for their Blades in the Dark campaign, and their regular DM is Adam Koebel of Dungeon World. They run things pretty differently from Critical Role in general, probably their most similar is their Court of Swords campaign but even it is quite different with a high amount of player death. They've got an interesting recent video about the combats in Court of Swords and the lethality thereof, which includes some discussion of the considerations required for playing D&D in front of a livestreamed audience as opposed to in a normal game, particularly with regards to pacing. But, though they have this more GM prep heavy game, they also have a very low prep FATE game called Nebula Jazz, and a whole host of styles of games in their backlog as well including my favourite, OSR Hexcrawl West Marches GM'd by Stephen Lumpkin.

    The DM's they get typically have a more modern understanding and appreciation of roleplaying and the related theory, though they do use that understanding for illusionist play sometimes, especially due to the constraints imposed by their format. I'd recommend checking it out for a more balanced view of popular watch people play rpg content.

    Personally I don't enjoy Critical Role much, and RollPlay can be good but I usually enjoy just listening to it and maybe swapping over to the tab every once in a while if something interesting is going on, not something I'd just sit and watch definitely.

    I would say that the mainstream of watching RPG's will probably stay with heavily GM plotted things, because that allows for the much higher production values that wider audiences can appreciate even if they don't have any interest in the game itself. But, RollPlay is proof that even non-trad gaming without GM plotting or awesome looking miniatures or maps can be incredibly popular as well. And the audience is only growing. I wouldn't be concerned that so many people are exposed to the GM plot style, it's how I started and my friends and I had fun with it. People who become more interested will delve a little deeper and discover the different ways of playing, which may or may not be to their tastes.

    will the hobby once again be dominated by Illusionist D&D play?
    As for this, I would say that this kind of play has never gone away, and has always been one of the most popular. You've most likely just avoided it yourself after figuring out it isn't for you.

    Overall, it is a big movement, and most likely is changing the hobby, but only by getting more people interested and wanting to play. The more the merrier I say!
  • So, this thread is giving me an idea. Not something I'd be able to execute any time soon, but it'd be amazing. Get four or so actors, and run Godbound for them, as one of these YouTube channels. Position the camera so that the focus is off of the GM and on the players. Make sure they develop distinct personae, vocal mannerisms, etc., for their characters, which most actors who RP are wont to do anyway.

    Who wouldn't want to tune into the adventures of a group of demigods, played by actors, on a regular basis? You might want to edit some of the mechanical upkeep stuff into a summary. "And lo did On-thak, God of the Sky, Sea, and Sword, grant wings to all his followers." But there's not one bit of illusionism in Godbound; it's not even possible.
  • All you need is a webcam, VERY GOOD MICROPHONES and quick but efficient color and light toning.
  • Very true!

    Eero, thank you for that historical summary of Nordic freeform; I wasn't aware of many of those details!
  • Deliverator,

    While I find the Godbound concept quite interesting, do we have any reason to think other people value that? It seems that the draw for this style of gaming is, "Check out this DM's awesome story!" If a game is missing that, it might be more of a negative than a positive for a potential audience. Of course, I don't know; I'm just raising the question.

    Meanwhile, here's another fascinating article. We've heard about people being a "Professional GM" for a while, but I had not heard of anyone doing so full-time to make a living until this article:

    Rolling Stone: Meet the D&D PLayers Who Make a Living Running Games

    Who knows what's next in this crazy business.

    I just saw a YouTube ad for a pay-per-view monthly subscription service where you can hear GMs holding panel discussions.
  • In my experience it has been massively more common for illusionist GMs to fail because they fudge too little
    Agreed with this 100%.
  • In my experience, it has been most common for illusionist GMs to fail because I'm playing the game, call them on their shit, and insist they follow the rules. Thus looking like a jerk and ruining the game for everyone. In more recent years I'll just find some way to leave if something like that starts happening.

