Fantasizing Vicariously: how tabletop role-playing games went virtual

Since the hobby was created in the mid-1970s, tabletop role-playing games (often abbreviated to TTRPGs) have always been about living a fantasy. The concept of playing a character who is not yourself is nearly as old as the spoken word, but it wasn’t until these games were out in stores that you could do so with the added wrinkle of game mechanics: a rolled die, dealt card, and predetermined character attribute. The hobby has grown and grown, with occasional bumps in the road (including a period in the 1980s when a few people, ahem, considered it to be a Satanist activity), but the pastime is in possibly its biggest boom period yet, thanks to three key factors: 

1. Players being able to easily meet up virtually, via Roll20 or Tabletop Simulator  

2. Dungeons and Dragons being shown prominently in the Netflix hit Stranger Things

3. The rise in tabletop RPG live streaming for an audience, with some of the more popular channels being Critical Role, Dimension 20, and Friends at the Table.

There has been plenty of discourse regarding the rise of video game streaming, with the key question being: why would you watch someone play a game when you could play that very game yourself? (Mind you, this is a question never asked of professional athletes.) In short, when someone’s good at something, it’s very fun to watch them do it. Additionally, in many cases, streaming has the bonus of allowing viewers to directly interact with the streamer in the chat, granting a somewhat intimate connection with your favorite gamer. 

RPG Streaming vs. Video Game Streaming

However, RPG streaming (a term I will utilize even when referring to pre-recorded RPG content, such as The Adventure Zone, Harmonquest, and the current season of Critical Role) caters to a fairly different audience than video game streaming. It’s more like watching a unique TV show, where part of it is scripted, and the rest is improvised, partially by the decisions of the players and partially by pure chance, as the dice determine a significant portion of the story. Where a talented Halo or Overwatch player can generate an audience solely by being good at the game, RPGs don’t work that way. A player (or game master) must have charisma, improvisation skills, voice-acting ability, a sense of humor, and, of course, knowledge of the game (no one wants to watch an elf break character to explain why they saw the enemies coming, actually, because of a spell they cast an hour ago that everyone forgot about). It’s not something everyone can do for an audience, or even without.

“What attracts me to D&D and these shows is that a lot of TV and movies have the same structure, and you can guess what’s going to happen,” says Ben Spoon, a software engineer in Portland, Oregon who hosts a weekly D&D live stream on the Twitch channel Super Trashed TV. Spoon regularly follows TTRPG content such as Dimension 20 on YouTube and the podcasts Dungeons and Daddies and Rude Tales of Magic. “I think the players who aren’t necessarily writers don’t take a lot of influence from that. They do everyday life stuff, and they bring that into the story to make it a little more interesting. They’re not thinking about writing an eye-catching story, they’re just trying to be involved and make it the best story they can because it’s a part of their story.”

Leaving It Up To Fate

The draw of role-playing games lies less in the scripted aspects (i.e. the prepared elements of the game set by the game master) and more in the chaotic ingredients supplied by the players. The players have the overall goal of accomplishing the story, but the dice are emotionless engines of random story generation. A perfect plan can be senselessly derailed by a bad die roll. This keeps the shows engaging: hours of established expectation (and what, under normal storytelling circumstances, could be a foregone conclusion) can be dashed in moments just because of a bad roll. No matter how high a character’s statistics, a roll of a one on a 20-sided die means failure. That 5-percent chance is constantly looming over the player’s heads.

What makes the live streams so successful is the professional aspect. Even players with a deep familiarity with the game find themselves enraptured, seeing what the top tier of gamers can accomplish. “Tabletop RPGs at their best are a collaborative storytelling medium, and when good actors with good chemistry do it, you can really see the potential of the game,” says Kevin Vognar, a programmer and gamer from Berkeley, California who follows Critical Role, one of the more popular Dungeons and Dragons live streams where all the players are professional voice actors. “Aside from it being a good story in itself, it makes you imagine what you might be able to do in your own games.”

Whatever’s happening, it’s working. Wizards of the Coast, the publishing company that currently owns the rights to Dungeons and Dragons, reported that sales "were up 41 percent in 2017 from the year before, and soared another 52 percent in 2018, the game's biggest sales year yet”. For the first time, D&D is publishing branded adventures that tie into hit TV shows like Stranger Things and Rick and Morty, as well as sourcebooks that allow players to play as characters from Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. In an unexpected reversal, RPG live streams are generating a new fan base for the games. 

“I didn’t get into RPGs until later in life,” says Hannah Knight, an Oakland-based tattoo artist who started playing Dungeons and Dragons after becoming a devout fan of The Adventure Zone, a D&D podcast hosted by podcasting siblings the McElroy Brothers. “TAZ was introduced to me on a long leg of a road trip, and it passed the time in such a pleasant way… I honestly forget that it’s a ‘game’ a lot of the time; as a podcast, it harkens back to the Choose Your Own Adventure days, but with someone else making the decisions, which, at the end of a day of making my own damn decisions, is just nice to indulge in. D&D, I’ve learned, is a lot of work - sometimes, it’s just nice to let someone else do it.” 

Hannah brings up an interesting point. Tabletop RPGs are among the most creative and freeform of all gaming types, but with that comes a responsibility to stay engaged with the material. RPG campaigns can be long, some lasting for years, and keeping a consistent gaming group can be challenging, as other obligations get in the way. Many people are too busy to sacrifice three hours a week of their precious free time to keep a game going, especially if their fellow players aren’t contributing as much as they would like. Just like how video game streams can be entertaining for someone who can’t dedicate the time to playing all 60 hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, RPG streams remove unpredictable human collaborators from the equation. Instead, they allow for a seamless, curated tabletop experience, demonstrating a game run by players who are fully invested in making the game fun and entertaining.

This sentiment is echoed by Ben Spoon. “When playing TTRPGs, scheduling can be hard. When you’ve done any game in the past, it can be hard to keep people coming, but making it an obligation with an audience means your players are more likely to show up.” Ben incorporates comedy and unique characters into his game but mostly doesn’t change the story knowing viewers tune in every Monday. “I haven’t changed the game very much, but [I have learned that] what people come back for isn’t combat, it’s mostly character interaction and plot development, so if the combat doesn’t have much to do with the larger plot development, I will avoid it.”

Like all serialized fiction, TTRPGs are about characters growing and changing. With these live streams, you get stories that take place in far-off fantastical worlds, combined with real game show or reality show elements, as the players are thrust into new situations, with their surprise shown in real-time. It allows for unique stories that could not be told another way, in an entirely new and inimitable form of entertainment.

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