    Paul: the idea is to get viewers really into seeing these larger-than-life superheroes doing amazing shit.
  • edited November 2017
    Of course, it could be challenging to adopt stances like "The GM will not let me die if...", when most GMs will not admit to their game having that sort of structure. (Challenging because what if you read the situation wrong?)
    In my experience it has been massively more common for illusionist GMs to fail because they fudge too little (and consequently don't frame sharp enough: too much time spent on empty dicing ritual instead of cutting to the chase), rather than because of fudging too much. People are entirely too dependent on the gaming mythology of D&D in the mainstream, I think; their play would benefit immensely if the GMs themselves were less conflicted and delusional about the railroading.
    I’m more than fine with railroading and illusionism for the sake of play, but there are ways to do it without fudging rolls. You can make decisions preemptively so that you don’t have to fudge a roll if it’s not time for the possibility of a narrative outcome that may not be fitting, such as a character’s death. Some people may say what’s the difference. For me, there’s a certain tension that comes when I as player know that the role is always for real. The DM and I may be orchestrating the context, but something is on the line, something is risked, something could go wrong and change everything.

  • Doesn't even participationist/illusionist D&D still offer more player freedom of action than pretty much any other sort of commonly encountered game?

    ( I don't play CRPGs, so I may not have seen ones with more freedom than TTRPGs).

    That may explain a lot of this phenomenon.
  • Yeah, in even the most GM-controlled RPG, you can technically do whatever you want with your character. In such a game there still remains the question of whether you get to do anything at all meaningful, but for some players, it appears that lacking that may not kill the basic appeal.
  • Exactly. I think it takes (for most people) quite a bit of roleplaying experience to start to notice patterns in play which hint at this kind of thing.

    For an extended example, I GMed from the start (I introduced my friends to D&D in grade 4!). I was a pretty bad railroader (although I was clever about it, and I don't think they knew or cared). After years of that, I got sick of it. I decided to change my approach when I was in University. I wanted to be surprised, too, you know?

    There, I ran some games for a few years where I very explicitly and very specifically did NOT use any Illusionist practices, and tried to "play to find out" in every way possible. It was a good experiment, but surprisingly demanding in terms of effort. Finally, after a few years, I noticed that, even though I wasn't railroading in any way I could sense, most of the events of the campaign(s) were, in retrospect, totally predictable to me.

    I had discovered that System Matters; that all the best intentions in the world don't matter if the System at the table means that every important fictional turning point resolves according to my judgement - effectively, I was making 90%+ of the fictional input into the developing story, even though I was *trying* in every possible way to hand that off to the players.

    It was only by playing games which explicitly handed that authority to the players that I found gaming where the outcome of each session was truly in question, and I could be just as surprised as them by the outcomes.

    On another note, I listened to a bit of a discussion about Critical Role where the GM talks about this, as well as the polished nature of the show.

    He said that the players were all newbies when they started, and things were really clunky - it was quite a paradigm shift for a bunch of voice actors to suddenly go "off-script", for instance, and he says it took them ages to understand that, yes, they could really "try anything". Play was much rougher back then.

    He said he was glad the show started two years into the campaign, when they had established a familiar operating protocol, and adjusted to playing with each other in a way which could be efficient and smooth.
  • For those curious about getting deeper into this, there is a (very lengthy) discussion on YouTube between Adam Koebel, Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, and Mike Mearls which touches quite a bit on the subject of streaming D&D, its popularity, and how that is changing the game.

    Notably, Mike Mearls speaks about how the paradigm shift for Wizards of the Coast going into 5th Edition has been recognizing that D&D is less a product and more a culture, and how that has changed their approach to marketing and design. He compares it to Harley-Davidson culture: presumably not a company who is trying to sell the latest, newest motorcycle to all its customers every year, but, rather, one that fosters the sense of identity people achieve by being associated with their product. Much like someone riding a Harley-Davidson feels part of a subculture, so it is with D&D. Mearls uses the example of people he has seen who wear Critical Role t-shirts, despite never having actually played D&D.

    I'm starting to see this, too. In my social circles (non-gamer circles) I'm seeing a different attitude. In "my day", being a gamer was a somewhat secret thing, sometimes even shameful - you hope to weed out who might be friendly to your weird hobby before revealing that you're part of it. Newer gamers seem to be proud of the label, and advertise it with paraphernalia of various sorts.

    Anyway, here is the discussion:

    Most of the larger discussion about culture, design, and popular impact of streaming takes place in the last 30-40 minutes.
  • " D&D is to Harley-Davidson, as Mazes&Monsters is to Easy Rider" ?
  • (Tod, you're absolutely right, but we got that already on the first page. :) )
  • edited November 2017
    Posted too soon. Reload.

    ETA: These links come from the "Professional Gamemasters Society" community on G+. You can find it here:

  • Thanks! Good stuff. The New Yorker article and the Glixel article appeared earlier, but the others are new.

    It's weird for me to see that Vice article, because the people involved are friends-of-friends of mine (not the DM, but the band). I'm not sure I dig the presentation there (yikes!), but it's interesting to read about it nevertheless. The DM's website ( is not particularly inspiring to me, but an interesting data point in this whole saga. Very old-school approach (including the website design). Fascinating!
  • I’d say about half of the people who join my local rpg forum cite Critical Role et al as the reason they want to get into gaming themselves. Which sounds like it would be a good thing... but my impression is that relatively few of the CR types actually end up as active players.

    The problem with this is that the local ‘master GMs’ (*shudder*) are all running games already - they don’t have the time and energy to take on additional groups, especially when the player expectation is that they’ll put on Matt Mercer levels of preparation. Meanwhile, the CR-fan players mostly aren’t interested in non-D&D games which are open to new players (such as the biweekly indie/story game night) and aren’t confident enough to GM for themselves (because, you know, you have to be a master GM). The CR people end up posting on the forum a few times then melting away, never to be seen again.
  • Yeah, that is exactly the sort of negative influence I would be worried about. It's a little bit unfortunate to hear that this is realized, at least in one game club. The dynamics portrayed on the show do very little to demystify GMing or create a sense of DIY ethos - I would expect to push people away from playing (as you describe) rather than inspiring them to run their own games.

    The "advice" published by the YouTube does not seem to help matters. The "GM Mystery Cult" is alive and well, and even the "helpful" videos seem to obfuscate more than they clarify.

    Here's a perfect example:

    The video says "GMing is fun and you should try it", and then tries to explain that, in order to be a GM, you should read a small library of tomes on dramatic theory. Then, once you're running the game, it's your job to bring those dramatic theories into action (and, it is arguably implied, if you fail to do so, you have failed at being a GM).

    The guest seems genuinely enthusiastic about running games, but her explanations of "layered Harmon story circles", operating at the campaign level, character level, and subplot level simultaneously, in perfect coordination (which she admits is very difficult) can only be incredibly intimidating to someone hoping to learn some useful techniques, I would imagine.
  • edited November 2017
    I've been trad GMing for 40 years, ran an AD&D campaign world with scores of PCs that went for a decade, I am a structuralist, and a huge proponent of Harmon's Story Circle in play. And even I find the idea of "layering Harmon story circles simultaneously" ridiculous. Well-nigh impossible, in fact... unless you're railroading everything.

    PS - None of the authors mentioned ever claimed that their structures underlie all stories.
    PPS - Can we smile any more forcedly?

  • The Mystery Cult of the GM Effect may intimidate would-be GMs, but it's also a convenient excuse for character players to stay character players and never take up the GM role, so that may be part of the reason for its persistence as well.
  • There's a lot of reasons for the mystery cult to endure, surely. It does it all, ranging from maintaining the caste society to excusing failure to justifying praise for the GM to justifying laziness in actually learning to be a better gamer. The concept of having a GM is really powerful (in both good and bad ways).
  • You forgot to mention those who are just good at it, and consider it their artform.

  • I'm not sure if it's cosmic coincidence or just showing the truth of the recent "revival", but in the last couple of months I'm truly *shocked* by the number of people around me who have - accidentally or otherwise - revealed themselves to me as D&D players. It seems like so many people have just dropped it into conversation or accidentally revealed it to me, and now several have invited me to play.

    Unfortunately (for my tastes), it's always *D&D* and never *roleplaying games*. It seems that many/most of these people are drawn to the brand - at whatever level - and often entirely unaware that other games even exist.

    I find this particularly interesting, since in the last 5-6 years it has seemed to me that "indie" games have been exploding in popularity, largely thanks to games like Fiasco, Apocalypse World, and Dungeon World. If anything, the new popularity of D&D appears to be eclipsing that altogether. (No doubt there will be other "waves" as these things rebound and stabilize, but it's still surprising at a number of levels.)
  • I'm very lucky in that several of the players in my Wednesday 5E group at a gaming store are very interested in other games and play them sometimes. One guy actually came and played The Warren with me and some other folks this past Saturday!!
  • Here's another addition to this discussion of celebrity culture crossing paths with D&D:

  • edited January 2018
    Whoa! For everyone who is a fan of hers but skeptical/ignorant of D&D, that's quite the pitch!

    Yet another example, though, of someone conflating their D&D experience with "what D&D is". Some DMs won't say "you wake up in hand cuffs" but will say "these are your two choices, pick one."

    Her version works for me, though -- I like open-ended play, and I think that's one of the more unique opportunities RPGs can provide.
  • Here's another addition to this discussion of celebrity culture crossing paths with D&D:

    I have some issues with this video.

    I have gone through family therapy. It is not D&D. Family therapy is when you and your relatives meet with a councilor and yell at each other for thirty minutes. Once session ends, everyone gets in the car to yell at each other for another half hour. Then you get home, you yell some more, someone throws a plate through the kitchen window, and the cops get called.

    Putting your family around a D&D table will not solve everyone's problems. Assuming you can get everyone to read the rules (you won't), Just because you're in the same party doesn't mean you're on the same team. If my family tried to play D&D, we'd end the first session by killing each other. In real life.

    I can't speak for everyone's family, but if you're capable of getting your kids to willingly play D&D together, you don't need therapy. Forcing them to the table will only make things worse.

    Long story short, I want to kill this lady's family. Actually, no. I'll kill her, and leave her family alive. That way, they can have some goddamned problems like the rest of us.

    You know, I had this really nice post about how I had been introduced to D&D through podcasts and videos, and how it had given me a skewed perspective on what roleplaying actually was, but then this person had to start blabbing their mouth when they have no idea what they're talking about. I don't care how big a D&D nerd you are or how happy your family is, you do not get to claim it'll solve everyone's problems!

    I need to lie down.
  • edited January 2018
    For people like me who are too lazy and text-oriented to watch videos, who's the celebrity here?

    Also, @FriendlyAlienLocust : this kind of excessive and possibly irresponsible claims sound like a feature or popular entertainment to me. Not limited to "reality TV", popular science magazines can be equally aggravating - you sound exactly like 18yr-old me the first time I happened to read an article on a topic I knew more than the journalist about. That was 20 years ago and I've since got used to it.
  • I agree with all of the above!
  • edited January 2018
    Rafu, Mayim Bialik is a TV actress with two very popular roles to her credit.

    As for "therapy", I assumed her analogy referred to the "let's build some skills so my kid can get more out of school" end of the spectrum and not to the "let's address severely impairing family strife" end. That said, I do think that as a video title it's more clickbaity than accurate.
  • To be fair, she's also a doctor of neuroscience, so I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if she were capable of realizing the potential for roleplaying games as a tool for moral and emotional development, identity understanding, and all sorts of other nifty developmental psych stuff that not-famous-actor researchers already use them for.
  • I think the video got on my nerves more than it should. It was less the content and more the presentation; the slow-mo shots of people rolling dice while everyone smiles didn't help. Everyone should be miserable and depressed, because I said so.

    For the record, I don't hold any grudges. Mayim Bialik seems like a very nice person that only wants to help others. Seeing that she has a doctorate in neuroscience, she probably knows more than me. And I'm a biased individual with a different understanding of family therapy than most.

    Still, there's something the irks me about D&D entering celebrity culture. Celebrities can be experts, but they don't always have a neuroscience degree. Having them steer the discussion might cause problems if it D&D consumes the market. There's always gonna be a story games niche, but why sell to a niche when you can sell to the masses?

    Going forward, my best guess is story games will mirror the indie video games scene; major publishers neglect the niche, allowing others to swoop in. But considering how indie devs are doing nowadays...I hope I'm wrong.
  • All us indie designers are secretly just contributing innovations for D&D to half-adopt in 10 years. :)
  • I think its positive.
    If these shows create 100,000 new exclusively D&D players and only 100 players that will explore the subject of roleplaying more deeply you still have a net gain. The fact that by market share alternative gaming shrunk is not relevant, I feel its petty to see it as something negative.
    And besides even the most dice throwy, non interactive board game style of play is still a social gathering that is far better then a lot popular alternative activities people do to pass the time.
  • edited January 2018
    All us indie designers are secretly just contributing innovations for D&D to half-adopt in 10 years. :)
    Funny and true! And as you know, Dave, it’s already happening: inspiration; backgrounds; ideals and bonds; plot-points (in which players take on the role of the GM); I’ve even heard that they discuss something akin to “fail-forward” in the DMG.

    These are some of the same reasons that, although traditional RPG’s aren’t my main interest, 5E is my favorite version of D&D.
  • You know, I had this really nice post about how I had been introduced to D&D through podcasts and videos, and how it had given me a skewed perspective on what roleplaying actually was,
    So here's that post.

    I'm an unusual case. My first exposure was from The Spoony Experiment's Counter Monkey series. Spoony is rather old-school, but he never talked about game mechanics or the like. He just talked about stories, without mentioning the mechanics. Even when he's talking shop, he never mentions mechanics by name. For instance, did you know the best way to unlock a door is to knock? It's not in the rules...but it works.

    From there, my D&D podcast of choice was Dice Funk. During the first season, the vast majority of episodes didn't have combat. Not exactly representative of the D&D experience, though the players' reluctance to use violence made me sympathetic to the characters. It's hard to care about someone if they kill everything they come across, even if that's fun for the player.

    Noticing a pattern? The hosts, not the game, make the shows fun. The game could be crap, but a good group can work it into something watchable. Likewise, a good game can be ruined if the characters aren't worth watching. It's the difference between playing a game and watching a Let's Play: it looks like the game, it sounds like the game, but it doesn't necessarily represent the game. And I probably should have realized this before I started roleplaying.

    Another pattern; internet celebrities. I've never been too involved in pop culture, so many of the bigger D&D shows slipped by. The stuff I watched came from online content creators. Spoony did work with Channel Awesome before splitting off to do his own thing. From Dice Funk, Michael "Skitch" Schiciano (seasons 2-4) is credited with the Nostalgia Critic theme. Austin Yorski (seasons 1-4) is editor for Jim Sterling's and Conrad Zimmerman's Fistshark Marketing podcast. Laura Kate Dale (seasons 3-4) is a game journalist for Kotaku UK and stars on another Jim Sterling podcast. Leon Thomas (seasons 1-3) briefly hosted a film analysis show on Channel Awesome before moving to his own YouTube channel. None of these people are appearing on The Late Show, but their names are reasonably well known.

    If D&D is rising among pop culture, then I could see it shaping pop culture itself. People that are only famous on the internet are being put on the same playing field as pop culture icons. A new way of playing games is being broadcast to millions, even if it's not entirely representative. Maybe, we see new personalities enter the public consciousness. Maybe, a portion of the community wants to emulate their shows, and turns to story games to do so. Or maybe my experiences are entirely unrepresentative of the greater D&D community. Who knows!

    Also I was doing this thing where I'd drop hints in my posts that I was an alien locust pretending to be a human that slips in being friends with scary monsters every chance they get and it was gonna be really clever but then that D&D therapy video came and I talked about my real life so if you could just ignore that post plz thx

  • FriendlyAlienLocust said:

    my D&D podcast of choice was Dice Funk.
    Dice Funk is my favorite actual play. I think Dice Funk excels while others fail for three main reasons:

    1. Editing

    Each episode is 60-90 min long. They clearly put effort into trimming each session down to keep the story flowing. This one is really important to me. I have tried listing to countless actual plays and gotten frustrated with how long everything was taking. When I'm constantly thinking to myself "why didn't you cut this?" I will loose interest and not come back. While admittedly the first two episodes of Dice Funk could have been better edited, on the whole, they do a good job of condensing everything.

    2. Not Much Combat

    Combat is fun. Listening to combat is not. The creators of the show knew this and even talk about it in episode 1. The stories that are told on the show, don't require much combat so the character's weapons tend to stay sheathed.

    3. Player Agency

    The players in Dice Funk consistently surprise the DM with the actions their characters make. The DM never says no and always goes along with it. It really feels like the game belongs to the players and that's super satisfying to listen to. Without wishing to spoil, in season three, the characters keep finding smart ways around the DM's obstacles. This eventually culminated in one episode where the DM couldn't contain his laughter and told the party "you guys are better at this game than me."

  • That's a really good pitch for "Dice Funk"! Sounds like they've put together their show in a really nice way.

    Meanwhile, I've been thinking about the comments here:
    All us indie designers are secretly just contributing innovations for D&D to half-adopt in 10 years. :)
    Funny and true! And as you know, Dave, it’s already happening: inspiration; backgrounds; ideals and bonds; plot-points (in which players take on the role of the GM); I’ve even heard that they discuss something akin to “fail-forward” in the DMG.

    These are some of the same reasons that, although traditional RPG’s aren’t my main interest, 5E is my favorite version of D&D.
    This has inspired me to look through the DMG quickly to see how these various elements are handled.

    Some interesting observations:

    * The introduction describes some different "player types", and how the DM might engage them. For instance, some players are labeled "actors", and the DM is instructed to "allow them to interact regularly with NPCs". (The use of the word "allow" here is intriguing!)

    Notably, some of the bullet points include good advice from a "story gaming" perspective:

    "Incorporate elements from their characters' Backgrounds into your campaign" (note that "Background" is a technical term in this version of D&D, and a choice you make in character creation)

    "Give the NPCs Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws that the adventurers can exploit" (This is an interesting, and potentially very cool, technique, although I don't see any advice or even an example of what exactly they mean by this)

    Unfortunately, these are just brief bullet-points in a long list, and let guidance on how to actually choose one over another or how to deal with the conundrum of a group full of players with different interests.

    * Also notably, this list includes players who are interested in Fighting and Optimizing.

    The DM is instructed to "ensure steady access to new powers and abilities", and to "vividly describe the havoc their characters wreak with their attacks and spells", while "including combat encounters with large numbers of weak monsters" and "interrupting social interaction and exploration with combat".

    What I find particularly interesting here is a number of assumptions which appear to be implied.

    First, it's the DM's job to figure out how to "allow them to interact with NPCs" while balancing that with "interrupting social interaction with combat", and other balancing acts. The players aren't discussed as having a say in this. It's the DM's job to keep the players engaged and entertained, while satisfying all of these interests (presumably even when they contradict each other).

    Second, the DM is told that she must "know the players", but not instructed to ask them or otherwise feel out their preferences.

    Third, there is no note of "challenging them"; rather, the focus is always on "letting their characters do awesome things". (You can see this, particularly, in the advice to "include [...] weak monsters" to fight, for instance.)

    This paints a very specific picture of what play is supposed to look like. From what I saw of Critical Role, this advice is reflective of the style of play featured in the show. (Or the group is following the advice very precisely; hard to say which, of course.)

    * The guidelines for adventure creation have really nice (if somewhat cliche) lists organized in random tables. These include NPCs, adventure hooks, and player goals. (Interestingly, the adventure design process begins by establishing a player goal - notable, since this is supposed to happen before the group gathers to play or make characters. Rolling the "player goal" on a table is suggested as a good practice.)

    The "adventure structure" is meant to include an adventure hook (with no mention of what happens if the players do not follow it) and an Adventure Climax. The DM is admonished to make sure the players' choices matter, but, again, the Climax is planned ahead of time, as part of the adventure's design.

    It seems to me that a set of random rolls on the tables given for a Goal, Hook, Climax, and so forth, would create a recognizable "D&D adventure" much of the time, although some entries clearly contradict each other. (I tried to roll and I got an adventure where the Player Goal is to "escape from imprisonment" in an underground place, but the adventure hook is that enemies fleeing from the party run into the adventure location. I can imagine making these work, but they aren't always obvious.)

    * I found the notes on "failing forward" in an small list of DM tips and tricks in the "Resolution" chapter. The optional rule instructs the DM that when a roll is really close (failed by 1 or 2 points), she can include "success at a cost". Some good examples are given. For instance, a character fails to intimidate a kobold prisoner, but the prisoner gives away its secrets anyway, while shrieking at the top of its lungs, alerting nearby monsters.

    * The guidelines on using Inspiration can be summarized as follows:

    - It's optional. Only do it if it's more fun.
    - Try to award each player Inspiration once per session.
    - Use Inspiration to reward behaviours you want to see in your game.
    - Reward players when they roleplay in accordance with their Beliefs, Flaws (etc).
    - You can use Inspiration to reward the group when they achieve an important goal or victory.
    - "Inspiration might not work for your campaign. Some DMs feel it adds a layer of metagame thinking, and others feel that heroism, roleplaying, and other parts of the game are their own rewards that don't need incentives like inspiration. If you choose to ignore inspiration, you're telling the players that your campaign is one where you let the dice fall where they may. It's a good option for gritty campaigns or ones where the DM focuses on playing an impartial role as a rules arbiter. "
    - There is a variant where players may award each other Inspiration. They may do so once per session, or, in a further variant, any number of times, but doing so allows the GM to give their opponents "advantage" each time they do.

    These two pages (out of 320) are the only mentions of Inspiration or character traits I could find in the book.

    * The "campaign" chapter includes a note to organize your campaign around a "theme", like so:

    "A campaign featuring troubled heroes who confront not only the savagery of the bestial creatures of the world, but also the beast within- the rage and fury that lies in their own hearts."

    It doesn't specify why or how you might go about this, however.
  • edited January 2018
    * The text for "involving your players" in the creation of a campaign says that, once you've got everything set (the setting, adventure, and so forth), you may wish to get their input.

    This is almost the entirety of the text (below). It recommends asking questions and accepting the answers ("say yes if you can"):

    "Once you've identified what your campaign is about, let the players help tell the story by deciding how their characters are involved. This is their opportunity to tie their characters' history and background to the campaign, and a chance for you to determine how the various elements of each character's background tie into the campaign's story. [...] Some players might have trouble coming up with ideas-not everyone is equally inventive. You can help spur their creativity with a few questions about their characters:

    Are you a native, born and raised in the area? If so, who's your family? What's your current occupation? Are you a recent arrival? Where did you come from? Why did you come to this area?

    Are you tied to any of the organizations or people involved in the events that kick off the campaign? Are they friends or enemies?

    Listen to the players' ideas, and say yes if you can. Even if you want all the characters to have grown up in the starting town, consider allowing a recent arrival or a transplant if the player's story is convincing enough. Suggest alterations to a character's story so it better fits your world, or weave the first threads of your campaign into that story."

    On a quick skim, this is all the "story game"-ish advice I find in the DMG.

    There is also the Plot Points optional rule, which allows each player to spend a point to introduce a new narrative element into the story, although (editorializing here, a little more than up until now in this post) it seems so disconnected from everything else that I'd be surprised if many (any?) D&D groups use it.

    (Then again, I have yet to see a D&D group use Inspiration for anything other than an occasional XP replacement, anyway.)

    Another sidenote: each Background comes with a list of Personality Traits you can roll up randomly or use for inspiration. Looking through them, a handful seem suited to "story game" purposes, but most do not (for instance, a Personality Trait can be something like, "I scowl a lot, rarely laughing or smiling").
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